radio


This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show.

I know it’s easy to get out of touch, but I was a bit boggled to read the other day that Ed Sheeran’s song Shape of You has been streamed 2.4 billion times. 2.4 billion! But, the most streamed artist of the decade is Drake – 28 billion streams. That is an utterly boggling number.

Now, this makes me feel a bit off the page, but the most auspicious musical event of the last couple of weeks – for me – was the launch of Leonard Cohen’s album, three years after his death, of Thanks for the Dance. It is funny, poignant and wonderful -however few streams he gets. His deep, old voice articulates the stuff of living and dying in colourful poetry and the language of joy.

Try this: “No one to follow and nothing to teach except that the goal falls short of the reach.” Now, isn’t that what we all feel most of the time? The goal falls short of the reach; we get disappointed that we aren’t all we want to be. We mess things up and get stuff wrong, and wish we could be better. Or am I the only one?

I was once asked in a radio interview about Leonard Cohen if he had “hijacked religious language” – like in his song Hallelujah. My answer was that, rather than hijacking it, he had actually understood it! “The holy and the broken hallelujah”. That’s what we all are, isn’t it? As we prepare for Christmas in a few weeks’ time, this goes to the heart of my longing: a God who in Jesus comes among us as one of us and subjects himself to all that the world can throw at him … without throwing it back. Taking broken people and making them whole. Running with the grain of who they are, but opening up a world of being infinitely loved and valued. Challenging the prejudices of powerful men and giving life to people who thought they were worthless because their goal fell short of the reach.

I guess Ed Sheeran would agree with that. Whatever form you take, the shape of you is unique and uniquely loved. Broken, forgiven, restored. And that, I think, is very good news.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show as Rylan completed his karaokathon in aid of the Children in Need appeal.

Karaoke! I’ve never done it. Been tempted once or twice, but I value my life too much to inflict my inner Gloria Gaynor on anyone else. How Rylan has managed it for 24 hours is anybody’s guess. However, I did once get arrested in Paris for busking when I was younger – the police just didn’t appreciate my art.

My favourite karaoke experience is Bill Murray in the great film Lost in Translation belting out Elvis Costello’s ‘What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?’ in Tokyo.

But, even those of us who don’t do karaoke do sing other people’s songs – in the bath, quietly on the train, walking the dog. There are always those songs that creep up on you when you’re thinking about something else and then, like Kylie, you can’t get it out of your head. It always amazes me to watch Glastonbury on the telly and see thousands of people singing every word of a song I’ve never heard sung by someone I just don’t recognise.

We all have those songs – words written by other people – that give us a vocabulary for saying what we can’t frame for ourselves. This isn’t new, though. Go back nearly three thousand years and you find poems giving voice to experiences of joy, wonder, anger, frustration, fear, hope: you name it, you’ll find it in the Psalms. Which is why in churches and synagogues you keep hearing them read or sung. They get under your skin. Sometimes, feeling fine, you find yourself doing a Psalm that expresses different emotions or experience; but, sing or say it anyway and, after time, you find it whispering through the mist of misery when you’ve lost the words to say what you feel.

I guess this also inevitably leads me to think about what it might look like to sing my own song. Not just to go along with someone else’s poetry, but to write my own. Some of the Psalms were written by and for a people living in exile – keeping the songs of home alive in a strange land. They had to work at it, not letting hope be swamped by the ‘now’.

Give Rylan a medal … and I’ll find the words today that give voice to my own song.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show:

I don’t often get the chance, but I went to the cinema the other day to see Judy, the new film about Judy Garland. I found it really hard going. Why? Well, mainly because I wanted to weep … almost from the first scene. It reminded me of two other films about two other brilliant women: the story of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose and the documentary about Amy Winehouse. Each story ended in tragedy; each woman experienced exploitation and cruelty to an extraordinary degree, but each woman showed remarkable courage in the face of what looks now like inevitable doom.

I inhabit a Christian tradition that sees every person as infinitely valuable – made in the image of God and loved infinitely. Human dignity lies at the heart of this. And it is the fundamental reason why nobody should ever be seen as an object or an instrument of someone else’s self-satisfaction. When I read the gospels I constantly see rejected and sometimes abused people – usually women – meeting the wandering rabbi from Nazareth and finding healing, renewed dignity, unconditional love, mercy. And for treating people this way, Jesus got it in the neck from the religious authorities. Eventually, of course, they nailed him.

