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.


Monday, May 11, 2020

VE Day Postscript

On June 4th 1940 Churchill gave one of his most famous wartime speeches. And this is the central passage.

'We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.'

I always knew it was a powerful piece of rhetoric. He managed to convey strength of character as he channelled a British strength of character. The emotion flew way ahead of the words. But, although I have heard it many times before, I only worked out recently that he expected to lose.

Mark Forsyth shows us this in his book 'The Elements of Eloquence'. In the chapter on anaphora (starting each phrase or sentence with the same word or words) he quotes this speech. And he shows us that all people remember are the big verbs - fight, defend, never surrender.

And so it is constantly quoted to encourage us to win at things.

Apparently, and my Wikipedia source is not completely certain, he spoke in the lobby after the speech of fighting with the broken ends of beer bottles if necessary. Let's add in a few things the audience were not encouraged to think during the speech:

'We shall go on to the end (our end).
We shall fight in France... (and then when we are driven out of France)
... we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches,... (when they invade)
...we shall fight on the landing grounds,... (when they try to land)
...we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,... (when they win on the beaches and landing grounds)
...we shall fight in the hills;... (when driven out of our streets and fields)
...we shall never surrender.' (we will become a resistance movement)

A following passage exhorted the new world to get organised and come to the rescue of the old world, eventually.

He expected us to lose yet spoke with the energy of a winner. That's the genius of it. It took me a while to see it.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 5

Once again I feel that, despite my best intentions to offer an amusing left-field approach to a pandemic, I need to retire as a satirist due to unfair competition from real life. I've pinched that quote before.

First televangelist Kenneth Copeland (anyone else think the surgeon did him no favours with those eyes?) blew the wind of God at the virus. Then somebody got hold of that audio and remixed it. Not heard it yet? Click here.

Then The Supreme Leader of the United States of America dropped enough hints that drinking bleach would cure COVID 19 to hospitalise 30 stoopid people. Meanwhile the camera panned to his medical adviser in the room and you can actually see, live on TV, the first recorded instance of someone's will to live leaving their body.

So we will content ourselves this week with an analysis of the goings-on in Tilley Mansions. I have explained before that TCMT and I can only work together if we clearly decide who will be in charge of each area of our life and the other person simply obeys. There is a clause 2 to this, which is that TCMT, not finding herself gainfully employed may, at any time of her choosing, decide that she is in charge of anything. Thus this conversation, based around the re-organisation of what I used to call 'my kitchen'. That is not arrogant or anything. For the last twenty five years or so I have been in charge of food production and distribution and all I ask is that TCMT provides me with a decent evening meal once a fortnight to give me a break. It could be argued that none of the rest of this piece is true. In fact it will be. Trust me.

I found her sorting out a cupboard. This never ends well.

Me: Why are the caraway seeds, the poppy seeds and the sesame seeds out on the work surface?
TCMT: They should be in the herb and spice cupboard so I'm moving them.
Me; No they shouldn't, they only get used for bread-making so I keep them in the baking cupboard with the flour and the yeast.
TCMT: That doesn't make sense
Me: (Not dropping to the 'nothing makes sense to you' level) It works for me.
TCMT: When did you last make bread?
Me: A while ago, all the more reason to have the ingredients where I remember when I get back to it.
TCMT: (Deadly silence and death look)
Me: If I put them in the door of the spice cupboard will that be OK?

I know I give in too easily but the sex is good and I enjoy that fortnightly meal.

I gained what I laughingly call my revenge when I gently enquired if she had seen the piece of paper I keep in the drawer by the tele with a list of where we've got to in various box sets and TV series. She segued from no (how dare you accuse me), through maybe (I wonder if that was what I wrote on during the quiz0 to 'Here it is' having found it in her study paper-recycling box. We pause for a moment to wonder why several other bins and recycling opportunities were passed on the journey to her study, but only a moment as whys and wherefores do not live near here. Anyway, I got my list back and also one of the discarded biros which 'doesn't work'. It works.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the re-organised baking cupboard (three shelves) has annexed the jam and pickles cupboard and has its eyes on the pasta/rice shelf. Also, my big pasta pan has gone, replaced by a slow cooker we haven't used yet.

