Thoughts for Manchester

Following the news this morning of the tragic events in Manchester, I have held back my intended post, and am reblogging one of my fellow-bloggers’ posts as it seems to sum up all we can say and feel at this time, as the news unfolds, and as our hearts go out to all the mothers and fathers, family and friends of those children and young people senselessly injured and murdered after enjoying a pop concert on the night of Monday 22nd May 2017.

Suzie Speaks

I was awake at 3.00am and was horrified at the events in Manchester, my home city, last night. At present, 22 people have died and 59 have been injured after what is thought to be a suicide bomber detonated an explosive in the foyer at the Manchester Evening News (MEN) arena after an Ariana Grande concert had ended. The arena has a capacity of 18,000 people, and most of the audience in attendance were children, teenagers, young adults and their families. It’s the biggest loss of life in a terrorist attack since 7/7, and there are already children confirmed among those who have been killed. Children. 

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A Golden Field, a Short Life That Touched Many Hearts, and a Poignant Moment in a Country Churchyard

Milverton Hill  Fri 7 June 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Milverton Hill Fri 7 June 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

This photo was taken on Milverton Hill, Leamington Spa  between St James’s Church Old Milverton and the Saxon Mill, Warwick.

At about 4.30pm on Friday 7 June I walked with my two teenage  children through the churchyard to  reach this field.

A late summer afternoon in the English countryside is such a quiet, luminous, poignant time.

And it’s one of the loveliest times to be on Milverton Hill. You breathe in a green woody scent, a fragrance of light and sunshine. 

Old Milverton Church 7 June 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Old Milverton Church 7 June 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

As we walked through the churchyard to reach the field, we found a plaque in the grass:

Ruby Lee Johnson 

8th June 1995-23rd April 2009

aged 13 years

sweet, rare, exquisite

Ruby’s mother Sarah was tending the flowers, and Ruby’s father Richard was mowing the grass.

Ruby was in my daughter Abigail’s year at school, and Abigail knew Ruby and her story,  as many others in our area do, whose hearts were touched by Ruby’s three year struggle with cancer, and her death in 2009.

Sarah, cheerful and pleasant, said to Abigail, “You’re the age Ruby would have been. Tomorrow is her 18th birthday.”

Ruby Johnson 18th birthday memorial (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Ruby Johnson 18th birthday memorial (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

Ruby’s dog Gracie was with them too. Propped against the flower containers by the plaque is a photo which shows this family pet with Ruby 5 years ago.

rapeseed & shepherd's-purse flowers(photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
rapeseed & shepherd’s-purse flowers(photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

As we walked out through the gate onto Milverton Hill, beyond the church, I couldn’t help comparing the shortness of Ruby’s life to the transience of golden fields in the English countryside.

In this lovely field, popular with walkers, the cobweb tracery of Shepherd’s-Purse flowers, too, appear between the golden rapeseed flowers.  Each petal is silk to the touch, and you feel the cool breeze as you face towards the church. Turning back again to face down towards the Guy’s Cliffe House ruin and the Saxon Mill, the trees seem sculpted against a radiant horizon of intense clarity, each golden flower backlit.

Golden fields don’t last long. But they do reappear each summer. And so will this little memorial to Ruby touch many hearts through future generations.

A Pilgrimage By Steam to The Shrine of a Martyr in Canterbury Cathedral

“This world nis but a Thurghfare ful of wo

Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims
Canterbury cathedral and its pilgrims

And we ben Pilgrimes passinge to and fro.”

So says Chaucer’s Knight, towards the end of his tale as recounted by Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales.

Gloomy those words may be, but they totally belie the racy, colourful and much-loved tales told by the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Nun’s Priest and many others.

And they all made their pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. So did my husband David and I make the  pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral last Tuesday – by steam train!

