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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.