Saturday, 26 January 2013

David Suchet and St Paul

Is the New Year really a time for resolutions and for beginnings-again, or will 2013 be no more than a retread of the year which has nearly ended?

Last weekend, BBC1 screened a two-part documentary fronted by actor David Suchet (best known in the role of Agatha Christie’s Belgium detective Poirot) on the life of St Paul, whose life highlights the fact that Christian faith holds out the offer of a new beginning.

St Paul was a fanatical Jewish opponent of the first followers of Jesus, who went to extreme lengths to stamp out this fledgling faith movement within Judaism. However, while travelling to Damascus, he had a life-changing vision of the living Jesus, after which the passion with which he had previously opposed Christianity was harnessed to advocate faith in Christ.

Paul wrote many of the documents in the New Testament and, seized by the vision that Jesus was not simply for Jewish people but for the whole of humanity, he travelled extensively in the Mediterranean area sharing his faith and establishing churches.

Many of us have stories to tell of Christian conversion. Stories of finding hope when overcome by despair. Stories of discovering robust answers to questions about the purpose and meaning of life. Stories of being arrested by the reality of God’s presence in the middle of perfectly contented and untroubled lives. Stories of realising for the first time the implications in everyday life of long-held beliefs.

David Suchet has his own story of conversion in which St Paul plays a part. Suchet’s Damascus road moment came in 1986 when he was 40, in a hotel room in Seattle. As he read the letter St Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, the Apostle’s teaching resonated with him. He was particularly arrested by Paul’s insight that meaning, forgiveness, wholeness, access to God – everything involved in the word ‘salvation’  - is available through faith in Jesus Christ.

Though Suchet’s father came from a Jewish, and his mother from a Christian background, neither had a living faith, and religion was not part of the Suchet family’s daily life. But like so many who came of age in the 1960s, David was asking deep questions. He feels that he had been ‘searching for something’ all his life, and that in opening St Paul’s letter to the Romans, he found himself ‘reading about a way of being and a way of life that I had been looking for all those years.

Evidence is as important to David Suchet as it is to Hercule Poirot, who solves crimes by scrutinising the details, reading the evidence. ‘I just can’t have blind faith,’ says the actor. ‘I have to find out for myself.’

In the years following his Seattle moment, he tested the evidence, and was eventually confirmed in the Church of England in 2009. ‘It took me that long to say “I fully commit.”’

Comparing St Paul and David Suchet’s conversions you notice both similarities and differences. But that’s the point – we experience turning and re-turning to God in many different ways. However the God we encounter and the redirection of our values which accompanies that encounter are the same.

And comparing St Paul and David Suchet’s lives reminds us that as Christians we are each different too. The actor is not sure if he would have liked St Paul. ‘Such was his zeal, if you like, that he never suffered fools gladly.’ ‘This was a man who had a mission and anybody with a mission can be frightening.’

Unlike Paul the pioneer missionary David Suchet, though a man of firm faith says ‘I don’t try to convert anyone.’ Yet he acknowledges that there is in society a great longing ‘for spiritual peace’ and his sharing of his experiences must have pointed many to Christ, the well from whose waters of peace the actor has drunk deeply.

When he was preparing to play Hercule Poirot for the first time, Suchet read many of Agatha Christie’s novels, studying the detective and his mannerisms and tried, in recreating Poirot on the screen to get him just right.

In one sense this is a picture of us as Christians as, having been converted to Christ, we seek to reflect on Christ and represent him faithfully in our lives. Yet in  another sense Suchet playing Poirot is nothing like us as Christians inviting Christ to embody himself in us.

It is true, as David Suchet says, that as a Christian ‘one must abandon oneself to a higher good’. But that doesn’t mean losing our uniqueness. For we are not Christian clones, each identical. Rather, the grace and love and sternness of Jesus is to be seen in our personality and temperament, so that we are not acting a part – we are real.

