Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Memory

I had a weird moment the other day. It was one of those I-didn't-know-that-I-could-do-that moments.

Many people, reading a book and looking back for a previous section, will retain a visual memory of exactly whereabouts on the page the sought-after words would be. If you can't do it I'm sorry. But it is not uncommon. I can do it.

Last week I was out walking by myself and listening to a Podcast. Half way across a field I met a friendly stranger who informed me that the next field contained a bull. He didn't recommend going across that field and asked me if I knew another way round. I did, but it was complex so I showed him and we walked together and chatted until we parted company maybe ten minutes later.

At this point I returned to my Podcast. I found that, although I had removed my earphones, I had not paused the programme.

I rewound a few minutes and listened. I recognised a piece I had already heard. I had rewound too far. Here's the weird moment. I knew exactly where I had been on my walk when I heard that bit. Precisely. It was about 300 yards before I met my new friend. I fast-forwarded a bit, but not far enough because again, I knew where I had been walking when I heard that bit. I got there in three.

Incidentally I had been listening to a Podcast about words so I note, in passing, how 'fast-forward' and 'rewind' are wedded to the days of tape recorders. I should find new words for what I do with my finger on an iphone touch-screen.

But is this phenomenon why memorising decks of cards etc works well if you imagine a journey to find them? Do any of my smarter friends have the explanation?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning on Breakfast with Emma. False start due to bad line meant I got to do it almost twice.

There's a Bible story about an unnamed rich man and Lazarus, a beggar who sits at the rich man's gate. Dogs lick his sores. I used to think this was the ultimate low. The dogs were taunting him. Even the dogs...

Then the penny dropped. Not taunting but serving. Even the dogs gave Lazarus what they could. Dogs' tongues have some medicinal qualities. They won't harm.

The rich man dies and sees Lazarus, also dead, at Abraham's side. Even in torment he gives orders. 'Send Larazus to bring me water. Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.' The rich man is a racist. Lazarus is not 'one of us'.

Can we get beyond the idea of only helping people who are 'one of us'? Thom from Fishponds is demonstrating so with his ten acts of kindness. If you do a random act of kindness for a stranger then you are doing it for whoever happens to be there.

Pay it Forward is a movie. Twenty years old now. In one of the opening scenes a guy gives a stranger his car on a wet night. When asked why the reply is simply 'pay it forward'. The film then explains how that state of affairs arose, as movies often do.

Elsewhere Jesus said that what you do for the least of these you did for me.

We should all learn that we don't have to find out what someone is like before being nice to them.

Two guys are walking past a beggar. The beggar asks for change. The first guy hands over £10. 'He's only going to spend it on drink' says his friend. 'What a coincidence' said the generous man 'that is exactly what I was going to do with it.'

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Empathy

Empathy. Noun. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is, en pathos (in suffering).
at root, a Greek word.

Some people are better at it than others. To one it comes naturally; to another it takes work. It cannot be separated from the need to do something about it once you've got it. Saying 'I feel your pain' while continuing the beating is many things but empathy isn't one of them.

In my first English class at secondary school I was given a dictionary. Chambers Etymological English Dictionary to be precise. I like the conceit of giving an eleven year old a dictionary the title of which included the first word he will have to look up. That dictionary (pictured) was a great friend and companion for the next thirty years until the internet gave me the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Chambers doesn't gather dust though. From time to time it is a useful tool to use to see if a word has subtly changed since the 1960s in its meaning and usage. I look up empathy. Nothing. It's not there. Not a word that an eleven year old would need in 1964, apparently.

My next stop, usually, in researching an essay on such an abstract subject, is to look for a chapter by Tony Grayling. Writing as A.C.Grayling his series of books on applying philosophy to everyday life is invaluable. Is there a chapter on empathy in the four volumes I possess? No, there isn't.

What an elusive word. But then, it is modern. 'The word 'empathy ... appeared in 1908 as a translation of the German Einfühlung (literally “in-feeling”). This early empathy was not about understanding another person, but about projecting one’s own imagined feelings and movements into objects. Empathy explained how a viewer perceived a mountain or architectural column as if it were rising because the viewer transferred his or her own feelings of stretching upwards into the mountain or column. Similarly, viewers could observe abstract lines moving in a painting because they projected their own inner sense of movement into the lines. Empathy was seen as key to the pleasures of art.'
(From Psychology Today)

The concept of empathy was introduced into the history GCSE National Curriculum in 1989 although many commentators felt that students were not yet equipped with the necessary life-skills to approach the subject this way. A society full of natural empathisers would not have bullying. But at this point the study of history became far more about the investigation of sources rather than the memorisation of facts. I passed history O and A Levels because memorising facts can be done for a few nights before an exam. I took the same methodology into the Church History section of a theology degree and passed that. Most facts needed for that exam were jettisoned shortly afterwards although a few make a surprising re-entry into the world during quiz nights as long as my inner archivist isn't dozing.

This change to the National Curriculum began to give us a generation of enquiring historians; people not forced to particular conclusions but learning a historical method by which they reached their own. Not told what historians think but learning how to think as historians. Many of those so educated are now helping us to understand history without its '...colonial legacy and racist under-pinning' (Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, quoted in theipaper 16/7/20). Michael Gove as Education Secretary famously took us back a few years to date and fact learning, possibly remembering the history classes of his own school days, who knows?

Between school and that theology degree, growing up and moving on, I worked in insurance claims and developed some knowledge of industrial legislation such as the Factories Act, the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act and the Health and Safety at Work Legislation. At this time (the 1970s) many claims were being dealt with by Employer's Liability insurers for industrial deafness. It was rarely denied that a claimant had been exposed to excessive noise if they had worked, for instance, in a foundry for thirty years. And unless they were also a part-time roadie for a rock band it was usually accepted that work had caused the injury. The question we asked was this, 'When should a reasonable employer have known this was a problem and provided protective equipment?' Our insureds were responsible for all injury caused after that date and full damages were assessed and then divided pro rata. It was a question of empathy. When did you start to feel your employees' pain and act upon it? When should you have done?

I now want to talk about slavery.

The history of humankind is of the development of nation states - land-grabbing, conquest and empire building. From the point of view of our own history it is worth noting that the last truly world-wide empire was the British one. This timeline by the Global Policy Forum lists the great empires of the world in three periods - Ancient, Pre-modern and Modern. It gives the date for the end of the British Empire as c1980. We were still standing when the music stopped.

Some theology.

Some of our world's old literature, such as the Hebrew Scriptures, speaks of people being either ruthlessly slaughtered or taken into captivity when confronted by a more powerful nation or empire. We need to watch out for appropriate translations. Not all the words that make it into the text in English as 'slave' actually meant what we understand by that term. A conquered people would find themselves needing to work for a new master. Dependent. In this lecture Peter J. Williams (Warden of Tyndale House) suggests that '...Exodus does not say that the Israelites were slaves (ebed) in Egypt although it is clear from the text that it was very much like slavery as we normally understand it...'

Joseph, again in the Hebrew Scriptures, was sold into slavery (Genesis 37-50). He rose to power, so the story goes, in the place where he was enslaved. His people prospered and then over a period of four hundred years those people were exploited.

The people whose story of Exodus is then told, in the book of the same name, develop a new set of instructions about attitudes to strangers. They are to treat them as they recalled they were not treated when strangers in Egypt. The 'Golden Rule' can be expressed negatively and positively. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Don't do to others as you would not have them do to you.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the Hebrew Scriptures as 'A national literature of self-criticism.' Throughout those Scriptures the displeasure of God is often directed at people who treat the poor or the stranger badly, forgetting that they were once poor and strangers themselves ('Not in God's Name' - Jonathan Sacks, Hodder 2013).

Is it here that the idea of empathy is introduced to a national literature for the first time? Think, says the text, what it would be like to be treated like this. That's rudimentary empathy, I suggest.

Of course those same Scriptures also include a story about a Moabite being what you get if you have sex with your father (Genesis 19:30-38) and that bashing Babylonian babies' heads in might bring joy (Psalm 137:8-9). So we still have some way to go before Jesus espouses loving your enemy as a default position. For seven centuries before him Samaritans were not the good guys. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) the rich man, in Hades, has no concept of empathy, still. He sees Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and asks him to serve him with water and then go on an errand to his brothers. Ken Bailey describes this as racism. Lazarus, the rich man more or less says, is 'not one of us' (Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes).

