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‘Disappear and disconnect yourself…’

A while ago the rock band Radiohead recorded a song called ‘How To Disappear Completely’. This week they tried to do just that.

Their website faded to blank. Facebook and Twitter feeds were erased, leaving only a mysterious Instagram clip. A clay model of a chirping blackbird.

This absence made the hearts of fans grow fonder, but Radiohead’s disappearing act was brief. The blackbird featured in a video for a new song, the album arrives tomorrow.

It was a clever marketing ruse, the band’s absence designed only to underline their presence. You can only reappear if you’ve disappeared.

But when everyone is linked in to everyone else, disappearing becomes more difficult. It’s harder to get away when we’re all wired up to each other. Sometimes all our links feel like a chain.

I once asked the late Irish writer, John O’Donohue, why he wasn’t on email. He said that he didn’t want to return from a walk in the hills and find 70 people waiting for him in the kitchen.
Later on he gave in, his kitchen soon heaving like everyone else’s.

It used to be simple to disappear into a good book but it’s harder when a smartphone looks longingly at us, begging to be held.

When a teenager fails to return a text her parents fear the worst – forgetting that such instant connection didn’t exist when they were kids themselves.

Of course, the prospect of forcible disappearance is haunting – and among the darkest acts of terror by a despotic regime is the disappearance of its own citizens.

But deciding to make our own periodic and temporary disappearances can be transformative.

In the same way that a good sleep invites the mind to untangle a knot of thoughts, so the act of disconnection can spark better connections.

I stayed recently with a dozen ancient nuns, among the most disconnected people you could bump into. In their local town, they might as well not exist. No-one sees them. They were off-the-grid before the grid existed.

Nursing a small existential crisis at the troubling lack of broadband, I picked up the welcome note. ‘You are here,’ it read, ‘To help store up the world’s collection of silence and stillness.’

These women chose to disappear from the world, in order to make another kind of connection.

As Jesus of Nazareth put it to friends, on one of his own periodic disappearing days, ‘Come apart to a deserted place by yourself and rest a while.’ Which being translated means, ‘Log Off’.

Tell your phone it’s nothing personal as you pop it in a draw. Go for a wander with no destination in mind. Vanish into the diary you wanted to write. Push open the door of an empty, silent church.

Shun electric wire, communicate slowly, says the farmer-poet Wendell Berry. ‘Live a three-dimensioned life, stay away from screens.’

Disconnect and disappear yourself… just for an hour or two.


(Thought For The Day, BBC Radio 4, Saturday 8th May, 2016)

Middle Tint


I had never heard of ‘Middle Tint’

Until you quoted John Ruskin,

Observing how the finest of painters

Devote most of their canvas to this


It sounds like an English village, Middle Tint,

Or a prescription for new glasses, in fact,

You write, it’s everything we take for granted

Each ordinary day, this overlooked life


There is excessively small quantity, said Ruskin

Of  extreme light and extreme shade,  All the

Mass of the picture being graduated, delicate

Middle Tint, laid before dark colour, before light


The going back and for, to school or work

The paying of bills, small joys, hidden hurts

The bolognese on Monday, the washing, the ironing

The colleague who dislikes you, a cloud, no silver lining

The tooth that needs filling, distant conflict, so much killing

Those thoughts in the night, the morning sunlight

Words spoken in haste, a friendship that breaks

The clink of the glasses, the moment that passes

Ambition that’s thwarted, most things that get sorted

Dirty mugs in the sink, all this, the middle tint


This is what you wrote Lauren F Winner

How Middle Tint is our rote, unshowy behaviour

We may not see it, but it’s most of the canvas

Our eyes drawn instead to

Births, marriage and death


Maybe this is prayer, most of the time and going

To church, the length of a life, And against this

Landscape – the joy and the gloom –

A bush flares into flame,

And someone


Walks away from a tomb



(After reading ‘Still’ by Lauren F Winner.)

‘We Recently Had A Daughter. Now She’s 21’

Floating Bookshop, Canal, Kings Cross, London

Floating Bookshop, Kings Cross, London

 Has a  parent got any wisdom for the road ahead ?

21 lines for a 21 year old.

It’s no longer called the age of ‘majority’, when you passed from being a minor to a major. But it remains a liminal moment, with a freedom to do now what you might never be able to do again. And it makes a parent wonder if he can throw any light on the road that lies ahead. It turns out every thought I had has been thought first, and said better, by someone else. (Continued)

‘We Play Football, Every Week, Fourteen of Us…’

On playing football with your mates, every week for twenty years.

