When I was a young Vicar of 27 in Salford, I was asked to visit a parishioner who was sick-very sick as it turned out. Typical of that intensely poor and needy area in the 1980s, the girl I visited was very ordinary and a real child of a deprived urban area. Poverty and deprivation were endemic in Salford and this had been protrayed in Walter Greenwood’s novel ‘Love in the Dole’: actually a harrowing story about the parish I was serving. When building a new church in the neighbouring parish, the architect had noticed that the local people seemed to be shorter in stature than the average, so he measured all the congregation from the base of their heel to the back of their knees. He found, on average, that the population was some two inches shorter in this region than elsewhere-the legacy of decades of under-nourishment, poor diet, bad air and much else. He made the pews two inches shorter! After a fire broke out on the top floor of a local block of flats and someone died, I remember commenting at Diocesan Synod that ‘not even the ladders on the fire engines are sufficient in Salford’. My new friend (shall we call her Susan?) was a product of this environment. She was the ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘called a spade a spade’. There were no fancy conversations about Proust or Shakespeare, just down to earth conversations about the things that really matter: home, family, kids, the price of lager. In many ways she was a northern version of Jade Goody. But that is not where the similarity stops; for Susan was dying of cervical cancer and, even in her mortal illness, she continued to be abused: her husband left her and initiated a cruel and malicious court case to take her children from her. Then, as now, it is questionable whether those who cared for her medically acted swiftly or acurately enough. To add insult to injury, she took to going back to the church where she had attended as a child. There she was told that her illness was punishment for her sins by God and that, if her prayer was sincere and effective, she would have been cured. Not giving up on the cruel Church, the family resorted to me and I ‘cared’ pastorally for Susan during the final twelve months of her life.
At times, despite my sincere sadness for her plight, I found supporting Susan hard: she was the same age as me (27), had two kids the same age as mine and she enjoyed many of the simple pleasures I enjoyed-a drink on a Friday night with friends, a laugh and a joke. It was like looking in a mirror and, gradually, I began to realise that what had happened tragically to Susan could happen just as easily to me. How I hated those ‘Christians’ who had suggested that this outrage of an illness had happened at such a young age to someone with two dependent children because God willed it. Eventually, I began to look at my own children with the same sorrow I looked at hers and it was as if the misery of her condition was infecting my body too. When she died and at her funeral, I tried to speak of this ordinary, sometimes bawdy, vivacious victim as if she was the most important person that ever lived because, for her mother and father, for her children and for God-she was.
I thought of Susan when Jade Goody died. This other victim of early abuse and neglect, of a poor and deprived childhood and of a societal inability to recognise her need and nurture her, was also just an ordinary person. But of course ‘ordinary’ is funny to most people: her inability to pronounce ‘East Anglia’ (it became East Angular) and her belief that Liverpool was a foreign country with its own currency, all of these were held up to shameless public ridicule. There were those who shamelessly exploited her and, although she became very rich through their shenanigans, made gain out of her mishaps and malapropisms. To the end, her life was surrounded by intrigue and the media gaze as we all professed to care and to be compassionate: fickle and shallow beings that we are.
But the Susans and the Jades of this world are not extraordinary in the accepted sense of this materialist world, they are ‘ordinary’ and they are an integral part of our society. In every parish I have worked in, the people have had more in common with Susan and Jade than with the chattering classes who treat them as entertainment. They are the people that we send to war on our behalf as cannon fodder; they are those that we send down our mines or into the desert heat of our steel works; they are the ones who are condemned to feel the white heat of a recession first as they watch others receive great riches as a reward for their neglect and mismanagement of our financial affairs; they are the ones who are left in ‘failing’ schools because more academically able children with aspirational parents are jacking up the league tables in the more popular and successful schools. They are the common man and, but for fortune, they are you and me.
The lesson we have to learn from the everyday death of a very ordinary woman like Jade Goody is that, in fact, she and all those like her, are actually quite extra-ordinary. And why? It is because they survive, with good grace and great courage, all that life and the rest of us can throw at them and still take time to think that life is good. One of the last last things that Susan said to me was ‘look after my parents, won’t you’. Almost the last thing that Jade did was get baptised and married and have her children christened too. Both signs of great hope that life is not ulimately useless and meaningless, but is a great, precious and wonderful gift and not at all ‘ordinary’.
May she rest in peace and rise in glory.