A good place to live...

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Preservation and Prayer

We know we are part of an extensive prayer network, praying for others during the times we are apart too, and how wonderfully prayer is answered. But first, Oberammergau, and the Passion Play.
We've been to Oberammergau, to the Passion Play, [held every 10 years since 1663, when the village took a solemn promised to perform it if they were spared from an appalling plague, at the time of the Swedish Invasion] - and we have been so deeply moved and affected by all that we saw and heard - it is awesome. What struck us the most? although we shall continue to reflect and digest this for a very long time to come, the immediate gifts included seeing the devious and complex politics and power-play [both Roman AND Jewish] - seeing the separate, central stillness of Jesus in the tornado of brutality; and at the end when he came to stand among the crowd near his empty tomb, with no greeting, no 'Rabboni', to see so vivid a message that he is among us always, whether or not we see him... The text includes the synoptics and John, with transposed text [ie the woman caught in adultery appears near the beginning, to great effect: Jesus writing in the dust... at the end of the first half of the Play, when Jesus is led away for interrogation, there is an angel on stage alone... writing in the dust]
. Pilate is a compelling gestapo figure, laughing, sneering, utterly credible when he says he is bored by all their religion, and tells the priests to 'hop it' [literally 'vanish'] - passing the now-unthreatening prisoner to the soldiers for their amusement, before dealing with the Jewish Problem. This is the Play that has been re-viewed to make it less anti-semitic!! but the High Priests are appalling in their ganging-up, with only Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathia portrayed as potent voices for Christ yet who are over-ruled by the self-seeking power of the clique.

Without blasphemy, I saw Rowan Williams in this depiction of Jesus - as the still centre holding with integrity despite coming under those pressures which saw nothing of the purposes of God and everything about their own power and authority, the ability to pull people out of the city to shout for Barabbas [his release is suddenly seen as a huge slap-in-the-face for the Romans as he had plotted to overcome the Roman garrison and kill them!] seemed to parallel the factions in the Anglican Communion which cause such dissension - certainly not for God's sake.

Jesus in Gethsemane is portrayed as shouting to his Father, wanting reassurance/confirmation that this terrible pending violence must indeed be endured: it held echoes of something once said, because as he shouted he received all that he had needed, the assurance that he was not alone, that God is present with him, nothing can separate them. And for that reason [I think] there is no cry of despair from the cross, only 'I thirst' and then 'it is finished'.

Worth telling you that only those living there for a minimum 20 years can take part: there are 5,000 Oberammergau residents, of whom 1,500 are NATO [25 nationalities] and thus debarred from acting; and 1,000 are 'too busy' to take part in the play, so 2,500 people are available. They are almost all involved - the orchestra; a choir of 48 with 4 superb solo voices [and there are 3 alternating voices for the tenor/soprano/mezzo/bass]; an enormous cast which includes dozens of children, 4 camels [resident but not local] a horse, some sheep, and goats...
During the 5 months that the play is performed, there are 5 performances each week; there are 5,000 people attending each performance - a total of HALF-A-MILLION people will have seen the Passion Play this year.
The people of Oberammergau say that it is part of their lives - from the moment they are born, carried on as babies, then as the children running in the crowd scenes, or helping with the animals, through to singing in the choir, or playing in the Orchestra, or being part of the crowds swirling across the huge stage shouting 'crucify him'... so soon after they have yelled 'Hosanna'. The major parts each have two actors chosen 2 years ahead, so that they are on alternate nights [such intensity could not be sustained if it were every night].
The casting takes place the previous year; they begin rehearsals of the Choir in September, of the actors in November, and continue rehearsing SEVEN NIGHTS A WEEK from then until the play begins in May. Each performance lasts 5 hours: 2pm - 5.0 and then 8 - 10.30 - with a 3 hour break for dinner [though less by the time you have emerged, and allowed 45 minutes to get back in].
It is so powerful, because these are people who live their lives around the Passion Play, considering it the most amazing honour to be asked to take part, giving up their lives to it really. Every man involved has to grow his hair and beard for the previous year; they are famous for their exquisite wood-carvings [hugely expensive nativity scenes, crosses, and figures of Jesus] mainly in Maple and Lime ! the carving, and forestry, and farming, are the major employment - hard to do any other form of work when involved for so much of each day in the Play.
Our hostess, where we were staying in the Gasthof zur Rose, was typical of this: she was working very hard running her 25-bedroom guesthouse, greeting guests, and then appearing in the crowd scenes in the early parts of the first half [dashing back to be ready for our return to eat dinner] clearing up before returning to appear in the second half. Her 18-year-old daughter was in the Choir [greeted us afterwards 'I saw you all!'] with a beautiful voice... The pictures on Elisabeth's desk showed her father and grandfather in a sequence of photos with her as a small child in the play; then her as a girl in the Choir; then her, holding her first-born in the crowd; then her first-born as a young man in the play; then all her children taking part as young adults; and her presence throughout, with her father and grandfather in each of them as major roles [Caiaphas and Annas].
The other half of our party stayed with the co-Director, who gave them a talk in the evening of arrival and cared for them tenderly.

