What was astonishing about the funeral services was that in form and content they were thoroughly Christian, in a way that was strange and surprising. Afterall, we live in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-coloured society with many religions and a rich variety of allegiances. Why should prominence, on a national occasion such as this, be given to one? Why should the Christian religion have pre-eminence? Was this archaic pomp and pageantry not something that we thought we had left behind and progressed beyond, an aberration, an anachronism? Where were the creative minds who could design something more appropriate and apposite to the spirit of our age?
We can only surmise that this was deliberate. In all the services, as far as I was aware, there was no nod or reference to other faiths or no-faiths or supra-faiths, the kind of thing we have grown to expect. I suspect that this was not down to the clergy who sometimes seem to be mildly apologetic about what they were saying or reading. You can never be sure when someone is reading from a script and hardly glancing above the lectern if they actually believe what they are saying. This is another conundrum, given this single and unique opportunity to declare the radical gospel of Jesus Christ, to possibly the biggest audience ever, something Billy Graham could never dream of, the, established church declared its allegiance, not to Christ, but to the establishment. As someone has said “The established church never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.
From what we understand, the tone and content and even detail of the service may well have been a specific request by the late Queen. It was maybe exactly what she wanted. Being relatively shy and modest about her faith in life she wanted to say, in death, what she truly believed.
What made it thoroughly Christian was not the homilies and tributes but the words, the scripture, the hymns and the psalms transported on the melodies and harmonies of some of our greatest composers from the lyrical singing of the Gaelic psalm to James Macmillan’s magnificent “Who shall separate us”. There was nothing faintly apologetic or reticent about them. In the hymns we had “All my hope on God is founded” exposing the vanity of human pride and the futility of earthly glory “Sword and crown betray his trust”. In the setting there was a lot of swords, as we were to see, and crowns too. There was the challenge to all people “that on earth do dwell” to “sing to the Lord with cheerful voice” and to everyone “Christ calls one and all to follow”. There was the prayer for the kindling of the desire to “work and speak and think for thee” and there was the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God death nor life…and that “Goodness and mercy all my life, shall surely follow me/and in Gods house forevermore my dwelling place shall be”
There was a strange irony in all of this with the serried ranks of scarlet soldiers white hatted sailors, feathers and plumes, the world leaders in sombre black and the baubles looking very much trinkets but carrying the weighty symbolism of power and authority in the stupendous setting of the fan vaulted abbey. I wonder if the irony was lost on the congregation of the “Great and the Good” if the significance of the orb with its declaration that Christ is King of kings and Lord of Lords was understood or if they listened to themselves sing “Tower and temple fall to dust”
Now I don’t know, but I suspect there was nothing contradictory or conflicting in the Queens own mind as she accepted the passing of her own life, and in the final verse of the final hymn “Till in heaven we take our place/till we lay our crowns before you/lost in wonder, love and praise.” For her it all made sense she was simply a servant, and a subject of her lord. there was no contradiction in that. And there was nothing conflicting in showing the deepest respect love, kindness and genuine care for all of her subjects, whatever god they may worship, welcoming them wholeheartedly, while, at the same time, declaring without embarrassment or compromise what she believed was the true faith, the faith she had vowed to defend.
I was never sure if I was a royalist or a republican, a unionist, a nationalist or an internationalist and not even sure if it really mattered. Maybe I have been all of them at some point. But there have been moments in time when a dormant emotion breaks through and feelings come to the surface, feelings I never knew were there. It was one such occasion late afternoon yesterday. I never thought much about our late Queen, yet when I heard of her passing, which you can hardly say was unexpected, I was pulling back the tears and was at a loss to know why.
What was it that triggered something deep within me? It was not the loss of someone, for I never knew her. It was not giving way to the power of collective grief or the possible impact that it might have on my individual insignificant life. It was something else. It was the beauty, the beauty of a life, a flawed life, that pointed to, and aspired to, a greater beauty, to the virtues of dignity, honesty, truthfulness, faithfulness, loyalty, justice, integrity, humility and compassion.
And if it was indeed loss that moved me, it was an awareness that we had already lost so much of these virtues in our national life and the symbol that seemed still to retain them was now gone.
Many people have pointed out the absurdity of outlawing a human emotion – Hate. Apart from the fact that, like the opposite emotion -love, it is a word which is lost without its object. You have to define what is to hated and what is to be loved for it to be rooted in any meaningful reality. Of course, we know that the people who drafted the law were clearly not thinking about hatred of bad things like war or violence or cruelty or slavery or child abuse etc. it was hatred of people with certain innate characteristics. These categories could be defined but could also be enlarged and broadened to include many other groupings, who could be victims. The idea could also be expanded to include other undesirable human emotions such as greed, lust, anger, rage or vengeance. But it is absurd, because who can tell what is in a person’s heart. Who can decide what it is I am thinking? Yet that is the direction that this move is taking.
The policeman who interviewed Harry Miller, a suspect in a “non-crime hate incident” reportedly said “I need to check your thinking”. He had clearly overstretched his arm as the courts later found in Millers’ favour, but the officer was simply following the logic of the thing. It’s easy to mock this of course, but it’s not difficult to see where it comes from and that those moving and creating the legislation are clearly on to something. For the reality is that actions follow words, which in turn follow the thoughts in our head. So, if you really want to get to the root of criminal behaviour, it has to start with thinking. Racist violence is often preceded by racist language and from racist thinking. Domestic abuse from misogyny, Adultery from lust, Murder from hatred of someone. Evil comes not from outside but from inside the person. Jesus said that. You don’t just steal something from the supermarket shelf or cheat on someone, if you hadn’t already cherished and embraced the desire in your heart. Then when we get the opportunity, we think we can get away with it and no one will know, we take it. It is only when we are found out, when we are exposed, that we come out with our regrets and remorse, with fake repentance and the disingenuous plea “I don’t know what came over me” “I don’t know how it happened” “It was an aberration totally out of character”. And many will believe it. But, if we examine our own hearts, we know the truth, that it was not an aberration, it was totally in character. This is what we are like. It’s called sin.
So, it is perfectly understandable that a government should make laws to root out bigotry and racism and all the evils of society by addressing what is in our heads. But there is a deep flaw in this. And there are two reasons why it is not in any human agency’s gift to examine and direct what is in our minds. Human institutions have neither the qualifications nor the authority to do so. They are not qualified because no one knows what is in a person heart. Only God does. And they don’t have the authority, because they are under a higher authority and there’s is a limited one; limited to their responsibility to govern, to protect against bullies from outside and within, to uphold justice, to punish evil actions and to defend the poor and the innocent. They are neither qualified nor have the authority to tamper with what the creator has ordered and any attempt to try is futile and will sooner or later end in failure. The Bolsheviks tried to abolish marriage and the family and to re-order the week into ten days, but that didn’t last long. In our day it is the re-defining of marriage, male and female, the beginning and the end of life and for some that two plus two could equal five. We know it will end in tears and the tragedy is that, while focusing on things out with our control and authority, we fail in the very things we are able to do. Witness the Scottish Government’s flirting with these things and their abysmal failure in just about everything else they touch.
But the ideology of progressivism is deep rooted and strong. It is also perfectly logical and reasonable because, If there is no God then we have to somehow take on his role. God is dead, long live humanity.
The same can be said of critical race theory with its dogma of whiteness – white privilege, white supremacy, white complicity, white equilibrium, white fragility and white denial. Because if you seek to justify yourself, you are in denial. Despite your personal circumstances and background, despite how desperate or disadvantaged or poor you are, if you don’t see it, it is because you are blind to its reality. You are guilty, it seems by virtue of being born into a particular race. It almost sounds as if the principle has been borrowed from the traditional doctrine of original sin- tainted and suffering under the sin of Adam. The difference with critical race theory is that it only applies to the sin of whiteness and there is no redemption, no salvation, only perpetual penance, continual sacrifices and reparations that will never be enough.
So like progressivism, critical race theory and the canon of climate change, for that matter, there are truths that cannot be denied. Bad thoughts lead to bad actions, privileged is real and the abuse of creation will bring about terrible results, but all expose the stark reality that we cannot save ourselves. No amount of legislation, no amount of self-flagellation, no amount of personal sacrifice will do the trick. We need a saviour.
Under the cover of the Government’s unveiling its long-awaited announcement on the date, the wording and the process for a second referendum, on the next step to independence for Scotland, something far more significant and sinister was being slipped through, on the same day, almost unnoticed by the media or the public. It was the passing of the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, which makes some of the temporary powers, granted to the government during the past two years, now permanent.
When eyes were focused elsewhere, the parliament by a small majority handed the executive permanent powers to introduce lock-downs close schools and other places of assembly in the event of a future health emergency. It will require parliamentary scrutiny, of course, but we have learned the hard way that the opposition don’t do scrutiny. Despite the fact that there were almost 4000 responses to the government’s public consultation on the bill, of which 90% were opposed, it was passed all the same. That’s what you call democracy. A consultation has now been redefined to mean: asking the public for their opinion with no intention of listening. I used to respond to consultations. Not anymore. It is a complete waste of time.
Despite all the arguments about decisions being grounded in evidence, public health declarations, safeguards and the curious reference to Henry VIII, the clear thrust of the thing is to open up the potential for minsters to make regulations free from normal checks and balances. This can be done in the interest of public health resilience, the need to be swift and effective in dealing with something uncertain that might be coming down the line.
It all sound reasonable and fair and even sensible and a voice inside me says stop being so cynical and obtuse. “Trust them, they know what they are doing”. Trouble is I don’t actually trust them and pretty sure they don’t know what they are doing. The powers they have given themselves were powers they solemnly promised they would return as soon as possible. They didn’t. They changed their minds on that and there is no reason to believe that these powers will not be abused. This is compounded by the fact that nowhere is there any admission or recognition that the abuse of these powers has brought untold suffering and misery on the people. Nowhere is there an acknowledgment that the forced lock-down, social distancing and masking up measures, which they now want to keep up their sleeve, have devastated our society, from the elderly compelled to spend their last days in isolation, the grieving families at funerals, the stymying of social interactions, the aggravation of mental health, the damage to education and child development, the enflaming of fear and suspicion, the segregation of society and the destruction of our economy, the economy that our children will end up having to pay for in years to come. And all for a pandemic that never was.
I am not thinking about of fun, frivolity or childish capers or, for the matter, temporary lapses in sensible behaviour, but the occasions when we find ourselves caught up in a game that has no purpose, no tangible outcome and makes absolutely no sense at all. Some rule is to be kept some box is to be ticked, some guidance is to be followed, some protocol has to be adhered to. Everyone knows it is absolutely pointless and quite ridiculous, but we go along with it all the same. We comply with a shrug of our shoulders and a roll of the eyes.
These games are not new, of course, they have been around for some time and we have become used to them and accepted them as just one of these things.
I recall 40 years ago submitting drawings to the council for building warrants. These were always checked by the officers who would always find something to query or insist on some refence to a standard we had to comply with. In those days you took your drawings to the office, waited to be seen and had the drawings laid out on a large desk to be poured out by the nippy official with a red marker. It was an act of ritual humiliation and I never understood why we put up with it. But we did, and that was what happened. One of things that always came up was the issue of high alumina cement. It was the cause of the collapse of a roof in a school swimming pool in Stepney. Mercifully no one was in the building at the time, but the use of this material was thereafter banned. Itwas, however, never used in Scotland and even if the proposal on the drawings involved no concrete at all, still we had to add a note to the effect that “No HAC will be used in this contract”. It was, of course a minor irritant and no big deal. You simply had the note pre -printed on every drawing and that was that
But the trouble is, when you accept this role, you are playing a game of silliness and the worry is that having acquiesced over something small it makes it harder to resist over something more serious and more sinister. Tyranny has thrived in the world when people go along with things, they know are false, but accept as no big deal. Why make a fuss if instead of “Good morning” we say “Hiel Hitler”? It’s just words after all. I am I being overdramatic. I don’t think so.
I have one more recent example from my own discipline that galvanised my thoughts on this. I was involved with the design of alterations to a domestic building. Against my advice the clients opted to oversee the construction side of the project themselves. (programmes like grand designs have a lot to answer for here) . When it came to getting a certificate for the completed building, however, the officer noted a minor alteration to the plans – a glass screen in a structural opening was omitted. The officer requested an amendment to the warrant as they are at liberty to do and this of course incurs a fee. I knew it was foolish, but in order to be helpful I offered to submit a new application. I was then told that we also needed a structural engineer’s certificate to cover the variation. I protested. The alterations had no structural significance at all. I knew that, the officer knew that and my 9yr old grandson would know that too. Still, he insisted, and when I asked why, he simply said it was protocol. (“Protocol” is the brick wall you meet in this game. It stops any further progress, defies argument and is what the officials can conveniently hide behind.) The stark facts were: If we didn’t get the necessary certificate, the application would be refused, my client would not get a completion certificate and she may not be able to sell the house further down the line. Something clicked in me. I had had enough. We all knew this was silly and all we were doing was wasting other people’s time and money following a rule that had come adrift from its original purpose. I told the council and the client I wasn’t doing it and walked away*.
That little defiance has encouraged me to keep my eyes and ears open and watch for the approach of silliness and, while it will not necessarily change anything, I am sure, at least I will be able to recognise it and say “Go on then, play your little game and do what you want to do, no matter how stupid it is, but don’t expect to get any help from me.”
Huge as the tower which builders vain/Presumptuous piled on Shinar’s plain.
It was the second petition in what we call the lord’s prayer, that model and pattern that Jesus gave his listeners instructing how we should speak to God; “Your Kingdom come” he said. And something struck me.
The thing is we have moved on from kings and queens. When Elizabeth goes the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be on pretty shaky ground. Now it is as shaky as the monarch’s own health and who can guess what will happen when she departs? She who took a solemn vow 70 years ago and one, that she unfashionably has kept. It is probably unlikely that the monarchy will survive for very long after. In any case we are doing away with monarchs and tribes and races. We are giving up on republics and dictatorships and having doubts about democracy. We have outgrown nations and borders. The future is internationalist. We are progressing into a new world order, a great reset where people from all over can come together, find consensus, collaborate unite and plan for the common good in equality and equity. The existential threats of war, food security, overpopulation, disease and climate chaos can be now be faced straight on and with our collective will, can be defeated. We can, we will, it is all possible, if we come together. To deny that would be treason and a counsel of despair. The future is one of peace, prosperity, security, harmony and fruitfulness for all.
