Breaking a season of habits – let’s start by saying ‘No’ to Black Friday…

The British. We are a nation of addicts. We have habits like you wouldn’t believe. And some of them are more dangerous than any habit forming drug you might come across.

We have things that we always have to do and to say. One of my favourite social media pages is Very British Problems which pokes fun at all of those habits that make us peculiarly British. We queue, we tut and we worry about holding doors open for other people.

I’m known for my tea drinking habits. When I first started working in Southampton, it took just three days before the staff at my local coffee shop would see me come in and assemble my tea tray before I’d even had a chance to say, ‘Good morning.’  Most of my friends make tea for me as a default. It’s a habit. I admit it. My name is Heather Skull and I LOVE a good cup of tea.

Christmas is particularly a season of habits. Every year we do the same things and we buy the same things. I can guarantee that for many homes, this is the only time of year that there’s a pile of food and drink in them that people wouldn’t normally give house space to.

Every day now our daily post deliveries feature at least one gift catalogue filled with things we never knew we needed or wanted. Many of these gifts will be bought for others who never knew they wanted or needed them either.

Tomorrow is Black Friday. It is ironic that this has become a ‘festive’ day in its own right. A day to celebrate consumerism, a day to worship at the altar of the great god commercialism.

Picture of Shopping

People will queue for hours and fight over giant screen televisions. Greed will take over from common sense. Battles over bargains. Buying things that were never needed or even wanted in the first place.

The excuse in some cases will be that people are buying in advance for Christmas and saving themselves some money. The reality is for many that they will end up buying things they never really needed in the first place. And the truth is that actually we need less stuff in our lives, not more.

A family friend once told me that every time she and her husband moved house, they would throw out all the stuff in the roof if it hadn’t been used in that time.

I come from a family of hoarders and that’s the kind of statement that might make us all hyperventilate. But the awful truth is that I could probably get rid of 75 per cent of my stuff and still have enough.

I did take the decision a few years ago not to buy any more DVDs once my shelf space was filled and I’ve not broken that vow. But I’ve still not had the heart to get rid of the 75 or so mugs that I appear to have accumulated over the past 20 years. And there are still 500 books in this house that arrived with me ten years ago when I moved in.  The accumulation of stuff is a habit many of us find hard to break.

And yet… there are limits. I watched with a fascinated horror at images of people racing into their local supermarket or other shop, desperate to get a bargain. Did it really matter that much? Was it a considered purchase or just hysteria? I still can’t answer that question, but I can’t get away from the quiet thought that somebody somewhere needs to knock all our heads together to bring us to our senses.

But – encouragingly for us as a nation – there is a quietly growing backlash against Black Friday. There’s protests outside big shops. Smaller shops are refusing to be drawn in. We don’t want to play, thanks. We’ll stay at home instead. There’s even a whole campaign on social media and beyond appealing for people to not buy anything on Black Friday. Now THERE’S a useful habit to pick up.

Things don’t matter. People do.

My mobile phone provider has been sending me emails for several days now trying to whip up my excitement about the fact I can now upgrade to a new one.

It even told me when I had only ‘three more sleeps’ to go. I rather think that the company might be rather overdoing it. It’s just a phone. I value it more for being able to keep in touch with those I love rather than what apps or settings it has on it.

We’re only three days away from the start of Advent. A reminder of a season that has at its heart the most generous gift of all. A gift that reminds us our priorities should be people, not stuff, generosity, not selfish greed.

I state here and now that I do plan to buy something on Black Friday. I plan to persuade my friend and colleague Laura to go out at lunchtime with me so we can go mad buying things. When I say buying things, I mean two special festive coffees and a couple of paninis to go alongside a lot of giggling and chat. The cost will be less than £20. The value of the time spent together away out of the office? Priceless…

I believe I can fly (like an anvil)

‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘that I do actually want to skydive.’

Then I added with a mock-serious expression: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury told me that I should.’ My instructor – Stu – looked at me with a ‘Why couldn’t I get a normal student?’ expression on his face.

Just two days earlier, I’d – more or less – had a complete meltdown on the plane going up to do an initial skydive. I can hardly bear to think about it even now, but I was almost hysterical about getting to the door and doing the skydive I’d been coached to do.

It wasn’t my finest hour. It certainly wasn’t my proudest moment. Ashamed, I could hardly look anyone in the eye and was distraught and angry with myself, suffering a complete sense of humour loss, and left wondering what I thought I was doing.

I still can’t answer that question.

Friends back in the UK were sympathetic and understanding, but some were also bracing in their sympathy. ‘Get back in the sky,’ was the consensus of my skydiving friends, ‘You’ve done it before. You can do it again.’

I had a lot to think about. It’s not the end of the world when things go wrong, but how we deal with those moments will prove what sort of perseverance we have and what sort of character we develop.

If I didn’t do this thing, I would regret it. If I didn’t get back in the plane and jump into the sky at 16,000 feet, a little of me would always feel a failure. No, it’s not the end of the world, but actually, it does sort of matter.

As I was thinking all this, I saw a post on social media from the Archbishop of Canterbury. It made me grin, slightly wryly, but he was quite right.

‘The Archbishop of Canterbury,’ I now told Stu, ‘says that we are least what we could be when we fear and most what we should be when we trust.’

Not sure Stu was hugely convinced.

However. The fact remained that my fear had overridden – completely – what I wanted to do and to be. If I’d trusted the instructors – and there were two of them going with me so I was never alone in the sky – as I should have done, I’d have got through it and done the skydive.

7871_skydiveSo when Stu asked me if I wanted to be put back on the manifest (list of people going up in the plane to skydive), I firmly said, ‘Yes.’

As I climbed in the plane this time, I felt far more at peace. I’d warned John – the secondary instructor – that I was going to sing to keep me in a happy place. Some friends promised to pray, while others said they would send up positive vibes.

I looked out of the window and watched the view as the plane climbed higher. In my head and then out loud I sang one of my favourite songs – Stuart Townend’s version of Psalm 23.

I apologised to John who was right in front of me, for the singing. He complained about that, but complained more when I accidentally slipped off the seat because of the plane’s steep climb and fell onto him. This made us both giggle – probably the best thing that could have happened as I was still grinning when I saw that we were getting close to doing the jump.

The door opened and it was my turn to go. With a sense of calm I didn’t have the first time, I took a deep breath, knelt on the edge, turned to one instructor as part of the drill to ‘check in’, to the other to ‘check out’ so that we all knew we were ready, leaned forward, then backwards and then pushed myself out into the air.

The last time I wrote a blog about skydiving (October 2014) I called it ‘I believe I can fly’. It should have been called ‘I believe I can fall like an anvil towards the earth.’ For the first few seconds, while I couldn’t breathe properly, my mind shut down. And then words ran through my mind, real words, the words that I had been taught and recited to myself over and over and over again over the past weeks. Heading. Alti. Secondary. Primary. The drill that mattered and would get me through those first moments.

Although after that, I did get a few things wrong, to be honest. I mistook a ‘Look at your altimeter’ sign for a ‘Hey Heth, you’re doing fine’ gesture. The careful body arch I thought I was making was nothing like. And I half-fought with my instructor over where I thought the pull to open the parachute was.

But suddenly it felt like someone had wrenched me up by the shoulder straps and abruptly stopped me in mid-air. One of us had done it right and the parachute was opening. Another drill took over in my head and I counted up to the requisite number, before looking up to see a beautiful (trust me, it is very beautiful) canopy over my head.

7891_skydiveNow ‘I believe I can fly’ was a little more accurate. I told the world once more that I loved this game and even sang a couple more lines of Psalm 23 as my instructors were unlikely to complain, as they’d disappeared towards the ground at far greater speed than I could even think about.

