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.

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