Crossing The Channel

I met several teenagers who had crossed the #Channel on #smallboats, listened to their stories and told one of them, which reminded me of an ancient tale, in this podcast. They are us. We are them. Are you listening Rishi? I wish you were.


“I hope they see us …”

Introducing a true short story about food banks and millionaires, people who are struggling and people who have much (and the rest of us caught in between), exploring what it means to see and be seen.

You may not have heard of Sherelyn but there are millions like her: good, hard-working people who have been forced to come to food banks for help in these difficult times. In the latest episode of the podcast Can We Talk? I tell the true short story of a walk from the wealthy streets of Knightsbridge – where you can buy a bottle of water for the almost unbelievable price of £85 – up through fashionable Notting Hill and past the ruins of Grenfell Tower to north Kensington.

It’s a short walk in which life expectancy falls by thirty years, the average wage plummets and the shocking inequalities of life in our major cities are revealed. Along the way I meet a man who inherited millions but gave most of them away and a woman who sells hugely expensive homes to the super-rich. As ever, I try to listen with compassion, believing everyone is a human engaged in a dialogue with love, and each person worth hearing. This is urgent now. I’m not asking for money, I would just like to borrow your ears, to tell you a story.

At the end of the walk is a food bank. A decade ago, they gave out 40,000 emergency parcels a year. Now that figure is 2.5 million. Some people seem to think this a wonderful, uplifting example of charity in action, but surely it’s actually a disgrace that it needs to happen at all in a society where there is so much wealth? I meet a woman from the Philippines called Sherelyn who slowly shares the disturbing circumstances in which she came to this country, having been trafficked. But Sherelyn is also truly inspirational in her desire to rise above her troubles, survive and even thrive.

This story is as much about ways of seeing each other as it is about social issues. What does it really mean to love your neighbour? What if you don’t really see who they are? Do they see you? These and other questions are explored in another of my first-person short stories reflecting on meetings with extraordinary humans and what we can learn from them about how to live.
Can We Talk? is based on the belief that we are better when we share our stories, so explores our human desire to connect with each other, with ourselves and with the divine, if we believe in that.

I hope Can We Talk? is a series for all those with an interest in human connection, spirituality and better living, interviewing or storytelling. Or maybe you just want to be told a darn good tale that makes you laugh, feel and think a bit about life. Anyway, have a listen if you like …

Cole proves in this series how we all need stories in our lives. Proper stories. Well told. In a world of clips and clicks ad shortening attention spans, this hits just the right spot.

Fi Glover, broadcaster and queen of pods

A brilliant, sensitive storyteller, Coe Moreton produces perfectly formed mini epics that are both thought-provoking and hugely entertaining’

Anita Anand, best-selling author

Port na bPúcaí

The Blasket islands as seen from the road above Dunquin

This is the story of the Faeirie’s Lament.

Up late with the dying fire, the woman asleep, the wind fussing around, above and beyond, at first he does not notice the sound. Warm in the stone home, high on the back of the southern Inis. The only man on Inishvickilaune. Nothing through the small, deep-set window but the night, and black it is. Nothing to see, nothing to hear but the fizz of the dying fire, the woman’s breath, the wind. And the slow tune he plays for himself, and for her, in this lonesome place, the bow rubbing a string at a time. Angels weeping, the sound of it. Calling.

At first he does not notice the other sound, in the wind, above and beyond. Then it comes, a cold hand on his neck. Outside, in the night, behind the glass, unseen, but heard: a female voice. One long mournful note, then a falling, twisting refrain like the wringing of hands, or a wandering mind. Climbing, climbing, seeking rest, then tumbling down; a cry of bereavement, sorrow, loss. It blows away, on the wind, and he holds his breath until it returns, at first barely, then beside him in the room, as though being sung for this man, in this place, and no-one else, ever.

Every part of him is turned to the wall, to the window, although he does not move. Every cell that can hear is straining to do so. He has become a human instrument, ringing with the pure, clear sound. Over and over the song is sung, wordless and wonderful, until the fiddlers arms unfreeze and his fingers feel for the bow. Breathless and alive, he pulls notes from the air – now following, now anticipating the flight of the melody as it glides, then beats its wings, then glides again, in the night and in the room with him, without and within. Again. Again. Until the night begins to lift, and light falls in the scattered raindrops of dawn, and the music grows faint. And stops.

He has it now, in his mind. All through the commonplace struggles of daytime, the common life of man and woman tending sheep on an island, the tune does not leave him. He will not let it. Late in the evening, when the fire is covered and the woman sleeps again, the fiddler shoulders his instrument and plays, hoping that the singer will return.

