Sunday, April 11, 2021

Sticking to your Principles

Today's sermon was on Mark 5:21-43. It is an interesting passage. Mark uses the story of one miracle, in two parts, as bookends for another miracle. My sermon is going to be on our church YouTube channel shortly.

In passing I noticed this:

Jairus, a synagogue leader, who reported that his daughter was close to death, did not seem to care if Jesus, a holy man, risked ritual uncleanness by visiting his dying daughter, and maybe being with her once dead. He should have; but he didn't. His principles did not survive desperation.

The woman with the show of blood tried to touch the hem of Jesus' garment so that she didn't cause him to become unclean. She needn't have worried; but she did. Her principles survived desperation.

Libertarians, who do not believe any citizens should ever have to carry papers saying who they are, are wondering if that holds true post-pandemic. Should we have vaccine passports?

Authoritarians, who do not believe that crowds should ever be allowed to gather in a pandemic, are wondering if that holds true when the Queen's husband dies. Should that be an exception?

Desperation tests your principles. It sometimes tells you that they weren't principles after all.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Thought for the Day

As delivered, pre-recorded at the moment not live, at BBC Radio Bristol this morning on James Hanson's Breakfast Show:

My Christian master is a teacher, happy in crowds. Yet, I've worked from home most of my life. From, not at.

But a decree went out that we must all work from home if possible. For a while it pleased some people greatly. Although others, who built stuff, cared for the sick or processed food to name but three, had to go to work.

'Honey, I'm back.'

'What's that cow doing here?'

'Well I'm working from home tomorrow. Those pies don't make themselves. I'll leave it on the dining room table for now.'

No. That conversation never happened.

Those who could stay (probably undistracted by others working in the same house or kiddies needing education) enjoyed the absence of commute and the dress-down. For a bit.

Then the realisation. Friendships are formed in a thousand photocopier or water-cooler moments. Chat over a sandwich. Drink after work. Working at home perhaps something was lost as well.

Yes, many of us would prefer to go to fewer meetings, but a real flesh and blood boss with vision is motivating.

Most faith communities value precisely that - community. Helping and teaching people. Hermits need nothing. Community needs shepherding.

Friday, April 02, 2021

The Last Hour

People have booked. Everyone who has booked is here five minutes in advance so we could start. Seems wrong though. An hour at the cross should be 2-3. We have a track and trace list. Socially distanced seating. A Zoom link for those who cannot be here. We have covered the pictures of the children on the school hall wall. This is peak 2021. This is weird.

I have no part to play. It has been conceived and is being delivered by a placement student from the local Theological College. He has not been to an hour at the cross before and I have deliberately not told him too much about what happens. I am enjoying being led by someone I have helped train and now utterly trust. I can let the hour carry me along, journaling, as is my preference when listening to a well-known tune remixed. This is not weird.

But it is Good Friday. A day we need to remember is meant to be weird. The Romans invented a cruel-spectacle execution for those it wished to use as an example. The gallows is too quick. Insurgents would not be put off by a quick death. Crucifixion is slow. It is said Jesus died in six hours - relatively quickly. The business of breaking the legs of the crucified was to prevent them from pushing themselves up to grab a breath. It hastened the slow death of suffocation. Those executed were not always taken down once dead, as Jesus was. Some were left at cross-roads and other public places to be picked at by carrion. A visual aid. This is what we will do to you if...

We have been following the story of Jesus from Mark's Gospel this year. 'The Tabloid Gospel' we have called our series although that is a bit harsh on a mainly eye-witness account containing much on which to reflect. 'Who is this man?' it keeps asking, telling stories of astounded and astonished crowds hanging on the every word of this unpredictable preacher.

And at some point in his life the destination of his journey became clear to him. One whose family knew nails and wood intimately. And at some point after his death followers tumbled to what his life meant, piecing together prophecy, preaching and pain. 'It is finished.' What is, Jesus? What?

The finish is of the quest for further clues. You can either conclude that life is meaningless or see the answer on a cross. A man, so clearly divine that his chroniclers called him 'Son of God', abandons the otherness of the spiritual world he inhabits to become one like us. There is no glib Christian answer to suffering, just a bow to its inevitability. Demand your money back if anyone sells you one.

'If you must bang your head against a wall...' said my doctrine tutor and hero Tom Smail '...bang it against the mystery of Jesus. Relevant martyrdom.'

Look no further.

Accept no substitutes.

Like no other.

No art, theology or music can do justice to this event. It is the thing that gives all other things the right to happen. They change meaning when juxtaposed. This lovely, messy, unfair world is a place we are free to inhabit because somehow God inhabited it once. We loved him yet also treated him unfairly, messily. We even have the freedom to ignore the story or take it no more seriously than an Easter food ad.

I don't send Easter cards. Well OK, one, but that is for other reasons. This is not a time for commerce. I take this hour (this year) and commit to serving this mystery for another year. I've done this for 37 years, one year at a time. This will be my last time. From next year my time is my own and need not be committed to anyone. Nine more months. Here you are.

Nine more months to the one who knows how insincere, two-faced and hypocritical are my hints to others to have faith. I call no-one. I invite them to investigate what I have investigated as thoroughly as I have and to work out how to respond after doing their own deconstruction.

Put to death by the unspiritual for allegedly claiming to be a human king.

Put to death by the spiritual for allegedly claiming to be divine.

As I try to make sense of the competing imagery I hear some Tallis, see a dead sheep or Christ on a cold, cold stone. And I hear mockery even now, that I would dare to find this important. Because it's not science, it's not cool, it's not very now and it's not monetizable. And I wonder if most people understand what the meaning of life, the universe and everything should look like. For what, if anything, do they search?

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John took some liberties with history. We do well to get that out onto the table. Not with the truth but with the reality. Mark took fewer. Some of the stuff they made up was designed to illustrate the truths they had glimpsed. They knew no other way.

Every now and again a chord seems exactly right in an 'If I knew what it meant I'd have said it not painted it' sort of way.

The music of Good Friday must be minor. The art abstract. The theology metaphorical (as all language is). Today is not a matter of history. It's far more important than that.

(Silence)

Good Friday
2021

Friday, March 26, 2021

Back to Back

We have two fridges. One in the kitchen for regular stuff and one in the garage which contains rarely used cordials and aperitifs, some vegetables and a lot of beer. We call it the back fridge. We call it the back fridge because the other fridge has always been called the back fridge even though it is not in the back. It is, as I have told you and paragraph one is mighty early for repetition, in the garage and the garage is in the front of the house to be near the driveway.

The second fridge became a thing in our previous house when we got a new fridge before the other one died properly. We put the old one, with the freezer, in an unused downstairs room which was a bit like a cellar. It was a three story Victorian terrace and the third floor (lower ground) was not visible from the road. The lower-ground front room in that house had no natural light and we used it as storage space. Others who bought such houses in the street made an access space for natural light and made an extra living room but were plagued by damp problems unless they spent a fortune.

Did you spot the weird thing in that little section? I passed over it quickly but I said, quite clearly, that the cellar room with the fridge in was the 'lower-ground front room'.

Which means, by my calculation, that although from the kitchen the cellar room was often behind you, it was never in the back. It has always been the front fridge and has been misnamed for over 25 years. We're going to start calling it by its proper name. We'll try, anyway. I wonder how long it will take. Would you bother to change your language if it was proved to be completely inappropriate? Would you work at it?

It's a good question, and why this little piece is about far more than fridges.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Storm Calming Tips - Mark 4:35-5:20

We have been working our way through Mark's Gospel at Trendlewood Church.  My latest sermon is on our YouTube Channel should you so wish.

We've been looking at the way Mark depicts this urgent good news of the astonishing Jesus spreading as he acts and speaks.

After two weeks exploring parables we returned yesterday to miracles. The passage has two different types of miracle - a nature miracle and an exorcism. Two very different experiences of the world back then.

Both have a great simplicity - a bad thing happens and Jesus stops it.

It is another occasion where the chapter breaks, not part of Mark's original work and don't get me started on the sub-headings, help us spectacularly to miss two things that are connected. The two, apparently separate, passages  are 4:35-41, where Jesus calms a storm and demonstrates himself Lord over nature, and 5:1-20  where Jesus heals a man who is 'occupied' by so many demons he is called 'Legion'.

What the chapter break helps us miss is that another storm, this time an internal one, can be calmed by the power of Jesus.  In fact it led me to my title. Despite their differences, what we see is Jesus calming 'Two Different Storms'.

To follow Jesus, I concluded yesterday, is to follow an uncomfortable, unpredictable lead through the eyes of gospel-writers who had points to make about who he was and is. Don't let our modern, numerical punctuation obscure this.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Thought for the Day

As heard this morning on the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show:

I was once challenged by the BBC Radio Bristol presenters to base my thought on a strange item about whale vomit. I'm sorry if you're eating your breakfast. Could I? I did.

