Adrian Plass

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    A Monthly Letter fRom Adrian 

     

     

     


    NOVEMBER LETTER


    Dear everyone (and especially you),

              A spot of benevolent bullying from one or two regular readers has frogmarched me into writing my November letter while there is still a fragment of the month left to write it in. On Saturday Bridget and I drove over to Scarborough on a wild and windy evening to speak at a combined church event, and to preach (or something like that) at St Luke’s church on the following morning. We were teamed up with singer-songwriter Rob Halligan, who, as well as being a good friend of ours, is a very fine performer of songs that are truthful snapshots of a faith that never quite settles, but is no less profound and yearning for all that. Do go and see Rob in performance if you get the chance. He will make you think and feel all sorts of things.

              Our hotel bedroom overlooked the rain swept bay and, a few hundred yards down the road from us, the winter-tariff lighting of a Scarborough that, like most seaside towns I suppose, slumbers as it waits for a new season and a fresh age of clear identity. Perhaps I am a little odd, but something in me is warmed and even slightly excited by wild weather and bleakness in places that were designed for the bustle and organised excitement of holidaymakers. I once wrote a poem that began with the following verse:

             

        Does winter end in seaside towns,

              When councils paint anew,

              The railings on the promenade,

              In hopeful shades of blue?

     

              The preservation of hope, the determination to go on preparing for positive events and experiences, the acceptance of storm and neglect along the road to some kind of peace, all of this reminds me (like Rob’s songs, now I think about it) of the path that many followers of Jesus know so well, and silently or audibly acknowledge when they reach a clearing and discover that the worship band has taken a different path through the forest.  

              Last week Bridget and I were leading a weekend at Scargill House entitled ‘You must be having a laugh!’ not the easiest subject to handle on a weekend when Paris was subjected to another and even more terrible terrorist attack.  Yes, we laughed - many of our guests had come because they desperately needed to do so, but we also cried. A sort of spiritual colonic irrigation, if that’s not too disgusting a metaphor. In the course of that weekend we used a phrase that might come close to summing up the inevitable inconsistency of our lives. In an age and a church where there is a naïve hunger for everything to be always, or never, or totally, or without fail, it may not sit too well, but there was a buzz of recognition when we used these two words:

              ‘Intermittent shalom.’

              That is about as close as most of us get to a life that is filled with the peace that passes all understanding, but intermittent shalom is a darn sight better than no peace at all, and there is little doubt that the best is yet to come.

              By the way, our son Joe, who is currently teaching in Nairobi, is helping to organise football training and tournaments for a huge number of youngsters who live in Kawangrawe, a devastatingly poor area situated very close to the school where he works. If anyone has football kit that is no longer needed, is in decent condition, would fit a child aged anything between 7 and 17 and is willing to donate it, let us know by emailing through the website. He would be very grateful, as of course would the child who receives such an unexpected present.

              Tomorrow, the first of December, is the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was not very good at Christmas in her later years, but if she was able to be with us this December, I would welcome her, grumpy or otherwise, with open arms. I wish the very best to all those who are wondering how they will survive until the end of the year without the person they have loved and lost. May God bless you and provide a tiny spark of light in the darkness.

                                            Sincerely, Adrian.     


     OCTOBER

    Dear fellow passengers,

              Is it advancing age or some specific mental derangement that caused me to feel a wave of compassion yesterday for a packet of Viennese Whirls? Bridget found them on the cheap shelf in the local supermarket. They were reduced to fifty pence, or just over eight pence each. Bad news for a proud Whirl. We would never normally buy them. Individual apple pies and multi-hued, sticky jam tarts are more to our liking. Viennese Whirls are something and nothing. They are here, and then, after one brief, sweet moment, they are gone.

    Why do Bridget and I waste energy and sanity on feeling sympathy for inanimate objects? I believe I mentioned in an earlier letter that there are times when misdirected compassion flows out of us like a tide of cheap treacle. Ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet, there are moments when it seems to me that there is a benefit in keeping those channels of empathy open and functional, even though we tip over into absurdity from time to time. Let me explain.

