John Bird – founder of The Big Issue – Click here to listen to his Roscoe Lecture given on Tuesday January 15th 2013

Roscoe Lecture by John Bird MBE, Founder and Editor in chief of The Big Issue. Click here to hear the lecture:

http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/101110.htm

The 109th Roscoe Lecture – “The Necessity of Poverty” – took place at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Tuesday January 15th at 6.00pm. It was be delivered by John Bird MBE, the founder of “The Big Issue”.

Background remarks by David Alton:

John Bird - founder of The Big Issue - delivers a Roscoe Lecture based on the title of his book "The Necessity of Poverty."

John Bird – founder of The Big Issue – delivers a Roscoe Lecture based on the title of his book “The Necessity of Poverty.”

I had intended to begin by remarking on the topicality of John’s appearance on BBC Question Time on Thursday last. However, a more poignant starting point is to mention the sadder and as John put it “the senseless” killing of two vendors of The Big Issue who died in Birmingham on Friday last. John recently said that “since the days when poverty was big in my life I have been asking many questions, Why? Why poverty?” And many other Whys? Those deaths perhaps add one more “why” to the list.

John Bird has just published a new book “The Necessity of Poverty” – from which this Roscoe Lecture takes its title. It’s what its author calls “a tough book because it asks tough questions about the process of giving, arguing that giving changes little in the lives of the poor. Using the words of The Big Issue: is it “a hand up, or a hand out?”

He says that “Governments have created a new class of people who are outside society: workless, broken, and lost to ambition and to social improvement.”

John Bird arrived at his conclusion through the university of adversity and the school of hard knocks.

Working Not Begging

Working Not Begging

He was born into a London Irish family in a slum-ridden part of Notting Hill just after World War II.

Homeless at five, in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity between the ages of seven and ten, he began to fail over and over again in every area of his life.

He says that despite the contrast of pristine cleanliness with a damp hovel over-run with mice and rats, the generous portions of food, the clean beds and clean clothes could not make up for what he calls the “homieness” of our hovel. “There wasn’t a moment when I did not want to escape it and go back to the shivering under-fed coldness of poverty.”

After three years in an orphanage he was returned to a family home and he says “then the trouble began.”

From the age of ten onwards he was shoplifting, housebreaking and generally stealing whatever he could lay his hands on. Vandalism and arson were amongst the crimes he committed. “Not only was I poor but I added to the problems of my life by breaking the law.” He says that “For quite a few years I was one of those troubled people who come and go in the prison system.” Eventually, through work he got out of poverty and began raising a family.

How To Tackle Poverty - the big issue.

How To Tackle Poverty – the big issue.

In his late twenties, and after several prison sentences, John became involved in politics. He also fathered three children, became a printer, and successfully ran his own small business. At the age of 45, his many life experiences enabled him to start production of The Big Issue.

He also began to set out his approach to life – perhaps summed up in his assertion that “Governments have created a new class of people who are outside society: workless, broken, and lost to ambition and social improvement. Hovering around them”, he says, “are countless “supposed” defenders of the poor, who see nothing wrong in warehousing people in ghettos of inactivity.”

He remains optimistic but realistic, shaped by experience: “Having lived through poverty, and exited it through my faith and some education while in the prison system, I know that there are thousands of people who could have done the same.” He remains hostile, not to the people trapped in poverty but to the dependency culture which can simply leave them there. He says that the poor must “be given a chance to fly.

In June 1995 he was awarded the MBE for ‘services to homeless people’.

He is an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University, a Visiting Professor at Lincoln University and a Doctor of Letters at the Oxford Brookes University. In 2003 he was chosen by the Queen as one of the Most Important Pioneers in Her Majesty’s Reign. In 2004 the United Nations awarded him the Scroll of Excellence for his international work in poverty. It was presented at the Habitat Celebration in Nairobi by the President of Kenya, at the Habitat Celebration in Nairobi. In the same year he also won a public vote by BBC London as London’s Living Legend.

This lecture (and previous lectures) will be available at:

http://www.ljmu.ac.uk/roscoe/101110.htm

A new category of Good Citizenship Awards will be launched at the lecture for young people who have overcome seemingly impossible odds and turned their lives around.

John Bird - founder of The Big Issue - 109th Roscoe Lecturer.

John Bird – founder of The Big Issue – 109th Roscoe Lecturer.

