Friday, 1 January 2016

2016 comes in with a roar
and ‘the deep sea swell’

2016 came in with a roar at Rush Harbour, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.


— TS Eliot, ‘Death by Water’ ( The Waste Land)

‘Death by Water’ is the shortest section of TS Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, yet its short ten lines comprise the most organised and structured of the five sections of the poem. Here the language is formal and structured, as if it were a parable with old, wise truths about pride that is being retold.

These 10 lines tell the tale of Phlebas the Phoenician, who was killed by water and has been dead for two weeks.

When Eliot says that the dead Phlebas “Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell And the profit and loss,” he suggests that the now-dead Phlebas no longer worries about worldly things such as banking and money-making.

But he is dead far longer than a fortnight, for his dead bones get picked clean by a current under the sea. As he entered the whirlpool, his whole life seemed to pass before him, from his youth through to this adult years. Perhaps he is trying to make sense of his life only after to find it is too late to do anything about it.

Is it only when we find ourselves on the edge or on the brink of death that we finally take stock of our lives and think deeply about the meaning of life? Is it only then that we find how shallow we have been?

Phlebas, “who was once handsome and tall as you” is a cautionary figure for anyone who walks around thinking I am awesome and unsinkable.

‘The cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell’ … darkness falls on the sea swell in Rush this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

New Year’s Day is a good day to realise how we all stand on the edge, on the brink, and to take stock of the life that has passed before us, to make sense of it, and to realise that we all stand on the brink.

These thoughts came to mind this afternoon as I stood on the pier in Rush in north Co Dublin and looked windward, watching the waves from the south-east break against the seawall of the small fishing harbour and against the tiny cove of the beach. It was my first beach walk of the New Year.

There is an old proverb about March that says: “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” Of course, when March starts it is still winter, and by the end of the month spring has begun.

But 2016 has come in like a lion this good year, and there is no prospect of the winter storms being tamed over the next few days.

There was no sunset to see this evening, and darkness fell suddenly on Rush before we left and drove on towards Skerries. There, the tide was in at the harbour, and although the harbour waters looked deceptively calm, it was soon clear that this was merely a deceit in the dark. On the other side of Red Island, the stormy waves were battering the South Strand, and even in the dark evening, looking out to sea, it was possible to see the white foam of the waves for long stretches.

High tide and the swollen sea in Skerries this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

New Year’s honour recognises
work with refugees in Greece

Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, the Senior Anglican Chaplain in Athens

Patrick Comerford

Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, the Senior Anglican Chaplain in Athens, has been made an MBE in the British New Year’s Honours List.

Bishop David Hamid of the Diocese in Europe says this “is a most fitting award recognising Father Malcolm’s outstanding achievements and extraordinary service, particularly during this time of financial hardship facing the Greek people and the huge numbers of refugees arriving in Greece and transiting through the country.

Writing on his blog yesterday, Bishop David said: “Father Malcolm has been instrumental in bringing together Churches and other groups to work together to address these challenges.”

When Bishop David spoke to Father Malcolm on the telephone to congratulate him, he said humbly: “But none of this could have been achieved without the collaboration and co=operation of others.”

“That is true, of course,” said Bishop David, “but it was Malcolm’s drive, passion and vision that harnessed this collaboration. For that, this honour is most fitting.”

The official citation reads:

“Rev Canon Malcolm McNeille Bradshaw, Senior Chaplain, Anglican Church in Greece. For services to interfaith understanding and community charities in Greece.”

Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Father Malcolm Bradshaw spoke at a special meeting organised by the Anglican mission agency Us (the new name for USPG) when the General Synod of the Church of England met in November 2015.

At the meeting, organised to discuss the refugee crisis in Europe, he said:

I want you to imagine that last night you were on the Turkish coast. You would have been one of over 5,000 people, largely from Syria, awaiting a dinghy onto which will be crowded something like 50 people, 40 per cent of those will be women and children.

And then you’ll set off. You’ll set off at night time because you do not want to be tracked down by whoever is floating around in the Aegean Sea during the daytime, to be able to get across to one of the Greek islands. One of the closest of these islands is Lesbos. It’s a 12 km journey.