The village is a delight visually - the houses are painted with scenes from the Passion Play, and have extensive window-boxes filled with double-banks of scarlet geraniums [to repel flies and mosquitoes!!] All around are stunning mountain peaks, the tallest has a cross on top of the vertical crag. Almost a mono-culture, the fields are hay, and maize, with mud-coloured cows + wooden BELLS!! and surrounding pine forests. The rivers are the most beautiful pale-sea-green colour, ice-melt...

Now for the alternative drama.... context: a Stewards' Trust House Party - which has a framework of civilised companionship [how would you behave if you were staying with slightly formal friends], divided into discussion groups which gather to reflect on the excellent talk given each morning; an afternoon to explore, go for walks, chat, etc; then drinks before dinner.
Fifty of us, ranging in experience from a 'sitting' Judge, 2 practicing and 5 retired solicitors; Bankers, including the former 2nd-in-command of Barclays; engineers, including the Consultant on the Docklands Light Railway's upgrade for the Olympics; a current Head Mistress, and several recently-retired ones; a Surgeon-Professor [ie operating and teaching]; 6 [at least] GPs; 5 farmers, 1 of whom was a woman who farmed in her own right; 4 substantial land-owners; a psycho-therapist; a counsellor; a retired Oxford vicar, and 1 current one; an Oxford don; a Naval Captain; 2 administrators; 2 music teachers; a Modern-Dance-Adjudicator who teaches, as well as judging; people from S Africa, including one running a Game Farm [breeding wild animals to return to the wild, but not lions]; someone building a history centre at Rorke's Drift [Boer War - where my grandfather fought] using local labour; and so on - - it was a very varied and very interesting group.

