Friday, February 09, 2024

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Weds 7th February

The conceit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that the spirit world can interfere in, and with, the human. What was probably not imagined is that those spirits can also interfere in the dramatic world. And so, in the first scene involving the travelling players, a large piece of scenery (a door) begins to travel very slowly across the stage. We wonder if this could be part of a show, already getting plaudits for its magical special effects, until a stage hand pursues it and returns it whence it came. The cast cover with genuinely funny ad libs and Mathew Baynton (Bottom) repeats the last line before the interruption.

MSND is meant to be chaotic. It lends itself superbly to mixed settings and so we enjoy a bit of Bollywood, synth pop, a feisty Scottish lass and some laddish mods (moddish lads?), trapdoors, ladders and proper magic.

Some of that magic is beguiling with the minor spirits being seen only as lights. Invisible hoists and unexpected trapdoors provide the height. A very deep, bare stage the depth.

The comedy is funny, the effects effective and the time passes quickly in the company of a good cast and crew. More like this please.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Martin Luther (not so good after all)

As a recovering Evangelical I often revisit my heroes of the faith. Martin Luther has avoided my gaze over many years; his stand against the despicable practice of selling indulgences (cash for forgiveness) was well judged. Whether the nails and church door are myth or not the message was appropriate. His extended Bible study that led him to understand pardon by grace alone was one of the best Quiet Times anyone ever had.

So it was with some disappointment that I read Tanit Koch's excellent 'Germansplaining' column in The New European last week. She pointed out that Luther, in 1524, wrote a piece called 'Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants' although those peasants were revolting against heavy taxes on farmers. His pamphlet was all the ammo the ruling aristocrats needed to kill 70,000 (yes, you read that right) peasants.

So, maybe it's easier to rely on God's grace when you're loaded.

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Garden Bird News

After a year looking out of the window and trying to get the feeders balanced for our fussy local community here are some scores.

It has been great to live with a house martin nest on the side wall. They managed three broods, stayed late to fledge a lazy chick and entertained us greatly. At one point we counted 20 immediately above our property on 'encouraging out' duty.

House martin first seen 23/4/23
House martin last seen 28/9/23

Swift first seen 13/5/23
Swift last seen 26/7/23

Cuckoo first heard (not seen) 24/5/23

Nothing very surprising turned up. A red kite lurks overhead sometimes. Up to 20 starlings make short work of a suet block but don't like the suet balls. Goldfinch love sunflower hearts. Wood pigeon, collared doves, robins and dunnocks feed off the ground and tables. House sparrows like a bath, as do blackbirds and wood pigeon. In the autumn Canada geese fly over towards the lakes in the morning and back home to roost at dusk.

A couple of RSPB cat scarers have been useful. Nothing used our tit box so I may reposition it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Christmas Quiz Results

General Knowledge

1. What is the Japanese art of kintsugi? Repairing broken things with gold.
2. Scott McTominay got the 2000th and Cristiano Ronaldo got the 1000th. Who got the first? Mark Hughes.
3. What are corvids? A species of bird which includes crows, rooks etc
4. Before decimal currency, how many half crowns were there in a pound? 8
5. Where would you find a speleologist practising their passion? Undergrouind in caves
6. What is the address of the White House? 1600 Pennsylvania Ave
7. In movement of the hand what is the opposite of supination? Pronation.
8. During the Covid 19 pandemic much was made of the government taking advice from SAGE. For what do the letters SAGE stand? Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies
9. What did Ray Tomlinson send to himself in 1971? The first email
10. Grape, Peaches, Keys and Lace can all be preceded by what word to make the name of a band? Black
11. What number connects David Beckham’s time at Real Madrid with the valley of the shadow of death? 23 (his shirt number and teh psalm that mentions it)
12. In the song Fairytale of New York, what song were the NYPD choir singing? Galway Bay
13. What would it mean to describe twins as dizygotic? Not identical
14. Which stately home is the family seat of the Duke of Devonshire? Clue. It’s not in Devon. Chatsworth
15. What traditional occupation is suggested by the common names of the three small bones in the human ear? Blacksmith - anvil, hammer and stirrup
16. What are the three ingredients of the Canadian dish poutine? French fries, gravy and cheese curds
17. Who was the last person to stand on the Moon? Eugene Cernan
18. By what name are Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons better known? The Chemical Brothers
19. There are three native British conifers. The Scots pine and the yew are two. What is the third? Juniper
20. In 1972 Ralph Baer produced the Magnavox Odyssey. It was the world’s first what? Computer game platform or home video console

Famous Gabriels (Gabby, Gabriele, Gabrielle, Gabriella)
Band comprising Jacob Lusk, Ryan Hope and Ari Balouzian (Gabriels)
Founder of Genesis and Womad (Peter Gabriel)
Actor in The Usual Suspects (Gabriel Byrne)
Footballer for Arsenal and Brazil (Gabriel Jesus)
Author of Love in the time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Márquez)
French musician known for his Requiem (Gabriel Fauré)
Former Italian F1 driver who debuted in 1987 (Gabriele Tarquini)
Female sports presenter née Yorath (Gabby Logan)
French fashion designer and business woman 1883-1971 (Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel)
A Marvel Comics villain better known as Vulcan (Gabriel Summers)

Famous Marys
TV chef and former Bake-off judge (Mary Berry)
Northern Irish 1972 Olympic pentathlete (Mary Peters)
Founder of the Christian Science movement (Mary Baker Eddy)
Fictional nanny played by Julie Andrews(Mary Poppins)
Nursery rhyme heroine; strange garden (Mary, Mary quite contrary)
American actor played Laura Petrie in the Dick van Dyke show (Mary Tyler Moore)
Inherited the throne of Scotland in 1542 aged 6 days (Mary I, Queen of Scots)
American rapper, singer, songwriter and actor often called the ‘Queen of R and B soul’ (Mary J Blige)
Creator of Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
American Motown singer famous for ‘My Guy’ (Mary Wells)

Last 10 Years
1. 2014 Where were the Commonwealth Games held? Glasgow.

2. 2015 Everyone loves a royal birth. Who arrived on May 2nd? Princess Charlotte

3. 2016 What was the name of the 25th and final album by David Bowie, released just a few days before his death? Blackstar

4. 2017 A snap General Election was held. In which month? June

5. 2018 The Fat Duck and The Waterside Inn are the only two three star Michelin restaurants outside London. They are both in the same large village. Where are they? Bray

6. 2019 The pandemic known as Covid 19 is said to have started in a food market in which Chinese city? Wuhan

7. 2020 The idea of ‘eat out to help out’ was the brainchild of Rishi Sunak. What office did he hold at the time? Chancellor of the Exchequer

8. 2021 Prince Philip died this year. How old was he? 99

9. 2022 The Football World Cup was held this year, but what months was it held in? November and December

10. 2023 How did Old Testament judge Samson’s birthplace link to contemporary matters? (Gath, which is now Gaza)

Words of the Weak

1. Sukebind
a) A spoof foliage invented by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm

2. Slattern
c) A dirty, untidy woman

3. Serac
a) A block or column of glacial ice

4. Salopettes
b) High-waisted and waterproof trousers

5. Scry
a) Foretell the future using a crystal ball, reflective object or surface

6. Shebeen
b) Unlicensed Irish bar

7. Spelunking
a) Caving as a hobby

8. Shamisen
c) A lute-like instrument with three strings

9. Solastalgia
a) Emotional stress caused by environmental change

10. Stridulation
b) The act of producing sound by rubbing together certain body parts

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Christmas Quiz

A quiz you can play with your Christmas guests. Answers will be published on Boxing Day:

General Knowledge
1. What is the Japanese art of kintsugi?
2. Scott McTominay got the 2000th and Cristiano Ronaldo got the 1000th. Who got the first?
3. What are corvids?
4. Before decimal currency, how many half crowns were there in a pound?
5. Where would you find a speleologist practising their passion?
6. What is the address of the White House?
7. In movement of the hand what is the opposite of supination? 
8. During the Covid 19 pandemic much was made of the government taking advice from SAGE. For what do the letters SAGE stand?
9. What did Ray Tomlinson send to himself in 1971?
10. Grape, Peaches, Keys and Lace can all be preceded by what word to make the name of a band?
11. What number connects David Beckham’s time at Real Madrid with the valley of the shadow of death?
12. In the song Fairytale of New York, what song were the NYPD choir singing?
13. What would it mean to describe twins as dizygotic?
14. Which stately home is the family seat of the Duke of Devonshire? Clue. It’s not in Devon.
15. What traditional occupation is suggested by the common names of the three small bones in the human ear?
16. What are the three ingredients of the Canadian dish poutine?
17. Who was the last person to stand on the Moon?
18. By what name are Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons better known?
19. There are three native British conifers. The Scots pine and the yew are two. What is the third?
20. In 1972 Ralph Baer produced the Magnavox Odyssey. It was the world’s first what?

