Heaven in Hell

Padre Paul Wright, Senior Chaplain of the London District, cites an example from the First World War

One of the great inspirations in my ministry in the Army has been Padre Tubby Clayton, the founder of Talbot House (TocH) in the picturesque town of Poperinge, Belgium during the Great War. The town of Poperinge lies ten kilometres behind Ypres and was therefore at the heart of the old Western Front. Thousands upon thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers trudged down the road from Ypres to go ‘on the Pop’ in Poperinge for some rest and recuperation.

Tubby Clayton wanted to offer something that was different to the more obvious pleasures that were available to the soldiers. He created a chaplains’ centre in a beautiful four-storey hop merchant’s house. With the aid of his tireless sidekick, Pettifer – always known as the General – they created a heaven and haven in the midst of the extraordinary hell. The chapel in the upper room with the carpenter’s bench ‘scrounged’ by Pettifer would see literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers climb the vertical staircase to the attic-chapel.

The spirit of Talbot House was encapsulated in the motto ‘Abandon rank all ye who enter here’. Over the door the sign still reads ‘Everyman’s club 1915 - ?’ Tubby’s spirit of whimsy and good fun was reflected in little sayings posted on the walls: ‘Come upstairs and risk meeting the chaplain’; ‘if you are in the habit of spiting on the floor at home, then do so here.’ Perhaps the most poignant was at the back of the house which read ‘Come into the garden and forget about the war.’ Tubby and Pettifer also took the spirit of Talbot House to the trenches themselves being a familiar sight in a motorcycle and sidecar with a harmonium on Tubby’s lap.

Although this may all belong to another era and time, the Army Chaplain of today is still called to bring a little bit of heaven and a safe haven for people who have encountered hells on earth by sharing in all the risks, dangers and joys of his soldiers’ lives. There are no private heavens, this would be an impossible thing, but there are very real and awful private hells that soldiers and their families experience in our current operations. Anybody who has witnessed the death on operation of their fellow soldiers or been with the families at a repatriation or funeral will know of the dreadful pain and spiritual loneliness that conflict can bring.

Soldiers, on the whole, love being in the Army and are very aware of the risks they take. This commitment alone does not make things easier for their families, but it does provide a set of unique circumstances in which special relationships can develop. Tubby Clayton recognised this and had the spirit and inspiration to develop a real sense of brotherhood and friendship. This spirit may not necessarily be Christian, but nevertheless there is a very deep spiritual need, questioning and yearning in all people and soldiers in particular often have time to think about life and the reality of life’s big questions at a very young age.

Padre Paul Wright is the Senior Chaplain, London District and Chaplain of the Guards’ Chapel. He has served on operations in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq.
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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era