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notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Wednesday, July 28, 2004Going on blazing and singing
This sounds like T.S. Eliot in its dark intensity. Or David Tibet. It's actually Jim Hart. My old friend and mentor who, in exchange for a bundle of papers from me about my parish walks, has reciprocated with two astonishing texts.
Beyond the quote above, I will not detail what Jim writes in Five Serious Meditations because it is deeply personal, revealing the state of his heart and mind during a particularly dark spell in his life a few years back. I'm awed that he should have chosen to share this with me, moved by the trust that demonstrates.
Instead, a flavour of the other text, TRAVELS: Wednesday 8 to Saturday 18 August 2001. This was an epic journey circling these islands on his trusty BMW during the time of the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Irish Hunger Strike, and for the purpose of his own commemoration.
After joining in the Liverpool Hunger Strike commemoration march on 21 July Jim prepared for his pilgrimage by contemplating the question 'How does the saint live in the world?':
"I needed to recover words like 'saint', the 'righteous' and 'prophet' from the religious ghetto where they mean long dead people who weren't ordinary like me. They did magic things, and God spoke to them in magic ways and theologians had buried them under mountains of words. I decided that the real, breathing men had to be like us if they were to be of any use to us."
I'd agree, except to say that there's nothing ordinary about Jim, and elements of magic (to me) in what he did next. Packed his tent and took off for Belfast, on a four-day journey by way of Thetford Chase, Ipswich (where he visited his sister in Claydon), Barnard Castle, New Galloway, and the Cairnryan ferry. His travelling companions: a few bottles of beer, tapes of Corelli, Myslivecek and Zelenda, Thomas Middleton's play The Revenger's Tragedy and a copy of Nicky Gumbel's Questions of Life bought from a Stowmarket "fish shop" ("ie, a holy book shop with an ichthus logo. Apply within for soundness."). He plays these two texts off each other hilariously, the fall guy being Gumbel of the "sinister cluster-bomb salesman's look".
Along the way Jim encounters various dog-walkers, CAMRA pub-drinkers, moped-riders and ferry passengers and elicits a wealth of conversation from them on a range of subjects from the weather to deep politics; and once in Ireland the deep politics takes over completely. Jim's concern for justice and human rights was reawakened by the events of 1981. His desire to be part of the commemorations draws on deep wells within him. He needs that depth of character on this journey:
"I go to Sinn Fein's shop and offices in the Falls Road to buy An Phoblacht and find out my march times for tomorrow. SF is on a roll and its premises are new with the famous mural of Bobby Sands repainted. I leave Belfast along the Newtownards Road, the heart of Loyalist east Belfast. You pass the Short Strand, a little Nationalist enclave surrounded by 'peace-lines' and then come to 'Freedom Corner' with its murals setting out the Loyalist cause. There are murals on gables and even around commercial advertisements for the next couple of miles. I have prowled around east Belfast's side streets on several occasions photographing murals but I am never entirely at ease. There are some hard boys out there and I have my patter ready. "I'm over for the Twelfth!" or sometimes "God bless the Union!" If you venture off the beaten track in Northern Ireland you have to blend in with the background, decide who you're talking to, and be what they want you to be."
Here's what I like about Jim: his devotion to making journeys of discovery, to unearthing the truth, and his passionate concern for those treated unjustly by the 'powers'. So while I may not share his politics (I don't know enough about Ireland to be sure what I believe) I feel I can stand with him as he describes being at the rally at the culmination of his journey, in Casement Park at 3.00 on Sunday 12 August, where speeches are made and a roll is called of the ten who died on hunger strike, from Bobby Sands, age 26, on 5 May 1981, after 66 days, to Michael Devine, 27, on 20 August, after 60 days.
Hearing Gerry Adams describe a recent visit to the site of those deadly protests, Jim reflects,
"The cages [of Long Kesh] are now in ruins and weeds and bushes grow where once men studied the Irish language and read Marx, Guevara, the Bible, Donne, Shakespeare, Byron and Shelly in the university of revolution. Their 40,000 books are now archived. They are the sort of self-taught men like me devouring knowledge and truth, reading for themselves what the academics have hidden from the people."
I shall return after all, to Jim's other paper to finish. For in the same connection - the self-education of the Long Kesh prisoners ("my kind of learning") - he writes, "The amateur's learning is driven by passion, vocation and excitement. The amateur is a 'lover' after all." And continues,
"... we saints have got something good, childish though we may be ... My fires have burned fiercely on the stones and hundreds of people have warmed themselves at the blaze. Fires live and die. The stones do not die but have never had life. Thank You God for the fire and for all of us who blaze through Your enabling. ... Let us go on blazing and singing."