Wednesday, 29 September 2010

My brother's keeper?

In a good school I once knew, a new headteacher made a bad start by rubbishing the work of their predecessor. The effect on staff morale was understandably negative; after all, they'd been committed to that work too. The new broom did change the school's image, updated it indeed. But the school's reputation took longer to repair.

I didn't have strong feelings about Ed, the younger Miliband, winning the Labour Party leadership - until he raised the Iraq war question in his conference speech. "It was wrong to go into it." It was such an easy thing to say by someone who wasn't an MP at the time, albeit an adviser to Gordon Brown. No wonder former cabinet colleagues including his older brother, David, refrained from applause. Young Ed, we are told, is bright and empathetic. He must have calculated that, as well as being a crowd-pleaser, it would be a brother-killer. (At the time, I wasn't persuaded that war was justified, and yet, although Iraq has been and is a mess, I'll take Andrew White's word that the removal of Saddam Hussain was good for that country and the world in removing a dangerous dictator. See his book The Vicar of Baghdad.) But I have to tell the new Labour leader that rubbishing his party's past is not an auspicious start. It smells of populism and not principle.

Still, at least the Labour Party (for whom I voted this year) has the reassurance that it's in the company of North Korea in choosing the younger brother over the older - as leader Kim Jong-il has lined up his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him. And we have the remarkable appointment of a 27-year old as an army general. One just wonders if he has sufficient experience.... Or is he just as ruthless as Cain to his brother? And one wonders why Ed chose to stand against his experienced and capable brother in the first place.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Post-colonial snobbery

I'm a bit tired, to be honest, of our countrymen's reversion to contempt of the third world. It showed itself in the sports journalists' presumption of guilt after the News of the World's sting operation on the Pakistan cricketers. And their equal assumption of innocence when English cricketers were impugned. We'd allowed them to play their home matches here. What ingratitude! Could we contemplate ever playing against them again, let alone 2015 when the next Test series was scheduled?

Then there was the storm over the preparations in Delhi for the Commonwealth Games. The athletes' village wasn't fit for human habitation, roofs and bridges were falling down, minors were being employed to clean up, the games would have to be cancelled; it was typical of Indian inefficiency and corruption. Oh, we made a meal of it; we loved it - and then it all came good. The accommodation was up to scratch. The news fell silent.

Nevertheless we seem to cherish a world view in which all of Africa and the Indian subcontinent is awash with corruption, ineptitude and unsophistication. And we probably lump the Russians, Arabs, South Americans, Afghans, Arabs, North Koreans and Southern Europeans in the same sort of category.... Forgetting our habits of huge sweeteners (sorry "expenses") to gain export orders, corporate hospitality, lobbying, excessive bonuses, exploitative advertising, MPs' expenses, not to mention our own sporting peccadilloes. We're not whiter than white. Of course things could be worse, but let's not pretend we're  holier than they.

Monday, 27 September 2010

To err is human, but that was crass

Alfred Ebenezer and daughter? Mabel
I'm just hoping that Great Grandfather, Alfred Ebenezer Wenham, would have gone easier with me than with one of his firm's clerks if they'd made such a crass error as that (21st Sept). My brother Peter sent me an email on Saturday with this seemingly mild comment in it: "I am curious about Hillscourt House. Dad used to talk about the Old Rose and Crown as the family home. So how does Hillscourt fit in?" Well, I protested of course! I don't like to be proved wrong. "I thought he talked about it becoming a union headquarters." 

I looked through all the old family letters, and the address is merely The Lickey Hills, Rednal; presumably everyone knew the Wenhams. I looked up William Dargue, A History of Birmingham Places and Placenames: "The Rose & Crown was a coaching inn which stood near the foot of the dangerous Rose Hill descent. Probably built in Georgian times stagecoaches could change horses here ready for the steep climb up the hill. After 1880 a private house was built on the site of the inn and given the same name. The extensive grounds were landscaped with waterfalls and pools along the River Arrow and with a large numbers of trees which still survive. The building is now a hotel." 

Hmm, I thought, it fits. He might be right....

"The reference is on page 2 of Facing Hell," (his idiosyncratically entitled autobiography - copies available from me, £5 + p&p!!) Peter ripostes. 

My excuse is that most of my books are still in the garage or the loft, and I hadn't wanted to send Jane off looking when my memory was perfectly sufficient, thank you. 

"We've got three copies on the landing...," she tells me. And so here, I believe, is the definitive answer.

"Grandfather, Alfred Ebenezer Wenham, came of a large Christian family. His father, Ebenezer, lived in Highgate and was actuary to one of the big insurance companies. He produced eleven children, one of whom died in infancy, and then proceeded to die himself, leaving his remarkable wife, Mary, to bring up the children. She organised the family into a high-class school in which, with the help of the older children, she educated her own offspring and those of her neighbours. She died in 1907 at the age of 102....

"When I first knew him... my grandfather lived at The Old Rose and Crown amid the Lickey Hills in the village of Rednal on the southern fringe of Birmingham. There were the East Hill and the West Hill,  covering a hundred or so acres, with the inn converted into a very comfortable house in the middle. There was an indoor staff of four or five and plenty of room for visitors - a lovely place for our family of six to visit.

