On Being Mugged

Lying flat on my back, with a man standing over me screaming, “Give me your f***ing money or I’ll f***ing hit you,” I should really have realised that I was being mugged. To be honest, I don’t think I did, even then. Call me slow, but it was all too much of a shock. After all, I’ve lived around here for thirty years, and walked this same route through the park, day and night, for as long with never a problem before. Besides, the man standing over, screaming expletives, had just a moment before been poking fun at his own inability to find the way to the tube station. The world had slipped and turned sideways, leaving me on my back.

My parents live a few minutes’ walk away from me. On Friday evening, I’d gone there to do some writing to escape the frenzy of noise at my own house as the children played, and played recorder, with their amazing recorder teacher Catherine Groom. The writing hadn’t gone particularly well, but my mother – as typical an Italian mother as you could hope to find apart from her ability to render pretty well any food group inedible – had given me two carrier bags full of the contents of the regular food parcel my uncle sends over from Italy – Italians are, of course, rightly convinced that it is impossible to find edible food anywhere north of the Alps (he may also have had to eat my mother’s cooking when he was younger, and has taken pity on his nephews). I had a pack with my computer on my back, and far more money than I usually carry in my wallet, as my mother had also given me money towards my children’s Christmas presents. Leaving their house at 6pm I could have taken the short route back home along roads but instead I turned right, to take the slightly longer route through Arnos Park. I’ve walked through the park hundreds of times and never had the slightest bother, so I thought nothing of turning off the lighted section of pathway that bisects the park and walking along Pymmes Brook, with the arched vaults of the Piccadilly Line viaduct running alongside me.

Walking along the path, I realised I was being followed.
Walking along the path, I realised I was being followed.

However, as I neared the turning over the bridge that would take me under the railway line, I realised that there was someone behind me. I hadn’t seen anyone, so where had he come from? My radar twitched, I glanced round, but he wasn’t closing, and I turned over the bridge and checked back. He hadn’t followed. I went on, under the viaduct and started up the path towards the park exit. He still wasn’t following. Must have been a commuter walking home through the park. I relaxed a bit.

But then he called me.

“Which way to the station?”

I stopped and looked back. The man had emerged from under the viaduct.

Now, the path to the station lay along this side of the viaduct, up past the tennis courts, so, as one does when giving directions I went closer to point to him the way to go.

“I’ve been going up and down looking for the station,” he said, smiling.

“If you go that way, past the tennis courts…” I began.

Then, the world tilted, and I was lying on my back with the man standing over me, screaming. I don’t think I even understood what he said first time round. The switch from a smiling request for assistance to snarling aggression was just too quick.

Here’s where my backpack came in useful. Because it is semi-rigid, it cushioned my fall, and it was probably one of the reasons I was back on my feet very quickly. I have no memory of getting back up again, but however I did it, it was fast enough to avoid being kicked when down.

“Give me your f***ing money or I’ll f***ing hit you.”

His vocabulary, which had before been perfectly adequate, was now rather limited.

I’d like to say that my mind assumed a crystal clarity, that everything slowed down and I carefully weighed the options available to me, but I didn’t. The thought of giving him my wallet did briefly flit through my mind, but it didn’t stick. I did remember that I was carrying quite a lot more money than normal – in the usual course of events all I’d be able to hand over is change.

“Give me your f***ing money or I’ll f***ing hit you.”

I wanted to tell him something like, your soul will rot in hell for this – a better man than I might have found some chink into his conscience, a promise of divine vengeance to waken the fear of divine consequences, but all I managed to say was, “That’s not very nice.”

The mugger, for such he was I now realised, continued on the same track.

“Give me your f***ing money or I’ll f***ing hit you.”

Scratches on my left shoulder show he tried to grab me – and pretty hard too, since I was wearing a thick coat and a jacket – but I don’t really remember shaking him off. Marks on my right shoulder indicate that he did throw a punch or two, but I must have blocked them without thought – the karate training I did when I was younger finally proving useful.

The useful part of this face to face, apart from making sure he didn’t land anything on me, was the good, long look at his face it gave me. So, I can safely say, he was not what I expected a mugger to look like at all.

My mugger looked about forty, thick set, in the region of five foot ten, with a London accent – a builder type. Given the practised way in which he’d lured me closer through asking directions in a friendly, indeed self-deprecatory, manner, he must have done this many times before, relying on the shock his victim feels at the sudden, terrible, change from friendliness to screaming aggression to ensure that the money is handed over quickly. In fact, if proof were needed of his age, it’s the fact that he demanded my money, not my phone!

This was where the shopping came to my aid. Falling over, I had dropped the plastic bags. The mugger decided that I wasn’t going to simply hand over my money and, however he worked out the relative advantages, came to the conclusion that fighting me for it wasn’t going to work.