It all sounds very much like the Kingdom of God… Sounds like it. Except that God seems not to be mentioned. Which, when you think about it is strange. In fact, great pains are being taken to make sure he is not even namechecked. In the small-scale union of European nations, the idea that one nation can unashamedly declare its Christian heritage creates an enormous problem. We cannot have the suggestion that God has any part in what we are doing. The pretext is offense but the subtext is defiance. There is no god so we are gods and master of our own destiny. There is no King of kings so we are kings. There is no Lord of all we are our own lords. If you stand back and think about it for a moment it is almost comical and it would be, were it not so tragic.
Someone has suggested that we should be wary of any organising that has “world” in it’s title. The amassing of power seems inevitably to lead to an amassing of corruption and so often ends up with the organisation eating itself, destroying its original purpose of being. That may be so, but we certainly should be sceptical about large institutions that are able to accumulate power, albeit with fine motives for world peace or food or health or the environment or the eradication of poverty. So, you end up with the quite unbelievable situation where Venezuela, Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, Libya, Eritrea, Russia and China are all members of the UN Human Rights Council. If that is not an organisation eating itself, I don’t know what is. All nations are equally subject to the UN charter on human rights but some are more equal than others.
It’s only a small step from an intergovernmental agency becoming a supranational one and it is all done by stealth. Witness the recent attempt by the World Health Organisation, flushed with its success in getting almost the whole world to bend to its self-proclaimed authority to purloin even more power in its proposed pandemic treaty. All of the western enlightened nations rolled over and it was only blocked by plucky Africa. Once again it is people from the poorest countries, ones that have suffered from years of oppression and slavery, who have the vision to see what is actually going on. They see it as yet another attempt at colonisation. In the world context, that defiance is one genuine sign of hope.
These supranational bodies, amassing power and wealth and unchecked authority, inevitably become towers of Babel. The biblical story always sounded strange to me and I didn’t see what was particularly wrong with what they were doing. Afterall it was not violence or debauchery or cruelty or any other sin, but simply a public-spirited project in the interests of the common good. What was wrong with making bricks and mortar? Why did God deliberately disrupt what they were doing by causing confusion over language? It seems grossly unfair to intervene in this worthwhile project. That is what it seems like, but if we read the story carefully, we see that it was out of love and concern that God intervened and halted the work. While the motive behind building the city and the tower was pride “so that we can have a name for ourselves, not God”, and fear, the fear of dispersal, God’s motive in intervening is mercy and love. He intervenes to prevent them from doing much worse and so they end up being dispersed.
Time will come, I am sure, when the big world-wide institutions will fall into their own state of confusion, will be unable to hold the centre, will disintegrate, split apart and we will find ourselves retreating to our small nation states with borders, our own language and customs, having to grow our own food and look after our own families. It seems to me very likely and, I think, despite the pain it will cause, it will be a good thing. I would see it as a sign of mercy and a sign that God still loves the world that he created and is not giving up on us just yet, but providing us with one more opportunity to come to our senses and recognise the creator and the one who gives us our life, the king of kings, the name above all names.
There can be no doubt that the present financial crisis we are all facing which, will inevitably harm the poorest most of all, as it always does, will almost certainly eclipse that of 2008. There can be no doubt, that this has been caused directly by the Westminster Government’s profligate and reckless folly in their response to Covid-19, together with the rolling over to environmental pressure groups and virtual signalling on climate change with the sustained push towards green energy at the expense of oil and gas. The fuel increases are most likely caused by investors being frightened away from fossil fuels, crippling future developments and inevitable allowing prices to spiral out of control. A lot of people cheer and say that must be a good thing if we can save the planet. If you take that kind of moral stance, you need to accept the inevitable acceleration of worldwide poverty, which has been in decline now for quite a long time, and the famine and deaths that will surely follow. This, unlike climate catastrophe itself, is an existential risk. You have to accept that in order to make an omelette you need to break eggs. You need, as a government, to make that assessment, make a judgement on the decisions you take, basically have a think before you act to decide whether it will result in a worse situation than the one you are trying to alleviate. Something that the UK government did not do when faced with Covid-19
The facts we now know about the eye watering sums of public money that were squandered with hardly any accounting, during the crisis, are beyond scary. You don’t need to be an economist to understand that. According to the National Audit Office, £370billion was spent by the government on Covid issues by September 2021: £154B on business support, £84B on health and social care, £67B on emergency response and other public services, £60B made directly to individuals – self-employed schemes and the like and £5B elsewhere, wherever elsewhere is. It is hard to grasp what £370billion looks like to us plain folks, but it was suggested1 that that sum could provide every family in the UK three full meals a day for 3 years, abolish income tax totally for 20 months, or fund the armed forces for 8 years. So, a lot of money.
I wrote to my Westminster MP asking what action he or his party took to oppose this irresponsible profligatory and the potential destruction of our economy. Why did they fail to hold the government to account? This, of course, is the principal reason for him being there in the first place. I think I know the answer. It will be the like the one I got from my MSP, simply ignoring the question but telling me how good the Scottish Government was in spending money on lots of really nice things. I like all the nice things like free prescription, free bus travel, child payments increased benefits and free tuition, but now and then I wonder where the money is coming from and who is paying. Now we know, it will be our children and the poor, which is a nice legacy to leave.
Her majesty’s opposition in parliament, throughout this crisis, has been hopelessly ineffective and worse than useless. Their unwillingness to even challenge the basic assumptions of lock-downs and all the other cruel measures is staggering but that aside you would have thought they would confront the cavalier expenditure of massive sums of public money. That is surely what they are supposed to do. Money is usually what they care about, but no, “just spend more” was there mantra. The main stream media were similarly ineffective and pathetically supine on this. But now the chickens have come home to roost.
So, like parties and cakes, appalling indiscretions, hypocrisies and deceit it looks like they will get away with it. Because there is no serious voice up for a challenge. After all, there is a war on “don’t you know?” It is unlikely that the much-published public enquiry will actually expose the root cause of the disaster. But the public might. We might just realise that we have been had, were taken for complete fools, strung along with words of false authority and corrupted science, frightened into acting like lemmings. It could be hard but we might just realise that they have abused our trust, overcome our inbuilt trust and respect for authority. We might think to ask questions, we might challenge our acceptance of the given narrative and glimpse something of the reality of what has been done in our name. Things would then change, but I am not holding my breath. Everything points to us taking the line of least resistance, avoiding conflict and going along with whatever the authorities dictate, for the sake of peace and a comfortable life. After all we may say “it is no big deal” Well this time it is a big deal.
Back in 1976 on a programme broadcast by the BBC, Alexandra Solzhenitsyn spoke about the riddle and contradictions in human nature.
“One of these riddles is: how is it that people who have been crushed by the sheer weight of slavery and cast to the bottom of the pit can nevertheless find the strength to rise up and free themselves, first in spirit and then in body; while those who soar unhampered over the peaks of freedom suddenly lose the taste for freedom, lose the will to defend it, and, hopelessly confused and lost, almost begin to crave slavery”2
It happened very quickly. I had procrastinated for far too long. It might be a generational thing, it might be a male thing or it just might be me. I have an innate hesitancy not to bother folk and not to waste the doctor’s time and, of course, there is always the hope that it might just go away. It was a dull abdomen pain and excessive tiredness and finally an excruciating and persistent pain in the right shoulder, that painkillers would not shift. This was not going to go away and when I got round to doing something about it, there were so many hoops to jump through before I got a face-to-face appointment with my GP. By this time more than a week had gone by, since realising something was wrong. But then things started to move. The doctor listened carefully to my story, carried out an examination and asked some pertinent questions. He short-cutted the process of taking blood samples, arranged for an earlier pick-up to the lab and said he would call back in the afternoon. True to his word the call came through.
“I am sorry, the levels are high, there is too much going on, you have to go to hospital”
“Now, they are waiting for you”.
So, my wife, my companion, the love of my life, helped me gather some things and drove me to the hospital. It was not far away. With a mixture of apprehension and relief, relief that I hadn’t just imagined it after all, I entered this strange and magical world as a patient for the first time since leaving a maternity ward 70plus years ago. I recognised it, of course, I had visited hospitals before many times. In another sense it was not strange. Videos of hospital interiors, operating theatres and treatment rooms are in your face all the time and the backdrop to so many news programmes. It would be hard to miss. My wife also has a fondness for medical dramas and I have seen things out of the corner of my eye. They are really not my cup of tea, partly because of a squeamish stomach, when it comes to blood and guts, but more to do with the dramas themselves. The characters so often seem to be of the worst kind, arrogant, rude, boorish, prima-donnas, basically not nice people and the script writers seem to have a penchant to insert not-so-subtle sermons, so you are always aware that you are being preached at.
But here I was the centre of my own little drama and seeing it all from quite another perspective. It was like entering a city, built on several levels with corridors and stairs and lifts and people going up and down and along with trolleys and push chairs, nurses and doctors, students and registrars, cleaners and cooks, consultants and porters, all moving continuously in an unhurried but purposeful pace. I was awestruck observing the astonishing organisation that worked in its various parts together, the intertwining of disciplines and task, the order and efficiency. Over my two plus weeks stay, I can’t count how many individuals cared directly for me, but I guess it must have been close to 40. What struck me more than anything, was not simply the astonishing technology, the skill, the expertise and the years of knowledge and training, the legacy of medical advancement and the understanding of how the body works, how to intervene and how to direct treatment towards recovery. It was not simply these amazing things, but the care, the genuine care, that I experience at every level. It went way beyond. It wasn’t just a job, but a beautiful expression of true humanity. It makes me cry when I think about it. And I know it can only come from God, who made us in his image.
