No Time

I’ve recently returned from spending Christmas in the Peak District and although there are many parts of England that tug at my heartstrings, this is definitely one of my favourites. We had a happy pre-Christmas weekend at home with the grown-up children and as they set off to spend the holiday with partners’ families, we packed the car and headed north with walking boots, waterproofs, a pile of books, and a box of festive provisions from Waitrose.

Our accommodation was a small stone cottage. We were opposite the village pub and yards from the duck pond and as the country teetered on the edge of new restrictions we found that we were just a few miles from Eyam, otherwise known as ‘the plague village.’ It was here in the summer of 1665 while the Black Death was rampaging across the south of England, that a local tailor took delivery of a pile of cloth samples from London. His assistant and other household members soon got sick and died and it became clear that the dreaded plague had come north—it had been carried by fleas in the cloth although it would take centuries for this mechanism to be understood. The initial outbreak died down quite quickly but it created fear and when it resurfaced in the Spring, the rector William Mompesson took decisive action. He persuaded the community to quarantine itself in order to protect nearby settlements and under the new restrictions no-one was allowed in or out of the village. Outsiders left food and other essential supplies by the boundary stones which had holes bored into them where villagers left their payment of coins disinfected with vinegar. There was nowhere for the residents to go to escape the disease and by the end of the year 267 out of 344 people had died.

We walked to Eyam across the fields. It’s a pretty village and although its history is tragic, it is undeniably fascinating especially given our contemporary challenges. There are sober information boards outside some of the houses listing the people who died there during the quarantine. At Rose Cottage an entire household of nine died, and similar stories are repeated at adjoining houses. We learned that church services were held out of doors and people had to bury their dead in the garden or in the fields. I would like to have visited Eyam Museum but it was closed for the Winter.

This visit took place on the last day of our holiday and while I’m normally quite ready to come home at the end of a trip, this time I felt reluctant. And it wasn’t just because of the cosy cottage and the atmospheric, misty walks with ghostly sheep and ancient drystone walls…there was something else. The unusual thing about this holiday was that we were unchained from time. Apart from a candlelit midnight mass at the ‘Cathedral of the Peaks’ in a nearby village, and a couple of family calls on Christmas Day, our time was unstructured. I’d given up wearing a watch earlier in the pandemic and the cottage’s lone clock was stuck unhelpfully at 9.37. My elderly phone spent most of its holiday on charge under the bed upstairs, and as a result I generally had no idea what the time was. This was quite a shift from life at home where we have a clock in every room and I’m constantly aware of time’s presence. 

There was once a time when Christmas was all about the deadlines. I would carefully follow Delia’s advice on turkey timings, roast potatoes and bread sauce in order to make sure that we could have our lunch and still have a walk before the light faded. But this year the day unfolded at its own pace. We packed a flask of tea and some hunks of panettone and set off late morning to walk a section of the Monsal Trail, a disused railway line that runs between Bakewell and Buxton. It was bitter and the cold gnawed at the base of my fingernails. We stood near the Monsal viaduct looking down at its five graceful arches and later perched on a damp bench gazing at a sweeping valley and a former cotton mill as we polished off our tea and cake. When we got home we cooked a festive meal. I no longer eat meat so there were no turkey timings to worry about. I’m not sure what time we ate—the preparations took as long as they took and although it wasn’t the normal shape of Christmas Day, I enjoyed it very much. 

In the days leading up to Christmas Eve we’d explored the ravishing spa town of Buxton and charming, pudding-obsessed Bakewell but since then everything had closed so there was no temptation to cram in as much as we could which is our usual holiday style. And with day-to-day appointments and obligations on temporary hold, we lived cyclically, getting up when we’d had enough sleep, going to bed when we were tired, and eating when we were hungry. Cyclical. That’s closer to how people lived before clocks began to rule our lives. The majority of people worked on the land, living according to the seasons, starting work when it got light and stopping when it was dark. But with the Industrial Revolution came factories and fixed working hours. This continued with the introduction of the railways when for the first time it became necessary to standardise time across the country. Clocks had originally shown the hours but gradually they became more accurate, slicing time into ever smaller sections with quarter hours then minutes and seconds, creating a tyranny and transforming our habits from cyclical to linear. I’ve spent a lot of my life rushing so as not to fall foul of immutable appointments or bus, train and plane departure times, and wonder whether the seventeenth-century inhabitants of Eyam ever hurried and felt stressed by time.

According to a study by the Oxford English Dictionary, the word time is used more often than any other noun in English—a clear indication that we are obsessed with it. I’ve certainly found it profoundly relaxing to take a break from its stranglehold. This particular situation was related to being on holiday but it has implications for everyday life too, not least because when you remove the pressure of time you’re more likely to experience flow. This term refers to the mental state you enter when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you lose track of time and are completely in the moment. It was named in 1975 by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi who died a couple of months ago, and it’s one reason why it’s so pleasurable to immerse yourself in activities like writing, painting, making music, or playing sport.

During lockdown I frequently noticed that I felt more relaxed than usual and I heard many other people say the same. I might have felt differently if I’d had health issues, employment worries or young children to home-school but for me it was a truth and it made me reassess the time pressures that shape my normal life. Some are commitments that cannot be removed or pared back, and there are of course some that are irresistible pleasures. When it’s our turn to host a family Christmas, for example, we will do so with great pleasure but aside from these exceptions I want to keep in mind that some time pressures are unnecessary and can be challenged. Sometimes it’s good to let things unfold at their own pace. It makes me think of a conversation I had with a friend recently. She is planning to walk some of the Camino in the New Year and I asked, “How far will you go each day?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll just take it as it comes and see how I feel.” I like that attitude very much. 

Wishing you a healthy and happy New Year

Photos: Mike Poppleton

Getting Used To It

A couple of years ago as I was driving home late at night I tuned into my local radio station and happened to catch an extraordinary interview. The woman talking was eighty-three and she was neither a celebrity nor anyone else with a book to plug. The fact is that she wasn’t well-known at all but the incredible thing about her was that she claimed never to have been outside Southampton. Even more remarkably she said that she had hardly ever ventured beyond Hedge End, the area where she lived. She sounded extremely content with her life and explained that as she had everything she wanted locally, she had never needed to go further afield. “And what’s more,” she added with a proud flourish, “my husband died three years ago, and he never went outside Southampton either.” I didn’t have to think for long to realise that just that week, I’d already been outside the city three times. 

By comparison, this story brought to mind a woman that I’d met just a few weeks earlier when I was staying in a South African hotel. She was on holiday and was eager to engage me, a fellow traveller of a similar age, in conversation. Where was I from? Why was I there? What did I think of it all? I answered as best I could and asked her some questions in return. She told me she was Canadian and that she liked to travel. She had been to many countries. This was the fortieth one and during this trip she would be swelling her total further by going to Botswana for a safari in the Okavango Delta. I enthused—I’d heard about the stunning wildlife there particularly the birds. She nodded and leaned in closer. “I’ve been to all these countries,” she confided, “but do you know…I’ve only had one National Geographic moment. It was in Peru. I came out of the lodge where we were staying and saw a flock of flamingoes on Lake Titicaca.”

These two women had clearly had very different experiences of life. And yet one expressed great happiness with her lot and the other was proving rather hard to please. 

I like to think that I see the best in things and make the most of my experiences. But actually although it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, I know that I too can be hard to please. The first time I browsed through Netflix I couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch. I was paralysed by too much choice and ended up selecting something I didn’t like much, then dozing off and waking up feeling thoroughly grumpy. Since then there have been a few wonderful finds when I’ve been grateful for the astonishing variety available, but I have to admit there has been an awful lot of dissatisfaction. And when I graze through Spotify I click, click, click, rarely listening to the end of the track. It’s far too tempting to move onto something new or to scratch a musical memory itch from years ago. It’s all there for the taking. It’s all so easy. It’s all so different from my music-obsessed teenage years. 