The Hobbit and Life of Pi

There have been some wonderful movies showing over Christmas and the New Year.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, is spell bindingly good. The story revolves around a 16-year old Indian boy called Piscine Molitor, “Pi” Patel, who suffers a shipwreck in which his family dies. He is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat and raft with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. We poignantly share in Pi’s journey of self discovery and his spiritual awakening – and how he ultimately places himself in God’s hands.

Many of the themes which make the Life of Pi such a good yarn can also be found in this year’s other epic movie, J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit – brought to the screen by Peter Jackson. Here, too, is a battle against all the odds, another journey of self discovery and a reliance on a faith which sees you through.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (to give it its unabbreviated title), was published on 21 September 1937 and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It paved the ways for “The Lord of the Rings”, which followed in 1954.
In a letter which Tolkien wrote, in1955, to W.H.Auden, he says he began to write The Hobbit in 1929 while marking school examination papers. On coming across a blank page he felt inspired to write the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” By late 1932 he had finished it and then lent the manuscript to several friends, including C.S.Lewis.
Having been read by millions, 75 years later The Hobbit is now being viewed, as part of a trilogy, in cinemas across the country. The Hobbit– An Unexpected Journey – will be followed in 2013 and 2014 by The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again
The story of The Hobbit is located “Between the Dawn of Færie and the Dominion of Men” – and tells the tale of the home loving, adventure adverse, Bilbo Baggins who sets off to gain a share of the treasure which has been appropriated by the Dragon Smaug – who now guards his hoard. The story culminates at the Battle of Five Armies, and in this climax we meet again, as combatants in this defining conflict, many of the characters encountered in preceding chapters.
The story of the hobbit is about the growth of individual character and courage, about the solidarity of fellowship, and the nature of evil.
It takes us out of the usual comfort zones – second breakfasts and sumptuous delicious mouth watering teas at four o’clock much favoured by all hobbits.
The last thing which Bilbo wants is the appearance at his home of the wizard, Gandalf – and thirteen very disorderly dwarves who have been dispossessed of their homes and country – all of which threatens to disrupt Bilbo’s ordered routine.
In 1937 Britain’s political leaders felt much the same as Bilbo about Europe’s dictators and offered the excuse that these were “far away countries about which we know very little”.

The prevailing climate was that it was better to stay at home than to go and pick a fight with some nasty European dictator. Appeasement was not yet a dirty word. Bilbo Baggins has been compared with Neville Chamberlain – then the Prime Minister – as a creature who simply favoured a quiet life.

Like those reluctant to see their lives disturbed by unwelcome events, Bilbo spends his life “dreaming of eggs and bacon” and of his well stocked larder.

Uncomfortably, Gandalf gives him the unwelcome reminder that Bilbo’s mother was a Took and that more is expected of him than complacent indifference.

Thorin, the dwarf king is initially sceptical and contemptuous of Bilbo and fails to see Bilbo’s inner strength and qualities and Thorin has to radically reassess his first impressions – ultimately describing the hobbit as “the child of the kindly west.”
In describing the setting for his epic tale Tolkien wrote: “The board is set, the pieces are now in motion, at last we come to it – the great battle of our age” – true for Europe as well as Middle Earth.

Many of the characters portrayed by Tolkien were deeply influenced by his own experiences and by the men he encountered during the First World War while serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers.

In The Lord of The Rings we meet Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee, the hobbit, who remains totally loyal to Mr. Frodo and who ends up carrying him and the ring to the destiny which saves Frodo and Middle Earth. Sam is like Simon of Cyrene, sharing his Master’s burden and at the climax his devoted loyalty in following Frodo to the very end is rewarded as the burden is lightened and he is transfigured.

Tolkien said:
My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 War, and recognised as so far superior to myself.”

Sam’s humility turns him into the greatest of Tolkien’s heroes. Although he is only Frodo’s gardener, Tolkien is reminding us that so often we miss what is important about the people we meet, what matters most, and too frequently judge them by the job they do or their social origins. Tolkien says that his stories are concerned with ‘the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble’ – and the meek Sam certainly inherits the earth.

It will be Frodo, Sam and their companions, the next generation of hobbits – “children from the kindly west” – not Bilbo nor his alter ego, Chamberlain – who will be called upon to save Middle Earth from the evil which now threatens to engulf and destroy it.