Our party of 50 had spent 5 days at Bad Urach [near Stuttgart] preparing beforehand, then were collected by a super-modern, Mercedes coach for the 2 1/2 hour journey south. Our large driver was very relaxed, in his floral Bermuda shorts, as he set off at a good pace along the motorway. After about 20 minutes, while programming his TomTom [direction finder] he nearly drove into the back of a lorry - the front 4 rows could see clearly, and we shouted STOP loudly, and he swerved in time. A little later, he nearly drove off the road - and we shouted 'HI' and he straightened up. He then entered the next section of motorway without slowing down, right in front of a lorry which hooted long and loudly, as did the cars in the next lane... We were now really rather apprehensive, and kept a good look-out [so we could shout a warning?] - he swerved a lot, but seemed awake, and we sat tight. [People further back were aware of the manoeuvres, but not alarmed, and chatted happily - luckily.]
We stopped after an hour, for coffee, and resumed our journey hoping he too might be refreshed [though he hadn't emerged from the coach]. But he was travelling very fast - the German motorway speed limit is 60mph in fine weather, and less than that when it is raining ... we were driving in rain, at about 75mph - and we were very anxious about the driver's state. A number of us were silently praying, and 4 other couples had actually sent text messages to families to pray for us all.
Suddenly, without any warning, he swerved straight across the oncoming traffic, off the autobahn,[John said he could not see how a coach could possibly have fitted between the oncoming traffic to emerge from that motorway] into a narrow entrance to a very small motorway stop, careering in at right-angles, at such a speed we thought we might tip over - nearly hit the kerb, and then swerved across 3 oncoming cars,[which seemed almost to dematerialise - where did they go, they should all have hit us] finally shooting into a bus parking slot, with such speed we believed we might go through the hedge and back onto the motorway.
He stopped, and sat unmoved, with his hands folded across his stomach.
We had with us several GPs, a Head Mistress who spoke fluent German, and a psycho-therapist - she went forward and said gently to the coach-driver that he had made people frightened, driving so fast - no response. A GP went next, and with some German, asked him gently if he was well? [slight shrug] how were his eyes? [another roll of the shoulders] was he sleeping all right? [same response] she felt his responses were not normal - delayed, no 'yes' or 'no' and no emotion - and there was probably a medical problem.The HM spoke [German] to the driver - he said he was having his lunch break. He sat quite still, hands on tummy, not eating, drinking, or moving anything except his eyes.
Our good Christian group puzzled at a difficult situation: rang the agents in London to report the problem; asked for a new driver. As a safeguard, someone stood outside the bus, someone in the doorway - prepared to wait until a new driver appeared in [presumably] an hour.

I've read too many thrillers, probably, so was anxious that we took a more pro-active step to prevent any further horror - and asked if anyone was willing to remove the ignition keys, and to ring the police - with the feeling that such a driver would not hesitate to drive off after his lunch-break, whether or not someone was left behind. No-one could see the position of the keys, and no-one was keen to provoke the driver: and so we waited. But the wife of our neighbouring friends also felt removing the key was a good idea, so [being slim/small] she went forward to 'spot' - just as the driver's mobile rang, and he briefly leaned forward to answer it; allowing her to see the keys in the ignition. John and I got off the bus to wait in the fresh air [and rain] to ask a rather forceful surgeon if he would muster a few others in case the driver became aggressive.

Ten minutes later, his lunch-break being over, the driver turned on the ignition - and the 'spotter' leant forward, and removed the keys, quickly passing them to someone else - very bravely.

A group leader did ring the Police; the coach company 'boss' arrived [apparently the driver's son] and while they talked, I could see an enormous bag full of large lollipops beside the driver's seat... The GP thought that might indicate he was actually hypo-glycaemic - had an overdose of sugar - and thus liable to extreme mood-swings, eg anger. The Police came, very helpful, and listened to the coach driver's account [nothing the matter, nothing out of the normal, etc] - "we hear your story, but we prefer to believe the 50 passengers who were all frightened by your driving." so he had his licence endorsed, must re-train, and re-take his test to drive coaches, and have a medical.

Finally, after a 4-hour wait, another coach from a different company arrived... the coach and its wonderful driver, Sonya, that had been booked to take us to Munich airport after the Play - and we were preserved, blessed, and deeply shocked but so thankful... sure that the power of prayer alone had saved us all from death.

Prayers are like gold - as I'm certain that all prayer is gathered around those in great need... bless you and thank you - and we have been, in so many different ways, so greatly blessed.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

the small black dog is definitely brilliant!

We took the small black dog with us on two longer car-journeys recently.
Heading for Guildford [2 1/2 hours drive away] we brought with us her food, and a plastic squash-bottle of water, to give to her at her usual mealtime. Halfway there, we could hear a persistent, light clicking sound from the car-boot. No squeaking, panting, or restless sounds, so we puzzled slightly, unable to identify the noise.
Just before our destination we found a good place to stop and let her air her fur. Opening the boot we found...
That amazingly clever little dog had **unscrewed** the plastic lid on the water container, and taken about a third of it, **without spilling any water**
Heaven knows how she did it, as the lid was on tightly, since you don't want it falling over while driving. and heaven knows how she got the water out of its very narrow neck without spilling it, or knocking the container over...
Presumably the clicking sound was her very gentle twisting open the bottle lid, little by little, as there were tiny dents in it, not large bite-marks.
On the earlier 'longer drive' she had done this same unscrewing - was it a fluke? had the bottle top been loose and 'wobbled' off? but clearly now she has repeated it, this is something she has taught herself, and jolly clever it is too! Her answer to boredom?!
Life is full of surprises!

