Among the bank of menacing clouds hanging over us all at the moment, the rise of anti-Semitism is one of the most disturbing. It is only 75 years since Allied troops liberated the Nazi death camps, where six million Jews had died. That handful of survivors who are still alive continue to talk publicly of their appalling experiences in the hope that such a genocide may never happen again. And yet the same extremist, irrational, abhorrent hatred is bubbling to the surface again across Europe, and even within Britain’s Labour Party.
Just how worried the British Jewish community is was made clear to me when I began a promotional tour for my new book on angels at Jewish Book Week in central London. The subject came up several times when I met members of the audience after my event (where I had been interviewed by the wonderfully warm and wise Rabbi Julia Neuberger). The images of swastikas being daubed on Jewish graves in France made people shake their head in disbelief. We all need to speak up repeatedly and loudly against this blight on our society and ensure that those bigots intent on spreading hatred are brought to book.
On a lighter note, several of my potential readers allowed me a peek in their handbags – to reveal what I think is a distinctly Jewish custom of keeping an angel figurine in there as a guardian as they go about their business. Though my mother was a lifelong believer in guardian angels, she preferred rosary beads in her bag as her amulet.
From the unusual – and slightly unsettling – experience of being interviewed, it was back to the comfortably familiar territory of being the one doing the interviewing, in my day job as a journalist. My subject was James Runcie, creator of ITV’s hugely successful Grantchester franchise, where a good-looking 1950s vicar (played until recently by Old Amplefordian James Norton) has a sideline as an amateur sleuth. Echoes of Father Brown.
James is the son of Robert Runcie, one of the most underrated archbishops of Canterbury of recent times and a controversial figure because of his willingness to hold the government of Margaret Thatcher to account for the devastation its economic policies wrought in traditional industrial areas. What I recall best about him, though, was a taxi ride we once took together in my Catholic Herald days. As Scousers, we swapped those particular words which, when spoken, will immediately identify someone who grew up in and around Liverpool, however much their accent might have subsequently changed. The archbishop’s favourite was the fairy lights on a Christmas tree, invariably pronounced as if “furry lights”.
Onwards and upwards to publication day itself, and a chance to see how not just this magazine but also the whole church press continues to thrive and innovate, despite the gloom about the future of printed media. Visiting the Church of England Newspaper to talk about the new book was a journey down memory lane when I bumped into Colin Blakely, its editor. He reminded me of how we used to attend the same press conferences 25 years ago when I was at the Herald.
At Premier Christian Radio – which, when set up two decades ago, was widely predicted to struggle to find an audience – the joint was jumping with energy and enthusiasm. And then the Church Times came along to include me in their weekly series of podcasts as they surf the digital wave. Angels should be good at that, I figured.
Next up was a public talk in the oldest part of Southwark Anglican cathedral, the 12th-century retrochoir, where I stood in front of the Mary chapel, lit by four tall golden angel candlesticks. Mary is, after all, often called “the Queen of Angels”.
I have walked past the building many times, and for some reason I can’t now quite understand, never stepped inside. If you’re the same, take that detour and go in. Southwark has beauty, serenity and a very active life, not just with its talks and social outreach programmes, but also because of its wider commitment to bringing the outside in, even when that degree of inclusion rubs up awkwardly against Christian doctrine.
And then from a damp, cold city to a sunny, snowbound Lake District to talk at the Words by the Water Literary Festival in Keswick. Rarely at such events do I fail to meet someone who comes up to me after the talk and identifies themselves, usually sotto voce, as a reader of the church press. Another sign of collective vitality, I can’t help thinking, but also of a slight reticence in mentioning it too loudly.
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