Within waving distance of blessed solid ground, Susan Taylor lost her bid to swim the Channel — and, with it, her life. She was 34 years old, brainy and beautiful, gifted and giving; it is, indeed, a peculiarly bitter irony that it was the giving that killed her. For years she had been an avid fundraiser, facing all manner of challenges in charitable effort, and for this, her final swim, she even gave up her job as an accountant to train: admirable in intent, courageous in execution.
What I find less admirable, however, is the general acceptance that this kind of stunt is a reasonable and even a desirable way to raise money for good causes. These days, instead of each of us doing the decent thing for decent reasons, donations to charity are becoming no more than dues paid for the lurid spectacle of human discomfort, humiliation and pain. We might dress it up as generosity on our part, but when we pledge money to see, for instance, David Walliams battle serious illness to raise another weary arm to cover another filthy yard of the River Thames (and, mea culpa, I’m as guilty as any; I was glued to it), are we simply applauding a brave man for pushing himself to the limit for the good of others? Or are we sating a sadistic voyeurism of our own, like buying a hot ticket for the Colosseum to slaver over the guts of gladiators?
No longer may a charity depend upon the collection plate or the rattling tin outside Tesco; these days we cannot, apparently, be relied upon to help any of them unless it involves the absurd and morally dubious double whammy: ‘If he goes out and suffers, I will give money to alleviate the suffering of others.’ The disquieting corollary of which is, of course, that if he doesn’t — well, stuff the needy.
There has not been a London marathon in the past 20 years without chunks of my piggybank, though mercifully not my actual feet, pounding the agonising 26-plus miles, as broadcast commentators whip up the excitement with talk of ‘pushing through the pain barrier’ (for which read: ‘Wow, you’re really getting your money’s worth!’). Friends, who really do mean only the very best, regularly get in touch: ‘I’m running the marathon for Donkeys in Damascus — can I count on you to sponsor me?’
So I do, I do.
Just as I have agreed to sponsor cycle rides of unspeakable length and complexity and treks across terrain picked for no other reason whatsoever than its capacity to hurt.
And every time all I really want to say is, ‘Look, if you want money for a cause that matters to you — and if I happen to have a few bob at the time — then please, just ask.’
I am not against charitable enterprise; most of us, at some time, have probably done our bit, and there’s always plenty more to do. Hats off, I say, to the tin rattlers and to those who sacrifice their Saturday mornings sorting wheat from chaff in the stinky back rooms of charity shops. Nor am I against Great Endeavour. I might not care to engage in it myself, but intellectually, at least, I understand the principle of Man pitting himself against Nature; superhuman displays of fortitude in the pursuit of conquering the mighty.
But Captain Robert Scott did not drag himself to Antarctica for the RSPCA and Sir Edmund Hillary did not clamber up Everest to raise money for the church roof.
It is the modern, obligatory confluence of the two that niggles. Drooling over the pain of others does not demonstrate the best in us and it is unseemly enough even when all’s well and ends well. When, as with Susan Taylor, it does not end well, the cost in wasted life is shocking. And nor was her death an isolated incident.
Only a year ago another swimmer who attempted the Channel crossing also died barely a mile from France. The Great North Run has claimed as many as four lives in a single race. In the past eight weeks a 23-year-old man died two miles from the end of the Pittsburgh half marathon, an 18-year-old girl died halfway through her first full marathon in Toronto and a 16-year-old boy died in a charity cycle race in Seattle.
Deaths are rare, obviously, when measured against the numbers of fundraisers who participate. But they are an inevitable consequence of endeavours where the human body attempts that for which it is not designed, while the rest of us cough up to witness the torture for no loftier reason than the millions of fans of Japan’s infamous ‘endurance’ television shows. And when the worst does happen, the fallout reaches well beyond that of more commonplace loss and grief.
I wonder, for example, how Susan Taylor’s sponsors feel today. How many of them worry whether she might have stopped swimming precious minutes sooner had she not feared that to do so would have been to ‘let them down’? I wonder, too, how the recipients of her fundraising feel. If you were among those from her chosen charities who received the proceeds — Rainbows Hospice for Children in Loughborough and Diabetes UK — my guess is that you would hardly be laughing all the way to the bank.
None among them, of course, should beat themselves up; they are not to blame and I haven’t the slightest doubt that the indomitable Taylor would have been the first to insist that the choice to swim was hers and hers alone. Nevertheless, without our pervasive fondness for turning charity into thrills-for-spills — our thrills, someone else’s spills — it is perfectly possible that she would not have pushed herself to the limits of her own capacity. Let alone that lethal bit further.
Before she entered the water, Taylor had £13,000 backing her. Within two days of her death, another 2,000 people had donated more than £60,000; the next day an anonymous donor pledged £300,000, and widespread coverage of the funeral to come will undoubtedly have yet more people reaching for their wallets. Someone, somewhere, will benefit from every penny of it, so you could almost argue that Susan Taylor achieved what she set out to do. But the inescapable truth is that, to her charities at least, she was worth a lot more dead than alive: the greatest possible suffering earned the greatest financial reward. What can that mean to her parents, as they prepare to lay their child to rest? Cold comfort? Or no damned comfort at all?