"My grandfather was unashamedly, almost ostentatiously, devout. His parents before him were Congregationalists in a day when it was quite costly to profess nonconformity, and the children grew up with minds of their own... and Alfred Ebenezer developed rather extreme Calvinistic views. He had a mission hall in the grounds of 'The Lickey'....

"Alfred Ebenezer was widowed fairly young and for years had the bitter experience of every night shutting himself in his lonely bedroom. He then invited his parlour-maid Leah to marry him. She, though most devoted to him, was quite shattered by this, not feeling she had the sort of love a wife should have. She left his service and for three years debated the matter in her heart, amidst the clamour of opposing views within her family and his. At last she felt  that she could not live without him and they entered upon a marriage which was blissfully happy to both parties. Such a marriage was hardly the  done thing in those days, so Grandfather sold 'The Lickey' to the Birmingham Corporation and bought a beautiful house near Oban on the Argyllshire coast...."
So there you have it. I hope I've set the record straight. And at least I have the consolation that one of my brothers reads this blog!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Heave-ho henges

Jane was happily browsing the BBC website last night, after checking what the weather would be like for her parents in York today. "Hmm," she said, "at least that's one sensible cut the government are making! The £25 million new visitors' centre at Stonehenge." The taxpayers' whack was actually going to be £10M, with other bits from English Heritage et al; but hopefully the whole project will be scuppered. We regularly pass the collection of grey rocks on Salisbury Plain on our way to Devon. I know they're important to Druids and hippies, but I can't think they need a state-of-the-art visitors' centre. Decent loos might come in handy, I suppose. The problem is, of course, remarkable as it is, Stonehenge is so hyped that when visitors actually get there, they aren't allowed near the stones and just see some old rocks standing in a circle - and to be honest it's not that impressive (though the original achievement obviously was). And you're charged £6.90 for the privilege! What a disappointment: you've driven all the way from your hotel in London, paid your entrance fee and walked round the henge, taken your photos - and that's it!

I've often thought we should follow the French example with the Palaeolithic cave paintings at Lascaux. The paintings there are at real risk from mould, and so they've closed the caves and created Lascaux 2, the caves in reproduction, so that tourists can still see the remarkable early art in pristine condition if not in the original. Bon idée! Why doesn't English Heritage commission fibre-glass reproductions of the stone circle, put them nearby and create an open access Stonehenge 2, where visitors can wander among the stones at will? I bet it would cost a fraction of £25M, and if one were damaged, no problem, it could easily be replaced. Meanwhile if you're interested in stone circles you'd do better a few miles north in Avebury, where there's a bigger and better prehistoric monument of stones and earthworks - which you can wander around free of charge and is much more fun for children.
Anyway that was a bit of a tangent! I'm really saying that sort of cut makes sense, and I'm all in favour. However, there are cuts which I don't think any civilised government should contemplate - and those are the ones which damage the vulnerable. I don't think that the domestic model of national economies is a valid one. You know, the 'every housewife knows' sort. But certainly, if I were cutting down on our expenditure, I would cut out luxuries such as National Trust membership or Sky TV but never contemplate neglecting elderly parents or starving the children. And similarly I trust the government will not give an inch to the cut-at-all-costs brigade.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

A day with the birds

Yesterday, thanks to our friend Marie Turner, we spent the day at the Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust in Gloucestershire. She had given us a couple of complimentary tickets, and with the warm weather forecast we decided this would be a good day to drop our other commitments and go. Predictably I took some time to be ready; but Jane was patient. About 12.30 we were wending our way through Slimbridge and over the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. It was all curiously familiar - I suppose the last time I'd been there was about 50 years ago!

Foolishly, we'd not thought of booking an electric buggy and didn't notice any as we clocked in. So Jane had to push me round all day. What a hand! Driving three hours there and back and wheeling me miles round the place in between. No wonder she was tired when we got home. I do appreciate her, honest!

Anyway, here's the day in pictures.
View over the River Severn which Jane took
 as I couldn't climb the stairs in the hide
Our not entirely disinterested
lunch companion with enormous feet
We rather liked this chap,
?a foreign teal
Chilean and Andean flamingos - endangered species
My favourite view - from the Kingfisher Hide,
though the hard winter made them nest elsewhere, we learned
Amazing - another endangered species,
the harvest mouse is
tiny. Love its Latin name
Micromys minutus!
One of four otters we saw being fed.
Because it's illegal to feed live food,
you can't see them hunting down
their prey as in the wild.
The loveliest bird in Slimbridge on Tuesday. The twitchers missed her!
Thanks, Marie. (By the way, except for one or two hides, Slimbridge is very disabled friendly.)

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Not Alfie Elkins (Michael Caine) of the film: “What's it all about? You know what I mean.” But my very respectable accountant great-grandfather, whom I imagined meeting Cardinal Newman on Rednal Hill, Alfred Ebenezer Wenham, who I suspect was a rather different kettle of fish. 

As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, he realised that the Midlands was the place to be and moved from South London to Birmingham in 1867, where he set up his accountancy business at 11 Cherry Street. Today it's a narrow road at right angles to Corporation Street, flanked by sky scrapers and modern office blocks. The whole area has sadly been redeveloped. Then I suspect it would have looked more like this.
By 1871 he was living in Ann Street; and clearly had set up a recognised firm and was making good money, thank you. My father told us he worked with local industrialists - and I guess that's where the bucks were. So much so that by the mid nineties he could contemplate building a substantial house in the Lickey Hills, then a beautiful rural area outside the city. Now it's a country park and golf-course on the south but built up to the north. On Rednal Hill, just round the corner from the Oratorians' retreat house, he built a country villa. (The next bit is wrong - see 27th Sept!) Hillscourt House - which now, much and rather crudely extended, is national headquarters for the NAS/UWT teachers' union and a conference centre.

It's here he was photographed in 1914/15 with his grandchildren.
I suspect that by then his first wife had died, as he subsequently and rather unconventionally married Leah, the maid, with whom he retired to Scotland, buying a rather impressive house in Oban overlooking the island of Kerrera. I believe they were very happy there. And my father and his three sisters would spend summer holidays there.

You'll have noticed, if you're observant, that among Alfred's seven (soon to be eight) grandchildren there is only one boy - sitting on his knee. He's my dad. And I'm sure the expectation was that he would enter the family business and become a partner and in the end senior partner....

However, thanks to his oldest sister (standing to Alfred's right), my father came to a personal faith in the sixth form. He went to university and duly entered the family firm and began a career in accountancy - for a year in their London office - but he knew that was not his calling. It must have been a dramatic scene when he told his father that he felt called to be ordained. Wenham and Wenhams was a successful firm. He'd be sacrificing a great deal, but there's a saying by the 20th century martyr, Jim Elliot, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." Which no doubt my father would have quoted if it had been said by then - which it wasn't. And so he became an Anglican clergyman on a stipend.

In 2008 the firm set up by Alfred Ebenezer was based in Cornwall Street in Birmingham, with offices in London, New York and Dubai, and was called Wenham Major. It was the 24th largest accountancy in the UK; it's annual fee income was £22 million. Oh Dad!!

Under its chief executive the firm had undertaken an aggressive expansion plan. On May 1, 2008, however, the firm announced that it was being investigated for financial irregularities. Less than one month later its core operations were sold to RSM Bentley Jennison. That was it.

"He is no fool...." My dad had a incredibly rich and contented life and enriched many people with something more valuable than money.  He knew God loved him and he and mother passed that love on to us and to many others. And perhaps my dear great-grandfather, Alfie, seeing what others had done to the firm he had painstakingly created asked his successors, "What's it all about?"

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Pope has flown

I woke up this morning wondering whether Pope Benedict was having a lie-in. I sincerely hope so. I trust his private secretary wasn't knocking on his door at 5 am telling him it was time for prayers, and then there was a pile of business waiting on his desk which had built up from his jaunt to the UK - because whatever else it was his state visit here was no jolly holiday. What an incredibly punishing schedule for an 83-year old! And we saw only the public bits - I've no doubt he maintained his spiritual disciplines, had his briefings, and held his private meetings. I don't suppose he had much time for listening to his iPod. How well he stayed the course.

Something I observed about his speeches was how understated they were. He did use emphasis, but there were no rhetorical flourishes either in content or in delivery. He appeared to trust that the truth reasonably presented would speak and convince on its own. Anyway he spoke quietly, but with a gentle passion. A friend of mine recently pleaded for a return of oratory to preaching. I prefer the Papa Benny style!

I have to take my hat off (again) to the BBC for their coverage of the actual events. I suppose it was an official visit, but I thought they did get in very good 'experts' to explain the significance of what was going on and not least of the worship. One of my favourite moments was before the Hyde Park Vigil when the commentator said something like, "And there's the big chair, the symbol of power and authority!" And quietly from stage left came the voice of, I think, Father Jameson, correcting her, "- of service and authority!" In reply to the spluttering of the commentator, there followed a brief explanation of Christ's example and the Church's paradoxical teaching of authority. So although I felt the run-up left something to be desired, the visit itself was well covered.

It's just possible that in the late nineteenth century, a Birmingham accountant might have met an old Cardinal walking on Rednal Hill at the south-west edge of the city. The cardinal of course was John Henry Newman, whose Oratory community had a retreat house there. The businessman was Alfred Ebenezer Wenham who, a few year's before the cardinal's death in 1890, built himself a house a few hundred yards away. He was my great-grandfather. I'd like to think they met, but I suspect Alfred wouldn't have been very keen on the cardinal's faith. He later retired to Oban in Scotland where he was a faithful member of the "Wee Frees", the austere Free Presbyterians. But they might have shared a passion for honesty, justice and conscience.  About six years after Alfred moved to the Lickey Hills, a dying mother and her sons moved into Fern Cottage nearby: they were the Tolkiens and JRR was one of the sons. It's said that Rivendell in the Hobbit novels is derived from Rednal (Wreodan Healh).
So it was with especial interest that I viewed the Beatification Mass of John Henry Newman, in Crofton Park cheek by jowl with Rednal Hill. The venue for the Pope's final mass had been moved from Coventry to Crofton Park to be near Newman's burial place in the retreat house cemetery. Again the BBC had done well with its experts who explained without banality or mystifying such things as relics and beatification. And so Newman was pronounced to be recognised as "Blessed" (as I think all those who have not seen and yet believed - blessed that is). In his homily, the Pope returned to the theme of some definite service - which each individual has. I love the prayer of Cardinal Newman that comes from, which I didn't know before:
"God has created me to do Him some definite service;
He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.
I have my mission - I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work;
I shall be a preacher of Truth in my own place, while not intending it,
if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.
Therefore, my God, I will put myself without reserve into your hands.
What have I in heaven, and apart from you what do I want upon earth?
My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the God of my heart."

And a final reflection from me - probably! I've seen some sniping at the visit from fellow-Christians in the blogosphere. That for me is a big no-no. For one thing the positives and the positive good done by the four days far outweighs the negatives. The best efforts of the National Secular Society were spectacular own goals as they drew more publicity to it and more interest, bigger crowds and more coverage. For another, the Pope was hugely Christ-centred. In other words, in every service and every sermon he kept talking about Jesus' love for us, and that the heart of faith is loving Him. It reminded me of the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, when asked what his faith was at heart, replying: "Jesus loves me; this I know, for the Bible tells me so." And thirdly I seem to recall reading The Final Quest by Rick Joyner, an allegorical vision in which he sees the embattled church firing arrows which fall on the backs of those fighting in front of them. "Why are they attacking their own side?" Good question.

The other St Peter's

I don't really apologise for all my posts about the Papal visit - because for one thing, when you're confined to sitting in a chair, it's nice to have a prolonged spectacle to follow. Other than sporting events, there's no equivalent to watch, even normal state visits. And sporting events, other perhaps than the Olympics, don't provide such sustained interest. What's more with the different speeches this event has engaged the intellect.

I don't know whether Pope Benedict uses speech writers. He's certainly bright enough not to need to. I imagine it's a collaborative exercise. Whatever, the range and depth of his speeches over the four days was astonishing. I'm hoping they will be left on the Papal Visit website long enough for them to be re-read and digested. The one which, for obvious reasons, I listened to with keen interest was when he addressed the elderly residents of St Peter's in Vauxhall on Saturday afternoon. The context of the extremely old people being cared for through their final years was poignant. This is it (with my emphases):

'My dear Brothers and Sisters,
'I am very pleased to be among you, the residents of Saint Peter’s, and to thank Sister Marie Claire and Mrs Fasky for their kind words of welcome on your behalf. I am also pleased to greet Archbishop Smith of Southwark, as well as the Little Sisters of the Poor and the personnel and volunteers who look after you.
'As advances in medicine and other factors lead to increased longevity, it is important to recognize the presence of growing numbers of older people as a blessing for society. Every generation can learn from the experience and wisdom of the generation that preceded it. Indeed the provision of care for the elderly should be considered not so much an act of generosity as the repayment of a debt of gratitude.
'For her part, the Church has always had great respect for the elderly. The Fourth Commandment, “Honour your father and your mother as the Lord your God commanded you” (Deut 5:16), is linked to the promise, “that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Deut 5:16). This work of the Church for the aging and infirm not only provides love and care for them, but is also rewarded by God with the blessings he promises on the land where this commandment is observed. God wills a proper respect for the dignity and worth, the health and well-being of the elderly and, through her charitable institutions in Britain and beyond, the Church seeks to fulfil the Lord’s command to respect life, regardless of age or circumstances.
'At the very start of my pontificate I said, “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary” (Homily at the Mass for the Beginning of the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome, 24 April 2005). Life is a unique gift, at every stage from conception until natural death, and it is God’s alone to give and to take. One may enjoy good health in old age; but equally Christians should not be afraid to share in the suffering of Christ, if God wills that we struggle with infirmity. My predecessor, the late Pope John Paul, suffered very publicly during the last years of his life. It was clear to all of us that he did so in union with the sufferings of our Saviour. His cheerfulness and forbearance as he faced his final days were a remarkable and moving example to all of us who have to carry the burden of advancing years.
'In this sense, I come among you not only as a father, but also as a brother who knows well the joys and the struggles that come with age. Our long years of life afford us the opportunity to appreciate both the beauty of God’s greatest gift to us, the gift of life, as well as the fragility of the human spirit. Those of us who live many years are given a marvellous chance to deepen our awareness of the mystery of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. As the normal span of our lives increases, our physical capacities are often diminished; and yet these times may well be among the most spiritually fruitful years of our lives. These years are an opportunity to remember in affectionate prayer all those whom we have cherished in this life, and to place all that we have personally been and done before the mercy and tenderness of God. This will surely be a great spiritual comfort and enable us to discover anew his love and goodness all the days of our life.
'With these sentiments, dear brothers and sisters, I am pleased to assure you of my prayers for you all, and I ask for your prayers for me. May our blessed Lady and her spouse Saint Joseph intercede for our happiness in this life and obtain for us the blessing of a serene passage to the next.
'May God bless you all!'

Some of my readers may be sceptical about, or even object to, asking deceased saints to pray for us. But as my saintly granny used to say about praying for them, "I don't suppose it does them any harm." And quite what the logic is of asking Christians on earth (the Church Militant, as they were known) to pray for you, but not Christians in heaven (the Church Triumphant), I'm not sure. They might even have more idea what exactly to pray....

