Magna Carta links

Magna Carta links
At the Library of Congress in Washington

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Let's extend a warm welcome with tales of triumph over evil

When I try to look ahead to 2016, I am immediately struck by what seems a contradiction, opposite sides of the same coin. In Lincoln we will be celebrating the centenary of the engineering achievement of the tank. We will be also welcoming refugees from the war in Syria. There will be much more; each of us looks forward to or, sadly, dreads something that the new year will bring. I just want to dwell on the contrasts of the tank and the refugee.

I came across a story of the origins of the tank in the surprisingly good book by Boris Johnson, The Churchill Factor. This is very much Johnson’s personal view of the great war time leader. Churchill is without doubt Johnson’s hero, but not in all things; Churchill was after all a fallible human being. But the tank is a place where Johnson definitely sees Churchill as hero, compassionate hero. Unlike many of today’s politicians, many in both the first and second world wars had first hand experience of the horrors of fighting. Churchill had seen many thousands of young men go to their death as they went ‘over the top’ into a hail of machine guns bullets. Churchill observed that whilst mankind had invented a means of destruction, they had not yet provided an effective defence. What was needed was a shield, but one that could move over rough ground and so protect our boys. They needed a land ship, something out of HG Wells. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, knew the men who could do the job and so the idea was born. Others, more expert than I, can tell of how the idea evolved into the tanks manufactured on Tritton Road.

I have explored the further evolution of the tank during the second world war as part of my research for my forthcoming book, War on Wheels, on the mechanisation of the army. There is much that has struck me, but the strongest point is surely how destructive this means of defence became.

My son spent some time in Damascus a few years ago and told me of the incredible beauty and long history of Syria. Much, indeed most, of the physical history and great architecture of that ancient civilisation has now gone. The tank was but one weapon taking part in that destruction, far more so of innocent people than stone and mortar. Nonetheless it did destroy.

When the refugees arrive in Lincoln they will see the monument that has been created to remember those who invented and built the tank.

We can tell Mr Churchill’s story. We can emphasise the engineering skill and involvement of so many people in confronting a nation with cruel ambition. Perhaps more so in WW2 we can talk of how essentially the whole country joined in the struggle against evil.

None of this can replace what those refugees have lost.

So, what do we do? We can offer a warm welcome and do what we can to make their lives in Lincoln and Lincolnshire as good as we can. We can encourage our politicians in pursuing a comprehensive strategy to rid the world of the evil that is ISIS. To my mind this will have a strong emphasis on rebuilding a vibrant Syria, indeed a vibrant middle east and north Africa where a peaceful voice of Islam is clearly heard and drowns out the voice of violence.  

Perhaps our celebration of the centenary of the Lincoln tank can be the cue for us to stand up and be counted. If 2016 has that in store, we’ll have done our duty of commemoration.

This article was published in the Lincolnshire Echo on 31 December 2015


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Use your churches

“You know what the problem is with the Church?”
I waited for the pearl of wisdom.
“It’s been too successful.”

This conversation took place some years ago now, but I recalled it on two occasions recently.

The first was a gathering of over one hundred people who had come together to plan our response to the arrival in Lincoln of the first refugees from Syria, something we are calling #CompassionateLincoln. We talked about collecting clothing and household goods; we explored the possible problems that refugees might face. We began to plan a fundraising event and someone said, “this is what churches used to do.” In the conversation that followed, it became clear that many there had been brought up with the church as part of their lives, but that they had long since stopped attending.

My suspicion was that that early church going may have given us all that sense of concern for our fellow human beings that had brought us all together.

But there were others there, probably most, who had no history with the church. My colleague who had identified the ‘problem with the church’ would argue that christian teaching over centuries had entered the blood stream of the nation and so we all have, or can have, that sense of christian values.
This is dangerous territory since atheist friends would take issue and point possibly to some shared set of values that come from our shared humanity.

In a sense it doesn’t matter, since, whoever we were, we all came together for a common cause.

This brings me to my second occasion. This was in Veryan church in Cornwall at the end of November when the school gathered for their Friday assembly, which they do each week. What struck me was just how at home everyone appeared to be. I remember my time as Reader working with the school and how the church had been an unfamiliar place for most. Not so now: mums, grandmas, toddlers, all happily chatting before the school children arrived. Then the children themselves arrived settling down to something that was part of everyday life. They heard the story of Ruth wonderfully told by the Open the Book team. I was struck by how the story resonates with the refugee crisis. The children listened and then prayed. I went away happy that those children and their parents would have that sense of christian values which would last them through life.

Is that enough? Or should we worry that they don’t come to church on Sunday? Part of the answer is perhaps another question, should the rest of us go to church on Friday?

What matters is that the church building is being used in a way that works.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

What kind of a city is Lincoln?

