Like many I am a list maker. The weekly jobs to do list, with a growing number of lines through tasks accomplished brings a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Luminous post-it notes attached to various scripts and piles of paper contain memos and reminders of what still needs to be done, and there is the birthday list, sacredly viewed each Sunday evening before the card writing exercise begins. Currently I am working my way through the Easter card list, facing the dilemma of which to work from: the shorter 2020 received card list or the lengthier list of 2019 from our ‘normal’ Paschal festival that year. A new list is the one I now take with me to the supermarket each Friday. It is a “Do Not Need List”! And contains several items. In a spirit of Lenten observance I am attempting to purge myself of being led into temptation. The tempter luring me into making purchases that I do not need wears the colourful apparel of labels purporting special offers and irresistible bargains attached to various products stacked on the rows of shelves. Simple mathematics and a canny Yorkshire nature lead me to put more tins, packets and containers into the trolley than I need, but I justify such moments by telling myself that they have long lasting best before dates and will come in useful at some time. Further justifying my liberal behavior is the genuine and real concern that should I need to isolate I would need at least ten days’ food to access, the easier to prepare the better in the household of a single person. Pantry-less, the size of my forays were not initially apparent; a couple of tins in this cupboard, a number of packets here or there. Then, with more radiance than the flash of light that knocked St. Paul from his horse, I realized that the tins of soup, had become a lake, and the packets of breakfast cereal resembled a mountain, not to mention the tubes of toothpaste, which could have cleaned the teeth of a river full of alligators, nor the boxes of tissues which equated to a small forest. These latter items resident in discreet upstairs recesses ! With the dawn of reality the lake is slowly emptying, God’s generous provision of allowing me to break-fast each day means that the mountain has reduced to a localized hill, and as for the toothpaste and tissues, their longevity may take me into retirement!
Already into its eightieth year is a radio programme which is based around a list. Desert Island Discs was first broadcast in January 1942 by the BBC on its Forces Programme. Each week since then a guest has been invited to provide eight recordings, predominately, but not always of music, a book and an inanimate luxury item that they would take with them if marooned on a deserted island. It is a simple concept that has proven to have captured the heart of the nation, and now a global audience of listeners. The gentle, non-confrontational format and one imagines a safe, comfortable and evocatively coaxing environment of which the interviewee remains in control through what they have literally brought to the turn-table, provides listeners with a great insight into the individual sharing their personal choices. Removed from bright lights, camera calls and the artificiality of their public face, the castaway is one human being in conversation with another, sharing the story of who they are. The Complete Works of Shakespeare and either a Bible or another appropriate faith-based or philosophical work are gifted to the castaway, who is then invited to select a third book to accompany them. In the case of castaway and national treasure Dame Judi Dench, who suffers from macular degeneration, an audiobook was allowed, rather than a printed edition. The luxury item must be of no use in escaping from the imaginary island or allowing communication from the outside world. A piano is one of the most requested items, although famously, one-time host, Sue Lawley, conceded to John Cleese’s request to take Michael Palin with him, provided that he was dead and stuffed ! At least two castaways have provided a feast of music from their personal store-cupboard of recordings, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Dame Moura Lympany, who offered seven and eight delights of their own talent, vocal and piano respectively.
The drafting of such a list of soundtracks to the unfolding events of life’s tapestry, enriched and enhanced with personal insights and stories, is a fabulous legacy-making experience. Whilst we may think that limiting or squeezing our musical choices into just eight tracks is virtually an impossible task, if we set our minds to the quality and depth of the exercise the opposite might well be true. That we struggle to find eight pieces together with their stories of significance. My own paltry attempt at making such a list throws just four recordings on to the turntable of my mind. In no apparent order these would be Mario Lanza’s rendition of “O, Holy Night”, for reasons spoken of in recent musings, Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy”, Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly” and something rather sentimental from the repertoire of the Fureys and Davey Arthur. The second of these holds two-fold reminiscence for me from the halcyon days of my earliest memories. Brought up by a mother who sang a variety of songs from musicals as she did various jobs around the house, whenever I hear the opening bars of the song, I am transported back to the rooms of our family home and can see a woman contented and happy carrying out the necessary jobs of domestic life with diligence, skill, pride and panache. Tammy was also the name of my great-aunt’s wire-haired fox terrier who on my arrival into her world immediately adopted me, forsaking all others in an inseparable bond of companionship which was to last for a decade. An experience and sentiment expressed by TV presenter Nicky Campbell in his recent book, “One of the Family – why a dog called Maxwell changed my life.”
