Friday, 31 December 2010

After thoughts

I was thinking more about the Tolstoy quotation last night, and it occurred to me that he was musing on the conundrum that humans are capable of comprehending incredible beauty and at the same time committing awful atrocities. I seem to remember St James writing about a similar paradox, which is unique to human beings. "From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water."

From The Guardian website
The last of our family has left this morning, and so now Jane and I are back to our normal quiet life. We have had a very jolly Christmas with the family. As I write, friends in Sydney will be watching the fireworks over the harbour and seeing in the New Year. I'm sure they won't begrudge their Aussie friends their celebrations (My friends are Brits). They need cheering up after the drubbing England gave them in the cricket at Melbourne. No Ashes this year, I'm afraid, Australia. You'll just have to make do with burnt out rocket-cases! Anyway, have a happy New Year.

"The religious person is someone who seeks a God who is instrumental, a useful tool to get escape from hell or even sin; the Christian serves God aesthetically, for the joy of who he is" (John Piper, quoting Jonathan Edwards, according to the Rev Sally Hitchener). I was reminded of this when listening to Sandi Shaw (of 'Puppet on a String' fame, aka Mrs Powell) on 'Desert Island Discs' this morning, who was something of a contrast to Nick Park (of Wallace and Gromit fame) last week. She was talking about her conversion to Buddhism, which happened when she chanted for the money to launch a new disc (£25,000), then boldly asked the boss of Sony Music for it and was given it. That seems fair and square instrumental. How much, I wonder, am I up for the joy of who He is?

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Approaching the New Year

My quote for the end of the year: "I have learned that keeping relationships and friendships in good repair is the best defence against trouble; and that planning and organising fun is the best antidote to regret, discontent, and boredom" (John Milnes, my best man).

My quote for the beginning of next year: "Can it be that there is not enough space for man in this beautiful world, under those immeasurable, starry heavens? Is it possible that man's heart can harbour, amid such ravishing natural beauty, feelings of hatred, vengeance, or the desire to destroy his fellows? All the evil in man, one would think, should disappear in contact with Nature, the most spontaneous expression of beauty and goodness" (Leo Tolstoy, The Raid, 1853).

Over the past few days I finished the book of Tolstoy short stories given me by my favourite journalist. It gave rise to a fascinating exchange among the family about the realism of Christian anarchism as a way of life. He probably is over-optimistic about the possibility of goodness without redemption and inspiration, but I think he's right about the inherent sinfulness of human hierarchies, of which the tower of Babel is the archetype, to be reborn as Babylon. I liked the parable-like stories, especially The Two Old Men. His theme often seems to be "Faith without works is dead". 

What I like about my first quotation is John's positivity, which I shall try to emulate. And I agree with Tolstoy's view of the dissonance between the beauty of the natural world and the ugliness of much human behaviour. So I am going to try to avoid adding to that ugliness in my 2011 blogging. It seems to me that the blogosphere is where "feelings of hatred, vengeance and the desire to destroy one's fellow" run rampant. Although the results may not be physically so bloody as in The Raid, there's no doubt they are at least equally pernicious. And so I will avoid commenting on the so-called Top Gear Christmas Special, and try gratefully to recollect instead the number of good and helpful programmes the BBC put on specially for Christmas.,,9780140445060,00.html#

Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Christmas

In 1946 or thereabouts, my father bought a nativity set in Bethlehem, or Jerusalem, where he was an RAF chaplain conducting moral training for the forces. He brought it home, and it was put up every Christmas in our home. We've inherited it, and it still goes up every Christmas time, one-eared donkey and all.
There's a certain appropriateness about it being 64 years old, because that was the time of radical Zionist action for Israeli independence. And yet, as the Pope pointed out in today's "Thought for the Day", it was not for that sort of freedom that Jesus was born. He came into a context when the people were looking for the promised messiah to bring them political freedom. "God is always faithful to His promises, but He often surprises us in the way He fulfils them."

There is a page on Facebook today, headed "The Nativity - thank you BBC and Tony Jordan". I clicked on "Like". Last night was the final episode of the four-part serial, The Nativity, and it was a fitting and touching climax. I know some of my friends are miffed by the infidelities to the Biblical narrative, but in my view there's far more positive to it than negative, especially in understanding it as a human story, with the full divine revelation being reserved for the last few minutes. As someone has commented, it's not evangelism; that's not the BBC's job. But they did a good job in making a story which people think they know come alive. I guess it's Christians who need to spell out what it means today.

And so, I conclude by wishing you a very happy Christmas, with a shot from the series and a sentence from Pope Benedict's message this morning
From the BBC website
"Out of love for us He took upon Himself our human condition of fragility, our vulnerability, and opened up to us the path that leads to fullness of life, to share the life of God Himself." 

Not bad for a Christmas present! Emmanuel, thank you for the Nativity.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas under fire

I did miss both Episodes 2 & 3 of The Nativity and of last night's Channel 4 news, which had a report on 'Christmas in Iraq living in fear', but caught up with them on iPlayer and 4oD. I'll reserve any comments about The Nativity until I've seen the end. But the report on Iraq is certainly worth eight minutes of your time: Click on the picture of Andrew White among St George's congregation.

From Channel 4 website
Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4's international editor, describes the continuing exodus of Christians from post-war Iraq, from a million to half that today. She takes us to the Catholic church of Our Lady of Salvation attacked by al-Qaida suicide bombers leaving more than 50 dead, where now a forlorn remnant remain to worship.

