A couple of days a week I stand across the road from a shopping mall to distribute leaflets and other pieces of literature on behalf of a local church. Recently a young, diminutive woman dressed in cheerful summer attire walked past me. As she did so she kept looking back slowing down to a halt. ‘You’re hesitating,’ I called out with a smile. She walked back and peered at the church’s name on the front of my red hi-vi jacket. ‘I know where that church is,’ she said, ‘but I can’t stop because my partner is a controlling man and he doesn’t like me talking to strangers.’ Her body trembled and she shiftily glanced around as she spoke. Having told me this she made to leave but then stepped forward again to take one of my leaflets. ‘I’ll come to church,’ she remarked. ‘You’ll be made very welcome,’ I replied. Picking up on my accent she – still glancing around – told me her grandmother was Scottish and that she had loved the way she said ‘Awright, hen?’ to her, which is a term of endearment for females in Scotland. She then told me that she was a descendent from the French Huguenots who had King Henry VIII to thank for their survival. Again she made to leave repeating albeit conditionally this time that she would try and get to the church but again she stepped forward to nervously continue the history lesson. Sensing her fear and not wanting to keep her in that state – this encounter took place in a busy street – I offered her a copy of the New Testament as a parting gift. She was speechless and genuinely moved by the offer a reaction that indicated this sad woman longed to be genuinely loved, to be set free from captivity and find peace in her life. Tucking the book into her shoulder bag she thanked me and set off and disappeared into the throng all the while checking around her. This young woman with the world at her feet was dressed in the height of colourful summer fashion yet its brightness was betrayed by the darkness of fear and cruelty.
Category Archives: Blog
The spectre of knife crime hovers over Wandsworth, London. One Mother affected by its deadly presence responds.
I was privileged to meet Mrs Jennifer Beckford yesterday (18th June) at the church I am attached to as an outreach worker. She and her husband lost their beloved son Nicholas to a knife attack in 2014. In spite of coping with the devastation of such a loss they are nonetheless in the process of setting up the Nicholas Stewart Project, which they plan to locate in the disreputable estate where the crime took place. The project offers young people education, training, personal development and employment opportunities. It also offers support to parents affected by violent crime. Mrs Beckford has been garnering material and practical support from churches, agencies, outlets and individuals from within the district.
Whenever I’ve dreamt of the office where I formerly worked (I’ve dreamt of it numerous times since leaving in 1992) I was strictly treated as an outsider by staff; no one talked or took notice of me. In real life this was not entirely true; I got along fine with a few of the men and women. However, in last night’s dream I was accepted by all. When I’ve left this office in previous dreams to go home it’s been late at night and either without bike lights or just missed the last bus. The way home was too dark to risk cycling hence I was stranded once again. In last night’s dream I left the office carrying a patchwork quilt like the one I actually own. I stepped out of the door to be immediately faced by a rocky incline from the door to the peak that looked like the top of a lengthy wall. Ascending its rough surface wasn’t easy. My legs felt very heavy almost too heavy to take a step. On the way up a woman drew near from the side and placed her cool cheek against mine and said something and backed off. I could not make out what it was she said. I finally trudged my way to the top to discover houses and other buildings on the other side. Still holding the blanket I dropped down onto the road below, stood upright and looked ahead at the darkened row of houses running across the entry to the dimly lit road where I stood. I didn’t recognise them nor did I know where I was. A woman from the office came up from behind and walked past. I reached out to take her hand as she did so but quickly withdrew it. I wasn’t sure how she’d react. Besides, she never noticed me. She disappeared round the corner leaving me standing alone in this strange, unfamiliar, silent dimly lit street with not another soul in sight.
Whilst staying with friends in the country for three days I took a stroll each evening. On the first I was delighted to come across an abandoned farmstead that enabled me to recall my youth working on farms. My memory brought each empty building I stepped into back to life. In the byre I saw myself hooking the chain round each cow’s neck as it stuck its wide nose into the trough; clear the dung grip then brush down the byre after I’d herded the cows back to the field after milking; bed down the young cattle in the shed with corn straw then cut and toss a barley straw bale into the standing wooden trough, and smelled the simmering pig swill in the large cauldron. Back in the present I returned to the yard and stood with my eyes closed in order to allow myself to be embraced in the arms of a farmstead once more after all these years. I repeated this pattern during each of the following two evenings. On the third I opened my eyes to see a woman passing the yard entrance. She was walking her dog and slowed down when she saw me. ‘Hi!’ I said smiling. ‘Just living in the past for a few moments. I used to work on farms.’ I added. The woman stopped. ‘It’s been empty for a few years now,’ she said, ‘I think there’s plans to build houses though goodness knows when.’ She joined me in the yard and after a little while chatting about the decline in farming and about things in general the conversation took a more introspective turn. Being roughly the same age we moved from the present to sharing our respective pasts laughing, lamenting and showing empathy etc where appropriate. I’m quite a chatty person but in this instance she did most of the chatting. Listening to her reminded me of me – she possessed the same memory for detail. ‘That’s all in the past now,’ she finally said with a sigh followed by a brief contemplative silence for both of us. ‘I think the house is telling us something,’ I eventually said. ‘Hmm, I wonder,’ she murmured as she scanned the walls. I nodded towards the fading, damp stained red brick exterior with roof slates missing and weeds growing out of the guttering: ‘The doors, the windows, they’re all boarded up. Like something else that should be,’ I remarked pensively. ‘Yes, I think I know what you mean,’ she uttered and called on her dog. We walked down the dirt road commenting on the lovely, surrounding countryside and sunset as we did so. At the gate we bade each other goodbye and went our separate ways. This time, unlike my two previous evening strolls to the farmstead, I never looked back.
