"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
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
"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
"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
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
"[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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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.