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‘What People Will Say About You When Your Life Is Over’

Good Morning. We recently started a family. This week one of the kids graduated from University. Where do the years go?

Many schools broke up for summer yesterday – young people are waiting for results or looking for work. You remember when that was you, you notice how quickly the days pass, how soon your time will be up.

And you look at the news this past few days and realize that nothing is certain. You suppress a feeling of dread at how fragile everything is, how ordinary lives can be torn apart by catastrophe.

So a letter from Headteacher Rachel Tomlinson, to children leaving her Lancashire primary school this week, was inspiring. She praised her Year 6 pupils for their results but reminded them that academic tests measure only a part of who they are.

The people who mark those tests, she wrote, don’t know that ‘your friends count on you to be there for them’
or that
‘sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school’
or ‘that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful.’

There are many ways of being smart, she concluded.
Or, to put it another way – there are many ways of living a good life.

The American author David Brooks makes a distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues.

Resume virtues, he says, are how you did in those tests, the evidence of your skillbase, what you bring to work as a grown up.

But eulogy virtues – these are different. This is what people will say about you when your life is over.

At your funeral no-one will mention your exam results. The hours you spent at work – your title or salary. People will remember a different edition of your life.

‘He loved playing with his kids…’ ‘She’d always stand up for others…’

Maybe they’ll say: ‘She was generous and patient…’
‘He was loyal and brave…’ ‘She always listened and was so discreet…’

Eulogy virtues are hard to measure, but easier to witness.
They’re not about your qualifications in life but the quality of your life.
They are a glue that hold families and friendships together – that help us negotiate life’s toughest tests.

A good eulogy paints a picture of someone who recognised their human flaws – and tried to face them down.
Are we mean or consumed with envy? Do we hold grudges? Do we ever shut up and let others speak? Can we forgive?

As families mourn those they’ve lost on Flight MH17, one image stood out.
A memory of a brilliant pioneer in AIDS research. His friend recalled how ‘often times he was cooking for his five girls while on conference calls discussing HIV’.

A snapshot of a good life. ‘Teach us to number our days,’ says the Psalmist, ‘That we may apply our hearts to wisdom.’

In a time when world leaders struggle to wage peace and foster friendship, our hope lies in young people with the courage, compassion and character to do it in theirs.

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

‘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.’

1. ‘This being human is a guesthouse,’ said the poet Rumi, 800 years ago. ‘Every day a new arrival.’ Open your eyes wide at the arrival of each morning, take it all in, make a note. Every day is also a departure….

2. …..

Twenty One Thoughts on Being Twenty One. For Medium.

“Fridge Magnet Faith’

Good Morning. A small child looked me in the eye the other day, after I’d been sharing some grown up wisdom for life.
‘That is so cheesy,’ he said, ‘I can taste it in my mouth.’

Not bad for someone of such tender years – almost good enough for a fridge magnet.

I looked the phrase up, expecting to find it recycled from Abraham Lincoln – or Homer… Simpson. Who knows ?

As Abraham Lincoln himself once put it, ‘The trouble with quotes on the internet is that you never know if they’re genuine.’

Some days the online world is a virtual fridge door – festooned with magnetic aphorisms offering comedy or comfort, profundity or platitude.

Some promise inspiration: ‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.’
That was everywhere when Maya Angelou died a few days ago.

Others offer a comic twist: ‘How many roads must a man go down before he admits he’s lost?’

Some pick-you-up on a day when you’re down: ‘Be kind – for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’
Many sound good… but are soundly untrue. ‘If you believe it, you can achieve it’.

From obscure quotes of the famous to famous quotes of the obscure, these engaging epigrams may be Churchillian
– or Wittgensteinian
– or maybe just … Morecambe-and-Wiseian –

but they are aphorisms that many use to navigate life by.

In an Information Age, always bugging us with its
attention-seeking demands, we find less space to wrestle with big ideas and turn instead to shrink-wrapped miniature maxims.