Today I had a feeling of deja vu. The story that stood out is of Ian from Weston-super-Mare who shares his house with his partner and a pretty large Dalek he made himself.

We understand the idea of evil. We can name Bond villains such as Blofeld and Scaramanga. Even evil in the Bible is personified as Satan or Beelzebub. But the pantomime villains who made us hide behind the sofa as children are the Daleks. They capture the imagination. My school friend, another Steve, loved Dr Who and in his retirement seems to have a Dalek in the garden. Bless.

What is going on? I think it's a product of our humanity. We don't like to acknowledge that our worst enemies are things such as poor hygiene, aggressive behaviour and impatience. We want an enemy we can kill, not one that makes us change.

So if you look at that Dalek, remember to look at yourself afterwards. There's an enemy within and a story of triumph over that as well. It too can be exterminated.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Thought for the Day

They've changed the system at BBC Radio Bristol. Too many dodgy phone lines has led them to ask us to pre-record our contributions, which have been trimmed to 200 words from 275/85. This left me forgetting to upload to the blog having delivered it, last Thursday. Here it is:

Jesus spoke about not sewing a new patch onto an old garment. Because, he said, when you wash it, the patch will shrink and the hole will be worse.

I'm going to take a punt that some BBC Radio Bristol listeners will remember when jeans were sold as shrink-to-fit. You had to wear them in the bath, until they fitted. Then try to take them off.

We can fool ourselves into thinking that the world has got worse but there are many ways it has improved, not least pre-shrunk clothing.

I am fascinated to learn that archives from the seventeenth century and the reign of James I tell us that people were chronicling the greatest snow ever and the highest water of all time.

Previous generations had storm and tempest too. And plague without vaccine.

This is not going to be a count-your-blessings thought. That is not sensitive to those who are genuinely struggling.

This is straight from Mark chapter 2, on which I am preaching on Sunday. Jesus said that you can't simply add the things he has said onto your own pre-suppositions and carry on. He's not a patch for a life lived wrong. He's a new way to approach your life entirely.


Thursday, January 07, 2021

Review of the Year

For the last six months I've been posting a weekly Facebook link to my highlights of the week in popular culture. Or maybe unpopular culture would be better? You know me.

On balance it is worth doing this as well though. I like trying to work out what was the best of the year, especially last year which didn't have many bests in it.


Music

My favourite individual tunes of 2020 are on this link to Spotify. It seems to have been a year when my spirits were raised by three chords and jangly guitars. Nowt wrong with that.

For album of the year I often struggle. New music is simply music you haven't heard before. As I do not listen to much radio I quite often 'discover' music that's been around a bit. Which meant it was great to find the Billy Franks' back catalogue and Man Alive by The 4 of Us (which I had on cassette in the car in the 1990s) make their way onto Spotify. But that said I enjoyed:

EOB - Earth

Foals - Collected Remixes

HAIM - Women in Music Pt. III 

Khruangbin - Mordecai

Surprise Chef - All News is Good News

Westerman - Your Hero is Not Dead

Zapatilla - Zapatilla


Reading

I read more books in 2020 than any year since records began (1988). But how many were written in 2020? Not many. Plaudits to:

Fiction

Andrew Hunter Murray - The Last Day

Daisy Johnson - Sisters

Catherine Lacey - Pew

Fact

Adam Rutherford - How to Argue with a Racist


Screen

In TV/Film I caught up with many box-sets during lock-down using a Prime subscription and latterly Netflix. Like many others our favourite film of the year was Armando Iannucci's spirit-lifting The Personal History of David Copperfield.

But I found the year much-improved by Better Call Saul, Peaky Blinders, Bones (plots become increasingly improbable by Season 5), The Good Fight and Brokenwood.


Food

Wapping Wharf
I only had three or four meals out all year but all were nice. My usual haunt of WB at Wapping Wharf is always good but Gambas Tapas just along from there is also excellent.

I missed my couple of times a year at the Pony and Trap at Chew but found the yurt version at Breaking Bread on the Downs very acceptable for a wedding anniversary. In April the Pony and Trap at Chew is changing its focus to a foraging and training centre with meals for volunteers on the estate. But they are opening a restaurant in Bedminster. Hooray.


Clifton Downs Yurts
On a north Wales holiday I discovered that Cadwaladers ice-cream in Criccieth was as good as ever. Also that Grasmere Gingerbread can be mail-ordered.






Here's to better things to review away from home in 2021.


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Misremembering, Cricket Shots and Your Personal Narrative

I once caught myself embellishing a story to a friend who would find out what I had done. Not willing to spend the rest of my life telling two separate stories to two separate people and making sure they never met, I fessed up and rolled the story back a bit. Memorably, and forgivingly, my friend said he understood because, 'The narrative demanded it at that point'. It was a kindness. I've tried to hold off exaggeration and dishonesty ever since. One of the reasons is that your lies become your truths over time. You misremember hyperbole as fact. Not the greatest sin in the world, especially for those of us who like to think we can spin a tale, but good to be aware of what you are doing.

I've told a tale from time to time about the greatest cricket shot I ever saw.

For a few years in the summer, aged about 12-14, I went after school to Edgbaston, the Warwickshire County Cricket ground, with a few friends. I was a member but you could also get in cheaply after tea. Watching two hours of cricket was infinitely preferable to history essays and over the years I found many excellent ways to use the time after school and before eating that had nothing to do with homework. I was sitting behind the bat slightly to the left. About fine leg and five or six rows back.

And the way I have told the story I saw England and Surrey opening bat John Edrich hit a ball for six so hard that instead of lofting it a long way over the boundary it went in a straight line.  I can still see the ball going from bat to row C, remaining six feet off the ground the whole journey. I have described this shot as a hook all my life. But if I close my eyes again I can't recall the delivery or the ball hitting bat, just the trajectory of the ball which my young eyes saw clearly.

John Edrich died recently aged 83. The first thing I noticed above the obituary I read in The Guardian was a picture of him playing a shot. He was playing the shot he must have played when I saw that 6. He was a left-handed bat. Left-handed.

So, I was not sitting at fine leg but third man and I did not see a hook. What I saw was more remarkable. As obituarist Peter Mason wrote on Christmas Day, Edrich was '.... a ruthless dispatcher of bad deliveries, using his strong forearms to punch the ball to midwicket or through the covers.' I saw Edrich punch the ball through the covers for six. Imagine Ben Stokes' winning shot at Headingley against Australia after that mega last-wicket partnership with Jack Leach, only played slightly higher and later so going for 6 not 4. Unbelievable. But I saw it with my own eyes. Least, I think I did.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Thought for the Day


Privilege to do TFTD on BBC Radio Bristol for Christmas Eve today. Here's my script:

I'm married to a visual merchandiser. My home always looks lovely at Christmas. Mostly this is to be welcoming to guests. Not this year.

Stories on today's show are about plans being changed. Food delivery not party. Adjusting down your feast. Lack of demand for buses.

Are you good with change? I've always been comfortable with routine yet try to vary it. It drives the aforementioned partner bonkers that I will do three jobs at the same time – for no reason! Emphasis, all hers.

My Mum had Christmas planned to the finest detail but afterwards always fixated on the bit that hadn't gone well. Perfectionism is certainly not genetic.

What thought am I digging out of all this? Well, this time last year we had no idea that 2020 would be spoken of in the same list as the Black Death, the Great Plague and Spanish Flu.

The day before the birth of Jesus nobody expected a story was about to be born that would change the shape of human history for the next two millennia.

Theologians disagree about whether Jesus was born in a stable, a guest room or an ordinary house. Whatever, the child grew to be so extraordinary that no-one could imagine his birth had been anything but special. Yet he required feeding, as hungry babies do. Required shelter as homeless people need. Required love. Don't we all?

So, even if you don't feel that the Christian story has anything but myth in it I urge you to allow the mystery and mess to make you more concerned about others than any awkwardness in changing your plans. Merry Christmas.







Sunday, December 13, 2020

Christmas 2020

Happy Christmas to all my readers, lurkers and followers. The family Christmas letter is now available along, if you're into that sort of thing, which is unlikely, with an archive of the same since 1985.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Desert Island Intros

I think we can all agree that we need a bit of distraction right now. So let's have a row about something completely unnecessary. A song's intro is a thing of beauty in its own right. It grabs you by whatever you don't like being grabbed by and says, listen. I've never attempted a top ten of these and this is my first go; the ones that sprang to mind. Some have stories; others not so much. Lots of my favourite tunes don't count because there isn't enough intro before the vocals start. One of my first live experiences was Alvin Lee yelling 'One of these days boy...' and then following it with a guitar chord of such monstrous power that Birmingham Town hall was nearly no more. No intro.

So, counting backwards, here we go:

10. Silver Liner. Ethan Johns 2015. The chords make you think he might be about to burst into a cover of Argent's Hold Your Head Up (no bad thing) but then something much moodier and trippier breaks out.

9. Sensual Thing. The 4 of Us. 1992. Bass, guitar and drums in 25 seconds of perfect control. You know that the vocalist could say anything and it would be fine. As it happens he wants to electrify his senses, stretch his nerves and save his soul, which is a fine plan.

8. Course of the Satellite. The Vryll Society. 2018. Distorted keys start to make sense as the rhythm kicks in. That's as it should be. 35 secs for old DJs to link from the weather.

7. Speak to me/Breathe. Easy Star All Stars. 2003. A cover version should not simply be an attempt to recreate the original with precision but should add something. No-one adds more than these guys with dub reggae versions of classics. 90 seconds of sound effect intro that manages to surprise you when the offbeat kicks in. I hope the Floyd would approve.

6. A Haunting. Roots Manuva. 2005. Rodney Smith takes a minor key melody and becomes rebel eye with fortitude (come see the dude exude). Spooky.

5. Riot Radio. The Dead 60s. 2005. I love ska. This is an infectious start. One of those occasions when the first track on the first album was never bettered.

4. Jane. Jefferson Starship.1979. Eight bars of swirly keys, (pre-riff in bar 8) then crashing guitar chords for eight more to vocals. Perfect intro.

3. Money for Nothing. Dire Straits. 1985. When you're this big you can get Sting to do backing vocals on your intro. Perfect example of how to build to a climax with drum work absolutely key to this. Everything stops dead before the song starts.

2. Stay with Me. Faces. 1971. This one has a story for me. It's summer 1972, the end of my 17th birthday, and the mainstage at the festival has over-run. I am too tired to stand any longer and go to bed. From my sleeping bag I hear the opening chords of Ron Wood's guitar chop into my slumber and I get back up and enjoy two hours of Rod Stewart and the Faces singalong pub-rock madness.

1. Woke up this morning. Alabama 3. 1997. D. Wayne Love's (RIP) monologue as he walks home following three days of drinking and reflects on his mortality. Listening to John Coltrane's Epitaph he realises that his taste has moved on and he has woken up. Two minutes of story-telling intro as the theme of the song develops slowly,

Let the mayhem begin.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to James Hanson at BBC Radio Bristol just now:

What, can you think, is the first thing in the Bible described as 'not good'?

In the Book of Genesis six days of creation are described. At the end of each of the first five there is a little mantra 'and God saw that it was good'. After day six this creation is described as very good. Then comes the answer to my question. The first thing described as 'not good' is loneliness. It is not good for people to be alone.

Forget for the moment those like me who love curling up in the corner with a good book (beat) because lots of other people make that possible. We are social creatures.

Last Remembrance Sunday the residents of our local streets chose to stand outside to mark the silence. They asked me to lead it, which was a privilege. Then we had a brief outdoor social gathering. I met Gordon aged 85 and Lewis, 7 days.

Gordon told me that on his birthday the neighbours had stood in his front garden and sung to him.

My little corner of Nailsea is lovely, but I invite us all to consider how we can fix the thing God is said to describe as 'not good'.

What little happening can you arrange to put something other than loneliness in the memory banks? Here in my corner of Trendlewood we're planning a switching on of our home Christmas lights event with carols and a nativity story.

I get to join in. We're curing loneliness and inventing Christmas liturgy. Which, amongst other reasons, is why I love being a vicar.

I now realise I used the same introductory question for a Thought back in June, although I did draw a different idea from it. I blame the editors. After 160 of these there may be a little repetition.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Short-termism

Big old churches are not really my thing but I respect those who chose to erect something worthy of the God they sought. Rowan Williams described churches and other faith groups as 'custodians of the long-term questions'. He observed that they were so because their vision of human nature was not in allegiance with political fashions and majorities. (Being Disciples)

It is hard to be popular if you are a long-term thinker. Investment in the future involves paying now for something you, or maybe somebody else, will get and enjoy then. Oak tree woods may have been planted by visionaries but they are enjoyed by the following generations, not the planters,

But today we have all grown up with credit, hire purchase, loans and mortgages. Paying then for something you get now. Investment spending is a difficult sell. 

