Diary

26 July 2013

ISTOCK

Bless 'em all

I MUST come clean. Although I won a prize for the use of the bayonet, I was only a Third Class shot with the Sten gun. To achieve no better than a Third with a Sten gun, you have to be unable to hit the side of a house from three feet. (It's a bit like the old Oxford Fourth.)

My failure was unsurprising. I had missed the session on how to assemble the gun, and discharging one with its bits spread out on a blanket is difficult. My absence from that vital lesson was because I had been hauled out by the battalion padre, who, protective of his ordinands, wished to know how it was with my soul.

What I'm on about, of course, is National Service. As we have been reminded lately in these columns, the last National Serviceman was demobbed 50 years ago. The comic memories of those two years do not fade. I think of the permanently terrified Private Burchill, whose only solace in the military life he found so alarming was the yo-yo he always had about his person. If reproached gently by the Sergeant-Major, as he often was, for his disorderly battledress, his instinctive response was to extract his yo-yo and give it a whirl. CSMs, generally an eloquent order, were lost for words.

But such are not the memories I now most cherish. I recall, rather, the subaltern who shouldered the kit and rifle under which diminutive Private Thorpe was collapsing on a route march, thus fulfilling the law of Christ. I remember our sergeant in basic training, telling us what he saw - and smelled - when he found himself behind the wire at Belsen as one of the first to enter the camp on its liberation.

Above all, I salute Stanley Betts, Bishop to the Forces, who opened my mind to the possibility that there were other ways of understanding the cross of Christ than as an act of penal substitution. I hope that, beyond the river, I will have the chance to thank them all.


Final furlong

OUR pilgrim path winds through the woods along the crest of the ridge. Waves of bluebells break at our feet. Most walking with us have covered the 60 miles from Trafalgar Square in four days. Less heroically, Pat and I have joined them for this one day, the fifth and final one of the pilgrimage.

As we emerge from the trees, we catch the first sight of our goal. There, cloaked in mist on the horizon, is "the noblest tower in Christendom", the Bell Harry tower of Canterbury Cathedral. It is at once our first glimpse of a long walk's end, and - so lovely is the sight - a sign and promise of the vision that, at the last, shall bless our waking eyes.

The pilgrimage we have joined is the 23rd annual pilgrimage of The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields. With the rise and rise of homelessness in London, the work of The Connection - providing services for the homeless - is ever more needed; and we feel ashamed that our contribution to its cause - just a day's stroll - is so modest.

The pilgrimage concludes with a huge tea at the Friends Meeting House in Canterbury, and a service in the crypt of the cathedral. From the crypt we process to the cloister. There, we lay flowers on the grave of Dick Sheppard, who threw open the doors of St Martin's, and the doors of his heart, to "the least, the last, and the lost", and whose own pilgrimage, much tormented by hobgoblins and foul fiends, ended in this holy place.


Cost of discipleship

BACK to St Martin-in-the-Fields for a moving service, marking the centenary of the birth of Trevor Huddleston CR. We were invited to give thanks for him as "priest and activist, servant and agitator". Huddleston was all of these, but another title perhaps comes closer to touching the mystery of this remarkable man. He was a prophet, and prophets - even if, like Huddleston, they have many friends - are always lonely people.

I recall one day noticing him across the other side of Charing Cross Road, a tall, austere, frail figure, moving slowly along the crowded pavement. This must have been shortly before he returned to Mirfield to end his days. No one recognised him; and my heart went out to him at the thought of all that his discipleship had cost him. Now, thank God, he has exchanged his cross for a crown.


Careful talk

AFTER the service, we crossed the road for a reception at the South African High Commission. The last time Pat and I were in this building was for a commemoration of the life of another towering figure who gave his days for a free South Africa. As a Jew and a communist, Joe Slovo was demonised by Afrikaner society even more than Huddleston. I had been asked to pay tribute to him.

What made this invitation more of a challenge was that this was the first occasion on which the doors of the building - so long the gates of Mordor - had been opened to black people. Scores of them were there, almost hysterical with excitement. I realised that if I got a word wrong, there would be a riot.

I have no memories of tear gas and rubber bullets; so I suppose I must have kept my foot out of my mouth.

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

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