We play football, every week, fourteen of us. And then we go to the pub. It’s a different fourteen every week. The fastest fourteen to reply on Sunday evening, when an email announces the game is on. As it has been every week. For almost twenty years. (Continued)

‘Where Do You Get Your News?’

Good Morning. Where do you get your news?

From programmes like this, of course… but traditional news sources are under siege from the internet.

There’s another source of news which is also under threat. This week one of the big supermarket chains announced the closure of several dozen convenience stores.

Many felt the rapid expansion of ‘express’ or ‘local’ stores, would be one more blow to the survival prospects of the traditional corner shop.
You don’t know what you miss until it’s gone. A good local shop provides customers with more than milk, bread & emergency loo roll.

It’s where, for example, I get my news. I get it from Bhupendra, our local shopkeeper. (Continued)

‘Routine Acts of Kindness’

Good morning. A few days ago Sammy Welch, a young mum, was entertaining her son Rylan on the five hour train journey from Birmingham to Plymouth.

Not easy with a three year old in a crowded carriage but Sammy’s parenting skills did not go unnoticed.

After a stop in Wiltshire, she found a note left on the table.

‘Have a drink on me,’ it read. ‘You’re a credit to your generation, polite and teaching the little boy good manners’
It was signed from ‘man on the train at table with glasses and hat’. There was a five pound note with it. (Continued)

‘Just By Being Here All Our Numbers Came Up’

Good Morning. The chances are you’ll play it tonight – or someone in your family will.

The National Lottery – some 70% of us play regularly.

Sissy, 84, is the oldest member in our church syndicate.

The Church has never been a fan of the Lottery but Sissy is… she’s so sure our numbers will come up, that when Renee died, she took on her ticket too.

Some people drop out – their belief falters – but new people join.

The good thing about a church is there’s so much faith to call on.

We have twenty lines of six numbers but Sissy, who studies the lines religiously, is convinced we have a problem.

After a Sunday service she’ll tell me we have too many numbers in the thirties – we need more in the twenties & forties. But we can’t add new numbers without dropping others and we can’t do that because, well, what if they came up ?

How would we live with ourselves?

Over time, we’ve won £4,000. Mind you, our total layout is 20,000… so we’re down a bit.

I tell people it’s a long term investment. Risky yes, but not foolish, like, say, a pension.

You’ve got to be in it to win it. It could be us.

You can’t prove luck exists but we often behave as if it does. Good luck – we say – as if it will make some kind of difference.

Bad luck – we commiserate – as if some unseen force explains why your horse fell at the last or your partner walked out on you.

The odds of winning the jackpot are one in 14million – why do we think it could be us? Maybe because the odds of just being alive on this good earth in this strange universe are so much longer.

Someone calculated the odds of any of us being born at

one in ten… followed by two and three quarter million zeroes.

Or to put it another way: the odds of being alive are so far-fetched that winning the lottery seems quite plausible.

Just by being here all our numbers came up.

We’re luckier still. We can send our children to school, call on the NHS when we’re sick, vote out politicians we don’t like.

Most of this good fortune was made by people who came before us, people who got lucky with their own health or education and decided to share their winnings by working for the rights that we take for granted.

‘Time and chance happeneth to them all,’ says the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes.

Faith and fate, divinity and destiny are not always comfortable in each other’s company – religions find luck hard to explain and may be wise to remain agnostic on that.

While Sissy and I disagree on whether switching our numbers will improve our jackpot chances we both know that we lucked out just by being alive… right here, right now.

‘Dear Alexis Sánchez…’

A letter to a great footballer who escaped poverty – about the working poverty of low-paid staff at Arsenal Football Club.


Dear Alexis…

First up… thanks.

For bringing a touch of jinking, swerving, dribbling magic to the Premiership.

For your furious passion to win.

For signing for the Arsenal.

For all the goals… already.

Many people say that you and Angel di Maria at Man Utd are the signings of the season. But apart from the fact you play for the better team, that thing you do with your shorts before a free kick will always give you the edge.

But this isn’t about that.

This is about the cleaners. The people you bump into most days at The Emirates or training at London Colney.

Maybe some days they remind you of the first cleaner you knew, your mother Martina, working all the hours God sent in your home town of Tocopilla, in rural Chile.

Humberto, your brother, says that even though you’ve become one of the world’s great footballers, you’ll never forget your childhood in that small mining town. How your dad walked out when you were a toddler leaving your mother alone, to raise you and him, and your sisters Tamara and Marjorie. As a six year old you were on the street earning cash to help make ends meet.

‘We were the poorest of the poor so Alexis had to earn money any way he could from a very young age.

He would wash cars for a few pence or perform somersaults for a handful of coins from onlookers. He was like a little gymnast, hurling himself all over the place.

