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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

23 February 2024

Malcolm Guite is prompted to act after he unexpectedly finds himself out in the cold

I WROTE last week about how moving it was to give a poetry recital under the Peace Doves in St Albans Cathedral, and about how each one of the thousands of paper doves floating there carried a message or a prayer (Poet’s Corner, 16 February). Some of these doves had been folded and inscribed by refugees, “and I wondered what prayers the refugees had written, as I added my own unspoken prayers for them and the places they had left behind.”

That was still on my mind when I left the cathedral at the end of the recital, and walked through bitter cold rain to my Travelodge for the night. After a warming meal and an even more warming nightcap, I was standing in my shirtsleeves, just getting ready for bed, when the fire alarm sounded, very loudly.

Assuming it was a brief test, I waited for it to stop. It didn’t. It sounded on and on, incessant, urgent. I slipped on a pair of shoes (which turned out to be fortunate) and stepped out into the corridor to see what was happening. There were doors opening up and down the corridor, people emerging from their rooms, alarmed and frightened, and heading together towards the stairwell at the end of the corridor; for the lifts were out of action.

I thought I had better join them; so we all went down the stairs together — among us, mothers carrying babies, someone on crutches, and parents holding the hands of startled children still half asleep. Once we reached the ground floor, we were directed straight out into the darkness and the freezing rain: there was no question of our being allowed to wait in the shelter and warmth of the lobby. Indeed, someone came and told us all to move away from the building, up an alleyway, and over on to the other side of the main road.

Earlier, when I had been having a light meal and a drink in the bar/lobby after my gig at the cathedral, there had been no one there but me and the barmaid, and I had thought that perhaps the lodge had only one or two guests that night; but there must have been 50 or 60 of us shivering by the roadside by the time weall been herded out.

No one knew what was happening, or what to do next. But we all knew that, one way or another, we would be sheltered that night, and that the fire was probably minor — someone setting off the smoke alarm with an illicit cigarette, or similar. And, indeed, after about an hour, and the arrival and departure of a fire engine, we were let back in. It was a blessed relief to be back under shelter, and to change out of wet clothes and be dry and warm again.

But, all the while that we stood out there, I couldn’t help thinking of, and feeling for, those amid the devastation of Gaza, and the earthquake ruins of Turkey and Syria (News, 2 February), who, like us, had been called out of their beds by a sudden alarm and thrust into the cold and wet. Only, for them, there was no warm bed to go back to, no dry clothing to change into, no respite. I thought of what Lear told himself in the storm:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

I knew that I, too, had taken too little care, that it needed my action as well as prayer. And I was at least able, thanks to technology, to make a donation before I slept “to shake the superflux to them”, as Lear put it: to support practically, as well as in prayer, those who are sheltering and feeding the “houseless heads and unfed sides” in Gaza and beyond.

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