In my small town there was just one record shop and the elderly owner had a very scanty knowledge of modern music. She was also a little hard of hearing and several times when I placed an order, the LP that arrived wasn’t what I’d asked for at all. So after a while I gave up on that and resorted to a different tactic. When I had enough saved for a new album, I’d scour the mail-order ads at the back of NME, cut out the order coupon and send it off in the mail together with a postal order. The wait would be tantalising and it was often several weeks before the flat, square, cardboard package would arrive. But when it came it was enormously exciting and I don’t ever remember being disappointed with it. 

It’s curious that while so much choice should make our lives better, it often has the opposite effect. Rationally, of course there’s a great deal to celebrate about the fact that many things are now available on demand. But the trouble is that we’re human and so nothing is completely rational and straightforward. When we get used to having things then we take them for granted and that’s when the problems start. 

Taking things for granted means that they no longer give us the same degree of pleasure that they once did—it’s what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Our brains get a pleasure hit from novelty whether it’s a new pair of shoes, a new sofa or a new holiday destination but when we get used to things we are liable to be seduced into a search for the next new thing. Unfortunately that pleasure is often short-lived and before we know it we’re on what Daniel Kahneman calls the satisfaction treadmill where we get used to a particular level of satisfaction or happiness and what once felt good enough will no longer do. The net result is that not only do we need the new stuff in order to feed the hedonic adaptation but it has to be even better in order to get the same degree of pleasure. It’s an addiction and the more there is to choose from, the more expectations rise. When the reality falls short we move onto the next big thing that promises it will enhance our lives, change them or perhaps create a National Geographic moment. Perversely, there are likely to be more disappointments in a world with many choices, than in one where there are few. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I can’t help wondering what would happen if the Hedge End woman were to travel to forty-one countries. Would she start to take it all for granted like the National Geographic woman? Not necessarily of course as we are all so different but I wonder whether she would continue to get as much out of her current simple pleasures like watching the birds in her garden and having a natter with neighbours in the corner shop. 

I’m not suggesting that there is a moral imperative to appreciate things. It certainly seems a shame not to get the most out of abundance if we are lucky enough to have it, but it is not a duty to do so. So why does it matter if we get ensnared by hedonic adaptation and stumble unwarily onto the satisfaction treadmill? I think there are two main reasons. The first is that it doesn’t seem to make us happy. The psychologist Barry Schwartz has researched this subject extensively and in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, he argues that too much choice is actively contributing to rising levels of unhappiness and clinical depression in affluent countries. And secondly, I would argue that it fuels aggressive consumerism which leads to overconsumption, waste and so much else that is threatening the health of the Earth itself. 

So if hedonic adaptation is indeed a trap then it’s useful to see it coming so we can take a side-step. Given human nature, we’re unlikely to avoid it altogether but simply being aware that it happens helps in recognising it for the false friend it is. If it whispers to us that the new car, coat, bag, online service, phone, or travel destination is not what we’d hoped for we can tell it to shut up and try to focus on what is good rather than what is less than perfect. We can remember that it counts amongst its allies an army of marketing executives all trying to boost its profile so that we can contribute to their targets and bonuses. We can tell it that an upgraded version probably won’t fix things. And we can remind it that nothing is perfect—even the Okavango Delta. I can be pretty confident that the National Geographic woman would agree with me on that point.

Photo by Roger Brown on Pexels.com

The Power of Space

In recent months my reading has included several books with Power in the title—The Power of Habit, The Power of Strangers and the Power of Moments. I didn’t consciously choose them because of the P-word—they just happen to cover topics I wanted to explore. But this approach to naming does seem to be a popular way to attract attention and convince your reader of the irrefutable benefits of whatever it is you want to espouse. And so today I am writing about something I want to uphold and explore—The Power of Space.

This topic has been simmering away for months now, co-existing with the resumption of a near-normal, post-pandemic life and it’s been making me feel vaguely uncomfortable. But it was forced to the forefront of my mind last week when I had a particularly busy day. A few years ago, before our lives changed and we applied the brakes, this would have been nothing out of the ordinary. There was my morning writing session, a Pilates class, visiting a friend in a care home about an hour’s drive away, shopping for food, and cooking a birthday dinner for a family member. Individually, each of these activities was pleasant and stress-free. There was nothing onerous about any of them but as the day went on I felt increasingly oppressed, depressed and at odds with myself. The problem was that they were jammed up against one another, leaving no breathing space between. 

This was once my normal pattern. For many years I was genuinely busy keeping all the family balls in the air. I’d rush, grab a quick lunch, rush again, and nearly always find myself running late as I fought against the pressure of time. I often felt overwhelmed but I didn’t have enough insight to recognise what was causing it. Now those days are gone. The children have grown up and my time is largely my own. But the old habits are deeply ingrained and it took the pandemic to give me a new perspective. To make me stop and reassess. To recognise that while I subscribe to Henry David Thoreau’s sentiment, “Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he never said that you have to fill every moment. 

We’re encouraged to be busy. If you ask someone how they spent their weekend and they reel off a list of activities, they will no doubt sound more fascinating than someone else who went for a walk and did a bit of daydreaming. I like being busy. I like variety, I like spending time with friends and family, and I like getting things done. It’s satisfying. But the pandemic unexpectedly provided a lot more space, and I’m finding that I don’t want to let it go. I want to do more daydreaming. I want to do a lot more daydreaming. 

Contrary to popular opinion, daydreaming isn’t wasted time. Our bodies may be resting but our brains are not. Suspend focused attention and your mind will wander, switching into what’s known as default mode network (DMN). It processes memories. It also makes unexpected connections which can generate creative ideas or come up with solutions to problems. We’ve probably all had the experience of having a solution turn up when you didn’t even realise you were thinking about it. It often happens to me when I’m out for a walk and never fails to feel like magic. 

It’s all too easy to be switched on all the time. We get bombarded by things that hijack our attention and demand a response. It seems so natural to reach for our phones as soon as we wake up but it’s at the cost of staring at the trees outside, watching the clouds and enjoying the warmth of an early morning mug of tea. It’s at the cost of being still and demanding nothing of oneself. I’m grateful that when I was a child, boredom provided plenty of scope for uninterrupted daydreaming. I’m grateful that I wasn’t shunted from one after-school activity to another. I think that would have induced something similar to the suffocating oppression that I experienced last week. 

I’ve also begun to appreciate the value of space in other contexts. Mike listens to a lot of Scandinavian jazz and points out the spaces between the notes that give it a reflective quality. And a different kind of jazz musician, Miles Davis, famously advised his musical collaborators, “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” He was always looking for the ideal balance between the space from which the music emerges and the notes that we hear. Less is more. And I recently watched a couple of films by the director Wim Wenders. He muses on space. In Paris, Texas the camera lingers on a desert scene just slightly longer than you expect. Nothing is rushed. The space poses questions and invites you to create your own interpretation. It’s the polar opposite of a hectic Bond movie.

There is of course, a place for both. Too much space…not good. Too much activity…not good. I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends and family who have talked about their wish to find a new kind of balance as a result of the pandemic. So I know I’m not alone in my thinking. And that means that even if you don’t feel this way yourself, there will almost certainly be people in your life who are struggling to work this out. Mindful activities like meditation or tai chi can help but for me at the moment, it’s a daily walk in nature that’s important. Together with my early morning tea ritual, some empty space in my diary and time unhitched from technology. 

Space is freedom. Trust it. Give it time and see what emerges. 

That’s the power of space—it’s the freedom to be yourself.

Photos: Mike Poppleton

Key Connections

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

We learn a lot through the interests of our friends and family, and it’s in this way that I’ve developed a second-hand familiarity with the Baltic states. Ten years ago my son went to Estonia, initially as a TEFL teacher and the following year he moved to Latvia where he’s stayed ever since. During this time he’s become very fond of the region and has amassed a lot of knowledge about its history and culture. So I wasn’t surprised when he sent a message to our family WhatsApp group, to tell us that thirty-two years ago this week, the Baltic Chain was formed. This was when people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a human chain, holding hands across 420 miles and connecting the three capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. For fifteen emotional minutes on August 23rd 1989, two million people joined together in a peaceful protest against the illegal Soviet occupation of their countries. It was one of the earliest and longest unbroken human chains in history and contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the restoration of independence to the Baltic states.

Two years ago on the thirtieth anniversary of the Baltic Chain, Hong Kong organised its own version—a chain of 210,000 people standing in line across thirty miles, protesting against the extradition bill and demanding democratic elections. Over the years there have been a number of other chains gathering humans together and uniting them in support of a wide range of causes, and the biggest of these took place in Bangladesh in 2004. More than five million people joined hands across 652 miles to protest against the Government and to demand new polls. 

Watching an old news clip about the Baltic Chain and reading about these others, I was struck by the power of peaceful protest but I also started thinking about the individual people who were in that chain. Some would be standing next to friends or family, but many would have strangers on one or both sides of them. And I wondered about the associations between them. Perhaps as they stood there waiting for the signal to join hands, some had chatted and discovered that they knew people in common or had other points of connection. 

Like most people, I’ve stumbled into a few extraordinary coincidences in my own life—the sort of things that would sound ridiculously contrived and far-fetched if they appeared in works of fiction. And one of the strangest happened when I was waiting in a queue—a chain of sorts. It was 1977 and I was in my first term at London University. I’d spent a few weeks living in a hall of residence in Tooting but when I was offered the chance to move to one in the King’s Road, there was no competition between the locations, so I handed in my keys and skipped off to Chelsea. It didn’t take long to realise that I’d forgotten to remove my padlock key from the key-ring but although it was annoying, I figured I could get another one easily enough. A couple of days later I found myself at Euston Station on a Wednesday afternoon, in an enormous, slow queue of students, all waiting to get student railcards. For some reason that seems ridiculously inefficient now, the process of getting a railcard required you to turn up in person on a specified day and wait your turn. There must have been hundreds of us there, from all the colleges of the University. There were the well-known ones like UCL, LSE, Kings, Queen Mary, and Imperial and many more colleges that later got swallowed up in mergers—Queen Elizabeth, Bedford College, Chelsea, and Westfield—as well as a number of medical schools, art colleges and others covering specialist subjects like veterinary science, theology and pharmacy. With no smartphones to distract, people fell into conversation. I turned behind to a pleasant-looking young man, and asked where he was studying. “Chelsea,” he said which was quite a coincidence given the number of colleges represented there. “I’m at Chelsea” I said. “Where do you live?” When he replied, “Malcolm Gavin Hall,” I couldn’t stop myself from asking the inevitable but nosey question, “Which room are you in?” Somehow I knew he was going to say “335” and he didn’t disappoint. “Oh,” I said, “I’ve just moved out of there. That was my room.” Quick as a flash without missing a beat, he delved into his pocket and brought out some keys. “This must be yours,” he said, handing me my padlock key. It was as if I’d been programmed to ask the right questions, and it happened so easily and smoothly, that I thought maybe the universe intended us to work together to find a cure for cancer or at the very least produce some children. But instead we just had a nice chat. And that was it. A couple of times over the next year, we bumped into one another, and now I can’t even remember his name.  

The thing that surprises me most was that we discovered that we had this connection in common. How often do we meet people and if we only knew which questions to ask, we would uncover all kinds of ways in which our lives overlap. How often do we pass people in the street that carry all of these delicious surprises inside them. That stranger sitting opposite on the train…the woman at the supermarket checkout…the homeless man on the street corner…the refugee in the news footage. We may be closer to them than we think. The first time I remember coming across the idea of connections was when my mother used to repeat the words of a popular song from her childhood; I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales. It dates from 1927 when the prince, later Edward VIII, was hugely popular. I’d get her to repeat it and was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary person could be so close to a prince. And then there’s the notion of six degrees of separation which is so well-known and somewhat murky. It was first proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in a short story called Chains. He was suggesting even then, that although there were great physical distances between people, their social distances were shrinking as people travelled and technology brought about improvements in communication. He believed that any two individuals could be connected through a network of, at most, five acquaintances. The phrase six degrees of separation became popular after John Guare’s 1990 play and the film that followed. A common criticism is that such a theory is unlikely to encompass connections to isolated groups of humans, such as those in the Amazon jungle but I don’t want to get bogged down here in the arguments for and against this proposition as they are many and complicated. However, several large-scale studies using emails and instant messaging to track connections between people have found that the average number of degrees of separation did come out at six, and according to network theories there are mathematical reasons why this should be so. 

In keeping with the theme of online connections, I was intrigued to discover that there is a website called Six Degrees of Wikipedia that will tell you what degree of separation there is between any two of the fifty-four billion Wikipedia pages. I started with the pages for Mother Theresa and Jack the Ripper and in less than two seconds it had told me that there are two degrees of separation between them and two different routes that connect them. Then I tried exploring Wikipedia connections between Abraham Lincoln and Adele and discovered that they are separated by three degrees and that there are over seven hundred routes that connect them. I could have played with this for hours trying out increasingly unlikely combinations but as I had this blog to write, I forced myself to stop. 

So far, the connections I’ve talked about here lie beneath the surface, undiscovered—but in my recent book The Interview Chain, the connections were clear to see, as each interviewee passed me on to someone that they know personally and admire. At twenty links it may have been somewhat short of the two million in the Baltic Chain but it did nonetheless travel 23,000 miles back and forth, traversing three continents and gathering up diverse experiences on its way. It started from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames and one of the most surprising things was discovering how quickly from there, the links led me to events I had read about in the news. By Link Two I was talking to someone who had been at the Climate Change Negotiations and by Link Three my interviewee was giving me personal experiences of the Calais refugee camp. Later links led me to first-hand accounts of Kabul under the Taliban, the Rwandan genocide and the Ferguson Uprising. 

I’ll say it again—we are closer to other people than we might think. And with all the extra things that we need to understand about the modern world, that’s more important now than ever before. 

Sensational

As we emerge blinking, from months of Covid hibernation the world is full of surprises. I’d convinced myself that a home-based, introverted life was just fine. Plenty of reading, writing and thinking time—needs must—and in the initial enthusiasm of online living I made a few virtual visits to museums and galleries. But now that real-life options are opening up again I’ve enjoyed a few trips and the things that have made the biggest impression have not been what I anticipated. 

It started with a visit to Salisbury Cathedral. The afternoon was of course, contained within the new normal of pre-booking, masks and social distancing but there was still plenty of freedom to be found and as I wandered around I became aware of a feeling bubbling up—the quiet excitement that comes from meandering in an unstructured way and landing like a butterfly on unexpected, interesting things. It was a pleasure I’d never been fully conscious of in the past but it felt familiar and it was only through its long absence and welcome reappearance that I came to recognise and value it. Some landings satisfy because they entertain or inform but other encounters are sensory and you simply need to be there to have them. There’s no amount of reading or online browsing that can summon up the sensation of feeling very small as you stand in the nave and look up at the delicate, cavernous ceiling; nor can it enable you to touch the ancient chill of the marble pillars. In my wanderings I came across what is said to be the world’s oldest working mechanical clock. I stopped and listened. Then I lingered to read the remarkable story of how it was discovered in the cathedral clock tower in 1928 by an observant horologist named Mr T. Robinson. He’d gone into the tower to inspect the current clock but spotted the priceless medieval treasure which had been cast aside and forgotten, decades before. And oddly, one of the best things about my visit was finding that the dusty, musty smell unique to churches was still alive and had survived the gallons of antiviral liquids that must have threatened it in recent months. I’d never realised how evocative that smell is but the primitive parts of my brain greeted it like an old friend. 

