Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Talks Tent

I'm excited to have been given the opportunity to curate a talks tent at the Trendlewood Community Festival this year. There are people in our local community doing interesting stuff around the world. From 2.00 - 5.00 p.m. a selection of them have twenty minutes to present something of their passion.

Here's a flavour of the topics:

What can a local radio station do for the community? (Joe Lemer, BBC Radio Bristol)
Who can help you with your money? (Tim Moulding, CAP Money)
Who can help you with your parenting and your marriage (Ian Wills and Trevor Watts, CARE for the family)
What can a local church do for a community (me, Trendlewood Church)
From Trendlewood to Uganda to educate children (Mark and Megan Walters, Hope for Life, Katanga)
Nailsea's best kept s
ecret (Nancy Elliott, Nailsea Community Trust)
How green is your estate? (Pat Gilbert, Friends of Trendlewood Park)

Got one more surprise guest up our sleeves too. I hope. Do plan in to your visit the chance to listen to some of these excellent speakers.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

New Popular Culture

I haven't listened to much new music for the last few months. I feel the loss but it was a decision, of sorts.

I think I have discussed previously the rule, as it relates to those of us with limited time to engage with cultural activities, of cyclical proficiency.

In case you haven't come across it, the rule suggests that developing knowledge of one area of culture can only be achieved by disregarding some other area temporarily.

Do you have a hierarchy of culture? I think I do, although it has flexibility. I read every day. I make sure I haven't gone to sleep without reading some of a book. Even if it's only a chapter of a pappy thriller before lights out, it is a rule of life for me. No TV or tablet in the bedroom last thing at night.

Secondly there is sport. In particular football and cricket. Not so much live these days but I make sure I keep up with the weekly TV updates.

What else is there? Theatre, cinema, music, art. I love all these things.

So it becomes quite awkward, when I am already lamenting that I haven't been to the cinema for six months or so, when something new and demanding pitches up. Podcasts are it.

I let them pass me by for a while, apart from occasionally catching up with a Radio 4 show I had missed. Then I started noticing reviews of podcast shows in the weekend newspapers. About Easter time this year people were writing and talking about S-Town. Presented by Brian Reed of This American Life (a programme on Chicago public radio that became a podcast once it could) it is a wonderful seven part story that introduces people not normally given air time so positively, heads off in all sorts of strange plot-twist directions and ends with a nice resolution.

It wasn't long before I discovered Serial, another spin-off which goes into an old news story in more detail over a longer period. It hunts for miscarriages of justice, or at least the truth about controversial carriages of justice.

Now I am into twenty two back years of This American Life and I may be gone some time. It is what is on the headphones as I walk about these days, or playing in the car on long journeys. Getting inside the skin of the USA and introducing intelligent, thoughtful stories is a real antidote to the news from Trumpton.

If it's OK, please nobody invent any new culture for a bit. Thank you.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Thought for the Day

Came off the substitute's bench to do this TFTD at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

How did the older son know his prodigal brother had come home? He heard the sound of music and dancing.

Where does the Bible tell us Jesus did his first miracle? At a wedding reception.

I used to work with a colleague who would, as the saying goes, celebrate the opening of an envelope. There is so much bad news in the world, he used to say, that we should celebrate the good.

If we had a big project he would divide it up into sections and mark the achievement of each part.

He liked to party.

It is funny how we celebrate numbers ending with 0 or 5 with special enthusiasm. So we have a silver wedding anniversary and then ignore 26-29. 49th and 51st birthdays are similarly unpopular. You don't get a memento for being in a job 19 years.

I've always felt that we mark some strange things with a party. The greatest gathering of all my friends in history will be after my funeral. Hmm.

I have to admit I didn't know about the Therapy Bell - a bell in the children's cancer ward at Bristol Children's Hospital which is rung by patients when they no longer require treatment. But it felt to me that it is a lovely thing to do. It is simple, momentous and appropriate. Bells also help us to remember that not everyone gets through cancer treatment.

It is good to mark that there is a tomorrow when previously there wasn't. And important for all of us to resolve that when the shadow of death falls across the lives of others we must not waste any of the precious time we still enjoy.

Have a happy Monday everybody.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning after a brief plug for the Trendlewood Community Festival on August 26th:

I've heard fantastic singing in churches. Singing that would raise the roof. Surprisingly it is often best at funerals of church members. But not always.

A few years ago I was leading a funeral service. The atmosphere was low; the singing disappointing. The first hymn was The Lord's My Shepherd, a version of Psalm 23, to the well-known tune of Crimond.

We reached the end and I felt I had been singing largely solo throughout. The organist continued. No, I thought, he thinks there's another verse. Then I became aware that some people were singing, albeit quietly. The last verse. The verse I'd finished.

I got one of those adrenalin rushes you get when you know you've made a mistake. How many verses did I sing wrong? One? Two? All of them?

When you make a blunder the only thing to do, once you've established that somebody noticed, is to eat humble pie. I messed up. I fessed up.

It's 50 years since Bristol was rocked by the sound of the sonic boom as supersonic jet engines, which later powered Concorde, were tested over the city. The 'boom' damaged buildings.

The MOD even, I am told, paid compensation to a church whose roof cracked.

Churches have been part of the landscape of our city for many years. Many of them predate the bicycle, let alone sonic booms in the sky. They represent a time when the most up anybody could achieve was to climb the steeple.

Cracked roofs or dodgy singing vicars, churches represent an abiding hope in a God who was the shepherd of shepherds when King David wrote his psalm. And they remind us, if we heed it, to give glory to the God of sheep and technology; of buildings, planes and people.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Book Review

Slowly Downward by Stanley Donwood This is a weird book. Well weird. Even the juxtaposition of author and title seems somehow not quite right but it is hard to pin down what is quite wrong.

The sub-title - A Collection of Miserable Stories - gives up the first secret. Amazon suggests '..clarity and minimalism like that of a haiku genetically spliced with propaganda leaflets and air-sickness-bag instructions.' This is the second, also telling us that Amazon reviewers are clever. The back cover includes a commendation from Thom Yorke and inside the cover we learn that the author has something to do with Radiohead's artwork. Ah, I see.

So we have a series of very short not really stories, more like ideas, any one of which a jobbing author should be able to mine for gold.

There is a lot of death, injury, hopelessness and general misery. To finish this review in the style...

I realised I couldn't write. In despair I walked to the kitchen, noticing the single word 'coffee' on the shopping board.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Sabbatical

A number of you will already know that I have been granted a period of sabbatical leave in the autumn. Many colleagues have sent helpful wishes and comments; many others have expressed jealousy that this is not available in their line of work.

Without wishing to get over defensive, may I try to offer a brief summary of what and why.

Sabbath is essentially a biblical concept. We are encouraged to rest one day in seven. The root of the word can be found in Latin (sabbaticus), Greek (sabbaton) and Hebrew (shabbat). It is all about ceasing. But in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus the fields are to be given a rest one year in seven - a fallow, sabbath year.

Essentially rest is at the root of the idea. The fields get their breath back and they can grow more and better crops in future. People get their breath back and focus on their creator (today we have tended to separate a day of rest from a day of worship as people often only work five days a week). Organic farmers tend to use this system today. The late Nigel Lee, a colleague in Christian ministry, took great pride in telling me that he was spending his sabbatical doing almost nothing.

However the word does usually mean taking an extended period of leave in order to achieve some goal. In academia this might be travelling for research or writing a book.

When I worked at the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) I was granted two months leave from other duties to study contemporary culture. It was fascinating and different work but it still felt like work and I had to produce a long paper for my employers with recommendations for future behaviour in the light of my findings. This would have been in the late 1990s.

When I worked at St Paul's, Leamington I was granted an extended holiday as an acknowledgement that their over-use of my part-time hours had infringed on my other part-time work as a freelance writer and thus they gave me the hours back. I wrote full-time for that period in about 2005 or 6 for seven weeks.

I have had a sabbatical dangled before me for three years now. I have left the fruit on the tree twice. Once to get Trendlewood Church's independence completed. Once to get Andy's (our congregational plant joint with St Andrew's, Backwell) off the ground. As a neighbouring parish is in vacancy I considered postponing it once more but a wise archdeacon said there would always be reasons not to do it and they can drown the reasons to do it, so I should go for it.

If I am honest, after eleven years in the same job, I am a bit drained and need to fill myself again. Whatever your opinion of the necessity and style of full-time Christian ministry there can be few doubts that over the long term it is gruelling. I stood alone in front of an all-age congregation yesterday trying to get the dial to go up to eleven. It was tough. The tank's empty. The ideas are thin. I'm as tired as a pick your own rhetorical device.

