Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

I wrote this poem last year in the pre-Christmas rush:

Christmas turns up about now
Screams to a halt - tyre rubber in the road
Look at me

Advent walked here, carefully holding a candle

Christmas bares its soul about now
Make me happy with food, fragrance and fashion
Buy me

Advent cradles its light from the breeze

Christmas accessorises everything about now
You need two of those, extra glitter and ribbons
Box me

Advent speaks of a truth beyond packaging

Operating with a sense of other-worldliness can be hard. Monday and Tuesday's Thought for the Day contributors spoke of Advent as a period of reflection, waiting, hoping. Advent asks us to wait gently while the world sits outside in its car, beeping its horn. Come on.

Does a carnival anticipate a heavenly party? Do Christmas lights speak of the one who is the light of the world? Do ambulances remind us of our humanity but that one day every tear will be wiped from our eye? Do medals for bravery emphasise the otherness of this world where there is evil but goodness can, and will, overcome it? Well, (beat) they might.

St Paul spoke of this world as seeing through a glass darkly - looking forward to seeing face to face.

The great seers and sages of the Christian past described special sites in our world as 'thin places' where God can be glimpsed more easily.

In one of his novels Philip Pullman spoke of the spirit world being accessed by a subtle knife - if you could find the right place you could cut your way though.

I hope you see God through the gaps in the rush and find yourselves in some thin places today. Peace.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Design by the Devil

Friend of mine was fond of posing this question, when running a training event for children's leaders in an old church building. How, do you think, would the devil have gone about designing a building for worship and ministry?

He would then suggest that perhaps the seating would have been made rigid and uncomfortable, the heating unreliable and the leader of any event put as far as possible from those engaging with it, maybe even up a flight of steps. If enough separation of leader and led was not established he posited a screen being built between the two to further cut down visibility. I think people got the point.

I revisited this question in a traffic queue recently as I wondered if the very Devil himself had been involved in the Southmead Hospital car-park.

Arriving, an hour or so earlier for a routine visit late afternoon, I had been unable to park not because of a lack of spaces but because the queue to leave prevented anyone from getting in.

On arrival I checked the payment system and saw the costs. I also checked that change was given. I established that I needed to use a payment system at a pay station before trying to exit.

I did my visit.

I got back to the pay station. On the walk stress point 1 reared. Reports had bothered me that 500 yard queues had built up recently because two of the three pay stations had been out of order. There was no queue but then I hit stress point 2. I had to enter my vehicle registration number at the pay station. I don't always recall my current reg although FWK 616L and UOF 247S are etched in my memory, my first two cars. Luckily an appalling obscenity is a good mnemonic for my current registration.

After paying, a message said I was free to leave and had over an hour to do it in. I was issued with no token or ticket.

I drove out, trying to leave appropriate gaps for vehicles entering the car park to get in but (stress point 3) impatient people then overtook me and blocked the gaps.

As the queue reached the exit I saw the cars stopping at a barrier. There was a machine next to it which some people touched and others didn't. Stress point 4 - had I failed to memorise a code or pick up a token?

Getting nearer I found that the machine was simply a 'call' button and that cars seemed to have to wait a while (15 secs) for the barrier to raise. I had to (stress point 5) put my faith in automatic registration plate recognition software. I also (stress point 6) had to be sure I had entered my registration number in the machine correctly. I was sure I had but in the queue the doubts built up. Was there a precise place to stop to make this easier? Who knows. The barrier rose after a brief wait.

Bearing in mind that people trying to leave this car-park are either already stressed because they have been ill and are going home, maybe still uncomfortable, or have been visiting a sick relative and are sad, might I humbly ask if hospital car-park design might be made as easy as possible for those who are in a bad way already.

I have heard of one visitor, catching up with a husband who has just had a serious illness diagnosed, having a complete meltdown and leaving a car on the grass and having to be helped by security and treated by nursing staff. Automated car-parks may well be a false economy. People in trouble want to see people who can help.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Get it in Writing

In my days of having a proper job, as a claims clerk in the insurance industry, we were encouraged all the time to get things confirmed in writing and to confirm any offers we made in writing. Writing was important. Although verbal contracts do exist and are legal, they are easily backed away from and it becomes one word against another in the absence of witnesses. Getting it in writing provided firmer evidence of a deal done.

We offer you £250 in full and final settlement of all claims for personal injury arising out of this accident. This offer is made without any admission of negligence on the part of our client. Please indicate your acceptance in writing and we will send you a cheque.

See. I can still recite it today. Sums of money have advanced a bit and cheques are antiquated but the principle remains.

In those early days as a house-owner I was introduced to the shady area of cash transactions.

Me: How much to fix the front gutter?
Builder: £90 should cover it.
Me: Can I have a written quote?
Builder: Ah. Then it will be plus VAT.

It is strange how our relationship with writing has changed. Because social media is writing or, at least, typing. A comment we might have made tongue-in-cheek, or in an offhand way down the pub is suddenly in writing. Or is it? Is that how people see it.

A few years back an irritated traveller tweeted, after appalling delays at Nottingham Airport, that he was off to blow it up. He was arrested and it took a while for a wise judge (on appeal, I recall) to see that he had been joking.

I really don't think that a lot of people see their social media outbursts as 'in writing'. Just as a young family member once told me that someone wasn't a friend but a Facebook friend (clearly having a difference in their head between the two types), I think that there needs to be a new word for posting, tweeting and updating that stops short of this being something that is being clarified 'in writing'.

You only have to look at the long string of appalling and abusive comments on certain celebrity posts to see that people seem genuinely not to have noticed that the person the subject of their opprobrium is actually listening/reading. I follow Gary Lineker on Twitter. He seems an interested and interesting character. He is not especially rude or crude and does not restrict his comments to the world of sport. People respond shamefully. By and large he reacts modestly. This exchange of views/insults reads like a conversation, albeit one with the drunk in the pub or the nutter on the bus.

And the trouble with writing is that it is not open to discussion who said what to whom. The evidence is there. This doesn't seem to dissuade the trumps of this world from saying 'I never said that'.

A few years ago I carried around a quote from Anita Roddick (her of the Bodyshop business). She said that ideas have wings. As soon as you pin them down they fail to fly. So she operated an ideas culture that didn't pin things down to paper plans too soon. Better paper planes in the air. Keep talking.

I like being part of a church where we all talk about everything all the time. Nobody is too insignificant to contribute to vision or strategy. All views can be shared and we are slow to minute them. We try to have as few secrets as possible. In this context a social media discussion has no more weight than a chat over coffee. And no less either.

That will be £50 please. For cash.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thought for the Day

Serious thought today. As delivered this morning at BBC Radio Bristol.

I know I often wander around the lighter side of the Thought for the Day room. But not today. Not today.

I was very moved by the Shrouds of the Somme installation on College Green when I visited it last weekend. It ends today.

Rob Heard's creation represents the 19,240 men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The first day.

I find it stops me in my tracks when I make a comparison. I think of the town where I live, Nailsea. The population is a little less than that. But imagining every single person in Nailsea falling victim to a sudden death. A whole town wiped off the map. That's the equivalent of what happened.

Everyone who died was somebody's friend, father, son, husband...

Both my grandfathers were the right age to be one of those people. They served elsewhere and survived. So I'm here.

Each hand-stitched shroud on College Green offers dignity to someone who died suddenly, violently, indiscriminately and probably without a chance to fight back. It is somehow restorative.

In one of his shorter works the poet Steve Turner wrote:

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens. 

I will be taking a funeral a little later this morning. And I will remind everyone of another, older poem a soldier wrote about his God:

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

So why not find a response. Say a prayer. Throw a coin in a Children in Need bucket. Keep your own moment of silence.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Statistics and Cathedral Worship

As regular readers (hi Mum) know, I am a great consumer of statistics. I am no expert but one thing that bugs me above all else is when conclusions are drawn from numbers which are simply opinion.