The turning-points in our lives are not usually marked by significant calendar events such as the turning of the year, but are the unpredicted moments of clarity such as those which arrested St Paul and David Suchet. But the point is that whatever situation we are in Christian faith offers hope if we will turn to God for the first time or the ten thousandth time, and live life as a journey of on-going conversion.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 27th December 2012)


Monday, 21 January 2013

A life in letters: Bearsden Academy Primary School Westerton Annexe

Two classrooms next to the shops in Maxwell Avenue, Westerton where I spent my Primary 1 and 2 years. I think I remember my first day at school in August 1957 – my mother standing outside the black, metal-slatted fence with the other mothers while I walk resolutely (but perfectly happily) towards the door, perhaps looking back once or twice to wave.

The two classes, the domains of respectively Miss Paul (Primary 1) and Mrs Ramsay (Primary 2) were separated by the small workroom. The building was completed by a short central wing separated from the classrooms by a corridor, and here was the room where I endured elocution lessons. The structure was surrounded by a tarred playground, with a few trees. What struck me particularly in Primary 1 was the size of the boys a year above me, who seemed to tower over my head.

The classrooms were heated by coal-burning metal stoves, situated against the back wall in each room and surrounded on three sides by a metal fire guard. On rainy days, wet clothes would be hung on these guards to dry and a steamy damp smell filled the room. Once there was concern that the stove in Miss Paul’s room was releasing smoke and fumes, and we were evacuated into the playground from where we watched surprisingly matter-of-factly the activities of the fire brigade.

Miss Paul I remember most for her morning routine with the long wooden pointer which she used to direct our attention to specific details written on the blackboard. At the start of each school day, she would hold this stick upright, and eye it expectantly. ‘Good morning, boys and girls,’ Mr Pointer would obediently intone, his voice sounding surprisingly like our teacher’s. ‘Good morning, Mr Pointer.’  Our dutiful chant was languid, with the emphasis on the first syllable of ‘morning’.

I remember one of my classmates bringing in a yellow toy truck which I coveted. My parents, wishing I think to recompense me for having had to endure an appendectomy, offered to buy me one if could describe it adequately enough for them to identify it in a toy shop. Sadly for me, on this occasion my powers of description failed.

I remember one day we are working through a list of questions relating to a passage in our reading books. I raise my hand, and when invited to do so, respond correctly to a question. The answer is ‘Tom.’ I notice that the answer to the subsequent question is also ‘Tom.’ To indicate my preparedness to answer it, I mutter sotto voce ‘Tom…Tom…Tom’, until Miss Paul tells me to be quiet. I am a little aggrieved that she fails to appreciate my anticipatory precocity.

Apparently it was noted in Primary 2 that my English skills were a little above-average. I was one of a number of pupils to be given extension activities – work cards with a series of questions printed on them, beneath each of which was a window cut out of the card. You laid the card on a sheet of paper, and wrote the appropriate answer in each window.

I remember the day a boy didn’t show up in class at the end of break. Mrs Ramsay asked if anyone had seen him, and I, eager to please, was the one who said ’Yes!’ I had spotted him in the toilet block. The teacher despatched me to retrieve him from the cubicle where I found him still standing morosely. Clearly, he had not quite made it to the toilet in time.

He followed me across the playground back to the classroom. Rather than walking beside him, I strode self-importantly in front as the faces at the window watched. ‘He was dirty, wasn’t he?’ they said, when he was being cleaned up elsewhere, and I was back in the classroom. ‘No!’ I retorted, lying, but loyal.

Whatever else I learned in Mrs Ramsay’s class, one thing I would never forget, and never forget where I had learned it – John Bunyan’s poem To be a Pilgrim, which is in the hymn books, and was Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite hymn. It was perhaps not the most relevant piece for six-year-olds, but I can’t remember any difficulty in memorising it. I loved the sound of the words, especially that ‘Hobgoblin nor foul field can daunt his spirit’ in the last verse, which sounded spectacular. These words have sadly been edited out in some anaemic modern versions of the hymn.