I have had to devote a lot of extra time to making sure the things I normally do will be OK. Services are almost covered up to and beyond Christmas. Things I simply do without thinking about them (I have no secretarial or PA help here) such as our weekly communications and social media updates need not only to be passed on but others need to be trained in them.

So now, after thirty three years of ordained ministry, I am taking three months, from September 11th - December 10th inclusive. I intend to write. I have two books conceived and hope to finish one of them. Neither currently has a publisher although I have some contacts and have had  three previous books published. One is a spiritual book about the nature of faith; the other a novel.

I am looking forward to this with a sense of purpose and guilt. I know there are others who work hard who don't get the opportunity - although these days many demanding jobs offer career breaks in the contract and pay enough for these to be affordable. I will try not to waste the time. I accept that it is a privilege. Thank you if you have contributed to making it possible.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

'Our youth love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble their food and tyrannise their teachers.'

So said Socrates in the sixth century BCE.

So the police have sent out guidance to schools to pass on to parents about anti social behaviour during the summer holidays.

Where I grew up a ditch separated the back gardens of two rows of houses behind my home. One game was trying to get from the bottom of the hill to the top by navigating the ditch, occasionally crossing gardens when it became private property.

In the school holidays my friend and I tried to do this but reached a garden where an owner was outside.

Waiting on the corrugated roof of a shed for the coast to be clear (as you do) I became aware of a creaking sound. This turned to a cracking noise and I plummeted into the shed through the collapsing roof.

A belated apology to the owners of number approximately 24 Serpentine Road for the shed reduction provision.

Most of us did something in our teenage years that, if caught, would have seen us charged with anti-social behaviour.

The school holidays are times for exploring barriers - adventures stopping one short of mischief. We will do well to occupy our children's time with activity. Writer Garrison Keillor praised:

'Selective ignorance, a cornerstone of child-rearing. You don't put kids under surveillance: it might frighten you. Parents should sit tall in the saddle and look upon their troops with a noble and benevolent and extremely near-sighted gaze.'

If you are without sin please feel free to cast the first stone.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dogs

This paper tissue bears a single word. It is the punch-line of my best joke ever.

TCMT was finding her holiday sleep disturbed by a noisy dog.

She purchased some ear plugs to help her sleep better.

She later asked if the dog was barking because she couldn't hear it.

I said it was not barking, currently.

She couldn't hear me.

An hour later, when the dog began barking, I woke her up and showed her the tissue.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Arrival

I have caught up with a few sci-fi films recently such as Interstellar and The Martian, but Arrival was the best of the bunch. Why?

Well let me ask you a question. Have you ever met someone so unaware of world geography that they might say something such as, 'I wouldn't want to go to Africa because I don't speak African.'

So the premise of this film is that when life forms from another world arrive they may not come in a single craft to explore, or as an invasion fleet to attack. They might come in a small fleet and all distribute themselves around the earth.

The 'arrival' happens in the opening scenes after a brief back-story concerning the lead character, a linguist called Loiuse Banks, which we need to know. And the different nations that are visited engage in various ways and are reluctant to share their learning.

It occurs to me that I hope someone, somewhere has drawn the conclusion that if we are ever visited by another world the only response possible and sensible is a peaceful one. Any life form that has worked out how to do space travel will, we must assume, have vastly superior weapons technology.

Note also, in passing, that we should discard old ideas very slowly. On entering an alien space craft the team need to know if the atmosphere, which appears OK, will harm them at all. So they take a budgie.

And if we ever get to a planet with intelligent life on it we might bear in mind that more than one race might live there and some of them may be welcoming and some not.

Made I think.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

A Word about Warning

Warnings about Brexit recession were wrong

It behoves those of us who try to write from time to time to be very careful criticising misuse of language for we can be very sure we will be the next to be guilty. On the basis that when I err I try really hard to take it on the chin, permit me a grumble.

Here's a bit of dialogue:

Dad: If you don't look both ways before you cross the road you'll get knocked down by a car.

(three years later)

Dad: Hello son. You haven't been knocked down by a car. I see my warning was wrong.

Now. Can we all pick some holes in that please. Good. The son was not incredibly lucky. Nor was the warning wrong. More than likely a change in behaviour prevented the thing being warned about from happening.

A prediction can be proved wrong. A prophecy (if time limited) can be judged false. A warning is designed to change behaviour so as to avoid the thing that might happen. It isn't wrong if it works.

Few warnings about Brexit recession were couched in a time-frame. It is possible, maybe even likely, that important people have taken action to adjust economic behaviour in order to avoid recession.

So the warnings weren't wrong.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Emotions of Voting

Slightly longer essay today, addressing a question I have been pondering since last year.

I have been voting since 1973. So I have been trying to have a think. About how people feel. You see I am part of the liberal chattering classes. People who talk about stuff and enjoy doing it. And our political views tend to cluster around the centre. I have a lot of time for the Owen Joneses and Paul Masons of this world and the way they argue their cases. They may have seen something in anti-establishment post-capitalism that others have missed. If they are right the whole edifice of political understanding is going to topple in the next few months/years. At minimum they are on the side of the poor and that's no bad place to be.

But for the sake of this piece I want to use a working assumption that the people who think and talk about stuff balance each other out. It's good to talk. But getting an emotional change is important.

What have been the emotional turning points of the many elections I have witnessed?

In 1974 I lived in a true blue Conservative household. My parents ran fundraisers and were personal friends with our MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, Harold Gurden. Another Harold, Wilson, had been PM 1964-1970, and was seen as the enemy by my parents and their friends. Wilson won a small victory (a minority government ensued). A West Indian, vox-popped on the TV news said he was voting Labour because it was '...about time someone got rid of pompous Mr Heath.' Heath wasn't awful but the wage demands he faced were gob-smacking. As a classical music conductor and highly experienced yachtsman he had leisure interests that were not exactly working class. I think the emotional trigger was indeed pomposity, perceived rather than real.

Wilson went to the country again later that year and came away with a very small majority of 3.

I had voted once aged 18 and once at 19.

In 1975 an advisory referendum was held re continued membership of the European Economic Community. Do you know I simply can't be certain how I voted, if at all. My views were probably swayed by my parents although I recall a vociferous geography teacher who I respected. I recall him. But not his views.

I voted Tory one more time in 1979 helping bring Thatcher to power. The trigger was those Saatchi and Saatchi posters showing dole queues - 'Labour isn't working'. That the unemployment figures never fell, were never that low again during Thatcher's rule and communities were devastated emotionally made it very hard for me to ever vote Tory again. I felt duped by about 1982.

But the left couldn't pull it back. In response to the '79 election Michael Foot took Labour away from the centre left. In 1982 Mrs Thatcher sent a task-force to win an unlikely military victory over Argentina in the Falklands and Foot was derided for wearing a donkey jacket at the Cenotaph. He didn't, but I think the newspaper reports that he did were the moment he lost in 1983.

The centre-left fell apart and some departed Labour. David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins formed the Social Democratic Party and the 1987 election was Thatcher's third consecutive victory. Neil Kinnock pulled Labour back to centre-left and resisted the advance of the SDP, they in election alliance with the Liberal Party. He won more seats but it was still a Tory landslide. Those SDP/Lib votes cost Labour a few marginals. I voted SDP in one which the Tories won by 300 or so. I was rebuked by my Labour-voting friends. The popular press convinced swing voters that Labour was soft on defence, still riffing on Cold War themes. I can recall no one image that achieved this but I read that one Sun headline was 'Why I'm backing Kinnock, by Stalin'. An abiding image of Kinnock, which I still have in my head but couldn't date, was of him walking on the beach with his wife and being knocked over escaping a small wave. Turns out this was in October 1983 when he was elected leader of the Labour Party. It was used against him a lot.

Which gets us to 92. Thatcher had gone, knifed by her own party in 1990, and John Major was in. Against all odds he won. He went around the country with a soapbox and met people. Kinnock got a bit presidential. At a huge campaign event at Sheffield arena he went for the fist-pumping instead of a statesmanlike entrance. In his own words 'I inhaled'. He believed he had won and forgot to do the things that had got him to almost winning. Again the Sun hit him hard 'Will the last person in Britain please turn the lights out' they headlined. There was a massive swing to Labour but not enough. The pollsters were wrong (unusual then). But the small Tory majority of 20 disappeared in several by-elections and they couldn't shake the accusation of being sleaze-ridden. They hung on for five years, during which Major offered to accept a leadership challenge which he fought off. The emotions of the campaign, and the time leading up to it, was that eighteen years of Tory rule had run its course. Tony Blair won a landslide in 1997 having rebranded his party New Labour and convinced the city and the Murdoch press that he was to be trusted.

Quite soon afterwards he had a chance to express the feelings of the nation and he found the expression 'The People's Princess' to describe Diana, Princess of Wales after she died. He seemed to be able to do this regularly although once, commenting on breakthroughs in Irish politics he said 'This is not a time for sound-bites; I feel the hand of history on my shoulder.'

In 2001 Blair won a quieter landslide (he lost five seats) in a low turnout election. William Hague was the leader of the Conservatives at this time. I think the country looked at him and saw a number of set-piece images of someone who didn't look prime-ministerial. The emotional memory I have stored is of Hague and his advisors wearing team Hague baseball caps and getting wet at an amusement park water-ride.

Until the Iraq war New Labour was quietly getting on with things. Trusted but not loved. In 2005 they saw their majority cut from 160 - 66. The Conservatives under Michael 'Are you thinking what we're thinking' Howard picked up some seats but the anti-war votes passed to the Lib Dems under Charles Kennedy, a popular figure. The Lib Dems picked up 22% of the popular vote (6 million votes) but it produced a disproportionate number of seats at 62. What would they give for 62 seats now after their 2015 wipe-out?

The much-heralded passing of the Prime Ministerial baton to Gordon Brown took place in 2007. I always felt his dour manner and partial-sightedness were not in any way relevant to his ability. Indeed I recall him breaking his first holiday after many months, on day two, to chair the response to a new outbreak of foot and mouth. That it was contained (unlike the previous outbreak) was hardly reported. Then came the financial crash. It is clear that Brown and a few other key players took some emergency decisions that averted an international financial meltdown. That the Cameron Conservative campaign in 2010 managed to pin him with responsibility for the recession that followed, rather than foolhardy investment bankers, led to his downfall. That and, in my opinion, the  moment when he was rude about a woman he had just met whilst not aware he was still mic'd up. She didn't hear his insult but a journalist felt it was in the public interest to make sure it was delivered to her. I would have liked to have experienced a longer Brown premiership.

But the country had still not turned to the Tories. They managed to form a government in coalition with Nick Clegg's Lib Dems who had kept their 22%, increased their vote by another million, and lost 5 seats. Go figure.

The coalition lasted a full five years but Lib Dem supporters never forgave Clegg for campaigning on no university tuition fees and then surrendering that pledge in coalition. In 2015 Cameron got a small majority, the Lib Dems lost all but 8 of their seats and the Scottish National Party wiped out Labour (distancing itself from New Labour now) in Scotland. If a country gets an image to wrestle with it was one of Labour leader Ed Milliband eating a bacon sandwich badly. Which of us could say that a photographer would always catch us eating daintily? It contributes to the behaviour of those seeking election, whilst in the public eye, being far from normal. Would you want a man with sauce on his chin leading the country? Well? That was what the election came down to. That and the Ed stone, about which the less said the better.

During the coalition a referendum was taken on introducing an alternative vote system. Laughably it was argued that first past the post produces strong government.

In 2016 the referendum on leaving the European Union took place. It was an appalling campaign. The energy was with those who wanted what came to be known as Brexit because it is much easier to campaign for change than to keep things the same. Even though most people don't like change but this may have been about changing back. A campaign for Scottish independence had failed roughly 55% to 45%. But the much reproduced lie, written on the side of a campaign bus driven round the country and on a leaflet posted through my door even on the day of the referendum long after it had been denounced and disowned, that £350m a week could be given to the NHS rather than the EU, seemed to convince the electorate. The outcome to leave 51.8% to 48.2% showed a divided country. And thus it has remained.

Cameron resigned. None of the leading lights of Brexit stood for leadership and a staunch remainer became PM. A year later Mrs May went to the country to seek a stronger mandate to negotiate and lost her majority completely. Emotionally her lack of emotion, spontaneity or encounter with real people hurt her. She also produced a manifesto that many of her party did not contribute to. She chugged out bland phrases -strong and stable; Brexit means Brexit - Jeremy Corbyn, fighting his first General Election as Labour leader got out and about and seemed to speak human.

And now, in 2017, we have a minority government, propped up by the 8 seats of the Ulster Unionists. We don't know how Brexit negotiations will go. We suspect that the majority view in the country has changed to remain (which would only involve 2 in 100 changing their minds). And we worry that the nasty, anti-foreigner sub-class is being fed false hope for its obnoxious views.

Obviously there was far more going on than these freeze-frame moments; but for me they carried more weight than a single image or incident ever should have done.

I read recently that the part of our brain which is activated when we are physically threatened is the same part that lights up when when long-held views are challenged. Our response to argument is therefore based on flight or fight. Anyone who has faced vehement opposition in debate only to discover later that the opponent has quietly changed their mind will be familiar with this.

What does it mean for campaigning? Big adverts, lie or not, don't change the minds of any but they cement the views of the already loyal. Mind-changing happens when there is an emotional breakthrough. When I look at someone and decide I can trust them.

There is some irony in the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned for Remain but was criticised for failing to put his heart and soul into it, may only be able to put his renationalisation and subsidisation social democracy into effect outside the constraints of the EU. But he is hoovering up votes from young people who were 75/25% Remainers.

It is worth remembering that a liberal was originally a free person. Liberal chatter was that which was denied to the owned, to slaves, for fear that if educated in liberal ways they might realise a way out and learn to organise themselves.

Those of us who love being part of Europe, in more than just name but in Union, are wondering how it came to this. And what we can do about it. Our emotions are more stirred than at any time in our personal history.

When the Lights Went Out

Andy Beckett's longish book is a history of Britain in the 1970s. Having lived through that decade, aged 14-24, it was fascinating to understand more of what was going on.

Becket sets out the dark days of the seventies - strikes, power cuts, three day weeks - against the backdrop of a country trying to learn to live within its means and using public sector (much larger in those days) pay restraint as its only real tool. No-one had a huge majority in that decade. Heath had 30 in 1970. Wilson had a minority government in the first half of 1974 and then, in a second election on the same year, a precarious majority of 3. No-one was quite sure what would happen in '79 but  Thatcher came out on top over a Callaghan administration that had become, by the end, closer to New Labour than socialism. She won with a majority of 43. The combination of luck, a memorable campaign and a tiredness that left a desire for change, led to a decade of change - some drastic and much-needed but some cruel and unnecessary.

It was a decade of IRA terrorism, inflation and industrial unrest and where monetarism pushed post-war Keynsian economics aside.

Beckett uses archive material well but also travels extensively interviewing those players who are still alive and sensible. He was researching and writing 2003-2008 and the book was published in 2009, his conclusion being set in the days of the banking crisis.

Someone once said that to prophesy is difficult, especially regarding the future. Someone else said that the only good test of a prophet is whether or not their words come true.

This is bang on:

'The Liberal Democrats, their shadow chancellor Vince Cable apart, are rather timid, over-disciplined, and close to the Tories in many of their ideas.' Less than two years later they were bed-fellows for five years.

But how hard it is to learn from history. This paragraph didn't see Brexit coming:

'These days Britons no longer mourn their empire. They are more comfortably European. They are more relaxed about race, sexuality and gender.' Really?

Some of us wonder if the lights might not go out again, soon.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Holiday Reading

So here are the books I read on holiday. I remind readers that the score is an indication of how much I enjoyed reading them as part of my holiday; not a mark for literature, ground-breaking thinking or great prose.

The Visitor - Lee Child (7)
Start your holiday reading with a light page-turner. I will eventually have read all the Jack Reacher books and will have to wait in the airport lounge bookshop of doom for an annual fix until the franchise is over. Meantime 500 pages pass in the blink of an eye and we do eventually find out who is killing people in baths full of army-issue green paint. And why.

Razor Girl - Carl Hiassen (7)
Another author I will read completely. In fact I am up to date and this is the latest Florida-based thriller comedy full of trademark grotesques. Disgraced cop now food inspector Andrew Yancy, failing to observe the requirement to butt out, investigates a weird kidnapping. If it exists you'll never want to eat in Key West.

Breakfast at Tiffany's - Truman Capote (6)
Ignorant me had seen the movie but never read the book. Discovered it wasn't even a book but a short story and, to be honest, I enjoyed the other, shorter stories in this collection more than the eponymous longer one (more a novella). They were:

House of Flowers
A Diamond Guitar
A Christmas memory

Each genuinely short, perfectly constructed and nicely delivered.

But back to  Holly Golightly. She wanders across the pages. We don't really know what she is up to, how she makes her money, where she is from or where she is going. But our narrator is infatuated with her - probably because of the mystery. Even her door plate says 'travelling' where an occupation might have been expected. She is cool, chic, sophisticated - yet a glimpse into her bedroom reveals a laundry disaster. Intriguing. 

Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld (8)
My second book by this female author. I love her style, the way she builds a tale, the slow reveal of a thing and yet a page-turner. Twin sisters with an unusual gift - but they don't both exploit it. And an interesting (parallel) reminder that prophecy is useless without context, assessment and validation.

Capital - John Lanchester (9)
My favourite book of the holiday. John Lanchester wrote a wonderful guide to the financial crash of 2007/8 called Whoops! Clearly at the same time he was constructing this novel as the various residents of a London street have their lives affected by the same. A fascinating insight into economic migration, family relationships, the history of houses and the ultimate inter-connectedness of all things.

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (7)
I like to read Booker prize winners to see what the fuss is about. And this is incredibly clever; a satire on racism. Seeing his town wiped off the map our narrator aims to put it back on by re-introducing segregation; harder even than it sounds in an apparently all-black neighbourhood. It is a commentary of contemporary USA. I maybe got half the jokes (but they were excellent). I particularly loved one riff on why white people's skin-tones are never described in the detail given to people of all other colours. But it didn't quite hold my attention all the time. Hard work for the beach. I'd commend it for study more than holiday reading and for that would give it a 10/10.

Julian Barnes - Talking It Over (7)
The three members of a love-triangle take it in turns to narrate their position. Sometimes you can see something coming, know it isn't right and yet can't change the direction or pace of the circumstances. A reflection might follow on the inevitability of sin.

Amusing Ourselves to Death - Neil Postman (8)
Writing in the mid 80s Postman (no longer with us) reflects on what TV has done to the way we process information. Sesame Street didn't, he says, teach kids to love education; it taught them to love television. So eventually the news became entertainment. He looks back at the days of the nineteenth century when presidential debates could last eight hours and an audience were comfortable with this. As we live in the age of social media it behoves us to reflect if this is having another, major effect on the way we think.

As I publish I am halfway through I Am Charlotte Simmons by the excellent Tom Wolfe. Looks like a 10 to me but I only managed 350 of the 700 pages before the end of holiday rudely interrupted.

Thought for the Day

I sit on the editorial panel of a small magazine. Our regular meeting was yesterday. We were thinking about the next issue's theme - Hope in Uncertain Times.

There can be no doubt we live in uncertain times. On an international stage we are uncertain about future European relationships, threats from terrorism and climate change.

On a national stage we are uncertain we have provided safe housing for many who live in high-rise blocks with modern exterior cladding.

The local issues with which BBC Radio Bristol regularly deal include, today, uncertainty about care for sick children, provision of accident and emergency care in hospitals and the protection of an ancient tree.

Uncertainty.

Yet certainty is often less available than we think. I took for granted that this studio chair would take my weight. That the journey in would last the regular length. Emma trusts her alarm clock day by day (although her Twitter followers know how she feels about getting up). But there is no certainty.

We all live a little bit by faith, hope, trust. Without it we would disappear into a black hole of checking and double-checking. Checking everything all the time. Never trusting anyone or anything.

The Christian story is of a man who put his trust in God to such an extent that he died refusing to believe that this was anything other than God's will. Abandoned to die on a cross. Yet somehow still part of the plan.

Those of us who follow that man, Jesus Christ, must determine to do all we can to bring hope in uncertain times, to be servant as well as supervisor, good news when news is bad and light in the darkness. And that is the Gospel my friends.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Slender Blender

When TCMT worked in furniture retail I have to confess that occasional bargains came our way having been returned by dissatisfied customers when the product was really OK. I am sitting on a fine leather sofa as I type (heavily discounted) and am looking at a set of dining room chairs which came out at about £9 each. We have fourteen of them. A dear, late-lamented member of this parish once broke one and, trying to be kind, got a quote for £90 to fix it. We passed.

TCMT has moved to a kitchenware outlet. We'll preserve its modesty and call it Pond Country. She has to wear an outfit that can best be described as Dolly Parton's away strip.

Now I am the proud owner of all sorts of devices I had learned to do without by failing to be aware of their existence. Garlic skinner. Herb stripper. Perforated cling-film. An unsqueezable mop. I own these things. They are not all entirely without merit.

But. But. But. The deal with the returned items at the new employer is this. Refunded mail order products are sold by enveloped bid to staff and the money goes to charity (cool).

One such product was a Vitamix. This is the DeLorean of blenders. If there are moments in your day when your ornaments move along the shelf of their own volition and then something drowns out the local airport then maybe your neighbour has one.

Being a bit cheeky as the product costs £500 - a moment's silence while we note that there are people who pay this much for a thing that makes food smaller - we agreed to bid £80. We now own a Vitamix.

This baby turns fruit and ice cubes into sorbet. My stale bread has never been so quickly crumbed. On full power I swear it would make you a smoothie out of avocado stones, mango cores and paving slab without breaking sweat. And when you've finished? Fill it with warm water and a dash of washing up liquid and it cleans its own crevices. It comes with a plastic rod to push stuff down if the blades are not engaging but it is designed so that it is impossible to blend that. And I tried.

Jesus clearly hadn't anticipated the existence of the Vitamix when he said it was difficult to get a camel through the eye of a needle.

There is a 'pulse' button. I haven't needed it yet but if you are an amateur seismographer you'll probably know when I do.

I think I am in love with a piece of kitchenware. But I do miss my mop.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

'We never heard a rabbi with such authority', said the people who had the privilege of listening to Jesus teaching.

'Your ideas are strange', said the people who listened to St Paul preach in Athens. 'We want to hear some more.'

We want to hear some more.

I too learn by listening. Maybe you could have guessed that from someone who is clearly friends with the radio. But it was a while before I grasped it.

Recently I've been listening to a lot of podcasts - TED talks, back editions of science programmes and radio shows. Not everyone wearing headphones is listening to music. I actually feel I'm getting smarter as I walk along. Insert your own punchline.

I love the fact that Tom Pearson, physics teacher at Nailsea school, has a chance to experience astronaut training in Alabama. Tom has a podcast. And writing about that, amongst other things, helped get him selected for his training experience which will help him as an educator. That and the NASA flight suit he will get to keep.

For all the fantastic advances in teaching methodology there is little substitute for listening to someone being interesting about something you know little about and they love. It may also explain our enduring love for John Noakes and Blue Peter.

I'm no scientist. But I enjoy listening to those who are. And maybe one of the secrets of being a parish priest for many years is enjoying hearing people's stories. We all love to listen to well-informed and passionate people. And everyone is well-informed and passionate about themselves.

A wise mentor once told me that the reason we have two ears and one mouth is so we can do twice as much listening as talking. So I'll shut up. Thanks for listening.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Much Longer?

Here's a thing. Those of us, not just Christians, who look round churches and cathedrals from time to time, have all seen boards listing the names of office-holders. Previous Rectors and former Church-Wardens are often ornately charted, carved in wood or occasionally set in stone.

Two things grate.

Firstly, when the board has clearly not been updated professionally. A fine calligrapher has listed every parish priest since Norman times, from (I'll invent these) Roger de Sainbillier (1075-1091) to Fred Smith (1999-2004) and then the latest name, Jenny Jones, is added in a childish scrawl of attempted mimicry. It's helpful social history of the backgrounds and genders of the clergy, but a terrible witness to care and attention.

Secondly, when a relatively recent new 'honour's board' has been produced with a distinct lack of imagination as to how many more vicars of this parish will be installed. The list goes from the sixteenth century and leaves space for three more. It's a comment on the parish's vision for the future.

Future rants may include:

  • Portraits in vestries of previous clergy demonstrating the approximate date of the invention of colour photography.
  • Acclamations of the three hour ringing of a double-back handed quarter muffled peel on the accession of some long-forgotten monarch.
  • Memorial brass plaques thanking a generous benefactor for a gift that is no longer in use. Spirit duplicator. Overhead projector. Microphone system. That sort of thing.
  • Cuddly toys of a grubby nature in children's area that carry the likelihood of several communicable diseases and may explain a lack of children in church.

I'll get on with my work now.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Broadcasting to the Nation

Not unconnected to the ear problem, now sorted, I struggled with my headphones recently. The volume seemed particularly low even though it was at max. Deafness creeping in?

I ran a quick test as to whether one ear was better than the other by taking each ear-piece out in turn. The sound was very faint either side. But I noticed one strange thing. For a brief moment, when one ear-piece slipped in my grasp, I had nothing in either ear and yet could still hear.

Ladies and gentlemen I solved the problem by inserting the jack into the socket just a little bit more. After a click the sound now came out of the earphones rather then my pocket.

For many hundreds of metres I had been broadcasting to the nation the hip and happening sound of a podcast of BBC Radio Four's science programme The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I am so cool.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eurovision

In case there are those who do not follow my live tweets/FB on Eurovision here is the feed from last night. Thanks to those who joined in.

Happy to be offering the usual service of watching #Eurovision2017 so you don't have to. Expect sincerity without diplomacy.




'Expect repetitive flashing images'; music not dissimilar #Eurovision2017




Did everyone get the 'wear black or white' memo? Who was meant to tell Spain? #Eurovision2017




Comedy timing hard in a second language - don't think timing is all our three hosts need though #Eurovision2017




Let's start out with depress mode #Israel feels alive? a liar? a lot? #Eurovision2017




'No one has ever won from position number 2.' Song and dress mainly see-through plus wind, smoke and fiddler #Poland #Eurovision2017




Predicted text prefers walrus to #Belarus hey hey hi i i o o #Eurovision2017




Running on air you can push me down but I'll just get up again. How that work? #Austria #Eurovision2017




#Armenia #Eurovision2017 Already forgotten it. Will probably win.




And welcome the key change please. Big voices. #Netherlands #Eurovision2017




Dresses which got bigger. There's a novelty. Mamma mamma don't bistro now #Moldova #Eurovision2017




Lone dancer, lone fiddler, flames, rap in native tongue and Gareth Bale's missing topknot #Hungary #Eurovision2017




I'm sure those backdrop images were on my doctor's wall yesterday. One or two words in Italian. Dreadful. #Italy #Eurovision2017



Never ever wear a frock in a waterfall. You won't have to sing 'You know where I am' #Denmark #Eurovision2017




Please return my jacket to 1986 and the song to My Fair Lady #Portugal #Eurovision2017




A ladder, a chalkboard and a song about a skeleton. Man with animal head at top of ladder. What could go wrong? #Azerbaijan #Eurovision2017




A man of many parts. None of them small. #Croatia #Eurovision2017




Who knew eyebrow paint was a thing? Everyone has it. But only #Australia have clown shoes and a love that don't come cheap #Eurovision2017




That's the worst response to 'Guys, give yourselves a cheer' I have ever heard #Eurovision2017




The Eurobynumbers department decrees an annual 'throw everything at it' tune. #Greece #Eurovision2017




Never heard it before and got the drum-join bang on. Clap your hands and do it for your lover. #Spain #Eurovision2017




When changing key always agree the key to change to #Eurovision2017




#Norway #Eurovision2017 When it's all or nuffin, put your nerves in the coffin. Cool.




Here's the Brexit test. OK but Midge Ure did it better #UK #Eurovision2017




Let me be your gravity. Science lesson needed. Song not without merit. #Cyprus #Eurovision2017




Rap and yodel. No. Come back. Come back. #Romania #Eurovision2017




The four favourite Euro chords - rhythm Every Breath You Take by The Police. Stands a chance. #Germany #Eurovision2017




Band piercing a plenty. Song less so. Heavy man. #Ukraine #Eurovision2017




Quite under-stated. Nice. Bit like a theme tune to scandinoir #Belgium #Eurovision2017




Is it OK to say frickin? #Eurovision2017




Frickin slick or is it freakin? Tune Beverley Hills Flop #Sweden #Eurovision2017




Quite an accomplished performance for 17. Stands a chance. #Bulgaria #Eurovision2017




Changed direction faster than a Compass in a magnet factory. Legs should win some votes. #France #Eurovision2017




Well done Ukraine for hammering through 26 songs in two hours #Eurovision2017




We're still loved by Iceland then. Trying to hold off the cod war #Eurovision2017




I think a new tension-cranking device has been introduced #Eurovision2017


To finish, I was delighted to spot that Bulgaria stood a chance. They came second. Had no idea that Portugal would walk it. Enjoyed the new voting system so you genuinely don't know who will be winning until right near the end.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Latest Book Review Ever

In the mid 1970s, probably staying up to watch football and waiting for it to come on, I caught what must have been an early version of the Late Review or Newsnight Review. Given that my house was a liberal chattering classes free zone I had never watched the programme before. Anyone invited round who was not a true blue Conservative was explained to me before and afterwards, 'Well they are socialists you know', as if that made everything they said and did irrelevant. They probably lived in one of the slightly cheaper detached houses on the other side of the road and lectured at the university.

And that night one of the books being reviewed was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I can't recall much of the discussion except that my interest was caught. I don't think I knew that books could have titles like this.

I did nothing about it.

Fast forward ten years. In that time I had moved out, married, had two children and headed off to train for the ordained ministry. I wasn't much of a studier. Scary. I worked out how to write acceptable essays and pass exams. I captained the football team, co-wrote a musical, met some people who were actually politically engaged and I enjoyed their company.

How little I knew myself then. I swear that, given my character and knowing what I now know, if you had deposited me in college for three years and told me to find out what I thought I needed to know to be ordained I would have made a fist of it.

The study days I remember best, and learned most from, were those when there was no essay to be produced or exam to be passed. They were days when I pursued reading on a subject that had made me curious.

One such day was the day, browsing in the library, I came across Robert M. Pirsig's book. There probably was an essay deadline on something else looming but I would have had an intuitive sense that it was not so near that I couldn't take some time out to skim this book.

As I recall I read the first page standing at the shelves, the first chapter back at my upstairs library study cubicle and the whole book pretty quickly.

As a Christian with a conversion experience I had already had my life changed more than most and, if I'm honest, more than I wanted. Yet here was I reading a book with a sub-title:

This book will change the way you think and feel about your life

I think the Christian truth that sometimes you need to wait, hope, rest and pray came home to me more deeply by reading this book than it had through years of Bible study. It taught me what Rob Bell today calls punk wisdom. If you can't make sense of the information coming at you don't hide - take in some more. If the Director wanted you to know what that scene was about she would have told you. The greatest skill available to anyone, for free, is that of observing the surroundings and making connections.

I don't like motor cycles. I like the way Pirsig describes taking them apart. He likes looking around at the scenery as he rides long. I like looking out of the window. Sometimes, when I do that, I catch a glimpse into my soul. It's not that bad.

Pirsig died recently. Here's a key thought. It's a life-changer. He discusses fixing his bike. At the top of the page of notes (it can be an imaginary page) he writes:

Problem: fix bike's electrical system

This is a mistake, he says. Even if he is 90% certain that the problem is in the electrical system and it is the first thing he is going to check, he may have taken a major wrong turning. He should write (and again the page can be imaginary):

Problem; fix bike

Followed by:

Theory 1; check electrics

Then, when he finds the electrics working, he won't have run out of ideas.

The same sort of thinking applies (I now apply this thinking) to idea-generating. If a group of people are bouncing ideas around do not put the first idea generated in the top left hand corner of the flip-chart page. If you do that you impose an order on the ideas that, psychologically, suggest that the best one comes first. Start in the middle and work out. Make the connections and collate after all ideas are out. If you are doing an ideas-generating session without a flip-chart or other visual display I can't help you any more.

I have more important things to do than write this piece but, as it happens, while I was writing it one of the problems I should have been attending to solved itself and went away.

I described myself as a Zen-Christian once, this upset some people from the Hezbollah wing of the Church of England so I stopped.

But hear this from chapter 25:

I think that if we are going to reform the world, and make it a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature,...

...or with programs full of things for other people to do,...

...The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Christian sentiment; Zen expression.

Oh and this. If you believe in the ultimate inter-connectedness of all things. Yesterday there was a bit of fuss on the news about a female red-winged blackbird that had accidentally found its way across the Atlantic to the Scottish Isles. I just re-read page 1 of the book and there is a father trying to impress his eleven year old son by pointing out a red-winged blackbird. The son is unimpressed.

Five years after reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance I became a bit interested in birds. Female red-winged blackbirds don't have red wings.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Thought for the Day

One of those days where, due to traffic, I dashed into the studio and delivered and then dashed out again. Time on the road 85 minutes. Time at BBC Radio Bristol - 8 minutes.

'Amen, Amen.'

Or to translate. 'Truly, truly.'

Jesus was fond of the phrase 'Truly, truly, I say to you.' In the Bible he uses it to respond to old teaching.

'You have heard it said... but I say to you...'

There have been a lot of falsehoods peddled in campaigning recently.

Brexit campaigners offered £350m to the NHS.

President Trump denies climate change is a thing.

Both lies. Soundly disproved.

Elections for the role of Metro-Mayor take place on Thursday - with the candidates promising new bus schemes, travel plans, car shares and more.

What is the status of a promise? Only one candidate ever gets to deliver on their promises. Those not elected can shelve their promises for another few years.

Meanwhile the one elected, cynical me says, has to work out how to ease back on any of the more grandiose pledges made whilst electioneering.

Christians don't, of course, have a monopoly on the truth but we can point to one who claimed to be the truth. And the central attribute of understanding yourself as a Christian is not to get your identity from any earthly structure or promise but from Jesus.

For humans can be unreliable. Can lie. Can let us down. And if we get our identity from people we follow or support we will suffer a crisis when they disappoint.

An identity based outside this world's structures, treasure in heaven and citizenship based there, strangely keeps our feet on the ground. For when I am empty and nothing; then God can use me here. For I rely not on my own strength but on the one who strengthens me. And that's the truth.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol an hour ago:

One of the ideas most commonly used by members of the Christian community for their experience is that of a journey.

I am here. And I want to get there.

I was looking for something and I found it.

We have just celebrated Easter, the culmination of Jesus' journey and the promise of resurrection. A final destination if ever there was one.

It is true, of course, that at the time the Bible was written, journeys were complicated. The fastest you could get anywhere was on the back of an animal. A trip of ten miles needed planning. If it required walking then there and back took a day.

Today we can get Chinese food to take away and vaccines to cure illnesses - all in the seeming blink of an eye. Isn't it interesting that so many of our stories on the show this morning are about journeying? Taxis to get home from the railway station. Bus or rail links to the airport. And yet those we call 'travellers' find themselves with a bad reputation.

What can we conclude?

Well when I was a child I was impatient. 'Are we nearly there yet?' the rear-passenger chorus line.

When I was a young adult I thought I had arrived and knew everything.

Now I'm getting on I realise that I probably won't change the world but I can make a difference and I don't have to rush.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was right when he said 'Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.'

Which is me finished and left with a day's journey to two school assemblies in an hour's time. Isn't progress great?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Let's Agree to Disagree

I am quite happy to agree to disagree with you about the identity of the greatest band of all time, the location of the finest restaurant in the known universe and, at a push, the best way to drive from Nailsea to Wells although on the latter your logic may be at fault but I'll let it go. Preferences are simply that. No one person's favourite necessarily has to be everyone else's.

But the other day my timeline on Facebook was invaded by this:


And the person posting had said 'Onwards and upwards, lets make Brexit successful.'

I posted:

OK I'll rise to it:

1. We were and still are.
2. We just jumped ship from an agreement by 27 states to agree to play by the same rules (I should have said 28).
3. Glad you agree it's not fair now. Shall we take more refugees?
4. We were and still (just about) are.

To which I received the reply:

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, obviously I'm very happy with the referendum result along with 17,410,740 voters.

I gave up with a:

Don't I know it.

But I don't agree to disagree. I disagree. I made, I thought, clear and valid objections. And in those circumstances I'd like to hear reasoned, or even emotional, arguments for why you are right and I am wrong.

Sometimes it's necessary but 'Let's agree to disagree' is too often lazy. And that Conservative poster is not a plan for Britain. It's a bunch of meritless slogans and emotive catch-phrases at best. In its suggestion that everything is endlessly broken apart from when the Conservatives are in power it is nasty, demeaning, passive-aggressive rallying.

I don't pretend that other parties all behave fine. Not for a minute do I do that. But I insist that sloganeering codswallop followed by 'Let's agree to disagree' is no way to demonstrate to the world how to use social media well and wisely. It's the equivalent of shouting over the wall and running off.

Next time you shout over my wall be very afraid. I might invite you in for a cup of tea and a chat. I'd like to listen to your reason.

...you died and your life is hidden...

On Easter Sunday morning I preached, although I didn't write anything down, on the epistle.

I discussed what it means to say, post-Easter, that '...you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God...' an assertion Paul makes in Colossians 3:1-4.

It wasn't the greatest sermon I have ever prepared but I had enough to say on our setting our hearts on things above and waiting for him to appear.

The thing that caught me out, and thus book-ended this average sermon and helped lift it, was the version of the Bible in the pews. It was the New International Version, with which I have few problems, but with a sub-heading for the passage.

You can do theology until you're whatever colour in the face excessive theology turns you, but somewhere around line one of paragraph one of reformed Christian thought we might expect to read that the Gospel is a free gift, given by the grace of God. If you are not currently a member of my faith community then please do not feel you are being force-fed this; I simply ask you to accept that it is what we believe and it is orthodox. People went to the stake for the assertion that you cannot buy your way into heaven. Christian behaviour is a response to the Gospel not a cause of it.

So my question became this. How detached do you have to be from that mainstream Christian thought to think that  'Rules for Holy Living' is a good sub-heading for the passage? I am perfectly happy to accept that there are implications for my behaviour based on my beliefs. I am even content to identify with people who set themselves a voluntary code of practice and live under orders. But rules? Not today thank you.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning. It was followed by much hilarity when presenter Emma called some vandals 'scrotes' and then asked round the studio if that was a BBC word or not. At which point newsreader Keith said it was the latest model from Ford and we all collapsed. Wasn't it an insult Fletch used on Porridge all those years ago?

Today is known as Maundy Thursday.

Jesus, eating the Passover with his friends the day before he died, washed their feet.

It was a humble act. That of a servant leader. Afterwards, speaking of what he had done, he is recorded as saying:

'A new command I give you. To love one another as I have loved you.'

The first word of that sentence in Latin is mandatum - many scholars think we get the word Maundy from that.

But where two or three scholars are gathered together there is often a bit of a barney. Others suggest that the name comes from a different Latin word mendicare - to beg. They say that the names of the money containers used by royalty to give alms to the poor on their way to mass this day, gave the day its name.

The great thing is that both acts are still emphasised. The Queen gives out Maundy money each year. Symbolic foot washing is still practised.

As Bristol considers the possibility of becoming free from corporate advertising we note that symbolic acts have power. Power to subvert and power to influence.

As do symbols. If I hold up a wooden cross there can be no doubt what I am alluding to. It is one of the greatest advertising symbols of all time.

But wouldn't it be great if a city, indeed a whole region, was to become known for its acts of generosity, humility and kindness?

Jesus said his disciples should be recognisable by their love, for one another and their neighbours. Well I'm a realist. It's not always that simple. But it may be a better advert for my love if I wash your feet rather than put up a poster.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Thought for the Day

Bit late posting this today as I've had stuff to do. I hate days with stuff to do. Here is this morning's script as delivered at the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show with Emma Britton:

'You who took the branches green and waved them high above the crowd
Did you realise that next week you would scream for sacrifice.'

Lines from a Palm Sunday song a friend of mine wrote a few years back.

I want more money spent on my kids' school. I don't want to be caught on camera ignoring a traffic sign. I want agencies safeguarding children to be perfect. I don't want my chosen life-partner's behaviour to be a surprise to me.

Stories from today's show.

I want. I don't want.

'I want, can't have' said my Mum about ten thousand times.

The life skill we need to develop is to pilot our boat of potential selfishness through the choppy waters of other people's needs. What provides the most good for the greatest number of people? That is the question asked by the philosophy utilitarianism. How to maximise benefit and reduce harm?

Trouble is we are human. In the Bible St Paul wrestled with this. He observed that he felt wretched because he did what he didn't want to do and didn't do what he should do. It has ever been thus (beat) because selfishness, weakness and negligence get the better of us. All of us. However hard we try.

Some of you listening this morning will believe in God. God who wants us to move from selfishness to service. Others will be happy simply with the utilitarianism. Trying to be good.

We embark on a journey in the Christian Church this weekend, following Jesus' last days from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and arriving at Easter Sunday.

It reminds us that things don't always work out how we would want. But they do work out.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Which Newspaper helps you understand chocolategate?

