Terry Waite on solitary confinement, hatred and forgiveness

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

TW             Terry Waite


TW             One of the things one’s attempting to do in a situation like that is to maintain that inner harmony, or develop that inner harmony, to stop yourself from fragmenting within. And good language, like good music, has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   Terry Waite has led an extraordinary life. Born in 1939, he grew up in the small town of Style, in Cheshire. Rejected from the British Army because of an allergy to their uniform dye, he instead joined the Church Army, serving as a lay member of the church. He worked in Africa, where he witnessed the Idi Amin coup in Uganda and became a hostage negotiator. After successfully assisting with the release of hostages in Iran and Libya, he was deceived by Hezbollah and held as a hostage in Lebanon for five years. During that time, he was tortured and held in solitary confinement.

                   Released in 1991, Terry  has written several books, including Taken On Trust, Footfalls in Memory, Travels with a Primate, The Voyage of the Golden Handshake and Solitude. He devotes himself to three causes. International development, helping the homeless in Britain and assisting families of people held hostage. Terry, welcome to The Good Life podcast.

TW             Thank you very much.

AL               So your childhood sounds quite idyllic. Son of the village policeman, in a small English town. Was it that?

TW             Well, I was brought up, as you said, in a small English village, and my father was the village policeman. And that isn’t always the easiest father to have, in a small community. Because you get into any trouble and you are immediately identified as the son of the policeman, and so you can’t get away with any mischief, really, because it always gets back to your father. But having said that it was an environment and an upbringing for which I’m really quite grateful.

                   Because it gave me, from the very early days, a real sense of belonging, a real sense of identity, which was something that I value very greatly.

AL               Were your parents strongly religious?

TW             Not at all. My father never went to church, my mother was brought up as an Anglican and she went occasionally. I went because I was keen on music and on singing, and I joined the church choir. And my father, who was a fairly strong disciplinarian, said to me, well look, if you start something, you’d better continue it. So  on the Sundays I didn’t feel like going, he got behind me and said, you go along, you’ve joined this, see it through.

                   And so I became a regular attender at church, and again I’m very grateful for the background that gave me. It gave me an appreciation and a love of music, which has lasted across life. It gave me a love of language because in those days we used the Book of Common Prayer, which has marvellous, rhythmic language in it, if you like. And also, again, it helped me with some fundamental understandings.

AL               And what made you an internationalist? Many people who grow up in small towns don’t necessarily look to travel to Africa. Do you remember seminal moments of your childhood that made you think more of yourself as a citizen of the world?

TW             Well, I always longed to escape sort of the boundaries of that small community. And in those days, of course, to try and find transport to get you out of the immediate environment was extremely difficult, it was very expensive, and so I got a bicycle. My father, again, said to me, well, if you want a bicycle you’d better contribute to it yourself. And so I did a newspaper round, morning and evening. I used to work in a market garden at weekends to save up enough money.

                   And so when I’d saved up enough money we got an old bicycle frame which we had sprayed. My father got the parts, put a bicycle together. And then I could cycle and cycle miles, and I cycled miles and miles in the surrounding countryside. And then when I was 15, I think, I started hitchhiking, hitchhiking was relatively safe in those days. So I hitchhiked around Scotland and then I decided to have a go at hitchhiking abroad in the school holidays, and went as far as Vienna which is about a thousand miles from London, just about a thousand.  

                   Got to Vienna and I thought, gosh, this is a long way, better go back on the train. And so I went to the train station, looked out a ticket, counted out my money. I hadn’t even got enough money to get me into Germany, never mind the UK.

AL               You’d hitchhiked too far?

TW             And so I had to hitchhike all the way back home again. But they were interesting days and it was sort of my first venture into the world outside that small community.

AL               And why Africa? Was it that the Church Army was keen to send you there or did you have a particular yen for Africa?

                   No, it occurred rather accidentally, really, like many things in life. I was seconded from the Church Army and I worked quite a lot with the Church of England board of education. My first main job was an education officer in an English diocese in the West of England, and I was responsible for adult education programmes across that area.

                   And during that time also I was working alongside the Church of England board of education where we were concentrating on developing new forms of education, new forms of teaching. And I helped conduct conferences for teachers and also for leaders in business and industry on leadership methods. And in that process I used to travel. I travelled to the States, I travelled to various places.