I am very fond of the Maltese Islands. Being a small group of islands set in the midst of the Mediterranean meant that the people, over their history, were in great danger from the armies of every passing empire. So many times the people were attacked and taken off into captivity, subdued by superior numbers and forced to work for others. It was the knights of St John who are seen as the great rescuers, building protective citadels in which all the people of the islands could shelter and be safe.

Whilst it is no comfort to the victims there is, again I would suggest, a difference between capturing a population during a time of land-grabbing (when that was common) and the trade in human beings which developed over the centuries. David Olusoga's excellent documentary programmes should be compulsory viewing:

Black and British: A Forgotten History
Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners

To edit a summary of these down to a few sentences seems obscene, you must watch them, but here goes. In the first he explains how our country has tended to whiten its history; there were black Roman soldiers stationed in this country nearly two thousand years ago. In the second we discover, guilt-makingly, how ordinary members of society with money to 'invest' might purchase a slave on a plantation and receive an income. Clergy included. The people who ought to have been professionally empathic before the word existed were simply pocket-liners. Some of us will have family wealth thus gained.

If you want to know what people feel about this look at the comments on the Twitter feed @DavidOlusoga. They are appalling.

History, the word, comes from the ancient Greek istoria and means 'enquiry'. History is therefore a process and it follows that suggesting the removal of a statue or plaque is removing history is tantamount to nonsense. If anything the removal is part of history, part of the continued enquiry. A.C. Grayling says this, on his blog 'History accordingly is a reconstruction of the past by 'intellectual empathy' with our forebears.'

Many of my readers will have had no experience of racism but will not feel that that is a privilege.

Come with me on a little thought experiment. Imagine a world like ours where, for whatever reason, everyone is required to spend a week of their life alone in a small box with only air to breathe and water to drink. It is horrid but survivable. A rite of passage. It is dreaded, experienced then overcome.

One person learns a perfectly acceptable way to get out of this. Would you call them privileged? Fortunate? Clever?

Soon a small group of people who have never had to be boxed in is living alongside those who still dread it or have experienced it. Privileged? Fortunate? Clever?

After some years those who know the trick of avoiding the box are in the majority. Privileged? Fortunate? Clever? Or do you start describing that as normal and the others as deprived or disadvantaged?

Forget the details. The metaphor breaks down easily. But note that it can be seen as just as much of a privilege if something bad does not happen to you as when something good does.

A correspondent said this to me the other day:

'Do I believe that racism is utterly abhorrent? Absolutely. Do I believe that Britain is inherently and systemically racist, to its very core? No, I do not. It once was, I'm sure, but it is not now.'

The over-emphasis - 'inherently, systematically, to its very core' - makes it a hard disagree. But I do. I would love my correspondent to apply for a job in a predominantly white part of this country with her CV but change her name to Patel, Singh or Adeyemi. Interview just as likely?

I was raised with racist thoughts and ideas placed in my head, possibly innocently, by my parents.

I went to a school where your appearance, your character, the rhymes of your name or your unwanted first name could all become a nickname - Willy, Tadpole and Jim. All me. Were the names we called the only black student in my year and one of the two Jews mined from the same seam, or from somewhere more sinister? I cannot say, but I am sorry.

A school teacher writing in theipaper last week shared the self-hatred she felt when she described something as 'whiter than white' in front of a 75% BAME class. Her friend reminded her this expression came from a soap advert not diversity training (Lucy Kellaway 16/7/20 in an article reproduced from the Financial Times). But it is good that we revisit our language with care and feel bad that phrases can be misconstrued. As a part-time writer I try not to write phrases that can be misconstrued because they cause trouble. Even if I know what I mean I need to be sure that others will. And I still write dodgy sentences because, well, you know.

A white man trying to write about racism. Haven't we had enough of that? Well yes, frankly. Which is why I am trying to write about empathy aware, as I am, that whilst not self-defining as a racist I do and say racist things because of unconscious bias and white privilege. It may well be negligence or weakness or my fault. It is not my own deliberate choice.

A very good ministry review by a Church Warden a few years ago was brave enough to tell me that I appear to find it difficult to understand people who find life less easy than I do. It's true. I have learned to cope and try hard to show empathy but I am being a mimic. Nothing can make me feel what I don't feel. For me empathy is learning to think like those who feel things more keenly than I do. I wrote about this many years ago. Still working on it.

Those who somehow still feel, in their bones, that there are some people who are 'not one of us' need to learn some empathy with me.



Thursday, July 16, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 9

I have a few people I am in contact with who act as my weather-vane for stupid. That is to say, when I am slightly worried that I may be making the wrong decision, I ask them what they think and do the opposite. These people, wrong about everything, are incredibly useful until they are either accidentally right or discover that that is how they are being used.

Over the last few months I am convinced that the world's events have become a stupidometer. Something unusual happens and the utterly wrong views and decisions get on parade. Twitter and 24/7 news have given them a platform.

If you've seen the image of a man sleeping on a plane using his face mask to cover his eyes you've seen a stupidometer at work.

If you've seen a party of people embracing in a sewage stream on a hot day during a plague you've seen a stupidometer at work.

If you've heard a Special Adviser to the Prime Minister suggest the normality of driving 30 miles to test his eyesight was good enough to drive, you've seen someone who knew how stupid his audience was.

If you've heard wealthy white people saying that white privilege is not a thing, systematic racism is not a thing and 'white lives matter' is an appropriate response to BLM then you've had front row seats in the stupid show.

Obviously we all have our favourite failings. Chris Grayling, a man who really should '...pay mill-owner for permission to come to work' (Monty Python - Four Yorkshiremen) failed to get elected chair of a committee where his appointment had been fixed, and announced.

Parties of stupid burned down the very 5G masts that had provided them with the conspiracy theory that 5G masts caused Covid19. What next? No idea, our phone signal is rubbish round here now.

Presidential Adviser Kellyanne Conway poured scorn on those who had not dealt with Covid1-18 'It's not Covid1' she said. If you think she had a point you are registering on the stupidometer.

Following the toppling of slave-trader Colston's Monument in Bristol a group, described by a woman as 'proper Bristol men', stood around the cenotaph 'protecting' it for a day or two. One of these white, middle-aged guys sported a German WW2 helmet. What statue is on top of the Bristol cenotaph? Good question. There isn't one, but little details such as that don't derail the stupid train.

In Nuneaton a group protected the memorial to the birth of George Eliot. Perhaps they could articulate their reasoning but certainly the links of the writer born Mary Ann Evans to slave-trading and racism are not widely discussed as she expressed sympathy with the north in the American Civil War and was still a lass when The Reform Bill was passed.

It's not always clear what the right decision is in all circumstances. The widely operational stupidometer will certainly help you eliminate some wrong ones. Unless you're stupid. Then you won't notice.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Thought for the Day

One of the good things about doing this from home is that I can get the script online quicker. As delivered to Emma Britton on BBC Radio Bristol just now:

The book of Genesis begins with a list of things that God calls good. What, do you recall, is the first thing described as 'not good'?

There are often periods of three months in my life when I don't go to the cinema, theatre or gigs. But I do all those things.

With personal choice whittled away we can end up lamenting the loss of things we never really valued that much anyway.

In order to give football viewers the sense of atmosphere, crowd noises have to be dubbed on. My team's so bad the cardboard cut-out supporters left at half time.

All the things I've missed have involved company. Even those occasions when I was alone in a crowd. So many people use coffee shops as places to work. We don't even need inter-action. Just that feeling of communality. Not alone.

So it is good news that pubs and restaurants can re-open. Human beings are social. We organise ourselves so that we co-operate.

Whatever comes through that door, said Gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius, we're going to do better if we face it together.

We cope as a species because of shared invention, intellect and ideas. The survival of the smartest, for now. Leave me alone in a room with Covid19 and I'd lose. Give me the world's resources and advice and I'm safe.

The answer to my opening question is loneliness. It is not good for the man to be alone. 'Too right mate - I leave him on his own for a moment and it's chaos round here' shout my female listeners.

So, two cheers for drinks and meals out. Pretty soon they may actually let me come into the studio rather than sitting home alone.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Holiday Reading

There is a summary of my holiday reading. The marks out of ten are based on enjoyment and escapism rather than any splendid literary quality.

Jane Harper - The Lost Man (8/10)
I enjoyed The Dry, Jane Harper's first crime novel set in a remote part of Australia. This is her third, so I missed one. I read The Lost Man on the hottest driest day of the year so far in the UK. It is set in the Outback where near neighbours are a three hour drive away and everyone tells someone else when they are setting out solo to fix a fence. So how did Cameron Bright come to die alone without shade, shelter, his car, phone or water, miles from anywhere or anyone?

This story unpicks family feuds, local rivalries and complex relationships under the intense glare of the Sun. Did someone do something? What did they do? Who did it? A very satisfying page-turner. It'll make you thirsty for more.


Ben Smith - Doggerland (9/10)
To examine human behaviour, one tool an author has in their box is to remove almost all outside influences. Ben Smith achieves that by having two characters (Boy and Old Man although we are left to guess their ages) charged with the maintenance of an enormous wind farm. They are alone, reliant on the one other character, the deliverer of supplies. Why are they there? What dramatic event led to their dystopian existence? What happened to the boy's much-discussed father? This is a slow page-turner, beautifully sparse. Not unlike Magnus Mills.


Tom Drury - The End of Vandalism (10/10)
Seventy-odd characters wander into this story of life in Grouse County. We are treated to a little of all their back-stories. Sometimes in detail; sometimes just a tease. 'She considered dog issues her speciality, and once, at a convention in Moline, had given a slide presentation on the history of the muzzle.' Do you have questions now? I do.

In my literary world Peter Carey writes the best books, Tom Wolf the best chapters, Douglas Adams the best sentences. Tom Drury is a contender for best-paragraphs.

Before blotting his reputation somewhat, Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon was the place to go for this sort of thing. In a foreword introduction another of my literary heroes Jon McGregor suggests that anyone embarking upon this book will, inevitably, become an evangelist for Tom Drury. It is the case.


Andrew Hunter-Murray - The Last Day (8/10)
A second post-apocalyptic novel during a pandemic holiday. This one's conceit is that the Earth has slowly stopped rotating leaving half with permanent cold-dark-night, half with hot-light-day and a narrow band in the centre which is habitable. The author is that bloke from off the tele who takes supporting roles in The Mash Report, and is also a QI elf and a Private Eye journalist. This is his first novel. It's clever and gripping.


Neil Oliver - The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places (9/10)
I like to have a book like this close at hand. 100 short chapters explore Britain in roughly chronological order from 950,000 years BCE to the present day. I did history to A level. It was kind of forced upon me by being the only other timetable option if I wanted to do Geography and Statistics, which I did.

If this book had been available then I probably wouldn't have read it, because I wasn't that sort of kid. But read now, fifty years too late, it makes sense of how all those bits of the curriculum and primary school history stories fit together. I loved it.

It opens for debate if you would have picked the same one hundred places. I think I would have wanted to see Jarrow in there somewhere. At the same time as I was reading, the statue/slavery discussion rose up in the UK. It occurred to me, as I read up about Black Lives Matter, that the chapter on abolition is told from a white point of view and there are black martyrs missing from the story.

It has slightly more Scottish places than I would have expected but I came to see that Scotland has punched well above its weight in contribution to the history of the islands here. So that is not so much a criticism as an acknowledgement of my own ignorance.


Joel Dicker - The Baltimore Boys (9/10)
Moving about in time from the 1960s (briefly) to date, this story is of four childhood friends. Not all related to each other but who came to feel like family. Marcus Goldman, one of the four, is a writer and narrates the story from 2012. Dicker used this character to narrate his excellent, previous novel The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair.

In this latest story we are told, on the jacket, that 24/11/04 is 'The day of the tragedy'. It is written in five parts:

The book of lost youth 1989-97
The book of the lost brotherhood 1998-2001
The book of the Goldmans 1960-89
The book of the tragedy 2002-04
The book of atonement 2004-12

So for the bulk of the novel we know that there is going to be a tragedy (and there are minor tragedies and triumphs on the journey too) but not what it will be. We know from sentence 1 of a prologue that Woody, one of the four, was about to go to prison for five years, a month before the 'tragedy'.

It's a delightful book. Very easy to read and hard to put down.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 8

Whatever the period between week 7 and week 8 is, that has passed, and so time for anther dispatch from the rear guard of lock-down culture. Who knew there were only eight weeks in three months?

My life has consisted of a series of very minor inconveniences since March but it has felt like a side order of water torture - several lost family birthday celebrations, no retreat (it's a clergy thing) in May, the difficulty of doing eye-contact on Zoom. But this week I would have woken up to the prospect first of the breakfast buffet at the Osborne Hotel, Valetta and then a converted farmhouse in Gozo and that is more than I can cope with just now. So, given that TCMT has been told she has to take her booked holidays during furlough, we are enjoying two weeks vacation to the guest room.

There are some advantages. No early alarms to catch flights. Money saved. We will see the purple clematis flower for the first time for ages. We can read hardbacks. No mosquito bites. The bed linen and towels are nice. (Gozo farmhouse bed-linen is beautifully laundered but a little old and, despite being nearer Egypt, hasn't taken any advantage of their cotton prowess. The towels don't dry you very well but in a hot, dry country drying is best accomplished by getting out of the shower/pool and standing still for a bit.)

The flip-side is the difficulty of switching off from work as the holder of one of the few offices where you live amongst your constituency. So the work computer is going off. The work email notifications will be disabled. The landline will not be answered. I will try not to wander into the study (although it is the through route to the washing machine and beer fridge).

We live in a nice part of the country. It is the sort of place we visited for holidays in the days when we lived further north. It has nice walks. We drove ten miles on Tuesday to walk where we might not bump into people we knew. We bumped into people we knew. We also met a charmingly eccentric young man powering an electric bike with a large stick. 'Hello sir' he said 'May I stay and talk to you?' We said that was fine and question two was about how long we had been together. On hearing the answer to that one, he asked if I had made sure '...she had a good meal every night.'

After a few minutes of chatter where minds never met and my own enquiries were not even vaguely dealt with he left with a (can you guess?) 'I'll bid you both good day.' Marvellous.

Yesterday we walked nearer home and did some of the walk called the Nailsea Round. We met no-one we knew because we met no-one.

Last night there was a torrential downpour and the garage flooded. I have tried to be strict about not doing things I wouldn't do on holiday. I'm leaving the washing to stack up. I'm putting envelopes of post unopened on my desk. But not to bail out? That would be silly.

Today it is very wet. Novels, jigsaws and blog posts. A bit like the last three months of eight weeks.


Thursday, June 04, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 7

Time has continued slipping, slipping, slipping into the future and my seventh update comes at about week eleven of lock-down. Has there been fun? It's slim pickings (wasn't he a county singer?) round here.

I believe I have done all the possible 40 minute walks starting and finishing at my house. I am seriously considering publishing a very niche book. Maybe if I over-indulge the humour element it might find a market beyond BS48. Long shot, I know.

Get your timing right and you can see people sitting in the street watching a film projected on the side of a house, round here. What did we used to do for entertainment before they invented invent-your-own entertainment? Chuck stones at cats I expect. Give it a try. I aim to miss but I've had a couple of failures.

And what of modifying our behaviour more generally? Possibly the best way currently to behave is to see what the government advises and do the opposite.

Having had it announced that a few more freedoms were being introduced from last Monday we watched in amazement as thousands of people, two days before the introduction, rather unintelligently headed for beauty spots and sat too close together. It is difficult to decide if our country's population genuinely missed the comforting touch of sunburn or whether they had all found a rather simpler way to dispose of their rubbish than queuing for the tip. Either way some of them fell off cliffs in the process and the rest had to huddle closer to make space for the air ambulance to land. You could make it up but would expect your plot to be rejected as too obvious. My worry is that the British Government seem to be the only people round here who don't realise quite how stupid the British people are, given half the chance.

Mind you, the British people seem to be the only people round here who don't realise how stupid the British government is so maybe we deserve each other.

Having announced that people who could work from home should continue to do so the Leader of the House of Commons (a West County yokel MP from round here) announced that it was not possible for 'full-blooded democracy' to function properly on Zoom and therefore MPs would no longer be allowed to contribute, or vote, remotely. Having devised a voting/queuing system that intelligent monkeys randomly pressing ideas buttons would still have rejected as unworkable, we watched as this 'system' deposited several hundred MPs at the foot of an escalator behind a locked door in an ever-increasing crush. Now they are all at home waiting for the results of a COVID19 test on the Business Secretary (anyone remember the name? thought not) who developed a sniffle and a sweaty head at the dispatch box. Never in the history of human democracy did so many people hope a colleague had hay fever.

And yet we watch the other side of the Atlantic where millions of poor African Americans have been staying at home and giving their lives for their country. 'This needs careful attention', said the Minneapolis police department 'What shall we do?' I think we know what they decided and I refer you back to the roomful of decision-making primates.

I think, in more ways than one, this series of articles has come over to the dark side.

Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Half-Blooded Democracy will be in major cinemas as soon as we can find an investor.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to the James Hanson (sitting in for Emma Britton) show on BBC Radio Bristol just now:

When Mark wrote his account of Jesus feeding 5,000 people he said they sat down on the green grass in groups of fifty and a hundred. Why did he mention the colour of the grass and the size of the groups? Doesn't do that elsewhere. One explanation might be - because he was there and remembered.

I woke up this morning and leaned over to my wife and said those three words she loves to hear first thing - 'It's Tuesday, right?'

And even though this radio format doesn't allow me your instant feedback I can hear many of you shouting 'That's. Four. Words.'

See I've noticed that when we only have very small details to pay attention to we, guess what, start spotting very small details. Grammar pedants. Or 'Wise BBC news editors' as I've learned to call them.

I've spotted people on social media telling me about the wildlife in their gardens as nature becomes more urban, the new recipe they've discovered, or the small things they can do many times over to raise sponsorship. Yes, people have climbed Everest in fir-tree units and run marathons in backyard-sized laps without leaving their own homes. DIY projects have been completed in lock-down. I've even sorted out the deanery filing-cabinet. It was dull.

If and when you come to write down your journal or diary entry for 2020 it may include stuff such as:

  • Did my own dentistry.
  • Grew my own veg for the first time 

Mark's Gospel is littered with little details that only an eye-witness, or someone who transcribed the story of that witness, could possibly remember. As the weather gets warmer, and green grass becomes rarer, we do well to recall that little details add credibility to a witness' story.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 6

Good day everyone and welcome to my almost weekly dip into the shallower waters of the current tragedy. No diving or you'll bang your head on the bottom.

If you had asked us to take a wild guess about what liberal chattering Twitter would be liberally chattering about at this precise stage of human history I wonder what odds you would have got on sourdough being so high in the charts? Look at the shape of my baking eh? Incidentally, local chums, there is swb flour at Budgens. Stop. Stop. Finish reading first. Too late.

I am also enjoying investigating landscape art and cute animals therefore not cats.

I have done six hours of duty on a Church of England chaplaincy listening helpline. No-one has called. TCMT offers 'Do they know it's you on duty?' Fair point; well made.

Our family Zoom has become a regular Sunday afternoon at 3pm appointment. Junior said 'We talk to each other more than we used to.' His girlfriend wandered on to the set with an enormous strimmer. Well that beard ain't gonna trim itself. They have also bought a pond-liner and a water butt. Senior said 'Isn't that what you say when you pass a lady in the street?' We seem to be getting less woke with every passing day.

Six months ago our trips to Birmingham to visit elderly relatives were becoming so regular that it looked as if our agreed contract mileage on our car was going to be too low. One bereavement and one lock-down later and we're no longer renegotiating. April mileage (target 1,000 or less) was 68 and each was for some sort of local delivery. 'Every cloud', as David Brent put it so sensitively.

Old joke tells of the soldier who wrote to his girlfriend every day for two years whilst he was overseas without leave. When he got back he found she'd married the postman. We seem to have struck up a relationship with a paperboy and various delivery drivers. Few of the parcels are for me. I guess you'd describe this body as low maintenance. Something needs to happen to the hair soon but I am interested as to whether it still has the slight curl that I found so annoying in the 1970s and fixed with a Keeganesque bodyperm in the 1980s and short hair from 92 onwards.

Some gentle easing of the lock-down took place on Sunday but as it was described in three different ways over a twenty four hour period (leaks to press, PM broadcast, PM statement to the House of Commons) the government will be able to claim 'it worked' or 'you didn't listen to us' with equal gusto. The House of Commons are planning to start meeting properly soon to 'set a good example' (Jacob Rees-Mogg). Since a fundamental principle of all this is of people working from home if they possibly can I suspect they are setting a good example of being as confused as we are supposed to be. The headline slogan is 'Stay alert'. To understand this government's announcements you need to be more alert than I am capable of. You need the alert dial up to 11.

I'm planning to be mainly at home and dozing. That should do it. Until next week.


Monday, May 11, 2020

VE Day Postscript

On June 4th 1940 Churchill gave one of his most famous wartime speeches. And this is the central passage.

'We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.'

I always knew it was a powerful piece of rhetoric. He managed to convey strength of character as he channelled a British strength of character. The emotion flew way ahead of the words. But, although I have heard it many times before, I only worked out recently that he expected to lose.

Mark Forsyth shows us this in his book 'The Elements of Eloquence'. In the chapter on anaphora (starting each phrase or sentence with the same word or words) he quotes this speech. And he shows us that all people remember are the big verbs - fight, defend, never surrender.

And so it is constantly quoted to encourage us to win at things.

Apparently, and my Wikipedia source is not completely certain, he spoke in the lobby after the speech of fighting with the broken ends of beer bottles if necessary. Let's add in a few things the audience were not encouraged to think during the speech:

'We shall go on to the end (our end).
We shall fight in France... (and then when we are driven out of France)
... we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches,... (when they invade)
...we shall fight on the landing grounds,... (when they try to land)
...we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,... (when they win on the beaches and landing grounds)
...we shall fight in the hills;... (when driven out of our streets and fields)
...we shall never surrender.' (we will become a resistance movement)

A following passage exhorted the new world to get organised and come to the rescue of the old world, eventually.

He expected us to lose yet spoke with the energy of a winner. That's the genius of it. It took me a while to see it.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 5

Once again I feel that, despite my best intentions to offer an amusing left-field approach to a pandemic, I need to retire as a satirist due to unfair competition from real life. I've pinched that quote before.

First televangelist Kenneth Copeland (anyone else think the surgeon did him no favours with those eyes?) blew the wind of God at the virus. Then somebody got hold of that audio and remixed it. Not heard it yet? Click here.

Then The Supreme Leader of the United States of America dropped enough hints that drinking bleach would cure COVID 19 to hospitalise 30 stoopid people. Meanwhile the camera panned to his medical adviser in the room and you can actually see, live on TV, the first recorded instance of someone's will to live leaving their body.

So we will content ourselves this week with an analysis of the goings-on in Tilley Mansions. I have explained before that TCMT and I can only work together if we clearly decide who will be in charge of each area of our life and the other person simply obeys. There is a clause 2 to this, which is that TCMT, not finding herself gainfully employed may, at any time of her choosing, decide that she is in charge of anything. Thus this conversation, based around the re-organisation of what I used to call 'my kitchen'. That is not arrogant or anything. For the last twenty five years or so I have been in charge of food production and distribution and all I ask is that TCMT provides me with a decent evening meal once a fortnight to give me a break. It could be argued that none of the rest of this piece is true. In fact it will be. Trust me.

I found her sorting out a cupboard. This never ends well.

Me: Why are the caraway seeds, the poppy seeds and the sesame seeds out on the work surface?
TCMT: They should be in the herb and spice cupboard so I'm moving them.
Me; No they shouldn't, they only get used for bread-making so I keep them in the baking cupboard with the flour and the yeast.
TCMT: That doesn't make sense
Me: (Not dropping to the 'nothing makes sense to you' level) It works for me.
TCMT: When did you last make bread?
Me: A while ago, all the more reason to have the ingredients where I remember when I get back to it.
TCMT: (Deadly silence and death look)
Me: If I put them in the door of the spice cupboard will that be OK?

I know I give in too easily but the sex is good and I enjoy that fortnightly meal.

I gained what I laughingly call my revenge when I gently enquired if she had seen the piece of paper I keep in the drawer by the tele with a list of where we've got to in various box sets and TV series. She segued from no (how dare you accuse me), through maybe (I wonder if that was what I wrote on during the quiz0 to 'Here it is' having found it in her study paper-recycling box. We pause for a moment to wonder why several other bins and recycling opportunities were passed on the journey to her study, but only a moment as whys and wherefores do not live near here. Anyway, I got my list back and also one of the discarded biros which 'doesn't work'. It works.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the re-organised baking cupboard (three shelves) has annexed the jam and pickles cupboard and has its eyes on the pasta/rice shelf. Also, my big pasta pan has gone, replaced by a slow cooker we haven't used yet.