The medics wasted no time: a session in radiology under the space age cat-scan machine, quickly identifying an abscess in the liver and then without any delay a return to radiology, this time to have a drain inserted. The consultant talked me through the procedure. I didn’t have to watch the cut or the insertion, it was all on the ultra sound screen, that moving wedge with the grainy image. In my case, not a baby, but an ugly liver and an evil dark mass up in the top corner taking up almost one third of the organ. The small discomfort and the mild pain were eclipsed by the wonder of what I was seeing. Suddenly out of the top right-hand corner, like a comet, the needle fired its way into the centre of the dark mass It was followed by a tube and the process of draining of all this vile substance began.
Safely back in the ward and following a visit, I settled myself down and waited for a promised move to a quieter ward. Then, without warning, it happened, an uncontrollable violent shaking, my whole being was rattling. It was sepsis and without saying anything or making a call, the ward nurse was on it right away. Suddenly, screens were drawn round and the whole team, doctors, nurses and health care assistants, piled in. I think I have seen this sort of thing on TV. They were pricking fingers on both hands, drawing blood, injecting adrenalin, stuffing sugar down my throat, supplying oxygen and all the while speaking numbers over numbers and repeating “it’s still rising”. It was a strange out-of-body experience. I was just watching and remember thinking, at the time, without any sense of drama “This is it then”. The day before when I was possibly at my lowest, in the long night, weary and unable to get relief from pain, I was praying and simply asking God to take me. I was ready. “Take me home” was my prayer. But after those magnificent medics had done their work and my body had settled down, I understood the answer was “No not this time”.
Some days later the consultant was able to tell me that liver abscesses are pretty rare, that the bacteria the lab had identified was also very rare yet they couldn’t say how it came about. But from there onwards, it was a slow but steady regaining of functions and taking back control of the body systems and step by step I was feeling so much better.
It is hard to describe the overwhelming sense of gratitude that flooded right through me: gratitude for the amazing care I had been shown at all levels, gratitude to the many folk who, I know, who had me on their minds, were praying and thinking of me and sending messages and gratitude ultimately to God, as I witnessed first hand the absolute wonder of his care, of his love and the awesome power of his healing.
I remember when the news broke some days after the event. It was April 1986 and my secretary having watched it on TV that morning, told me the story. It was an explosion at a nuclear power plant somewhere in Russia. At that time the USSR to us was Russia. It was only later we understood it was in Ukraine at Chernobyl by the town of Pripyat near the Belarusian border. It seemed a horrific event and a horrible disaster but like so many things that happen in far away places it was another seven-day wonder and ever so quickly slipped from the public consciousness. We heard, of course about the Chernobyl children and the cancer deaths and we knew that lamb on Scottish hills was not fit for eating. But that was it, the news moved on to other things.
Some years later at a wedding breakfast in Zilina north west Slovakia I met a couple who were both nuclear scientist at an atomic plant near Nitra. We had a fascinating conversation over the banquet table. Having gained a level of trust I felt bold enough to posit that Nuclear power, despite all its advantages was just too dangerous, to risky to keep using in our world. “Look at what happened at Chernobyl” I said. Their response surprised me. “Oh they were idiots, They were crazy. It was the type of reactor no sane person or government would ever use. With the right safety measures our systems are perfectly safe”. Their assessment was borne out by Vasily Borisovich Nesterenko a director of Institute of Atomic Energy in Belarus, as he describes the situation: “We are still a Stalinist country…Stalin’s kind of person is still alive. I remember, in Kiev, at the railway station. Trains one after the other, taking away thousands of frightened children. Men and women crying. For the first time I thought, ‘Who needs this kind of physics, this kind of science, at such a high price?’ Now it’s all out in the open. They’ve written about the amazing shock-working tempos at which the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was built. It was built the soviet way. The Japanese take twelve years to develop a facility like that, but we did it in just two or three. The quality and reliability of that highly complex facility was what you would expect in an animal breeding complex, a chicken farm! If there was a shortage of something, they just ignored the plans and substituted whatever was to hand at the time. Thus the roof of the turbine hall was covered with bitumen. That’s what the firemen extinguished. And who was in charge of this atomic power station? There wasn’t a single nuclear physicist in the management team. They had power engineers, turbine specialists, political workers but not a single expert. Not a single physicist. Man has invented a technology for which he is not ready. He is not up to it. Can you put a pistol in the hands of a child. We are reckless children.”
More recently an Estonian friend encouraged me to watch Craig Mazon’ mini tv series “Chernobyl”. She had a special interest. When she was a young girl, her father got the call late one night in 1986 to get ready to be picked up at 6 in the morning. He had no idea where he was being taken, but he knew it was serious. Three months later, when he returned, she excitedly ran out to meet him only to be met by his stern voice telling her to stay away. She was only allowed to embrace him after he had stripped, burned all his clothes and showered and scrubbed and showered. He had been at the site as a driver and was able to say that, with the exception of some minor inaccuracies and some liberties taken for dramatic purposes, which the writer freely admits, the video represented an accurate and realistic account of the events both in their detail and atmosphere.