Perhaps these are the new scriptures in an age which thinks it’s post religious.

As with most scriptures, veracity can be uncertain. ‘You make a living by what you get’ said Churchill, ‘You make a life by what you give.’
It has a ring of truth – but no record of Churchill ever saying it.

And for all their sudden ubiquity, they’re not as modern as they appear. The Bible holds an entire collection, a Book of Proverbs, in a genre known as wisdom literature. Some resonate now as much as they did 2500 years ago.

‘Better a dinner of herbs where love is, Than a fatted calf with hatred.’

‘As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens the character of another.’

The most resonant hint poetically at the shape of a rewarding life, rather than list things to believe. ‘Can you scoop fire into your lap without your clothes being burned?’

The thinnest offerings of fridge magnet faith are only jumble sale religion, pound shop philosophy.

But the richest seams, ancient and modern, help us become, as Gandhi says – on a million fridge doors – ‘the change we wish to see in the world.’

A word of warning though, from the original collection: ‘Like a thornbush in a drunkard’s hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.’

‘Hey Mister… your hat’s on fire.’

Good Morning. A while ago the cover of Private Eye carried a photo of an Archbishop of Canterbury. He was wearing a fetching technicolour mitre on his head, red & green tongues of flame lacerating around it. A small boy was looking up at him and the speech bubble from his mouth read, ‘Hey Mister – your hat’s on fire!’

Tomorrow millions of people will mark an ancient festival called Pentecost when the divine spirit is said to have turned up at the Jewish harvest celebrations.

Arriving in the form of tongues of fire, she is said to have so electrified crowds of visitors from across the world that people who didn’t speak the same language could suddenly understand each other.
A kind of Google Translate for early adopters.

Pentecost, coming 50 days after Easter, gave the world Pentecostalism – which is like the Church of England with lots of people. (And more decibels.) It’s a festival rooted in exotic spiritual powers like speaking in tongues and ecstatic visions.

But the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth were soon making lists of other divine gifts they believed had come online. Unfortunately, as the Bible was already far too long and way past publication deadline, most of them didn’t make the cut.

But these gifts are still available – and free on demand.
For example people with a tendency to talk too much, who are always on send – they might need the gift of listening, the gift of being on receive.

Or supposing you hear something salacious or damaging about a friend or colleague – you may need the gift of discretion, choosing to forego the short-term hit in passing it on.

Say you’re a company director – you may need the gift of sight, to imagine what life is like for the cleaner who hoovered your office, two hours before you arrived.

Or that aged neighbour or harassed single parent you pass on the street – perhaps you need to introduce yourself, exercise the gift of overcoming your natural reserve.

Some of us feel caught in the wrong career – we may need the gift of finding our vocation.

The congenitally religious could do with the gift of doubt.
We who are jaded and cynical ? A gift of innocence.

For all of us who’ve fallen out big time with someone – we probably need a gift of courage. And forgiveness.

And for those moments when we’re in a massive sulk – we may just need the gift of getting over ourselves.

Our days are held in place by understated gifts like these, invisible nuts & bolts which keep life together without us really noticing.

The epiphany of Pentecost is not about a man whose hat is on fire.

‘Tradition,’ said the composer Gustav Mahler, ‘Is the handing down of the flame, not the worship of the ashes.’

The flame still flickers in a million ordinary gifts – lighting the way as we wander along.

‘Dear Ivan..’

Ahead of the FA Cup Final, an open letter to Ivan Gazidis, Chief Executive of Arsenal Football Club.


Dear Ivan

We’ve never met but we do have a special connection because, as an Arsenal season-ticket holder, in a small way I help to pay your wages.

Doubtless, as CEO of the fourth most profitable football club in the world, you are handsomely remunerated and I don’t begrudge you a penny as you and the mighty Arsène try to create a sustainable football club that pays its own bills. Raised as you were in apartheid-era South Africa, by heroic parents fighting against social injustice, you are only too aware that the measure of a person is found in their dignity not their salary.