Christians are now targets in their homes. The aim of the extremists is to drive them all from Iraq. It's little wonder they live in such fear, and Christianity of course predates Islam there by centuries. Andrew White, in St George's in Baghdad, still uses Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, in the liturgy of his services. I believe the apostle Thomas founded the Christian church in Iraq before travelling further east; so maybe not "more than" but getting on for 2000 years ago.

St George's, it seems, will be the only place where Christmas is joyfully celebrated in Baghdad this year, and that obviously makes it more of a target for terrorist attacks. It's a real reminder to us who'll be debating whether to face a bit of cold to get to church of what many have to face merely for worshipping the Christ-child. It's also a reminder of the climate of fear which prevailed in first-century Palestine.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Wonder in the winter

A friend in Manchester put this picture on her Facebook page, with a comment beneath it:
I love the picture, which Marijke tells me she didn't take, but I'm giving her the credit for putting it together with the words. I think it's like a modern-day Pieter Brueghel the younger. The words she's put beneath are, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men. Yet, they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3)

It's good to reminded that the snow IS beautiful. Even the non-collection of the recycling boxes in the close outside provides convenient dodging points for the snow-ball fights which are our equivalent of Amsterdam's canal skating! Shame about the utilitarian gritting that took place at midday, creating the dirty pink brown slush - which I'm sure is safer to drive on, but not a patch on the original to look at. 

I won't be able to watch episode 2 of the BBC's Nativity tonight, as it's the time when all our neighbours come round for mince pies and mulled wine. It's a good feeling that we know twice as well as we did last year. I guess it was kindness and politeness that brought them last a year ago; now it feels like friendship. I'm hoping it will be a merry time! (I can smell the mulled wine in the making now!)

Meanwhile Nativity will be recording and we can watch it later. Episode 1 lived up to my hopes pretty well. The characters are beginning to come alive and the political background is being built up. It's not being made over-gritty or over-pretty. You can sense there's a blow-up coming between Joseph and Mary. And we also want to find out how the young shepherd and his sick wife fare under pressure from Herod's tax-extortioner.... It's fleshing out as a human story, a story of "poor ornery people, like you and like I". I wonder! 

Monday, 20 December 2010

Media Christmas

Our downstairs pipes are frozen, my lift is sitting down here out of order, the snow is still confining me to barracks - but I'm warm and have enough to eat and drink. And it's beautiful outside. Snow is remarkable. Can every flake really be unique? Well, I suppose every human who's ever lived or will live is.

I heard John Bell of the Iona Community on "Thought for the day" on the Today Programme this morning. He was talking a lot of sense about our "entitlement" culture. We reckon we're entitled to get the World Cup, win the Ashes, have uninterrupted travel, whatever the weather. He said something like, Whether we're Darwinian evolutionists or seven-day creationists, we should know that we're only a small part of the universe. "So maybe when the inclemencies which other countries accept as standard begin to affect us, maybe that's for our own good. It reminds us that we are not in control, and that marvellous as we think our lives are, the life of the world is more marvellous and more important yet. And maybe, when we feel we're not getting the weather to which we're entitled, we might ponder, now that global warming is all but certain, whether the globe is getting the care to which, under heaven, it is entitled." A wise man.

I must say that the BBC seems to be giving the Christian faith a fair airing this week. On prime time TV Channel 1 they are putting on a big-budget four-part dramatisation of the Christmas story, starting tonight. From the preview articles I've read it sounds extraordinarily impressive. Tony Jordan who cowrote Hustle and Life on Mars and scriptwrites for Eastenders has researched and written the adaptation, called simply Nativity. He talked about the experience on Radio 4's early morning Sunday show and described how in the process he had moved from a position of agnosticism to believing it had really happened. Among other things, evidence from NASA about the nature of the star had impressed him. I suspect he's quite an intelligent man, looking closely at the evidence. Would that more people were willing to do the same!
Mary on the road (BBC website)
I'm looking forward to seeing the familiar narratives come alive in a fresh way. I'm hoping that there will be imaginative characterization but not great liberties with the recorded events. The good thing is that the events are so well known that we'll recognise when they're departed from - won't we? Was there really a donkey?? Or camels?? Etc, etc. Frankly I don't think it matters. What matters is that teenage Mary carried God in her womb and held Him in her arms.

PS The lift has been mended. I'll be able to go to bed tonight. Thank you, Oxfordshire Social Services. Keep up the good work.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Winners and losers

Aussie celebration (TCB website)
The BBC has been trumpeting this as the big "results" weekend - with the finals of Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice, and the great event Sports' Personality of the Year. Oddly enough there's been less said about England's trouncing in the third Test Match in Perth. A margin of 267 runs.... It has at least brought the Ashes series back to life. It's not going to be walk-over after all.

I'm writing this before "the personality" is decided, but I just caught the awarding of the Helen Rollason award to the remarkable Frank Williams, the disabled co-owner of our local Williams F1 team. "It's been a great journey, one I'd love to do again if I was younger. I wouldn't try and do anything different except try and avoid the accidents," said Williams, accepting the award ( His is the third most successful team in F1 history, after Ferrari and Maclaren, a remarkable achievement for a man who was paralysed from spinal cord injuries in a car accident in March 1987 and was pushed up in a wheelchair to receive his award. No giving up for him! 

Contrary to what some friends think, I'm not a Strictly addict. I could do without a lot of its show-biz flummery, but I was pleased that Kara Tointon won with her partner, Artem Chigvintsev. For one thing she was the best dancer. I'm sure the BBC were relieved that risking the final decision to the public vote ended with a conclusion with which the professional judges would have agreed. She was incredibly musical and expressive - and of course well choreographed. But for me she also represented special needs. She is painfully dyslexic. If you saw the programme she presented on dyslexia, you'd have seen the extraordinary lengths she has to go to in order to learn dialogue for acting parts. She's a great example of someone with a hidden handicap. She's very attractive - and yet has an immense weakness, to which she doesn't give in. And she also shows her emotions - which in my book is a strength. I disagree with those who reckon that she and Artem played for the sympathy vote with the injuries! Anyway, I was glad she won and thought she deserved it.
The rumba (BBC website)

Snow Sunday

The Christmas tree is now up in the conservatory - where it looks very picturesque, I must say, surrounded by the snow-covered garden. I hope that people in the street can see it through the living room. The snow is lying deep and crisp and even round here, which means I can't get out and about very easily. A friend of mine emailed this week: "Let it snow...", that song should be banned! I don't quite agree. I know some members of my family who'd like a bit more.... But I can see her point! Perhaps it's an age thing.

Anyway, it was good this morning receiving a phone call from Charles and Mandy, who'd been unable to get to church by car and wondered whether we'd like to "break bread" with them. Great! So they walked over and we celebrated the 4th Sunday of Advent together. I have to say it was among the best "church" services I can remember. I'm really grateful, and was reminded that this was the model of church life in the New Testament. A lot of people seem to struggle with institutional church, including me. Maybe instead of big meetings in big buildings, friends meeting and sharing their lives and faith (and doubts) together is a more "two or three" way of being church. Maybe this is the way forward that I heard about last summer.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Premature celebrations

Well, I don't like to say I warned you, but I did (see "Losers...and Winners"). We've not yet won the Ashes after all. Saturday morning and England have lost 5 wickets and are a couple of hundred runs adrift. The commentators have already admitted defeat. Oh dear!

I suspect the celebration at the release on bail of Wikileaks' founder, Julian Assange, may also prove to be premature and short-lived. Could it have really been £200,000 bond for an alleged sexual assault case? I don't suppose we'll ever know the truth about the whole tangled web surrounding the leak of 3 million US diplomatic files through Wikileaks. To be honest, I don't think I buy the highly confidential and highly damaging claims - if it's true that they were unencrypted and circulated to tens of thousands of American civil servants. I listened to Assange's British lawyer last week and found his account very coherent - but then it would be, wouldn't it?

I have no doubt that various governments, and in particular our American friends, will be very annoyed and worried by the apparent ease with which the files were obtained, and their extent. It sounds as though the most sensitive information was redacted before publication, but even so, somewhere out there, someone has the unredacted files. I suppose there are some lessons for everyone. One is that the world wide web is, as Tim Berners Lee intended, a free flowing medium of information and is not really secure. I suspect that governments will tighten up their computer security, but, as Gary MacKinnon proved, a techy computer geek can hack even into the Pentagon computer system. So how about paper and pigeon post?

Another, which shouldn't surprise us, is that what governments tell us is what they want us to hear. The published extracts from the files give quite a different version of events from what's normally released via the media.

In November my favourite journalist sent me a  copy of Tolstoy's How much land does a man need? and other stories. She said she was interested in my reaction to his form of Christian anarchism. I've not yet finished it, but I'm enjoying it. I loved this sentence from Where Love is, God is: "You are in such  despair because you only want to live for your own happiness!"

Thursday, 16 December 2010


Tuesday was a special day. We went to Bristol, my old stamping ground, for a double celebration. By the way, I reckon that we should have as much celebrating as we can find pretext for. In this case it was to witness a major milestone in our Dutch friends' lives. Otto and Mirjam wanted to renew the wedding vows, and Anne, their daughter, was to be baptised while her parents also renewed their baptism promises.

So an early start and it was off to Stoke Gifford (next to Bristol Parkway Station) for the renewal of marriage vows followed by the wedding breakfast (coffee and cake!) in the great coffee shop over the Green. Then it was a convoy, following the yellow Mini Convertible of Karen, the associate minister, to a friendly Baptist Church in Patchway, to use their pool. It was altogether a privilege to be there as the three of them went into the water and came out to be wrapped in prayer and towels.

After that we went to Cribbs Causeway to have lunch in the food hall with Otto, Mirjam and Anne. Very nice it was, too.

And soon we'll be celebrating Christmas. Mulled and mince pies with our neighbours. Carols and Christmas services.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Lessons from history

40 years ago, there was a military junta in Greece led by Colonel George Papadopoulos. A clique of army officers (presumed to be backed by the CIA) had seized power in 1967 in order to forestall democratic elections which looked likely to return a left/centre government. Thousands were arrested and tortured. ( The ousted Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, was sent into exile, where he later died.

