Thursday, 28 April 2011

Their big day

At the moment I'm reading (in translation) some of the most sublime love poetry ever written. It's mostly known as Song of Songs and attributed to King Solomon (10th century BC). Passion is the word!  

"As an apple tree among the trees of the forest,
   so is my beloved among the young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
   and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
He brought me to the banqueting house,
   and his banner over me was love. 
Sustain me with raisins;
   refresh me with apples,
    for I am sick with love.
His left hand is under my head,
   and his right hand embraces me!
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
   by the gazelles or the does of the field,
that you not stir up or awaken love
   until it pleases.

The voice of my beloved!
   Behold, he comes,
leaping  over the mountains,
   bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like  a gazelle
   or a young stag.
Behold, there he stands
   behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
   looking through the lattice.
My beloved speaks and says to me:  
'Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
   and come away,
for behold, the winter is past;
     the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
   the time of singing  has come,
and the voice of  the turtledove
   is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
   and  the vines are in blossom;
   they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
   and come away.

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
   in the crannies of the cliff,
let me see your face,
   let me  hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet,
   and your face is  lovely.
Catch the foxes for us,
   the little foxes
that spoil the vineyards,
     for our vineyards are in blossom.'
 My beloved is mine, and I am his;
   he grazes among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
   and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
   or a young stag on cleft mountains." 

And that of course is just a part of the great poem. The comment I read about it today said this:
"Many commentators suggest that the lovers in the Song are betrothed. Betrothal was a more formal, binding arrangement than engagement today. Nevertheless, full physical consummation of a relationship would not happen until after the marriage ceremony" (Penny Boshoff in Closer to God). That's the force of the lover's adjuration to her friends not to stir up love prematurely.  

It's a pity that ours is a society where that's now the exception, as I found in preparing couples for marriage. Usually the reason given was "We've been committed to each other, but haven't been able to afford the wedding until now," or occasionally "It's good to know that you're really compatible before tying the knot - don't you think, vicar?" Well, to be honest, I don't. I don't think "living together" is the best preparation for marriage. I think it's a shame. There are many other ways of testing your mutual compatibility. And I don't think that was the way that God intended. The gift of the whole "you" is the ultimate wedding present to each other.

Now I regret I didn't have the courage to say just that to more people, rather than my usual anodyne acceptance that it was simply too late and "least said...." Certainly I thought being married was better than "living together", and so I would bless their unions happily.

William Windsor and Catherine Middleton are very much children of their time and culture, which habitually awakens sleeping Eros prematurely. And so I wish them joy tomorrow, and hope they'll be role models for long and happy marriage - unlike Solomon.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Infusion at Blackpool?