A few weeks later I went to Shaftesbury in Dorset. Its most celebrated street is Gold Hill, made famous by Ridley Scott’s Hovis adverts and against all expectations I had to agree that it is unequivocally charming. At the top of the hill is a renovated sandstone cottage that’s home to a small museum of local history, run by volunteers. Once again, it was a delight to drift around and absorb random bits of information. I was particularly interested to learn that button-making was an important cottage industry in Shaftesbury and at the beginning of the nineteenth century it provided a livelihood for around four thousand women and children in the town. They twisted linen around a thin disc of sheep’s horn and then decorated it with fine embroidery. But mechanisation gradually forced the industry into decline and the final straw came when John Aston exhibited his button machine at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Widespread unemployment and poverty drove more than three hundred families to take advantage of assisted emigration schemes and they went off to start new lives in America or Australia. As we were leaving the museum we stopped and had a conversation with a friendly pair of volunteers who were packing up for the day. They asked what we’d thought of the exhibits. “Three hundred families…” I said, “that must have been devastating for such a small town.” We all nodded. Then we stood, not talking for a while. I’m not sure whether it was because we were empathising with the sad local history or just that small talk comes less easily after months of lockdown. But we soon perked up again and I appreciated the unexpected Zoom-free joy of having an enthusiastic to-and-fro discussion with strangers. 

Gold Hill in Shaftesbury

Then this month it was our fifth wedding anniversary and we celebrated with a day out in Oxford. Over lunch in the roof-top restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum we raised our glasses and surprised the young waitress by telling her that it was our diamond wedding. She was gratifyingly on the ball and recognised that we don’t look quite old enough to be marking sixty years together. That would have required me to marry Mike when I was two years old and he was six. We explained that as we married one another later in life, then we will never have big anniversaries so for the moment we celebrate the months instead. Then we went on to spend the afternoon at the Oxford University Natural History Museum. 

The building is magnificent with a striking roof of glass and cast iron, reminiscent of grand Victorian railway stations, and as with Salisbury Cathedral you have to be there, gazing up, to appreciate the light and the scale. It opened in 1860 and influenced the design of London’s Natural History Museum that opened its doors to the public twenty-one years later. All around the walls are pillars, each a different variety of British stone, and painstakingly labelled in a bygone spirit of public education. There are one hundred and twenty six in all. There are also stunning statues of influential scientists, thinkers and engineers, many carved by eminent Pre-Raphaelite artists. Darwin, Galileo, Aristotle, Newton and Prince Albert are all represented but however much I might sigh it was no real surprise that there is not a single woman amongst the original busts and statues. In 2010 the museum began the process of addressing this by adding a bust of Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work in crystallography. 

The huge ground-floor gallery is informative and modern but it’s also true to its roots. Its stories evoke the excitement and wonder that Victorian scientists must have felt as they made new discoveries and challenged existing views of the world. Indeed the newly opened museum was the site of an infamous, furious debate between Thomas Huxley arguing in favour of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce arguing vociferously against the idea that mankind is descended from apes. And I could not ignore the contrast between the Victorian industrial confidence of this building and the little cottage museum in Shaftesbury with its tales of families made destitute by that very same Victorian industrial thrust. There was much to think about and I enjoyed wandering around, imagining myself in a crinoline and soaking up the atmosphere as I stopped by displays in no particular order—craggy fossils, a giant Japanese spider crab that is the stuff of nightmares and measures over three metres across, and a sad display about dodos. Close to the entrance is a stuffed North American black bear, its glossy pelt so thick that it was as much as I could do not to sink my hands into its depth. Years of ‘Don’t Touch’ signs had conditioned me and so I didn’t, but later I read that visitors are encouraged to touch many of the exhibits here including the bear. I wish I had. But I did stand eye to glassy eye with an aardvark and then had a conversation with Mike about when and where to meet for a cup of tea. It took a little while to realise the incongruity of having such a mundane discussion while standing on opposite sides of a life-sized cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Nearby were the skeletons of an African elephant and a giraffe, both fully-grown and huge in their own right but dwarfed by the prehistoric animal. Upstairs were displays of insects. There were tiny fleas and ticks, and big beetles so exquisite that it was hard to believe they were not enamelled. I moved my head from side to side to get the full iridescent splendour and the label informed me that one in three of all insect species is a beetle. 

According to the Museums Association there are around 2,500 museums in the UK. These include many specialist collections curated by enthusiasts of subjects as diverse as magic, pencils, fans, motorbikes, telephone boxes, radios, and dentistry—a treasure trove with something for everyone. Top of my list is the National Railway Museum in York which I’ve visited several times. You can climb aboard a few of the vintage trains and there’s no online substitute for that. But it also makes me sad because the workmanship and quality of the fittings is so far removed from the 7.25 to Waterloo. I also love the American Museum on Claverton Down in Bath, where you can see the stitch bumps of quilts sewn in the Civil War and where the smell of traditional gingerbread seeps out of the old-fashioned kitchen and pervades the basement. 

Tocks and ticks, dust and bear pelts, gazing upwards, fellow enthusiasts, and simply wandering and wondering what will intrigue the imagination or stimulate the senses next. It’s good to be out in the world again. 

At Last…

Image by victoraf from Pixabay

Ideas often come when you’re not expecting them and that’s just what happened with The Interview Chain. It showed up one winter morning as I stood on the platform of my local station gazing idly at the London-bound commuters on what was turning out to be the first properly chilly day of the year. As they hunched against the drizzle, most of them communed with their phones and a small minority stared vacantly across the track. Here and there, pointy-toed shoes or a bright scarf introduced a touch of drama to the sober woollen coats and beige macs. But despite being such a diverse collection of individuals, no one person stood out—there was nothing overtly remarkable about any of them. 

It’s precisely because railway stations and trains are for the most part predictable places that they provide such seductive material for fiction writers. While solitary travellers sink into temporary private bubbles, and snippets of humdrum conversation pass in and out of focus, things may appear mundane. And yet there’s an ever-present tension between the seen and the unseen and the lives of our fellow travellers may in reality prove to be anything but ordinary. The poet John Koenig came up with the word sonder to describe the realisation that each random passerby has a life that’s as vivid and complex as our own. I stared at a young woman with streaked cyan hair, at a man with a shaved head and an older woman clutching her suitcase handle for support. What mattered to them? What shaped them? What were they proud of? Had they lived enough to have regrets?

I shifted up a gear and started to think about the population of the world and the fact that my fellow travellers were an infinitesimal percentage of the seven billion individuals alive that day. Seven billion—that’s a lot of lives. A lot of stories. 

Real life stories have that extra ingredient that fiction can never have. Escaping into made-up stories and beautiful prose is one kind of pleasure, but watching a film based on fact prompts us to empathise and explore how we ourselves would react in a similar situation. Radio programmes like Desert Island Discs, Last Word, and The Listening Project are popular because they’re about real people’s lives, and are therefore always original and unpredictable. They’re amongst my own favourite listening material and I’d recently been thinking about collecting a few stories myself… especially anything that caused me to step outside my own life and talk to people who could show me a different view of the world. 

….As I stood on the platform shivering and daydreaming, my brain gradually began to do some joined-up thinking. I’d been nosily speculating about my fellow travellers in foreground mode, and hadn’t even been aware that it was gnawing away in background mode. My train arrived and I settled into the dusty carriage with the beginnings of an idea. 

I could do a series of interviews… Then I thought of a twist. I would ask each interviewee to pass me on to someone they admire. That was almost guaranteed to unearth some thought-provoking stories. It would also be intriguing to explore what people admire? Out of the hordes of individuals they will have come across in their life why choose that one? I guessed that qualities like compassion, wisdom, bravery, and professionalism would crop up and I, for one, would welcome some positive stories as an antidote to the ubiquitous world gone bad ones.

By the time I reached the end of my journey two stops down the line, I’d decided to go ahead with what I was now calling the Chain Interview Project as if it were an old friend. I was hoping that its personality would turn out to be interesting, inspiring, connected, informative, and thought-provoking. And if it helped to increase empathy then that would be even better. But none of that could happen until I’d decided where to start. Who was going to be my first interviewee? 

