Thursday, 1 December 2016

Philip Larkin, Poets' Corner and Haydon Bridge

Tomorrow, a memorial to Philip Larkin will be unveiled in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey on the anniversary of his death on 2 December 1985. 

I can't let this occasion pass without offering a congratulatory salute from Haydon Bridge, the village in Northumberland where we have retired. For this was where Monica Jones, the companion and longest love of Larkin's life had come to live. He came here frequently to be with her from 1961 to 1984. In a sense he made his home here, no doubt a welcome change from the urban campus realities of his life in Hull where he was University Librarian.

Monica had a flat at 1a Ratcliffe Road, the house on the end of the Victorian terrace just by the eponymous bridge. This is the heart of the village where the road that drops steeply off the ridge carrying the Roman Wall meets the old road along the valley from Newcastle to Carlisle. In their day, traffic hurtled relentlessly past the house along the A69. Now there is a bypass and the villagers have reclaimed their streets and pavements. Outside the Co-Op on the corner opposite there is usually a huddle of people meeting and greeting one another, and dogs tethered to the lamp post while their owners are shopping. There are two pubs a stone's throw away, and a third just across the bridge. The pagoda tower of the late Georgian St Cuthbert's Church tops the townscape. Did Larkin ever darken its doors, if only as the curious but uncommitted visitor described in his famous poem Church Going who finds in this "serious house on serious earth" a place to grow wise in?

There is a blue plaque on the wall of Monica's house with a louche reference to a "secret love nest" - hardly a Larkinesque epithet, unless someone can tell me that he himself parodied the place in that way (which is not impossible). The plaque quotes him: "I thought your little house seemed...distinguished and exciting and looks splendid, and it can never be ordinary with the Tyne going by outside, a great English river drifting under your window, brown and muscled with currents!" It takes a poet to capture the sense of a place so succinctly. Though I doubt Larkin ever saw the Tyne surge free of its bounds, inundate the garden and knock at the front door as it did thanks to Storm Desmond a year ago on 5 December.

Andrew Motion's biography says that here the two of them "lazed, drank, read, pottered round the village and amused themselves with private games. The place always cheered them up" - "worked its spell" said Larkin. It's good to know that this little place wove a good magic on the poet. He was not the only one to find in these northern hills a source of joy and inspiration. W. H. Auden also loved the North Pennines that begin their steady rise up towards the high fells on the right bank of the river opposite 1a. Monica's house would lie in their shadow when the sun was low on winter afternoons.

I have long admired Philip Larkin. He had a marvellous ear for the sound of words, the sheer music of human language. On the day he died in 1985, we had a meeting of the Parochial Church Council at Alnwick where I was Vicar at the time. To introduce the meeting, I read aloud his enigmatic poem "Days".

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

I said I thought it was the job of a PCC on behalf of the local church to address this very question. It wasn't just for priests and doctors but for everyone since this universal question of what our days are for is faced by the entire human race. This was met with a certain bemusement. I went on to pray the Advent Collect with its reference to Christ coming among us in great humility, and coming again on the last Day (I emphasised that word in the light of the poem) to judge both the living and the dead. What are days for but to look forward to that Day, I suggested a trifle rhetorically. I'm not sure Larkin would have approved. But I wanted in a small way to pay tribute to the passing of a great poet. Soon after that, I went to work in Coventry, the city of his birth. I was amazed that Coventry had not taken the trouble to honour him in the way that Hull has done, and in a more modest fashion, Haydon Bridge.

The writer Blake Morrison will give the eulogy at tomorrow's unveiling in Westminster Abbey. He has his own way with words as anyone who has read his books, among them the brilliant memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? knows. You don't need me to add to all that has been said about Larkin since his death, how he has been celebrated as one of the twentieth century's finest poets writing in English. And although he was hostile to organised religion, he seems to have had a feeling, an artist's instinct for the inward - might we call it spiritual? - dimension of life. "I may be an agnostic, but I'm an Anglican agnostic." I wouldn't hesitate to place him in the forefront of those poetic voices who have shone a light on the doubting, faltering and believing of Christians like me. With T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden in the previous generation and R.S. Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings and a few others of his own, he deserves to be recognised as one of those who have unflinchingly gazed into the human condition and helped us to come to terms with what it means to be a man or woman of faith.

If you want a sense of his deep seriousness, read one of his last poems, Aubade. It's a profoundly discomforting piece, honest to the point of painfulness. In it, he faces unflinchingly the night demons of the insomniac, which for him mean the grim reality of death. He is shaken to the core of his being. Morning light brings no relief, only the bleak awareness of the one fact that is incontrovertibly certain in life, that we must die one day. Advent is a good time to read it, this season when we meditate on the four Last Things: death, judgment, hell and heaven. Was the poem inspired by a memory of Haydon Bridge in winter on one of those days the North East does so well, when the bare hillsides crouch under the weight of lowering gunmetal skies and a mist hangs over the Tyne as it runs cold as the Styx between the stones of the bridge?

For people of faith, "Aubade" it is not the last word. Religion is - isn't it? - more than just a "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / invented to pretend we never die". So we need other voices than Larkin's alone: John Donne's or George Herbert's perhaps, or a Bach Passion, or a painting like Grünewald's Crucifixion where we can glimpse how dying is the supreme act of faith because the crucified and risen Lord has walked this way before us. But we mustn't indulge our own pretence that death is not an awesome and an awful mystery. If the poets can give us the words and the courage to look into our own mortality, we must thank them for their gift, even if it's not a comfortable one.

If you're in our village and admire the Tyne "muscled with currents" as you stand on Haydon's Bridge, don't forget to nod in the direction of 1a Ratcliffe Road and the memory of a poet who pursued his truth and spoke it. And remember his words now immortalised in Poets' Corner: "What will survive of us is love". 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Having Your Cake and Eating It: Advent thoughts

I'm trying hard not to be grumpy this Advent.

It's not the usual clergy preoccupation with Christmas trees, carolling and commercialism before November is even out. It doesn't become us to be pressing the dislike button too much. I used to be quite fierce about keeping a rigorously blue (or violet) Advent until Christmas Eve. Indeed, I still want to honour Advent in its entirety as a matter of personal spiritual discipline: this is a wonderful liturgical season. But my internalised Pharisee doesn't take much awakening at this time of year. So I'm learning to be more relaxed about it. In the grand scheme of things there are bigger worries to preoccupy us.

And it's these bigger things that are making me grumpy. More accurately, the bigger things in which I'm directly implicated and have to take some responsibility for. 2016 has been particularly prolific in this respect.

Take this morning's news for instance. A Government aide has been photographed in Downing Street making very free with her spiral-bound notebook. "Who is Julia? What is she?" Schubert might have sung. A quick photographer with a long lense captures her scribblings for all to see. "What's the model? Have your cake and eat it." And then: "French likely to be the most difficult." (What is it with these people who are caught more often than they should be with their literary pants down in one of the world's most scrutinised streets? You have to wonder if they are under instruction to reveal tantalising glimpses of what's going on behind closed doors.)

Yes, I'm tempted to be exceedingly grumpy about this. My parents taught me about having my cake and eating it early on in life. How it used to irritate me when they trotted out this proverb!  They said it meant trying to achieve the impossible, and always for selfish ends. As I've learned from the New York Times (, in Germany you would say that you can't dance at two weddings at once, and in Russia that you can't sit on two chairs at the same time. 

