Thursday, 26 May 2011

Things that move

from Iceland Review
I believe I slept on a volcano last night. Well, that's what I like to think. Jane had hung the washing out in the day and it ended up with shiny black specks on it, especially the fleece I rest my heels on to prevent them chafing in bed. Of course, I'm no expert, but I like to think they were from the Grimsvötn volcano in Iceland rather than Didcot power station down the road. Apparently Grimsvötn produced more ash on its first day than the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull let out in 40 days last year. A vivid eye-witness account described it as a black wall of ash. Possibly I've been to sleep on some of it!

The Radio 4 programme The Choice, in which Michael Buerk interviews individuals who have had to make momentous personal decisions, has returned this week. They are often gritty stories. On Tuesday he was talking to 'Mikey Walsh' who's from a Romany family which has a tradition of bare-knuckle fighting. When he was born, his father hung a gold chain with an ornament of boxing gloves round his neck. As he grew up, despite his family's best efforts, it was clear that he was just not the fighting type. He was soft. Eventually in his teens he realised he was gay and made the decision to run away from his family, cutting himself off from the whole Gypsy world. The cost to him and the hurt to his father were immense. Eventually he moved into acting and wrote his story in Gypsy Boy. That stirred up a buzz of anger among his some of his former community, whom his father personally set about pacifying, by admitting that the details were true. What struck me was the end of the programme, when Mikey told how one day he rang his mother, who passed the mobile straight to his father. He said, "I've got something to tell you: you're more of a fighting man than any of 'em, and I'm proud of you." I found Mikey's honesty and his father's humility very impressive, and the at least partial reconciliation very moving.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

A day in London

Yesterday Jane and I enjoyed one of our occasional forays to the capital. I'd been invited to talk at St Paul's and St Mellitus' College, which is based at St Paul's, Onslow Square, in Kensington. I would have looked at the whole building with a different eye had I realised that the recent restoration of the church was designed by Sir Norman Foster. Hence the headline which Brotherly Love pointed out to me later, "Foster turns to religion". The article from World is accompanied by a nice picture:

First church for Lord Foster

Foster and Partners have revealed plans to transform a Grade II listed, 1860 church into a church for the 21st century. Incorporating a ‘Family Life Centre’ a Theology College, café, bookshop, lecture facilities and 3 residential units the building will become a modern place of worship. The design approach for a maximum capacity of 1,200 is founded on a sensitive restoration of the original building together with the insertion of an adjacent contemporary building. Major improvements will be made to the energy efficiency. Replacing the existing vicarage and church hall, the new extension meets the building with a glazed atrium, ensuring links between the functions of worship with education, community and living. Comp oct 2008.
I didn't see enough to judge. It looked pretty impressive to me. However I know you'll expect me at least to comment on the disabled facilities! Entry ramp fine. Loo... I'm afraid to say, it was simply too small. Even with Jane helping me there wasn't enough room to manoeuvre a wheelchair. In fact we ended leaving it outside. How someone on their own manages I don't know. On the plus side there was a good supply of grabrails. However, the emergency alarm-pull was, for some reason, wrapped round the central light fitting out of reach! As at the new Ashmolean it seems that disabled toilets are an Achilles' heel of even eminent architects' practices. 

The welcome, however, left nothing to be desired. Genuinely warm people, real coffee, M&S sandwiches...! It really looks like a place that open-minded people who reckon Christian faith is moribund or irrelevant should check out before reaching a final conclusion. Anyhow, the students seemed to appreciate what Jane and I had to say about disability and terminal illness. I mentioned then a couple of stories I'd recently come across in the news.

from Sheffield Telegraph Kate leading off a local run
One was about Kate Allatt, a 40-year-old mother of three, who'd suffered a massive stroke and ended in a "locked-in" state for months. Amazingly she's now doing the "impossible", talking and running :
"Doctors said stroke victim was brain dead". On her website, she says, "Whilst I wanted to die in intensive care, I'm glad I didn't, now." It's quite a story, and a good news story what's more. She's just had a book published. Which might make you wonder why you didn't hear more about it on the BBC. She got interviewed on Sheffield and Northampton radio, and a short piece on the Jeremy Vine Show.

The other was about a survey carried out for Scope, the leading Disability Charity, about legalising assisted suicide. Among other things it showed that 70% of disabled people are opposed to it.  Scope's press statement ended with this telling paragraph from Richard Hawkes, its chief executive: "We have serious concerns about the so-called ‘Commission’ on Assisted Dying, which despite its name is nothing to do with the Government. It feels like their findings are a foregone conclusion, with the debate loaded in favour of assisted suicide. The Government needs to form its own independent non-biased commission to explore this.” The BBC, who featured a voters' poll in January in favour of assisted suicide, were absolutely silent about this one.... One wonders why.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Nuttiness and sanity

Last week I had the dubious distinction of appearing on the Atheist United Front facebook site.  It was of course because of my article about Stephen Hawking's dismissing heaven as a "fairy story for those afraid of the dark", which was so much commented on. I did look at what the seven people on facebook had to say, which frankly wasn't much. Some had a pavlovian reaction to the headline only, one dismissed my view because I used an Apple (! - apparently a sign of deficient intellect!), one suggested I should write a book about the evidence for the resurrection (he apparently hadn't noticed I'd cited one. Sorry, I'm not inclined to reinvent the wheel. Read JND Anderson, Jesus Christ the evidence of history. You can still get copies via Amazon.), one appeared to have read my article and complimented it on being well written, while still disagreeing with me.

Normally I'd feel quite honoured to have been singled out for mention, but I say it was a "dubious distinction" because they also had it in for one Howard Camping. In fact they, and extraordinarily, our major news outlets such as the BBC majored on him. You'll be aware that he is the octogenarian President of Family Radio (the Californian Christian radio station) who predicted the end of the world for 6 pm (his time, I think) with a cataclysmic earthquake. I think I buy into the theory that it made the headlines because it's the first such nutty prediction to have hit the internet - and sadly there are a lot of gullible Christians out there. The odd thing, of course, is that the only thing the Bible, from where Mr Camping gets his ideas, says about the time of 'the end of the world' (as it's popularly known) is
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24: 36). I'm a bit irked that the likes of the pastor expose faith to such universal ridicule. He'd already got it wrong once before in 1994 - "miscalculated". It's sad that he didn't learn from his mistake.

On a more cheerful note, the Queen did a rather good job in the Irish Republic. There was a rather good piece about her in Friday Night Theology just eight days ago, which pointed out that she is now the second longest reigning monarch in British history. "Fewer than 1 in 6 Britons will be able to remember a time before Elizabeth...  For everyone else, she has always been – unobtrusively but reliably – there. As indeed has her Christian faith. Queen Elizabeth has made it clear in various broadcasts over the years that her faith in Jesus Christ is extremely important to her; a foundation stone of her life of duty. That is obviously a delicate message to convey if you are head of state, there being ample opportunity to offend or alienate those of no or different religious faith, and it is to the Queen's great credit that she has managed it so well.

"Her Christianity serves a good example of the nation's. Discreet, unassuming, but subtly pervasive, Christianity has shaped and defined the United Kingdom, just as has its monarch, for far longer than anyone can remember." 

The article finishes with mentioning the influence of the Bible, "the single most important influence on our national politics". "This is not to say that it has been the only influence or that it has always been a positive one. It hasn't, rather it is to point out that our political life is shot through with ideas and convictions that are grounded in our Christian heritage. Why are we committed to the idea that all humans are of equal worth? Why are we convinced all, no matter how rich or powerful, are equal under the law? Why are we prepared to tolerate differences in religious opinion? Why is freedom of religion and of conscience so important? Why do we (or, perhaps, some of us, now) believe that government is justified by its commitment to the common good? Why do we think that the people should have a voice in selecting their political rulers?

"These beliefs are grounded ultimately in our historic Christianity. It is impossible to say whether they would have developed without those Christian foundations, just as it is impossible to say whether they will be maintained if we persist in eroding those foundations. But it is possible - indeed, today, sadly necessary - to say that they did develop in, through and because of the nation's Christianity and not, as some like to claim, in spite of it." Jennie Pollock, who wrote that, it seems to me, is a good deal more sensible than Howard Campling - but less newsworthy in the world of sensation-seeking media.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

"Fools rush in...

... where angels fear to tread." I seem to recall that's Alexander Pope. But it's certainly something I've been waking up feeling, especially after the article was headlined: "I'd stake my life that Stephen Hawking is wrong about heaven"!  
It all started on Monday morning listening to the Today programme in my semi-somnolent state, when I thought I heard about an interview with superstar physicist, Stephen Hawking, in The Guardian, in which he said that heaven is a fairy story for those afraid of the dark. As I say, I was half asleep, but the idea must have lodged in my mind. "Half a mo," I thought. "That's not why I believe in life after death. Whatever happens, I imagine it'll be quite a relief for me when I get to dying. Well, he's just another chap with MND like me. Perhaps I can write an answer."

And so after breakfast I read the interview which was part of a long article. It went like this:

What is the value in knowing "Why are we here?"
The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.
You've said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?
Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.
So here we are. What should we do?
We should seek the greatest value of our action.
You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
What are the things you find most beautiful in science?
Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics."
So I wrote an answer and sent it to the Guardian's Comment is free editor, and was not a little surprised to receive an enthusiastic reply accepting it. It went up on the website on Tuesday, and proved the most viewed Comment is free article of the day and far the most commented on (1500+) - not that the latter's much comfort as normally most comments on the internet are negative. I refrained from reading them, having better things to do with my life. But I also received enough personal emails saying thank you to keep my pecker up.
Patrick Joyce's portrait in the Incurable Optimists series
I did think I'd been a bit rash to contradict Professor Hawking, but then I reflected that he's just such a man as I am. As Shylock observed to his Christian adversaries: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?" We are both frail human beings. We both wrestle with the same frustrations and the same big questions. We can both learn from each other, admittedly me rather more from him! And one day we'll both be facing the same big doorway.
By the way, my visit to the dentist again today was just as satisfactory as the last one - a longer procedure but excellently performed.
And one by-product of this week is that I'm now featured on  The Spiritual Bookclub blog...!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Hi ho! Hi ho! It's off to ... I go!

Tomorrow I'm off to the dentist for the second time within six days.  I'm not worried about it - really not - because of my experience last time. I've waxed lyrical before about the virtues of this NHS provision of 'special needs' dentistry. There's a local one-woman clinic attached to our GP Health Centre, but for more difficult procedures (such as the awkward tooth extraction I needed) they play safe by referring you to the hospital or to a larger clinic.

So last Friday Jane took me over to the Didcot Special Access clinic to be seen by another dentist there. I presume that this has the benefit of having other dentists and nurses at hand - as well as the adjacent cottage hospital - should complications arise. They didn't of course. In fact, Sarah, my dentist, was brilliant. Jane and she got me into the chair. She administered some tingly sort of cream and then injected. I don't enjoy injections, but it was fine, first on the inside and then on the outside of the gum. A few minutes of conversation and then it was cooked. Out came the pliers. A firm manipulating of the tooth back and forth, and then she asked the nurse to hold my head, since my muscle control is somewhat deficient. Firmer wiggling of the tooth and it was out, all in one piece. I inspected it, and I have to confess it was a mouldy specimen. "Better out than in," was Sarah's verdict.

I was anticipating trouble when the anaesthetic wore off, but I needn't have taken even the one ibrupofen I did. I was sent home with instructions and a gauze pad in case it began to bleed. But in fact the oozing was minimal. The whole operation was a success. And so tomorrow I'm off to have a filling sorted. There's of course no way a private company would provide this sort of service - for children and adults with all sorts of disabilities, for people with Down's Syndrome, for autistic children, and for people like me. We can't 'nip on to the chair', swallowing is a problem and breathing when you're tipped back can be too. It takes time to deal with patients with special needs. Health insurance wouldn't take them on. And private companies want profits. So the National Health Service is a necessary blessing.

What struck me about the whole experience were two things. One was what a difference trust in your medical practitioner makes. From our first consultation I felt Sarah knew her business and I could trust her. Although she didn't insist, her advice to have the tooth out was sound and proved correct. That trust leads to the second thing which is the difference that fear, or the lack of it, makes. I wasn't worried then, and I'm even less worried now, about opening my mouth and being entirely vulnerable to someone else poking sharp instruments and woodworking tools into my maw right under my very awake eyes.

When I put on facebook that I was going to have a tooth out, the sympathetic messages came pouring in: "Ouch!' "Good luck!" etc, all implying that I was to undergo an ordeal, all reinforcing the fear-full myth. Someone told me yesterday that over 95% of what we fear never happens, so that we waste an enormous amount of nervous energy in pointless worry. Fear is a great paralyser. What's disturbing is that much of our culture breeds fear. The insurance industry is fuelled by fear. What if your house fell down? What if you couldn't pay your mortgage? (Wasn't that what the banks said when they sold useless protection plans?) The media are full of scare stories (remember avian flu?). We're frightened to let children play in the streets. And of course some campaigns fuel our fear of pain and dying. It doesn't need to be so.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Entente cordiale

We heard a great, true story at the conference yesterday from Cynthia Hopkins, an Association trustee. I'd asked her if she'd had some good times with her husband in the ten years between his diagnosis with MND and his death. She laughed and agreed, emphatically, and related this incident.

Her husband was far from being a Francophile - indeed, bluntly, he didn't like the French - , but they went to stay in Paris - not the most wheelchair-friendly of cities. However they managed, until they got to the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre....

For obvious reasons, they could only admire it from afar.... 

Mais tout à coup! Four men appeared out of the blue, and said, "Leave it to us." The four of them proceeded to carry him up the steps to the Basilica, and then said, "Take as long as you want to look round, and give us a call when you're ready." In due course, they carried him and the wheelchair down again. Bravo! 

After that her husband revised her opinion of the French, Cynthia concluded! Can there be Francophone angels, I wonder? Certainly, human-kindness knows no boundaries.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A different Sunday

A very different Sunday from normal! No  church; instead we've been to the MNDA's Spring Conference in Bristol. I think I agreed with Hilary's verdict that it was the best spring conference she or we'd been to - the fourth for us. We particularly like the conferences because of the people one meets. Some of us have MND in some form; others are carers, and association visitors. There are also staff from the Association headquarters and trustees - as well as exhibitors, and of course speakers (of whom the main one was Prof Kevin Talbot, who's my new consultant).

We had to get up early (for me) and drove through the showers. This year it was at the Aztec West Shires Hotel. Not as grand as The Celtic Manor at Newport last year. No Danish pastries, as Jane observed! But it was fine, well, AA 4 stars, to be exact.

The first session, "How will changes to the NHS and social services affect people with MND?", was of course highly topical and important. It was led by the MNDA's Head of Public Affairs, Farah Nazeer, and Campaigning Head, David Hanson. It's clear that the proposals as they stood (before the "Pause") posed dangers for disabled people, particularly with MND which is normally so rapid that health care packages and social service provision can't keep pace. They also pointed out that there are also opportunities. Not surprisingly they knew their stuff. My particular reaction was to be grateful that MND patients have such competent advocates.

After a filling lunch, Kevin Talbot talked particularly about the research going on in Oxford which is one of the world's centres of MND research, and particularly the search for a biomarker (a diagnostic indicator) for the disorder. He has the gift of exceptional clarity in explaining science to amateurs. I have a feeling that Theresa, who, like me, has PLS, raised a potentially fruitful point about the usefulness of MND patients' diagnostic records for research.

So a good day, meeting new people and seeing new gismos - and oh yes, there was an ITV cameraman and reporter there, so you might see my friend, Norman, with discreet product placement of My Donkeybody behind him (!), being interviewed about one effect cutbacks have already had for him, in MND Awareness Week in June, if you live in the West! When we emerged, it was warm and sunny, and so we drove home in a mellow mood - which was somewhat dented by the discovery that Red Bulls were rampant in Turkey, while both Williams were lapped, and the Premiership is virtually decided. :(

