“London Diary 2” by Jimmy Burns OBE
- Posted by Cristina A-C
- On March 28, 2020
- Jimmy Burns
“London Diary 2” by Jimmy Burns OBE
Saturday 21 March
Listen to an inspiring poem entitled ‘Lockdown’ on BBC Radio 4 by Brother Richard Hendrick, an Irish Capuchin Franciscan which concludes with these lines.
Yes, there is even death but there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how you decide to live from now.
Today, breathe. Listen.
Behind the factory noises of your panic the birds are singing again.
The sky is clearing. Spring is coming and we are always encompassed by love.
Open the windows of your soul and, though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, sing.
Sunday 22nd March
Wake up to the dawn chorus (the early morning shattering of my sleep by the first of the day’s long haul flights on final descent towards Heathrow over our rooftops now suspended.) I thank nature for its melodious greeting of a new day-a sign of hope perhaps-as I’d gone to sleep worrying about the mounting death toll and our fragility. To my local corner shop owner Vinay, to pick up the papers.-Observer, El Pais. He is rearranging the shelves-less media, more essential supplies like biscuits and tins for some of his elderly customers.
It’s Mother’s day in the UK so pick up a card for my wife. It’s a colourful impressionistic image of a chaffinch perched on a tree in full leaf. I sign it : ‘With love to the Best Mum in the World.’
Keeping a social distance, we try as best as we can to have Mothering lunch with our daughters who live a short walk away. We do so knowing with sadness that it is the last such gathering we shall have for a while-such are the additional lock-down measures. But we keep our spirits up as best we can. One daughter has baked a vegan shepherd’s pie, the other has given her mother a bunch of tulips with a hand written message: “ Thanks for being such a great Mum, for always being there, for standing by us.”
We share childhood memories. We dream about returning to the countryside and living in a farm in the wild somewhere when the crisis is all over and imagine what we would grow, and the animals we would have without killing any of them. We share ideas about recipes. It’s a gentle , comforting bonding through a simple meal and conversation -we feel we have momentarily left elsewhere the demons of the virus , as if time had gone into reverse or way into the future. Then my phone rings-my brother Tom in Spain in somber tone, giving me an update about the latest fatalities, and asking about how things are looking like in the UK. I tell him that in the midst of the suffering and fear, its drawing the best in humanity and our shared hopes must be that better world is going to emerge from all this.
In the park that evening, I stand beneath a cherry tree and smell the sweet scent of the blossom which is radiant.
Monday 23rd March
Try to catch up to the streaming of an old Jesuit friend and long-term mentor Fr Nick King’s celebration of his 40 years in the priesthood from the Oxford chaplaincy. Through no fault of Nick’s, the coverage develops a technical glitch early on so that the offertory prayer is stuck in a spiral. I decide its best to switch off and simply discern how much I owe to Nick’s gentle guidance over the years, when it comes to the Ignatian ethos of finding God in All Things.
I am finding light in the selfless work of volunteers and front-life staff, in the beauty of Spring on my daily walks in Battersea Park, in the engagement and compassion of unexpected encounters by phone or email, in the resurfacing of old friendships and the strengthened of bonds of family and neighbours . I do miss the physicality of parish life and the sacramental sharing of the bread and wine , the hand of peace and the taking in communion of the body and blood of Christ. But there is God to be found in others, and in nature.
Tuesday 24th March
First day of an upgraded UK version of a shut-down. Battersea Park Road is not nearly as busy as it was yesterday but cars and vans and nearly empty buses are still moving into the centre. Makes me wonder how many of these people have a genuine justification for putting themselves and others at risk? Can they really not work from home? And if not what work are they doing? One can only hope that the majority are NHS workers and medical and food suppliers. Apart from my newsagent Vinay, who now wears a protective mask and offers a delivery service to most of his customers, the only other small local businesses still open in line with government guidelines are run by good friends and popular characters in the neighbourhood. I visit my local Halal butcher and essential supplies store run by Ammar (Arabic for one who lives a long life). He has run out of eggs and oranges but stocks most essentials from yoghurt to lentils.
Next door, my amici the Sicilian brothers at El Caffetino have turned their convivial café into a take away with restricted access-two customers in at a time. They are delivering food donated by customers to frontline NHS staff. The manager Angelo tells his customers on social media: “We are in case you want it offering, if for now take away only, a coffee or panini or a lasagna, what we have always done, whatever helps keep a minimum of normality that we all dream will come back soon.” I take comfort from London’s enduring multicultural spirit and these positive examples of civic responsibility.
