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Daring to be Different

THE TABLET - Sun, Aug 25th 2019

As his first novel is published, the award-winning journalist tells Peter Stanford that, while Churches can get in the way of necessary change, he is nonetheless entranced by the person of Jesus. 

THE CONNECTION between landscape and spirituality is long established. A thousand years ago, Celtic monks used to cross a treacherous strait of water to see out their days on Bardsey Island off the Llyn Peninsula in north-west Wales because it was, for them, a “thin” place between this world and the next. As a result, it is still known to this day as the island of 20,000 saints.

The chalk cliffs aroundBeachy Head and the Seven Sisters on the south coast of England are a modern-day version of such a location, according to the award-winning journalist, writer, broadcaster and now novelist, Cole Moreton. He made his home in East Sussex long ago with his wife Rachel and four children (including now 17-year-old  triplets) in a place that is, for many, synonymous with suicide attempts but, for him, is above all a numinous landscape. It is also the setting for The Light Keeper, his first foray, at 52, into fiction.

“Faith operates in a kind of twilight world of hopes, and dreams, and aspirations, and things we hardly dare  believe,” he explains. “The cliffs seem to me to be a physical representation of that, a landscape caught between the sky and the sea.” So that is where he has imagined the characters in a novel that has taken him, he says, 14 years to write. There is Sarah, who escapes to  Beachy Head when her relationship with Jack comes under the strain of infertility treatment. And there is the man, known only for much of the novel as the enigmatic Keeper, who lives in the old lighthouse at the top of the cliffs, mourning his lost love with whom he used to share it. All are  drawn inexorably to somewhere that is the edge, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“At the beginning of the book, Sarah is caught between what has happened and what might happen, and she is unable to move in that moment. And the Keeper can’t stay and can’t leave. Like the light house, he is always on the edge of falling, but never quite falling.”

The novel comes with rave reviews from  writers such as Matt Haig, Peter James and even the master storyteller Jeffrey Archer – “the ending took me completely by surprise”.

But to say more about the plot would spoil the pleasure for readers. Equally fascinating, though, are the deeply held ideas about faith that Moreton explores in the telling of the story.

His own upbringing, in London’s East End, was Salvation Army (his previous interviewer, he tells me, in the central London oasis of a garden where we are sitting, was from the War Cry). “But my dad, who was a Labour local councillor, had rejected it and was an atheist. There was, though, always a strong sense at home of the connection between faith and social justice.”

AT 16, MORETON was a trainee journalist on a local paper in Walthamstow. Two years later he had what he  describes as “a proper, old-fashioned, dramatic, Evangelical conversion experience”. He joined Youth With A Mission and headed off to live out his newfound Christian faith working in refugee camps around the world.

It could, he recalls, have led to ordination, but he also found himself thinking, “if any of this means anything I have to make it work outside of the bubble”. Moreton isn’t afraid, it is quickly becoming clear, of the road less travelled. So he went to university, studied poetry (Auden is his favourite, “for the sense of being weary and broken but redeemed, the sense of grace”), and ended up returning to journalism.

The music magazine Mojo commissioned him to do reviews, chiming with his ambitions to be a rock and roller, something that caused him to change his birth name, Colin, for the more edgy Cole. And the Church Times invited him to write features. By the age of 30, he had graduated to national papers – first The Independent on Sunday, then The Sunday Telegraph, and now the Mail on Sunday, where he was named Interviewer of the Year at the Press Awards for 2015.

Books followed, both memoir (Hungry for Home, My Father Was a Hero and Is God Still an Englishman?) and non-fiction – The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away, also an award-winning radio series. So why now another switch into fiction? “There are some things that are best explored through storytelling and fiction. And there are some ideas in this, some feelings in this, around grief and hope and longing, that are best expressed that way.”

Like the resonance between Jack and Sarah, the couple desperate for a child in The Light Keeper, and biblical figures. “For me one of the central things about this book is the relationship with the story of Abraham and Sarah. When [in the Book of Genesis] the stranger, whether it is God or an angel or whatever, says to them, ‘when I come back next year you will have a child’, Sarah laughs bitterly. There is such honesty in that bitter laugh. It is saying, ‘this is who I am’.”