Famous Gabriels (including Gabby, Gabriele, Gabrielle, Gabriella)
1. Band comprising Jacob Lusk, Ryan Hope and Ari Balouzian
2. Founder of Genesis and Womad
3. Actor in The Usual Suspects
4. Footballer for Arsenal and Brazil
5. Author of Love in the time of Cholera
6. French musician known for his Requiem
7. Former Italian F1 driver who debuted in 1987
8. Female sports presenter née Yorath
9. French fashion designer and business woman 1883-1971
10. A Marvel Comics villain better known as Vulcan

Famous Marys
1.TV chef and former Bake-off judge
2. Northern Irish 1972 Olympic pentathlete
3. ounder of the Christian Science movement
4. Fictional nanny played by Julie Andrews
5. Nursery rhyme heroine; strange garden
6. American actor played Laura Petrie in the Dick van Dyke show
7. Inherited the throne of Scotland in 1542 aged 6 days
8. American rapper, singer, songwriter and actor often called the ‘Queen of R and B soul’
9. Creator of Frankenstein
10. American Motown singer famous for ‘My Guy’

Last 10 Years
1. 2014 Where were the Commonwealth Games held?
2. 2015 Everyone loves a royal birth. Who arrived on May 2nd?
3. 2016 What was the name of the 25th and final album by David Bowie, released just a few days before his death?
4. 2017 A snap General Election was held. In which month?
5. 2018 The Fat Duck and The Waterside Inn are the only two three star Michelin restaurants outside London. They are both in the same large village. Where are they?
6. 2019 The pandemic known as Covid 19 is said to have started in a food market in which Chinese city?
7. 2020 The idea of ‘eat out to help out’ was the brainchild of Rishi Sunak. What office did he hold at the time?
8. 2021 Prince Philip died this year. How old was he?
9. 2022 The Football World Cup was held this year, but what months was it held in?
10. 2023 How did Old Testament judge Samson’s birthplace link to contemporary matters?

Words of the Weak
Each word is followed by three definitions. Choose the correct one

1. Sukebind
a) A spoof foliage invented by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm
b) A German caramel flavoured drink
c) A type of volcanic activity in Antartica

2. Slattern
a) A small beam that us used in thatching
b) Part of a boat
c) A dirty, untidy woman

3. Serac
a) A block or column of glacial ice
b) A type of vole
c) A Christmas ornament popular in North Africa

4. Salopettes
a) Marionettes designed for use at sea
b) High-waisted and waterproof trousers
c) Crumpet-type pastry popular in Quebec

5. Scry
a) Foretell the future using a crystal ball, reflective object or surface
b) Run down a hill using the scree to slow progress
c) A skateboard move

6. Shebeen
a) Alcoholic drink made from potato
b) Unlicensed Irish bar
c) North American roadside rest room

7. Spelunking
a) Caving as a hobby
b) Slang for speed-dating
c) Stealing Christmas gifts from a car

8. Shamisen
a) A spiritual intermediary in Dominican tribal ritualism
b) A Portuguese delicacy with crayfish
c) A lute-like instrument with three strings

9. Solastalgia
a) Emotional stress caused by environmental change
b) Seasonally affected disorder
c) Sunburn

10. Stridulation
a) Mowing a lawn so the grass makes a horizontal pattern
b) The act of producing sound by rubbing together certain body parts
c) Whispy cloud formation in an otherwise clear sky

Monday, December 11, 2023

From the Particular to the General

There is an easy way to score points in a debate. It's lazy, almost corrupt, and easily contradicted, but in the emotion of the moment the argument will have got traction before the refutation has its trousers on. The particular gripe I have this afternoon is people arguing from the particular to the general. I was prompted to write this by the especially loathsome Robert Jenrick MP, who recently resigned as Immigration Minister because we aren't prosecuting our new laws on illegal immigration fast enough.

Now I don't think Jenrick is ignorant in what he is doing but let's start there. He argued that the presence of anti-semites on a peace-in-Palestine march demonstrated that the integration of immigrants and asylum seekers in this country had failed.

I will write this next bit slowly.

When violent crime is reducing people still get mugged.

When worldwide conflicts are at the lowest in modern history there are still wars.

Fatal road accidents are rare now but people still die in them.

It follows that, even though we had (it is currently massively under-resourced) a hugely successful system in the UK for welcoming and integrating immigrants and asylum seekers, some choose not to integrate. In extreme cases a very few dangerous people sneak through the system. 

And what percentage of immigrants arrive in this country on small boats? To be a government priority it would have to be massive you'd have thought. But currently it is 22,000 out of a total of 1.2 million. Less than 2%.

If Jenrick doesn't know this he needs educating, fast.

If Jenrick does know this he is deliberately waving a blue rag at his ever-decreasing support.

Back in 2016, when we didn't think there would ever be a President Trump,  I overheard a debate from Illinois which went something like this:

Republican: Of course people are very concerned about rising crime figures.

Democrat: Actually crime has been falling every year for the last eight during Obama's presidency.

Republican: Not in Chicago it isn't.

Democrat: (well briefed) Actually there has been a slight increase in violent crime recently in Chicago but the overall crime figures are still down.

Republican: People don't feel the figures are down.

And there you have it. The scandal of particularity incarnate. Some people don't feel those facts are true therefore they are false.

The great challenge of our time is that a political debate which used to be about hearts and minds is now almost entirely about hearts. It's not about what you know but how you feel. I hate that. I am not equipped to argue with people who need a change of heart but won't listen to reason. Robert Jenrick wants you to feel bad about immigration. I don't think he cares how he does it but I don't think he's ignorant. If you believe him you are having your heartstrings tugged in the wrong direction. Expect a twang sooner or later.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Violence, Bible and Palestine

I wonder if you can get your imagination to a place where you feel so persecuted that you can imagine causing harm to the children of the persecutor?

I have been fortunate to have never come anywhere near this point but I have lived a very safe and sheltered life. I can disagree with the government without fear of arrest. My land borders are not disputed. The authorities take no interest in my clothes or sexual orientation. It has been my privilege not to be persecuted.

My formative teenage years had a backdrop of IRA atrocity. I was in Birmingham's Tavern in the Town the night before a bomb exploded there killing many. I've felt fortunate since then. The further away from it I get the closer it seems.

I found it hard to grasp a cause which dealt with the innocent like that.

Then, in 1988, I read, on an album sleeve of all places, this:

'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 '50s, heralded an age where constitutional politics went from sick-joke status to complete irrelevancy for the nationalist community.'

I make no claims about the factual accuracy of the piece. It simply became a personal tipping point. I understood the gut-led emotional reaction of anger of five young Catholic men utterly helpless in the face of aggression. Of course I am not defending the IRA. And the young men responded with music not violence

Psalm 137 was put on the lips of every young person of my generation in 1978 when Boney M charted with By the Rivers of Babylon. In fact the song was a cover, the original dating from 1970. Psalm 137 is a response to a taunt. People in exile in Babylon are asked by their captors to sing one of their Hebrew songs. They respond, I paraphrase, 'How can we sing the Lord's songs in a strange land?' Songs of the Temple won't work elsewhere.

At the end of Psalm 137 is a verse that Boney M chose not to sing. Again to paraphrase, 'Happy (is he) who takes your little ones and bashes their heads against the rocks.' Maybe, as Robert Alter says, it is a good job the captors did not understand the Hebrew in which the song-response to the taunt was delivered. Whether there was ever any intention of acting so, I doubt. But the song tells of a people angry enough to think it.

The religions of the Book have the highest possible care for the non-combatants during war-time. Hebrew Scriptures emphasise reasonable response (eye for eye, tooth for tooth). The New Testament suggests loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you. The Quran specifically prohibits the killing of innocent people.

People often deride religions for causing wars. These days it is usually land-grabbing that causes wars and religion is sometimes enlisted for justification on either or both sides. The Hebrew Scriptures are a story of God-condoned land-grabbing and also, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, 'a national literature of self-criticism.'

I lament for the innocent of Israel and Palestine. I don't understand how the national boundaries can be finalised without concessions. I do understand why a first reaction is to bang the heads of the enemy against the rocks. Trouble is, we've been having nothing but first reaction for two and a half thousand years. And the children get their heads smashed in.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Lessons from Village Life

I've lived in a village for a year now. I'm getting the hang of it. My sister and her husband were coming for coffee so I took a wander up to the Farm Shop to buy a better class of biscuit. Not quite as bad as my friend who cleans under the floorboards before his mother visits but you know, standards. I went on a circular ramble starting with the Inconvenience Store (it's not their chosen name but it is how they make customers feel if we interrupt their phone calls) to get a paper.

On the way I catch up with a guy I know who is taking his dog for a walk. They were going slowly so I had to work out how I was going to greet them as I overtook. This is the sort of thing that bothers people who have dreadful social skills.

I know where the dog walker lives and so we chatted about the weather (forecast rubbish; local knowledge good) for the fifty yards before his turn off. I then made my apologies and picked speed up again towards the shop. He didn't turn off. 

At the shop I pulled the door which looks like a puller but you should push and getting it wrong makes a crash. I get it wrong about every third time. There is no helpful information written on the door. I said Good Morning to Mr Inconvenience, a man who seems to enjoy his customer's distress. I got my paper, spent twenty seconds working out how much washing liquid costs in a small village shop (extortionate, cheaper to drive to Waitrose) and then heard my dog-walking friend at the counter. I did what all social introverts would do and hid in the household products aisle until he had gone. Then I purchased my paper and asked:

Do you have any AA batteries?

(A pack of AA batteries is placed on the counter without word or gesture.)

I left the shop and adjusted my pace so as not to overtake dog-walker before he reached his road although I tried to get close enough to see what newspaper he had under his arm to aid future conversations. I always like saying 'You shouldn't believe everything you read in the Telegraph' to Telegraph readers who are invariably amazed I know what they read. Sadly, he had it rolled too tightly under his arm. It was broadsheet and not pink though. I think I know.

On to the Farm Shop for the biscuits. Also some mozzarella for tonight's supper dish. I quickly find the biscuits but the lovely K rescues me from running my eye down the cheese selection for a third time. She greets me by name and asks what I am looking for. This is how a convenience store should work.

I tell K that I haven't seen her for a while. Apparently she has changed her days to Tuesdays and Wednesdays so it must be Tuesday or Wednesday today. It's not something I need to know these days.

Turns out she had just taken all the mozzarella off the shelves because it was past its display by. I say I don't mind and she pops to get it. Turns out she, and the shop, would get in big trouble if a bolshy customer reported them for selling stock beyond its display by date so, even though she knows I am not bolshy (I'm not, don't listen to my friends), she insists on giving it to me for nothing. Maybe it makes up for all the times I have popped to the Farm Shop for some milk and come back with £20 worth of baked goods and cooked breakfast items. A man's gotta do.

I put some cash in the charity boxes to deal with my guilt. Also, I now see it is smoked mozzarella which is not what I want but by this time I cannot decline.

Later that evening I discover that smoked mozzarella risotto is delicious.

Village life. We have a system for reporting escaped livestock you know. You phone Tom.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Why Get Super Rich?

Regulars will know that I am a huge fan of David McRaney's podcast called You Are Not So Smart. Each episode takes an area of life which many of us think we understand and then politely and gently explains why we are usually wrong. Sometimes it debunks, occasionally it demythologises and almost always it has a guest who knows what they are talking about. There have been 271 episodes so if you enjoy it I just cost you a lot of your future listening time. No apology. Find it, as they say, wherever you get your podcasts.

The latest episode is a rebroadcast of an episode called Survival of the Richest and the guest is Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff is a media scholar, cyberpunk journalist and professor of digital economics. You may not have heard of him but he gave us a number of much-used expressions such as viral media, digital native and social currency. His documentaries are on YouTube. His books are available.

A group of billionaires called him in and asked him to address them about the future. And, surprisingly for Rushkoff, the majority of the conversation was about their 'bunker mentality'. The question that bothered them was how they might maintain control of their security once their money no longer had value. They were preparing for the inevitability of an apocalypse over which they would have no control. And Rushkoff's answer did not cut it for them. It's a fairly obvious answer. If you are nice to your security team now they will find it harder to shoot you in the face when they take over.

But these guys (yes guys) were addicted to insulating themselves. Insulating themselves from the problems of the future created by the shit they had done to people by the way had earned their money today. The US slang for this sort of person is prepper. They treat life as a computer game in which there is a secret to survival to the next level but you gotta find it.

If you often find yourself asking how people can be so rich and so stupid you should listen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Evil of Banality

I really enjoy reading the FT weekend. it takes me the best part of a week because almost everything needs thinking about. Better, I need to think about it. Can't speak for you.

I give a bit more time to Janan Ganesh. His 'Citizen of Nowhere' column can have me nodding in polite agreement, observing something I have also seen but never managed to articulate or, from time to time throwing the whole page across the room in frustration at the sheer idiocy. This makes him a good columnist.

This week I came across a fourth category. The nerve striker.

Whilst huge strides in education and access to information should have left us thinking, chattering people bursting with lively talk about stimulating new ideas we have settled for being, what he calls, 'Normies'. The sort of people who display Sapiens on their bookshelves with a flourish to announce our right-on-ness. Guilty. I have other books, some a bit more niche, but it hurt.

If you haven't read Sapiens I wonder why you're so disinterested in the latest ideas.

If you have read Sapiens and disagree with the science you're too smart for me.

If you have read Sapiens, aren't clever enough to disagree with the science yet still display the book to show you've read it, you're me. And a bit of a git to boot. I live in a small house with too few bookshelves but that's no excuse. I'll put it somewhere more discrete.

He goes on to list a few characteristics of a Normie. I scored four out of seven. Gulp.

He is self-aware enough to agree that much of the time he spends in Normie conversation is for column fodder. '...I do, increasingly, resemble one of those medieval kings who execute their jesters for being insufficiently diverting.'

But he's right. I am skewered. Those of us who talk about, you know, things, should raise our game. We should be sufficiently diverting.

In case you haven't:

A Brief History of Humankind
Yuval Noah Harari
Vintage Books

Available from wherever you usually get your middle class show-off books

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

A Funny Thing Happened on the A46

My neighbours had lost their cat, Ollie. I only know its name because they had leafleted us all asking us to look in our sheds.

Driving home the other morning I parked on the drive and noticed neighbour and daughter walking around with a cat on a lead.

'You got Ollie back then?'


Ollie avoided eye contact. Probably shame.

Nobody knows where Ollie had been but he returned after a couple of days. We once lost a cat for four months until we saw her in the pub car park opposite, begging fried chicken and fish from the garden customers. She came home in the winter.

That's enough about cats for a piece that is about cars. Only one thing happens to cats on the A46.

So I was distracted by Ollie on a lead, the ultimate feline indignity. Not likely, I reckon, to endear him to his adopted family. Which is how I came to shut the car boot on the handle of a bag for life. Annoying. I pressed the key fob again and the boot unlocked and immediately locked again. The handle was doing something to the system.

My car is a VW T-Roc convertible. It has two doors only. The rear seats do tip forward to allow enough space to take a Christmas tree to the tip though. And where is the catch to release the rear seats? You're way ahead aren't you?

I guessed this must have happened before. And yes, there is a section in the manual on it.

Half way down the driver's door pillar is a rubber bung, covering a hole (see illustration). Usually these bungs are used to fill in a gap caused by 'features not available on this model'. But lo, not here. Removing the bung (screwdriver needed) revealed it was attached to two pieces of stout cord the pulling of which would 'release the rear seats'. I did and it did. Well, half did. The driver's side seat released. I checked that the manual said 'both' and it did. I pulled again on the cords, a bit firmer, but nothing happened. But there was a gap into the boot that someone familiar with caving might access. I did a bit of caving thirty years ago before 'bulge at L5 and L6' calmed my sporting career down a bit. Slowly and tentatively, iPhone torch in hand, I squirmed into the boot.

I found the catch to release the boot lid and then squirmed back to get the (screwdriver needed) again. This worked but it relocked as soon as I removed the screwdriver.

