Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Quietly Getting on with It

Hey, Christians,

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

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

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

1. God

2. Family

3. Church

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome News

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Found Poem

This is called Pure Gym Wall Words:

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

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

Everybody welcome
Polite notice
Lifters' code
General waste

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Losing It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2022


We've been down-sizing. Naively we thought moving to a house half the size of our big vicarage meant only taking half our furniture. If you read no further paragraphs and want a single take-away from this piece please note that furniture designed for big rooms can't make that journey. Doing what we have done you will need to get rid of most of your furniture and purchase smaller pieces.

Over the years we have collected several items in pine and these created the theme of our last two homes. I wrote only this summer about the lovely old ironmonger's counter units we had procured, with the stated hope that we could keep them. In fact we gave two to our younger son and his family and brought two with us. A couple of weeks into living here in our new home and we worked out they were too big for the space. Also, surprisingly, it turns out that a big part of liking them was the space in which they lived. Without wishing to sound pretentious, this is not a pine house. It has a sleeker, more modern vibe. No carpets downstairs. Wood painted black,. Blinds not curtains. And the usual modern bathroom accessories that are a triumph of style over function.

Our last two houses have been big. Our Victorian terrace in Leamington had three floors,  many rooms and decent high ceilings. Our modern vicarage in Nailsea had a couple of huge spaces in which ordinary furniture got lost. Our conservatory alone had a four seater corner sofa, the biggest of the old counter-cupboards and a dining table that seated twelve, comfortably. There were two further sofas in the lounge. Fate of the older one is pictured.

There is a modicum of truth in the saying that clergy are middle-class people in upper class houses on lower-class salaries.

One of my main sources of joy in an ordinary week is the FT Weekend glossy supplement HTSI. It used to be called How To Spend It which is a big clue as to what it might be like. The first six pages are usually double-page promotionals for watches. No, not Swatches.

It is not devoid of ideas for the cute use of space, something we are working very hard on just now. This week there was a special focus on someone who has chosen to live in an open-plan cave. Not an actual cave but a purpose-built one. The pictures of the accommodation are beautiful and could probably manage well enough without being described as ' organic celebration of the curvilinear.' We learn that open-plan living 'requires a robust approach to one's ablutions'. Yes folks, in this space everyone can hear you stream. Anyone got the number for Private Eye's Pseuds' Corner?

The HTSI subjects have a lot of space.  We don't. So we have spent five weeks carefully monitoring dead space where things might be kept. We need to lose one more pine unit completely and a huge pine dresser which we spent real  money on in 1984. One further shop display case can stay but needs painting to blend in. The last of the four old counter units is going in the garage as useful storage.

Yesterday we threw more money at a bespoke shelving solution (sorry, I've caught pretentiousness now) than we spent on each of our first three cars, even allowing for inflation. Turns out that making things small, compact and beautiful is expensive. And meeting a wonderful local carpenter gave us a couple of ideas for space-saving which we hadn't thought of. Can't quite afford Scooby Doo wardrobe doors but they are enticingly cool. Thanks, James Adcock.

Carrying with us our Arts and Crafts mantra and thus trying to have nothing in our home that isn't useful or beautiful (don't ask how I made the cut) we have entered the world of sofa-beds, integrated kitchen appliances and flat-screen TVs. We do already have some pleasing quiet corners though, with a few more to come.

Minimalism is a bit of a reach from here, see kitchen picture, but the next month sees the premier of Ruthlessness II; this time it's serious.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Constant Deterioration

There is a joke told about a vicar who has just announced he is leaving. 

An older parishioner is talking to him in the coffee queue later. 'We'll never find another one as good as you' she says .

The vicar acknowledges this apparent kindness and suggests there are plenty of fine candidates out there.

'No, no' she says 'I've been here through five vicars and every one's been worse than the previous one.'

I thought of this joke during the budget. 

In 2010 we had a Conservative led coalition which decided on austerity. Showing his working the appalling David Cameron announced that it was always good to fix the roof when the sun is shining. Then he took all the extra money he and his journeyman chancellor collected and put it away to use to fix the roof on some future date when roof-fixing was more expensive. In his metaphor the roof was debt not infrastructure.

Coming to the end of his five years (remember the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?) he then made a reckless promise which he never expected to have to keep because the sound of the boos of the crowd when any member of his team presented Olympic Medals must have still been ringing in his ears. Unexpectedly winning a small majority he was stuck in a corner with the promise of an in/out referendum on EU membership. This led to the first stirrings of Boris, probably not because of his enthusiasm for democracy but the idea of some in/out action. Meanwhile Cameron insisted that the government would act on the result of the referendum.