The reward for overcoming fear and trusting the two instructors to deliver exactly what I genuinely believed they would, was once again this unique view of the planet. Fields of rice, row upon row of olive trees, intensely clear blue skies and a quality of silence like no other I’ve ever experienced.

But before I got too carried away, there were more instructions to follow and a landing pattern to put into place. I’d love to say it was a textbook landing, but that would only be if the textbook said, ‘At the last minute forget how to land properly and crash heavily into the hardest bit of ground you can find.’ The bruise on my left leg is still quite impressive.

I got up – eventually – and began to try and pack up the canopy with the help of my instructor, who was probably wondering why his student had all the grace of a house brick while landing.

‘You’re not going to blub are you?’ came his voice.


‘No,’ I said, lying, as I was sniffing a bit. Truth is that I was overwhelmed about what had just happened. That the fear that had paralysed me had been overcome enough for me to throw myself into 16,000 ft of nothingness.

The thoughts of the friends all across the world, who were willing me on or praying or both had helped. Singing had helped. But most of all, trusting two people who knew what they were doing and wouldn’t let me down, had brought a reward which still makes me smile as I write this.

It won’t make the fears go away but serves as a reminder that – as Arthur Hugh Clough said – they may well be liars. Trusting allows us to be what we should be, fears hold us back and prevent us from getting anywhere near what we could be.

And, by the way, never underestimate your value as a friend or supporter in someone else’s life. As I walked towards the gate out of the landing area, I noticed a group of people who had gathered to watch the skydivers as they landed.

But as I got closer, I realise it was many of those people who had only two days before commiserated with me about what had happened when I had a meltdown. And here they were to support and cheer me in after I’d landed. Some of the very experienced skydivers had offered support and advice and even admitted to their own fears. It had all helped.

Now I did cry a little as a big tough military guy jumped over the chain fence and ran towards me to give me a big hug.

‘Well done darlin’’ he said, ‘I knew you could do it.’

Eventually I carried on walking towards the hangar, flanked by John and Stu. Brave of them, considering I could have burst into song at any moment. Instead, I thanked them both for sticking with me. Then I thought perhaps I should tell them what had really happened in the doorway of the plane.

‘I’ve got a confession,’ I said to the two instructors walking either side of me, ‘When I jumped out, I had my eyes shut.’

‘That’s all right,’ they both answered, ‘So did we.’


Seasons of thankfulness…

So… the harvest loaf has been shared, the last slice of apple pie devoured and songs about ploughing fields and scattering seed dutifully sung.

It’s a great day for giving thanks and saying thank you.

My church isn’t the only one to have been marking the season this weekend. Many places up and down the UK have also been giving thanks for the provision of the harvest.

harvest field

I suspect it has an even greater resonance in rural areas as the relationship with the land is a much closer one.

After all, we watch the changing scenes of the farming landscape across the year and know – roughly – when to allow extra time for journeys because the tractors and trailers are bringing in the harvest.

I always grin to myself as we sing ‘Come ye thankful people come’, remembering the slightly grumpy farmer who refused to sing ‘All is safely gathered in’ because in his view harvest services were held too early in the year.

His compromise was to sing ‘MOST is safely gathered in’ at the top of his voice to make his point to the long-suffering vicar.

Generally our harvests are good ones. It’s not always the case though. Crop yields (the amount of crop harvested per unit of land) matter. When they’re down, it’s not going to be a good year.

It’s not often that there is a catastrophic loss of the agricultural harvest here.

In my past life as a BBC Wiltshire journalist, I’ve often done interviews with farmers who’ve admitted their low crop yield is going to make things tough for them financially – often in a completely matter of fact way and I felt for them.

It’s tough being thankful in difficult times. About five years ago I came across a song by Matt Redman which talks about how we should give thanks in the bad times as well as the good.

Yes. I know. Tough gospel.