I decided that it would have to be someone I did not already know. That way I was more likely to be led across unfamiliar territory. I had no idea what kind of person would fit this vague description, but over the following months my antennae were directed towards everyone I encountered and I felt confident that when I met the right person, I would know. During this time I chatted keenly to lots of likely candidates without revealing my ulterior motive. At the same time I tried my best not to come across as intrusive or peculiar, although I’m not sure how well I managed that. The upshot was that I had plenty of pleasant conversations but none that grabbed me in the way I wanted. 

It took until the following summer to make a breakthrough. I was invited to a cousin’s thirtieth birthday party aboard a Thames cruiser and it was jam-packed with interesting people. At one stage I thought that a sports journalist might be the one but in the end I wasn’t interested enough in sport to dive in and ask him. 

Photo by Chris Schippers on Pexels.com

Then, as we were on our way back up the river from Greenwich, I sat outside on deck chatting to a young woman whose strong values and unusual creative ideas were intriguing. I was curious to know more and felt she had the magic ingredient I’d been searching for so I plunged in, explaining about the project, and asking if she would agree to be my first link. It was growing dark and most of the light came from the brightly illuminated buildings along the bank and the multicoloured reflections on the water, so I couldn’t see very well. But I could tell enough to know that she was friendly, if a little guarded. And who wouldn’t be when the garrulous middle-aged woman they’re chitchatting with asks out of the blue if they’d agree to take it to another level and do an interview. Fortunately, I had my cousin on hand to vouch for me so with a cautious smile my first interviewee, Kirsti, gave me her email address and we arranged to meet a few weeks later. 

That was how the chain started… 

You’ve just been reading some extracts from the Introduction to The Interview Chain. I’m delighted that it’s being published this week (30th June) by Holland House Books. Available to order here or from WaterstonesHiveWorderyAmazon and all good bookshops!

ISBN: 978-1-910688-58-8

Pass It On

Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

If I’m in the car at the weekend then I often tune in to Saturday Live on Radio 4—the presenters are cheerful and the theme is loosely about people’s lives so there’s a never-ending supply of interesting and surprising stories. One regular feature gives listeners the chance to thank a stranger who helped them in a moment of need and over the years, I’ve heard stressful tales of runaway caravans, lost keys, confused elderly relatives, empty petrol tanks, and drowning dogs, that have all been happily resolved thanks to an act of kindness. Sometimes I find the stories gripping and other times a bit mundane, but my interest stepped up a level when my cousin Rita was featured on the programme. She’s a teacher and described how she was with a group of pupils on the cruise ship Jupiter in 1988 when a cargo ship crashed into it just outside Piraeus Harbour. She and other teachers worked frantically in the dark to get children to safety as the damaged ship teetered with its stern already underwater. Then after forty minutes and with absolutely no warning, it sank and my cousin found herself in the sea clinging to a passing piece of wood. A schoolgirl joined her there as she spent a terrifying time alternately offering silent thanks to her Dad for making her learn to swim, and being convinced she was about to drown. Things seemed pretty hopeless but then miraculously from out of the dark, a pair of Greek fishermen appeared in a small boat, acting for all the world as though they carried out rescues every day. Thirty years later they were unlikely to be listening to Saturday Live but Rita was still glad to share her gratitude publicly, adding that there’s hardly a day when she doesn’t think of them. 

Gratitude is a natural human emotion and it’s attracted a lot of research attention in recent years as one of the key elements of the positive psychology movement. It’s easy to parody the practise of being grateful as a touchy-feely New Age fad but there’s plenty of solid evidence that it’s good for us because it’s accompanied by a release of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that affect our mood and make us feel happy. And that applies not only when we show gratitude but also when we’re on the receiving end of it. 

Rita found herself in a position where she wanted to thank a couple of strangers and there was no way that she was ever likely to reciprocate and do a good turn for them. I’ve found myself in a different situation in recent years. When I was in a bad state after my divorce there were a number of friends and family members including Rita, who showed great kindness and listened patiently (ever so patiently) when I cried, complained and repeated myself again and again. I think I remembered to say thank you but for a long time these acts of kindness left me feeling indebted and I wasn’t sure what to do to put things right. 

A couple of years ago, I visited Japan and witnessed how indebtedness can be a problem there. Our Airbnb hosts gave us a small parting gift and I felt embarrassed at not having anything to offer in return. But later, as I read more about Japanese culture I realised that gift-giving can set traps for the unwary. If we gave our hosts anything that seemed slightly more special than they gave us then they would feel indebted and might decide to top up their offering. And so the cycle of gifting and indebtedness could potentially become long drawn out and stressful with no-one feeling happy. In the end, while it seemed a bit unfriendly not to have given anything, I was glad that all we could do was bow, thank them and be grateful. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gradually, I’ve come to terms with the discomfort of indebtedness and accept the well-worn advice that you won’t necessarily be able to thank the person who helped you but that doesn’t matter if you try to pass it on to someone else. So if you’re reading this and happen to be one of the friends or family members who were kind when I needed it, then I want you to know that I try to pay it forward with gratitude. And if and when I do that, then your kind deeds are connected in a chain with people you probably don’t know, and will never know. 

It’s this idea of connections that is at the root of my new book, The Interview Chain. In the process of writing it, I spoke to some fascinating people and each one passed me on to someone that they had been inspired by. In some cases those relationships were life-changing—an actor introduced me to the teacher who gave her the confidence to apply to drama school; a nurse recalled her experiences of volunteering in a Romanian orphanage and passed me on to the family friend who encouraged her to go, and I witnessed the gratitude between a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the Scottish woman who made it possible for his family to rebuild their lives. 

If you want to read the stories of these people and the others I spoke to during the chain’s 23,000 mile journey across three continents, then there’s not long to wait. The Interview Chain is being published by Holland House Books on 30th June and can be pre-ordered here or from bookshops and online suppliers.

This Is Not A Post About Nature…

A couple of weeks ago our neighbour moved. She’d lived in her house for forty-eight years and has at last gone to live in a bungalow close to her daughter. I hope that she’s very happy—we’ll miss her. 

There’s a steadiness that comes from living in the same place for such a long time. I’ve lived in my current house for four and a half years now and am at last enjoying the novelty of some steadiness. During the time that my neighbour lived in her house I lived in sixteen different places, and most of them felt temporary as I would always have the next move in mind. For a while as the family grew it was about making incremental moves to get more space. Later when things went wrong, it was about moving to places that were affordable and more practical. Even in the house where I lived for nine years, I felt erratic—grateful for my family and friends but never quite sure what I wanted out of life. The children were young then and so nothing stayed the same for very long. There was inevitable flux with all the different demands of childhood concentrated into those few years. It was rewarding but far from steady. But now that I’m happily settled in my current house, I’ve stopped looking for the next move and I like that feeling. All things being equal—and they often aren’t—I’d like to stay here for a long time. 

During those years of chaos one of the few steadying things I did was to get my migraines under better control. Twenty years ago I was struggling with bad nausea and pain three days a week and I was desperate to find a solution. I kept trying to work out what was triggering them and tried many different treatments. Diet was an obvious place to look but I got nowhere with cutting out likely culprits such as cheese, chocolate and coffee. It was only when I went to see a migraine specialist and he put me on an elimination diet that I made progress. For two weeks I ate only from the small range of foods that are unlikely to cause a reaction—beansprouts, salmon, turnips, courgette, pears, and lamb—which made for some odd breakfasts. After a few days of this regime I had an intense withdrawal migraine but once it was over I felt clear-headed and liberated. After a fortnight I was instructed to introduce one food at a time in a particular order, and all went well until I tried potato, and this was closely followed by a migraine. Previously I’d eaten potato most days but my reaction convinced me that it was a trigger. The same thing happened when I tried cow’s milk. Avoiding those foods has made a huge difference ever since and I learned from the experience—in situations where there’s a lot going on, it’s only by systematically reducing the background noise that you can tease out individual effects. 

