Sunday, 22 July 2012


Over the road from the Titanic building and underneath an enormous yellow crane, 1500 donated objects are laid out across the concrete floor of a huge warehouse. In the main they are everyday objects, but each one is special: they are mementos from thousands of lives in Northern Ireland. Each has its own story, written by the donor on a small magnolia label attached by string.

The long rows of objects lead to the far end of the building where sits the 100 piece Ulster Youth Orchestra and a community choir, 200 strong. A note sounds, Brian Irvine raises his hands and the performance begins. It's the opening of a new oratorio and art installation, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

The orchestra play beautifully, exuberantly then wildly: the choir sing movingly then stamp their feet, chunter in unison and eventually howl like dogs. All the pieces are inspired by the donated objects and their stories: such as 'a mermaid with a mechanical tail' and 'two penguins and a snowman'.

They form a grand sound-scape that reverberates throughout this industrial cathedral. A tribute to memory and everyday things in a site replete with its own history of manufacture and loss. The oratorio closes with all performers ringing bells and one by one slowly leaving the stage, until silence once again reigns.

John Donne's powerful meditation on his life-threatening illness came to mind, where he speaks of interconnectedness. And then its later transposition by Hemingway to his novel of the Spanish Civil War. Such resonances are strongly present, from so many mementos of the twists and turns in everyday life to the recent bitter conflict here.

'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

John Passey RIP

I met him at secondary school. Central Technical School for Boys in Gloucester. A school that was staffed by a weird collection of misfits, incompetents and sadists. Most teachers had their own preferred instrument of violence (often referred to by pet names) and particular method of inflicting pain and humiliation. I recall being beaten with various sticks, a plimsoll, large books and a board compass (as well as being punched and kicked). They repeatedly told me I was useless and stupid, that my lack of learning was my own fault.

Amid this sea of educational darkness there was a shining light. He was John Passey: the English teacher. John was full of enthusiasm and encouragement. He loved poetry, particularly Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he instilled that love in me. He also encouraged his pupils to write poetry and short stories, no mean achievement for 14 year old boys who thought they were tough. And when, full of fear, we read our work out in class, he praised it highly. My adolescent poetry was, of course, dire and highly derivative. But through John, I left the school believing that, although I was stupid, I did have a story to tell.

John Passey's funeral took place in Gloucester Cathedral last Friday. He was a talented and generous man and had touched many lives. The tribute was delivered by his son, Alan. He explained that John was so very proud of the boys he taught and what they went on to achieve. And despite the limitations of that school, these achievements were many.

In his will John had asked for his coffin to be carried by us. Unfortunately, this was vetoed by the Cathedral. But as professional pall-bearers transported John's coffin through the nave of the cathedral, two long lines of 'old boys' formed a guard of honour. It was a fitting send off for the man.

Chris O'Ryan, John Taylor, Dave Ballard and myself (with Alan Passey on my back): a chance encounter with the Passey family in Weymouth.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Nietzsche, Tractors and Limits

Last year a cardiac surgeon sawed open my sternum (breastbone) from top to bottom. This is called a median sternotomy. He then undertook open heart surgery, whilst a vascular surgeon worked on my vena cava. After this surgery was completed, the two halves of my sternum were joined with wire sutures (titanium, I believe) to hold them together so it could heal. Needless to say, my sternum was extremely sore for a good six months as the bone was growing back together.

There is now a long white scar that runs down the centre of my chest. Underneath it are a series of small ridges and little lumps. These are the wire sutures. Here my chest is still very sensitive to touch. My GP told me that full healing takes around two years. Little by little, the bone grows over the wire sutures and incorporates these into the sternum. When that process is complete, he said, my breastbone will be stronger than before.

Recently, I related this to a farmer friend of mine. He nodded and pointed to a welded repair on his tractor, telling me that the weld itself became the strongest part of two pieces of metal after they had been fused together.

Then I thought about Nietzsche’s infamous dictum - 'what does not kill me makes me stronger.' Not because I see any of this experience as heroic. But because we normally live within safe limits and when we are tested to the very edge of our limits, we either fail or come back stronger.