It’s wages and dignity that I’m dropping you this line about, in particular, a friend of mine, Raja,* who works for you at The Emirates on match days. He serves drinks, prepares meals, does the washing up… whatever he’s asked to do. Take it from me, Raja is a reliable guy who’s overcome some setbacks in life and is now trying to pay all his own bills. You’d like him if you met him, you probably have, without knowing it. You’re kindred spirits: like Arsenal, he’s aiming to become a sustainable economic model.

The trouble is that while Raja takes every shift he can working at The Emirates, he just can’t make ends meet.

In short, he’s trapped in poverty.

He doesn’t face the kind of iniquitous institutional racism that saw your father jailed for opposing it in South Africa but he faces a similar tedious, grinding poverty. The daily depressing detail of working to survive while never being able to thrive.

But unlike many directors of gigantic global brands, you get this stuff. You get that people can’t always haul themselves up by their bootstraps in a society that can appear designed to keep some people down. Drawing on your family’s first-hand experience of poverty in South Africa, you put it lucidly in a recent interview, ‘The big challenge is: ‘How do you give people the opportunity to lift themselves out of that poverty?’

You’ve put your finger on it here Ivan. How does Raja lift himself out of poverty?

Well, as I’ve often told him, Ivan Gazidis can help. You pay the salaries of some of the richest people history has ever seen and fans like me pay some of the highest ticket prices ever known to watch some of the most beautiful football ever played. But your cleaners, catering staff and security teams are often earning around £6.50 per hour, just above the legal minimum of £6.31. In London in 2014, you can’t get by on that — that’s why Raja often needs to borrow twenty or thirty quid from his mates, just to tide him over between one week’s bills and the next. To use your own phrase, it’s not enough for people ‘to lift themselves out of poverty’. People like Raja have to take second or third jobs to put food on the table for their families, to buy school uniforms for the kids. They leave the flat early and get home late. Some days they barely see their partners, their children. In the end it saps the life out of you.

Raja would need to work full-time for a decade to earn what the mighty Mezut Özil earns in a week. Now I love Mezut, there are days when I believe one of his passes proves the existence of God. And I’m guessing he’d help Raja himself if he bumped into him — but that would be charity and what Raja needs is justice. And that’s where you come in, just like your parents did when they faced down inequality and injustice all those years ago.

The Living Wage was launched by Citizens UK, an alliance of community groups and parents in East London who found that even working two or three minimum wage jobs they couldn’t make ends meet. The Living Wage is calculated each year according to the basic cost of living. It’s the amount someone needs to get by — holding down one job, instead of two. So they can have a family life, help the kids with their homework, go to the pub, watch the football.

In London it’s set at £8.80 an hour. It’s a couple of quid more than the minimum wage — a couple of quid that, over a week, can lift a family out of working poverty. A couple of quid to transform life for thousands of people.

Arsenal fans have been trying for a while to get the club to introduce the Living Wage for employees like cleaners, catering staff and stewards but as you pointed out, when someone raised it at the AGM, ‘The London Living Wage is well intentioned but the issue is complex and political and, in any case, the Arsenal benefits packages are generous in market terms.’

You’re wrong and you’re right Ivan. You’re wrong that it’s complex. Signing Mezut Özil is complex. Getting planning permission to build The Emirates stadium is complex. A Santi Cazorla dribble is complex. This, in contrast, is simple. The sums involved are peanuts compared to the deals we’re hoping you strike over the summer to get us a goal-scoring partner for Giroud, a scary midfield destroyer and a right back who’ll settle for the wages Bacary Sagna is struggling on.

But you’re right that it’s political.

As your parents taught you, it’s politics that changes the world. And in football as you’ve said yourself, ‘what we do is more important than sport’. You recognise how ‘football has been able to take a leadership position’ on racism and you want it to lead in ‘other issues like homophobia’. Helping low-paid stewards and cleaners and catering staff get a foothold in society through a Living Wage is precisely one of those ‘other issues’.

