Thursday, 6 April 2017

Your name in lights?

Most of us want to be recognised. Not to be a household name, not Hollywood, but among our peers, yes. It’s nice to be valued.

It’s a human thing. We need our place in the tribe.

Your seat at the table is one thing. That’s about security. But it’s hard to resist the siren call of ambition: would you have the character to cope with success? As Spike Milligan put it: ‘All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.’

I’ve been reading, slowly but with great profit, Echoes of Love by Richard Rohr (Hodder). It’s a reflection on ‘the alternative way’ of St Francis of Assisi. Rohr makes the point that neither Francis nor his sister-in-faith Clare had any official position in the Church, nor were their fathers ever reconciled to the culture-busting behaviour of their offspring. ‘Francis and Clare undid the whole contest by rejoicing in their ordinariness and seeming unworthiness,’ writes Rohr, ‘which I believe is the core freedom of the Gospel itself.’

Rohr observes that Christians are just as vulnerable as any secular citizen to the allure of success. We reverence the climb, we acknowledge the validity of the ambitious youngster’s eager endeavour. This is so not the way of Francis, Rohr points out, summing up his argument with a short telling paragraph: ‘When you agree to live simply, you can easily find a natural solidarity with all people on the edge and the bottom – the excluded, the shamed, and the forgotten -  because you stop idealizing the climb and finally realize there isn’t a top anyway.’

Hmm. In my work as a publisher I have been quite fiercely competitive on behalf of my authors. I have a tendency to leap into conversations with uncalled-for book reviews. I obsess about sales data, often checking book performances twenty times a day, and scrutinising the purchasing patterns of bookshops. I love numbers. They tell a story.

The shelves at Lion Hudson groaned under the weight of several dozen awards, accumulated over decades – Publisher of the Year, Children’s Book of the Year. There was a whole history of endeavour, creative thought, sheer hard work behind the assortment of plaques, and they boosted my spirits every time I looked at them. Nothing very evil about that, but the spirit of that boardroom – any boardroom – was a long way from Franciscan simplicity, and even further from the Carpenter of Galilee.

Now, of course, the rows of plaques are a memento of departed glories. Lion Hudson will survive, I forecast. It has returned to profitability, and may soon emerge from administration. But the team that created that history has for the most part been discarded. So much for glory.

To write is to make yourself vulnerable. You are pouring yourself out upon the page. You are tentatively proffering what you have, hoping that others will confer value by reading. If you are working with a publisher, then someone (usually several someones) has put their name to the decision to back you, to risk resources. The publisher’s own judgement is at stake, along with their ability to design and sell and promote. To be a publisher is to play a part in the creation of celebrity, with all the potential for distortion this implies.

The only way to get out of this circle, so far as I am aware, is to adopt, at your core, a scale which puts the sacredness of the created order, and the utter love of Christ, well ahead of ego. We should not wait for others to confer value, because we already have value. There is no such place as the top.

When I became a Reader in the Church of England, nearly three decades ago, one of our tutors recommended we carry a scrap of towelling in the pocket of our cassocks, to remind us we are there to wash the feet of the flock. Every time I don my robes to preach, my hand brushes that scrap of cloth. It helps me stay focused, to acknowledge but not cherish praise, to acknowledge but not unduly accept blame.

But it isn’t easy.

Tony Collins is Editor at Large with SPCK, and author of Taking My God for a Walk (Monarch). In a previous life he founded Monarch Books, of which he is quietly proud. His wife Pen Wilcock is teaching him how to live simply.


  1. Thanks for the reminder, Tony. Something we all need to bear in mind.

  2. Having just visited a local charity working amongst poor and deprived families in our local area with a view to writing an article, I feel only too aware of my smallness. I'm just writing an article. Yes, it will raise awareness of the charity's work but it feels a very little thing to do compared to the people that serve and help these families day after day. Your blog came just as I was thinking the same thoughts, Tony. Thank you.

  3. This is very apposite for me as I enter a period of being pretty much a full time cancer patient, and therefore writing little of significance (although still trying to keep up with my poetry MA course). Richard Rohr is so wise - I'm reading his Immortal Diamond at the moment (oddly enough, picked up from a hospital bookstall for £1!)

  4. Thanks for sharing so openly Tony, this is really helpful.

  5. I've just read this, ahead of writing my own contribution. The sentence 'To write is to make yourself vulnerable' leapt out at me, resonating with how I feel as I procrastinate by catching up by reading or re-reading older posts. But I loved the little scrap of towelling - what a great reminder.