This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London.

Borough Market in London is a place I used to know well when I lived just a few miles away. Go down any time and it was like being drowned in smells and sounds and languages from around the planet. I once bumped into a television news foreign correspondent by a cheese stall – a man normally seen in a war zone somewhere remote. I wondered – but was too shy to ask – how he coped with moving between the two worlds: the world of unspeakable violence in parts of the Middle East and the world of safe, domesticated ordinariness of home.

This weekend the two worlds collided once again in the brutality of extremist violence on an ordinary evening in an extraordinary city. Two weeks ago it was Manchester, last week Coptic Christians in Egypt, this week mourners at a funeral in Kabul, and a day ago people getting ready for another working week in London.

Perhaps the most uttered prayer – even on the lips of those who claim no faith – might be that of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, how long…?” How are we to respond to yet another act of cowardly violence, and the prospect of more to come?

Borough Market runs alongside Southwark Cathedral – a place not just of prayer, but that attests to the reality of human life in all its colour. Here it is that Chaucer’s pilgrims met before embarking on their journey to Canterbury. Chaucer was clearly at pains to bring together a motley group of diverse people who had stories to tell, lives to share, fears to explore, deaths to face. They spare no hiding places as they walk and talk and laugh and weep and wonder at what it means to be mortal. Read Chaucer and there’s no escape from the fact that the freedom to love brings with it the freedom to hate; that the freedom to worship brings the freedom to mock the objects of another person’s adoration or value; that the freedom to fear accompanies the freedom to hope.

For some people freedom is precisely the problem: why doesn’t God stop it all? For others, prayer is the problem: if these crazy people would be rational, then they wouldn’t do these terrible things. But, prayer, even if it involves us opening our hearts to an expression of all we desire, is primarily an exposing of ourselves to reality: the reality that we are mortal, that loving in the face of murder seems weak, that giving in to the cycle of violence and retribution does nothing to solve the problem.

When people say they are praying for London, they will mean different things. But, for me and other Christians at least, it involves commitment to all the world can throw at us, never exemption from it. Like the man on the cross at Calvary, this commitment refuses to give violence, death and destruction the final word.


One of my earliest memories of being bewildered goes back to my first reading of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at my comprehensive school in Liverpool. I didn’t understand a word, but later learned that poetry is not only about content, but also about rhythm and sound and evocation. And  day like today – warm sun shining and a cloudless blue sky ( also empty of aircraft because of the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland) – and it is Chaucer who springs to mind:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

The Canterbury pilgrims were moved by the promise of spring to walk to the Mother Church of England. But they started in the Tabard pub in Southwark.

I sometimes wonder where I was in the queue when the spirituality ‘genes’ were given out. I know many people today love spiritual pilgrimages and the mysticism of ‘holy sites’ and ‘holy journeys’. In my own experience the best pilgrimages (of mind and spirit) have begun in the open world of the pub and only ended (if they ever really did end) in the church – not usually the other way round. The best questions are raised in the common places of human discourse, even if they find their ‘home’ eventually in the place of worship and freedom.

But this spring is starting well as the blossom flourishes outside my study window and the trees are budding green. The Hillsborough Inquiry has begun this week under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Liverpool, Liverpool Football Club is finally on the market (and, hopefully, out of uncomprehending American hands), the Liberal Democrats have blown a hole in lazy British assumptions about two-party politics (and brought the election to life), and I’ve got Bruce Springsteen competing with Chaucer – maybe because he put a good tune to it:

And the girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes
Pass me by.

Somehow that (and the music that goes with it) welcomes the spring and captures the optimism engendered by not having to wear loads of clothes.

Summer is coming…