If ever a phrase captured the spirit of the Brexiters' referendum campaign it is this. It seems that we Remainers were right when we said that the mantra "Give us our country back" was utterly and unscrupulously self-regarding. In a series of blogs earlier this year, I asked (possibly a trifle grumpily) where, in the Brexit campaign, we could find real concern for the welfare of other nations, for social justice, for the project of creating a more peaceable world, for the pursuit of the common good. (The answer is that there were a few Brexit voices that called for a more just world order such as Giles Fraser's, but they were all but drowned in the shrill chorus that echoed David Cameron's negotiating stance at the Brussels summit in February: "what matters is what's best for Britain". Not the EU, not Europe, not our allies, not the poor and neglected, not a world facing irreversible climate change, not the human family as a whole. Just us here in Britain.)

It's going back to an old question to ask where this leaves the Hebrew and Christian commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus did not say that we should have our cake and eat it. He taught us that if someone demands the cloak on our back, we must give them our shirt as well; if we are asked to travel a mile with a person who needs our help, we must go the next mile too. He taught us that in the kingdom of God, it is open-handedness and generosity that count, because that is how God is towards us. I hesitate to invoke the word surely because somehow that suggests a rhetorical cover-up for a weak argument. But surely the gospel's logic is that the love-command applies to every level of human life, corporate, national and global as well as personal. Doesn't it? 

Advent refocuses our gaze on what belongs to God's kingdom. It lifts our spirits because we believe that God has a destiny for the human race that transcends our best efforts to serve our own ends - efforts that will usually end badly. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, as an Advent gesture, our leaders started talking seriously about the role our nation could play in constructing a world characterised by generosity rather than self-interest? I may be naïve but I believe - or want to believe - that the British people are far better than the dreadful slogans so many found themselves mouthing during the Referendum. Who would not hear the knock on the door and gladly open it to someone who needed us? Who would give their child a stone when they asked for a fish? 

So have we seen an ugly truth in a spiral-bound notebook? Is having your cake and eating it now the official ethic of a virtuous Christian nation? Is it the political version of the acquisitive "must-have" slogans that fill our TV screens in Advent? Or is it just a piece of nonsense we shouldn't pay too much attention to? After all, it's just another way of saying that you can't do the impossible and square the circle. (Maybe "Julia" is even deconstructing rather cleverly the illogic of her Brexit lords and masters by making sure we notice the non-sense of their position - wanting the benefits of the Single Market but not the free movement of people that inevitably goes with it?) 

What's the antidote to feeling grumpy about all this? I think it's to focus on the Advent hope and on the more excellent way of love that the gospel invites us to walk in. It's to practise thankfulness as the fundamental Christian virtue, because it is the only possible response we can make to the generous Love that calls us to say yes to it. Having your cake and eating it just sounds feeble and pathetic when you set it alongside the Advent themes of ultimate destiny: death, judgment, hell and heaven. 

There. I'm done with it. Away with grumpiness. It has no place in this season of expectancy and joy. 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Castro: Memories of Cuba and a Crisis

So Fidel Castro has died.

You have to be at least sixty to recall how his name instilled dread during those thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. At the age of twelve, I was too young to understand the Cold War and why the Soviets planned to install ballistic missiles on Cuba 90 miles from the shore of Florida. I don't recall that anyone at school helped us youngsters to comprehend it, and not having a television, the only visual content I had to go on were grainy images of warships in the ocean on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

But I do remember, very vividly, what those days were like. On my crystal set I would listen to the BBC Home Service each day and feel the increasing sense of gravity in the way Alvar Lidell and his colleagues read the headlines. From what I was hearing, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war and all because three men, Kruschev, Kennedy and Castro were embroiled in a stand-off that focused on a Caribbean island far away. Each night I would turn the light off and pull the bedclothes over my head somehow feeling protected and safe, while wondering if the world would still be there when I woke up next day. It was my first real awareness of fear.

We all have to learn at some stage in our lives what it means to be afraid. I can be grateful that I learned it a lot later than some. But even when the crisis was over and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief, the status quo ante was never going altogether to be restored. Once you have learned fear, it's always there somewhere inside you, ready to be reawakened by the next crisis that comes along. The Cold War era provided plenty of opportunity for this. Not many years later, we had a screening at school of the film The War Game, a BBC docu-drama that was considered too frightening to be broadcast on TV. What shook me in that now famous film was the way in which the apocalyptic suddenly explodes on to the ordinary, on to streets and homes that looked utterly familiar from my upbringing in the London suburbs. Memories of Castro and Cuba came flooding back. By then I had found Christian faith. I recall that evening sitting on the top deck of the 102 bus that was taking me home praying with a fervour I have seldom equalled since.

I never dreamed I would one day travel to Cuba. But in 1991 when I was working at Coventry Cathedral, I was invited to go to Havana by the Anglican Bishop of the island to present a Cross of Nails to the Cathedral. Cuban Anglicans, supported by Episcopalians in Florida and other American states were doing excellent work in building bridges with local groups of revolutionary workers. They wanted to associate this with the Cross of Nails, Coventry's famous symbol of reconciliation and peace-making. The end-game was to be the lifting of the American embargo which was increasingly regarded on both sides of the water (apart from militant Cuban expats) as anachronistic and punitive.

Getting to Cuba in those days was a bit of a joke. I had been leading a choir tour of Jamaica, just a hop and a skip from Cuba. I had to fly via Miami. Officially in the days of the embargo, no US flights were allowed into Havana but it was an open secret that each morning in the small hours, unlisted flights would make the short journey. At Miami I had to sign an undertaking not to spend US dollars in the island. I wondered why, as a British citizen, I was subject to US law. Explaining at check-in that the large steel Cross of Nails I was carrying was not a Damoclean weapon but a religious symbol taxed my powers of persuasion to the full. The plane was full of Cubans returning home to see their families. The safety briefing seemed more casual than usual as if no-one really cared about this flight-that-shouldn't-be-happening. Once airborne it was a bumpy hour that ended with a sickening thud as the plane dropped heavily on to the runway at Havana.

I loved Cuba. The Bishop and the Cathedral community could not have been more hospitable. Havana is a beautiful colonial city with a marvellous array of heritage buildings which, because of the embargo, have not been razed to the ground in the name of "progress". Huge Buicks, Pontiacs and Cadillacs roamed the streets, rusting, ancient and colourful, their chromium glory faded somewhat, oddly patched up with ill-fitting parts, but reminiscent of Hollywood's golden days.

I could tell you about the (almost empty) Museum of the Revolution, the crumbling baroque churches, the beach at Varadero where the Bishop on a whim decided we must spend a day, the watering hole Ernest Hemingway would frequent, and the sugar processing plant we visited (I'd hoped to go to a cigar factory but this was said to trespass on state secrecy). Nowadays the island is well-known to travellers in the Caribbean, but 25 years ago it all seemed exotic and faintly deviant because of the difficulties westerners encountered in getting there.

But what I most fondly recall were the streets thronged with beautiful people - so many of them young - in whose faces I read confidence and contentment despite the difficulties the country was facing. We spent a day with a cohort of students who were helping build an apartment block in downtown Havana. Perched on concrete beams and upturned crates, we drank strong coffee and listened to them as they told us about their lives. They were warm and friendly, grateful for our interest. They were proud of what Cuba had achieved against all the odds. They pointed to a poster on the wall of Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother and Vice-President who had overseen the development of Cuba's economy since the revolution in 1959. They spoke proudly of its health and education systems. They told us that their country had one of the highest literacy rates in the world; and if you were going to fall ill, Cuba was the place to do it. They told us that they were all atheists, but they appreciated the support of the churches and were willing to work with anyone for the welfare of their people.