It is hardly coincidence that The Lord of The Rings is written while the fight against totalitarian forces is raging and as Churchill is called upon to lead the country through the Battle of Britain.
In “The Hobbit” Tolkien isn’t writing a polemic and his story works at any number of levels. He wants to take us into a new world, a different universe, but one which relates to our own. Underlining this is his use of runes, both as decorative devices and as magical signs within the story, introducing us to a new language – as you might expect from a professor of philology. The stories are also full of pointers to Tolkien’s faith and he wrote that “The Lord of The Rings” is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously at first, but consciously in the revision”.
C.S.Lewis, writing in The Times said that both children and adults would enjoy “The Hobbit”:The truth is that in this book a number of good things, never before united, have come together: a fund of humour, an understanding of children, and a happy fusion of the scholar’s with the poet’s grasp of mythology.”

Peter Jackson has produced a movie worthy of that story and, to use another of Lewis’s phrases, it is a story which requires adults and children alike to go “further up and deeper in” and to discover the richness of the many stories within the story.HobbitLife_of_Pi_2012_PosterHobbit 2HobbitLife-of-Pi-3D-poster

As antisemitism once again disfigures Europe we should remember our past: Confessions of a Butterfly – the remarkable story of Janusz Korczak

As anti-Semitism once again disfigures Europe we should remember our past

Coiexist

Anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head again in Europe – with Jews vilified because of their religion, their race or their State. August 2014 has seen Jews fleeing from Paris after shocking attacks in the Jewish quarter of Sarcelles. Kosher shops have been burnt out, synagogues have been under siege and placards threatening “death to Jews” are openly brandished. This is France 2014 not Germany 1934.

Jews are targeted because they are different and, as we increasingly see in the ISIS controlled areas of the Islamic State, for some ideologues the concept of difference is something which they refuse to countenance. After a visit to northern Iraq a Jewish politician, aware that Christians are persecuted in more than a hundred countries, observed to me that “Christians have become the new Jews.”

But it’s not just Christians: it’s Yazidis, Bahais, Muslim minorities, Ahmadis, secularists or any minority which refuses to conform. Sometimes this naked use of power and violence does so in the corrupted name of religion, sometimes in the name of the same secular ideologies that butchered millions in the twentieth century.

The opening chapters of the Bible, sacred to the Abrahamic faiths, reminds us of a common humanity: that we are “imago Dei” – each made in the image of our Creator. And, phenomenally, each is uniquely different. What a hideous world this would be if every man and woman was identical or forced to abandon their identity . Difference is to be prized and upheld – and the political imperative which flows from this assertion is that we must learn respect, tolerance, and co-existence.

In speaking clearly against a rising tide of anti-Semitism we must also recall our own history…

Also see:

https://davidalton.net/2014/03/08/paying-a-price-for-belief/

https://davidalton.net/2010/12/23/berlin-police-and-a-memory-of-the-holocaust/

Confessions of a Butterfly.

Pope John Paul II once described his Jewish countryman,

Janusz Korczak 2012

Jonathan Salt – who wrote and performs Confessions of a Butterfly

, as “a symbol of religion and true morality.” Korczak’s story is well known in his native Poland where this 70th anniversary year of his death has been designated as The Year of Janusz Korczak. In Britain his story is becoming better known thanks to a remarkable play written and performed by Jonathan Salt, an English Catholic. I recently went to the Kinloss Synagogue in Finchley to see “Confessions of a Butterfly” and was profoundly moved.

Korczak’s real name was Henryk Goldszmit. A doctor and paediatrician he was an educator and children’s author. He was also director of two children’s orphanages – one Jewish and one Catholic.

During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw over 400,000 Jews were confined to an area of 1.3 square miles – the Warsaw Ghetto. During the summer of 1942, at least 254,000 Jewish people from the Ghetto were herded into cattle trucks and removed to the Treblinka extermination camps. Among them were the 192 Jewish orphans at Dom Sierot orphanage. Their director, Dr.Janusz Korczak, was given the opportunity to go into hiding – and was offered a number of chances to escape – but he refused and insisted on accompanying the children in his care to Treblinka.

In August of this year, exactly 70 years after German soldiers sent these children to their deaths, a plaque was placed at the site of the orphanage and wreaths laid at Korczak’s statue. A letter was read from Anna Komorowska, Poland’s first lady.

If ever we need proof of the rabbi’s teaching that “the man who saves a single life saves the world” surely it was the redemptive and sacrificial life of this remarkable pioneer of children’s care and education. In a discussion which followed the 90 minute stage production Jonathan Salt explained that it is a life which speaks into our own times.