The small workroom between the two classes looked across the field to the railway line. I remember it as a sanctuary of glitter, blunt-ended safety scissors, and coloured paper. And somehow with that room I forever associate the delicious vocabulary of two old hymns:

Oh God of Bethel, by whose hand
Thy people still are fed

and especially

By cool Siloam’s shady rill
How fair the lily grows

Though I did not understand the meaning of these words, the string of luscious syllables was a beauty touching somewhere deep.  I can never hear the tune of ‘cool Siloam’ without knowing a strange wistful longing for that workroom, and recovering the smell of glitter and glue, and the sound of Blue Trains clattering past.

In June 1959, without ceremony, I left the Westerton Annexe for the last time. After the summer holidays, my class would migrate to the Bearsden Academy Primary department in Bearsden itself.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

A life in letters: Shunkie

With one exception, the boys’ toilets at the primary schools I attended were uniformly miserable structures. At Carluke Primary School, for instance, the urinals were in a noxious, concrete enclosure, open to the elements, while an ill-let corridor which I never had occasion to enter gave access to dark, unhygienic stalls.

The exception was Westerton Primary School, a new building opened to pupils in January 1960 which had inside toilets, bright, white-tiled, and much less pungent.

For years I unsuccessfully consulted Scots dictionaries looking for the derivation of the word ‘Shunkie’ which was the second commonest schoolboy nomenclature for the toilet block (after ‘the bogs’.)

 Finally, in Ian Crofton’s A Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable (Birlinn, 2012) I discovered that a ‘shankie’ or ‘shunkie’ was ‘a toilet bowl, so-called from Shanks of Barrhead, manufacturers of porcelain sanitary ware.’  The firm had been founded in 1878 and began manufacturing its own china-ware in 1900. In those days, toilet bowls displayed the name of their manufacturer on the inside rear, just beneath the rim.

A life in letters: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

The Burning of the School is a parody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, sung, it is said, by schoolchildren on both sides of the Atlantic.

Wikipedia provides a typical version of the lyric:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school
We have tortured all the teachers - we have broken all the rules
We ramrocked the offices and hung the principal
March on, third grade, march on!

Glory, glory, hallelujah
My teacher hit me with a ruler
I hid behind her door with a loaded .44
And the teacher don't teach no more!

The chorus was known in Lanarkshire in the 1960s in the following Scotticised version:

Glory, Glory Hallelujah,
My teacher hit me wi’ a ruler
So I skelped her ow’r the eye
With a piece ‘I epple pie
And I haveny been tae school since then

A life in letters: Hillfoot

A community on the outskirts of Bearsden in Dunbartonshire.

When we stayed at Westerton in the 1950s and very early 60s, I was a regular user of the public library at Hillfoot, relishing the books I found in the children’s shelves which backed on to the plate glass window beside the pavement. I loved reading fiction, immersing myself in imaginary worlds. I can still recall lying in bed at night reading, coming to the end of a story, and feeling sad at being compelled to step out of a dimension in which I had found myself so much at home. I’d pick up another book, and open it at Chapter 1. Invariably I would find the first few pages hard going. What sustained me was faith that the world this new book held out to me would be as satisfying and enriching as the one I had just left.

In contrast to my weekly family visits to the library, I found myself only infrequently at the Clinic, my second reason for remembering Hillfoot.  These visits were, however invariably painful, because that’s where I was taken for injections. ‘Is there no other way?’ I remember screaming, histrionically, as I sat on the bottom stair in the house, desperate to avoid a polio vaccination. I had heard somewhere that the serum was could be delivered via a sugar lump, a methodology which seemed infinitely preferable to having a needle stuck in your arm.  For me, however, there was no reprieve. 

‘I’m just going for a polio prick,’ I announced, seeking to minimise my fear by the manipulation of vocabulary.  My father smiled encouragingly. But in the bright clinical environment of the nurse’s room, the tears would flow, and I have an embarrassing recollection of having to be restrained on the black leather-covered seat before the business could be done.

I remember Hillfoot finally because up the hill, off Boclair Road was New Kilpatrick Cemetery where lies buried by baby brother William who died in the summer of 1955.