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Flight from horror

22 July 2016

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WHAT TV programme could better fit the Church Times reader­ship profile than Trainspotting Live (BBC4, Monday, Tuesday, Wed­nes­day of last week)? That would surely be my column’s main topic. But such innocent pleasures were hijacked by a more sobering, more urgent concern.

It is a clerical commonplace to theologise about the Exodus as a — perhaps, the — crucial theme under­lying the books of the Old Testament: God’s liberation of his people from slavery to freedom. But, from now on, I intend never glibly to employ the term without remembering the human cost behind the abstract concept.

Exodus: Our journey to Europe (BBC2, Monday, Tuesday, Wed­nes­day of last week) was not, of course, intended as a Bible study; no doubt the director intended more an exploration of the reality lying behind the media, political, and social obsession with immi­grants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

This took a year to prepare; refu­gees were followed by a film crew, and some adult refugees recorded their journey on camera­phones. The majority were Syrian, but we also travelled the route from Afghan­istan and The Gam­bia. It started with the reason why people want to escape from their homes — in many instances, there is no longer a home. Life is either impossible, or so brutal as to be unbearable.

This is no easy choice; it is enforced by desperation and despair. No doubt, those featured were out­standing: Hassan’s and Ahmed’s brilliant English, their desire to contribute; 11-year-old Isra’a’s optimism and confidence. But what we experienced through their eyes was the degrading sense of rejection, of being turned back.

We felt, as never before, what it is like to cross from Turkey to Greece in a sinking raft; to sit in the mud with hundreds of others because a border has been closed; to be in a truck organised by people-smugglers; to feel the des­pera­tion that pushes you to try, night after night, to find a way to cross the Channel.

There was a certain bitterness in hearing how much living in England is people’s dream: the UK has taken in only about 5000 Syrian refugees. I hope that Mrs May’s new team watched this, and will take it to heart.

For one Welsh lay preacher’s son, glimpsing a Roman Catholic mass in a shattered farm building on the edge of the battlefield was the experience that gave direction to the rest of his life. BBC4’s The Greatest Poem of World War One: David Jones’s “In Parenthesis” (Thurs­­day of last week) sought to bring this extraordinary epic mas­ter­piece, hailed by T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden in their day, to a far wider audience.

Unlike the well-loved poets of the Great War — Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves — this writer was not an officer, but a Private. Nothing else gives so immed­iately the experience of life and death in the trenches; and its achievement is all the more remark­able because of the way it weaves minute observation with Arthurian legend and Welsh mythology.

What a shame that this admir­able celebration of the forging of a new language to express new and terrible truths was itself couched so frequently in slack and clichéd English.

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