She never does. One night, back on the great island, he plays the tune and tells how it came to him, embroidering the detail and relishing the attention. Others memorise the melody, take it to the mainland and conjure their own accounts of its origin. One says it was a woman sitting on a stone who heard it first, another that the melody came to an old couple asleep in their bed. There are words, says a third. They do not fit the tune, but this is spirit music, sung by a tongue that had been silent for too long:

“I am a woman who has come to you from among the faerie people, who has come by wind and wave. It was by night that I was stolen far away, to live with them. I am wandering this earth again by the grace of faerie women, but it is only for a time. When the cock crows I must leave this world behind, in sorrow.”

The tune becomes famous: first in Dunquin, then the peninsula, then Ireland. It is passed on, as these things are, from player to player, session to session, bar to bar, country to country, wherever the Irish gather. It crosses the Atlantic and is recorded by many people; and every time, the tune is a little
different, the phrasing changes, the story evolves. The poet Seamus Heaney links the spirit song with the mighty rushing wind of Pentecost and the big music that Rilke heard in the storm, and writes a poem called The Given Note. The tune becomes known as Port na bPúcaí, the sound of a spirit mourning the death of another as it is carried for burial behind the impenetrable wall of rocks on that island in the west.

Perhaps it is really the sound of a seal weeping in a cove. Or the cry of a hump-backed whale in a school moving under canvas boats. Or, as Robin Flower writes in The Western Island, “a lament for a whole world of imaginations, banished irrevocably now.”

. . .

Extract from Hungry For Home: A Journey To America From The Edge Of Ireland by Cole Moreton (Viking Penguin 2000).

If not now, then when?

This morning’s Pause For Thought for the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 was inspired by a much missed friend, Adrian Reith, who would always ask questions that opened you up. The short stories I mention can be found wherever you get your podcasts, just search my name and Can We Talk?

You can hear it here and the words are below

I lost a friend recently. His name was Adrian and I’ve been thinking about him a lot over the past couple of weeks.

He was a warm man, a wise man, a wickedly funny man. a big brother figure, a mentor to me and others, who helped us to find our way by asking questions.

He’d listen to me fret about a thing I was hoping to do and he’d go: “Why not do it now?”

Asking incisive questions like that is a real skill in life, one I’ve tried to acquire myself over the years in my work as an interviewer, and I’m writing and recording short stories at the moment for my podcast Can We Talk? about encounters I’ve had with remarkable people, from the likes of Tiger Woods and Scarlett Johannsson to Zahra, a refugee who came across the Channel in a boat on Christmas Day.

In every case, as I listen back to the tapes, the questions we ask each other open us up, until we are just two humans, sharing a moment, learning.

Everybody wants answers from Jesus in the stories Christians tell, but he very rarely answers directly; and instead asks question after question:

“Who do you say I am?”

“Do you want to be well?”

“Do you love me?”

He asks Peter that one three times in the weeks after Easter, matching the three times Peter denied knowing him when everything was going wrong.

“Do you love me?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you love me?”

“You know I do.”

“Do you love me?”

And in those questions it becomes obvious that love flows both ways, because when they’re asked right, and the answers are heard, questions can allow us to be ourselves.

So I ask myself a lot of questions these days, some of which might resonate with you:

Why not say something?

Why not put your arms around her?

Why not tell him that you love him?

Why not call them after all these years?

Why not say sorry?

Why not be kind?

Why not forgive yourself?

Why not give yourself away?

Why not dare to do whatever it is you long to do?

And as Adrian would say: “If not now, then when?”

They Are Us

I’d like to tell you a story about Zahra, who looks like any other teenager in her black jeans and hoodie but has been through extraordinary things.

She crossed the Channel at dawn on Christmas Day on an overloaded rubber dinghy, risking her life one last time for a chance of safety at the end of a seven thousand mile journey. Listening to her, I was struck by the similarity with those ancient, epic folk tales in which a hero has to travel vast distances and overcome monsters and perils to find hope.

She asked me to tell her story and this is an attempt to do so in a way that explores how humans like Zahra, who have been demonised by certain politicians, are not alien or other. They are us. 

You can listen to Zahra’s story here or on SpotifyAppleAcast or wherever you get your podcasts. Each episode of Can We Talk? is me telling a story into your ears about an encounter with a remarkable person and thinking about what it teaches us.

I wrote and recorded this before the invasion of Ukraine created another huge wave of forced migration, but the truths are the same for those fleeing that desperate situation. I hope you’ll listen and let me know what you think. 

The organisation that supports Zahra is Kent Refugee Action Network. Please support them. The DEC Ukraine Appeal is also a good way to help.

The image shows my son Josh on Calais beach next to the Banksy image of a child with a suitcase looking out to sea with a telescope, watched by a vulture.
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