Something similar has happened during lockdown. With everyday life pared back to basics it’s been a chance to work out what’s really important. Like most people, I’ve missed my family and friends above all else but I’ve been surprised at how little I’ve mourned the loss of days out and holidays. Life was very pleasant before lockdown and I was grateful for it. But it wasn’t always in balance and at times it was so busy that I didn’t have space to think or develop that sense of wellbeing that positive psychology university departments are dedicated to defining. 

In the year before lockdown, I’d started trying to walk more, and keen to make best use of my time, I’d use it as an opportunity to do an errand that would otherwise involve taking the car. So I’d walk to the library or the local shops, take the long way round to buy a newspaper, or walk into town and get the bus back. I managed to do it most days because I knew it was good to get the exercise and I quite enjoyed looking at the urban streets. But I can’t say I loved it—instead it was another chore that had to be done. 

When everything shut for lockdown there were no errands to run and at first that was a relief. Then I realised that I still needed exercise so I’d have to look for an alternative. As it happens, we have woods behind our house and although I’d taken the well-trodden path to the pub many times when we had family and friends visiting, I’d never explored them properly. So I started taking a daily walk there and realised to my astonishment that they are extensive and beautiful. There are many potential routes but after a few weeks I settled into the same circuit and far from getting bored with it, I value its familiarity. There are no decisions to make. I wear the same boots, the same coat and the same gloves, and for an hour a day there is nothing that I have to think about, only the things I choose. Sometimes I listen to the birds. Other times I’m so deep in thought that I forget to listen though I usually notice the light shining through the trees. Quite often, if my head doesn’t feel too full I listen to audiobooks on my phone. I dip in and out as the fancy takes me. Favourites have included The Bee Keeper of Aleppo; Sandi Toksvig’s innovative autobiography Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus; Hallie Rubenhold’s meticulously researched The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, and Professor Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. There was the unmissable Educated by Tara Westover—if you haven’t read it then order it straightaway. And Michelle Obama kept me company in the woods for hours as I listened to her reading Becoming immediately followed by her husband reading Dreams of My Father.

Day after day, month after month through the various lockdowns I’ve had my walk even when it’s been pouring and I’ve had to squelch through mud that has the consistency of chocolate mousse. I’ve never minded getting drenched as most people stay at home when it rains, and so for short periods I’ve felt like I own the world. But inevitably there came a day when I did something different. It was windy which brings with it the one variety of rain that I don’t like—the sort that blows in your face and makes me feel like a cat with its ears flattened and a miserable let me in the house expression. That day I kept thinking ‘I must go for my walk’ and immediately finding things to do that were warmer and drier. By five o’clock it was dark and too late to go out, so I quietly congratulated myself for having such good sense. But it turned out not to be such good sense after all as I spent the evening feeling completely out of sorts and irrationally grumpy. I didn’t like it at all. Nor did Mike. The next morning I had my walk. There was weak sunshine and a blue sky and by the time I got home I was in a much happier frame of mind. True, it was just one data point but I could feel a discernible difference between a day with a walk and a day without a walk. 

I’ve kept up the walking ever since. Then on Friday, Mike and I went swimming at the university pool, delighted to be able to do this again after such a long gap. With about half an hour’s walk each way and then the swim, I figured this would count as my exercise for the day. The route is along some of the urban streets where I used to walk so much—they’re quite attractive and it was good to chat as we walked along. The swim was great but later in the afternoon I had that familiar feeling of being grumpy and at odds with the world. Something was missing and although there were things I’d wanted to get done, I felt in the end that I had no alternative—almost without conscious thought I put on my boots and stepped out on my usual walk. It was chilly but sunny, and half-way round I realised that I felt a lot better. Urban streets are stimulating with lots of things to look at but they don’t provide the relaxation that nature offers. Trees and plants appear in predictable patterns that are soothing and harmonious whereas buildings and people are interesting but unpredictable—the window flapping open, groceries being delivered, someone up a ladder—creating a constant state of alertness that jars the thoughts and calls for a reaction. That’s two data points now but I think I’m starting to understand. 

Much has been said this year about the benefits of being in nature. There have been countless newspaper, radio and magazine articles about it and I think we’ve probably all got the message by now. So this post is not intended to extol the virtues of green spaces—you may have discovered something different that’s become important. Instead my point is that by removing the everyday noise, lockdown has provided near-experimental conditions in which to explore what we value. I hadn’t realised that a daily walk in nature was so important to me. Nor had I worked out a way to introduce it into my life with a rhythm and steadiness that has turned it into a habit—something you do so often that the desire for it becomes automatic. Philippa Lally and her colleagues at University College have studied how habits are formed and report that it takes on average sixty-six days for a behaviour to become a habit though for some habits and some people it can take as much as eight months. We’ve all had plenty of time this year in which to form habits both good and bad. With lockdown I’ve tasted that elusive steadiness and whatever happens next as we resume some kind of normality, I want to take this habit with me. 

Maybe you’ve found out something about yourself? I’d love to hear so do post in the comments section below. 

Opening the Door

It’s been a while since I blogged here and returning feels like opening the door into a room that was once familiar. There’s a layer of dust to sweep away but it’s good to be back even if the view from the window looks a bit different. We’ve lived through an extraordinary time and this week on the first anniversary of lockdown in the UK I’ve heard a lot about how the experience has changed people. Much has centred around the theme of appreciating small things. One woman interviewed on the radio, said that she would “Never again take it for granted when she meets friends for coffee.” Another said that she would now “Be happy with a picnic on the beach.” It’s good to hear all this positivity and that people have learned to be satisfied with less, but let’s see how that goes once we’re all free to start rushing around again.

There will be lasting changes though, and I look forward to seeing what remains from amongst the new interests and routines that people have adopted and adapted to this year. Probably the best thing for me has been having more time to think and write and I’ve enjoyed working on a couple of projects. One grew out of a conversation I had several years ago with my friend Mandy when she asked if I could collect her mum’s memories and edit them into a book for the family. Pat was well into her nineties at that stage but somehow we never quite found the right time to do it—mostly because she was so busy. Then lockdown came along and provided the perfect opportunity. Pat was ninety-nine by then and during times when she would normally be out at her tap dancing or Pilates classes, or doing volunteer visiting in the community, we scheduled Zoom calls. She was always there promptly; perfectly presented with earrings and a necklace, lots of memories and a huge smile.

Each time we focused a different stage of her life like school days or the war, or a different topic such as theatre, sailing, travels or grandchildren. Mandy chatted with her beforehand to help her get her memories in order, and said that it was really enjoyable and enlightening to share this time with her Mum. And I had a surprise when Pat mentioned during our first session, that she was in a tsunami when she was eight. I was still getting into the swing of things at that stage, and thought I’d misheard. But it turned out that she was on Brighton Beach with her aunt in July 1929 when it was hit by the only significant tsunami to affect Britain in living memory. “The sky turned black, then violet and the sea went right back then formed an enormous wave about ten feet high that rushed up the beach,” she said. Her quick-witted aunt who would have had no idea what was happening, told her to run to the promenade. When she got there she watched—“Not in the least bit disturbed by it, just totally amazed. It was like the sea did a great big hiccup.” She was lucky to escape as the tsunami affected a big stretch of the South Coast and several people drowned. 

Another story that surprised me, was that when she was about eight her mother would tell her to take her four-year-old brother up onto the Sussex Downs for the day. “Don’t talk to strangers,” she would say as she sent them off with a packed lunch. They’d walk up an enormous hill and rush around collecting flowers and playing for hours before returning home to their devoted and responsible mother. As Pat said, “Can you imagine people allowing that now?”

From the age of thirteen she boarded at a convent in Brighton where she learned to speak French and appreciate algebra. She loved school and shortly after she joined, they got a new Reverend Mother who rather surprisingly had been in the Paris Opera, and brought in all kinds of new ideas about educating girls in the arts. Pat attributes this to the beginning of her interest in theatre. She went on to become a teacher and theatre director, working in Brighton and later in Bristol. After she moved to Bath she ran the university’s extra-curricular drama and arts programme for students for many years whilst also travelling round the country as a professional advisor to amateur theatre groups. She worked with a group in Swindon for forty-four years and until Covid struck she was still directing one-act plays for her local group in Poole. Not many people can say they’ve been active in the same field for over eighty years.

