The Blackwall Tunnel has several sharp bends; curving sporadically and without warning. They built it that way on purpose. It seems 119 years ago a group of Victorian engineers knew something about the nature of all us animals.
The weaving passage way under the River Thames at East London was designed to fool 19th century horses drawing 19th century carts. If the horses saw the pinpoint of light at the other end, they would bolt towards it in order to make their way from the darkness as quickly as possible. By creating a meandering tunnel, the engineers ensured the horses couldn’t see the exit’s circle of light until the journey was nearly complete.
I like that story. I like that each single horse wanted to draw itself, its wagons out of the darkness as quickly as possible. It is a hopeful tale.
Nowadays, 100,000 cars a day squeeze into the two lanes of that same tunnel, bottle necking both sides of the Thames.
He lives there; on the south side of the tunnel. He lives at the place where the pinpoint of light becomes bigger and bigger until it fully envelops the traveller. He is a light that draws me out of the darkness.
I met him at the right place, at the right time of my life. Our children were babies then and he helped us to raise them. He gave them a role model, a moral map for their lives.
And when he invited us for lunch today, I did not need to coerce my children to forego their Sunday afternoon. They willingly piled in the car, happy to make that trip through the tunnel. Such is the respect they have for the man.
He spent much his adult life improving the desperate conditions for London’s homeless. This tireless and humanitarian work led him to be decorated by HM The Queen with the Member of the Order of the British Empire. When his house was robbed on Christmas Eve some years ago, I was angry. How could this man who spent all his energy improving the lives of the most vulnerable be at the receiving end of such an experience on the most joyous night of all? But he did not share even a hint of my anger. He replied, “I hope those who stole, needed the things more than I did.”
He is the greatest living Englishman I know. He is heroic in my eyes. But I knew even before we had exited the tunnel that these honours would not form any part of the day’s conversation.
We sit in his garden and drank gin and tonic. He shows me his tomato plants, his potatoes. He points out the wildlife that comes to his patch: Felix the Fox, Flossie the Crow. Animals that Londoners consider vermin come to him to be fed on scraps from his table. I compare him to St Francis of Assisi. He laughs and changes the subject of the conversation, leaving a sense of humility in the early summer air.
He spends time individually, patiently, with all my family of during the afternoon. He spends time with my wife, with each of my children, with me. He looks me straight in the eye, he tells me keep hold of the notion that I am a lucky man. A very lucky man.
He shares news from Jeel Al Amal. His wife has been baking cakes to raise money for the orphans there. He encourages my son to go there himself, to experience what I did.
He is 80 years old next winter. Time is not sparing his body despite the good path he has led. He chuckles that he is getting shorter, or at least someone is lengthening his trousers.
He asks after the real world that I engage in daily. He is retired and his life is his tomatoes and the crows. He rants at the bankers, at those who serve money instead of God. He reminds me that the first shall be last.
He tires in the hot sun. My wife, my children, pack up their things and he walks us to the door. I remind him that anything he needs is just a phone call away. He tells me to keep doing what I am doing.
Our car descends into the darkness of the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames. I imagine Victorian horses, pining for that first glimpse of daylight. I do not need to check my mirrors. I know the light is both in front of me and behind me.
Keep the Faith,