    A few weeks ago, after a long but stimulating day spent with a church group .in the west-country, we were packing books into boxes and preparing to go when the minister pulled up a chair and sat down beside the table. We knew and respected Mick. He was a member of the farming community as well as being a minister, and he was one of those untiring followers of Jesus who always seemed to have time for others, a man far more likely to be leaned on than to lean.

    Assuming that he had simply decided to keep us company as we prepared to leave, we chatted happily as we continued to sort our stuff out. We had managed to get a particularly good deal in a particularly comfortable local hotel. Food and relaxation shone like a beacon in the near distance. We do rather relish our little luxuries.

    Something happened. I believe that Bridget and I slowed down our book-packing activities at almost exactly the same time as we realised that Mick was not there for a casual chat. He had started to talk about the early days of his marriage, mentioning in a deceptively casual way that today would have been the birthday of his only son, if that son had not been killed in a motor accident at the age of eight. Mick’s furrow was quite a long one, and I think we both sensed that we needed to be there, unhurried and genuinely involved until he reached the end of it.

    These experiences of being in the zone of what is required are not frequent in our experience, but they mean such a lot. In this case, the privilege of being allowed to offer time and attention to someone who spends most of his life offering care to others was immense. We gave ourselves to Mick for as long as it took, and thanked God for giving us the opportunity. Eventually, he seemed to wake up from his narrative, and tried to apologise for taking up so much of our time. He thanked us for listening, but, notwithstanding the material treats that still awaited us, we were the lucky ones.      

              So, maybe it’s good to practice on the Viennese Whirls, anything or anybody, in fact, that can keep the channels of compassion from rusting or getting blocked. I would hate to feel that we were not prepared to go with the flow when necessary.

              On another subject, the plans for our 2016 Australian tour are almost complete. Tickets are bought, events are being organised, and arrangements with house-sitters are about to be finalised. We shall be away from the middle of February to the middle of April, speaking at events in Victoria, New South Wales and one or two dates in Queensland. Lots of laughs and probably a few tears as we go. Sincere thanks to all who have helped to make this possible. We truly appreciate your support. Our Oz itinerary will appear on the website very soon.

              Thanks also to all you kind people who contact us via the website. Our email page is like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box. You never know…

    God bless, Adrian

    SEPTEMBER

    Dearly beloved friends and darling foes,

                As I write, October is about to creep in under cover of a thick fog that is enveloping the part of Northern England where we live. I have to confess that I quite enjoy misty mornings. These early autumn days bring a rush of joy as I realise that we are back in the season where a reduction of natural light allows electric lamps to twinkle an increasingly delicious invitation from the little coffee shops that Bridget and I love far too much. The better ones offer coffee and walnut cake as well, of course. And cream teas. And toasted teacakes. And Yorkshire Tea. And lemon drizzle cake. And newspapers you can borrow. And an appropriate measure of sweet melancholy.

                We arrived back home yesterday afternoon after a busy, but richly layered weekend at Scargill House. This was our annual event in association with ACW, the Association of Christian Writers. The group included published and aspiring writers, many of whom have become good friends with us and with each other. This year the title was ‘Heart To Heart’, concentrating on the need to write out of truthful experience, and to ensure that we are well acquainted with the characters who inhabit our prose fiction or drama. Our sincere thanks to all who took part. Some memorable pieces were written and read aloud during those three days. Bridget and I marvelled yet again at the depth of talent that is unearthed and revealed when people write out of passion and truth. There was a lot going on, and I suspect that it will go on for much longer in the hearts of many who began their own small but significant voyages of self-discovery in the course of the weekend. Whether it’s daffodils or childhood trauma, in vacant or in pensive mood, some processing will almost certainly be required.

                Bridget and I have been talking about something that is lodged in our hearts. It is a painful thing, and it is not very easy or comfortable to express. Let me start by presenting you with a list. There are four people on my list, and they have something in common, beyond the fact that I have written about them all at various times in the past. I suspect that you will very soon identify that common factor. A forthcoming event connected with the last of these people is the cause and source of our pain. So, here we go.

