Boston’s Tragedy

When I started this blog, I was very clear in my mind that its purpose was as a food blog – a blog for recipes, for sharing tips and ideas. I try to include snippets of my life here, and memories behind various recipes, but I felt very strongly when I started out that the posts had to be first and foremost about food – and I still do.

Sometimes, though, something comes along in life, which at one and the same time renders you speechless, and makes you want to shout out loud. For me, yesterday’s tragic events in Boston is one of those things – and so I hope you will forgive me while I digress.

First, and most importantly – Noel and I, and our friends and loved ones here, are safe and well, and for this I am so very thankful. In fact, I was on a plane, having left Johannesburg moments before the blasts, and so knew nothing until I landed at JFK this morning and my phone went beserk. I am pathetically grateful not only that I was far away, but also that I didn’t find out until I had landed and therefore didn’t have to spend the 15 hours of the flight wondering if friends were safe, with no way of finding out.

My initial reaction was, and still is, shock that someone could do this to my beloved adopted city. That someone can target an event such as this – an event swarming with families, for one thing – beggars belief. Loss of life is always a tragedy, in some capacity or another, and we can find ourselves on shaky ground when we start to categorise one death as more or less tragic than another. But the cowardice of something like this – the sheer, willful, indiscriminate desire to do harm – makes me rage inside.

It is hard not to feel full of despair at moments like these, especially when they occur so close to home. However, as I mourn Boston’s loss, as I am saddened for the families who have lost loved ones, the people whose lives will never be the same again, I remember a speech I once heard, and which I would like to share with you.

When I am not swanning around on a year off, my day job is as part of the team which organises the BBC Proms concerts in London each summer. The culmination of this two-month music festival is the Last Night of the Proms – a gaudy, celebratory affair, hailed as a national treasure by some and a jingoistic anachronism by others. The 2009 Last Night of the Proms will always have a special place in my heart, because it was the first time I attended the event.

Each year, the BBC Symphony Orchestra performs, along with the BBC Symphony Chorus, and whichever conductor is chosen to direct proceedings is expected to give a speech. This is no mean feat – the concert is broadcast live on BBC Radio and TV, and across the world in more countries than I can begin to remember. In 2009, David Robertson, that year’s conductor, gave a speech which has stuck with me ever since, and which came back to me as I faced yesterday’s horrific events. You can view the whole speech here – it is a wonderfully funny, witty, self-deprecating speech, but I would especially like to share the final few minutes with you:

‘I’d like to keep it short. One of the things which happens in this extraordinary society where today people are watching this around the globe in real time right while it’s happening here… music is this thing which is always fleeting from us and always escaping and that we always wish we could hold on to, and that’s what makes the Last Night of the Proms so wonderful.

But in this same society, we have the possibility of daily updates of extraordinary instances of man’s tremendous inhumanity to man. And so, when you’re a musician you often think, ‘well is anything that I’m doing having any worth at all trying to combat this, trying to work for unity’. So let me leave you with this. You see behind me a Symphony Orchestra. Every single one of the instruments has an entirely different background and history: they come from different places on the globe; they’ve had different developments; they sound different; they look different; they don’t actually interact at all. And yet – if we were to lose one single one of the instrumentalists on the stage, we would feel an incredible lack. And so when the next time your soul sinks, assailed with some sort of horrid indication that people can’t get along together, please remember the orchestra, which is a very powerful symbol – that the things which unite us are far, far stronger than the things which would seem to keep us apart.’

I take great comfort from these words. They remind me that for every ‘instance of man’s tremendous inhumanity to man’, there are instances of hope – of people who, with no thought for themselves, come to the aid of their fellow men. There are countless stories emerging from yesterday – one which sticks with me is the men who finished the marathon and kept running till they reached the hospital, so that they could donate blood.

I believe that in order for us to find a way past this atrocity and others like it, we have to look to find the same humanity in our enemies that we see in our friends. I believe that we have to try, even when it seems hopeless, to find those things which unite us, and try to find a way to make them more important than the things which seem to keep us apart. And so I look to the orchestra, that wonderful example of unity, and I hope that, one day, we will get there.

In the meantime, I say this to you: gather your loved ones around you. Hold those dear to you close, and celebrate everything that is wonderful about each other. Invite all of your friends around for dinner – see! this is about food! – and take joy, even as you mourn, in friendship and love. There are people out there telling us that we must go on with our lives, that this is the strongest message we can send that attacks such as these will not work. I agree – but I think we must take it further, that we must celebrate our lives, even in all their glorious ordinariness. And that this begins with celebrating the most important thing of all – friends, family, and the people you love. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to make us remember this – but sometimes that is the way of the world. And, as you know, I will take any excuse for dinner…