When I was at university, Cambridge City laid on a Greek Week in February 1970. It wasn't a really smart move. After all the Junta had banned, among other things, the peace movement, strikes, labour unions, long hair on men, mini-skirts, the peace symbol, the Beatles, Sophocles, Tolstoy, Aeschylus, Socrates, Eugene Ionesco, Sartre, Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, free press, new maths and the letter Z , which means 'he lives'. Students weren't very impressed by the city entertaining this brutal government's tourist interests. The final event was a reception at Cambridge's poshest hotel, The Garden House, by the river, just down the road from my college. A demonstration was predictable and expected. In fact most guests were there well before the scheduled start. Those who weren't ran into hundreds of protesting students. As is the way the demonstration escalated, so that some students got inside, windows were broken, stones thrown, a firehose turned on students, truncheons drawn and dogs brought in.

Six arrests were made, and eventually 15 were charged in court. Eight were found guilty and were given custodial sentences between nine and 18 months in prison by Justice Melford Stevenson, the harshest High Court judge of his time. Clearly the intention was to make an example of the young men. The article published in Cam in the summer
 ( about the incident, marking its 40th anniversary, makes instructive reading especially after the recent student demonstrations about rising fees. When they see pledges broken and Mr Norman Lamb (Lib Dem MP, government whip) declaring on national TV that students will be paying back less than at present (with fees doubled or tripled - hardly!), one can understand students' exasperation and desire to protest. It ends:
'The place of the Garden House riot in the wider history of British student protest remains a matter for debate – particularly on the question of whether the sentences were responsible for quelling further violent demonstration. Melford Stevenson continued to think so, up to his death in 1987. In retirement, he told a reporter that the Garden House protest was “undoubtedly a case for deterrent sentences, and that is what I passed. The significant thing is that since then, no major incident of such student violence has happened.”
'An opposing view was taken by Owen Chadwick, Vice-Chancellor at the time of the events. “That is wrong,” he told the Cambridge Evening News in 1980. “It stopped because people in the University themselves did not want it ever to happen again. They realised they had gone too far.”
'Of those approached for this article, none admits to any regret over their involvement in the demonstration. Stephen Amiel says: “I don’t know what the people who went to prison would say, but those of us who didn’t had no regrets. The fact that it created so much negative publicity for the Greek regime was fantastic.”
'Rod Caird, who would end up serving 12 months, broadly agrees; but believes that the deterrent effect on protest should not be underestimated. “We certainly publicised the protest movement about the dictatorship in Greece very effectively. But it brought people up with a start to realise that if they were going to get involved in demonstrations, it could have a really bad outcome.”
'Nick Emley likewise professes “no regret at all about what happened” and is dismayed at the responses sent to the Cambridge News after he was recently interviewed about the events. “Forty years on, there’s resentment at the way we behaved, and I assume at our political attitudes, which I regard as reasonable and decent – hardly what you’d think of as hardline Marxist stuff.”
'The most pragmatic view of the Garden House affair is taken by Bob Rowthorn – now Emeritus Professor of Economics, and a life fellow of King’s College. “The truth of the matter was that it was a rather small event that got out of hand,” he says. “Well-organised demonstrations typically don’t have clashes or violence. “So if someone said, ‘If you had planned to do something like that, could you justify it?’, I’d say no. But it wasn’t planned as a riot. The trouble is, demonstrations do get out of hand.”'  

I suspect Owen Chadwick, the historian, is nearer the mark than Melford Stevenson, the beak, who turns out to have been a trifle optimistic, if not naïve.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

A very interesting invitation

Last week I received an email from Lord Charles Falconer, inviting me to give evidence to his "Commission on Assisted Suicide". In his letter he told me it's independent. In his blog, George Pitcher of The Telegraph describes it as entirely bogus. As he says, "its findings are already a done deal, of course. To recap: not only is Lord Falconer a well-known advocate of euthanasia, who has tried to introduce it into legislation in the Lords, but he is chairing the “Commission”. At the last count, nine of the 12 “Commission” members are on record as supporting some change in the law to allow some form of euthanasia in the UK (the remaining three are best described as neutral-to-wobbly, so there are no actual opponents of a change in the law here). The “Commission” is bankrolled by Sir Terry Pratchett, the novelist who believes those of infirm mind should be put to death, and sponsored by the death-on-demand lobbyists Dignity in Dying." ( )   
I'd not read this before replying, but this was what I emailed back:

"Dear Lord Falconer

Thank you for your invitation to give evidence to your commission on assisted dying.  I regret that I shall decline for two reasons. 

The first is that my condition of Motor Neurone Disease makes travel far from easy.  If the object were sufficiently compelling, then I might be persuaded to make the effort, but in this instance – a self-appointed unofficial ‘commission’ – it is not the case.

The second is that I have no confidence in either your commission’s independence or its objectivity.  As for its proclaimed ‘independence’ I understand it is the brainchild of Dignity in Dying, whose overt purpose is to campaign in favour of assisted suicide, and that it is funded inter alia by Sir Terry Pratchett, whose views are well known.  And as for its objectivity, whilst not doubting their sincerity, I understand that the large majority of the panel members, including yourself, are on record as supporting a change in the law and, to my knowledge, there are none who have been vocal on the other side of the debate. 

I suspect that my appearing to give evidence would be used to give a fig leaf of balance to a final report the direction of whose recommendations are predictable and which to my mind would verge on propaganda. 

Should there ever be an official Parliamentary commission again on the subject, I should be glad to give evidence, either in writing or if possible in person, but I am sure you will understand why I am declining your invitation.

Yours sincerely..."

