Three Lions

Lions are frequently depicted as symbols of strength and courage and, as such, they feature in the works of various literary heavyweights. Aesop’s fable ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ used to be a particular childhood favourite of mine, not least because I fell in love with the idea that the humble mouse could lend such crucial assistance to a creature as formidable as the mighty lion. Of course, the lion is not portrayed in a particularly good light here, exuding vanity and arrogance as opposed to dignity and valour…

As I grew up, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ and (like so many) found myself drawn to Aslan, one of the main characters. And whilst the description of his physical appearance (and irrefutable status as the ‘King above all High Kings’) was genuinely awe inspiring, it was perhaps his compassionate nature and strong moral compass that left the greatest impression on me during my teenage years.

More recent examples include Jessica Olivia Sinatra’s book ‘Leonardo the Lion. A leap of faith’ (written in 2018) which introduces children to a courageous and determined lion cub. The stories explore the many challenges commonly faced by today’s children (making friends, being accepted by others, and embracing diversity in the community) and each book in the series is centred around the core values of love, kindness, and respect.

The lion (sometimes referred to as a leopard) is also a dominant feature of the royal arms of England, having been adopted by the Plantagenet kings who ruled over the country from as early as 1154. There is something truly majestic about the sleek (golden) lions placed against a background of rich crimson and this bold image of heraldry has endured over the centuries – despite our country’s rather chequered history.

As I have mentioned before, I spend most of my Saturdays ‘braving the elements’ in order to watch our boys play football. At times, the biting wind and driving rain has tested my resolve to the limit, and I have frequently noted that ‘grassroots’ might reasonably be substituted with ‘mud bath’ (football) instead! (My washing machine would certainly agree…) However, the notion that healthy roots are the most likely catalyst for abundant growth and development has not been totally lost on me, and the ethos of Grassroots Football is one to which I can wholeheartedly subscribe. After all, bringing children together through sport “whatever their age, gender, physical condition, skin colour, religion or ethnic origin” is a powerful vision and one utterly worthy of the 40,000+ clubs that are represented by this organisation.

Since England’s defeat in the Euro finals last week, there has been much discussion in the media about managerial tactics, individual (under) performance and of course those missed penalties. And it would seem that everyone has an opinion on the matter, with little or no reluctance to share it! However, with the power of social media to reach an audience of epic proportions (instantaneously) it has been sickening to read the comments of a reprehensible minority who have seen fit to deride and wound this group of young players with their vitriolic remarks.

I am in no doubt that all 26 of the young men who were chosen to represent their country wore the ‘three lions’ with pride and I am also absolutely certain that each one wanted desperately to ensure that ‘football (was) coming home’ thereby putting an end to all those ‘years of hurt’.  However, for whatever reason, it was not meant to be, and it is now time to regroup and move on.

I, for one, enjoyed every minute of England’s progress to the final. If nothing else though, it has highlighted the need to address the abhorrent behaviour of some of our so-called ‘fans’ once and for all, and for us to take this opportunity to educate our children on the vital issues that have once again disgraced our nation. By exercising the compassion, wisdom, and humility of Aslan and casting aside the narcissism of both Aesop’s central character – and those individuals who feel that they have the right to boo the national anthem of every other nation – we might just build a national identity of which we can justifiably be proud.

Calling all Superheroes!

I often think that parenting is akin to an extreme form of superhero training. There may not be any kryptonite involved (and I’ve yet to encounter any infinity stones) but daily survival has, nonetheless, been known to present its own challenges with everyone’s wellbeing (especially mine) frequently left hanging (rather precariously) in the balance.

However, even the most stressful of mornings (when the relatively straightforward task of leaving the house as a family unit, suitably equipped for the day with one’s sanity broadly intact) has nothing on the abject horror of the ‘in-tray exercise’!

Yes, with one foot firmly seated in middle age (and the other desperately seeking a new and exciting chapter) I finally came up against this veritable instrument of cognitive torture. And I have to admit that I was more than willing to wave the white flag of surrender just a few short minutes later!