The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)
The Cathedrals Express (photo credit: David Robinson)

Steam Dreams operate the Cathedrals Express. The locomotive pulling our train was The  Tornado, a lovingly built A1 Steam Locomotive. It took part in the BBC Top Gear Race with Jeremy Clarkson, and had its own very own programme made for the BBC, a documentary called ‘Absolutely chuffed’.

I was very impressed with the speeds it achieved, as as it journeyed from Newbury to Canterbury.

Only when you travel by steam do you experience the pleasure and delight of seeing many different people waiting alongside the railway embankment, or in back gardens, keen to wave at you as you pass by, or standing in fields with cameras. Steam engines evoke great affection, excitement and notalgia and of course can now not be thought of apart from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

And at the end of the journey – Canterbury Cathedral.

Few things in this life can compare to the awe and wonder that a great cathedral can inspire; and at its centre, a shrine to a martyr; in this case, Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was murdered there in 1170 by four of Henry II’s knights in response to the king’s exclamation: Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?

The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)
The Martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral (photo credit: David Robinson)


The sight of the single candle burning in the great space which once held Thomas Becket’s shrine, before it was destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII, was very moving.  So too was the chapel where great saints and martyrs of the twentieth century are commemorated, including such people as Dietrich Boenhoffer, Martin Luther King, and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while he celebrated Holy Communion.

Spiritual energy is concentrated at the sites of these places of pilgrimage – and I was very conscious of this as I lit a candle at the votive light stand, at the entrance to the chapel in the Cathedral which is now called The Martyrdom.

The number of people visiting British Cathedrals has risen by 30% in this millennium.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral are again among the top visitor attractions in the UK, according to the latest statistics from the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (AVLA). The 4,500,000 visitors to those three famous churches are only part of the numbers visiting more than 16,000 Church of England buildings across England.

I’ve visited all three of those attractions in the past couple of years. And from all of these, together with my latest visit, to Canterbury Cathedral, I clearly see the reason for  the trend noted in the paragraph above: a cathedral is a place where we may make contact with the numinous, our sense of the holy. It is a place which fills us with awe and lifts our hearts and minds to something much greater than ourselves.

And pilgrimage now is more important than ever, by whatever means we choose to travel.

The Christmas List: a Bittersweet Time to Bring Out the Sherry and Candles

Who else finds writing Christmas cards a bittersweet task?

I’m reblogging this post from a version first published last Christmas – because it still seems so relevant!

Candle, Christmas tree and sherry
Candle, Christmas tree and sherry

I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.

There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself.

Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to.

Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her  in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.

And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.

Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.

So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.

But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives.

As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list –  the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.

Perhaps the candle flame is there  to remind me of that.

The Big Bad Wolf, the Human Capacity to Deceive, and the Case of Jimmy Savile

In recent weeks many of us have been shocked by the case of Jimmy Savile and the BBC, and wondered how someone who did so much good in the world could turn out to have such a dark side.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Gustave Dore
Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Gustave Dore

The case of Jimmy Savile should make us all look with new eyes at the cult of celebrity, at the nature of good and evil, and at the capacity of human beings to appear as Angels of Light and yet to have dark hearts beneath.

Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness explores this, as does Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

This is what celebrity is all about: people who seem to be, who look and sound and do good. And we so much want to believe in them.

So many people were hypnotized for so long by the power of Savile’s Celebrity Personna, and his Good Works.

Today I learned on the Radio 4 Today Programme that Philip Pullman is re-telling 50 Grimms Fairy Stories. Neil Gaiman was also in the studio to discuss the archetypal appeal of fairy stories. Why do fairy stories work? Neil Gaiman gave this as his number one reason:

Fairy stories warn us “There are monsters out there.  Beware of strangers – beware the wolves in the  wood.”

Running through archetypal story structure, we find wolves in sheep’s clothing, fair maidens who turn out to be evil sorceresses, beautiful queens who are power-hungry murderers.

These characters form part of  the “giant glorious background clutter we carry with us into adulthood”, says Neil Gaiman.