‘The neighbours would give him a few coins for entertaining them. Sometimes he was so hungry he would knock on neighbours’ doors and ask for bread. On occasions Alexis would box in the street for entertainment.’

And you described in a film how your mother became a cleaner at your school. ‘When she was cleaning in the school I hid because I didn’t like to see her there.’

Her wages weren’t enough to support the family. She had to take on other jobs — washing fish for neighbours or selling flowers.

You were so good with a football you were known as ‘El Nino Maravilla’ – the ‘Wonder Kid’ — and you promised your mother you would ‘get us out of this situation’.

You kept your promise and fulfilled that dream… but your story is rare.
Other talented kids, playing barefoot on the same local streets, didn’t make it.

Not many escape poverty through sporting genius.
Most people need a fair wage for a fair days work.

That’s why I wanted you to know that while you’ve signed for a great club with fine traditions — including exemplary work in the local community — Arsenal have a bit of a problem.

And it’s the cleaners who can tell you about it.

Although this is one of the world’s richest clubs and season tickets are the most expensive in the Premiership, Arsenal’s directors don’t believe they can afford to pay their cleaners a living wage.

Or matchday stewards. Or security staff. Or those serving hot dogs or beer at the bar.

Hundreds of low paid staff on contract with Arsenal have to make a life in one of the world’s most expensive cities on £6.50 an hour. It’s impossible and, like your mum, they have to take on second jobs, or third jobs.

Up early, home late. Some days never seeing the kids.
I know this from my friend Raja who works for Arsenal on match days. I wrote about him to Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal’s CEO, who pays everyone’s wages.  I asked Ivan to get the club to adopt the Living Wage, calculated each year according to the basic cost of living. It’s the amount someone needs to get by on if they’re holding down one job, instead of two. So they can have a family life, help the kids with homework, go to the pub, watch the football.

In London the Living Wage is £8.80 an hour. That’s a couple of quid more than the legal minimum wage, a couple of quid that, over time, can lift a family out of working poverty. A couple of quid to transform life for thousands of people.

Lots of fans, including The Arsenal Independent Supporters Association , think the club should lead the way and become the first in the Premiership to introduce the Living Wage. Fans are asking Arsenal to take a lead.
If they did, other clubs would follow, and thousands of families would benefit. The Living Wage is already going mainstream. A year ago 400 UK companies had committed to it — today it’s nearly 1,000.

After I dropped my letter to Ivan around to The Emirates, I published it here and 15,000 people read it. Ivan’s mum and dad were activist heroes in apartheid South Africa so he has an idea of what life is like for people on low incomes. Many people wanted to read his reply to my letter but so far he hasn’t come up with one.

At the Arsenal AGM a few days ago Ivan said a Living Wage was a decision for government. This is not an argument he ever uses about ticket prices. But anyway, the Prime Minister David Cameron already backs the Living Wage and so does Labour leader Ed Milliband.

‘Paying the Living Wage is not only morally right,’ says Mayor of London Boris Johnson, ‘It makes good business sense too.’

Ivan tells campaigners that it’s all a bit ‘complex’ — the club employ cleaners and catering people through other companies. But so do hundreds of other major corporations. HSBC, for example, one of the UK’s biggest banks has just agreed to pay all 45,000 staff the living wage — permanent staff, contract staff or temporary staff.

They’re not waiting to follow government, they’ve decided to take the lead. Like Hearts FC in Scotland, announcing at their AGM that ‘we propose to implement the nationally-approved Living Wage, across all staff, including part-time and contract workers.’
Alexis, you recently donated £160,000 to replace five football pitches in Tocopilla.

That sort of generosity transforms life in a local community but decent wages changes life for an entire society.

And what Arsenal’s cleaners and caterers need is justice.

A fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work.

A living wage.

I wondered if you could remind Ivan and Arsène Wenger and the club directors what it’s like to live with the powerlessness of poverty. How trapped you can be when you work hard but still don’t earn enough to change your circumstances.

Many people think the living wage is an idea whose time has come — and now is the moment for Arsenal to show moral leadership. As your great Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda put it: ‘You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.’

After only two months with the club, your drive and determination on the pitch make it clear you want Arsenal to be winners. If you could help the Arsenal board see how important it is to put everyone who works for them on a living wage the club would win something more significant than any cup or league.

Even by the standards of ‘El Nino Maravilla’, that would be seriously wonderful.

Thanks for reading Alexis

Martin Wroe

PS When Ivan didn’t reply, I wrote to Arsene, your manager, our hero. He’s a trained economist who knows all about recruiting great staff and paying decent wages. He hasn’t replied either. He’s probably focussed on the salary of that defender we need in January but if you could remind him…

‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Good Morning.

