Denise Robertson: The worldwide web can produce the most amazing results

Denise Robertson reveals how the internet helped her reconnect with a boy she met ten years ago on a trip to Africa

Children from Katungu Primary School greet Denise Robertson
Children from Katungu Primary School greet Denise Robertson

I’m well aware that the internet can be a menace, but sometimes, just sometimes, it can work miracles.

Ten years ago, I went to Africa to look at the Aids problem for an international charity. A photographer from The Journal came with me and took some amazing pictures, among them two boys orphaned by Aids and living in the bush. Their meal that day had been white ants grubbed from the ground. I was able to arrange for them to be fed and go to school and then, with the help of beauty salon Pure Bliss, raise the money to build them a house.

I went back to film that house and visit their schools. His teachers told me the elder boy was brilliant and would go far. Shortly after, the charity moved out of the Rakai region. There was no postal service. My contact with them was broken. I could only hope they were OK and take consolation in the fact that, as a result of my two trips, over 800 children had been sponsored by This Morning viewers and Journal readers.

Over the years, I watched the internet for any sign of the boys surfacing. And then it came, a week ago, an email to my website that began ‘Dear mammy, I am your originanal son ssemmanda fred.’ It was the elder boy. He tells me he is now at university and we are catching up on the years between because he can write almost perfect English. The best thing to happen to me for a long time and all because of the worldwide web.

The headline was stark! ‘Is there no one left in Britain who can make a sandwich?’ The article told how supermarket supplier Greencore was recruiting in eastern Europe, despite benefitting from official funding to create Northamptonshire jobs.

Greencore, which makes 430 million sandwiches a year for major supermarkets, said few local people had applied for jobs at its new £30m factory, so executives were recruiting in Budapest. “Ideally, we would be flooded with applications, but actually we are having to work really hard to find people who will work for us.”

The public response was predictable. “Workshy benefit scroungers who won’t take work when it’s available! No wonder Greencore is forced to recruit overseas.”

But Margot Parker, MEP for the East Midlands, asked: “Why is Greencore recruiting 300 workers from Hungary to open a factory in Northampton, when 500 people in Corby lost jobs doing the same job this year?”

A man wrote to a national newspaper to say his wife had twice applied to Greencore and didn’t even get a reply. She phoned three or four times and was told her application was ‘on file’, even after the company had said it was forced to go to Hungary. Another writer was one of 200 workers with long service to the company paid off two years ago without reason.

Greencore made operating profits of £76.5m on sales of £1.2bn last year. Online, a worker wrote: “This year I have seen this company bring grown men and women to tears by telling them that they have to work Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day – all with hours’ notice after they had made plans with their families. Mostly immigrants though, so what does it matter? I’ve seen people bullied into working 12 hours a day – seven days a week.”

Somehow that supermarket sandwich doesn’t seem as tasty as once it did.

At the start of Anti-Bullying Week, a survey, carried out by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, shows that 1 in 10 adults have used abusive language towards a disabled person or those with special educational needs, even though most of them call it ‘banter’.

One in 10 admit they do it to be deliberately insulting. Further findings suggest that children have also adopted this use of bullying language; more than half of teachers hear children directing discriminatory language at a disabled child or child with special educational needs, with just under half of these instances directed as insults.

Earlier, Mencap revealed that 56% of children with a learning disability said they cried because of bullying, and 33% hid away in their bedroom. Nearly half of children with a learning disability had been bullied for over a year, and many were bullied for even longer.

Hardly surprising if adults see the use of abusive language as a joke or, even worse, a weapon. Why, in the 21st century, do we treat disabled people and those with special educational needs as fair game? Is it because some so-called comedians get highly paid for doing just that?

I have just been given a particularly moving book. Paddy Summerfield’s Mother and Father captures, in photographs, moments in his parents’ lives together as they move into old age and infirmity.

“My father works the garden, tends the land, and cares for my mother, who is trapped in her illness. I photograph them through the seasons; there is a mystery and melancholy in these distant figures.” The photographs span the years 1997 to 2007. “I recorded my mother’s loss of the world, my father’s loss of his wife and, eventually, my loss of them both.” What you are glimpsing as you turn the pages is a great and satisfying love and two lives drawing to a close. And yet there is an overwhelming sense of peace in the book, even at the end when the father is left alone. I’m not surprised it was The Observer’s Book of the Month.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer