Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Seasonal surprise

Oh yes. I meant to mention something exciting that happened on Christmas morning. In the full church were a number of old friends like the rising stand-up comedian of the north-west, Alan Dawes. Also there was a regional leader from the Torch Trust for the Blind, who told me there was a possibility of 'My Donkeybody' being added to their library of large print, braille and audio books - which I'd be delighted about. There are quite a lot of people who can no longer read conventional books, not least with MND, and who I think would enjoy MDB. So I'm really hoping my publishers will agree to Torch taking it on.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Seasonal 'upsets'

On Christmas Day we had a power cut here at about 12.30 pm. Inconvenient, you might think? Here it's something more than that, because most of the village isn't on gas. Turkeys in the oven.... and for the next few hours, there they sat, nothing happening. One family I know was OK, because their calor gas oven had eventually arrived and been connected on Christmas Eve; another family decamped to in laws a few miles away; another, in the absence of TV of course, played good old-fashioned games, until the power came back on. And of course central heating didn't work. People lit up their fires, but one family found jackdaws had nested in the chimney and the house filled with smoke. The only thing was to open the windows - and it was cold here, on Christmas Day. We were lucky, because for some reason - maybe because we're next door to the nursing home - our full power was restored within the hour, and our sprouts got cooked on a camping stove.

It WAS a minor inconvenience on the scale of these things. The last time something similar happened was about 15 years ago. But we've complained enough about it. Yet at the same time bombs have been raining down in the Gaza strip and rockets and mortars flying into Israel. The cholera epidemic still rages in Zimbabwe. Killing continues in Afghanistan, and everywhere of course.

Last night I listened to Radio 4's News Review of 2008, presented by that nice broadcaster, Ed Stourton (recently ousted from his seat on the Today Programme in a somewhat unseemly fashion). There were some highlights of course in the gloom, deepening since mid September with the credit crunch soon sinking into recession. People seemed agreed that the one piece of indisputable history would prove to be the election of Barack Obama as President of the USA. Poor man, talk about a crushing weight of expectation! Expected to save the US banks, car industry, to say nothing of the global economy; to extricate the US from Iraq; to solve global warming (remind you of King Canute?); and now newspapers reckon the Middle East is in need of his magic powers. Sorry, world, you're in for disappointment. He may be a remarkable man, but he's not a god. You need to look elsewhere for the answer. Give you a clue: Christ-mas.

Of course, there's not a simple solution to all that's wrong with the world at the moment. Well, there is, and there isn't. It's as simple as a change of attitude of 100% of humanity, and as improbable as that. If everyone looked out for their neighbours before themselves, things would be different. The secret is getting and sustaining that change.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Do vicars do nothing?

Or to be more exact, does THIS one never do anything? It's an accusation I sometimes hear from a special needs' teacher I know. I don't blame her, because when she comes to church here she does often find me sitting in the congregation.... And I suppose you, dear blog reader, might feel the same. 'Surely Christmas MUST give him something to write about. Has NOTHING happened in his little world?' Well, my excuse is I've just had too much happening. I've been too busy. I'm sorry if you feel neglected. Nothing personal.

Hopefully you'll have been following instead Aleem Maqbool's progress from Nazareth to Bethlehem in company with a donkey (or to be more exact five donkeys in succession) on the BBC. His favourite was No 3, the magic donkey, which I think he got onto in a couple of days having had bad experiences with his first two. No 4 wasn't much better, though she looked all right, and No 5 only had to get from the Donkey Sanctuary near Bethlehem into 'the city of David'. The fact that the Bible doesn't mention Mary and Joseph using a donkey doesn't matter, as the main interest turned out to be the ground level view at walking pace of that incredibly divided area. It's worth reading - and while you do, you might like to guess which donkey I identified with most!

However it's true I'm a lot slower doing all the stuff I used to plough through before Christmas. But we still had a good Christmas here. A nice country celebration, Carols by Candlelight, Crib Service, 'Midnight' Communion (actually ours is at 10 o'clock, dating back to when the Anchor's throwing out time was 11 on Christmas Eve - the church is on the main path through the village) and then a full house on Christmas morning. I don't know how many came through the church over the week. I guess about 350 to 400. Which suggests that faith isn't dead, or even dying. Which I hope gives some people who say God has had his day pause for thought.

Of course popularity is no proof of truth, any more than voting on Strictly Come Dancing indicates the best dancer. Personally I thought Tom Chambers and Camilla Dallerup's show dance WAS a show stopper, ideally suited to him, even though I'd accept the judges' verdict that he wasn't the best all-round dancer. But the people voted with their 'phones. Coming back to Christmas, it stretches scepticism beyond reason to doubt the fact of Jesus' birth. And that's the foundation of the good news, that the creator of the universe lived a human existence. And it's good news for everyone, so the more get to hear it the better as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

News this week

Just back from my one celebrity engagement, 'turning on' the lights of the Stanford Village Christmas tree, except of course my good friend Peter had to do the physical throwing the switch as I couldn't get to it. Still there we were on the Green, the handbell-ringers playing and the rest of us singing carols. Ah, village life.

If only life was all that simple. But it's not. Much of this week, it feels, I've spent thinking about assisted suicide, prompted by the film on Sky on Wednesday night of Craig Ewert dying in the Dignitas clinic in Zurich. He had MND, I guess his type was ALS as it was more aggressive than mine, though his speech was clearer than mine has been for a long time. Not having a dish I only watched the clips that Sky released for the news channels. I'm not sure I'd have wanted to watch the entire thing. To be honest, I don't think showing suicide of any sort on TV is helpful. I'd not want to make a judgement about those who take their own lives. I have a buried a number, and it always seems to me that we're not in a position to plumb the depths of such a person's mind and soul. I know that I don't want to choose that exit route and actually I don't think I'm entitled to, for reasons I outlined in the chapter 'Enigma' in 'My Donkeybody'.

It was a surprise on Wednesday when I received an email from my publishers saying The Independent would like to run an article for the next day on assisted suicide from my point of view. 'Wow!' I thought. 'I'm not sure I can be coherent enough. But better give it a go.' Fortunately the journalist who contacted me was very helpful and suggested cutting and editing extracts from the book, with additional bits to link it to the news items. So that's what I did, and it ended up on three pages, with the headline, 'I don't want the right to die.' What took me back somewhat was the reaction to the feature of commenters on the website. I thought Independent readers would read thoughtfully and argue rationally! Maybe it's just internet commenters who don't.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Correcting mistakes

I hope Rob from Sheffield won't mind my quoting at length his comment on my last post. He writes from experience of working with many people with Down's Syndrome, and although he agreed with my feeling that we are more tolerant of disabilities he warned against over-optimism:

'The problem seems to arise when families are no longer able to care for people who cannot independently cope physically and/or mentally. They then have to turn to charitable organisations or the State for residential care.

'Facilities are limited and a strong case has to be put forward for appropriate care. All to often people who have Downs are reliant on the determination and articulate presentation by parents, carers or advocates to get results! Like life, it is very much a lottery.

'Down's children are living much longer these days and whilst there are some, as with other disabilities, that can cope with life fairly independently to a good age, the infrastructure they/we rely on is not always that reliable!

'We have moved a long way with social integration, but there is still, in my opinion some distance to go.'

I take your point, Rob. It's well made and worth repeating.

And to be honest I think it's fundamentally more important than most that grabs the headlines these days - even than our economic woes, even though I must admit that I can foresee only increasing gloom on that front and a lot of personal misery, especially with those who can't afford it. It was with some astonishment that I heard about the troubles of the Large Hadron Collider (which I was so excited about, when it was launched). Apparently it was caused by a single electrical fault which caused a magnet to move, dislodging a whole lot more and releasing some helium. Repairing the damage is going to be long process and a costly one. 'A £14 million glitch' - some glitch! Quite like the economy, it occurs to me: bad sub-prime lending in the States triggers a domino-effect, engulfing the whole world. As John Donne said, 'No man is an island entire unto itself.' That repair will take a good while longer, I reckon.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Good news

Last week there was an excellent article in The Independent by Dominic Lawson provoked by a programme on BBC4 'Born with Down's' which revealed that there were more children born with Down's Syndrome last year than there were before widespread screening was introduced twenty years. Lawson has a daughter with Down's, called Domenica, who gives him immense joy. On the Today programme they were attributing the rise to the increased public acceptance of Down's. The headline of the article is 'Shame on the doctors prejudiced against Down Syndrome' (see the link), and he points out that there is still a presumption for termination in some parts of the medical profession not least on the spurious ground of cost to the NHS. When I heard the news item, it seemed to me one sign of resistance to the prevailing culture of eliminating any form of 'disability' from society, and as such immensely encouraging. If you've read my book, I quote from Angela Beise reflecting on the poverty of a world without compassion and the dangers of removing 'imperfections'. If it's true that we are welcoming those we used to hide away, that is very good news, in my book.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Advent and another donkey

Yesterday I was given a rather fine Jack donkey - about four inches high - 'to go in your new home'. It's of course a hand-painted model. Thanks, Jill. We're beginning to think about our move, though not, as some people suggest, as far as packing. Wow, this is an incredibly busy time in a church's life even without preparing for a change of vicar, and I am lucky just to keep up with the current week's agenda without some slippage. I am aware, though, of the sagacity of a good friend's advice to allow myself space in the next two months. It would be foolish to be so driven that we don't enjoy either Christmas or our last months in a place where we have been so happy.

