Monday, 9 January 2017

Peterborough Cathedral: thoughts on the visitation report

The Bishop of Peterborough has recently conducted a visitation of his Cathedral. His charge is now published. It makes interesting reading.
Some may be wondering what a Cathedral visitation actually is. The answer is that it is a legal process whereby the Bishop as the "Visitor" of his or her Cathedral engages in a formal review or audit of aspects of the Cathedral's mission and life. Articles of inquiry addressed to the Chapter set out the scope of the visitation. Written answers will be followed up by interviews and meetings. The Bishop's areas of concern frequently reflect challenges that the Cathedral may have faced, for example in financial management, compliance or governance. But a visitation does not need to be a response to real or perceived problems. A newly-arrived Bishop has the opportunity to conduct a visitation in order to familiarise him- or herself with the Cathedral's aims and plans, its life and ministry, the fundamental question being how it could best support the Bishop's mission in the diocese and how Bishop and Cathedral could fruitfully collaborate for the good of the whole church. 
Visitations are often news. The report of the recent visitation at Exeter Cathedral, for example, criticised the Dean in ways that led some of us to ask whether such directly personal comments belonged to an institutional report in the public domain. At Peterborough, the Dean's sermon at his farewell service hinted that his resignation was not simply a matter of personal choice but had been wished on him. The visitation report clarifies that the Cathedral has faced severe cash-flow problems for which financial support by the Church Commissioners has been sought. Make what connection you will. In the circumstances, you can understand why the Bishop wished to conduct a visitation. And if the problems are as set out in the report, then many of the Bishop's directions and recommendations about governance, decision-making, staffing and financial management make sense. 

I can't comment on Peterborough Cathedral specifically. I don't know it well enough, though as a fellow Dean I have always admired Charles Taylor's leadership as a senior priest who understands the mission of cathedrals. I am sorry to see him go. It will be for Peterborough people (not only in the Cathedral) to respond to the detailed provisions in the Bishop's charge. No doubt a robust conversation will be had.

But the last six paragraphs of the charge are addressed to the wider church, not only to Peterborough. The Bishop believes that there are lessons to be learned from the Peterborough situation by the Archbishops’ Council, the House of Bishops, the General Synod, and the Deans’ Conference (para 25). That is an invitation to all of us who care about cathedrals to reflect. So here are some thoughts of my own. 

The Bishop accepts that Peterborough Cathedral seems to have complied with the Cathedrals Measure 1999, but the accountability, scrutiny, and safeguards in that Measure were clearly insufficient to prevent the problems that occurred.  The remainder of his charge is effectively a critique of the legal framework under which Cathedrals operate and a plea that they should be reconsidered. Here is where every Bishop, every Dean (including the superannuated like me!), every Chapter and every member of a Cathedral Council and College of Canons will no doubt take a view. 

Paragraph 27 states: the Cathedral Council and the College of Canons, both of which see the Cathedral accounts, do not necessarily have the expertise, and certainly do not have the specialist staff, to allow them to exercise real scrutiny; and they have no powers to mount an effective challenge to the Chapter. They can have great value in terms of advice, goodwill, and networking, but they cannot hold the Chapter accountable. This is an important paragraph because it assigns to the current governance structure for cathedrals a built-in weakness that is incapable of ensuring the proper accountability of the Chapter.

I want to comment on this. Without going into the long and complex history of how Cathedrals were governed before 1999 (a different story for the different types of cathedral), we can say that one of the clear aims of the Measure was to make sure that Chapters as the executive bodies of Cathedrals charged with holding their strategy and leading their mission would no longer be laws unto themselves but would be properly accountable. So Cathedral Councils were brought into being to represent the wider church and community and hold the Chapter's accountability. Thus the Chapter was obliged to report regularly to the Council, and in particular, the annual budget and annual report and accounts had to be presented to the Council for scrutiny. 

There are two important aspects to the functioning of the Cathedral Council that the Peterborough report doesn't do justice to. In the first place, the Chair of Council is an independent lay person (i.e. not a member of the Chapter) who is appointed by the Bishop after consultation with the Chapter. So it's really up to Bishops to make sure that they get the Council Chairs they want and need, people who are capable of the careful scrutiny and if necessary, challenge that is the proper job of any body that holds accountability. In the second place, the Bishop him- or herself is a statutory attender at Council meetings. Bishops don't have a vote (because as Visitor this would compromise the Bishop's role), but they are expected to be present and to speak. This is a powerful role for a Bishop to occupy. His or her voice is always influential. If the Council lacks expertise in particular areas, then let the Bishop insist that the best people are appointed to make up the deficit. But all this only works if Bishops are consistently present at and committed to Council meetings. It is not the Chapter's fault if they do not exercise their rights under the Measure. 