Creativity and work - the tensions?

A new blog, by Hamid Ismail, the world service writer in residence, asked how we might strike a balance between work and creativity: my response is that there was an advertisement some years ago that 'inside every fat person is a thin one struggling to get out' and I wonder whether this actually applies, now, to would-be-creative people. The pressures of work, which we have made for ourselves [people work longer hours, to earn more, and do not seem to be 'better off'] allow less time for creativity, only for de-stressing... It would be interesting to know whether this is reflected in the variety of films on offer - either through total sales [both of seats and of DVDs], or through the subject matter.
Balance - I write poetry, on the back of envelopes, small pieces of paper, and some survive, and some give pleasure. I have a private wish that one day they could be published. Meanwhile, working hours and family needs actually have a good effect - the words form in my mind, and are compressed onto paper [when I find something to write with] when I can hold onto them no longer.
I look forward to reading the blog; and hope he gets a varied and interesting following - and that we shall learn from him, not only about creativity and its tensions, but also about his surviving links with Uzbekistan, a beautiful and desperately threatened country.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

down with the new - already?

Listening to the Today programme, with its immediate and lamentable reaction was a shock: thanking Peter Hennessy for his informed comments, Evan said we’ll speak again “when this fails” and was rebuked by PH.
How about a short honeymoon period: encouragement, not immediate assumptions of failure.
Perhaps the media can include something of this hope – which the country must long for after all the energy and tension of the past weeks – to allow space for what is to come. Financial decisions will attract criticism, whatever happens, how good it would be to support the new government, and acknowledge that there are people in politics who do genuinely put their country first: David Cameron has convinced us he is such a man – give him encouragement.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The election still 'hangs'

we have watched and listened, voted, and waited; now the tired potential leaders must talk it through and reach some conclusion. It is a puzzle of significance - can they remain above party politics and consider solely the good of the country?

The temptation is set out repeatedly by the reporters: if LibDems don't join forces with Labour, they will miss their chance of PR voting reform. They have no such assurances from the Tory party, who favour re-distributing constituencies, ie allocating MPs to a specific number of voters - seems fair to me! If they ever dreamt of PR they know they could never be re-elected; so it is not an option.

Even at the risk [?] of letting Vince Cable take over the Exchequer, there must be a real agreement, the country cannot wait. The stock markets cannot wait, either, for clear evidence that some definite action is to be taken to deal with the enormous deficit - the size of which the electorate simply do not understand.

apparently research among the state bureaucracy - swollen so enormously under Labour - shows that more than 50% believe that further spending was realistic; not cuts, which were expected to be natural wastage, or extra economies - wow! we are in for some major shocks! if people honestly do believe that, they don't read their papers, and of course, being part of a Labour organisation, they believe what they hear from Gordon Brown.

Interesting, he has gone to Kirkcaldy for the weekend - clearly, he had waited long enough in London for Nick Clegg to contact him, and wasn't waiting around any longer.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The day the world...changed?

It is a day of waiting, with all the portentousness that invokes. A grey, lowering sky, the lack of a breeze, a stillness without birdsong - all the physical symptoms of an impending thunderstorm.

And at the end of today, or perhaps tomorrow morning, we shall hear what our Election has achieved. All the people who vote, elect an MP, and out of those MPs a government is formed. Which party 'wins' this poisoned chalice [with the economy as the aconite in the cup] will have a truly thankless task: who could wish to start out on a great new adventure with such a horrific burden.