For those of you who haven’t yet had the ‘pleasure’ of such an experience, let me attempt to give you an indication of what to expect.

Now obviously, my little Pandora’s (In)Box was full of school-based scenarios – the likes of which (if they were to occur simultaneously on a Monday morning as suggested) would literally require the help of the ‘Avengers’ and the ‘Justice League’ combined in order to demonstrate even a modicum of managerial supremacy – but if you can imagine apocalyptic levels of employee, client, or customer dissatisfaction, coupled with a lack of resources and wholly unrealistic deadlines, then this should prove universally relevant!

In just 30 minutes one is required to ‘solve’ a seemingly near exhaustive list of ‘problems’, ranking them in order of priority and explaining what course of action should be taken. Simple, right?

Wrong!

Because for every choice that you make, you are basically providing your future employer with a Velux style window to your soul, laying bare your capacity (or otherwise!) for compassion, logic, and leadership. And the final straw here, is that your line manager will almost certainly be ‘unavailable’ to lend any support to this fire-fighting exercise, and your future colleagues are apparently representative of the very small percentage of the population for whom physical or mental impairment should really have rendered them unemployable – and thoroughly deserving of every benefit going!

The final twist, of course, is that (having prioritised the immediate safeguarding concerns of any pupil who has been hypothetically placed in your care; having dealt with any pressing staffing shortages; having provided pastoral support to a distressed team member; having prepared the necessary academic data for a governors’ meeting; having written a captivating article for the newsletter; having responded to a parental complaint; having disciplined a junior member of staff and having referred a parent back to the school’s policy on the administering of medication) your own child is apparently in need of urgent help too.

What to do now? Where exactly should your own ‘flesh and blood’ rank in all of this? I mean, if you deal with your own son / daughter ahead of a school issue, then there’s a strong chance that you will be inviting criticism along the lines of
a) not being very dedicated to your job or
b) failing to take your professional responsibilities seriously.
Then again, to ignore your own child’s ‘cry for help’ paints you in a rather unfavourable light too – not to mention lining you up nicely for a child protection concern that is frankly a little too close to home!

Thirty minutes later, I left the confines of that tiny office a mere shadow of my former self.

My head was literally throbbing with the strain of trying to deal with such a kaleidoscope of child-related chaos; the academic data had been delegated to possibly the only other suitable senior leader (assuming that they were not, of course, amongst the previously mentioned high numbers of staff absences); my newsletter article was about as engaging as a bowl of tapioca (having managed to devote just 2 minutes and 48 seconds to it, off the back of far too much ethical and logistical deliberation) and try as I might, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that I had more than likely overlooked something of real significance.

In summary, I suspect that my performance was moderate to mediocre, and it was undeniably an experience that I would be in no particular hurry to repeat. However, in a humble attempt to adhere to my original analogy, I would suggest that certain qualities would be a minimum requirement – if ever (like me) you should find yourself bravely pursuing ‘in-tray utopia’…

At the very least, you should aim to exhibit the genius of Iron Man, the leadership of Captain America, the resilience of Thor and the compassion of Superman. Otherwise, prepare for the comparative ignominy of, for example, Marvel’s Jack of Hearts.

Preparing to be unlocked

Having recently entered the next stage of the government’s plan to ease restrictions, there’s a sense of cautious optimism in the air. We’ve been here before, of course, but with the roll-out of 30 million+ COVID vaccines, there is every reason to feel quietly confident that we are taking back some of the control that was so ruthlessly snatched from us 12 months ago. Here’s hoping that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is not simply a train coming the other way, ready to knock us off our feet once more…

‘Daring to hope’ by Gaynor Hall

Tell me it’s over, the incarceration
That stifled the freedom of many a nation,
Prevented the sharing of happiness or grief,
And threw up behaviour that ‘beggared belief’.

Playgrounds fell silent, parks were left bare,
Homes and gardens deemed unsafe to share,
Bus stops deserted, restaurants too,
Roads less congested; used by so few.