I knew not to make hasty judgments on the basis of a week's visit. While there was a lot to be impressed by, there were also questions that wouldn't go away - about the limits placed on the personal freedoms most of us take for granted, about the regime's attitude to religion, the media and human rights, about a political system whose successes seemed to come at great cost to those who lived under it. But the biggest problem appeared to be the iron fist of their mighty neighbour across the Straits of Florida. If only the USA could begin a more constructive conversation with Cuba, based less on the stick and more on the carrot. Well, that would never have been easy with the memory of 1962 still vivid in the minds of the leadership. It's to Barack Obama's credit that at long last, the relationship has begun to be repaired. We must now hope that Donald Trump will not bring back the bad old days.

Today there have been reports of celebrations in the streets of Miami at the news of Castro's death. You can understand the feelings of the expat community, I suppose. But it still seems an oddly inappropriate response to a death, however much that particular constituency loathed the Cuban revolutionary and all that he stood for. But in the face of unhealed memories, wouldn't it be better to stop and reflect? Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls in Havana in 1940. He quotes John Donne in the novel's epigraph (in the original script): "Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

As I think back to those thirteen days in 1962 and a youngster's brush with mortality, I find myself pondering past and present once again. I am thinking and praying, not without a certain sense of foreboding, about a future that looks increasingly uncertain. Castro the dictator was undoubtedly a flawed leader with a very partial vision of the things that make for peace. But that he had a profound influence on twentieth century history can't be denied. There are lessons to be learned if we want to build a better, safer world for our children and grandchildren to inherit. "Those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it" said George Santayana in a saying made famous by Winston Churchill. That seems more true than ever on a day when memories are rekindled as another name passes into history.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Joy of Pacers: Our Trains in the North

I am sitting in Costa on Newcastle Central Station, looking out at the noble curve of John Dobson's great train shed. It is lost in the darkness but all who know this station will agree that it's a glorious achievement of nineteenth century industrial architecture.  

But it is a filthy night. The tail end of Storm Angus has alighted over North East England. A fierce rain borne on a north east wind is driving across the exposed platform in the distance. Even on the concourse a light drizzle drifts down from a not-quite-weatherproof canopy. There is a bitter cold that I can feel on the glass that contains this capsule of a cafe. The brightly lit interiors of Virgin East Coast trains passing through suggest warmth and comfort, or maybe that's just the effect of their brilliant red livery. 

I love railway stations, but there's something forlorn about them at this time of night. I've been to Leeds to see my children and grandchildren. We've had an enjoyable day. But the return train journey has not been the most pleasant of experiences. Everything at Leeds seems to be running late. It may have been owing to the poor weather. Well, there's no point in railing against the elements. Stuff happens. I am going to miss my Newcastle connection, I realise with a sigh. And that means a nearly two hour wait for the next train up the Tyne Valley to home. It's the last train of the day. No room for mistakes then.

But as so often, my late running TransPennine Express is made up of a three-car diesel multiple unit. It's rush hour. Hoards of commuters travel this east-west route that connects Liverpool and Manchester with Leeds, York and Newcastle. So it's standing room only. I'm told this is normal. The cheerful Scouse voice of TPE apologises for the delay, but warns that because we are following a stopping train, we can expect to be even later into York. I think wistfully of the Carlisle train at Newcastle that I won't get to catch. Then our conductor says pleasantly with a touch of regret, "Fingers crossed, after York there shouldn't be any more problems." On the whole they are nice people, train conductors. They are doing their best and hate it when things go wrong.

I like that "fingers crossed" because it feels honest. It seems to sum up how, once you get off the main lines, the North of England's railways seem to be run. It is ridiculous that services connecting the major cities of the North are served by such tiny trains. Investment in new rolling stock to increase capacity is an urgent priority, to say nothing about the need for the lines themselves to be upgraded to take high(er) speed trains. We are promised that TPE has already committed to launching longer trains and that is welcome. But how long, O Lord, how long? Will we ever see our northern east-west rails electrified? Or will HS2 see off any further investment in the North?

As another example, take the Tyne Valley line that I live on. (I mean this almost literally as our home is within sight of the level crossing a full 50 yards from the station - a bit further if you are crossing the line to the up platform.) The Newcastle and Carlisle is the oldest east-west route in England, running for its entire length parallel to Hadrian's Wall a few miles to the north. It's an important artery that not only connects the East Coast Main Line with the West, but gives tourist access to the Wall, the Northumberland National Park and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The operator is Northern Railways, a new Arriva franchise. 

On this line run two species of train, both two-car diesel units: Sprinters and Pacers. These, too, rapidly fill up with commuters, schoolchildren, tourists and shoppers by the score getting on and off at the stop for the Metro Centre. It's good to see how well this line is used. Like cinemas, trains have surprised us in the past few decades. When it was once confidently predicted that both risked becoming obsolete, they have seen a remarkable and welcome revival of fortunes.

Let me say something about Sprinters and Pacers. Sprinters are respectable trains, pleasant enough to travel on even if they are showing their age (up to 30 years old). Pacers are quite another matter. If you live in London or the south of England, you may never have heard of them, though you may have seen a recent Panorama programme that mercilessly exposed these ageing four-wheelers that lurch and squeal their way across our northern rails. They are unaffectionately known as "Nodding Donkeys" by longsuffering passengers. They are not real trains at all, but buses fitted with flanged wheels, made in their hundreds on the cheap in British Rail days in the 1980s. BR tried very hard to export them. Only the Iranians were interested, and theirs, once used on local services around Tehran until 2005, now lie rusting and abandoned in the middle of some desert - a very proper place for Pacers. (The wrecked hulk of Shelley's Ozymandias comes to mind: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!") I can confidently say that southern commuters would not tolerate these trains for an instant. The Panorama presenter believed that if anything symbolised the North-south divide, it was the unloved Pacers we are forced to ride up here. That's a telling comment. They are a disgrace to a modern railway.

When George Osborne was in office, he spoke with some warmth about creating a "Northern Powerhouse". Central to the development of the North was, he rightly said, vastly improving its infrastructure and transport links, especially its railways. That aspiration remains on the table, notionally at least, of government thinking. Our leaders in politics, industry and commerce in the North have been banging this drum for all the years I have lived and worked in this part of England. There's not been much progress. But until there is the will to get something done, we shall be living with indifferent rail services for many years to come. The train operating companies are only free to invest in new rolling stock on the Government's say-so. Keeping our fingers crossed will be a good policy. And saying our prayers.

We should all remember where the railways were born. Here in the pioneering land of the Stephensons where the industrial revolution would make the North East the most productive and prosperous region in the kingdom, we shall be celebrating the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025. What state will our northern rails will be in by then? Will the Northern Powerhouse have begun to be a reality?

I must soon cross the tracks to platform 7 where my Pacer will, fingers crossed, convey me up the Tyne Valley and home. Note on surviving Pacer travel: never, ever, sit above the wheels. Not only will it be a rough ride, but you will experience fierce freezing updraughts and downdraughts from poorly fitting doors. Aim for the middle of the bus and lose yourself in nice music through the earphones (if you can hear it above the ambient roar). And think longingly of your nice warm bed. We need eschatology and hope to keep us going at times.

PS Things looked up on platform 7. To my surprise, the last train up the Tyne Valley wasn't a Pacer but a Sprinter, bedecked with imagery that suggested it had strayed from its usual tracks on the Settle and Carlisle line. So the railway had the last laugh after all.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Life After Brexit: can we still be EU citizens?

In a blog on 9 March, I asked, "So how would Brexit affect you?" 

