Lionel Blue's thoughts for the day
BONS mots come easily to Rabbi Lionel Blue, even when the minutiae of life are demanding his attention.The darling of Radio 4 listeners returned from a break in Holland late the previous evening and has this morning been tackling the letters and phone calls that accumulated in his absence.
BONS mots come easily to Rabbi Lionel Blue, even when the minutiae of life are demanding his attention.
The darling of Radio 4 listeners returned from a break in Holland late the previous evening and has this morning been tackling the letters and phone calls that accumulated in his absence. “I don't quite know where I am at the moment,” he apologises.
Nevertheless, words of wisdom are soon being delivered seemingly without effort - wrapped, in habitual style, within layers of gentle humour, self-deprecation, disarming frankness, and sharp insight into human frailty. It's a combination that has delighted devotees of Thought for the Day for 30-odd years, writes Steven Russell.
He decamps to a different room of his Finchley home so Jim, his partner of 25 years, can finish his breakfast in peace.
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Amsterdam, where they've just been, was the city they went to not long after they met - a break memorable for the wrong reasons.
“We thought we'd jump off into bliss, but we had a massive row, only lasted three days, and we came home not speaking with each other,” confesses Lionel with typical candour.
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“It took us about three years to come back from a holiday still speaking to each other. Holidays put a very great strain on people. Holidays are times when fantasy and reality get very mixed up.”
They hadn't, he explains, done what he calls the preparatory work. “We come from very different backgrounds and we really didn't understand each other or what the other enjoyed, or what the other was frightened of. We were each going round in circles, trying to see someone who didn't really exist except in our mind, and we had to do a lot more spade work.”
Another pearl: “It's relatively easy to love somebody; it's not easy to like them. Loving, you're guided along by a great wave; liking is a much more steady affair.”
As well as seeing old friends in Holland, there was the chance to indulge in one of Lionel's favourite pastimes: sitting back in one of the “brown” cafes (traditional pub-style buildings), drinking gin and watching people go by.
Not one of the cafes licensed to sell cannabis, then, I jest. Of course, a throwaway line triggers a story.
“The only time I've ever smoked a marijuana cigarette it gave me a headache. That was by accident, because they used to pass them round at dinner parties in Germany and Holland (where he used to work).
“I made a terrible fool of myself once. I went to a Dutch birthday party and brought a pot of geraniums - 'because you've got all those awful plants in your window. Don't you think you want a bit of colour?' and everybody burst out laughing, because they were hash. They looked so drab and dreary, but I just didn't know what was happening”.
The only thing he's ever been addicted to was cigarettes. “I used to smoke 80 or 90 a day. I picked it up at the age of about 12.” Relatives in the forces would give him some of their Woodbines or Player's Weights.
“In all those old films of the '30s everybody's got a cigarette. I had to break myself of the habit; I haven't smoked now for about 30 years.”
That's good going.
“Yes, but it still landed me in trouble. I ended up with two heart bypasses.”
He had a cancer scare a few years ago. Was that related to smoking?
“I don't think so. I had two types of cancer. One was prostate cancer, which lots of old men get, and the other was a Merkel cancer.” It's a rare type of the disease in which malignant cells are found on or just beneath the skin and in hair follicles - often on the head, neck, arms and legs.
Regular check-ups have not so far flagged anything worrying.
He says death has never worried him, as long as it's not wracked by pain.
Lionel admits he'd like to meet the “face” he's been chatting to ever since he dropped into a Quaker meeting at Oxford 55 or so years ago to dodge a downpour and “re-caught religion”.
Over the years, “what came out in this conversation was a lot of very common and uncommon sense, and I began to trust it. This is the form that my religion takes”.
He recalls the finals days of an 18-year relationship with a chap about 30 years ago. They'd gone on holiday (!) to Venice and it became clear they were breaking up. Lionel went to a small chapel near the Rialto to think things over.
“My inner voice started up and said to me that in this life you only ever get glimpses of real love, of the real thing. 'But one day we'll really meet up together and you'll get the real thing.' I suddenly realised that was on the day of my death. So that was something to look forward to. I've always thought of death as a meeting with this voice I've been talking to all these years. It's something which is rather nice.”
Life, he judges, has got better as he's grown older. “You have to face the fact that you're crumbling and reconcile yourself to this. You must do the best you can. On the other hand, you have more life experience as you get older, and so therefore lots of other things become possible.”
He attempted suicide when younger, and has said he wouldn't wish his teens or early 20s on his worst enemy.
“I'm much 'younger' now than when I was young. I'm free of the rat race; I don't have to try to be successful any more; I don't have to network.”
Being comfortable with people has grown easier, too.
“I didn't really know how to have a proper relationship until I was about 50. I think, looking back on it, I was always expecting the other person to be like one of the characters in the B-movies that kept on playing in my mind. I didn't fall in love with the reality that they were; I always wanted to fall in love with the person I thought I'd make out of them - what I thought they ought to be.
“It was only when I was about 50 that I realised that was hopeless, because you have to like people as they are, or love the reality that's in front of you.”
Lionel argues we can experience glimpses of “beyond life” even in this life. “I think, for example, if you do something that's generous and not just for you, then heaven happens. You get a kind of glow.”