I resquirmed and asked a friend for help. OK, wife.

'What do you want me to do?'

'Open the car boot.'

'Sounds like there's a catch.' (Would have made a good punchline but we have a few sentences to go.)

'There is. I'll be in it.'

This time I went extra slowly and carefully, remembering the tools. And the boot was opened. And I got out with all the tools and the mangled bag. And my back is fine thanks for asking.

This story is told in case it ever helps.

You may have forgotten the title. The next day I was driving along the A46 when the rear passenger-side seat dropped forward.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023


Hey, what do you know? No sooner had I begun work on this essay than it became all zeitgeisty. Writing in The Guardian on 8/7/23 George Monbiot said that empathy was a meta-skill, one of '...the overarching aptitudes - such as self-development, social intelligence, openness, resilience and creativity - that help us acquire the new competencies that sudden change demands.' And he pointed out that it could be taught.

But isn't it odd that it needs to be? Robin Dunbar (How many Friends Does One Person Need) defined what makes us human as '...the ability to understand the mind of another individual.' Maybe we're becoming less and less human.

In Dave Eggers' book The Every, about a giant tech corporation that takes over everything (thus its name), a character Meena says 'Every new generation purports to be more empathetic, and yet every new generation is less forgiving. And of course, with every coming year, technology ensures that no errors go unrecorded.' A moment's silence for me to give thanks that the stupidity of my developing years was pre-social media. I've been blogging for twenty years this year.

Rutger Bregman, in the exceptional 'Humankind' was less comfortable with empathy. Of its shortcomings he said, 'Empathy is a hopelessly limited skill... (it) 'misleads us by zooming in on the specific.'

I worked with a guy once who seemed to have no opinions or views of his own. I mean, he may have had but whenever you spoke to him you could usually work out who he had been speaking to immediately before. The best way to influence him was either to get the last appointment of the day or catch him in the car park but I don't know anyone devious enough to have done that. If it is possible, that guy had too much empathy. Great pastor. People felt listened to but nothing happened as a result most of the time.

Politicians on the campaign trail are usually manoeuvred away from people to whom they will have to show empathy. Being lectured by an ordinary member of the public will give a great TV news segment, particularly if you can't escape (Tony Blair outside a hospital), forget to take your mic off in the car (Gordon Brown and the bigoted woman) or will promise anything to get away (Boris Johnson), hide in a fridge (Boris Johnson) or lie about even the presence of cameras (Boris Johnson). Jeremy Corbyn is remarkable at being empathetic. People feel listened to. Say what you like about his politics he listens, with attention, and responds in a considered way. The presence of a TV crew doesn't much change who he is.

The massive numbers of people in the country mean that Blair could be given a tough time by an individual who had a bad experience even though more money had been invested in the NHS than at any time in the previous twenty years and that became the news. As one of my favourite proverbs goes, 'Mugging victims never believe the crime figures are down.'

This essay has been brooding for a while but was prompted by a piece written on Facebook by a former colleague Martin Little. I quote him at length:

'...neither populism or bureaucracy will ever really change anything. Populism is by definition facile because it denies the multifaceted nature of problems and reduces everything to a slogan to be sold. Bureaucracy doesn't ultimately work either, because procedures and policy documents only attack the problem from one level: information. And it's not enough.

'The only way to face problems is through relationships of trust between people. This is because relationships of trust are the only things that are in themselves multifaceted enough to stand up to the problems - and overcome them. Relationships are messy, contradictory, mysterious and impossible to contain by systems of control. But they are the only true power in the world.'

He wrote in the context of a current discussion about the leadership of the Church of England investing more in systems than people; managers than priests. It is not the job of this piece to take a view on that. But I responded that there may be some connection between the relationships/information axis and the empathy/compassion one.

Take a moment to think about the two words of my title. Have a go at defining them. What is the difference?

Before I went to the dictionary I did a bit of deconstruction. It looks as if we have the same part word at the heart of each - pa. Suggests a link.

I know pathos is Greek for the world of the emotions and em is to put in or into. Thus embark is to put people into a boat and employ is to put people into work. So empathy is to put someone else's emotions into you.

Com is Latin for with, suggesting we probably have a Latin word in compassion. Passion with. Sharing feelings. Something like that. That's my logic. We'll see. To the dictionary. I like Merriam-Webster online but often refer back to my 1964 Chambers Etymological English Dictionary to see what has changed.

On compassion, Merriam Webster says it is 'sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it ... it’s been part of the language since the 14th century, and comes ultimately from Latin com- and pati, meaning 'to bear, suffer'.'

It lists empathy as 'the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.'

It adds a short paragraph, so it must be a much-asked question, on 'What is the difference between empathy and compassion?' It says:

'Compassion and empathy both refer to a caring response to someone else’s distress. While empathy refers to an active sharing in the emotional experience of the other person, compassion adds to that emotional experience a desire to alleviate the person’s distress.'

Compassion according to 1964 Chambers is 'fellow-feeling or sorrow for the suffering of another—usually a warmer feeling than pity ... ' It agrees with the Latin root.

Empathy is not listed. Very interesting and ties in with my secondary school experience.

Compassion is often used as a translation for a particular Greek word - splagchnixomai n the New Testament. When Jesus saw the size of the crowd who had followed him into the wilderness he had compassion on them so he began to teach them (Mark 6:34). When the Samaritan saw the man who had fallen amongst thieves he had compassion on him. So he showed him mercy and looked after him at personal cost (Luke 10:33). See also Ephesians 4:32 and 1 Peter 3:8 for the instruction that Christians should be so.

So compassion can be considered empathy tuned into action. 'Islam, Christianity, humanistic liberalism all have an imperative towards mercy; if we could separate the value from the vehicle that carries it, we could have a new ecumenism of human compassion.' (Richard Holloway)

Or, as Karen Armstrong wrote '...There is something wrong with any spirituality that does not inspire selfless concern for others.' (Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life)

I think life is much more complicated than utilitarianism (the greatest happiness for the greatest number). Sometimes we might all give a bit to alleviate the misfortune of the few. Come to think of it that is the principle of insurance: the premiums of the many compensate the misfortunes of the few. I'd like to suggest that numbers, systems and general information about things will enable that which is triggered by empathy to be targeted most appropriately. At that point, too much empathy in the room will stop the team taking the best decision using comments such as 'But what will <name> say?'

To generalise and controversialise; empathy would never have bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima; compassion did.

Robin Ince says in 'The Importance of Being Interested' 'Sometimes, when talking to people who have suffered greatly, you need to accept their feelings, but also accept that the true cause of their suffering and anger was not you.' That will keep you sane, but it doesn't mean you can't do something to help. If you meet someone suffering and it moves you, try to help. If you can't, tell someone with more power and influence than you.

Politicians can put themselves above and beyond empathy, having heard its speeches, and do something on a far greater scale than the individual.

So Martin was right. It is about relationships. And the most important relationship is the one between the feelings and the thoughts. Empathy sees the specific problem from which might flow a compassionate plan and programme to solve it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023


In a bid to find quick relaxation from two busy jobs we have been to Malta/Gozo a lot over the last twenty years. It didn't have to be there but it became somewhere we knew. We didn't have to work too hard to chill, if you understand me. Since we retired, holiday is probably better described simply as time away.

Which also means that time away doesn't have to be relaxing any more. We both love reading books outdoors near water so that wasn't likely to be abandoned. And we like the warmth of the sun. But a little exploring might be OK, mightn't it?

Many people had spoken highly of Madeira over the years so we decided to check it out for ourselves and have just returned from a very pleasant visit.

Picture 1: tunnels and flyovers
If your first thought on arrival is why the airport is stuck out on the edge of the eastern coast where it is always windy wait until you see the rest of the island and work out where you would have put it. Apparently the runway used to be a lot shorter too. Very hairy.

Some amazing engineering projects have made the journey from the airport to the major city, Funchal, just 30 minutes. See first image.

It's a tough job to find a bad meal in Madeira. The ones included as part of day trips are a bit ordinary but otherwise all was good. Most little restaurants do good things with fish, especially the scabbard fish (dorada) although they serve it with banana if you don't look out. A trip to the Funchal fish market (commended) early doors will show you how ugly the sea things that taste lovely are.