“What’s in the bags then?”

This might be overly judgemental, but I don’t think he had read The Hobbit, so he won’t have known that Gollum made the same mistake with Bilbo. I knew what was in the bags, and decided to leave four packets of parma ham, two bottles of olive oil, a Panettone and two new pairs of glasses (my uncle is also an optician) to him, while I turned around and left. Besides, picking them up would have left me with no way to fight back.

But I didn’t run. I definitely wasn’t going to run. The bastard hadn’t beaten me, he hadn’t got my money or my computer, and I walked out of the park at my normal pace, without looking back at that pathetic piece of human scum once (although I did listen keenly in case he ran up behind me).

I live just up from the park. I got home, wired from adrenaline and fizzing with anger. My wife and children weren’t back yet – they’d gone round to see friends nearby – so I dumped my wallet and my computer, picked up a mobile, for a minute considered my replica Lord of the Rings sword but settled on a cricket bat (an antique signed by Don Bradman, no less, so something I really didn’t want to hit anyone with) while cursing the fact I didn’t have a baseball bat to hand, and set off back down the road to the park.

I wanted my stuff back, and I wanted to hurt that bastard. I called 999 as I went, and was told police would be along shortly, and to wait outside the park entrance. If I’d had a baseball bat, I would have gone in, but with only my precious Don Bradman bat, I waited. The police were fairly quick, about five minutes, but I made a few homeward-bound commuters very nervous as they passed the strange, dark man loitering by the park entrance with a cricket bat in hand.

With the Rapid Response Team in tow, I re-entered the park. Sadly, the mugger had gone, but we found the Panettone and the two pairs of glasses, and the glasses that I’d been wearing when I was mugged, which fell off when I fell backwards.

Then, my wife and children arrived. Harriet, for those who don’t know her, is the most wonderful wife in the world and, when we were engaged and I had a sudden attack of cold feet, I dreamed that night that I’d won the National Lottery and thrown away the ticket. She’s also as brave as a lion and a trifle excitable, so when she got home to find me missing, had rung my parents and learned that I’d left half an hour ago, she immediately realised something must have happened in the park. She turned right round and set off, with the children, to find me, imagining the worst.

Harriet was so relieved to find me, safe and well, that she immediately screamed at me, “You stupid, stupid man, I told you not to walk through the park at night.” She had too.

The sad part of this is that I’ve now had to promise never to walk through the park after dark again. I was lucky – the mugger didn’t have a knife.

As to my thoughts and feelings towards him, at the moment they veer between contempt for a man who is so hapless and hopeless that he can’t even manage to properly mug someone whom he took completely by surprise, to a certain pity for his hopelessness. Could I pray for him? Could I forgive him? Yes, relatively easily, in between adrenaline-spiked spasms of anger. Forgiveness is relatively easy towards such an abject example of mankind. I’d find it much harder to forgive him if he were a better man – but it would be all the more necessary then.

Hermit Islands

This is the text of an article that I wrote for the now defunct Catholic Life magazine. I hope you like it.

Although the retreat from the world and its buzzing, tempting distractions was present in Christianity even before Christianity existed as a separate religion – think of John the Baptist’s voice crying in the wilderness and Christ’s withdrawal into the desert for forty days of fasting following His baptism by John – yet the main foundations of Christian monasticism and eremiticism were not laid for some four centuries. Early Christians seem to have felt little need for the ‘white martyrdom’ of withdrawal when the ‘red martyrdom’ of public and prolonged execution was easily available. But with toleration of the Church granted by the Edict of Milan in 313 and its subsequent favoured status as Imperial religion, the lions were no longer an option. Other paths to Christ had to be found; perhaps less direct but, usually, less bloody.

This path had already been blazed by St Anthony, who set off into the Egyptian desert in 270 AD. As a twenty-year-old man, Anthony had heard the Gospel read in church: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and come and follow Me.” Anthony did. He was reasonably well-off, but he gave away what he had, save what was necessary to ensure the upkeep of his sister, and went off into the desert, striving in solitude against the temptations and attacks of demons for some twenty years. Only after that did he begin to see people again, and what started off as a trickle quickly grew into a flood, with hundreds of men living as hermits near him and crowds coming from nearby towns to see him. And thus Anthony lived the paradox of solitude: so often those who flee into aloneness are pursued relentlessly by those who would no more live alone than they would cut out their tongues.

But how do you disappear into the solitude of the desert when you live in a land where drowning by rain is a greater danger than dying of thirst? That was the problem faced by the first monks of Ireland. Never having been part of the Roman Empire, the human geography of the island was completely unlike the Romanised parts of Europe. There was hardly anything that could be called a town, let alone a city. The people were tribal and diffused, and thus the early Christian monasteries had no rivals as centres of learning and civilization. So monasteries grew large, and noisy, and oftentimes less prayerful. From them, men withdrew into the wilderness that Ireland did provide, a wildness of wind and water, physically cut off from human contact by the sea: islands.

Pilgrimage became one of the key features of Irish Christianity. Putting their trust in God and their goods in boats so small they wouldn’t even qualify as a dinghy today, groups of monks or even men alone would set off. Some, no doubt, foundered. Others founded new communities, or found the solitude they were searching for.

On Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean eight miles west of Kerry, are the remnants of one such community: six huts, made of slate and looking like nothing so much as stone beehives are perched 714 feet above the sea. It’s hard to tell what is more overwhelming here, the sea or the sky. The Vikings, though, made their own unique bid to be more overwhelming than the elements by repeatedly pillaging the monastery. However, the monks endured and, according to some accounts, had their ultimate revenge on the Viking raiders by baptising the future king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason. The island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But even in this extraordinarily remote spot, there can still be a desire to withdraw into even greater solitude. This is illustrated perfectly on Skelling Michael by the even more remote hermitage, perched atop the south western peak of the island.

The Cambrai Homily, the earliest known Irish sermon, dating from the seventh or early eighth centuries, reveals quite precisely how these monks at the world’s end understood their calling:

Precious in the eyes of God:
The white martyrdom of exile
The green martyrdom of the hermit
The red martyrdom of sacrifice.

Combined with pilgrimage, it was a transforming and transformative package. But sometimes, relocation was forced. St Columba was exiled from Ireland for his involvement in a pitched battle over the ownership of a psalter – books were literally a matter of life and death then. He landed on the island of Iona in 563 and founded there one of the most renowned monasteries of the period. From Iona, missionaries spread out, taking the Gospel around the coast of the British Isles and on, into those parts of northern Europe that had lain beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Perhaps the best example of this skipping-stone effect is provided by St Aidan. A monk of Iona, he was sent to the kingdom of Northumbria at the request of King Oswald to convert his heathen people. In the early days of Aidan’s mission, the king had to translate the monk’s Irish into the local language, but Aidan and his companions soon learned the language that would become English and set about creating a civilization. The luminous fruit of the monks’ labours are the Lindisfarne Gospels, on show in the British Museum but present in facsimile, physical and virtual, on Lindisfarne at the Lindisfarne Centre (01289 389004, www.lindisfarne-centre.com). The Lindisfarne Gospels themselves had been moved before finding their final home in the British Museum, hurriedly carried into hiding when the Vikings came calling to Lindisfarne too.

Even more precious to the refugee monks of Lindisfarne than their books was the relics of the greatest saint of Holy Island, Cuthbert. They carried the saint’s body with them on a meandering journey across Northumbria until he was finally settled in Durham Cathedral, where he remains to this day. But one suspects that Cuthbert might have preferred that his mortal remains stay on the little island, within sight of Lindisfarne, to which he in turn withdrew to escape his fame and focus more clearly on God. His fame was very great though, and for good reason. Soldier, visionary, missionary, ecologist, orator and ascetic, Cuthbert was all of these things, but in an era when miracle nestled up against the common place, Cuthbert’s reputation as a worker of wonders was unequalled. It’s hard now to tell how much credence to place on reports, but Bede, writing in a time when there were still eyewitnesses to Cuthbert’s deeds alive, reports him calming storms, stopping a house burning by prayer, healing and expelling demons, even turning water into wine. And when, on exhumation 11 years after death, his body was found incorrupt, his reputation as a wonder worker grew further.

The Farne Islands, to which Cuthbert escaped for eight years of relative peace, are still wild and uninhabited, save for the hundreds of thousands of sea birds who nest there over the summer, and the National Trust wardens who monitor them. St Cuthbert, who passed laws protecting Eider ducks and other nesting sea birds that were probably the first piece of wildlife conservation legislation in the world, would be pleased.

The Farne Islands, Lindisfarne, Iona and Skellig Michael are all, to varying degrees accessible today. But even the easiest journey, across the causeway to Lindisfarne, still takes modern-day pilgrims away from the bustle of the mainland and to places where different rhythms prevail.

Over the last few decades, more people have been called to the eremitical life, to such an extent that the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1983 makes provision for them. It is perhaps not surprising that in a world that daily becomes noisier and busier, the song of solitude is being heard as it has not been heard for centuries.

Growing Power

This is astonishing: we left a ball in the garden over the winter and a plant grew through it! We only realised what had happened when my son tried to pick up the ball and the plant came with it. Here’s the photographic evidence.