It is hard for me to believe that it is now 25 years since I was released from captivity in Beirut.
It is often said that the older one gets the more quickly time seems to pass and I have to say that is true in my case. I don’t often look at photographs from the past but as I am writing a new chapter for Taken on Trust, the book that I wrote in my head during the years of solitary confinement, I did so recently as my publisher wanted to add some to a new Classic edition of the book which is coming out later this year.
Then, my hair was just turning grey and I looked pale and sallow; hardly surprising after having been kept in primitive conditions for so long! Many people ask me if I consider those days to be totally wasted years.
I was kept for almost five years and, during that time, I saw no one as I was blindfolded when anyone came into my cell and had only a very limited conversation with my guards who were not encouraged to talk with me.
At the time I thought that it was a total waste of time but recent years have shown that it was not so. Unknown to myself, during those long days spent totally alone, many things were happening to me.
To do any physical exercise was impossible as I was held in chains, but mental exercise could not be shackled and I wrote many books in my head as I had no pencil or paper. Taken on Trust was one such book.
I also learned how to appreciate silence and use it constructively and, years later, this resulted in my joining the Society of Friends, or Quakers as they are sometimes called. I have not abandoned my Anglican heritage as I am both a Quaker and an Anglican – I suppose you might call me a Quanglican!
The years alone taught me that silence is a precious gift and that solitude is totally different from loneliness. I have not felt lonely for years – in fact I can’t remember the last time I felt that way. I appreciate the Quakers for many reasons, not least because of their understanding of the value of corporate silence in worship and also because of their desire to observe fair and honest dealing in business. Many well- known companies were founded by Quakers. Cadburys, established at Bournville just outside Birmingham, developed one of the first schemes designed to enable workers to have decent housing and enjoy a fair share of the profits the company made.
Alas, the company is no longer in Quaker ownership and neither are many of the other large firms that started life in that way. However, the Society of Friends still campaign for fair business ethics, and Quakers the world over continue to be faithful in working for a more just and peaceful world. I don’t think that I would have ever had my life enriched by silence had I not experienced the years of captivity.
Another benefit that I have discovered is that the sympathy I have always had for those who find themselves on the margins of life – prisoners, the homeless and the deprived – has been transformed into empathy. By that I mean that now, having experienced what it is like to have nothing and to be treated as worthless, I can also feel what so many of the poor of this world feel. It is a good thing to have sympathy, but to have empathy and to be able to feel the sadness and despair that so many people in this world feel, is something else altogether.
Some time after being released I founded Hostage UK as a charity designed to assist the families of those taken hostage and also to provide a forum for those engaged in this field to receive training and share information. We hold conferences from time to time when various speakers will update the participants on latest developments in this area.
We normally have a speaker who has recently returned from captivity and at a recent conference one former hostage stood to speak. He told of how he had faced what mercifully proved to be a mock execution. He said that when the gun was put to the back of his head all he thought was “Will this hurt?” Now, after being released, he felt tremendous guilt because at the time when he thought his life was over he never thought of his family back home. I was able to say immediately that his reaction was perfectly normal. When I went through the same experience I thought exactly the same as he did.
Without a doubt, there is a great deal of suffering in this world, and every human being cannot escape it as life is not fair and some people, through no fault of their own, do suffer more than others. However, as I have said on many previous occasions, in most cases suffering need not totally destroy a life. Very often new and creative things can emerge from the most terrible situations.
Regular readers of this column will know that for many years I have been president of Emmaus UK, the organisation that enables homeless people return to so-called normal life. Well, recently our Royal Patron, the Duchess of Cornwall, attended a small reception in London to celebrate the event. Since I opened the first community in the UK in Cambridge a quarter of a century ago, we now have about thirty communities and are still growing, such is the need.
Readers might be interested to learn that we have a brand new community in Hull which I visited recently. Attached is a shop with a really interesting collection of renovated items for sale and an excellent coffee shop. I also went along to South Shields where we are in the process of converting an old building into a suitable community house and shortly will be starting up in that very needy part of the country. If you would like to know more, or if you would like to volunteer to help, or simply have a coffee, look up Emmaus on the web and you will find all details there.
Emmaus has outlets throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire, including Burnley, Mossley, Preston, Bradford, Leeds and Sheffield.