As usual, I wished in retrospect I had been more gracious in what I'd written, bearing in mind what St Paul had to say about seasoning our speech with salt. However, once you've sent an email you can't unsend it. So should any of the "commission" happen to read this, I apologise for that. 

Trip to London

On Monday Jane and I drove up to London. We were heading for the Kentish Town TV Studios. It was a freezing foggy morning, and on the way we hit snow on the M4. However, Jane enjoyed driving the new car. Much smoother than the Focus, she finds. And she's pretty cool driving through the city, even when I got lost navigating through Camden Town - on the way home. 

Our purpose was to record a 4Thought programme for Channel 4, about assisted suicide. In case you've never seen it, 4Thought is the 1 minute 50 second item immediately following Channel 4's Evening news. It's considered a religious programme. The filming was done in a large pure white studio with no straight lines - peculiarly disorientating. You really do get the illusion of infinity. Sadly I didn't need make up! My pate wasn't too shiny, apparently. In the event, they interviewed me for more than 30 minutes. Then Jane and I had to do various still shots and one walking on! It will be interesting to see the final edited result some time in January. Typically, during the night I woke up and thought of what I should have said! 

I'd like to have said some of this:

"I’m Michael Wenham.  I’m a Christian.  I have a slow form of Motor Neurone Disease.  It already means I cannot live independently.  More and more that will be the case, until eventually I die.

We have an old dog who’s beginning to show her age.  If she ever gets cancer and is in constant pain, I shall have her put down.  Why should there not be a law allowing that for people? 

The reason is that valuing human life is the mark of a civilised society.  Over the centuries, bit by bit, we have learned to treat it as precious – rightly.  To make it legal to take life is not progress, but retreat.  The way forward has been pioneered by the hospice movement with enormous advances in palliative care.  That is what we should be promoting, not voluntary euthanasia as a perverse sort of medical treatment.

Compassion does not mean taking someone’s life or even helping them to take their own.  That is a negation of compassion.  That says, ‘Your life is no longer valuable.  You don’t want to live – neither do I want you to live.’  Real compassion means ‘suffering with’; it says, ‘Your life will always be valuable.  Even though you don’t think so, I know so.  That’s why I’ll stick with you – to the end.’

A hospice nurse I know tells me that they talk to their young patients about managing ‘natural’ death.  They don’t want their lives terminated, but they do want reassurance about symptom-control and pain-management.  And they can be given exactly that by palliative care experts.

But isn’t it my choice, my right, to choose when and how I die?  I don’t think so.  Suicide is not a crime, but that doesn’t make it a right, any more than owning a house is a right.  Suicide is a sad desperate act, but ultimately a selfish one.  The dead person may be beyond regrets, but those left behind have to deal with all the emotions of grief, multiplied many times over.  And in the case of assisted suicide that includes doctors and nurses whose job is to care and heal, not to harm - a terrible denial of their raison d’être and undermining of their relationship with patients.

Those of us who are disabled believe our lives have equal value with everyone.  We’re already hearing the message that we’re a ‘burden’.  We fear that legalising any form of euthanasia, whether voluntary or not, would eventually result in us and others more vulnerable being subtly pressured to agree to being put down.  We don’t want to take the road back to the jungle."

The film crew and interviewer seemed pleased with what I'd said, and Jane of course said I did well. I'm just hoping the editing will be kind to me!

Losers... and winners

Last week (actually the week before) England spectacularly lost the bid for the 2018 Football World Cup, despite the best efforts of a professional team backed up by the might of Prince William, David Cameron and David Beckham. For football fans it was disappointing of course, though I always thought it was a trifle greedy going for that just 6 years after we'll have hosted the Olympics. It seemed to me that the rationale of spreading the goodies around the world, as the FIFA committee decided, was fair enough. But what about Sepp Blatter's comment that we were bad losers? That hurt! Because it's true. For the rest of the week phone-ins and the media were full of the corruption and iniquity of FIFA. It just wasn't fair. After all our bid was "technically the best". We're "the home of football"... etc. To be honest, I could not get my head round the logic of why we should have so wanted to receive the award from "the moral sewer that is FIFA", as one paper subsequently described it, and been so miffed afterwards. Would we really have been proud to have picked it up from the sewer?

The habit of rubbishing others when you lose was repeated by Margo Macdonald when she lost the vote on her End of Life Bill in the Scottish Parliament. In the debate, she condemned Care Not Killing’s campaign as ‘cheap and unworthy’, its literature as ‘tacky’ and said that she wanted to get her ‘retaliation’ in first’. It certainly lobbied effectively. But her comments rather insulted the intelligence and integrity of her fellow MSPs.
For an example of losing graciously we needed to wait until Sunday when the redoubtable "Widdy", the Honourable Ann Widdecombe, was finally knocked out of "Strictly Come Dancing". No histrionics, no theatrical tears, no whinging about the judges' prejudice or the audience's adulation, simply a stoical acceptance of the inevitable, a handsome acknowledgement of her resourceful partner, Anton du Beke, and a farewell wave of the hand. 

And then England won! In the cricket... in Adelaide. It was a comprehensive victory, by an innings and 71 runs. The celebration was unbounded; over the top, in my opinion. After all we've not yet won the Ashes - well on the way, I concede, (three matches more to go) and I suppose we need some things to cheer. 