You will have nobody on that dinghy who has experience of the sea. Somebody will take hold of the tiller and will head towards a lighthouse, a lighthouse on Lesbos. But the lighthouse is a warning sign that this is a dangerous coastline, and yet it’s that lighthouse that you’re drawn to.

So you arrive at the lighthouse at Lesbos, faced with a very rocky terrain, one where ropes may be needed to get down to the coastline. The possibility is that your dinghy will be slashed by the rocks and there will be a scramble to get off the boat. In the course of that scramble there are going to be some, women and children largely, who are going to lose their lives.

This happened last night, and it happens every night. Of late, five thousand have been travelling across to the Greek islands. If you arrive at Lesbos then you will find that you are already on a crowded island. At present, there are facilities to care for 2,500 people, but you’ll find that you’re just one of 6,000 refugees on the island. And the facilities for caring for 6,000, though improving, are limited. And last Saturday you would have been one among 20,000 because of a ferry strike. Just basic facilities for feeding, hygiene, and clothing to provide a change for the wet clothes you’re in, exist but in very limited form.

That’s the island of Lesbos. There are the other Greek islands too which are receiving regularly each night refugees from Turkey. The journeys are provided by the smugglers. You’re paying over €1,000 per person to be on one of those dinghies. Once you’re on the island you’re join not only fellow refugees but also the local Greek indigenous population which is itself in crisis – there’s austerity, and there’s going to be hunger on the streets of Greece this winter in a way that we’ve not known for years. In my own congregation there are those who are living on pensions that are now a third of what they used to be because of the austerity programme.

So you enter a country where you have a government that’s unable to care for its own population, let alone the size of the population that is now flooding into Greece. But the government has not responded to the refugee crisis. It has not set up the basic framework and structures that is needed – so the business of registering, of coming into Europe, is just a scramble. Many are registered yet there are some who become impatient and simply move on. And when there is a ferry strike and you can’t move on, then tensions build up between the refugees and the local community – 20,000 refugees on Lesbos, which has an indigenous population of 27,000!

So, having registered, you then get onto a ferry boat to head for the Greek mainland, which you pay for – the Syrians have got money, they can pay. And then once you arrive in Athens there’s buses galore, set up by the smugglers, to take you up to the northern border – that’s if you’re a Syrian. If you’re an Afghan, you don’t have the required money, so you make your way to Victoria Square in Athens. There’ll be guys down at the port who will say, ‘Can I help you?’

‘Yes, can you tell me how to get to Victoria Square?’

‘Ok, you give me €50 and I’ll tell you.’

All the Afghans need is a ticket costing €1.20 to get to Victoria Square!

Once at Victoria Square, there you’ll find the smugglers to the fore. What appear to be tourist agencies, forget it! These are the smugglers. And there the deals take place.

The use of a telephone is vital. Every Syrian has a good mobile because that is the only means whereby he can plot his route through. Social media is key – instant information about the route, what is happening, what to avoid, what is possible. He will also have numbers necessary for making contact with the smugglers. And four o’clock in the morning, from that square, a flood of buses leave to make their way up to the northern border.

Arriving at the northern border and what do you find? At this present moment you’re one of something like 3,600 people who are encamped – encamped is not the word for it – who are living in a field full of olive trees. And the European countries are now blocking the borders and only letting through what they consider to be genuine refugees – which are the Syrians and the Iraqis, and maybe some of the Afghans.

Anyone else is blocked at the border. And so we now have, in Greece, a growing population of refugees, migrants, whatever you want to call them, who cannot get beyond that border. And if they do get beyond that border they are being sent back to Greece. So I’ve met in Victoria Square Afghans who are crying because they’ve got up into central Europe but have been sent back because they’re not considered genuine refugees. What are they to do when they’re at the border, or when they’re back in Athens? Who is going to assist them to get back to their home countries – when the people themselves don’t want to go back to their home countries largely because of fear? They have already spent significant amounts of money to get this far and now to no avail.

So is Greece at the point where it will become the European refugee camp?

On the island of Samos, there’s an organisation called Medical Intervention we’ve given money to which can provide for 250 refugees, but they have 600. And that 600 are largely Afghans and they can’t move any further.

So is Greece now becoming the dumping ground for all those that cannot get beyond the borders - a country which has already got its own immense problems?

I’ve just been explaining something of the extremity of the situation that we’re facing. And it’s an extremity that doesn’t stop.

