Tiki and Percy were friends. It hadn’t always been so. When Tiki arrived, Percy had been there a dozen years. ‘Where on earth’, he wondered, ‘has this grotesque lump of wood come from?’ Tiki was equally suspicious: a pompous, arrogant loafer if ever there was one, Percy acted as if he owned the whole shelf. For several months, they hardly spoke to eacher. Then one day, as he was reaching for a glass, Percy fell into the void.
‘Even today, I shudder to think of it,’ he says. ‘I may look solid enough, but I’m made of porcelain. A pretty hollow sort of guy, to be honest.’
Miraculously, he suffered no more than a broken elbow. ‘Be careful in future,’ said Tiki gruffly as Percy picked himself up. ‘I may not always be around to save you.’
‘What?’ Percy was incredulous. ‘You saved me?’
‘I happen,’ said Tiki a little smugly, ‘to be a Polynesian god.’
What, you wonder, does this have to do with Phoebe’s All About France? Simply this – the two friends were on their way to Emmaüs. And Emmaüs is French. Well, actually now it’s international – over 300 communities in 37 countries. But it started in France back in 1949, when Henri Gourès, better known as Abbé Pierre, opened a hostel for the homeless. The first person he took in was George, who was suicidal. ‘I have nothing to give you,’ said Abbé Pierre, ‘but you can help me help others.’
The winter of 1954 was cold, very cold. The homeless were dying in the streets. Abbé Pierre launched an appeal on the radio, and since then, the Emmaüs movement has never looked back. Abbé Pierre died in 2007, but his legacy remains, needed now as much as it’s ever been. He’s something of a legend in France, voted ‘most liked personality’ 16 times. Roland Barthes devoted a chapter to him in his 1957 book Mythologies, noting the ‘saintly attributes’ which form a part of his image – beard, beret, walking stick – an image the Abbé was always careful to project. Though in no way denigrating the Abbé, Barthes did wonder if ‘his touching iconography is not an alibi which a lot of people use to substitute the signs of charity for the reality of justice.’ Put more simply, charities like Emmaüs help us put up with a poverty we ought not to accept.
I don’t doubt there’s truth in that. It’s no coincidence that charities burgeoned in the 19th century, before the welfare state existed. And governments today, seemingly incapable of dealing with the problem, are all too happy for charities to do the work for them.
Emmaüs make their money by selling stuff people want to get rid of. So if you want to declutter, that’s the place to go – taking care, naturally, not to return with more clutter (always a risk when Mrs. B. is around). In the past month, I’ve dropped off three carloads. On the last trip, something incredible happened – I was driving back home when I heard a low giggle from the back seat. Turning round, I saw Tiki, pleased as punch, smirking all over his face.
‘How did you do that?’ I asked. ‘Or rather, don’t bother. You’re a Polynesian god. I’ve got it. What happened to Percy, though? You left him behind? I thought you were friends.’
‘That stuck up prig? Not worth the space on the shelf.’
Oh, well. I suppose they weren’t quite the bosom pals I thought. It isn’t always easy to know what’s happening on the shelf. Tiki’s delighted to be back, at any rate. He protects the house, he says – it was his job in Polynesia. That’s for those who are lucky enough to have a house. For the others, it’s Emmaüs.