Or should it be Big Dipper? Not that they're my sort of thing - especially not now. But neither is ballroom dancing, despite my friends' conviction that I'm addicted to "Strictly Come Dancing". So how come, you may well ask, are Jane and I heading for a "luxury ballroom break" in Blackpool?
Well, it's a long story....
To do with iPads, the North West, and classical music..., and covetousness.
I enjoy classical music in a dilettante sort of way. I often listen to it while I'm at my laptop. For example, at the moment, Mendelssohn's 5th Symphony is playing (composed apparently to mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, hence its nickname "The Reformation Symphony"), which I used to have on a good old vinyl. When BBC3 gets too obscure or discordant - I like a good tune - I turn to Classic FM, which one can normally rely on for golden oldies. Its one big snag, of course, is that they rely on advertising revenue, and so the usual fare is single movements or short pieces punctuated by adverts - which are annoying and distracting. I expect my purist friends would excoriate me for having great music on as background, but there we go anyway!
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's iPad 2, nor his iPhone 4, nor his MacBook Air, nor any device that is his." Apples have been men's downfall from the beginning of history, it seems.
As a result I get occasional emails from Classic FM. Earlier this year they asked us to choose our top 3 pieces of music with the possibility of winning an iPad. That was like the most irresistible fly to this particular trout! I chose - fairly arbitrarily - pieces by Mozart, Schubert and Gorecki. But I was on a roll, and entered another competition "to win two tickets to a day's competition at Blackpool Dance Festival, plus two nights’ stay at the 5* gold Langtry’s Hotel". Sounded all right! It would be nice to see family up that way. I can't remember what the questions were. Well, you never win competitions, do you? And so I forgot about them. 
Then, suddenly, two Fridays ago, a message popped up in my Inbox:
"Dear Michael
I’m contacting you from Classic FM, and I’m delighted to let you know that you have been randomly selected as the winner of the Luxury Ballroom Break in Blackpool. 
There were lots of entries, congratulations!" My first reaction was, This is a spoof! And then I remembered that I'd entered it. I gave Jane an inarticulate yell. How hilarious - us on a Ballroom Break!
We looked up the Langtry. It has recently been refurbished and looks a really nice luxury B & B. Lovely in fact.  Nowadays one of the first things we check is how disabled-friendly a place is. Jane spotted "Access" in small print at the bottom of the screen, and I clicked on it. 7 steps to the front door, 15 to the bedrooms. :(   Never mind. It's just true that not every building can be wheelchair-accessible. It's just a fact of life. So I emailed back to Classic FM, thanking them, but saying we'd not be able to go and they'd better pass it to someone else. That's life.  
Next Tuesday, another email arrives, from Kate Campbell of Visit England:
"Congratulations on winning the Classic FM luxury ballroom break!
Further to your email we are really sorry to hear that Langtry’s does not have the facilities to meet your access needs.   
Therefore, Lancashire and Blackpool Tourist Board has put in every effort to source some alternative accommodation in Blackpool for that weekend. The newly refurbished Ashley Victoria Hotel, with a 4 star VisitEngland accreditation, does have availability for those dates; please find attached their access statement.  This hotel has been rated as suitable for part-time wheelchair users under VisitEngland’s National Accessible Scheme."

We examined the access statement and it looked fine. Ramps, ground floor rooms with wet rooms. Thank you, we said. Looks great. Two more emails followed, the second from Nikki Duckworth of the Lancashire and Blackpool Tourist Board - We'd been booked in to a room with a sea view and she told us who'll be looking after us. I think that's good service. Of course, no less than one would expect from the friendly north west! But I did feel that a number of people had gone to a lot of trouble, above and beyond the call of duty, to cater for my needs. I suppose cynics would just argue that it was no more than their legal obligation under whatever discrimination laws. But I'd made it clear that, far from invoking that, I was very content for the weekend to go to someone else. Life's like that sometimes. And all I can say is that universally the tone of the emails I received was not grudging, but friendly and anxious to help. I was and am impressed and grateful.

So at May Bank holiday, off we go to the seaside. I might even get to see some more of my long-eared friends, and you can picture us in the grand surroundings of the Empress Ballroom, holding up our 7s and even 10s! Oh, I do like to be beside the sea!

Monday, 25 April 2011

AV explained

Dan Snow, former Oxford Boat Club captain

If you are like me, you may have been having trouble disentangling personal invective and misinformation from clear rational explanation. I'm talking about the debate (perhaps that's too polite a word) about the "alternative vote" referendum. It's all been a bit unedifying so far, it seems to me. Well, now, thanks to my old friend Mark Berry, I've come across a short and fundamental explanation by historical journalist (and bright cookie), Dan Snow. He explains the way groups make choices when faced with more than two alternatives.... AV explained for dummies like me. No more worrying about Thursday week. Phew!

Surprised by Easter

There's a (probably apocryphal) story of T S Eliot being approached by a bright young thing in Oxford, who asked him what the opening of his poem Ash Wednesday ("Lady, three white leopards sat under the juniper tree/In the cool of the day.") meant. His reply was, "Madam, it means 'Lady, three white leopards sat under the juniper tree in the heat of the day'."

This year I've been reading Luke's account of Jesus' passion and resurrection. I'm struck by how hard it is to improve on the pure narrative - something that poor preachers try to do year after year (and of course I'm including the old me! I heard of one who had to preach no less than six times yesterday.) Something of a theological attempt to reinvent the wheel. The story of the pair walking wearily back to Emmaus after the most dispiriting Sabbath they'd ever spent in Jerusalem is so dramatic and credible, it might almost have been written by one of them. As part of an unfolding picture, it's certainly the work of a master narrator. Nothing really needs adding. Caravaggio obviously caught the significance of that momentous meal.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Easter in Baghdad

I don't think I can do better than quote from Andrew White's Easter letter headed "We have seen glory and forgiveness":
"Hallelujah, Christ is Risen. [In Arabic] Masieh Cum [and Aramaic] Cumle Mar an.
Andrew's new book
Today we celebrate the most amazing truth that our Jesus is no longer dead but alive. Here, amongst a broken country and much danger, we celebrate the fact that the Lord is here and his Spirit is with us.

As we look at the story of the resurrection in John Ch 20 we see that Mary Magdalene was the first at his tomb and the stone at the entry had been removed. Jesus was not there, but the grave cloths were. There were angels there and outside there was what was thought to be a gardener. Peter and John joined with Mary and they witnessed what she had seen - the empty tomb and empty grave cloths.

All these signs of the glory and resurrection were there but not seen. So often the signs of resurrection and glory are around us but we fail to see them.
Mary, the first to the tomb, was not only a woman but one with a past, who had been forgiven much. Suddenly the first words of Jesus from the Cross ring true, 'Father, Forgive.'
We have seen glory and forgiveness. Inside the tomb we also see something most significant: the napkin around the head of Jesus was separate and folded on its own.

Our mind goes to every official meal in Jewish culture. Each person would have a napkin and, when they left the table permanently, they would leave the napkin crumpled as it was used. If they were just leaving the table for a short time they would neatly fold the napkin. A folded napkin meant, 'I am coming back.' That was what the folded napkin was all about. Then Jesus said Mary's name and all was revealed. He was not dead, he was alive.

Here we have a message of Glory, Forgiveness, Resurrection and hope."
Palm Sunday in St George's, Baghdad
I must recommend the BBC programme about forgiveness. If you have an hour for an Easter sermon, do watch it. If you have half an hour, watch the last half. If you have 15 minutes, watch the last quarter! Cheryl McGuinness has an impressive story. "What's the point of Forgiveness?"

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Week ending

A young girl recently wrote a letter to God asking "How did you get invented?" Eventually she received a reply from the Archbishop of Canterbury. You can read it here: Alex Renton writes to God. I think you'll be impressed. Her mother certainly was. He certainly has a varied job, from celebrating Easter to explaining theology to children (well) to royal weddings to holding a dysfunctional church together. I suspect he enjoys some parts more than others.

This afternoon Jane and I did our second stint representing Oxfordshire's MNDA at the Incurable Optimism exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Oxford. A number of people mistook me for Patrick Joyce, the artist. (He's the character with a paintbrush in his mouth, next to his portrait of Stephen Hawking.) I assured them that I had the same MND as him but was just another exhibit. We had some nice conversations with visitors. There was one couple who'd come from New Zealand.

Yesterday we went to the united churches' service on the green in Grove to celebrate Good Friday. It's a pity we don't do it more often imho.

Meanwhile the Middle East today produces more disturbing news items. I'm sure we don't get a balanced picture. For example, I'm puzzled about the reports of civilian casualties in Misrata. To me the insurgent soldiers look like civilians holding weapons. Whatever is happening in Libya and Syria is ghastly. It seems as though we are being shown pictures to justify mission creep. Unmanned drones are now deployed. Egypt and Tunisia don't appear to have shaken down quite as neatly as we overoptimistically first hoped, whilst Bahrain (whose crown prince comes as an honoured guest to Friday's wedding) and Yemen still have scenes of startling repression. Reconciliation is not easily won, and it's not won by force of arms. It's actually won by a surrender of power.
Christ is risen: He is risen indeed
PS I've just received this quotation from Pope Benedict's Q & A session about the use of force: "This [Christ's life and death] is what shows us the true face of God, that violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good, but is a destructive means and not the path to escape difficulties. He is thus a strong voice against every type of violence. He strongly invites all sides to renounce violence, even if they feel they are right. The only path is to renounce violence, to begin anew with dialogue, with the attempt to find peace together, with a new concern for one another, a new willingness to be open to one another. This, dear lady, is Jesus' true message: seek peace with the means of peace and leave violence aside." Amen, I say. And I'm glad that in his Easter sermon he urged for "peace to triumph over division, hate and violence".

