Peripheral Vision People

A long time ago I worked as a bread-wrapper at ASDA. It was on the Isle of Dogs in London’s East End and the rumour was that the store had 110% staff turnover per annum. It certainly felt a very transitory workforce, and my own employment lasted just under a year. From the Docklands Light Railway I would gaze down from a train to see work underway on the foundations of Canary Wharf. It was a time of huge upheaval for the local population and the East End as a whole.

In my work of wrapping and stacking I experienced something a lot of people will recognise. Wearing my bakery uniform I noticed that people never looked at me. Workers doing basic (but essential) jobs know how easily they become peripheral to people’s attention. The scope of this disregard is extensive and is manifested not only in personal interactions but in pay, conditions of service and benefits. With rising inflation, a hike in National Insurance payments and spiralling energy costs, many of these workers are now facing an unacceptable decline in living standards. MHA is one of many charity’s and operators calling on the Government to do more to support the sector and help employees be given the recognition they deserve.

My own experience of being peripheral was minuscule and fleeting. For many people, including women; people living with a disability; and people whose ethnicity is in a minority; being peripheral is part of everyday living. I am as susceptible as anyone for allowing ingrained attitudes to influence my looking and the way I value other people. It is something we all need to struggle to overcome. At ASDA the only people who gave any real attention to me and my co-workers were children. Children who found the world fascinating and intriguing and hadn’t yet learned the kind of seeing that channels our gaze to the people and things we have been taught to see as important. In her recently published collection of essays Esi Edugyan discusses race and identity with reference to works of art:

Perhaps my ambivalence also comes from certain threads I sensed missing. For these exhibitions represented renditions of the same Western story, a story of wealth and expansion. Black people are present, but as footmen, slaves, lady’s maids, magi… Black bodies are less living, breathing people than repositories for cultural anxieties. Blacks are an expression of status, of Christianity’s reach, of white morality. They are rarely, until the twentieth century, just human beings, living human lives.

Esi Edugyan, Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race, Profile Books Limited 2022

While we cannot see everything all of the time, we need to be aware that we all face limitations to our vision. However, that doesn’t mean we should accept our outlook or leave it unchallenged. When Jesus extolled the virtue of childhood to his disciples I wonder if he had in mind the capacity of children to be engaged in the world without acquired prejudices. To remove the blinkers we are given, or choose, in order to see people as central to the mission inspired by the statement that ‘God so loved the world’. A world containing a remarkable variety of people. To be born again surely means – if nothing else – to grow again and to see again. The ability to expand our vision of the world is the condition which precedes our capacity to be changed. Only through our transformation can we then be of any use in building that Kingdom which is rooted in a peace the world cannot give.

We must always contest our inclination to let people drift into our peripheral vision. It is good that many of us are being stirred into action to support the people of the Ukraine. Yet there have been many wars in far-away places for which many people we have felt too little concern. It is likely that our sense of identification with the people under attack is the key to the different responses the world makes to various disasters. Ensuring that we are in dialogue with a rich variety of people, and reading and watching things that expand our horizons, acts to prevent a tendency to insularity. As Christians head towards Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, it is a good time for each of us to ask who is in our peripheral vision – and why are they there? We may discover that zoning-out people with certain characteristics, including those carrying out minimum wage jobs, is robbing us all of a richer life. Life in a community that is radically different from our accepted models, where no one is peripheral, and the gifts and distinctiveness of everyone are valued and affirmed.

The Wrong Way

We had decided to visit the Reina Sofia gallery in Madrid ‘temprano’: early. Somehow, in our confusion of language and signage, we ended up going in by the exit. We didn’t mean to, but nobody challenged us on our route. Unsurprisingly, as Picasso’s Geurnica is the highlight of the collection, it sits in a room close to the completion of people’s visit. On this particular day it also meant that it was almost the first thing we came to and, for probably 8 whole minutes, we were alone with the masterpiece and its security guard. Usually the key work of a gallery throngs with people getting their look at one of the wonders of the world. For us that day brought the unexpected privilege of silence, space and the opportunity to gaze at the artwork without the jostle of others. It was quite a moment.

Guernica is named after the Basque town which was reduced to rubble after bombardment by German and Italian warplanes in 1937. The scale of destruction served the propaganda purposes of Franco who wished to promote fear as a way to defeat his opponents. For Italy and Germany it was an opportunity to test their weapons and capabilities before the full horror of global war was unleashed. As is so often the case, in the fog of war, the accounts given at the time varied widely. Berlin denied any involvement and the rumour was propagated that Republican forces had done it with explosives as part of their retreat. As the saying goes, ‘The first casualty of War is Truth’. As we contemplate military manoeuvres on the Ukrainian border the risk of intended or unintended hostilities – when the truth of what is transpiring is so doubtful – is frighteningly real. Time and again in human history a spark has led to conflagration.