One little sea front restaurant was a decent walk along the coast for us but we did it twice. Doca do Cavacos at Sao Martinho was our favourite place. Grilled squid, sardines and tuna were delicious. Or you can risk grilled catch of the day on a skewer. Probably not worth asking for a dessert anywhere. They aren't good at them and are liberal with cheap chocolate sauce which devastated an almost pleasant tiramisu. Have a starter and you'll not need a pudding. Cheap café pizza and beer is easy and the local bread (bolo do caco) is good (watch out for garlic and spring onions you didn't order). If asked whether you want bread in a restaurant you are agreeing to pay for it when you say yes. It is rarely complimentary. Likewise water.

If you want a Michelin standard meal then book well before you set off. All were full. We didn't go to the famous old colonial establishments but the buzz was that they had lost their way a bit. Lá Ao Fundo in Funchal is a Mozambique/Portuguese fusion restaurant (we were told) which they achieved by offering some  dishes from each country. Not that fused and a bit average, apart from the desserts which were actually great. My crème brûlée was blowtorched at the table, smoking out the neighbours.

Picture 2: maturing Madeira wine
Madeira is famous for cake and fortified wine. On Madeira cake everyone seems to have the guaranteed original recipe (like the way Bakewellians compete about the recipe for the one true pudding/tart). All are OK but don't keep well. Portuguese custard tarts (pasteis de nata) are pretty common in the UK coffee shops now. Several people will tell you where to get the best ones but in our experience they were all pretty similar. Coffee is very strong. Have a glass of water alongside.

There are a couple of good wineries where you can be guided through the fortified process to produce Madeira. We went to Blandy's in Funchal where the smell of 700,000 litres of maturing wine was overwhelming (image 2). I'm out of picture in the corner, smelling the pillars soaked with wine vapour for 200 years. Blandy's Madeira is available at Waitrose.

Sugar cane juice rum is distilled on the island. I enjoyed a tasting very much and had a snooze on the journey back while my passengers screamed in terror (© Bob Monkhouse).

Picture 3: sculpture
Sightseeing is easy and we commend island day trips in a minibus. For Є50 you get a tour of the west or east of the island including a lunch with decent stopovers for coffee, swim, photos or a short walk. 

There are many nice gardens. The one at
Monte, accessed best by cable car from Funchal, is good. It currently includes an exhibition of Zimbabwean and Malawian sculpture (image 3). The Madeira National Botanical Gardens is better known but there are several better gardens in the UK, just not so far up a mountain. Best bits were the view points. We took a taxi up (Є12) and walked back down which made our calf muscles ready for lunch.

Maderia is hugely popular with walkers. Levadas are human-made water channels for irrigation. We did one short walk to a terrifying view/drop. The paths are alongside the water ditches. Farmers pay for the water by the hour and sluice gates are opened to release the mountain stream water. Vines, sugar, bananas and other crops are grown on flattened terraces 

Picture 4: dockside art
on the south facing hills.

At the top of one of the highest points, accessible by car, we were 'entertained' by Peruvian panpipers. The view was better than the vibe. Quiet would have been best.

A stroll round Funchal involves dodging the bar and café owners who want your custom. It is a buzzy cosmopolitan place. There is great street art on the doorways in east town but many of these become restaurants and the art vanishes behind the open doors. Visit early or late to enjoy. The dockside has a mural dedicated to every boat that has moored up (image 4).

Churches and cathedrals are ornate, colourful and often surrounded by beggars. The Jesuit church in Funchal is exceptionally fine. Nearby is a Museum of Sacred Art but we've seen a lot of that so we avoided. The next door café is cracking and does craft ale.

The Museum of Modern Art (MAMMA) to the west of Funchal has a massive 14 room installation on the theme of life's journey. 300 plus pieces are crammed together leaving the thought of whether we find life so over-stimulating we miss the big questions. Є10 for a provocative hour or so.

We were there a fortnight and had a great time. There were enough things we didn't do to want to revisit. I also read seven books.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Holiday Reading 2023

Spent more holiday time than usual doing things (having retired I no longer feel the urgency of relaxation) but still managed almost eight books in a fortnight. Here are my holiday reads. I am pleased to have read a majority of women this time round. Next target is to read more African fiction. I have given a mark out of ten but it represents my enjoyment rather than a comment on the work as literature:

Devil in a Blue Dress: Walter Mosley (7)
I have always read good things about Mosley but had never read him. His most famous character is the detective Easy Rawlins. This is the book in which he was born, more a chancer than a detective in the first instance. It was a fine page-turner to start my holiday and I will be reading more. The story played out well with a context of the extra set of difficulties a black hustler faced in 1950's America.

The Men: Sandra Newman (5)
Another book I had seen much reviewed, this one more recent. What would it be like for all the world's men to vanish in an instant? I enjoyed the early passages describing the immediate problems. I felt the story of how things then turned out was underdeveloped and the glimpses into the back stories of the leading female characters a bit unnecessary. The denouement sucked. Disappointed.

Live Wire: Harlan Coben (7) 
Crime solver and sports agent Myron Bonitar is called to find a missing person. He is an interesting character, often battered and bruised but quick-witted. He has an accomplice/colleague/friend, Win, who often gets him out of trouble and hurts people when he finds it necessary, which is often. Fine story with decent twist.

Oh William! Elizabeth Strout (6)
A friend gave me this and asked me to tell him what I thought, without clue. First thing I discovered was that I was reading book three of a trilogy. It didn't matter. Protagonist Lucy Barton is a writer (and often speaks in writing). She is in good standing with William, her ex-husband, although when she spends long periods of time with him recalls why they are no longer married. But William is recently divorced (again) and Lucy has just lost her second husband so agrees to accompany William on a trip to explore his roots. I enjoyed it enough to want to read the first two; my friend said it was dull.

The Lighthouse: Alison Moore (8)
Thin novel that is easy to read but explores the rhymes and rhythms of life and the generations. Futh is a rather inadequate central character, a naïve abroad on a walking holiday for which he has made careful preparations. He seems emotionally unprepared for everything though. It is seedy, sad and eventually shocking leaving us with a 'Well, what would you do next?' Booker short-listed.

Shrines of Gaiety: Kate Atkinson (9)
One of our best working writers constructs a wonderful tale about Soho in 1926. London underlife, policing methods, missing young girls, illegal drinking and gambling dens and some wonderful characters help the reader jog along. Club owner and social climber Nellie Coker is apparently loosely based on the real life of Kate Meyrick. We expect a dramatic culmination but, as in much of life, the coming together of the characters in the story is not for ever. In a final chapter their futures are sketched out for us. An absolute joy.

The Heron's Cry: Ann Cleeves (7)
This is the second in a series about DI Matthew Venn based in North Devon, from the crime writer who gave us Shetland. It's a bit sleepy when the tourists are missing and not the sort of place you expect to find someone stabbed to death with a shard of fancy glassware. No sooner have we joined the investigation than it happens again. What's the connection?

The Far Corner: Harry Pearson (7)
This was written in the 1990s about a season following football in the north east of England, at all levels. I have a fondness for the north east having lived there for five years and a fondness for football having lived there for more than sixty. It is full of characters and local details and is very, very funny. Each short chapter is based around, and a description of, a different match.

Friday, May 26, 2023

A Sensible Conversation about Immigration

I ask hesitantly but do you think we might be about to have a sensible conversation about immigration? The rhetoric about the subject has been appalling for a long time but I notice that today, with the figures for immigration just published and showing a record level, the Daily Mail led with a piece about 'attention-seeking eco-warriors' ruining the Chelsea Flower Show. I don't have any eco-warrior chums but if I did I'm sure they'd be grateful for the attention they sought.

In 2016 there were a couple of pro-Brexit arguments that turned my head. One was the economist Paul Mason arguing that Brexit would give an opportunity for a socialist, renationalising regime to rule unencumbered by EU economic pressure. See The Leftwing Case for Brexit (one day) in the Guardian, May 2016. We came close in 2017. Mason himself voted remain because he couldn't see this happening.

The other was Giles Fraser arguing that the EU made us more generous to refugees and asylum seekers from Europe than the rest of the world and this was unfair. He had further reasons for wanting to leave but he hoped that post-Brexit we would be generous with our borders over which we now had control. It seems as if this is now what has happened although the nature of our recent governments is that it has happened through their inadequately applying their own policies, not through welcome and hospitality to the alien and stranger. Which is, of course, why the immigration figures are not on page one of the Mail. We have '...a regime that neither displays compassion towards those seeking refuge nor gives voters confidence that the government has migration under control' (Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer 28/11/21).