The other day I was walking down the High Street and was stopped by two students with recording equipment. They asked if I would agree to be interviewed. On saying yes, they both uttered sighs of relief; it seems I was the first and they had almost given up.

Their question was simple. Why had Lincoln been voted a top tourist destination?

My response was equally simple. It is s city steeped in history, we have it all from Romans to 19th century engineers, with Gothic Cathedral and Norman Castle to boot.

I went on my way slightly embarrassed that I had forgotten Magna Carta. It also set off a train of thought that prompted me to ask the bigger question at the head of this article: what kind of a city are we?

Some time ago I was involved in discussions about whether Lincoln should seek to be a World Heritage Site. It would put us firmly on the map and encourage even more visitors.

But is that what we are, a city that once was something.

We are much more: two universities, a college reaching out across the globe, world class engineering, an arts sector that is getting stronger all the time. All good, but are they what we are? Aren’t they rather, what we do?

I then saw on the evening television news that a famine was fast approaching in Ethiopia. I thought, oh no, not again. I would like to say that the ‘not again’ referred to the appalling famine that hit that country in the 1980s. I have to admit that it was rather, oh no, not another crisis seeking help.

Whether we like it or not, and indeed we do not like it, humanitarian crises of huge proportions are likely to characterise our world more and more, not least with global warming. It is not only global crises, there are those much closer to home, those in our city without homes, those in need. It was once said that the poor will always be with you. Too true.  

A little while ago I heard about a world wide movement called Compassionate Cities. This really is a loose collection of cities all around the world that had concluded that what they are is typified by the word compassionate.

It links to the local movement slowly emerging here called Compassionate Lincoln. This isn’t yet another organisation seeking to help those in need; there are already many of those. It is more a description of whom we all are. It seeks to draw together the strands of what is already happening to make it more accessible for both those in need and those wishing to help. It came about as a result of the frustration of seeing images of refugees in great need but without any way of helping. The feeling of compassion was there, but not the means to express it in a way that could make a difference.

#CompassionateLincoln is a campaign to encourage compassionate, positive and pro-active community-led responses to some of the social challenges that affect our beautiful city and those who call it home.

People in Lincoln are compassionate, but to be effective we need to be better joined up. More fundamental though is whether we citizens want to take it one step further and say out-loud to the world who we are?

At the end of the day, it is a choice for all of us, citizens of the Lincoln. What sort of a city are we?
     

Monday, 7 December 2015

Acting to make the world a better place

The job of a charity is to make the world a better place. I have heard this said more than once and it got me thinking.

I have supported charities since my teens when I realised just how lucky I was to have a home. I have also worked for some, but I had never really thought of charities having such a big, almost impossible task.

Of course the person who said it to me was suggesting that charities can make the world a better place in many tiny ways, not in one huge all encompassing sweep.
So, I thought of those charities which we as a family support and have supported, those for which I have worked and others I know. I guess it is true: to a greater or lesser extent charities do indeed seek make the world a better place.

My involvement in the arts sector is relatively new, and so I hope I may be forgiven for not knowing that many arts venues and organisations are charities. A good many do indeed call themselves charities, but are they really? Do they really make the world a better place? Or do they just provide entertainment for a select few? After all, all I do is to buy my ticket and attend a performance. What is charitable about that?

This matters for all sorts of reasons. All charities, these days, must be able to prove that the provide a public benefit. It is no good making a little bit of the world feel better for a regular audience. The role has to be much bigger.

So do they make the world better?

There is a good deal of research that suggests that by going to a live performance you do feel better. In early December, the Lincoln Cultural and Arts Partnership is running a seminar on Arts and Happiness to explore this assertion in a local practical context.

It is though more than attending a performance. Participating has been shown to improve confidence. Children who perform in one way or another are better prepared for what life has in store for them. Music has been shown to improve a child’s learning in many other areas of the curriculum.

Art, music, theatre, poetry, literature all enable us to express feelings or concerns that are difficult to put in plain words. I was talking to a young woman who works with children to explore and overcome their difficulties through drama, and another who, through a spoken word competition, both improves the confidence of participants but also enables them to express what otherwise might stay worryingly inside. This surely is about making the world better. An example I came across a few years ago was about child protection. I didn’t truly grasp the issue until I had seen it portrayed in drama; it opened my eyes.

Organisations are challenged by government to reduce obesity, to cut the amount people drink, to eliminate smoking. Endless words can be written, schemes launched, but it might just be that the penny will only truly drop when the issue is presented imaginatively in drama or dance. I don't think this is so far fetched.

Art, though, is also much closer to home. It makes us happy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were accessible to all?

This, I think is the point. An arts organisation benefits the public if it offers art that will appeal across a broad spectrum, that reaches out to people and groups for whom art is remote and at a price that is affordable to as many people as possible.

This article appeared in the Lincolnshire Echo on 3 December 2015