I find the Judy film powerful because there seemed to be few people looking after her as a human being, as opposed to a product on stage and screen. Her search for love is heartbreaking. But, it also leads me to think about how, especially in the current febrile political atmosphere, we see individuals being vilified, humiliated, threatened and attacked just for doing their job. Behind every MP, every journalist, every radio presenter, every judge, there is a human being who has their own life, family, relationships and insecurities. When we dehumanise them, we dehumanise ourselves.

‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ bluebirds may well fly. And ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ there might even be a land of lullabies. But, romance aside, the longing of the child star, disappointed by life, drugs and five marriages, at least expressed some hope of a future – a future that other people dimmed. But, it is this hope that I have a responsibility to awaken and keep alive in the people I meet today.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green?” Well, no, actually – probably not. But, William Blake’s questions are not to do with historical event or fantasy, but with the need for a vision of England itself that transcends present miseries. Reality can only take you so far, after all.

A new Blake exhibition opened last week at Tate Britain in London and it has provoked huge interest. As someone who has never quite understood him, I look forward to seeing it and having my imagination opened more widely by seeing the world through Blake’s eyes. For what is clear about him is that his poetry, art and writing sees him wrestling with what it means to be truly human in a troubling world.

In his work we see Blake struggling personally with what was going on around him. Political oppression, public fear, uncertainty about the future in a changing world – he faced reality with imagination, vision and thankless political commitment.

However, vision wasn’t enough: he took seriously his own responsibility for addressing the world he questioned. The ‘satanic mills’ were a source of England’s prosperity, but they relied on draining human beings of life and soul; children might fit into chimneys, but that didn’t mean they should be sent up them – especially by people who then went to church to praise God.

It seems to me that Blake understood what is easily forgotten by Christians like me: that those who claim God’s name should at least begin to reflect the character and priorities of God. In other words, if I truly believe – and claim to be motivated by – the God of the Bible, in whose image every human being is made, then I cannot support or collaborate in language, policies or actions that diminish people.

Now, Blake recognised that this isn’t a black and white matter. None of us simply switches a moral dial and suddenly becomes perfect or consistent. We are not only fallibly human, but we also live in a particular social, historical and cultural context. The most we can do is try to see clearly – which means having the humility to allow the lens behind my eyes to be re-ground – and live differently, despite everything.

Blake worked out his salvation in vivid and glorious – sometimes terrifying – image. Words opened up the possibility of the divine – a spirituality of hope and justice in a world of grinding misery and material poverty. In looking through his eyes I hope we might find our own opened to look differently and see differently – what I would call the beginning of conversion.

Agreeing with Blake’s vision is not the aim. Engaging with its struggle is. Because in engaging with his mystical vision of God and humanity we might find ourselves inevitably driven to what these look like in real flesh and blood. To seeing “Jerusalem builded here”.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

The other day I was browsing the German political journal Der Spiegel and found my attention arrested by an article the like of which I have not seen before. It was written by Niklas Frank, son of Hitler’s notorious General Governor of Poland Hans Frank. His father, a politician and lawyer, was executed as a war criminal at Nürnberg in October 1946.

The thrust of the article is that at the age of 80, having thought his father’s legacy had gone from the earth, he now discovers echoes of the same rhetoric in the mouths of some extreme right-wing politicians in Germany. And he is a very worried man.

The poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht ended his play ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’ with the warning that the end of Nazism did not mean that its ideology died in a Berlin bunker. And here is Niklas Frank’s concern: that the same old ideas find their way back into our discourse while we are not looking, and sound reasonable in the midst of current uncertainties, crises and fears.

One of the things I began to learn many years ago is that my children might well have to forgive me for the wrong things I have said or done to them or others. Parents always make it up as they go along, seeking advice and trying their best. But, I doubt if any of us looks back with smug satisfaction at having got everything right. But, that is a far cry from having to live with the knowledge of a father’s crimes against humanity and the legacy this left for the whole world for ever.

When Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice that “the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” he was echoing the Hebrew Scriptures when they describe – rather than prescribe – reality. We inherit and cannot escape from the consequences of the sins of the fathers and mothers, and maturity involves coming to terms with this and living with or despite it.

For Niklas Frank, however, the matter cannot be left there. His inheritance, he believes, imposes on him a moral obligation to see through his father’s eyes the language and rhetoric that would have been as familiar as it was effective. So, when political language betrays a view of human beings that dehumanises them or dismisses their dignity, Frank sees the urgent need to identify where this thinking led in the past – his own family’s past.

I guess he would sympathise with WH Auden who once wrote: “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie”. This tells me that I don’t have to have had a murderous father before listening for the language that turns people into numbers or objects, converts their inconvenience into disposability, or elevates my own self-righteousness above the dignity of those who have less power.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2 with Zoe Ball.

I know I’m getting old, but I have to admit: forgetting dates isn’t an entirely new experience for me. I even find new technologies only help emphasise my hopelessness when it comes to remembering birthdays. When my diary tells me that today is so-and-so’s anniversary, it’s already too late to send a card – and it looks a bit obvious when they get a belated text message.

But, some dates get burned into your memory like no others. 9/11 is just one of them. The terrorist attacks in America back in 2001 confronted us with images from which we will never escape. I remember doing Pause for Thought a couple of days later as the shock began to give way to horror at the human stories of loss and grief.

When people got up that morning no one thought it would be any other than just another day. But, then the ordinary became extraordinary; and now the date haunts us – our memory and our imagination, our fears and our sense of fragility.

Well, this isn’t exactly cheerful, is it? I suppose I could have chosen another example of the ordinary becoming extraordinary: for example, when I was a kid I used to go to a barber shop on Penny Lane in Liverpool – an ordinary suburban street that became eternally famous around the world, but, for me, the place I went to get a haircut.

I recall this today because at the heart of my Christian faith is precisely this phenomenon: God opting into the ordinary and the ordinary becoming extraordinary. And I have to remind myself that I need to keep my own eyes open to the possibility of being surprised – that I mustn’t miss the glimpse of the possibility that God might be at work, wakening my imagination to where I might need to commit my own energies in loving my neighbour today.

Maybe the unforgettable memory of 9/11 itself might be the prompt I need today to acknowledge the power of cruelty and violence – but also to ask how this can push me into shining light into the darkness and making an ordinary day extraordinary for those whom I meet.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of what is now called GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters. During that century the world – including the worlds of communication, espionage and intelligence – has changed radically. Even when I joined as a linguist specialist back in 1980 what we thought of as cutting-edge technology now looks quaint. As the world, driven by technology has developed, so have the intelligence services, their competences and self-understanding.

When I was at Cheltenham, working mainly in Russian and German, the place itself was so secret it didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Now they have open days, social media recruitment and lots of other imaginative ways of communicating their existence, preoccupations and value to society.

What haven’t changed, of course, are the basic questions of national security and the need for any country to learn the languages of others. Whereas the need for national security, in one sense, speaks for itself, the “learning the language of others” stuff might not be so obvious. But, effective intelligence work demands that you get inside the head of those you suspect of threatening you, look out through their eyes, listen through their ears, and understand how this shapes or directs their language and behaviour.

Now, there is a risk to this exercise. If you learn about another people and enter into their experience, you begin to comprehend and, sometimes, even sympathise with them. It isn’t quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it is risky. For example, learning about the experiences and historical contexts of my enemy might reframe my understanding of why they behave or speak the way they do. We all speak in codes and the codes depend on common intuitions or understandings.

I think this goes to the heart of being human in society. If empathy gets lost, then we find it difficult to read each other. Instead of being exposed to reality – which is often complex and nuanced – I pigeon-hole or stereotype them and then feel justified in the security of my own trench.

“Loving my neighbour as myself” is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but demands hard and imaginative work – letting the other slip beyond the box I want to put them in.

I think this is also pertinent in other areas of our common life in these strange times. Instead of lobbing accusations from trenches at those who see the world – or particular policies – differently, a decision to invest in listening, imagining and understanding does not come naturally to most of us. Listen to debates in Parliament this last week and it becomes clear how hard and how important it is that we try.

I might have left GCHQ a long time ago, but the questions it fed me have not gone away.

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