Hospitals quite literally bursting their seams,
Struggling to cope with a virus so extreme
That people were dying – regardless of age,
With figures quite simply impossible to gauge.

But slowly the tide has started to turn,
Children are back in their classrooms to learn,
Businesses fighting so hard for survival
Preparing to open, to start their revival.

And so, there is only one question to ask,
(Although it might seem an onerous task)
What will you cherish, and what will you change –
Having lived through an era unparalleled and strange?

Crowd pleaser or individual?

I remember coming out of my A’ level English Literature exam feeling reasonably confident about my performance, and hopeful of a good result. There were just twelve of us who had taken the exam and we all met up for the customary post-exam analysis, sprawled out on the grass and basking in the knowledge that the long summer holidays were almost upon us.

Our teacher happened to be in the vicinity and came over to see what we had all made of the final paper – and that is when I experienced that utterly sickening feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach. It seemed that literally everyone else had interpreted the final essay question differently from me, and I was more than prepared, therefore, to accept that I had simply got the ‘wrong end of the stick’. I decided not to draw attention to my obvious faux pas, choosing instead to listen good naturedly for a while and then slip away quietly, just as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

As results day loomed, I felt certain that my error of judgement would prove costly and so the elation (and if I’m honest, surprise) of being awarded the top-grade all those weeks later felt all the more precious. Indeed, the whole experience taught me a valuable lesson – that just because you are in the minority, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong.

The notion of having the confidence to ‘plough one’s own furrow’ is no less pertinent all these years later and yet parents up and down the country will almost certainly (like me) have found themselves in something of a quandary. On the one hand, we try to teach our children that standing up for what is right is vital to our integrity and self-esteem and that individuality is to be encouraged, even celebrated. But on the other hand, most parents secretly want their child to fit in, to be accepted, and we go to significant lengths to make sure that the way in which they behave (right down to the clothes that they choose to wear) doesn’t attract the unwanted attention of a would-be aggressor.     

Hans F. Hansen once stated that “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” My younger (more forthright) self would no doubt have embraced this statement wholeheartedly. Today though, I would possibly champion a slightly modified version. Yes, I would acknowledge the pitfalls of ‘blindly following the crowd’ (whilst urging my children to ‘be true to themselves’) but I would also remind them that ‘no man is an island’ and that there is something to be said for maintaining ‘safety in numbers’.

Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it!

If at first you don’t succeed, shout a little louder!

When I was growing up, Cornwall was very much the destination of choice for our annual summer holiday. Every year, we’d set off from Shropshire in my Dad’s Citroen Familiale with a variety of hearty homemade meals stashed under every conceivable seat. Then, many long hours later, we’d pull up outside our holiday accommodation, only to find that one of us had fallen asleep en route (again) and left a sizeable footprint in the top of one pie or another. And whilst the flavour never seemed to have been palpably diminished by such treatment, I’m sure that you can imagine just how well this tended to go down with our parents… 

Imagine my excitement then, when Mum and Dad announced that we would be going to France for a change. The plan was to catch the ferry from Dover to Calais and then take the motor-rail as far as Brive. This in itself sounded like quite an adventure – taking your car on a train was ‘quite something’ back in the 80s and (quite apart from eating fresh croissants and trying out my term and a half of French) I couldn’t wait to see what sleeping on a train would be like.

The summer holidays finally arrived, and we all piled into Dad’s car for our first taste of foreign travel. The journey down to Dover seemed distinctly less onerous than the laborious annual struggle from Exeter to Wadebridge and standing up on deck waving a fond farewell to those iconic white cliffs, with the sea air blowing a gale, was nothing short of exhilarating. 

Fast forward to our arrival in Brive, following an ‘interesting’ night spent split between two 4-berth couchettes, wondering if what I could hear was the train’s engine – or my Dad’s snoring! Suffice it to say, I don’t think that any of us felt particularly well-rested the following morning – and both parents seemed to be sporting that ‘end of their tether’ kind of look, as they stepped tentatively out into the Aquitaine sunshine.  