I said that quite apart from the economic and geopolitical reasons for the UK to remain in the European Union, the loss of EU citizenship would be a big deal for me personally. If the worst happened, I went on, might it be possible for us dismembered, forcibly exiled Europhiles to be reattached to the EU in some other way? Might other EU member states make provision for British people who do not want to be deprived of their European citizenship? I'm thinking of a special kind of dual citizenship we might call UK Plus whereby we could elect also to become honorary citizens of Germany, France, Ireland (Scotland one day?), any member state that valued its own links with British people and didn't want to sever ties any more than many of us do. And might the European Parliament pass some enabling legislation to make this possible?

At the time, I hadn't seen this question discussed anywhere. However, since June it's been actively debated in the press and on social media. A rush of UK citizens of Irish descent have been pursuing possible dual Irish citizenship alongside their British. Descendants of German Jewish parents exiled as a result of the Nazi holocaust are making similar approaches to the German Embassy (I think I would qualify for German citizenship under that rubric). If you are willing to invest a sufficiently large sum in business in those countries, I believe you can obtain citizenship in Cyprus or Estonia. Any of these paths would confer European citizenship de facto. 

However, there's something a bit artificial about acquiring citizenship in another EU country when your relationship with it is historical rather than actual. Still more does it feel odd when you're in effect buying it through a business transaction. There's a whiff of pretext in going down that road. It's not that I am really interested in becoming a German, a Cypriot, an Irishman or an Estonian for its own sake. It's a convenience for the sake of protecting my EU citizenship. For most of us, there would be no other reason for embarking on this quest. For myself, I am perfectly content to be British and don't hanker after any other nationality. 

But for more than four decades, UK citizenship has meant "British-in-the-European-Union". To belong to the one is to belong to all. It means being connected not just to an island but to a continent with its larger relationships and possibilities. Maybe many of us haven't fully appreciated how much it has formed and shaped us, what a privilege it is until it is taken away. (Though I also have to say that being a second generation holocaust survivor has perhaps given me a strong sense of European identity, something I've felt consciously ever since childhood.) 

So I am not alone in welcoming the initiative of Charles Goerens, a longstanding Democratic Party MEP from Luxembourg. He has written an article in the Independent arguing for what he calls "associate citizenship" of the European Union. He says: Among the powerful emotions provoked by the referendum – anger, regret and denial – was a sense of bereavement. Many British people consider themselves European and value their European citizenship, which struck a chord with me....It is for this reason that I drafted an amendment to a draft report...on possible changes to 'the current institutional set-up' of the European Union. The idea is simply to guarantee those who want it some of the same rights they had as full EU citizens, including the right of residence in the EU, and to be able to vote in European elections and be represented by an MEP.

His argument is that in current treaties, EU citizenship is already recognised as being different in kind from citizenship of a nation state. It's additional, and its privileges and responsibilities are not the same. So it ought to be possible to extend its meaning to include individual citizens of non-EU states (maybe restricting it to former EU states whose populations were therefore deprived of EU citizenship when they left) to enable them to continue to be connected to and represented in the Union if they wished to. This would in no way compromise national citizenship. But associate EU citizenship would allow the benefits of EU membership to continue to be enjoyed such as freedom of movement, access to health care and the right to reside in EU countries. 

In my March blog, I spelled out why I did not want my EU citizenship stolen from me. Yes, of course I have hugely valued the opportunities it has given to us and I think I can say I have personally taken advantage of them. More important is what the UK's membership has meant to our nation, our continent and our world. A Europe with the UK as a committed leading player could have done inestimable good in a world that even in the short months since the Referendum has become more and more uncertain and unstable. I still can't quite believe we have been so self-interested and foolish as to throw it all away. But we are where we are. There is no point in endlessly chewing it over, even though I am not going to allow it to be said that the vote supplied a mandate that was "clear", "decisive" or "overwhelming", all epithets in the government's rhetorical knapsack that are patently misleading and false.

So here's why I would willingly pay the membership fee ("no taxation without representation!" and vice-versa) to remain a citizen of the EU. It comes down to three things. 

First, it's about identity. The historical and cultural roots of our nation are inextricably European. Europe is where we belong and Europe is where we should remain. The EU is not a perfect realisation of what it means to be European, but it's the best we've got. We should not forget its achievements, for it has served the continent well since the last war, and given us aspirations to try to build a better world (yes, that phrase so maligned by the Prime Minister seems more appropriate than ever in these troubling times: who with any feeling for our common humanity would not want to be a "citizen of the world"?). If we don't securely mark our identity as Europeans, we shall be soon find ourselves relegated to the deserved status of little Englanders (for the Scots and Irish have shown a lot more sense over the EU than we English have). 

Secondly, it's about protest. Like so many, I've been sickened by the tone of so much of our political discourse during and since the Referendum. Crude nationalism. isolationism and xenophobia are only three of its more unpleasant features. We are all aware of how uneasy and afraid some - maybe many - of our immigrant friends and colleagues are feeling, whether they come from EU countries or beyond. Populism is fuelling resentments and hatreds as we have all seen to our alarm. So in the era of post-truth politics, I want to protest against this corrosion of what we used to call the British values of tolerance, understanding and decency. Brexit will be one more sign that we care less about our neighbour than we once did. For me, to hold associate EU citizenship would be an important symbol of wanting to follow a more excellent way. 

Thirdly, it's about resolve. Many of us want to signal our continuing commitment to the European project but aren't sure how to do this without appearing like backward-looking "Remoaners" who do not recognise a democratic vote, however narrow.  So here's a way of doing it. We may not be able to have our (blue?) passports carry the name European Union on the cover. But citizens of that Union is what we would continue to be. Every passage across a European border would remind us of it. And it would recall us to what we hold in common, and how our lives are infinitely richer and healthier and safer if we make common cause with our fellow human beings in our neighbourhood family of nations and beyond. EU citizenship along these lines would help us step out of the echo chamber of our island and live in a bigger community of giving and receiving in relationships of collaboration and trust. It would keep alive our wish to go on fighting for social justice, conserving the environment and defending the rights of others. With associate citizenship, we would continue through our vote to influence the European Union in these ways in the future. 

We are all at home with what I call "double belonging". There's nothing mysterious about being British as well as English (or Scots or Welsh). Many people hold dual citizenship of another country. Associate EU citizenship is simply an extension of a familiar idea. It's not ideal. Far better would have been for our country not to turn its back on the EU in the first place. But it did, and the arguments are over. We are living in a new reality now. But among the 48% of us who wanted to remain in the EU, there's a growing head of steam for keeping the European dimension alive in whatever way we can. Here's an idea about how that could mean something. It's worth exploring. 

And by the way, if you're wondering if this idea is somehow "unpatriotic", I believe our citizenship of our own nation will benefit too. Every belonging, every attachment, every pledge of loyalty is the better for having a larger context. We love our island home. But it's not all there is to being British. In our history, the seas around us were the highways that connected us with the peoples who lived across them. That's the metaphor to hold in mind - belonging, not separation. It's as true now as it's ever been that "it is not good for human beings to be alone".

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Sound of the Trump

For the second time in a year, I'm writing on a day we hoped and prayed would never dawn. 

Early this morning in the small hours, I had a dream-like notion that something bad had happened. Floating in the no man's land between wakefulness and sleep, you don't quite know what state you're in. Idly I turned the radio on, thinking I would be asleep again within minutes, reassured that Hillary Clinton was winning in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. I couldn't quite make sense of what I was hearing. But it soon became clear. Terribly clear. Ominously clear. I was awake, and behold, it wasn't a dream. 

So Donald Trump is now President-elect. I can scarcely take it in, if I am honest. That this man has been elected to the Presidency is what we told one another a year ago, a week ago, a day ago could never happen. But it has, against all the odds. What can I add to the global outpouring of report, comment and interpretation on this extraordinary day in American politics?