So now the church attendance figures recently released for 2015 (we're getting faster at this, believe it or not) show that attendance at cathedral worship is up compared with many other places where a downwards trend is observed.

And immediately one or two lazy commentators suggest that this proves that modern forms of worship are failing and we should all get back in the cloisters.

It does no such thing. In fact what we see on the ground is a number of very small evening congregations being wound up due to a shortage of organists, choir-masters, choir and indeed congregation. I should just have said 'everything' but I'm a sucker for merism ladies and gentlemen.

As they wind up, some people choose to worship at other times and other places; a number simply drift away, but a few, who were mainly attracted by choral evensong, find their way to the nearest cathedral. Up go the numbers.

It should be our expectation that as things get rarer the finest expressions of them survive the longest and attract the most attention. No conclusions beyond that can be drawn.

Reading Retreat


Many of you know that, for me, a retreat to get stuck into reading is the best way for me to keep fresh. I like lectures and conferences but probably learn more with my head in a book than any other way. It also explains why I occasionally mispronounce words I have only read, never heard, and attempt to use.

I am back from a few days away. I finished four books this retreat and made a start on a few others.

Rowan Williams - Being Disciples
Rowan Williams is a poet and a wordsmith. He is also aware that nuancing words is all we got, although he wouldn't have put it that way. Nuancing gave us the Good Friday agreement.

This is a short book that demands slow reading. It contains treasure. As Williams says in chapter five, on Faith in Society:

Churches and other faith groups might be called trustees or custodians of the long-term questions, because they own a vision of human nature that does not depend on political fashions and majorities.

He gives me a quiet confidence in my own inadequacy.


Carlo Rovelli - Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
I didn't pay attention in science at school. I wish I had but was never gripped. Maybe if this had been the first set book things would have turned out differently, in physics at least. Writing in English English rather than scientific English (in translation from Italian Italian I suppose) Rovelli covers relativity, quantum, cosmology, particles, loop quantum gravity (I know), time and in a beautiful final chapter, ourselves.

It is short, graspable for a non-scientist and very, very readable.


A.C.Grayling - The God Argument
I persist in consuming the output of those we might call 'the new atheists'. For it is the readers of books such as this with whom Christians will have to reason in the market place.

The difficulty for me is always that the 'religion' Grayling shoots at is often one I would also see as the target. I do not think he can imagine a Christian who does not take the Bible literally, or one who believes that morality is a human struggle and the answer is not usually beamed down from above. Even if it is we still have to engage with others in terms that allow for the incredulity that such might happen. He believes that morality, for the religious, comes only from a transcendent source such as divine command and does not arise from reflection on human realities and relationships. He's wrong.

For me, life as a Christian is life lived immersed in a different set of stories. There are not proof-texts but there are those who have gone before. There are not certainties but faith, hope and waiting. There is not separation from the way the world does its thinking; Christian and non-Christian minds are wired the same way.

But there is a man, on a cross, in the middle of human history, who points in a different direction to selfishness, pragmatism and finding someone to blame for all the trouble.


David Byrne - How Music Works
This book starts with the note that orchestras got bigger to compensate for the problem of string quartets not being heard in venues where everyone persisted in talking. It ends with the reminder that a 1969 UNESCO resolution confirms a person's right to silence,

In between music, and the industry attached to it, is dismantled before our eyes in order to be explained. The value of music to society is seen in co-operation. You can't fight if you're in time. Quoting William McNeil he says:

We don't dance because we're human as much as we are human because we dance.

Almost spiritual.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

This Week's News

I learned quite shortly after Brexit that trying to offer an analysis of several competing and complex voting intention strands was hopeless. In fact since then I have been annoyed a lot when people, usually Conservative politicians or Nigel Farage, have said 'What people voted for on 23rd June was...' because they then complete the sentence in any damn way they want:


  • Restored sovereignty
  • Take back control
  • Money for NHS
  • Immigration controls


When in fact people simply answered one question on one ballot and we cannot easily mine into their motives. Rod Liddle's, 'Something is wrong; this is how we tell them' was as close as any guess I saw and had the advantage of brevity.

So, reflecting on having been Trumped, may I draw attention to three articles which I think have the truth surrounded without any of them containing all of it:

1. Aaron Sorkin's letter to his daughter, published in Vanity Fair for an emotional take.

2. Michael Moore's analysis of why Trump won. He wrote it before the election, which is cool.

3. Paul Mason's observations of why and how politics is changing and what us lot (people such as me) should do.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Ribble Valley

We found ourselves in the very beautiful Ribble Valley. Sorry, that sounded like an accident. We meant to go there. It is a part of the country we don't know very well.

In the past we've done North Yorkshire Moors, Teesdale, Weardale, Lake District, Lancashire coast and many major northern towns and cities. It feels like we have got this part of the world surrounded without ever having entered. I did do a few training events at Whalley (pronounced Warley) over the years but never explored.

We were just down the road from Clitheroe. The Aspinall Arms at Great Mitton became a firm favourite. The Tolkien walk around the rivers Calder, Hodder and Ribble, passing Stonyhurst College, was excellent. Allegedly JRR worked on the Rings Trilogy here and named/described some places he knew locally. We got to know Booths supermarket. Their bags were the product of an excellent slogan-writer's mind - Cumbria not Umbria; Wuthering Bites.

Further afield we visited to the north of Morecambe Bay - Arnside and Silverdale - from where I took the panorama photo here.

Lovely autumn colours and not too cold yet. Great break.

Monday, October 31, 2016

What time is it?

No strangers to post-hour-change confusion, at least in the biorhythm department, today took things to new heights.

I was looking forward to a day off, brought forward from later in the week when a conference is taking place.

In the early hours of morning the alarm went off and Mrs T crept out of bed. I realised that I would not get back to sleep (I am usually stirred by her creeping) without a jimmy and therefore popped next door, semi-comatose.

Returning to my bed I found it occupied. 'I'm still here' said the occupant, sounding very much like Mrs T. Instead of dropping back to sleep I had to concentrate on the explanation - that the clock showed 4.55 and the alarm, set for 5.55 had gone off an hour early. I asked helpful clarifying questions (well I thought so) and Mrs T waited for me to hit snooze again and then left the room to get her mobile, no longer trusting the bedside alarm. I stirred as the light from the other room flooded through the open door and again when she returned to bed.

I snoozed once more and seconds later was awoken by the bedside alarm sounding at the correct time followed shortly by the phone alarm.

I think I may have slept again from 6.00 - 7.15 when coffee was produced for me. By then I had given up and started on the recycling (Monday job).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Annual Battle

Good afternoon and welcome to the finale of this year's programme of Vynes Glebe one-on-ones. I'm Pru Nowt. We reach autumn and the annual battle between Steve the Clip and his garden pyracantha bush. Last year the plant won easily but our hero goes into battle this year with new ideas. Over to our commentator Angsty Gardner. Angsty:

Yeah thanks Pru. We hear Steve has got himself some extra gloves, is being sensible enough to wear long-sleeved clothing this year and, get this, has two saws and a set of working secateurs. But his usual stumbling block is the desire to get things over with quickly. This is often his downfall. He needs to work slowly and steadily.

And he's off and a few good clips to the outside middle making himself space to work in and up. Good start.

Now he's got the ladder and he's taking the outside branches off. He seems to be learning. 2-0. But wait, what's this? There are two branches just out of reach. He repositions the ladder but still he can't get them. He leans in at the top if the ladder - asking for trouble and - yes, as I expected a full puncture wound to the lower abdomen. 2-1.

