Deluded, dangerous do-gooders

In this week's Faith Column, we look at faith in practice and the work of volunteers. In our first b

As a Salvation Army Officer for the past ten years, I have heard people make these claims against the Christian church and particularly about our own organisation.

These accusations are rarely said in an aggressive tone but rather in a way that suggests we only do what we do because we have a hidden agenda.

I have to confess, we do have an agenda but I pray we will never be so ashamed of it that it actually becomes hidden. For our motivation comes from our love of God and our belief that every human being has intrinsic value and the potential to be the person God wants them to be. But we offer help unconditionally to all people in need, regardless of whether they recognise ‘God’ or not.

The Salvation Army has a form of practical Christianity that has seen it grow from the streets of the east end of London to a worldwide organisation spanning 113 countries. In the United Kingdom, The Salvation Army has become one of the largest providers of social care after the government – a fact which surprises many people. You could not reach this level without being professional, well trained and organised. No do-gooders here.

Before being called into ministry, I used to be an office manager for a small shipping company. Despite having no background or experience in social care or theology, I gave up everything that I held dear to do what I felt God wanted.

After two years of specialist training, I was sent to Ireland still feeling totally inadequate for the task ahead. Since that time I have worked in different settings alongside the homeless, street children, the elderly, those with severe mental health issues, drug addicts, alcoholics, sex offenders, asylum seekers and refugees. Not bad for an office manager!

I have rescued people from paramilitaries and cried with people who could not see any future beyond a bottle of spirits or the end of a syringe. I have felt gut wrenchingly sick when I listened to children speaking about selling their bodies in the same matter of fact way as they would buy a bag of sweets. I have sat on walls trying to convince people not to commit suicide and sat on hospital beds praying and holding the hands of people moments before they died.

I have also witnessed people freed from the power of addiction, people given a sense of hope and purpose and moving on to do incredible things they didn’t believe possible, people finding release through forgiveness, people discovering a plan and a purpose for their life.

Deluded and dangerous? I don’t think so.

I currently manage a large centre for 150 former rough sleepers in the heart of the east end of London. For many, English is a second language and religious belief swings between apathy and strict Islam. For me it makes little difference, for I do not see people’s faith, or language or circumstances. I simply see 150 precious lives.

I am not a trumpet playing, Bible bashing evangelist but rather a living example of what God can do in ordinary people and passionately believe he can do the same in others as well.

So yes, I have an agenda and I see no reason not to shout it from the rooftops.

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Appearing in a book is strange – being an actual character must be stranger

Much as it jolts me to come across a reference to my music in something I'm reading, at least it's not me.

I was happily immersed in the world of a novel the other day, Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone, when suddenly I was jolted back into reality by my own appearance in the book. One of the characters hears someone singing and is told, “‘It’s Leonora. She sings with her window open.’ ‘She’s good – sounds like Tracey Thorn.’ ‘She does, doesn’t she.’”

It was as if I’d walked on stage while still being in the audience. It’s happened to me before, and is always startling, a kind of breaking of the fourth wall. From being the reader, addressed equally and anonymously, you become, even momentarily, a minor character or a representative of something. In this instance it was flattering, but the thing is, you have no control over what the writer uses you to mean.

In David Nicholls’s Starter for Ten, set in the mid-Eighties, the lead character, Brian – a hapless student, failing in both love and University Challenge – hopes that he is about to have sex with a girl. “We stay up for an hour or so, drinking whisky, sitting on the bed next to each other and talking and listening to Tapestry and the new Everything But the Girl album.” Ah, I realised, here I represent the kind of singer people listen to when they’re trying, though possibly failing, to get laid.

Fast-forward a few years, to the mid-Nineties of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, a book constructed from lists of people and things, clothes and music, which apparently indicate the vacuousness of modern life. “I dash into the Paul Smith store on Bond Street, where I purchase a smart-looking navy-gray raincoat. Everything But the Girl’s ‘Missing’ plays over everything” and later, “In the limo heading toward Charing Cross Road Everything But the Girl’s ‘Wrong’ plays while I’m studying the small white envelope . . .” Here I’m being used to represent the way bands become briefly ubiquitous: our songs are a soundtrack to the sleazy glamour of the novel.

These mentions are all fine; it’s only the music that features, not me. Spotting yourself as an actual character in someone’s novel must be more shocking: one of the perils of, for instance, being married to a novelist. I think of Claire Bloom and Philip Roth. First she wrote a memoir about how ghastly it was being married to him, then he wrote a novel about how ghastly it was to be married to someone very like her. Books as revenge: that’s very different indeed.

Few people who had ever met Morrissey emerged from his memoir unscathed (me included), but particularly Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. He was hung, drawn and quartered in the book, yet seems to have maintained a dignified silence. But it’s hard knowing how to deal with real people in memoirs. In mine, I chose not to name one character, a boy who broke my 18-year-old heart. Feverish speculation among old friends, all of whom guessed wrong, proved how much attention they’d been paying to me at the time. I also wrote about my teenage band, the Marine Girls, and then sent the chapter to the other members for approval. Which led to a fresh outbreak of hostilities and not-speaking, 25 years after we’d broken up. Don’t you just love bands?

Worrying about any of this would stop anyone ever writing anything. Luckily it didn’t deter John Niven, whose scabrous music-biz novel, Kill Your Friends, mixes larger-than-life monsters such as the fictional A&R man Steven Stelfox with real people: and not just celebs (Goldie, the Spice Girls), but record company executives (Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, Rob Stringer) known best to those of us in the biz, and presumably thrilled to have made it into a book. John confirmed to me recently: “In the end I got more grief from people I left out of the book than those I put in. Such is the ego of the music industry. I heard of one executive who bought about 30 copies and would sign them for bands, saying, ‘This was based on me.’ You create the Devil and people are lining up to say, ‘Yep. I’m that guy.’”

In other words, as I suspected, there’s only one thing worse than being written about. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred