Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Saying goodbye to Lionel Blue

As a young man in my first job, I suffered from the same problem as many my age: I found getting up in the mornings a terrible pain.

I invested in a radio clock. It was tuned to BBC Radio 4 and set to come on at 7:00 if I was feeling virtuous, 7:15 if I was feeling tired, which was more often the case. Either way, I wouldn’t get up but remained in bed, marginally awake, vaguely aware of the Today programme telling more all the latest ghastly happenings around the world. Just as it does still.

It was only at ten to eight that I would finally spring to life. Why? Because that was when ‘Thought for the Day’ came on, the Today programme’s five-minute nod to religion, when someone speaking for one or other of the many faiths, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or any other, gave us a snippet of holy thought designed to inspire and uplift. I found the tone sanctimonious and altogether far to forcedly cheery for the time of day, and from complete inertia I would leap into action and across the room to turn off the radio.

It amazes me still that I was somehow able, day after day, to be up, semi-washed, fully shaved, dressed and on the train to work at 8:12, even though the station was ten minutes walk away. Or, as I frequently discovered, a five-minute run.

Many years later, I found myself doing a great deal of driving for work. That meant listening to a lot of radio and, since I couldn’t be bothered to turn it off for five minutes, that included ‘Thought for the Day’. Little by little I came to appreciate it more: even if the speakers were sometimes immensely irritating for their obviously self-conscious wisdom, the wisdom itself was (occasionally) real.

No one, though, was as enlightening and also entertaining as Rabbi Lionel Blue. Every ‘Thought for the Day’ I heard of his was a joy and often insightful.

Lionel Blue, 1930-2016
He'll be missed
The one that sticks in my mind told two contrasting stories.

Blue was a hospital visitor, taking religious consolation to the sick and dying. Visiting one terminally ill man, he was struck by the attractive woman sitting in a waiting room near his ward. Told that his wife was with the patient, Blue took a seat near her. A little while later, the wife appeared and went up to the woman who had impressed him.

“You can go in now,” she said.

Blue later learned that she was the mistress, and the wife was leaving her a moment to say goodbye to her dying lover.

The other story concerned a funeral he attended in Paris. A wealthy middle class family was burying a son who’d died of Aids. There were many mourners in attendance, but one was conspicuous for his absence: the young man’s gay lover, in whose arms he had died, forbidden by the family from attending the burial.

For Blue, the first instance was a clear breach of all conventional morality, but in his view it was infused with love. The second conformed entirely to standard behaviour but, he felt, was untouched by love. He was well-placed to judge, as the first openly gay Rabbi in Britain, and a man who had suffered for his homosexuality as a young man. To my surprise, he once said, my 70s are nicer than my 60s and my 60s than my 50s, and I wouldn't wish my teens and twenties on my enemies.

To Blue, God was present in the first encounter, absent from the second.

That attitude sums up blue. Religion was a matter of love and of consolation, not of blind application of cold, inhumane regulation. It was something human, that spanned religions – he was closely acquainted with Christianity and no stranger to churches – and felt that faith was inherently bound into daily life. As he said:

Praying privately in churches, I began to discover that heaven was my true home and also that it was here and now, woven into this life.

It must be no surprise that a man of such attitudes was as much a friend of laughter as he was of love. He would end every ‘Thought for the Day’ with a joke. 

He died on 19 December, sadly impoverishing the legions of those who favour tolerance and moderation, at a time when we need them more than ever. So, in tribute to him, let me end with a similar joke, though not one I think he told.

A man climbs a hill to commune with God.

“Lord,” he says, “what is a million years to you?”

“A minute,” replies the Lord.

“And how about a million pounds?”

“A penny.”

“Could you give me a penny, Lord?”

“Certainly. In a minute.”

Best wishes to you, Rabbi Blue, and all our gratitude for the gentle kindness you gave us in a life well-lived.


Anonymous said...

I also used to listen to him and consider.

David Beeson said...

Yes. He was always fun. And insightful.

Awoogamuffin said...

Hmm, well church without doctrine just become making it up as you go along (like the rest of us). I think there's a personality type that feels the need for some cold, hard laws that need following, be it at the expense of their loved ones.

David Beeson said...

Lionel Blue and his successors can cater for the rest of us...