I don't need to rehearse the worries and fears many of us feel today. Whether it's immigration, the economy, climate change, international relations, human rights, healthcare, diversity or just basic respect for human beings (especially women, people of colour, the disabled and the LGBT community), Mr Trump has already said enough during a dreadful campaign to give us a thousand reasons to be afraid. His statesmanlike words this morning were well chosen, but they have to be judged in the light of the bullying and contempt that has run through his speeches. It's not that he's a novice, untried in a publicly accountable leadership role and without any experience of elected office or military service. It's the sheer want of political and social argument, respect for other people and any sense of persona truth-seeking that I am alarmed about. We should be seriously rattled. 

But here are some more personal thoughts on a dispiriting and sombre day.

First, let's remember the millions of decent Americans who could not with integrity vote for Donald Trump. I include in that not only Democrats but a significant number of Republicans as well, all people who saw through Trumpery and had a larger, more generous and altogether more noble vision of their country and its place in the world. They will be bitterly disappointed today. We need to stand in solidarity with those men and women and encourage them not to despair, but to be robust in challenging the new regime so that it is held to account. We want Mr Trump to be a good president for the sake of his people, but we don't wish him a long honeymoon. He has too much work to do, too many bridges to build, too many wounds to heal. 

Secondly, many people, including Donald Trump himself, have seen this outcome as an American Brexit, big time. That's true up to a point. Populism has found its voice against the sneered-at political establishment like it did here. There's been the same disdain for evidence, for the hard facts that ought to lead the making of a case rather than follow it. We've seen the same absence of any serious analysis or argument. We've witnessed the same belligerence against those who dared not to see things through the Trump lens. We've had the same sorts of myth-making brazenly propagated as truth with the result that millions of people  have been hoodwinked. All this has become familiar to us over here during the referendum campaign. 

But the parallel isn't quite exact. Half the American population (indeed, probably slightly more) did not endorse Mr Trump just as 48% of UK voters did not choose Brexit. Those men and women whom I spoke about just now will live to fight another day. If they want to, they can vote Donald Trump out of office at the end of his first four year term. You can do a lot of harm in four years but the beauty of democracy is that every so often, you get to unseat your elected representatives if they don't deliver. There could be another incumbent in the White House in a relatively short while. If the nation has been injured meanwhile, steps can then be taken to heal the damage.

Brexit, however, can't be reversed, at least, not in a short or medium timespan. "Brexit means Brexit" as we have been endlessly reminded. When we leave the European Union, it will be for good, and on whatever terms we have negotiated in the coming two years. So as a political event, a permanent Brexit is more far-reaching in its effects than a wayward election whose consequences, apart from the catastrophic, could one day be undone. 

I'm not in the least sanguine about this. Donald Trump is perfectly capable - not least because he is new to public office - of wreaking havoc in national and international affairs. We know what the global threats are, and a time could arise when unstable situations reach a tipping point. War, the breakdown of trust in civil society, the fragility of currencies and banks, climate change - all these could reach a crisis that could bring about irreversible change. It doesn't have to happen through malice. Mistakes, lack of judgment and mere innocence can join forces to create a perfect storm. The reckless tone of some of Trump's speeches combined with his inexperience should make us very afraid - not just of what he could instigate, but how he could misread and mis-respond to external threats whether real or perceived. If the lack of restraint in his rhetoric is followed by a similar deficit in his actions, that would be deeply concerning

It's a case of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. But I have faith in the good sense of the American people not to tolerate abuse of high office through vanity, self-regard, croneyism, contempt for others, 
taking needless risks or riding roughshod over the common good. They can comfort themselves that electorates are notoriously fickle. They can already look forward to and start planning for 2020 with far-sighted 20/20 vision. And they will. Of that I'm sure. 

One more thing. The Trump mantra "let's make America great again" - like Farage's "give us our country back" - are facile slogans to feed the baying mob. They are easy speeches that "comfort cruel men", to raid a hymn by G. K. Chesterton. What they come down to is power and wealth. Donald Trump's campaigning message has been that wants to put the world in its place, wants America to be admired and looked up to deferentially. But thoughtful people know that what makes a nation truly great is not its wealth or power. It's the character of its people. "Righteousness exalts a nation" says the Book of Proverbs. Only that kind of greatness is worth cultivating, whether in the United States or Great Britain. And maybe ethical and moral greatness understands what it means to step down from the high pedestal in order to promote the welfare of others by washing their feet. "Whoever would be great among you" said Jesus " must learn to become a servant."

Early this morning I tweeted from Shakespeare's Tempest. I quoted the desperate cry of the mariners in Scene 1: "All lost! To prayers, to prayers! All lost!" It wasn't meant ironically: if we are people of faith, we shall surely be praying for America and for Donald Trump. What should we pray, you ask? Where do I start? How about praying that he will be a quick learner? He will need to be if he is to acquire as soon as possible the skills of statecraft in a world that is infinitely more complex than the crude binaries that pepper his speeches. And that he'll surround himself with good 
people fit for sound government. And that he'll treat people respectfully. And that he'll cultivate humility and even, from time to time, swallow a dose of healthy self-doubt. And that...

Above all he will need wisdom if his leadership is to have real authority. King Solomon's prayer for wisdom at the start of his reign (1 Kings 3) would be a good place to start. I've even put last Sunday's sermon about Solomon on the web to help him. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

That Infamous Headline: a Question from Schooldays

Have we ever seen a more infamous headline in a British daily paper?

I mean the Daily Mail's front page on Friday 4 November. It was the day after the three High Court judges ruled that the government was bound by law to gain the consent of Parliament before invoking Article 50 and triggering Brexit. As we all know, it lined up mugshots of the three judges above the headline "Enemies of the People".

In a blog (here) the same day I spelled out what I thought was at stake in the High Court's ruling and the Prime Minister's rush to appeal it: respect for law, governance and parliamentary democracy. Many have defended the judges and many have dissented. Fair enough. Testing judgments is what legal process is for. But if you are going to dissent, it needs to be done intelligently. It's not enough to denounce, attack and stamp your foot. The Mail seems to me to be wilfully perverse in just not "getting" it. For this case in law has nothing to do with Brexit itself, whether Britain should or shouldn't leave the EU. It has everything to do with the legal process by which the referendum decision to leave is achieved. This, said the judges, was a matter for Parliament, not the Executive alone.

So the Mail's headline is based on the false premise that by interfering with the referendum Brexit vote, the judges were guilty of meddling in politics. But it's worse than that. To denounce them as "enemies of the people" is an offensive slur on their integrity and professionalism. They know the boundaries of the law's competence better than anyone. Straying beyond them in the High Court to play politics would be unthinkable. And if the judges have acted as enemies in upholding the role of Parliament in the Brexit process, that's tantamount to asserting that Parliament too is the enemy. If I were a parliamentarian, whatever my party or position on Brexit, I would be extremely angry.

This amounts to an implied attack on the independence of the judiciary. A free press is at liberty to disagree with judges just as it's free to dissent from politicians. But once it goes beyond that and starts saying, in effect, that the judgment should have found for the government because that was its business, the independence of judicial scrutiny is entirely subverted. The reality is that in the British Constitution, Prime Minister, her Executive and the Crown itself are all subject to the law of the land. It's the job of the judiciary to clarify what that law is. That's what the judges were doing as conscientiously as they knew how.