But the man who introduced me to the song is a farmer called Cameron. Cameron and his wife Muriel, who have become very dear friends over the past few years, farm in Wiltshire. They mainly farm pigs. We’ve had quite a few hilarious moments together on the radio – retelling the story of the Prodigal Son on their farm, complete with authentic real pig sound effects remains one of my favourites.

On this occasion I’d asked them both if they would be willing to talk about their favourite harvest hymns for a special Sunday breakfast programme I was putting together.

Cameron instantly said it would be the Matt Redman song ‘Blessed be your name.’

When I asked him why, he paused. When he resumed his story, I understood why.

In 2001, Wiltshire like many other rural places, was completely locked down and in the grip of an epidemic of foot and mouth. I remember it well. Farms were off-limits and some were almost in a state of siege, nothing in, nothing out. Cameron and Muriel’s was one of those places.

They couldn’t go to church, said Cameron, so had no other option than to hold their own service on the farm. As a family, they sat together, prayed together and read the Bible together on Sunday morning.

And in the afternoon, Cameron had to go out and destroy all his pigs because of foot and mouth.

I can hardly bear to write it even now. Farmers don’t always get a good press, but I’ve seen the way my friends and their staff care for the animals on the farm. I’ve seen piglets struggling to survive being brought inside and placed in warm boxes by the Aga in their kitchen.

I can’t begin to imagine how it must have felt on that terrible day back in 2001. And how it felt to have to start all over again on a farm that had been in the family for many years.

And yet. Despite all this horror, here is Cameron telling me that the song that matters most to him says these words, ‘Blessed be your name, when I’m found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name…’

I have huge respect for anyone who holds onto their faith in the darkness. Their words carry authority as they speak of their trust in God even if they admit they don’t understand the whys.

Giving thanks in the difficult times isn’t easy. Finding the things to be thankful for can be tough. Silver linings are often be lost in the blackness of the cloud.

And yet. In the midst of disaster there is often an assurance that we are not alone. For me, the darkness that I have often experienced in the past few years isn’t made any less dark by the knowledge that I genuinely believe God’s there alongside me. But what that knowledge does for me is remind me that he won’t leave me until I emerge into the light, sometimes gently encouraging me, sometimes – frankly – dragging me like a temper tantrum filled toddler, but always there. Always.

And at that moment – as the old harvest hymn says – I’m reminded to thank the Lord, for all his love. Through the snows of the winter, the warm sunshine that swells the grain, the breezes, the hurricanes and the soft refreshing rain…

Flowers in the ballast…

It’s been a busy week. And it’s only Tuesday. Yesterday I came back from working with my Coastguard colleagues in Northern Ireland. Today I travelled down to Hampshire to talk all things media with other members of HM Coastguard.

September in the UK can be glorious and this week it definitely is. The sun shone brightly across the water as I travelled back towards Southampton, the gently reddening leaves glowed in the warm rays and the feeling of sun on my face through the train windows was a welcome one.

I’d missed the actual train I was meant to catch and instead caught the slower one that stopped at every station. I’m always intrigued when a train stops at a station that appears to have been built in the middle of nowhere – where do all the people waiting for the train appear from?

As we got closer to Southampton, gentle meadows filled with the final flowers of summer give way to large grey steel warehouses, brick-red houses, towering cranes, the distinctive red and white of St Mary’s stadium complete with what looks like a load of spiders legs across its roof.

The natural world seems – well – a world away as the evidence of man’s handiwork rises into the sky. Concrete creations, brick upon brick and paving slabs as far as the eye can see.

Metallic rail tracks stretch away behind me and in front of me. In between them is the ballast – piles and piles of little stones. To the side is mile after mile of fencing – and in the city, unfortunately, all the rubbish and detritus that people so often cast over them. In once place – disturbingly – a headless doll has been tied to the fence in a nasty parody of crucifixion. It is disturbing and I find myself wondering what was running through the mind of the person who carried out the deed.