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Scottish Parliament says No

By 85 to 16 with 2 abstentions, the Scottish Parliament has voted down Margo MacDonald's Assisted Dying Bill. A triumph of good sense over raw emotion. I'm glad. I hope the same spirit prevails in the UK for years to come.

Not Ashamed Day

Had to go to the dentist again this morning. Horrible toothache flared up yesterday. I didn't know if I'd get there, because my legs were in revolt against the Siberian winds, but Jane coaxed me down the snowy slope. And just as we were leaving the phone rang from Radio 5 Live. I'd been listening to Victoria Derbyshire's programme about Tony Nicklinson's campaign for a change in the law to assisted suicide. It was broadcast from his home and was in effect part of the launch of the Falconer Commission on Assisted Dying.

It was an emotive programme. Tony Nicklinson had a stroke 5 years ago and is in a "locked-in syndrome". He communicates by adapted computer and a clever letters board. Victoria asked why he wanted to die. "Life is just about tolerable now and I don't want to die immediately. However, I have every reason to believe that my future will be worse than it is now, as my joints seize up, my muscles atrophy and my legs swell up through lack of use. I don't want to face old age like this. And if I have an itch I can't scratch it and if my nose is blocked I can't pick it or blow it. I have to be fed like a baby, except, unlike a baby, I won't grow out of it. And worst of all I'll never know what it's like to hold my grandchildren.... In short my quality of life is rubbish. I may have life, but it's the quality of life that's important." She then asked him if there was anything that made his life worth living. His answer was "No" and mentioned some things he used to enjoy doing, and said, "No doubt those of the glass half-full persuasion will say, 'Forget those things you can't do and focus on the things you can do.' To those people I say this, 'While I don't doubt your sincerity, it's easy to say that when you can live a normal life of walking and talking, but it's a lot harder when you can do neither. It's not worth seeing people, because you just sit there like a lemon.... Of course I want to be with family and friends, but not like this."

Thinking about this as I slowly type, I feel how sad he is. Sad - and angry. He's clearly channeling his anger into the campaign. It reminded me of Debbie Purdy's emotion. "There's a fundamental injustice which needs correcting. When the right to determine where, when and how a person dies is taken away, just because that person needs help is a serious matter and the reasons why it is necessary should be closely examined."  But how sad that he couldn't believe that his family and friends might like and want his mere company! There's something called "companionable silence", which is far from lemonish.

And so I fired an email to the programme which said, "I have the same prospects as Tony Nicklinson, having Motor Neurone Disease. I definitely do not want the law changed because of the unintended dangers which would follow. I may well be a glass-half-full person, but that does not mean that my life is all easy or that I don't have dark times." Oddly, it wasn't read out! However there were some good contributions, including one from Frank, father of Michelle Wheatley, a young mum of 27 with locked-in syndrome in Stockport. I might have said a lot more, for example about this right to decide the time, manner and place of our death! Where's that suddenly come from? Suicide may not be a crime in law, but that doesn't make it a right. Smoking isn't a crime, but that doesn't make it a right. Suicide is essentially a selfish if desperate act, as it never simply affects oneself. And when you are asking others to assist suicide, you are in effect making them complicit in a killing.

Among the contributors was Rachel Hurst who is wheelchair bound with a degenerative disease and opposed to changing the law on the ground of danger to the vulnerable disabled. There was also the wily Lord Charles Falconer, chairman of the Commission on Assisted Dying (a deceptively official title); actually it's far from official, being funded by people like Terry Pratchett, a patron of the former Voluntary Euthanasia Society (Dignity in Dying), and packed with known pro-assisted-suicide panel-members. They like to call it an "independent" commission. You'll often find it referred to that way, on the principle that if you repeat it often enough people will believe it's true. It was launched yesterday. You can read about in Peter Saunders' blog:

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The bluebottle in the porcelain

On Saturday nights, I tend to go to sleep listening to the very serious programme on Radio 4 The Moral Maze. This week they were discussing “Nudge Economics” which apparently has entered the British political scene. There’s a unit at Downing Street, apparently, dedicated to manipulating public opinion, in a way which Michael Buerk illustrated by relating the ingenious Dutch scheme for cleaning up the gents at Schipol airport. 

On the sweet spot of the urinal, slightly to the left of the plughole, there is a picture of a bluebottle, under the glaze. Of course, being men, everyone tries to pee on the bluebottle, causing less mess all round. And, naturally, it works! I think the idea is to get people to do what the government decides is good for them by subliminal methods. The discussion, which I soon fell asleep in, was whether that was ethical.

Personally, I’d rather people acted out of conviction than as a result of manipulation. That means being informed by information and intelligent debate – and not falling asleep in the middle! Maybe there’s also a place for story-telling, such as parables and anecdotes of real life. They lodge in the memory better, like insects on a sticky fly-paper.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


As Brian comments, today is Advent Sunday, and I'm watching a really rather good Songs of Praise, It's below freezing outside which is my today's excuse for not going out to church. Sorry, vicar! Stiffening muscles combined with end-of-day tiredness is not a good recipe, unlike the excellent lunch we went out to earlier - it was like a Christmas meal, and again the best of company.