Friday, 22 April 2011

And now for something completely different...

Lydia and Richard, with Badger
But come to think of it, there is a connection as on Tuesday we met two participants of a Palm Sunday procession, to whom nobody could object. We'd been invited to visit Pennyhooks Farm, about which, you may remember, I blogged in January after it was featured on BBC Countryfile. It's a care farm, the only one in the country that's geared for adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. It's also where Rachel does some teaching. There's a good article about it here: Pennyhooks Farm article in current edition of Organic Farming.

Feeding the cattle (from
It's a family farm near Shrivenham in Oxfordshire. It's now run by Lydia Otter (whose family have run the farm for 50 years) and Richard Hurford, the farm manager. Lydia is a teacher who has specialized in special needs' education. She saw the potential of a farm to develop the latent skills of young people with severe educational needs - and this place is working beautifully and successfully in doing just that. It, of course, is experiencing the economic squeeze. Sadly, these particular young adults don't feature highly on councils' lists of priorities, and they are voiceless in the political arena. And Lydia's busy educating, Richard too, and they run the farm. So who will be advocate for these vulnerable citizens with so much to learn and to give? And who will be a fund-raiser for their benefit? There is such a big-hearted vision behind the project. It should be nurtured, not neglected.

The garden, the 'shop' and Appletree House behind Richard & Badger
We were there in a week's break. So there were no students there, but we were shown the heart of the farm.
The main study room
The boot room

On the way to the animals
Jaguar, the young bull
Octavia, the Saddleback sow

Not easy holding a new chick with uncooperative hands!
But what about those Palm Sunday processors? Ivanhoe and Linnet are their names, and two days before they had been walking down Shrivenham High Street into the parish church with perfect decorum, I'm told - and of course to the author of My Donkeybody they gave great pleasure. I like to think we had a real understanding! As you may sense, I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and could well understand its being both a therapeutic and educating (in the fullest sense) place for young people who have the dice of life heavily loaded against them. Gertrude Jekyll it was, I believe, who said that you're nearer to God in the garden than anywhere else on earth. Well, I'd say this was one better, as it has not only a garden, but also an organic farm; and what's most important people running it who genuinely care about their visitors - whether casual like us or regular like their young people. Thank you, Lydia and Richard - and best wishes.
Ivanhoe and Linnet

A quiet conversation with Ivanhoe

Cross about palms

What a lovely week it's been so far! Almost unbroken sunshine. I know we're only having average temperatures by Sydney standards - but it is only April. However farmers, gardeners and water-power generators could do with some rain.

Sunday brought some good news with Lewis Hamilton winning an exciting Chinese Grand Prix - and both the Williams' cars completing the race, for the first time this season! Maldonado, their new driver, was lapped, but at least he made it. I enjoyed too the Palm Sunday 'Songs of Praise' with some good interviews and a new song I'd not met before, The Light of the World (Stuart Townend's, not Tim Hughes' version) sung by Cathy Burton - Cathy Burton singing 'The Light of the World'.