We now have a lift installed in our new house, one of those smart through the floor jobbies, which by the way is monstrous. My first journey in it was... well, it didn't inspire confidence. We had a builder in to quote for a wet room; so I went with Jane to the house and tried it out. Going up was fine, once I got into the compartment. And it was fine when it came down, until it reached three foot off the floor, and then it stopped. Up and down I went but each time the same. Jane and the builder pushed buttons and knobs, and tried all the safety procedures Jane could remember. I thought I'd be going down the stairs on my backside, but by then the lift really had the heeby-jeebies, and the door wouldn't open. However then we discovered that if you kept the down button continually depressed the lift would move a couple of inches at a time, have a breather, and then move again. So I sat there with my finger on the button, while Jane and Jim went outside to talk about the ramp to the door. By the time they returned they could see halfway up my shins!

It was going to be a long descent. And then suddenly for no apparent reason it moved smoothly and I landed. It had taken about half an hour! I did consider naming and shaming the manufacturers in my widely read blog, if they didn't sort it. Instead we withheld payment, which seemed to have the desired effect. The engineers came out and fixed the wrinkles, and I'm looking forward to rising and falling with more discipline than the stock market.

Talking of which, today is Advent Sunday when we look forward to the return of Jesus Christ. (IFASCO.*) In a world of scarey events like the Mumbai terrorist attacks, global financial chaos and climate change, the promise is that things may fall apart but they are not out of control. Ultimately God has a plan, which is for a new creation where justice, harmony, health and life are uninterrupted and permanent. When Jesus talked about history, his predictions have proved extraordinarily accurate. And his prediction about universal terror was that it would end with his return and then the new order would start. Meanwhile he tells us not to drown our fears but to love (care for) each other - which sounds like getting in practice for the new world.

(*IFASCO. I'm indebted to my friend, Charles Patterson, for this timely warning: I Feel A Sermon Coming On, alerting listeners to switch off or on according to preference. Observant readers will notice it's an anagram of fiasco.)

Friday, 21 November 2008

Donkeys by post

I received my first donkey in the post this week. It had a message with it: 'with luck you might two and start a dynasty'. So I'm hoping for more.
Actually it wasn't the donkey ITSELF. Just a card telling me one had been sent on my behalf to Darfur in Sudan courtesy of Oxfam - which seems an excellent idea. In fact, this move towards sending useful gifts to people in the world who REALLY need them, rather than cluttering up our homes with things we don't want or won't use, makes a lot of sense. Though gifts will always be an important way of expressing love or regard - lke the wise men and the woman with the alabaster box.
(Another of K T Bruce's pictures)

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A dilemma

Having returned from a relaxing few days away, I face a dilemma. I can't decide whether my priority should be updating my blog or catching up with all the emails I found waiting in my inbox. I'm inclined to the latter, as I'm more of an individuals man than a crowd man. So I'm afraid you'll have to wait a bit longer before learning more about my rather mundane life or my thoughts on the big events in the media, whether Barack Obama's election or John Sergeant's survival. Meantime, a picture of the area we spent last week relaxing in south Somerset.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Travellers' Tales

I've recently received a couple of emails about the dangers of travel. One told me about a scarey series of mystery deaths happening in South Africa, and then after international airline flights from India. Eventually, I read, some boffin had a bright idea and thought of a nasty little spider which hides away and nips you from beneath. 'The Civilian Aeronautics Board (CAB) ordered an immediate inspection of the toilets of all flights from India, and discovered the Two-Striped Telamonia (Telamonia dimidiata) spider’s nests on 4 different planes.' So it concluded with the life-saving advice to lift the toilet seat before use. I recommend the Myth Blaster website. Which tells you this is a hoary old hoax.

But the other email directed me to the BBC news website. I think this is a genuine mishap. You have to be sorry for the 26-year man who dropped his mobile down the toilet on the high speed train (TGV) in France and fell foul of its powerful suction system.

I'm afraid my traveller's tale won't be quite as colourful or entertaining, but on Friday I'm to be interviewed again for Premier Radio's Travellers' Tales. Whether it will be used remains to be seen, as my speaking voice is slurred and slow. But that's the nature of MND. Then there's a second book signing, before we have a break, leaving the house in very good hands and going to our favourite Somerset autumn hideout. Can't wait.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The book is launched!

So here we are! This morning at 10.05 the first book is bought in Stanford Village Hall, and yours truly wields his trusty Parker biro to append his signature. And it was non-stop from then for two and a half hours.
What fun! Outside the two visitors from the Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary were there to greet people, with Linda and John.

The queue never seem to get shorter. But the catering team was magnificent. Cakes, biscuits, tea, coffee and old fashioned lemonade. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Young and old could be found sitting already reading their books. My favourite comment was from young Oliver, 'I've been running all round like a looonatic!' Prize for distance travelled solely for the event goes to Karen and Jon Large, with baby Esther, who came from St Albans.

The most frequent comment, as the morning wore on, was, 'You must have writers' cramp by now!' The remarkable thing was, I hadn't. It was altogether an enjoyable experience. With Ed as my right-hand man efficiently organising everyone, all I had to do was to practise my signature and hope everyone enjoyed the book, and be pleased that as a result the MND Association will be receiving a cheque. Thanks to everyone from 86 to 23 who helped - what a team!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Book launch

Jane is working her socks off getting ready for the weekend. IT'S THE GREAT BOOK LAUNCH - Saturday 10 to 12 o'clock at STANFORD IN THE VALE VILLAGE HALL (SN7 8HU). Signed copies of 'My Donkeybody'. Two of Benjy's cousins (not signing, possibly singing). Be there or ... Hope to see you then.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Benjy, Jane and me

Here's a promised photo of the three of us © K T Bruce at our photoshoot at Kingston Lisle a week ago.

Monday, 20 October 2008

A cautionary donkey tale

Yesterday we had tea with our old friend, Judy Freeman, Ken's widow. She was staying in the village with Sue Tobin and they honoured us by coming round. Conversation turned to donkeys. Sue recalled when there had been six donkeys at Stanford House just across the green from her home. Judy told us that when she was a girl growing up in Wicklesham her mother bought her a donkey and cart. She would drive it down the hill into Faringdon, the market town nearby. However, the donkey was always reluctant to go - away from her home. 'So I got a whip,' she said - and you ought to know that Judy is sweetness itself -, 'and I'd tie a carrot on the end, and dangle it in front of her nose. Then she'd move. She had it as a reward only when she got home again.'

I don't quite know what the moral of the story is. Possibly keep the aim in sight and you'll make it in the end . Perhaps more is achieved by carrot than whip (for legislators). Or no gain without perseverance (for financiers).

When Judy got engaged to Ken, the local sweetshop owner was heard to say, 'I don't give that more than two years.' They were married for very nearly 60 years....

Friday, 17 October 2008

Front page

Yikes! Benjy, Jane and I are all over the front cover of the Church Times today.

It's a good article, in my view, by Rebecca Paveley - click on Features, if you can't afford the £1.10. She's a journalist with an unusual degree of empathy, who seemed to probe into bits you'd rather hide as well as the more cheerful bits.

I might put the whole of the email interview on line sometime, but for the moment here's one bit about healing that didn't get in (and I DID have a lot to say!).
'How do you reconcile the terminal nature of MND and your belief God is able to heal, physically?'
The flippant (or profound) answer would be that all life is terminal in that sense, wouldn’t it? And in one sense having your days numbered for you is a privilege - so we may get ‘a heart of wisdom’ - isn’t it? And we don’t have hope for this life alone. But my theology of healing is that it’s a sign of the Kingdom, not a right of the Kingdom. You know how, when there’s a solar eclipse, you can’t actually look at it direct, but you can use a pinhole to project the image on to paper and see what’s going on. In a way, I think it’s a bit like that with physical healings in answer to prayer (which I know do happen): God gives us a tiny indication of his power, his personal compassion and his ultimate intention for redeemed creation. It’s a sign. I think that’s what Jesus was doing in his ministry, except he was saying, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ I’m really glad to worship a God who is able to do so much and who shows me what he’s like, but whom I can’t boss around. I’m glad he’s mysterious. But I look forward to the day when I shall know, understand, as I’m understood. I suspect my worship will be on a different plane then! I certainly hope it will.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

More donkey business

Yesterday, my day off, was unusually eventful. A photographer had been commissioned by The Church Times to take some photos for an article. I liked K T Bruce. She did after all tell me I had a lovely face to photograph! No one has EVER said that to me before. Well, it's a bit like being told your voice on the answerphone is attractive. Anyway the editor thought it would be nice to have a photo with a donkey (two asses together). There used to be donkeys around the village, but we scoured the countryside and drew a blank - until Jules who knows everyone got a tip-off which led to Sarah Bradstock, of Old Manor Racing Stables in Letcombe Bassett. Yes, they had a donkey, and yes, we could pose with him, after the horses had been exercised. So after the shots in the church, we drove off to the Blowing Stone and found Benjy and his equine pals in their paddock round the corner. Benjy's the old donkey who travels with highly strung horses to races. Sarah herself came and brought him, and there by the side of the road we had our second shoot. Sadly we forgot our camera, and so there's no picture to put up yet. But hopefully you'll be able to see one in the Church Times on Friday. Every now and then it occurs to me what a good thing it was I didn't call my book 'My Elephantbody'.

Then in the night just after midnight Jess, our dog, sounded off. Either she was barking 'Happy Birthday' to Jane or she was frightening off (or frightened of) the phantom fox after our chickens. She tends to hysteria, and thus won't stop until Jane goes and reassures her / tells her to be quiet. Which brings me to say, Happy Birthday to my gorgeous wife.

PS on M of V

I was thinking, in one of my wakeful periods last night, about 'The Merchant of Venice' - as one does. I talked to June shortly after the performance we saw. She thought it was a feminist production. Interesting, I thought last night. It's true that Portia is the epitome of filial piety, justice, mercy and faithfulness - interesting because Proverbs in the Bible personifies Wisdom, which includes all of that, as a woman (ch 3). (It personifies the opposite as woman too; so perhaps you shouldn't make too much of that!) 'But what do you make of the bit about the rings?' June asked. And it was that I mused about last night!

The bit of the play people remember and think of as the climax is the courtroom scene, where Shylock is awarded his pound of flesh, but not a drop of blood, and loses everything (except his dignity/pride faced with Christian ridicule in the Stratford production). However there's a whole act after that, which is 'the bit about the rings'. Is it just a bit of comic relief after the rather dark events of the courtroom? I don't think so. The courtroom has actually proved it humanly impossible to maintain a perfect balance between justice and mercy. Neither is actually upheld. So if justice or mercy are insufficient motives for human relationships, what else can be? Enter the commitment of love - symbolised by the rings. Here is a depth deeper than law. It's a covenant relationship freely entered into by individuals bound by something stronger and more sacred than law. Hence the rings are much more than a trifling hoop of metal. And Bassanio and Gratiano's surrendering them to the 'lawyer and his clerk' is a betrayal of the only motive which makes human relationships work. Justice alone won't. Mercy alone won't. They need a reconciling arbiter, and that is love. Which is of course what God is. The last word of the play is left to the arch cynic and joker, Gratiano, who, even if he can't resist a double entendre, at last has grasped the point:
'Well, while I live I'll fear no other thing
So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.'

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Staightening the bias

I realise I could have appeared partisan in my last blog. So let me have another gripe about the other side. It seems a long time now since Gordon Brown reshuffled his cabinet and shocked everyone by bringing back the wily Peter Mandelson in either an act of statesmanship or desperation. No one that I've heard commented on the fact that two of the three Catholics in the Cabinet either gracefully retired (Ruth Kelly) or were given the heave-ho (Des Browne). Whether Paul Murphy was left with Wales because he's doing such a good job or because pushing all three out at one go would have been too obvious, I don't know. What I do know is that we need politicians in government who have the courage to dissent from the consensus party lines because of their religious convictions. And back in May the three of them did just that over embryo research and abortion. Personally I suspect it will be a bit more lonely for Mr Murphy, and there'll be more pressure on him to conform against his conscience. I hope I'm wrong.

Well, Paul (St of that name) tells us to pray for those in government, and he was writing at a time of a repressive totalitarian Roman empire. So I guess we'd better do the same. It's not a fun job just at the moment, even though our Gordon seems to be relishing it a bit more than he was.

On a lighter note what a lovely weekend we've had in the main. Pity about Lewis Hamilton. However no stock markets open, and so no falling FTSEs. Just blue skies and falling leaves. Pictures of Hannah Smith (aged 2 weeks +) down the line - a truly charismatic baby. Also of my friends, Louise and Mark's trip to Kenya, which took me right back to my gap year. And the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, reminding us of Soren Kierkegaard's definition of happiness: 'The door to happiness opens outwards.' Man, that was one deep Dane.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Marmite madness

It must be the sea air. First it was Bridlington; now it's Ceredigion, but not feeding ducks this time, but Marmite. Ceredigion County Council, I hear, are not allowing parents to give their children Marmite to smear on their toast at school breakfast clubs. There's a list of approved toppings, apparently, things like jam (low sugar) and marmalade (presumably also low sugar), but not lemon curd and not Marmite. There was a time when I'd have thought having marmite for breakfast, rather than marmalade, was plain perverse, even though it must be better for your teeth. But now, with MND, I'm prone to cramping in bed - which is blinking painful, especially as I can't reach my feet to pull my toes up. And I remember my wise mother recommending marmite for cramp, and so I've got used to having it on my breakfast toast. In fact I like it. And it seems to work. I really can't believe that as part of a balanced diet it's less healthy than jam (low sugar) on toast. Is the school ladling on the salt elsewhere? Or perhaps, being by the sea they reckon kids breathe in excess salt in the sea mist... Anyway it's worrying when local government limits parental choice in something as fundamental as food.

I used to think that Telegraph columnist, Boris, was a buffoon, clever, witty but harmless. I guess that reputation must have rankled, secretly. And like a bright schoolboy made praepostor when he reached the dizzying height of Tsar of London he determined to prove everyone wrong. And so he sacked the highly effective Chief Constable of the Met, Sir Ian Blair - I suppose because he wasn't in the Boris/Dave gang, and had ruffled a few journalistic feathers. 'That'll show 'em. They can't mess with me,' chortled the new Tsar. A pity, I think, to sacrifice a good man to prove a point.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

History in the making

Politicians and bankers all over the world are busy trying to restore 'confidence' in the market. This morning Alastair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced an astronomically huge support package for British banks - and even said that if we had savings in Icesave.com, he'd bail us out. Someone I know said, a bit incredulously, 'Does that mean, he'll just give them all their money back?' Apparently, yes. I'm not sure life's like that. I think if you hit an iceberg it's pretty well impossible to save the ship. And so stock markets continue to slump. They say it's fear. They may well be right. But if money's your god and it's suddenly revealed to have feet of clay, you're right to be frightened. You're on your own, buddy. It's better worshipping the real God. He's the same yesterday and today and forever - which is as good a security as you could wish. You're never on your own.

From world history to something more local. It's autumn (fall) again and the leaves are beginning to turn. There's a beautiful maple in the churchyard here, and the edges of its leaves have started to turn. So it's a kaleidoscope of greens, gold and red. Mark you, some trees on the road to Pusey aren't so decorative. They're young horse chestnuts whose leaves, instead of the usual variety of autumnal colour, are a uniform dull brown. I fear they have this disease which is beginning to decimate the chestnut population in this country. Perhaps this area will soon be devoid of another great species, just as the elm was eradicated in the 1970s. If you look at old photos of the church here there were several great elm trees surrounding it. One rotting stump only remains.

And next year we won't be here either. This week I announced to the church here that I am going to move on at the end of January next year. A very minor piece of local history. In a few years' time, you'll be able to tell we lived here only by the little framed list of vicars of this parish going back to Thomas de Roqel in the 1200s or something, and perhaps the two oak trees grown from acorns by my nephew, which we planted in the vicarage garden when we arrived nearly twenty years ago. (No, it's not the vicarage in the background - just the most beautiful house in the village, Rectory House.)

Thursday, 2 October 2008


'Does he take sugar?' is a classic question when you're in a wheelchair, or have any disability. If the Paralympics didn't dispel the myth that the disabled are somehow lesser people, the video clip 'Amazing Dance' (see link) should finally do the job. At the moment it's no 1 in the most viewed for the month (Amazing Dance - you will cry). It didn't actually make me cry but it IS very beautiful and moving. Again I'm indebted to Otto for putting me on to it.

Preparations for the book launch are going on here, hall and donkeys booked.... 10-12 o'clock on 25th October at SN7 8HU (Stanford Village Hall). Meanwhile, however, 'My Donkeybody' should be out and winging its way to bookshops and internet distributors around the world. Yes, I admit, I am quite excited and very grateful.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Songs of Praise

Just watched an excellent 'Songs of Praise' on BBC1. Well, actually, we videoed it as we were out at a Harvest service when it was broadcast. If you don't know the format, it's a mix of a travel guide, interviews and Christian songs (aka hymns). Tonight's interviews were moving especially one with a former banker who'd become a full-time street preacher (not at all wacky) after losing two babies and facing God feeling completely broken. In fact all the people interviewed (a vicar, a dentist and an opera singer) had faith, intelligence and sanity - impressive. And I especially enjoyed Lou Fellingham singing 'Build this house' and the last song, 'And he shall reign'. Songs of Praise isn't always that good. It's often rather twee or something like a tourist advert. But this one was different, presumably affected by the presenter and the production team. Let's have more of the same - please.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008


This morning I received an email from Premier Radio: "I'm so sorry for the short notice. But last night we re-scheduled your interview. It will now go on air Friday at 3.20 pm. Apologies... radio's like that sometimes!" So, if you were thinking of tuning in tomorrow, postpone it 24 hours.

Yesterday was my day off, and we enjoyed a visit from our old friends, Rob and Lib Wiggs, who'd travelled three hours to come and see us. Rob's partly responsible for my being in this line of business (vicaring, that is). They're the sort of people with whom you can talk about anything, from the trivial to the profound, and know you won't be dismissed or condemned. You needs friends like that.

We also had fun organising a book launch party here in Stanford's own village hall for 25th October. I contacted the local donkey sanctuary in the hope that they might lend us a living illustration of the book's cover. We'll see about it. And yes, I am doing some work as well, like publicity for the visit of Henry Olonga, the Zimbabwean test cricketer, who had to leave the country after making a protest against the government. He also sings rather well. That's 7.30 pm on 4th October, also in our village hall. There are still tickets, I believe.... We should be in for a good evening.

Monday, 22 September 2008

To the studio

So today it was up early - for me. We had to get to Premier Radio's studios near Victoria Station for 11 o'clock. Because I'm slow doing everything, it meant an early breakfast (just weetabix and prunes, because toast takes too long) and then on the road. The jam on the M4 had cleared by the time we reached Reading East, but of course everything snarled up with the bus lane and it was slow going from then on. Why is it that taxi-drivers feel compelled to vent their frustration by honking their horns? To think it was once my ambition to drive a black taxi - when I was seven. Maybe those drivers have the emotional tolerance of 7-year olds. Not that some weren't very considerate. Anyway we reached Vincent Square, and there was a disabled parking space ready and waiting for us, with five minutes to spare to get round the corner to Chapter Street.

Then came the interview. Well, actually a wait came next, a cup of tea and a biscuit. And then Dave and 'B' (Bridgitte) issued forth and ushered us into the studio. I felt I didn't perform well, in that I didn't say what was on my heart and what I did say wasn't well expressed, whereas by contrast Jane was clear and concise. At the end she asked if they were likely to 'voice-over' me. They hedged a bit; so I suspect you may not have the joy of listening to my gravelly, slurred and monotonous tones. I thought to ask when it was going out. B looked it up in the diary. The answer is 3.20 pm on Thursday. Tune in live - or listen again on line.

Meanwhile we emerged into a balmy autumnal afternoon. Pupils of Westminster School (alma mater of my old friend Richard) were emerging from the playing fields in Vincent Square. When we reached Battersea Park, having taken a wrong turn, there was a busful of kindergarten children having their lunchtime break and office workers eating their lunches. Happy days. But we had to head home. Work beckoned. We'd enjoyed our city break. I'd didn't do much work when we got home. Sorry.

Friday, 19 September 2008

My Donkeybody arrives

I was excited when Sue the post lady brought a parcel from Monarch today, with two advance copies of my book. I'm really pleased with the job the publishers have done - thanks Tony, Simon and Paul. I trust their faith in me proves justified.

More thoughts on financial matters

Well, there's some relief tonight in stock markets round the world. Personally I wouldn't be too sure that it's all over. Until banks stop giving credit to people who can't pay it back (which didn't just happen in the sub-prime market in the States), we'll keep sliding into trouble. Building an economy on credit must be madness. Certainly the hundreds who've lost their jobs in the past five days must think so.

My friend Luke (not Lehman) sent me a reflective email on Wednesday. Part of what he wrote was:
'It is unsettling to now witness a company that has been part of the US bedrock, slip into the sand! I now feel grateful not to be so closely linked to their family. The free hand outs I would have come to expect, stripped away, my security for the future gone.
'Which brings my thoughts back round to the solid Rock, we believe in. The inheritance I can look forward to, with 'fullness of faith'.'

That reminded me of an old song which our children sang at their recent holiday club, 'The wise man built his house on the rock. The rain came down and the floods came up. And the house on the rock stood firm.'

Donkey bother

I was sent this story from a Belgian digital news service by my friend, Otto Veninga, who like me has an interest in donkeys. He's kindly translated it for me:

In Egypt a donkey had to stay in prison for 24 hours, after he had stolen a corn cob from a corn field. This was reported in the Egyptian media today.

'The animal was arrested at a checkpoint in the Nile-delta. The landowner, an agricultural research institute, had reported to the police that crops disappeared regularly.

A judge sentenced the donkey to the imprisonment. The owner got a fine of 50 Egyptian Pounds, the equivalent of almost € 6,00. The identity of the ungulate was not published.'

Poor donkey. I hope he (I notice) was well fed while he was in the clink.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Oops! Correction

Luke, a member of the Lehmann family, has put me right on the subject of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank: 'they really really have nothing to do with us, as they spell their name with only one 'n' at the end!!' It all goes to show I listen to Radio 5 Live too much - which although its presenters are very good and quite diverting doesn't tell you how to spell. So apologies all round. Another thing I wonder about with 24-hour news and the newshounds' propensity for gloom is whether the contagion of fear in the markets would be so rampant without it. However I suppose we had bubbles and crashes before the communication revolution. Greed and fear are not new!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Shares and showers

The BBC pronunciation department is clearly having trouble with Lehmann Brothers Bank: sometimes they say Leeman and sometimes they say Layman. Well, I could tell them, because I'm proud to count some of the Lehmann family among my friends - and it's Layman. I hasten to add they're not the merchant banking branch of the clan, just a loving family. But, wow, what's going on in the financial markets? Lehmann Bros going bankrupt, Merrill Lynch taken over, AIG in big trouble, and stock-markets plummeting. A few years ago a financial adviser advised me to move money into shares.... I wonder about that advice. The credit crunch wasn't their fault, of course, but we're all learning that even if moth and rust doesn't corrupt our treasure, borrowers, lenders, commodity traders and hedge-fund managers can do it just as well. And Jesus' financial advice not to lay up treasure on earth but in heaven is the best advice. I'm glad my friends the Lehmanns have the sense to follow his advice.

On a lighter note, today I've enjoyed a shower. It's not an easy operation, but if I want to stay clean it's the only option. As my balance and muscles went, baths became impossible. And so we replaced it with a walk-in shower, with numerous grab-rails and a shower seat. Once a week, on my day off - that's today - Jane helps me into the shower cubicle and there I sit and wash off a week or two's dirt - lovely! I don't often stop to reflect on how lucky I am, in a world where most people don't have access to clean running water. That puts matters of global banking into perspective.

Monday, 15 September 2008

'Know yourself'

From somewhere in my past classical education - of which I'm sure Boris Godunov, tsar of London, would have approved. Is it true he wants all the primary school children of the capital learning Latin? - I recall a Greek apophthegm, 'Know yourself' (or then it was 'Know thyself'). Self-knowledge was highly valued. So I suppose I should be grateful that I don't know when my book is coming out (some websites say 1st October, some 28th) and that its subtitle continues to be wrong on all the websites and that Amazon doesn't even have a PICTURE of it - still! I found myself becoming vaguely irritated. And then I had a moment of self-realisation. I am still a control freak. I like things to happen my way. Chill out, old man! Life's not like that. So I've been reminded that I'm still a work in progress.

I'm also humbled to learn that 'My Donkeybody' is in the top 10 hot future releases on Amazon's Religion and Spirituality list. I'm grateful for the trust. I hope when it's read that you feel it's justified. Tomorrow I meet one of the kind people who added their weight to the book with a generous commendation, the dynamic bishop of Reading, Stephen Cottrell. How he manages to combine his more than full-time job with writing books I don't know; but they're a good read.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Happy Birthday, Jess

Tomorrow is the official 10th birthday of our dog, Jess, pictured above trying to imitate a donkey (uncannily like the one on my book cover) and a lion and being herself. She has a touching story, being the illicit offspring of a cocker spaniel bitch and probably a blue merle collie (hence her disconcerting blue eyes). Her mother lived in a dogs' refuge centre, having been rescued from a welsh pound. Ten years ago she was adopted at a price by Jane, and came to Stanford in the Vale. Thanks to training by Bryan, she developed a great temperament - except in the proximity of hot air balloons, and church bells which make her howl. But, as they say, she's not doing badly for her age. If you see her, do wish her a happy birthday.

In church today we heard from Laurie Lintern about the launch of the Large Hadron Collider. He works on CMS, one of the detectors in the circuit. Wednesday was clearly an exciting day. Among other things he commented on how many top particle physicists are believers (in God). I agreed with him in thinking that God enjoys us exploring further and further into the wonder of the universe. Was it Kepler who described it as 'thinking God's thoughts after him'? One can only be amazed at the intelligence lying behind everything, I think.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Respect, Will Shakespeare

For one delirious night I slept proud in the knowledge that 'My Donkeybody' was TOP of Amazon's future releases under Christian living. However by this morning it had fallen to 2nd, but was still a creditable 12th in the Religion and Spirituality category - after a number of books on witchcraft and of course The God Delusion. It's a sad fact that there are vastly more registered witches than Christian ministers in this country. Which wouldn't matter if they were right or harmless, but they are neither.

I'm mildly sorry that my book's coming under those categories, as I actually intended it to be about living with a terminal illness and to be read by anyone and everyone. Naturally I can't keep my personal beliefs out of it. That would have been dishonest - and you can't have a condition like MND without questioning why it's happening and what dying will be like. I'd say those are not so much religious as UNIVERSAL questions. But I don't major on them. Mainly I just tell the story of how it happened, and what it's like - which is more fun than you'd think. So whether or not you think God's a delusion, I actually wrote this book for you, as well as for me! I hope you enjoy it.

Moving from the absurd to the sublime, we went to see 'The Merchant of Venice' yesterday at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) in Stratford yesterday. What an incredible multi-layered play! And what a great production! We went with our very dear friends, Anthony and Ruth (pictured, with me and others, outside the Courtyard Theatre). For some the play's apparent anti-semitism is a problem, but the production never had Shylock demeaned, and I understood for the first time that the play is NOT about that. It's about law and grace. Let's face it, neither the christians nor the jews in Venice do themselves credit. In fact they're all as bad as each other. Shylock's critique of the christians is quite right. He's also absolutely right that Venice 's stability as a society depends on justice being upheld. The Duke's appeal for mercy is right too, if ineffectual. Karl Barth, the great christian thinker, might have agreed with Shylock: forgiveness is an outrage to the moral law. It's only with the intervention of the disguised (incarnate) Portia from Belmont, the beautiful place of love and faith, that mercy receives its full revelation.
'Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.'

Portia confounds reason, indicating an even profounder sort of truth, the truth of grace. It seems to me that no human being (Venetians), whether christian or jew, comes out well. It's actually God who's the hero of the play. That's why I had immense trouble holding back rather noisy tears on occasions, and had to keep my eyes down. MND brings emotion nearer the surface and the play was so painfully and beautifully profound. The production rightly ended with a dance which drew in even Shylock in an interweaving harmony, accompanied by an orchestra in the 'gods'. Bravo, the RSC, and Will Shakespeare.

Meanwhile, of course, the world was remembering the height of human barbarity on 9/11 seven years ago. That event and its aftermath reminds us, if we needed any reminder, that HUMANS continue to be inhumane to each other and all of us need rescuing from the vicious cycle of revenge based on raw justice.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Not quite - top of the pops

It's been brought to my attention that you can now preorder 'My Donkeybody' from sites such as Amazon. I'm told it's due out at the start of October. 'My Donkeybody' is officially a hot future release (in christian living books category) on amazon. http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/new-releases/books/277291. It's a fair way down at the moment, but then it labours under a bit of a disadvantage having no picture with it (hint to the publisher!). So until then here's a reminder of the cover. And an offer: pre-order your copy, boost my ratings and I'll sign it - free of charge! (To be honest, I'd sign it anyway - but you get my drift!) See the link to Boost my ratings. Warning: please note you will be charged for orders.

In the wider world, I listened with rapt attention as the first particles were released, like hounds straining at the leash, into the Large Hadron Collider for the first time this morning. A moment of history, folks.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Don't miss it

Don't miss out listening to Andrew White on 'The Choice' (BBC Radio 4 9.30 tonight). I listened this morning and it made me laugh and cry in equal measures. It's such an impressive and moving story. And he's such a good interviewee - utterly straightforward, self-deprecating and honest. Michael Buerk: 'What the hell are you doing (working in Iraq)?' AW: 'I'm mad!' As Stephen says, 'Rock on!' And I hadn't realised that the Church of England regards him as unemployable as a vicar because of his MS.' I was simply humbled to think he'd written the foreword for 'My Donkeybody'.

By contrast another Andrew (Murray) had a master-class from Roger Federer in Flushing Meadow. No doubt he's learned from it - if nothing else how to milk the crowd in a post defeat interview: 'The Arthur Ashe crowd is just great....' (or words to that effect. But I must say, much as I dislike the cliches, he did well, the laddie from Dunblane.

Talking of the flowers of Scotland, I want to say thanks to my friend Louise - she's Scottish - who's recommended the song 'I hope you dance' from the album by Lee Ann Womack to me. I'd heard it once before at Lee Abbey. As she says, great lyrics. One day we'll dance. I tuned in to the old film, 'My Darling Clementine', this afternoon. I enjoyed the scene in the outdoor church (they've not built a 'proper' one yet) and the lay preacher says, 'I'm not a scholar, but I've read the good book from beginning to end and back again, and no where does it say a word against dancing....' And he picks up his violin and the rest of the morning service consists a good old dance session! That's just fine!

Bon voyage in Kenya, Mark and Louise. Am I jealous....

Saturday, 6 September 2008

20th year

Oh Newcastle.... Our Kevin's gone then. Shame.

Yesterday Jane reminded me that nineteen years ago to the day I was inducted as vicar here. (Actually she wasn't sure whether it was 'inducted' (vicars) or 'induced' (babies) - not much difference in my case! I WAS pretty green.) I'm living proof that the superstition that the number of times the new vicar rings the bell is nonsense. I managed a feeble two and a half dings. Well, no one had told me to give it a tweak rather than a simple pull. Anyway, here I am starting my twentieth year....
What a lot has happened since then! I could write a book....

About twenty years ago, I gather, work began on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva. If you want to have an entertaining introduction to what it's about, I recommend the LHC rap on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j50ZssEojtM. You may not be much the wiser and you MAY get the impression that the scientists and engineers working on it are bonkers, but all I can say is that Laurie who's been involved in it isn't. I haven't actually asked him whether when it's switched on on Wednesday morning we'll all get sucked down an ever-growing black hole or be transmogrified into gooey strange matter, but I'm inclined to believe the scientists' reassurances. And even if they were wrong, I guess it would solve the credit crunch. And more excitingly open the door to Heaven - Bring it on!

It's quite a thought, come to think of it, that life might end on Wednesday. I heard someone say, 'Go and run up all the debts you want. You'll never have to pay them back!' But what if there were life after this, and what if we were held accountable for our actions now? What if we were to stand before a judge with the full database of all our actions playing out on a screen? What if what we did really mattered? Which, of course, it does. We would have to pay back our debts. It might be more sensible to pay off all our debts, and I don't really mean monetary ones.

Meanwhile today, while we were having our lunch, I switched on the opening ceremony for the Paralympics in Beijing. I'm not a great one for ceremonies normally, but I have to confess I found it quietly moving - apart from when Jane read out a newspaper report about a labrador in Fife whose stomach was making an odd noise, and when the vet opened him up he found 13 golf balls. 'He finds them like other dogs find truffles.' However, there were these disabled people from all round the world doing something really positive with their lives. They were cheerful, enjoying the moment, all together. It reminded me that no country on earth is immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It also reminded me of an account that Joni Eareckson Tada gives in one of her books of disabled people in Ghana, without even wheelchairs, praising God with wild abandon. It's possible!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Andrew White 'The Choice'

I gather that the programme featuring Andrew is NEXT Tuesday (same times 9 am/9.30 pm). Don't miss it!

What about Manchester City then?

Well, I don't know. It seems to me that some people have more money than sense. Not that I have anything against Man City or Manchester itself. Second happiest place to live in Britain, apparently - after Powys in deepest Wales. I mean I'm a bit miffed on behalf of some Chelsea supporters that they've pinched Robinho with their new found oil money, but then fair's fair, Ashley Cole.... But if the Abu Dhabi sheikhs had some money to throw around, WHY NOT NEWCASTLE!? I speak as a Geordie. What IS going on there? Buy out Mr Ashley and give KK a couple of billion to invest. Then we'd see something. Failing that, I suppose Mark Hughes and Man City is as good a club as any. Well, I've already mentioned my partiality for underdogs; and they seem the Manchester underdogs - for the moment.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


Sorry! My information was obviously wrong about The Choice with Andrew White - which wasn't on today. I'll post when he's going to be on. Or I'll try.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Andrew White on BBC

You'll remember I mentioned Andrew White, from Baghdad, has written the foreword for my book. Well, tomorrow and next week you can hear him on the radio. So you can find out why I'm so pleased to have his name on the cover of 'My Donkeybody'.

'Next Tuesday (2nd Sept) and the following Tuesday (9th Sept) there will be a major BBC Radio 4 interview with AW. The presenter is the famous Journalist Michael Buerk. It goes out on 'The Choice' programme at both 09.00 and 21.30 on the 2nd and the 9th. It can be listened to on the internet anywhere in the world and also via the archive if you miss it @ http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/thechoice/
"At some point most of us are faced with a single choice that irrevocably alters our lives. Michael Buerk talks to people from all walks of life about that kind of choice and takes them through the whole process from the dilemma, through the risks they faced, to how the choice was made and living with the consequences. Canon Andrew White talks about his decision to work in war torn Baghdad."'

Meanwhile back on the ranch

So it's been back to work nearly as normal last week. Meetings in the evenings, planning for the next year, trying to raise money for building repairs and improvements in the three churches here.... But the party mood has persisted on and off. The children's holiday club welcomed about 60 children to mornings of teaching, worship and craft activities. New this year was the appearance of Rusty and Tommy, the beachcombing puppets, and Clyde, the upper-crust camel. I'm waiting for Arthur the ass....

Partying began again on Saturday with a wedding which ranks with the best: Vikki Cranfield and Tim Eltham. 'The bride wore cream and midnight blue....' The couple were nervous, as normal couples are. But it was just an enjoyable day. We got to the reception just in time to see Tim and Vikki smooching under the glare of the cameras in the first dance. I wish them as long and happy a marriage as my in-laws.

Talking of very different parties, I hadn't realised until watching the news in the week that the unofficial symbol of the Democratic Party in the States is the donkey. I'm a tad bothered in case all my potential Republican readership will be put off by the title of 'My Donkeybody'. Perhaps I'd better call my next book 'Elephant Memories'. I liked this bit from the Democrats' website: "The Democrats think of the elephant as bungling, stupid, pompous and conservative -- but the Republicans think it is dignified, strong and intelligent. On the other hand, the Republicans regard the donkey as stubborn, silly and ridiculous -- but the Democrats claim it is humble, homely, smart, courageous and loveable." I'm not taking sides!

More parties

And then we had Jane's parents' diamond wedding anniversary down in Sidmouth. Diamond - that's sixty years! The Queen sent them a card (or one of her secretaries did), which was nice of her - though she did need reminding! They had a lunch party to which they invited 50 friends and family. They are a remarkable couple, both in their 80s, still going strong. Dennis had made their anniversary cake (a craft he took to in retirement), and Audrey had iced it - a bit of a work of art. Their eminent son, Christopher, was recuperating from an operation, and so Jane had to step in to the breach and take up public speaking to propose the toast. (See picture with her youngest granddaughter, Faith, looking on in admiration - and well she might! It was a moving moment.) It was a celebration of a great achievement.

Sunday, 31 August 2008


Goodness me, as they say! It's a wee while since I've been on my blog. The truth is I've been so busy catching up with work - you know how it is after a summer break; and in my line of business you always hope to use the summer to carry out those big projects and that blue-sky thinking you've not had time for the rest of the year. I can't say I've been more successful this year than previously.... but that's life. AND I've been partying. Which has been fun.

After the buzz of New Wine, our morning services have been distinctly more jolly (I mean, worshipful). One Sunday we had two visitors from Germany who'd looked us up on the WWW and chosen to worship here. Wow, I thought, little old Stanford in The Vale! It was so nice to feel that we are part of a worldwide family, and we really loved meeting you, Gerhild and Sabine. Thanks for coming!

Then our young people came back from five days at Soul Survivor. In one way they'd had a terrible time - camping in rain, mud to match Glastonbury, their small marquee lifted like a tissue over the caravan and twisted and torn beyond repair by the wind; BUT they survived along with 10,000 other teenagers, and actually enjoyed it (quote, 'the best time of my life'). They couldn't wait to get to worship God; they'd rush their food to get good positions. One of the adults with them said to me, 'I realised how big the Church is.' Teenagers often get a bad press, but actually they don't deserve it as a breed!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Cover story

I'm glad people like the cover. I can't take credit for it, but the designer knows her/his job, I think. There's a question about the colour of the background. Well, there WAS more pink originally, but with the longer sub-title and the quote from Andrew White reduced the wallpaper! But here's a bigger picture, so you can make up your mind.

Something I thought last night about the amazing athletes was that it's not JUST a matter of their training and tuning their bodies. They were also born with their abilities, God given, I'd say.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Ironic juxtaposition

In the last two days I've written two articles. One was for our newsletter reflecting on the Olympics. (Congratulations to Jess Harrison who came 12th in the Triathlon - respect, as I said before.) GB is doing surprisingly well. Well, I think everyone's been surprised - even though most of the medals have come on bikes or boats of one sort or another. But it's come at a price: £235 million in training our athletes. I don't begrudge it them. But it made me think about all the money we spend on entertainment.... Could it be better used? When you think of the budget for the London Olympics, £9.3 billion pounds - and did I hear right that the Beijing Olympics cost more than £20 billion? That could surely go a long way in relieving famine, providing clean water, treating HIV/AIDs?

The other article was for 'Thumbprint', the magazine of the MND Association. It was about writing my book (see above). There's an ironic juxtaposition with my donkeybody which refuses to do what I want and these incredible athletes who have trained and tuned their bodies to do exactly what they want. (How impressive is Elena Isinbaeva, the Russian polevaulter, or Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, or the Chinese divers! I love watching them.) Anyway, I suppose I'm experiencing a sort of accelerated decline of physical fitness. But that doesn't mean life is over. In fact I wrote about my next career! So here's the book cover. Hope you like it.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Donkeys again

Our new friends from the Netherlands sent me this picture of Donkeys near Eilat in Israel. Otto tells me that the healthy looking palms are grown on recycled sewage water. Must be sermon there somewhere, but I'm frankly too tired to work out what it is. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

But seriously though

I was concerned to discover that the DLF had hee-hacked into my blog, even using my name. But since it paints rather a good picture of asinine heaven, I decided to leave it there and just say thank you for the kind remarks. Reconciliation is a lovely thing.

I suppose I'm still enjoying the after effects of the New Wine week we returned from on Saturday. What I saw and heard was remarkable - for example, vestibular nerves destroyed by radiotherapy healed during worship. The worship was impressive: a bit loud, but then it would be with thousands singing together plus all the paraphernalia of PAs. I think what impressed me was that I was surrounded by people who obviously WANTED to worship. I have to confess I did too; in fact I had unholy impatience when driving behind dawdling traffic on our way to the site in the morning!

There were sessions which majored on the upbeat aspects of faith (such as healing) but also ones on the darker side (such as desert experiences). Meanwhile we had talks on the life of Elijah given by Greg Haslam, the Scouser pastor of Westminster Chapel - which showed that all of the Bible is right up to date. I might have gravitated to the desert sessions, but I actually found the mixture a satisfying account of the mystery and greatness of God. In fact probably the most encouraging session for me was one called 'Diamonds in the Desert' (by Hils Grew, which I'm sure you can order off the internet, in due course: http://www.essentialchristian.com) in which we learned that God takes into wilderness experiences BECAUSE he loves us. To find out more, get the talk.

Another good thing which happened was meeting a Dutch family, Otto, Mirjam and Anne, who came and sat in front of us - such lovely and impressive people. Anne is severely restricted, wheelchair bound and autistic, but spiritually aware and at peace, even in the crowded and noisy marquee. Even though we met them for only two days, it was a wrench saying goodbye, we felt such real friends. I think the desert is a place for such friendship.

I sense I'm not the same as I was a week ago, and that's not just because I've had a birthday.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Birthday Greetings

It has come to our attention at the DLF (Donkey Liberation Front) that it is a significant day for the author of this blog. Hence we have chosen this day to hack into the great man's account, not only to wish him happy birthday but to announce freedom and liberation to all donkeys of this nation and every nation, long live the asses!! We have a dream that donkeys of every size, shape and creed roam this fair isle peacefully, happily and with the leisure rightly afforded the noble beasts. We see a land laden with thistles, grass, carrots and sugar lumps, we see a donkey on every hill, an ass in every valley and on the furthest shore a mule rising with hope in it's heart.

Please buy 'My Donkeybody' released October 2008 (available at all good bookshops) to help make this dream become a reality.

Happy Birthday Michael Wenham.

The DLF.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The other conference

Having been off line for a day, I can write only a short entry today. (Hats off, by the way, to BT who restored our line much quicker than they said.) We're just off New Wine, a conference on the Bath & West showground at Shepton Mallet. Here are some of our friends in a lunch break, and the sleeping arrangements. Sadly, my camping days are over; so we sleep in the comfort of a holiday cottage nearby. It might look like a holiday - but, as I always like to assure people, it's more like In-Service Training for me. Seminars, lectures, and worship. So it's a CONFERENCE.

By the way, isn't it frustrating and worrying when your telephone line goes down and your broadband with it? A bit like doing without prayer. Most of us do without it a lot of the time, but it's nice to know it's there. Of course God never goes off line - though I think he does allow us to have times when it SEEMS like it.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Weston's pier

I was sad to see the Victorian Grand Pavilion, on the end of the pier at Weston super Mare, going up in flames on Monday morning. I think it was the first pier I ever visited. We lived at Bristol when I was young, and so Weston was our nearest 'beach'. Two summers we had holidays at Locking just south of Weston, and walk along the beach from Uphill to Weston. We'd pass the donkeys, of course. In fact I had my first donkey ride there too. I can't remember its name: Mabel, or Fred, or something. And there was the pier - that infinitely long walk along the wooden boards, looking through the gaps at the mud beneath, or if you were lucky the sea (or more accurately the Severn estuary), until at last you reached the turnstiles, where oddly you didn't abandon hope but did lose a lot of (old) pennies. But the best thing was getting right out to the end where, when the tide was in, you seemed to be out at sea. And now, on Monday it went up in a blazing inferno and a column of smoke, and charred fragments falling on the beach - leaving blackened and twisted girders like a skeleton. I do hope the owners' ambition to restore it is successful, but it will take a long time. Meantime, sic transit gloria mundi. By the way did you see the news picture with the donkey in the foreground and the black remains behind? Perhaps donkeys go on for ever!

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Sox from the Lambeth Conference

I was given a pair of socks yesterday. They'd been bought in 'The Market Place' at the Lambeth Conference - no less. Clemency, a friend of ours, had spent a week in Kent just praying for the bishops meeting in Canterbury. I guess everyone, including the bishops, reckon they need a lot of it. Anyway she'd been in to the conference one day and seen these socks and thought of me. She's been proof-reading my book, and came on these 'holy socks' (www.holysocks.co.uk) on a stall. On the outside they said, 'And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.' 'The Donkey'. When I opened them, I read 'From a humble donkey' and saw the socks which had a donkey motif on the ankle! Bishops like wearing purple socks. I shall enjoy wearing donkey socks. Thanks, Clemency.

Friday, 25 July 2008


Ken Freeman was a great man. He died yesterday. Ken was a big man; his wife, Judy, is small. They'd been married for almost 60 years.

I first met them when we moved here in 1989. Ken was church warden at Goosey (which is a pretty church in the heart of the country). Ken and his family farmed the big farm in the village, and had a prize-winning herd of Holstein Friesians. Each year, on Rogation Sunday (late spring) we'd walk from here through the fields to their farm and have a service in one of the barns, and pray that God would bless the land, the stock and above all the farmers. Policies made dairy farming a precarious business and in the end they sold the farm, and moved to a bungalow in the Cotswolds. (Having had four working farms when we moved there, Goosey now has none. I don't call it progress.) He was born and bred a countryman. He was a great supporter of the Old Berks Hunt; so didn't have much time for New Labour, and its incomprehension of traditional rural life, which he'd love for 80+ years!

With Ken's passing, life here is the poorer. He was a good friend. He had a great sense of humour; always pulling one's leg and a decent irreverence. He was delighted and distracted (so he said) when we had a new good-looking woman curate. She converted him to women priests, at a stroke! When he retired as warden along with Judy, the church was packed. He enjoyed the old story I told then, about the bishop who arrived to preach at a country church, to find only the organist, the old churchwarden and the vicar in the congregation. 'Didn't you tell people I was coming?' he asks the vicar. To which he replies, 'No, but word must have got out.' I have a feeling that, when word gets out, Ken's memorial service in Uffington will be packed out again.

Talking of bishops - no, I think I'd better not. Such places as the Lambeth Conference - well, angels fear to tread. In fact, let's hope that's very much not true.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Breaking news

Have just seen the cover blurb for 'My Donkeybody'. It now has a new sub-title, viz.
'Living with a body that no longer obeys you!' I like it. It doesn't seem so much of a fait accompli - AND it seems a good deal more cheerful. I can see terminal illness is not a great selling line.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Donkeys and asses

I need to come clean, since I learned it was worrying some people (well, someone). The DLF and the DAC were fictitious, figments of my imagination - and any resemblance to real organisations is entirely coincidental. I just made them up to highlight the title of my forthcoming book, 'My Donkeybody : inside a terminal illness' (Monarch, October '08!). Talking of which, I just returned the proofs yesterday. I don't think it's as gloomy as the title might suggest. In fact it's sort of funny in places.

There was a really amazing article in the Spring edition of 'Thumbprint' (the magazine of the MND Association) about a guy called Timothy Berner. Before he died he wrote: 'I am increasingly aware, and have really been for quite a long time that, far from being a death sentence, as the world believes, the disease from which I suffer gives life not death; it is salvific.' Wow! That means it's been good. And then he went on to describe some of the ways in which his life had been enriched.... I'd love to have met him.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Happy Birthday

Today is an important day as it's the birthday of Charis Wenham, my first granddaughter. She's four and she's fun. She's going to be the heroine of my next book.... We're looking forward to seeing her family this weekend, while her Dad and Mum go fishing. Here she is tickling her uncle Stephen while Lucy (sister) acts as photographer.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

34 years ago

Another anniversary.... 34 years ago Jane said, 'I will' - and made me an increasingly happy man. Not surprisingly I love her heaps and she's the hero of my book.

Once more to the breach

Back from holiday with a bang! The first week back IS a shock: 120 emails, a pile of post and answerphone messages to be sorted. So apologies to those who've been waiting on tenterhooks to learn why administration is a spiritual gift.

But first I must tell you about a fun event we went to a week ago. It was the golden wedding celebration of our old friends, John and Mary Moore (see above). We met them 33 years ago in Buntingford, where we bought our first house. The celebration included a falconry display, hence the barn owl called Precious. When they retired from Hertfordshire, John and Mary came and settled in Abingdon, twenty minutes away, and we saw more of them. I write about them in my book, because John made a remarkable recovery from a brain tumour something like ten years ago - and he was able to reassure me about such unknowns as MRI scans when I was undergoing testing! They are quite inspirational.

As is Andrew White - and this is where we come to administration. Check this out! And this is only part of the story. Canon Andrew White, popularly known as the Vicar of Baghdad, is the Anglican chaplain in that city (http://frrme.convio.net). If you google him, you'll find out a lot about him, including the fact that he has MS. Although he'd never met me, he agreed to write a foreword for 'My Donkeybody' and did it brilliantly. We were anxious to meet, but he travels a lot and is incredibly busy, but we thought we might arrange it through our mutual friends, Anthony and Ruth Dunnett, sometime.

On Monday we had a phone call from a neighbouring vicar, Richard, saying Andrew was in his parish and could he talk? It so 'happens' that the British ambassador to Iraq lives in the area (unbeknown to me); it so happened that Andrew was visiting him with a group of teenagers from his church in Baghdad; it so happened in the course of conversation that Andrew mentioned his MS to Richard and Richard mentioned that a local vicar had MND....
'What's his name?'
'Michael what?'
'I must see him - now!'
And so within an hour there we were having tea, jaffa cakes and fellowship.

Now that's what I call a divine appointment. All arranged. My conclusion was that God is the supreme administrator. I suppose he would be since he runs a supremely complex universe. But to arrange a meeting like that so effortlessly as well - that is amazing attention to detail, communication and deployment of personnel. So if administration is one of God's attributes, it follows that it is a spiritual gift. QED.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The gift of administration

Why's administration called a 'spiritual' gift? Have you wondered? Well, yesterday I discovered the reason!

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Holiday blog episode 6

11th July

Packing up

Our last evening, and probably my least favourite part of a holiday. Not so much because of going back to work, though that will be a major shock to the system, but more because I can’t help with the clearing and packing up. You can imagine that I bring a lot of clobber with me, and make a bit of mess. And I sit in a comfortable chair while Jane quietly gets on with the hoovering, cleaning, packing and still produces the food. I hate that. I hate feeling so useless and unable to shoulder a share of the work. If I was fit, we could relax together with a glass of wine, some chocolates and watch ‘Good Will Hunting’ or some other DVD. I’m not sure ‘hate’ is the right word. It irks me. A lot.

But, pause for thought: from 'God on Mute' by Pete Greig (see below), I read today.
‘I have come to believe that if Samie had been spared her brain tumour and we’d never been forced to face the possibility of her early death, we would thereby have missed out on God’s best for our lives’ (page 178, Survivor Books, 2007). That takes some writing! You need to read it in context, but I actually think he might be right, for us too.

10th July

Swords into ploughshares

It’s raining again, and I’m watching BBC Wales News. It’s featured a firm near Newport called EADS which produces hi-tech ‘defence’ equipment. One of the royal family was visiting. It employs 1200 people, and anticipates expanding its workforce by a fifth each year. I think it’s a ‘good news’ item....

By contrast, we spent the afternoon at Pembrey Country Park, near Llanelli, looking across to the Gower Peninsular. It was dry and at times sunny! It seemed full of friendly people. At least the man on the gate and the girl at the Visitors’ Centre - and Terry, the volunteer ranger, all were. We borrowed, free of charge, a Beamer Tramper from the visitors’ centre. That’s the nearest you get to a mountain bike in electric buggies, and off we went for the longest ‘walk’ I’ve been on for five years, through the dunes and woods, past pyramidal orchids. Here and there are signs of its former uses, rusting military-style fences, a pill-box, narrow guage railway tracks and some major bunkers facing the sea. As we sat having our lunch, Terry came by and chatted. We asked him about its history. It was once an ordnance factory, where they’d made bombs. In fact it had started life when Alfred Nobel (of the prizes) had built a factory there to supply dynamite to the mines. In the first World War it had been turned into an Ordnance Factory and revived again in 1936 when the government began seriously to rearm. He himself had worked there after the war when they decommissioned the bombs.

And now it’s a holiday centre for families, with woodland walks, orienteering, biking, riding, dry ski-slope, camping, caravanning and above all miles of clean sandy beach. Today at least it seemed a haven of shalom, well-being and peace. And I couldn’t help longing for the time when all ordnance factories will be made into country parks, tanks into tractors, and swords into ploughshares. Heaven!

Holiday blog episode 5

9th July

Rain in Wales

It doesn’t always rain in Wales. We’ve had sunshine nearly every day since being here (some at least), but today it’s rained non-stop. However I’m not complaining because it’s not only here and also it’s let me get on with the very good book I’m reading, God on Mute by Pete Greig (www.24-7prayer.com). It came out last year. It comes out of the experience of his young wife, Samie, having a brain tumour ‘the size of an orange’ and then developing severe epilepsy. Of course for him as a Christian it raises all the hardest questions of belief. The book’s subtitle is ‘Engaging the silence of unanswered prayer’. Is prayer just words disappearing into the ether? Does God really exist? In a way his book is written from the other perspective than mine - that of carer rather than patient - which in my view is the harder side, the carer’s, I mean. It’s really well written. Recommended, as long as you don’t mind crying.

Talking of caring, on Radio 4’s ‘Saturday Live’ with Fi Glover last week, the Heritage Tracks feature in which a listener chooses music and explains why was presented by Sue Chalmers, a mother with MND, who used a text-to-speech program (‘Audrey’) to speak for her. She talked about the amazing way her children cared about her. I identified with that.

Anniversaries (Holiday 4)

7th July


Yes, it’s the third anniversary of the London bombings. What a gruesome day! I remember hearing the breaking news on the radio and then turning on the TV to see the tragedy unfold. I suppose the image of the bus blown apart in Tavistock Square is the one most imprinted on my memory, perhaps because years ago I worked in that area and travelled to the office by bus. I could understand the vicar in Bristol resigning because she couldn’t find it in herself to forgive the killers of her sister - and yet say in church, ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ That is a big ask.... And I suspect God prefers it when we say, ‘I can’t - at the moment,’ than when we say, ‘I do,’ when in fact we don’t.

Events like 7/7 put things like sport into perspective. Federer’s loss after that titanic match was trivial on a global scale. Similarly Nadal’s and Hamilton’s victories aren’t that historic. Big in their lives, but not ultimately.

6th July

Happy Birthday

The NHS is 60 years old today, and is rightly being celebrated. It’s been interesting being in Wales this past week, because the Welsh feel a parental pride in the National Health Service. It was, of course, the brain-child of Aneurin Bevan, that son of the valleys. So all week Radio Wales have marked the anniversary. One GP recalled that his father was unique among doctors pre-NHS. Called out for an emergency, doctors would go round to the back door and let themselves in. He would call out, ‘Who’s ill?’; normally the first question from others was, ‘Who’s paying?’

How different things are now! How easily we take it for granted! With MND I’d be stony broke by now! I’ve had superb and speedy treatment; MRI and CT scans, electrical tests, wheelchairs, walking aids, adaptations at home; and when I was foolish enough to turn my wheelchair over with me in it and injure myself, paramedics, a hospital bed downstairs; physios, OTs, speech therapists, technical support, consultant appointments etc etc, not to mention free prescriptions for my epilepsy. It’s just amazing! Even more amazing, and depressing, is the constant griping encouraged by politicians with an axe to grind and the media with a product to sell. Of course, being staffed with human beings, things go wrong. Of course, resources are limited. So it’s not perfect. But it is great. I for one am more than grateful to Welshman, Mr Bevan.

Bog snorkelling and revival (Holiday 3)

5th July

Bog snorkelling and revival

While the Williams’ sisters were battling it out on Centre Court, an even more gruelling contest was taking place near us, at Llanwrtyd Wells. It’s the sort of thing that puts the Great into Britain. It’s the annual World Bog Snorkelling Championships. It’s raced on mountain bikes weighted down with lead in their tyres, in a bog - ‘I kid you not’ - submerged entirely, using the snorkel to breathe with. They don’t travel many yards, but it’s good filthy fun. It takes place this Saturday and Sunday.

If you think I’m making this up, you can look it up on www.green-events.co.uk, I believe.

We’d been up in the hills and happened upon the town of Llanwrtyd Wells; and decided to follow the blue signs ‘To the Bog’, which led to a narrow lane. Down the lane we met some young lads on mountain bikes, and asked them if the races were still happening. ‘No, but they start again tomorrow at 11.’ We drove on far enough to see the site (or whatever you call a bog stadium) and turned away, disappointed. However I guess it lacks something as a spectator sport, unless brown wet riders emerging from a bog reminds you of our primitive origins - which it doesn’t for me personally. However we got back in time to see Laura Robson winning Wimbledon Junior, which was impressive. I hope media hype doesn’t spoil her.

Meanwhile, if you’re ever in that part of Wales, do look out Capel Soar y Mynydd, round the top end of Lyn Brianne reservoir. We came on it by chance looking for somewhere to picnic while it rained. It’s an isolated white-washed chapel attached to a cottage, built in 1747. It’s an unspoilt early Methodist chapel in a beautiful situation, above a small river, and worth visiting for that reason alone. But it’s special for another reason, which warms my heart: ‘In the year 1779 a remarkable awakening began in this out-of-the-way place. A homely exhorter, of very ordinary preaching talents, but of great piety, Jack Edward Watkin by name, was preaching at the place on a Sabbath afternoon, when suddenly the fire kindled....’ From there a revival of faith spread across Wales, lasting three to four years. Never despise small beginnings.

Holiday blog episode 2

3rd July

More about donkeys

The Donkeys’ and Asses’ Council (DAC) has asked for an apology and a ‘complete retraction’ of adverse comments in this blog re donkeys. Was I aware of the genuine affection in which they are held? Did I know that the Donkey Sanctuary is among the best supported charities in this country? Was I not ashamed at contributing to the ignorant prejudice concerning ‘this much loved and often misunderstood member of the animal kingdom’?

I can only repeat that I have nothing against them. I know they have an honourable history. After all, you can’t go through vicar training at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford without learning about Balaam’s ass. Balaam was the international superstar guru of his time. If you really wanted to diss someone, he was the man you called in as your trump card. Which is what Balak wanted to do the advancing Hebrew people. It was something like the BBC dragging in a heavy-weight expert to deal with some Church of England quarrel like women bishops (Christina Rees), liberalism (Rod Thomas) or homophobia (Colin Slee). They head for the studio and their sat nav tells them their route is blocked. However much they argue, it won’t let them go that way, or any way. Eventually the satellite beams down the reason: there’s an angel in their way. Sat Nav knows best; and the Beeb never gets the killer interview it hoped for. Well, Balaam’s ass was like that. He, or she, actually saw better than the world’s leading seer, or guru. ‘There’s a blooming great angel in the way - and he’s got a sword. And there’s no way, Balaam, I’m going to argue with him.’ Balaam in the end was forced to admit that the donkey was right, and he was wrong. And Balak got a very different outcome from what he’d hoped.

So let me agree and state categorically that donkeys are no mean beasts of burden. After all one once carried the most significant figure in history into Jerusalem. (Though, ironically, the point of that would be lost if it wasn’t in fact just a workaday beast of burden.) Rest at peace, donkey-lovers, everywhere. I love ‘em too.

2nd July

Summer Watch

It’s like Summer Watch here. We park our car just outside a barn where there are two swallows’ nests. There’s a constant swooping in and out and that squeaky chatter. I don’t know if swallows have more than one brood, but by the look of it there are some which have fledged and by the sound of it some are still in the nest. When the barn door is closed, there’s window above it through which they can come and go. Their speed and accuracy is phenomenal. Yesterday one landed between the path and lawn right by our feet. It was such a slender and fragile creature, just lying there close to. It is quite amazing that these delicate-looking birds will fly south as far as East and South Africa in the autumn before returning here again next spring. They can be forgiven the deposits left on the car for that.

It was a glorious summer’s day here. Being up on a hillside, we didn’t have the sweltering temperatures of centre court. But we had breakfast and lunch in the sun (and the wind) overlooking the Black Mountain, visited occasionally by a native red kite passing low over the house. We sometimes see them over Stanford, but those are the reintroduced specimens. The owners of the house here put out bird feeders, which are usually crowded with tits, finches, sparrows, and from time to time a pair of greater spotted woodpeckers. A family of marauding grey squirrels continually decimate the nuts and seed, and sadly Jess has lost any hunting instinct she once had.