In the case of Jimmy Savile, and in other notorious cases in recent years, we have seen cunning people playing with and subverting the English tendency to say something and mean exactly its opposite, conveying this purely through subtle changes in tone of voice.

I’ll never forget somebody I met years ago (working at the BBC)  saying in my presence, “I am a black hole in the spiritual firmament.” We were all sitting in a recording studio, making a programme for religious schools radio about the Iona Community. This colleague was a great character, probably one of my favourite people in the office:  funny, colourful, down-to-earth, with a subversive sense of humour.  “If holy people see me coming in on the radar,” he went on, “they’ll say: ‘Watch out, there’s something alien coming in here’.”

We all laughed, and later I wrote it in my journal, I was so amused and intrigued by his words.

Of course he was probably joking.

But so did many many people persuade themselves Savile was joking. So did Fred West convince neighbours and acquaintances he was joking. So did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, convince work colleagues he was joking.

Convincing yourself people are joking is an excellent way to avoid responsibility to follow the promptings of your first instinct.

Of course these are exceptional cases, and there is  a very high probability that when my amusing work colleague spoke those words, it could simply have been a theatrical way of saying, “I’m not religious”. Or it could have indicated bad feelings about himself arising from negative messages received in childhood; or it could have meant that he knew he had done – and perhaps continued to do – bad things that we didn’t know about.

Should not reasonable people be able to see “something alien” coming in on their radar?

Many people were blind to that “something alien” in Jimmy Savile.  Human beings have a vast capacity to deceive.

What is your take on this? Please share your thoughts on the case of Jimmy Savile, or any reflections arising from it.

The Christmas List

Who else finds writing Christmas cards the cause not just of gladness but pain and sorrow? I put off “doing” my Christmas list until I’m in the mood – and light a candle and have a glass of sherry or wine to help create that mood. Why? Because each year I have to engage with the major change in people’s lives; the gap of a year between communications throws those changes – for good and for bad – into sharp relief.

There are those who must now be addressed The … Family, because a new baby has been born. You remember the mother as a tiny blonde cherub herself. Then there are the divorces, where you refer back to the previous year’s Christmas newsletter and gaze at the photo of the mother with her two tall sons, and remember when you rejoiced at her marriage, at the news of the arrival of their first baby… and now “he” has disappeared from their lives, and is no longer referred to. Then there’s the lady whose previous husband beat her up – a fact she communicated to you in a Christmas newsletter 5 years ago – and who sent you the news 3 years ago that she was marrying someone else she only referred to by his first name – and hasn’t been in touch since. You’d like to try and restore the lines of communication, but you only have the surname of the ex-husband. You presume she’s now living with the new man – unless that relationship too has broken up – but you’re not quite sure, and you have to address her  in such a way that takes account of different possible scenarios.

And there are the couples whose children have now grown up and left home and started their own families, so you can now revert to sending cards to the couple alone, without their children’s names… and that feels sad too, despite the fact that this has been in many ways a happy change.

Then there are the people who have died, and whose names have to be crossed off your Christmas list and out of your address book – a task that always feels callous to me, every time I do it. And the people you’re going to send a card to who may well have died, but nobody has told you, so you won’t know, unless your card is returned to you by some helpful relative in the New Year.

So much change for good or bad. Then it occurs to me that at least my own family unit is “the same as last year” and perhaps that fact alone is a cause for at least one small flare of gladness and relief in the hearts of those who receive our greetings.

But should it be? For those on our Christmas list often only communicate the stark facts that will affect the way we address our envelopes to them next year. Behind it all lies the complex reality of their lives. As a novelist I know what is in my characters’ hearts; but not in the hearts of everyone on my Christmas list –  the new parents, the newly-bereaved, the freshly-betrayed, the lonely, the divorced, even those who superficially appear to have everything in order, even those who claim success and triumph all round for every member of the family… their lives are far more complex than can ever be conveyed in the artificial confines of the Christmas card or newsletter.

Perhaps the candle flame is there  to remind me of that.