Talking of Palm Sunday I was alerted to the almost unbelievable story of Colin Atkinson who has been moved from his electrician's job with Wakefield District Housing for displaying a small Palm Cross in his van - for the past 15 years. One account I read said: "... following a complaint from a tenant, who suggested that the cross might offend other faiths, Colin has been put under huge pressure to remove the cross from his van, and company rules have been amended since the dispute to ban personal items. So far Colin has refused - and he is now being investigated for his alleged failure to comply." I can't believe the complaint came from an adherent of any other faith than atheism, as, in my experience, people who are passionate about their own faith seriously normally appreciate others who are serious about theirs giving it expression. Burkas and phylacteries don't 'offend' me. In fact they provoke me to examine the depth of my faith. It's when power politics attaches itself to religion, as a perverse form of self-justification, that problems arise. The old-firm rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow is to do with unhealed political wounds, not about different views of the eucharist. If there's anything that a palm cross represents it's Jesus' rejection of the way of power. The palm being waved as a banner in a victory parade is twisted into the cross - the symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation. 
Photo: St Giles' Church, Aintree
It's a myth vigorously promoted by enemies of religious belief that faith is the root of conflict. In fact, it has always been the same: the desire for power. As Andrew White has been showing in Iraq, the only route to reconciliation begins with understanding and sharing faith.

Monday, 11 April 2011

A tale of three parts

Snake's-head fritillary near our safe house
"Gallia est omnis divisa in tres partes" (All Gaul is divided into three parts). I'm glad to say my last week had nothing in common with Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, except falling into three parts. These may conveniently be labelled the shires of Devon, Cambridge, and Oxford.
The stream in the valley

Part 1 - Devon.
Returned to our remote 'safe house' where we chilled out, enjoyed the neighbouring walks (Jane and Jess) and the views (Jane and me). Among other things the farm has wild flower meadows, enjoyed by the local bees and containing flowers as common as violets and unusual as snake's head fritillaries.
One of the two beehives

Budleigh Salterton front from the hill
As well as visiting Jane's parents, we spent most of Wednesday exploring down and up the Otter Trail (from Otterton to Budleigh Salterton). Bit of a facer there :-( . The public toilets at the east of the prom were being refurbished, and I'm sure they'll look very nice soon, but there was no notice of apology or indication where the nearest ones might be. We asked one workman. He wasn't local, so he shouted to his mate on the roof. "Where's the next loos? These folk is desperate." (Not really.) "800 yards along the front, up there!" He omitted to tell us one vital fact....
Man from Mars (note the aerials)

Very pleasant it was, sitting in the wheelchair, with the sound of the waves on the shingle and the cry of the gulls, and the sun shining on the lee of the cliff. Jane however had to push me. And it's not a gentle incline at the western end. In fact as the metres extended to kilometres, the lady we asked suggested we go through the village "as the slope's easier". I'm sure she was right but navigating a street with a wheelchair and a dog put us off, and Jane opted for the one in five hill. Undefeated, we reached our destination. The Gents had metal security gates and steps leading down out of sight. So round the corner in search of the Disabled. Nothing - just Ladies, with again a turnstile arrangement and steps down. Well, Jane availed herself, before pushing me back more than mile to the car - to be greeted by a couple of swallows. "Summer is a-cumen in" - I couldn't remember whether it's one swallow or two that don't make a summer. Whatever - it was a thoroughly summery day, topped off by a shared cream tea at Otterton Mill with its very friendly and obliging staff - including access to limited but adequate disabled facilities.
One obliging swallow
We had to come home on Thursday afternoon to be ready for Part 2, and so Part 1 ended with a relaxing morning and lunch at the cottage, disturbed only by a helicopter inspecting power lines.

Part 2 - Cambridge
Ridley's Walk (or Dewey's, for our generation)
It's 40 years since I left Cambridge. Consequently my old college, Pembroke, invited me to a Feast, along with my contemporaries, of course. A feast is not much good for me, trying to eat and mumbling to make myself understood against a background of decreasingly intelligent chatter, but an opportunity to see my long-lost (and highly intelligent) buddies seemed too good to be missed. So we arranged to go to tea first, to stay overnight and to have breakfast, and hope to see friends at greater leisure. And it worked well, with the bonus of a quiet meal with our good friends, Nic and Martin, with young daughter Hannah near Huntingdon.