With a (not inconsiderable) final leg of the journey still to be made, we were instructed that this would be the last opportunity for a comfort stop. I dutifully headed to the ladies with my mum (where we joined the obligatory long, snaking queue) whilst my brothers sauntered straight into the gents. No change there then! And after what felt like an eternity, there was just one woman standing between us and the sanctuary of the first available cubicle.

Now, to say that she looked distinctly French would be an understatement of epic proportions. She could have stepped straight out of ‘Tricolore’, minus the shallots and the beret, of course! Anyway, when the time came, this sophisticated Mediterranean lady made no attempt to stake her claim on the facilities; our expectant glances being met with a typically Gallic shrug that was truly mystifying, given the time that she had already invested in this exercise.

Far from happy to just sidle past this lady and potentially ‘jump the queue’, my mum decided to engage her in a conversation of sorts. Ten out of ten for effort – bearing in mind the (not insignificant) language barrier that was about to rear its ugly head.  

With full eye contact established (so as to avoid any possible confusion) mum asked, “Are you waiting?”

“Pardon?” was her reply. [The first clue.]

“Are you waiting?” mum offered once more, pointing in the direction of said cubicle.

“Pardon?” her slightly louder response this time, accompanied by that infamous shrug.

And so, in true British style, mum went for absolute linguistical supremacy…

“ARE YOU WAIT-EENG?” she asked once more, only several decibels louder and with an accent worthy of Rene Artois from the BBC’s ‘Allo, ‘Allo!  

And then the penny finally dropped.

Looking at me (nothing short of aghast) Mum said, “I think she’s French!” and rushed blushing into the cubicle, leaving me to endure much lip pursing, shoulder shrugging and (I’m willing to bet) some guttural native expletives – which my term and a half of tuition had left me ill-equipped to translate!

You can imagine how much flak she got for that, over the years…

In one sleep-starved moment, she had unwittingly confirmed what many Europeans had suspected for some time – that us Brits are notoriously bad at learning other languages, with a whopping 62% of the population still only able to speak English.

And there’s a fair chance that, having been responsible for publishing these damning statistics, ‘Honte à vous!’ might plausibly have been the verdict of the European Commission!

Youth v Experience

Many years ago, I had the great privilege of working with an exceptional teacher. She was one of those extraordinary people for whom plucking some obscure fact or figure out of thin air was practically a daily occurrence. She was definitely one to have on your pub quiz team!

Of course, exceptional intelligence can sometimes be coupled with a degree of social awkwardness, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly relaxed in her company… That being said, her pupils adored her. Her lessons were full of energy, quirkiness and cynicism and every class that crossed the threshold of room C3 was mesmerised by the passion (and skill) with which she brought her subject to life.

‘In praise of middle age’ is intended as a light-hearted reminder that there will always be a younger, more attractive NQT hot on your heels, but that experience certainly has its strengths too. And in working together with the next generation of teachers (rather than feeling threatened by them) it is possible to enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’, where ideas are shared, and skills are honed.

In praise of middle age

“The years have not been kind!” they say, in whispers low and furtive,
“There are bangers with less wear and tear,” their judgement harsh, assertive.
Her sight is slowly fading, and she’s gained a couple of chins –
It’ll not be long before the ‘journey south’ of certain bits begins!

Her hair is slowly greying and there are crow’s feet around her eyes,
And wrinkles upon wrinkles which foundation can’t disguise!
Her walk is a little less purposeful, her stride somewhat lacklustre –
Her voice is unassuming; excitement hard to muster.

She quietly walks the corridors, she’s seen it all before:
Messy shoe racks, dirty socks, coats strewn across the floor.
She sidles into the classroom and softly shuts the door,
Greeted by rows of eager eyes, and faces full of awe.

The show begins, the theme unfolds, she places them under her spell,
With passion, guile, and anecdotes – the tools she knows so well.
She piques their curiosity, and tends their burgeoning knowledge,
She cultivates their interest, whilst for hidden depths she’ll forage.