                   And one of the journeys I made was to Africa, to conduct a conference out there, or to assist in the conducting of a conference out there, for leaders, in Uganda. And it was leaders from across the country, largely to help them with a deeper understanding of inter-group conflict and tribal conflict and what have you. And as a result of that I was asked if I would go there and work for a period of three years, principally to be an advisor to the new African Archbishop of Uganda, a man by the name of Erica Sabiti.

                   And also to be responsible for developing a programme such as I’d been involved in, and also training my successors. So we packed up and went out there for a period of years.

AL               And then in the 1980s you moved into work as a hostage negotiator, and had success in both Iran and Libya and indeed in Lebanon. There must have been a real exhilaration, a real pride, in being part of a successful negotiation that sees somebody win their freedom.

TW             Well, they were very exhausting years. I mean, my first real negotiation at a very significant level was with General Amin. You may remember that Amin came to power in Uganda, he usurped Obote. And it was a time of extreme difficult in Uganda. It was the first time in my life that I had ever seen people murdered before my eyes. And, of course, a bishop of the Church was murdered, Janini Luwum, who constantly stood up against some of the atrocities of that regime, he wouldn’t give way. And he was murdered.

                   So it was a fraught time. And from that experience, when I left Uganda I joined the staff of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, at Lambeth Palace, where my office was. And he wanted someone on his staff who was knowledgeable about international affairs. And in the intervening years, between leaving Africa and joining him in London, I’d constantly travelled the world and worked in most of the trouble spots of the world. And I joined his staff, and that’s when the negotiations began.

                   Because initially church people were taken hostage and eventually that spread beyond church people to others, for whom I worked. And yes, I did engage in negotiations, in Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution when I met with revolutionary guards.

                   In Libya with Colonel Gaddafi, and in Beirut. And yes, I suppose there was a certain satisfaction in getting people out and in seeing desperate people enjoy freedom once more. Because, to be honest with you, I don‘t really believe that anybody, certainly not myself, I don’t believe you do something exclusively for other people. I’m not full of altruism. I think when you do things for other people, consciously or unconsciously you’re doing something for yourself. And I suppose that was so, in my case.

AL               Though that seems a somewhat harsh view of your own career. I look at your career and see a career of extraordinary sacrifice. It’s interesting that you’re so self-critical of your own altruism there.

TW             Well, yes, but I think that’s realistic. I don’t view it negatively, I just want to be realistic about what one’s motives are, you know? Sometimes people say, oh, what a wonderful fellow, full of self-sacrifice and so on. Well, I’m an ordinary sort of person and I’ve just done what I believed I should do. And, I must admit, what I wanted to do. I wanted to do that, I wanted to be involved in some of these issues in life because I believe it’s part of my responsibility just as a normal human being to try and work for peace and harmony, not just in the world but also within myself.

                   Someone said to me once, have you ever stopped to consider why it is you’re so active in working for people, working for reconciliation? And I said, well, yes, I think I have. And he said, could it not be that you’re working for your own inner peace and reconciliation? I said, you’re probably absolutely right.

                   The two are linked, and I think anybody who is going to be effective and successful in working for peace and understanding in the world also needs to take a look at themselves and say, well, do I experience that within? Have I got inner harmony? Because if I haven’t what am I doing, trying to create harmony around me?

AL               There’s quite a Buddhist overtone to that observation, that’s an interesting one. I want to ask you about the events that led up to your capture. You were told, I understand, that one of the hostages you wanted to see be released was sick and therefore that you would need to go and see him. Did you think at the time that that might lead to your own capture?

TW             I never went on any mission to secure the release of hostages without recognising the fact that I was in danger. There was always a possibility of being kidnapped myself or being killed. And I always used to say myself, well, face that possibility. If it happens, well, no-one else is to blame. No-one has sent you here, you’ve gone on your own volition and if it goes wrong take your own responsibility for that. That’s been my attitude, and still is my attitude, of course.

                   And when I went on that last visit in Beirut, yes, I knew very well that it was an extremely dangerous situation. But again, I come back to that earlier point about recognising the fact that I’m not full of altruism. When the offer was made to me to go and see someone who was ill and about to die, or so I was told, I decided to go. And the reason for that decision was, I said to myself, if that man dies and I haven’t got the courage of my own conviction to go and see him, and he dies, I’m going to have to life with my conscience for the rest of my life.