I found “Chernobyl” deeply moving to watch and it is strange how disasters and tragedies fascinate us. It is not simply a morbid fascination it is much more than that. There is something about this, possibly the biggest technological disaster in history, that draws us in to consider deep questions of life and death, of who we are, how we live and have our being in this world. What is science, what is real and what is sham. What is love? What is life and what on earth can we do about this genie which we have let out of the bottle.
One of the most revealing and poignant accounts of the disaster is Svetlana Alexievich’s “Chernobyl Prayer” translated by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. The horror and the tragedy of this terrible event is somehow shot through with astonishing insights. In some places it reads like the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Apart from some historical background and a section where the author interviews herself, the book is a collection of monologues by the people who were there, who were involved in the clean up and whose lives have been changed for ever by it. They are conservationists, inspectors, chemical engineers, residents, firemen, historians, army recruits, doctors of agriculture, parliamentarians, medical assistants, teachers, hunters, lecturers, villagers, mothers. You see the stubbornness, the defiance and the core of humanity brought to the very edge.
The monologues which begin and end the collection are the most powerful and telling. The first, Lyudmila Ignatenko, the wife of a fireman on whom one the of the characters in the mini-series is based, tells her harrowing story. Newly married, pregnant and in desperately in love, she is torn apart by her desire to be close to her husband, as his body slowly disintegrates and dissolves behind the plastic screens, while knowing that that the radiation will almost certainly kill the child she is carrying, which it does.
“Four hours later they told me my little girl had died. And for a second time, they wouldn’t let me have her! What do you mean, you won’t give me her! It’s me who won’t give her to you! You want to take her for science, but I loathe your science! Loath it! First your science took him (her husband) away from me, now its back for more”
Svetlana describes how she felt an urge to look behind the facts to delve into the meaning of what was happening. The truth is that facts alone were not enough. She wanted to hear from shocked people. This is what the collection is about.
“The churches filled up again with people – with believers and former atheists. They were searching for answers that could not be found in physics or mathematics. The three-dimensional world came apart and I have not since met anyone brave enough to swear again on the bible of materialism. We were dazzled by infinity.”
“More than once – and this is something to think about- I have heard people say that the behaviour of the firemen extinguishing the fire at the power station on the first night, and the behaviour of the clean-up workers later, resembled suicide. Collective suicide. The clean up workers often did the job without protective clothing, unquestioningly heading into places where even the robots were malfunctioning. The truth about the high doses they were receiving was concealed from them, yet they were compliant, and later even delighted with the government certficates and medals awarded to them just before they died. Many did not survive that long….For some reason, as the years go by, it is being forgotten that saved their country. They saved Europe. Just imagine for a moment the scene if the other three reactors exploded…”
“They were heroes. Heroes of the new history. Sometimes compared to heroes at the battle of Stalingrad or Waterloo, but they were saving something greater than their homeland. They were saving life itself. Life’s continuity. With Chernobly, man imperilled everything, the whole divine creation where thousands of other creatures animals and plants live alongside man.”
Alexander Revalsky, a historian:
We were brought up in a particular kind of Soviet paganism. Man was almighty, the crown of creation. He had the right to do whatever he pleased with the world – ‘we cannot wait for the favours of nature; our mission is to take them from her’.. There’s that renown Bolshevik slogan: ‘With an iron fist we shall herd the human race into happiness’ The psychology of a rapist. The materialism of a caveman, Defying history defying nature. And it’s still going on.”
A father on justice:
The only righteous thing on the face of the earth is death. No one has ever bribed their way out of that. The earth takes us all: the good, the evil and the sinners. And that’s all the justice you’ll find in this world”
A returnee on forgiveness:
Dying might not be difficult but it is scary. There is no church and the priest doesn’t come to these parts. There is nowhere to take my sins”
Katya on the sin of loving:
“I pray for love. But I am afraid of it, afraid of loving. I have a fiancé, we’ve handed in our forms at the registry office. Ever heard anything about the Hiroshima Hibushka? The people who survived Hiroshima? They can only count on marrying each other. It doesn’t get written or discussed here, but we exist. The Chernobyl Hibushka. He took me home, introduced me to his mother. She is a good mum. She works at a factory as a financial manager. A community activist. Goes on all the anti-communist demos, reads Solzhenitsyn. And this good mother, when she found out I was from a Chernobyl family, one of the evacuees, she asked in surprise ‘But surely you can’t have children, my dear’ The words rang in my ears ‘My dear, for some people procreation would be a sin’. The sin of loving.”
