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Learning the language of calling

25 April 2014

The writer Rhidian Brook - a guest at the Church Times Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature next month - has a clear sense of vocation. He talks to Simon Jones

Rhidian Brook

"SALTY" is the word Rhidian Brook uses to describe his ambitions for his writing - his novels and his scripts, as well as his contributions to Thought for the Day on Radio 4. I have fleeting thoughts of coarse sailors and hip-cocking barmaids before realising that, unusual in a contemporary novelist, Brook's language is more New Testament than Old Rogues Gallery.

He grew up Welsh Baptist - chapel, he says, hinting at an accent - with ministers in the maternal line. His father's pedigree came through the more upwardly mobile Church in Wales. Neither tradition became personal to Brook, but neither did the most common alternative in his trade: "I wasn't thoughtful enough to be an atheist. I had a troubled sense of infinity, those big existential questions, but I didn't dwell on them."

It was not until a bad experience with sensimilla - unfertilised marijuana - laid him seriously low on a trip to Trinidad that he started to read the Bible his girlfriend had given him for his 21st birthday.

Reading St John's Gospel - the most drug-friendly one, after all - was like, he says, uncharacteristically inarticulate for a second, "a massive explosion of 'Oh my gosh, this is dealing with all the things I'm worried about.'" It amounted to a pretty dramatic conversion, and the continued illness threw him into reading, and writing. He shifted from writing advertising copy to something that he is happy to describe as "vocation".

"I had a real sense of purpose - the idea that life is more meaningful than I'd realised," he says. "I'd enjoyed life, I'd loved life, but the idea that there was a spiritual dimension to it, that there was a God who wanted to be involved - that was all very extraordinary to me, really. You need more than just something to say, as a writer, but I think it's a really good start."

ILLNESS taught him to enjoy his own company, and kept him static, both important skills for his new career. And when his first novel, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones (2000) started to win prizes, it felt as if the path must be the right one.

"When you're new to faith, you're kind of like an annoying lover. You can be a bit over-excited, and you want to tell everybody. I was a bit like that."

Evangelical? "Yes. I don't mind that word at all. Enthusiastic in the true sense. It sort of spills out of you."

Even when Brook started writing TV scripts (Silent Witness, on BBC1), faith still made regular appearances in his work. From there came a radio Lent talk, and then Thought for the Day. "I remember doing the first three, and . . . it's terrifying, because it's live, and you can really screw up. I've been doing it for 14 years now, and I guess it's how a lot of people know me."

Back then, he was one of the few non-clerics on the programme, and certainly one of the few contributors from outside the regular religious institutions. Nicola, the girlfriend who had given him the Bible, was by now his wife. She was Pentecostal, and they found a home in a Charismatic Evangelical church that became part of the Vineyard movement.

"Some of the teaching we got there was great, and we began thinking about what things like 'the priesthood of all believers' really meant. The challenge was, how do you practise it?

"We had worked out the building bit - no constant upkeep of steeples - but we thought the Church needed to get out of buildings. So I don't really know what I'm trying to achieve with Thought for the Day, but I know I'm not a professional priest. I'm not a professional religious person, and therefore I have something to say about that."

This is one of the reasons why he now runs a pub church, where men turn up for a pint, a scripture reading, and a conversation.

JUST short of ten years ago, an email from a friend sent him and his family on a journey that was a further extension of his salty vision to take church to the people rather than the other way round.

"[The friend] worked for Newscorp, for the Times Literary Supplement," Brook says. "They'd been approached by some people from the Salvation Army who wanted someone to document their AIDS work around the world. My first thought was, 'I don't know anything about that,' and I almost binned the email. But I mentioned it to my wife, who said I should check it out. She's kind of like that.

"So I went to this meeting with this guy who'd been the first person to treat someone with sarcoma in Africa. He pioneered this community medical response because the hospitals couldn't cope. . . . I went to say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' But when this guy started to describe what was happening, I burst into tears. I just thought 'That is the Lord. I've got to go.'"

This unembarrassed language of calling seems somehow at odds with the urbane world of literature, on this genteel street in the modern capital city. I wonder whether Brook will pull back, and couch the decision in terms that would make it easier for the secular to process - justice, maybe, or charity.

"No, I'm comfortable with that," he says. "I knew I was good at communicating, and I definitely felt called. There's a line from St Paul about making the mystery of the gospel known to those who are perishing, which is quite heavy, but that takes skill.