For a few moments I am reminded of all that’s nasty in the world. The cruelty that we can so often inflict on each other, both mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. I’ve experienced enough darkness to know that it leaves you broken and hurt and wondering why someone has done what they have.

Darkness. It’s very real. It’s crushing and it can leave you at the bottom of a deep hole from which there is no escape.

While I was considering this, the train slowed to a complete stop at a signal. Looking out of the window, all I could see was something called the Northam Traincare Facility. More metal.

But then I glanced down as my eye was caught by something bright. And yellow.

There between the unforgiving ballast and train tracks was a plant. A plant with yellow flowers on it – to my shame I wasn’t sure what kind of plant it was, although my mother would have known instantly.


I looked at it for quite a long time. How was that flower growing? How did it survive being constantly driven over by a series of trains heading south and east? What sustained it? There it was growing up beyond the height of the rail track, straining towards the sunlight and – there was no doubt – it was flourishing.

It was impossible. It was ridiculous. And it cheered me no end.

Flowers take no notice of their surroundings but just get on with being what they’re meant to be. Glowing in the light. Doing their thing. They brighten the world around them, regardless of what that world is doing.

I’m named after a flower. A resilient outdoor flower that keeps going regardless of the tough terrain it’s growing in. Sometimes that makes me grin. It has now.

Flowers do their thing regardless of what’s going on around them.

That’s not to say the flower won’t occasionally wilt and look a little sad in the rough moments. But it resolutely flowers on, causing those who see it to smile and perhaps brightening their day at a moment when they feel least like it.

Flowers in the ballast. Conversations that cheer the heart and leave us laughing. Meeting a friend when you least expect it. A unexpected text message that leaves a warm glow. Receiving praise from a colleague when you thought no-one had noticed your effort.

Light in the darkness…

True friendship: How we laughed in the cells…

One of my favourite quotes says, ‘A good friend will bail you out of prison, but a best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, ‘Boy, that was fun.’

I’m not suggesting for an instant that this is typical of my friendships, but it does have an underlying serious point about where your best friends sit in your life.

There’s a bit of a fallacy about friendship that sometimes suggests you should be in each other pockets all the time.

It’s never been how I work. My best and closest friends are often the people I don’t see for weeks on ends, sometimes even months.

Our schedules don’t allow us to cross paths often, but when they do, it’s like we’ve never been apart. This summer I had the absolute joy of meeting up with a friend I’ve not seen for more than six or seven years and his wife, who I have never met but got to know through social media.

Four hours later, we were still talking and laughing. And thanks to social media, that conversation is still continuing.

I’ve now been working at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for nine months. There are people here that I can hardly believe I’ve known for less than a year. I found myself saying to one of them the other day, ‘That’s what friends iz for.’ I’ve known him properly for just five months.

Funny thing friendship.

Everyone’s view of it is different and sometimes that can cause pressures and tensions even amongst people who’ve know each other a long time.

But I’ve always believed that once the foundation of friendship is laid it is almost impossible to lose.

Thirty years ago this month, a slightly lost and scared 19 year old sat in a room in a halls of residence at Middlesex Polytechnic, wondering if she’d done the right thing.

At that very moment there was a knock on the door. Another 19 year old put her head around it and grinned: ‘Hello,’ she said, ‘My name’s Jilly. Fancy a brew?’

From that moment Jilly and I became great friends. We’re still friends despite the fact we left Middlesex and went our separate ways three decades ago.

A couple of years ago we managed to meet up for the first time in many years. Too many to remember. We cried and laughed and talked and ate cake like no time had passed at all. To me, Jilly is still the 19 year old who I shared so much with, in an intensive three years at college together.

This is the year of long friendiversaries. Lisa and I met as gap year students working to earn some cash to fund our study 30 years ago this year. When I mentioned this to her sometime back she looked shocked. ‘We’ll tell people we met at nursery,’ she replied and we both laughed.

The value of friendship remains immeasurable. We’re not really meant to be lone wolves. We’re meant to share this life with those around us.

