Jeff Short chats to award-winning writer, Rhidian Brooks about his new book.
Jeff: So tell us about the book, Godbothering. It's a
collection of 'Thoughts for the Day'.
Rhidian: Yes, I've been doing 'Thoughts for the Day' for twenty years. SPCK, the publisher, approached me and said we're interested in doing a collection of your thoughts, a kind of best of. So I was flattered and spent a few months trying to cut down some 250 thoughts to about 125. Those are the thoughts that have made it into the book.
Jeff: This is 20 years in the making. What makes a good 'Thought for the Day'?
Rhidian: You've got a short amount of time to catch someone's attention. A lot of the people who are listening are only half listening and some don't want to listen at all. So you've got to have a good opening line and a good closing line. And I guess you've got to find an angle on something that's happening in the news that is possibly slightly different in tone and outlook to everything else that's coming at you through the Today programme.
Jeff: Would you say you have your own distinctive style?
Rhidian: I've been told that; I don't know if it's for me to comment. I'm quite direct. My background as a copywriter in advertising I think has helped me to try and sound pithy and to the point. Advertising is a world also where you have 8 seconds, it used to be 8 seconds, to attract someone's attention and make them sit up. So I guess I use some of that in trying to grab the attention of the listener.
Jeff: Is it a case of making one point well? Is there a danger that people try to put too much into that little slot?
Rhidian: Yes, that's very true. You have 3 minutes or 2 minutes 45 seconds is the ideal length to say one thing well and maybe one thing that sits in the listener's mind for the day either challenging them, perhaps encouraging them, maybe helping them. I think over the years I've got slightly more pastoral in my approach to 'Thought for the Day'. I've come to understand that for a lot of people the last thing they need is to be told what to do or even what to think. So you have to pitch it in the right way and come at it with the right tone.
Jeff: I can imagine there is a temptation for anyone like me, anyone who's mounted the pulpit steps, to speak at. What you're saying there strikes a chord.
Rhidian: Yes, there's no "we" on Thought for the Day as well so you can't make assumptions about what people believe or even what they think. I've always said there are three groups of people: there are the people who are naturally hostile to anything to do with faith; then there are the religious people, who are, in some ways, the toughest crowd and then probably the vast majority of people, which is really all of us, which is the weary and the wary, people half-listening, needing something encouraging and helpful to get them through the day.
Jeff: Do you get feedback?
Rhidian: I do. The nature of that has changed over the years. It used to be letters that were forwarded from the BBC. Then Twitter and social media, the response is accelerated, so you get a much quicker feedback. By and large it's been positive. A lot of those letters used to be from older people who were correcting me either on my use of scripture or my theology, the occasional green ink letter, which you had to try and set aside. But more recently, often as I'm leaving the studio, a Thought might be being re-tweeted within 5 or 10 minutes of me doing it and that can generate a good conversation and a response, which is great. So, yes, you're always going to get hostility and occasionally some unpleasant responses, but by and large supportive and encouraging.
Jeff: Do you want it to be a catalyst to people going on thinking and developing your thoughts and pushing it out further?
Rhidian: Yes, I think so. It's a balancing act between making a connection to people but perhaps getting them to think and see something they haven't and that's hard. The former is what leads to platitudes, when you tag on what they want to hear. The tough thing is telling the people what they don't want to hear. Every time I do Thought for the Day I walk past a statue of George Orwell who said it's the job of, in his case writers, to say the uncomfortable thing rather than the thing people want to hear. I always bear that in mind when I'm doing Thought.
Jeff: Yes, that is quite a statement. When we're in this lockdown situation and how society is having to face up to things, when I look at your biography you started writing as a result of not being able to do work following some sort of virus. Is that right?
Rhidian: Yes, that is true. I had ME for two years in my early twenties, which is when I came to faith. I have actually just had a mild dose of coronavirus so I'm feeling stronger today than in the last 2 or 3 days. I'm on day 11 I think. It's slightly transported me back to that moment of being ill many years ago. It's not a pleasant experience; even having it mildly has not been good so I feel for those who have had it worse. Feeling powerless was the main feeling I had back then, that I wasn't in control of my life, that death was more immanent perhaps. All of these things fed into what I wanted to write and my connection with faith which I came to during that time.
