Friday, 28 May 2010

Where there's a will there's a way

Yesterday, we had a visit from the solicitor who talked to us earlier this month at the MNDA meeting. She came with her trainee. It's clearly important for us to have sorted out wills and lasting powers of attorney. We were glad of her advice as she really knew her stuff. We sent her away with work to do, and we have homework of our own too. Strangely it wasn't too bad talking about the practical issues surrounding dying. We didn't feel morbid; it's just one of those things that need doing. 

In the evening Jane went off to a church girlies' evening - a Pamper party - and came back with pink nails and soft hands. I watched Location x3 and Men Behaving Badly - appropriate in a way, I suppose.

I've just finished reading the copy of Where's the Winning Post? by Phil Shirley, which Tim kindly sent me. It's the biography of Mikie Heaton-Ellis, who had the familial form of Motor Neurone Disease. This morning I wrote a review for Amazon about it. It's long out of print, but still worth reading. Heaton-Ellis was a promising young jump jockey and eventer. In fact he was an incredibly gifted horseman. And then, at Huntingdon, he had a fall, a galloping horse trod on his spine, and he couldn't move. "To be a rising star in your field of sport and then to suffer an injury that leaves you paralysed and wheelchair-bound would be enough to make all but the toughest give up, but then to contract the terminal condition of Motor Neurone Disease a few years later would be the last straw for even the toughest. However Mikie Heaton-Ellis proved the exception, and, more than just hanging on, proved that with faith you don't have to quit and you can still fulfil ambitions and live a full life in the face of all the odds." 

He worked with three great racing stables, learning all the time, in order fulfil his ambition to become a racing trainer - as he eventually did on the Marlborough Downs setting up the Barbury Castle Stables. But on the way he came to a life-changing faith, which didn't dampen his ambition but gave it new purpose. He didn't become a saint overnight, but in spite of the double-whammy of getting MND on top of being disabled he still kept his eyes 'fixed on Jesus'. As I said on Amazon, "This is his story written in the year before his death. It's well researched and incidentally gives insights into the world of horse-racing, with all its glamour and its danger. Most of all it's inspiring as a story of courage. Having MND myself, it's encouraged me to keep going and to seize the day. Buy it while you can!" I believe his brother, David, also died of MND last year. There's now a Heaton-Ellis Trust which runs amazing events and raises a lot of money for MND research.

I was really struck by this quote about Jonjo O'Neill, the successful jockey who had cancer and who though he says he's not religious nevertheless admits to praying: 'Whatever power allocates the tough times in life should have learned by now that there is no point in trying to break Jonjo O’Neill. He’s not the cracking kind' (Hugh McIlvanney 11/3/1990 Observer). O'Neill is quoted as saying: 'You should have some strength to spare after coming through that lot. In my own life, I feel nobody ever had a better education in how cope with the disappointments and frustrations of a trainer’s existence. Bearing grudges or feeling sorry for yourself does no one any good. You’ve got to kick into the rest of your life.' I reflected that you can either give up and quit in the face of suffering and difficulties, but that 'does no one any good' either. I heard Dame Stephanie Shirley on Desert Island Discs who came to England in the 1930s on a 'kindertrain' from Vienna and built a software company to become one of the richest women in Britain. She suffered from depression, the black dog, until she was sixty and had a profoundly autistic son who died in adulthood from a fit. She too has channeled her energies and money into charities especially to do with autism. She remarked, 'Pain allows you to grow.'

Monday, 24 May 2010

Changing habits

Tuesday became Monday this week. It wasn't because the hot weather is meant to be finishing tomorrow - just because we'd arranged to meet my eldest brother and sister-in-law for lunch at The Bull in Fairford. They were having a break nearby and we extended our staycation to join them. It was good to be out of the heat! That sounds really ungrateful. It was a very pleasant occasion - no canned music, good company (including their dog) and conversation, and good food. Three of us had their 'Credit Crunch Lunch' which at under £5 was excellent value.

