Archive for Spirituality

On Hong Kong, atheism, and remembrance

Last December, I went to Hong Kong for a friend’s wedding. Despite the great distance between us, we’d maintained a decent amount of contact since law school; but, all the same, I was moved that he had invited me to a relatively small affair. That’s probably why I arrived in somewhat contemplative mood, and over the next few days the natural beauty of the outlying islands lent themselves well to further reflection.

A boat trip to one of those islands, Cheung Chau, provided an unexpectedly poignant moment. Standing by one of its cliffs, looking out over the South China Sea, this was the furthest that I had ever been from most of my friends or family, and I felt a curious sensation of freedom, stillness and loneliness all at once. After an hour of walking, I had found myself in the Cheung Chau Cemetery, a succession of vast, semi-circular tiers of stone, with hundreds of gravestones standing there like silently expectant fans in the terraces. Each gravestone bore a photograph of at least one person, and sometimes two in the cases where a couple’s ashes had been placed there together.

Looking at the pictures, I saw the faces of people for whom the withdrawn sands and alleys of Cheung Chau had been almost all of what they had known. This was where so many of them had been born, had loved, had lived long, and lost. It will remain one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been, and I felt oddly privileged as I walked slowly and quietly through its carefully-tended heights.

Several months later, back in England, I had a similarly affecting experience. I was catching a train from Essex to Stratford, and shortly before I drew into East London I passed a graveyard, low to my right. As I looked over that field of marble, I finally realised why that afternoon in Cheung Chau had moved me so. It was that, whether we spend our lives travelling half the world or just a few intense miles from the warmth of home to work, this is all that I believe that we have: this life, this brief slice of light between two vast stretches of darkness. So few of us emerge from the void, and to the void we return. In between our arrival and our departure, if we are fortunate to have the slightest measure of opportunity, we must, I think, live with the fiercest urgency that we can.

Some might see this as a bleak vision of our place in the cosmos. At times, I admit that I find it overwhelming; typically, that’s when I remember those former classmates who passed away suddenly, shockingly, long before the void had any right to reclaim them. Ollie Broome, perhaps the best Number 10 I saw in schools football, whose long-range shooting was a thing of rare anger and elegance; Tom Fenwick, a journalist of the kindest pen and keenest attention to detail; Richard Eagle, the most humble and lethal of attacking midfielders, bearing down on the opponent’s area as stealthily as a fox after dusk.

It’s overwhelming, for a short time, to think of these three; it is a melancholy which, though I do not exactly welcome, I calmly accept. It’s my way of beginning to acknowledge just what was lost when they left us. I’m not a religious man, and so I don’t think I’ll see Ollie, Richard or Tom again, in any shape or form. But what I can do is try to live with that little bit more vitality, in some form of tribute to them.

I am not sure if the position that I have articulated amounts to atheism. If it indeed does, then this is my philosophy, not that it matters to anyone other than myself: to be as proactive as possible in making the best of myself and in helping others as best I can, in the belief that there is no karma, no grand settling of accounts where those who wronged others are finally brought to justice by an unfathomably great higher power. As I see it, there is just us: and, both frightening and exciting as that may be, that must for me be enough.

The New Humanist: A rise in Premier League piety?

This article originally appeared in The New Humanist in the March/April 2012 print edition. The link is here:


On 21 January 2012, Clint Dempsey’s third goal for Fulham against Newcastle was notable for two reasons. First, it marked the first time that an American had scored a hat-trick in the Premier League. Second, the celebration that accompanied the clinching strike in a 5-2 victory was accompanied by a show of spiritual thanks, Dempsey crossing his chest and then looking to the heavens. We’d seen something similar a couple of years earlier, on 30 April 2008. On that day, following the untimely death of his mother from pneumonia, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard celebrated a crucial Champions League penalty against Liverpool by raising both hands to the sky, where he hoped that his mother would be watching. More recently, Venky’s – the Indian poultry company who own Blackburn Rovers – commissioned an advert that featured Blackburn players huddled together in the dressing-room, crossing themselves fervently before having a ceremonial pre-match meal of fried chicken. What was this, a religious revolution among the world’s best-paid players?

Well, no: not really. There have always been subtle manifestations of faith in football. Perhaps unsurprisingly, footballers from other countries are somewhat more extrovert. Most famously, there’s Brazil and Real Madrid’s Kaka, who when he won the Champions League with AC Milan in 2007 jogged along the pitch wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “I Belong To Jesus”. Meanwhile, we Brits are not that demonstrative a people, and so when it comes to displays of religious conviction we are no different. This low-key approach is typified by Chris Powell, the softly spoken former England left-back and current Charlton Athletic manager, who remarked in 2006 that his belief in God “gives me a sort of inner-peace, a sort of well-being. I live my life for this way, and that’s because of the Lord and what has happened, and what he done to save me, and save everyone. It gives me a great joy to know that the Lord is around me at all times, and I can pray for things whether it is good or bad that’s happened in my football career.”

In that vein, a Premier League club where you might have seen a few players engaged in quiet pre-match prayer was Portsmouth FC a couple of years ago, where Linvoy Primus, Sean Davis and others were committed Christians (who have subsequently gone on to found Faith and Football, an organisation which works with young people in local communities). They’re the most well-known, but by no means an isolated example: several clubs have team chaplains, one of whom, Leicester City’s Bruce Nadin, recently left the UK to start a football-based rehabilitation programme in a South African prison.

None of this should come as any particular surprise. In a game where many players have to face almost overwhelming odds before even making it into the professional ranks, it makes sense that many of them would seek out the support of a higher power. On that note, Frank Lampard’s relationship with the Almighty is somewhat more ambivalent than it appears at first glance. “If anyone asked me if I believed in God I always said yes, but I never did much about it. And then when [his mother died], that changed. I have tried to find reasons, I have gone to church,” he told the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel. “I’m quite a cynical b****** really. I’ll have days when I think she is up there looking down on me and others when I’m thinking, no she isn’t, she isn’t anywhere, she’s gone.” Despite that cynicism, though, Lampard now has a pre-match routine of his own. “I have a moment when I pray in the tunnel before games now,” he revealed in the same interview. Lampard’s approach, where someone who is essentially secular seeks out religious respite, is a common one throughout football. In a world of rapidly changing fates, where league titles can be decided upon a whim, it is natural that, for so many fans, faith will take the place of cold logic.