The writer of the book of the Biblical book Ecclesiastes (which doesn’t often get a mention) says that two are better than one and then lists the reasons: they get more work done together; if one falls down, the other can help them up; they keep each other warm, and can defend themselves better against incomers.

I’d add that they build each other up; they do kind and thoughtful things when their friends are at rock bottom; they give you space when you need it; they laugh together, cry together, put the world to rights together; they boost each other emotionally and spiritually; they pull each other along when the path gets tough and they’ve always got your back.

So, here’s to friends and friendship. And to those that know us well – but still love us.

And let’s remain thankful for all those who walk alongside us as we continue the quest to live our lives to the full…

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Chocolate, theology and lifeboats…

One of my favourite stories is told by Corrie Ten Boom. Corrie was a Dutch woman, a woman of great faith and a woman who spent much of the Second World War hiding Jews from the Nazis. She and many of her family were sent to a concentration camp where her beloved sister Betsie died. Her father also died in a camp and others of her family too.

After the war Corrie wrote books about her experiences and also about her journey of faith. Her words carry authority. She knows what she’s talking about when it comes to faith in difficult circumstances. She gave many talks.

One such talk was at a theological college where the students spent a lot of time analysing the Bible’s words. It got to the point where Corrie was listening to them dissecting it down to the last degree. She didn’t argue with them. Instead she brought them some chocolate. At the time chocolate was rare and much appreciated by the students.

After they had eaten it, she remarked they’d not said much about it. Slightly indignantly, the students said that they had thanked her for it. She shook her head. She remarked that the students hadn’t asked what the chocolatchocolatee was made of, didn’t look at the list of ingredients and argue about their individual merits and whether that’s what the manufacturer originally intended them to be.

And then she added – probably with a twinkle in her eye – ‘You just enjoyed it as a whole.’

They took her point.

Theology isn’t a bad thing. The study of why you believe what you believe is important when it comes to understanding. But when a discussion about religious dogma takes over from the practical application of faith, something has gone wrong.

I have some great friends who I enjoy talking about my faith with. Some are Christians, some are not. It’s interesting to talk faith and what lies behind it with others in a respectful listening way. I don’t have to agree with my Buddhist friend but I’m interested to hear what he has to say about what he believes. I recognise a sincere belief and faith when I hear it. I don’t actually agree on some points of theology with my Methodist and Anglican friends, but it’s interesting to hear why we believe what we believe.

However. Just talking ‘don’t butter no parsnips’ as one of my friends would say. It doesn’t get stuff done. This morning I saw a post on social media from one of my other friends of faith, a man whose words are wise ones and always worth listening to. He posted a picture which had these words on it: ‘Let us feed the hungry, house the homeless, stop the killing and provide medicine for the sick. When we have accomplished that, we can sit around and argue about religion.’

I’m always struck by the fact that Jesus was always incredibly gentle in his encounters with those who struggled on their journey of faith. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, brought love into loveless lives. He showed how we should live as people of faith.

Interestingly, he reserved his most scathing words for the religious who’d got tangled up in their religion and ritual, completely missing the point and failing to apply the principles to the practice.

By all means, study theology. By all means get a better understanding of what it’s all about. But take it as a whole and apply it to the world around us. A world desperate for light and love and life.

lifeboatMy Coastguard colleagues and their friends in the RNLI regularly rescue people who’ve got themselves in peril on the sea.

They don’t stop to ask those people where their passport is, who they voted for in the last election, whether they’re hyper-Calvinists, postmillennialists, whether they believe in infant baptism or whether they go to church twice on a Sunday. They see people who need help and they help them.

There are too many religious people rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. We need more of the people of faith who are quietly manning the lifeboats.

Breaking the ice…

Over the past three years I’ve got used to commuting to places on the train. In the beginning to was to London Waterloo. These days it’s to Southampton. Readers of this blog will know how much I value these journeys. The destination is important, but so is how you get there.