Talking of bulls we enjoyed our lunch on Thursday in the neighbourhood of a rather fine real bull keeping guard over his nuclear family, cow and two calves. We'd been to visit one of the saints of the Cotswold Hills, Judy, who lives near the Roman villa at Chedworth. She is an old friend from my vicar days. We had coffee with her and then headed south to have a picnic lunch. We thought we'd have it at a National Trust property, Sherborne Park's The Lodge. We ended up at Ewe Pen Barn, the old assembly point for the estate's sheep on the way to market. Where there are two conveniently placed picnic tables and the start of numerous walks. Over the wall as we drew up was a mare and its foal and the bull and family. I tried to persuade Jane to climb over and take a close-up of the bovine family, but she wouldn't....

While we were eating, we watched a couple of swallows flying in and out of the outhouse next to us. We couldn't hear any cheeping from inside - so guessed there weren't any chicks yet. On the other hand it wasn't very obvious they were bringing mud for nest-building.
I'm told dandelions are particularly prolific this year. In fact I think lilac is too, and hawthorn.... Perhaps it's going to be a hard winter. Or perhaps it's because it was.

Sunday was Pentecost - or Whitsunday, as some of my old parishioners used to insist. And the BBC excelled itself. I have to admit it and congratulate Mr Nagra. At 10 am on BBC1 there was the morning service from All Saints', Peckham. Some years ago Frog and Amy Orr-Ewing led a parish weekend for us at Windmill Farm in Clanfield. He was then curate at St Aldate's in Oxford. Now he's vicar in Peckham leading a thriving multi-racial church, full of life, while she is in worldwide demand as a speaker about why Christianity makes sense. Anyway we saw on our screens what contemporary Christian worship can really look like. Frog was leading and preaching. It was a tonic, as, after a dodgy start, was Songs of Praise in the evening from the King's Church in Newport. It linked the Holy Spirit's first coming with the Welsh Revival of 1904. Again we saw a church full of people utterly enjoying worshipping. I particularly appreciated X Factor finalist Beverley Trotman singing 'Voice of Hope', but there was also the 'Love song of the Revival', Dim ond Jesu. And coincidentally both programmes ended with 'Happy Day'. Interestingly, our morning service at church ended with the same. It is a very celebratory song, entirely appropriate for the birthday of the Church.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Going down to the woods...

As I sit here in the conservatory I can see Bardolph and Banquo who are two delinquent male blackbirds (I assume they're young). They really should have an ASBO served on them. They've been on at each other for more than a week, circling round the pond, feinting at each other, making sudden attacks and having aerial battles. I suppose they're two horny youths fighting over a girl. I'm assuming neither of them is Benedict, but I suppose it might be him and his son fighting over Beatrice. That doesn't bear thinking of! If Junior wins, that would be incest most foul, wouldn't it? So I prefer to think it's two young bloods. Like Dave and Nick during the election! All's well that ends well, as the bard said, eh?

You're right, Brian, Tuesday 'shower day' and all good things! There was a time when the bluebell season would take us to Badbury Clump on a day off, with Jess, the local hilltop beechwood carpeted with bluebells. But the time came when the modest slope up to it became beyond me. So this week we went to the wheelchair friendly Oxford University arboretum at Nuneham Courtenay. Dogs aren't allowed but we still took Jess as we had other plans for her. She clearly didn't believe us, as we left her whining in the car in the deep shade.

I think the arboretum was part of some grand estate. It was obviously a nice collection of trees before the university took it on. It's not huge, but has a fairly smooth path winding round it, past the rhododendrons and azaleas and, if you catch them right, the bluebells. This year we caught them right, as you can see.

However, bluebells were not all we found in the woods. The big surprise was... a frustrated peacock on the path. Poor chap, in the end we saw five peacocks - and NO peahens. So I think Percival had no one else to display to. He fancied himself as a supermodel. And he certainly had some stuff to strut. At the same time he was very friendly.

