John’s Story 

My interest in volunteering stems from two things. As an 89-year-old gay man, I grew up as an outsider, as someone who couldn’t be who they wanted to be. Because of that, and through travelling the world and seeing lots of injustice, I have an empathy for those who are disadvantaged. I’ve also been involved with my local hospice for a very long time. My father died there; they looked after him so well that I wanted give back, so I started volunteering in one of their shops.  

My working life was as an artist, but my partner Eric and I, who is from the West Indies and also volunteers with Hestia, have always wanted to do more. Over the years, we bought two houses in Wandsworth Common (for pennies!), where we’ve lived now for almost 60 years, and let the rooms to overseas students – particularly black and Asian students who were often otherwise excluded. We wanted to be more than landlords; we wanted to be friends. We wanted to help them out.

I started properly giving my time to others after I packed up work. I volunteered for a charity supporting Palestinians, writing letters to its supporters, and have been doing that now for 17 years. I even went with the charity and travelled around the West Bank and to the refugee camps in Lebanon.

In summer 2018, I realised that the world was in a bit of a mess, and that there’s a hell of a lot of lonely people out there who would benefit from a bit of kindness. 

I became a befriender for Hestia. The first chap I started meeting was definitely on the same wavelength as me. We’d have coffee and natter for hours about the inequality in society, putting the world to rights.

Sadly, his health deteriorated and he went into the same hospice that my father was in but I carried on seeing him. After six weeks, he was told he’d be moving into his own place in North London.  On moving day though, as I was on my way to see him, he died. 

I’d been to visit him a few months before on what would be, unknown to us, his last birthday. We had cake and we chatted. He was quite isolated, so I feel content knowing he wasn’t alone on his birthday. He had a lot of courage and I had become attached to him. It was a shock when he died and I was upset, but really I just feel lucky that I was able to be a friend to him.  

As individuals, it’s important that we all do our bit and use our abilities to help others. One gentleman I meet every Friday, and we’ll simply go for coffee, have a laugh and exchange stamps - we’re both life-long stamp collectors. I know he appreciates it. You don’t need much to do something good.

But really, you benefit from volunteering just as much as the people you’re helping do; it’s given me so much. You get a sense of togetherness, of a fairer society. There’s such a big gap between the people who have everything and the people who have nothing in this country, but I’m not a gloomy person, and I think you have to hold onto the hope that things will get better. 

When you’re my age, nearly 90, you do begin to think about how much time you’ve got left. I really do think that meeting new people and making a difference wherever I can is keeping me alive for longer. I wouldn’t change a thing about my life, and not many people my age can say that. Aren’t I lucky? 

Which book has impacted me the most? 

Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. The battle fought in Stalingrad was going on when I was younger and I was very moved by the effort to turn back the German soldiers. It’s a story of how the Russians kept regrouping and coming back to fight the battle until they eventually won. It’s really an epic story of how people came together in those adverse conditions. 

Which film has impacted me the most? 

Midnight Cowboy. It’s about New York, a place that I love, but about how amongst all of the glitter, America does have a dark side. I’ve travelled there about 5 or 6 times. It has a vitality that fires you up, but Midnight Cowboy also shows the dregs of New York that are often left out of films. I hope I get to go there once more before I kick the bucket. 

Which song impacted me the most? 

The song that’s impacted me the most is Many Rivers To Cross by Jimmy Cliff for the film The Harder They Come. It’s a Jamaican crime film. I have a big interest in the West Indies, and knowing how hard life can be for the people that live there means that this song always brings tears to my eyes. It’s a sad, emotional voice reflecting on how many rivers there are to cross for a positive future.

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