Love and the Changing of the Seasons

If like me you’ve been taking your offspring to university, sending them to school for the first time or saying goodbye to people you love in other ways, for good or just for now, I wish you all the love and strength you need and offer this Pause For Thought, which was originally written for the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 and can be heard here.

I’m not good at transitions. The changing of the seasons, the end of summer, saying goodbye to people, getting out of the bath, getting out of bed. There’s something in me that finds it hard to settle in a new situation, or leave it once I’ve settled, even when I know it’s right and I have somewhere to go.

And one of the hardest transitions I have faced in my adult life was as a parent saying goodbye to my first born when he went to university.

I tried to think of something to say to express what I felt, but it was too hard,
so I made a ham-fisted attempt at marking the moment, by asking if I could read from one of our shared books, Winnie The Pooh.

The two of us lying on the bed like we used to, my son Jake feeling all mixed up, a bit sad but mostly excited. A big 18-year-old, probably thinking: “This is a bit weird.”
And me with my heart breaking, trying not to show it.

Here’s what I read:
“Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in the enchanted place on the top of the forest a little boy and his bear will always be playing.”

Oh, I was a hot mess after that, while he went off and played Fifa or something.

And here we are again: as sons and daughters go off to school or college, and the summer fades. The change of any season is unsettling even when there are new joys to be found.

The autumn has great beauty, I’m told.
And my relationship with my son has changed into something adult, new and lovely, although long distance.

The Bible says nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that’s comforting, but I find it hard to understand in the abstract, until I look for examples in my own life, because it also says we are made in God’s image.

And I think AA Milne was on to something, whether it comes to leaving a place or a season or letting a child or a loved one go.
I think if you’ve got the memory, and the story to tell, and the love that was shared between you, then nobody can ever take that away.

Maybe There Is Hope

Written for The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 on July 2021, the morning of the day England play Denmark in the semi-finals of the European Championships. You can listen here.

I’m feeling on edge today. Right on the edge of things, but in a good way.
It’s partly the football: the sense that something exciting is about to happen. It’s not just England: Scotland and Wales fans have also known this feeling lately, when their teams have given them a surge of belief. And it’s not just the football. The end of term is coming for all those tired teachers. And there’s a lot of talk about Freedom Day too, when we’ll finally be shot of all the restrictions, isolations and frustrations of Covid. As if everything will go back to normal, and may even be better. Maybe. I hope so. I need hope.
One of the hardest things for me, as for a lot of people, was not being able to see my Mum, Marion. 
When she got ill I was afraid I would never see her again. And I felt the pain of friends who lost their Mums, without the chance to hold them and be held. So hard. I needed hope then.
But the day did come when I walked into her house, put my arms around her, and breathed in her scent and felt her holding me, as she first did when I was born, and it was beautiful. A sense of home.
A little win after a long time of hurt.
The Christian holy stories, and those of other faiths, are full of the hope of heaven or a paradise to come, when all will be made well. So many songs of faith have been sung by people in pain, in prison or in slavery, who somehow managed to have hope. Singing that life is hard now, but it’s not meant to be this way, it’s not always going to be this way, because, as the civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson once said, it’s dark, but the morning comes. And there has been a bit of darkness about lately hasn’t there? But the light hasn’t totally gone out. 
And suddenly, I feel a surge of optimism, in this national moment of anticipation when good things do feel possible again. An England win? A long hot summer of unrestricted fun?
We’ll see.
But even if not, I’m starting to believe there will be other wins. 
Maybe there really is hope.

In Praise of Peggy: tea with June Spencer, still leading The Archers on BBC Radio 4 at the age of 102

Extraordinary to hear June Spencer leading a storyline on The Archers so beautifully at the age of 102. She started playing Peggy Archer back in 1950. I visited her at home a few years back for The Telegraph. What a life.

June Spencer, courtesy of the BBC

She made me cry long before we ever met. I was listening to June Spencer move around the living room, with only the cat for company, on the day her husband died.

She put a record on the player, the song they used to share: Love is the Sweetest Thing, sung on crackling vinyl by Al Bowlly. The tune the sweethearts danced to at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, such a long time ago, before the beginning of the dementia that stole him away. As the music played, she spoke softly. “Goodbye, Jack. Goodbye, my darling.”

Tears came to my eyes. They were shared by many others who overheard this intimate moment on the radio, while cooking the dinner, driving the car or walking the dogs with headphones on. We felt as if we shared the loss and sorrow of a friend.

It wasn’t strictly true, of course. June Spenceris an actor who plays a part. She is the longest-serving actor in the world’s longest-running drama serial, having played Peggy Woolley in The Archers since the pilot episode in 1950.