So it is not true to say, as the next paragraph (28) suggests, that the Bishop, despite the Cathedral being known as his or her seat and Church, has no powers except the draconian one of Visitation. The Bishop's seat on the Council is precisely positioned where it needs to be in order that he or she can be part of the structure that calls in accountability without having to manage the institution directly. What is more, the Measure requires Bishops and Chapters to liaise regularly about the mission of the cathedral. This can mean their attendance at Chapter meetings from time to time so that the Bishop can overhear the Chapter's business and contribute to it (I wouldn't recommend all the time, though an earlier paragraph in the Peterborough charge seems to look for this). It can mean informal gatherings specifically to discuss how Bishop, Cathedral and Diocese could align their mission and collaborate more effectively. It can mean the circulation of meeting papers and documents, another request the Bishop of Peterborough reasonably makes. In my view it ought also to include regular (and frequent) meetings between Bishop and Dean. In my time as a Dean I have valued these "audiences" enormously. 

There's another point to add. Since the revision of senior church appointments processes, the Bishop is now an ex officio member of the panel that is set up to appoint Deans. He or she has a veto on the appointment, so while the Bishop may not always get "his" or "her" preferred candidate appointed, it is not possible for a Dean to be appointed against the Bishop's wishes. This process ought to ensure that the Bishop always has a Dean with whom he or she can work fruitfully in a relationship where there is from the outset a high degree of trust and a good personal rapport. 

It is true (paragraph 28) that the Chapter is exempt from scrutiny by the Charity Commission. The Church Commissioners, even though they pay for the Dean and two Residentiary Canons, have no standing powers or right to scrutinise. The Diocese, whose mother Church the Cathedral is, and which risks serious reputational loss if the Cathedral has problems, has absolutely no standing in all this. But to draw the consequence that in practice the Chapter is accountable to nobody goes well beyond the factsAs I have said, the Council, whose chair is the Bishop's appointee and on which the Bishop sits, has this responsibility. I'd say that it's up to Bishops and Council Chairs to liaise regularly (as I know some do) to make sure that the structural accountability provided by the Measure is working in practice, and that the right questions get asked of the Chapter. 

In paragraph 29 the Bishop tells us that in this Charge I have made some provisions to bring Peterborough Cathedral, for the time being, under a degree of oversight and scrutiny: to make it accountable to the Bishop and the Diocesan Board of Finance. The Church Commissioners’ conditions for their support include another level of accountability. All these are, I believe, necessary steps for Peterborough Cathedral at the present time – though I hope that they will be seen and felt as a matter of co-working and mutual cooperation within the body of Christ, rather than as the imposition of accountability. No-one will argue with the final sentiment. But I'd want to press that its logic is taken seriously. The fact is that while the Measure is no doubt not a perfect instrument, it goes a long way towards ensuring accountability in just the way the Bishop rightly urges. It's a question of making the existing systems work better. To introduce yet more levels of oversight with all the risks of heavy-handedness and micro-management seems to me to be a mistake. 

What is more, all the ordained members of the Chapter and other Cathedral bodies hold the Bishop's licence which, premised on the oath of canonical obedience, is itself an instrument of accountability and discipline. The Dean is a member of the Bishop's staff, Bishop's Council and Diocesan Synod. In practice, Bishop, Dean, Cathedral and Diocese form a closely-integrated system. But no system is better than the people who inhabit it. And this is the key point. A cathedral, a parish, even a diocese, can get into serious financial, compliance or reputational difficulties if its senior officers take their eye off the ball. The only answer is close collaboration, mutual respect, and accountability between people as well as committees. 

The Bishop concludes (paragraph 30): I urge the Archbishops’ Council, the Church Commissioners, and the House of Bishops, to look at whether the current Cathedrals Measure is adequate, and to consider revising it. The Peterborough situation has convinced me that the high degree of independence currently enjoyed by Cathedrals poses serious risks to the reputation of the whole Church, and thus to our effectiveness in mission. A closer working relationship of Cathedrals with their Bishop and Diocese would be of benefit to all, both practically and spiritually. I am not against revisiting the Measure: it has been in operation for fifteen years and it would no doubt be good to review after the experience of a decade and a half. And I entirely endorse the sentiment that the closer the relationship between Cathedral, Bishop and Diocese, the better for all concerned, and the better for the mission of God. 