However that should not deflect us from applauding the Holy Father's main message, "That life is a gift from conception to natural death" - and that faith enables us to meet its joys and sufferings, so that the times of diminishing powers can be spiritually the most fruitful. Oh yes? Really? Well, he says, quietly as always, "Look at my predecessor John Paul living and dying with Parkinson's." Cheerfulness and forbearance - I'll try and remember.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Rottweiler or German Shepherd?


Well, we've had another day to see Papa Benny (as one of my friends calls him) at work. I can't imagine what it must be like a) with your every move televised to millions of well- and not-so-well wishers, and b) surrounded by a cross between mafiosi and plain-clothed policemen. But then, for a number of reasons, I've never been in the running for Pope. One thing that's clear is that he's a humane and hard-working man. Another is that he's more pastoral than he's usually given credit for - more a German Shepherd than the Rottweiler (of popular myth). He's certainly no pussy-cat, hence the apparently desperate protests of the Liberal Elite, recently rebranded the Bigoted Elite (see

I'm not a Catholic. In fact I'm not that fussed about 'denominations', but secretly I do long for all Christian tributaries and streams to flow back into one mother river. I notice the Pope doesn't talk about 'fellowship' between churches, but 'friendship'. I suppose fellowship would be where we flowed together, presumably in the Tiber! Which is historically logical! It seemed apt that this morning's mass ended with "Love divine" by Charles Wesley....

No one can doubt the Pope's sincerity in expressing his "deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes (of clerical sex abuse)" this morning in Westminster Cathedral. And his spending a significant chunk of his day with five survivors reinforces that. Of course the cynical will dismiss that as gesture politics, and yet a fair-minded assessment of his visit and his speeches wouldn't suggest that he's overfussed about pleasing people or bending with the wind. I suspect it's not fair either to accuse him of being anti-gays, anti-women, or even anti-birth-control. Like it or not, the Catholic Church's doctrine (policy) approves of heterosexual but not homosexual marriage, male priesthood but not female priesthood, natural but not artificial contraception. Yesterday in Westminster Hall he spoke about the conjunction of reason and faith in determining public policy. I reckon it's in those arenas, not in the arena of personal vituperation, that such things deserve to be discussed. Contrary to media portrayal this morning I didn't hear him 'attacking' Britain's moral slide; rather appealing for a reasoned and open  discussion, with faith not excluded.

However, more radically, I really appreciate the simplicity of his core message, that we see and know the love of God in Christ's sacrificial death for us on the cross, and we experience it in a living personal relationship with Him within the family of the Church. And that relationship implies what he called "holiness", a Christlike standard of life. Which is, to say the least, challenging! Funnily enough, I'm reading the same in The Radical Disciple by the very evangelical nonagenarian, John Stott, which has the same wise message.

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Pope has landed

I've refrained from commenting on the visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI until now, sorely tempted though I've been. Today, however, it's got underway and no longer do we have to bother about speculation and media-generated controversy. Only yesterday the BBC News routinely described it as "the Pope's controversial visit", and I couldn't help thinking, "Controversy fostered by whom?" To give the BBC their due, they did put on what I considered an illuminating programme, Trials of a Pope, yesterday presented by journalist, Mark Dowd. But as a listener commented on Radio 5 it seems that every item about the visit would be preceded by an item about past child abuse. It's impossible to exaggerate or to eradicate that scandal; and yet it sometimes feels as though the media take an unholy delight in it all. I'd call it media vandalism - an unbridled propensity to sling mud.
However, now it's happening. And my verdict is so far, very good! (If you want to catch up with it, there's a 24/7 webcast: A few too many introductory speeches for my taste, but the Papal Mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow was my highlight. The Pope's homily (and his first speech in Edinburgh) made me realise why, at the age of 83, he seems to arouse such hostility from the sceptical chattering (or should I say twittering?) classes. He's an old man, certainly, but his analysis of western society is penetrating (I think he talked about the 'dictatorship of relativism' and earlier the 'tyranny of secularism'). His point, I took it, is that if we subscribe to the post-modern idea that there's no absolute truth and above all no God who commands love, then we fall prey to any prevailing fashion of ethics. His warning was that, paradoxically, subjective truth does not lead to more tolerance but to less - a point amply proved when I had the misfortune to turn on Twitter and read the tweats full of vicious and personal bile directed against the Pope.

He's not, of course, blind to the past intolerances in Christian history, as he demonstrated by referring to the 450th anniversary of the Reformation Parliament - the period when Protestants and Catholics committed unspeakable atrocities against each other. However that reference came between talking about Pope John Paul II's spurring on ecumenical (inter-church) friendship and the 100th anniversary of the Congress that gave rise to the ecumenical movement. He thanked God for the promise that gave "for a united witness to the saving truth of God's word in today's rapidly changing society". He didn't ignore the abuse scandal, it seemed to me, in what he had to say to bishops and priests about their call to holiness.

But for me the most moving part of the sermon was when he addressed the younger members of his audience, and talked about the temptations of modern society "which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things (drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol) are destructive and divisive". "There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you." On the button, Your Holiness, if I might humbly say so.
And then followed the quite simple but very powerful enactment in the mass of what he'd just said, the love of Jesus Christ personally for everyone - and for those like me who're disabled I imagine the special place reserved for the lass with cerebral palsy to receive the bread with her carer was especially poignant. In God's eyes, we are not expendable and not less valuable.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


My good friend, Richard Potter, has emailed me to correct me gently. "I loved my time in Oxford and loved looking round the odd nooks and crannies, like the end of Merton chapel that they couldn't afford to finish so they painted the back wall to make it look like the finished thing. You went to Magdalen deer park - when I was there Brasenose called one of their quads 'the deer park' because at some time students had 'encouraged' a deer from Magdalen up the road and kept it for a while (presumably until they were found out) in the quad. Then there is Corpus Christi; in the quad as you enter there is a rare statue of a representation of Christ as a pelican - the eucharistic (Corpus Christi) reference is to the belief that pelicans plucked flesh from their own breast to feed their young.
"... and so many more, but one of the reasons I am writing is to point out a small error. John Henry Newman is not being canonised, but is being beatified a sort of half way stage. There needs to be a further miracle ascribed to his intercession before he is declared a saint. From Sunday, he will be known as Blessed John Henry Newman."

We wondered by the way what Magdalen kept deer for. Is it to provide home-grown venison for the fellows' high table? 

Monday, 13 September 2010

A day out in Oxford

Had a great day on Saturday with friends Pete and Jane Beckley. Pete's appeared in this blog before - the award-winning furniture designer. We went to Oxford where they were holding a couple of heritage days, Open Doors 2010, which meant a lot of the historic buildings were opened free of charge.

Jesus chapel doorway
Since some colleges were open only the afternoon, we had to plan our itinerary. As is often the case, although we'd lived in and near the city for so long, we'd none of us visited many colleges. We started at Wadham, and then after a coffee/chocolate in the covered market it was on to Jesus College. We liked it. I especially liked the entry to the chapel, which has carved above it: "Ascendat oratio. Descendat gratias". That means: "Let prayer ascend. May grace descend," I think. Inside the chapel is light and unfussy.

We also called in at the University Church on the High. The history connected with it I found more impressive than the place. There's a most peculiar screen at the back under the gallery made of greeny glass bricks. Ugly. But it's the place where the university began, when the heresy trial of Cranmer took place, where John Wesley preached and John Henry Newman (soon to be canonised by Pope Benedict) was vicar - and where Oxfam began.

By now I was feeling hungry (again!) and so we headed for Magdalen College where there's a café. Let in by an obliging porter through the main doors, we headed for the cloisters. It's a big impressive college where C S Lewis was a fellow, and famous for its deer park. We spotted a white hart, or possibly doe.
Magdalen cloisters
Magdalen gardens
Deer park with white one in middle

To finish we threaded our way down Merton Lane and visited the oldest college in the university. While Pete fell into conversation with a fellow furniture designer, Jane pushed me round the chapel         a----------------------- atrium looking for odd photo-shots. The monument to Thomas Bodley - well, that would never be approved for a churchyard today! - founder of the Bodleian Library, "the oldest copyright library in the world", according to a passing tour guide. "I hope they've got my books," I commented to Jane. But to get back to that Bodley chap, he seems to have been a bit of a lad in his time to judge by his monument. Well, he's surrounded by naked women - as you can see. I'm sure they're classical muses or something. But as we wandered back to the car past the back gates of Christ Church, I mused on more contemporary Oxonians who enjoyed a jolly good time as members of the Bullingdon Club, the likes of Boris, David and George. I wonder what their memorials will be. 

Thanks, but don't kick away my crutches!

Well, in the end we've gone for a SEAT Altea XL. Following our son's advice we avoided a light colour "because they look fat" and chose dark blue. The car met all our criteria (such as adjustable height on both front seats), except for passenger seat arm-rests, but it felt gemütlich, as far as a car can, I suspect because it has resonances of our favourite Skoda Fabia. And certainly Jane enjoyed test-driving it, nice and smooth. Above all, it's about as green as you can get with an MPV at the moment - which gives an illusory sense of virtue about what remains basically a polluting activity.

By the way, we're able to consider a car like this as an option because my Disability Living Allowance - which is a non-means-tested allowance for the severely and moderately disabled. I receive the middle band living allowance - which helps fund the extra heating and care costs (like clothing) which being disabled necessitate - and the top band mobility allowance from being unable to walk on my own. That all goes on the excellent Motability scheme, which is a three-year lend-lease arrangement, where the allowance is used up to finance everything except fuel. When I began to receive it, it felt like a real blessing, some compensation for the increasing restrictions that come with being disabled. I'm grateful  not to have to wrap up under blankets with my mittens on, because I'm worried about putting on the fire. And I'm grateful to be able to choose and run a car which I can still use.

There may be some malingerers taking advantage of the benefits' system. But it would be a major blow for the genuinely disabled if this were taken away under the "inevitable austerity measures" for which public opinion is being softened up. It feels a bit like those fabled schoolmasters who, as they raised their cane high above their victims, promised, "This is hurting me as much as you, boy, believe me!" We didn't believe them. It's patently not true.

Today the post brought the first taste of things to come. As you may remember, I have a through-floor lift which enables me to go to bed upstairs. As I recently commented, thanks to my wonderful Occupational Therapist I joined the County Council's lift service and maintenance contract free of charge. And thanks to that I have been rescued a couple of times and been able to sleep in bed at night. The letter is headed: "Re. Proposal to discontinue Oxfordshire County Council's Servicing, Maintenance and Repair Contract for Stair Lifts, Step Lifts and Through Floor Lifts" (Why so many capital letters, I wonder?) You can see exactly where this "consultation" is going.

What the so-called County Council cabinet won't see is the number of disabled and elderly people who get stranded either upstairs or downstairs, out of reach of toilet, bathroom, or kitchen - because it's clear that it's a question of when, not if, they discontinue this service. One question in their document is "Do you think you would arrange a private contract if the council's was (sic) discontinued?" Note the word "arrange"! "Purchase", I think they mean. Two snags occur to me: some people simply could not afford it; and individuals with their own contracts can never have the same clout as a major client such as a county council. That means we get either no service or inferior service. I sincerely hope that the users, their carers and everyone who cares about them protest loudly - and that I'm wrong about it being a foregone conclusion.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


It's exhausting work this car-hunting, reading reviews, working out dimensions, handholds etc. A new idea is a swiveling passenger seat, which might make getting in and out easier.... Anyway the shortlist has grown longer now, including a replacement Ford C-Max, the Nissan Qashqai, the Seat Altea XL with the new Vauxhall Meriva in reserve. I hope we'll see the last one tomorrow - and then it's make-your-mind-up time. 

Today I wrote a review on Amazon of the book I've just finished. It's A Time To Live by George Pitcher, which Monarch published at the same time as I Choose Everything.

"What a breath of fresh air! An injection of clarity into a debate where there's so much obfuscation and misinformation. 

I'm not a great fan of the Torygraph, for whom Pitcher writes, but this is not a party-political book, although it IS arguing a case, against the UK's drift towards euthanasia. Pitcher begins by tracing the historical origins of the erosion of belief in the unique value of life which he sees as going hand in hand with individualism and consumerism. He then turns his attention to the arguments of the pro-euthanasia lobby and demonstrates their flimsiness and, at times, downright fallaciousness. Having effectively demolished the rationale for legalising assisted suicide, he proposes the case for preserving the protection of life and further resourcing palliative care. However, this is not simply a book of arguments. It has many examples of individual stories which counter the popular "victim" view of disability and terminal illness (such as Charlotte Raven who has Huntington's Disease). Which for me who is disabled with a "terminal illness" were good news indeed. Many who are disabled and feel threatened by the moves towards mercy-killing will feel the same.  

Pitcher writes from a perspective of faith - and indeed his exploration of the Christian view of the sanctity of life is very valuable - but everyone, with or without faith, could and should engage with this book. It's not a hard read. It deals with undoubtedly one of our time's biggest issues, and this book is an excellent introduction to it. "

By the way, no one's reviewed I Choose on Amazon yet. Any takers?

Burning issue

A friend of mine living in New York commented on my last post: "thought you'd have something to say about Hawking......... Living close to the "no ground zero mosque" bruhaha, there's a lot to be said for athiests these days!" And Anita, who lives in Oxford, asked this morning what her friends made of the story of Terry Jones' plan to burn 200 copies of the Qu'ran on 11th September. He's the pastor of the ironically named Dove World Outreach Centre, which is I gather a very small church in Florida. It's sad when people of faith show little regard for each other, because it's true that they should know better. 

That's not to say that there's no place for vigorous debate over divergent beliefs. In fact convictions would not be worth the name if they were not passionately held. But respect for another person is the minimum requirement of love. And that means not trampling on their sensitivities or desecrating their holy ground. The Barnabas Fund (, which focuses on persecuted Christians (not least in Islamic states), called it "an unnecessary, offensive and dangerous gesture". My answer to Anita was to wonder what Jesus would do. I know that's a simplistic and speculative approach, but it does remind us of our need for His Holy Spirit. Not every religious adherent is full of that Spirit - which explains the failure to behave like Him. One man who is Spirit-filled, of course, is Canon Andrew White in Baghdad. He's written on Facebook today: "We are all under complete shut down because of major threats to kill us because of one Stupid Pastor in Florida. We are not against Muslims and never will be."

I admitted to my New Yorker friend that people of faith, including Christians, aren't always the best advert for belief in God. However, I also pointed out to her that atheists don't have a great track record of tolerance through history; and they're proving consistent in their practice today. The questions remain, "Is it true?" and "What do you make of the Christ?"

Sunday, 5 September 2010

"God loves atheists"

Jane's reading a magazine which has a picture of a T-shirt on the cover. On the T-shirt is written GOD LOVES ATHEISTS - which I rather like. Because it's true. This morning's sermon mentioned what St Peter said, "the Lord is... not wishing that any should perish". There are various old jokes about atheism, such as: "I don't believe in God." "Ah but He believes in you." And graffito: "God is dead (Nietsche)" Added underneath: "Nietsche is dead (God)". However I don't think God is into easy point-scoring. Might not be too much of a problem! I think the truth is that He loves even those who reject Him. 

I don't think God will feel too threatened by the eminent MND sufferer and quantum physics professor from Cambridge, Stephen Hawking, asserting that He wasn't needed to explain the Big Bang and that it's simply the inevitable outworking of the laws of physics. My nephew tells me, "the irony about Hawking's comment was that it was based on a very controversial metaphysical part of science that is not backed up with any emperical evidence at the moment (so not really based on much evidence - as many atheists like to pin on the Christians)." Which if true strikes me as odd, as 'a metaphysical part of science' seems an oxymoron. There are two good articles on the internet by men more qualified to comment than me:
One a comment by Professor John Lennox from Oxford -
And the other by astrophysicist, Professor David Wilkinson of Durham -

"The science Stephen Hawking uses raises a number of questions which for many opens the door to the possibility of an existence of a creator and for many points to the existence of a creator." Dr Wilkinson, in an interview in the Times, identifies three aspects of Stephen Hawking's argument which might actually lead to belief in a Creator: purpose of the universe, the origin of the 'laws' and its intelligibility. Though his own faith, he says, rests not on arguments from creation but from the historical and experiential evidence of the person of Jesus.

Which I suppose in a way was what St Paul was getting at when he said, "Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1. 20 21). Annoying for us intellectuals! But good news for everyone - it's not an elitist preserve.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Life and love

A friend of ours, having read the blog, said to me today, "You seem to be enjoying life." And it's true. And I'm grateful. It's frustrating not being able to do just what I want when I want. But life isn't dull. For example, last Monday (Bank Holiday) we had a church barbecue at the local primary school and, although I couldn't join in, I could be proud of Jane astounding others with her prowess with the rounders (baseball) bat.

On Wednesday it was a rather late visit to Cornerstone. As we waited to order our cappuchino, a voice spoke over my shoulder, "Hello, Michael! Remember me?" It was none other than Lynn whom we'd met for the first time at New Wine with James, her husband, and Beth, her disabled daughter, who'd taught me a lesson about God's love. There is something about friendships within 'the household of faith', and especially, I suppose, with those also facing adversity. Having begun with meeting them, it seemed to round off the holiday period beautifully.

While we were there we picked up a copy of the Oxford Diocesan newspaper, The Door, in which next to a report to the launch of I Choose Everything, there was a review of the Creation Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet ( The weather being set fair and warm, "Why don't we go and see it?" I said to Jane. There was room on Thursday evening; so we booked tickets. And weren't disappointed. First job on Thursday, however, was to begin the hunt for a replacement Motability car. Being a francophile, I rather fancied a Citroën and so we went to the dealer in Abingdon. The thing about choosing a car is that there a lot of small factors which it's crucial to get as right as possible, eg room for the wheelchair flat in the boot, a low lip to the boot, a grab-rail above the passenger door, a headrest you can lean on, leg room, arm rests on both sides. Sadly both the C4 and C3 Picassos failed, and anyway we didn't like the ambience of the place. On the way home we pulled in at Grove's local Vauxhall dealer which was an entirely better experience. Surprisingly the new Meriva met nearly all the criteria and looks quite good. There was one drawback, which was the lack of grab-handle on the passenger door - which our C-Max has. Instead, like most new cars, it simply has a slot in the arm rest in the door - which is ok while my fingers retain their strength, but who knows how long that will be...? Perhaps we'll look at a replacement C-Max, and compare and contrast.
Meriva front seats
It wasn't long before we were back on the road to Oxford, heading for the Saïd Business School, where there's an amphitheatre on the roof. There was a huge group of language students learning the English art of queuing, but we picked up our tickets and went to the courtyard - where, as often we found people incredibly helpful, making sure we had good views and reached where we needed to be when the play moved on the roof! Indeed the front-of-house manager, who we discovered hailed from near where I taught in Cowley, went beyond the call of duty in making us comfortable with blankets and cushions as darkness fell and the temperature dropped.

The production was remarkable: very intelligent interpretation, well communicated Shakespearean verse, lively, emotional - a tour de force by the cast of nine actors. It was an excellent evening for it, so that the love scene where the newly married Romeo and Juliet part took place in the half light and by the time Romeo received the news of her supposed death the stars were visible overhead ("Is it even so? Then I defy you stars!") I'd recommend you go and see it, only tonight is the last night. Hard luck!

Then yesterday it was another meeting of the local MND Association branch. I have to say that aromatherapy didn't set me alight, but, as Jane observed, she didn't think it would. Well, I think a bit too much store can be set on it. But as always the main thing was meeting people and getting to know them better. There's a camaraderie in welcoming new people. Friendship matters. A large shared concern we all have is connected with the benefits we receive at the moment. With government cutbacks affecting local authorities, one member is already facing having her care-package removed. It seems madness that someone living on her own and suffering from a degenerative disease should suddenly face having to fight for funding for her care. She needs a lot of help. With Primary Care Trusts being abolished and funding being devolved (and presumably reduced) to GPs we suddenly find ourselves in utterly uncharted waters - and most MND patients don't have the luxury of time on their side. On average it's 17 months from diagnosis to death. By the way, it all makes a national MND strategy the more urgent.