Last night 5,000 came in. And tonight, another 5,000. And the following night, another 5,000. Some predict that the winter months might lead to a slow down. As yet this has not proved true. At present there’s only the slightest indication that such a slowdown might happen.

These are people who are largely fleeing exactly the same people that have placed fear into the people of Paris, perhaps the people of London. It’s the same cause. And till now it is Syrians from within Syrian who are on the move not the two million who are in the refugee camps on the Syrian/Turkish border. Those within the camps have not as yet begun to stir - but they could. How are we to respond?

The Churches in Greece are trying to do their bit. It is very difficult because the government has not provided a comprehensive framework into which we can make our contribution. The government has basically said: ‘These refugees do not want to stay in Greece. The smugglers can do the job. Let the smugglers get them through the country. We’re not getting involved because we’ve got our own problems.’ The government will only get involved when a particular situation throws up a public outcry – or is highlighted by the international press. Otherwise they leave it to the smugglers. And the smugglers are totally in control of the movement of the refugees – no government is. The smugglers are the ones who are advertising to the Syrian: ‘We can do it! Give us the money and we’ll deliver you.’ There’s no government intervention on this. It’s the smugglers who are doing the running. They control the flow of migrants. There are stories that on the Turkish coastline do this at gun point harassing people to get into the dinghies. If one route into northern Europe is blocked the smugglers will find another. Governments are dancing on the side.

In all this, there is an attempt to respond to the situation. UNHCR is perhaps the only organisation that is providing some degree of cohesion to what is happening in Greece. We now have a flood of NGOs – we’ve got so many NGOs up in Lesbos that they’re tripping over each other, but there’s no co-ordination. So there’s a lot of duplication and a waste of resources. This is largely because the government won’t take up the issue. The government is appealing to the rest of Europe to take more of the Afghans that are stranded in Greece. It’s not receiving much of a response.

The churches in Athens have tried to come together to co-ordinate their efforts. We, as the Anglican Church in Athens, have been working with the migrants for the past six years. The Anglican chaplaincy and the Orthodox Church came together six years ago to provide a soup kitchen – we call it the ‘Church in the Street’ programme – and we have been providing 800 meals each day for the past six years, largely focused on the refugees. The strange thing is, we’re no longer feeding refugees, we’re now feeding the indigenous population in Athens because of the austerity. All that the refugees want is to be out of Athens and to travel north.

So, of late, the various churches – the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Greek Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, the Swedish Church, the German Evangelicals the Anglicans – have come together to co-ordinate our response and to be able to share the resources we have in responding to the crisis.

We’ve also been sent a consultant by Us – Max McClellan – who has proved his worth. He’s only with us for a month, but he brings a wisdom born out of his experience from UNHCR. He’s working very hard in making contact with all the agencies to assist us to know how to make a response.

And Anglican Churches on that route – through the western Balkans right up into Germany and beyond – are trying to make their response. The Anglican Church in Hungary made a substantial response, but now Hungary has closed its border. But, we have to remember that in the diocese there are other routes – there’s Italy, and there’s the Spanish route. So these are other regions where the Anglican congregations of the Diocese in Europe are trying to make a response.

What I would like to impress on you is the injustice that is happening here. Britain is implicated in this movement of refugees. Archbishop Rowan [Williams] was with His Beatitude Hieronymus, the Archbishop of Athens, some years ago, and His Beatitude turned to Archbishop Rowan and said: ‘We are a small and impoverished nation and yet we have to pick up the consequences resulting from decisions made by the big nations. We were not part of the decision making process but we pick up the consequences.’ He was referring to the United States’ and Britain’s involvement in Iraq – and where are those nations today to pick up the consequences of their decisions? Why is it being left to the impoverished nations, like Greece – faced with the consequences of decisions made by the United States and Britain, for good or for ill? There is an injustice here. And I believe Britain has a responsibility for the consequences of what it caused – whether the decision to go into Iraq was right or not – and I would like to see that reflected strongly in government policy.


On the island of Samos, Medical Intervention is working with hundreds of Afghan refugees (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Us International Programmes Manager, Davidson Solanki, reported from a recent trip to Athens, in Greece, where he observed refugees in shock, confusion on the ground, and hope that things can change:

In Victoria Square, Athens, migrants congregate having arrived from the Greek islands.