I sincerely hope I never lose the thrill of spotting deer jumping through fields of waving golden corn or the black-tipped ears of a hare twitching in the evening sunlight as it quietly rests in a field. The lazy but purposeful soaring of the hawk searching for an unsuspecting mouse to feed its young with or the ducks going with the flow of the river.

This week I had to drive to a different railway station from the usual one that I use. When I got there, I had to wait while a flock of young geese crossed the lane in front of me. The bus driver who also had to wait while they walked across the tarmac, exchanged a cheery grin and a wave with me at the unexpected traffic chaos they’d caused.

And a few days ago, IMG_2129as my train was homeward bound, I managed to capture a picture of a rainbow spread across the sky above the hill just outside Warminster.

There’s a reason why I refuse to work on a train. There’s a reason why I would also rather be on a train than driving down soulless dual carriageways and clogged up motorways.

I still find it quite strange though that the community of commuters I travel with can often act like no-one else exists in their universe. Perhaps for them that’s true. But I often look around at those travelling with me and wonder what they are doing and where they are going.

I love that account in the New Testament of Jesus getting into a conversation with the woman coming to get water from the well. She was a feisty character, up for debate and argument and also aware that her past life would probably meet with disapproval. And yet Jesus just starts a perfectly natural conversation with her that leads to her realising just how special this Man from Galilee is and why what he says matters. By the end of the conversation these two have become firm friends. And it started with Jesus asking for a drink of water. Such a simple thing. Such an amazing set of consequences…

I have made a few commuting friends on the new route. There’s the man whose Labrador is an endless source of entertaining stories – it’s the only dog I’ve ever known who got himself banned from obedience classes.

And there’s Jo who is always up for a chat about life, the problems of getting up early enough to put your washing out and whether it’s a Wine-In-The-Garden sort of evening.

But others who regularly get on the same train as me rarely get beyond a nod or a an occasional ‘Good morning.’ It’s almost like we’re afraid to speak to each other or engage with each other in case – heaven forfend – we start finding out about each other and became friends and LIKE each other. That would be shocking…

Except last Thursday I was sitting opposite a man who I’ve shared a train route with for many months now. We usually just smile at each other and occasionally nod a hello but nothing more than that. But on this occasion I was looking at updates on my phone for the cricket – because it was a little bit exciting. Having skittled the Australians out for just sixty runs (I’m never going to tire of reading, saying or hearing that), England had the chance to rack up a good score putting the game and indeed the series well beyond their opponents’ grasp.

As the train made its way towards Warminster though, the signal on my phone dropped and the page with the score on it disappeared. I put it down on the table with a sigh that must have been heard by the man opposite, as I suddenly realised he was looking at me and had seen what I was trying to find out on my phone. And then he grinned at me, turned his phone around to show me so I could see he was looking at exactly the same thing and said, ‘Here’s the score.’

From then on in of course, we started a whole conversation about cricket, from the Ashes of 2005, the various grounds where Tests have been played and what they were like, interspersed with telling each other the score as our respective phone signals dropped in and out.

From being total strangers, we became firm friends within a matter of minutes. From thinking we had nothing in common, we’ve now discovered a shared love of cricket and Wiltshire. We will now – no doubt – have more conversations when our paths cross on the train in the future. We might even – and I know this might shock the commuting world – actually deliberately sit next to each other to chat.

This kind of incident shows why relationships matter. It shows why it matters that we build bridges to each other. A fear of strangers might be about self-preservation and sometimes yes that matters too, but it also might put up a wall where there doesn’t actually need to be one.

Jesus once asked someone, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and made it clear that the answer wasn’t just those we know and like. It’s the stranger and lonely among us, it’s the prisoner and the free, it’s the people we find challenging. And it’s definitely the person sitting opposite or beside you on the train. Go on, give it go. Break the ice. But maybe, just maybe, you should make sure it’s not an Australian before you launch into a conversation about how brilliant the cricket is…