TCMT: 'It's in the garage, do you want it?'
Me: No, but I wanted to know where it had gone.
TCMT: Why?
Me: It saves anguish when you eventually need it.
TCMT: (Deadly silence and another look, one I have never really pinned down)

I wouldn't be so brash as to suggest this is an insight into my failure to understand women. I am trying to understand one woman, a task now occupying a fifth decade.

In a couple of hours we may have another conversation:

TCMT: Your writing about the kitchen tidying isn't fair.
Me: Then write your own version. You'll have to learn to use some other keys apart from exclamation marks.
TCMT: Stop trying to change my style.
Me: (Deadly silence and desperate attempt not to look smug, which fails)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 4

One of the questions I have taken with me through my career in ministry is this, 'What would happen if we did nothing?' So many issues are presented to the clergy as needing an urgent decision. It is good if you have the ability to spot those cases where doing nothing is an option. I call it specific and strategic indecision. Not laziness. Oh no. A very specific choice of the 'no action required' option. We all like to feel that problems come to us because we are recognised as someone who can solve them. It is humility, not hand-washing, that chooses not to choose. Not everything gets worse if you leave it alone. You'd be amazed how many things fix themselves.

There is a classic story in this genre here. It's the Mystery of the Great Ayton Dinner Plates.

I have one pastoral issue which I have been leaving alone for nearly two years now and, to quote a former colleague, 'While there's death there's hope.' There is a real possibility that this problem will go away. People of Trendlewood Church reading this - it's not any of you.

Now why did I start with that? Because I feel the whole of the current state of ministry in lock-down is grappling with 'What should I do today?' And I am tempted to answer 'What would happen if I did nothing?' It would be interesting, although I have currently stopped short of this, to do nothing and see what ends up being demanded of me.

We spend a lot of our lives answering the question 'Who are you?' It is tempting to reply with a description of what we do. Knee-jerk activism. I went through a period of answering with 'carbon-based life-form living on the third planet from a sun'. Mainly it pissed people off.

Friend of mine took a sabbatical. Told me he was going to concentrate on being rather then doing. Then he listed all the things he was going to do in order to be a better being.

I quite like being. I have a things-to-do list because I have a job and a mind that is usually occupied on some much deeper project than that which I am supposed to be doing. And, as a great administrator I once worked with said 'What's the point of having to remember something if you've got a things-to-do list'? Quite. But these last few weeks have seen me being more of a human being than a human doing and I like a lot of that.

So, how we all being? As I look around the neighbourhood, cars are cleaner, lawns are tidier, streets are quieter, the skies are empty. We've done loads. Meanwhile death and disaster may or may not have an appointment.

There is an old zen story. It goes like this:

A man was being chased towards the edge of a cliff by a wild animal. He fell and grabbed a vine which took his weight. As he dangled two mice, one white and one black, came out of holes in the rock and began to nibble the vine through. Reaching over he saw a wild strawberry plant, in fruit. He picked one and ate. How sweet it tasted.

So my friends. How are the strawberries?



Billy Franks - an Appreciation

Whilst it seems disgracefully tardy to write an obituary four years after someone's death this will be as much about me as about the deceased. Also, which is a tough thing to admit about someone I admired so much, I didn't know Billy had died until last week.

Back to the beginning of the reason for writing this, then back to the beginning of the story.

On Easter Day, often a day when I get out of bed and step onto a conveyor belt of ministry delivery, I was in lock-down. The coronavirus COVID19 had caused the country to isolate its citizens and ban public meetings, including church services. I had put all necessary services online the previous day and I had nothing to do. From somewhere this quote arrived:

'What I would give
For what it could be
Touching or touched by
A far more tender glory'

As quotes do it resonated with me more than any words I could conjure myself. Taken from the Faith Brothers song 'That's just the way that it is with me' the lyrics reveal a person comfortable in their own presence:

'How in sweet solitude I listen to my soul singing...'

The song is on their 1987 second album 'A Human Sound'.

I put it on Facebook, adding Billy Frank's name. Later that morning, but still early, a clergy friend asked if she could use the quote in a sermon and might I attribute it, which I did.

So that whole process got me reminiscing a bit and I listened to some Faith Brothers music on my morning walk. What a joy it was. Returning home I realised that I had never utilised the full force of Google on the Faith Brothers. So I did. And discovered that Billy had been dead, since 2016. His death disappeared in a year that claimed so many big names. I also discovered his solo work, previously missed by me in Q reviews, newspaper reviews, radio airplays or simply gossip. And I also began to feel that Billy had sound-tracked my ministry from the sidelines. I have many little memories of the last thirty five years attached to Faith Brothers songs.

Right. Back to the beginning of the beginning, which is Nottingham, Rock City October 21st 1985 and, ordained a year, myself and a mate, curate in the next door parish, have a night off to see REM. Two supports are described on Wikipedia for that night but either Pleasure Device were completely forgettable or we arrived too late. But we did see the Faith Brothers.

I don't think I'm reading too much back into the story; I wouldn't have gone out and bought their first album if I wasn't impressed. So my memory is of a crisp sound, a very small drum kit making a remarkable noise, a tight band and, unusually in 1980s rock, a brass section of trumpet and sax. Also the songs. The songs. Short. Crafted. Some enigmatic aspects to the lyrics I could discern. Whether I discerned or not they started that tour with Eventide, the first track on their first album of the same name. It is a quiet, acoustic ballad on the album; a joyful and gloriously uptempo song live:

'History handed down like big brother's clothes
Madmen and giant's cast-offs
Stretched and frayed or tailor-made?'

There is a gig from BBC In Concert 1985 on Spotify which gives a flavour of what I would have experienced that night.

REM were great later, but that support band. I needed to know more. And the only way to have done that, I conclude, would have been to go to a big record shop and browse. So that I must have done.

At home I played that record a lot and also bought A Human Sound, their second album, which came out in 1987. It included a critique of traditional church:

'In an old place for the first time
I heard the fed talk about hunger
Telling tales of loaves and fishes
I heard the wealthy read the book of common prayer.'
(You Can't Go Home Again)

In a period where Conservative politics had no real opposition Billy didn't so much shout from the left as stick up for the voiceless whoever they were.

I inflicted both those two albums on a church youth group around that time and, when I found out that the band were supporting Julian Cope at Rock City, took one of them with me to see them. Remember when that was not thought to be a stupid thing to do? Anyway that young member is now the Archbishop's advisor on Evangelism so hey.

Back at Rock City the Faith Brothers gave me one of those rare occasions where the support blew away the headline. One of only two gigs where the support act has got an encore. The other, should you care, was when I saw Genesis supporting Caravan in 1972.

And now we have an intermission. No more albums but I played those two regularly. In the days when you had to record your albums onto tape to play them in the car I had A Human Sound on one side of a C90 and a metal band called FM on the other. Junior Tilley, borrowing the tape aged about 8, managed to press 'record' in the middle of the album when listening to it in his bedroom and never owned up until we all heard the evidence on a long car journey.

In the late 1980s I read Mark Ashton's' Christian Youth Work' a seminal book at the time. I wrote in the margin, next to a section where he had been lamenting the lack of protest songs (recalling the days of Bob Dylan and his own youth) and I noted that the Faith Brothers did so. There was no lack of protest songs; they simply didn't get played.

The albums survived a move to the north-east from Nottingham and came back to Leamington Spa, still played regularly enough, but on arrival in Nailsea the record deck broke and we didn't replace it until my darling family bought me a new one for a significant birthday. So I probably went six or seven years without. But of course, by 2012 there was Spotify and so the vinyl could be kept but spared. There's something about holding a vinyl sleeve in your hands though. It means something.

Somewhere in the midst of this a popular author I enjoy, Christopher Brookmyre dedicated a new novel to Billy Franks. Since Brookmyre is a bit lefty in his politics it had to be my hero. I love those moments when one of your heroes declares another of your heroes their hero too.

And so to last Easter Sunday, when I Googled and Spotified Billy Franks and found he had died. RIP someone I feel close to and would have loved to have been friends with. Your words will keep me thinking about you until the day I die too.

I listened to your songs again and anew and for a moment the tears gushed. You once said 'Love is a welcome pain'. Trying to translate I hear the tales of a Catholic boy:

'As I refuse to choose between solid and heavenly thrones .. why should I go to mass?'
(Mass)

(Was there more to that Faith Brothers name then I imagined?)

...an introvert, a wordsmith, possibly a sufferer of early bereavement, coming to terms with his own personality, perhaps resigning himself to a lack of recognition which many of us felt he deserved. And everyone very quiet about the cause of his sudden death.