"When you have a complex public, as we do in Britain, the conversation is different. And when you get into the world of literature, there's an even higher level of sophistication required; so you've got to be cunning. But I did feel this was something God was telling me to do. It didn't come in a flash - I resisted, and resisted, and resisted - but I did feel it was what he wanted."

THIS sense of calling led to an even bigger decision: to take the whole family to Africa for a year, to follow a "trail of devastation" through communities shattered by AIDS and HIV. "Agnes [his daughter] was too young to get a vote - she was five when we left. Gabriel was nine, and we definitely had to have a conversation with him. Something like, 'We won't do this if it's wrong for you.'

"We did say that we wanted to do it, and there was a moment when he said that, too. I don't know what would have happened if he hadn't, but thankfully he did. It would have been impossible to do that journey without them, because being in community was key. If I'd been a journo on my own, [the people they met] wouldn't have accepted me in the same way; I would have been the observer, the outsider."

The result was a book, More Than Eyes Can See (2006), which charted that family journey. In fact, Brooke has made a habit of representing the world through the eyes of children. After finishing the book, he went on to construct the script for Africa United, a 2010 feature film that followed a gang of children trying to make it to the opening ceremony of the football World Cup in South Africa.

"Kids are doorways to things. They're ice-breakers," he says. "They don't understand everything, but they perceive a lot. They're spiritually open, and they're in touch with a lot of things that we tend to forget about. A child's point of view is often a way into a fresh perspective."

Children also appear in Brook's latest novel, The Aftermath, which was published last year and appears in paperback this summer. When the war ended in 1945, and West Germany was divided up by the Allies, the soldiers used to say that the Americans got the view, the French got the wine, and the British got the ruins.

INTO the rubble came experienced military men, Brook's grandfather among them, to try to restore some kind of civic order. The Aftermath takes place as the novel's central character, Colonel Lewis Morgan, is appointed governor of a decimated district. He takes his family with him, and, interestingly, Edmund, his son, is the same age as Gabriel was when the Brook family went to Africa.

Morgan is a good man doing a good job, and unique in his treatment of the local Germans. The official advice to British families, read now, is full of the bitterness of a long war: "You must keep clear of Germans. You must not walk with them, or shake hands, or visit their homes. You must not play games with them, or share any social event. Don't try to be kind - this is regarded as weakness. Keep Germans in their place."

In line with such advice, officers of the time routinely removed Germans from their homes so that their own families could live well in their houses. But the seed for the story is in the action taken by Brook's grandfather, on whom Morgan is loosely based. Colonel Walter Brook refused to evict a German family, and allowed one to share a house with his family - much to the consternation of Brook's grandmother.

"He'd fought alongside Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence's tendency to have more sympathy for the native than the coloniser seems to have rubbed off on him. My grandmother decided to maintain the cold aloofness recommended by the Attlee government."

The colonel in the novel works in the same way. His decency acts as a spine throughout the book, while his family deal with the unorthodox situation.

THE real story - and, tellingly, the focus of the film script that Brook wrote alongside the book - is Morgan's wife, Rachael, grieving for a son who had died in a bombing raid. It is her tale that offers a way in to the book's discussion of morality. Where Lewis's civility is somehow inaccessible, and makes him inaccessible to his family, Rachael's response to her new environment is a kind of spiritual journey.

"The Aftermath is the least overtly faith-driven of [my] books," Brook says. "And yet, of course, it's dealing with some very big themes. I guess Lewis is more New Testament than Old Testament in his sense of justice, without necessarily explicitly believing it. The Old Testament would be more representative of the prevalent mood, especially in the light of the Holocaust. He, like my grandfather, is seen as soft-pedalling."

Around them, Germans undergo a Fragebogen, or questionnaire, to determine their culpability under the last regime. The Holy Grail for them is a Persilschein, a document that declares them "clean" enough to work again.

The Aftermath is a work that takes a look at sin, redemption, and forgiveness in the most trying of circumstances. Its characters make little reference to any personal faith, but that of its author appears in subtle and challenging ways. Salty.

The novel was released in Germany last month, and, as I leave, Brook is preparing to talk to journalists from that country, who are understandably keen to see how it is received there. Before I go, he hands me the book of his which I have not yet read. Inside is an inscription: "For the journey."

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook is published by Viking at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49 - Use code CT366  ).

The Church Times Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature takes place at Bloxham School, Oxfordshire. from 30 May to 1 June. To book, phone 0845 017 6965 or visit www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk.

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