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' ( 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 ( 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 ( 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, 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.

Holiday blog episode 1

1st July


A year ago Emma Kate Braddy died, after six weeks of life. A few days later I met Neil and Jane, her remarkable parents, and in a week or so we laid her tiny body to rest in our churchyard. I’m sorry I’m not there to mark the day with them.
(There’s a website about her short life:

30th June

Only a game!

One of the things with having MND is that you’re limited as to what you can do; so I probably watch too much TV in my spare time. But I’m going to talk about it again today. Hard luck, Germany. (Apologies, Herr Lahm (not Larm), I saw the back of your shirt only last night. I think it’s a sign of disrespect when you can’t be bothered to get someone’s name right.... So I’m sorry.) But well done, Spain. I could see why it’s sometimes called the beautiful game. I must say I was pleased because before the match the pundits were saying they were the underdogs, though I noticed after the match they soon changed their tune, ‘Of course, throughout the tournament Spain had been playing the best football, by far, blah de blah....’ But, as I said, I tend to side with the underdogs.

In the interval I turned over to ‘Top Gear’ in time to see Spooks do the lap in a moderately priced car - and the restoration of the Cool Wall. For those who’ve not seen the archetypal ‘boys and their toys’ programme, the Cool Wall is where the presenters, usually Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, categorise cars into different degrees of coolness or uncoolness. It’s mildly amusing (though they got Skodas wildly wrong). But last night one bit of labeling struck me. Richard Hammond moved Aston Martins from cool to uncool, because they’re common on the King’s Road, and they belong to footballers, such as Frank Lampard, WAYNE ROONEY (snigger, snigger) et al. Well, in fact, they are highly skilled sportsman. They may be overpaid, but it’s the market rate. It felt there was a mixture of snobbery and jealousy in dubbing cars (which you’ve previously admired) uncool, just because footballers like them.

Then I turned back to watch the second half of the match and saw an exhibition of skill given by passionate professionals refusing to give up until the final whistle. Uncool - perhaps; but admirable. Respect to them all.

I’m reminded of something Chekhov, the Russian who wrote sad plays, said about critics, to the effect that they are like parasites who live off the blood of the animals who do the work.

29th June 2008

Too hasty

Not being on line here, I can’t see what I wrote yesterday; but it was obviously a case of too much haste. Because I know I got Nelson Mandela’s age wrong, and I think I said some of my best friends were asses. Well, clearly I didn’t mean that, much as I esteem donkeys. If you’re one of my friends reading this, of course I didn’t mean you. I didn’t mean my BEST FRIENDS. I can feel the hole getting deeper! I meant, some well-respected acquaintances of mine have, on occasions, acted in an asinine way.... Phew! Apologies for any offence.

Incidentally I should have known better. When I was teaching, I learned the crucial lesson, that you NEVER call a student a fool or a failure or any label. Because you do literally label them. They get the message that’s your general opinion of them as a human being. What’s worse, they may also begin to believe it of themselves, especially as they’ve probably heard the same from others. If, instead, you say, ‘That was a stupid thing to do, wasn’t it?’ you imply the opposite: that you rate them as a person with potential for better.
Labels for people may be useful, but they are dangerous. Can you imagine God labeling individuals? (Maybe that’s the point of Adam and Eve. God’s not into making the human species, but individual human beings.)

Going back to the Nelson Mandela concert, I caught the TV broadcast yesterday. Weren’t the Soweto Gospel Choir great? And I loved Annie Lennox with her young choir. Apartheid was labeling taken to its logical pernicious extreme. Black and white and coloured - we’re just human. We’re made in God’s image. How dare we treat people as less? That’s part of Mr Mandela’s virtue, that when he achieved power he didn’t buy in to the label-culture; he didn’t institute reverse apartheid. Remember the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Desmond Tutu?