Salt describes Korczak as “phenomenally brave” and says he “gave children a sense of dignity at a time when the world was stripping it from them” ; that at a moment of crude brutalism this inspirational figure represents bravery and self sacrifice.

During the play many of the children’s names are used – along with authentic sayings collected from Korczak’s diaries. The children’s names reminded me of the Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust children in Jerusalem and which underlines the humanity and vulnerability which lies behind harrowing but often incomprehensible statistics.

“Confessions of a Butterfly”, for instance, recalls the profoundly moving and poignant story of the boy with the violin – who chooses to become selectively mute after watching the execution of his parents.

Authenticity, vulnerability, fragility and humanity breathes through this one-man play. Salt takes on Korczak’s persona as the play recounts these extraordinary stories.

The drama is set in the hours before Korczak left the orphanage, in August 1942, walking ahead of the children to board the cattle trucks. The children were dressed in their best clothes, each carrying a blue knapsack and a favorite book or toy. One eyewitness said

”Janusz Korczak was marching, his head bent forward, holding the hand of a child, without a hat, a leather belt around his waist, and wearing high boots. A few nurses were followed by two hundred children, dressed in clean and meticulously cared for clothes, as they were being carried to the altar.”

Korczak tells the children that, whatever happens to them on their journey, their destination will be a freedom which no adult will then be able to take from them. Salt’s play has moments of pathos, humour, self deprecation, and discovery.

Jonathan Salt first became interested in the Jewish educator’s story when he heard about it at the Edinburgh Fringe. This led to him playing the part of Korczak in a musical production and then, in 2004, he decided to visit Poland. For him it was a seminal moment as he held Korczak’s original diaries in his hands. A visit to Auschwitz was equally “life changing” and led him to create a small company which gives young people the chance to visit the camps and to learn in great detail the story of the Holocaust.

Salt comes from Cambridgeshire, where he was born in 1964. He studied for seven years at the Canisianum Jesuit seminary in Innsbruck (which was closed by the Nazis during World War Two) and was ordained in the UK in 1990, but left priestly ministry in 1995 – finding a different form of ministry which enables him to use his deep understanding of theology and philosophy to promote a message which the world badly needs to hear.

The contemporary relevance of the life of Janusz Korczak bore down on Salt during a visit to Rwanda where a he met a nine year old boy whose family had been slaughtered by his neighbours during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 when at least 800,000 people were murdered. Crimes against humanity continue in our own times – from the gulags of North Korea to the slaughter in Darfur and South Kordofan.

Despite the horrors with which it deals “Confessions of a Butterfly” has moments of humour, and there are some lovely scenes where he talks to the imaginary children around him, and even becomes a child himself. Using props like cups or apples thrown onto the stage we can imagine the presence of the children who animated Korczak’s life – whom he lived for and gave his life for. Clothes, blankets, and toys are all used to create imaginary conversations with children now long dead but whose spirits are given new life in this sensitive and intimate drama.

At a time when Holocaust deniers try to dispute the veracity or scale of the Shoah – which claimed the lives of six million people – and as we see crimes against humanity visited again on people the world over – from Sudan to north Korea – Salt believes that Korczak’s story is like a wakeup call. When we become indifferent to the Holocaust and the savagery of those times it surely paves the way for those terrible events to occur all over again.

To warn us against this, Jonathan Salt’s play ought to be staged in colleges and communities up and down this country. Korczak’s story is a warning to always guard against racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and the scapegoating of minorities but it is also a rebuke to nations who leave their children to suffer as victims of war, trafficking, exploitation, abuse, malnutrition, curable diseases and from the deprivation of education. Korczak’s story is a story for our times.

Contact Jonathan Salt at: jonathan@ojemba.com

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak

Confessions of a Butterfly

Hobbits’ Second Breakfasts In Lancashire – and Tolkien’s Links With Lancashire and His Faith

Click below for a short Granada Television report on St.Mary’s Hall children at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire enjoying a second Hobbits’ breakfast – at the place where Tolkien wrote some of The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings – and where two of his sons lived or taught. The other links take you to a talk and power point presentation on Tolkien’s connections with the Ribble Valley and the influence of his Catholic faith on his books and his relationship with C.S.Lewis.

http://www.stonyhurst.ac.uk/news/?pid=14&nid=3&storyid=388

http://www.staustinreview.com/star/

https://lordalton.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/tolkien-speech-audio.wav

https://davidalton.net/2011/02/19/j-r-r-tolkien-speech-david-alton/

Tolkien Liverpool 2011 final copy

And …a trailer for The Hobbit (2012) movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOGsB9dORBg

Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi’s Visit To Westminster – and the continuing challenges facing the country

Addressing a Congressional Committee on the suffering of Burma’s Karen people

Immediately after Aung San Suu Kyi’s historic address to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall on 21 June, a small ceremony took place in Speaker’s House.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Ben Rogers – leading campaigner and author on Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses Parliamentarians in Westminster Hall

James Mawdsley – who suffered imprisonment in Burma for demonstrating against military rule and for the rights of the ethnic minorities

Clad in full academic regalia, several of us from Liverpool John Moores University, including our former Chancellor Cherie Booth, greeted Burma’s democracy leader and Nobel Laureate, and presented her with an Honorary Fellowship. First awarded in absentia, in 2009, while Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, it was originally received by her sister-in-law, Lucinda Phillips.

We’ve come a long way since Lucinda’s brother, the Worth-educated Catholic academic, Dr.Michael Arris, was refused permission, when dying of cancer,  to travel to Burma to be reunited with his wife. With the former Commons Speaker, Jack Weatherill, I visited the Burmese Ambassador and made a plea that, on compassionate grounds, Dr.Arris be allowed to travel to Burma. Their refusal to grant this request told me all I needed to know about this regime.

After receiving her Liverpool Fellowship Aung San Suu Kyi told me she had many happy memories of visiting Worth Abbey with Michael. On giving her a card from James Mawdsley, the young Catholic who spent 18 months in prison in Burma, after demonstrating against the military regime, she said she had read James’ book, The Heart Must Break, while she was herself under house arrest. James is now in seminary preparing for ordination.

Aung San Suu Kyi is an immensely courageous champion of democracy, human rights and human dignity. The honours she received, ranging from our small ceremony to the presentation of an honorary doctorate at Oxford University, addresses to the London School of Economics and the Sorbonne, and speeches to Parliament, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and the International Labour Organisation, not to mention sharing a stage with Bono in Dublin, turned the woman we have long admired as a hero of conscience into a global stateswoman.

During the three illegal crossings I have made into Burma’s Karen State and during my visits to Burmese refugee camps I would not have believed that Aung San Suu Kyi would one day be free to address both houses of the British Parliament.

Less than a year ago, such scenes would have been inconceivable.

That she felt sufficiently confident to travel abroad for the first time in 24 years is a sign of how far Burma has come since Daw Suu, as she is affectionately known, first met Burma’s new President, Thein Sein, last August.

Thein Sein has unveiled a reform programme which has, so far, resulted in the release of several hundred political prisoners, including the most high-profile dissidents, a relaxation of media censorship, more space for civil society activity and ceasefire agreements with many of the armed ethnic resistance organisations. Most significantly, Daw Suu and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 out of 45 parliamentary seats contested in by-elections in April, giving them a foothold in the legislature for the first time.

It is important, however, to remember that despite these glimmers of hope, there is still a very, very long way to go. We must avoid the temptation to get caught up in the euphoria of Daw Suu’s visit, and conclude that the job is done. Far from it. As she herself says, while there is room for cautious optimism, much more is required if a peaceful and democratic future for Burma is to be secured.

The changes so far primarily represent a change in atmosphere and, perhaps, in attitude by the regime, which is still dominated by the military even if they are dressed in civilian clothes. There is not yet a change in system. A quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, and the overwhelming remainder of the seats are held by military-backed parties which won the heavily rigged sham elections in 2010. The NLD has no more than six per cent of the seats.

For there to be real change, there must be serious constitutional reform, gradually reducing the military’s grip on political power. Repressive laws must be amended or repealed. Ceasefires with the ethnic nationalities must be turned into a serious peace process, with a political dialogue that leads to a lasting political solution to decades of civil war. Several hundred political prisoners who remain in jail must be released.

The question of Burma’s ethnic nationalities is fundamental to the country’s future.

Despite some ceasefire agreements with other groups, the Burma Army is continuing a brutal war against the predominantly Christian Kachin people in the north. Thousands have been displaced, villages burned, churches destroyed, women raped and civilians killed.

