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John writes . . . 

February 2018:

Etched on a bar of soap with a used matchstick!

You know what those grey days can be like, when there is no sun visible, when most of the news seems pretty miserable and depressing, when it’s drizzling outside, and it’s not worth opening the umbrella because everywhere’s damp anyway . . .  One way of dealing with this may be to ponder these words by a remarkable lady:

I will tell of the first beauty

I saw in captivity:

A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, not walls,

Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain –

Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass,

A cast pattern – none more beautiful could be dreamt!


It isn’t easy to imagine what it would be like to be arrested on spurious charges, then sentenced to spend seven years in a labour camp, followed by five years of exile, but that happened to Irina Ratushinskaya who died in July 2017. She reminds us in these lines of how grateful we ought to be for those moments of beauty, however tiny, in our daily lives.  And how grateful we ought to be to be able to read her poems, etched on bars of soap in miniscule lettering which she then dissolved in water when she had committed them to memory. She was forbidden paper because the authorities knew the power of the written word, but they had not taken into account her ingenuity. She was able to transfer the poems occasionally on to cigarette paper sheets which were then smuggled out.

Do you remember those heady days of Gorbachev and glasnost or ‘openness’, when he and Reagan seemed to be introducing an era of sensible and intelligent conduct in high places? That was in 1986, at the time of the Reykjavik summit. The media were all geared up for this momentous historical event, but Ratushinskaya’s release rather upstaged the summit. 

She wrote: “I had to decide who to believe in, my teachers, the government and the TV media, or God.”  She became a deeply committed Christian and retained her unwavering faith throughout her ordeal. As she wrote after her release:

Believe me, it was often thus:

In solitary cells, on winter nights

A sudden sense of joy and warmth

And a resounding note of love.

And then, unsleeping, I would know

A-huddle by an icy wall:

Someone is thinking of me now,

Petitioning the Lord for me.


She was some lady to be able to write that after beatings and torture and a deficient diet. The title of the memoir she wrote of her time in prison, Grey is the Colour of Hope, may well serve as a useful motto.

November 2017:

'Go to the ant, you sluggards, consider her ways and be wise!'

I was unaware that this ‘greeting’, bellowed out as we teenagers dawdled our way down a corridor to a particular classroom, was a Biblical quotation, from the Book of Proverbs.  Long afterwards, I discovered that it continued: ‘Without having chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer and gathers its sustenance in harvest.’  Watching half-a-dozen ants shift a twig over bumpy ground can be quite fascinating, no ‘chief’ being obvious. Most people probably wouldn’t find the suggestion of behaving like an ant particularly complimentary, but ants have been admired for centuries for their organisational and social skills.  And they don’t hang about, so I suppose it was an apt quotation to use on us.

Inside that classroom there was a sense of urgency.  Full concentration all the time was demanded, for if we didn’t concentrate it would be ‘too late’. The fairly constant repetition of ‘get on with it now’ (raised voice) ‘or it will be too late’ (even louder voice) had its effect and made us all panic. We got the point!

But there is a danger of always thinking it’s too late, as it can provoke a feeling of failure – let’s just give up, then.

These reminiscences came into my mind after seeing in the press that a lady had been awarded a doctorate in her nineties.  Not too late for her!  And a certain amount of research indicates that many people succeed after taking things on many years later than they ‘should’.

That in turn reminded me of another member of staff, who had a far greater influence on me, and who had left school without exams, having been only fourteen when the Second World War broke out. He studied by correspondence course and gained an external degree from London University.  He became an English teacher, a head of department, a university lecturer, and ended up Professor of Education at Reading for over twenty years.  Some career!  And his influence on me? He pencilled a long and appreciative comment at the end of an exam answer, which so encouraged me that, in part, it determined my future.

I wonder what the effect might have been if we had been greeted, not with ‘you sluggards’, but with a smile and with a different Biblical quotation, perhaps St Matthew’s, ’So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself.’  Might we have hurried along with more grace and good humour?

September 2017:

There are no boring people in this world’

Really? You’re joking! This rather provocative statement could prove an interesting topic for discussion.  It happens to be the opening line of a poem by someone who most certainly was anything but boring, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the controversial Russian author who died on 1st April this year.  From what I have read about him over the years, I suspect he would have been amused to have died on such a day, the internet having revealed that 1st April is celebrated in Russia, though more for the beginning of spring rather than for any April Fool pranks!  Forthright and opinionated, Yevtushenko managed to say many things that could have seen him ‘removed’ from Soviet society.

He was the subject of a conversation between two young people in a novel called Wild Berries.  They conclude that Yevtushenko’s work is ‘past it’.  The joke is that it was Yevtushenko himself who wrote the novel.  And how old was Yevtushenko when the novel was published?  Not even 50!

(Authors laughing about themselves appeals to my sense of humour.  It reminds me of Chaucer describing the tale he tells on the way to Canterbury as ‘boring’, as I mentioned in an article earlier this year.)