T Blair, with his New Labour visions of a different future, never got beyond the idea that with so much money in the kitty, and the rosy prospects which a careful Tory government had produced [policies aside, the country was reliably affluent] all he really had to do was throw money at everything. and when that money ran out, then borrowing ever larger sums to continue this illusion of successful 'investment'.

How 'unfair' [Labour's great slogan of fairness in this campaign] that an incoming government has to deal with this appalling, mind-blowing debt, before it can even begin on its own programme for the country's well-being.

the one sensible suggestion has been to call in the IMF straight away so that any blame for Greek-style insurrection against the inevitable cuts, would not land on a government and spoil their future achivements.
24-hours .. we shall see.

Friday, 30 April 2010

wordle image of MA Dissertation

limping to a conclusion

Cuthbert and Lindisfarne are taking me with them into a fresh world: full of ideas strange to consider - incorruptible bodies [Cuthbert's body had not decayed in 418 years, when his coffin was smashed open by Henry VIII's iconoclasts - and doubly remarkable, his joints were still flexible] the sheer terror of raiding Vikings - the accounts speak of their automatic cruelty: people drowned in the sea, killed in their churches, everything destroyed. The only things that survived the attacks on Lindisfarne were Cuthbert and his relics - but under repeated invasions they were taken on a 7 year journey, fearfully travelling away from danger all round northern England and south-west Scotland, before coming to Norham, Chester-le-Street, and eventually [with a detour to Ripon] to Durham.

Creating a word-pattern to go with this Dissertation on a website, I tried to print - no; save - no; download - no - it is a Java applet which permits my compute to create this wondrous pattern, but can save it nowhere except on that website. I am still exploring this!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Election fever

Somewhere the whole democracy process has skewed into a Presidential election. It is a tragic result of 13 years of Labour that, having lost almost everything that our fathers/grandfathers fought for in two terrible wars, we are now finally losing our real democratic freedoms.

The possibility of a hung parliament hovers like the recent cloud of ash, restricting all movement. A vote for x intended as a protest, might result in electing y - and how representative is that going to be?

It is extraordinary that despite the fact 'everyone' wants Labour out, and an end to their profligate squandering of every penny we might have in the future, let alone the current account, we still do not have a clear majority in favour of the Opposition. Why are the conservatives playing such a limp hand? No condemnation of Labour's disastrous policies! No criticism of their failed systms! No listing of their unimaginable expenditure! silence, like a well-mannered guest in an unfamiliar house. Yet David Cameron can shout loudly at PMQ, so why not focus the criticism, and refine his targets - HAVE some targets! How desperately the Tories long to stamp on his toes, and make him fire a few well-aimed missiles into the Labour camp.

It is all being given away. and we must fear that the conservatives will not get the majority they need, in order to rule effectively. They could form such a brilliant government - if only they were hungry enough to win it.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Monday, 26 April 2010

Last Post

A good friend, blogging as http://broadmeadandtheworld.blogspot.com has posted his last comments: a wonderfully happy account of a trip to NZ and Australia. and now an email from a mutual friend says that JB has been found dead at his home.

Erudite, courteous, with a wry and fairly wicked sense of humour - ideal companion for so many possible endeavours - his return was the signal for a new lunch-plan, and all the news. We were looking forward to seeing him.

His ability to find life enjoyable, to remain alert to all possibilities, and continue to enjoy the company of others - and they, his - has a remarkable effect on his society. Coming alive in the light of his sharply interested eyes, no slow stories, or idle chatter. What a treat!

