Terry Waite: poetry helped keep me alive
Composing poetry in his head helped keep former hostage Terry Waite alive during his long years of captivity, he told an audience in Norwich recently …
The former Middle East envoy to the Archishop of Canterbury was captured and held hostage in Beirut in 1987 for five years. Now a writer and humanitarian, he spoke about his recently published poetry book at an event in Norwich recently. Helen Baldry reports for Network Norwich and Norfolk.
In the long, lonely years of captivity, often chained to a wall, blindfolded and tortured, Terry composed poetry in his head to keep himself mentally and spiritually alive.
He wrote a poem about torture based on his own experience. He muses “What manner of person can inflict such indignity and pain?”
Terry said that all poetry is putting experience into a condensed form that somehow tries to convey the depth of feeling of the experience. The uncertainty of Terry’s time in captivity was very difficult for him. At any moment he could lose his life. On one occasion he was chained up in the bath while everyone else evacuated the building during violent shelling.
Terry was kept for 23.5 hours a day in solitary confinement and only had pen and paper on two occasions. Once was during his mock execution when he was told to write a note to his family – and once when a compassionate guard allowed him to have a piece of paper.
He used the opportunity to scribble a picture of a penguin – so desperate was he to have access to a book. He hoped the guard could illegally procure him some Penguin books – rather than a breastfeeding manual that was smuggled into him when he requested a book previously: the guards could not read English so didn’t know what it was!
After nearly five years in solitary confinement, Terry was moved to be with other people. Whenever he was relocated, he was always wrapped up – sometimes in masking tape, or put in a pipe, and once in a fridge (‘An American fridge’ he jokes – he is 6’7”!) the most unusual occasion was dressed as an Islamic woman!
Terry is very clear that the past is past. He said, “We make our life now. We put everything we’ve got into it now because tomorrow is another day.”
Another poem, Waiting, that was inspired by a visit to a friend’s mother in a nursing home, reflects on this urge to make the most of every day. The final line is “God grant us life while we still have earthly time”.
Terry enjoys the serenity of Quaker worship. However he was brought up in the Anglican church and was a chorister, which meant he had memorised many psalms and collects, which proved to be a comfort to him during his captivity. Bible verses provided great meaning when he was in darkness and afraid.
He said, “It was there, lodged in my mind ... Good language, like good music, has capacity to bring harmony into the soul.” Terry believes that words must be backed up with action, which forces people out of their comfort zones. He said, “Our faith is not just a matter of attending church. It is being a co-creator and having a responsibility for the environment and for others.”
Since his release, Terry has worked in many prisons, particularly with the charity Storybook, which enables prisoners to record a story on CD or film for their children. He works with Hostage UK, supporting the families of people who were killed by ISIS.
Terry is moved by the suffering of people. He said: “Unless something miraculous happens, humankind will destroy itself through pollution and war. We have that capacity.” However, he believes it is important to keep hope alive: “Eventually these problems will be resolved by talking … the time will come.”
Terry’s ordeal happened 30 years ago and he has forgiven his captors. He believes that people who oppose each other must agree to put the past in the past and build a new life. He believes it is possible to make something creative from that experience – something he has done in his work and through his poetry.
Terry was speaking at the URC Church on Princes St, Norwich, at an event organised by Revelation Christian Resources Centre, where you can buy Out of the Silence: Memories, poems, reflections (SPCK £9.99).
PHOTO: Terry Waite with Steve Foyster, manager of the Revelation Christian resources centre, at the Princes St URC in Norwich. Picture by Kevin Gotts.