And it is about this that I want to talk.

Surveys of the people of Britain end up with a clear majority for reducing immigration. Take the survey one issue at a time and we find people in favour of more immigration for NHS staff, fruit-pickers, genuine refugees and to buy the wonderful education product at our universities. The treasury keeps quiet because it loves increases in tax-paying immigrants at a time when there are more jobs than people. So our survey shows that people want to reduce immigration but few of the individual examples of it.

Incidentally this theory holds good for tax as well. People are in favour of reducing tax in general but increasing expenditure in particular (NHS, education, defence, pensions).

And so we have an interesting opportunity for a discussion. Neither of the major parties will currently sponsor it because they are both wooing the racist vote, without which they cannot form a majority. Racists don't want any immigration but if they have to have some they would rather it was coloured white. At the 'New Conservatives' conference last weekend Danny Kruger said the Prime Minister '...has the opportunity to win big if he leans into the realignment of politics that happened at the last election' (quoted in the iPaper 22/5/23). I think that's a call for policies to support white, working-class Brits, isn't it? If carried out there would be quite a risk that more reasonably-minded people would find someone else to vote for.

But good questions to be asking now are:

  • What is the ideal population size for the UK?
  • Do we want to be hospitable and welcoming to the alien and the stranger?
  • And, because this is at the heart of the British character, I think - what would be the fair thing to do?

Friday, May 05, 2023

Me, I'm 52% Republican

Don't let the upper-case R in the title fool you. Titles require that but my republicanism is strictly lower case and definitely I'm-not-exactly-certain. I wondered, and that's all this is, a wonder, what a country might do to resolve this internal conundrum that I am surely not alone in feeling? Coronations water that particular seed.

If you want to hear a more vicious attack on the monarchy then Frankie Boyle can help.

The role of the King in our country's public life is complex and, let's face it, pretty weird.  Speaking of the monarchy Simon Jenkins said 'It's hereditary basis is defensible only in being elemental and in remaining scrupulously impotent.' (Guardian 10/9/22) Can we not do better than to burden a family with the opportunity to spend their lives opening things whilst vesting them with no more than scrupulous impotence?

I suggest our country needs to grow up. Maybe we could embrace some version of agreed republicanism and own a written constitution. It surprises many people that although we have government by laws and rules they are not codified in a single, written document.

As a Church of England priest I have sworn allegiance to the crown on a number of occasions. It happens at ordination services and at installations. In my case the allegiance was always to the late Queen, and her successors, in all things legal and honest. That final clause reminds us that the King is not above the law. Be ye ever so high etc. As an established church the bishops of our country act as the monarch's representatives in their diocese. Visiting royalty can play havoc with the episcopal diary. They call the shots.

I didn't make my oaths with my fingers crossed behind my back. I was loyal whilst reserving the right not so much to rebel but to tentatively suggest that there may be another way of doing things.

There are some difficulties in changing the mind of a country. People are reluctant to line up publicly behind a view that they guess may be unpopular. The advantage of voting, or referenda, is that they are secret ballots.

I recently listened to James Burke as a guest on the You Are Not So Smart podcast. I had forgotten his wonderful series of programmes on TV (and the book that followed) setting out not only the great scientific discoveries of the modern era abut also how they are linked together. In the interview with presenter David McRaney, Burke suggests that we could use the power of the internet to set out a tentative idea and keep refining it and resubmitting it for voting and discussion until something came along that had general support and could be voted into law. The exact opposite of divide and rule, which has too high a profile currently.

There are many problems. In talking to people under the radar I find that a common hesitation is 'the sort of people who might become president'. Granted this has a certain marmite factor to it, but then so does electing a government.

We recently had a huge learning experience as a country. We put an issue to a referendum requiring people to vote yes/no on a massive and divisive issue without ever clarifying what the vote meant. It went badly and led to seven years, and counting, of appalling confusion. Thanks to Brexit we now know exactly how not to do something of that magnitude.

We don't need a heated debate. It doesn't need to go in any party's manifesto, until it can go in every party's manifesto. Let's have a nice chat about it, eh?

Monday, April 10, 2023

Julius Caesar RSC Saturday 8th April 2023

This is to theatre what Penn and Teller are to magic. We are shown the working. We start as if watching the warm up exercises of a rehearsal and then, cast dressed in ordinary clothes, they breathe out a historical drama.

Gender is fluid. Disability is normal and included. The musical and FX director appears on small screens. That music is brooding industrial ambient with spells of louder noise and rarer tuneful noise. Occasionally a guitarist, trombonist and vocalist climb onto the black obelisk upstage (pictured). A smoke machine is used. Ides and portents are personalised. Blood is black (but sometimes actor’s shadows have a red tinge). After the stabbing a two minute countdown on big screen tells us how long JC will spend dying. Later the same counter is used for the interval. Back projection on that screen is full of incomplete images, at one point showing us bits of Caesar’s body from strange angles and extreme close-up. I called to mind the opening credits of Se7en. Other images are brooding but also occasionally pastoral.

In part two colour, until then only sported by the country-accented narrator, is used in the place of the dead, the bodies stacking up in a pen like discarded chess pieces, no longer wearing black and white. Occasionally they haunt.

That black blood. It stains the white stage, despite stage-hands on a fervent interval cleaning regime, and the cast. All are infected like in the old TV infomercial about germs. Power corrupts all around it. In the old evangelical sermon on sin, it spoils. It spreads. It stains. Everyone has black blood on their hands and clothes by the end.

And the murder? Step by step we are drawn into the plot. If Caesar is as they say he is he has to go. No other way out. Except the Caesar we have been watching isn’t like that. Not dictatorial. The asides say he refuses the trappings of power.

I did this play at school over 50 years ago. I’d never been back, the class read-round spoiling it for ever. Well, not quite ever. Thanks RSC.

Other reviews (linked after) will have more to say about the acting, which I'll leave to them. In any event the regular actors were not all available for the show we saw and my increasing deafness did the cast no favours.

This is the RSC debut by Director Atri Banerjee. Some people have buried this woke Shakespeare. I praise it. More please.


How to Clean a Conservatory Roof

The conservatory roof was covered in moss and the window clearer wanted £100 to clean it. I speak fluent window cleaner and this translates as ‘I don’t want to do that’.

And so it came to pass that I spent a good chunk of last Saturday poking a long bamboo stick out of the bedroom window and then climbing a ladder to try from the other direction. Eventually the moss was clear but it needed washing down. From my new vantage point I met a new neighbour, whose garden backs onto ours. He offered a free and far reaching monologue on the abilities of the original owner of my house. That man apparently got a job lot of fence posts ‘off of the railway’ and then discovered there were no commercially available panels to fit the grooves but by then had concreted the posts in which is why the panels rattle in the wind. My new neighbour offered me a loan of his power washer.

As there wasn’t much cleaning to do now the moss was free I said I would take him up on his kind offer if the rain didn’t shift it. ‘That’ll be Monday’ said NN who has lived here thirty years and therefore knows about the rain’s plans.

All we needed were a couple of buckets of water to wash the debris down the roof and into the gutter. From my ladder vantage point I directed TCMT in the bathroom as to which panels needed rinsing and we had some success.

I need to digress for a moment here. TCMT and I have been married for sapphire years and together for 49. I know that she speaks mainly emotion and I speak if absolutely necessary and with some precision. I can have a spontaneous emotional discussion but I try to anticipate it and prepare. She, for her part, knows I like and use clear instructions. So what happened next is my fault. She had been pouring the water slowly, carefully and gently up to this point so my instruction, pointing to a bit we had missed, to ’Chuck some over there’ was meant to be about direction not power.

Instantly a whole bucketful of water was thoroughly chucked where I was pointing but, due to some science, that would not be the end of its journey. I was up a ladder directing operations and in a microsecond calculated that:
  • I was about to be soaked
  • I could avoid this by moving but that could only be down and fast and I might break a bit
I did what any sensible person would have done in the circumstances and shut my mouth. Two microseconds later my mouth was the only bit of me that did not contain water.

I repeat that this was entirely my own fault for being a cute systematising male. Oh, ‘acute’ is it? Sorry.

What is unforgivable is that the bucket wielder then began to laugh. Somewhat sympathetically and apologetically but uncontrollably nevertheless. The roof looks lovely. It is Monday and not currently raining.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Tubular Bells at 50

Tubular Bells, the first record released on Virgin Records own label, came out two days before I became eighteen. The music is on tour to celebrate its very significant birthday this year. Last night I saw the performance at Warwick Arts Centre, a fine venue on the university campus.