All that has to happen here is for Arsenal Football Club to get on the right side of history because, as David Cameron puts it, the Living Wage is ‘an idea whose time has come’. City accountants KPMG are backing it (‘extra wage costs are more than met by lowered recruitment churn and absenteeism, greater loyalty, and higher morale leading to better performance’) and Mayor Boris Johnson has written to you and every Premiership boss asking for clubs to introduce it. More than 500 London companies, with a workforce of a quarter of a million, are now Living Wage Employers. Schools, city firms, small businesses — but no Premiership football club. Yet.

Looking out on the fans from the open-topped bus through Islington on Sunday, when we’ve added our tenth trophy in nine years (obviously I count Champions League qualification as a trophy so that’s nine Arsène has won us since the 2005 FA Cup) Aaron and Wojciech and the BFG might notice a small, well-behaved and very polite demo asking the club to adopt the Living Wage. How about surprising everyone? How about the team have their own banner ready which reads, ‘Arsenal — Living Wage Employers, Premiership Leaders Again’

Once we’ve done it, the rest of the Premiership will follow quicker than Man City trying to buy our best players. It would transform the quality of life for thousands of people. As you say yourself, it’s all about moral clarity… and then doing something about it.

‘I give my parents massive, massive credit, first to have the moral clarity in that environment to see how pernicious that system was but, even more, to do something about it against all their own self-interests. I do ask myself: ‘Would I act in that way?’

Thanks for reading Ivan, see you at Wembley and don’t forget about the new striker.

yours in the name of Arsène

Martin Wroe

(PS If this has made you really cross, please don’t cancel my season ticket.)

(* I changed my friends name to ‘Raja’ as he didn’t want to be identified.)

lyrical_Mar_2014_smLo-fi poets and hi-fi singer-songwriters: another night of LYRICAL coming up in north London next week.

Love words? Spoken or sung ? Beth Rowley, Katherine Venn, Anthony Wilson and Iain Archer will have some of the finest words available for delivery on a Friday night in March. Opening around 7.30, we’ll be raising some funds for Women At The Well, a drop-in centre for vulnerable women in Kings Cross. Tickets £8 (£4 concessions) on the door.

‘A More Promising View Of History’

Good morning – and here is the news.

Smallpox has been eradicated and polio is almost gone.

If you’re a woman in sub-Saharan Africa you’ll probably live till you’re 57 – sixteen years more than your grandmother, who might have made it to 41.

Actually, none of that is really the news because it didn’t happen an hour ago or even yesterday.

It didn’t happen with the sickening thud of a bomb blast or the flash of a camera as a public figure is caught where he shouldn’t be.
This is not 24hour rolling news but another sort that we rarely notice until, some time later – years, decades, centuries – someone decides to call it history.

My mum was one of 12 children – but one of her brothers died young, after contracting polio.

That wasn’t unusual 70 years ago. Children no longer contract polio in the UK – but no-one calls it news.
It’s history.

As recently as the 1980’s polio paralysed 350,000 people around the world every year – last year there were only 372 cases recorded. Anywhere.

In the C19th, my grandfather’s grandfather was one of 22 children.

These days most of us would think that a little too many.

About twenty – too many.

Our families have one, two or three kids.

But that’s not news – that’s just life.

In fact, it’s what happens imperceptibly as countries develop. As parents don’t lose their kids to disease – so family sizes drop.
Journalism is sometimes called the first draft of history but first drafts don’t always tell the whole story.

In a world of 24/7 news, as we consume another day of tragic conflict or witness the apparent impotence of politicians to broker peace… we can miss a bigger picture.

A more distant news cycle with a greater circumference.

The arc of the moral universe is long, as Martin Luther King put it, and it bends towards justice.