Having completed our circuit, it was off to Jess's treat, Neptune Wood, where she could wonder around while we had lunch. While we were there we were joined by a dog walker with loads of beautiful dogs. Jane followed them with Jess, while I sat and enjoyed the sunshine and a concert on Radio 3.
So it was finally back home. I persuaded Jane to stop at the Williams roundabout (by the Williams F1 HQ). I wanted her to take a picture of the most extraordinary row of trees bordering the works. We're now mid-May... I really don't think human beings have improved on nature here.

Tuesday wasn't finished however. In the evening we went to hear Graham Kendrick performing The Acoustic Gospel in Wantage Civic Hall. It was extremely good. He's best known, of course, for hymns such as 'The Servant King', but at heart he's a singer/songwriter. And the Acoustic Gospel is the life of Jesus told in a series of songs. So nice to hear high-quality live music. Another surprisingly good day, ending in gratitude to God who loves us and does all things well.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Mundane life

So, it was back to more normal life for the rest of the week. The heavens chose to open when I had to visit my nice 'special needs' dentist on Wednesday afternoon. Sadly he found a loose filling which had to be replaced in case it came out and got inhaled, when I was asleep for example; happily it was where a nerve had been removed a long time ago, and so he could do it without an injection. Which he did very efficiently. We haven't mastered getting on and off the chair yet. It's a bit of a cumbersome dance with me between the dental nurse, Alison, the dentist, John, and Jane. The scariest moment is when I'm perched on the very edge of the slippery surface unable to bend my legs under me! One forgets how infrequently health professionals come across MND patients. I heard an estimate recently that a GP might have only one in their entire career. Anyway I safely landed in the wheelchair, and this time it was sunny getting into the car.

In the evening it was trip down memory lane for me as we'd been invited by our friends, the Masseys, to their new house to meet Melekson and Hildah who run the New Life Trust in Lamu, Kenya, looking after street children often affected by HIV/Aids. Over 40 years ago (!!) I spent a year teaching in Kenya, in one of those rather arrogant GAP years, as I now feel, from which I'm sure I gained much more than the students to whom I taught East African history, British constitution, as well as English literature. 
That was on the side of Mount Kenya, not on the coast like Lamu; but it was good having a reminder of that year, as well hearing about Melekson and Hildah's work.  

Thursday was another MNDA Branch meeting this time with the S Bucks branch. It was a warm spring-like day; so we took a picnic and found a corner in Moreton village with a red kite circling and a couple of house martins. Then it was on to Thame for the meeting, which was about legal matters such as lasting powers of attorney and wills. It was given by a solicitor who specialises in situations like mine, and I must say she knew her stuff and inspired confidence sufficiently for me to consider consulting her. Here's fellow MND member, David, who was one of a handful of friends we knew there. He's working to complete his MA.

Finally on Friday I followed  up an email from Simon Cox, marketing supremo at Monarch the publishers, about the book launch. As you may well have discovered from the Facebook page, we've now fixed the date to be nearer publication day. So it's Saturday 10th July from 2 pm. It's at Cornerstone Café, in Grove ( And you, dear readers, are very welcome to join us.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Just another Tuesday?

Tuesdays tend to be good days. It must be something to do with being shower day. I had a really slow start this morning. I did NOT want to get up; it's an effort to heave myself onto the shower-chair and so on. However, with a bit of encouragement and more help from Jane, it's worth it.

And today we thought we'd go in to Oxford, first to go to Lidls. What a good shop! No musac, just peace and quiet, genuinely nice and helpful assistants, and of course cheap food. We did a big food shop there, including sandwiches, drink and fruit salad for lunch. We wondered about going to Shotover Hill for lunch, as we wanted to go to Headington afterwards, but instead we headed for Garsington where we'd never been before, but I'd heard about in connection with the annual opera productions that happen at the Manor. And somewhere in the recesses of my memory I recalled Lady Ottoline Morel and the Bloomsbury group. We didn't venture into the manor, but parked by the rather feeble green and had our lunch, sharing the fruit salad from the same pot, watching two jackdaws mobbing a crow on a chimney pot. Their impressive dive-bombing eventually forced it to fly off. Presumably they had a nest in the chimney.