Still, he took the last branches out. 3-1. Now all he has to do is cut them down to size and put them in his green bags. Going well. Nearly there.

It's the last minute and this is indeed injury time. He grips one of the last pieces between his knees and impales the inside of both his legs simultaneously. 3-3. Can he hang on for a draw?

And as he takes off his gloves and rolls up his sleeves he finds another set of wounds he doesn't even recall getting. That's dramatic. That's final and that's painful. He throws the gloves to the floor in frustration.

4-3 to the bush. This is Angsty Gardner handing you back to the studio.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning on the back of a story that a Bristol Charity (ARA), which deals with gambling addiction, has seen an 80%  increase in the number of people it is helping.

The word 'addicted' has had a bad press. Google the words 'addicted to...' and you get links to sex, drugs, alcohol and gambling. But also iphones, doctor visits and hoarding. And the Robert Palmer song Addicted to Love which, it turns out, isn't about love at all.

But whether trying to get to the next level at Candy Crush Saga, or to see every televised goal scored last weekend, I note the pitfalls for those of us with easily-addicted personalities. We should keep back from the one-armed bandits.

I observe, with some dismay, the adverts on TV for easily-accessed online gambling sites. Not because it isn't a harmless pleasure. For some it is. I have put a few coins aside for a game of cards with friends from time to time. But because those who have a tendency to addictive behaviour may not notice until it is too late.

Some professional footballers have spoken of how hard it was for young men with money and long periods of boredom to avoid the lure of a bet. With disastrous consequences for family and finances.

I'll take a liberty with my Bible by changing a word. The believers were addicted to the apostles teaching. They were addicted to the fellowship. They were addicted to the breaking of bread. They were addicted to prayer. They were addicted to helping the poor.

Sound odd? That is because the word should be 'devoted' not 'addicted'. But advice lines and web-sites suggest that those with gambling devotion need to distract themselves with another activity. I welcome the availability of charities to help.

An addiction or devotion to Jesus certainly can give you a glad and sincere heart. We might as well face it. He was, and is, addicted to love.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Aims and Goals

I came across this tree on a walk in Arnside and Silverdale recently. It's a lovely part of the country; highly commended. The tree reminded me of many of the small trees I used to be allowed to climb when visiting the Lickey Hills near Birmingham as a child.

I struggled to make sense of it at first. Branches seemed to splay in every direction and it had uprooted a few years back. The first image here shows that the uprooting had been such a powerful trauma that bits of concrete, through which the root system had developed at some stage in its life, had been lifted as the tree fell.

Sometimes outside forces are so strong you have no choice but to go with them even if they take you in a direction not a part of your original plan.

But, as the second image shows, this tree was a stubborn so and so.

Since the roots had not been completely er, uprooted, they continued to provide sustenance and a branch, once pointing proudly southwards towards the sun, became the trunk and grew upwards towards the light. New roots developed over the trunk of the old tree.

And in so doing the original fallen trunk is beginning to be pulled inexorably back towards its first goal. One fell. Now two are striding on.

A bit anthropomorphic that, but if you can't make a training session about vision and priorities from the material you need to go back to college.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Inbox

I read a status update from a clergy friend going on sabbatical. In this post a four-figure number was mentioned as the number of emails to be cleared out of the inbox.

Well, oh dear.

I know people have difficulties with jobs that become so big they will never be done but really. Thousands?

How do you claw your way back from this? Slowly. You know roughly how many emails you get daily so each day make sure you deal with more than come in until the problem is gone.

Or quickly. Put all of your current inbox in a folder called 'old inbox'.  Now deal with each day's new emails alone and only dip into the old inbox when you get a reminder. Diary to delete it in a year's time. Some people may be irritated but not as many as you have irritated so far with your massive inbox.

Some quick tips:

1. Stuff that is:
  • Not relevant
  • Not for you
  • Already out of date
  • No action required.
Delete it at once.

2. Stuff that needs to be retained for the future but not acted upon. File it. It is kind, but not essential, to send a quick acknowledgement. If it is more than a week old don't. You'll look stupid.

3. Stuff that needs a reply. Either reply quickly, if you can, then file it, or send a brief acknowledgement and add the job of thinking about it to your things-to-do list. Then file it. Yes. Get it out of your inbox to somewhere you will be able to find it. I use googlemail so you can label your emails so that they appear in more than one folder. I also always operate remotely so never download emails to any device or PC. Outlook is dangerous.

4. So, how do you organise an email filing system? Any way you want but I'll tell you about mine. By and large the bulk of stuff I need to keep is about future events, many of which are Sundays.

So my first few folder labels are simply Sunday dates. As they are numbers they stay at the beginning of an alphabetical filing system:

(9/10)
(16/10)
(23/10
(30/10)

When the first email comes in about a future Sunday I start a folder for it. I delete these folders a month after the Sunday.

My second major grouping is 'Forthcoming Appointments':

Forthcoming Appointments
 CMD (13/3)
 E*** P****** Visit (12/10)
 Funeral (13/10)
 Hope for Life Dance (29/10)
 Reading Break November

When the first email comes in about a future event I start a folder for it. I delete these folders a month after the event.

My other folders are sub-headed under 'People', 'Church' and the inevitable few that will not categorise.

5. I deal with emails about three times a day for five minutes. I have turned off email notifications on my tablet and phone. Email is meant to be non-intrusive communication. It is not for the urgent. If you want me to come and give you a lift from the station now, ring me (unless you know the family secret group on Facebook).

6. Email is meant to be a communication aid but it needs a little bit of management to keep it under control.

7. Once a week diary to clear your inbox. There will always be one or two stubborn messages you couldn't decide what to do with. Shift them weekly.

8. I lose emails. I make mistakes with filing. I sometimes dither a bit. But I'm pretty good. This is why.

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol today.

National Poetry Day. This year's theme 'messages'. Couldn't resist:

Good morning you people I'm having my say
I bring you a thought for a poetry day
It's breakfast with Emma on the BBC
But just now she's shut up to listen to me

I bring thoughts to ponder but linked to the news
And some of these subjects have stirred up your views
For instance crowd-funding's become all the rage
To afford cancer treatment on your weekly wage

And am-dram type students considered it best
To cancel their show which was causing unrest
Was that par for the course or maybe stupidity?
Do you think that an actor should straddle ethnicity?

And what of the modern world - toughened or tender
Are there job limitations on the basis of gender?
The Clifton Suspension Bridge has a new master
Will the fact that she's female be great - or disaster?

This topical programme delivers the show
That informs and debates and discusses and so
Attend to the message; listen in to the chat
You'll never keep up if you don't manage that

It's Keith with the headlines and Joe with the travel
If they're not on form then our lives all unravel
The papers reviewed and the markets explained
All bases are covered - no, one yet remains

This faith-based two minutes of which I'm the provider
Should take local thoughts and then focus them wider
Because if hearts and minds are the radio's goal
Then just for a moment attend to your soul

I cannot pretend, if I did I'd be odd,
To view every tale through the eyes of my God
But I can leave a message; I can drop a thought
That a holy perspective should sometimes be sought.


I added one further effort to the limerick competition:

A good-looking feller called Joe
Did the travel on a great breakfast show
But he got in a mood
When Emma was rude
And made all the traffic go slow

I seem to have become Pay Ayres. It's the Somerset air.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Food Labelling

The Prime Minister's speech to the Tory Party Conference was, like Grace Brothers, pretty terrifying on all levels. Having stayed quietly in the background during the EU referendum campaign she is now leading a party of her own making which I think can only be called Conservative Lemmings. As one commentator said, having jettisoned the methodology of Norway and Canada our closest model for existing in the free world will be North Korea.

Economists will tell us what this all means as long as there are some still around who haven't been attracted by the bright lights of retraining as trade negotiators.