Thus populism, as a philosophy, finds it easy to demonstrate that people may keep their freedom during a time of a pandemic. Saves thinking about that awkward business of  being dead. Short-termism wants now what may be compromised if we don't show a willingness to delay gratification. Short-termism says it won't wear a mask now but will risk the hit later. Which would be a perfectly reasonable and acceptable gamble if the person doing the betting was the person who would take the hit. Trouble is the non-mask wearers are gambling with my life, without my permission. The Darwin Awards shouldn't cause collateral damage

'History tells us what happens when economics in decline, with mounting social and economic anxiety, are captured by oversimple populist slogans which cast out those who don't agree or are deemed not to look or sound right.' (Susie Orbach, Guardian Review 26/1/19) Indeed it does. Tragically.

Short-termism is usually late to the party. Short-termism met someone interesting on the way and valued them more highly than the pre-booked appointment they were heading for. 'Running a bit late' they text as you carry on with the book you always have handy if they are in the diary. 'Lateness is a lack of respect for the structures.' (William Challis) 

Short termism will not acknowledge climate change. It sees climate change as somebody else's problem. It wants the oil and the gas and the coal out of the ground so people have jobs and money now. If it was the sort of person to ever show its working it would say that the grandchildren will be better able than us to work out how to survive floods, hurricanes and drought. Short-termism, Stefano Hatfield reminded us, means '... we are lumbered with perennial government by opinion poll, without vision.' (The ipaper 18/8/14)

But no. I'm into the huge unpopularism of the long-term. 'Instead of looking at what is and asking how to maintain it (we) should look at what ought to be and ask how to bring it about' (Mark Ashton: Christian Youth Work). We must learn to look beyond what has already been accomplished. And we must embrace dissatisfaction with the status quo wherever we find it for that will be contain within it the birth throes of change.

I do not accept the obvious as the limit of the possible. Never have. If you ever get three wishes ask for more than a bottomless biscuit tin. You're not six. This generation (in the grandest terms - those on the planet now) know more than any previous one about the effect we are having on the future. Fixing it will cost us. We must pay.

I am writing this listening to the report on the US Election 2020. It seems that the US has rejected short-termism. That is good news for the world in the future. It is probably bad news for a few people now.



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show just now:

If you found your hotel was on fire and you hastily read the exit instructions on the door you would not like to find this:

'Here beginneth section one of the instructions appertaining to the exiting of this accommodation in the event of a situation of combustion, fire, tempest, storm, wrath, damnation and other such incidences. Thou shalt proceed with all due haste to the end of this corridor, and be ye sure that ye tarry for no man neither greeteth any man on the way, lest thou be consumed and all thy maidservants also.'

No. In case of fire I want to know how to get out. Clearly and quickly. And not in the language of the King James' Bible.

Someone once went up to Jesus and asked him what the greatest commandment was. He said thou shouldst vouchsafe to prioritise God with thy aortic rhythms, ego and id, cerebrally and muscularly. Only kidding. He said that the guy should love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and love his neighbour as himself.

Which, because Jesus was good at that sort of thing, successfully summarises the first four commandments at a stroke and the last six even quicker.

Is the Bible's big message clear.

How about:

God created
We rebelled
God loved
Jesus died
We live

Ten words. One Gospel. We can talk about the small print later. Track and trace me if you'd like a chat.

So. For what is this a metaphor? Well. If you want to say something important. Say it clearly. Please. And now back to the voice of clarity herself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

What are Museums for?

A few years ago I heard the story of a west coast US firm who did driveways. Interviewed, the Company Director was asked what he would do when every driveway in California had been done, 'Well I guess we'll do garages. Or windows' he said '...doesn't really matter'.

It didn't really matter because the firm did not exist to do driveways, garages or windows. The firm existed to provide employment for ordinary Californian guys. I loved that. We exist to give jobs out. Nothing else.

Despite a bit of pressure to sell just one Michelangelo statue the Royal Academy say they have absolutely no intention of selling any works in their collection to save jobs. 'You heartless bastards' shout some. I guess once upon a time I might have agreed with them. I don't any more. Museums are collectors. Hoarders if you like. They exist to collect. They have thousands of things collected but not on view to anyone.

Malcolm Gladwell dealt with this question, although it concerned the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in his Revisionist History Podcast Season 5. Museums exist to hoard. They employ people to aid this aim. People are expendable; the collection is not. Harsh, but consistent.

Monday, September 21, 2020

What About the Lyrics?

I belong to a Facebook group for fans of Billy Franks and the Faith Brothers. Recently, on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of Billy's death, someone posed the question as to which of Billy's fine lyrics might be our personal favourite. It's a tough question and I might answer in various ways depending on my mood, although I regularly come back to:

The true are free, the corrupt are lonely
That's my belief
(Whistling in the Dark)

Billy never quite takes you in the direction you expect. Seeing lonely as the opposite of free and corrupt as the flip-side of true is a fine piece of poetry. In Billy's hands 'Dressed to kill one cool spring morning' is not about a relationship but an anti-war song.

But to broaden this out a bit, I remind myself that I never engage with rock/pop initially via the lyrics. It always starts with feel. Bob Dylan may have won the Nobel Prize for literature but very few of his songs engaged me by feel alone. In the early weeks of lock-down I made a concerted effort to get to grips with Dylan. I found it possible to make a playlist of a dozen songs I enjoyed but most of his albums didn't invite me in far enough to want to investigate the lyrics.

What am I looking for when I get beyond 'feel'. If it feels good I listen to the instrumentation. Who is doing what? I am a keyboard player so I am usually attracted to those parts early. The lyrics come third, often because they are not clear on first listen and, these days of music-streaming, have to be investigated online rather than on-sleeve. For me a great lyricist is one who leaves me with some work to do. Songs that tell stories (particularly those from the English folk tradition) are great to hear once but I never usually want to hear them again. I know the story. Why re-read? Unless the tune is a banger.

It's why, controversially, Easter Parade, so many Billy fans' favourite, is not mine. I get it. The lyrics are good but the tune is pretty simple. I don't need to hear it very often. I often wondered if he had heard Eric Bogle's Gallipoli song 'The Band Sang Waltzing Matilda':

And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve, to mourn, and to pity.

Billy said:

I came home maimed
So was kept away
From the Easter Parade

Difford and Tilbrook were a fine song-writing partnership in Squeeze but it's my assumption I have heard Up the Junction enough times now, whereas Hourglass still delivers plenty to ponder:

Take it to the bridge throw it over board
See if it can swim back up to the shore
No-one's in the house all the lights are on
And the blinds are down

I'm sorry, what?

I have spent 35 years as a priest and mine songwriters for seams of sermon illustration. As I do so I have to take it on the chin from time to time.

10CC
Two thousand years and he ain't shown yet
We kept the seat warm and the table set
(The Second Sitting for the Last Supper)

Elton John (probably Bernie Taupin)
If there's a God in heaven what's he waiting for
If he don't hear the children then he must see the war
But it seems to me that he leads his lambs
To the slaughter-house not the promised land
(If there's a God in heaven (What's he waiting for))

And even the beloved Billy:
In an old place for the first time,
I heard the fed talk about hunger,
Telling tales of loaves and fishes,
I heard the wealthy read the Book of Common Prayer
(You Can't Go Home Again)

Ouch. A great Christian leader of the 1980s, Mark Ashton, complained that since the 1960s there had been no great protest song writers. I responded that there were but they didn't get so much publicity those days, especially as the establishment was what was being protested. But what did he think punk was? And when Tom Robinson wrote Power in the Darkness he wasn't pulling legs he was calling to arms. 'Stand up and fight for your rights.'

My favourite current lyricist is James Mercer of the Shins. What are we to make of:

Since then it's been a book you read in reverse so you understand less as the pages turn or a movie so crass and awkwardly cast that even I could be the star
(Pink Bullets)

The lyric sheets tend not to have any pointing. I listen to that again and again, it's one of my desert island eight, and it still delivers. The joy of pondering what on earth it means. Iron and Wine offer a similar experience.

The ability to put things metaphorically, to require of the listener some working engagement whilst being able to enjoy little punchlines along the way, is the skill of the songsmith wordsmith. Convoluting the truth enables it to have slow-fuse impact. Leave the shallow and the blunt for the pop-charts to handle without care. I like my lyrics vague.

The prophet understood a world where trees clapped their hands and mountains did the joyful thing (Isaiah 55:12). But the psalmist accepted that there were times when you just wanted to take the Babylonian babies and beat their heads against rocks (Psalm 137:8,9). Violent not vague.