                Number one on my list is someone I shall call Philip. Philip was in the same class as me at Junior School. He was what our parents used to call ‘a rough boy.’ Most of us tended to give him a wide berth. One autumn day, on the way home from school across the common, my friends decided to amuse themselves by throwing my school cap into the middle of a dank and dirty reedy pond just outside the village. It sat flatly upon a patch of reeds, way out of reach. I pretended to find the whole thing funny, but inside I wanted to cry. If I arrived home without my cap there would be big trouble. Philip, passing by on his own, was drawn aside by all the hilarity. Realising what was going on, he ran to his nearby house and returned within a couple of minutes wearing wellingtons. Wading into the water with a length of dead branch in his hands, he retrieved my headwear and passed it to me without comment. Perhaps he had sensed, for a short time at least, that we were brothers in alienation.

                The bond did not survive. I was all too happy to be just one of the gang again, and Philip trudged off towards his home.

                I saw almost nothing of Philip after Junior School. We went our separate ways, I to Grammar School, and he to the local Secondary Modern. Later, I heard that he had become involved in violent crime, eventually spending time in prison, and dying at an early age, racked with depression and illness. Nobody had a good word to say for him.

                He got my cap back for me.

                Second on my list is a man whose name I shall never know. He was a porter at a London Railway station in the days when such people existed and were available. I was about fifteen, and as green as they come. This gentleman helped me to carry my collection of unwieldy bags (nothing changes much, does it?) to a bus stop outside the station. I was vaguely aware that porters needed to be given some sort of tip as a reward for their services, so I took two two-shilling pieces from my pocket and placed them into his hand. He studied the pair of coins for a second or two, then raised his eyes to look into mine. For a moment I assumed that I’d got it wrong. Perhaps four shillings was not enough. Before I could react or say a word, he picked one of the coins out of his palm, handed it back to me, and hurried away in the direction of the station.

                I had never seen this man before, and, as far as I know, I have never come across him again. In fact, I know only one thing about him.

                When I was young and naïve, he showed me kindness and generosity.

                Number three was a man who worked at the paint distribution warehouse where I had a holiday job in the mid-seventies. I was at Teacher Training College in Bromley, and for Bridget and I and our one-year-old son, Matthew, money was short. This was not helped by the fact that we were still both smokers, and the grinding tedium of assembling paint orders for eight endless hours each day was relieved only by the occasional cigarette. Watching paint dry is popularly supposed to be the apogee of boredom, but only by those who have never assembled trolley-load after trolley-load of glosses and emulsions in the dank canyons of a paint-infested universe.

                One morning I forgot to take my cigarettes to work. I had no money to buy any more. All I had was my return bus ticket. I was devastated. How on earth was I going to survive an entire day of unremitting, paint-related toil without cigarettes to break the monotony?

                George, a fellow employee who had perfected the art of only appearing to our boss on rare occasions as he pushed his trolley with thespian zeal past the far end of one of those eternal canyons, noticed during our morning break that I was not smoking. I explained that I had left them on the hall table at home. He said little in response, but from that moment until the end of the day, he found me at regular intervals to give me a cigarette from his packet.

                George was a quiet, stolid, unambitious man in his late forties. He had been at the warehouse for years, and, as far as one could tell, might continue to push paint around until the end of his working life. I think he watched a great deal of television on his own at home, but that’s about all I do know, apart from this one ineradicable fact.

                He noticed that I was unhappy, and he did something about it.

                And so we come to the fourth person on our list, and the reason that Bridget and I are experiencing such pain at the moment. We encountered this man during our involvement in a radio discussion series that very enjoyably punctuated our work with children in care in the first half of the nineteen-eighties. I’ll call him ‘John’. John was about fifteen years older than us, a widely experienced minister of the church who, through his own charismatic personality and gently loving ways, introduced us to a God who was and is less judgemental, less pointlessly religious, and far more of a warm friend than the frowning deity that had been cobbled together in our minds and spirits since the days when we first believed. John’s God was nice. He never forgot you. He was far more eager to mend and improve his relationship with us than we were. John’s God was not soft, but he was safe, and quietly determined that we would not be lost to the more negative sides of ourselves. It was a revelation. A burst of sunshine in a dull and lightless day.

                The understanding and appreciation of God that was gifted to us by John during those few short years has become the bedrock of our faith, and we shall always be grateful for the privilege of knowing him. He cleaned the windows of our perception, allowing a flood of light to enter.