From Douglas House website
Our hostess works at Douglas House, the hospice for teenagers and young adults in east Oxford. So I asked her about euthanasia, and she told me that the inpatients there never asked for "mercy-killing". They all want to live and to have a natural death. She also emphasised the importance of explaining the control of symptoms available in palliative care for patients facing death. Fear is a big factor in seeking a short-cut, and that fear, Liz explained, arises out of ignorance. And ignorance is also a major factor in the popular opinion in favour of euthanasia. If people realised that in this country we really do have the ability to control symptoms and pain in terminal conditions, she reckons far fewer people would support shortening life unnaturally. It was impressive hearing a senior practitioner in palliative care talking objectively and yet passionately about something in which she was highly expert.

Returning to Songs of Praise, which has now finished, there was an amazing interview with the Bright family. Their young son Edward contracted a rare strain of meningitis when he was 7, and only survived at the cost of his lower legs and forearms. His parents confessed to having not a great deal of faith but when you're desperate you pray, as his dad said. He has his own blog, in which they wrote: "As we reflect on our journey we have experienced deep despair and desperation, not knowing if our precious son would win the battle he had with death, but win he did, (and he recalls that when he was asleep (on the ventilator) he just knew he did not want to die and that God helped him (Edward's own words)). After the despair and desperation came hope, and with that, the optimism and inspiration we have gained from our son, Edward. He is now blessed with a true understanding of just how precious and fragile life is." In the programme, I think Edward said that in his coma Jesus came to him and told him he would not die. On the website:, you can see how he begins to learn to walk on his prosthetic legs a year later. On Songs of Praise we saw him playing football with, I think, his twin brother William.

I love the wisdom of that sentence, "He is now blessed with a true understanding of just how precious and fragile life is." What a great message of hope and faith for Advent.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Manchester and music

After Grace's funeral, we spent the night with Paul and Penny, and our lovely granddaughters, in Manchester. The M6 is a pain to negotiate twice in a day, and we don't often get up to the north-west. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss - and we've not seen their woodburner yet. And so we spent a mellow evening together.

Our departure was somewhat tardier than the family's. Once home Jane did her stint of duty at Cornerstone, and then in the evening we were out to the Oxfordshire MND Association social at the Bear and Ragged Staff in Cumnor. As well as the  visitors and friends, there was David despite his MND has just completed and gained his Master's, as well, he tells me, running a profitable 'herb' farm! Moira was there too, who has the same slow type as me. Times together like this are important, even if the cold weather makes our muscles seize up.

Friday was car exchange day. I must say Scott of Whitequay Seat in Newbury did very well for us. Highly recommended. Jane really enjoys driving the Altea XL, nice and smooth, with features like headlights that point round corners! Anyway, I'm very grateful for the Disability Allowance.

We were out again in the evening to go to Stanford for a concert given by Lillian Boutté in memory of our friend Richard Speed. It was through him that she first came to give a concert in Stanford Church about 20 years ago and began working with children in local schools. She sings jazz and is the official New Orleans ambassador for jazz. She's married to Thomas, a witty German saxophone and clarinet player. The musicians had some difficulty in making it through the snow but it was worth the wait. As you can see, she is full of life and full of faith.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Grace Sheppard

On Wednesday we steamed north to the Wirral for the funeral of my cousin, Grace. We'd heard about the lorry fire on the M5 and went instead by the M6 Toll, which meant we got to the church (in the car!) in time to snatch some lunch before the service. It was a moving service for an impressive person. She looked after her husband, Bishop David Sheppard, when he contracted cancer. "Since caring for David through his illness, and following his death in 2005, Grace confounded all by not succumbing to the darkness of bereavement, in spite of a diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006. Quite the contrary, she embraced life and didn't waste a moment, putting her energy into deepening relationships with her family and friends and expressing her inspiration through writing" - as her daughter and her brother well put it in the service sheet.

As I've said, exactly one month and one day before she died she preached in the Pause for Hope service in Liverpool's Anglican cathedral. This is part of what she said that day:
"There is power to heal in gratitude.
"Some years ago I was sent a postcard from a friend. It had on it this quotation:
'Gratitude never faileth.
'For gratitude is the herald of faith, and
'Faith the harbinger of hope.'
"There is a link between gratitude and hope. Just saying thank you politely is not what I am talking about. It is having such an awareness of God's gifts that a feeling of thankfulness wells up causing us to express that gratitude in heartfelt ways. Once this awareness of what we have been given is allowed room, then real gratitude can begin to take root. Then it becomes a habit. And then you can't stop and despair is sent packing and hope moves in. I have tried this and now I can't help seeing so much by way of gift. I am convinced that this has helped me through some tough times recently, and strengthened my faith too. I recommend Gratitude as a tool for healing. For whingeing and self-pity only lead to despair. There is a choice....