TCMT: 'It's in the garage, do you want it?'
Me: No, but I wanted to know where it had gone.
TCMT: Why?
Me: It saves anguish when you eventually need it.
TCMT: (Deadly silence and another look, one I have never really pinned down)

I wouldn't be so brash as to suggest this is an insight into my failure to understand women. I am trying to understand one woman, a task now occupying a fifth decade.

In a couple of hours we may have another conversation:

TCMT: Your writing about the kitchen tidying isn't fair.
Me: Then write your own version. You'll have to learn to use some other keys apart from exclamation marks.
TCMT: Stop trying to change my style.
Me: (Deadly silence and desperate attempt not to look smug, which fails)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 4

One of the questions I have taken with me through my career in ministry is this, 'What would happen if we did nothing?' So many issues are presented to the clergy as needing an urgent decision. It is good if you have the ability to spot those cases where doing nothing is an option. I call it specific and strategic indecision. Not laziness. Oh no. A very specific choice of the 'no action required' option. We all like to feel that problems come to us because we are recognised as someone who can solve them. It is humility, not hand-washing, that chooses not to choose. Not everything gets worse if you leave it alone. You'd be amazed how many things fix themselves.

There is a classic story in this genre here. It's the Mystery of the Great Ayton Dinner Plates.

I have one pastoral issue which I have been leaving alone for nearly two years now and, to quote a former colleague, 'While there's death there's hope.' There is a real possibility that this problem will go away. People of Trendlewood Church reading this - it's not any of you.

Now why did I start with that? Because I feel the whole of the current state of ministry in lock-down is grappling with 'What should I do today?' And I am tempted to answer 'What would happen if I did nothing?' It would be interesting, although I have currently stopped short of this, to do nothing and see what ends up being demanded of me.

We spend a lot of our lives answering the question 'Who are you?' It is tempting to reply with a description of what we do. Knee-jerk activism. I went through a period of answering with 'carbon-based life-form living on the third planet from a sun'. Mainly it pissed people off.

Friend of mine took a sabbatical. Told me he was going to concentrate on being rather then doing. Then he listed all the things he was going to do in order to be a better being.

I quite like being. I have a things-to-do list because I have a job and a mind that is usually occupied on some much deeper project than that which I am supposed to be doing. And, as a great administrator I once worked with said 'What's the point of having to remember something if you've got a things-to-do list'? Quite. But these last few weeks have seen me being more of a human being than a human doing and I like a lot of that.

So, how we all being? As I look around the neighbourhood, cars are cleaner, lawns are tidier, streets are quieter, the skies are empty. We've done loads. Meanwhile death and disaster may or may not have an appointment.

There is an old zen story. It goes like this:

A man was being chased towards the edge of a cliff by a wild animal. He fell and grabbed a vine which took his weight. As he dangled two mice, one white and one black, came out of holes in the rock and began to nibble the vine through. Reaching over he saw a wild strawberry plant, in fruit. He picked one and ate. How sweet it tasted.

So my friends. How are the strawberries?



Billy Franks - an Appreciation

Whilst it seems disgracefully tardy to write an obituary four years after someone's death this will be as much about me as about the deceased. Also, which is a tough thing to admit about someone I admired so much, I didn't know Billy had died until last week.

Back to the beginning of the reason for writing this, then back to the beginning of the story.

On Easter Day, often a day when I get out of bed and step onto a conveyor belt of ministry delivery, I was in lock-down. The coronavirus COVID19 had caused the country to isolate its citizens and ban public meetings, including church services. I had put all necessary services online the previous day and I had nothing to do. From somewhere this quote arrived:

'What I would give
For what it could be
Touching or touched by
A far more tender glory'

As quotes do it resonated with me more than any words I could conjure myself. Taken from the Faith Brothers song 'That's just the way that it is with me' the lyrics reveal a person comfortable in their own presence:

'How in sweet solitude I listen to my soul singing...'