FERTILITY TREATMENT is something that  Moreton and his wife know about, he admits candidly, having spent “four or five years” trying to have their first son, Jacob, but the point he is making by the Old Testament connection is on another less obvious level.

“Sarah has to decide [in Genesis]. She has a stranger telling her she will have a child, even though she is barren and old, and she has a husband who appears to be going crazy. He’s having visions and says he has to change

his name now because God told him. She has got to decide, ‘do I dare to believe that things can change?’ And that is the choice that we all have to make.”

It is the same one that confronts the Sarah in his novel, and draws her to the very edge of the 500ft-high sea cliff at Beachy Head. “But it is also at the core of that rub-up between institutional belief systems, and where we are,” Moreton adds. “Do we dare to believe that change is possible?”

Institutions, Churches with the rules and codes and answers, can, he feels, get in the way of change, individual and societal. Is he, I wonder aloud, any sort of churchgoer now? “Are you asking me if I go to church?” he comes straight back, teasing me, pretending that he cannott believe what he is hearing. 

There are disadvantages in interviewing someone who makes their living interviewing other people. “Not really,” I mutter, embarrassed at sounding like my Christian Brother teachers who used to ask us point blank on a Monday

if we had been to Sunday Mass. “I’m just  trying to locate you.”

“Are you trying to stick me in an  institutional box?” I am hoping he is still teasing me. “I might be,” I say, as open-endedly as I can manage, but becoming even more  curious to know the answer. 

“I WOULD BE …” He pauses to give his face a long two-handed rub. “Let me really think about how I answer this.” He leaves a long enough gap for me to order a drink from a passing waiter. “The book is published by part of SPCK [the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, to give it its full name], and I allowed that to happen, so that tells

you something.” There is more. “We have to be really careful with words here. When I am asked, ‘are you a Christian?’, I reply, ‘if you’re thinking of Franklin Graham [the evangelist son of Billy Graham], then the answer is no. If you’re thinking of somebody who is entranced by, and in a relationship with, the person of Jesus, then it is yes’.”

He likes the company of those of similar independence of mind. As part of his research for the novel, he spent time with the Beachy Head chaplains, trained volunteers and  people of faith who patrol the edge of the cliff every day.

“They save a lot of lives. I saw that, people being given the opportunity not to [jump]. Just by putting yourself there to say, ‘are you OK, can I get you a cup of tea?’, you seem to break the spell.”

He has a lot of time for the chaplains, he stresses, “but they are not the same as the Guardians in the novel”. These fictional volunteers have a more ambiguous impact. It is down on the beach below the cliffs, however, along at Birling Gap, between Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters, that Moreton is involved in an initiative that says almost as much as his book does about his approach to faith. For the past nine years, he and a cousin have been part of a gathering there on the first Saturday of each month.

“It is called Wild Spirit. No membership, no leadership, no paying, no publicity. It only exists for the hour in which it gathers. It has been created by the Christian tradition but engages with everyone. What we offer is an hour to 90 minutes where we sit in the open air, think about the place we are at, have 15 minutes of stillness when we engage our senses in all that we can experience, tell each other stories, then we share some food, and have a blessing, or something like that.” It offers, he says, “a chance to open yourself up to the idea that the divine is present in some way”. It certainly seems to have touched a nerve. It started with just the two of them but has grown by word of mouth to 60. It shows, he is convinced, how effective a different, quieter, less boundaried approach to faith can be.

“IF YOU ARE willing to listen to people’s stories and allow them space to engage in the way in which they want, then beautiful encounters around spirituality happen easily. But, today, if you just want them to sign up, then no one’s interested.” He hopes that The Light Keeper might manage something comparable with its mix of landscape and spirituality. “I don’t want people to read this book,” he enthuses, “I want them to inhale it. I want it to be as a

dream. I want them to enter the world of The Light Keeper and then come out blinking into the light several hours later thinking, ‘crumbs, what just happened?

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