But I dispute the conclusion that the degree of independence enjoyed by Cathedrals poses the risks the Bishop identifies. We are regularly told that the mission and outreach of Cathedrals is one of the big success stories of the Church of England; indeed, in their press comment on the Peterborough visitation, the Church Commissioners go out of their way to underline this. Cathedrals they say offer spiritual sanctuary for millions of people each year and are the jewels in the nation's heritage crown. Cathedrals must be doing something right! Whether or not that is related to their freedoms from direct episcopal or diocesan control I leave it to others to judge. 

But as a priest with nearly thirty years' experience of full-time ministry in (three different) Cathedrals, I can I think speak about the good health of these great institutions and the outstanding ministry they exercise towards a public that is otherwise largely untouched by organised religion. The Cathedrals Measure has helped, not hindered this. That isn't to say that Cathedrals can afford to be complacent, nor that there aren't problems that some of them are facing. But radically to tamper with the delicate checks and balances between Cathedrals, Bishops and Dioceses that have evolved over centuries of English church life would in my view be a mistake. I doubt it would guarantee that Cathedrals never faced problems in the future. Ever more centralisation is not usually the way to sustain what is life-giving and flourishing. And I doubt it would do much to strengthen the mission of these altogether wonderful and remarkable places.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Walking Into 2017

Today means getting back to work after the holiday. Even in retirement time has its ebbs and flows, is shaped and configured by the seasons. After Christmas and new year, ordinary time is here again (not liturgically I know - but it feels that way). A new term has begun and the caravanserai of school buses snakes past the house with youngsters from across Northumberland. My wife returns to her day-job with people to see. And I have some thinking to do.

It's a beautiful day: crisp, clear and sunny. The sky has that exquisite duck-egg hue you get in the north in winter and which it's almost impossible to capture accurately in a photo (I've tried). I need to walk, not so much to slough off Yuletide excess (there's a bit of that) as to limber up, get body and mind into shape for whatever awaits this new year. Walking is good mental and spiritual exercise as well as good for the body. It has a way of sorting things, putting them into their proper places. Pascal said: "just carry on walking, and everything will be all right".

I've said I have some thinking to do. So I find some classical music, plug in my earphones and head off up the hill. Who else finds that BBC Radio 3 is among the best of all walking companions? So enjoyable. So civilised. So stimulating. And most of the time, so harmonious in ways that in the open air suggest nature and art echoing each other in praise of creation's eternal harmonies. Every walk out of the village takes you up a hillside. When you live in a steep-sided valley, walks bring their rewards early on. Quiet narrow lanes criss-cross the hills with only the occasional tractor or post van to disturb the tranquility. The holly trees are thick with berries. Snowdrops are tentatively pushing through the hard ground. Mossy drystone walls glow green and silver-grey in the morning light.

I climb clear of the village outlier, an intriguing group of Northumbrian bastle houses gathered round a green in a place that clearly has a long defensive history in this land of border reivers. Here is where I set about getting my mind round the project I need to think about. It focuses on the three sets of addresses I have agreed to give in 2017. Why on earth did I take on so much in one year, my wife has asked me, as if to say, will you never learn? I respond, feebly, that favours are being called in here, and promises about how I would have so much more time to give in retirement. I hardly convince myself, let alone her. But on the other hand, I am honoured to be asked to do important things like these. I am glad still to be useful in my superannuation. And I shall enjoy the mental and spiritual stimulus of preparing for these assignments because I know how much I shall learn in the course of it.

The first is to preach through Holy Week in an English cathedral. I have always thought that the public proclamation of the cross is the year's most awesome undertaking, and I won't deny that even after all these years of preaching I am still daunted by it. The second is to lead the summer ordination retreat for deacons and priests in another diocese. This will feel private and intimate by comparison, but it is no less awesome to be ministering to men and women who are experiencing one the biggest turning-points they will ever have known in their lives. And the third assignment is to conduct the annual week's retreat for a community of monastics. It will be the first time I have lived and prayed with this particular religious community and the first time I have led a conducted retreat for monastics (as opposed to lay people or secular clergy). So this too will bring its sense of both privilege and challenge.