                   And so there you can argue again personal motive enters into it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that, I just think it’s necessary to recognise it. And so I went back and in fact was captured.

AL               Where did they put you?

TW             Well, initially I was put in an underground cell. It was beneath a carpark, the carpark was beneath, as I believe, a large apartment building. And this was an underground cell, of which there were two or three cells down there. They were tiled. There was a generator which was providing electricity, independent of the building above. They had a primitive toilet, and the cell was so small I could hardly stand up in it. But it had obviously clearly been purpose-built, and there were other prisoners down there.

                   Whom they were I don’t know. I did ask, eventually, other Western hostages if they’d been kept there, but they hadn’t, in that particular place. So I had no idea who the people were next door. I got one visit a day to the bathroom, such as it was, a very primitive structure. And no furniture in this cell. I mean, my blood ran cold when I saw what it was because I recognised that these cells had been tiled in order to be cleaned up easily, after people had been knocked around. And of course I wondered what my future was, at that point.

AL               Your immediate reaction was to go on a hunger strike. Why was that?

TW             Well, I was angry, I was angry. I was angry with myself, for taking that risk. I was angry with my captors. And I think if you’re angry you have to do something about it. I mean, I’ve written a book called Out of the Silence which is a book of poems and reflections, and many of them had their beginnings and their genesis in those years of captivity. And I wrote one about anger, which is the only one I can remember, actually, offhand.

                   It’s, Anger is like a consuming fire, seeking all whom it may devour. Do not extinguish the flames totally but warm yourself by the gentle glow of the embers. In other words, saying, it’s a natural force which is in everybody and it can consume you, and you can’t ever put out totally the fires of anger. It’s a force, it’s a powerful natural force that’s within everybody. So try and recognise that force, don’t let it consume you but let it in some way… Use that energy that’s generated there for good purpose or creative purpose.

                   I can’t say that I did that all the time, but I kept that in mind, eventually First of all, though, to deal with anger, I went on hunger strike, I didn’t eat for a week. And I suppose, looking back, what I was doing there was saying to myself, well, they’ve captured you physically but they haven’t captured you totally, mentally. You still have an area of freedom to make your own decision, and my decision then, I took it, I wouldn’t eat for a week. And after a week, they came and they said, if you don’t eat now, we shall make you eat. And by then my anger had become more under control.

                   But I also remember saying three things to myself when I was captured, and I’ not sure where they came from. I said, no self-pity, don’t feel sorry for yourself because if you do you’ll be demoralised. No over-sentimentality, don’t say, if only I’d been a better husband, a better father, spent more time with the children. Well, you can’t live life… You have to live it on from that point. So I somehow tried to keep away from self-pity, away from all the sentimentality.

                   I mean, obviously it came back. I thought at times, well, I felt sorry for myself. But then, when it did come back, I reminded myself that that’s a fatal way to go, you’ve got to just face the situation and get on with life. 

AL               And you focused on ordering your day, didn’t you? Why is it important that one orders one’s day, when in solitary confinement?

TW             Well, I’d read about people in solitary confinement and I’d heard about people losing their reason when they were in solitary. And it was particularly difficult, I think, when I was constantly in the dark. It didn’t last too long but there were times when I was constantly in the dark. And that was very disorientating. The situation in solitary, and I was moved from this underground place, I was moved to other places and other locations, but the conditions were that I was always chained. I was chained by hands and feet, for 23 hours and 50 minutes a day.

                   When I was moved, sometimes to a bombed-out building, I was in an upper room with no furniture, I slept on the floor. When anyone came in the room I was blindfolded. Metal shutters were put in front of the window so no natural light came in. It was a situation of extreme isolation. I wasn’t allowed to speak with anyone, apart from a cursory word with the guards when they brought in food, and I got, as I said, one visit to the bathroom a day. No books and papers, nothing.

                   So it was this situation of extreme isolation. And within that, when you’re totally in the dark, you quickly, quickly get disorientated. And as I said, mercifully that wasn’t always the case, not being in the dark. Because at times I did get a candle, although at times electricity did work, and that was a help. But what particularly was a help was when I was moved to a building, somewhere in Beirut, which was near to a mosque. And therefore I could hear the call from the minaret, morning, noon and night.