"Sometimes it is in the little things that God shows himself, and very often through other people.
"It is in the tenderness of an elderly man that I saw in hospital patiently tending his dying wife day after day: in the way the light falls on the plants in my garden: in my little next door neighbour jumping on the trampoline, with arms outstretched, shouting  'I can reach the sky!': in the robin puffing out his chest in the early morning sun: it can be found in the way food is prepared and presented on a plate:  - and yes, even in the company of a close friend enjoying 'Strictly' on a Saturday night.
"We are each other's gifts. I'm thankful for every life-giving encounter. Today I stand here out of sheer gratitude: gratitude for Life; to God; to my family and friends and neighbours; to everyone who has sent cards and messages and flowers and offers of help; to all in the NHS: doctors, consultants, nurses, Macmillan nurses, district nurses, researchers, administrators, chaplains, secretaries, maintenance engineers, phlebotomists, radiologists, dinner staff, tea ladies, auxiliary staff, porters and volunteers. They are part of us and we are part of them. Thank you too to all who have been praying - I can feel it every day. There is healing power in Gratitude.
"Pausing, breathing in the love of God, in this great stillness together will give inspiration - oxygen - to our spiritual wellbeing. It will touch people in our homes and hospitals, in our streets and workplaces, in our communities and across the world; it will contribute to the common good.  I hope it will touch you as it has touched me.
"Breathing out is as important as breathing in: it is creative, calming us in the face of fear. Here we are enfolded in the safety of God's love.  It reminds us of our belonging and connectedness to one another. Pausing, breathing and giving thanks together is life giving, and makes room for mutual respect and hope to flourish. It is something we can all do, wherever we are, on the path between living and dying.
"So let's get on with living - in hope!"

One of the most touching parts of the service was when Grace's grandson, Gilles, aged 10, read the version of the 23rd Psalm which she had adapted herself in her final illness.
"... Even though I walk through some dark valleys,
I will fear no danger, for He is at my side....
Your loved ones and mine are there to strengthen and comfort me....
My cup of joy overflows.
Kindness and faithful love pursue me
Every day of my life.
I will be at Home with you today and for ever."

What a privilege to have known her! You may understand that the service was not miserable but a celebration. She loved her garden overlooking the Dee estuary. The last alteration she had done in it was to have an overgrown conifer replaced with a liquidambar sapling, which she called her "resurrection tree". It was illuminated at the funeral tea. She herself never saw it in position, but as she said, "Let's get on with living - in hope."

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The joys and perils of Facebook

I enjoy Facebook, I must say, most of the time. It keeps me in touch with real friends' lives in a way I physically couldn't manage otherwise. Sometimes they give me real encouragement or entertainment. And I like to think that sometimes my feeble and intermittent prayers are informed by the news I read.

Alison Krauss (Wikipedia)

For example, Sarah who used to lead worship in our church and now lives in London, just yesterday mentioned her discovery of the beautiful voice of Alison Krauss. "Interesting," I thought, because Sarah's own voice is not at all bad, and went on a virtual expedition to YouTube, and there found her most popular clip, When you say nothing at all, and she certainly has a lovely voice. But I also loved the words, which perhaps should be the anthem of MND/ALS patients.

However, I also foolishly followed a link which took me to the Diocese of London's website and a statement from the Bishop, Richard Chartres, regarding the Bishop of Willesden (who by the way made a full and unreserved apology for the remarks which had been passed to the press, presumably by a so-called facebook friend):
"I was appalled by the Bishop of Willesden’s comments about the forthcoming royal marriage. In common with most of the country I share the joy which the news of the engagement has brought.
"I have now had an opportunity to discuss with Bishop Peter how his comments came to be made and I have noted his unreserved apology. Nevertheless, I have asked him to withdraw from public ministry until further notice...." 
What an overreaction, calculated to make my blood pressure rise! Heresy and immorality are tolerated, but not free if unwise comment. It feels like the Establishment flexing the last remnants of its muscles. Or maybe a Royalist prince prelate putting the boot in to a republican upstart. I know, it's not an easy job, a bishop's. I should have known better than to have followed the link, I suppose. 

On a more cheerful note, Jane tells me that Cliff Richard tops the 2011 calendar ratings! And Ann Widdecombe has survived ordeal by Blackpool, despite being overwhelmingly awful, as one judge rightly observed. The old order still has legs, for better or worse!

And I was very glad to hear that Margot Macdonald's 'End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill', due to be debated in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, had been given the thumbs down by the committee scrutinising it. Their report concluded: "Overall, the majority of the Committee was not persuaded that the case had been made to decriminalise the law of homicide as it applies to assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, termed ‘end-of-life assistance’ in the Bill, and, accordingly, does not recommend the general principles of the Bill to the Parliament." It's been calculated, according to Dr Peter Saunders of Care Not Killing, ( that if passed it would result in 1,000 Scottish deaths per year. I pray and trust that it will be decisively thrown out on the 25th.

So let me return to that song - which actually is about something that matters infinitely more than the internal wranglings of an ancient institution. Personally I wish they would punctuate song lyrics, but I suppose they're not purporting to be great poetry. The song was written by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz. The story is that they'd had an unproductive day trying to compose, and were strumming away saying nothing. I find it poignant because it says what MND sufferers need to hear, that words aren't needed to express love. In the end, like Jozanne, we'll lose the capacity to speak, but not the capacity to love. And conversely we won't need words to tell us that we're loved. All human love reflects divine love, and much of the song can be read as a metaphor for what St Paul described as "the love of God (which) has shone into our hearts":
It's amazing how you can speak right to my heart
Without saying a word you can light up the dark
Try as I may I could never explain
What I hear when you don't say a thing

The smile on your face lets me know that you need me
There's a truth in your eyes sayin' you'll never leave me
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me if ever I fall
You say it best when you say nothing at all

All day long I can hear people talking out loud
But when you hold me near, you drown out the crowd
Old Mr. Webster could never define
What's being said between your heart and mine

The smile on your face lets me know that you need me
There's a truth in your eyes sayin' you'll never leave me
The touch of your hand says you'll catch me if ever I fall
You say it best when you say nothing at all
Held in His hand Sarah Lomas