You may not like the show – it is a bit like Marmite – but you have to admire the longevity of a 94-year-old (as written in 2014) who has been working for the BBC since 1943 and is still playing a leading character in a flagship drama.

Continue reading “In Praise of Peggy: tea with June Spencer, still leading The Archers on BBC Radio 4 at the age of 102”

A Random Act of Kindness

A Pause for Thought about love, the joy of strangers and a random act of kindness that made me cry, written for today’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 which can be heard here.

I was on the train for the first time in ages, hurrying to a meeting I really couldn’t miss. Wearing a mask, keeping my distance from strangers and – if I’m honest – more than a bit fearful of running into crowds.

I only had a few minutes to change trains but my belly was rumbling because I hadn’t had time for breakfast, so I risked dashing into the platform cafe for a coffee and a sandwich. And a bun. I like buns.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as the carriages rolled in until the cafe worker came running after me shouting: “Come back! Come back!”

The machine had not taken my payment and the screen went blank again as I stood in the cafe getting really anxious. Outside, I could see people boarding the train. “I’ve got to go,” I said, ready to run. What would you have done?

Then a voice came from behind. “I’ll get this,” said a lady in a mask, with kind eyes, who had seen my panic.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. Catch your train.”

So I did. I ran. And I sat on it stunned at what had just happened, wondering if she’d realised it would be eight quid. Buns don’t come cheap on the railways.

Jesus tells his friends that whenever they feed someone who is hungry, give a drink to someone who is thirsty or welcome a stranger, it’s as if they’re doing it to him.

So many cultures, religions and traditions call us to be open and helpful to what my kids call randoms. But it comes as a complete shock when it happens to you and you can’t see their faces and you’re hurrying through a world of warnings.

Then I realised something really embarrassing: this was the wrong train. They’d slipped a late runner in before mine, one of many going to a popular destination. She must have thought: “He’s just done a bunk!” So I hid behind a pillar at the next station as I waited to change again, in case she came by.

But even as I did, her generosity cracked me open. I have to admit there were tears. She had liberated me for a moment, allowing love to break through all my fear and worry, just by doing something unexpectedly, randomly and gloriously kind.

A random act of kindness written up for a Pause For Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show at BBC Radio 2 this morning, as delivered from the wardrobe for the sake of sound (pictured)

The makeshift studio in a cupboard I use to do Pause For Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2

PS That photograph of a woman in a mask isn’t the woman in the mask at the station, there was no time for that (and it would have been a bit weird anyway), so it’s just a photograph of a woman in a mask.

Bloody Good Friday

Doubtful reflections on a very old story

The death itself is not an unusual one. We say that it is, we tell the story of the horrors and humiliations that preceded it and dwell on the pain of the nails pressing into the flesh and the body stretched and hung and pierced as if he was suffering more – and more horribly – than anyone ever suffered, as if that was how he earned the right to wash away all the wrongs we have done. But it isn’t true, is it? Lots of people were crucified. It was a brutal, nasty, torturous death but it was also an ordinary one. Mundane. Thieves and robbers, criminals and liars, innocents and the unlucky all died that way. And there have been so many other terrible ways to die over the centuries, over human history. We’re very good at cruelty. We’re very good at killing. We do it so often. So the beauty here is not unlocked by the ugliness of the dying or the death. The miracle is not in the suffering, which is ordinary. Another man dies. Another body is broken. Another heart stops. So what?

I don’t know.

I’m writing this on Good Friday afternoon, as an act of reflection at the very moment in the story when the sky grows dark and all hope is apparently lost. That’s very familiar to us, it’s the kind of moment written into the fabric of our being and the stories we tell and have always told. The heroine is lost in the forest, the superhero is powerless and defeated. We know this bit. We know how dark and bitter it is. We weep, we too feel lost. But we also feel in our bones, in reaction to the story, that a happy ending is coming. The dawn will break, an ally will come, the battle will be won.

I’ve lived this though, with those I have loved in real life, as you may have too. Those were bitter times. There was no rescue, no third act, no resurrection for them. True, humans are stronger than we know and more inventive and some of us find a way to endure the unendurable, but not all. Some of us are beaten. So when Easter makes a promise in the saddest moment, when it tells us everything will be all right, that is sometimes so very hard to believe.

‘Take your myth, take your legend, your parable, your foolish story, your fallen king who will rise again and go and tell it to someone more gullible.’

That’s what I feel like saying.

And yet.

And yet.

There’s something deep and very, very old here and perhaps older and bigger than the faith structures people have built around it. And because it is ordinary, because it suggests the extraordinary exists beside the mundane, then somehow and against my will and common sense it speaks to me.

I don’t know what it says. I’m still listening.

What do you think?