I figure that if I can have identified the central themes of each of these in good time, it will help me find some coherence in the considerable amount of preparation that lies ahead during the first half of this year. Recognising what I should offer in each place and how I should set about it is of course itself an act of spiritual discernment. Prayer comes into things, and so does conversation with those responsible for arranging these events. The last thing any preacher or retreat conductor wants to do is to speak into the vacuum of not knowing his or her audience, what their needs and expectations are, and why they have asked this particular person (me) to address them. At this early stage, my own thoughts and instincts are inchoate: morsels of bread cast on to the waters. But the process has to start somewhere. And I have wanted to take the first steps on my January Northumberland hillside.

I find (think? feel? believe? so many perhapses and maybes) that I am sensing a direction, a shape. As the lane twists round the little old church where centuries ago St Cuthbert's body once lay, I detect faint outlines of a discernible picture on each of the three blank canvasses. Below me, the village is laid out in the valley like a patterned hearthrug. I take in the majestic Tyne that has given our valley its shape and much of its history, and which flows swiftly across the tableau from right to left. I pick out the two bridges that span the river, the one old and narrow where the medieval bridge used to be, the other built more recently to carry traffic. I glimpse the parish church with its distinctive pagoda tower where we worship each week and where I join the Vicar for daily prayers. At the station a Newcastle-bound Sprinter has stopped to collect passengers. Wisps of smoke from a score of hearths (one of them mine) hang over the village in the stillness. The sun continues to shine. I am feeling warmed by my exercise.

"Angels whisper to you when you go for a walk" someone said. I regain my front door sensing I have been whispered to. I wish I could say that the big problems facing humanity could be resolved by an invigorating winter walk. We take off our walking boots and everything is manifestly not all right - yet. But I suspect everything has a way of looking a little different when we go for a walk. Is this what Pascal meant - that the sheer act of striding out has a way of getting us mentally and spiritually engaged, making us participants rather than bystanders? I think I've glimpsed that this morning. I have certainly been given a lot to think about.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Christmas Letter to my Grandchildren

Dear Isaac, dear Madeleine, dear Gabriel,

You won't understand this letter for a long time to come. But I wanted to write it for you on Christmas Eve as we gather once more to celebrate together. You have brought your parents and grandparents such joy. As Christmas comes, we feel that happiness in a special way. Thank you.

Christmas is a time for children, they say. And so it is. Children of every age from nought to a hundred. As we celebrate the Birth Day of the Holy Child, how could our thoughts not turn to children everywhere? The light that shines out of the manger at Bethlehem lights up every human child. So the first thing to say is, Happy Christmas. And even if two out of the three of you are still too little to understand all this Christmas excitement, you are always right at the heart of our family celebrations. To have you in our midst at Christmas reminds us of the Holy Family, and the tenderness that touches us very deeply when young and old truly love one another. 

One of the Christmas carols you'll sing one day says: "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight". It's about Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. And more than ever this year, I think, we shall bring our hopes and fears to the Christmas crib where he lies, this little tiny Child who brings light into our world. Your parents have sometimes talked about the kind of world they have brought you into, how broken it is, how uncertain, how full of violence and hatred and fear. And yet they still chose to do this thing, take forward in you the next generation of the human family. Just like Mary. Even she could not love you more than your parents do. And for as long as we and they are alive, we shall do everything we possibly can to make sure that you grow up safely and are kept from harm. 

You will have to learn fear soon enough. We all do - it's part of being alive. But not too early, not before you are ready. Our hearts go out to children whose earliest memories are of being afraid, because they are born in places of terrible conflict, or go hungry, or have no secure home, or because other people whom they trusted to look after them turned out to be cruel and abusive instead. All three of you belong to loving families. You are lucky to live in a country that compared to many others is free and safe, where your life will be cherished and respected and honoured. 

At Christmas we long for our hopes to be realised - our hopes for a kinder, more peaceful world, our hopes for a society in which everyone is treated fairly, our hopes that we might live not out of fear but out of love. When we gaze at the light that shines out of the crib and the holy intimacy between Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus, we believe it could happen, we find ourselves imagining that it's not impossible that it might come true at last. And that's one of the gifts that children like you can bring to us grown ups. You can help us to be happy and to hope again, stop us from being cynical about life, show us to how Incarnation is always happening because God is always at work in the world that he loves so much. "O Holy Child of born in us today."