King believed in a bigger picture – his perspective came from a mountaintop where, in the distance, he thought he could make out a promised land. Some people thought he was just dreaming.

Stand back a little, adjust your view and some days you might capture the feint outline of a more promising image of history.

This week, in the annual letter of his philanthropic foundation, the world’s richest person, Bill Gates, made a prediction about the world’s poorest people.

‘By almost any measure,’ he said, ‘The world is better than it has ever been – by 2035 there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.’
It sounds unlikely – or maybe Gates can see the outline of that long arc of justice.
Drawing on the latest research, from child mortality to economic growth, Bill Gates predicts that in 20 years poverty, as we think of it today, will be history.

Even if he’s right… it still might not make the news.

‘While Stocks Last…’

‘Faith enlightens the path behind you but, as a rule, in front of you it is still dark.’

The words of the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr capture many of the stories of faith and doubt in the second volume of The Gospel According To Everyone. The sister who lost her brother to cancer. The artist whose journey through mental illness became a kind of blessing. The woman who finds peace walking her dog in the woods. The sixty-something child caring for her eighty-something mother in the long years of forgetting. The homeless man interrogating the immortal invisible like a sceptical Psalmist for failing to provide a roof over his head.

You might read their stories and come to understand your own better. You might wonder if your doubts are so certain, or your faith so sure. ‘All theology,’ says Frederich Buechner, ‘like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography.’

This latest collection of broken gospels has attracted a little coverage lately so, while stocks last, help yourself to a FREE EBOOK DOWNLOAD.

‘The Gospel According To Everyone:faith, hope and love in the life of the person sitting next to you.’