                   And that gave me a structure. And I think the importance of a structure is that somehow it gives you, again, a sense of identity, a sense of purpose, a sense of order, which you need, you just somehow need that. And when I heard the call from the minaret, of course then I knew it was morning, noon and night and could so structure my day accordingly.

AL               Which was worse, to be tortured or to be in solitary confinement?

TW             Oh, I think to be tortured was worse. I mean, some would argue that total solitary confinement is a form of torture. I suppose it is, it is a form of real isolation, isn’t it? I mean, my torture was nothing as bad as many people have had around the world, unfortunately still receive, it still goes on. I was simply beaten on the soles of the feet with cable.

AL               You still have difficulty walking because of those injuries, though, don’t you?

TW             I used to enjoy walking, I’m afraid I’m not so good at walking now, so it didn’t do me a lot of good, in that respect. But I just think that, as I said, many people have suffered far worse tortures than that. I just think it is a form of behaviour that of course is outlawed by the international community. And certainly ought to be, because anyone who commits that form of atrocity immediately loses the moral high ground, and it’s also very unreliable.

                   The reason, of course, they were treating me in that way was that wrongly they believed I was an agent of a foreign power, when in fact of course I wasn’t, I was a humanitarian. And the torture and the beatings stopped after twelve months when they told me that they believed I was genuinely a humanitarian and they were going to let me go home.

                   And I was put into good accommodation for a week, but something happened in the outside world and I went back from good accommodation into hostage accommodation. But after that there was no further beatings. I mean, I was in solitary, I was deprived in that way, but there was no further physical violence.

AL               What role did your faith play in keeping your spirits up, during that period?

TW             Well, I think in a number of ways. First of all, I’ve never been the sort of person to wear my faith on my sleeve, you know what I mean by that. And I’ve refused to allow myself to engage in extemporary prayer, that’s the sort of prayer where you make up your own words and you have a conversation with God. I didn’t do that because I thought if I did do that I was just going to get into a situation of pleading with God, oh God, get me out of here, it would just be one way and off balance.

                   And it was then, going back to your earlier points about a small village, that I was grateful that I’d been brought up with the regular use of language and the Book of Common Prayer. So all that, when I was young, unconsciously had been committed to memory. And there, within my deep recesses of my memory, there was the Psalms and the services of the Church and the prayers of the Church.

                   So I could say, for example, which I did, a simple Collect, like In our darkness, we beseech thee, oh Lord, and by Thy great mercy defend us from all the perils and dangers of this night. A very simple prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, but a prayer that has great meaning when you are in the dark and when you are afraid and when you are alone. And not only that, that language has a rhythm and harmony.

                   One of the things one is attempting to do in a situation like that is to maintain that inner harmony, or to develop that inner harmony, to stop yourself fragmenting within. And good language, like good music, has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul. And I began to write in my head in those first years. I mean, I wrote my first book, Taken On Trust was written in my head, without pencil and paper, again to keep my brain moving, to keep it working, and to respect language.

                   And to come back to your question about faith, again it didn’t vary, it didn’t change very much at all. It may have deepened a bit. I never, for one moment, said, why am I here? Why, God, did you allow this to happen? Because that’s not my understanding of God. I mean, I think we take our own responsibility in life, we make our decisions and we stand by them, we are responsible.

                   If there’s one sort of understanding that stands out in my mind is understanding that we are co-creators with God, that we have a role and responsibility in creation for ourselves for ourselves, in creation of this world. And it’s not a God upstairs who dictates to us, you do this, you do that, be punished for this and punished for that. We take our own responsibility, and as a co-creator we try and at least make ourselves and this world a more harmonious place. So it didn’t vary, it kept pretty much the same.

AL               Upon your release in 1991, you put yourself back into society slowly and it seemed to me a little as thought what you were doing for your soul is what we say we should do for people who’ve been badly starved. That the great risk is that if they just eat as much as they want to, straight away, it will cause terrible troubles. And so they’ve got to slowly eat, morsel by morsel, as they recover themselves. You went to Cambridge and were in a fairly cloistered environment in those early years. Did that serve you well?