So let us talk about something I have a vague familiarity with - food labelling. Living with two vegetarians, one pretty strict about avoiding meat in any form, I have become familiar with searching through the small print on food labels. The EU recognised food-labelling system at least means that the symbol/information for which I search is readily identifiable on all products.

If we go back to deciding how to label our own food then I'm sure we will still have to use this format to export to the EU.

What are the choices?

1. Claim we have taken back control of our food but do absolutely nothing to change and continue to live in a world where food safety standards are shared. May well happen.

2. Have higher standards than the rest of the world. Great to be an example, but if we simply make it harder for people to sell to us then we should not expect great trade deals when the roles are reversed. File under unlikely.

3. Have lower standards than the rest of the world. Then end up importing a load of dodgy food that can't be shifted in the other nation's home market. At home, unscrupulous food producers will no longer have to add the awkward 'may contain horse' to their beef mince label. Hope not.

4. Quietly withdraw this ridiculous promise on a fast news day. Very possible.

We always had the right to label our own food. We chose to do it in co-operation with other countries to make the EU a better place not just formerly-great Britain.

If Brexit means brexit then it does exactly what it says on the tin. Always read the label.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Guest Economist

We welcome back our occasional visitor Sir Bob Cashless:

St. Sir Bob, the people have voted to reduce immigration so we wonder what the economic impact of that will be?

SB. Have they? I couldn't have been paying attention.

St. Yes, we had a referendum back in June.

SB. Ah. the one where we voted 52-48 to leave the EU?

St. That's right.

SB. It is very clever of you to know what reasoning all those people used for voting Brexit.

St. Well public opinion seems very down on immigration.

SB. Public opinion is an idiot. Are you expecting a pension?

St. Yes. In about five years.

SB. Well you may be lucky. But us younger folk won't be. We need masses more workers in this country so immigration is one of only a few solutions.

St What are the others?

SB. Well we could under-invest in the NHS so people die a lot sooner. Or we could hike up taxes on young people by making them pay for their education. Or we could pull back from all our healthy eating campaigns and have people gorge themselves to an early grave. Hmm. Come to think of it...

St. What?

SB. This government's brighter than I thought. Got any more of those sausage rolls?

Sir Bob will be back next time he needs a few quid. Talking of which, Harry Backhand will be here later in the week to take your questions about football.

Me and Physics

I thought I would read a book about physics. Either I had no natural aptitude, or I was insufficiently stimulated, but I never grasped it at all at school. I learned to do a very good impression of my physics teacher though - which seemed more important at the time.

Thing is, I have quite a good track record of 'grasping' things when necessary. If I see the point I will devote time to grasping. I even gave eight years of my life to vehicle identification once I realised nobody in the motor insurance world would take me seriously if I couldn't tell a Vauxhall Viva from a Ford Escort. It was 1973 by the way. After I left in 1981 I vowed never to be interested again.

I did the same for early church history which I mastered for about two days in 1983 and it contributed to a theology degree. I may get back to that one.

So I am reading a book about physics. The one illustrated. And I am underlining physics-type sentences that overlap with the arts world. Ones without equations, basically.

You see I can grasp:

...space curves where there is matter.

...space and gravitational field are the same thing.

So, although Riemann's constant would be jolly useful if I needed to do calculations, my two pull-quotes are the heart of an understanding of relativity. And I've only finished one chapter.

Now, on to quanta.

Why did I get so old before I began to find that learning stuff is fun?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Revolution 1966-1970 at the V and A

A brief coda to my previous post reviewing this. A review in theipaper by Robert Bevan (copied from the Evening Standard) made two negative comments; that it was populist and that it ignored, inter alia, architecture. A brief response:

Firstly, I don't think you can critique an exhibition for being populist. Museums are full of high culture and whilst important and helpful it don't pay the bills. A certain amount of the common touch is necessary. Us commoners seem to have been, in the main, impressed.

And secondly architecture? Well most architecture built 1966-1970 was probably conceived pre-66. '...fashion is the most responsive barometer of social change ... you can react more speedily to the demands of the times with three-and-a-half metres of cloth than you can with, say, 5000 toms of reinforced concrete' (Marion Hume, The Independent, 2/12/94). Architectural ideas form 66-70 went up in the early 70s.

But I save the worst until last. The final scathing comment in a review that gave this exhibition 3 stars (out of 5) was that it failed to mention the Gay Liberation Front at the 1971 Festival of Light. Could it be that it was a year late? I only ask. I'm not a professional reviewer.

Music from the 1990s

I recently accepted a Facebook challenge to post a link to one 1990s tune everyday for seven days. Here are all seven:

Mike Peatman has challenged me to find 7 tracks from the 90s to share with y'all. He thinks I will find it easier than him. He's possibly right. Cracking decade of inspirational music. Maybe some of my old Chester-le-Street yoof will have an interesting take on this. How about it Paul Stockdale? My first thought was that early 90s means Madchester so here are Happy Mondays taking a 70s John Kongos tune and giving it a club vibe:


Day 2. In the 1990s I first began to realise that rap and hip-hop were worth attention. Shout out to Definition of Sound but this track combined fresh samples, funky riffage and a protest song.

Need to tag someone else every day. Got a view Andrew Smith? Take the challenge.


Day 3. I Heard this on Radio 1 when it came out and realised at least three of my favourite types of music now existed in one genre. Heard it performed live in Bristol this month at a 25th anniversary gig.

Simon Marshall is showing interest. Tag.



Day 4. In 1997 far more than three people from Brixton invented themselves as The Alabama 3 and brought out their first album Exile on Coldharbour Lane. Fusing acid-house, country and blues with a bit of D Wayne Love's spoken word they jumped to fame when this tune, which we hear them doing live in 2013, became The Sopranos' theme.

Naughty word wording in intro. 

They are a great live band. Truly great. Steve Couch loves them too. Fancy being tagged?


Day 5. Radiohead have been an enduring nineties band, innovating and re-inventing album after album. The single Creep off their first album gained popularity but second album The Bends was just a great rock collection. Until this, the final track, which presaged the soulful and reflective gorgeousness that was to be scattered throughout their next twenty years. 

Any Radiohead fan want to accept the tag today?


Day 6. No matter which decade of my music awareness you choose, my love for guitar, bass, drums and vocals jangly pop has never wavered.

I toyed with REM  and the under-rated Airhead but opted for this which was one of the first tunes Ben Tilley (fancy a go?) put me on to. Still one-hit wonders, the mighty Toad the Wet Sprocket. Bear with the ads:


This is the seventh and final day of my challenge to choose seven 90s songs in seven days. I may not have chosen my favourite seven tunes but I believe I have charted my musical education over the ten years. No Oasis/Blur for me. I always burrowed down a bit deeper than most looking for my gold. I love saying to people, 'You must hear this...'

Simon Marshall has already mentioned the idea of music which kept him company on long drives home from CPAS training evenings. In the late 90s I probably played Faithless' Sunday 8pm more than most albums.

But in the week it was John Peel 10-midnight and he introduced me to stuff I would never otherwise have heard. Shout out to Witness and Appliance (but jangly guitar already covered). Los Lobos had a great sound. Lexis (drum and bass ish) came out in 2000.

So here's an unexpected closer. Hayes and Cahill were on Later with Jools in the mid 90s and I began to hear their laments, jigs and reels in a way I had missed with other artists. Recently they performed in Nailsea and I met them. Delightful guys. There's some up-tempo stuff on The Lonesome Touch (1997) too but carry my coffin in to this.


Carry it out to any of the others from this week.

This has been quite a male task. Any women want a go?




Thursday, September 22, 2016

Revolution; 1966-1970

At the Victoria and Albert Museum at the moment, running until 26th February 2017, is an excellent exhibition about the years 1966-1970.