Virgin Records, Corporation Street, Birmingham was a very early branch of the chain. Hairy teenagers browsed racks of vinyl albums, occasionally being attracted by a sleeve and asking mates if anyone knew the music. There were four aircraft seats arranged back to back in the middle of the shop and thus four people could listen to music on headphones to sample it.

We once happened to find a set of headphones which had been deserted and enjoyed what was playing, so we enquired. It turned out to be Uriah Heap who were touring their latest album The Magician's Birthday. Coincidentally they were playing at Birmingham Town Hall that very night. We bought one copy of the record then went to the Town Hall and bought tickets. The gig was recorded and became part of a live album released later that year. I have a broken drumstick from the gig and me and my mates are part of the audience noise.

Walking back through the city centre with the distinctive black and white bag (and taking the same to school the following Monday) was a badge of honour. I love Shazam and Spotify but finding a copy of the unusual music you liked in those days had a much greater sense of hunting and killing.

Based on the audience last night I'd like to report that me and TCMT are in good nick for our age. For the most part bladders are weak, knees are knacked, hair is missing and weight has been added.

The gig, brilliantly written up from another venue on the tour by Peter Viney consisted of eight very talented musicians performing the album. Tubular Bells has indeed crossed over some line into the classical canon. As a largely instrumental work it can be performed and interpreted without the composer being present. I used to joke, to annoy classical snobs, that when they went to a performance they were going to see a Beethoven tribute band. I'll retire that now; its work is done. Anyway the unique difficulty of being a rock tribute act is that the vocal style of the lead singer is almost always distinctive in the best bands.

Part one of the show started with a segue of pieces of Oldfield's other works. Then two 'poppier' tunes for which he has writing credits. Moonlit Shadow, which we now associate with the Fast Show's Dave Angel and Family Man which I thought was a Hall and Oates song. Then a longer piece by keyboardist and musical director Robin Smith, which was delightful. Part two was Tubular Bells in full, the band demonstrating talent at more than one instrument and keyboard/samples filling in some gaps such as the introductions of the instruments to close what us oldies know as side 1.

I hadn't listened to the album in preparation and was amazed how I knew what was coming round every corner. Also, and this was unexpected, I found myself revisiting my life. This vinyl album, playing as I write, is now with me in its eighth home since I purchased it. It has raised kids, endured thirty seven years of ordained ministry and is now retired. It means something. A good night out.

Friday, March 03, 2023


I was born in Warwickshire. Some time during my early years I found myself in the West Midlands without moving house. I was given a post-code - B29 7HW. But I've always been a child of Warwickshire in my own eyes. I now live in Worcestershire but Warwickshire is 400 metres down the road. If I look poorly I've asked to be carried across the border.

I think, even by my standards, that reviewing a book published in 1936 is leaving it a bit late. But Warwickshire, in The King's England series merits a chat. I'm glad to have it because it feels like the sort of book that ends up on a pub bookshelf as decoration when the place gets post-modernised. Now it's a £3 investment in my rescue library.

This was a book I found in the wonderful Malvern Bookshop and, although I won't be reading it cover to cover, I will make a point of looking up every local place I visit. Why? Well a few examples will help but first let us see how it ended up in my house because it bears the evidence of having been a library book.

The proprietor told me that she often bought up collections so closed-down libraries were a key source. She was such a book buff that she kept behind the counter a book full of lovely sketch illustrations of dogs, 'I will only sell it to someone who promises not to remove the pictures and sell them separately', she told me. I don't know what the staining is on the inside cover page of my book and will not be finding out.

The copy I have is a 1950 reprint. I don't know if you can, offhand, think of anything that made a substantial difference to the appearance of Warwickshire towns and cities between 1936 and 1950 but the author could. Then chose to ignore it. Which, to be fair, is what makes the text zing. Every visit to a Luftwaffe drop-zone with this text reminds you of what the place used to look like. 

Let us head to Coventry. Or maybe the wonders of the clean air and dust-free buildings turn your thoughts to the Med? Did I say buildings? What buildings? It wasn't desirable to note that they are now missing.

But I am a child of Selly Oak. (My mother now pipes up from the grave reminding us, because she was a dreadful snob about this sort of thing, that I came from Selly Park, not Selly Oak.) Whatever, I have to say I failed to notice that I was in ' of the wonderful intellectual centres of England.' I had to walk half a mile into Edgbaston to get to one of the best schools in the country. And Selly Oak library warrants an illustration, although it is not of the building I remember which was black (from coal dust, probably), austere and next to a railway bridge.

The discussion of Selly Oak Colleges goes on the suggest that there is a possibility of a drinking vessel used at the last Supper being there. This interesting argument is slightly skewered by the inscription of the words of Jesus at that event on the goblet. Indiana Jones not heading our way.

My late Aunty Brenda was fond of saying 'I'm just going up the village' when she left the house to go to Selly Oak. It strikes me as a folk memory from a time before Birmingham came out and swallowed it, moving on in pursuit of Northfield, Rednal and Rubery

Although my favourite hard-to-visualise is the comparison of Sutton Coldfield's Parade with the famous Richmond in Surrey. Famous for being on-Thames I recall. Sutton what are you like? You misplaced the river.

I will be returning for further volumes.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Take Me To the River

I've written a bit about the local place names recently, catch up here. The name Harvington (where I live) is derived from old words for army, ford and village (settlement or farm). Thing is, the mighty Avon sort of rushes by a bit and it is over a mile away so it is hard to imagine anyone wandering across.

But on our Sunday afternoon constitutional today we walked down to the river and the low vegetation at this time of year enabled us to get right down to the bank. And there we discovered (OK, noticed) that there is an underwater paved surface before the weir. You can see in the photo a track running down to it on the far bank by the blue car, which stopped helpfully. There is a corresponding track where I was standing. The ford is roughly defined by the area where the water ripples.

Once over it is another mile to the oldest part of the village where church, pub and houses named after former tradespeople are situated.

But yes, the story makes sense. Here be a place where an army could once have crossed a river. It is probably the case that the human-made ford created the weir rather than vice-versa. It is ironic that there now has to be a lock to enable craft to get past this point. It feels like a metaphor for water travel giving way to road travel. Since the Harvington by-pass has been by-passed (A46 Stratford to Evesham section) this story may well run and run.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Delivery Slots

Forgive me accessing my inner Tim Dowling but this happened.

We bought a sofa bed. Quick tip. If you want a sofa bed demonstration in a furniture department and there are no partners (oops, what a giveaway) around to help, try doing it yourself, badly, and pretty soon you will be surrounded by advice.

We managed to purchase a product that was in stock, so delivery was agreed for next Wednesday which meant today.

'They'll text you the day before to give you a two hour window.'

Yesterday that text arrived and the two hour window was 7.00 a.m. - 9.00 a.m. The text also said they would message again when half an hour away.

'What shall we do?' asked Mrs Dowling (see how it works).

Now I know what the answer to this question is. If it had happened that I had been home alone to receive the delivery I would have set an alarm for 6.45 a.m., popped on some clothes, made a coffee and had a look at my phone to see if they had been in touch yet.

However anticipating that, as ever, there are two ways to answer a question such as this, my wife's way and the wrong way, I provided this answer aloud:

'You set your alarm and then bring me a coffee in bed.'

She looked a little sad for no reason but no more was said.

This morning I heard Mrs D get out of bed (but not her alarm) and a short time later a cup of coffee was indeed placed at my bedside. I popped to the loo (noting that the heating had not yet come on), came back to bed, had a sip of coffee and checked the time. 6.16 a.m. This, we note, is 14 minutes earlier than the earliest possible half hour notice text. I went back to snoozing.

At (I calculate) 6.31 a.m. a voice on the landing disturbs my slumber to say the delivery will be at 7.00 a.m. I go back to snoozing.

At 6.45 a.m. I find myself fully awake so turn on the light and grab something to read while finishing my lukewarm coffee.

I am collecting outrageous quotes from HTSI (The Financial Times' weekly guide to spending lots of money) and find this, 'If you want to achieve your dreams you have to hustle.' Suppose your dream is to be nice to as many people as possible?

