Friday, 22 July 2016

Anniversary ambitions

This week we celebrated our wedding anniversary. One effect (bonus?) of having a condition like MND is that such occasions take on extra significance. If you have one, you'll know what I mean. As every new day is a gift, so every landmark occasion reached is also a gift. One of the things our local MND Association branch has done for a year or two is send a cheque at New Year to people with MND in the county to spend however they want. It's a lovely gesture, since normally one's preoccupied with the mundane matters of disability.

Emily Watkins (Kingham Plough website)
From the Kingham Plough newsletter
When I received my gift in January, I knew how I wanted to spend it. One of our sons' friend had been involved in filming The Great British Menu and so we had watched it. The chef nearest to us in 2014 was Emily Watkins from The Plough in Kingham, and she won the regional round and in the final week her fish dish was chosen for the war veterans' banquet. As far as one could tell from TV, not only did she cook beautiful food but she also seemed a nice person. One day, I thought, I'd like to take Jane for a meal at her pub.....

What better excuse than a wedding anniversary meal? The whole day exceeded our expectations. It helped that the drive took us through the Cotswolds north of Burford; it helped that the day was sunny; it helped of course that it was our anniversary and we were still in love.

We were shown a table inside near the bar, but decided to sit outside in the sun. We ordered our first course - for me, smoked sea trout "Wellington"; for Jane, home-made coppa with broad bean and radish salad and three times cooked potato wedges. The bread, while we waited, was, I imagine, artisan-baked, delicious. We were surprised and delighted when Emily brought out the smoked sea trout. I'm not a gourmet or a food critic, and I have never come face-to-face with food quite this beautiful.
I won't play the TV critic by analysing the ingredients and flavour combinations, but you can see it - and you'll have to take it from me, it tasted as good as it looked. The Wellington itself had the fish itself at the centre, minced off-cuts (I think), then seared chard leaves and finally the thinnest pastry I've ever come across. It added to my enjoyment when Emily emerged from the kitchen to ask how I'd enjoyed it. She told us it was a new dish. She had had 20 goes at perfecting it - and this was the first time she'd been satisfied enough to serve it to a customer. Wow! I thought. I assured her it was brilliant. Sadly I wasn't with it enough to get a picture of us with her...!
Our puddings - sorry, desserts - were lemon posset with granola (Jane) and strawberry soufflé with clotted cream custard (me). And of course they too were lovely. So we drove home with a warm glow inside and out. 

To cap our day we spent the evening with old friends and new friends at our local coffee shop, Cornerstone, for the occasional meeting dubbed Face2Face. We shared food (again!) and music or poetry which meant something to each of us. My choice was Liszt's Les Préludes, which I first heard with Jane at an open-air concert at Kenwood House 44 years ago, intensely romantic and spiritual. Jane chose a song which resonates more with our present situation, Laura Story's Blessings, which asks questions about the mystery of unanswered prayer. She doesn't give definite answers, but keeps asking, "What if...?" To end with, Mary read a version of the Hungarian writer, Útmutató a Léleknek's often quoted/plagiarised parable, Do you believe in mother? And Pete prayed.

A rather, a very, good day - we slept gratefully and well.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

We should be angry

I was at a meeting on Thursday, discussing social media. I happened to say to someone there how hard it was to express our negative thoughts together to God. And then came along a third major atrocity in France within 18 months. 
Back at home, I heard that 84 people, including 10 children, had been killed by a man repeatedly driving a lorry into a crowd watching a Bastille Day fire​work display in Nice. At the time of writing, 54 children lie in hospital fighting for their lives. And so-called ISIS gloat over one of their "soldiers" committing an act of such deluded barbarity. How can we tell God how awful it is? How dreadful and demonic? How much we hate it? Are we allowed to? Can we find words that match the moment? Well, I think we may, we should and we can.

Photo: Huffington Post twitter
In the days when psalms were a regular part of daily Anglican worship, I've never once heard the most difficult one sung or said in its entirety. It's Psalm 137. It's one of several laments which come in the book of ​Psalms - the Jewish hymn book. It expresses the most raw pain and anger of any worship song I know.
Here it is:
By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 
How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill! 
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
    down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
    blessed shall he be who repays you
    with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!


It seems so unChristian, doesn't it? Especially those last lines. And yet... and yet, to be candid, that is the way that we feel in our inner, secret depths. "Give them exactly what they dealt out to us and our loved ones." That's natural justice. ​​​​It's a cry of utmost pain. It's how much it hurts - or it should be. It's appropriate.​ For a time anyway. And if it is​ what we feel, then pretending to God that we don't is pretty pointless. ​​Perhaps it would be good at times like this to share this psalm, even say it together, and then listen to familiar words of Jesus in Matthew 5:
 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…" 
And then be quiet for a very long time.

Monday, 27 June 2016

After the referendum diagnosis

I've been trying to explain my feelings this weekend. "Depressed" is what I said to one person on  Sunday morning. But that's not quite the right word. I think the best I can do is an analogy.

When I was diagnosed with a motor neurone disorder (MND), I was shocked. Thereafter I was living in a new world, a world I hadn't and would never have chosen, a world I really did not like. I knew some things about it, such as it would be life-limiting. The chances were that I would die quite soon, though I might just possibly be lucky and live a long time like Stephen Hawking, a life of ever increasing dependence and frustration. Whatever happened, my world was completely changed, and would affect not only me, but also my family, my friends and my colleagues. My job would be affected; my future would be different. It wasn't a pleasant prospect; it didn't promise better things. And I lived under that cloud for some time.

It's true that for me not all my worst fears have been realised. I'm still alive fourteen years later, for a start. But I've had to give up my job; my life is very prescribed. I'm very much a spectator and not a participant in what's going on. It's not that I feel sorry for myself (much). But I do know a melancholy disappointment at the increase in my isolation. And sometimes that initial cloud returns. I wouldn't say life is better now than before my MND, though it is still life and I'm still grateful to be able to enjoy it. As a family, we've just had one of those events which give me joy.

Among the good things some have arisen from ending up in a wheelchair. Not that I'd not far rather be able-bodied. It hurts like mad not being able to go with Jane on walks on the hills, along the coast, exploring cities.... It hurts a lot that Jane's life has to revolve around my needs and demands. I hate that she has to dress, drive, clean, push, cook, virtually do everything for me. But at least now I know what it feels like. So, I think, I have more empathy with the many disabled and discriminated against people in the world. And of course more understanding of facing an incurable illness. Those are good, if hard, things. Of course I don't know what lies ahead. Physically things won't get better for me. And I'm under no illusions that the NHS which has cared for me so extraordinarily well will suddenly receive a life-giving injection of cash as a result of departing the EU - the opposite, I fear.

Photo: Escapeartist.com
So, after Thursday, I'm living in a new world, not one I chose, not one I like, but I shall have to come to terms with it. It's revealed a diagnosis of a fractured, disunited kingdom, with propensities to greed and hatred, and a national body whose parts are severely, if not terminally, out of sync with each other. I'm afraid I'm unable to share some people's jubilation about it. I don't share acquaintances' delight and conviction that "we have been saved by praying women". However, I've no doubt we shall survive and find some good redeemed from the sad mess of the past month (indeed years). I trust so, although I fear for too many it will bring only pain and grief. That's how I feel.

So it doesn't really help to tell me to pull myself together or to tell me that it will all be for the best. Nor that it's God's will - or his judgment. Just possibly you might be right, but it's not awfully helpful.

Friday, 24 June 2016

After the ball is over

This post is, to be honest, for my own therapy.
www.freeimages.com

At shortly before six this morning Jane turned on the radio and we heard the end of the all-night referendum broadcast and the news that the Leave campaign had won a slim majority. The United Kingdom would leave the EU. My stomach sank as the markets had done. Well, I don't want to bore anyone with my disappointment. However, I was uncharacteristically moved when David Cameron announced that he would in due course resign and I wasn't unduly surprised to see Nigel Farage soon rowing back on the £35 million a week to the NHS promise of the Brexit battlebus ("It was a mistake").

Many, though not all, my friends on Facebook expressed their shock, shame, sadness and even anger over the outcome. I was particularly sorry for the younger generation whom I think have been let down. A YouGov poll indicated that they overwhelmingly wanted to remain:
I can do no better than apologise to my children and their generation. (Our district, if it's any consolation, voted for remaining in by a majority of 13%.) However I suspect that this country will become and feel very different in the years to come, less open, less friendly and less tolerant. Less European - and I regret that. I devoutly hope that our vote will not unleash a wave of nationalism across the continent, but I fear it will, and that would be more than tragic.

The final word I will leave with a good friend who cares about people: "Heavy feeling everywhere. Son in law up all night worrying about the markets; next door neighbour in street worrying about mortgage. I feel a deep wistfulness for 18s to 25s, 70% in favour of remain; shame before Poles and Romanians, who work cheerfully and hard at jobs many of us would turn up our noses at; fear for the most vulnerable immigrant communities, who must understand this message, especially asylum seeker friend of mine in the country for 13 years and more and still without permission to stay. Also a shamed awe before the forgotten working classes in outer estates, forgotten by people like me in our leafy suburbs, who have no one speaking up for them, in many ways completely helpless before a world not on their side, except for this act of political vandalism, that ultimately won't help them. 'The weight of this sad time we must obey' (Lear)."

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

I am voting REMAIN

I'm a bit upset to find that my post in which I expressed my doubts about the EU has widely been taken as an indication that I was in favour of Brexit. It is true that I was leaning that way, but all in the end I said was that "I ha'e my doots". Since then I have clearly said that I am going to vote to Remain. That however has not had such wide circulation.

So I want to make my position quite clear. As the final days of the campaign have unfolded, the barely disguised racism and xenophobia of the Brexiteers has more than saddened me, appealing as it does to the basest tribal instincts in us. Moreover, although they talk about the fear tactics of the Remain campaign (with a modicum of justice), their scaremongering is even worse. As a Christian one of things that most saddens me is to hear other Christians implying that the middle-east refugee crisis is an Islamic plot to flood "Christian Europe" with Muslims, and thus imperil the Church in this country. The corollary of this that they would choose a religion-based immigration policy (similar to Donald Trump's "no Muslim" policy). It seems to me that this totally fails to see the fact that the refugees are not seeking to invade but to escape unimaginable destruction and suffering caused in part by so-called Christian powers. It seems to me utterly inhumane. It's also a failure of faith in  Christ's promise that not even the gates of hell would prevail against his Church.

That is to say nothing of the immorality of the Brexit cure-all for immigration, the quota system. This is based on a points system such as the one used in Australia, which is designed to limit entrance to those with skills that are needed here. Skills like doctors, nurses, teachers, for example. Sounds sensible - until you take the trouble to think of the consequences for the émigrés' nations. These will generally be poor and developing countries who have funded these professionals' training and who need their skills more than we do. In fact their development depends on such people far more than on aid. What the quota system does is contribute to increasing the rich/poor divide in the world. It is the epitome of unneighbourliness.

It is a pity, it seems to me, that we have not heard more of the positive reasons to remain, which I briefly alluded to previously. The best summary I have come across is this.


"We are convinced that working together is vital for our human family. Our vision is for a world where all people live in peace with the opportunity to thrive. We believe that Britain’s membership of the European Union is a key way we can help make that happen. Here are five reasons why:
1. Peace and security. The European Union was established in the aftermath of two world wars to build and maintain peace in Europe. In 70 years, it has made European war unimaginable by bringing together leaders in co-operation, not conflict. Against the borderless threat of terror, the people of Europe are stronger together. By remaining in the EU, Britain will not only continue to be a part of this project but help lead it.
2. Community. Through our membership of the EU, Britain belongs to a community that crosses national borders to work for our mutual benefit. A community that celebrates inclusion and diversity enriches all its members.
3. The environment. Climate change and air pollution do not stop at borders. Every nation needs to take action to tackle them and protect our environment worldwide. The EU has taken a strong lead through binding agreements that commit its members to specific action leading to lasting change. Our membership of the EU has the welfare of all humanity in its sights by protecting the planet that is our common home.
4. Human dignity and social justice. The EU was founded on a strong emphasis on the solidarity that promotes and protects human rights. By being part of the EU, many basic rights we now take for granted have been protected. The EU also stands up for justice for those outside the EU, for example in relation to international development and human trafficking, matters that can only be tackled with international cooperation.
5. Prosperity. Inside a free trade area with access to its markets, British businesses – small and large – are able to export goods and to prosper. Millions of jobs have been created, and hundreds of billions of pounds of investment have helped strengthen our economy." (from Christians for Europe)
That the future of the planet could be affected might seem far-fetched, and yet it is true that global warming knows no boundaries. A friend, Martin Hodson, who's a leader in environmental studies, wrote this, "I work a lot in this area, and the EU has been very good for the environment. We need to work together to tackle problems like climate change." 
I watched John Snow interviewing the war veteran, Franklin Medhurst, on Channel 4 last night. His message was clear. He wrote it in a moving letter to the Guardian. 
"It is helpful to be old, for in my lifetime I have seen world population increase threefold; a stable seasonal climate become wildly unstable with drought, forest fires and floods; the pollution by humanity of the planet’s earth, air and waters to a stage where all life is threatened; and violence become a permanent, continuous tragedy in a world of great uncertainty.

The only stable community in this universal upheaval has been the European Union, formed from the wreckage of a continent for which I and millions of others fought six years of war. I write as a former airman, having flown well over 2,000 hours against three despotic enemy nations. That victory for the democracies has given Europe 70 years of peace and security in a widely unstable world. The “leave” chancers are campaigning to abandon this steady progress, citing values false or irrelevant, while they have no plan of what to do after jumping ship.
If the nation should fall for this deceit I can only conclude that the lives of my comrades – Irish, Scots, Welsh and English – were lost in vain. They will be rattling their bones, wherever in the world they fell, at the loss of the beliefs for which they fought.
Britain in Europe will enhance progress to higher values in the greater world; Britain out means a return to the early-20th-century chaos of warring states against each other.
I am 96. I remember how far we have come. I know what we stand to lose.
Franklin Medhurst, DFC (RAF 1939-46)
Carlton, County Durham"
It seems to me tragic that so many are now wishing the break-up of the union that rose from the ashes of two dreadful wars and has been the basis for peace and stability since then. I know it is dressed up in jingoistic language, like taking back control and Britain being great again. But actually it is such a little vision. As the great poet said, "No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in MankindAnd therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." The fact is that Europe needs us - and we need Europe. It's not that the EU is perfect. No one on either side of the Channel believes that. So we need to be a part of it in order to be part of the discussions which will contribute to its reform and improvement, for our neighbours' and for our own sake. We will be better remaining together. 
Hence I shall be voting that we Remain.

I am voting REMAIN

I'm a bit upset to find that my post in which I expressed my doubts about the EU has widely been taken as an indication that I was in favour of Brexit. It is true that I was leaning that way, but all in the end I said was that "I ha'e my doots". Since then I have clearly said that I am going to vote to Remain. That however has not had such wide circulation.

So I want to make my position quite clear. As the final days of the campaign have unfolded, the barely disguised racism and xenophobia of the Brexiteers has more than saddened me, appealing as it does to the basest tribal instincts in us. Moreover, although they talk about the fear tactics of the Remain campaign (with a modicum of justice), their scaremongering is even worse. As a Christian one of things that most saddens me is to hear other Christians implying that the middle-east refugee crisis is an Islamic plot to flood "Christian Europe" with Muslims, and thus imperil the Church in this country. The corollary of this that they would choose a religion-based immigration policy (similar to Donald Trump's "no Muslim" policy). It seems to me that this totally fails to see the fact that the refugees are not seeking to invade but to escape unimaginable destruction and suffering caused in part by so-called Christian powers. It seems to me utterly inhumane. It's also a failure of faith in  Christ's promise that not even the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church.

It is a pity, it seems to me, that we have not heard more of the positive reasons to remain, which I briefly alluded to previously. The best summary I have come across is this.


"We are convinced that working together is vital for our human family. Our vision is for a world where all people live in peace with the opportunity to thrive. We believe that Britain’s membership of the European Union is a key way we can help make that happen. Here are five reasons why:
1. Peace and security. The European Union was established in the aftermath of two world wars to build and maintain peace in Europe. In 70 years, it has made European war unimaginable by bringing together leaders in co-operation, not conflict. Against the borderless threat of terror, the people of Europe are stronger together. By remaining in the EU, Britain will not only continue to be a part of this project but help lead it.
2. Community. Through our membership of the EU, Britain belongs to a community that crosses national borders to work for our mutual benefit. A community that celebrates inclusion and diversity enriches all its members.
3. The environment. Climate change and air pollution do not stop at borders. Every nation needs to take action to tackle them and protect our environment worldwide. The EU has taken a strong lead through binding agreements that commit its members to specific action leading to lasting change. Our membership of the EU has the welfare of all humanity in its sights by protecting the planet that is our common home.
4. Human dignity and social justice. The EU was founded on a strong emphasis on the solidarity that promotes and protects human rights. By being part of the EU, many basic rights we now take for granted have been protected. The EU also stands up for justice for those outside the EU, for example in relation to international development and human trafficking, matters that can only be tackled with international cooperation.
5. Prosperity. Inside a free trade area with access to its markets, British businesses – small and large – are able to export goods and to prosper. Millions of jobs have been created, and hundreds of billions of pounds of investment have helped strengthen our economy." (from Christians for Europe)
That the future of the planet could be affected might seem far-fetched, and yet it is true that global warming knows no boundaries. A friend, Martin Hodson, who's a leader in environmental studies, wrote this, "I work a lot in this area, and the EU has been very good for the environment. We need to work together to tackle problems like climate change." 
I watched John Snow interviewing the war veteran, Franklin Medhurst, on Channel 4 last night. His message was clear. He wrote it in a moving letter to the Guardian. 
"It is helpful to be old, for in my lifetime I have seen world population increase threefold; a stable seasonal climate become wildly unstable with drought, forest fires and floods; the pollution by humanity of the planet’s earth, air and waters to a stage where all life is threatened; and violence become a permanent, continuous tragedy in a world of great uncertainty.