The Daily Mail has in the past won awards for its reporting and investigative journalism. So let's not disparage what the Mail has achieved just because we're at odds with it (not for the first time). But that doesn't excuse serious lapses of judgment. Cheap headlines like this are unworthy of a responsible paper. They don't clarify, they aren't truth-seeking, they don't foster serious debate and they don't help us to "disagree well" to use the Archbishop of Canterbury's phrase. All they do is to raise the temperature and fuel mistrust. They are more at home in regimes where the judiciary is in the pockets of dictators or powerful paylords, not in constitutional democracies like ours. "Enemies of the People" may achieve a dramatic effect (who will forget it?) but it's meretricious and unprincipled.

Now, the editor of the Daily Mail is Paul Dacre. I was at school with him in the 1960s: I think we were exact contemporaries. A writer rang me up a while ago to ask if I remembered him from schooldays. I replied that I hadn't known him well, but I did have a clear memory of one thing: his prowess on the rugby pitch. How I envied sporting ability like his! I was the clumsiest rugby player you ever saw and no better at cricket. Those who won their colours were like gods to me. I imagined there was nothing they could not and would not achieve in life. And becoming editor of a national newspaper is indeed a pretty big achievement.

You may have got the impression that he and I went to a typical public school where old-fashioned values were shaped by the classics, chapel services, corporal punishment, the playing field and the corps.  Well it wasn't like that at all. True, it was an independent (day) school where we did study classics and did play rugby. But our school had been founded by far-seeing and enlightened men in the early nineteenth century in pursuit of a vision for society shaped by utilitarian ideas and free of religious ideology. In the prep school I found myself in Bentham House. That says it all. For Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), virtue in a society meant "the greatest happiness for the greatest number". It has proved to be a profoundly influential idea throughout the English-speaking world thanks to the writings of John Stuart Mill.

Because of this, my parents decided to send me there. My father and mother were a mixed marriage of non-observants, Anglican and Jewish. They believed religion was a source of division and conflict in the world, and wanted their children educated in a liberal environment free of religious obligations and loyalties. (How ironic that it was at school that I found my Christian faith as a teenager, or rather, it found me. God moves in mysterious ways.) They wanted us to be good citizens of a world where religion, politics and ideas were debated in a tolerant way that was not afraid of diversity, and instead of invoking dogma, looked for understanding. They wouldn't have put it in quite that way. But it's what they were feeling for.

I realise how much I owe to that education. It's true that for a while, the conservative evangelical Christianity I'd embraced threatened to eclipse the liberal outlook I'd been formed in. I'm grateful that by the time I was ordained in the 1970s, I was able to see things in a larger context. I began to understand that if humanity is to survive, let alone flourish, we must all learn to live as adults in a world of religious, political and ideological differences. It's not that there's no place left for conviction or passion. It's how we express them and embody them that counts, and (just as important) how we listen to other people's passion and conviction. It's part of finding our place in the world where tolerance, understanding, generosity and trust are everything.

This was the school both Paul Dacre and I come from. So you'll see why Friday's headline poses a question for me. If our school influenced me in the ways I've described, I'm wondering how it influenced him too. For the editor of the Daily Mail presides over a paper that seems to me to have taken on Friday a rather different approach to the week's events from the one I'd thought he and I were schooled in. "Enemies of the People" is just not the way his education and mine taught us to do business. It tried to help us learn that we don't scream with rage or impugn one another's integrity; instead, we listen and try to understand; we argue it out, and if we differ it's without rancour. There's no place in the public discourse of a civilised society for shrillness. It brings no credit to a responsible newspaper that claims to be proud of our British values and ways of doing things.

So because I'm interested in human nature (it's my job to be), I'm intrigued by what motivates the thinking of this powerful and able man who for so long has sat at the helm of the Daily Mail. Perhaps my old school contemporary will tell us how his mind works nowadays, half a century after he and I parted company for the last time.

Friday, 4 November 2016

The High Court and Brexit

A good day for democracy?

Gary Lineker tweeted last night: "Absolutely outrageous that parliament might have to make a political decision on the country's future."  Right on target, straight into the goal. (He is rapidly becoming one of my heroes, not because of Match of the Day but for the astuteness of his social and political comments, whether it's refugees, the media or Brexit. If you don't already follow him on Twitter, give him a try. You'll be in good company with 5.3 million others.) 

He grasped what the apoplectic right wing tabloids and their screaming headlines seemed to have missed. The High Court ruling that Parliament needs to be consulted before Article 50 is triggered is emphatically not in itself about Brexit. It is not trying to undo the referendum result by stalling the UK's departure from the European Union. It is not tampering with the policies of the Prime Minister and her government. It is not interfering with the business of ministers. It is insulting to the three senior lawyers to imply that they have crossed a line and played politics. They know better than anyone the limits of their own  competence. 

It's purely and simply about the law and what the Executive can and cannot legally do. It all turns on the Royal Prerogative that is being invoked by Mrs May as her authority to trigger Article 50 and give notice of the UK's intent to leave the EU. This was the point that was being tested in law. The judgment is that the government and Crown have "no power to alter the law of the land by use of its prerogative powers". And that's unanimous. The Prime Minister must seek the consent of Parliament before she takes this action. If she doesn't, its legality will be in question and the entire process will be flawed from the very outset.

I should have thought that those who cried "give us back our country!" during the referendum campaign would have welcomed this judgment. They couldn't have asked for a more ringing endorsement of parliamentary sovereignty which was one of the central issues of the referendum debate. Nothing but good can come from proper debate in which arguments are set out and tested. It will enable elected members to sound out their constituents on what they thought they intended when they voted in June. It will offer the government the opportunity to set out its Brexit negotiating position and benefit from the parliamentary conversation that follows. As someone said today, voting to leave the EU is simply a decision to take off on a journey somewhere else. What we don't yet know is where we are going to land. It makes sense for the passengers to be involved in agreeing on the destination. That's where elected members come in. 

Thanks to the ruling, there will be checks and balances that make sure powers are separated and the executive doesn't overreach itself by behaving unilaterally. I've worked long enough in institutions to have learned how open, transparent processes are extraordinarily clarifying in difficult and contentious situations. Leaving the EU is a formidably complex affair, not least in its legal ramifications. So why should the government be so afraid of public debate and parliamentary scrutiny that it is appealing this key judgment? It should be grateful for all the help it can get. Forget the media hype and the storm on social media. And even forget Remainers who imagine that Brexit is now less likely  to happen than it was before. (How I wish they were right, but that's another matter.)

No, the most worrying consequence of the High Court ruling is how the executive is reacting to it by closing ranks against its peers in Parliament. As someone else tweeted today, they are at risk of treating Parliament as if they were the enemy. And that's concerning.

When I've seen this sort of thing happen in other institutions like schools, universities and churches, it always ends badly. Nothing is gained by clinging on to power in a way that excludes those who ought rightly to be participants in decision-making. Everyone loses. And among the values that are most put at risk are what we most cherish in public life: trust, integrity, openness, truth-seeking, shared ownership and responsibility, the capacity to listen and think we could be mistaken. These are all essential to good governance. It's troubling that these virtues are on the line so soon in this administration's term of office. 

The lack of self-doubt among senior Brexiters in government is in danger of infecting the whole administration. It smacks of insecurity. I hope that back bench parliamentarians of all parties, whatever their views on Brexit, will not collude with any erosion of their authority. They were elected as this nation's sovereign legislature. Their voice is our voice. These are momentous times for the United Kingdom. Parliament's role is always critical but especially at defining historical moments like this. 

So Mrs May, you don't need to appeal this ruling. Please trust your parliamentary peers and trust the process. This ruling will enhance your authority in the long run, not diminish it. Remember your constituents and those whom your fellow members represent up and down the land. Be statesmanlike. It will win you respect among those who care about good governance as well as good outcomes for our people and our world.