The lesson ends, the pupils leave; her impact monumental –
Taking pride in her work is reward enough, she’ll not be sentimental.
But for those who mourn the passage of time, on retirement placing a bet,
She’s far from ready to hang up her hat – there’s life in the old dog yet!

Like it or not, life’s a competition!

When I think back to my school days, a multitude of memories come flooding back. From uniform quirks to school trips, inspirational teachers to lasting friendships, special events to unforgettable sporting fixtures. And I consider myself extremely fortunate that most of these memories are happy ones.  After all, ‘school days are (meant to be) the best days of your life’, right?

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that my behaviour (whilst at school) was not always entirely exemplary… However, I’d like to think that I managed to strike a balance between hard work and harmless mischief, and that I didn’t over-step the boundaries too often. (Being able to change one’s name as a result of being ‘joined in holy matrimony’ definitely has its advantages though!)

Have you ever noticed how certain subject teachers tend to follow a particular stereotype though? Being a teacher myself, I feel qualified to say this – and I apologise unreservedly to colleagues both past and present, for the heinous generalisations that are about to follow…

You’ve obviously got your ‘arty’ types, for whom a ‘grip on reality’ has been unwittingly traded for a ‘vivid imagination’ and vast quantities of creative flair. Then there are the IT and Mathematical experts for whom a sense of humour is not (unlike the world of teaching in general) seemingly a pre-requisite. And finally, you have your PE / Sports teachers who, it seems to me, take a slightly sadistic pleasure in ‘pushing you to your physical limit’ whilst casually observing your many anatomical shortcomings. (I mean, who doesn’t try to take a short cut during the termly cross-country run? It’s just a pity that my attempt was so poorly timed as to make me look momentarily like an Olympic prospect.) However, it is the words of one such PE teacher that have remained with me all these years later, and for whom I now have a (grudging) respect.

I remember the incident well. My friend had just come last in the house cross-country competition and she was bemoaning the fact that the effort expended was hardly worth the paltry house point that she had been awarded. The teacher looked rather disparagingly at her puce complexion and, noting her laboured breathing, declared that “Life is a competition. The sooner you get used to that fact, the better.” Of course (at that precise moment) my friend was in no fit state to be receptive to such advice, but I remember thinking (even then) that this ‘Nike-clad, no-nonsense nutter’ possibly had a point!

In all honesty, my feelings on the subject haven’t really changed. After all, there can be only one winner in a competition, and only one candidate will ultimately ‘get the job’ at an interview. So, why do we have such a problem with celebrating supremacy? Shouldn’t we be preparing our children for failure as well as success? Isn’t that how we become more resilient, and learn to work that little bit harder to reach our goals?

I am, of course, frequently outvoted on this particular issue and have (regrettably) had to succumb to the ‘sticker for all’ mentality on more than one occasion. It will come as no real surprise then, to hear how secretly delighted I was to discover that my youngest seems to share my (seemingly antiquated) view on the matter. He recently refused to display a certificate that proudly stated that he ‘had taken part’, on the grounds that another one declared him the ‘winner’.

Sportsmanship (and learning to be gracious in defeat) is evidently still a ‘work in progress’!

Temet nosce

‘Temet nosce’ (or ‘know thyself’) might be the briefest of phrases, and yet these two small words convey such an important message.

However, before I go on, I feel duty bound to set the record straight. I am not (by any stretch of the imagination) a Latin scholar, and the irony of having chosen a Latin phrase as the heading for my latest blog will not have been lost on those who remember me from my school days…

As a nervous pupil starting Year 7 at secondary school, being placed in the top set meant that the (rather dubious) honour of learning Latin had been ‘bestowed’ (or rather thrust) upon me. And so, my (not so) illustrious relationship with the language of the Roman Empire began.

It ended just 12 months later when the teacher gratefully washed her hands of me, noting on my end of year report that I had “spent a good deal less time inside the classroom, than out in the corridor” – a fitting punishment for my “poor application and lack of reverence” apparently!