The song is on their 1987 second album 'A Human Sound'.

I put it on Facebook, adding Billy Frank's name. Later that morning, but still early, a clergy friend asked if she could use the quote in a sermon and might I attribute it, which I did.

So that whole process got me reminiscing a bit and I listened to some Faith Brothers music on my morning walk. What a joy it was. Returning home I realised that I had never utilised the full force of Google on the Faith Brothers. So I did. And discovered that Billy had been dead, since 2016. His death disappeared in a year that claimed so many big names. I also discovered his solo work, previously missed by me in Q reviews, newspaper reviews, radio airplays or simply gossip. And I also began to feel that Billy had sound-tracked my ministry from the sidelines. I have many little memories of the last thirty five years attached to Faith Brothers songs.

Right. Back to the beginning of the beginning, which is Nottingham, Rock City October 21st 1985 and, ordained a year, myself and a mate, curate in the next door parish, have a night off to see REM. Two supports are described on Wikipedia for that night but either Pleasure Device were completely forgettable or we arrived too late. But we did see the Faith Brothers.

I don't think I'm reading too much back into the story; I wouldn't have gone out and bought their first album if I wasn't impressed. So my memory is of a crisp sound, a very small drum kit making a remarkable noise, a tight band and, unusually in 1980s rock, a brass section of trumpet and sax. Also the songs. The songs. Short. Crafted. Some enigmatic aspects to the lyrics I could discern. Whether I discerned or not they started that tour with Eventide, the first track on their first album of the same name. It is a quiet, acoustic ballad on the album; a joyful and gloriously uptempo song live:

'History handed down like big brother's clothes
Madmen and giant's cast-offs
Stretched and frayed or tailor-made?'

There is a gig from BBC In Concert 1985 on Spotify which gives a flavour of what I would have experienced that night.

REM were great later, but that support band. I needed to know more. And the only way to have done that, I conclude, would have been to go to a big record shop and browse. So that I must have done.

At home I played that record a lot and also bought A Human Sound, their second album, which came out in 1987. It included a critique of traditional church:

'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)

In a period where Conservative politics had no real opposition Billy didn't so much shout from the left as stick up for the voiceless whoever they were.

I inflicted both those two albums on a church youth group around that time and, when I found out that the band were supporting Julian Cope at Rock City, took one of them with me to see them. Remember when that was not thought to be a stupid thing to do? Anyway that young member is now the Archbishop's advisor on Evangelism so hey.

Back at Rock City the Faith Brothers gave me one of those rare occasions where the support blew away the headline. One of only two gigs where the support act has got an encore. The other, should you care, was when I saw Genesis supporting Caravan in 1972.

And now we have an intermission. No more albums but I played those two regularly. In the days when you had to record your albums onto tape to play them in the car I had A Human Sound on one side of a C90 and a metal band called FM on the other. Junior Tilley, borrowing the tape aged about 8, managed to press 'record' in the middle of the album when listening to it in his bedroom and never owned up until we all heard the evidence on a long car journey.

In the late 1980s I read Mark Ashton's' Christian Youth Work' a seminal book at the time. I wrote in the margin, next to a section where he had been lamenting the lack of protest songs (recalling the days of Bob Dylan and his own youth) and I noted that the Faith Brothers did so. There was no lack of protest songs; they simply didn't get played.

The albums survived a move to the north-east from Nottingham and came back to Leamington Spa, still played regularly enough, but on arrival in Nailsea the record deck broke and we didn't replace it until my darling family bought me a new one for a significant birthday. So I probably went six or seven years without. But of course, by 2012 there was Spotify and so the vinyl could be kept but spared. There's something about holding a vinyl sleeve in your hands though. It means something.

Somewhere in the midst of this a popular author I enjoy, Christopher Brookmyre dedicated a new novel to Billy Franks. Since Brookmyre is a bit lefty in his politics it had to be my hero. I love those moments when one of your heroes declares another of your heroes their hero too.

And so to last Easter Sunday, when I Googled and Spotified Billy Franks and found he had died. RIP someone I feel close to and would have loved to have been friends with. Your words will keep me thinking about you until the day I die too.