Pat was happily married to Alec for forty-eight years and they had three children. She is also a grandmother and during lockdown she became a great-grandmother. Her Catholic faith has always been important to her and Mandy says that as a child, she never knew who would be at the dinner table as her parents welcomed in all sorts of people. 

Pat and Alec’s marriage in 1956

A few years after Alec died in 2004, Pat went on a round-the-world trip at the age of eighty-eight with her granddaughter, Harriet. They took advantage of the cheaper flights and so they often had to get up in the middle of the night. On her ninety-fifth birthday she celebrated by going skydiving in Nepal. Her verdict—“I was strapped to an instructor and we went down the side of the mountain. It was so smooth, a wonderful feeling—there was nothing at all to worry about. When the instructor asked if I wanted to go higher, I said, Yes please! and then he told me to look down and there was all my family circling beneath us.”

Today is a good day to air those dusty rooms in my blog as it’s Pat’s hundredth birthday so I’d like to wish her a very happy day. And she is celebrating in typically energetic style. During Lent she has been out come rain or shine, walking five hundred steps a day to raise money for clean water projects in Ethiopia. When I last looked at her JustGiving page she’d raised nearly £7,000 with 260 people making donations and leaving encouraging messages. At a time when there are so many worthy causes competing for everyone’s attention, it’s a measure of the number of lives she has touched. And she seems to have the right recipe as multiple studies report that apart from a lot of luck, physical activity and social contact are the most important ingredients in longevity. In fact some studies suggest that social isolation increases mortality as much as other risk factors like smoking. The sooner we can all get back to some socialising, the better. 

Spending time talking to Pat and editing her memories has been one of the good things about lockdown. Another has been completing the Chain Interview Project. Some of you may remember that I started this here on the blog with the aim of gathering inspiring and interesting stories. I firmly believe that everyone has something interesting to say if you take the time to listen and the model was that each interviewee would pass me on to someone that they admire. The chain started from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames and travelled for over 23,000 miles alighting on three continents. The interviewees have included a rabbi, a philanthropist, a sculptor, a New York Mayoral candidate, a pioneering documentary maker, and a man who rescues giant trees. Some have worked in challenging places—Kabul in the time of the Taliban, a Romanian orphanage, immigration detention centres, remote Indian villages—while others have found themselves caught up in extraordinary situations such as the Rwandan genocide, the Ferguson uprising, and the UN Climate Change Negotiations. I’m thrilled to say that the resulting book—The Interview Chain—will be published by Holland House Books on 30th June. Here’s a preview of the cover. 

Commitment

Over the past few months I’ve been continuing to explore various forms of writing. One of these is the chain interview project and I’m planning to expand this into a book.  People’s lives are fascinating. They’re all so individual; different problems, experiences and responses and through doing these interviews, I’ve gained a new understanding of some important issues. Here is my latest linkan insight into a life of commitment with all the challenges and rewards that it brings. I hope that you enjoy it and find the stories as  inspiring as I do.

Gareth – the ninth interviewee in my chain interview experiment

G Wardell 1

Gareth was introduced by my eighth interviewee, Liz who talked about her experiences as an international physiotherapist, particularly in rural India. She said: “I’ve chosen my friend, Gareth. It was his invitation to India on holiday that was the start of amazing things for me. He is now a vicar in Greater London and is pretty much the most inspirational person I know.”

I met up with Gareth at the vicarage. We sat in his study surrounded by books, paperwork and clocks and he told me about his life. He started by describing himself as ‘just an ordinary common or garden vicar working in the Church of England.’  But as he talked about his experiences of working overseas and the path that led him to ordination, it became clear that he has had an extraordinary life. Not many ‘common or garden vicars’ have lived in Kabul under the Taliban regime.

What are you doing at the moment, Gareth?

I’ve been the vicar of this parish for about four and a half years and have been ordained for twelve years.  I carry out Sunday services, midweek services, baptisms, weddings and lots of funerals. I’m also involved with a number of local schools and do assemblies.  Once or twice a week I go to a local children’s’ hospice where I’m chaplain and I always take Libby my Labrador, with me. People aren’t necessarily interested in seeing a vicar but they’re always interested in seeing a Labrador. It doesn’t take a huge amount of my time but it’s an important aspect of local involvement.

What led you to become ordained?

I was raised in the 1960s when it was not uncommon for children to go to church and Sunday school. I remember having a simple childlike faith but not necessarily feeling that it made a personal difference to my own life. And then when I was twelve I was involved in a serious car crash. I was waiting for a bus when a drunken driver veered across the road and ploughed into the bus shelter. The person on one side of me was disabled for life and the person on the other side was killed. Both my legs were broken and I ended up in hospital. That gave me time to reflect on faith, life and death in a way that would normally be unusual for a twelve-year old. Six months later I went to an evangelical meeting and people were invited to come forward and dedicate their lives to God. I remember thinking, “Yes, this matters to me and I want to make this commitment.” The person who was speaking said, “This shouldn’t be just a phase or a fad—a commitment to God is something that should be life changing.” As I went forward I thought, “What I’m doing now will impact on the rest of my life.” And indeed it has—in ways both good and troubling.

When you said that you made a commitment what did that mean to you?

I knew that my understanding of the Christian faith was limited and childlike in many respects but I found a way of love profoundly attractive and wanted to replicate it in my own life. As a Christian one does not have to be ultra-ascetic but I do think it’s about learning to live simply and to place value on relationships, key values and ethical principles rather than material things. As a child I could not articulate that but I did feel very drawn to it even though that now feels quite countercultural.

So what happened next?

I got involved in the local church youth group and then went off to university to study politics. I wasn’t altogether sure what to do after that—I considered ordination but was told that it’s good to get some experience of life first. So after I graduated in 1981 I decided to take a year out. It was shortly after Mother Theresa had won the Nobel Peace Prize and rather naively I thought that it would be interesting to go and work with her and her organisation. I discovered that there’s a male order called the Missionary Brothers of Charity that works with her Sisters, and that you can go and be a volunteer. So I went off to join them.  It seems very naïve now but I just booked a one-way ticket to Calcutta. I was 21 and arrived at the airport with a few travellers’ cheques and an address.  When I got to the Brothers’ house it turned out that they hadn’t received my letter but they were incredibly welcoming and I ended up staying with them for about a year. I didn’t stay in Calcutta all that time as they thought it would be interesting for me to see some other places. So for a number of months I worked with their mobile leprosy clinic in the state of Bihar in Northern India. I had no medical skills or anything really, but they were very gracious.

I’d obviously read about leprosy in the Bible but although it has been almost eradicated in most of the world it does still exist in some parts. I remember seeing people whose noses had disappeared and whose hands were reduced to stumps. They often had terrible sores because Hansen’s Disease (its proper name) kills the nerve endings. People have no sense of pain and cause themselves terrible injuries by doing things like picking up boiling pots. I also heard stories about people having the stump ends of their feet chewed at night by rats, but not waking up because they couldn’t feel it. I worked in the pharmacy part of the clinic and would count out the tablets and give them out in little screws of paper. One of the biggest challenges was getting people to take the full course of treatment. Their symptoms would partially improve and so they would stop taking the medicine. From talking to the Brothers I began to understand some of the challenges faced by people in that part of the world. They would have to walk for two or three days to get to the clinic, and then another two or three days back to their village. It was difficult for them to take that time away from tending their land.