A famous entertainer endures the final days of illness.
She’s ‘in our thoughts and prayers.’

Out of the blue an ordinary family face a terrible tragedy.
‘Our thoughts and prayers are with them.’

Innocent civilians, caught in a warzone.
‘They’re in our thoughts and prayers’.

In a post-Christian culture like ours, sometimes the language of faith doesn’t quite ring true. Politicians, for example, put ‘thoughts’ in front of ‘prayers’ to moderate the religious aspect. Most of their audience, they guess, don’t do prayer. They want to convey empathy without pretending that they – or we – are as devout as we once were.

Sometimes the ‘prayer’ word is dropped. During the final illness of Tony Benn, a colleague tweeted that she was sending him ‘all strength, thoughts and best wishes.’We know what she means – and she means well. It’s the thought that counts, even when our words may feel like they don’t count for much. If we can’t honestly pray for someone, we can let them know we’re thinking well of them.

The roots of the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ go back as far as 1821 and the Christian Herald and Seaman’s Magazine – an excellent title, sadly no longer on sale.‘Masters and seamen,’ writes the author, ‘As you are about to leave us for the season, I trust we shall follow you in our thoughts and prayers.’ Doubtless they did and the expression had legs.

Finding the right words is tricky in an age of religious diversity – acknowledging the possibility of faith without alienating those who don’t share it. All of us do thoughts but many of us don’t do prayer – at least not in the way people have often thought of prayer … relating to an unseen presence so that our experience of life is transformed. But perhaps there’s more to prayer than we thought. There is a kind of prayer that doesn’t ask whether or not God exists – but sees that contemplation and reflection are strangely transformative.

Last week saw the close of the Matisse ‘Cut-Outs’ show at the Tate Modern. Even though, late in life, Matisse designed a chapel and clergy vestments, he wasn’t sure he believed in God. But as an artist, he said, ‘the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.’ Sometimes we overrate belief and underplay experience – but the practice of prayer can transcend any creed. On those days when we can’t find the words for what is happening in our lives – or our world – maybe all we can do is

– light a solitary candle on the kitchen table.
– lay a flower at the roadside.
– bow in respect as the funeral cortege goes by.

Sometimes a prayer is as simple as this poem, by the cartoonist Michael Leunig.

‘These circumstances will change.
This situation shall pass. Amen.’

‘Include Your Giving In Your Cost Of Living’

Good Morning. Lady Gaga and Bill Gates have done it but David Cameron and Barack Obama have not.

Russell Brand and Oprah Winfrey have been soaked while Stephen Hawking’s kids did it for him.

Someone you know probably did it this week – then posted the video online.

This is the Ice Bucket Challenge. A cold, wet public humiliation – and a fundraising phenomenon for charities tackling Motor Neurone Disease.

One American organisation has received gifts from 800,000 new donors. Total giving is near 100m dollars.

At some point most of us are moved to give money to help others – to fight disease or hunger, to promote human rights or equality.
If you follow a way of faith, you’re not supposed to make a song and dance about it. Which is a challenge when the Internet wants to make a song and dance about everything.
‘When you give alms,’ says Jesus. ‘Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.’
In other words – keep it under your hat. Otherwise it looks like self-promotion not self-sacrifice – about your personal good, not the common good.

But marrying comic spectacle with good cause, as the ice bucket challenge shows, demands self-promotion.
Filming it, tweeting it – that’s how the online world rolls.
It put me in mind of a life-changing conversation I once had with a friend.
We were talking about how to give and who to – the bewildering number of causes and emergencies.
From her handbag my friend retrieved what turned out to be the most subversive credit card I’d ever seen.
You could only use it to donate to charities – any one of 160,000 registered in Britain.
‘We decided,’ she said. ‘We could afford £10 a week. We set up the bank transfer. The tax we pay on that is reclaimed and added to our account. Then we give it away.’
I called her this week. Her family are still at it.
Quietly, undemonstratively – giving their money away, changing countless lives. Over 25 years, this one family have given away nearly £17,000 to a dozen good causes.
They include their giving in their cost of living.

They budget for generosity like they do for the rent, the shopping, the car, the holiday or the dog.

They help causes that don’t tug at the heart strings as well as popular ones that do – strategic long-term support with the left hand, spontaneous acts of compassion with the right.
And always discreetly.

Dousing yourself in a bucket of freezing water is great – but you wouldn’t want to do it every week.

To change this world for those who face poverty or disease, who need shelter or education, slow and steady giving wins the race.

We can budget to transform history for good. Over the length of our lives.
And when we feel powerless in the face of the grimmest headlines, this is one effective way to know our lives making a difference.