As for “Hello, Dolly,” it was the record requested by a very young Nicholas Hird of Otley for his great-aunt Dolly’s birthday on, what was then a very infant local radio station, called BBC Radio Leeds. A song conjuring up very happy memories of an incredibly gifted, inspirational and loving lady who graced the life of our small family unit, whose presence and spirit is immediately evoked today in the rare waft of cigarette smoke, highlighting carefree days of over forty years ago. Rolling the clock forward almost two decades, my parents wrote into BBC Radio 2 to ask for a similar birthday request when I turned twenty-one. As I’d recently been to a Fureys and Davey Arthur concert in Dublin a song from them was asked for, and Ken Bruce (still broadcasting all these years later, and who recently turned seventy himself) kindly obliged.
Whilst uncertain that anyone is currently looking for further Lockdown projects as many are beginning to see the bright and luring light of better days ahead – I am personally hesitant to use the words ‘return to normality’ – hopefully the compiling of a soundtrack to accompany stories of a life journey will be something that some may consider or even do. Lockdown has offered many a test of how well they actually know themselves, the people they share a roof with, or others who populate our lives in work, leisure or even spiritual spaces. In some cases there continues to be admiration and surprise in how some have dealt with a brand new set of guidelines by which to live their lives, displaying incredible versatility, adaptability, inner strength, resilience, determination and endurance, a quality of faith and willingness to comply to what is being asked. For others, even those on whose rock-solid foundations of exposed humanity we have come to rely, and in many instances take for granted, their strategy and coping mechanisms, endurance, stamina, optimism and confidence have disintegrated and vanished with unbelievable rapidity, revealing a very fragile base.
In the months and years ahead many, if not all of us, will need to engage in the gentle and patient process of reconstruction of ourselves and others, not necessarily those who shout the loudest or whose damage is as obvious as that on an item repaired under the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Like Rome we will not be repaired, rebuilt or reconstructed quickly or with speed, it will be a time consuming process, especially for those who have grown used to a shrunken world environment, limited communication, and a less populated and tactile family and social circle. The telling of and the means by which we convey the story of who we are, as well its reception and acceptance by others, is an all too often overlooked and deprived treasure as we journey through life. Perhaps the next time we hear someone say “I remember when …“, or notice a foot marking the beat of a some random soundtrack to a TV advert, or even see a loved one sashaying across the kitchen floor or having a quiet dance with an unseen, but imaged, partner, we can recognize the fact that a sacred, miraculous moment is unfolding before our eyes. A part of the story of someone else’s life is being transmitted. A gentle prompt through music, a story, image or item has brought to birth a form of transmission of some of the people, places, and experiences that have made an individual who they are. A growing awareness of this will ensure that before we have reached our own sell by date we may well have cultured an understanding that some of the lists we make in reality are as flimsy and valueless as the scraps of paper on which they are written. Lent offers us an opportunity to compose a “Needs List” and also a “Do Not Need List”. The former may be easier to satisfy and reclaim than we imagine as they may already be housed within us as pre-existing treasures, skills and virtues that have remained untapped, long-unused, and become dust-wrapped through neglect.
Perhaps our Lent “Needs List” should be headed with a desire to get to know ourselves better. Always a good starting point ! Next, a desire and determination to discover more about those who populate our world in the guise of family members, friends, and colleagues at work or in shared leisure spaces. Asking them to share their desert island playlist with you may be the key to Pandora’s Box, also revealing the luxury item that they would take to the deserted island location and the book that would accompany them to be read beneath daily unfolding blue and cloudless skies.
As for the “Do Not Need List,” I suspect that for many of us this will be a work in progress with the passage of time, not to mention a Lenten trim here and there, as we come to value, appreciate and treasure afresh so much of that previously treated as the ordinary, everyday, ever-present, taken for granted and overlooked in our single-minded drive for more. The Lockdown reality is that so much of what we’ve craved, desired, wanted, and felt that we needed or could not live without is already ours in the gift-wrap of the most familiar to us – people, experiences, memories and the odd item.
From one ‘castaway’ to others, I wish you a contented, happy and above all healthy week ahead. With an assurance of prayerful affection, Fr. Nicholas.