                Later this year, John will have to face accusations which, if proved, will take him into a very dark place. We have no argument with that process. Where there is wrongdoing there needs to be exposure and appropriate punishment. Our pain is caused by a car crash of a collision in our hearts between the channel of peace that John undoubtedly was in the years that we knew him, and the person who may have been guilty of crimes that we find abhorrent.

                Nobody is one thing. Not one of us is purely good or purely evil. The image of a quiet man drawing in the dust as a woman waits to be stoned to death must always constrain us from self-indulgent judgement of others. The four people on my list have in common their willingness to give gifts to me, and in the case of John, to Bridget and me, as well as to many other people. The gifts that these individuals gave were real and true and good, whatever has happened in the rest of their lives, and if there is ever to be a place where a final reckoning is made, I shall certainly mention them. 

               

                 I know a cup of water when I see one.

               My best to all of you, yours sincerely, Adrian   

               


    AUGUST

    Dear Summer Survivors,

    Bridget and I had one of those Satnav moments yesterday. Don’t get me wrong. These annoyingly clever little devices have changed our lives. For years we experienced the same specific difficulty in reaching many of our speaking venues. Arriving on the edge of the town or city in question was not too difficult. We looked at maps in advance and enjoyed the strange wonder of discovering that the prescribed roads did actually exist, almost always in the right order.

    Yes, okay, there were a few marriage-eroding moments, some of which must have sounded rather like an extract from our introduction to a sex and map reading sketch that we used to perform when we occupied a more tasteful age bracket.  

    ‘Why didn’t you tell me that turning was coming up?’

    ‘You said you didn’t want to hear about every little wrinkle on the map.’

    ‘That’s not a little wrinkle, that’s the M4, you stupid woman!’

    ‘Don’t call me a stupid woman!’

    ‘Well, don’t be stupid, then!’    

    To be fair to us, this pungent exchange was largely based on our experience of a missionary couple who conducted all but one aspect of their devotedly committed lives with compassion, charm and restraint. Navigation was the exception. Dark clouds of scorn, fury and mutual recrimination billowed around the inside of their car, a small, tightly contained climate of bad feeling travelling, or, perhaps more accurately, oscillating, towards a hypothetical destination. It was awesome - and just a little bewildering. As far as we could tell, these godly people never consciously registered the Force 10 level of their vehicular storms.

    Anyway, as I said, in those not so far-off days we usually managed the first part of the journey quite well, and as we found ourselves entering the outskirts of, let us say, Birmingham, we would be lulled or seduced into a sort of insane optimism.

    ‘Nearly there!’ one of us would chirp brightly.

    ‘Yes,’ the other one of us would reply happily, glancing at the clock on the dashboard, ‘and in good time, too. We’ve done well. We might have time to stop for a coffee before we get there.’            

    This wilful refusal to take account of almost all historical evidence to the contrary is not easy to explain, but it does remind me of the way in which people (myself included) continue to play golf despite the fact that they are very, very, very bad at it. One good shot, as random and accidental as the myriad bad ones, is all it takes to achieve the resurrection of hope. If it happens once, it could happen every single time - surely. Couldn’t it? In theory? Well, it might, mightn’t it? Well, anyway, I’m going to assume that it’s possible.

    I can identify three reasons for our continual failure to move swiftly from the edge of Birmingham (or Huddersfield, or Edinburgh, or Stoke, or Swansea) to the place where we were scheduled to appear. I will describe them briefly.

    One was our own idiocy. If there was a mistake available for making, one of us was always up for it. We positively volunteered for the job. Without meaning to boast, I believe I was more forthcoming than Bridget in this respect.