Wednesday: 25th March
Elisa a London based young Spanish volunteer on the Executive Council of the charity I chair the BritishSpanish Society emails me to offer her help with deliveries to one of the charity’s oldest members who is living alone and in extended isolation . Thousands more volunteers are signing up in support of community ‘help’ groups and NHS staff.
Thursday 26th March
Unlike some other green spaces, my beloved local Battersea Park remains open for now, as long as large crowds do not build up, and that users play safe and that each of us continue to restrict our visits to one a day. It is proving a lifeline, not least in mental health terms. People seem to be staggering their visits to avoid clusters, and managing to keep a safe social distance as they play and exercise with their children or dogs, walk, run, or just contemplate. I have taken to Franciscan conversation with the magpies, chaffinch, wrens, thrush, blackbirds, geese, mandarin ducks and swans. The white cherry blossom still translucent in the sun, the scent of its leaves sweet. The Japanese, I read today, have for more than a thousand years celebrated an annual Spring ritual called hanami-it involves drinking in the beauty of cherry blossom.
8pm Join other neighbours for nationwide applause for NHS staff and careers who are risking their lives for others. Good to see our street resonate with encouraging cheers and clapping. A blue plaque on our street honours the home of John Archer, the first Black politician to be elected to lead a local council in London in 1913. “This will go forth to the coloured nations of the world and they will look to Battersea and say Battersea has done many things in the past, but the greatest thing it has done has been to show that it has no racial prejudice and that it recognises a man for the work he has done“ he proclaimed when he was elected.
Our street like many others in London later endured the aerial bombing by Hitler’s Luftwaffe during WW2 taking several direct hits. Tonight neighbors along our street wave and clap support for those risking their own lives in the front-line against the corona virus. As we do , keeping a safe distance, we ask each other if we are ok or if anyone needs any support. I feel encouraged by this expression of human solidarity similar to similar acts that have been regularly taking place in Italy and Spain, and which for many in the UK responds to a rediscovered national narrative. At its best and at its worst, what we are experiencing does not respect national boundaries. It is a shared resistance in pursuit of the common good against a faceless and invisible common enemy.
Friday 27th March
On this the anniversary of my Spanish grandfather’s Gregorio Marañon’s death in 1960 aged 72, I recall how as a young doctor in the final year of the First World war, in September 1918 he volunteered to go to France to help investigate and treat those struck down by the pandemic so-called Spanish Flu. As his biographer wrote “In the month of September (1918) an epidemic had invaded the Iberian peninsula. Bronchopulomonal complications, with immediate mortality, alarmed the health authorities and the Spanish people…complete information was not available regarding the development of this epidemic in Europe and America. The Spanish Health Inspectorate and the Ministry of the Interior, concerned about the seriousness of the problem, agreed to send my grandfather in a team with two other doctors to war-torn France to personally collect data on the etiology of the pandemic.
My grandfather later recalled: “In those days these services to the State were done free of charge, without copious diets or subsequent photographs of the imposition of crosses and medals, or patriotic fuss.”
Coincidentally I receive an email from my local councilor in Battersea Tony Belton telling me of his ‘connection’ with the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic through the quiet long conversations about it he had with his grandmother. Her husband died of it in November, 1918. “ It was particularly bitter because it was only on the 11th of the very same month that the First World War had ended, so that after 4 years of death and destruction, she, and many others like her, suddenly faced the loss of husband (and bread-winner), having just had a real expectation of a bright and happy future.”
Today the BBC leads with news that the British prime-minister , his health minister, and one of his top health officials, have developed ‘minor symptoms’ and all tested positive for the Corona virus and are self-isolating.
Later in the day, a call from a fellow community volunteer says he has someone who feels very lonely in isolation and ask me to phone and have a chat with. My wife meanwhile has answered an appeal from her former employer the NHS to come out of retirement and is volunteering her services offering phone counselling to front-line staff who are feeling the strain.
As another day ends , I decide to follow live steaming of Papa Francisco’s Urbi et Orbi from Rome. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for virtual religious services, I know, as one of his biographers. that there are few spiritual leaders who can communicate with genuine humility and insight the essence of God’s humanity as well as this Pope however challenging the circumstances. I sit in the kitchen and connect via my laptop. I hear words, softly spoken, of compassion and faith, and watch the light of flickering candles illuminating the darkness. Francisco, visibly drawn and limping, and accompanied only by an assistant priest, shuffles out into an empty St Peter’s Square in the rain, there to kiss the feet of a wooden Crucifix thought to have performed miracles over centuries. He then blesses us all men and women of faith and none.
Saturday 28th March
Tomorrow the clocks go forward so the days will get longer, the nights shorter. It’s been another very long week. I wonder where we will all be by Easter Sunday.