TW             Very well indeed. I owe a tremendous debt to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, because when I came out I was asked to do so many things, and I said, I’m not going to do any interview, apart from one interview, or do anything, for a period of time. I was elected to a fellowship at Trinity Hall and I did live in the college, in this cloistered environment. I went home at weekends, and went and lived in college in the week, and came back into family life, step by step, as well as back into the world, step by step, so to speak.

                   But it was during those days in Trinity Hall that I put down on paper the book that I’d written in my head, in those years. And I just sat at my desk and started to write and then took part in college activities in the evening and so on. And that was the best thing I could have done, coming back into life in that way. And it is something I would recommend to anybody who’s been through a traumatic experience, is take your time coming out of it. Don’t rush everything and recognise that you need the time to adjust to the world as it’s changed and to begin to sort out your own thoughts.

AL               One of the most extraordinary aspects of your post-release period has been your capacity for forgiveness, including, as I understand it, going back to personally forgive your captors.

TW             Well, I’ve often said that we all, ordinary people, have a responsibility in this world to bring about peace. And we live in such a terrible, terrible world in many respects. I mean, it’s a wonderful world in other respects but there are certain people who are suffering enormously. I mean, only last night I was reading a document concerning people in the Middle East, the number of people that have been displaced from their homes, thousands and thousands.

                   I mean, that’s laying not only for them personal disaster but it’s laying a personal disaster in the region for generations to come, in terms of warfare. And I’ve often thought, what is it ordinary people can do to bring about a little more harmony and a little more peace in the world? And I came up with a very seemingly naïve answer, really. I said, if only people who’ve had disputes, one with another, be they political disputes, religious or whatever, if only they could sit down, face each other and agree to put the past in the past and build a new future together.

                   At least that can be the basis for political settlement. Because I do believe that there can be no political settlement of some of the great issues of this world unless people on the ground are in accord with that and will make it work. You can’t impose political settlements on communities. And I said to myself, well, it’s all very well you saying that in an interview or on a public platform, wouldn’t it be much better if you went and did something about that? So I thought, well, now’s the time to go back and meet with my captors.

                   So I went back to Beirut and I went back to the headquarters and sat down opposite one of the leaders of the group, and said what I’ve said to you. Let’s put the past in the past. We’ve had difficult times, you’ve had your difficulties, I’ve had mine, let’s put that in the past and try and make something creative from this situation. He was very surprised that I went to see him, and he said, well, what can we do?

                   And I said, well, I’ve just come back from the Syrian border and I’ve seen people who are in desperate situations, they’re cold and they’re hungry, can you at least get heating oil to them? He said, okay, we’ll do it. It’s a very simple gesture, I believe he did it. It’s a very simple gesture, it’s not going to bring about massive political change in the area, of course. But it is a step.

                   And again, if, let us say, it were possible for a few thousand people from the State of Israel and a few thousand people from Palestine to have the opportunity to meet and to talk and to put the past in the past. And to get out of their system some of the hate that is understandably there, at least there could be the beginning of the basis of a political settlement. Because it will never be imposed on people who are dissatisfied and disaffected and at enmity, one with another.

AL               It’s an extraordinary story. You work too with the homeless in Britain, and I wonder how much your own experience helps you to connect in a way in which you would have otherwise been unable to do? Despite your extensive experiences in the Church, and had you not had that period of extreme deprivation?

TW             Oh, I think one of the great things… I mean, there are good things that come out of seemingly difficult and poor situations. And out of my situation, one of the very good things that came out of it was this. I have always had sympathy for people who are on the margins of life, the poor and deprived. I have always had that sympathy within me, it is just natural to have that for me. But in captivity that sympathy was developed into what I would call empathy.

                   Sympathy is to feel sorry for, empathy is to able to feel as other people feel. And I know what it is like to feel, now having had that experience, to be treated as worthless, to be kicked around, to have nothing, only the resources that you’ve got within you. And that propelled me, in a way, to be more fully engaged in some of the works that I’ve done since captivity.

                   Now, having always had that desire to work in that way, when I came out my job at Lambeth had been held open for me. By the way, I’m a layman, I’m not a clergyman. You can probably tell by the way I’m speaking, I’m not a clergyman, I’m a layman. But my job at Lambeth Palace had been held open, and I didn’t take it up, I said, why not launch out and earn your own living by writing and lecturing? And then give your time to the various organisations and charities that you feel you ought to support.

