Monday, August 08, 2022


One of the changes I made in my last two parish posts was very subtle, and I doubt if it was noticed or has lasted. It was certainly never commented upon. They were both places where, on arrival, I learned that the habit of the service leader on a Sunday was to say 'Good morning everyone' and then wait for a reply. 

Now, there is a way of making it clear, although you need some timing skills, that you expect a reply. If you don't have those skills the response will be a bit hit and miss and you will not be sure if the congregation is with you. At this point comedy value can be extracted by doing the pantomime thing of saying 'There's nobody here. I'd better try again.' Any children in the congregation will now shout back, at minimum.

For an example of expecting a reply when you have no communication skills try the Liz Truss cheese speech (I found it by googling that word string, so popular it has become).

So I always begin services with:

'Good morning and welcome to <name> church. If you are a visitor, newcomer or just passing though it is great to have you with us.' No reply required.

I thought of this because I now attend a church where each of the first three people to stand up front tends to say good morning, although few are looking for a reply when they do it. The service leader says good morning and welcomes the notice-giver who says good morning who quite often then introduces a second notice-giver who then says good morning and it is not unknown for further good mornings to be issued by the lesson reader and the preacher. One service leader also regularly includes some weather-based commentary and yesterday some how-to-behave-in-the sun advice. Amazingly it is not a place where people are often late yet we usually don't start the service within ten minutes of the advertised start time. At my last parish 25% of the congregation arrived after the welcome.

The thing I love most of all is that I am now retired and this is not my problem and does not annoy me. It's a local church full of local people being normal. What's not to like? Good morning.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Stump Speech Needed

This is a bit stream-of-consciousnessy so don't murder me on the detail. But if I had an opportunity to vote for a leader of our country I would vote for the person who got closest to saying this:

Since 2010 a lot of mistakes have been made.

It was a mistake to force five years of austerity on the UK when record low interest rates offered a unique opportunity to invest in the future.

It was a mistake to tie a future Conservative government to a referendum on EU membership.

It was a mistake (and divisive) to agree to act decisively on a result that was little more than 50/50.

It was a mistake to fly in to an aggressive and hard Brexit, upsetting our international friends and turning the country into a place where people mocked each other for their referendum vote.

It was a mistake to say no deal is better than a bad deal when ‘No Brexit is better than a bad Brexit’ might have made more sense.

It was a mistake to tell people a Brexit deal was oven-ready in 2019 leaving us in a place where the almost-former PM is praised for getting Brexit done whilst a priority for the future is to sort out Brexit.

It was a mistake to suggest that anything other than Brexit could now happen. Even people who had not voted for it felt, at minimum, that we should not go against a democratic decision.

It was a mistake to dismiss all the so-called 'remainers' from the Conservative Party unless they recanted.

So where are we? We are probably, as a country, compelled to be committed to remaining. Remaining, that is, outside the European Union. We should all be that sort of remainer now. And yes, we should mess around with the language. National Living Wage anyone?

We must honour the current solution to the land border with the EU on the island of Ireland until someone has a better idea. Trust must be restored with our friends in the EU that they can be sure signed agreements will be honoured.

It was a mistake that we did not invest in the infrastructure to reduce our country’s reliance on fossil fuels earlier. Climate change should be at the front of all we do from now on.

It was a mistake to make the task of seeking refuge here harder. People who need asylum should be welcome. We have jobs that need doing. People wanting safe refuge could even do them while they wait.

It was a mistake not to put traffickers out of business by making it easier to get here

It was a mistake to confuse going first with leading. Mr Johnson as Prime Minister praised himself for his vaccine roll-out and Ukrainian interventions. Other nations have now got a greater percentage of their population vaccinated. A co-ordinated approach to Ukraine and Russia will have more power. 

It was a mistake to announce a 'war on woke'  whilst, at the same time, committing to uniting people. Since many of us interpret 'woke' as we interpreted 'political correctness'—a desire not to see any discriminated against—we do not feel much unity. 

It was a mistake to campaign against coalitions. Recently we have seen the single transferable vote used to decide a new Conservative leader and Prime Minster. Why can't we use it to choose our MPs? The Conservatives, the right, are a coalition in one party. The left are not. Proportional Representation will fix this. Who can argue that a few more green MPs would not be useful. But even a slightly fairer voting system would help. We are almost the last country in Europe still using FPTP. Leadership, anyone? 

Say that taxes are good. Say that education is good. Say that free health care is good. Say that rules and regulations to protect conditions at work are good. In fact say that you think the job of a government should be to arrange to provide things people acting individually would not pay for, including the armed forces.

You want my vote? Deal with this and I'll listen. And work out how to unite a country that consists of me and my ilk and another Steve who says this on our local town Facebook Forum:

‘It was just a freak wind that blew the heat up from the Sahara. Climate change is just another way of screwing every penny out of people. It’s all a load of rubbish and no I am not a conspiracy theorist just someone with common sense that don’t believe everything the media preaches for the large company owners and governments who control them’
(On the 7/22 high temperatures)

‘If Boris can pull off the Rwanda deportation of the non war torn illegal aliens, and let’s be honest there’s plenty of them, then despite all of his faults he will get my vote at the next general election. France is not a war torn nation’


Thursday, June 30, 2022

Holiday Reading Recommendations

Here are a few books I read on holiday, or recently completed, which I feel might be good away-from-it-all reads. The score out of 10 is by no means justified in any other way than the level of poolside/beach escapism each provided:

Graeme Macrae Burnett
Case Study

This story is so realistic and convincing that I joined the vast number of people who have googled 'Collins Brathwaite' to see if the novel was based on a real person. Was this charismatic counsellor a regular guest on 1960s cult TV programme 'Late Night line Up'?

This is a cracking yarn. Narrator 'GMB' (the author?) blurs the line between fiction and faction beautifully. The story examines whether a controversial psychotherapist could have caused someone to take their own life. The deceased's sister adopts a false identity to become a patient and investigate. It does her head in.

John le Carré

A retired MI6 agent uses a bookshop in a sleepy seaside town as a front for some clandestine stuff. All the usual dialogue-based plot advancing we've come to expect from the master in his final novel, plus a few fine lines of political observation, '...poor, toothless, leaderless Britain ... still dreams of greatness and doesn't know what else to dream about.'

Sarah Moss
Summer Water

I really enjoyed 'The Fell'. This, her previous book from 2020, has the same sense of foreboding and dread that something bad is going to happen, but who to? And what? It is a short, but slow, read until the final pages, which you will read too fast feeling like your roller coaster has hit the first drop. Then you'll go round again to be sure you know what happened.

Anne Tyler
Redhead by the Side of the Road

So it's just possible that the person on Micah's doorstep claiming to be his son is telling the truth. More interesting is the impact this revelation has on the life of someone who lives by routine, once it gets thrown. Short and nicely observed.

Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer

People of my age all have the filtered and edited story of Viet Nam in our heads. It was in the years after the end of the war that the questions began. In 'The Sympathizer' Nguyen addresses these issues through a narrator who is part French, part Vietnamese, a communist trusted by the south who ends up in America. Time in the film industry leads to many discussions about the depictions of the Vietnamese in the movies. When he, nicknamed 'the bastard' because he belongs to no-one, returns to his home country he is needlessly tortured, not for secrets but to admit his own lack of knowledge and identity. Leaving us with the question 'What was all that for?' Funny, moving, gruelling, complex and thrilling. Won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016.

John Banville

My previous experience of Banville is of beautiful, but slow, writing. Here he gives his attention to the death of a priest in a country house murder mystery set in Southern Ireland in the 1950s. DI Strafford (always irritated when the first R is omitted from his name) feels the December cold as he investigates. It is not one where the bodies pile up but where the slow graft of investigation through conversation in the age just before easy mass communication reaps rewards. Splendidly done and well paced.

Broken Ghost
Niall Griffiths

My best read of the holiday. Three people experience a strange spectral vision on a Welsh mountain top. One blogs about it. It goes viral. The place of the experience becomes a place of commune and pilgrimage. Ironically this is at the same time as the actual rehabilitation community nearby loses its funding. The three characters, one closely associated with the commune, return to their chaotic normality - for one alcohol, another sex and a third violence.

I found it easiest to read by giving a voice I knew to each main character as the chapters chop and change between them, and the narrator. So in my world:

Cerys Matthews played Emma
Iolo Williams narrated
Rhod Gilbert was Crawley
Jamie Carragher was Adam

This book is hugely important in its acknowledgement of social problems and authority. It is quite sad but very real. Redemption is dangled and reached for. Who can hang on?

The Appeal
Janice Hallett

This is a very unusual page-turner. A Head of Chambers asks two Junior Counsel to read a file of evidence - mainly messages, emails and transcripts with the occasional post-it note. He asks them who they think was murdered, why, who went to prison and whether that was the right decision.

We read the same documents as them.

They have a stab and are then given some more info. The context of the crime is members of an Amdram society putting on a play at the same time as raising money for a sick child.

Some of the insights into village life are extraordinarily perceptive and funny. But do enjoy solving the case. I picked up a couple of clues but did not piece it all together until the denouement.

Also recommended this year:

T.J.Newman - Falling (page turner airplane hijack thriller) (7/10)
Abigail Dean - Girl A (forensic exploration of siblings rescued from abusive parenting) (8/10)
Steve Cavanagh - The Devil's Advocate (courtroom and thrilling - the new Grisham) (7/10)
Steve Cavanagh - Twisted (7/10)
Chris Brookmyre - The Cut (murder, mystery, thriller) (7/10)
Dave Eggers - The Every (trying to stop big tech taking over the world) (8/10)
Danile Wiles - Mercia's Take (life of a Black Country miner in the C19th) (9/10)
Amor Towles - The Lincoln Highway (road-trip in the wrong direction; beautiful characters) (10/10)
Tim Weaver - No One Home (three couples, one hamlet, all missing) (8/10)
Colson Whitehead - Harlem Shuffle (furniture shop owner does petty crime on the side then gets caught up in something bigger) (8/10)

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Lessons from Ironmongery

I have been quiet on the blogging front recently. Many of you know that I retired in January. Circumstances have conspired to leave us renting our old home until a much-delayed new one is ready. Looks like September now.

The good bit of this is that our older son, who came back to live with us last year, has a little more time to find a new home in Bristol. And the rush to downsize and get packed and moved whilst winding down and handing on my job has been much more relaxed. Whatever your position on the map of faith most kind people would agree that 37 years as a clergyman might have been a bit gruelling. I have now been retired for longer than any period of sabbatical or study leave I have ever had so my psyche is beginning to realise that it doesn't have to go back to work on Monday.

Back in the autumn, when we still imagined we would be getting out in the New Year, we went round the house looking at our possessions, especially the larger ones. Stuff had to go, as the contents of a five bedroomed vicarage prepared to be poured into a three bedroomed home.

Figure 1
We used a three-colour traffic-light label system:

Green = like it or need it, take it with us

Red = hate it or don't need it, dispose

Amber = can't decide yet

If you like my four box diagrams, which I developed during my time as a professional trainer and find usually help explain almost everything, then I have designed one (Figure 1).

Thing is, I was amazed by how little of our stuff I actually liked. All our new wooden storage-type furniture could go as far as I was concerned. Likewise  the dining room table and chairs. It is functional, plain and middle-aged. As indeed was I, once. We have a nice big leather sofa which will fit in our new lounge and a few other pleasant and comfy chairs. The chair my Dad used to sit in at the end of my family dining room is with us. I've known it since 1955. It doesn't match anything but it means something.

We agreed about keeping any books we  loved, would recommend or re-read. My vinyl and musical instruments were a deal-breaker. We are all being ruthless with our wardrobes and one or two pieces (not mine) are doing well on E-bay. Free-to-Collect Nailsea has been a way our functional stuff can help others.

Figure 2
Liz used to work for a homeware retailer called Cargo. Lots of our functional furniture came from there, discounted because it was end of line or damaged. Their stuff was a godsend when our combined incomes were struggling to furnish a big Vicarage. We will hand it on, as we will the fifty sets of crockery and cutlery we don't really need any more.

But the best deal we ever did with Cargo was the counter units. Back in the day, Cargo took over a rather traditional ironmongers called J. W. Carpenter. These shops had wonderful, made-for-purpose pine counters. Cargo chose to replace them with sleek modern plastic and stainless steel jobbies and the old units were flogged off. We offered £100 for four. And they have lived with us for over 20 years since.

Figure 3
The one covered in filing trays and a printer (Figure 2) is in my being-dismantled office. It was once my stationery cupboard and its surface where I put things that I needed to take with me next. Tip to clergy retiring. If you are not moving at once, try and change the vibe of the room that used to be your office/study.

The next one (Figure 3) became the TV stand. It also houses birthday and Christmas wrapping paper. On the right hand end (by the yellow cushion) are two protruding nails at an angle. They used to hold the counter supply of paper bags. We left them there. I love that they have history from before they met us. All the drawers are a bit wonky but move smoothly, polished by the retail transactions they witnessed. 

'Can I have a pound of number 8 woodscrews Mr Carpenter?'

It is not beyond the bounds of probability that one of the drawers once contained candles and a customer asked for four.

Figure 4
All the doors are held shut by slightly different catches; they were probably an afterthought.

The third one holds a random collection of OS maps, DVDs, photographs and instruction manuals. It sits in a room that was once a little lounge (we called it a snug) which was great when only two of us lived here and one was running a meeting in the bigger lounge. That room has now become a place where things are sorted before leaving. My piano is a bit nomadic in our house. It's currently there too.

And the fourth, the biggest, sits at the end of the conservatory (so it is a bit sun-drenched) and houses the aforementioned 50 sets of crockery and cutlery.

Figure 5
Regular guests at our house for food-based events would often start laying the table without being asked. I love that level of hospitality where guests become family.

These are all coming with us if possible, or we will make arrangements to keep them in the family somehow. 

It's strange what possessions mean. Do your things tell any stories? Money has bought us very little which we truly value. Circumstances, memories and people however have been generous.

Why do I keep waking up with a red label on my forehead?

Thursday, April 28, 2022

In or During

I've left it a while before posting this and have checked back regularly to see if anyone else has done it. I'm not aware they have.

It's going to be about the Prime Minister and his first appearance at the Despatch Box after what is known as #Partygate began being discussed. Remember? If you don't then it is helpfully on the Guardian's web-site where they list the seven occasions (up until 11/1/22) that Boris Johnson denied breaking Covid rules. Take a look at the first video. Listen carefully to what Johnson says.

Now, the Guardian gives us the text of what he said on the same page:

'What I can tell the right hon and learned gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No 10.'

Is that what you heard? I didn't.

We need to stop for a moment and remind ourselves of Johnson's style. He is a gifted orator within the character of bumbling-persona he has deliberately created, quick-witted and brilliant at bouncing from the interviewer's question to a related, but irrelevant, reply and then pursuing the subject he has diverted to.

I have upset two of my near neighbours, one because he likes Boris and didn't therefore like the BBC and I defended it in a sermon. The other, admittedly slightly the worse for drink on the day, who lectured me and a friend on how Boris was 'just a human being'. The implication being that we all sin so he should be allowed to. Obviously I am not party to the amount of leeway politicians of other parties are given. But I will never change the minds of these two. They are so wedded to their love of the man that any questions trigger their flight or fight response. When Trump said he could shoot people in the street and not lose support he was talking about people like this.

In the video in question what Johnson says is:

'What I can tell the right hon and learned gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely (during) No 10.'

And after the word 'during' there is a mini-beat. As I said, he is quick-witted. The questioning was about parties and illegal gatherings and a good interviewee always avoids accepting the premise of the question if it is awkward. What would/could have followed the word 'during' if he hadn't caught himself? Meetings? Gatherings? Parties? He stopped himself going there. But he knew. He knew. Something had happened that clearly didn't ring quite right with the regulations and guidance and if he pulled on that thread his whole outfit would unravel. As Allegra Stratton said in the now infamous leaked practice-briefing video, 'It was cheese and wine; is that alright? It was a business meeting.'

Johnson's own goals and gaffs reel is so long, and updated so regularly, that there isn't time to revisit them in detail. I think this one was particularly informative.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Two Types of People

There are many ways in which the world divides into two types of people. My most recent observation of the phenomenon is the difference between those who are aware of their surroundings and those who are not. You can find the latter type blocking two aisles simultaneously in the supermarket with a trolley whilst they search for something. Avoiding inconvenience to others is simply not on their agenda. Such a person will not register someone coming in the other direction until after they have looked at the view/tied their shoelace/finished their conversation.

One of the ways we now learn that the world does not consist of two types of people is in gender terms. We now understand the old male/female distinctions as being inadequate. There is spectrum, not a division. That said the world does divide into those who are prepared to grapple with the necessary learning and change in order to understand and try to use pronouns properly and those who stick with the old ways.

The danger, if that is the right word, is to identify all these two-nesses as right and wrong. That way lies divide and rule, the top line of the would-be dictator's play book. In this world anyone who says 'Hang on a moment, what about this minority who will suffer when you do that' is dismissed as woke. Or wokey-woke, the insult of choice now being used by the raving right round here. I felt the enemies of the loony left needed a name. And of course there are two kinds of people. Those who feel that woke is an insult and those who would gladly pick it up and wear it as a crown (that thought ⓒ West Wing Season 7 - presidential debate episode).

Our current UK Government is made up of two types of people - those who thought Brexit would be a good idea and those who didn't but were prepared to ignore that for a cabinet post. They are now discovering that more is needed from a government than to allow themselves to be used by Russia to destabilise Europe.

Me or you? Us or them? Maybe the world divides into two types of people - those who like dividing the world into two types of people and those who do not. Perhaps we should all be a bit slower to run to one side or the other.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Get the Reference

I am reading The Cut by Chris Brookmyre. He used to write very dark crime dramas bordering on science fiction, full of contemporary social commentary and black, black humour, as Christopher. Now, as Chris, it is all a little more tempered and very plot-driven. Often who-dunnits or what-have-they-duns.

A few books back he dedicated one to Billy Franks. I discovered we shared a love of Billy's (RIP) 1980s' band The Faith Brothers. At the beginning of The Cut there is an unacknowledged quote from a Faith Brothers song. I got it. I got the reference. Throughout the novel the two protagonists joust with movie references. Not being such a movie buff I missed a lot. But I felt I had been invited deeper into the book's world than others, for which I was grateful.

In my final appointment in ordained ministry one of my tasks was to be Vicar of Trendlewood Church in Nailsea. Its birthday was Palm Sunday 1989 and so yesterday it was 32. Many churches have saintly dedications, some stranger than others. I enjoyed St Leodegarius (Basford, Nottingham) the most, until I met St Quiricus and St Julietta in Tickenham. Who they? I know now. You can google them too.

More common church dedications are to All Saints, Holy Trinity or Christ Church. There's one of each of those within a mile of my house. Really. I guess Trendlewood would have to call itself the Church of the Triumphal Entry. Unlikely.

Yesterday there was a procession between the two churches of the soon-to-be Harbourside Benefice of Bristol we have been attending since I retired. We walked from HTH (Holy Trinity, Hotwells) to St Stephen's, Bristol, pausing to pray at the boundary between the two parishes which made us late. I enjoyed not being responsible for the lateness whilst failing to avoid noting the things which had caused it. Old habits.

The thing that made me ponder was that we were invited to give palm crosses to any who asked us what was going on. I reckoned that a palm cross was a visual aid, of course, but the answer was considerably longer and wrapped in Christian heritage and tradition, missing donkeys, Pastoral Measures and Scripture. And that's the thing. You needed to get the many references.

The telling of the Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem by Jesus in the Gospels (it's in all four of them) is littered with references. If you saw a man entering on a donkey you may not have known this was referencing Zechariah 9:9. You may not have recognised the shouts of praise were from Psalm 118. You might have known that crowds were encouraged to line the street when Roman dignitaries came to town but that, thus-forced, they often remained completely silent or even turned their backs. The comment that, if silenced, the stones would cry out references this. The extended metaphor of Jesus on his ass was not for all.

I have always subscribed to the school of Christianity that is a little timid about worshipping on the street corners and would rather Christians referenced acting justly and loving mercy as interest-gathering activities. Look how the Maundy Money thing has become about the Queen not about the poor.

There isn't long enough to explain how we got to processions, parish boundaries and palm crosses in the time it takes for one person to walk past another. You have to hope that interest is piqued and eyes are opened. But what a joy it is to discover you are deeper inside a fabulously mysterious story than others because the author has posted a riddle of an invite and you got it.

Welcome to Holy Week my friends.

Take your shoes and socks off; it's right around the corner.

Friday, February 25, 2022

The Godless Gospel


If you are unfamiliar with the work of populist philosopher Julian Baggini then this may not be quite the place to start. My introduction to him was the best-seller The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten: And 99 Other Thought Experiments. Which made me think.

In The Godless Gospel (Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher?) (Granta 2020) Baggini attempts to remove Jesus' moral teaching from its theological framework to see if there is anything to help those who don't want to swallow the whole God thing.

It is an interesting exercise, applauded  on the jacket by no less than Richard Holloway, he who wrote Godless Morality whilst still an Archbishop although he has since moved nearer to godless than god-fearing.

Does it work? There is good stuff in the opening sections, especially about individual attitude, humility and the process of doing thinking. He acknowledges that reading the gospel is not like reading a modern treatise on moral philosophy. It is not an argument to be followed but a biography to be pondered. Whether you can think about it clearly whilst dismissing the thing that holds it all together is the big question. The attempt to distance Jesus' teaching from his understanding of God, the Father, in whom he trusted and who he believed he served, seems, to me, to pull on a thread that unravels everything.

The last third of the book is a new version of the Gospel, replacing mentions  of God with 'good' in many cases and yet leaving references to prayer unaltered. If there was no God and he was mistaken about praying then surely the whole of Jesus' manifesto implodes? The parable of the kingdom and the return of the king are included. To be fair, Baggini discuses this at length but we draw different conclusions.

Annoyingly Baggini chooses to word his Gospel harmonisation in the language of the Authorised Version because he prefers the poetry. Which makes it harder, not easier, to follow. Living words need lively translation, not archiving or confining to the theatre. 

Interesting effort and nicely written but I wasn't convinced. The Gospel writers all, for sure, had axes to grind and used what Karen Armstrong calls mythos to make their points. But they wrote that we might have life in all its fulness in Jesus' name (John says this directly), not that we might pick and choose which bits we like.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Can't Find My...

Archiving some papers, I found this bit of prosetry for a bygone age when diaries had a physical presence:

I can't find my diary

I have a busy day ahead of me which I can recall. I can get things together for the first meeting but...

I can't find my diary

I retrace my steps to when I last had it. The lounge. Last night. Behind the sofa? Check. No.

I put out the Bibles for the small group which meets here at 10.00 a.m. People arrive. I make coffee. We study. I'm not really into it because...

I can't find my diary

Throughout the day I turn up on time, do what I have to do, but...

I can't find my diary

'I can't find my diary' fills all the gaps and some things that are not gaps until there is a gap big enough for me to search physically. I have been searching mentally all day. Now I have time to find my diary, a thing which is designed to save me time.

Keeping a good diary takes 5% of your time. Losing it takes all of your time.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Turn to the left; turn to the right

At the start of my ministry, in the place I have just retired from, my wife and I invited people round for supper in groups of 15-20 once a month. Primarily this was to thank those who had worked on decorating our house before we arrived (a kindness) but it grew into a thing we liked to do. The first month we scrubbed up and made an effort. I may have worn a tie. Remember those?

Just before the second event my wife asked what I was going to wear that night. We do have this conversation or, from time to time, we dress a little too similarly and it scares us. I recall that my reply was that 'based on last time I thought I'd go for a fleece with food down it.' We dressed down a little bit but always felt part of our job was to pull the standard up.

Three things caught my attention over the last month under the heading 'fashion' - an article, a quote in a TV programme and an individual. Juxtaposition being the secret of most creativity, putting them together in my mind I wanted to have a go at talking about clothes.

Clothes are an important cultural signifier because of the response speed. ' can react more speedily to the demands of the times with three-and-a-half metres of cloth than you can with, say, 5,000 tons of reinforced concrete.' (Marion Hume, Fashion Editor, the Independent 2/12/1994)

But we are increasingly mindful of those clothes which contain microplastics and the need to move on from throwaway society as we try to reduce, re-use and recycle.

Culture, Brian Eno once defined, is 'Everything you don't have to do'. So clothes aren't cultural but fashion is.

Of my male friends I am probably the one who cares the most about my appearance. I do care. I like to look good and to be individual. I realise I am setting myself up for a fall here but, as I have made my living in the Christian church for 37 years, I have to say it has never felt onerous to be the best-dressed person in the room and, when I notice that I am not, the person I notice is always very well turned out. As Patsy said in Absolutely Fabulous 'You may dress like a Christian but there the similarity ends.' I am talking here about those I perceive to be of my own gender (and I wouldn't have put it like that that 37 years ago, for sure). 

Comments on the clothing of those I perceive to be of other genders or non are kept to myself . Or discussed with Mrs T.

A few years ago, and I can't attribute, I heard this:

Men tend to dress to impress women; it doesn't work.

Women tend to dress to impress women; it doesn't work.

A more nuanced version of this would be Jess Cartner-Morley's, 'Much of fashion operates on a complicated code system that relies on your being sure of the level of sophistication your audience will bring to your wardrobe appraisal.' (Guardian Weekend 28/1/12)

Building on this, writing in the FT weekend the other week, Robert Armstrong drew a distinction between those who dressed ivy (as in Ivy League and almost effortlessly good) and those who were preppy (as in prep school and trying a bit too hard). I know it all gets frightfully snobbish when you step back a bit but, in very general terms, it is good to make an effort with your appearance, not necessarily with overspending; it is bad to make no effort or too much. Dolly Parton once said 'It costs a fortune to look this cheap.' To get to ivy not preppy, which means understanding classic lines and styles and keeping them contemporary, Armstrong says 'You have to care a little bit, spend some time shopping, and try things out. For most men, this can feel like a chore.' Still with me? Or going out in that dirty fleece?

That was the first of the three things.

From a relatively young age my Christmas and birthday presents usually included something fashionable. I enjoyed dressing up for special occasions and probably now spend more on clothes, hair and products than many men my age. I'm not sure whether I was influenced by my Mum, who trained as a dress designer and had a short career in the industry. My sister is a graphic designer and layout artist who worked predominantly in the fashion world. 'You think your job's tough but try getting a supermodel out of bed at 5 a.m. for a sunglass shoot.' If I let things slip she will have a quiet word and tell me what I should do (usually something very small) to show I know what it's all about. Those sideboards needed to be an inch longer. I wasn't one of the Thompson Twins.

When my sons were teenagers one went to a school with no uniform. All the students seemed to dress the same. One went to a uniformed school where individuality was expressed in coloured socks or wearing the tie strangely. Chambers Gigglossary describes fashion as '...a means of expressing one's individuality by wearing and doing exactly the same thing as everybody else.'

In the Texas Commerce Bank the bankers '...are conservative gentlemen and they are obliged to obey a 23-page dress code, a veritable Koran of corporate dressing.' (Tony Parsons 'Dispatches from the Front Line of Popular Culture, 1994)

There is a minimum way to show you know what it's all about. Wear what Douglas Coupland in Generation X labelled an 'Anti-victim device (AVD): A small fashion accessory worn on an otherwise conservative outfit which announces to the world that one still has a spark of individuality burning inside:...' To move from the 1990s to the present day, I think that's what Lady Hale (pictured) is up to with her famous broaches.

Most of us who enjoy the attempt at being fashionable probably started young. Which means there are some appalling, but thankfully pre-social media, photos of me making an effort mimicking the Tremeloes (pictured), on a non-uniform day in the late 60s. Buying yellow loons and making myself develop the personality to be seen in them in 72. Massive stack shoes and kipper ties in the mid 70s culminating in my wedding photos.

I haven't forgotten about the other two things. Let's get to them. We were on a winter holiday in Castle Combe recently, staying in a cottage on the village square. Each day we saw from our window a number of tourists pitch up and look around. One group, ethnically east Asian in appearance, were dressed much better than any of the others. And, to show I am culturally aware, a look known as preppy amongst Japanese girls and young women is popular. Whilst many tourists photographed the pretty village, this group photographed themselves with the village square as backdrop.

One guy must have been cold. Boat shoes. No socks. Thin baggy chinos turned up twice. He was carrying a dog. The dog wore a cricket jumper. The dog was a bag. The bag, which we googled, was a Thom Browne. It retails at £2,690. You read that right.

I filed that away in the 'ways I will never use money' section of me until a TV programme I accidentally watched in the unnecessary-extravagance-on-Alderley-Edge genre. A well-off family were having a small party for which they had rustled up caterers, live entertainers, a dog-groomer ('so she doesn't feel left out') and a wardrobe consultant, a man dressed in several layers and textures of white, plus jewels.

At one point the presenter, who was also getting a makeover for the party, asked the fashion guru 'Aren't you hot in all that?'

The  reply:

'It's fashion darling, It's not meant to be comfortable.'

So, for what it's worth:

You can spend too much on an outfit. Spending alone will not make you cool. You could end up preppy, or even Dolly but without the self-deprecation.

People who can afford expensive, timeless clothes spend less on them than those who buy cheap and seasonal. See the Terry Pratchett Sam Vines boots theory in his book Men at Arms. Expensive clothes last longer but there is a tipping point beyond which you can pay to look stupid when you think you're paying to look good.

If you are in sales, or at an interview where you are selling yourself, you need to match your customers' expectations if you are to sell to them. A young man I knew was told he could have a job as an MP's research assistant but he needed to remove his ear-stud. This was late 1980s. We've moved on from that and nobody blinks at most piercings any more. We've also moved on from the attitude discussed in Cosmopolitan in September 1994 '...dressing for success is a moral imperative for men and women'. A moral imperative? It was never one of those. But you will fail a live appointment process in the first ten seconds if your fashion isn't pitched right. Can you sell yourself better?

I think it's stupid not being comfortable but this includes being mentally comfortable that you can bear what you're wearing. I have a pair of electric blue trousers which I love but I can't mood-match them very often. You need to feel good about feeling good.

If you don't like talking about clothes you probably didn't get this far and never normally notice that I care.

As the French philosopher Barthes said ' exists only through the discourse about it.'

Quite so.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Silbury Hill

I like to read a local book when staying away from home. It's a habit I began about twenty years ago when I happened to read Captain Corelli's Mandolin on a Mediterranean island and, even though it was the wrong island, the book came alive.

We've been staying a few miles down the road from home, in Castle Combe; proof positive that you don't have to get away far to get away. In a bookshop in nearby Corsham I asked the friendly proprietor what to read. I wanted something that wasn't a guide book but was good writing, evocative of the area. She gave me a fine selection but On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe stood out. It has been an amazing companion; a metaphysical, biographical introduction to the area known as the Wiltshire Downlands covering six millennia of history from Neolithic times.

We went to Avebury and Silbury Hill. As Adam Thorpe (almost the same age as me) recalls his Marlborough College school-days so I recalled my own, not least because in about 1967 I came there on a school trip.

To be fair I can remember only one incident clearly from the trip. Walking from what was probably then the coach park to the hill we were approaching a gate and Max Oates ran at it and cleared it in, what I later found out was actually called, a gate-vault. Max arrived at King Edwards (a place that gave an experience not unlike Marlborough but was not a boarding school and thus reduced the bullying hours somewhat) as a highly proficient gymnast and diver. My reaction, as one who had been convinced that getting into King Edwards was a verdict on my all-round genius, was 'Why can't I do that?' It was one of the first of many steps to realising that in order to really get on you have to be more than a smart kid. I grew up in a big old house but it was rundown and we had little money for much of my school-days.  I got a free place through the entry examination. But I hadn't had gym classes, diving lessons or the pushy parents to lead me to young specialism. Indeed I spent my secondary school days trying out every new opportunity and moving on. Fives, squash, hockey, rugby, cricket, tennis - I never settled, always looking wistfully over my shoulder at the sacrifice of going to a school that thought rugby football was the only type of football worth playing. I also had undiagnosed asthma, which meant my shortness of breath when running was treatable (and eventually was, aged 24) but I merely thought I wasn't very good at it and kept trying harder.

Silbury Hill is an enigma. The conclusion of most experts, after two to three hundred years of modern archaeology, is that they don't know what it is. It is a thirty metre high mound in the middle of a huge natural downland amphitheatre. It is the largest human-made mound in the world and is near the largest standing stone circle in the world. The secret it has revealed is that it was human-made over a couple of  hundred years and has at least twelve cycles of layering. It reminds me of a a cairn where every newcomer places a stone. Except that generations have placed huge layers of chalk, turf and sandstone without, or at least without us being able to tell, if of any of them had the first idea of what the point was.

So today it just sits there, next to a busy road. Visitors are not allowed to climb because of erosion although we saw two do so during our brief visit. They would have had to squeeze through a gap, ignore two notices and climb a fence so I guess they knew what they were doing. Walking a mile away to West Kennet Long Barrow the Silbury Hill becomes small - looks like a spoil heap in the wrong place.

The Standing Stones, Barrow and Hill are accessible without paying. It has managed to resist becoming the downlands visitor experience although there is some of that in the museum and nearby Avebury Manor and Gardens (National Trust). Otherwise local agriculture simply lives and works alongside.

On a grey February day the place conjured up all sorts of alternative thoughts. It's not what some theologians call a 'thin place'. I felt it was a full place. When we don't know what something means everyone has a go at defining it. It's become somewhere with too much meaning - none of it that helpful. It's a reminder of people keeping their eyes on something bigger, grander and out there. A striving for meaning. A desire that the point of all this be something other than my own self-actualisation. Which is, at the very minimum, what the Christian Gospel does; it anchors the truth elsewhere.

Avebury and Silbury change your vision by looking at the work of people who bothered to change their horizon. The lack of clarity about why they did it leaves their work as the record of a universal question.

The book is a knowledegable friend on the same journey.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Review of the Year 2021

Bit late for a review of the year but whilst there may be a tradition about these things there is not, to my mind, a rule that says January 20th is too late. Anyway I've been busy.

Annually, I find the same problem. Things I discovered in a particular year were often published before then. So, trying to keep it all vaguely contemporary, here are the arts and culture stuff I enjoyed most in 2021:

Having someone culturally aware come and live with us was helpful and top of the incoming list was our discovery of Succession. If you've missed it then Brian Cox (actor not physicist) plays Logan Roy, a hugely successful businessman trying to stop his dysfunctional offspring from inheriting and ruining his empire. Very sweary. Three seasons available.

If major infrastructure programmes have a fringe benefit it is that they let loose the ubiquitous Alice Roberts to share details of archaeological discoveries under the road, pipeline, railway. Digging for Britain ensued and educated this household muchly. In the same vein, plaudits to BBC2's Stonehenge - The Lost Circle Revealed and the archaeology of back gardens disclosed in The Great British Dig.

Mobeen Azhar's Hometown - A Killing started as a podcast but became a BBC docu-series. Investigative journalism at its best.

I continue to be a sucker for food shows such as Great British Menu, Masterchef and Professional Masterchef. The celebrity versions of these shows can go hang, though. In fact I enjoyed most shows where people demonstrate brilliance at something I can't do, so stand up and take a bow Pottery Throwdown, Bake Off and Great British Sewing Bee.

Clarkson's Farm surprised me by being educational.

Ghosts continued to be lovely and very clever.

Gone Fishing was nice slow tele. Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse have delivered public service broadcasting gold.

Squid promised much with their first few singles. Their debut album Bright Green Field was only three stars from me but the blending of maths rock and shouty punk was a fine mash-up and continues to promise much.

Jangly guitar fans could get their fix with The War on Drugs - I Don't Live here Anymore. Album of the year.

For joyful story-telling pop my guilty pleasure was Demi Lovato's Dancing with the Devil ... The Art of Starting Over.

Honourable mentions for Floating Points collaboration with the LSO on Promises.

Henry Sotheran Ltd is an antiquarian bookshop, which I will probably never frequent because of money and that but @Sotherans is a delight of a Twitter feed. Sample:

'...we've been around longer, on average, than most empires last. We sell old books and other stuff but mostly books, and definitely not opium anymore because it got banned. Wednesdays are not for talking.'

The Trial of the Chicago Seven was a favourite. Bond a bit disappointing. Didn't see enough as cinemas felt unsafe.

Lost Hills told the story of an apparently random killing in more detail than the cops seemed to have gone into with Dana Goodyear finding out more and more connections and coincidences. From Pushkin.

My wokeness was polished a little by How Not to be Wrong - The Art of Changing Your Mind by James O'Brien.

Good novels included Catriona Ward's Last House on Needless Street - a murder mystery that pulled all the rugs from under both your feet at various times. Very diverting and more than a little odd.

What happens once the easternmost house falls into the sea? Juliet Blaxland's follow-up is a bit more metaphysical, but also keeping alive the stories of those who will crumble next in The Easternmost Sky.

Alice Roberts' (her again) pre-history of Britain in seven burials is exactly that. Who should live in Britain? Who came first? Who are we? Read Ancestors and stop hating immigrants.

Pintxo (tapas) and Appleton's (fine dining) in Fowey made a holiday in this country great. Pony Bistro in Bedminster delivered everything you'd expect a Josh Eggleton enterprise to do (including a Valentine's finish-at-home meal in a box). For tapas in Bristol try Gambas on Wapping Wharf.

Good pubs included Bedminster's North Street Standard, The Salamander in Bath, WB at Wapping Wharf, The Priory at Portbury and Coates House, Nailsea.

We enjoyed wandering around Bedminster's street art festival Upfest and being under the Moon in Bristol Cathedral.

That's about it. I've saved you from the format 'Stuff I found this year that everyone else has known about for ever', which would have included an updated review of experimental German electronica from the early 70s which I'd miss-dissed. Belated apologies to Faust, Can and Amon Düül II. Although for some reason I always liked Tangerine Dream.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The R Word

A funny thing happened the other day. Something that hasn't happened in January for maybe 40 years. You may ponder. I'll tell you later.

I've been retired (that's the R word) for two weeks now. I've noticed a few weird things, such as finding myself reading a newspaper on the day of its publication. Ages since that happened. Also my head. I am normally thinking ahead. Pondering what needs to happen next, tomorrow and eventually. There is currently no eventually and little tomorrow in here. I've planned supper.

I was chatting to Gary the plumber this morning, back for his annual visit to fix the toilet in our family bathroom, a place that's a triumph of style over function. Told him how I didn't want to be the sort of person who complained about trivialities. 'What, writing strongly worded letters?' he said. Exactly. Not that. Please. Let me carry on caring about the fight to save liberal democracy and not if a Waitrose carrot deteriorated faster than usual.

A local friend has just won a long-standing battle to obtain funding and permission to have his house altered to take into account the degenerative disease he has. He doesn't need it now but will do soon and when he does he won't be able to cope with the disruption of the alterations. He told me, with a twinkle in his eye, 'I don't think they realised how much time I had on my hands.' Having an empty diary gets results, sometimes. Strongly worded letters are not totally irrelevant.

Another couple of locals, in retirement, became people of such repetitive regularity that they always did a walk on Thursday, the chores on Saturday morning and the shopping on can't remember but it was time-tabled. Thing is, I can see now how having some structure provides a week with routine. Flip-side is that if it is all routine and only routine the days, so I'm told, pass very quickly and before you notice you're routinely dead. By all means have some fixed points but don't get them stuffed and mounted. I will in future read on a Tuesday (the day in my working life most likely to have had some space for study) unless you have a better offer or there is an emergency. Likewise Fridays, a rest day for the last fifteen years or so, will continue to be a day free from jobs. Our bio-rhythms mandate it.

I am good at packing up and handing over, or at least I think I am. The process of thinking about who would do various jobs I used to do helped me stop thinking about them when I finished. How do I know that thing will not be forgotten? Because I remembered to pass it on to someone who is reliable. That's the best I could do. That said, I am surprised how little I have thought about my old duties. It helps that I have received no phone calls or emails (yet) asking 'What did you do with the...?'

So my first two weeks have been relaxing and the list of things to do is getting pruned. It is nice to be able to cut down on duties and jobs. I'm not quite like a colleague who told me he was going to make a New Year's resolution to ruthlessly eliminate hurry. I asked him why he couldn't eliminate hurry slowly. But I am slowly slowing down and looking forward to a couple of weeks holiday away coming up soon.

So. The thing that was weird. Another friend invited us to come for the weekend some time before Easter. And after taking a moment to enjoy the idea of going somewhere for the weekend I found myself asking a question the answer to which I would normally know at this time of year:

'When's Easter?' I honestly didn't know.

More when we get it.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Thought for the Day

End of an era as I did my 173rd and final BBC Radio Bristol TFTD this morning after eight years. The team there have always been very kind, and awesomely talented. I have learned a lot. Here's the last script. The in-joke is that there is a link to three of today's four stories in it:

There are three reasons to go to a leaving do:

1. To continue walking alongside a friend on life's journey

2. To support a colleague

Thought for the Day contributors either latch their thought on to one news story or link them together with some common theme.

As today is my final contribution I have received a unique invitation from producer Nicki that I might 'Go rogue or go festive'.

Now, putting out of my mind the idea of Santa with an assault rifle, I might just have a go.

Let's talk eschatology.

Advent is about looking forward whilst waiting patiently. Christmas is about celebrating a beginning. Eschatology is the study of last things. The end.

We can look forward to ends. How great it will be when we don't need to raise money for charity, work out how to visit care homes safely or worry that someone will charge us to do what's always been free. As the Bible says, the day when every tear is wiped away.

We don't consider endings enough. The Christian Gospel challenges us to ponder our own. Big thought.

I said there were three reasons to go to a leaving do.

3. To make sure the so-and-so is really leaving.

I am. Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021


Our Christmas new-free letter is now available for addicts and the sleep-averse.

Do enjoy. The Christmas blog also contains an archive of photos of dead-people, ex-wives etc.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Thought for the Day

Did BBC Radio Bristol's Thought for the Day today. What with pre-recording it the night before I forgot to flag it up. Anyway, here's the script. Next one, December 20th, will be my last.

'Follow me', said Jesus to some fishermen types '...and I will make you fishers of men.'

The Bible tells us that the gang - Simon, James and John - left their nets and followed him. At once.

My son asked me the other day what I planned to do when I finally retire. The words that came out of my own mouth surprised me. I found myself saying 'I don't know. Maybe something I've never done before.' But whilst that will not be golf or parachuting I do like the idea of doing something completely different to vicaring.

Today's stories. Many of our Bake-0ff contestants took it up later in life. Learning to drive is, by its nature, something we do after childhood. Community parks and gardens are often maintained by enthusiastic volunteers - many recently retired.

Being a follower of Jesus for many years is a journey. If you follow someone you must expect to move. So go on. Embrace the next part of your life's path with gusto. Be prepared to change.

But not, as one six year old once misunderstood, 'Follow me and I will make you vicious old men.' Now that would be a new career.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Thought for the Day

As delivered (pre-recorded) on BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast this morning.

Last time I had a job other than vicar I worked as a writer. I once got paid for eight words. A building services company were happy with my slogan: 'Large enough to cope; local enough to care'.

That was my past. But we all become better carers when it is local. When the need is on our doorstep, or involves someone we know.

Our stories this morning on BBC Radio Bristol are linked by the word 'caring'.

A charity that helps families to look after a child, when their parents can't.

A support group for people with a rare skin condition

Raising money for, and awareness about, a cancer

Caring for the environment by cutting out waste.

The challenge my faith, through my Bible, sets me is 'Who is my neighbour?' The Bible describes us as one in Christ Jesus. Whilst grateful to those who raise awareness of needs into which they have been thrust by circumstances, being a carer regardless of background is a deep and biblical call. For we are all part of one race.

My slogan needs amending. We sometimes need to cope even though we are small. And care for those a bit further away.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Thought for the Day

Having written and recorded this yesterday I almost forgot that it was delivered this morning on BBC Radio Bristol's Breakfast Show with James Hanson:

The Bible has a very here-today-gone-tomorrow approach to life. We're fragile, vulnerable and like grass in a puff of wind.

One job of a church leader is to have an understanding of risk. In fact that's true in any organisation. People get stewed up about insignificant things and fail to get alarmed by significant ones.

'Yeah, Joan took her mask off for a while but you left chairs blocking the fire escape to tell me.'

If you have had to do a risk assessment you know that you can accept very common minor matters with small consequences but should be ready for uncommon events with serious consequences.

It reminds me of the risk assessment we took of a young people's caving trip. The version that did not go to press said 'If you are unlucky you will get very cold and wet. Normally, everyone is unlucky.' That was the fun bit. We could live with that but were much more careful not to drop young people into fast-moving streams or deep potholes.

These thoughts go through my head when I imagine what it must be like to be a head-teacher in an age of COVID. My prayers are with you. Have a safe term.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Thought for the Day

One of my store-cupboard (recorded well in advance and generic) TFTDs was used today to cover for someone who had pulled out late. Here is the script played on BBC Radio Bristol this morning at 8.43 a.m. by James Hanson:

Wonder how you feel about grammar pedants? Those who correct even the slightest mistake in text, tweet or email? Apostrophe bandits seeking the unwary.

Thing is, it can be important how we say things. I'm very aware that on radio, people only have my words to latch on to. Mannerisms, hand gestures or other clues are missing without a studio cam.

So there is a big difference between 'James walked on his head in the air', suggesting a contortionist and 'James walked on comma, his head in the air' which tells of a proud morning radio presenter.

The M5 service station which offers 'coffee available inside 24 hours' is probably not trying to say it takes almost a day to deliver the drinks. We need to read the context.

And if I had English as a second language and didn't understand the name we give to the reflectors in the centre of our roads what would I make of the apparently heartless Somerset village I drove through the other evening, proudly announcing 'Cats eyes removed.' Wraxall. What are you like?

God so loved the world he gave his only son. God so loved the world he gave his only son? Sounds different as a question than if it is a statement. What do you think it is?

Friday, August 13, 2021

Thought for the Day

As delivered on BBC Radio Bristol to James Hanson's Breakfast Show just now:

What is the point on which the soul should fix its intellectual eye? Not my question, but that of author, Mary Shelley, a talented teenage writer who wrote of Dr Frankenstein's creation. The House of Frankenstein in Bath takes the visitor into an experience of her times and the world she created.

The attraction includes an enormous model of Dr Frankenstein's creature. Mary Shelley wrote it between the ages of 18 and 20. As she said, 'There is something at work in my soul which I do not understand.'

Philosophy Professor Patricia MacCormack says that the Creature addresses the most fundamental human questions: 'It's the idea of asking your maker what your purpose is. Why are we here, what can we do?'

In the book of Job, a tale of suffering, a comforter comes along who, in his own words, waited until last to speak because he was the the youngest. He then gives Job better advice than his first three comforters and yet is completely ignored. The book never mentions him again.

I wonder if, in order to ask questions about her own purpose, Mary Shelley created a creature to ask for her. Such good questions that, 200 years later, we still discuss them.

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Thought for the Day

I pre-recorded this one for BBC Radio Bristol on Tuesday and then the story I based it on was bumped from the Breakfast Show because of a rescheduled balloon mass ascent. So it went out today. Apologies to my fan who I misinformed on Sunday.

We had an interesting discussion in our house. I was gently nursing our ancient dishwasher through its final few tasks before it went to the domestic appliance graveyard. My family laughed at my efforts to turn the water off as the programme finished, which involved squeezing into the cupboard under the sink with a pair of mole-grips and a torch.

After a few days without our labour-saving device our privileged position is to be able to afford a new one. But washing up by hand was annoying because we'd filled the labour-saving time with tasks, not leisure. More fool us.

Once my ancestors would have fed the scraps to the animals, washed up in the river and hunter-gathered the next meal.

Today I look at relative scarcity on the supermarket shelves and remind myself how fragile our grip on life is.

'As for people', the psalmist said, 'their days are like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.'

Pretty bleak thought. Good job the next verse says:

'But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord's love is with those who fear him...'

Good news. Good God. Good morning.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Influential Books

I love reading the question and answer interviews in Sunday supplements. Given how unlikely it is that anyone will ever want to publish my answers I thought I'd have a go at the question about 'influential reads'. I reckon all books influence me, even if it is to eliminate the author from my future enquiries. But what tomes really changed me? If we are honest they are rarely the books alleged to be 'improving'.

Here are ten. They may not be quite the top ten because I didn't want to overthink. I may do ten more later. The order, by the way, is the order in which I read them:

Aboard the Bulger
Ann Scott Moncrieff

Not very old I was taken to Selly Oak library by my Dad. Here I was amazed. We didn't have many books in our house but Dad was always reading. So this is the secret. Borrow them and take them back. For nothing. Wow. This was the first book I borrowed. I read it wrapped in an eiderdown on my bedroom floor in front of an inadequate electric fire.

The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Increasingly improbable trilogy)
Douglas Adams

Adams probably stands in a long line of great word-play authors but I had slowed my reading habit between the age of 12 and 18, perfectly undoctrinated by a school literature list which failed to move this adolescent teenage male at all. I read nothing but cheap thrillers from 1973-1979. Then this. Someone told me I should read it so I didn't because I am a recommender not a recomendee. Then I did. If writing can be like this, breaking the rules once you understand them, then it made me want to write. A few years later I had a go.

'The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't.' One of my favourite lines of all time.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M Pirsig

The Late Review used to be tagged on to the end of Newsnight but I saw some precursor of it around the time this book was published. I probably (aged 19 or 20) thought the discussion was a load of pretentious rot. I can't recall. It would have been late night midweek and once I started work I only ever stayed up midweek to watch the footie.

Anyway I found a copy in St John's College Library sometime around 1983/4 and, as an enquiring theological student, felt that it was rebellious to read something not on any lecturer's book list. Zen Christianity has accompanied me ever since and I swear that having a cool head in a crisis is something I decided to have rather than was born with.

I also learned that there is usually a good reason why some books get reviewed and others don't.

Peter Carey

College, despite my previous post, did get in the way of reading for pleasure. Then, in my first curacy in Nottingham, I met some lovely new friends who helped by lending some books they had enjoyed once I had announced at a dinner party that I was fed up with the quality of my reading. At the same time I started enjoying bookshops (libraries were going a bit downhill) and (yes, design does matter) the boxed-out Faber and Faber logo always caught my eye.

This epic narrative about coming-to-terms with what Australia actually is, narrated by a confidence trickster and liar, was a lucky find. It meant a lot that, despite Carey being a double-Booker winner and well-known, I had not heard of him before I bought this book and, having now read everything he has ever written and only found one book I didn't really enjoy, feel I discovered him for myself. I always recommend him, knowing that the reaction will be a bit Vegimity.

Dispatches from the Front Line of Popular Culture
Tony Parsons

This sat on the shelf above my desk for many years when I worked in the late lamented youth department of the Christian home mission agency CPAS (Church Pastoral Aid Society). All the other staff bookshelves seemed to be full of things conservative evangelicals are supposed to read. All you imagine they ever learned was the result of a massive echo chamber. It seems to me that teaching people to live the gospel in contemporary society is pretty hopeless if you have no clue how contemporary society works, what it means and who the movers and shakers are. This set of columns, articles and essays from 1976-1994 was a priceless journeymate. What does it mean to be a Christian amongst this?

Passage to Juneau
Jonathan Raban

Robert Runcie - The Reluctant Archbishop
Humphrey Carpenter

The Case for God
Karen Armstrong

These three books changed my attitude to genre. If all travel books were written like Jonathan Raban writes I would read them all. I would read about anything if Jonathan Raban held my hand. Even a yacht journey from Seattle to Juneau.

Likewise Carpenter taught me to read biography if the biographer can write and Karen Armstrong renewed my sense of enjoyment in theology

Francis Spufford

Some books help like a session of psychotherapy. You rarely know which one it will be. Spufford's sub-title is 'Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense'. As I read I found that he had written what I wanted to say. Christianity does give me a place of emotional safety from where I can explore the intellectual complexities of doing theology. If I had spent the first term at College reading this it would have saved a lot of time.

Thinking Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman

Having read a book that explained to me who I am this was the book that helped me understand everybody else. What is going on when people make decisions? How do we choose? Why do we decide some weighty matters without all the necessary information?

Well, to use a technique that the book describes, I'll answer an easier question than those. Should you read this? Yes. In fact you should study it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Lesley Tilley RIP

For those who might be interested, this is the eulogy my sister and I prepared for Mum's funeral:

Lesley Joan Tilley 1928-2021

Lesley Base was born in Birmingham on 18th March 1928. Apart from a brief time, when she was evacuated during the Second World War to North Wales, she lived her whole life in the city.

She became adept at giving travel directions using landmarks that had been demolished, saying things such as ‘Turn left where the Bristol Cinema used to be. You know. Opposite where they knocked down that church.’

Her parents, Dennis and Janet, were lovely people although her father was somewhat strict and austere. They had to cope with several miscarriages and so Lesley was a much loved only child. She was devoted to her parents and looked after them with care in their twilight years.

She had an aptitude for art and design. Steve recalls finding his art homework much improved by her hand overnight, once.

She attended Margaret Street Art College in Birmingham where she trained as a dress designer. Some of her original drawings survive but this career was short lived. One left-over from this career was a dressmaker’s dummy which lived in an attic room for many years and scared occasional visitors if the light was gloomy.

She loved fashion and clothes and was always very smartly turned out.

She met Jim Tilley after the war when he was still in the RAF.

She was engaged to someone else at the time. But a mutual male friend brought Jim along to meet Lesley one evening. They married at Edgbaston Old Church in 1950 - the marriage lasted 49 years until his death in 1999.

The relationship introduced her to Dad’s sister Brenda, a kindly woman with what today would be described as learning difficulties. She lived with the family until Jim’s death. It also began her 50 year relationship with Jim’s family home, 107 Oakfield Road - a huge Victorian house maintained, just about. She therefore found herself looking after part, then all, of this rambling place. The existence of rooms over the garages and bells in each room in the main house suggested that the building had been used to a team of staff. She developed as a cook and did a Cordon Bleu cookery course. Jim was a very traditional eater so pasta and curry never got a look in. But meals were always great.