Here, we met many young people, young families, women and children who were tired, hungry, anxious and scared, and some of them were traumatised.

With the Salvation Army, we helped to distribute food, and we gave the children schoolbags containing stationery. Everyone had a huge smile, which was very satisfying to see.

I was in Athens to learn more about the situation, travelling with Father Malcolm Bradshaw from the Anglican Chaplaincy in Athens, Isobel Owen from the Anglican Alliance, and Max MacClellan, formerly of UNHCR.

We mostly met refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I talked to one young man who told me, in good English, that his journey from Afghanistan had taken him many days, travelling to Iran, to Turkey, to the Greek islands, and finally to Athens. Next, he planned to go to Austria or Germany, where he hoped to fulfil a vision to study and live a good life.

He and his friends told me that in Afghanistan extremist groups wanted them to join the conflict, the Jihadist movement, but they didn’t want to do this because it would be dangerous. They said their country was full of chaos and uncertainty, and that’s why they were running away.

Maria, of the Salvation Army, said we were there to bless him and his friends, and we prayed together that God would keep them safe. They were very thankful.

I found the people and the authorities in Greece to be in a kind of denial. First they told themselves the refugee crisis would not be coming to Greece, but it did. Now they think it’ll be a temporary situation, but it seems the crisis will continue for months. And if country borders north of Greece are closed, the migrants might be stuck indefinitely in Greece, where there is already a recession and great need. Athens is going to be in the eye of the storm. The government has set up a camp at the Olympic stadium, where around a thousand refugees are being provided with shelter, food, medicine and clothing. However, there were fears the local authorities might close this facility before Christmas.

So it is significant that the churches in Greece have agreed to work together. It is especially significant in the context of Greece, where the churches have not had a history of working together.

We met to discuss the matter in the UN offices in Athens. The atmosphere was positive and upbeat, with a genuine desire to work ecumenically.

The five churches in question are the Greek Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church in Athens, the Greek Evangelical Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Salvation Army.

Our aim is to work together to identify and fill in some of the gaps left by other aid operations.


Christmas with Vaughan Williams (9):
‘Hodie’, 14, ‘The March of the Three Kings

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by CE Kempe in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

During this Christmas season, I am inviting you to join me each morning in a series of Christmas meditations as I listen to the Christmas cantata Hodie (‘This Day’) by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), drawing on English Christmas poetry from diverse sources, including poems by John Milton, Thomas Hardy and George Herbert that reflect a variety of Christmas experiences, and the narration of the Nativity story in the Gospels.

Hodie, with its blend of mysticism, heavenly glory and human hope, was composed by Vaughan Williams in 1953-1954 and is his last major choral-orchestral composition.

Today is New Year’s Day [1 January 2016] and we have arrived at the start of the New Year. This morning, I invite you to join me in listening to the fourteenth movement of Hodie, which tells the story of the arrival of the Three Kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, in Bethlehem with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

14, The March of the Three Kings



The March of the Three Kings represents the first time since the beginning of this cantata that soloists, choir, and orchestra join together to sing a movement. The chorus introduces the march, and the text was written expressly for the composer by his wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911-2007). The linking of birth and death also has echoes of TS Eliot’s poem, Journey of the Magi.

Each of the soloists sings a separate verse, each describing one king and his gift, before joining together to finish the march.

From kingdoms of wisdom secret and far
come Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar;
they ride through time, they ride through night
led by the star’s foretelling light.

Crowning the skies the star of morning, star of dayspring, calls:
clear on the hilltop its sharp radiance falls
lighting the stable and the broken walls
where the prince lies.

Gold from the veins of earth he brings,
red gold to crown the King of Kings.
Power and glory here behold
shut in a talisman of gold.

Frankincense from those dark hands
was gathered in eastern, sunrise lands,
incense to burn both night and day
to bear the prayers a priest will say.

Myrrh is a bitter gift for the dead.
Birth but begins the path you tread;
your way is short, your days foretold
by myrrh, and frankincense and gold.

Return to kingdoms secret and far,
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar,
ride through the desert, retrace the night,
leaving the star’s imperial light.

Crowning the skies the star of morning, star of dayspring, calls:
clear on the hilltop its sharp radiance falls
lighting the stable and the broken walls
where the prince lies.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.