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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred