Diary: Canon David Winter

29 June 2018

ISTOCK

A carless future

SIXTY-EIGHT years ago, I bought a motorbike and acquired a licence. Last month, my grandson took over my little car, and I ended my driving career.

As some readers will know, it is a seminal moment in life — a bit like starting secondary school, or your first date. The decision was not lightly or quickly made, and in the end it was my daughter’s apologetic recognition that perhaps it was the right time to do it that tipped the balance. I didn’t want to kill anyone, and, in any case, my driving was very much local.

What I miss, I admit, is the spontaneity that a car gives. Hungry, and nothing appetising in the freezer? I’ll just pop up and buy some fish and chips. Not any more, though: it’s a 12-minute walk to the chippy, and by the time I get back the food will be cold. On the positive side, I’ve already made friends with my Muslim taxi driver, Ahmed. With £1000 saved on insurance (not to speak of tax, petrol, and servicing), you can buy an awful lot of taxi rides.

Motoring moments

OF COURSE, there are memories of my cars, and journeys in them, and of some bizarre driving experiences. During a dreadful smog in the 1950s, I had to face driving 20 miles home from the school where I was teaching, when road visibility was about five yards. Help was at hand, though. As I pulled on to the main road, a Green Line bus loomed out of the fog. I knew that it would eventually go past the bottom of the road where I lived; so I tagged in behind it and made safe and slow progress, relying on the bus driver’s skill and his better lights.

It all went very well — until, eventually, the bus stopped, and its lights went out. I discovered I was in Palmers Green bus garage. Several staff saw the funny side of this, and escorted me back on to the road. I was about half a mile from home, which I managed on my own.

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I realise that there are many people now who have little idea what “smog” was, but my generation of city-dwellers certainly does. It was a choking, deadly mix of soot and fog, and at its worst rendered any kind of movement, on foot or by motor vehicle, perilous and stifling. The Clean Air Acts which followed banished it to a grim memory, but it serves for my age group as a vivid reminder that the “good old days” had their drawbacks.

There were, of course, happy motor memories. Our cheap old Hillman Minx, for instance, was the only car we ever owned that could accommodate our teenage son’s double bass. As my wife and I drove him (and it) to countless gigs, we had no idea that we were collaborating in the development of a career that would take him worldwide. A new record from his folk-rock band Tunng will be out soon (that’s what’s known in the trade as a “plug”).

Short jouneys

I MENTIONED Ahmed. Besides being a taxi driver, he doubles up as proprietor of our local newsagent and sweet shop. At Christmas, he likes to send a Christmas card to his newspaper customers, but feels that he needs to choose it carefully so as not to cause offence. I showed him a Christmas card that my brother-in-law produced last year — he has many Muslim friends and contacts. It had a picture on the front of Mary and the baby Jesus. Inside, on the left, it had the account of the birth of Jesus from St Luke’s Gospel. On the right, it had the account of the same event from the Qur’an. It was virtually identical.

An excellent film by my old friend and former BBC colleague John Forrest traces a “short journey” — from a local church to a mosque — and its positive consequences. This is not a dialogue of clergy and imams, but of ordinary, rank-and-file Christians and Muslims. It is heartwarming, and would make a good discussion-starter for a church group (www.short-journey.com).

Five seconds to treasure

EVERY now and then, the transient world of television takes us by surprise with a moment of astonishing human and emotional insight. The final instalment of BBC1’s BAFTA Award-winning documentary Ambulance, about the West Midlands ambulance service, gave me five seconds that I shall never forget.

We were following two young paramedics on their way to the biggest traffic disaster in Birmingham for many years. When they arrived, the scene was chaotic: injured people lay on the road, and shattered vehicles were being stormed by firefighters trying to reach trapped passengers. Already, they knew that there were fatalities.

Our two paramedics were immediately involved, tending the wounded and slowly transferring them to the ambulances. “It’s sheer hell,” one of the firefighters said, as darkness closed in. Finally, 21-year-old Tash and her young male companion were in their vehicle, driving back to base. The strain and horror of what they had experienced was palpable. “Are you all right?” he asked Tash. She instantly burst into sobs, as she clutched the steering wheel. “I want my Mum,” she said.

Moment of truth

THAT was it for me: the moment of truth and beauty lighting the entire scene. No dramatist would have put those words into her mouth — they were too simple, too childish: a crude attempt at a tear-jerker But this was real life, not play-acting. This was a real person longing for the love, understanding, and communication that make us truly human.

Tash had hoped to talk to her mother when they got back to base, but they were dispatched on another task: an elderly woman with a broken hip, who had been lying on her bedroom floor for five hours. After that, at three a.m., Tash was finally able to wake her mother and have that longed-for encounter.

“I want my Mum.” Four words I will remember for a long time. They say so much about who we are, and what love is.

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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