Saturday, July 16, 2005

Which quote sticks in your mind from last week’s coverage of the London bombs? I bet you cannot remember a word of the statements made by Tony Blair or Ken Livingstone, even though they were probably laboriously prepared, written down and handed out on press releases to make sure nobody got a word wrong.

If, however, you chanced to switch on your TV and radio and catch an interview with one Nigerian mother standing in Tavistock Square, a mother whose 26 year old son is almost certainly among the unidentified people who met their ends on the No. 30 bus, you probably have a sense of mild culture shock to add to your horror at the atrocities of 7/7.

How horribly accustomed we are to hearing the stumbling platitudes of miserable, bereaved relatives trickling out of our TVs: “you never think it will happen to you, do you…” - the agonising sound of decent, inarticulate people struggling to put feelings they wish they did not have, into a language they do not possess.

Mrs Marie Fatayi-Williams is different. When she opened her mouth at Tavistock Square, clutching a picture of her adored son to her heart, it was as though all the pain and fury of every bereaved mother in the world had crystallised into one angry woman’s heart.

Eloquence? If the very ghost of Charles Dickens had filtered through his blue plaque on the wall of the house near the wrecked bus and into the mouth of this anguished mother, he could not have done better. Newshounds’ jaws dropped to hear the kind of rhetoric we never get from politicians, let alone from those who aren’t paid to make speeches.

“How many tears shall we cry? How many mothers’ hearts must be maimed? My heart is maimed…there has been widespread slaughter…streams of innocent tears…rivers of blood…Death in the morning, death in the noontime on the highways and streets. Which cause has been served? Certainly not the cause of Allah, because God almighty only gives life and is full of mercy.”

Mrs Fatayi-Williams is obviously a highly educated woman - but education does not guarantee the ability to translate passion. She is a marketing director for Elf Oil; but she certainly did not learn her eloquence from the marketing world. According to “Who Moved My Blackberry?” a hilarious new book by my friend Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times, marketing directors normally say things like “we can use the low-hanging fruit to leverage our performance strategy outcomes”. No, I would not look to marketing or commerce to lend words of such terrible beauty as: “I grieve, I am sad, I am distraught, I am destroyed…”

It turns out that Mrs Fatayi-Williams is a Roman Catholic, married to a Muslim; I would dare to suggest that it was a faith-based upbringing which provided her with such reserves of expression, such mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

And she was not the only one. Among the many stories which survivors of those long nightmare minutes in the tunnels brought to the surface were tales of prayer; of the sound of people reciting Hail, Mary in the darkness and confusion. All around London, we were struck with panic - our phones did not work, the school switchboards were jammed, we did not know where to go, or what to do. So the head teacher of my children’s primary school did the only sensible thing: she led the school in prayers, and the reassuring rhythms of the words which the children all know by heart.

The mechanics of everyday life are largely directed towards avoiding death, not towards equipping people for it. However, Christians face death every time they pray to Christ on the Cross. We contemplate death as part of our daily routine; we refer to “the hour of our death” in that prayer which was overheard in the dark and bleeding hell of a bomb-wrecked underground train.

Let us remember this when our children yawn at the idea of learning prayers by heart, when teachers scoff at “rote learning” and when parents complain that references to death in our prayers might frighten the young ones. If we do not equip them with the basic tools for meeting death without fear, then neither are we giving them the tools to live without fear.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Home Front by Sarah Johnson (long version)

The heroine of Live8 - for my money - was a lone African woman; I don’t mean the radiant young lady from Ethiopia whose appearance contrasted inspiringly with the pictures of her as a starving child 20 years ago, and who managed to smile bravely while being yanked about the Hyde Park stage by Madonna.

No. My heroine is the lady who toiled all day keeping the ladies’ loos in the underpass at Marble Arch absolutely spotless.

“Do NOT drop toilet paper on the floor” she barked, brandishing her mop at tattooed teenagers, who completely ignored her. Her cubicles were clinically clean, her basins sparkled, her water was hot, her soap dispensers full. At the end of a day spent standing packed into what amounted to the biggest bus queue in the world, this lady’s little underground queendom seemed a blessed haven of hygiene. God bless her.

Every word you read last weekend about the Live8 rock concert in Hyde Park was written, I guarantee, by someone with privileged access to a comfortable part of the arena with champagne bars and easily reached toilets. Naturally, you have to buy the Catholic Herald to find out what life was like for those of us who had genuinely won tickets by text - only two per person, a sort of One Friend Policy resulting in terrible Sophie’s Choice style decisions.

“And why,” asked my 15 year old son, who did not draw the lucky straw, while his 13 year old sister did, “couldn’t they have had fewer winners but given each one 4 tickets?” - thus proving once and for all Descartes' theory that only by staying in bed all day can the brain produce ideas of true genius.

It was indeed a happy and beautifully behaved crowd, but the jolly arm-linking bands of brethren you saw on cameras were all in the front section near the stage. They had been there all night, bonding.

Most of us had not had time to bond. On TV, you never saw us: a mile or more of couples, best friends, mums and daughters, dads and sons, too far from the stage to see anything at all, crammed elbow to elbow but shyly avoiding eye-contact.

Apart from the singing along and waving of arms, the atmosphere was not unlike a Buckingham Palace Garden party (though with fewer black or Asian people): couples clinging to each other in awe, occasionally plucking up courage to say, “aren’t we lucky to be here?” as we fought to keep our little patches of grass uninvaded. Yes, it was a great atmosphere - but my son is right: if we had had four tickets per winner, it would have been better yet.

And isn’t it odd how the best rock music is always so sad? The melancholy, jangling guitars of Coldplay and Keane simply reek of middle class, British adolescence, socks under the bed, wet summer Sundays and disappointing A-level results. Bob Geldof gave us “I don’t like Mondays”, the only song of his anyone remembers, which unfortunately happens to be about a schoolgirl shooting her classmates, though it could also be about one's children's bad A-level results, too.

And Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” must be quite the saddest song ever written, ostensibly about injecting drugs but also with a strong whiff of yet more bad A-level results, though this time, considering the band's distinguished grey hairs, one's grandchildren's.

It suddenly struck me where Christian rock musicians go so dreadfully wrong. They persist in churning out happy songs. Rock fans don’t want upbeat Cliff Richard stuff; they want pain and suffering.

Now, we Catholics are rather good at pain and suffering. There probably isn’t time before World Youth Day, but I think the Pope should immediately commission a rock Mass: and he should insist that it be mostly deeply gloomy, with hope shining down only at the end: imagine the worst A-level results in the world suddenly lit by a ray of light from heaven. It could be a massive hit, if only someone could write it.

Back to me and my daughter, wedged in among the 200,000 at Hyde Park. “Are you having a good time?” we were asked, and films of starving or disease-ridden children would pop up on the giant screens. The man beside me was in tears, as was the girl who had lost both her boyfriend and her mobile phone.

Every time we cheered up, one of the stars would remind us “why we were here“. We only had water to drink, the loos were impossible to reach through the crowd, the stage was effectively invisible. Whenever we got out our sandwiches, the screens would fill with more images of starvation which turned our food to ashes in our mouths.

By half-time a lot of us, especially the women, had sunk to the ground wearily, dreaming of a cuppa. Bob Geldof reminded us that “not numbers, but real people” are dying of preventable poverty. Then came the announcement: “And now on the Live8 stage - Brad Pitt!”

As one woman, every female scrambled to her feet, squealing with renewed energy and waving camera phones at the tiny dot in the distance. Real people have their place, it seems, but only celebrities can refresh the weary. Celebrities, and the lady with the mop under Marble Arch.