One final thought. We should be proud of our independent judiciary who are not in the pocket of politicans. There are many who envy us, people who don't have the privilege of living in a democracy. It's awkward at times when you're in a hurry to get things done. But think where we'd be without it. We must never never put it at risk.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Jacob and the Angel: meditation on a doorstep

There's a striking medieval sculpture on the door-jamb of the north west door as you go inside the great Basilica at Vézelay in Burgundy. It's the only piece of Romanesque you'll see outside - all the rest is imitation by the nineteenth century architect Viollet le Duc who restored the crumbling church. This one sculpture is worth pausing by before you venture into the narthex and the glories that are there.

It shows Jacob wrestling with the angel. It's derived from the story that is told in Genesis 32.

The same night he [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (New Revised Standard Version, quoted with acknowledgment.)

It's a strange, unsettling story that's given plenty of scope to the commentators - whole books have been written about it. But the context in Genesis makes it clear that it's a pivotal experience for Jacob. He is anxious at the prospect of meeting his elder twin Esau whom he has defrauded of both his birthright and his inheritance. This night-time watery struggle with an unknown visitant seems to symbolise a profound inward uncertainty, not to say conflict, about both his identity and destiny. It's as if he needs to become aware that life is far more mysterious and elusive than he has hitherto grasped. Only when he has come to this point of recognition is he capable of coming out of the water and continuing his journey. He has prevailed and found blessing, yet his unknown - unknowable? - assailant will not disclose himself. Why is it that you ask my name? Yet Jacob acquire a new name for himself, that of a victor. Israel means "a prince with God". This, and the sun rising upon him, both suggest that a defining and life-changing rite of passage has taken place.

Let's look at it as the sculpture presents it, particularly in relation to its position at the entrance of the church. (We must bear in mind that this may not be its original medieval setting - I've not been able to find out whether the or not the Victorian restoration may be responsible for placing it there.) To see the capital squarely, you have to face across the doorway and look south. That's to say, you need to stop and turn to it. I find that in itself significant. Crossing any threshold is always an action that is significant - that's why gates and doorways are so often highlighted architecturally as places of special symbolism. And when it's a doorway into a sacred space, you can expect it to be particularly charged with life-meanings.

So what is this beautiful sculpture saying to us who enter (or leave) the church?

I think it's something like this. When you cross this threshold of a church, you are entering a world that is not altogether like our everyday lives. Here, we grasp how life is about more than what we can see or touch or handle. The mystery of things is recognised and acknowledged, what Rudolph Otto in his book on religious experience The Idea of the Holy famously described as Mysterium Tremens et Fascinans. Religion is not all light and certain conviction - far from it. There is a shadow, a night-time aspect in which unknowing, doubt, struggle and even fear rise to the surface. We long for the sunrise and the clear light of day, and we imagine that this is what will be vouchsafed in the sacred space set apart for the worship of God. After all, isn't religion supposed to be about illumination and enlightenment? Instead, we often find ourselves immersed into even greater mystery where big questions are opened up - about the world, about ourselves, about what life is all about, about suffering and pain, about God himself.

All this, I think, is symbolised by the sculpture that guards the portal of the church. As you look at it, the angel has his back to the light so that he casts a shadow across Jacob. (Paradoxically, the only time Jacob's face is lit up is when the setting sun in the west illuminates the west front of the Basilica.) That angelic shadow contains both a warning and a promise. It warns us: don't expect easy answers in here. Religious faith won't provide them. It may be a discomforting place where you will feel your anxieties and dilemmas - if, that is, you come in as a truth-seeker rather than a pretender or play-actor.

But there's a promise too in Jacob's face and the sun that lights it up. It assures us that by crossing this threshold and entering into the mystery of the "holy" on the other side, we shall be given what we need more than anything else to negotiate the complexities of life: courage, hope, the sense of not being alone, confidence in a future (symbolised by the sunrise) that we are drawn towards, reassurance that all shall be well. We shall be given tools to make important connections. Religion is not an easy rescue from our troubles but a way of facing them with integrity and faith.

Charles Wesley wrote a famous hymn Come, O thou Traveller Unknown based on this story. One of its verses goes thus:

Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

And in the next verse comes the marvellous discovery: Thy nature and Thy Name is Love! In the story, in the sculpture, in the hymn, it has taken a life-and-death struggle to reach this point. Faith is hard-won, and the older we get, the more we are right to suspect that it is not always going to be easy. But that's precisely what makes the journey worth travelling. And if we are limping because the struggle has been hard, it's evidence that we have experienced something real. In the dark, it was "a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God". But when the day breaks and the shadows flee away, we know that this is precisely where our humanity, our safety and our healing lie.

Monday, 24 October 2016

In France: the view from the hill

We spent last week in France, in our little Burgundian hilltop village where we are lucky enough to have a small house. It's lovely at all times of the year but especially in autumn when the landscape is shot through with reds and golds, and wood smoke from the first fires hangs in the air, and the village goes quiet as it draws itself in for the winter.
It was our first trip to the continental mainland since the Brexit vote. You'll know if you read my last blog that we were curious to see how it would feel. Vézelay is not a place where you hear politics being debated in the street. Our village, a UNESCO world heritage site, is officially listed as one of France's most beautiful. Its economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism - it's said that nearly a million visit it each year. So the talk is more likely to be about the ups and downs of the hotels and restaurants, car-parking (always guaranteed to get villagers going) and of course the weather. Contrary to what's commonly thought, the British are not unique in loving to gossip about the weather. And you'll also hear about it if Monsieur le Maire has been up to something that means change in the time-honoured village way of doing things such as new office hours in the Mairie, the introduction of differently coloured bin bags or alterations in the one-way traffic system.

So the streets were not reverberating to heated debates about Brexit. Anyway, that's old news now.  But it wasn't difficult to get a reaction when I raised the topic myself. On our first day there I went to the Mairie to get my resident's car-parking permit. Benoît (not his real name) who sits in the office each morning and deals with enquiries had plenty to say about it. "Ah, la grande bêtise anglaise! What fools you English are!" he said without ceremony. "I've never cared overmuch for the English" (looking at me with affection - or was it pity?) "but surely, for God's sake, we were better off together than apart. Have you forgotten the war?" (It's characteristic of the French to elide "English" with "British" but of course he was right in that it was the English vote that largely swung it for Brexit.) I managed to get in my désolé de la part de mon pays before he rushed on: "and here we are in Burgundy, of all places. In the Middle Ages, it was England and Burgundy against France, as Joan of Arc knew to her cost. How could you do this to your historic ally?"

This last bit was laced with a heavy sarcasm: even my hesitant French could pick that up. But he had a serious point to make. "I'm deeply committed to the European scout movement and have been for many years. It's completely internationalist in its outlook, bringing young people together from across the continent. It's how the world should be in miniature: a place of friendship and reconciliation where we each out to one another and despite our differences try to understand and live alongside one another as neighbours." Then he proffered a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. "Ah well, so be it. I dare say that where the English lead, we too may follow one day. Tant pis for us all. And then what will have become of all our fine dreams about a better world?"

Our expat friends in the department of the Yonne had plenty to say about the referendum as you'd expect. Those who had lived in France longer than fifteen years were especially sore about having been denied a vote for reasons that seemed to them entirely arbitrary. More serious was the likely effect of Brexit on whole areas of their lives in France. Already their sterling earnings or pensions are worth a quarter less in euros than they were before June. They do not know whether the excellent health care they enjoy in France will continue to be available to them in the future, whether there will be implications for owning property, what the tax regime and welfare benefits will look like, what formalities there will be for travel to and fro between the UK and France, and a thousand other concerns.

