About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Girl on the Train

She started the conversation. The train was pulling out of Newcastle Central Station. It was crowded. At the last minute, a teenage girl got on and sat down next to me. As we gathered speed across the King Edward VII Bridge, she looked out across the Tyne and suddenly asked, "What makes the bridge stay up? What stops us tumbling into the river below?" 

I answered that Edward VII is a girder bridge and tried to explain how it works. And since we were crossing the Tyne, I mentioned suspension and cantilever bridges too and was glad that she didn't ask me to elaborate. Then she got her earphones out and started listening to her music. I went back to my book. 

But I'd already noticed that the device on the table in front of her was not a smart phone or tablet, but an old-fashioned CD Walkman ("Discman"). What memories that silvery saucer-sized disc brought back. How retro!  How 1990s! I'd no idea anyone still used them, least of all hi-tech-habituated teenagers. Emboldened by her curiosity about bridges, I indulged mine about her technology. "I used to have an iPhone" she said. "But I lost it. And I realised that I didn't need all this digital connectivity. I want to feel and touch life for what it is, not through a screen. All I need is a simple player for music and a basic phone for emergencies." I asked her what she was listening to. John Lennon, she replied. "I'd love to have been alive in the Sixties. People seemed kinder then than they are now."

Already nostalgic at the tender age of - what? sixteen? It sounded like a cue to reminisce for half an hour. But (to her credit) she didn't give me time to get going. She began to tell me about her ambitions in life. "I want to be a free spirit" she said, "I want to travel, see the world, enjoy myself, find out who I am. I want to experience the beauty of nature and the beauty human beings have made. The trouble is, my education isn't feeling like a preparation for really entering into life at its fullest. There are so many rules and obligations, so many oughts and shoulds, hoops I have to jump through, hurdles to stagger over. So who knows what will become of me? Anyway, the world is such an uncertain place. Anything can happen."

That was quite a speech. But as if awkward about having disclosed a little of herself to a stranger, she turned to me. "What do you do?" she inquired, winsomely imagining that I was nowhere near superannuation. The young are not always very accurate when it comes to judging age. "I used to be the Dean at Durham Cathedral" I answered. "I'm a priest." "Wow!" She exclaimed. She thought for a moment. The first part of my reply was proving a bit easier for her to get her head around than the second. "I love Durham Cathedral" she said. "I've been there several times. Didn't they film Harry Potter there?" (But then she admitted coyly that she'd not actually seen the Potter films.) She was in full flow now. "I love ancient places. I want to see the Pyramids one day. Can you go inside them? They're burial places, aren't they? I'd like to be buried in my very own pyramid." And why not, I thought. Go for it.

Back to her music and my book. But not for long. "I went to Beamish the other day" she announced. "All that old technology - the coal mine, the trams, the old shops, the chapel, the cobbles, the steam engine - what a wonderful world it must have been when everything was like that. It's why I'm not interested in the digital world. The old world feels more honest, somehow. You can see it, touch it, feel its solidity and toughness." I told her about Flying Scotsman that not many days before had been running over the very rails we were hastening along. She didn't seem to have heard of the legendary locomotive but was excited at the thought of it. I almost recommended her to google it and see it for herself but realised that for her this was very definitely not the thing to say. 

When it was time to get off at my stop, I found myself saying: "It's been a lovely conversation. Thank you. Don't let anyone ever take away from you your vision of life, the beautiful way in which you see and talk about the world. Keep the dream alive and live it. Yes," I admitted, I hope not too portentously, "this is a priest talking of course, so I would say this; but what matters is that people see visions and dream dreams. There is so much cruelty and wrong all around us. But if you can somehow not lose your hope, the vision you've caught of the goodness of things, you'll not only be a richer person in yourself but also a real gift to others. And I hope that your education, rather than being an ordeal that gets in the way, can be an important part of that journey you're making." 

I doubt the girl on the train (what else can I call her?) would welcome the epithet rapturous. Joyous maybe, or hope-filled or innocent or wholesome. Or all of them. How do I put this without sentimentality? For without a trace of self-consciousness, she seemed to echo the glowing vision of William Blake's art and poetry allied to the belief of John Ruskin and William Morris that there must be a fundamental honesty in the character and quality, the craft and the tools of living. There needs to be simplicity, what Jesus calls purity of heart. Above all, life must be experienced directly, face to face if we are to be fully human. There's time enough for her to learn that the old technology she admired was itself new and cutting edge once, that it was as much mistrusted in its own time as she mistrusts today's. 

And that goes even for her beloved Discman and Nokia brick phone. There's time enough for her to gain a historical perspective that will put things in their place. But she was reminding me that the new technologies, for all the good that they can bring us, need to be used with awareness, with, if you like, Blakean simplicity and purity of heart. We need to maintain a critical eye to our own integrity. We need to make good choices about the degree to which we become dependent on the powers we have created for ourselves. She will get there, of that I've no doubt. She's bright, and her instincts are sound.

I didn't say any of that of course. I was happy just to listen. The young can be wonderfully refreshing company, I've found as I've grown older. So the other thing I didn't say, but felt, was that this unlooked-for conversation with a teenager was a gift.  I've not been so touched by a chance encounter for a long time. Whoever she is, she shone another shaft of light on what had already been a good day. One of those "angels unawares"?


  1. I work in a large FE college in the North of England, in a small team offering safeguarding and welfare support to a large campus. Very often the things we face in the job, supporting the young people, are so very dark. Then, every so often we meet somebody like 'the girl on the train' and they give us amazing moments of inspiration to continue our job. That warm feeling inside, that joyous feeling that you felt, that through them the world is still full of hope, dreams, innocence and belief in something better for everyone. This is a lovely blog. Thank you

  2. Yes, this is precisely how I felt. You put it beautifully. Thank you for all that you do for our young people.

  3. I should be giving you a thumbs-up "like" for this account!

  4. I was sitting on the train and I was trying to listen to my audible book and I heard this beautiful conversation. When I arrived home I discussed this positive experience with my husband and we looked up Durham Cathedral Deans and found your blog. Thank you for this inspiring conversation, Amanda.

  5. Thank you Amanda! I'm touched by your comment. And amazed that you tracked me down in cyberspace!