Monday, 2 May 2011

Obama gets Osama

Well, after the best sort of weekend, i.e. when ALL our family are around, enjoying each others' company - and Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City all won! -, it was a sharp reminder of reality to wake up last night (after a cacophony of dreams) to hear on the World Service President Obama announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan not far from Islamabad. So he hadn't been holed up in the remote mountains after all as we'd been told. It makes sense, of course. Merging into a populous place makes you much harder to find. The reports came of swelling cheering crowds in Washington. 
My initial reaction was "At last. Good riddance - but that's not the end of Al Qaida." However that first feeling has been qualified by further things I've read and heard since. The first was Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, whom I'd come across as the world's foremost expert on autism, talking about his new book Zero Degrees of Empathy: a New Theory of Human Cruelty. The write-up says: "Simon Baron-Cohen proposes turning the focus away from evil or specific personality disorders, and to understand human behaviour by studying the 'empathy circuit' in the brain." Writing as a post-Holocaust Jew and professor of psychology and psychiatry, his perspective demands respect. The 'Start the Week' programme was clearly recorded earlier and so didn't mention Bin Laden's death, but I was simply struck by the idea of not labelling someone as "evil" - although I am sure "evil" is an appropriate adjective for some actions. 
A second was Andrew White's verdict: "So Osama Bin Ladin is dead! A day that has been longed for many years. Today is just the beginning of the fight against Al Qaida. Terror is not over, the reality is that that we are now all in a very dangerous time. Al Qaida will try and show the world that they can and will still commit terror. So we all need to be on our guard.
".... with today’s news I am not sure what will happen but we continue onwards and upwards."
Another was a part of the New York Times' report, including official and unofficial reaction: "In Westchester, Harry Waizer, a survivor (of 9/11), paused nearly a minute before he began to speak when reached by phone. ‘If this means there is one less death in the future, then I’m glad for that,’ said Mr. Waizer, who was in an elevator riding to work in the north tower when the plane struck the building. He made it down the stairs, but suffered third-degree burns.
‘But I just can’t find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama Bin Laden.’
"Asked whether he felt any closure, Mr. Waizer said, ‘I’ve said for years I didn’t think there would be, but I’ll probably need to think about that more, now that it actually happened.’
"‘You know, the dead are still dead,’ he added. ‘So in that sense, there is no such thing as closure.’" 
I thought that sentence, "I just can't find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama Bin Laden," was simply remarkable.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Hype or hope?

I'm glad John commented on my last post and asked what I thought of the Bishop of London's sermon, as it made me return to listen to it carefully. I was especially pleased as I had missed the significance of its ending when we watched the service en famille yesterday. I reckon that was the high point of the day. Of course it's hard to tell what's going on behind the inscrutable façades of polite society, but it seemed to me that the couple were genuinely happy. As far as I could tell, they're nice people. I positively enjoyed seeing them drive to Clarence House in his dad's vintage, environmentally friendly Aston Martin. Altogether it was a good show.
from Telegraph website
There were one or two off notes surrounding the event, such as the failure to invite our last two prime ministers to what was in part a state event (Downing Street's asseveration that invitations were purely the affair of the Palace was disingenuous, after David Cameron's vehement opposition to Gordon Brown becoming the next head of the IMF and then in the light William Hague intervening to get the Syrian ambassador's wedding invitation withdrawn. It was simply inconceivable that there'd been no liaison about invitations between No 10 and Buckingham  Palace.), and historian, Andrew Roberts' spin, on the wedding morning's Today programme, that 550 street parties was an overwhelming indication of popular support. (How many streets are there in the UK? One answer I found is 250,000....). But I'm not carping. At heart, it was a happy day for two families and one couple.

But back to the question. I thought Bishop Chartres' sermon was excellent. Short - 8 minutes. Not parsonical - let the reader understand, and beware! Full of content. Straightforward and practical. I liked the fact that it was addressed to the couple almost entirely, but its message was for anyone. "In a sense, every wedding is a royal wedding, with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together...." The strapline from Catherine of Siena, "Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire," is a great truth and the theme of helping your partner to fulfil their potential of course ran through the sermon. "In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life." "The more we give of self, the richer we become in soul" - the sermon was jam-packed with quotable quotes, or, rather, pithy nuggets to chew on. Marriage is a reflection of God's generous love to the world - the Bishop gave a beautiful one-sentence summary of the Christian good news.

On the importance of the marriage ceremony, he profoundly pointed out the significance of the decision, the public "I will": "It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. People can dream of such a thing but that hope should not be fulfilled without a solemn decision that, whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love." That would be part of my answer to 'Brotherly Love's' comment on my last post. Although in practice I too became 'flexible' with regard to couples' pre-marital sex, in principle true love needs first to make that public covenant commitment, which turns the hopeful dream into practical reality. Until then it remains a conditional love - which is love minus. That remains the best way.
from Westminster Abbey website
I could go on about the sermon but it's easily available to read and to watch at I loved the idea of our being "each other's work of art", and his sentences about the future were acute. But, as I said, the high point (as it should be) was the end, the prayer which William and Catherine had composed themselves - What a good idea, by the way, to invite a couple to express their feelings to God on their wedding day! I wish I'd thought of that! - "God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage. In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy. Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen." I've no idea how it came to be written, but I like to take it at face value, that it is signed "William and Kate" and represents the heart of their marriage aspirations. Not bad - for a future king and queen - or for any of us!

And I almost forgot this postscript to the day from YouTube, Westminster Abbey verger celebrates a good day at the office. It reminds me the way children would skip back from the communion rail in Hazel Grove - "How appropriate!" I used to think.