The Guest Dormitory M4a
Our guest room had the advantage of being very conveniently situated, even if it looked as though it was awaiting the final phase of college modernisation. The weather of course was perfect - clear skies, blossom out... completing the illusion that student-life was one blissful summer. Sadly, again, we had to tear ourselves away from the realms of nostalgia to return to an altogether inferior place, the Holiday Inn in Oxford.

Part 3 - Oxford
Matt Jones & Team Diddy present £5100+
We were heading for the local MNDA Branch AGM, and considering the time we left Cambridge were creditably on time. There were the usual reports and elections. Perhaps the most significant fact I picked up was that expenditure was 30+% above income - of course need for help for MND patients never diminishes and demand is constantly being renewed. Although the MNDA has a very committed support base, clearly the squeeze affects its income as much as the next charity.

During the lunch break Tracy the MND Centre's speech therapist showed me the programmes for iPads, iPods and iPads for synthesising speech, as well as the different controls and speakers you can use. Unlike the old systems you can get English voices (and even Aussie), not just American, and they're much cheaper than the old market leading Lightwriter. I don't absolutely need one yet, but I can foresee it being a useful technology.

Kirstine Knox waiting (Colin Blakemore lt)
Then, after some technical projection problems, we had the MNDA's big boss, Kirstine Knox, talking about the scope and future of the association. She sent her young daughter fast asleep, but the rest of us were quite interested!

Glad to be home!
When we returned home, there were two NHS letters awaiting me: one from my consultant, Dr Donaghy, telling us he was retiring before my next appointment. It's a bit of a blow, because, as you know, I liked and trusted him a lot. However, he is handing me on to Prof Talbot who runs the MND Centre, and is also an exceedingly nice man. The other I though would be from the hospital summoning me to have my tooth removed, but no, it was from Didcot Dental Clinic summoning me for a full assessment at the end of the month. When Jane queried it by phone, she was told the waiting list at the hospital was "sometimes over a year" and that a specialist dentist would be seeing if something could be done in the clinic instead, and no, they wouldn't do treatment then.... Hmm. Is this the beginning of decay in NHS provision, I wonder.

Back to blogics

I have to say it's been lovely having an enforced break from the internet! Jane and I have had an all-too-short holiday in a remote corner of south-east Devon - no internet and fairly dubious mobile reception. For those of us without sufficient self-discipline to impose a break from the media on ourselves, this sort of desert-island retreat should be made compulsory!

(By the way, last week's Desert Island Discs was one of those peaches which come along occasionally. The castaway was the actor, Martin Sheen (Jed Bartlett of The West Wing), whose own life-story is as gripping as the series. You can listen on podcast or here: Martin Sheen castaway.)

Where was I? Well, this time a week ago we were on the way back from my favourite place of worship, in Exmouth. I've only been there twice of course, and I know that there isn't a perfect church anywhere. However Christ Church in North Street for me scratches where it itches.... It's utterly unpretentious, but its people are serious about worship and discipleship. And they're very welcoming, family-friendly and unintimidating. We first met Katie and Tom and Nicky last year at New Wine, and have got to know other church members since. I reckon one mark of a healthy Christian family is where you feel at home when you step inside. This is like that.

Anyway there's too much to say about the action-packed week for this post. So it will have to keep to another time.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Last autumn Jane was given a plain green shrub by our friends, Ruth and Anthony. It had a label saying it should have pink flowers in due course. Now it looks like this:
Camellia "Lady Campbell"
Pas mal, heh? I love the fact of creation; as the poet put it, "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things". Here's Gerard Manley Hopkins' whole sonnet, God's Grandeur:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;        5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;        10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Meanwhile I enjoyed this item which I read about today. I initially thought it was an April fool, but I see the CNN article is dated 23rd March. PETA calls for inclusive language for animals in the Bible !

By contrast, on a very serious issue, I'd urge you to look at the Right to Know website. It's to do with an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill sponsored by MPs Nadine Dorries (Con) and Frank Field (Lab), ensuring that women considering an abortion are given independent advice, rather than from those with vested financial interests, . It seems to me to make eminent sense, giving women truly informed choice and hopefully saving life. There's something we can do about it. Write to our MPs.