On holiday recently I found myself on a bus supposedly travelling from Verona to Lake Garda.
The heat was oppressive that day, the Veronese moved amongst the shadows, only we tourists spent time standing in the sun, gazing up at the architecture. The bus was hot and crowded, it smelled of sun tan cream and sweat. I was jammed into a space between someone’s rucksack and someone else’s shopping. My family were scattered around the bus, squeezed in where they could.
It was some time before it occurred to me that we weren’t moving, that we’d been standing at a bus stop for some time. I noticed the driver was speaking on his phone, he was becoming more and more agitated. He made one final angry remark and then hung up. Those of us towards the front of the bus waited to see what would happen next.
The driver turned and shouted something down the bus. Those who spoke Italian sighed or groaned or muttered angrily. Those of us who didn’t looked around in confusion. And then one of those lovely European moments that I’ve experienced only a few times before occurred: people helped each other to understand.
A woman translated the driver’s words into English. She let us know that the bus was too full, we all had to get off and wait for another bigger bus. There were still some confused faces, and then another woman translated the English into German. Someone corrected her. I heard someone haltingly translating into French for the benefit of the old couple opposite. Gradually, the message travelled the length of the bus.
I’ve seen this happen before, on camp sites in France and Germany, whilst walking around Mont Blanc, when I was Interrailing just after university: people helping each other out, helping each other to understand. I love being European, the differences and the commonalities.
I’m really, really sad that soon we’ll no longer be a part of this.
I turned on the television on Tuesday morning to see a chicken being cooked. Two breathlessly enthusiastic Americans were discussing the flavours; the tenderness; exactly how healthy the recipe was.
It all seemed so out of place. I already knew from Facebook that a bomb had gone off the night before in Manchester Arena at the end of a pop concert. I was looking for the news, trying to find out more information. The image of a chicken cooking seemed so wrong, but so many other times I’ve woken up and watched the equivalent whilst other people were waking up to their own personal tragedies. This is how people compartmentalize their lives.
I went into work early: I knew that some of our students were likely to have been there and support would need to be put in place. I arrived at school to the news that 22 were confirmed dead and 59 injured. As the day wore on the students came into school and we heard stories from those who had been present in the Arena. One by one we marked our children safe, but the word was out that relatives were still missing.
As I went to bed that night they were playing The Lark Ascending on the radio, one of the most peaceful, beautiful pieces of music I know. It seemed very appropriate.
Next day dawned with unconfirmed reports that close family members of some of our students were dead, caught in the blast. Confirmation came at 10am. Assemblies were held. A teacher read The Lord is My Shepherd and children were given time for reflection. In common with many other English schools, our Year 13s were leaving at the end of the week. They were reminded that it was understandable to feel compassion, but that it was okay to go on revising and working hard, it was okay to enjoy themselves on their Leavers’ Prom. This echoed what a lot of people on the news have been saying: that the best response to terrorism is to carry on as normal, to go out and watch a concert; to have a drink; to meet up with friends. They’re right, but responding to terrorism is not the only reason for doing so. Doing these things is what being alive is all about.
Today is Friday. Our students are wearing pink wristbands as a statement of community, fellow feeling and quiet respect for those who are grieving. Tonight, the year 13s will go to their Prom wearing pink carnations. They’ll be getting ready as I write this, putting on suits and dresses, doing their hair, getting ready to celebrate the end of their schooldays.
I hope they have a great evening. Life goes on.
My friend asked me to cover her duties as organist over Easter whilst she was trekking in Nepal. (I say trekking, she’s checking on the progress of health centres she helped to set up whilst doing voluntary work a few years ago. There’s someone who’s making a difference.)
Last night I played the Maundy Thursday service. This is the service where they wash people’s feet (something I didn’t get to see from my position sitting behind the organ). It finished with the altar being stripped, following which a silent vigil was to be held.
After the final hymn, I collected my music together and headed out the door – I was returning home to a huge pile of washing up and maybe a glass of whisky – when something caught my attention.
The church was now a large, empty space, filled with nothing but silence. Not the silence of the night, nor the silence that results from the absence of sound, but rather a conscious silence. The silence of so many people sitting with their thoughts.
Despite the fact I had so other things to do, I sat down and listened to my own thoughts.
There’s a lot to be heard in the silence. Films, TV programs, radio show, shops and malls, even some museums now, all like to impose their own soundtrack on our lives, trying to shape our emotions to their own ends. It’s easy to forget what can be heard when that external soundtrack is removed.
Read what you like into the above. As the world fills with more and more noise and activity, I’m increasingly drawn towards stillness.
I played at two services this Sunday. Every year, I forget about what happens at the second service.
Before the last post is played, a number of wreaths are laid, most of them by members of the uniformed services.
Every year, for the past four years, a girl has come forward to lay a wreath for her father.
Despite her best efforts to be brave, she always cries as she lays the wreath.
The picture shows the Peace Dome in Hiroshima. The bomb exploded almost directly above the building, it was the only structure left standing in the area afterwards.
It’s very quiet around the dome, nobody has a lot to say. They all look to a point above the building and imagine.
I took the picture below in the Peace Museum, just around the corner from the dome. The red ball hangs over the map: it represents the point of detonation. There is a model of the dome beneath the ball.
The picture in the Peace Museum that upset me the most was of two children playing with kittens. Despite the fact they were in the middle of a war, despite the fact rations were tight and they expected to be firebombed at any time, the children were laughing and smiling. They looked just like any kids anywhere, anytime.
The picture was taken three days before the bomb.
I saw a plane crash yesterday. The pilot was killed.
Actually, I didn’t see the crash itself. The two planes had been crossing the sky repeatedly, performing stunts. I’d been trying to get a photograph of the pair of them as they crossed: the camera on my phone wasn’t quick enough to capture the actual moment.
At the moment of the crash I’d been having a conversation with a soldier who was giving a demonstration of army equipment. He was showing me the smoke grenade apparatus on the front of a vehicle, and I was making notes for a possible story. We both noticed the black smoke rising from the trees. We both looked up and noticed there was now only one plane, circling, looking for its partner.
"Ah," said the solider. "That’s an issue." He’d talked about his time in Afghanistan. I guess he’d seen this before.
A military band had been setting up nearby. They sat with their instruments in their hands, looking at the smoke over the trees. I heard the conductor say that they didn’t have anything appropriate in their pads to play. The band packed up in good order and left.
Shortly afterwards, two helicopters turned up and hovered over the scene. The festival went on. Music resumed on the main stages.
Later that night, I ate a lamb rogan josh and pilau rice whilst watching Seasick Steve.