As a child I used to think that Christmas Eve was the most magical day of the year. There was so much to look forward to, so much that would be revealed the next day. I was thinking mainly of unwrapping presents and enjoying lots of nice food and drink - in our family, we didn't go to church though we sang carols at school and took part in nativity plays so I had some inkling about this great Birth Day we were honouring. Whatever Christmas was about, I believed it had to matter. I used to imagine that there could be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Christmas tree in the window, all lit up with fairy lights for passers by outside to enjoy as much as us. I think it was on Christmas Eve as the sun began to sink in the western sky that I became aware at a very early age of how hope and expectancy can be very powerful forces for good in our lives. Indeed, maybe to have something to look forward to is what keeps us alive at all. What if every day of the year could be like Christmas Eve? 

On this Christmas Eve, our thoughts turn not just to tomorrow but all that lies beyond. "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." We think back to Christmasses past because having hope means being able to see how our lives have been shaped and formed from one year to the next. Two years ago there was only one of you. Last year there were two and this year there are three. How wonderful that is! Who knows what you will become as you grow up and find your own place in the world? 

But what I hope and pray for you all is that in your own way, each of you will make a difference in this world. It's hard to say this without sounding a bit grandiose, but I really do pray that you will come to stand up for what is right and true, come to love the good, the beautiful and the just. I pray that you will become people of integrity and honour. I pray that you will flourish in whatever you do, and that you will be happy and fulfilled. On days like this, I wish I could live for two hundred years so that I could walk with you on your life paths and know what will become of you. 

Such longings and dreams to have for little children! For now, you are innocent of all these big words. But I wouldn't be your real Opa if I didn't have those hopes and prayers for you. At the Christmas crib, all our longings are gathered up in this Child who is the everlasting sign of Love for us, for all who came before us and all who will come after us. So I write this out of my deepest love for you, and in thankfulness for the joy you bring to our family. Happy Christmas to all three of you, my beloved grandchildren. God bless you always.

With love

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Spirituality of Solstice: Wintry Thoughts from the North

It's the winter solstice. Here in Northumberland, on Latitude 55 degrees north, the sun rises a full half hour later than it does in London. Today at the destined time of 8.32am, it was barely light. Squally rain was tipping out of a gunmetal sky as I waited at the church door for morning prayer. Arduously, the day succeeded in climbing clear of the long night, but at what effort. For a while the sun emerged, its horizontal light irradiating the valley to magical effect. (Which is why photographers love winter - the light is so much more magical than the glare of high summer.) Then the rain returned once more. By turns it's been bright and it's been sombre. And each has its different kind of northern beauty.

This year's solstice brings a change to the weather. Gone are the quiet high pressure days of the past week or so. You can tell that meteorologists don't care for calm weather when nothing much happens, however well that suits the rest of us. We have one in the village. He is also a retired priest. He takes daily readings of maximum and minimum temperatures, precipitation levels, cloud cover and wind speed, and issues a monthly bulletin to villagers who are interested. He admits that he likes eventful weather. And have you detected the glint in the eye of TV forecasters now that storm Barbara is on her way, just in time to blow away the festive travel plans of millions of people across the country?

But back to the shortest day. "'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's" wrote John Donne in his famous midwinter elegy (at the time he was writing before the reform of the calendar, the shortest day fell on St Lucy's Day, 13 December). Church of England people will know that in the Book of Common Prayer, the winter solstice day 21 December was observed as St Thomas's Day. Famously the doubting apostle, his themes of knowing and unknowing, certainty, questioning and faith seemed ideally suited to a day when darkness ruled. And though the season turns and the days grow longer again, it is so imperceptible to start with that you wouldn't know it - not for a week or two, anyway.

Painters call this chiaroscuro, the interplay of light-and-dark that masters like Caravaggio excelled at. The accentuation of contrasts often gives a painting or a photograph a strikingly dramatic quality (compare the genre of film noir which has given the cinema some of its greatest achievements in the era of black-and-white). But drama isn't what the technique is fundamentally about. Look at the dark areas of a great painting and you'll see that the darkness has as much vitality as the light with its attention to detail, its subtle treatment of muted colour, its "negative" response to the shapes that are illuminated, and as often as not, activity that is far from obvious that you wouldn't notice if you didn't stop to give your full attention to the canvas.

