Diary: Mark Oakley

29 March 2019

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All shall have prizes

I ONCE heard Stanley Hauerwas say that “Best” is not a theological category. As I walked through Covent Garden on a wet and windy day, I wondered whether it wasn’t a poetic one, either. I was on my way to shortlist for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry — still in shock that the Poet Laureate had asked me to join Linton Kwesi Johnson and Clare Shaw as a judge.

W. H. Auden commented that a poem should always be more interesting than anything you can ever say about it. This didn’t stop us all from having plenty to spout about the many volumes of poetry that we had read. We had never met before, and yet the day felt like a magical escape into reality as the poems did their distilling work. In the end, we chose five, and will meet again on the day of the awards to choose the winner. I hope whoever triumphs will also have the wisdom of Katharine Hepburn. “For me, prizes are nothing,” she said. “My prize is my work.”

 

Judging books by covers

A WASPISH friend once said of someone who had been spending more time at the gym that “he may have a body from Baywatch but he still has a face from Crimewatch.” Well, there were quite a few pumped-up bodies in HM Prison Whitemoor. It is a Category A men’s prison, and every week the University of Cambridge takes 30 students to study alongside 30 residents — doing exactly the same work together, learning from each other, and becoming friends over the course of the academic year.

I had been asked to lead an afternoon on human rights. There had been an “incident” two days before my visit, and I was, to be honest, a little on edge at first — especially when the largest, bulkiest, and scariest guy marched into the class and walked right up to me holding something wrapped in a cloth. He displayed it proudly. “I’ve baked you a cake,” he said.

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On the way home after a remarkable visit, my continuous irritation at the former Justice Minister Chris Grayling increased as I remembered all the effort that he went to to prevent prisoners’ getting books — a policy that the High Court eventually ruled unlawful.

 

Written in the sand

IT IS 25 years since the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. To help us remember one of the most efficient mass-killings in history — 800,000 people massacred in 100 days, and with machetes rather than nuclear bombs — I chaired an evening in which we first watched the film Hotel Rwanda, and then listened to a survivor of the genocide, Eric Murangwa Eugene, tell us how the film gets things wrong.

Eric spoke of his own experience: 35 members of his family were killed, but Hutu friends in his football team helped him to escape the same fate.

About two-thirds of the way through the film there was a power cut, and the projector fused; so Eric began his Q&A with the audience. One student asked: “How does it end?” She was too young to know the story. So quickly do atrocities get forgotten. I realised why such evenings are important.

 

Bread on the waters

I ALWAYS find Ash Wednesday’s liturgy poignant as we are nudged into a more realistic self-scrutiny, the ash on our foreheads a compass for our decision-making. After the morning service this year, a priest came up to me and wondered whether I remembered interviewing her on her bishops’ advisory panel. She said that I had asked her a question that had haunted her ever since: “Who do people become in your presence?”

On that first day of Lent, the words came back at me, and I decided that the question would lie at the heart of my 40 days and nights — the necessary time for some “amendment of life”.

 

F***U-turn

PHILIP LARKIN is not, perhaps, the obvious first choice of subject-matter for a spirituality course, but leading a study day on Larkin at Sarum College turned out to be fun. “Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth,” Larkin once said, and many of his comments about religion were equally morose. He described himself as an Anglican agnostic, and yet still removed his cycle clips in church “in awkward reverence”.

I wasn’t quite sure how prudish the participants would be. Would I need to change the celebrated first line of one of Larkin’s poems to “They tuck you up, your mum and dad”? No. When in doubt, they wanted me to err on the side of provocation. I was happy to oblige.

If you haven’t read it, I commend his poem “The Mower” to you. It begins with Larkin unknowingly running over a hedgehog with his lawnmower, but then — as so often with his poems — changes gear and pushes us into a different, maybe even a transcendent, internal landscape. I hope this season of Lent will do the same for you.

 

Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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