                   And I said, okay, I’ll try that. A bit risky because I was giving up a regular salary, but off I went. And one of the first things that I did was help establish an organisation in this country called Emmaus, E M M A U S. This was founded by a remarkable French priest, the Abbé Pierre, whose name is legendary in France,  and it’s an organisation for the homeless. Now, it is a charity but it doesn’t work in the normal ways that  a charity works.

                   What happens is this, that a homeless person, usually a single homeless person, but not exclusively so, male or female, will come into a community, so we have to build a community. Will be given a good standard, a good room, rather like a simple Travel Lodge, that type of room, with an en-suite bathroom. And there are a few conditions.

                   One, when you come into the community you must leave behind all state support. Two, you must not bring drink or drugs on premises because we want you to be in a safe environment. And three, you must agree to work according to your capacity, and work is provided on premises. The public donate goods and so on which are renovated and sold. So I opened the first community of that kind in England, in Cambridge, a couple of years or a year after I came out of captivity, and it got underway.

                   We got a co-ordinator who lived in a little portacabin, or caravan with a portacabin. Today, that community has been going now for all those years, 25, 26 years, and has a turnover of over one and half million pounds a year, and is flourishing. And has got loads of people back into life. And we now have 30 communities across the UK, and my aim is to have a community in every major city in the UK before I die, so it gives me an incentive to go on living a bit longer.

                   But we’re scratching the surface, as far as homelessness is concerned, because it’s a major problem. But at least we’re making a contribution. And I’ve seen in those years so many people who’ve been on the road for years, sleeping out and what have you. I see them come back into life and begin to find personal satisfaction, as well as being integrated back into community, which is a great thing, very satisfying to see that.

AL               You’ve shifted over the last decade or so from your Anglican upbringing towards becoming a Quaker. And I think you once described yourself as being a Quanglican, at the moment. What is it about the Quaker faith that appeals to you now?

TW             Well, it always has done. I’ve always had admiration for the Quakers, principally because of their business ethics, in the first instance. You know, in the United Kingdom the Quaker families were responsible for some of the big chocolate firms. Cadbury and all those firms, Fry’s and others, were initially chocolate Quaker families.

                   And their business ethics were brilliant. I mean, they really had a great care for their workers. They developed social housing for workers, they included workers in profit sharing. They were real pioneers in that field, and their business ethics were outstanding. Unfortunately, those chocolate firms have gone out of Quaker hands now, so a long time ago they’ve been sold on and moved on. But the business ethics of the Quakers and their understanding of business ethics continues.

                   But secondly also, in their conduct of their public worship, they accept anyone may go along to a meeting, and they place great value on a couple of things which are important. The genuine equality of all human beings. It doesn’t matter what belief,  what your education standards are, they don’t place much emphasis on earthly titles, so to speak, but on the fact that you’re a human being and we’re fellow human beings together.

                   And secondly, on the question of silence, they place great emphasis on the  recognition that silence is an important part of their worship and it’s something to be respected. And I can relate to that, particularly after my own experience of being kept in solitary and in silence, for year after year. I find it to be a creative and good experience. And I’m very happy to somehow straddle the two traditions. I’ve not given up my Anglicanism, I’m still an Anglican, but I, as you quite rightly say, call myself a Quanglican, which is somehow straddling those two rather important traditions.

AL               Now, your latest book is called Solitude, and I have to say you have impeccable credentials to write a book of that kind, given your period in solitary confinement. But what it is about solitude that you think we need to better understand? And how does solitude shape you now? I’m particularly thinking of the way in which you use your cottage as a writing space and the role of solitude in a contemplative life, in a good life, if you like.

TW             Yes, well, I’ve written this book, Solitude, and I’ve looked at solitude from different perspectives. It begins, actually, in Australia, because I went to Australia and I took a journey across Australia into the centre of Australia, across the Tanami Desert. You know, you go up to Alice, turn left and then go 400 miles across the Tanami until you actually come to one of the most remote road houses in Australia at Rabbit Flat.

