It's the time of year when we all think about giving. But kindness, like puppies, shouldn’t just be for Christmas.
Bernadette Russell decided to be nice to strangers for a whole year – and the result is the Birmingham Rep play 366 Days Of Kindness.
Every day for a leap year, writer and performer Bernadette carried out a good deed. It could be as small as giving up her seat on the bus or carrying someone’s shopping home to leaving £5 notes inside books in Waterstone’s and making someone a cake.
She’s given away sweets, lottery tickets and bouquets of flowers. She bought doughnuts for the Olympic gamesmakers and offered a plate of fondant fancies to visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses.
She left handmade cards with uplifting messages in art galleries, phone boxes and cafes – and gave a pair of socks to a homeless man in Birmingham.
It all started in August 2011 when rioting broke out in London, where Bernadette lives.
“I was at the Edinburgh Festival doing a show and saw the horrific images of the rioting on the TV,” says the 46-year-old.
“I was trepidatious about coming back to London, as people were saying it was too dangerous. People were really scared.
“I got home and was queueing in the Post Office behind a teenage lad in trainers and a hoodie, the sort we’d been seeing so many negative images of.
“He didn’t have enough money for his stamp, so I offered to pay. It was only about 50p but he was so grateful.
“His surprise at my small kindness was so striking I decided to try to do something kind for a stranger every single day.
“I felt really overwhelmed by the horribleness of the riots, and it felt like politicians are corrupt and we don’t have any heroes any more. I had got a bit infected by negativity.
“But then I thought ‘I can do something, even if it’s just little things’.
“It takes courage to go up to a stranger, it’s quite nerve-racking, but I’d say something like ‘I hope you don’t mind me disturbing you, I know this is a bit weird but I’m trying to do a good deed every day’.
“Most people got it and would start talking to me.
“We think it’s not the done thing for people to approach strangers in London, but all my assumptions were disproved. I’ve had lots of conversations on the Tube, so it’s really not true that people don’t speak on there!
“It’s not as bad out there as people think. If you give people the benefit of the doubt, they can surprise you.
“People sometimes think there’s a catch, but you have to keep talking to reassure them. A man took a cake I’d made on Valentine’s Day then said ‘how much do I owe you?’. He couldn’t believe I was giving it away, he was really shocked.”
Bernadette adds: “I’ve worked a lot in Birmingham over the years and went to the Rep in June 2012 with the Stan’s Cafe production The Just Price of Flowers.
“The BE Festival, Birmingham’s international theatre festival, was on at the time and I met a Spanish theatre company. There was terrible news coming from there about their economic crisis, so I gave them each a rose.
“I saw this homeless guy in a graveyard in the Jewellery Quarter and his bare feet were bleeding, so I gave him my socks.
“We talked and then I walked off, past a sign in the church that said ‘Please don’t encourage beggars’. I was horrified, especially coming from a church. I don’t understand it.
“I’ve spent a year talking to lots of homeless people, who are mainly just like you and me but have had a few bad times.
“There were some days when it got to 11pm and I thought ‘I haven’t done my act today’. Often I ran out to the phone box near my house and left some money or sweets there.
“As performers and writers, we are responsible for the stories we tell. Awful things are going on in the world but if you only tell negative stories, there is no hope and no chance for change.
“I feel like a massive hippy, but I really do think you can change the world with kindness.”
Bernadette lives with her partner Gareth Brierley, who appears with her in 366 Days of Kindness, which she describes as “storytelling with live music, stand-up and a slide show”.
The play will go on tour next year, including Pershore in January and Wolverhampton in February.
She has also written an activity book for kids called Do Nice, Be Kind, Spread Happy which is being published next year.
Bernadette is also bringing another of her projects, Coat Tales, to Birmingham Rep while her play is being staged there at The Door.
“I donated a coat to a charity shop near me and wrote a letter, which I put in the pocket for whoever bought it to find.
“I’m asking people to donate coats at the Rep in aid of two Birmingham charities for the homeless, St Basils and SIFA Fireside, and also write a message, so it’s not just an anonymous donation but a real communication between people.”
Bernadette still tries to carry out random acts of kindness even though her year is up, if only for the positive feeling it gives her.
“That year of giving cost me £3,364, but I got back far more in terms of goodwill. You get a huge buzz from helping and talking to people.
“I know my neighbours now, which I didn’t before. I’ve made friends with a vicar in Birmingham, which I never thought would happen. It’s been a massive gain for me.
“My year of giving was quite extravagant, I can’t afford to leave fivers in books now.
“But you don’t have to spend a lot on an act of kindness – it costs nothing to give your time, a kind word or a smile. It’s a cliché, but it works.”
* 366 Days of Kindness plays at Birmingham Rep from December 17-21. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk