Wednesday, 17 January 2018

For whom the bells toll

Courcieux (Wikipedia fr)
I’m really annoyed at Carillion. I don’t know where they got their name from, but it’s very close to the sound I first heard camping with our family in the pretty village of Courcieux in the Vosges Mountains. From the campsite we could hear the “carillon” of bells from St Mary of the Assumption’s church, playing a hymn. That was a great holiday.

However, my annoyance can be as nothing to the desperation of those tens of thousands affected by the collapse of Carillion, the second biggest construction and services company in the country – not only those employed directly but also those working for its subcontractors. Small and medium-sized companies face bankruptcy. Workers are likely to lose jobs and pensions, facing insecurity for themselves and their families. Meanwhile the bosses of Carillion, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall as far back as 2016, tried to ring-fence their bonuses and their pay, so that despite the collapse of the huge firm they ran they would continue to receive their 6-figure salaries for another nine months. Carillion bosses rewards (The Week)

And it appears that the function of the company (and others like it) was merely to tender for government contracts, at the lowest possible price to undercut other bidders, and then to subcontract the work to smaller companies which they squeezed in one way or another such as delaying payments. On the way they bought up potential competition such as the old family construction firms, McAlpines and Laings, thus reducing the field of those available for tendering. So what in effect did they do? To my amateur eye it seems they acted as middle men between public authorities and private contractors, a role once carried out in-house by central and local government – and of course they creamed off profits for the directors, management and shareholders. A prodigal waste of public money.
Photo: The Week

I watched Prime Minister’s Questions today, hoping to see some depth of sympathy at the impending flood of human misery which the Carillion collapse is about to unleash and some real anger at malpractice that led to it. But not at all! I appreciate that the government did not “manage” Carillion, as Mrs May pointed out, but their due diligence must be up for question. But what I saw as she talked about it was precious little genuine concern from the front bench, just nods – but of course they are not about to lose their livelihoods. And there was no recognition that the Carillion affair is a stress-test for the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and it has revealed its fatal flaw. Private profit is no partner for public works.

It’s to be hoped that this Carillion carillon is tolling the death knell of the whole ill-conceived PFI project, and ringing in a new dawn for the tens of thousands of our neighbours whose future is now so uncertain.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Books of grief

I’ve just finished an excellent short book which we were lent. It’s One for Sorrow by Alan Hargrave, who is now retired as a vicar.

It “relates the story of the loss of 21-year-old Tom to cancer, and how his family lived through the aftermath. When Alan began writing the memoir, he believed it would be about his son’s illness and death. He soon realized, however, that he was recording his own painful journey through the ‘valley of the shadow’, as a father and as someone responsible for ministering to others in similar situations. His core beliefs were challenged and his perspective on life changed.

“Now retired, Alan is passionate about the capacity we all have to grow through adversity and, like our crucified God, rise up from pain and death to live and love and laugh again.
Inspired by the classic poem, and beautifully and poignantly written, this memoir is destined to become a classic.” So goes the publisher’s (SPCK) blurb.

My reaction was relief that Mr Hargrave is searingly honest – about the pain, the despair and his doubt, and indeed his loss of faith during bereavement. It’s refreshing to hear a vicar reacting to a verse often trotted out as comfort to the suffering: “It’s a load of bullshit.” None of the usual anodyne platitudes cut through the pain of losing a son. In the end we are reminded that in Christian thought we have a God who has been there too.

What took me by surprise was the incident that reduced me to tears. It wasn’t Tom’s death, harrowing though that is; it was Mr Hargrave’s farewell to the church where he’d been vicar to become a canon at Ely Cathedral. On reflection, I suppose it was a sign of how affected I was by my enforced retirement, though I didn’t feel it at the time. The writer describes how three years after Tom’s death, in the Ryder Cup, Europe “creamed” the USA. “Yet, the following week I feel terrible, plunged into a deep, dark place of depression and anger. I cannot understand why. Then I remember why. What happens the week after you win the Ryder Cup? Answer: your son dies.” Tickets to see the Ryder Cup at the Belfry were Tom’s last present to his father, who loves playing and watching golf. Maybe I miss being a vicar more than I admit.

This is the second book I’ve read recently by a parent who lost a son to cancer. The first was ‘End to End’ – with love by Lorraine George, about her son Rob. That was a similarly harrowing account of an equally painful dying. They are quite different books about individual families’ experience; what they have in common is ruthless honesty. And, I suppose the truth is that no two deaths are the same. However, it may be comforting for others going through similar bereavements to know that they are not alone.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

A Happy New Year

Well, my nightmare hasn’t actually happened. We’re still here, stuck in to 2018.

A new year! I’m not a great one for New Year’s resolutions, mainly because I’m so rotten at keeping them. However, I think this year I might have a try. My resolution is to “but no buts” – of course, the spelling is important! To butt a butt is entirely different, and something I have no intention of doing that either, even if I could.

I guess you’d recognise the sort of thing I’m talking about. Someone says, “I’m not a racist, BUT…” Or “I’ve nothing against her – I’m sure she’s a nice enough person – BUT…” And the bit that comes after the BUT always contradicts the bit before. It’s prejudice disguised as politeness. In fact it’s sheer dishonesty.  

An uncomfortable test is to reverse the sentences. Some B&B owners in the 1960s put signs in their windows reading, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”. They might have claimed they weren’t discriminating. However, put it the other way round and the truth is clear: “I don’t want any of them in my B&B; therefore, I AM a racist.” Or, “You know, she’s one of those immigrants who take all our jobs; so I DO have a lot against her.” We shouldn’t kid ourselves with the “I’ve nothing against” lie. But me no buts!

Shakespeare never said, “but me no buts”, as prime minister, Jim Hacker, wrongly thought. It came much later. However much earlier Jesus did say, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’, and let your ‘no’ be’no’.” In other words, don’t dress up what you say in disguise. Say what you mean. But that isn’t an excuse for being rude or hurting others. Because he also said, "Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you.” And he said we’ll be judged by our careless words. That means, whatever we utter matters hugely. Ouch!

So in 2018 I’m going to try to follow the three gold tests my mother told us children to ask before we spoke. “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” Happy New Year, everyone.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Nuclear nightmare

Last night I had the first nightmare I have had for decades about nuclear war. I imagine that I last dreamed about it during the cold war – or maybe the Yom Kippur War. Last night I saw an American rocket taking off. It was quickly followed by a nuclear explosion which was approaching burning up an oak tree. “Don’t look at it,” I said to the woman next to me. But it was too late. Brighter than a thousand suns, it swept towards us. We were blind.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

MND matters

Quite a full seven days to do with MND inter al for us. 

We drove to London on 16th under a red sun and a livid sky. It was weirdly beautiful. That evening we shared a great mixed meze at Galata Pera (, a Turkish restaurant by the river in Brentford, with a long-standing friend. It was the best meal I’ve enjoyed in London (except the one cooked for me by my then girl-friend many years ago!). The next morning we made our way to the QEII Centre in Westminster where there was to be an APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group) and MNDA (Motor Neurone Disease Association) Reception. But before that we shared a drink with the admirable Vicky Beeching ( She is one of the bravest women I have ever met – and I have met many of them. She is gentle and strong, and full of integrity. The abuse and trolling when she came out was without understanding, compassion or excuse.
With Vicky Beeching at the QEII Centre

Then it was upstairs to the Parliamentary Reception, which was a very moving experience. The sandwiches were nice, but the meat of the event were the keynote speeches and the conversations with MPs. The speeches were given by Chris Evans MP who is an officer of the APPG on MND, Rob Owen who is living with MND, TV Presenter and MND Association Patron Charlotte Hawkins, and Penny Mordaunt MP, Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health. Undoubtedly the most impressive were those given by Rob Owen and Charlotte Hawkins.

Rob Owen talked about his experience of applying for PIP (Personal Independence Payment), the benefit granted to people with extra financial demands from ill-health and disability. In brief he was first assessed by a health professional who understood his needs. Later he was called for reassessment, which was carried out this time by a non-professional – and his monthly payment was reduced. Nonsensical since MND is an untreatable degenerative disease. When he queried it, he was again treated to an amateur tick-box assessment and had his payment removed entirely. It was only by formally appealing to a panel including a magistrate and a medic that he was given the maximum amount of PIP – backdated to the beginning. What a waste of nervous energy and taxpayers’ money!
With Charlotte Hawkins

Charlotte Hawkins talked from the point of view of family, and painted a vivid picture of watching someone you love die from MND; as she put it, seeing the person you love disappear before your eyes. Her father died in 2015. She moved us all and opened MPs’ eyes to the reality of the disease. (You can hear the speeches here: MNDA Parliamentary Reception).

With Robert Courts MP
Sadly only one of the six Oxfordshire MPs came to the reception. Indeed although I had sent a personal invitation to my local MP, I did not receive so much as an apology – simply a proforma bit of party-political spiel about how much the government cares about conditions like MND… a week after the event. You might tell I’m not overly impressed! However, at least, new MP, Robert Courts, from Witney was there, and listened and was concerned.

The focus of the reception was to inform parliamentarians both about the disease and its costs – and how important it is that people who have it receive the support they need WHEN they need it, which in the vast majority of cases is very quickly as the disease so rapidly removes your independence. And of course how unnecessary reassessment is with a progressive degenerative disease, assuming it’s been correctly carried out in the first place.

And so back home – and this week. On Tuesday Jane forewent her usual gym class so that we could attend my fourth and final meeting of the Oxford MND Care Centre Steering Group. I’ve been the patient representative. I’ve said often how excellent the Centre here is. We have two top-rate consultants (who happen also to be professors), a specialist nurse (who coordinates the show), an OT (who is the country’s expert on wheelchairs for neurological patients) plus access to specialist physios and respiratory nurses. The local MNDA branch also supplies volunteers who welcome you and make sure you know what’s going on and who to see when. Part of the meeting was devoted to an audit which, I think, the Centre has to do in order to continue to be recognised (and supported) by the MNDA. There’s a danger, it seems to me, of extending the already pervasive evil culture of performance indicators. The Oxford Centre is always working at improving and being responsive to patients’ needs. It doesn’t need to waste its health professionals’ time in filling out tick boxes and sending out questionnaires.

The Association faces the understandable dilemma of not wanting to fund what should be statutory provisions, such as nurses or dieticians, and yet there are charities which successfully augment the NHS – such as Macmillan Care, Marie Curie and many others. The MNDA is comparatively well supported with an income of £17,391,000 in the 11 months up to December last year. The staff (189 of them) cost £6,268,000, for whom private medical insurance (!) was £43,000. I wonder if they could fund some hospice beds or nursing home rooms – or even adapted holiday places. Don’t get me wrong; the MNDA is a very effective charity and does a great deal of good for us, particularly at the local level. I wonder if it just might be a tad top-heavy.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

A book worth waiting for

Tanya Marlow, Those who Wait  2017

For an evangelical (i.e. Bible-believing) Christian to confess that the Bible no longer excites and delights him sounds like heresy. However, I suspect I am not alone among my generation in feeling that way. We read it (or even study it occasionally) out of duty or habit, but it doesn’t feel “living and active”, as we are told it is. It has become over-familiar. We know the stories and the lessons well; we have after all heard them or read them often over the years, and we or they have become jaded. It is only the exceptional teacher or preacher who revives its immediacy for us.

Tanya Marlow is one of those exceptional teachers. Sadly we are denied listening to her as she has suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis for over twenty years and been largely confined to her bed for the last seven of them. (See Tanya Marlow talking about ME.) However she writes a blog called “Thorns and Gold” (Tanya's website and blog), and has written a downloadable book. Now she has written Those who Wait (Malcolm Down Publishing, £9.99), which looks at four characters in the Bible and their experience of waiting: Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary. What Tanya does is imagine them telling their own stories. However her retelling is always backed up with scholarship, the book ending with discussion about the theological and historical issues involved on the way. Each character’s story is told in five short chapters, with pauses for reflection after each. Finally there is a section entitled, “The God who waits”, reminding us that we are not alone in the experience of waiting.

I think this is a brilliant book. For one thing it’s multi-purpose! You can use it for personal devotion; you can use it in group studies; a church fellowship could use it for Advent (you might detect the characters follow an Advent pattern, beginning with the patriarchs and prophets). Mainly it’s brilliant in the way it shines light on the Bible narrative, reminding us that it’s about God’s interaction with people like us and their reaction to him in their own struggles with life. Tanya Marlow shows us, not only does the Bible engage with real people, but through it we can find a God who’s concerned with the issues where the rubber hits the road. The section headings illustrate this: “Sarah’s story – Dealing with Disappointment; Waiting for Joy”, “Isaiah’s story – Dealing with Delay; Waiting for Peace”, “John the Baptist’s story – Dealing with Doubt; Waiting for Justice”, “Mary’s story – Dealing with Disgrace; Waiting for Jesus”. If you’ve never been troubled by any of those eight concerns, the book will probably be of only academic interest to you; but if you recognise them, this book will encourage you that you’re not alone, and that you’ve not been forgotten by the Comforter who caused the stories to be written in the first place.

I’ve read quite few Lent and Advent books over the years. This is quite the most readable and exciting I’ve come across. I loved the way it reengaged me with the Bible by quite unexpected roads. I especially liked the Celtic-like blessings after each character’s section, such as this:
“May you who are cloaked in and choked by cynicism
Be broken by the grace of God.
May you who are in hiding
Find God’s hands held out to you
As an open invitation of love.
May you see God’s face when it all feels too late,
And may you encounter the God who sees you, knows you, loves you still.


I suspect that this vibrant book is the product of years of enforced silence and frustration, rather like a minor prophet's. It will probably have a wider audience than Tanya would ever had from one pulpit or conference platform. My hope is that it will have a huge circulation. It deserves it.

(Those who Wait is published on 16th October, and can be ordered from Wordery and other online and retail outlets, I believe.)

Friday, 29 September 2017

Playboy Hefner dies

Hugh Hefner, whose death was announced yesterday, wasn't, one gathers, the nicest of men - although he does have his advocates among those who knew him well and those who regard him as a vanguard of progressive values. I might harbour doubts about his ethics, though there's no doubting his business acumen in cashing in on the mores of the post-war years. However, my single brush with the Playboy empire was quite different.

40 years ago Jane and I had been married for three years and had started a family, with our first child. I was teaching in my second teaching post at our local Catholic comprehensive near Watford. We didn’t have much spare cash, and had bought a grey two-door Morris Minor from a clearly trustworthy gentleman who was involved in a religious youth movement.  

My wife’s parents had a holiday home in the Isle of Wight. Our new (old) car’s first long run was to visit them there. To avoid the traffic we set off very early with our daughter on the back seat in her rectangular no-frills cumbersome brown carrycot – there were no fancy multi-purpose buggies in those days and of course no M3. All was fine and carefree until we were well away from London. I think we’d got as far as Hampshire down the A3 when the engine began to stutter; and steam – or was it smoke? – billowed out from beneath the bonnet. We pulled off the road. The first thing to do was to rescue our daughter from the back seat before the car caught fire. Then what? No AA membership and anyway no mobile phones. And hardly any traffic. The only thing must be to walk until we found a garage.

I don’t know if we prayed, but at that moment a white Ford Escort drew up and an attractive blonde emerged, and asked if we needed any help. By now it was clear that the radiator had run dry. The young lady knew the road and told us there was a garage a mile or so down the road. She offered to drive us there. While my Jane looked after our daughter with our car and belongings, I went with our rescuer to the garage for some water. She then drove me back to our car, where I was able to put enough in to get us on our way again. (Subsequently we repaired the radiator with sealant.)

It was only as she drove away that we noticed the small sticker on the rear of her car. It was the unmistakable Playboy rabbit silhouette. We concluded that she was a bunny girl driving home after a long night on duty. I’m sure we thanked her at the time. But if she should ever read this, we’d love say thank you again, for an unexpected act of kindness in rescuing a desperate young family by the roadside. I like to think we met an angel in disguise that early morning.