We are familiar with 2016 and the marginal, probably rigged, referendum which divided the country and even some families. Reminds me of the old joke about a stranger being approached in Belfast during the troubles. 'Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?

'Actually, I'm an atheist.'

'Yes, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic one?

Are you a remainer or a brexiteer?

Neither, we've left. 

Yes, but are you a...? Well it doesn't quite work but it should.

Cameron resigned, because he was a staunch remainer, humming a little hum as he went and the obvious choice for replacement was someone who had campaigned for remain as he had. Theresa May's big idea was to get the country behind her so she held a General Election and lost her slender majority. Nevertheless she got to a point where she had a deal with the EU but her party voted it down. She resigned and Boris Johnson replaced her, immediately going to the EU and negotiating a worse deal than the one just rejected. He took this to the electorate in 2019 and got a majority back for his 'oven-ready' deal which his party then approved. Ian Duncan-Smith told us it didn't need any more scrutiny because every line had been scrutinised over and over again. Never over-estimate the ability of a quiet man. Shortly afterwards Johnson and Co decided it wasn't very good and tried to put it back in the freezer. Sadly no-one has yet invented an uncooker.

Meanwhile the world got Covid 19 and our under-invested (austerity, remember) healthcare providers and government of all the finest minds that thought Brexit was a good idea, were a bit slow to act and a lot cronyist in their contract allocation. During this time Johnson lied again and again to his colleagues, Parliament and even the late Queen. His home became the most-fined address in the UK having broken lockdown regulations.

It took just over two years for the nakedness of the new emperor to become apparent to his colleagues and then there was a bit of a wait for the letters of no-confidence to arrive with the entire cabinet acting like naughty children. Almost everyone had a go at being Education Secretary.

So Johnson was forced out and the single transferable vote system to find a new Conservative leader (yes, even they use it) gave us another Remainer who alleged she had seen the light and said she would be making unpopular decisions but wasn't sufficiently clear that this was because tanking the UK economy is, by and large, unpopular with everyone. As I write our savings are looking precarious, our rivers full of shit, our mortgages unaffordable, our hospitals in meltdown and I really have no idea who is Education Secretary without googling it. Our Home Secretary rejoicing in the idea of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda is not only cruel and unpopular with almost everyone - it seems to have persuaded India to pull out of a trade deal. Our PM failed to be immediately clear that the French were our allies, when asked. I've lost count of how many Tory MPs are currently suspended while sex crimes are being investigated. The Truss weeks (she can't survive months, surely?) feel like we are being used as the toys of someone who fancied playing with a country to see what it was like. Get UK22 for the PS5 and see if you can do better. If you press the 'Blame Brexit' button you have to start again.

This has been the worst twelve years of UK management I have experienced in my life. I think it's going to get worse. I'd love to be wrong.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Introversion and Royalty

Enough has been written about the Late Queen Elizabeth II in the last 48 hours. I was determined not to say anything unless I had something original to add.

I want, for a moment, to ask if we are really getting our empathy right.

Quite a few times I have read the critique of Johnson's Downing Street mob that they partied while the Queen was forced to grieve alone. Now I will stand aside for no-one in the queue to denigrate that ghastly government. It's part two of the sentence I want to get us to think about.

If you google 'Queen's personality type' you find many links to the idea that she was ISTJ:

I = introverted and therefore energised by her inner world

S = relied on the information provided by her senses rather than intuition

T = preferred to think things through rather than work off feelings

J = chose an ordered approach to life rather than a 'let's see what happens'

S, T and J make perfect sense and suggest a good match with her duties.

But in these sorts of profiles the words 'introvert' and 'extrovert' are used in a specialised way. Introverts make great actors. More than half the clergy are introverts. Introverts can do people skills and enjoy it. But they are not energised by it. Energy is recovered alone and in private later with reflection, space, peace and maybe a book as the maximum stimulation.

The opposite is true of extroverts who can sit quietly alone for a while but then recover their energy with company.

Introverts don't like small talk, crowds and parties. Take a moment to reflect on the dutiful service of a monarch who was an I and served for 70 years.

I am not ashamed to admit that as an I myself there was something extremely blessed about Covid 19. No meetings or parties. A daily hour long walk by myself. Time to sit alone and read, think or reflect.