I listened to your songs again and anew and for a moment the tears gushed. You once said 'Love is a welcome pain'. Trying to translate I hear the tales of a Catholic boy:

'As I refuse to choose between solid and heavenly thrones .. why should I go to mass?'
(Mass)

(Was there more to that Faith Brothers name then I imagined?)

...an introvert, a wordsmith, possibly a sufferer of early bereavement, coming to terms with his own personality, perhaps resigning himself to a lack of recognition which many of us felt he deserved. And everyone very quiet about the cause of his sudden death.

On YouTube is a documentary film about Billy's friends trying to persuade famous artists to record a tribute to an unknown songwriter. The film cuts back, again and again, to Billy speaking between songs at an intimate pub gig. Towards the end he confesses that we are listening to a man whose dreams didn't work out. The film is called Tribute This. One of the Executive producers is Chris Brookmyre.

But my current treat is the discovery of several solo albums and an extra live show on Spotify. I haven't listened to them all yet. Truth be told I can't bear the thought of having finished Billy's back catalogue.

My tears are for a life taken early, a world trapped in lock-down and the vaguest hint of a feeling that my dreams didn't all work out either. I'm seeking an inner willingness to own that and be all right with it.

'The true are free, the corrupt are lonely
That's my belief
Left to scavenge for scraps of beauty in this junkyard'
(Whistling in the Dark)

Yeah. Me too. Thanks Billy Franks and the Faith Brothers. I'll keep you close. He wrote a book. I've ordered it.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Ten Influential Albums

I have just finished one of those Facebook challenges. This one involved posting pictures of the covers of ten albums, one a day, that have influenced my taste in music. It was a tough ask. One of the rules was not to explain, so they stand alone on Facebook, but I thought there night be some fun in showing my working. This particularly because some of my favourite albums ever are not there.

No space for my first love Ten Years After. No Genesis album. No punk. Talking Heads didn't make the cut. No jazz. Burial missing. No Zappa. Strewth, No Zappa. How that happen? Only a vague hint at the 1970s and a nod at electro-pop from the early 80s. Can't believe there's no Tears for Fears. Four of my favourite albums of all time aren't there. No Sunshine. No Butts Band. No Ace. No Dan Reed Network. I forgot John Martyn. No way. And all very local. I must disappoint you, world music.

And, truth be told, the list might have been very different on another day. Not sitting in depressed lock-down in a plague-world drifting gently into mental illness I might have been pressing different buttons on the juke-box.

I think my choices represent that we don't learn in a smooth curve but our lives have some eureka moments. The 1990s were highly influential for me, possibly because, after losing my way a bit, fine music began seeping under my sons' bedroom doors and I found myself asking 'What's that?' Thanks Ben for Zero 7, Roots Manuva and Iron and Wine. Thanks Jon for the many long car journeys to Aberystwyth and back where, strangely, taking it in turns to control the CD player, you introduced me to some great music from the 70s I had missed and I played you new stuff. And both of you for your own music. Umarga and Black Maple have me in proud Dad mode. They made me try a bit harder.

Also because from 1992-2002 I had a national job with many long hours on the road and John Peel, then Mark Radcliffe introduced me to a range of stuff I would never have heard otherwise. Step forward Dusted, Witness, Faithless, Lexis and the 22/20s.

More recent discoveries, good as Jaga Jazzist, Jazz Liberatorz, Bonobo, Fourtet, Foals, Ghostpoet, Undergrunnen and The Vryll Society are, might have to hang around a little longer before they can be deemed influential. Face it, there are few new genres; most good music is assembled from bits of other music these days. Noel Gallagher, I'm looking at you as the genius of flatpack pop. I'm waiting for the next bombshell. And, of course, (metaphor remix warning) eventually a bombshell will come along that fails to blow my mind.

So to my choices:


Traffic
The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys
1971
Set the scenes for my enjoyment of the extended instrumental section. Steve Winwood's piano style I have spent 50 years trying to emulate. Recently someone, who didn't know this, told me that I had succeeded. I have never been so happy.