There is a remarkable account, in his autobiography, of being in Moscow in 1941 with his mother, watching nearly twenty thousand prisoners of war being paraded in a single column in front of a jeering crowd, the soldiers and police having some difficulty in restraining them.  Many of the women watching would probably have lost a son, a husband, a brother, so the hatred would have been intense.  Yevtushenko describes the prisoners in vivid terms: “thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades . . .  with their heads down.” Now comes the extraordinary moment.  An elderly woman in broken-down boots pushes herself forward, touches a policeman’s shoulder, and asks to be let through.  Something about her causes him to step aside. From inside her coat she pulls out a handkerchief in which was wrapped a crust of black bread. She pushes it “awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted he was tottering on his feet.  And now suddenly from every side women were running towards the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had.

   The soldiers were no longer enemies.

   They were people.”


I can recall reading this extract to a couple of hundred teenagers at a school assembly twenty or thirty years ago; Yevtushenko’s last two sentences had a palpable effect on them that I shall never forget.

July 2017:

Sit down comfortably and imagine . . .

. . .  a lake, fringed by willows, reeds and grasses. Mallards and coots peck at whatever takes their fancy, the blue sky with the occasional puffball of cloud is reflected on the rippling surface.

. . .  a footpath that runs along the back of a man’s vegetable patch at the end of his garden. He is planting tomatoes and carefully placing nettle stalks -  some eighteen inches long -  that he has cut from the footpath, by each plant. After a brief greeting, the conversation focuses on the nettles. Why is he positioning nettles by the tomatoes?  The unexpected answer is that the nettles, “Stop the aphids getting to the tomatoes, you know.”


. . .  a small and rather secluded chapel built of chunky stones long ago, its simple roof renovated more recently providing a cool sanctuary from the heat.  The notices inside show its regular use for services, and the posies and occasional photo are evidence that a loved one is not forgotten.


. . .  a symmetrical hill, an extinct volcano looking like a green cone covered in grass and bushes.  Take the path cut into the side and it opens out to reveal a small lake, surrounded like an amphitheatre with large shards of grey lava, looking like organ pipes.  Near the entrance a stage has been built out over the water.


. . . a small town, not an obvious tourist venue, the sort of town you would pass through when going somewhere else.  In a secluded back street, within a medieval priory, is a museum celebrating various civilisations, from Africa to Asia, North America to the South Sea Islands.  Though full of artefacts and sculptures and illustrations, it has the advantage of being relatively small as a museum; you can see all of it in a couple of hours.  If only one could retain all the information . . .


Each one of these scenes was encountered during a few days’ walk on one of the many European routes converging on the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. The Way of St James has been a pilgrimage track for over a thousand years, nowadays attracting a couple of hundred thousand pilgrims a year.  You can start from many locations, and you can almost walk without a map, for each route is marked by little emblems of a scallop shell, a yellow shell on a blue background.  Look up and you will see one on a lamp-post, as the route passes through a town or village, or on a tree or post in the countryside.

Scallop shell

Scallop shell on a lamp-post at Montbrison, a town on the route from Cluny to Compostela.


Those walkers doing the whole route are usually identifiable by an actual shell dangling from their rucksacks.


As there seemed to be no one around other than the two of us at the extinct volcano, I couldn’t resist declaiming Shakespeare from the stage. Ten minutes or so later, we discovered another couple; I hope the acoustic properties of the surroundings weren’t that good!

April 2017:



So, now that it’s April, are you longing to go on a pilgrimage?  That’s what Chaucer thought would be the case.  His account of a motley group of characters telling stories to pass the time as they walked from London to Canterbury, “the hooly blisful martir for to seke”, was written over six hundred years ago.  I suppose a modern equivalent of the story-telling element might be for a courier on a coach trip to suggest that the passengers could take it in turns to take the microphone and tell a story, to pass the time.  Chaucer writes himself into the story and, what must be one of the very best literary jokes, in that it is a joke against himself, his story is brought to an abrupt, rude end – it’s considered too boring!


But back to the pilgrims who were going to see the tomb of the blessed Thomas à Becket, who helped them “when that they were seeke” (‘sick’).  Walking to Canterbury from every shire in England was popular and attractive, though it was by no means the earliest pilgrimage.  Walking from Chester to Lichfield, a distance of over ninety miles, to commemorate St Chad, seems to have been one of the first in this country, several centuries before Canterbury.


Why bother to go on a pilgrimage, and on foot?  That seems the obvious question.  To go on a meaningful journey to a sacred place provides an occasion to take time from the busyness and stresses of our lives.  Using “nature’s gym” – a free gym! – can bring not only physical benefits, for one can profit mentally, socially, spiritually.  Quietly walking mile after mile, experiencing the ever-changing landscape, seeing the flash of blue of a kingfisher’s wing, as you sit by a stream eating a sandwich, or the eye of a field mouse peeping out by a tuft of grass, are unforgettable moments. And there have been several accounts of convinced atheists having their lives completely changed by the experience. 


If you need more convincing, here is a paragraph from The Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros:

“When you walk, news becomes unimportant.  Soon you have lost all knowledge of the world and its gymnastics, the most recent own goal, the latest scandal.  You no longer await the surprise development, or want to hear how it really all began, or what happened in the end. Heard the latest?  When you are walking, all that ceases to matter.  After walking far and long, you can even come to wonder in surprise how you could ever have been interested in it.  The slow respiration of things makes everyday huffing and puffing appear vain, unhealthy agitation.”