2012 – for those of us living within sight of Stratford in the East End of London – is almost certainly going to be remembered as the year in which the world came to our doorstep. And having visited the site of the Olympic Park on several occasions, I pondered whether to focus on sport as a theme of this article. No doubt that will come later in the year. But other things have come together in such a remarkable way that I need to sort them out in my own mind. The three strands of the narrative that I wish to explore are: a mathematician, a young man who works in the retail trade, and a novel about Stalingrad.They became intertwined within 24 hours of my life. The first happened when I was standing beside an open grave in the City of London Cemetery awaiting the arrival of the coffin. I was talking with one of the mourners about his late father. The father was a brilliant and obsessive mathematician. He spent years beavering away at complex pure mathematical problems including Fermat’s Last Theorem, and was mesmerised by fractal mathematics, Mandelbrot and the like.
His childhood had been disturbed by a number of factors including separation from his mother who spent much time in a mental hospital. Quite out of the blue as far as I was concerned the son continued, “He found his safe place”. I knew that he had settled in the West country and rarely if ever returned to the place of his roots in East London, but there was more to it than that: he had found a centre, unshakeable, reliable, a base for friendship and exploration, in the security of the ideal world of mathematical formulae.
The second strand appeared at the meal table. For some reason we were talking about our very first memories. Everyone chipped in and, although I didn’t mention it, I was reminded more than once of Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. There were just the same elements: bedtimes, dusk, domestic sounds, particular places with their own smells, and fragments of seemingly unconnected slivers of recollection reassembled by association. One of those who had remained silent the longest, as we ate our fish and chips, when prompted about his first memory, after a pregnant pause said, “The first thing I remember is my father being taken away by the police.”
And that was it: nothing more was said. I was sitting beside him and recalled quietly the time that he had first shared that memory with me, where it happened, and at what time of the day. The others were sensitive in the way they handled this: they gradually re-started the conversation. It occurred to me both at the table, and then on reflection, that this young man had also found a safe place. In that setting he had felt able to share something that was true, though traumatic. He and his story were accepted without qualification or enquiry. Was it, I wondered that this is the essence of what a safe place means? Perhaps you only know that you have found it when you realise there is nothing you are afraid to share.
The third strand was of a different kind, and ran in parallel with the first two. On a trip to Glasgow to give a paper (that was published in the December 2011 edition of Children Webmag) I discovered, in the unlikeliest of places, a small branch of W.H. Smith, a Russian novel by a writer of whom I was completely and inexcusably unaware until that moment. Vasily Grossman’s massive Life and Fate cannot but be compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In my view it is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. I had just passed page 600 (still some way to go!) at the time these two conversations occurred.
The novel is set in 1942 and centres on the historic battle of Stalingrad. In one episode Hitler is pictured walking alone in the forest of Gorlitz near Lithuania with a drizzle falling as he tries to take in the fact that his advance has been halted. The enormity of everything begins to sink in. “At first he had found it soothing to be alone in the forest, but now he began to feel frightened. Without his bodyguards and aides, he felt like a little boy in a fairy-tale lost in a dark, enchanted forest … His childhood fears had re-emerged through the thick darkness of decades … He wanted to scream, to call for his mother, to close his eyes, to run.” (Life and Fate, page 643, Vintage 2006 edition.)
In fact, as Grossman reminds us, Hitler is surrounded by thousands of highly trained body-guards whose only task is to ensure his safety. Not a single hair of his head is at risk. He could not be safer. And yet the Fuhrer had not found a safe place. Perhaps it would be fair to say that his whole life, up to and including his final refuge in the Berlin bunker, was a futile search for an elusive safe space.
The two others had found what he could not: security. The mathematician found it in the elegant beauty of the world of pure mathematics; the young man, in a residential community. But Adolf Hitler never found it. Of course it is not as simple as that, not so black and white. The mathematician was happily married and loved to be with his family and friends; the young man had a reliable job, was a season ticket holder of a successful English Premier League team. But still there remains the truth that while some find a safe place in life, others do not.
What the three had in common was an experience of separation and loss in their childhoods. Yet the outcomes could hardly have been more different. What lessons might there be in all this, I wondered? For years it has been clear to me that all human beings long for security (a safe place) above all else. Ruth and I have spent our lives seeking to help, support, love and care for many who have known disturbed childhoods. We can offer the safe space of our home, the hope of our Christian faith, the reliability of promises kept, and of healthy patterns of life sustained over the years. But ultimately a safe space has to be found, and entered into, by the person concerned.
How many find it we will never know, but it is encouraging to me to discover that safe spaces come in so many variations. Years ago I wrote about a rowan tree growing on the escarpment which forms the eastern edge of Cadair Idris in North Wales. (The Growth of Love, pages 61-62) It found a home, alone, in the most unlikely of places (as far as the observer is concerned). But it is still there and thriving. In our desire to help children and young people find the safe place they desire with the depths of their being, it is vital that our minds and imaginations are open enough to realise that what they find and where they find it will often surprise us.
The sad truth is that some will not find it despite a lifetime of longing and searching, but at the beginning of a New Year let us be encouraged and humbled by the resilience that enables so many to find their own safe place.
No doubt there will be inspiring stories of how some have and will continue to find a safe place in sport, including the Olympics, but that is a subject for another day.