                   When I was there it used to be run by a chap called Bruce Farrands, Bruce and Jackie Farrands. They’ve left there now, but I went to see Bruce and Jackie, who lived in this very remote region. I also went to some of the big cattle stations in Australia, to meet with people who lived on those stations and who had been in that rather solitary outpost for generations. Well, for years, anyway, whether or not generations, at least for years. And who found the solitude something that they truly valued, it made them complete, if you like.

                   One lady to whom I spoke had never been into town, for ten years. But she just revelled in the solitude, it was something that was natural for her, wholesome to her, good for her. But then I looked at solitude from a different perspective. In Chicago, I met with somebody who lived in an apartment block, surrounded by thousands of people. And yet solitude for him was deeply lonely and upsetting. He was not at ease with himself, he was not at ease with his environment. He couldn’t make relationships and friendships, and that type of solitude for him was crippling, awful.

                   Then I sort of relate the experience of other people. For instance, Svetlana Stalin, Stalin’s daughter, many, many years ago came to England, and I helped her establish herself in England, and for a while she stayed with us in our home in London. And one Christmas, Orthodox Christmas, she said to me, I’d like to go to church, I haven’t been for a long time. So I said, yes, I’ll take you, we’ll go to the Orthodox Church in Prince’s Gate. And she thought about it and then she said, well, I can’t. Everybody in that church will be there because of my father, they’ll know me. And I just can’t face them.

                   So her solitude was an inherited solitude, which was a negative solitude. She’d inherited it from her father, if you like, from her father, from her father’s misdeeds, and couldn’t live with that. Eventually she left England and went to live in the States, and she died in America.     

                   There are a number of other examples, which I won’t bore you with. But then finally, I spent, in the book, time talking with the matron of a hospice, who had been with something like 1700 people on that last journey out of mortal life, the journey we all take totally alone. And she had accompanied people as far as she could, on that particular journey. And she spoke most movingly about solitude and the way in which they, and all human beings will have to face it one day. And go through it gracefully and in a way which is wholesome.

                   We spoke about death and how the important thing is to recognise it. Okay, when you’re seriously ill, death seems to be at your elbow, is by your side all the time. But in fact the true facts of the matter are that death is always walking alongside us and can strike at any time. And it’s not something to be afraid of, it’s part of life, and somehow a part of life and living is to recognise that and to recognise that the solitude which we can enjoy is wholesome and creative, and not a destructive solitude.

AL               Yes, it’s a beautiful book, and I think the quote that best sums it up, you have a lovely line quoted from De Quincey. No man will ever unfold the capacities of his own intellect, who does not at least chequer his life with solitude.

TW             Exactly. That’s a good quote from him, isn’t it? I wish I could write like that.

AL               Who cares who wrote it? I mean, what’s striking about your life is the way in which you have, so successfully, chequered it with solitude, while being so much in the public eye

TW             Yes, well, I try to do that. I have been a lot in the public eye. To be quite honest, that’s mixed blessing. It’s good in one respect because it enables you, then to be known and to be able to be perhaps more effective in other fields. It does come with a cost, also, that you have to make then deliberate attempts to get away. But on the other hand I don’t want necessarily to be totally away from people.

                   But I do find this, that if you can somehow enter into solitude and enter into it and find it fulfilling, you are then much better able, at least in my experience, to be able to be with others more creatively. And so therefore it’s just finding a balance in life. I don’t want to be a complete recluse and total solitary person. On the other hand, I recognise it’s necessary to have that space in my life. 

  AL             Terry, a few final questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

  TW           To my teenage self? I would say, work a bit harder at your academic studies. I suppose one of the things I did lack a bit when I was younger was a bit of self- confidence. I mean, I can see now, looking back, where that started. I’m left-handed and in those days we had to write with a steel nib pen and ink. And the teacher always insisted that we wrote and that our letters had to slope forward. And of course if you’re left handed, writing with a steel nib and pen, you can’t do that without smudging the work.

                   And so I could never write fluently in that way, and it was a real menace to me and it really held me back, and it didn’t do much for my confidence. And I never got into writing until much later in life, when my father passed to me, gave me, his little Olivetti typewriter, portable, little Olivetti, and then I was liberated. I’ve got the most appalling handwriting now, but at least I can type, and could type. And then I began to find a flow of writing, and could write.

