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22 February 2013


IF YOU are living at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, as I once was, and you want to listen to the BBC World Service, you have to have an efficient aerial. I thought I would have to wander out into the jungle, stringing picture-wire between the trees; but, in the event, a metal coat-hanger did the trick, and soon I was listening to the signature tune of the World Service, "Lilliburlero".

This lilting melody began life as an Irish jig. I learn that it was first published in 1661, in a collection called An Antidote Against Melancholy. There, it was set to the words "There was an old man of Waltham Cross". (I offer a small and worthless prize to anyone who can complete a plausible limerick that has such an unpromising start.)

Recently, they held a thanksgiving service in St Martin-in-the-Fields to celebrate 80 years of the World Service - something described by Kofi Annan as "Britain's greatest gift to the world in the 20th century." The celebration, at which Lord Williams made one of his final appearances as Archbishop of Canterbury, was an inspiration and a challenge. The canapés at the subsequent reception were succulent.

After all this excitement, my wife, Pat, and I sat quietly in the Dick Sheppard Chapel at St Martin's. Someone at the back of the little chapel was singing softly and beautifully. It was a moment that held the promise that all shall be well.

THE last time I preached in Westminster Abbey, I was nearly late. I had not been warned that 144,000 cyclists, in lurid Lycra, were racing around London that Whitsunday. Traffic was gridlocked, and I had to abandon my car and head for the abbey on foot. I was still in a tizzy when it came to the sermon. But then I suppose Peter was, too, on that day. On this occasion - choral evensong on Remembrance Sunday - I was on time.

I preached on our need for silence. Curiously, no one interrupted to ask why I was talking about the importance of not talking. After the congregation and tourists had left, our kind host, the Treasurer, Canon Robert Reiss, gave us a guided tour of the abbey. Empty of the milling crowds, the great building reasserted its immense and immemorial authority. I was aware of an overwhelming Presence.

So, too, long ago, was the composer John Raynor ("one of the purest artists who ever lived, one of the world's most beautiful people"). As the child of a housemaster of Westminster School, he grew up in the precincts of Westminster Abbey. In his wonderful memoir A Westminster Childhood, Raynor writes of the abbey: "Its ubiquitous presence ensured that one never wholly forgot the ascending spiritual impulse life should be."

WE WERE in Washington a day or two before President Obama's inauguration. We breakfasted at Lincoln's Waffle Shop, across the road from the Ford Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot, and next door to William Petersen's boarding house, where he died of his wounds. We dithered between "grits with gravy" and "eggs easy-over with hash browns". Finally, and unadventurously, we settled for "eggs scrambled".

Later in the day, we watched Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln, which documents Abraham Lincoln's efforts to secure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution - the measure that would formally abolish slavery in the country.

Whether or not Lincoln leaves something to be desired in terms of its historical accuracy, the film is a cinematic masterpiece, and Daniel Day-Lewis's riveting portrayal of President Lincoln deserves all of the awards that it is winning. Lincoln can be seen as an essay in the cost of discipleship, showing how the path to justice and the way of the cross are the same. The film demonstrates, too, how messy that road can be. If justice is to be done, deals must be done - often with unpleasant people.

All of which Lord Williams well understood. He has more in common with "Honest Abe" than an abundance of facial hair.

MY WIFE and I set off from Brighton to London for another spell of "cat-sitting" in Fulham. We are to be away for weeks, and we do not travel light. Luggage trolleys are as rare as camels at Brighton Station (and just as refractory), but - for once, providence uncloses its clenched fist - a trolley awaits where our taxi decants us.

Our caravan makes its unsteady progress to Platform 4, where we just miss our train to Victoria. A young porter appears, and directs us to the train on the opposite platform. (Are they still called porters?) With a sunny smile, she helps us to board. To be sure, the train we now must take is the slow train. But, although time is lost, much is gained; for this train stops at Hassocks, and a life that does not allow one to pause awhile in Hassocks, where surely many a retired cleric cultivates his euonymus, is a life ill-lived.

As the train is about to depart, our "porter" suddenly reappears, pressing on us the pound coin that we had had to disburse to secure the trolley, and which we had forgotten to retrieve. An angel has crossed our path.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore, a former Rector of Hackney, has retired to Brighton.

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