This gives me a metaphor of religious faith that I particularly prize in midwinter. It seems to me that "doubting" Thomas is the disciple who dares to inhabit chiaroscuro, is not afraid of the difficult or challenging truth that may emerge when you study the darkness carefully. That's true of our own personal darkness or "shadow" in particular. At the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare has Prospero say of Caliban, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine". It's a profound line that can be read at many levels. The misshapen, unlovely Caliban has plotted Prospero's death. And no doubt Prospero partly deserves it - he is no saint in this great play. But he has thrown away his staff and renounced the power of illusion. This recognition scene is the moment of truth-telling. In the same way, if we banish our fantasies and illusions and start telling the truth of our condition, if we recognise and acknowledge - even befriend - the darkness that is "mine", we find we are on the road to recovery, transformation and healing.

Spirits can sink low at the solstice. I'm not so much thinking of the affliction called SAD - seasonal affective disorder - brought on by too little light. It's more the spiritual ennui that can set in when hope is at a low ebb. This year, as 2016 comes to an end, it's easy to lose heart. We wonder what has become of our world, our nation and ourselves when there is so much bitterness, hatred and contempt around, and apparently, so little compassion to act as a life-giving antidote. It doesn't always help to quote too quickly Mother Julian's great saying "all shall be well". That's true, but it may not address the immediate present. In times of struggle and conflict, what counts I think is simply to know that we are not alone. To enter someone else's darkness and be present to them without the need to speak is perhaps the greatest gift we can bring them. In dark times, words, even the best words, can run out. But the touch of compassion - "suffering with" - never loses its capacity to make a difference.

It would take a St John of the Cross to do justice to the spirituality of chiaroscuro. But here's a solstice insight that helps me. On this shortest day, the meteorological outlook is full of stormy threats. And though I say it with a heavy heart, this seems just as true of the outlook for our world in 2017. Yet as we contemplate the future and possibly feel afraid, we also know that from now on the days are getting longer. We don't see it for a while, yet we know that it's true as an astronomical fact. Equally, to stop us taking things for granted at midsummer, we know that as the days grow warmer and holidays beckon, the nights are already drawing in. Winter's lightening-in-darkness, summer's darkening-in-light: this is chiaroscuro. It mirrors the light-and-darkness of our human lives. It helps us recognise the ambivalence of who and what we are. Above all, it stops us rushing headlong towards light when all along, God may be more present to us in the dark.

Henry Vaughan has a great poem, "Night". The last stanza makes the extraordinary claim that "there is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness". Earlier he has painted a picture of faith in this way:
Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,

Did at midnight speak with the Sun.

I don't pretend to have grasped the paradoxes of this way of believing. But it rings true to my experience. And, I guess from what we know about him, St Thomas's too. So at this winter solstice, I want to acknowledge the truth that lies hidden in the questions and doubts that feel so real and compelling. Sometimes I can't even be sure if it's my own personal despondency that I'm experiencing, or whether it's an empathic aspect of being part of a world in pain that any human being who feels anything knows only too well at times like these.

Into such a world an Infant was born. He came to give us back the lives we had lost. The Holy Child comes to us today as Immanuel, "God-with-us". That's the meaning and the promise Christmas gives to the solstice. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" said the prophet in words we treasure in Advent. For if he is present among the dark wastelands we have made of our world, and if he is alongside us in own darkness, then our hearts can be strangely warmed, and our spirits begin to sing again.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Up in the Attic

I've been in London this week going through my late mother's things. Readers of this blog will know that she died in July at the great age of nearly 94. 
You might think it was dispiriting to spend several days in your parents' house where only their memories are left behind, especially when it's the home you were brought up in. Not at all dispiriting, though it was thought-provoking. My sister lives not far away and we had many hours together sorting their stuff out, going through a vast number of books, unearthing unsuspected papers in the attic and reminiscing about our childhood in North London in the 1950s and 60s.
The trapdoor to the attic was hardly ever opened. So I had never clambered inside it before this week (unless the memory has been wiped). How strange, this late in life, to find an undiscovered country in your own childhood home! Once, when my father was busy up there archiving his papers (or something), I dared to climb a few rungs of the ladder he had positioned against the skirting board. It was queasy perching there as the ladder flexed and swayed above the stairs that descended into the abyss below my feet. I did not want to go any further. I could not go any further. (Later in life I replayed that experience when I followed a false trail high up on the Langdale Pikes. The friend I had got separated from said he spent an uncomfortable hour rehearsing the speech he would need to make to my wife when he came back from that Lake District expedition alone.)
We found a lot of papers that my father had obsessively kept: decades of bank statements and cheque-book stubs, invoices, receipts, business letters and utility bills. But this was not all there was. We came across a large musty bag containing my grandmother's personal archive. (This was my mother's Jewish mother, "Omummy" who with my grandfather whom I never knew was hidden underground in occupied Holland following the German invasion.) Letters from her children, her parents and her friends were carefully bundled together - by year I think. There was correspondence from the German front during the Great War with postage stamps bearing the Kaiser's image. 