It aims to answer this question:

'How have the finished and unfinished revolutions of the late 1960s changed the way we live today and think about the future?'

It is hard to decide when the sixties (as referenced by writers) actually started. They usually mean the period that started in earnest once the Beatles hit the charts and drifted on into the next decade. So about 1962-1971 is 'Sixties' culture.

I spent that period being 7-16 so it is the time I grew up. But my first festival experience wasn't until 1972.

But the years 66-70 saw one of the most important periods in history for cultural change. Our understanding of race, gender, travel (to space), fashion and many other things began a process of change which continues to this day.

Visitors to this exhibition, wearing headsets to replace the hotel lobby background music with rock and roll, wander through the late John Peel's collection of vinyl sleeves. Clever technology aligns what we hear to on-screen voices as we approach a TV and so we hear archive footage of social commentators from the period. We go to the Moon, experience student riots and sit in on the Woodstock experience (The Who, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimmy Hendrix).

We gaze on the costumes from the cover of Sergeant Pepper and get to read Paul McCartney's handwritten resignation letter from 1970.

It costs £16.50 full price with a number of discounts. Those who were aware of all the sixties are now pensioners. Although I do recall someone saying that if you could remember the sixties you weren't there. Man. You need a timed ticket and it will take a couple of hours to enjoy properly.

Illustrations are a couple of our vinyl sleeves - Traffic's Mr Fantasy from 1968 and Free's Fire and Water from 1969.

Thought for the Day

I managed to reference a lot of the stories on the show today and, of course, received the usual feedback I get every time I mention how old I am. This is what I presented at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, amidst tears of laughter for reasons not entirely unrelated to Noel Edmonds telephoning cats:

Today's starter question. In a mature society, what should we pay for? What should be free?

Jesus told his disciples that there was no point gaining the whole world and losing your soul. And he told them if they wanted to follow him to take up their cross. Souls valuable; bodies expendable, we conclude. Tough challenge.

Having time to kill in a big city recently I went into a museum. I was encouraged to make a donation but I didn't need to. It was free.

Wandering around I felt the first twinges of toothache. My thoughts moved quite quickly from the pain and inconvenience to 'I'm glad I pay for a dental plan.'

Museums free.

Dentistry costs.

Nailsea is the first place I've ever lived where town centre car-parking is free. I've reached that peculiarly arbitrary age where prescriptions are free and I can get discounts on travel costs.

Meanwhile people are having to find huge amounts of money to pay for a university education, which I got free, and some have found that it's cheaper to go to the United States to get a degree.

Tax credits have been a brave attempt to make sure that work always pays - perhaps making the point in the process that nothing comes for free.

Meanwhile repairing acts of vandalism is expensive for our city.

So, what should be free? Education? Prescriptions? Dentistry? Museums? Transport? Basic benefits? None of the above?

The job of politics is to work out how to organise services into free, subsidised and fully-charged stuff. The work of the faith community is to remind everyone what is of real value.

A relationship with God has no price tag. It's a free gift. But it has very costly implications.


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sunday

I started writing this sitting in my study last Sunday having been awake for a couple of hours. I was pondering and praying, as I do. Often my early start on a Sunday is because there are things to finish and I find only the pressure of a deadline works. Last Sunday was different.

I had lots of spare time on Saturday and all prep for Sunday was accomplished. Obviously when I woke up that morning I had several ideas in my head about how to do it all better. I tweaked a few things.

But mainly I woke up early on a Sunday because that is what I do. Almost always have. Tell me why? Because I don't like Sundays. Sundays are shadow side. Sundays are small talk. Sundays are a different sort of music to my personal preference. Sundays are telling people (especially children) certainties from a background of exploration and question, if I'm not careful.

And yet Sundays are where the God I try to worship and understand and the humans I try to serve get it on. And in the crazy mix of over-commitment, lack-of-commitment and all stations between we make slow progress towards being the church of God.

Have I hit it right? Have I been doing Sundays as well as I could? Who could ever say? A colleague used to pray after every service, 'Forgive what has been amiss; use what has been in accordance with your will.' That's about right.

Often I feel I survive Sundays. And survival, as someone once wrote, is the lowest form of life. Later that Sunday a chat with old friends, a fine meal out and an evening on the sofa was enough to redeem the day and by today, Wednesday, I usually feel I could do another Sunday.

On Monday evening a bunch of us sat around and dreamed a few exciting dreams for our little church. It was good.

I have this picture, which I coloured in myself, on my study wall. Too many people focus on what they want to achieve all the time. They often fail. There is a certain sort of vision which is based on avoiding what you don't want to happen, first. Survivors get to do vision. The sunk don't.

The best way to improve the quality of a corporate experience, which you would like others to join, is not to have occasional great ones. It is to eliminate the bad. So the chances of a visitor coming along to a disappointing day are reduced. Because when my church is being rubbish, and it is occasionally, not always my fault but always my responsibility, I get that sinking feeling, that some newcomer or visitor may have been lost by that first impression, which almost always happens on a Sunday.

So I don't really like Sundays. But I accept them as a necessary part of my duties. I try not to sink. And occassionally I catch a glimpse of an amazing island.

Friday, September 09, 2016

39

Articles of Religion?

Steps?

Number of lashes St Paul got, assuming he was good at maths and that is what he meant by 40-1?

Memorable uses of the number indeed.

But today it is the number of years for which Elizabeth Christine Anne (the current Mrs Tilley) and James Stephen have successfully troth-plighted.

This one's a keeper I reckon.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Christian Culture

I was archiving some old sermon and talk/seminar folders from the 1990s when I came across notes I had made for a presentation interestingly entitled 'Are we becoming a Christian counter-culture?' It was delivered first in about 1996 and adjusted and re-used for a few years thereafter.

We are all (Christians) 'in' the world, but to what extent are we of it?

At the time I was using as biblical material Paul's experience in Athens where he encountered  a new culture and explained the gospel to that culture starting from where they were - an unknown god. It was a bit simplistic - I was largely speaking to untrained youth workers - but the questions that follow are a reasonable indication of the extent to which you have separated yourself out from the world in order to live in a Christian counter-culture. I speak as one who has often been warned of going to the opposite extreme.

It included this questionnaire, which I had forgotten all about. Every yes scores a point. The nearer to ten you get the more likely it is that you have lost touch with the real world:

1. Most of my favourite music is Christian.
2. Most of my close friends are Christians.
3. I read more Christian books than popular fiction.
4. I wear a Christian logo/badge over and above a simple cross such as a WWJD wristband.
5. I belong to a Christian group or union at school/work, or work in a Christian environment.
6. I regularly go to national Christian events/festivals - Spring Harvest, Greenbelt, Soul Survivor, New Wine.
7. I have, or aspire to, a career in Christian ministry.
8. I find the world's values a constant source of temptation and try to keep clear.
9. I come from a Christian family.
10. I hardly ever go anywhere where I meet non-Christians socially.

I think I score 3. How about you?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Iconic Sanctity

Don't worry. The title isn't a belated attempt at a googlewhack.

There was a discussion on the radio yesterday morning (BBC Radio Bristol) about the Massive Attack gig on Clifton Downs last Saturday. I was phoned to offer an opinion.

During the course of the debate one contributor (who was clearly against it ever having happened) suggested that Clifton Downs is 'an iconic place' and its 'sanctity' should not be spoiled in this way.

I won't rehearse the for and against of the gig. I was there. It was wet. It was enjoyable. It was not my experience that it was badly organised but it was for some.

I want to discuss being iconic. For me the use of the word 'iconic' in this way suggests a thing that can be made to stand for something larger. When you see a picture of it you think of the bigger picture. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is iconic. An image of it across the gorge stands for Bristol. Maybe with balloons flying over it. I don't think the Downs pass this test. A picture of the Downs does not speak of Bristol. I could not pick our Downs out of a downs line-up.

