My hard line over a soft drink

by
14 December 2009

Helen Kent was embarrassed about turning down a mendicant, even a television one. But she need not have worried . . .

Back to the Tupperware: the Revd Peter Owen-Jones

Back to the Tupperware: the Revd Peter Owen-Jones

A man in black is walking towards me. He looks slightly familiar, and very strange. A wooden staff in one hand, a hooded robe of some sort, tangled greying hair, and a young man with a video camera following his every move.

“Oh, no!” are my first words. I consider bolting back inside, but I need to get home. I do not want to be filmed. Why didn’t I have a shower this morning?

“Hello. . . I am trying to live ac­cording to the principles of St Bene­dict, travelling without money, relying on the charity of strangers.”

It is worse than I feared. I wait for him to ask me for something. Why can’t I live according to the prin­ciples of St Mum? Keep quiet, travel home safely, and rely on strangers not to delay me.

“Do you have a soft drink?”

“No.”

I say it too quickly, forgetting I am being filmed. Then I walk towards my car wondering what to do next. Could I, should I, unpack some groceries and sug­gest I whip up a quick pasta meal? Instead, I opt for, “I could give you some water.” Such a feeble offer, and all of it being re­corded.

“I’ve got water.”

I walk back inside to get another bag. When I come out he is leaning against the front wall.

“I really don’t have a soft drink. . . If I did I would give it to you!” I sound chur­lish. It’s all going wrong. The camera’s still running.

“I know,” he says, but he doesn’t sound convinced.

“I’ve got wine,” I’m suddenly in­spired and point to the bottles in the boot. I’d happily hand them over to get rid of him. “You can have some — though it probably won’t do you much good if you’re walking along the coast path.”

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“I must be the only Church of England vicar who doesn’t drink wine.”

Just my luck. I walk back for a bag of dirty washing. He sits down on the road in front of “my” house.

“I could offer you a cup of tea?” It sounds half-hearted, but I’d like him to accept. He seems to have given up, and doesn’t respond.

I have failed. I have shown that the com­­fort of strangers is really very uncomfor­t-able. It leaves you miles from anywhere, tired, soft-drinkless, and hungry.

But I may have given him a bit of usable footage. The cameraman tells me they’re from the BBC and asks my permission to broadcast it. It will make me look bad, but I can’t say “No.” I used to work for the BBC. I spent my profes-sional life persuad­ing people to appear on television; so I have to say “Yes.”

THEN a large camper van drives up — so large that, when it parks in the square, a real resident comes out and tells the driver to move it. Another cameraman appears, an older man with a bigger camera to film stylish shots of the de­jected vicar.

While I am inside, I imagine him talking to camera about the lack of charity (and soft drinks) in this cold-hearted, holiday-home-dominated village.

When I next go out he is eating lunch from a substantial Tupperware box. He may even have a soft drink in there for all I know. Further up the road the van has parked, and a third cameraman is sitting in the driving seat, also eating. Groups of holiday­makers pass the vicar on their way down to the beach. He asks them for nothing.

I shouldn’t be sur­prised, but I am. I should know TV is a stunt. Of course he isn’t really living off the kindness of strangers. That’s far too risky with people like me about. No wonder he wasn’t interested in my half-hearted offer of tea: he could brew up for the 5000 in that camper van.

When my car is packed, my son has been strapped in, and I am about to begin the long journey home, we make eye contact, and give each other a sad wave. Much later I Google “BBC” and “vicar” and discover that he’s Peter Owen-Jones, whose series Around the World in 80 Faiths I enjoyed.

I am sorry about that soft drink. I am even sorrier to be caught on camera not offering it. My lack of generosity and his mobile home bothered me — until I hit a horrible bottleneck on the A303. Then, as my rushing is stilled by modern life, I wonder what St Benedict would make of it all.

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