Farm_workers_Bihar

There was one incident that I particularly remember. We were on our way to set up the clinic for the day when a child ran out from the side of the road. There was nothing the driver could do and we hit it with our jeep. My first thought was ‘OK, we’re in a jeep ambulance that’s marked with a red cross, so we’ll stop and take the child to hospital.” But I was staggered when the Brothers started locking the doors and the jeep sped off. I remonstrated with the driver and said that we should stop. But the Brothers said, “If we do that, there’ll be a mob reaction—the villagers will force us out of the jeep and they might set light to it in revenge. Instead we must go straight to the next village, turn ourselves into the police and explain what has happened.” So that’s what we did—it was about five miles away. We hid the jeep round the back and a policeman stood guard over it while we went into the police station and there was lots of explanation in Hindi. I asked, “What happens now?” and they said, “The villagers will come to the police station.” Sure enough a bit later on, various family members arrived with the child, having flagged down the next vehicle that came along. There was lots of shouting and then a process of negotiation. The child had some injuries but they weren’t life threatening so it was agreed that we would take the family and the child to the local hospital and would pay for any treatment that was needed. It made me reflect on the fact that as a twenty-one year old white person, I was saying, “We need to do the right thing.” But as a foreigner I knew nothing about how these things work.

What did you do at the end of that year in India?

I did some trekking in Nepal and then came back to the UK. I worked in London for a while in an administrative role at The Arts Council of Great Britain, in the HR department, where, among other roles, I served as editor of their in-house magazine.  But by then, my exposure to Asia and the developing world was such that I wanted in that clichéd phrase, ‘to make a difference.’

I also wanted to understand more about ‘good development’ because you can both help and hinder. I didn’t have a science O-Level to my name so there was no way I was going to be a medic but I knew that health service management is important and managed to get a place on the NHS National Management Training Scheme. I spent two years in Yorkshire, learning about health services management and then applied to work with a Christian development organisation in Nepal. They’ve been working in that region since 1852 so had lots of cultural understanding and experience. I went out as an HR manager and eventually became the HR director. At that time they were one of the largest employers in the country, second only to the Government, and employed many thousands of Nepali staff and over 400 expats.

Our remit was to deliver projects that would assist in the development of Nepal and its people. They spanned four main areas—health, education, engineering and industrial development, and rural development. The idea was to set them up and then train Nepali people to run them. The agreements forbade any overt proselytising but we aimed to work “in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ.”

So, for example in the hospitals and community health clinics which the mission helped to run, we sought to challenge traditional approaches and superstition but without undermining the local culture. For most people confronted with a problem such as epilepsy, their first recourse would be to a local jhankri or traditional healer. There were many thousands of these in the rural areas and far fewer Western-trained doctors. These traditional healers would use all sorts of practices that we might regard as somewhat suspect. But they are people of high status in their community and you would not want to alienate them. So rather than working against the local healers, the mission’s Mental Health Programme tried to work with them and to help them not to feel threated by Western medicine. One of the things that worked well was running workshops where we trained them to identify some of the most common mental health problems.

We also worked on some big engineering projects such as hydropower schemes. Bringing electrical power to the villages had all kinds of knock on benefits—people no longer had to cut down trees to burn and so this helped to stop the deforestation which leads to landslides and flooding.

Can I ask about your time in Afghanistan?

I was asked to go there as HR Director to the International Assistance Mission which employed about 500 Afghan staff and about 100 expats.  It was during a particularly unstable period in the early 1990s. Soviet troops had invaded in 1979 but left by 1989 and that led to the fall of the Russian-backed government. The West had worked assiduously to put the Pakistan-based mujahideen into power but within about six months, that government collapsed and broke up into a collection of different groups. After several years of internecine warfare, the Taliban came to power. Kabul, where I lived, faced extraordinary destruction. On a bad day there might be two thousand shells and rockets landing in the city, and on a good day there might be only three or four hundred. There was continual upheaval and you had to be ready to move with just one or two suitcases. I moved house eleven times in eighteen months. A couple of my friends were held with knives to their throats in the counteroffensive and a house where I lived was looted at gunpoint.

It was a fascinating time—very ‘on edge.’  During the day we went out to make sure our projects were functioning but there were times when at night it was safest to be underground. There was one ten-week period when I slept in a basement with eight people from my mission. That was such a bonding experience that even now I’m still in touch with most of them. We sign off our emails as ‘Your BB’— Basement Buddy. They were extraordinary times and I’m grateful to have seen what was possible, even under fire. We were not there to be heroic, we were there with a purpose and our development projects were able to continue even though that sometimes had to be in a reduced form. At one stage during the Taliban era, we were running pretty much the only mother and child health clinic in the whole of Kabul. That was pretty important.

What was the impact of the Taliban regime on women and children?

It was a country that had experienced quite considerable development in the past – when I give talks, I often ask, “Who got the vote first? Was it Afghan women or Swiss women?” People are usually surprised to hear that it was Afghan women in 1964. (Swiss women only got the vote in 1970!). In the period prior to and then during the Soviet occupation, women held a huge number of significant jobs in areas like medicine, teaching and the Civil Service. But of course all of that went awry under the Taliban and it was a terrible shock for women to find their lives so limited. Many were already suffering mental health issues as a result of seeing people killed and they faced further trauma by being constrained to their homes.

Interestingly though, there is evidence to suggest that in some respects, things got slightly better for women at that time. This seems counterintuitive but it was because the majority of qualified teachers had been women. As they were no longer allowed to work, it meant that boys tended to be educated in huge groups—perhaps a hundred in one class with just one male teacher giving a pretty appalling kind of rote learning education. On the other hand, women who were qualified teachers were keen to see education continue and so all across Kabul there was an extraordinary network of secret home schools for girls. Burka-clad women scurried from one alley to another without the Taliban realising what was going on. There would be up to about fifteen girls in a class with one or two teachers and so some girls got a better education than the boys. And even in spite of the restrictions there were times when the Taliban had to accept that women had skills that they needed. So for example, the 400-bed military hospital in Kabul was run by an excellent trauma surgeon called Suhaila Seddiqi who held the rank of General in the Afghan Army. The Taliban tried to stop her working and then realised that they couldn’t run the hospital without her so she carried on. She was always known as ‘General Suhaila’ and when the Taliban fell she became Minister of Health.

Suhaila Seddiqui

Suhaila Seddiqi Photo: USAID

 What happened when you left Kabul?

I was there for about three years and then came back to the UK. I did a masters degree in post-war recovery studies and was planning to do a PhD. Instead, I found myself exploring ordination again, and ended up going off to Cambridge to study theology.

You said earlier that the commitment you made was ‘full of blessings but also troubles.’ What did you mean?

I guess I said that because I’m gay. When I was much younger I had a conservative view of that particular issue and the Christian approach to it. It led me to believe that the only option for a person in my situation was lifelong celibacy. And so I have lived an entirely celibate life but that view is not one I actually believe in any more—it’s not one I would ever teach. Although it’s quite a strong word to use, I think it’s abusive of people and their personal integrity. I would never endorse a life style that’s promiscuous but I’m entirely comfortable with same sex marriage, based on faithful, stable, monogamous relationships, and same-sex parenting. I’ve observed that at close quarters with a number of friends in same-sex relationships, including those who have adopted children and have seen them doing an amazing job.

My hesitancy in my own life is because I still function in what can feel like quite a conservative environment within the Church. I probably work for the only employer in the UK that is entitled to sack me for that issue, which is bizarre when you think even the armed services, which one might think of as traditionally homophobic, are now equal opportunity employers, but not the Church of England! I think if I had been born thirty years later, I might have made different choices. Faith would have been important to me, but I don’t think I would have ruled out the possibility of a relationship and I would love to have been a parent. My life story has been as it is and it’s important to live life without regrets, but that’s what was behind my ambivalence.

 What are you most pleased to have done?

It’s been fascinating to have experienced such diversity across continents and cultures, and I’ve made friends all over the world. But there are times when I see friends post pictures on Facebook of themselves with their first grandchild or with their husband or wife, and it makes me feel slightly wistful about what might have been…  There’s a temptation sometimes to wonder what I’ve achieved but I hope that I’ve modelled something of the love of God in the variety of contexts in which I’ve lived. I’ve wanted to be there for people at times of extraordinary difficulty as well as at times of great joy and thanksgiving. That’s what I set out to do right from the beginning.

G Wardell 1