The only stable community in this universal upheaval has been the European Union, formed from the wreckage of a continent for which I and millions of others fought six years of war. I write as a former airman, having flown well over 2,000 hours against three despotic enemy nations. That victory for the democracies has given Europe 70 years of peace and security in a widely unstable world. The “leave” chancers are campaigning to abandon this steady progress, citing values false or irrelevant, while they have no plan of what to do after jumping ship.
If the nation should fall for this deceit I can only conclude that the lives of my comrades – Irish, Scots, Welsh and English – were lost in vain. They will be rattling their bones, wherever in the world they fell, at the loss of the beliefs for which they fought.
Britain in Europe will enhance progress to higher values in the greater world; Britain out means a return to the early-20th-century chaos of warring states against each other.
I am 96. I remember how far we have come. I know what we stand to lose.
Franklin Medhurst, DFC (RAF 1939-46)
Carlton, County Durham"
It seems to me tragic that so many are now wishing the break-up of the union that rose from the ashes of two dreadful wars and has been the basis for peace and stability since then. I know it is dressed up in jingoistic language, like taking back control and Britain being great again. But actually it is such a little vision. As the great poet said, "No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in MankindAnd therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." The fact is that Europe needs us - and we need Europe. It's not that the EU is perfect. No one on either side of the Channel believes that. So we need to be a part of it in order to be part of the discussions which will contribute to its reform and improvement, for our neighbours' and for our own sake. We will be better remaining together. 
Hence I shall be voting that we Remain.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Jo Cox - RIP

On Thursday a graduate of the same college as I went to in Cambridge was murdered. She was a 41-year old mother of two. Her name was Jo Cox. Soon the referendum hubbub was silenced. The press changed its usual tune from cynicism to praising politicians. We were reminded that people can and do enter the political arena, not from selfish ambition but out of the desire to make the world a better place.

Jo Cox had spent most of her working life in humanitarian service with Oxfam, Save the Children and the NSPCC. Within a year of being elected to Parliament in 2015, she was jointly chairing the all party Syria group and speaking up for the Syrian refugee children stranded in Europe. And yet on Thursday outside her Yorkshire constituency office, she was attacked and killed by a sick man who in court gave his name as "Death to traitors, freedom for Britain", whose real name is Thomas Mair and who seems to have been obsessed with neo-Nazi literature. Whether the man was influenced by the xenophobia peddled by some politicians and journalists, whether he disliked Jo Cox's pro-European stance, or simply her willingness to mix with support people of all colours, races and creeds, or whether he was suffering from an acute mental illness, we can't know. Perhaps it was a lethal cocktail of all of them.

Until her attack and death hit the news, I confess I did not know about her. But as her story and the tributes from all directions poured in, I soon gathered what an exceptional and lovely person she was, as is her husband, Brendan. When she died, he tweeted this touching photo of her beside the boat that was their London home on the Thames. The more I read, the more I thought, "She would have made a really great prime minister." To which Jane commented, "Not that I'd have wished it on her." However, in my view, she had the quality and talent that would have made her one of the best prime ministers of modern times. (Not a great accolade, you might think.)


One of the quotations that has appeared on Facebook since Thursday is poignant. The words with which it ends are especially so, because as history would have it she did risk life and limb, for the sake not only of her children but also for the thousands who have no one to speak for them. And the path she took cost her life.
I'm not sure that the by-line "Another angry voice" quite captures the spirit of Jo Cox. I suspect it is better represented by the man who knew her best, her husband, in the remarkable statement he issued on Thursday:

“Today is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. More difficult, more painful, less joyful, less full of love. I and Jo’s friends and family are going to work every moment of our lives to love and nurture our kids and to fight against the hate that killed Jo.

 “Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people.

“She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.

“Jo would have no regrets about her life, she lived every day of it to the full.”

As one of my friends commented, "Love wins." We have to believe it. We have to work at it. We have to love.

One way you can express a little love is to contribute to Jo Cox's Fund, set up in her memory by her friends and family, at GoFundMe.