Secondly 'sanctity'. This word has two uses. The first is 'holy' or 'sacred'. I don't think this is true of the Downs. Second is 'ultimate importance and inviolability'. I imagine this is what the speaker refers to.

How do places become ultimately important and inviolable? Shared memories? Repeat events? Unique use? And what places a gig for 20,000 people on the no list but Sunday football and dog-walking on the yes?

I don't think the caller is saying anything more than 'I don't like this kind of thing'. I do.

Cathedrals are iconic and places of sanctity. But if they didn't have event-memories soaked into the bricks they would be nothing.

The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes.


(Hymn of the Big Wheel - Massive Attack)

Thought for the Day


A lot of thoughts for the day spend several paragraphs talking about the news and then say 'It's a bit like that with Jesus' or similar. Recently I've been starting with the spiritual bit immediately and then relating it to the news as we move on. Anyone got any views?

Today's, as delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

One of the responses we read in the Bible to Jesus' teaching is that it astonished people. Sometimes because he accompanied his words with miracles; on other occasions because he carried authority - an authority people hadn't seen before.

It took something pretty amazing for new teaching to take hold, but take hold it did.

You see people don't like new stuff. We don't like change. Never have. Be it bus timetables or invisible fences for cows, concerts on the downs or arenas in the town. We are suspicious of the new and can be quite quick to jump to the conclusion that it will be worse. We need to be very dissatisfied before we seek change.

The gentle liturgy of the breakfast show washes over me, daily. M5 slow. Hicks Gate roundabout busy. Temporary traffic lights on the - you fill in the gaps. I wrote this yesterday.

The new information is wrapped in the comfortable and familiar style. If Joe tells me the city is clogged up it doesn't feel so bad.

We love familiarity, and therefore even explain the new in terms of the old. Apparently, pitching the Alien film franchise, the screen-writer's stroke of genius was to describe it as 'Jaws, (beat) in space.'

What did people say about Jesus? Are you John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets come back? Are you the new Moses?

No, says Simon Peter, he's not the new anything, can't be explained in terms of the past, he is the Messiah. The promised one. Something completely different. Unfamiliar. The future.

Get used to it.

Don't agree? Your presenters will gently and reassuringly tell you how to call, tweet or text.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

I heard someone the other day review Magnus Mills as like a cross between Albert Camus and Enid Blyton. I'd have said Kafka and Blyton myself but you get the picture. Maybe he sits in the middle of a triangle.

If unfamiliar I recommend The Trial as a Kafka starting place and The Fall for Camus. Sorry I just set you five hours pre-review homework.

In Mills' stories (his novels are often novella length) everything moves slowly and with restraint. People hold back from saying things too directly, or put it off until tomorrow. Everyone is therefore very 'English'.

In All Quiet on the Orient Express a holidaymaker stays at his destination for a whole season doing odd jobs of greater and greater significance because, having said yes to one, he can't find a way to get out of doing more. No-one wants to appear rude.

The books are often a meditation on a particular subject - work, exploration, transport.

In this latest we are introduced to a field divided into nominal sections - north-east, north-west, south-east, and south-west. Some people live there already, all in tents. Others arrive, always by water. The initial occupants are torn between being welcoming to strangers and suspicious of them. Is that group building a drainage ditch or a defensive wall?

Some visitors are more chaotic, causing damage and being noisy.

It doesn't take long to see the field as a metaphor for England and the events a mirroring of English history, but this is just as much a mediation on how we get our with our neighbours.

Don't expect a plot as such, or for the end to be any sort of finish. But do enjoy one of the most original writers working in English today.

RIP Rev'd Roly Bain

I was sad to hear of the death of Roly from cancer. I didn't know him well enough to write an obituary but I wanted to share one thing that stuck with me.

In the 1990s there was a service at Stoneleigh to celebrate the anniversary of the Diocese of Coventry.

There was a procession to an outdoor stage and robed senior diocesan clergy made their way there. Amongst them was Roly who had been a guest for the day. As the Bishop and co sat on their stage seats Roly wandered amongst them, looking deliberately confused and producing a feather duster. He proceeded to dust all the bigwigs.

It remains with me as a picture of the necessary progress required in the Church of England.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

GCSE Day

Today you will meet a stranger
Rather than having a name
They will be known by a series of letters and symbols

They are not you
They are someone else
They are neither enemy nor friend

They will walk with you into the future
You may hold hands if you want
Or try to shake them off

They are snapshots of you last June
And the albums contain moments
Of mayhem and magic

You are no more defined by these letters and symbols
Than you are by a photo
For to me you will always be A*

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thought for the Day

This morning one of the stories on BBC Radio Bristol was that someone had, almost certainly, discovered a large amount of ambergris on a North Somerset beach. But the challenge was to get a Thought for the Day out of it:

So, someone has found ambergris on a local beach.

There's a story in the Bible about a prophet who didn't go where he was told to go. Eventually, making headway in the wrong direction, some superstitious sailors threw him overboard believing he was the cause of the storm they were in. According to the story the weather then calmed, which terrified them, and the prophet was swallowed by a large fish.

In this unlikely tale it was in the fish's stomach that the man came to his senses - people in the Bible often come to their senses in strange places - and the fish vomited him up onto dry land. Maybe he should have checked to see if there was anything valuable nearby.

The man, name of Jonah by the way, then went where he had been called to go, to preach to people he didn't like very much. God, it is said, decided not to strike them all down and Jonah got mad because that was what he would have preferred God to do.

Later Jonah became angry at the death of a plant under which he was sheltering. God asked him a key question - if you're upset about a plant why shouldn't I be concerned about a huge group of people?

Jonah had no answer and we often forget that the fishy tale ends there.

You can read a lot into this well-known story, which we often call Jonah and the whale. Maybe the shortest lesson is that if God is calling you to do something you simply don't get to opt out.

And for us to to think about today? That pearls are oyster grit, ambergris is whale puke and brilliant, valuable stories can come from equally unlikely places.

For the first time in three and a bit years I got a round of applause in the studio (if two people can constitute a 'round').

Monday, August 22, 2016

Substitutionary Atonement

A comment in a preachers' support group meeting recently; what is your view of the atonement? Since many great and mighty tomes have been written on the matter, only some of which I didn't understand, I asked for a more precise question to answer.

I have been fond, in recent years, of preaching on Jesus by telling people how others made sense of his life, death and resurrection and inviting them to make their own conclusions. I have avoided putting my own stamp on any one answer.

Here is the question as it has now been posed to me:

Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your personal sin, thereby allowing the only means of your personal salvation?

Let's break it down:

Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross...

Yes. Seems as clear as any historical 'fact' can be that that is what happened to him.

...to pay the price for your personal sin,...

It is hard to tell from the Gospels if that is what Jesus thought he was doing. The New Testament passages giving theological meaning to that which he was about to do were all placed on his lips by the evangelists after he had done it. But Isaiah 53 sits there awkward and needing to be true. He was pierced for our transgressions? Who did the prophet mean?

It is clear that, post-resurrection, theologians tumbled to the truth that sacrifice was needed no more, death had no more threat and the devil (meaning something then that we probably don't mean now) was defeated.

The rest of the New Testament is written trying to make sense of the fact that, despite these truths, the church had problems and Christians were made to suffer.

One way of looking at it is to think of sin needing to be paid for and Christ pays the price. Another, perhaps one I prefer, is that in Christ's death and resurrection we have a demonstration of the futility of self-reliance. In Jesus I prefer the metaphor that something was restored rather than something purchased. I also like the example of the man of perfect obedience pointing us in a similar direction, albeit in intention only for we will stumble.

