My Thought for the Day: Three writers on what they could offer
After John Humphrys labelled the show boring, we ask three writers to share their views if given the chance
As if to prove that some things are truly sacred, an attack this week by John Humphrys, the most senior presenter on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, on its daily Thought for the Day slot, prompted a wave of outrage and controversy.
In an interview with the Radio Times, Humphrys branded the 7.45am slot as "boring" and inappropriate in an increasingly secular society.
His comments will have reverberated in Northern Ireland too where Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster show also has a regular Thought for the Day slot, just before the 8am news.
"Deeply, deeply boring, often," was Humphrys' verdict. "Sometimes not. Sometimes it's good and the guy or woman is delivering an interesting thought in a provocative way. Usually not.
"It seems to me inappropriate that Today should broadcast nearly three minutes of uninterrupted religion, given that rather more than half our population have no religion at all. Certainly very few of them are practising Christians … we have Hindus of course, and we have the occasional Muslim, the occasional Jew, but by and large it's Christian. Why?"
Humphrys added: "When you're presenting (Today), how many times have you said to yourself, 'Dear God, we've got to cut a really fascinating programme short because we're now going to hear somebody tell us that Jesus was really nice, and the world could be a better place if we all …' You know … Oh God."
Humphrys said if it was a slot for secular reflection, "I'd have less of a problem with it. Why can't you have an atheist? Or an agnostic?"
But not everyone agreed with the veteran presenter's assessment of the slot, which last for just under three minutes.
Anne Atkins, a regular Thought for the Day contributor for the past 21 years, said Humphrys' view did not "stack with the facts". She told the Guardian newspaper: "One of the first I did - and this was in the days before email - prompted more than 1,000 posted letters of support, one of the biggest responses Today has ever had. It certainly isn't boring."
And, writing for the same newspaper, Thought for the Day regular Dr Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, fired this broadside at Humphrys: "Imagine reading out your Thought for the Day knowing that all this sneering and smirking is going on right in front of you. If it were just about Thought for the Day, it might not matter quite so much. Sometimes the slot is good; sometimes it is not so good. But it has become a totem of the BBC's attitude towards faith generally - that it is an embarrassing relative it has had to invite to the party, but one who can be made to sit in the corner, and about whom it is acceptable to make jokes.
"To the overpaid panjandrums of the BBC, religion is for the little people, for the stupid and the gullible. And it's easy to play this for laughs to a gallery of those who have read a few chapters of the Selfish Gene, and think this has turned them into philosophical giants."
The majority of contributors to Radio Four's Thought for the Day are Christian, although there are regular Muslim and Jewish contributors and occasional Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. One of the most popular was Rabbi Lionel Blue, who contributed for 25 years until his death last December.
Here, we asked three of our writers to tell us what they would say if they were given the chance to deliver Thought for the Day ...
Joe Cushnan: ‘I’m reminded of a time before gadgets'
When the JFK files were released recently, I was reminded of my after-school job making deliveries for a local supermarket, the Mace on the Glen Road in Belfast. My 'company car' was actually an Open All Hours G-G-G-Granville bike with a big cradle at the front for boxes of groceries. Remarkably, I was nine-years-old. And November 22, 1963, was a Friday and a busy day on the bike. There was a regular weekly delivery to a house in Fruithill Park. The challenge was getting past a feisty, yappy dog ("Ach, he'll not bite you. He's just being friendly.") but the prize was a half-crown tip, big money back then. On that Friday, as usual, I opened the gate, made my way to the front door, delivered the groceries, pocketed the tip and then ran down the driveway, the yappy dog attracted to my heels. I got out and slammed the gate shut. As I mounted my bike, I overheard two men chatting about the news that Kennedy had been assassinated. I was panting, thinking I had just escaped with my life intact, unlike the poor President. But that's a nine-year-old's daft comparison of two very different events.
But when I think back to those days in the early 1960s, I am also reminded that it was a time before gadgets. Yes, there were new cookers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and other household items to save time and what did people do with all the time they saved? They moaned that there was nothing to do.
Sundays were particularly dull for adults as the shops weren’t open and for kids because the playground swings were chained up. And then gradually over the decades, technologically, the world speeded up and here we are in a new century with all kinds of contraptions to occupy us every second of every day. Now, even with major advances in time-saving devices, we haven’t enough time to do what we pretend we did back in the good old days. Nostalgia is an eye condition that blurs some of the past.
The pace of technology is one thing. The general pace of life is another. In my time, I have endured mind-numbing train commutes, delays, cancellations, overcrowding and many other travelling irritations in a bid to earn a crust. I worked in London for 10 years and I became one of those numpties who would rush about, desperate to get from A to B and back again, barging through crowds, shaking my fist at mad taxi drivers, huffing and puffing my way through every working day.
Then, I got the chance to work in the Yorkshire Dales as a tourism manager and, apart from a few grumpy characters, it was a delight to be in all that beautiful, calm scenery. I remember a bench outside a tea room. On the back support someone had carved a line from a WH Davies poem: “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to sit and stare.”
The carver substituted the word “sit” for the original “stand” but the point is well made. I think about that bench and that line often as a kind of slowing down mechanism in a world that seems to be spinning faster than ever.
I think about relatively small stuff in quiet moments, memories of family and friends, and a kid being brave in the face of adversity clutching half a crown and whizzing down the road on a big clunky bike enjoying the wind in his face.