At 6.59 a.m. I hear a van arrive in our quiet cul-de-sac. I get out of bed and put on some joggers and a t-shirt, insert my teeth and smooth my hair over.

At 7.00 a.m. there is a knock on the door. I wander downstairs and answer it (there is no sign of Mrs D). A man with a large box asks where I want it?

'Would upstairs be OK?' I ask.

'Sure', he says, far too cheerily for 7.01 a.m.

Mrs D joins us during the second box (of three). She whispers that she was in the loo (at precisely, precisely mind, the time they said they would be here).

I am now writing an amusing anecdote having wished five friends a happy birthday, prepared and eaten my breakfast, sorted out the washing, and read HTSI, Feast and the Church Times. I've even had an internal dialogue about Oxford commas. Not happy with the result.

I have never heard the sound of a sofa bed being assembled upstairs but I'm taking a wild guess. I am pressing P for publish whilst still within the two hour delivery slot.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Lenches

If you were creating four teams to play a game I wonder what you would be likely to call them. Maybe 1,2,3 and 4 or A,B,C and D.

Where I now live, the village of Harvington in Worcestershire, the church benefice consists of St James, Harvington and three others. It is called 'The Lenches Benefice'; because two of the other parishes have the word 'Lench' in their name and there are five Lench villages altogether. The fourth parish is Abbots Norton

Now you might expect that these Lench villages communities would consist of North, South, East and West Lench, or Upper and Lower Lench. Hold those expectations lightly. This part of the world thinks nothing of calling a village Slaughter or Piddle. So what are the Lenches called?

In no particular order they are Church Lench, Ab Lench, Rous Lench, Atch Lench and Sherrif's Lench. Let us visit this nomenclature and try to find sense.

Firstly the word lench itself. It is mainly agreed by historians that the word derives from an old English word (linch) for a ridge of high ground. We do indeed live in the Vale of Evesham where even relatively modest high ground appears prominent.

Church Lench was named because it was the first of the small settlements to have a church. Except there was a church at Rous Lench dating from roughly the same time. During some of the 13th century it was known as Lench Roculf after the manorial family (there is still a Manor House but it isn't that old). It is in the Domesday Book as Circelenz.

Ab Lench (for a while called Hob's Lench) was probably named after an individual, maybe an Aebba. In an effort to take the village upmarket it was renamed Abbots Lench in the 19th century and was thus named in the 1911 census. This didn't catch on with anyone except the Post Office who insist on its continued use even though they have changed their own name since and expect us to comply.

Atch Lench could refer to an individual called Aecci, or it might just mean 'east'. It is the most easterly of the settlements.

Rous Lench is named after a family who were Lords of that manor for 500 years. It had been called both Lench Randolph and Bishop's Lench. You will see other spellings such as Rouse and Rowse.

Sherrif's Lench was held by the Sherrif of Worcestershire.

So, if your four teams are called 1, B, East and Green the people of the Lenches will like your style and welcome you.

Now as to Harvington. I think we know that a ton is a farm or small settlement. The suggestion most commentators agree upon is that the Har bit is from 'here', an old word for army. And the Ving is a bastardised form of 'Ford'. So Herefordton became Harvington - a place where the army could cross the Avon (a word which means river so the river Avon is the river River). The Avon is not far from the south part of the village although walkers will need to find a safe place to cross the A46. Apparently the ford is still there but the river is now deeper, faster-flowing and has no road leading to or from. Not advised.

This has been fun so I'll do more as and when.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Quietly Getting on with It

Hey, Christians,

How do you feel when someone urges you to be more passionate for your faith? Maybe you are already pretty much on fire and feel 'This is not about me'. Perhaps you are nowhere near passionate yet and need an intermediate step before your funeral will be full of eulogies describing you as such. Or possibly you (and this is me, OK?)  don't particularly do passion in that way. You live your life with the passionometer slightly below central leaving you content in all things but rarely angry or enthusiastic. You don't tweet about your excitement before a gig or curtain up. You have never, knowingly, been stoked.

And how do you feel when someone tells you that the problem with men today is that we no longer know how to lead. They mean the family headship thing and 'they' is almost always a heterosexual man who goes to the gym but not to do CV, has at least five children and can hold his breath longer than you while his beautiful wife looks after the children.

And how do you feel when a leader describes their priorities in life as if they were on a things to do list? You know:

1. God

2. Family

3. Church

Having the word 'God' on that list confuses me. It is a category error. Why isn't 'breathing' on the list? Surely it's a priority, unless you're holding your breath for now.

This is stick preaching more than carrot. Or, if it is carrot it is from the Malcom Tucker playbook, who will use the stick to shove the carrot up his victim's arse.

I feel the 'this doesn't apply to me' thing so much in the face of evangelical preaching these days. Even in the midst of doubt I am not discontent.  I am accepting of the fact that it is me who is doubting  - dubitatio ergo sum - which proves my existence and would please Descartes if not the Alpha Course.

No. In the routine, grass roots of life and faith I am content. It is OK to stumble through the long grass finding occasional paths and much local beauty. Not everything is a competition on doctrinal precision. Not everything is divisible into man task and woman task. Quiet inner peace is not a passion fail.

Occasionally my church commitments have meant disappointing my family. They are nice people. They understand. They certainly do not want to be on any list that includes my work tasks.

Welcome News

Good morning and welcome to St Whatsits on this beautiful spring/summer/autumn/winter morning.

Good morning and welcome to St Whatsits. It's a (dull/wet/miserable/god-forsaken) day out there but we have a warmth of fellowship in here.

Heard those? I have a bit of trouble with the gushy sentimental opening line of a church service - well intentioned I'm sure - which suggests it is wonderful to worship the Lord on a day when the sunshine lifts our spirits or that the worship is an antidote to gut-sapping weather.

My problem? My spirit is not particularly bound to meteorology. Granted this England has provided consecutive weeks of summer greyness, which is the teensiest bit depressing although mainly because I like shorts and T-shirts. Other times I am longing for rain after weeks of drought and the 'beautiful summer morning' line feels insensitive. And when I have hay-fever I want the weather outside to be frightful and the fire so delightful and I don't care who disagrees.

So many more things than weather come into a church service with me and affect my capacity to worship. I'm a big fan of 'Good morning and welcome to St Whatsits' followed by a singable hymn/song and a few minutes for the liturgy to do its work. Then I might be able to get in touch with how I actually feel, regardless of the rain and its sweet memories.

And I don't know where you put the notices either.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Found Poem

This is called Pure Gym Wall Words:

Access code
Black box 18
Black box 24
Black box 38
PT zone
Meet the experts

Cleaning station
Brilliant stuff
Hydration station
Ignite your fire
Emergency help point

Everybody welcome
Polite notice
Lifters' code
General waste

Flex 'til you feel good
Safety station
Train safe
Impress yourself
Could you do that a week ago?

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Losing It

In the mid 1990s I was helping to set up a stand at an exhibition and the hall had no heating on. So I went to a 24/7 Tesco megastore in Manchester and bought a fleece. I recall asking  my colleague, Clive, what sort of person shopped at Tesco at midnight and he looked at me and said 'You'.

I came very close to losing it the other day. It wouldn't have been the fault of the checkout assistant at Pets at Home but it was in front of him.

Those of you who know me will probably now be wondering what sort of pet I have. I don't. I simply wanted to recharge the garden bird feeders. There is no local independent pet shop like Aaron's in Nailsea here, so I had to go to the out of town retail park world where Pets at Home lives.

I found what I needed and took it to the counter. Assistant looked at me and asked 'Do you have a loyalty card?' I kept it together and managed to say 'No'. What I wanted to say was 'Do I look like the sort of person who has a f***ing Pets at Home loyalty card?' Offered a 10% discount on my peanuts, suet balls and sunflower hearts if I signed up then and there, I agreed to get one. 

He asked me a number of questions including 'What sort of pet(s) do you have?'

'None' was not an answer the computer could stomach. He put 'bird'.

I now have a Pets at Home app. It's a VIP card and is accessed, I kid you not, though a Pawtal. And if I want a good deal on, cages, mirrors and perches it's only a click away. Just in case I forget, I get weekly emails reminding me of this plus invites to join Vets4Pets or Companion Care.

What sort of person has a Pets at Home loyalty card and app? The same sort of person who buys a fleece at an out of town hypermarket at midnight. Me. Loser.

There were no birds visiting our new garden. I've counted seven species so far. Redemption. Not quite Falling Down territory.