It's not all sweetness and light on this planet, though. As a man of ecumenical leanings, and a co-founder of the Standing Conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Europe, how does he feel we might curb the violence being committed in the name of religion?
“Religion does a great deal of damage,” he affirms. Religions can act “rather like supporters' clubs for their own teams. 'It's my group - right or wrong.' You see that in the way Jews and Muslims function in regard to the Middle East. And also that they all think that they know God in a way that nobody else does, and they know even what God has for breakfast. It's very easy to fall into traps like that.”
And then another succinct Thought for the Day-style motto to live by: “If your inner voices lead you to honesty about yourself and generosity to others, you can take it that you're on the right track - whatever set of symbols you attach yourself to.”
You also have to be careful not to equate religion with a capital R - religious institutions - with spirituality. “As you get more experience of the world, you find far more religious people are materialists than you ever would like to believe, just as you find there are more secular people who are more spiritual than they realise.”
We have to use our powers of discernment and discrimination, he advises - in the same way as if we were buying a swimsuit. That's because religion is “usually a mixture of treasure and rubbish, and you have to sort it out for yourself”.
Many would call that kind of talk heresy . . .
Well, he explains, his grandparents' generation thought of holy text as the centre of everything, “and their lives were a sort of commentary around it. I think now there's a great deal of confusion about scriptures. There seems to me to be a mixture of what actually happened, what people would have liked to have happened, and of what people thought was the meaning of what happened, and it's almost impossible nowadays to separate the three.
“Therefore it becomes more and more important to find out your own religious experience, and I think for me and many members of my generation one's 'scripture' really is one's own life and one's own experience, and the commentary around it is the traditional scriptures. They've changed places.
“So I think what people need help with now is not having to 'believe like you', but help in finding out what it is that they believe; what it is that they make of their experience of life.”
Fundamentalists won't like that . . .
“Fundamentalism is often a sign of insecurity,” he replies. It can't deal with the complexity of things.
“I mean, I don't know all sorts of things. But what I ask of religion is something more basic. What I want to know is what I've got to do next, and some help in doing it, and the rest is nice but it's speculation; a sort of luxury item.”
It reminds him of the hymn One More Step Along The World I Go, written by his friend, the late Sydney Carter.
“I always sing that song to myself in the morning, because that's what religion's about for me. It says basically what I need for the coming day - and, also, one more step. Whenever I've tried to jump into sanctity, I've fallen on my bum - hard!”
GETTING out and about with his show - An Evening with Rabbi Lionel Blue - is a chance to come face to face with those who enjoy his take on life. He relishes the opportunity.
He does about one show a month and explains that honesty is the key. He aims to be open in what he says, and is happy for the audience to criticise him or ask questions. “People are much more honest in theatres than in fixed places of worship,” Lionel chuckles.
At the end, he won't leave the venue until everyone who wants to has had a quick word with him or the front-of-house staff really do insist they have to lock up the theatre. “I like that, because otherwise you don't meet the flesh and blood of the people you're talking to; and, when you're doing TV or radio work, you have to do a lot of guesswork (about what people want to hear) or use your imagination a great deal. It refreshes me tremendously.”
Nowadays, he gives Radio 4's Thought for The Day about 15 or 20 times a year. “It's gradually developed into a kind of congregation - a congregation of all faiths and none, and mainly none,” he says of its audience. “And it's the nicest congregation of the lot!
“That's the thing that forces me to talk about religious experience, because most of the people one talks to aren't interested in scriptures, in old books. If you tell them what you know of your own experiences, they'll let their mind decide whether they go along with that or not.
“Also, they dislike being 'advertised to'.” In-your-face evangelism, you sense, is not for him. “After all, you're not selling cornflakes or washing powder, so it's much better straight away to admit all the things that are wrong with religion - and it always will be so, because we're very mixed-up people, and so would our religion be. Please God it can take us one step further.”
An Evening with Rabbi Lionel Blue is at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, on June 22. Box office: 01206 573948. www.mercurytheatre.co.uk
LIONEL Blue is no stranger to north-east Essex, having lived on Mersea Island about 30 years ago.
His then partner was an accomplished yacht designer; and between about 1963 and 1975 - after Lionel had returned to England from working in Europe - they lived at West Mersea.
“He taught me to sail. I had very little sense of balance and very little sense of direction. I also have epileptic fits. I thoroughly enjoyed myself - it was very beautiful - but you could say I was a rather erratic sailor.”
A group of friends often spend the summers sailing to Holland, Belgium and Denmark. “I used to hate getting to land,” he confesses. “You get a kind of ideal little group and wear off all your jagged corners, and you know how to get on with each other on this little boat, and you're in a little world by itself. I used to loathe it when we got to port; I just wanted to go on.”
The Lionel Blue story
February, 1930: born in a Salvation Army mothers' home in London
Raised in “a very poor Jewish East End”
Read history at Balliol College, Oxford, and Semitics at London University
Discharged from the Army after a nervous breakdown prompted by anxiety about his sexuality
Ordained as a rabbi in 1960
1960-63: Minister of the Settlement Synagogue and Middlesex New Synagogue
Appointed European director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism
1967: Became lecturer at Leo Baeck College in London
Has published numerous books, including autobiography: Hitchhiking to Heaven