Most poignantly, and chillingly, I unearthed my grandmother's Verzeichnis über das Vermögen von Juden, the Third Reich's valuation of my grandmother's assets as a Jew, signed on 29 June 1938. She had pathetically little to declare: by then, not long before Kristallnacht, regular income for Jews who had been in business had dried up. It was a case of Things My Mother Never Told Me to quote the title of Blake Morrison's memoir. I was both moved and excited by this find that I hadn't expected. It will take time to assess how important it may be in contributing to our knowledge of family life during the Great War, the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era.
Taking breaks in the fresher air downstairs, I was happily poring over my parents' immense collection of books. I remember from childhood how some of the titles stood out on the choked bookcases: Bannister Fletcher's History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, G.M. Trevelyan's four volume English Social History, Plato's Republic (Benjamin Jowett's version, the famous nineteenth century Master of what would be my Oxford college, Balliol), Lancelot Hogben's Mathematics for the Million, Spinoza's Ethics, the Knox translation of the New Testament that a Catholic boyfriend of my mother had given her during the war in a vain attempt to convert her to Christianity.
But most of all I relished what was on the top-shelf. These books, far above my head, were strictly not for children to take down and look at. I know what you're thinking. But you're wrong. These were the leather-bound volumes of German poets: Schiller, Goethe, Heine, Rellstab, Hölderlin, Rilke and others. They were beautiful books, a joy to look at especially when the sun was setting in summer and lit up the fine bindings in a golden light. They had belonged to my grandmother (or her parents) and been passed on to my mother. They were never opened, and a day came when my parents decided that they should go into stack to make room for newer books that needed accommodation. So they were banished to the attic in a big mouldy suitcase where they remained for years until I rescued them from their long dusty exile and brought them back downstairs this week. 
Heinrich Heine was one of the greatest European Romantic poets. He was from Düsseldorf where my mother was born and grew up until 1937 when as a teenager she was sent to England. While browsing through her bedside books, I'd come across a paperback anthology of German poetry. On the flyleaf was written in my grandmother's careful script: "for Michael" - so it should have come to me when she died in 1987. She had also referenced her favourite poem. It is by Heine, so in my imagination it belongs to that nineteenth century leather-bound set on the top shelf. Here is a translation by Sibylle Luise Binder of that poem, Wo?

Where will the tired wanderer last resting place be?
Under palms in the South? Under lime trees by the Rhine?

Will I be hastily buried by strangers’ hands in a desert?
Or will I rest in the sand on a sea’s strand?

At least, here like there I’ll be surrounded by God’s heaven. 
And at night as lamps of death the stars will hover over me.
I didn't know the poem before this week, but I think it will come to symbolise these winter days spent in my parents' home. It's typical of the Romantics' love-affair with death, and with the metaphor of life as the journey of an exhausted wanderer yearning for home. (To get the idea, listen to that seasonal song cycle Winterreise by Schubert, a profound setting of poems by another Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller in which a rejected lover finds his whole life under review as he makes his winter's journey away from all that is familiar and homely. Or look at the pictures of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.)
As I thought about the Heine poem, and the death of my parents and grandparents, I recalled that it was Advent. It's the season when we reflect on the Last Things: death, judgment, hell and heaven in the light of Christian faith. In later life our thoughts inevitably turn towards mortality: the loss of those we have known and loved, the prospect of our own death, "one whole day nearer now" as Philip Larkin put it (on whom see my last blog). Heine's poem is about death as a homecoming. I found it comforting to read in this house of truth where death could not be evaded, this place that was once home and that is so full of childhood memories. And in this Advent time, it was good to be reminded that we live by the promise of the One who is to come, that in our Father's house are many mansions.

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".