Day 16 – Beyond Our Ken

So Ken Clarke’s ministerial career has ended.

I knew Ken 35 years ago when I was a simple back bencher. Ken told me once that he loved Westminster so much he would have to be carried out in a coffin. I hope that does not happen soon. Ken was very kind to me on one notable occasion and I have followed his career with great affection and interest ever since.

Ken was Minister of Health, Secretary of State for Health, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and these are just the major posts I can reel offf without recourse to Google. Ken held all these posts successfully. He must hold the record for holding more ministerial offices than anyone else in modern times. He was pipped at the post in 2002 to be the Conservative leader because of his support for the E.U. If he had been a man of less integrity he would have beaten Iain Duncan Smith to the leadership. Ken is delightful company and a jazz expert. He is the largest tree to fall in the political jungle in many years. His departure is profoundly sad and the eclipse of a generation. So Ken has gone. It’s so depressing that I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.

We stayed with loyal friends in Rugely, David and Katie Brown. They kindly drove us to the start point of our Monday and Tuesday walks while our car was being “sorted”. Dinah enjoyed herself so much she decided to mark the occasion by gnawing one of Katie’s special shoes. We walked ourselves more or less senseless round Atherston and on to Ansley and then we trekked along the motorway and round Birmingham to Cooksey Green to stay with another kind friend, Liz Landale, the widow of Sandy, who died roughly two years ago. I can see him in my mind’s eye as I write this and I can hear his measured voice. Liz is the mother of James Landale the BBC commentator. Their house is absolutely lovely.

Beggars Can be Choosers

Earler this week, I walked past a man crouching on a mat in a damp doorway. He was carrying a placard stating he was hungry and homeless. I fumbled him some money and offered a prayer that he might find the courage to change his life. He was looking down so as not to meet my eyes, as if he had been crushed by a series of hideous circumstances. Poor man.

I try to give beggars small change whenever possible. Some people claim this is the wrong way to provide aid, and that we should instead support the local caring agencies. However, that just seems too cool and clinical for me. I know that beggars are likely to spend cash on booze and drugs, and that perhaps they might be conmen – but so what? If they are rogues let that be on their consciences and not mine; and if they choose to spend any cash on booze or drugs, then at least I hope they will derive some enjoyment from that.

Letting Go
The question is, how did this beggar get to where he is? I doubt it’s that hard. Addiction perhaps? Just a few bad decisions, the result say of bankruptcy, and then the wife leaves. Perhaps this was followed by a spell in the slammer and so his “friends” desert him in righteous indignation. Then comes a shattering loss of self-confidence and the downward spiral spins out of control. Finally, the man gets used to his miserable lot. It’s all too horribly easy: there but for the grace of God go we all.

I can’t help wondering if the man actually wants to stop begging? This may sound like an odd question, but a while ago I came upon a woman who developed a pioneering method of curing stammering among young children. I used to stammer when I was young and so I had more than a casual interest in what she had to say. As part of her programme, she would ask her audience of parents to think of the most precious object they owned. Then she told them to imagine losing that treasured possession, and asked them to describe their responses. These varied from panic or shock to deep sadness and bereavement. Finally, she stunned her audience by declaring, “Now you know what it will feel like for your child to lose his or her stammer.”

For a moment there would be utter bewilderment – of course, nobody believes that a child wants to stammer. Such a speech impediment can lead to ridicule and will likely have a severe impact on a child’s social life. However, what the therapist wanted the parents to understand is that sometimes holding on to a disability can be less frightening than change. We get used to our weaknesses and build them into our relationships. They become familiar, part of our world and integral to our self-image – bizarrely, they can be very hard to let go of. Change – even change for the better – can be disorientating, threatening and traumatic.

So maybe the tramp I saw is used to his lot. Perhaps he’s convinced begging is all he’s fit for, and scrounging has become his life’s default position. Perhaps he feels trapped without any options, and that begging is now a life sentence. Yet we all have choice: we can lie on our mats and beg, or get off them and walk away.

Carpe Diem
In the Gospel of Mark, there is a fascinating story of a cripple with a dedicated group of pals who determine to find Christ and beg Him to cure their friend. Jesus is preaching in a house so crowded that the men cannot gain access, and so they scrape a hole in the roof and lower their disabled friend to rest at Christ’s feet. Jesus responds and the man walks away rejoicing.

The point of this story is that the crippled man actually found the courage to finish with his past and get off his mat. He could have decided to stay just where he was and beg for the rest of his life. However, he had the raw courage to embrace the revolution of radical change.

I have a friend who had a profoundly difficult upbringing. He tells everyone the sad details of his feckless father and an emotionally frozen mother who both spent his childhood as drunk as owls. As far as I can tell, my friend has achieved remarkably little with his life; he blames the litany of jobs lost and failed relationships on the emotional fractures he suffered early in his life. When he relates his story, a glassy look crosses his face; you can almost hear the tape clunking into a slot in his mind as his saga is related for the umpteenth time.

The trouble with this is that we all know people who have suffered a ghastly childhood and yet who have somehow managed to muster the grit to forge a new start. We also know those who apparently enjoyed a wonderful childhood, yet who spectacularly went to the dogs and ended up by staying there. There is no inevitability about it and we have choices: to silently suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to seize the day.

I think my sad friend has chosen to remain a victim. I’m sure if challenged, he would deny this bleak analysis – he expects the world to be endlessly sorry for his plight and to excuse his failure. However, he should read Mark’s Gospel and draw a line. I’m not denying this won’t take huge courage, but it’s never too late.

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