Do you read a newspaper? It was quite a straightforward question at my ministry selection conference in 1979. One of the lay interviewers (the retired British Ambassador to Canada) asked it. I gave a true answer, which at that stage was the Daily Mail. That had been the paper I grew up with and, at the tender age of 24, I had never bothered to change. On Sundays my Dad had bought three papers - the Express, Times and Mirror and he spent Sunday mornings smoking and reading. I read the sports pages. Some of the guys I worked with bought the Sun or Mirror and I felt happily superior to them. The Times was for management.

Oh how things have changed. Politically and culturally I woke up. After ordination I changed to The Times, then The Independent shortly after its launch. In the mid 90s I became a Guardian reader but struggled to keep up given the amount of online material also coming my way. I embraced the iPaper and still do but tend to buy a Saturday Guardian or Sunday Observer. On Gozo for two weeks a year I read the Telegraph as the others take too long to arrive or sell out early. 

But to return to that selection conference question. Yes I read the iPaper and weekly Guardian but almost never on the day of publication, which, at minimum, gives me a good handle on their ability to prophesy. For daily news there is the BBC news app, a C of E media feed, a daily edigest and of course my Twitter feed with several news sites followed.

One of the skills required today is the ability to edit your input stream. For satisfactory balance you must not allow it to consist entirely of people with whom you agree.

But sometimes the entire stream goes bonkers, such as today when the whole of the UK internet seems to be discussing whether the National Trust had edited Easter out of chocolate and whether that mattered much. The Archbishop of York seems to have got it wrong, the C of E comms people have had to issue clarifying comments, the Prime Minister has got involved (which shows how trivial it is for she never has an immediate comment to make on serious issues) and Peter Ormerod, usually a beacon of sanity in a daft world, has managed to upset almost everybody by being right.

Watch and learn my friends. Watch and learn. And if being interviewed for the ordained ministry pitch your answer to the media question at a level the interviewer will understand. So sit by them at breakfast if you can.

Tomorrow. Is selling nails on Good Friday blasphemous?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Restaurant Review

When London broadsheet newspaper food critics are allowed out of the capital they are normally pretty scathing about the places they visit. And what us ordinary folk, who go to nice, expensive restaurants once in a blue moon, always have to bear in mind is that the sorts of places they are scathing about are the sorts of places we go to all the time. And the sorts of places they are nice about are not for the likes of us.

I wonder what they would make of a place we had lunch last week. Possibly they would see it as attempted murder.

On the A40 between Carmarthen and Llandeilo is a pub called The Half Way House. We stopped at it for lunch because it was cold and wet and we were hungry. There are no pubs round here in the Good Pub Guide. Not even in the lucky dip section. We used to think this was because the inspectors were too lazy to come out here.

We chose to stop because it was announced by a large brown sign on the main road. In England a large brown sign usually means historic coaching inn, or charming place worth visiting. Not so in Wales apparently.

There are many half-ways about this place. The first one is that it feels like a crash weld between a 1985 Little Chef and a Wetherspoons in a town where the only industry has closed.

We should have been more observant. In the warmer months it is the guardian at the gates of a caravan park, a place currently devoid of caravans and not even looking very parkish. It's second bit of halfwayness is therefore that it is between being a restaurant and a shop. It has a deli counter although today the cold cabinet held only wax-covered Snowdon cheese. The sort that is quite nice as long as you don't keep it too cold. I expect in the summer you could buy other stuff.

'Table for two?' This is not a normal greeting in a pub. I asked if we could see the menu first. It had a reassuring lunch sandwich menu as well as the à la carte. I am wary of à la cartes in these places as they are normally microwaved straight from a freezer. But it is hard to mess up a simple sandwich so we agreed to sit. We could have had two tables each and not crowded the place but we were shown to one of the two tables for only two people.

Do retain the phrase 'It is hard to mess up a simple sandwich'. We will revisit it.

There was one real ale which turned out to be local and not awful but I wouldn't have wanted two. The current Mrs Tilley had a glass of red wine and drank some of it, an act she regretted.

Our food order was a ploughman's and a coronation chicken sandwich, working on the basis that we both know what these things probably ought to taste of.

Surprise number one. The ploughman's was a sandwich too. Well it had been listed under the sandwich section of the menu but still. It was a cheese sandwich. It was surrounded by something that makes cheese wetter in a sandwich. Maybe something that evolved from mayonnaise. 'I wondered why they gave us forks' said TCMT. It was accompanied by chips, a green salad that included coriander and a pot of something red. More on that later.

We noticed that the piped music had moved from George Michael and other dead people to 'It's a wonderful, wonderful life.' It felt as if even the backing track was giving us the finger today. Our co-diners had smokers' complexions, the gait of the under-exercised and the build of people who ask for thanks to be sent to the chef for the wonderful gammon and pineapple.

Now. Coronation chicken is not that hard. It has about four ingredients but the recipe does involve the application of heat to some of them at some point. It was less of a surprise that this was a sandwich but the surpriseometer went into the red as I considered how little resemblance the product placed on my plate had to any sandwich I had ever eaten. Granary bread normally puts up more of a fight to contain the filling. As I lifted the thing to my mouth everything fell out of the bread. Again the provision of a fork was essential. The fries were not awful, only over-cooked and sliced too short suggesting that they had been cut from potatoes that were not completely ready for the compost heap, but the uncooked curry powder in the sandwich rendered it unfinishable. There are about three occasions in my whole life when I have failed to complete a sandwich.

My green salad was also based on micro-herbs. I suspect they had been over-ordered. Oh, and red onion. There was a lot of red onion about.

Which brings us to the pot of red stuff. I had one too. We turned our attention from finishing lunch to identifying the red stuff. Now red stuff is a narrow playing area. Our first guess, made well before tasting, was that it might be beetroot. Strike one. This pot - did I mention it was plastic and not unlike a communion glass in a free church - contained very unusual things. A few slices of cabbage, not red cabbage but cabbage that had become red, were in there. As was some dried fruit, maybe sultanas. There was an orangy taste. It had the consistency of under-set jelly. It smelled of pot pouri. Our final answer, Chris, is that it was the contents of the sink trap which neither citrus nor pine cleaning fluid had managed to disperse.

£19.45 in case you wondered. As we left the heavens opened and as we entered the car the Archers theme music began to play. Only the company and the laughter we were both holding desperately in, stopped it being the worst lunch ever.

More food critics should experience this sort of thing. 'Restaurants to avoid this month.' I'd read it.

Oh, and Good Pub Guide folk. You know what you're doing. Apologies.

Martin McGuinness

One of the things I hate about modern political discourse is the failure of 'sides' to express their 'opponents' position as strongly as possible before disagreeing with it. Points scoring is cheap and nasty. Proper listening and understanding moves everyone forward.

So to Martin McGuinness. He is someone who, if forced to identify such a person, I would have said was my enemy in 1972-4. The IRA tried to kill me. They missed by a day, blowing up a Birmingham pub I had frequented the night before. I didn't lose any friends but my home city lost its vibrancy for a bit.

When he embraced the idea of politics to move things forward there was a lot of suspicion. I think rightly so. Whenever anyone has a change of heart it takes a while to be convinced. Those who suffered at his organisation's hands are clearly going to be the last people to forgive. And so we hear Lord Tebbit still expressing hate, as we might expect from a man who was seriously injured by a bomb which killed some of his colleagues and paralysed his wife for the rest of her life in 1984.

When people who once breathed out murderous threats stop threatening (Saul /St Paul anyone?) it is hard to get on board with them.

Nobody, to my mind, has touched on one thing that would have been hardest for Martin McGuinness. He had to take the IRA with him. That this was difficult was emphasised by a batch of atrocities committed by the 'Continuing IRA' as the peace process began.

I was brought up to hate Irish Republicanism. I never grasped their complaints. I did not have their case put to me as strongly as possible. They had no face in the media and for a time their words were spoken, on the news, only by actors.

It was, of all places, on the sleeve notes of an album by a fine band That Petrol Emotion, that I read the material produced here.

High unemployment, job discrimination, gerrymandering of political boundaries, a derisory public housing provision and the linking of the right-to-vote with a property qualification led in 1967 to the formation of a broadly based non-political and non-sectarian civil rights movement composed of all shades of non-Unionist opinion. By peaceful protest demonstrations, it demanded such reforms as 'one-man one-vote' (universal suffrage), an anti-discrimination act, reform of local government and the abolition of the draconian Special Powers Act.