    The second reason concerned the directions given in advance to us by people who purportedly knew the local area well. There were shining exceptions to a somewhat leaden rule, but a significant proportion of these helpful aids to navigation included at least one paragraph of the following variety:

     

    ‘When you reach Lancombe Road don’t double back on yourself, unless they’ve finished the work on the High Street, which they probably won’t have done, which is a shame because it would have saved you several minutes. You can tell if they’ve finished by glancing down Rosebury Avenue which is on your right just before the T junction, but don’t turn down there even if they have because there’s no right turn at the end and you’ll just end up on Lancombe Road the same as if you hadn’t turned off. When you do get to Lancombe Road, and assuming the High Street’s still not finished, look to your left and slightly over to the right and you’ll see a church spire with a cross on the top. That’s not us.  Ignore that. Turn right down Lancombe Road and then third left into Derby Terrace and you’ll see a corner shop run by a very tall red-headed man and a little Indian woman with a parking space in front for about three cars. Don’t park there, whatever you do. Our church, which doesn’t look like a church, is a sort of twisting half turn on from there through a gap between a high wall and a funny little fence. Someone will wait for you there, but if they’re not there, you wait for them. Do you want tea or coffee in the interval?’

     

    The third reason for failing to arrive anywhere with time to spare was my quite mystical capacity for asking directions from the wrong people. People with serious hearing problems. People who had been lost themselves for some time. People with a hunted look in their eyes and a bag that clanked as though it contained knives. People who really wanted to help and took five minutes to work out that they couldn’t because they had never heard of the place we needed to get to and hadn’t the slightest idea where it was. People who offered me a crayon and thought I might be their mother.

    There seemed to be a carefully selected team of folk who had been posted at strategic points within a two or three mile radius of the venue for the sole purpose of not helping us to get there. Some of them were very nice, but it did get a bit wearing.

    Everything changed on the finding-our-destination front when we acquired our first Satnav. Oh, the luxury of it! Into Birmingham or Huddersfield or Edinburgh or Stoke or Swansea we would float, the disembodied voice and the little on-screen map allowing us to thread those streets like a needle threading - whatever it is that needles thread. Members of the non-direction team watched, wide-eyed and redundant, from their allocated pavement spots as we passed them with a smile and a careless wave.     

    And so it has continued for several years. We are very thankful. If ever the person who invented this splendid aid to marital harmony manages to find his or her way to our door we shall express our gratitude in Yorkshire tea and chocolate Hobnobs.

    However, yesterday’s ridiculous journey reminded us that even the finest technology needs to be accompanied by just a little common sense. The day started extremely well. We drove to the Fat Lamb near Ravenstonedale and enjoyed a roast dinner in bright sunshine with our dog Lucy quietly sitting by our feet. We then pursued an activity that we describe as ‘pootling’. This consists of driving idly around an area we are fond of, every now and then turning down one of those little side roads that we usually don’t have time for, just to see where it goes and what there is at the other end.

    At last, we arrived in the village of Thwaite, where we ate a cream tea watched by a neat platoon of very business-like sparrows on an adjoining wall. As we left they swooped unsmilingly down to hoover up the crumbs.

    It had been a very relaxing day, but now we were tired and it was time to go home. We should have turned the car round. We knew that. We really should have turned the car round. Lazily, we allowed ourselves to believe that the Satnav knew best. It usually does. This time it did not. It took us up a hill road that was so bendy and so steep, and so bleak and so seemingly eternal, that we began to wonder if we had passed through some spiritual portal and entered into a completely new phase of our existence. Clearly this was not the case, as was demonstrated by Bridget’s anguished cry as we finally breasted the hill and recognised the building that stood before us.

    ‘It’s the Tan Hill Inn! It’s the blinking Tan Hill Inn! The highest Public House in the country! What are we doing here? Satnav! What are you doing bringing us all the way up here when all we wanted was to go home? The Tan Hill Inn! For goodness sake!’

    It was a very long way home from there. A very long way. We kept reminding each other what a good day we’d had up to now. Let’s keep remembering that, we said, as the afternoon wore on and darkness began to fall. But the truth was inescapable. It was a very, very long way.

    Now, those of you who are expecting me to make some sort of spiritual point out of all this are going to be disappointed. I suspect that the Holy Spirit, if asked for a divine capsule of wisdom in connection with our meaningless ascent to the top of the world, would have only one thing to say.

    ‘Do try not to be silly.’

     Thanks once more for so many good wishes from all sorts of people, and forgive me for failing to produce a letter for June or July. September is coming, and my favourite season is on the doorstep. I want to get to Tunbridge Wells sometime in October or November. That town was made for falling leaves. God bless you all, Adrian x