Anyway, in spite of all of this, I am often fascinated by the extent to which Latin words still dominate our language. After all, the notion of working on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, perhaps for a ‘bona fide’ company, in an attempt to ‘carpe diem’, makes a good deal of sense when trying to take control of one’s own destiny.

‘Temet nosce’ then, will possibly resonate with many of us, as we strive to overcome the many challenges associated with living through a global pandemic. Bereavement, loss of income, a sense of isolation and the sheer anxiety of trying to juggle work with home schooling / childcare are factors that have put untold strain on people. However, there have been countless stories of human resilience too, and so it strikes me that to ‘know oneself’ is probably currently more important than ever. Because, in understanding our own psyche (and dare I say it, ‘limitations’) we are enabling ourselves to set realistic targets (through tailor-made strategies) that will propel us forwards – hopefully with our mental health intact!

Sandwiches with a pinch of Friendship thrown in!

Many friends have told me that they have acquired new skills during the course of one national lockdown or another, and Facebook has borne witness to a veritable deluge of posts about the success (or otherwise) of home baking projects, ingeniously crafted ‘Fakeaways’ or the cultivation of fresh produce.   

I have to admit that (pre-2020) I had staunchly shied away from baking of any kind, believing that my efforts would almost certainly fall woefully short of my mum’s delectable creations. However, with lockdown 1 came the desire not only to rekindle precious childhood memories with my boys, but also to lay that particular ghost to rest. And by choosing a homemade chocolate cake (over a shop bought Harry Potter one for his birthday earlier this week), my youngest son unwittingly gave my baking skills the resounding endorsement that I so desperately craved! However, as I sat basking in the glory of my new-found culinary success, I found myself taking a somewhat reluctant trip down memory lane to a week’s work experience, carried out shortly after sitting my GCSE examinations. 

It was the summer of 1991 and my parents had kindly arranged for me to go and help out at the local primary school. My mum dropped me off at the school office and I waited nervously for my instructions. The Headteacher (a terrifyingly exuberant character) cantered towards me, welcomed me to his school and promptly dispatched me to Class One. I was immediately put to work cleaning up the painting corner (surely that was a job for a Friday afternoon, not a Monday morning?) and sorting the Lego from the Duplo – which I dutifully did. Later that day, I was entrusted with delivering ‘Storytime’ to twenty-four rather fidgety four- and five-year-olds but I relished that particular challenge, and I have to admit that (before long) I had them all captivated.

By lunchtime, I was beginning to feel much more relaxed and had already warmed to several of the children in that class. It was evident that many of them viewed me as a sort of ‘big sister’ and, rather like the Pied Piper, I seemed to have quite a following by the time I accompanied the TA out onto the playground! When I returned to the classroom, the teacher presented me with a large canvas shopping bag and quickly informed me of her plans for the next session.

The children had been growing their own cress and so they were going to make egg and cress sandwiches for their afternoon snack. I glanced into the bag and saw a loaf of bread, some low-fat spread, some hard-boiled eggs, and a plastic container filled with a thick creamy substance that looked like a cross between mayonnaise and salad cream. The cress, of course, was on the windowsill on a bed of cotton wool. All very straightforward, I thought.

The children were sent to me in batches of six where we swiftly found our rhythm (in true production line fashion) buttering bread, removing the shell from the eggs, and combining the ingredients before plating up the sandwiches and allowing the children to tuck in.

Well, they were thrilled with their efforts and utterly effusive in their verbal feedback. I beamed at them, rejoicing in the notion of a job well done. The teacher seemed pleased with our efforts too and it was soon time to tidy everything away and send the children home.

Once the last child had been safely handed over to his parent, I went to collect my things from the staffroom. As I was leaving, Miss B called after me to ask where I had put the canvas bag etc. I proudly informed her that I had placed it under her desk with the plastic container (meticulously washed and dried) inside. She looked at me aghast:

“But what have you done with the contents of the container?” she enquired.

“Most of it got used,” I replied. “So, I didn’t think that there was much point in keeping the rest.”