Jeff: Over that two-year period that's where your first written works came out but you say also that was where faith came as well.
Rhidian: Yes, faith and writing have sort of gone together for me. I was in advertising, I was working as a copywriter but I had no ambition to be a novelist. It wasn't until I was ill and laid low and couldn't work that I tried my hand. I wrote my first novel, all those years ago, the Testimony of Taliesin Jones, which was about someone recovering from an illness. It was having a sense of meaning and purpose to life that I hadn't really seen before that gave me a sort of pressing urgency to want to write.
Jeff: People who've climbed the pulpit steps we say phrases that have got the damp whiff of the pulpit about them, but there is that sense of something good coming out of the most difficult of circumstances for you. I suppose the scripture is 'all things work to good.' Not all things are good, that's patent but some good can come and in Holy Week that's something that needs more than a passing glance.
Rhidian: It's a strange combination of looking at a future and a hope and actually finding hope right in the moment. What's interesting about the time that we're in now is it's stripping every thing back to the moment and people's plans, and I guess their hopes and dreams, are all on hold and they're having to re-calibrate how to look at what they value and what matters. So there is good to be found even in the midst of what's happening now, suffering, and difficulty. I wouldn't want to over egg that but at the same time it's clear that goodness is rising to the surface. Certainly in my community there's a lot of kindness being shown. I'm not saying it wasn't there before but there's an opportunity to express that kindness, small acts of kindness, if you like. That's been very noticeable to me where we are and you can tell from around the country that it's been a similar experience for people.
Jeff: In a strange way it gives people perhaps the chance to express the goodness that was always there but they struggled to find a means of that being expressed.
Rhidian: It's partly coming to a stop; it's been forced to come to a stop. Looking back to my own illness all those years ago I went from being quite energetic and healthy to being unable to get out of bed for a long time. That forced me to rethink; mercifully it didn't end my life. There are many people for whom that is the case now. Again, it's hard to over egg what good comes from it but clearly there is good coming from it.
Jeff: Going back to the Godbothering book, I very often ask authors whose hand would you like to put that book into. Just looking at some of the comments people made, 'I'll give this wonderful book to friends to fortify them, to the lazy to challenge them, to the busy to remind them of things more important.' I guess anybody could pick this up and get something from it.
Rhidian: I'd like to think so, yes. As with my Thoughts, I have a certain demographic in mind when I'm writing and it's not necessarily the faithful, hence the title. 'Godbothering' has a double meaning. It is the old pejorative term for someone who is always banging on about God, a bible basher if you like. But also the idea of a God who bothers, which is essentially the gospel, and I always try to remember that when doing a Thought. That's what I'm trying to tell. If I'm saying anything it's that there is a God and not only is there a God but there's a God who's bothered, bothered with us and bothered to make himself known, whether it be through something strange in the news or something awful or something funny. It's trying to find God in the quotidian, in the everyday and not limit God to the places where you'd normally expect to find him, if you like.
Jeff: When you look back over the 20 years that are contained in the book, do you have any favourites?
Rhidian: Yes, I have a couple. I did a Thought for the Day on Live Aid 2005 where I comprised the whole thought of lyrics by pop bands and I did the Thought and that morning Bob Geldof called me and asked me if I'd read it at Live Aid. Thankfully I didn't have to because they couldn't fit me in. That was a good moment. I did a thought when I was travelling. I think I'm one of the few people to do Thoughts for the Day from abroad. When I was travelling with my family I was writing a book about the aids pandemic for the Salvation Army called More Than Eyes Can See and I did three or four Thoughts from Sub-Saharan Africa. I did one about a woman thanking God for a glass of water. That Thought is one of my favourite Thoughts; it often gets quoted. I often get asked if people can use it. So, yes, there are ones that leap out. I did one more recently about dementia that struck a chord in terms of the conversation.
Jeff: That's one that I've heard. I don't always catch it, too busy. I've also heard people mentioning it. That certainly struck a chord because that is a bigger pandemic than the one we're facing. The book is published by SPCK and it's available now, is it?
Rhidian: It is. It was launched the week of the lockdown so it wasn't a great start; it wasn't a great moment for me so any shout out for the book is welcome.
Jeff: If people have got time on their hands and they are not used to reading, to read this collection of Thoughts for the Day is an easy way to get to it.
The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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