Photo by Pixabay on

Over the years I have spoken with people who experienced life in terrible places of fear and death during conflict. I have listened to a personal account of horror told by a survivor standing beside a cattle-truck in Auschwitz. From the same war, but in a very different setting, I have heard about the experience of someone who spent years as a prisoner of war. At the moment I’m reading Herta Muller’s novel The Hunger Angel, which centres on the experiences of Leo in a Soviet labour camp. While we view these experiences from the perspective of history, a recurring theme for all these voices is the uncertainty of when or how the experience would come to an end. In winter especially, the hardships and suffering of people detained in the horror of the camps appeared to be an unending tale of misery. It is remarkable that anyone emerged alive from such places, either physically or spiritually.

There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore

Sting, Russians, 1985

Studying the history of conflict and genocide is an important task in every generation. For me part of the power of Guernica is the reminder that we arrive in horrific places via a whole catalogue of other atrocities and mundane acts of human indifference. Evil is built, rather than suddenly appearing. It’s why some of the most important struggles against tyranny are fought in the foothills before the full scale of disaster is both blindingly obvious and seemingly irresistible. The present prospect of war in Europe must urge us to work and pray for leaders to weigh the full cost of conflict. Even when things appear confused and uncertain we need to seek peace and pursue it – to stand up for a world in which war is never viewed as the right way to settle disputes.

Dear Lord

Author of all peace who through your son reconciled us to yourself, we pray for peace in our world at a time of heightened tensions.

We pray

for our governments and political leaders – for wise counsel and sound initiative to defuse tension

for diplomats – that they may have space to negotiate

for the people of Ukraine – that their close ties with the people of Russia and other neighbours will remain strong even in the face of military threat.

We pray that all governments commit time to dialogue and understanding, respect the will and freedom of all peoples, invest in welfare and alleviation of poverty and reject militarism and the threat of violence.

May Christ’s teaching and example be our inspiration, may hearts and minds be changed, and may your holy spirit be at work transforming each of us day by day,

Through your everlasting grace and mercy.


A Prayer for Ukraine – The Methodist Church

Plague and Pestilence

At the time of writing I have COVID. It’s something I believe I’ve avoided for two years although, without the benefit of testing, it is impossible to say for certain. Thankfully, due to vaccination, I have no more symptoms than those of a heavy cold. I remain confined to home until Tuesday at the earliest – maybe longer if the lateral flow tests are positive. I am experiencing what millions of others have endured, but thankfully without the hospitalisation and critical illness that came to so many before the advent of the vaccines and continues to be a reality for many people across the world. I have the virus at a time when some scientists are concerned about the political and media drive to normalise COVID, even as the USA approaches a total of one million COVID deaths. Writing in Scientific America, Steven Thrasher refers to “the manufactured consent to normalize mass death and suffering”.

The UK Government is putting out a clear message that it’s time to move on from COVID. The fit and healthy, the young and the vaccinated, want to get on with life and leave the misery of lockdowns behind. If wishing made it so. This is still a new disease, with no evidence about long term effects or what will happen if we simply resign ourselves to a virus whose tide will ebb and flow for years to come. It is quite possible that the current mood of Government is to accept 80,000 COVID deaths a year as a reasonable price for ‘normality’.

Quoted at

Whether individually or as a community, difficult experiences can lead to transformative change. Perhaps the most notable example of this in the UK’s history is the creation of the NHS. War had demonstrated that the central organisation of resources by the State could defeat an evil. The Beveridge Report published during wartime made the argument that 5 ‘Great Evils’ could be overcome if the resources of the State were marshalled and coordinated. War inevitably broke many patterns of social interaction and expectation, and this also created a moment of opportunity. Labour’s 1945 election victory bore witness to the appetite for change and the determination to see genuine improvements across a range of social situations. The NHS was launched in 1948.

At this point in the COVID pandemic, with a growing consensus that we are over the worst, the opportunity for lessons learned appears to have been missed. National political leadership has degenerated into a blustering determination to push past every criticism and crisis. When the Prime Minister is accused of lacking ‘shame’ I wonder whether the word has any meaning for Mr Johnson. There is a school of thought that finds merit in denying responsibility, marching forward and seeing anyone who admits shame as fundamentally weak. What’s the use of shame when you can dazzle, distract and deny – and live to fight another day?

Tragically, what we are experiencing in domestic politics is no less true for international relations. At one point it felt that lessons were being learned and attitudes were changing and warming. Speaking at the World Policy Forum in 2020 Dennis Snower sounded an optimistic note:

The pandemic has revealed a vast sea of kindness and benevolence in our communities around the world. It has led to countless acts of selfless heroism in hospitals and care homes. It has impelled many of us to use our greatest strengths to serve our greatest purposes, suddenly giving our lives new, inspiring meaning.

Opening Address to the Digital Global Solutions Summit 2020

If anything it feels that the most significant legacy of the past two years is for people to focus their thoughts closer to home. The wave of early retirements suggests that people may want to disengage from workplace commitments and concentrate instead on family and personal pursuits. It feels that the pandemic has done nothing to enhance international co-operation, or patience or kindred feeling. Fear of disease has given way to fear of conflict and we stand on the verge of war in Europe. At the same time, most if not all of the pre-pandemic conflicts around the world remain unresolved.

from plague, pestilence, and famine, from battle, and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord deliver us.

The Book of Common Prayer, 1662, The Litany

In the Bible disaster usually brought people to a realisation that things could not continue as they were. Generally that led to a recognition that doing what they wanted, and ignoring God, was not the right way to proceed. As I have written previously, lamentation was often the response that led to an honest recognition of disaster and a desire to renew the relationship with God. Conditioning people to live with a sustained number of excess deaths is not lament – but instead a further confirmation that preventable deaths limited to some sections of society are acceptable. Whether or not people believe in God, it is clearly true that not everything is under human control or manipulation. Admitting this reality might be one way to understand the past two years and begin to generate the sense of common humanity which is surely the only way we will learn, change and survive. Sadly, it is hard to see how this mature reflection might begin.

Drawing Life

Recently I attended a life drawing class at York Art Gallery. It has been a few years since I took courses at Leeds College of Art, and it was both frustrating and rewarding to pick up charcoal once again. Frustrating because the drawings never look like I think they should – rewarding because in the concentration and application, the time flies. More than anything else life drawing is about looking at the figure, rather than being guided by the idea of the human form we carry in our heads. It requires attention to negative spaces; the shapes within the human form; and the relative size of limbs at different angles. To respond to the uniqueness of a given model, on a particular day, requires deep concentration and endless practice.

This is the reality, and the intrigue, of the human figure: not the ubiquitous muscular young athletes presented to us in textbooks. Nike Okunade, in her second year at Southampton Medical School, was struck by the individuality of the life drawing models. “I loved the idea of getting to draw different kinds of people, different genders, shapes, and sizes.”

Price-Kuehne, F. E. (2010). Life drawing for medical students. BMJ, 340.

Turning up to these classes as a participant can also offer the opportunity of activity without the burden of role. While for many people the profession of someone may be irrelevant, clergy often experience altered interactions when their identity is known. In some cases people censor their language, or apologise for swearing. This may be a minor detail but it betokens a change to behaviour that may run deeper than simply the use of colourful language. I imagine many people find this when their profession is known, from police officers to funeral directors. Simply being present, focusing on the person we are to draw, has the benefit of company, sensitivity and a common task. At the same time it is humbling, engrossing and nourishes the soul.

Despite my frequent lament that it appears we wish to return as soon as possible to our pre-COVID lives, there is evidence that many people have re-evaluated their lives and priorities. Writing about a renewed passion for nature following lockdowns, the New Jersey journalist Ambreen Ali wrote last week about how the pandemic has changed her family life: ‘My children rolled in the sand and escaped into their imaginations, oblivious and content’. Whether in nature or art, crafts or cooking, some people have discovered fresh priorities. It may account in part for the high level of retirements at the moment.

Life-painting by Euan Uglow

Once we are beyond childhood it can feel that the world around us is largely assumed. Memory informs our sight and steers us through the journeys and activities of daily life. It is a way of living that makes a lot of sense – experiencing everything afresh every day could be exhausting. Prior experience helps us cut to the chase and get stuff done. Yet it also comes with risks. When we assume we know what we see there is the chance that we miss unexpected qualities. Perhaps what astounded people about Jesus was his capacity to see and speak the world differently. Little wonder that a child became the symbol of how his followers could enter the Kingdom of God. Being born again requires us to grow again and move beyond the kind of thinking that leave us acting on auto-pilot.

It is wonderful that despite the many losses caused by the pandemic there are people who have found fresh excitement and creativity in the world. A global crisis is not a desirable way to help us re-evaluate our lives – but it would be remiss not to reflect on our lives in the wake of suffering. All experiences have the capacity to teach us. If we are able to do so, there are opportunities to take that draw life back into us. Moments and activities that revitalise our sight, and allow us to question our assumed world in the face of one we see (again) for the first time. A seeing that can draw life out of what we think we know – and reminds us that in creativity we are working with the life-bringing spirit of God.