Words and Music with Terry Waite
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Mark organised a small fundraising event for Emmaus UK some years ago, whilst in prison. Terry Waite CBE, President of the charity, invited Mark to curate an afternoon of ‘Words and Music’ with him, reflecting upon a selection of moving poems from his new book, ‘Out of the Silence‘.
We’ve chosen a few moments from that memorable occasion to share with you. Mark performs a short piece of classical music on the violin or piano after each of Terry’s readings. Listening is free, but you’re welcome to make a small donation to Emmaus UK should you wish.
Emmaus is a charity that works to end homelessness by providing people with accommodation in an Emmaus community where they can engage in meaningful work. Residents produce goods and products which are then sold to the local community.
There over 30 Emmaus communities spread across the UK, supporting more than 800 formerly homeless people. In exchange for 40 hours a week and abstaining from drink and drugs, Emmaus companions get a room of their own, food, and clothing, and a small weekly allowance. They also accept applications from prisoners looking for somewhere to stay upon their release.
It’s a great pleasure to welcome Terry Waite, and also, as great a pleasure to welcome Mark – now where is he gone? [laughter] Oh, you’re there! Mark spends a little more time here than Terry, but nonetheless. We’re so grateful to Terry for the suggestion. Mark, I know you’ve been practicing hard, and we’re really looking forward to what you’re going to do. Terry is going to read some of his poetry and I dare say, say one or two things, so without further ado I will hand straight over to Terry, Terry you’re very welcome. [clapping]
Well thank you for your welcome. This afternoon really gives us an opportunity to stand apart from the normal routine of life, and to spend time together around words and music. A word of explanation to begin with. Many of you will know I spent, myself, almost five years in very strict solitary confinement. Initially I was kept underground in a tiled cell, a cell in which I couldn’t stand up in and had no communication with anyone. I would later moved to other places, but always they were very primitive, I was sleeping on the floor, I was chained for 23 hours and 50 minutes a day to the wall; I had no books or papers for many years, over 3 years; and no conversation of any significance with anybody for almost 5 years.
It was a situation of extreme deprivation, and in that situation of course I wondered if I would begin to lose my reason. If I would go crazy, because I’d read that people who’d had long periods of time in solitary in fact had lost their reason. And I realised that one way of combating that, of trying to stay together, was by using my brain, and using my memory, and somehow keeping my brain alive. And I began to write in my head, I had no pencil or paper, only twice in the whole experience did I have pencil and paper. And eventually, the book that I did write in my head was published, and some of the readings from another book ‘Out of the Silence’ that I wrote, I’m going to share with you today.
I’ll talk a little bit about each one and how it had its beginnings, where it came from, and we’re going to relate that to music. You’ll note, if you look at the programme, a number of the pieces that have been written have stemmed from situations of extreme difficulty. Chopin, and others, went through periods in their lives when they went through experiences that could easily have destroyed them. And somehow they found expression in music. I’ve often said to myself that good music, like good language, has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul and enable us to find some degree of inner harmony. Many of the works you’ll hear today stem from situations where the composers were struggling with themselves, trying to find that degree of inner calm or peace, or to express something that they couldn’t express in words.
So another way that I sort escape from that situation was in dream. My dreams provided me with an escape from the hardness and harshness of the day.
So the first poem, about dreams. Fortunately, my dreams were not nightmares, they were different:
In the years spent alone,
I lived from within.
Awake and asleep,
I walked a land of dreams, memories, reflections.
Chains held my body,
My eyes were cloaked from human encounter,
I retreated within.
No chains held my dreams,
I saw the blue, blue sky,
The raging ocean,
I crossed the parched desert.
No boundary in the world of dream,
No crying for freedom.
Liberty was mine, boundless liberty,
In this open land of dreams.
Freedom was in dream.
In memory, new chains held,
self-imposed chains, chains to prevent hurt.
I saw my family, my friends, those whom I loved,
and consciously, I let them fade,
to ease the pain of separation.
Do I still live from deep within?
Does the wall erected by my captors remain?
Now I may touch another,
feel the wind on my face,
the earth beneath my feet.
Now, I walk freely, with care.
Deep within, there is a private place,
open only to the ones I love and trust.
The key is yours, my love,
The key is yours.
Footsteps in the Corridor
When I was first captured, I was very angry. My captors had promised me that I would have safe conduct to visit someone who was about to die. I was at the time negotiating for the release of hostages, and I debated with myself whether or not to go. I decided that I would. Don’t think that I am full of altruism, that means always doing good for people, I think when you do something for other people, consciously or unconsciously you’re doing something for yourself. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that, I think it’s just good to know it. My feelings were, as follows, ‘If that man dies and I’ve not had the courage of my conviction to go and see him, then I’m going to have to live with my conscience for the rest of my life’. And I thought ‘No, I must go’. Well, to cut a long story short, instead of being taken to see the person, I was put in that underground cell. I was very angry, angry with my captors, and angry with myself for taking such a risk. The following poem expresses just a little of that.
Anger rages like a consuming fire,
destroying all that would impede its relentless pathway.
Do not extinguish the flames totally,
calm them by the gentle glow of the embers.
What I’m really saying there is that anger is a force within all of us, we all experience it from time to time. If anger gets the better of us, clearly it does us more harm than against those whom its held, and will eventually destroy. And yet, it’s a force to come to terms with. You can’t get rid of it completely, but take it, and try and use it creatively. Calm yourself by the gently glow of the embers, and use the power that is there to be more constructive.
