Letter from Roger Tarbuck, August-September 2019

“Ambience: environment, surrounding influence, atmosphere (Chambers)”

Roger Tarbuck

Because of all the wars in the 20th century, we grew up used to the idea that young men, and some women, could be conscripted into the armed forces. Some of them would die, as my cousin did. Some would be wounded, as my father was. Many people were killed, with all kinds of suffering globally. An estimate of worldwide deaths due to war and murderous tyrants in the twentieth century is about one hundred million. Because of the powerful ambience of the time, we had to accept this dreadful background. We blended in with it. It was often terribly worrying, or even frightening, but because it involved the whole of the population, it was “normal”.

The ambience of war, in one form or another, embraced us all for much of our lives, uniting us, in my early time (WW2), in the songs of Vera Lynn, rationing and queues, railway stations, with hundreds of soldiers, sailors and airmen moving about purposefully, many of them on the last journey they would ever make, God bless them, all united in the ambience of total war, which dictated our thoughts, our loves and our fears. I can still hear the steady voice on the wireless: “This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the six o’clock news and this is Alvar Liddell reading it. The Ark Royal has been sunk…” No fuss, no drama, no change of voice, just facts – it was all part of our ambience, which gripped us and carried us on, united in one common, powerful and sometimes terrible experience.

Vera Lynn

Now, in many parts, we have an ambience of violence, which includes a strong element of knife crime. To many people, especially young boys, carrying a deadly knife has become common, in case someone attacks them. That has developed into it being normal for many boys and men to carry a murderous weapon without any threat being felt, just as it was once normal for men to carry a small useful penknife, a comb, a nail-file, a cigarette case, a lighter and a pin in the point of a lapel. For years, I carried all six. Not now. (Apart, of course, from a pen, a wallet, a diary, loose change, a door key, glasses, a watch and a handkerchief – all still with me and others like me.) Such habits were, and still are, dictated by our environment, into which we fit so easily. Now, for many young males, it is carrying knives made for killing people.


All over the world, people are caught in the ambient tides of the age. Oceans of unconscious psychic forces sweep this way and that, often with nations sleep-walking from disaster to disaster, with solutions involving frightful “collateral damage” – with unimaginable pain and loss of life – catastrophic unintended (or viciously intended) consequences, and expenses running to trillions. Fifty-seven years ago, I read in a magazine that, if the world continued developing as it was, in the future it was likely that a population of a hundred million could be in the hands of a tyrant with the intelligence of a ten-year-old. How accurate is that?

Religion is a strong creator of ambience, and one has to admit that much suffering is caused by it, but not by all religion, as some atheists would have us believe. The ambience of good religion sustains us in times of suffering and bereavement. It was good “surrounding influence” when young men sang psalms in a pub, or displayed their voices with hymns sung mightily in the bus queue when the pubs closed on a Saturday night. Unashamedly religious, they blended with the time. Such a good surrounding influence helps to keep us sane, providing psychic balance and cohesion in chaotic times.

There are always differences of opinion. In this country, though we have been sorely tested this year, we have survived without the extremes that have afflicted some other nations. All countries have an ambience: some good, some bad, but I’ve always felt happy when returning from abroad. I love the atmosphere of our home country; when I arrive here after an absence, it wraps me round with love, as anyone’s home does, wherever they live in the world.

As individuals, we carry around our own ambience, which others can sense, and when we form groups, the surrounding influence more powerfully advertises who we are to all who come to us. I remember my first Unitarian chapel. I was welcomed in a gentle atmosphere: warm, friendly – and free! It was like nothing I had experienced before. Of course, all “denominations” are welcoming and do tremendous amounts of good, but there’s nothing quite like the Unitarian ambience. Our churches are islands of spiritual freedom and reason. They show the light in the darkness to any who struggle to find the way. They tell us that, in spite of all trouble, in spite of all cruelty, hatred and strife, the love of God will never die, however it may appear to us. There is a place for us. We have to survive.

Yours sincerely,
Roger Tarbuck