Wrote Oscar Wilde, the predicate being ‘One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.’ Given my penchant for remembering details – by which I mean life enhancing and necessary details – I smiled at the ‘never remember’ part of this line. As an artist – a discipline requiring both naked and spiritual eye for detail – I see (and sense) the ‘colour of life’ in its many hues and tones just as Wilde as writer actually does in spite of what he says. The overall painting might be absorbed by the casual viewer but the artist remembers the details that were essential to its construction. The same applies to the works of a writer and also a composer. After all Wilde also said art is an extension of the artist. Be this as it may you don’t have to be an artist to remember details. I was recently sitting in a church cafe reading The Picture of Dorian Gray (the origin of the aforementioned statement) when the sound of a reassuring voice asked ‘Everything okay?’ I looked up and saw that the voice belonged to a kindly looking elderly woman standing by my table looking down at me. She wore a lapel badge bearing the legend ‘Listener.’ ‘I’m fine, thank you. And you?’ I replied with an appreciative smile. She was startled by my reciprocal enquiry. ‘Oh, I’m well, thank you’ followed by a moment’s hesitation that I discretely punctuated by insisting she join me at the table. She sat down and after a brief exchange of introductions our conversation seamlessly progressed to us becoming listeners of each other’s summarised life stories. Truncated as these were a significant detail that emerged from hers was the loss of her beloved husband at 93 years of age. She went on to share enlightening insights of his life specifically his love of water colour painting that in turn had me soliciting even more details. It was clear from the fond look on her face and in the tone of her voice that she enjoyed this opportunity to do so. I was only too happy to be a willing and engaged listener. Instead of moving on and asking the next person if everything was okay this charming woman asked if she could show me round the church. For the next half hour or so she brought to remembrance a detailed history of this one thousand year old landmark known as the ‘birthplace of England’. Had she passed by my table I would simply have drank my coffee, closed the book and left the building knowing only its age. Now I have its details to remember and also those of her late husband as artist both of which were life enhancing rather than vulgar.
This picture brought back memories of my childhood days on the farm when farmer John used to drive me and pal Mike to Lanark Market. I was mesmerised by the rapid gunfire vocabulary of the cattle auctioneer and the subtle responses of the buyers e.g. slight nod of the head or raised finger. I was scared to move a muscle during those sales. I loved scratching pigs’ long foreheads too and wished their scent could be bottled (still do). I especially loved the the packed cafe where John treated us to ‘mince and tatties’. To my fertile mind the farmers possessed big hands, which impressed me so much I made it an ambition to possess hands just as big. I reasoned the size must have been achieved by lifting heavy wheelbarrow loads of dung and doing lots of heavy shovel work. Alas, the reward for my puny efforts was agonising blisters, toppled overladen wheelbarrows (on one occasion I slipped forward head first into the manure) and the farmer getting work done quicker at no extra cost. Instead of big I ended up with tough hands once the blisters had burst and settled. Be this as it may, I’m thankful for the strong work ethic that was instilled both on the farm and at home and for John’s positive role however brief it was in my life. Fond memories.
An extract from a friend’s post.
“Everyone goes through hard times at some point. Life isn’t easy. Just something to think about. Did you know the people that are the strongest are usually the most sensitive? Did you know the people who exhibit the most kindness are the first to get mistreated? Did you know the ones who take care of others all the time are usually the ones who need it the most? Did you know the three hardest things to say are I love you, I’m sorry, and help me? Sometimes just because a person looks happy, you have to look past their smile to see how much pain they may be in…”
The last sentence reminds me of a metaphor contained in a verse from The Beatles’ song, Eleanor Rigby:
“Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?”
And from another of their songs:
“Although I act and laugh like a clown,
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown.”