Faith Brothers
Eventide
1985
Simple song-writing and enigmatically poignant lyrics with a bit of political protest chucked in. And brass. I like brass, done this well.


Talk Talk
Spirit of Eden
1988
This is why there is no jazz and no electro-pop in my choice. Because in one staggeringly inventive album Mark Hollis (RIP) and his gang sweep up all influences from the previous and next 20 years. And I prefer minors to majors. Always will.


Massive Attack
Blue Lines
1991
Heard Safe from Harm and knew this was different. This was not the usual Radio 1 beat. I now know I like trippy stuff. Maybe I should have done some drugs in my teens. Then again, this was worth waiting for.


Definition of Sound
Love and Life: A Journey with the Chameleons
1991
The album that made me realise that people talking instead of singing wasn't cheating. The moment the penny dropped.


Roni Size Reprasent
New Forms
1997
Up until that point, to re-imagine a joke from the Blues Brothers, my observation about my older son's DJ career was that he offered both sorts of music - drum and bass. Then I heard this and further pennies tumbled.


Alabama 3
Exile on Coldharbour Lane
1997
Can't for the life of me recall how I found this album. Woke up this Morning didn't become the theme tune to The Sopranos for a few more years. I didn't see them on Later with Jools Holland until La Peste (second album). But influential because I like electro, I like country and I like blues but I didn't know you could get all three in one packet. There's at least eight of them and they're not from Alabama. RIP D Wayne Loved your work.


Radiohead
OK Computer
1997
I had The Bends. The reviews captured me. It was the moments of Thom Yorke's soulful wailing that were best though. Street Spirit (Fade Out) is a remarkable piece of work. Then they did Jools and performed Paranoid Android. They linked prog rock to soul. Not my favourite track but influential in that this band, ever since, have moved on album by album in imagination, reach, competence and vision. The long-lived rock band that keeps learning together. So rare.


Hayes and Cahill
The Lonesome Touch
1997
Another Later moment. I loved that Jools got us to listen to things we might not otherwise hear. This woke me up to the distinctions and rules of jigs and reels. Now I like this sort of thing. Fifteen years after this they played Holy Trinity Church, Nailsea hosted by Nailsea Folk Club. I met them. Delightful guys.


Everything but the Girl
Temperamental
1999
Me and TCMT have little cross-over musical taste these days. I fear she tolerates my loves more than enjoys them. She has told me that if she is ever in the house when a Battles album is playing she will leave me. This band is a genuine shared love and taught us both that great songs can be remixed and reconceived many times to deliver more, not less, enjoyment.

I hope that helps. I have illustrated he ones that nearly made it.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Thought for the Day

As delivered to the BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast with Emma show just now, live from my conservatory:

There was a film on social media recently of two stags fighting. Locked antlers and a clear focus on outmuscling each other. Doe-eyed only.

What we could see, which the two stags could not, was the rapidly approaching predator - a big cat. Too late the stags separated and ran. Too late for one of them. Survival of the fittest at its reddest and bloodiest.

With notable exceptions around the world nations have put aside their differences for a while to concentrate on a common enemy. As the film Gladiator so memorably put it, 'Whatever comes through that door, we're going to do better if we face it together.'

So, in a spirit of facing it together, we hear of the fine community mindedness of people offering their time and business skills for medical equipment manufacture. We hear of volunteers, of neighbourliness, of a willingness to embrace the new arrangements of social distancing. And an outbreak of online creativity to keep us distracted the while.

I've enjoyed people showing off their new skills from tik-tok to topiary, binging on box-sets, genning up on general knowledge.

Have we forgotten our petty disputes and little local difficulties (beat) for ever?

Probably not. I'm a realist. St Peter wrote about trials as things that test us for a little while. He didn't trust God to get him out of them. He trusted God to bring the community through them, stronger and more together.

My hardship? To stay in.

What did you do during the war daddy? I did my pilates class on the landing son. Now, where did I put that jigsaw?

