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06 November 2015


A thousand words

THE word “iconic” is used nowadays to describe anything that creates or illustrates a trend, however trivial or transitory. A frock, a gadget, even a vacuum cleaner, can earn the epithet.

There are, however, some things that fully merit the over-used adjective, and surely one of them is the wartime photo of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Blitz, rising majestically above the smoke and flames. A copy of it hangs on the wall of my favourite London restaurant, Frontline. It’s conveniently near Paddington station, the food is fresh and good, and the cellar (I’m told) is one of the best. It is, in fact, the eatery of a journalists’ club and charity, and the profits from its business go to its work of supporting freedom of the press worldwide.

No doubt, in due course, the present set of wall pictures will be joined by others, and surely among them will be this year’s truly iconic press photograph, the one of the Greek soldier cradling in his arms the lifeless body of a tiny boy, a drowned would-be refugee from Syria. It was a picture that did what speeches, sermons, demonstrations, and editorials failed to do: it changed the nation’s mind.

A man who had led prayers in church, pleading with God to give us a heart of compassion for these people, confessed to me that his had been a late but instant conversion. He had feared that we would be swamped by immigrants from the Middle East, but “I looked at that picture,” he said, “and asked the question: ‘What would Jesus do?’”


Town of heroes?

THATCHAM, in Berkshire, where I live, is not a very large town, and, until 40 years ago, it was no more than a village of about 5000 people. Yet, when the Government recently provided funds for the creation in every borough of memorials to those who won the Victoria Cross in the First World War, research revealed that Thatcham had a VC not only from that war, but also one from the Boer War, and another from the Second World War.

Even more remarkably, the recipient of the VC from the Great War was the older brother of the officer who won a VC in the Second World War. I wonder if any town in the UK of our size can equal that?

There are now three impressively simple stone plaques in the Broadway, honouring these three men. For a few weeks, there were also notices describing the extraordinary feats of courage which earned them such awards. In each case, they were not primarily concerned with killing the enemy, but trying to save their comrades.

This year, as the Remembrance Sunday procession passes, perhaps flags will dip to honour them, and all those others who served well, but received no medals for their courage.


Very Germaine

DR GERMAINE GREER, the distinctive (if Australian) voice of the feminist movement that has changed the face of our society during my lifetime, has recently returned to the headlines.

Apparently, she feels that men who go through gender realignment can never be “real women”. This caused shock waves among students at Cardiff University, although their protests were not enough to get a planned visit there cancelled. Instead, Dr Greer decided not to go. Almost 50 years in the public eye have not diminished her appetite for controversy.

A couple of months ago, I paid good money for a seat at her one-woman show at the Oxford Playhouse. She didn’t let us down. A packed theatre — not by any means all women, and including many students and sixth-formers — listened as she worked her way through a one-sided but entertaining presentation on the changing part played by women in society, and their continuing disadvantages in a male-dominated world.

She now seems to have taken up the cause of older women, especially where the NHS is concerned. Her presentation flirted at times with something a friend calls “pulpit indulgence”, a fault to be freely confessed by those of us who are preachers — the dangerous moment when we look at the audience and think: “I could say what I like, and get away with it.”

Eventually, after nearly an hour and a half, it was time for questions from the audience, with a roving microphone. After one or two early questions, a young man stood up near me, and identified himself as a consultant oncologist. He made a few polite corrections of things that she had alleged about cancer care for older people.

The speaker then put a question to him about the rise in cancer diagnosis in older women. He suggested that his colleague sitting next to him would be better placed to answer her question. A woman introduced herself as a professor of epidemiology, and then presented a short course in medical statistics.

There were now, of course, many more older women, hence the rise in cancer among that age group; but, in fact, the figures had gone down as a percentage of the whole.

As she sat down, a voice from behind me called out: “You’re in Oxford now, Germaine!”


The kiss of peace

THE previous minister of the URC church up the road, a young woman, left to become an army chaplain. Eventually, she was posted to Afghanistan, at the height of the conflict. Inevitably, there were casualties and occasionally deaths.

On one occasion, she was on patrol when an armoured vehicle hit a hidden explosive device on the road. Its occupants were seriously injured. She went to one young soldier who was fatally wounded — indeed, she thought, about to die.

As she told friends on a return visit here, three events followed. She did what you would expect: knelt beside him and said a prayer commending him into God’s loving hands. Then, acting on an impulse, she bent down and kissed him. And then he died.


Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.

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