More than anything else I was aware of what I would describe as a low level sense of dislocation, suddenly feeling more "foreign" than before. It wasn't big, yet, but it was there. Some mentioned worries about relationships in their local community. None of them had experienced any direct hostility, though one friend said she had been harried on a narrow local road and almost driven into the ditch by a driver who, she presumed, had seen her UK number plates and was making a point. No one was talking much about returning to Blighty - all the people we know are well embedded in Burgundy; they have made their life there and feel part of their communities to which they contribute in many different ways.
But the air was charged with unspoken "what-ifs". They had all voted Remain, or would have done if they'd had a vote. But now there was a degree of uncertainty around that was troubling. One or two said they were surprised by the strength of the anger they felt at a turn of events that would not only prove hugely damaging but had been unnecessary to begin with. But now the genie was out of the bottle. There was nothing anyone could do but wait and see what happened, and practise the art of resignation. I suppose that's true of all of us who think that something incredibly precious has been needlessly wrecked as a result of the referendum. But expats understandably feel it all the more sharply when it seems as if the place they've come to call home isn't quite the same as it was before.
Today we sailed back across the narrow stretch of water that divides Britain from France. As I write this, the refugee camp at Calais, the so-called Jungle, is being dismantled. Some of its children have been granted asylum in the UK, but too few, too late and in circumstances that hardly bring credit to this country. Meanwhile, France is dispersing the many who are left behind to other camps across the country. The man most likely to be elected as President next year is talking about relocating the UK border where it belongs after Brexit, on the English side of the Channel, and letting us deal with the refugee problem ourselves. It's just another symptom of a pulling up of the drawbridge and the fracturing of good relations and fruitful collaboration that once characterised our place in the European Union. We may claim that Britain is "open for business" but it sounds pretty hollow at the moment, whether we're talking about the economic business of trade or the political business of day to day relationships between states.
No-one in France made us feel unwelcome or gave us the cold shoulder. We love being on our Burgundian hill and last week was no exception. But somehow, being there brought it home to me that by voting to leave the EU we have treated our European neighbours and allies with little less than contempt. We have turned our back on people who thought of us as friends, bound together by more than a century of entente cordiale. That feels deeply uncomfortable. And I haven't the faintest idea what to do about it. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

At Sea

Some scribblings from the middle of the North Sea. We are on the Hull-Zeebrugge night ferry. The wind is in the east and there is a swell running; not uncomfortable but enough of a lilt to remind you where you are. Laurens Van der Post recalled from his childhood at sea, that when you are aboard a ship, it's as if you feel the fingers of God moving beneath you. 

Being seaborne, "between lands", has added symbolism at the moment. This week, the news is once again dominated by Brexit: what kind of deal our country is likely to secure when it leaves the European Union, what it will cost, how our political relationships with the rest of our continent will be configured, whether or not Parliament will be actively involved in shaping this unknown future. 

The UK is still part of the Union. We haven't said farewell just yet. But somehow it feels different from just a few months ago. At that time, most of us Remainers believed we would win the referendum vote - not necessarily overwhelmingly, but convincingly enough (though if you follow this blog you'll know that I became rather less sanguine in the days just before the vote). But it didn't take long for the Brexit decision to register. Within hours, the pound had plummeted. David Cameron announced that he would resign (what is it with politicians who won't stay on long enough to live with their misjudgments - which this referendum was, I believe, from the outset - and see through the consequences?). 

When it came to the EU leaders' summit in Bratislava, the UK wasn't there with the twenty seven at precisely the time when we should have been cultivating goodwill among our (for the time being) partners. We should have been explaining ourselves to a baffled continent. Increasingly the atmosphere has changed from fraternal collegiality (not without its tensions at times to be sure) to a clear sense of estrangement where the talk is of "us and them". The rhetoric on both sides is becoming more hawkish, less open to negotiation and compromise. The UK can expect a hard time - that's the message from Brussels and Strasbourg. We've made our bed. We must lie on it. 

So here I am, a Europhile at sea in both a literal and a figurative sense. This is my first blog on the EU since just after the referendum, and I have to say that I have yet to come to terms with the outcome. Others have written about the Brexit decision in terms of grieving, and that's my experience too. I keep coming back to what we have lost - or rather, not lost because it was taken away from us but thrown away of our own free will. The stages of grief are not a linear process. You can feel angry and empty and lost, and you can search, and you can want to come to terms and negotiate, and you can be tearful and resigned all at once or in rapid succession, and then find that you're going through the cycle all over again as if experiencing it afresh. 

And what uncannily mimics bereavement caused by a death is that the landscape ahead is truly unknown. No-one knew what they were voting for when they opted to leave the EU in June even if they think they did, or politicians and the media tell them they did. We are still no nearer to knowing, though it looks as though a "hard" Brexit is on the cards and "softer" options are being ruled out. Everything is expressed as negativity: we (I speak collectively of the nation) have decided only on what we do not want without having any idea about what we do. This is an alarming place to be: like the North Sea at night, there are no landmarks and no lights, just the sea churning restlessly beneath our feet and the hope that the voyage will lead is to a good destination. 

This is our first trip to "the Continent" since June. We don't know what will have changed in our relationship with neighbours and friends in the little Burgundian village where we go. Quite possibly nothing at all: the best human relationships are bigger than our political changes and chances, and friendship is not going to founder on these shoals. But I expect a certain degree of bemusement: we Brits have always been an enigma to the French, and Brexit may simply strengthen their belief that we are a pretty crazy nation. Some will recall de Gaulle's "Non!" when the UK first applied to join the Common Market and mutter that the EU is better off without us. Who's to say they are not right? - Britain was never the EU's most passionate champion of the European vision. There may even be a few who follow Marine Le Pen and think it's high time the French did the same and left the Union. 

But something has shifted in me and I find it disconcerting. My German ancestry has given me a profound sense of attachment to Europe. I've been proud to carry the words "European Union" on my passport and think of myself as a citizen an entire continent. I belong. But all that seems more provisional now. I feel myself being pulled back into an island mentality, less sure about my identity, less confident about stepping on to a shore that may appear more "foreign". It's a question of shades and hues, not strongly delineated structures or shapes. It's subtle and elusive, this repositioning process. It's happening over time, and the fugitive pieces may not settle into a clear picture for months or years to come. 

I've been reading a little book called How to be an Exile in England. It's by a Hungarian who has been living in London and writes humorously about how foreigners need to understand and navigate our odd national traits. I picked it up not just for the sake of being amused but because the title resonated. For while I am pulled back into an island mentality as I've said, I've also felt myself to be more alienated within my own country. There's so much that I simply don't recognise as British: the xenophobia, the populist contempt for migrant workers, the self-interest that is now driving politics, the eclipse of a liberal, generous and inclusive vision of society, the insularity of outlook in relation to the global crises that threaten humanity.... I could go on. We've all seen how the referendum has spawned a dark side of the British character that has taken us by surprise. To me the book's theme of being an exile in England feels oddly accurate. 

And deeply disturbing. Here on this North Sea ferry, I'm "between lands". And that's what Brexit is making of us who believe that we are making the biggest collective mistake we have witnessed in our lifetimes. It may take a generation for the nation to find its new identity and role in the world and establish itself in it. I probably won't live to see it. But faith helps me to see that even in adversity we must not give in to despondency. We must commit to the journeys we find ourselves making and invest in them as best we can for the sake of a good future for us all. So we keep our hope alive for our continent, our nation and ourselves. Good can come out of this even if we can't yet glimpse it. Brexit could mean a desperate narrowing of our horizons. But if it were to lead to serious reflection on our destiny as a nation, the reinvention of ourselves as a force for good in a turbulent world, that would be something to welcome.