For Remembrance Day

Front cover-m

‘It was freezing cold in the ice and snow on our second morning in the Italian Alps, and that’s when the Germans attacked. They came roaring down the hill, in a hail of gunfire, grenades and mortar bombs.
It was 1943 and I was the 20 year-old toff who’d just taken command of this platoon of the London Irish Rifles. In the trench, with my sergeant, I did as I’d been taught and sat up and shouted, ‘Enemy coming through the woods. Open fire!’
No-one opened fire. I thought, what the hell is happening? At officer school they hadn’t told us what to do if you say ‘Open fire,’ but no-one does.
My sergeant, who’d been hit, said, ‘If we open fire we’ll all be damn-well killed!’ I thought, ‘Well, this is war, isn’t that what we’re here for?’
Then a mortar bomb dropped, I was flung into a snowdrift, and the next thing I knew, we were prisoners, being marched over the hill toward enemy lines.
I’d always thought the war was futile, that if I could just be captured, then I could get on with writing my novel. But marching through the snow, with my hands in the air, I knew I had to get away at any cost, and I didn’t mind if I died. There was still gunfire and shelling, so I did a wonderful Shakespearean death dive, pretending to have been hit, and I rolled down the hill until I reached a rock. I lay stock still behind it. This German soldier came marching down the hill after me, and some lines of TS Eliot, from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, came to me: ‘And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
 And in short, I was afraid.’
But I wasn’t afraid. I looked up at this German standing over me with his gun, and I heard a bang and a thump, and I thought, Is that me? The soldier fell down dead, shot through the heart.
I stood up, frantically waving at the British soldiers across the hill. They’d seen that our platoon had been captured, and one of them had shot the German. It turned out that it was Mervyn, an officer I’d become friendly with because of our love of TS Eliot. He was also a good Christian man and, 20 years after the war, I asked him, ‘What did you think, when I stood up from behind that rock and waved, and you recognised me?’
‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘I thought you were another German and I had you in my sights with my finger on the trigger, but I suddenly thought, no I don’t want to do any more killing, and so I didn’t pull the trigger.’
When people ask me, ‘Why do you believe in God?’ I say, well I’ve had certain experiences in my life in which the presence of God is much the best explanation. I feel that God has been there. I’m a novelist, a storyteller, and I see life in stories – stories of the war, of my father Oswald, of God and the Church, stories of love. Stories that are so intermingled, it’s hard to see where one starts and another ends. But that moment, in the Italian Alps, was a story that altered my life.
When we were children, my sister and I had a wonderful Christian nanny who took us to church and made sure we said our prayers every night. We knelt by our beds and said ‘Our Father. . .’ and ‘God bless Mummy and Daddy, and Auntie and Uncle, and please make us a good boy, a good girl. Amen.’ I accepted that sort of Christianity, and when I was confirmed at public school, I took it very seriously.
It was only once I was sent off to North Africa and Italy in the war  that I began to have my doubts. On Sunday, a priest would lead a service in the open air and, after we’d all said mass, we went out to kill a few Germans. It seemed bonkers to me, a bonkers God for a bonkers world.
After the war, I became quite anti-Christian. I wrote about it to my father Oswald. He was imprisoned in Holloway, with his wife – my step-mother, Diana Mitford – for being a fascist and national security risk. My father was a deist, not a Christian, he didn’t believe God comes to us, but that humans must work their way up to God.
I’d lost my faith and, when an army friend wrote to say he was becoming a monk, I told him he’d gone around the bend. But he persuaded me to hear a priest called Raymond Raynes, who was giving some talks to restless agnostics and atheists in Surrey. Father Raynes was the superior of the Anglican community at Mirfield in Yorkshire. A tall, gaunt man, with a twinkle in his eye, I appreciated his talk, but Christianity still made no sense to me in this world of madness and violence.
‘If you think the world is mad,’ he told me. ‘You’d better get out of it quick.’ I was outraged and all set to leave, but my friend persuaded me to have a personal word with Raynes. I planned to give him a piece of my mind, about how evil the world is, and that God does nothing. But something was happening inside me. Instead, I simply asked Father Raynes, ‘What should I do if I want to change?’
‘Just do the stuff,’ he said, ‘Go to mass, make your confession, take communion.’
Later, I visited him at Mirfield and we had long talks. I was married, with two young children and wrestling with dilemmas in my personal life, struggling with what I believed. He didn’t tell me how to behave, or what to believe. He said, ‘Act as though you do believe. Go to mass. . .’
There is a strange, Anglo-Catholic church in London called All Saints Margaret Street, and on Saturday evenings there will always be some priest hanging about for people wanting to make their confession before Sunday morning. I’d never done it before, but one day I turned up, made my confession and, whoever it was, said, ‘Well that’s a very sad story, but you’ve made your confession, so I absolve you in the name of etc etc.’
I remember coming out of the church afterwards, feeling different about the way my life should go than I’d expected. Father Raynes would say, ‘Don’t think about morals, about the right and wrong course, but make your confession and see what happens.’
I was discovering that, if you confess and take the sacraments, things will happen that you might not expect, and you may see life differently. After all, what’s the point of taking the sacrament if you’re already telling God that you know what you will do? Instead, say to God, ‘I will take the sacraments, and then it is up to you.’
Our friends couldn’t believe it when, a couple of years ago, Verity and I moved to Holloway. They said, ‘You won’t know anyone there.’ I said, ‘Well my father was in Holloway for four years.’
I’m a writer, a storyteller, and sometimes people ask me me, ‘How can you believe in Christianity, the idea of God becoming human?’ I say, ‘I can believe it because it’s such a good story. God as a baby? It’s such a good story that it’s lasted for 2000 years. It’s either completely incomprehensible, or else it is this thing we call T.R.U.E.  I don’t know whether things happened exactly like that but to me this is such a good story that it must be true.’

Edited extract from The Gospel According to Everyone, Volume II
Cost £5 + £1.50 p&p

(i-Book and Kindle edition coming shortly)

Lyrical Sunday

In London this Sunday, October 20th ? We’re hosting an evening of lo-fi music and hi-fi words with Iain Archer, Rhian Roberts, Dust Jackets and Rick Leigh. Raising funds for Women@thewell.