On YouTube is a documentary film about Billy's friends trying to persuade famous artists to record a tribute to an unknown songwriter. The film cuts back, again and again, to Billy speaking between songs at an intimate pub gig. Towards the end he confesses that we are listening to a man whose dreams didn't work out. The film is called Tribute This. One of the Executive producers is Chris Brookmyre.

But my current treat is the discovery of several solo albums and an extra live show on Spotify. I haven't listened to them all yet. Truth be told I can't bear the thought of having finished Billy's back catalogue.

My tears are for a life taken early, a world trapped in lock-down and the vaguest hint of a feeling that my dreams didn't all work out either. I'm seeking an inner willingness to own that and be all right with it.

'The true are free, the corrupt are lonely
That's my belief
Left to scavenge for scraps of beauty in this junkyard'
(Whistling in the Dark)

Yeah. Me too. Thanks Billy Franks and the Faith Brothers. I'll keep you close. He wrote a book. I've ordered it.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Ten Influential Albums

I have just finished one of those Facebook challenges. This one involved posting pictures of the covers of ten albums, one a day, that have influenced my taste in music. It was a tough ask. One of the rules was not to explain, so they stand alone on Facebook, but I thought there night be some fun in showing my working. This particularly because some of my favourite albums ever are not there.

No space for my first love Ten Years After. No Genesis album. No punk. Talking Heads didn't make the cut. No jazz. Burial missing. No Zappa. Strewth, No Zappa. How that happen? Only a vague hint at the 1970s and a nod at electro-pop from the early 80s. Can't believe there's no Tears for Fears. Four of my favourite albums of all time aren't there. No Sunshine. No Butts Band. No Ace. No Dan Reed Network. I forgot John Martyn. No way. And all very local. I must disappoint you, world music.

And, truth be told, the list might have been very different on another day. Not sitting in depressed lock-down in a plague-world drifting gently into mental illness I might have been pressing different buttons on the juke-box.

I think my choices represent that we don't learn in a smooth curve but our lives have some eureka moments. The 1990s were highly influential for me, possibly because, after losing my way a bit, fine music began seeping under my sons' bedroom doors and I found myself asking 'What's that?' Thanks Ben for Zero 7, Roots Manuva and Iron and Wine. Thanks Jon for the many long car journeys to Aberystwyth and back where, strangely, taking it in turns to control the CD player, you introduced me to some great music from the 70s I had missed and I played you new stuff. And both of you for your own music. Umarga and Black Maple have me in proud Dad mode. They made me try a bit harder.

Also because from 1992-2002 I had a national job with many long hours on the road and John Peel, then Mark Radcliffe introduced me to a range of stuff I would never have heard otherwise. Step forward Dusted, Witness, Faithless, Lexis and the 22/20s.

More recent discoveries, good as Jaga Jazzist, Jazz Liberatorz, Bonobo, Fourtet, Foals, Ghostpoet, Undergrunnen and The Vryll Society are, might have to hang around a little longer before they can be deemed influential. Face it, there are few new genres; most good music is assembled from bits of other music these days. Noel Gallagher, I'm looking at you as the genius of flatpack pop. I'm waiting for the next bombshell. And, of course, (metaphor remix warning) eventually a bombshell will come along that fails to blow my mind.

So to my choices:


Traffic
The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
1971
Set the scenes for my enjoyment of the extended instrumental section. Steve Winwood's piano style I have spent 50 years trying to emulate. Recently someone, who didn't know this, told me that I had succeeded. I have never been so happy.


Faith Brothers
Eventide
1985
Simple song-writing and enigmatically poignant lyrics with a bit of political protest chucked in. And brass. I like brass, done this well.


Talk Talk
Spirit of Eden
1988
This is why there is no jazz and no electro-pop in my choice. Because in one staggeringly inventive album Mark Hollis (RIP) and his gang sweep up all influences from the previous and next 20 years. And I prefer minors to majors. Always will.


Massive Attack
Blue Lines
1991
Heard Safe from Harm and knew this was different. This was not the usual Radio 1 beat. I now know I like trippy stuff. Maybe I should have done some drugs in my teens. Then again, this was worth waiting for.


Definition of Sound
Love and Life: A Journey with the Chameleons
1991
The album that made me realise that people talking instead of singing wasn't cheating. The moment the penny dropped.


Roni Size Reprasent
New Forms
1997
Up until that point, to re-imagine a joke from the Blues Brothers, my observation about my older son's DJ career was that he offered both sorts of music - drum and bass. Then I heard this and further pennies tumbled.


Alabama 3
Exile on Coldharbour Lane
1997
Can't for the life of me recall how I found this album. Woke up this Morning didn't become the theme tune to The Sopranos for a few more years. I didn't see them on Later with Jools Holland until La Peste (second album). But influential because I like electro, I like country and I like blues but I didn't know you could get all three in one packet. There's at least eight of them and they're not from Alabama. RIP D Wayne Loved your work.


Radiohead
OK Computer
1997
I had The Bends. The reviews captured me. It was the moments of Thom Yorke's soulful wailing that were best though. Street Spirit (Fade Out) is a remarkable piece of work. Then they did Jools and performed Paranoid Android. They linked prog rock to soul. Not my favourite track but influential in that this band, ever since, have moved on album by album in imagination, reach, competence and vision. The long-lived rock band that keeps learning together. So rare.


Hayes and Cahill
The Lonesome Touch
1997
Another Later moment. I loved that Jools got us to listen to things we might not otherwise hear. This woke me up to the distinctions and rules of jigs and reels. Now I like this sort of thing. Fifteen years after this they played Holy Trinity Church, Nailsea hosted by Nailsea Folk Club. I met them. Delightful guys.


Everything but the Girl
Temperamental
1999
Me and TCMT have little cross-over musical taste these days. I fear she tolerates my loves more than enjoys them. She has told me that if she is ever in the house when a Battles album is playing she will leave me. This band is a genuine shared love and taught us both that great songs can be remixed and reconceived many times to deliver more, not less, enjoyment.

I hope that helps. I have illustrated he ones that nearly made it.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast with Emma show just now, live from my conservatory:

There was a film on social media recently of two stags fighting. Locked antlers and a clear focus on outmuscling each other. Doe-eyed only.

What we could see, which the two stags could not, was the rapidly approaching predator - a big cat. Too late the stags separated and ran. Too late for one of them. Survival of the fittest at its reddest and bloodiest.

With notable exceptions around the world nations have put aside their differences for a while to concentrate on a common enemy. As the film Gladiator so memorably put it, 'Whatever comes through that door, we're going to do better if we face it together.'

So, in a spirit of facing it together, we hear of the fine community mindedness of people offering their time and business skills for medical equipment manufacture. We hear of volunteers, of neighbourliness, of a willingness to embrace the new arrangements of social distancing. And an outbreak of online creativity to keep us distracted the while.

I've enjoyed people showing off their new skills from tik-tok to topiary, binging on box-sets, genning up on general knowledge.

Have we forgotten our petty disputes and little local difficulties (beat) for ever?

Probably not. I'm a realist. St Peter wrote about trials as things that test us for a little while. He didn't trust God to get him out of them. He trusted God to bring the community through them, stronger and more together.

My hardship? To stay in.

What did you do during the war daddy? I did my pilates class on the landing son. Now, where did I put that jigsaw?

As St Peter put it, grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 3

So, week three of the lock-down and we begin to see things as they really are. Most people are nice. Some are not. Some are hypocrites and, as Marina Hyde so wisely put it in The Guardian, all of this is the fault of elite footballers. A thousand people a day dying is not because of government incompetence but because Raheem Sterling earns too much. You knew that.

The key thing to remember through all this is that it is not wrong to be a hyprocrite. It is wrong to get caught. Nobody apologises for telling us not to visit our second homes in any circumstances and then visiting their own second home. No-one apologises for visiting their mother on Mothering Sunday even if they've just told the whole country not to do that and then  done it themselves. And no-one phones the BBC and says 'I had a couple of sex workers round last night please forgive me' during a lock down. They apologise after they have been outed. The hypocrisy is not being sorry until you're caught.

Since my own loved ones and I are not currently ill my main sacrifice is to stay at home in a nice house. I'm reading more. I'm playing my piano more. I'm curating, rather than leading, worship. It is the week I left the Tim Vine Joke Appreciation Group on Facebook because so few of the members had the first clue how a Tim Vine joke works. Or they posted unoriginal ones without credit.