Gennady Grushevoy chairman of the Chernobyl children foundation on the dilemma:
For us, everything revolves around feeling. That is what gives us our grandness, elevates our lives, and is, at the same time, so disastrous. The rational choice for us is never enough…The moment you walk into someone’s yard in the village, you are their guest. I went in and sat at the table, ate radioactive sandwiches because that was what they were all eating. I downed a drink with them and it gave me a sense of pride to know I had it in me. I told myself ‘Okay, so maybe I can’t change a thing in this man’s life, but what I can do is eat a radio active sandwich alongside him, so I won’t be ashamed. Share his fate.’ That is the attitude we take to our lives. And yet I have a wife and two children. I was responsible for them. I had a dosimeter in my pocket… I realise now this is just our world its who we are. Ten years ago, I felt proud of being the way I was, while today I’m ashamed of it. All the same. I would still sit with him and eat that wretched sandwich again. I’ve thought about it, thought about what kind of people we are. I couldn’t get that damned sandwich out of my mind. You had to eat it as an act of the heart, not of the mind.
Slava Konstantinova agriculturalist on fear:
Our Russian people have always lived in fear of war and revolution. That blood drenched vampire, that Devil incarnate Joseph Stalin …and now its Chernobyl. And we wonder why people here are the way they are. Why aren’t they free? Why are they so afraid of freedom? It is just that they are more used to living under a tsar: a father of his people. It makes not the least difference whether he is called the ‘general secretary or the president”
If you lose faith in reason, all sorts of fears take it’s place, like the mind of a savage, it produces monsters”
Sergey Vasilevich Sobolev on the museum of Chernobyl
“This morning , before I had time to take my coat off, the door opened and a woman was there, sobbing. Well not so much sobbing as yelling: Take his medal and all his certificates of merit! Take all his benefits – just give me back my husband! She carried on shouting for ages, then left me his medal and certificates. So now they will be displayed in a case in the museum. People will look at them… but no one but me heard what she shouted. Only I, when I’m arranging these exhibits, will remember.”
Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya on eternal life:
I sing in a church choir. I read the gospel. I go to church, because it is the only place you hear talk of eternal life. That comforts people. Nowhere else will you hear words like these, and so I want to. When we were being evacuated, if we came to a church, everybody entered. It was almost impossible to get in. Atheist and communists, they all went.
The longing for a hero is unsatiable and deep rooted in the human heart and it is so easy to be seduced by the story tellers when they present us with one. The way the media make heroes out of people who have done pretty much nothing is contemptable, especially when they are dropped just as quickly as they are raised. I guess, a few weeks ago, few people knew, or would have known anything at all about our new “hero”, now addressing the packed houses of commons, with MP’s, kitted out in their Sunday best, neat suits and suspicious looking yellow and blue school ties, packed on the benches, on the steps and in the aisles. It was one of these pictures that seemed to be saying something momentous, but I wasn’t quite sure what it might be. There he was in the grandeur, the golden kitsch of the presidential palace, with all the power and trappings of his embattled state, but declaring in his green tee-shirt that he was really just one of the people. For once English was not the lingua franca of the world and the members had to press their headphone close to the ears to hear the faltering translation. The quotes from Hamlet and Churchill seemed obtuse at first but the message was clear. “We are not going anywhere, we are not backing down. If you want a fight, bring it on” and with it a plea to our friends, to the west, to Boris, “stand with us in our time of need.”
Now I know it is far more complicated than that. International relations and disputes are never simple. There are no good guys and bad guys. There may be wars that are just, but they end up in unredeemable horrors. Such is the human condition. In many ways it is easier, for us, to sit on the poles of the argument. It is easy to be a straight down the line hard-nosed, no-nonsense hawk or a pure and whiter than white dove, but in the middle is the reality and that is where we live. It was what I really appreciated about Christopher Hitchins, having just read his memoirs “Hitch-22”. I would disagree with him on just about everything, especially his dogged and foolish dismissal of all that belonged to God, of eternal life and the spiritual realm. In his story he doesn’t waste any opportunity to take a side swipe at anything that suggests there is more than this life. But he made a genuine effort to grapple with the issues of war and peace of appeasement and intervention and when it may be morally right to use power, even military power, for good. I don’t think he really resolved the conundrum. “’A map of the world that did not show Utopia’ said Oscar Wilde ‘would not be worth consulting. I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.”
So once again the UK and the west are faced with that dilemma to intervene or not and is this the time? Zelensky seemed to be saying “this is the time” not just for us but for you too, for, behind the call to stand with us, was the latent message that the game is up. The values that you once held dear and your ancestors fought and die for are about to be lost. If you cherish, if you value anything that is good, if you benefit from and enjoy freedom and democracy and wealth and high levels of health and prosperity and education and civility, consideration, honesty and integrity there will come a time when you will have to fight for it. Despite how it might look, after years of peace, it is not a given.
Zelensky may only be a paper hero, manufactured by the media and he may disappear from view just as quickly as he came onto it, but this might be the hour and he might just be the man.