Sunday 24 January 2010

A true vision of Hell in Burnt Oak

As regular readers of this blog will know, we like something different at the weekend. Have you ever wondered what Hell is really like? We have the vision of Dante's inferno style of hell, the fire and brimstone vision such as proclaimed by tub thumping preachers. Being a good Catholic boy, it is quite noticable how we never much hear about hell in the pulpit these days. In the good old days of the sixties and seventies, when I was a youngster, we'd be scared to death with images of Satan and Hell.

Sometime in the late 1970's or early 1980's, I was having a beer with my Uncle Jim. He was a real larger than life character, a WWII veteran of D-Day, a father of 10 children and owner of local building firm. He was one of the world leading armchair philosophers and like all of the Fanning family, a great raconteur. He could conjour up vivid visions with his words, and make some of the most seemingly trivial incidents seem to be world changing events of monumental proportions. He used to brew his own beer and for a skint teenager was a great source of an evenings entertainment.

One evening as we chatted (well he chatted and we all listened), he announced. "You know all of these stories of hell and fire are rubbish. Hell isn't like that at all". I asked curiously "How do you know". He replied "Because I've seen hell and it isn't hot and crowded, quite the opposite". I was intrigued. Did this happen on the beaches at D-Day? No he replied, it happened on a dark, cold, foggy night in Burnt Oak during the blackout. Jim explained that he was back from the front on leave and he'd arranged to meet up with a few mates for a beer. One thing had lead to another and a little pub crawl had occurred. At chucking out time, Jim merrily toddled off into the smoggy, dank night air. After a short while walking, he realised that he'd taken a wrong turn or two and was completely lost. Nothing moved, no lights were on, he could hardly see five yards. One hour turned into two, two into three, three into four. Cold set in, fingers, ears, toes. There was not a soul on the street. Every house looked forebidding and alien. The mixture of disorientation, cold, dark, loneliness and tiredness started to play tricks on his mind. What if he'd died at the front and imagined everything since. What if he was in purgatory or even worse hell? He knew Burnt Oak like the back of his hand, but everywhere looked alien. What if there wasn't a home? What if he was to spend an eternity wandering lost around the streets of Burnt Oak, looking for home, looking for family, looking for friends. He said as he trudged, feeling ever more miserable, he realised Hell wasn't a place of fire and swrming crowds, it was a cold lonely place with no home, no family and no friends. Somewhere where you were isolated from the things you loved forever, trudging searching in the dark and the cold. Exhausted he stopped and sat down, distraught at this awful realisation. Then in the distance he hear a noise and realised that it was something moving on the local railway line. Overjoyed he knew that if he headed in that direction, he could find his way home. The trainline was located and soon the welcoming door of 55 Milling Road, had been located. As he entered the door, his father (my Grandad) asked "Where've you been, the pub shut hours ago?" Jim replied "I got lost in the fog and dark". Grandad replied "You stupid bugger". He then made him a cup of tea and they chatted for a while by the fire. Jim tld me that after the cold, dark outside, a warm fire and a mug of tea with the family seemed like heaven.

Jim told me that the feeling of being lost, lonely and cold was one he never ever wanted to experience again. You may wonder what brought this to mind? Well I was thinking about the situation in Haiti with the Earthquake and someone describing it as hell on Earth. At our Church this evening, they had a collection for the appeal and I was pleased to see a whole selection of notes of different colours. As we had a sermon asking us to think of the victims I thought of Uncle Jim, who died many years ago and his experience of hell in Burnt Oak. That is what the people of Haiti are feeling, bit they aren't drunks in the smog. Their local town really has changed. Their homes have gone, whole neighbourhoods of families and friends have been wiped out. For many, they will be cold for days, months or even years. If Hell is as Jim said being "cold, lonely, lost, hungry, thirsty and without a home, a friend or a family" then the least we can do is spare a little of our cash to change the bits of that we can change, such as the cold, hunger and thirst. That is why I stuck every spare penny I had in my wallet in the collection for DEC. I just wish I we could fix the things money can't solve as well.

Picture : The long gone Burnt Oak cinema. A landmark from a time gone by

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