It’s only words

Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for their submission
And no one’s jamming their transmission

The Police

Dome of the Rock

 A few years ago I was invited to attend the baptism of the baby of some great friends of mine. These friends are not religious but they knew that the Irish Catholic side of the family would be uncomfortable if the baby was denied the usual insurance against eternal damnation. They also thought, quite rightly, that a christening was as good an excuse as any to invite everyone to Dublin for a rollicking good party to celebrate the arrival into the world of their beautiful daughter. So the arrangements were made, the marquee ordered for the back garden, the food and wine planned and the godparents appointed.

Ah yes, the godparents. Standing by the baptismal font on the day would be the baby’s aunty and a lovely man who had been a great friend of the couple’s for many years. This man was also a great friend of mine, so I was party to the dilemma he faced in being conferred with this honour. While he knew that his atheism was of no concern to the baby’s parents – they’d chosen him for his loveliness and wanted him to be a special part of their daughter’s life – he was suddenly overcome by an uncharacteristic level of superstition about what might happen to him if, while standing in God’s very own house, he made all sorts of declarations that he didn’t actually believe to be true.

During a Roman Catholic christening, the parents and godparents of the baby have to make three declarations – that they believe in God, that they repent of their sins and that they deny evil. So the ironies here are interesting… Our friend doesn’t believe in God, but the religious superstition which still permeates even a reasonably secular country like England was enough to give him the uncomfortable feeling that God might smite him for his heathen deeds if he stood in a church and said that he did. It’s rather a muddle that organised religion has created here, wouldn’t you think?

The responses, psalms, prayers and practices of a Catholic Mass are things which I’m sure I’ll never forget, even in the unlikely event that I make the effort to try; one doesn’t come out of even a happy religious upbringing without some of its residue clinging insistently. But during this baptism ceremony, the only way in which my lips moved was in smiles at my friends and slight quivering at the inevitable emotion aroused in me by big events with friends and family. When we left the church, another lovely chum, who was also brought up Catholic and who had made the polite decision to respond to the priest and to say the prayers during the service, asked me why I hadn’t.

You must remember it all, she said, after so many years of going to church.

Yes, I said, of course I remember it, but I don’t believe in those words any more so I won’t say them.

Oh, she shrugged, they’re only words.

This morning, a Jewish Israeli man was shot dead by security guards at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because he shouted Allahu Akbar, which, of course, is Arabic for God is great. They were only words, and still this man, who had his hands in his pockets when the guards pulled their guns on him and fired, is dead. I’m writing this a couple of hours after the story broke, when little is known about what actually happened, what the man’s motivation was in saying what he did (if indeed his words weren’t misheard), or what provoked the guards to respond so brutally. All that is so far clear is that just two small words escaped from the man’s lips, and because of the place where he was standing when he said them, the circumstances in which they’ve been said before and the strength of belief and the fear and superstition that surrounds them, he will never say these or any other words ever again. This is just the latest terrible tragedy in a country which is sickeningly familiar with religious and territorially motivated tragedies, and it was only words that made it happen.

On the night of that wonderful Welcome to the World party in Dublin, there were pestilential winds of a biblical proportion. I still remember one friend doing a hilarious Irish jig in the pouring rain while the people around him struggled to secure the moorings of the marquee. Perhaps the wind and rain that night were signs of God’s displeasure at the fact that people had stood in his church and lied when they said that they believed in him. Or perhaps the wind and rain happened because we were in Dublin. Either way, while I choose not to be afraid of a potentially vengeful deity, my fear of terrified and small-minded people with deadly weapons is very well-founded. So although, as the Bee Gees would have us believe, it’s only words, I’m going to continue to be very careful about how I use them.

