Michael Harding“What we’re celebrating, to be clear, at Christmas, is the story of a young refugee who is pregnant…”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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Michael Harding says he doesn’t believe in God but he does have his own take on what Christmas is actually about. In a conversation full of literary quotes and poetic anecdotes, the columnist and author told Seán O’Rourke how he thinks the Bethlehem story resonates today:

“What we’re celebrating, to be clear, at Christmas, is the story of a young refugee who is pregnant who wasn’t turned away from the hostels or the houses or the compounds, but was actually given an aul’ stable to lie in and have her baby”

Harding has just published his latest book, Chest Pain: A Man, a Stent and a Campervan; so called because it follows an acute heart attack and its effects on Harding’s outlook on life. Yes, a camper van does feature in the story, and he and his wife have taken said vehicle on some enjoyable, if cramped road trips. The sleeping quarters in the van are a bit of a squeeze, apparently.

There is endless space available however, in Michael Harding’s heart for the refugees who’ve made Ireland their home. One man in particular, from Aleppo in Syria, has become Harding’s good friend and is now “his teacher”. Michael says he came into his life at the right time, as he lost another great friend and mentor, the playwright Tom MacIntyre:

“Tom MacIntyre was my teacher. He was a real wise man for 40 years of my life, and he taught me an awful lot. And he died, he passed away. And the night he died, a book by Rumi, The Glance, fell off my shelf and the next day I met that man on the road. […] He teaches me about Islamic poetry and the absolute beauty and elegance of some of the Islamic ideas in the poetry of Rumi.”

Michael’s friend later told him about the terrible loss he had suffered in his journey from Syria. His sister and her two children had died at sea in their attempt to travel from the war-torn country of their birth to Ireland.

And this brings us right back to Michael Harding’s views on God and Christmas. A listener texted in during the chat with Seán O’Rourke, challenging Harding on his stance and accusing him of being “a communist”. Harding related it to the refugee story:

“We’re pointing at a baby, an ordinary human child of a refugee and saying, ‘If you don’t see God there, you can stop talking about God.’ ”

To fully appreciate the richness of Michael Harding’s storytelling and his ability to find a poetic quotation to embellish any topic; including mental health, heart attacks, love and bewilderment, you really have to listen to the full chat with Seán O’Rourke here.

Chest Pain: A Man, a Stent and a Campervan by Michael Harding is published by Hachette books and is out now.

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2019

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