A few years ago I had a column in a church newspaper. It was meant to be vaguely amusing and the Editor praised my light touch until he sacked me and gave the gig to Catherine Fox. Whilst I was writing it someone I worked with came up to me and told me the 'joke' about Bill Stickers being prosecuted. He genuinely thought I should write about it. It helped me realise how the humourless worked. Many of them are Tim Vine fans. They think it's easy. (Once saw Milton Jones demolish a heckler with 'It's not as easy as it looks is it?') The same sort of people write 'poems' for family funerals. Ones that don't rhyme, scan or use English as I understand it. Reading them out appropriately is one of the hardest things I ever have to do. I only ever got the giggles once at a funeral, when I pushed the button to cremate Grace Burns, but eulogistic poetry has led to some close calls.

Life. Not as easy as it looks. Death also.

The while this week, TCMT is volunteering at the food-bank. You guessed it. There was a store-room in town that needed procedures and merchandising and she won't rest until the whole world is done. Really. If you ever shop with her you may experience her tidying up someone's else till area whilst waiting to be served. If you do it with confidence nobody questions you. It does get her out of the house three mornings a week which just about provides me with sanity space, and there is a fringe benefit. Things are dropped in to the food-bank that have use-by dates or are not wanted. We have picked up two huge tins of choppd toms (2.5k each) and a decent supply of duck eggs.  I know. Nailsea eh?

Yesterday morning's exercise walk took longer than usual because of the number of distance-respecting pastoral conversations we got involved in. During the week I use headphones, get up a bit of pace and keep my head down. If I was allowed two walks a day I'd do a pastoral one and a hamstring-stretching one. Just before lock-down I was on a therapy programme at the gym for a tweaked hammy. Never done one before so I have no experience at recuperation. After a week's holiday with plenty of walking I went back to the gym and set the treadmill to my usual warm-up jog. In my week away the machine had been recalibrated to MPH not KPH and I started off far too fast. Twang.

So it's gentle ambling with an occasional jog again. But no stopping. Back at home the landing has become the place for exercise. TCMT does her yoga and pilates classes online there and I'm joining up with some online gym stuff this week too.

What did you do during the war Dad?

I stretched on the landing son; government orders.

I've been compiling a list of people who are having a good lock-down. The two members of the family involved in music production and distribution are working hard from home, sales up. I have to wait ten days for my new jigsaw orders (there's no end to my personal hardship) - sales are up. And my friend who has a medical supplies business, despite being generous to all, has seen 20% year-on-year growth. It's pretty clear that the technology businesses behind Zoom!, Houseparty and the like are doing OK. Why did my fellow Area Deans and I ever drive 45 minutes each way to meet at Saltford? In fact why did face-to-face meetings ever happen? Sometimes you need to see someone's expression clearly when you ask them a question, I guess. Sometimes.

Today is Easter Bank Holiday Monday. Normally the post-Easter day for going wibble. Ain't no wibbling happening here though. Just gentle waiting.

Hope you're all well.








Friday, April 10, 2020

Hour at the Cross

Some years ago I used to curate an alternative hour at the cross, based at Holy Trinity, Nailsea. The hour consisted of three or four pieces of music, three readings, three prayers and three periods of silence. I enjoyed doing it greatly.  It was one of the things I have done in the course of my ministry that proved most divisive. I received comments that the silence was too long, the music inappropriate and my favourite ’Did anyone else see the Holy Spirit walk out?’ I also received an equal number of appreciative comments. Marmite worship, I guess.

The whole point was to answer the question, ‘Would you wait and pray with me for an hour?’ Despite any feelings you may have about the music. I almost hoped that people would not like one or two of the pieces. In any case, some of the juxtapositions were meant to grate a little.

But it occurs to me that we’re all volunteers in cyber space so here is another hour at the cross. You can take an hour, a day or twenty minutes over it. I’ll never know. The music links are from Spotify. An account costs £9.99 a month. A free account is available but you’ll have to listen to an advert every third track.


Hour at the Cross 2020

First Reading: Matthew 16:21-26

Opening Prayer
We adore and magnify you, O Lord our God, that in Christ crucified you reveal that the very essence of your nature is a love that will go to the uttermost lengths for everyone: for the lost, the lowest, and the least; for each and every one of us here as we kneel at the door of the cross today. Amen.
(Frank Colquhoun, New Parish Prayers - adapted)


Silence


Second Reading: Matthew 22:23-40

Second Prayer
Eternal God,
in the cross of Jesus
we see the cost of sin
and the depth of your love:
in humble hope and fear
may we place at his feet
all that we have and all that we are,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Church of England- Common Worship)


Silence


Third Reading: Matthew 27:45-56

Third Prayer
Lord God,
you are attentive to the voice
of our pleading.
Let us find in your Son
comfort in our sadness,
certainty in our doubt,
and courage to live through this hour.
Make our faith strong
through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Silence

‘Build a shrine to credibility and then bow.’
Well?
Do you?
Wait and See.



Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 2

How's the mood in the house?

Welcome to Week Two of the lighter side of Destruction, Death, Pestilence and Famine although I suspect we have so far only seen the four understudies - Irritation, Anxiety, Allergy and Foodbank. The lead roles are waiting for the West End Run. Coincidentally West End Run is the name of a new and popular local jogging route.

So how has it been for you? A few years ago a charity CEO I know of had forgotten his documentation to get into a particular country to talk about offering humanitarian aid. He was miffed and angry that his journey had been a waste of time but his junior colleague told him he should  simply fly home and get it. On hearing the complaint that this would take two five hour flights the junior delivered the knock down line, 'You'd let these people starve because you couldn't be bothered to watch six movies.' Great line. It worked.

I thought of this again as I realised that my sacrifice for helping with the current outbreak of coronavirus was to have a quieter Sunday, do a few jigsaws and spend more evenings with TCMT. Tough gig.

That said it is likely that some relationships will be under more strain than ours at the moment and I sympathise. Although quick tip - men, be less selfish. No charge; it's OK.

TCMT is a fine woman and sitting next to her in bed this morning drinking another coffee and reading the papers from yesterday (told you life was tough) I noticed her things to do list for today, a quiet day with no volunteering, had  nineteen points. I think she'd crossed, like, the first five off because she writes things down she's done already for the psychological lift. Men, imagine what it would be like to finish today's things to do list. I know, some of you can't get as far as that. Bear with me. Now imagine the level of enthusiasm required to start on tomorrow's. I have a great imagination and can't leap that chasm.

During this love-in (kids, not that, don't panic, you may read on) she was quoting to me the while from the Saturday Times Magazine. She bought it, that's who. She claims it was in the Guardian pile but I'm not allowing her to cross 'Buy paper' off Saturday's things to do list, ever. She reached this sentence. Pay attention men because allowing your female partners to do improving reading should be discouraged and you may get questions such as this:

'In a relationship, this article says, men want '...the four B's ... beauty, brains, body and balance.' Is this (wait for it) WHAT YOU WANTED?'

Now in a relationship women want far more than a mnemonic. They need you to be on duty all the time, like a slip-fielder who takes a match-winning catch off the last ball of the day.

A few years ago I found a model answer when a friend's wife, noticing I'd done all the work for a dinner-party, asked 'Why didn't you marry me, Steve Tilley?' I replied, leaping to the left to pluck the speeding red bullet out of the sky, that 'I didn't fancy you (beat) then'. Forget for a moment that I didn't know her then and dwell on the fact that she walked away enjoying the word 'then' and the positivity it generated.

Remember also that if your nearest and dearest ask such loaded questions as 'Do you like this dress?' you must be truthful if you care what she looks like. I commend 'You can do better than that' which blames the clothes and is slightly better than any answer suggesting it is the body's fault.

'Does my bum look big in this?'

Go straight for, 'Your bum looks big in everything - I love your bum.'

You'll have to go clothes shopping for the rest of your life so disinterest may help you in the long term. I like clothes shopping. What a catch I am.

So, and it's taken a while but we're there now, my answer to the question about the four B's:

No (beat) they were a fringe benefit.

Time for breakfast. I wonder if that was on  her list. It wasn't on mine.

Further marital guidance may be offered if I live.

 (Not written entirely as catharsis - that's a fringe benefit.)


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Updating my CV

In a fevered social media exchange last week (no, not literally) a friend suggested it would raise the morale of some people (approximately five I reckon) if I shared a Christmas-style family update every week. I apologise that it was a red rag to a load of bull so settle down for instalment one.