The travails of le travail

After I graduated from university in Australia a very long time ago I panicked about finding a job. I had a plan to go and teach English in Japan but I needed to put some yen in my pocket, and fast. My panic lasted for a week, until I signed up for a job at Austudy, the Australian government department that gives a living allowance to students. And from that day on I was always in fulltime employment. I was never interested in a career, as such, but I was lucky enough to always find jobs that I loved and that paid well enough to make my life livable.

And then three years ago I met a man who invited me to live under the same roof as him. No problem there – it was a rather marvellous invitation, in fact – except that his roof was in East Jerusalem. It’s tricky, I discovered, to hold down a fulltime job in the UK when Palestine is your primary place of residence.

My boss, however, was brilliant about it. He asked me to take responsibility for maintaining the company’s relationship with a technical partner in Tel Aviv, and also to continue to attend all the major broadcast exhibitions I’d been to every year before, in Amsterdam, Berlin, Dubai, London, Las Vegas and Singapore. God bless ‘im. So I carried on my working life pretty much as I had when I was still living in England, spending some time in an office, some working from home, and some on planes to faraway lands.

My old colleagues would tell you, if you were ever lucky enough to meet them, that I clung to that job with my fingertips. The situation was not really sustainable but I was determined not to let it go; it was only when I’d started to think about the possibility of giving up work that I realised how much I defined myself by it. But as anyone who’s ever travelled out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport will tell you, it’s not an activity that one should engage in any more regularly than necessary, and I finally realised it was time to pull the plug on my super long-distance commute.

It’s a very disconcerting thing to give up a great job when one has little to replace it with. My partner was prepared to support me financially (again I say God bless ‘im), but I soon realised that work meant far more to me than just a pay cheque. For example, one of the first questions that new acquaintances ever ask you is, of course, what you do for a living. I always had an answer to that. These days, when I meet people and they ask me what’s brought me to Geneva, I’m reduced to talking about what my partner does for a living. Eugh.

I know that saying goodbye to the nine-to-five is the dream for most people on the planet, and I do appreciate how utterly privileged I am, but I wonder how many people in the same lucky position as me could actually manage to fill all of their new time constructively and give structure and purpose to their newfound freedom. For parents of young children, of course, it would be a doddle – 48 hours crammed into one day would probably still not be enough time to achieve all the stuff they have to get done. But in my day-to-day life it’s just my partner and me. So what does one do with the dream of having unexpected time on one’s hands?

One way that I occasionally keep myself on the straight and narrow (by which I mean not opening that bottle of French red wine at lunch time) is by volunteering. In a few weeks I’m going to be a volunteer reporter at a UN conference that’s taking place at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. As there will be 3,500 participants, many hands will be needed to make it happen. When I met with the organisers last week, I asked them if it’s ever difficult to find skilled volunteers for all the many positions they need to fill, from translators to IT support staff and photographers to multilingual receptionists. They replied that it’s actually quite the opposite; people whose CVs should allow them to command six-figure salaries are tripping over each other to be granted the chance to give their time for free.

I think it’s partly because of the phenomenon of the “trailing spouse” – (some) men and (mostly) women who give up their own careers in order to be able to live in the same countries as their partners, who are in itinerant jobs with international organisations. These people (by whom I mean me and my friends) seem to be largely underutilised in the paid labour force, often because it’s impossible for them to get working visas in their temporary countries of residence. And so they give their time without expecting fiscal reward, sometimes out of altruism and sometimes just to have a reason to get out of their pyjamas.

Something else that keeps me from drinking dry the cellars of the winery down the road is the fact that my partner has challenged me to finally write that novel that I’ve always dreamed of writing. I have no excuses any more, right? And then there’s the fact that I’m living in France and my French is appalling and I can only get away with sign language for so long… And there are all those piano pieces that I’ve always been desperate to master. And there’s the weight of responsibility in the knowledge that there are at least a billion people on the planet who’d give anything to be unencumbered by the heavy weight of the daily grind…

Right, I’ll just have a cup of tea, then I’ll do something to try to make myself worthy of this opportunity.