On October 5 1968, a peaceful civil rights march in Derry (including parents and members of the band) was brutally attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the instructions of the Unionist-controlled Stormont Government. This was followed by the organised attack of a peaceful student march from Belfast to Derry by Unionist extremists setting a precedent of anti-nationalist violence in the subsequent months and culminating in the British Government's decision to draft in its troops to uphold 'law and order'.

In the face of such belligerent intransigence, it was a small step from demanding civil rights to demanding a complete severance of ties from Britain and the establishment of a socialist Irish state. The resurgence of the Irish Republican Army, largely dormant from the late '50's, heralded an age where constitutional politics went from sick-joke status to complete irrelevancy for the Nationalist community...

(End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues -  Virgin Records Ltd 1988)

For the first time I understood why Northern Irish Republicans felt as they did. I related it to the appalling sentiment expressed in Psalm 137 (the bit we rarely emphasise) that the Israelite who dashed Babylonian babies against the rocks would be happy so doing.

I am not condoning what many chose to do thereafter; merely showing a strong expression of the Republican case.

In the 1980s and 1990s, some back channel work went on, quite counter to the 'We don't talk to terrorists' sound-bite regularly wheeled out by politicians. If someone is so angry they will gladly dash the heads of innocent babies against the rocks it behoves us to find out why in any way possible. It was very brave of some people to do this.

McGuinness never revealed where the bodies were buried. I don't know, but I imagine, that at every step after renouncing violence his own life was in danger from those who didn't want to do that. Especially when they saw him and Ian Paisley laughing together and being nicknamed the Chuckle Brothers.

So, for me, he was not a good man, nor a bad man, but a man of contradictions. Some of the truth he took with him to the grave. I understand those who don't want him ever to rest in peace. And those who do.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

On being an Assistant Rural Dean

I announced on social media this week that I had been appointed Assistant Rural Dean in the Portishead Deanery. This caused much mirth, mischief and misunderstanding amongst the people I know and love. As well as being a great name for a new firm of solicitors, this suggested to me that a brief piece about how the Church of England actually works would not go amiss.

So, with respect to those who actually know what they are talking about, a rough guide to the C of E school of management. This is populist writing, not academic.

England has a national church. The Church of England's existence is established by Act of Parliament and its laws are the laws of the land. The monarch of England is its head. Senior bishops sit in the House of Lords, contribute to debates, and sit in scrutiny upon every piece of legislation produced by the House of Commons. That is its privilege. Its duty is to ensure the pastoral care of everyone in the land. Every blade of grass and every piece of concrete is someone's responsibility. Where you live affords you the right to be hatched, matched and despatched in a Church of England Church by a Church of England pastor.

The local Christian traditions and styles vary greatly around the country. People are welcome to travel a bit to belong to one that is more 'them'.

The country is divided into two provinces - York and Canterbury - overseen by two archbishops, one of whom, Canterbury, happens also to be the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion (more on that another day). These provinces are further divided into dioceses, each one overseen by a diocesan bishop. Some dioceses have suffragan or assistant bishops and the work is divided up by some according to geography and others according to specialism.

I work in the Diocese of Bath and Wells, geographically equivalent to the County of Somerset. It has two bishops - the diocesan is known as the Bishop of Bath and Wells; the suffragan as the Bishop of Taunton.

Each diocese is further subdivided into archdeaconries headed by a go on take a wild guess.

The Diocese of Bath and Wells has three archdeaconries - Bath, Wells and Taunton. I work in the archdeaconry of Bath, where the archdeacon is retiring in June if any clergy colleagues fancy following in the footsteps of a much-loved genius. Look out for adverts.

Archdeaconries are further sub-divided into deaneries. There are eighteen (or is it nineteen, can't remember?) of these in our diocese here, of which five are in Bath Archdeaconry.

I am in the Deanery of Portishead. Each deanery is overseen by a rural dean although in other parts of the country the title has been changed to area dean due to the absence of anything vaguely rural in the area. The title seems to date back to a time when most of our country was rural not urban. It would surprise quite a lot of people to know that this is still the case, says this city kid.

In some of the larger deaneries a more collaborative style of leadership is called for. Sharing the load is good since rural dean is not a job in its own right; it is an extra responsibility placed on the shoulders of someone who is already a parish priest. It also acknowledges that in diverse deaneries (ours has three major towns of 15,000 plus and another of 8,000 but several smaller communities in between and many farms) it is unlikely that one person will have all the skills needed to lead.

It is in this context that I have been appointed Assistant Rural Dean and it might help locals to know what I said when accepting the responsibility:

I will be the person (of the three of us, you and two assistants) who keeps their head in the future. I will approach deanery life with a 5-25 year head on. I am a visionary not a strategist. How our evolving vision applies to our different parishes (the strategic) will be up to them but they should have a huge buy-in to the vision we settle on.

I will champion mission enabling, and help as far as I can, but be aware that half my job is mission enabling in the Nailsea LMG (Local Ministry Group - a unique arrangement in Bath and Wells - ed) and it would be too much to extend this to the whole deanery. So it will be an encouraging/facilitating approach to the rest of the deanery, available for consultation with clergy/churches as required. Many deaneries are now appointing half-time mission enablers. We may wish to consider this.

I will work with the Mission and Pastoral Group on the deanery MAP (Mission Action Plan - ed) with a view to finishing it before my sabbatical in the autumn. I am happy to be the person who draws up the eventual document.

I will stand in for you (the Rural Dean) as and when required and would be particularly happy to be involved in appointment processes, especially if we are heading for a point where there will be some common wording, about the deanery, on all future vacancies. We should be able, between the three of us (another assistant still to be appointed), to make sure that we are always represented at diocesan rural deans' meetings.

I cannot see myself, easily, having much Sunday morning time to cover elsewhere but my Sunday evening commitments are relatively light.

Ideally, as we said, the Deanery Standing Committee would become separate from the Mission and Pastoral group so that we don't mix the nitty-gritty day-to-day stuff with vision seeking.


So I am excited to have permission to spend more time on something I love doing and am aware that I need to get up to speed on a load of things pretty quickly. I will have a lot of questions.

To answer some specific questions posed in social media feedback:
  • No, I will not be leaving. This commits me to several more years, probably up until retirement (which can happen any time after May 2021).
  • No, there is no extra money.
  • No I don't get a badge. Or a cape. Nor even a phone box to change in.
  • Liz wants to be called Lady Dean. She finds Lady Ass unappealing.
Hope this is useful.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Poached Pears

Someone bought a bottle of cheap rosé to your house? You don't like it and don't want to take it to another party? Try this:

You will need:

4 ripe pears
Half a bottle of rosé
Two table spoons of dark brown sugar, preferably muscavado
Pinch of vanilla salt
Blob of butter
Tea spoon of corn-flour
Juice of half a lemon

Squeeze lemon juice into a bowl. Peel, core and quarter the pears adding and mixing to the lemon bowl as you go to prevent browning.

Heat blob of butter with the sugar on a hob until combined then add pears and lemon. Also a pinch of vanilla salt. You could use coarse salt and a drop of vanilla essence I guess but I don't know how it would taste. Stir around a bit then tip in the wine. Simmer for 25 minutes then take out the pears and set aside.

Continue to reduce the wine liquid. Add cornflour and water paste to complete, making sure the flour cooks out and go on until it thickens and reduces to your taste.

Set aside until needed than add the pears back in. Warm up, or serve cold. Greek yoghurt nice accompaniment as well as chilled lounge music. Candles and expectations also optional.

Thought for the Day

As delivered on BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast Show an hour ago:

When I moved to the area ten years ago I realised that I had spent a lot of my previous time with younger adults. Most of my friends were my juniors.

It came as a shock to the system to mix with people my age. I found it a bit dull at first.

In the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible; what Christians call the Old Testament, we read:

'Remember my words. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.'

But later we read of a young man called Elihu, in the Book of Job. He says:

'It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right.'

I was interested in the story about children from Beckett Hall Nursery regularly visiting Osborne Court Care Home. In fact I am interested in any gathering where we manage to avoid generational groupings.

Churches are pretty remarkable places for this. There are some that have lost touch with younger members but many have not and good dialogue between young and old happens week by week.

At Trendlewood Church in Nailsea, where you find me most Sundays, our youngest member is six months old and our oldest over eighty. At Andy's Church in Backwell, a new project I am involved in, last Sunday's attendance was 30 adults and 34 children.

Remember from your childhood the adult who was always pleased to see you, never judgemental and a huge support in all you did. They were probably called Grandma or Grandpa.

So lets see if we can increase the opportunities for young and old to mix and build on the imaginative work of one nursery and one care home. Well done.