Please feel free to be sad with everyone who has lost a loved one. But please do not assume that being forced to sit alone at a smaller-than-expected funeral was a burden. Being the chief mourner at a funeral is a tough business. You are on caring-for-everyone-else's-grief duty. However much I  hated having to do that job a couple of times it is surely amplified a hundredfold for a dignitary. May I dare to suggest that the pictures of a masked Queen, sitting alone in the choir stalls at Prince Philip's funeral, may be pictures of her doing something the way she would have chosen for perhaps the only time in her life. 


Friday, August 19, 2022

Introversion and School Days

There was a history master at King Edward's School (KES) who took us at A level. He was called Charles Blount. Wore waistcoats. Bit of an upper crust accent. His teaching style was to lecture, with occasional pauses when he would question someone about something he had either covered before or reckoned should be part of the general knowledge of an Edwardian.

He went round the class in turn with his questions. Those of us who tended more to general ignorance than knowledge dreaded the moment our turn came. We could concentrate on little else as the geography of the enquiries reached our vicinity.

My first ever question in this context was 'What is anti-clericalism?' You may sense some deep prophetic undertone in this. You'd be right. Being poor at history but reasonable at vocabulary I took the phrase apart in my head and gave the answer 'A dislike of the clergy'. 'That's right' said Charles. I enjoyed the sense of relief that it would be a lesson or two before my turn came again and, furthermore, I had answered a question on a matter not yet covered. General knowledge demonstrated. Smugness.

Several weeks later, with no recollection of having answered a question correctly in the meantime and having achieved a mark of 5/20 for my first essay, there was a lesson in which the questions were getting nearer. If I was lucky I would be saved by the bell. I was not.

Then came my question. I couldn't believe my ears. 'What is anti-clericalism?' The very same, although this time it was a matter we had covered and I knew a bit more about it than could be achieved by parsing. Nevertheless I gave the same answer as it had worked before. I was shocked to hear 'No, it's more than just a dislike of the clergy, anyone else?'

Although I remained silent at such a brush off my inner monologue was raging. What is the point? Some of us are born to be wrong. I give up. I think I may have resolved that I would lose less face if I answered 'Don't know' to all further questions. Remarkably, history was my best A level and I enjoy reading history now.

There was an English master at KES called Tom Parry. He taught my class English, and history, at O level. Very Welsh. I got good grades in both subjects but he didn't seem to like me. Took every opportunity to belittle me in front of the class and was reluctant to admit I didn't need special measures.

One day he asked us, out of the blue, what we were reading for pleasure. I used to read all the time at home and had always got a novel on the go but the terror of how my personal taste would be received by my friends made my mind go blank. I ended up mentioning a couple of Ian Fleming's James Bond books and was told most people grow out of those in primary school. The Parry plaudits were saved for one who had been reading Dostoevski. KES had that sort of 15 year old.

These stories came back to mind as I read Susan Cain's book 'Quiet Power'. It is a follow-up to her best-selling 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking'.

Whilst not an extreme of the type I am introverted by personality. I didn't know that as a teenager although my parents observed I spent a lot of time alone and Mum thought it was odd. Dad didn't. He often took himself away to a quiet corner for a cigarette and a look at the newspaper.

Introverts find it hard to interact in class, are often listening when they don't look as if they are, and hate being jumped on with questions when they are unprepared. Susan Cain's follow up book is about people such as me, growing up. It is aimed at teenagers but has a chapter for parents and one for teachers too. I was the kid who needed time alone after school, or to visit a local, undemanding friend to play football or cricket in the garden, or a board game in winter. Thanks Steve. School was emotionally draining but I didn't know.

Susan Cain sees introversion as a super-power, thinking as desirable and quiet as normal. But if this quote represents you then, however late it is, you might find her two books helpful:

'Sometimes, by the time we think of the thing we truly want to say, the discussion is already over.'

Nobody is more surprised than me that I ended up with a career which involved much public-speaking. The secret, if it is a secret now I'm telling you, is this. We can do it if we're ready and prepared. I now challenge myself to do some talks unprepared without notes. It's still cheating because it is usually on a subject I've been discussing for over 40 years. Hardly unprepared. But straight after a new piece of input I won't know what I think and won't be able to discuss it. But I will be able to lead a discussion and, whilst listening to this, I will clarify my thoughts.

Fine book.

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.