Further to the west, in Arakan State, state-sponsored sectarian violence between the Buddhist Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingyas has resulted in countless deaths, the destruction of many villages and the displacement of at least 90,000 people. Those who have lost their homes are living without water, food, medicine or shelter.

A grave humanitarian crisis is unfolding, out of sight of the international community because international media, human rights monitors and aid agencies have been denied access to the affected areas.

On Burma’s eastern border, more
than a million people have been driven from their homes and over 3,700 villages have been destroyed since 1996. At least 140,000 refugees live in camps in Thailand. During my visits to the Karen people in these areas I have  heard first-hand their stories of horrific abuse.

In recent years, the international community has cut funding for refugees and internally displaced peoples. Food and other rations have been cut below subsistence levels causing great stress and threatening to undermine health and community structures.

Burma’s refugees along its borders have developed many skills in exile and can play an important part in the reconstruction of their country.  Now is the time to invest in their lives and ensure that basic humanitarian needs are met so that they can return in good health and with safety and dignity when the time comes.

If we are to truly honour Aung San Suu Kyi, we should respond to her appeal for practical help. That includes expertise in democratisation, the rule of law, and funding for health and education inside Burma. It must include an urgent humanitarian response to the emergency in Arakan State, pressure on the regime to stop the persecution of the Rohingyas and recognise their citizenship which has so long been denied, and investment in serious inter-racial and inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation. It must involve a serious effort to end the war on the Kachin people, and encourage a serious peace process with all ethnic nationalities. And we must heed her appeal for help for refugees on the Thai-Burmese border.

Before visiting Europe, she visited the border, and in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture she said: “I met dedicated people who were striving daily to make the lives of the inmates as free from hardship as possible. They spoke of their concern over ‘donor fatigue,’ which could also translate as ‘compassion fatigue.’ ‘Donor fatigue’ expresses itself precisely in the reduction of funding. ‘Compassion fatigue’ expresses itself less obviously in the reduction of concern. One is the consequence of the other. Can we afford to indulge in compassion fatigue? Is the cost of meeting the needs of refugees greater than the cost that would be consequent on turning an indifferent, if not a blind, eye on their suffering? I appeal to donors the world over to fulfil the needs of these people who are in search, often it must seem to them a vain search, of refuge.”

All who were present enjoyed the celebration of one of our generation’s greatest heroes, who ranks alongside Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Mahatma Gandhi. Now, however, we must return to the long, hard, sober work she has given us to do. Aung San Suu Kyi needs our prayers and our practical support more than ever.

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Aung San Suu Kyi’s extraordinary and historic visit to Europe stirred the hearts and minds of many, and put her country, Burma, firmly on the map.

Yet the scenes of her addressing distinguished gatherings in Parliament, Oxford University, the Sorbonne and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, and meeting royalty, presidents and prime ministers were in stark contrast with the many years in which the suffering of the people of Burma was ignored or unknown by all but a few individuals who worked hard to keep the flame alive.

It is 24 years since Aung San Suu Kyi left her family in Oxford to nurse her dying mother in Rangoon, and found herself leading a new movement for democracy in Burma which resulted in her spending most of the following two decades under house arrest.

During those two decades, she became the face of Burma’s struggle for freedom, but while her face became known, the suffering of her people was largely forgotten. Thousands of her supporters were jailed, subjected to horrific torture at the hands of one of the world’s most brutal regimes. At the same time, the military escalated offensives against civilians in Burma’s ethnic areas, using rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, the forcible recruitment of child soldiers, the use of human minesweepers and the destruction of villages. Religious minorities, particularly Christians among the Kachin, Chin, Karen and Karenni peoples, and the Muslim Rohingyas, have been subjected to severe persecution. Much of this suffering still continues.

On a few occasions, such as when Buddhist monks took to the streets in 2007 and when Cyclone Nargis wrought death and destruction the following year, Burma briefly hit the headlines – and then disappeared again. Over the years, a few international figures have tried to draw attention to the cause. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Czech President Vaclav Havel commissioned a report which led to Burma being raised at the UN Security Council. British politicians such as my colleague Baroness Cox, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, and the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, visited Burma’s borders, as I myself have done, and these visits played their part in raising the issue.

Lady Cox and I have both relentlessly raised Burma in debates in the House of Lords. Little by little, all these steps helped keep Burma on the agenda, but it was as a result of the efforts of a relatively small group of people who stood steadfast even when the cause seemed hopeless.