There is still so much to enjoy in this life and, however horrible it can be at times and however much we deny it, there is always time to reflect, always time to sit or stand and stare.
Lindy McDowell: 'I think even the deeply boring have their worth'
I think deep in my soul there may be a very twisted aspect to my make-up. Because I should be arguing that poor oul' John Humphrys does have a point, does he not?
Morning after morning his "really fascinating programme" (his description) has to be cut short for almost three minutes to make way for Thought for the Day which he dismisses as "deeply, deeply boring".
The 'Thought' message he argues, generally follows the same theme - Jesus was a good guy (most speakers are Christian) and we should all be nicer to each other.
It must indeed be grating, John, when you're raring to get back to Trump and Brexit and your daily interminable and - dare we say? - deeply boring analysis of how all this could have come to pass.
Like Humphrys I am not of a religious bent. I'm entirely godless. (Not Humanist though. Humanism is just another form of religion.) I hate sermonising. I can't stand T-shirt platitudes.
And at a quarter to eight in the morning the one thing I really cannot stomach is positivity. It's dark and cold out there and I'm only half awake. I do not want a big bowl of your sticky, sugar-coated cheer.
So like humpy Mr Humphrys I should surely be tut-tutting at the thought of the Thought.
And yet, twisted old me, I quite like the idea.
I like the idea of people at least attempting original thought.
Humphrys is probably right in that the daily dose of wisdom comes off the same tired prescription. And, a bit like the Queen having to listen to The Queen day in, day out, he's sick of it.
But that doesn't mean that others may not find it uplifting. Who among us at some point in life when times have been hard or when struggling with grief and loss, hasn't clung to some trite expression of hope and comfort that we'd probably laugh away when we're at ourselves?
The rose still grows beyond the wall ... that sort of stuff.
Risible when life is plain sailing. When your heart is breaking, you might be surprised what you'll clutch at for solace.
And not just when times are tough. Humphrys argues that only half the listening population has any religion. Define religion, John.
There's not that much difference between the traditional Thought for the Day happy-clappy, be nicer, more positive message and all those memes endlessly circulating on social media advising us to follow our dreams, live for the day, ignore our haters and generally to up our self-esteem to Kardashian levels.
I will never be asked to do a Thought for the Day myself, of course.
Where would you start anyway? But I don't think you have to be terribly religious to like the thought of someone at least trying to be thought-provoking.
It's easy, it's lazy to sneer away "deeply boring" religion. Just because it's not for me (or you, John) doesn't mean others may not value it.
There's a tendency today to promote the closed mind. To argue that anything which isn't embraced by the cooler commentariat, which "bores" the great brains of fashionable thought, like important Mr Humphrys, has to be sidelined and sneered at.
But I think even the "deeply boring" have their place and their worth, John.
So here's my message should you need one for your Thought slot...
It's a big world. There's room for us all.
Alex Kane: 'Having something to hang on to is hugely important'
The bear and I were introduced to each other in July 1961, just before my sixth birthday. He was propped up on the bed, with his right arm raised in a forced, welcoming salute and the oddest smile I have ever seen.
I was horrified and terrified in equal measure. I had just been driven from an orphanage and promised a new life; yet here was something - to me it looked like a someone - in what was supposed to be my bed.
I put him under the bed. That's where he stayed for almost a year. Every night and every morning I looked under the bed. And then one evening, having looked at him as usual, I lifted him up. He was covered in dust and there was a tiny spider sitting on his right ear. I carried him to the bathroom and used toilet paper to pat him down and spruce him up. What had once seemed an odd smile had become a 'hello there, how are you?' smile. I carried him back to my bedroom, climbed back into bed, cradled him in my arms; then wept and fell asleep. I still remember it as one of the best sleeps I've ever had. The following morning, for the first time in my life, I felt safe. I now accepted that I had a new life.
Mr Bear (I toyed with a variety of names, but Mr Bear suited best) has been with me ever since. Every house I've ever lived in. He now sits on a chair in my study and there's rarely a day goes by when we don't chat. He's a wonderful listener (particularly when I'm rehearsing speeches or thinking through a column). There's nothing about me he doesn't know - good and bad. He never judges. Never criticises. More important, never offers platitude or pointless praise, either.
I wept over him when my dad and mum died. I wept over him after each of our four miscarriages. I wept over him when Lilah-Liberty arrived safely eight years ago; and I almost drowned him when Independence was born in July. Whenever I have a problem I always talk it through with him.
A couple of years before my mum died I asked her why she had left him under the bed, gathering dust for so long (she wouldn't tolerate dust and mess anywhere else). Her answer was a revelation: "I knew you would make your peace with him. I knew he would become one of the most important things in your life. I think your dad and I just hoped you would learn to see him - and we didn't know how long it would take - as the beginning of your life away from the orphanage."
That's what Mr Bear is for me: a constant presence and the hard, physical evidence of the fact that there's often light after darkness. I'm an atheist - have been for decades - yet I'm wise enough to know that having something to hang on to is hugely important.
Even now, 56 years after adoption, I still have very dark, very unsettling nightmares about my life before I met Mr Bear. Yet after every one of those dreams I remember that he's sitting upstairs; as quite, thoughtful and reassuring as ever.
How do I sum up all of this as a 'thought for the day'?
Like Citizen Kane's Rosebud, or my Mr Bear, there is always a memory or object from the past that has the power to help you through the present and into the future. It doesn't matter what it is. All that matters is that it's always there and always reliable. My rock is an elderly, silent, smiling bear.