As St Peter put it, grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Updating my CV - Week 3

So, week three of the lock-down and we begin to see things as they really are. Most people are nice. Some are not. Some are hypocrites and, as Marina Hyde so wisely put it in The Guardian, all of this is the fault of elite footballers. A thousand people a day dying is not because of government incompetence but because Raheem Sterling earns too much. You knew that.

The key thing to remember through all this is that it is not wrong to be a hyprocrite. It is wrong to get caught. Nobody apologises for telling us not to visit our second homes in any circumstances and then visiting their own second home. No-one apologises for visiting their mother on Mothering Sunday even if they've just told the whole country not to do that and then  done it themselves. And no-one phones the BBC and says 'I had a couple of sex workers round last night please forgive me' during a lock down. They apologise after they have been outed. The hypocrisy is not being sorry until you're caught.

Since my own loved ones and I are not currently ill my main sacrifice is to stay at home in a nice house. I'm reading more. I'm playing my piano more. I'm curating, rather than leading, worship. It is the week I left the Tim Vine Joke Appreciation Group on Facebook because so few of the members had the first clue how a Tim Vine joke works. Or they posted unoriginal ones without credit.

A few years ago I had a column in a church newspaper. It was meant to be vaguely amusing and the Editor praised my light touch until he sacked me and gave the gig to Catherine Fox. Whilst I was writing it someone I worked with came up to me and told me the 'joke' about Bill Stickers being prosecuted. He genuinely thought I should write about it. It helped me realise how the humourless worked. Many of them are Tim Vine fans. They think it's easy. (Once saw Milton Jones demolish a heckler with 'It's not as easy as it looks is it?') The same sort of people write 'poems' for family funerals. Ones that don't rhyme, scan or use English as I understand it. Reading them out appropriately is one of the hardest things I ever have to do. I only ever got the giggles once at a funeral, when I pushed the button to cremate Grace Burns, but eulogistic poetry has led to some close calls.

Life. Not as easy as it looks. Death also.

The while this week, TCMT is volunteering at the food-bank. You guessed it. There was a store-room in town that needed procedures and merchandising and she won't rest until the whole world is done. Really. If you ever shop with her you may experience her tidying up someone's else till area whilst waiting to be served. If you do it with confidence nobody questions you. It does get her out of the house three mornings a week which just about provides me with sanity space, and there is a fringe benefit. Things are dropped in to the food-bank that have use-by dates or are not wanted. We have picked up two huge tins of choppd toms (2.5k each) and a decent supply of duck eggs.  I know. Nailsea eh?

Yesterday morning's exercise walk took longer than usual because of the number of distance-respecting pastoral conversations we got involved in. During the week I use headphones, get up a bit of pace and keep my head down. If I was allowed two walks a day I'd do a pastoral one and a hamstring-stretching one. Just before lock-down I was on a therapy programme at the gym for a tweaked hammy. Never done one before so I have no experience at recuperation. After a week's holiday with plenty of walking I went back to the gym and set the treadmill to my usual warm-up jog. In my week away the machine had been recalibrated to MPH not KPH and I started off far too fast. Twang.

So it's gentle ambling with an occasional jog again. But no stopping. Back at home the landing has become the place for exercise. TCMT does her yoga and pilates classes online there and I'm joining up with some online gym stuff this week too.

What did you do during the war Dad?

I stretched on the landing son; government orders.

I've been compiling a list of people who are having a good lock-down. The two members of the family involved in music production and distribution are working hard from home, sales up. I have to wait ten days for my new jigsaw orders (there's no end to my personal hardship) - sales are up. And my friend who has a medical supplies business, despite being generous to all, has seen 20% year-on-year growth. It's pretty clear that the technology businesses behind Zoom!, Houseparty and the like are doing OK. Why did my fellow Area Deans and I ever drive 45 minutes each way to meet at Saltford? In fact why did face-to-face meetings ever happen? Sometimes you need to see someone's expression clearly when you ask them a question, I guess. Sometimes.

Today is Easter Bank Holiday Monday. Normally the post-Easter day for going wibble. Ain't no wibbling happening here though. Just gentle waiting.

Hope you're all well.