Colm Holland-Blog

Fish and chips with Desmond Mpilo Tutu

I had the immense privilege in 1986 of having a private lunch with Desmond Tutu in Surrey, England. My wife and I were living in the small village of Bletchingley, when Desmond visited from the USA, having just received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize and on his way to be invested as the Archbishop of Cape Town. He’d already received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and as you can imagine we were quite nervous about meeting such a ‘great man’ and unsure what we would talk about.

Desmond was visiting Bletchingley because it was there from 1965 to 1966 he was an Anglican Curate while studying for his Masters Degree in Theology (his dissertation was on Islam in West Africa). During his time in the village, he encouraged cooperation between his Anglican parishioners and the local Roman Catholic and Methodist communities. His family was also greatly supported by two prominent women in the church there; Lady Melanie Lambert, widow of the late Sir Uvedale Lambert and her lifelong friend Dee, who were now both in their early eighties. Desmond made a special detour to see them on his way home to South Africa.

In 1986, my wife was Lady Melanie’s personal secretary and we were thrilled to be invited to have lunch with her, Dee and Desmond.

We had no idea what to expect and when he arrived accompanied by his private chauffeur and our hearts missed a beat as he embraced Mel and Dee, his two old friends whom he so obviously regarded with great affection.

Desmond was not an aloof global statesman, but a humble and vulnerable human being with a heart full of love and a wicked sense of humour. Anyone who met Desmond will tell you that you forgot how small he was because all you noticed was his disarming and infectious smile.

‘What’s for lunch?’ were his first words to our small group after the initial greetings.

‘Fish and chips’ replied Dee.

‘Ah! Wonderful!’ replied Desmond, ‘Just the sort of thing a black man would like to eat!’ He then burst into his infectious cackling laughter and proceeded to give Dee a big hug. ‘I can’t remember the last time I had fish and chips, it’s a real treat. Now tell me everything that’s been going on in Bletchingley.’

The next hour or so they reminisced about the village and people past and present. He had a million and one questions and his love and interest in individuals was so apparent despite the immense responsibilities he now had on his shoulders as the leading outspoken cleric against the apartheid regime.

I finally plucked up the courage to ask a sensitive question.

‘Desmond, how do you manage to remain so committed to a non-violent struggle when your people are so brutally treated by the white government in South Africa?’ I explained that I had spent a month living with a black family in Cape Town and had visited Soweto; witnessing the terrible conditions first hand.

He smiled and then pointed to Lady Mel and Dee. ‘These two fine people and Sir Uvedale helped me to jettison any bitterness to whites and my feelings of racial inferiority. Through their love and care for my family I overcame my habit of automatically deferring to whites. I have these dear ones to thank for that. They helped me to realise it’s not about black and white, it’s about love between humans. Equality and justice cannot exist unless we all see each other as equals.’

Then Desmond said he had a plane to catch and we took some photos and waved goodbye to one of the humblest, most vulnerable, loving and powerful people I have ever met. It was from this place in his heart that he was able to win over hatred and injustice with unconditional love. As he once said,

“We are made for loving. If we don’t love, we will be like plants without water.”

Desmond Tutu 7 October 1931 – 26 December 2021

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