Then we drove through Horspath to our ultimate destination, the art exhibition at Headington Baptist Church - part of Oxfordshire Art Weeks - Site 138. Jane is a friend of Sarah Lomas who arranged it. It's a wonderful light and airy space. I can't begin to describe it all, but we could easily have spent much longer than the two hours we were there. Here are some of the pictures I took on Jane's mobile.

The first thing you see as you enter is a free-standing stained-glass window with the word 'Remember' at the bottom. I counted the stones in the obelisk-shaped pile. There are twelve, and I suspect it alludes to the story of the Jews crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land (Joshua chapter 4).

Once you get inside, the first thing you see is two free-standing opened doors which form a sort of journey from the outside flowing towards the church's centrepiece which is a contemporary wood and metal cross, flanked by 'Holy holy - God Almighty'. There are so many details in the whole installation that it would destroy it to dissect it - but there are cocoons, caterpillars and butterflies, fish swimming up the river, birds on the tree of life, old clothes and on the rear of the first door a new twist to the old story of the rebellious son and the bag of nails.

In the corner behind the doors are a series of actual pillars of stones,  each with a line from the Bible or worship song round it. The guide tells you these were decorated and verses chosen by members of the church's home groups. In fact quite a bit of the art work is done by church groups, as well as individuals. 

But that of course is not the whole exhibition. Round the walls are paintings, photo- graphs, and poems. This is one of my favourites. I think it's called Under the shadow of His wings. It reminds me of the Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, God's Grandeur, about the way humans ruin the beauty of the natural world, 'but for all this Nature is never spent... because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and, ah, bright wings.'
There's one sculpture in the exhibition: two figures surrounded by licking waves and a rescuing hand reaching down, one is safe, the other climbing on. It reminded me of Psalm 40. One of the Chronicles tells us it's a personal statement of finding security in God.
We almost missed one of the exhibition's highlights, which are The Chronicles of HBC, not as you might imagine the history of the church, but snapshots of the spiritual journeys of more than 100 church members, individually bound (in card made of rhino dung!). We didn't find one we thought boring. 

Well, as you gather, I continue to be blown away by the experience. It wasn't all 'high art', but neither was it tacky community art. I think the best description I could find for it is worship. It's there until Sunday. I highly recommend it - but do give yourself time, unlike the two Oxford ladies who blew in - and out - with the comment, 'It's charming!' No, ladies, it's MUCH more than that.

On a mundane level they provide coffee and rather good home-made cakes as well. On an even more mundane level, I have to report that the disabled loo in the bowels of the building is better appointed than the one in the multi-million new Ashmolean Museum!

As we weren't keen to get caught in Oxford's rush-hour traffic, we tore ourselves away and headed home - to find a package from Australia awaiting us. It was a cd from my adopted kid sister, Louise, entitled 'Mix for Michael'. Wow! What a treat! A journey with one of my best friends saying, 'Do you know this one? I love it - I think you will too.' And it's a journey into the unknown, as I knew only two of the songs. At the moment I'm listening to 'Answer' by Sarah McLaghlan. Yes!!! It is just like walking through a landscape with someone and finding you have so much in common. Pure delight.

And then in the evening the political news began breaking: Gordon Brown was resigning as Prime Minister, David Cameron was going to be invited to form a government, which would probably be in coalition with the LibDems. I've been increasingly impressed by Mr Brown - which is saying a lot, as I already thought him an unusually principled and effective prime minister. I am very glad he was in charge at the time of the bank melt-down. He was the man for the moment - and I trust history will record how much the nation, if not the world, owes to his decisive intervention. I believe he also led in debt reduction for the developing nations. He admitted his 'frailties', but personally I admire his instincts and his courage. I have often thought him like Landseer's Stag at Bay, with the press out to get him, like slavering hounds, whipped in by unaccountable media moguls.
But there we go. I actually think that the present arrangement could be not a bad answer, for the moment. If David Cameron means what he says about prioritising the elderly and vulnerable in society - 'looking after those who can't do' - and if the Lib Dems and his party keep him to it, well, good on him. And as for Gordon, he's fought his battles - wasn't it interesting how much, after announcing his resignation, 'now the politics are over', he talked about the troops in Afghanistan and their grieving families. Was there a sense of identification with them, I wondered? I thought the pictures of the Brown family walking down Downing Street to the cars waiting to take them to the palace were touching.         
    I really wish him and them well.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Life's little ironies

How ironic! From my constitutionally informed friend, Mark Berry, I learned the following. 'In all this fascinating and ongoing story of the General Election it's worth noting the contrary nature of the local council results. In terms of councillors...
Conservative -122
Labour +413
Liberal Democrat -138
Others -106.' Which I find extraordinary.

And I suppose there's an irony in the continuing horse-trading between the right-wing Tories and progressive left-wing LibDems. One hopes there is a moderate and constructive outcome. Hopefully Mr Cameron will spend some time on his knees tomorrow. Mr Clegg apparently doesn't believe in God, and presumably therefore prayer.

Meanwhile, I have to admit I'm disappointed by other pole results from a local point of view. Neither of the Williams cars have made it into the top ten for tomorrow's Spanish Grand Prix. There's something ironic, isn't there, with the spectacle of gas guzzling boys' toys burning up petrol while the Gulf of Mexico is threatened with ecological disaster from the unrefined raw product? 

Friday, 7 May 2010

Political hang-over

Well, the experts have got excited. Britain is going to have a 'hung' (or will it be a 'balanced'?) Parliament. It's not actually such a strange beast. But personally I think it holds some promise - as long as the financial gamblers don't exploit it on the money markets and stock exchanges. The situation could well have a moderating influence on extreme dogmatism and even generate - dare we hope? - cross-party cooperation in the face of national need. That would be a happy outcome of a not very edifying campaign. There's a sensible response to the churches from leading establishment Christian, the Rev Steve Chalke, on It's noticeably different from the speculative horse-trading indulged in by politicians egged on by media men and women. I don't like to sound pompous, but isn't politics too important a matter for that now? I've said it before, but it's still true, politics is about service not power. Here's wishing the new MPs a large dose of humility in the heady celebration of election. And let's hope they don't forget the most vulnerable and needy in society. (Didn't someone talk about the 'Big Society' in the campaign - something different from High Society?)

PS I've just come across an interesting local footnote to the election, which concerns our neighbouring constituency of Abingdon etc. The Lib Dem incumbent MP, Dr Evan Harris, was not my favourite Parliamentarian, having an aggressive pro-euthanasia and humanist stance. Driving through the north of the constituency last Wednesday, the leafy suburbs of North Oxford were a forest of bright orange Lib  Dem diamonds. Well, the Tory Nicola Blackwood, who was supported by a woman vicar who trained with me, overturned his majority of 7,000 and squeezed in by the skin of her teeth. I wish her well. (The full story's on

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Value what you've got!

Woke up to an historic day - possibly. Certainly an intriguing one. The General Election which is 'too close to call' according to the pundits, who all hope there'll be a hung Parliament (i.e. no party with an overall majority). Then they'll be able to speculate about alliances, unstable governments etc. In other words they'll have so much more to bore us with. I really think there's a danger of opinion overload, which will just turn the public off politics again.  

Anyway we got up deliciously late, had my favourite breakfast of coffee and croissants - and dreamed of Paris! And then went off to do our civic duty and voted at the Grove Old Mill Hall. There weren't queues there but a steady trickle. I have to say this is one of the safest Conservative seats around, which I guess discourages some from voting, but Sally, a friend of mine on Facebook, wisely and pointedly observed this morning: 

VOTE friends - VOTE!!! (people died so you could and people in other countries queue for days to vote under high risk of bombing - we have no excuse NOT to walk to the end of our roads...)

I was mildly encouraged to watch Facebook's vote-meter pass the million mark. It's admittedly still a minority of UK FB users, but it kept going up. Sally's comment reminded me of Andrew White's latest letter from Iraq, which really should shake us out of complacency on many levels:

"Election News

As elections are prepared for in the UK, we are still in the position we've been in since the election here in February 7th, without a new government. Yesterday, however: 

Iraq's two largest Shiite electoral blocs announced that they have formed an alliance that gives them a strong chance of setting up the next government, though they have yet to work out the contentious question of who will become prime minister.

The coalition deal between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and the conservative Shiite Iraqi National Alliance leaves them just four parliamentary seats shy of a ruling majority.

 So we are a lot nearer to having a Government. The big contentious issue remains Kirkuk. This major oil area is claimed by both the Kurds and Arabs. Having Kurdish support remains very important. The other major problem with this coalition is the support of the Sunni community. The block is Shia dominated so the Sunni could feel very side tracked by it.

Tragic News from Nineveh

The sad news, as some of you already know, is that on Sunday, two large buses taking Christian students to university in Mosul were attacked close to Nineveh.  They included family members of people in our congregation at St George's.  Whilst at this stage we only know of two deaths there were over 100 people injured.

Added to this one of our congregation was telling us about members of her family injured in the Easter day bombings.  One lost both their eyes, two lost their legs and others were injured.  So Sunday was a day of pain.  
Despite all these difficulties we do not give up hope.  As I have said so many times, and say at the beginning of every service, THE LORD IS HERE AND HIS SPIRIT IS WITH US."

I've given a link to a short YouTube clip of Andrew talking about the uncertainty and asking us to pray. I think the same applies here, as whoever or whatever combination comes into power, they will certainly need all the wisdom God gives to steer us through the next few years. Frankly human ingenuity won't prove enough. (

PS I meant to mention that we went on to the shops after voting to buy some mince - and there it was - gone. The butcher's, that is, which people come to from all round the area. Just metal shutters down. I considered it one of Grove's treasures. So the glory of the world passes away: Sic transit gloria mundi.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


There's a story I semi-remember from my childhood about Pope Gregory commissioning Augustine of Canterbury. Apparently he'd seen some British slave (or captured) children in Rome in 573. When he asked where they were from - I suppose they were fair northern rather than dark southern European - he was told they were Angli, Angles i.e. English. 'Non Angli, sed angeli,' he replied. 'Not Angles, but angels.' Actually the quote finishes, 'si forent Christiani' - if they became Christians, and so began Augustine's mission to convert Britain starting at the other end from the Celtic monks. Why was I thinking about that? Oh yes, I remember. We've had our rather nice granddaughters with us over the weekend, and there's some dispute over whether they're scallywags or angels. I suspect it's a bit of both, like all of us.

They had to put up with being looked after by their grandparents on Sunday while their mum and dad went to a wedding in Gloucestershire. I was not much help, of course, but fortunately Granny was very competent - 'not had four children for nothing!' - and Auntie Rachel came to our aid. It was a good-natured day.

Bank Holiday Monday wasn't exactly balmy, but we had an expedition to the local rec, where you can see the three girls with Penny on the walkie roundabout thing. Except for one bumped head, great fun was had by all. In the end we had to tear ourselves away to put the spuds on for lunch.

Before they left for the soggy north-west, according to the new tradition Granny read them a new chapter from my next book, working title Stumpy.... You read it here first!

Meanwhile the publication date of their great uncle's new book has just been announced, June 25th. As you may remember it was provoked by Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ - which is based on the old idea that the early church distorted the original simple Palestinian teacher and created a supernatural Christ. His book is unashamed fiction, which is what he's very good at, but in Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? David, who really knows what he's talking about, looks at the commonly held assumption of a made-up divine Christ and examines how much St Paul really did invent a new gospel. I won't tell you the conclusion, because that would spoil it for you (and undermine its sales!), but it's not a heavy read.

Not as many laughs as My Donkeybody, but still worth reading! (And yes, I have read it.)