I do sing at Easter:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin
He only could unlock the gates
Of heaven and let us in
(There is a Green Hill)

But those verses are pretty metaphor-rich in oh so many ways.

thereby allowing the only means of your personal salvation?

What happens to me is down to God. Trying to be his servant and a Jesus-follower leaves me tentative. 'The only means'? Who could ever know?

Many of my very conservative evangelical friends will go beyond seeing substitutionary atonement as a metaphor. They will say it is what actually happened. It is this attitude that led to Steve Chalke criticising that theology as cosmic child-abuse (which got him into trouble) and, I recall, thrown out of the Evangelical Alliance

Fact is that the cross remains a hinge-point of human history and a turning point of sacred mystery. It calls more for worship than black and white theological insistence. If this gospel was to be grasped by uneducated Galilean fishermen and passed on then it can't be the case that the finer points of Christian doctrine are of any importance. It must be a huge, general question with a huge general answer. Say yes to God. Whatever that means.

So, after almost a year of wondering if I dared write this final sentence. It is this. No.

But I also think the question is inadequately posed to allow for a yes/no answer. Thus the essay, so you could tell, I hope, which bit I was saying 'No' to.

My Particular Qualities

It has often been asked of me, usually by the same person, what precisely I bring to the household contract when I seem to find so much time to do things I enjoy doing. And I agree that I do have a job where a large amount of the things I enjoy doing can be labelled work, or 'research' if you're really going to split hairs. But since a lot of the hours I put in are when the rest of the household is at work I offer this list in a spirit of gentle self-defence:

1. I re-stack the dishwasher to take into account the likelihood of water, when sprayed from any apparatus, continuing to move, by and large, in a straightish line.

2. I search the pockets of all garments placed in the washing basket for:

Paper tissues (likelihood 90-95%)
Used railway tickets (35%)
Shop fixturing (10%)
Cash (0%)

3. I transfer all garments labelled 'hand-wash only' to the 'hand-wash only' basket. I make enquiries when unlikely items are found in the laundry basket (e.g. recently - shoes, suspiciously clean towels).

4. I turn lights off in non-occupied rooms.

5. I move furniture away from radiators to ensure smooth air flow (winter only).

6. I move furniture away from walls to prevent marking through repetition.

7. I sort through waste bins for stuff that could have been recycled.

8. I shop for items in the store-cupboard that need replenishing using a system of telepathy given the regular emptiness of the whiteboard when SOMEONE HAS FINISHED THE PICKLED ONIONS.

9. I know when it is green-waste day and when it is non-recyclable rubbish day.

10. I take in parcels for a wide range of local houses.

11. I am default cook.

12. I remain cheerfully sober until 'Can I have a lift from the station it's wet' is no longer possible.

13. I avoid rows and keep my sanity with passive aggressive social media posts.

14. I watch TV programmes only I like when only I am around.

15. I plan our box-set viewing, gig-going and social entertaining.

16. I can live with the fact it may have been me who finished the pickled onions.

A Level Results and That

In my late teenage years I was interested in football, music, board games and girls (I eventually narrowed it down to one girl). Every time the opportunity came along to try something new I took it. So I played rugby, hockey, squash, table tennis and golf. I guess I sought a sport for which I had natural aptitude and could have done well at without work. This is as big a theme of my life as annoying people by breaking the rules of grammar in favour of what I laughingly call my style.

The me who enjoyed study, thought and writing was some years off.

I have no idea how good I would have become at football and music if I had had someone champion/sponsor me. I didn't. On the advice and push of my Dad I got a back-up offer to the single university which thought it might take me (Swansea - geography). An insurance company in Brum had a non-graduate trainee scheme and the requirement was two A Levels.

So that became my career for eight years. And getting better than two grade Es clearly meant I had put too much energy in, not expecting to reach the dizzy heights of Swansea's offer. I did four parts of an Associateship of the Chartered Insurance Institute but again had no real motivation to complete it. I was good at my job though and promoted rapidly. I was a very young section leader (manager of a team of 7) at 24 and was, had things not changed weirdly and dramatically in a school equipment cupboard (more another day), earmarked as a trainee inspector.

Then I found myself, almost reluctantly, following the advice and prod of others to consider ordination. It wasn't completely out of the blue. I was a Christian and a churchgoer. It would have been odder if I had been neither - and perhaps more compelling a tale.

So I put my career on hold, studied part-time, jumped through many interview hoops, found I had the necessary two A levels to do a theology degree, packed insurance in and moved with family to residential training and then became a priest.

Throughout college it was commented that I had an attitude that would do 'just enough' rather than achieve academic excellence. But I also captained the first ever college football team to win anything, wrote and performed a musical, was year rep on the Junior Common Room Committee and got a brief stress-related illness. This was the beginning of my fully understanding the genetic hand I had been dealt. Just for 'fun' I revised excessively for one doctrine paper. By this I mean I learned a load of stuff I didn't really understand or care about. I came top of my group with distinction.

So where does that leave me? 43 years on from my A level results they have meant little except that I got two of them. I accept my lot in life to be interested in lots and specialist in little. I enjoy investigating new trends and crazes. It transpires that people think I have some ability with written communication (I was often told my essays were well written but light on content - should have been a tabloid journalist maybe) and I have had three books and many booklets published.

If your exam results haven't been quite what you hoped for, relax and chill. In the grand scheme of things they may not matter very much.

Now. What do you want to do next?

Spoof Fragrance

Time for our annual game of 'What's in my bathroom?' The rules are simple. Here are five products. Four of them are in my bathroom. One I invented:

1. Moroccan rose night-time facial oil.

2. Argan oil skin awakening cleansing oil.

3. Eucalyptus re-charge power scrub.

4. Vanille home-spray.

5. Black peppercorn body wash.

Extra information. I share this bathroom with a woman of about my own age.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Thought for the Day

Thought for the Day at BBC Radio Bristol this morning, the day they were talking about vast void caverns being discovered under the Clifton Suspension Bridge and plans to build an eighteen story tower block near to a historic Bristol church. As delivered:

'What is this?' people said to Jesus. 'A new teaching. With authority. No-one did it like this before.'

The new style earned him followers and made him enemies. It cast doubt on the abilities of the old style of teaching. The style without the miraculous special effects. The new was threatening.

In Jesus' day there were few very tall towers and no-one flew.

Whether it's the 18th century Brunel-brilliance of Clifton Suspension Bridge, which we now learn has secret chambers. Creepy. Or the Gothic St Mary Redcliffe church which I find completely creepy and feels like it belongs in an episode of Ghostbusters (that'll get you feedback Emma). With a few exceptions, we all like our landmark local buildings. Mess with them at your peril.

But what makes a building or bridge the last word? Why can't the skyline change? Why not build something taller than the church?

Observing the recent history of the City of London, and my home city of Birmingham, Victorian red brick has given way to a vision of a new future in coloured glass and metal. Many fine buildings are now given a new back-drop.

The usual reaction on seeing new architecture is for most people to dislike it. Then to come round to it. Finally to love it and wish ill on anyone who messes with it.

We don't like change. But we risk complacency if we never move on.

I'm not making any comment about any particular tower block and I understand concerns.

It's just that we have learned to build bigger, better buildings.

I wonder if we might all try to get rid of our instant hatred of the new and give change a chance.

We could go into training. Even if it's only a different route to the shops, try something new today.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Awkward Phone Call

How about this for an awkward phone call?

Hello EU HQ.

Ah yes. This is Turkey.

Hi. How's it going?

Oh you know. It has its moments. Anyway, we are calling about the European Convention on Human Tights.

Rights?

That's what I said but this stenographer is useless.

What about it?

Well you know we signed up to it?

Yup.

Could we suspend that - temporarily?

