Richard Attenborough at Kingsley Hall 1996
Poppy, Judith and I arrived in The Abbey Forecourt at 11am. It was already seething with people laughing and smiling and a long queue snaking through security. William Rhind was there and took our spare ticket for Mark Hoda. Martin Polden was already in the queue and Diana Schumacher had taken her seat right in the front row at the Crossing [where the nave intersects the transept].
I am on two missions. The first is to spot members of the theatrical elite and, if the moment occurs, get into a conversation. Poppy has her card. Didn’t happen then but did later. My second was to ask as many as I politely could, what do you think of Trevor Griffith’s screen play for “Tom Paine”? Do you think the funds could be raised now?” This was Richard’s last but sadly not completed project. Michael Grade reckons he spent more time on this than he did on “Gandhi”. The script has been universally praised [including Tom Stoppard, David Puttnam and Kurt Vonnegut]. I have since learned that there are now two films due on Tom Paine: one is in the final stages of production in Hollywood and the other, to be directed by Dick Fontaine, is being offered to potential funders. Let’s hope both prove to be the urgently needed reminder of the power of democracy.
You are transformed the moment you walk through The Abbey’s portal. You are suddenly enveloped in a sacred space. Its stupendous vault almost sucks your eyes up, the grace of the falling ribs drawing them down, down, down the elegant, heaven-reaching arcade of columns and slim sunlit windows to the polished nave stones beneath your feet. Just above the heads of those in front, you glimpse the glistening gold of the altar, far away and tiny through the sparkling gold rood screen. You begin your approach to the sacred centre; the holiest of the holy which explains all to believers. The quiet murmurings around you are respectful of this, the fleeting eye contacts are open, welcoming and bonding, dress codes and uniforms of the humblest best.
You follow the others slowly down the aisle, scanning the hundreds of faces on either side, many already gazing at you. Do I recognise any? Not until Michael Caine sitting front row right in the transept. Diana must have been on the left because my eyes were glued on him! The lives you can see in that face in seconds…
‘Only connect’ and here you can. ‘The Times’ published a complete list the next day.
We three were sat some 20 rows behind them and we had the most extraordinary encounters. First of all, there was William Blake looking right at us, the light on the bronze making him scowl and thoughtful at the same time. I was a Trustee of The Blake Society for a few years. In 1791, Tom Paine followed William Blake’s advice to give the manuscript of “The Rights of Man” to the brave printer, J S Jordan, and to then quickly leave for Paris where he was welcomed into the ‘inner circle’.
A laugh behind me made me turn and was happily included. He turns out to be Lord Watson, previously Financial Correspondent for the BBC but, for decades, Richard’s next door neighbour in Richmond.
Then Greg Dyke sat down next to Judith and we four had a great little chat. He said he had seriously considered making the film when he was at the BBC and would still love to see it made.
At 11:40, the organ begins to play excerpts from Bach, Handel, Howells, Mendelssohn, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. I turn to my left and meet Mary Connolly. Believe this: she turns out to be Sussex University’s Special Projects director responsible for The Attenborough Centre which is opening in September! I had no idea of this. She offered to look at my photos of Richard – “It’s so difficult to find unpublished ones” – and the proposal I made to Richard for a Peace Studies Institute. Looks like another re-write coming up.
On the dot of noon of this St Patrick’s Day, SILENCE descends. We are all abruptly totally focused, egos quickly draining away. The Collegiate Procession, in their magnificence, ‘moves to places in Quire and Sacrarium’. George Fenton’s “Shadowlands” theme is played on trumpet and organ. After the Bidding, we sang Bunyan’s “He who would valiant be..”. Now I am involved, body and soul.
David Attenborough then read Richard’s Maiden Speech [22-11-94]. I give it to you now:
“I have it on the best authority – from a not too distant relative – that we are related to apes. But it is surely not only the ability to stand on our hind legs that sets us so singularly apart from the animal kingdom. The crucial difference must lie in what we call ‘soul’ and creativity.
From the very earliest of times, the arts have been an instinctive essential of our humanity. They are a miraculous sleight of hand which reveals the truth; and a glorious passport to greater understanding between the peoples of the world. The arts not only enrich our lives but also grant us the opportunity to challenge accepted practices and assumptions. They give us a means of protest against that which we believe unjust; a voice to condemn the brute and the bully; a brief to advocate the cause of human dignity and self-respect; a rich and varied language through which we can express our national identity.