John Peel's favourite lyric of all time was The Who's 'I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth' (Substitute). And that's funny. Pete Townswend hoped he'd die before he got old and he was 75 in May. Good thing he's chewed the words many times. They're kinda hard to swallow now. Meanwhile Billy dances with Peter Pan's shadow. I like that.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Expressions and Sell-by Dates

There is a certain wing of the evangelical church which has only one cause for praising a speaker. Were they clear? Clarity is all. Obfuscation is frowned upon. Even metaphor is treated as suspect.

At a training day on Fresh Expressions recently (it's a church thing) we spent the first few minutes, almost inevitably, discussing what the expression Fresh Expressions expressed. Forgetting my long held view to never be part of a group that didn't know what it was doing there, I joined in.

And almost equally inevitably, somewhere along the line, we decided that it depended what words followed the expression. Fresh Expressions of what? Christianity? Ministry? Church?

A few weeks prior to that I had been involved in a discussion about various old election mantras from the major parties. We got on to the 'Big Society' thing that Cameron's Conservatives invited us to be part of. One of the advantages of  an appeal to the county summarised by an apparently meaningless expression is that it generates discussion.

I probably had more conversations about Big Society around that time than I would have done if its meaning had been clear. Was that genius or luck? Probably genius. Cameron was in advertising.

A few weeks after I arrived in this diocese (Bath and Wells) I found myself in a room discussing a little soundbite of a previous bishop - thinking different. Quite a few of the clergy were up in pedantic arms because they thought it should say - thinking differently. Pleased with themselves a few smug titters moved round the room. I was trying not to say anything because I was the new kid but I cracked. 'You only want it to be an adverb' I said because you think 'thinking' is a verb.

There was tumbleweed I swear. No-one understood me so I had another go. 'It's about missing words' I said. If the missing words are 'Are you...' then you need an adverb. If the missing words are 'Is your...' then you need an adjective.

I do myself no favours by putting things in a convoluted way but, in my defence, I really enjoy doing it.

There is a place for pith. But sometimes the absence of it is more effective. A lack of clarity is not always undesirable. May I do my punchline please? Thank you. I've been taking the pith for years.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Book Reviews

Interesting, and completely accidental, juxtaposition of novels this week. The linking theme being voice, or lack of it.

Vox explores an imagined USA from the not-too-distant future where power is held by a group of white males led by a cruel and tyrannical evangelical Christian minister. Separating out those who are 'pure' the gay, ethnic minorities and women are all marginalised. For women it's not quite Stepford. No-one has yet pioneered the surgery necessary to bring that about. So women are required to wear a bracelet which delivers a short, sharp shock if they say more than 100 words a day.

It's pretty frightening, given the state of the current Christian right in the USA. The interesting premise develops into a classic thriller and the last 100 pages pass quickly.

In Pew a sleepy US town is visited by one who doesn't speak, named by the locals after the place this stranger is found spending a night. The desire to be hospitable, in this place of Christian principles, to a struggling newcomer is tested by the lack of communication. How can we know how to help you if you don't tell us your story? Is the muteness a preference? Is it post-trauma? Or something more sinister?

In Christina Dalcher and Catherine Lacey we have two novelists right on top of their game and two interesting approaches to the necessity of language.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Many hymns include a line such as 'Come down O love divine'. The desire that God would visit his people in person. Tongues of fire optional.

In my short career in insurance ages ago I ended up in a claims department where one of the tasks was to put a value on human suffering. How much for a broken arm? A lost tooth? A scar on the face? The death of a child?

Complex questions - careful calculations.

People are pretty hopeless at assessing risk. It is several times less risky for your child to walk to school alone as it is to take them in a car. In fact the biggest danger to children walking to school alone is people in cars. Pedestrians are still in a less risky position than passengers.

Recently I have had to work with colleagues on risk assessments. As have teachers and school admin staff. Many of you will have done that in the places where you work.

We ask questions such as:

How likely is the risk to happen?
How serious would the consequences be?

We all embrace a certain amount of risk in our lives. The trick is to avoid any possibility of risks with serious consequences and to minimise risks with minor consequences.

So my heart goes out to those supervising students in the new mask-wearing, socially distanced world we inhabit. Respect.

But singing a song inviting God to visit his people in person? Are you sure you want to take that risk?

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Thought for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I now want to talk about slavery.

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

Some theology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A correspondent said this to me the other day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Thursday, July 16, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Thought for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 29, 2020

Holiday Reading

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, June 04, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Thought for the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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