Why?

On you needn't worry about that it's a local thing.

So, how long for?

(Muffled) How long you need Ahmed?

He says a couple of weeks should do it?

Call the Maltese

After a number of years visiting Malta and Gozo I have a pretty clear idea of the unique skills package Maltese workers can offer. So when should you call the Maltese in?

1. You need a crane to get an RSJ up to the fifth floor of a twin house only accessibly by a narrow alley. Impossible? No. Two Maltese can erect a crane overnight in a gap as long as there is 0.001mm clearance either side. Furthermore the whole job will be finished and the crane moved to the next job before most ordinary people have finished their breakfast. If they haven't finished breakfast they can still take the crane out through a crowded cafe bar without anyone moving or ducking.

2. Awkward little job involving road maintenance? Maybe a bulb has gone in a motorway barrier light? No need to stop the traffic. Jason and Gorge will don their flip-flops, run into a gap in the traffic waving a yellow flag and get the job done in seconds.

3. You have a small business opportunity but nowhere to site it. No problem. After abseiling down a cliff with a rucksack containing your lunch and reading matter to access a quiet sandy bay you will be greeted by a Maltese bartender offering drinks and his brother who will hire you a sunbed and umbrella. Nowhere is too remote to put a selling station.

4. You like the noise of fireworks but feel all those light-effects are a bit unnecessary. Don't panic. Wait until the Sun is directly overhead and the temperature at 30 degrees. Then the Gozitan Firework Company will put on a show that is all smoke and bang with none of that distracting prettiness.

What is going on?

It was as long ago as 1985 that Mayor Mario Cuomo (a Democrat by the way) came up with the line that Leo McGary eventually used in The West Wing:

'We campaign in poetry; we govern in prose.'

It served well as a general description of the seriousness with which campaign rhetoric should be taken. We got it. You paint yourself good and your opponent bad. You don't bad mouth, in an ideal world, nor do you lie or cheat. But a bit of hyperbole - it's kind of expected.

This last few months has seen the rule book torn up. From Brexit to Trump the new mantra is:

We campaign in feelings; we govern in facts.

So a Trump spokesman, presented with the facts that crime figures in the USA (amazingly) have been falling for the last fifteen years said:

'Not in Chicago they're not.'

And having it pointed out to him that it is possible for pockets of increased crime to exist in an environment where crime generally is falling, he said:

'People feel that crime is getting worse.'

Now this blog has been the first to admit that a mugging victim will find it hard to agree immediately that violent crime is decreasing.

But once, as commentator John Oliver said, '...you bring feelings into a fact fight', what are the rules?

Speaking way back in the 1980s Donald Trump himself said that if he ever ran for office he would run as a Republican because '...those guys will believe anything.'

Maybe it's now:

We campaign in lies; we govern any damn way we want.

Politics really is appalling right now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Thought for the Day

As delivered at BBC Radio Bristol this morning:

Sometimes on special occasions, I will be asked to say grace. This job, giving 
thanks to God for the food, often falls the way of the clergy.

I try to keep it simple and, if possible, amusing. It is likely there are people 
there who don't believe in a God who provides.

On such occasions you may hear the grace-sayer pray that we might be 
mindful of the needs of others. At which point I develop guilt that my 
three-course wedding banquet is not the rice and vegetables on which many 
survive.

I have a slightly cumbersome relationship with luxury.

Bristol Cars is to unveil its first new model since 2004. The Bristol Bullet will be 
a limited-edition sports car built to celebrate the company's founding 70 years 
ago.

Part of me goes wow; another part ow.

They have just one showroom, on Kensington High Street. Customers have 
included Sir Richard Branson, Bono and Liam Gallagher.

Is it OK to love luxury? Before I answer I recall that I too have a slightly better 
car than I need. I try to give generously but I don't live inconspicuously.

Making luxury goods is someone's job. And you don't have to own a nice car to 
enjoy looking at one.

So as long as you have a heart for the poor and a sense that your luxury goods 
do not make you better than anyone else, I say good luck to you.

My wedding grace is this:

In a world where many are hungry we thank you for our food.
In a world where many are lonely we thank you for our company.
And in a world where many find it hard to start a conversation we thank you for
the wine.

Amen to that.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Screws

This is a lovely album from 2012. I review it for the benefit of anyone who seeks instrumental ambient music to play either as background or to read/speak over.

Nils Frahm suffered a broken thumb - bad news for a professional pianist.

Told, on medical orders, to leave his keyboard alone for a while he failed to resist that temptation. By the time the cast was cast off he had recorded the nine simple piano pieces you find on this album - a birthday present to me from Junior.

On the sleeve notes Frahm says, 'They have helped me feel less annoyed about my accident and reminded me that I can only achieve something good when I make the most of what I've got.'

As I re-organise a bit of this week's life due to the flare-up of my back condition, that was a useful little mantra.


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Leaving Alexandria - A Book Review

I preached a sermon a few years back when I admitted to doubts about my faith, perhaps a little too candidly. It was a Marmite sermon. People came up to me either with genuine gratitude or suggestions of resignation.

I haven't read this author before. The little voices of my rapidly-fading evangelical credentials whispered, 'Don't touch.'

But I recall hearing him speaking about an earlier book 'Godless Morality'. He argued that if you use God in any way in an ethical discussion the response 'I don't believe in God' is final. No more can be said. So, he said, Christians must learn to do their arguments informed by God but expressing them differently. Holloway ending up chairing the ethics committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. So he had secular clout.

Unusually for a thought-provoking Christian author Richard Holloway can write like a dream. It makes it easier to follow. Sometimes you have to, in the words of John Habgood, '...be determined not to let this idiot of an author prevent you getting to grips with the subject.' Not so here.

And that is a good job because the subject, as the sub-title says, is faith and doubt.

So here's a question, which I have asked myself many times: if you have doubts, does it demonstrate more faith to offer your life and career in Christian service than if you are clear and convinced? And if you do so offer, doesn't that prove that you had faith all along? It's complex, paradoxical.

Don't worry, this will be a book review.

Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit says Galatians 5. Faith is a gift of the Spirit says 1 Corinthians 12:9. This apparent contradiction suggests that somehow one can serve God in the gap between experiences of his existence. There will be times when this gap appears. 1 Samuel refers to a time when the word of the Lord was rare and there were not many visions. Yesterday's lectionary reading at Morning Prayer had Saul enquiring of the Lord but getting no answer. The disciples once had to wake Jesus and asked, in a boat mid-storm, if he cared whether they died. In other words, God is not asleep at the wheel, but sometimes it feels like that.

So this book is the story of a man who was convinced by Christian service and Catholic expressions of religion, but not so much by the heavenly destination his faith pointed to. His ministry, especially to the poor, whilst struggling with the reality behind the faith that had led him there was remarkable. He ended his stipendiary life as Primus (Archbishop) of the Scottish Episcopal Church. His learning and scholarship saw him become Gresham Professor of Divinity in the City of London.

Maybe the Catholic repetition and ritual of worship carried him on long after it had been drained of content; duty not joy. At the end he could go no more. He resigned his post and slowly, painfully left the church. He did it without great fuss.

He observes that an institution in crisis spends far too long in meetings discussing its purpose and future. Perhaps the one sentence I take away and wrestle with is the thought that out of certainty comes great evangelism, but out of doubt comes great pastoral work. Does the genuine consideration that the reward is in heaven take the edge off our desire (or need) to help the poor. In which case a belief that this life is all there is will make us determined to improve the suffering of all.

How often we reduce '...the mystery of what is beyond all utterance to chatter.'

I didn't end this book feeling sad but with gratitude for its honesty and the realisation that there is only so much honesty in this area you can exhibit as long as others will want you to retain your post. To be honest.