Three individuals stand out as people who have contributed significantly to this cause, and as examples of what one person can do if they hold true to their principles, motivated by faith.

James Mawdsley, a young Catholic now in seminary, was arrested in Burma three times for staging one-man demonstrations for human rights and democracy. He came to me in 1998 to tell me of his plans, and to ask for my support. The first time he went, he was deported from Burma swiftly, but he returned, determined to challenge the regime. He particularly wanted to look them in the eye and ask them why they treat the Burmese people so brutally, and he wanted to see Burma’s prison conditions for himself. He knew the only way he could do either was as a prisoner. After his second arrest, James was sentenced to five years in prison, and released after 99 days. He returned the following year, and was given a 17-year sentence.. He was severely beaten and tortured in jail and spent more than a year in solitary confinement before his release.

Benedict Rogers, who works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, has campaigned tirelessly for Burma for more than twelve years. He has travelled to Burma and all its borders more than 40 times, and risked his life crossing the borders into the conflict-ridden jungles of Burma’s ethnic states many times. Deported by the authorities from Rangoon twice, he is the author of three books on Burma, which are essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the country.

His first book, A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma’s Karen People (Monarch, 2004), is a powerful account of the military regime’s brutal suppression of one of the largest ethnic nationalities, involving crimes against humanity and war crimes.

His second book, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant (Silkworm, 2010), puts the spotlight on the dictator who ruled Burma for most of the past twenty years, and unveils his cruel reign of terror.

This month, Rogers has published a new book, Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads (Random House, 2012), which tells the story of Burma’s struggle for freedom, past, present and future. Beginning at Burma’s independence in 1948, the book weaves together the story of the struggle for democracy against military dictatorship, with an account of the plight of Burma’s ethnic nationalities along all of its borders.

With chapters on political prisoners, the 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks, Cyclone Nargis, the 2010 elections and the current reforms, Rogers has produced a book that is unique in providing a comprehensive and yet accessible analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi’s country. As he said at the launch of the book, in Parliament a week before Aung San Suu Kyi’s address in Westminster Hall, in order to help Burma, it is essential that we understand its past, monitor the present and prepare for the future. No other book fulfils this purpose better than Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads.

The third person who stands out is a young Catholic from Newcastle, Declan Stokle. His family took him to the Thai-Burmese border when he was just eight years old, and he has never looked back. He has spoken in churches, youth groups and schools, and in 2010 when Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain, Declan addressed the Hyde Park vigil. In front of a crowd of 80,000 people, he said: “I am asking you to fight the Burmese junta, not with guns and bullets, but with prayers and actions. I am asking you to fight against this injustice and to be the voice for the voiceless … For me, being a Catholic means standing up for those suffering an injustice – whether on my doorstep or 6000 miles away.”

This theme is echoed by the Archbishop of Rangoon, Charles Bo, who called on the Church in Burma to work for Burma’s freedom, based on justice and reconciliation. Speaking of the ethnic conflict in the country, he said: “There will be peace only when there is reconciliation, and development will be achieved only when there is true and genuine peace.” True freedom, he added, “is to be able to do what is right, honest, sincere, and pure, and not to do simply what one wants to do.”

In an interview during her European tour, Aung San Suu Kyi referred to Blessed John Henry Newman’s hymn, “Lead Kindly Light”. Brave people in Burma, and a few individuals outside Burma, have trod the narrow rugged path in the struggle for freedom and in support of her, in the years of darkness. Now, as Burma begins its fragile, tentative emergence into the light, our prayers, solidarity and practical support are needed more than ever. In the words of that beautiful hymn, “Lead thou me on!”

BBC Extracts from Shin Dong Hyok’s “Escape From Camp” 14

To listen to the serialised extracts from Shin Dong Hyok’s book, “Escape From Camp 14”, which have been broadcast this week on BBC Radio Four, use the following link to take you to the recordings:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01dtkj4/Book_of_the_Week_Book_of_the_Week_Escape_from_Camp_14_Episode_1/

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_8?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=escape+from+camp+14&sprefix=Escape+f%2Caps%2C334

Dickens – Faith and Fiction

In this bicentenary year of his birth the best new biography of the life of Charles Dickens life is by Claire Tomalin – and later in the year she will deliver one of my Roscoe Lectures in Liverpool to celebrate the bicentenary https://davidalton.net/2012/01/24/roscoe-lectures-2012-tickets-0151-231-3852/ .
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Charles Dickens capacity for brilliant storytelling, to change hearts and minds, and to challenge sharp elbowed and devil take the hindmost social attitudes, is as much needed today as it was then – which is why I recently suggested that children in our schools should be given a Dickens novel to celebrate both his birth and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee as well as encouraging literacy.