Should I die during the course of this current outbreak of plague then this may be awkward but awkward never stopped me before. Should someone you love die then this will probably seem a little insensitive but insensitive never, you know. Should you die then maybe it will be a relief to ponder, as you exit this current mortality, that I have failed to entertain you for the last time.

I take as my inspiration P.J.O'Rourke, the only US Republican who ever makes me laugh. His book All the Trouble in the World - the lighter side of famine, destruction, pestilence and death remains a benchmark of black humour. That said Donald Trump was a joke too far for him and he voted, with a peg on his nose, for Hilary Clinton. Read this book to appreciate what that involved.

The last week has been a little strange. Frankly if God had a bet on Manchester City for the Premiership then he's a bad loser. Also, if he's the know-all some of us think he is, then it's disappointing he forgot to tell us to buy Andrex shares.

Seven days ago I was worried that TCMT was travelling to Bath on the train every day. That said it is even more worrying that her work place has now closed and she is at home all day because:

1. My working day involves many periods during which, to the untrained eye, it looks if I am not working.

2. She talks to herself a lot and me sometimes but I tend to ignore it all.

TCMT: You'll miss me when I'm gone
Mr Sensitive: Nah, I'll turn on the radio in the other room and ignore that

3. Most frighteningly, she has a clear and strategic plan for how to spend the time well. I expect to be remerchandised shortly.

But, to the crux, We have all now been required to be socially isolated and physically distant. Welcome to my perfect world. I have always been terribly clumsy at physical greetings, precious about my personal space and happiest alone. Join me. Oh, you can't. So sad.

It has been interesting watching the clergy who were so dismissive of social media when I tried to introduce them to it now live-streaming themselves on Facebook. That said I have also gone up the techno learning curve fast enough to need to rope up first and the sentence 'We had a great Mothering Sunday family Zoom' would have made no sense in February.

People are watching this stuff with one eye on retweeting the cock-ups. Bear in mind, my friends, that the most-viewed video sermon from last weekend was the guy who set himself on fire with a candle. Exactly. Gospel 0 Conflagration 1.

We're not necessarily all going to die but it will be a close call and, based on my minimal knowledge of mathematics, the USA is completely stuffed. Why do the Germans have fewer fatalities from coronavirus than other countries with similar infection rates? Well my wild guess is that they read the instructions.

If you want me I'll be at home. Go away.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Change Management

As a student of change I must confess that one of my early thoughts when Covid 19 coronavirus began to spread was 'Well this will be interesting'. Altering long-established behavioural patterns is hard for people. You always go to the pub on a Friday night. You always visit your Mum on Mothering Sunday. You always hug and kiss people when you welcome them. And so on.

My first observation, personally, was how I aware I have become at the regularity with which I touch my face. There's an itch; scratch it. There's a moment's awkwardness; wipe your mouth / stroke your chin / a million other tells. It is hard to stop. But I am, at least, more aware of how often I do it.

There is a certain wisdom in crowds. We can organise our progress through a busy concourse in opposite directions without there being many instances of collision. There is a certain stupidity as well. A failure to realise that we are a crowd whether we like it or not. On being given a day off work and an encouragement to be out in the fresh air but socially distanced, thousands of people drove to the seaside yesterday. Snowdon attendance broke records.

The first person to stand up at an all-seater stadium gets a better view. But pretty soon everyone has to stand to get the same view and no-one is enjoying their seat. So public open spaces are now being closed because too many people used them selfishly.

We are a strange species, socially. We have organised a terrifically complex social structure within which people have vast freedoms. It is assumed that most will use their skills for the greater good of the whole, although the use of money makes the relationship one-step removed.

What is changing? We are using technology. There has never been a better time to be connected in a plague. We are ordering food without leaving home. There has never been a better time to be fed in a health scare. We are a society that has become used to things that previous pest-houses would have seen as unimaginable luxury. Who knew that a generation who cannot go out without an iPhone would value the company of real people so much? We don't like not meeting. It is too hard a change. How do you mass-change the psychology of society? Probably only with guns. Watch this space.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Book Review

I will probably catch up, over the next few weeks, on some blog ideas I've sketched out but not posted.

We were in Cornwall recently and I like, if I can, to read some local works while on holiday. I found this book thoroughly eulogised in a small Falmouth book shop. Big up to independent bookshops and also, if you're ever there, to Beer Wolf a pub/bookshop in Falmouth. Perfect combo.

Philip Marsden is a writer who lives in Cornwall. Moving from a home by the sea to an isolated farmhouse he speaks of the history of place and landscape. Beautiful Cornwall is in many places artificial - spoil heaps and mine tops look graceful and heritagy now. Once they steamed and belched. 15% of the world's minerals can be found in Cornwall.

His technique is to wander and walk. 'Private' notices do not halt him. He simply brazens it out and chats with the first person he encounters about their work and their life. More often than not he gets a cup of tea rather than prosecuted as a trespasser, like we would be.

He is gently spiritual in his respect for place. He is knowledgeable about flora and fauna. Place names are demythologised. Sentences are Rabanesque (I can pay no higher compliment).

The book was published in 2014. It won all sorts of awards and cover appreciation is written by such travel/landscape luminaries as Jan Morris and Clare Balding.

Thought for the Day

As delivered on BBC Radio Bristol just now, conveniently without having to travel to the studio due to social distancing:

If cancelling things was an Olympic Sport I'd be on the podium. Unless that gets cancelled.

Twice since I started doing these thoughts have I failed to be in the studio. The other time saw me stuck on the A370 behind an accident. I spoke from a lay-by on the Long Ashton bypass then drove home wondering if it wouldn't have been better to do the thought from my front room.

Today my dream came true, but not in a way that gives me any pleasure. I miss the friendly faces of the studio team. Although, Joe. That shirt's terrible. I can't see it. It's just a wild guess.

As part of my job I work to support the clergy of a number of churches. They are having to do heart-breaking things such as severely restricting the numbers at funerals and weddings.

'Now listen', says the letter of James, bluntly, '...you who say 'today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money'. Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes...'

Well, that's us told. Every now and then a staggering reminder of our fragility comes along.

Some people have elbowed everyone aside in order to get at the food. But far more have said they want to help.

On Sunday evening Christians around the country are encouraged at 7pm to light a candle and put it in their window to symbolise that they are praying for their neighbours. It's apt that there is an ancient Chinese proverb - it's better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness. Amen to that.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

A Brief History of Orders

I often get asked about the difference between various levels of orders and types of clergy. Here's a go at an answer that won't help much:

First there are are curates who come here to train
So they don't make the same mistakes over again
Stay for the long haul through fire and rain
Embrace the diaconate; try to stay sane

Pioneer ministers - new on the block
Out on the edges and far from the flock
Their lack of traditionalism can be a shock
But give it a few years before we take stock

Associate Vicars are semi-detached
They're like normal clergy with more jobs attached
Missional policies all newly hatched
Youthwork and priesthood and culture all matched

Who'd cure souls if there wasn't a vicar
Listen with patience then make us go quicker
Move us to healthiness when we are sicker
And manage to do this without too much liquor

Rector or vicar - you may find a tension
In fact they're the same but a different dimension
Subtle distinctions not worthy of mention
It makes little difference to the size of the pension 

Ridiculous is the next stop from sublime
An Area Dean at the heart of my rhyme
The powerless in middle management time
Installing potential and sniffing out crime

Sub-deacons, precentors, some canons and more
Lead worship more formal (they mainly do awe)
Processions and vestments and knowing the law
You want charismatic, they'll show you the door

The next, ex cathedra, will rarely be seen
At home in the structures; liturgically keen
Magnificent, masterful, moody and mean
You pay to get out if you chat with the Dean

If you're an archdeacon the pleasures are fleeting
You get to enjoy on the way to a meeting
Remember the name of the one you are greeting
And never look bored at the mention of heating

Who'd be a bishop you need to be strong
The pay is depressing the days are so long
You only get noticed when things have gone wrong
Lamenting more tempting than cheerful song

Assistant and suffragan ones are the crew
They do all the jobs that the Lordly won't do
While other diocesans, forming a queue
Head up committees, enquiries anew

In charge of a province archbishops are found
Inspiring, accomplished, respectful and sound
Head in the heavens and feet on the ground
Episcopally governed, synodically* bound

If the least will be most and the most will be least
Then the line might go backwards to enter the feast
To the sick and the sad, the perverse, the deceased 
Well after the first year we're all 'just a priest'


(*for 'synodically' the spell-checker suggests 'spasmodically')

St Perran's Day 2020