Today, as a nation, we face daunting problems – problems which are obliging us to examine the very fabric of our society. And the role of the arts in healing a nation divided, a nation in which too many lack work, lack self-esteem, lack belief and direction, cannot be over-estimated.
The arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our well-being, to our very existence, as eating and breathing. Access to them should not be restricted to a privileged few. Nor are they the playground of the intelligentsia. The arts are for everyone – and failure to include everyone diminishes us all.”
Wow! Poppy shakes a metaphorical fist in total agreement, whispering “Yes!”.
Penelope Wilton followed with verses from St John [I 4:7-9, 11-12, 18, 20]:
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for Gos is love. In the was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
After the Choir had sung the spiritual “Steal Away”, St Matthew 5: 1-10 was read by the apparently gorgeous, but out of sight, Tom Hiddlestone. We then sang Vaughan Williams’ hymn “Come down, O Love divine…” and Ben Kingsley and Geraldine James mounted the two pulpits, alternating with each other. Sir Ben began, but not in voice, to read:
Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether mad destruction is wrought in the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty and democracy?
There are many causes I would die for. Not one I would kill for. An eye for an eye turns the whole world blind.
Poverty is the worst form of violence.
Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal, as his abuse of the better half of humanity: the female sex.
Terrorism is a weapon not of the strong but of the weak.
Civilisation is the encouragement of differences.
The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always
won. There have been tyrants and murderers and, for a time, they can seem invincible but, in
the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.
There are no goodbyes.
Wherever you’ll be, you’ll be in my heart.
This led seamlessly into a heavenly sound that seemed to capture the whole building in its palm. Unnati Dasgupta sang from the Organ Loft:
Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram
Patita Pavana Sita Ram
Sita Ram jaya Sita Ram
Bhaja Pyare tu Sita Ram
Ishawara Allah tero naam
Saab ko Sanamati De Bhagavan.
From Shri Nama Ramayanam
Vishnu Digambar Paluskar [1872 – 1931]
Based on a mantra by Ramdas [1608 – 1681]
Sung by Gandhi and his followers on the Salt March to Dandi.
Lord Puttnam delivered The Address. People all around me laughed at his anecdotes of Richard but, unfortunately, I couldn’t hear any of the punch lines. I shall ask him for a copy. Judith writes: “A moving address by David Puttnam reminded us how Dickie, throughout his life and work, brought human virtues of courage, compassion, a lifelong commitment to human rights and reaching out rather than closing in to all peoples”.
He was immediately followed by the voice of Richard himself. Tears leapt to my eyes and I instinctively clutched my heart – what a wuss! He was reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 17. You know: “Who will believe my verse in time to come…”
The silence that followed was palpable. He was here again and then he was gone, our thanksgiving finally bringing it home. But I am still here but not for that long. We felt our fleeting mortality in Richard’s.
To rouse us back up from our gloom, they gave us Elgar’s “Nimrod”, to which the Choir sang The Anthem:
“Lux aeterna luceat eis Domine cum sanctis tuis in aeternum: quia pius es.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum quia pius es.”
No wonder Melvyn Bragg chose John Wycliffe, alongside John Ball and Tom Paine, as one of his great British heroes in his BBC television series.
How about Blake next, Melvyn? Which allows me to segue into the Finale – which was, of course, “Jerusalem”. Singing your heart out, your Soul soars again and wants to ascend yet further.
The three of us and, I’m sure nearly everybody else, were in mild, post-awe shock, euphoric as the hour comes to an end. Was it really that short? The beauty of the music, the words, the architecture, the people are still vibrating within you as you shuffle towards the sun-lit portal back into the so-called real world. It is as if you are gliding. With heightened awareness, you see only Brothers and Sisters around you, a whole community swimming in a sea of smiles and joy. The organisers, the speakers, the performers – people – created this for him, for us and for themselves. We had all participated and made it so. Thank you. “Human beings – they can really be something, can’t they?”
Together, we had honoured rightly this great man and done so in one of our most sacred spaces and the one closest to the most holy place of participative democracy on the planet. When will they bronze his bust? For this man was a saint by any measure. Thousands loved him personally, millions felt their well-being enhanced by his life, love and generosity, many changing themselves because of what he did and became. Bless you, my Lord.
For me, he achieved satyagraha. But, then, what do I know about that?
John Rowley is a Trustee and Executive Member of the Gandhi Foundation.