My captors assumed wrongly that I was an agent of a foreign power. They tried in the first year to extract information from me that I did not have, and could never have had. Part of that involved physical torture. Let me read you a little about that.
Footsteps in the Corridor
They came at night,
Footsteps in the corridor,
A key turning as fear rips my stomach.
I lie still on the floor,
Blindfolded, sheltering beneath my thin blanket,
seeking what scrap of protection I could find.
The command echoes round the cell like a shot from a pistol,
Chains tug at my limbs as I struggle to obey,
My wrists and feet are seized as locks are removed.
I stumble to my feet.
What is happening?
Why at this hour do they come?
Can this be release?
Do I stand on the brink of freedom?
My arms are gripped as we move out of the cell into the unknown.
I crouch and sit.
I lie on my back.
The room falls silent.
‘What you say?’
Now I understand.
Another bout of questioning,
Another seeking for answers I cannot give.
There are many in the room,
I hear laughter,
Words uttered in a whisper,
Words I cannot understand.
‘What you say?’
The voice is louder, insistent,
‘Nothing’ I reply, ‘nothing’.
Something lands of my face, a pillow perhaps,
I struggle to breathe as the pillow is held down,
‘What you say?’
Someone holds my legs,
Now my fear increases,
The room falls silent.
Suddenly a searing pain convulses my body,
My feet are burning as blow after blow is struck with cable.
‘What you say? What you say?’
I cry into the covering,
‘Oh God, let this pain cease’
What manner of person can treat another human being to such indignity and pain?
Arms lift me to my feet and drag me back into chains.
Back into the night.
Back into a living death.
A Hidden Place
Those two pieces there, the Mozart ‘Fantastie in D minor‘ and Beethoven ‘Sonata in G‘, both had very difficult experiences – in childhood in respect of Mozart – while Beethoven in his later life became deaf. That was a terrible time for him, because as a composer and a musician, suddenly to find that you’re losing your hearing. I remember talking to someone who in the classical world was quite a famous singer in his day, Benjamin Luxon, who came from Cornwall. He was a singer and I met him at a time when he was just beginning to lose his hearing, and he was so depressed by that. And yet, somehow, again, they managed to turn the experience to something that was creative.
There are many people like Mozart who’ve had really troubled times in their past, troubled childhoods. I was fortunate myself not to have a troubled childhood, but there are so many – as you will be aware having met many people yourselves – people who’ve been rejected from the very earliest days, and felt rejected right across life: rejected by their family, if they’ve had one; rejected by society, and cast to one side as being worthless. It’s quite a common experience for far too many people.
And somehow, that can be redeemed, and can be turned around, if people can somehow find a relationship with others that enables them to at least feel something of love in their lives. Because, whatever you may say, love is something that really can and does transform. It’s not just something sentimental and sugary, it’s something that’s really powerful. This is called:
‘A Hidden Place’
Within my soul,
Lies a hidden place,
A place of longing,
Longing to be free from hurt,
and from that which would destroy.
there is a wound,
always protected and guarded from all,
except those who carry within their own pain.
in the mystery of unconscious life,
I know the secret you.
I know your inner longing,
your inner pain.
For one brief moment,
and then we are gone.
The encounter reveals my incompleteness,
my fragile existence.
and touch the hem of wholeness.
Terry shines the spotlight on the prevailing issue of homelessness, and the work of the charity he helped found, Emmaus UK.
My own father was made homeless as quite a young man. His father and mother were parents at the time of the depression and the family business failed. He had to go away from home to try and find work and found himself homeless for a couple of years I think. He didn’t speak much about it, but it was an experience that did mark him across his life.
When I came out of captivity, I was asked if I would help start an organisation for the homeless is this country called Emmaus, an organisation that enables homeless people to have a place to live, get back into work, get back into life. As you appreciate, it’s often once you’ve dropped out of life, exceptionally difficult to get back into the mainstream not matter how hard you try. People need proper support for that.
And so the organisation was founded, I opened the first community in Cambridge a number of years ago. We now have 30 communities across the country and we’re opening more as the days go by, but the need is still there are still far, far too many homeless people.
I wrote a short poem about homelessness, and this is a visit I made to homeless shelter, not an Emmaus community but a place where you can go and get a cup of tea or a meal, but there is no overnight accommodation – you’re turned out at the end of the day – which is really quite an unsatisfactory way of dealing with the problem, but it fulfills a certain need.
Words elude me,
I search for words that will capture the depth of my feeling,
That will hold within their shape the pictures in my mind,
and preserve them until the page fades and dies as I shall die.
I see faces,
Eyes that once sparkled with the innocence of childhood,
Eyes that once held promise.
Eyes now dulled by the bitterness of life.
The room is full of faces,
They look at me quizzically,
Each face holds a story of a life that meanders aimlessly along grimy streets,
Seeking scraps of meaning amongst the dereliction of the city.
I sit on the rough bench with my ragged companions.
the wistful smile of souls condemned ever to wander,
Lost in the wilderness of mortal time,
Waiting for that day, that hour,
When the flickering light will be no more.
My neighbour meticulously packs scraps of food into a plastic package,
her head remains bowed.
The beauty of her face enhanced by sadness,
Carries within it a lifetime of suffering.
A voice from across the table addresses me,
“She’s blind you know”.
Copyright in these poems belongs to © Terry Waite CBE, ‘Out of the Silence’, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 2016.