Up philanthropic creek with a funny paddle

Early this evening London time, Little Britain’s David Walliams clocked off after a mightily impressive feat, swimming 140 miles of the toxic Thames over eight days in aid of Sport Relief. In the process he has managed to raise over £1,000,000, which will be invested by UK charity Comic Relief in a number of worthy causes, including mental health, refugee and asylum seeker support, and local community programs. Along the way he has had to contend with Thames tummy, some typically mediocre British Autumn weather, and even managed to save a drowning Labrador. If he has successfully managed to avoid sustaining some serious health problems as a result of his swim, he can probably count himself lucky.

The whole venture speaks eloquently to some of the challenges facing charitable organisations and governments in the twenty-first century. The usefulness of the collision between charity and celebrity certainly bears some consideration. It is difficult to envisage any ordinary person or any politician managing to achieve the level of media coverage and attention that Walliams has managed to reel in for Comic Relief through his superhuman aquatic efforts. Yes, it was a stunt, and it has been a little self-aggrandising, but frankly this is the sort of public-spirited self-aggrandisement that both the United Kingdom and Australia could do with a lot more of. As wrong-headed as some of them may be, the least a celebrity can do with all their stardust and whimsy is to set some of it aside for some worthy causes.

The flipside in this particular case, of course, is that the amount of money Walliams has managed to pull in arguably could and should have been much greater. £1,000,000 is a lot of loot, but considering the extraordinary pools of wealth many individuals and corporations have at their command in the United Kingdom, it feels like a slightly understated amount. Perhaps it is a function of this “age of austerity” that we live in, but it seems in this case the rigour of the stunt has not been outweighed by the amount donated. Playing the devil’s advocate for just a moment: why not just get together with a bunch of other wealthy celebrities and businesspeople, donate £100,000 each and achieve the same result?

The fiercest irony? In the same era that boring old democratic governments with their unexciting processes, procedures and “rule of law” are being pestered by much of the public to lower taxes and withdraw from society – a comedian swimming up a shit-addled river is able to extract some willing silver from all our pockets. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…. the future!

You can support David’s Sport Relief efforts here.