In 1869 Dickens came to speak in Liverpool and was given a gala dinner at St.George’s Hall, which is where Tomalin will also speak.

While in the city Dickens stayed at the Adelphi Hotel and among his private letters there is some lovely correspondence about the city and its people.

He starts by describing the evening, and how Liverpool has been turning out to hear his public readings:

“The mayor, being no speaker and out of health besides, hands over the toast of the evening to Lord Dufferin. The town is full of the festival. On Friday night last I read to two thousand people, and odd hundreds.”

Celebrated though he has become he then writes with some excitement about the other guests:

“I hear that Anthony Trollope, Dixon, Lord Houghton, Lemon…and Sala are to be called upon to speak; the last, for the newspaper press. All the Liverpool notabilities are to muster. And Manchester is to be represented by its mayor with due formality.” – which brings to mind the old saying, rooted in the rivalry between the two cities: a Manchester man and a Liverpool gentleman.

He then mentions the venue:

As to the acoustics of that hall, and the position of the tables (both as bad as bad can be), my only consolation is that, if anybody can be heard, I probably can be.”

Some things never change in St.George’s Hall but ability to be heard to one side, it was the people of Liverpool who caught Dickens’ attention:

“One of the pleasantest things I have experienced here this time, is the manner in which I am stopped in the streets by working men, who want to shake hands with me, and tell me they know my books. I never go out but this happens. Down at the docks just now, a cooper with a fearful stutter presented himself in this way. His modesty, combined with a conviction that if he were in earnest I would see it and wouldn’t repel him, made up as true a piece of natural politeness as I ever saw.”

In these encounters we can see the raw material which Dickens relied upon for his brilliant novels.

He had extraordinary powers of observation and plundered his encounters – with the genius to transform everything he observed into both a cracking yarn and a transformative manifesto for social and personal change.

He shines his light onto the dark world of London pick pockets and child sweeps; onto the harrowing affliction caused by shocking poverty; into the horrific recesses of the work house or the orphanage. He takes us to industrialised squalor and brutalised school rooms; and introduces us to the regret of lives wasted or badly lived.

Recall the anguish of Mrs.Gradgrind, on her death bed and at last realising that obsessive functionalism and utility in the upbringing of her children had robbed them of the one thing which might have made a difference: tender hearted parental love .

If Dickens walked our streets today he would not regard our financial difficulties as the hardest of times. But he would see a different sort of poverty and many of his themes have a contemporary cutting edge and relevance.

Among the 800,000 children who have no contact with their fathers, or the 1 million elderly people who don’t see a friend or a neighbour in the course of an average week, he would surely find characters to illustrate lives of rejection, toxic loneliness, and alienation. Among trafficked children he would discover many a David Copperfield; a girl’s life ruined as she is drawn into prostitution; or an innocent child abused. And, in our heavily indebted nation, he would encounter today’s Mr.Micawbers still waiting for something to turn up.

Dickens would also be on the lookout for the prisoner who comes good, the addict who beats their addiction and starts again, the wealthy philanthropist who uses his resources to change lives, or the Little Tim whose affliction challenges the hardest of hearts.

Dickens was a man of faith who lived at a time when Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was challenging the way in which religion and new scientific discovery viewed one another.

Writing in a recent edition of Nature magazine, Professor Alice Jenkins says that Dickens held that science could do immense good but only when it worked in harmony with religion. Dickens was completely unfazed by the new theories and discoveries.

A Protestant by background Dickens chose not to affiliate to any denomination.

In the same year that he spoke in Liverpool he made a speech at the Birmingham and Midland Institute where he speculated that although Jesus could have chosen to reveal scientific truths and the “wonders on every hand” he would have seen no purpose in doing so as “the people of that time could not bear them.” Jenkins quotes the Victorian geologist, Adam Sedgwick, that if science caused “the imagination, the feelings” to be “blunted and impaired” then human beings would become “little better than a moral sepulchre.”

Dickens fundamental belief was that scientific knowledge should not be Godless and that it has to be attached to feelings and imagination and that every human being is made in God’s image and should be given the human dignity which this belief accords.