                   And so I suppose I would say, if I look back to my teenage years, well, take no notice of the teacher then. Why does she want to write? Write in another way, if you can. But at the same time… I wish I had learnt Latin, because I’ve got a real interest in language and Latin would have been a wonderful base. I didn’t and therefore it’s no good regretting that.

                   But I did encourage my children, we had four children, three daughters and a boy, I did encourage them to study Latin. A couple of them did, they went on to do foreign language degrees, and now are fluent in four or five languages, and that’s a great thing.

AL               What is something you used to believe but no longer do?

TW             I used to be firmly entrenched as an Anglican, believing that, well, how do I put it? I suppose my understanding of faith has really grown and developed, way, way beyond what it was when I was younger. I still hold true, as I said earlier, some of those basic points, but I suppose I’ve gone into the recognition that this is a great and mysterious world. That nobody could fully comprehend the mystery that is of this world.

                   But religion, and the different religions, not just the Christian religion but the different religions, are an attempt to interpret and understand that world and they have different expressions within different cultures. But part of the journey and life is not so much… I mean, the doctrines of the church, the doctrines of Christianity, the beliefs and understandings of other  faiths, they’re necessary, they give you a guideline. But they’re not the essence of it in themselves.

                   Where people stick to the law and stick to the rigid formulations of religions and regard those as the essence, they’re missing the point. The real point is beyond the structure, to the mystery. And the part of the journey and life for people of all religious persuasions is to go beyond the structure, to begin to enter more fully that mystery that is God and that mystery that lies in themselves.  

AL               When are you most happy?

TW             When am I most happy? It’s a very good question. I suppose when I can see around me something of the beauty of this world, be in the company of people who can appreciate that. And recognise that somehow, for a brief space of time, the harmony that I see around me is somehow reflected in, at least for a space of time, the harmony that’s within me.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do in your life, to stay mentally and physically healthy?

TW             Reading, I’m very fond of reading and I’m very fond of music. I’m actually president of the International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen in North Wales, and music plays a great part in my life and always has done. I’m not a musician myself, in so far as I don’t play any musical instrument. But I do love music and I do enjoy reading. And one of the things I’ve got to try and work out now, I’m getting on now, I mean, I’m 79 this next month, May, and I’ve got a house absolutely full of books, so I’ve got to work out what I’m going to do with that lot.

                   Because when you get to 80 next year, you begin to say, well, the days are shortening, I hope I live to 100, you never know, so therefore I’ve got to work out and sort out these things.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

TW             No, I don’t think I do really, no, I don’t think I do.

AL               Oh my gosh, you’ve earned the right to have more guilty pleasures than anyone I know.

TW             I’m trying to think, really. I don’t think I do, no. That’s a good question, it’s probably the one question you’ve asked me that I can’t answer, really. I’m not sure. I like chocolate, but I’ve got to ration myself. No, I don’t think I do, really. I used to drink but I gave up a number of years ago, largely to lose weight, and I’ve never gone back, I don’t regret that. So no, I can’t think. I’m sure other people will tell me that I have, but I can’t think what they are.

AL               And finally, Terry, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

TW             Well, I’ve worked a lot, in the past, with Desmond Tutu, and I’ve been with Desmond, lived with him in his home in South Africa. Travelled with him and worked with him in the most difficult areas of South Africa, during the apartheid years. And I’ve been with Desmond in his home when he’s received telephone calls threatening his life.

                   And on one occasion I had to go and appear as a witness for his character, can you believe that, how ridiculous, when he was appearing before Mr. Justice Eloff at the Eloff Commission, many years ago. When there was an attempt to try and discredit him because he was becoming too strong a political force in the country, at a time when apartheid was under threat.

                   And I saw how, in all these situations, he refused to hate. He constantly said that the power of love is greater than the power of hate, and that is something I always remember. He was a great man who put that belief into practice, in the most difficult of circumstances when he was under constant attack. So I think he is one of the probably many people in life, but one of the many people whom I’ve met who have made a deep impression on me and whom I respect and honour.

AL               Well, Terry Waite, hostage, humanitarian and writer, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.

TW             Well, thanks very much, and if anybody in those remote areas of Australia is listening, I enjoyed my visit there years ago and, yes, I do look forward to returning one day.

AL               We’d love to have you back. Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formally known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest, to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.   


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.