It was an exciting playground for Steve and Jacquie to be born into in the 1950s and Lesley admitted that she loved being a mother.

She was one of the few people to have hated the day when the kids went back to school at the end of the summer. Steve and Jacquie’s school friends speak of her kindness and welcome.

She loved having young people around her and Steve and Jacquie were encouraged to invite friends round and they were always greeted enthusiastically. Jacquie remembers endless school holidays spent with friends running around in the attic rooms and playing French cricket in the garden. Steve's football skills spoiled many fine flowers and shrubs.

As the children grew up and became independent she gave herself to entertaining and charity work, hosting many fund raisers for various causes. She was particularly active raising awareness and funds for Kidney Research; at the time a not very fashionable cause.

She was a keen supporter of both children’s chosen careers, vocally and emotionally supporting Jacquie when she went away to Art College and Steve when he was ordained.

When grandchildren came on the scene in the 1980s she threw herself into being a grandma. Ben and Jon recall how excited she always was to see them. Spending holidays with grandma and grandpa involved many days out and, of course, that house to explore.

She was part of the fellowship at St Stephen’s, Selly Park and much in demand as a baby-sitter, not least by the clergy.

She also enjoyed occasional travels - especially a trip to see her cousin Doreen in Los Angeles.

Jim died after a stroke and she was devastated. It took sometime to persuade her to downsize but she made a new home in Kelton Court. She made friends and joined the community here at St George’s for a few years. She was happy here until it became clear that her increasing confusion was the onset of dementia.

She was first cared for in her house by regular care visitors and fine neighbours. Eventually she needed residential care and Neville Williams have looked after her for the last few years, patiently dealing with a client who insisted on being known as Mrs Tilley, not Lesley.

Grateful thanks to all, paid and unpaid, who have rallied round. After having her two COVID jabs she tested positive although remained symptomless. She seemed somewhat indestructible but then on June 13th she fell asleep in her chair for the last time. Let’s face it; it’s how we’d all choose to go.

Steve Tilley and Jacquie Clinton
June 2021

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Holiday Reading

Here are the results of my holiday reading this year. The mark out of ten I offer is not related to literary merit or any sense of genre importance. I use it simply to tell you how diverting the book was as a holiday read:

Pete Paphides - Broken Greek (8/10)
Pete is a music journalist from a Greek family based in Birmingham. This autobiographical book covers his childhood and early teenage years. The pull of the music industry was strong but the peer pressure that formed his early opinions was also influential. As a Brummie who recognises both the landscape and the chart-music of my young adult years (I am older than the author) I loved this journey.

Ben Machell - The Unusual Suspect (9/10)
Ben is a newspaper columnist and feature-writer. This is the account of Stephen Jackley. He was an Asperger's student so his decision making was unconventional. Channelling Robin Hood he began, in 2007, a life of crime designed to help the poor by robbing banks and building societies. It didn't go as well as he expected.

Simon Mayo - Knife Edge (7/10)
Yes, that Simon Mayo. Page-turner, thriller, bit short on likelihood but ticked the boxes for a quick read.

Bill Bryson - The Body (7/10)
A very entertaining account of the different bits of our bodies and how progress into understanding them was made. No need to read in one go. Fit in a chapter here and there between novels. And rejoice that you were born when you were.

Val McDermid - Still Life (8/10)
The very undisputed queen of the police procedural at the top of her game.

Francine Toon - Pine (7/10)
Slow-developing, ghostly gothic Halloween weirdness in a Scottish community. Delightfully creepy with portentous moments regularly spooking the reader.

Catriona Ward - The Last House on Needless Street (9/10)
Two children, a weird guy and a cat take it in turns to narrate this story. All are unreliable witnesses at one time or another. Not so much a whodunnit as a who did what to whom and when? Brilliant.

Thursday, June 10, 2021


I'm pretty sure that most people would prefer those in their employ to be reliable. I have worked with a  few crazy creatives in my time and their unreliability was something we took into account because we wanted their genius ideas on our side. We didn't mind that they occasionally forgot to wash, their desks needed police incident tape and their punctuality for routine meetings was a thing worthy of having an office sweep. I have woken two people in my working life who were asleep near their work, surrounded by pizza boxes.

If you are unreliable you will not be missed for days. Seriously injured in a ditch will become dead in a ditch unless you are unreliable but lucky. Gosh how I love chaotic but lucky people. Also, they live longer.

I am spending more waking hours than is healthy these days pondering things that may be worth handing on. The trigger was when I was asked to do an awkward burial of ashes because 'You're a safe pair of hands'. I guess I am. I am punctual. If I am late people tend to ask if everything is OK rather than look sternly at me. Which is nice. Reliable people are late sometimes. But they have good will to be so. If I say I will do something I usually do it. I got reminded in a meeting the other day to do something that was on my list to do next. Really irritating although we may note in passing that control freaks don't trust anyone, even reliable people.

A speaker at a conference I was at said that people who use trains are usually punctual. It is true but it sounds wrong. People who use trains regularly have to get themselves to a station at a particular time or they are late. Trains are sometimes late but the person was there to catch it. We generally only hear that someone has come to an event by train if they are late and explaining. Most trains are on time. Most train users don't usually feel the need to say how they travelled.

But reliability isn't only about punctuality. As a professional writer for a few years I used to hit deadlines. Had to. I wanted the fee. Part of being reliable involved, from time to time, phoning a commissioning editor and asking if there was any flexibility in the deadline. It was usually fine because they'd built in some time for emergencies. Once or twice I encountered a strict deadline and had to stay up late finishing. Because that's what reliable people do. By the way, if you want something from a writer first thing in the morning make the deadline the previous night. We consider a deadline of Monday means Monday at 11.59 p.m. You will get it before Tuesday.

Reliable people feeling they might disappoint, warn those who are depending on them at an early stage. No-one will be cross with you if you tell them you are going down with some illness and may not make it. But give the expectant recipient an extra 24 hours to make plans. Reliable people hate letting others down. The memory of so-doing haunts us.

Once you have a reputation for unreliability it will be hard to shake off. You will feel nagged. If you are unfortunate enough to be in that position my advice would be to over-communicate yourself out of it. 

'Hi Fliss, I'm just calling to say I'm getting on with that piece of work you gave me and it will be finished in a few days.'

'Hi Fliss, just checking in to say the piece will be with you at the end of the week.'

'Hi Fliss. I've just posted it first class.'

Of course, because you're now reliable, these statements need to be true or you become real lieable. Not good.

On a much larger scale, the Japanese worked tirelessly and ceaselessly on acquiring a reputation for reliability after the expression 'Made in Japan' began to be used as shorthand for shoddy in the 1960s and 70s.

If a product becomes unreliable in the eyes of the public it may well be withdrawn for a while and returned with a different name. It's a label nobody wants.

Reliable people do what they say they will do. If they think they will be unable to do something they don't offer to do it, or negotiate the arrangements. Try 'I'll do this for you if you take that off my hands'. From time to time you can put people off by charging a lot. If they call your bluff and agree to pay it either sub it out for less or decide that for that amount of cash you'll stay up all night to finish.

Reliable people don't offer wisdom about things they know nothing about. That sort of bluffing comes back to haunt you.

Reliable people are usually busy and seem to fit a lot into a day.

The word 'reliable' doesn't crop up until the sixteenth century or so. It may come from old French and Latin with its roots in 'binding back'. That word religare also gave us religion. In the Bible it is sometimes used to translate the Greek word pistos but that word encompasses faithfulness and belief. When 2 Timothy 2:2 talks about entrusting Paul's teachings to pistois people it means those who share belief and trust in Jesus.

If you are embarking on a calling to ministry don't over-commit early doors but deliver what you say you will, well and on time.