“Used?” she asked, “On what?”

(I began to wonder why Miss B was being quite so slow on the uptake!)

“In the sandwiches,” I stated rather incredulously, “to bind the egg together.”

“Oh, no!” she cried. “That wasn’t mayonnaise, it was Friendship Cake mixture!”

She went on to explain that she had been given the recipe by a parent and that it was one that had taken quite some time to ‘cultivate’.

Taken from an Amish tradition, the idea was to keep adding ingredients over a ten-day period and then to give portions of the ‘starter batter’ away to friends, so that they could bake (and enjoy) a cake for themselves.

I remember thinking that this was quite a long and drawn-out process. That it might have been considerably more ‘friendly’ simply to have given someone a cake that could be enjoyed immediately, with a nice cup of coffee perhaps? I resisted the urge to voice these thoughts, however!

And with that, my first day euphoria instantly evaporated and I beat (what can only be described as) a hasty retreat. I had absolutely no idea how Miss B might go about telling the parent in question that her well-intentioned gift had just been ingested (uncooked) by each and every child in Class One. Looking on the bright side though, the week could only get better!    

A brief encounter

Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting someone truly remarkable. It was one of those chance encounters that renders you momentarily speechless, then acts as a powerful catalyst for change.

It was a dismal February evening and I had just left a rehearsal in central London. We’d been working on Michael Tippett’s five spirituals from ‘A Child of Our Time’ and it had been one of those rehearsals where you come away feeling as though your soul has been suitably nourished, and that something within the music has transcended human understanding.     

I had been experiencing some problems with anti-social behaviour in and around the housing development where I lived, and I was seriously considering handing in my notice at work and moving away from the area. However, having just been part of something so utterly inspiring, I was loath to concede defeat and allow the local ‘Youf’ to drive me out of my home and away from my Monday night refuge.

Having caught up on everyone’s weekly news over a quick drink, we all went our separate ways, as was the usual routine. I headed for Victoria station and, upon arrival, gave the departures board a cursory glance. My heart plummeted when I discovered that, not one, but two trains to Swanley had been cancelled and that I would have just over an hour to wait. There was nothing for it. I would just have to grab a coffee and a magazine and set up residence on platform 5.

When my train did eventually arrive, I was delighted to note that two cancellations had not rendered this three-carriage-wonder ludicrously full, and I settled thankfully into my window seat. Before long, the train pulled away and I felt reassured that home was now within reach.

The first part of the journey passed without incident and I became quickly engrossed in my magazine. There were additional stops to make, but there was something pleasantly mesmerising about the staccato rhythm of the wheels moving over the track and the sound of needles of rain bouncing off the windows at jaunty angles. And then I became aware of a different sound. The sound of raised voices and dull thuds.

I felt myself stiffen and the all too familiar feeling of fear and unease (associated with broken windscreens and trampled fences close to home) resurfaced. I looked around the carriage in an attempt to establish where the noise was coming from. And then I spotted the silhouettes of three men looming in the doorway of the adjacent carriage. It was not immediately clear what they were doing, but their presence was both threatening and unwelcome, reminiscent of an ITV drama, but sickeningly real. In a matter of minutes, the train slowed, and all three men came hurtling through our carriage, disappearing just as suddenly into the night.        

A little later, a young man staggered into view and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat. He had a cut on his face and looked badly shaken but there was a disarming aura of composure about him too. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, “Are you alright?” seemed painfully inadequate and yet I couldn’t just ignore his plight altogether. So, I made do with frequent glances in his direction, hoping against hope that he would somehow sense my feeble attempt at compassion. He must have done, because he looked straight at me before giving me the most tender of smiles. But rather than providing the comfort that was no doubt intended, the warmth of his gaze made me feel even more ashamed. How could he be so calm, after what he had just endured? Hadn’t he just been badly let down by his fellow passengers? By me?

As if he could read my thoughts, he said simply “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. And as he left the train, I wept uncontrollably; not just for him, but for humankind.