Book review: A Year Of Doing Good by Judith O’reilly

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ONCE upon a time, I offered an elderly stranger a lift home in my 1970s Mini.

A Year Of Doing Good by Judith O’reilly

Penguin, 306pp, £7.99

I can’t remember whether or not I felt good about doing good, but even if I did, the moment soon passed. The lady didn’t really want a lift, nor did she want to walk halfway down a side road to get to where I’d parked my car. Getting her and her wheelie bag into the Mini and out again was a nightmare, for both of us. And she was only going round the corner in any case.

I thought back to that day quite a lot while reading Judith O’Reilly’s book. I wanted the author of Wife in the North to have as ridiculous a time putting her one-good-deed-a-day new year resolution into practice as I did on that occasion. Yet her New Year resolution – announced at a supper party in front of witnesses – certainly chimed with me. It sprang from a place most of us would recognise: a vague unease about not being as charitable a person as one could be. O’Reilly is a practising Catholic, by her own admission not a very good one. But that sense of falling short of the ideal isn’t the prerogative of religious practitioners. I bet even Richard Dawkins wonders about it sometimes.

O’Reilly sets herself a supplementary challenge: to find out if it’s possible to become a better person – make the world a better place, even – by committing enough unselfish acts through a year. The challenge immediately throws up questions. What exactly constitutes a good deed? Can anything done in the normal course of one’s life (in her case, being a mother of three, and a writer working from home in rural Northumberland) ever be considered a good deed? How big does it have to be to count? Must it be done with good grace? Does it matter if the deed brings tangible rewards, such as thank-you cards? What if the absence of a thank-you card puts the good-doer in a sour mood?

The book takes the form of a journal – a bit like the blog that prompted Wife in the North. There are moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, such as the following short note on Friday 24 June: “Next time I help a blind person off a train, I’m checking they know what station it is.” There are thoughtful reflections, such as a touching entry on bereavement, 11 years on from the loss of a child; and on her elderly parents, and what it might mean to care for them. There are some delightful portraits, too, as of the inspirational Aunty Effie, still volunteering with “oldies” even though she’s years older than most of them.

At one point she agrees to teach “blogging” to a local journalism course. She muses on bloggers and their revelations – how sometimes they can say more than you want to know. There were times when I felt the same about this project, in which friends, neighbours and family can be offered up on the twin altars of comedy and truth. Cousins fresh back from South Africa, known only as The Ex-Pats, for instance, keep asking to borrow the car (although a tally of deeds done reveals they only actually borrow it twice). O’Reilly shares her exasperation, and counts checking up on them, and cooking them dinner, among her 365 good deeds.

Other deeds include buying a bumper box of ice-creams from Iceland and handing them out to passing strangers; lending neighbours loo rolls (twice); checking and emptying a neighbour’s mouse trap; and rubbing the knees of a son’s entire pre-teen rugby team with Vaseline, to stop them chafing in the cold (she worries she should have had consent first). Her three most important projects are more considered: teaching a friend’s disabled child creative writing (she despairs of the child’s imagination, although it seemed wacky and surreal to me); helping a local lad get work experience on a radio station; and starting a grass-roots fund-raising campaign for the local hospice. The Jam Jar Army becomes a major preoccupation, finally busting its target of £10,000.

A Year of Doing Good is part-confessional, part-dialectic, part romp. There are moments when you wish she wouldn’t be so honest, and others when you want to cheer. After a year of trying to be a better person, she concludes that she is happier, at least. Will she convince anyone else to follow her 13 tips for doing a good turn? Hard to say, but I may start picking up litter on the beach.