We shall miss him.
and here is the link to the picture he so admires: "The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon" by Sir Edward John Poynter Bt PRA RWS (1839-1919). 1890. Oil on canvas, 234.5 x 350.5 cm. Signed and dated lower right "18EJP90" in monogram. Purchased 1892 (898). The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Prayer and peacekeeping

We heard something remarkable yesterday: a very senior Army Officer, Vere --, came to speak to us on Peacekeeping.
His particular story concerned the appointment he'd had as a Brigadier in 1993 - having been given a really excellent post as Deputy Warden of the Cinque Ports (and a splendid array of other honorifics), a nice house, and the happy prospect of 3 years with his wife, Penny, as Chatelaine. Overnight things changed: he was asked to go to Bosnia as chief peace-negotiator: and accepted.
He found the three groups of combatants: the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, would not be in the same room together [one group only came if everyone was there, the other two would not come if either of their two groups was present] - but that was briskly overcome.
The UN had announced that Srebrenica was to be a 'Safe Haven' - which sounded good, but no-one knew what it might mean on the ground. So a short ceasefire was agreed while this was clarified by the negotiators, with Vere.
They were there to define what is meant by a "Safe Haven" - and they had precisely 72 hours in which to do it.
They met, and after 18 hours of talking, nothing had been agreed. Vere decided to call a break: and he went back to his room to sit and think.
He could see absolutely no way of getting agreement between the 3 groups: if something was right for one, the other two objected, and so it went on. He had all the papers and notes in front of him, acutely aware that time was so short, and so much yet to do - and he took the only step open to him.

He got down on his knees and prayed.

After some time, he got up and returned to his desk, half expecting, as he said laughing, to hear a heavenly voice. Silence. So he spread the papers out in front of him, and as he did so, his eye fell on one point - among all the others - and suddenly KNEW that was the way to get everyone's agreement. He knew without a shadow of doubt that his prayer had been answered in a way he could not have imagined.
After his talk, I asked him about the subsequent massacre at Srebrenica, which happened 2 years later - he was interesting on that, too - there had been a small group of leaders in Srebrenica, one of whom was truly charismatic. The overall leader of that area wanted to get NATO involved, and worked out that Srebrenica was key to that happening: so he called the village leaders, including their charismatic 'headman' to a meeting - and while they were away, he arranged for a major attack. without their leaders, the village could not rally sufficiently, and were overcome - Vere said he thought that no-one probably had foreseen that there could be a massacre... (perhaps, and perhaps not, the Dutch are still agonising over this).
He told us, too, that before he left Dover, the local Vicar came to tell him that the congregation in the local church had decided to meet every single day that Vere was away, to pray for him - and the vicar was among them. He gave Vere two things: one was a New Testament, which he carried in his shirt pocket all through the campaign and for years afterwards, and which is now with his son-in-law in Afghanistan; the second thing was a little card with the Serenity Prayer - 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.' That card he also carried with him, and after a time - when the Belgian General was struggling with his own negotiations - Vere leaned across during one meeting and gave it to him to read.
He was surprised not to get the card back - but clearly it had a profound effect on the Belgian General, who wrote a book in which he claimed that action [ie giving him the prayer card] had changed his life.
Wonderful story!

Serenity Prayer: [in full - I didn't know it had a further 'verse']
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen. --Reinhold Niebuhr

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Water world!

The boiler serviced, we learnt that the anti-corrosion gadget on the pressurised water cylinder, had itself corroded.

Two weeks later, the small ceramic spigot - mounting for a titanium rod - and costing £87 ... arrived with the plumber. He shared our lunch since he was delayed and we welcome him here! ...and then set about removing the original anti-corrosion gadget. Which had welded itself to the cylinder. An anxious Martin appeared, headlight in place, to alert us to the problem, he was having to drill it out - bit by bit.

Having a remarkable husband, who has almost everything anyone could ever need - from books on early boat-building to tiny tools suitable for unscrewing broken ceramic gadgets - by some miracle he found his tools straight away, tucked under the flap of one of the mountain of cardboard boxes in the garage. The gadget was unscrewed in due course, and the new one placed - water on, problem solved.

Martin's fear had been that the small ceramic remains would not come out, and then a new cylinder was the only option: not a welcome thought - thank goodness for the tiny tools!

Why do we need such a gadget? well, pressurised cylinders cannot be left to corrode - reaction between different metals - and risk an explosion. No-one asks why, in this case, there should need to be different metals, if they are known to react. There is no answer, probably.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Dido and Aeneas

We had Alexander to stay for a night, and caught up on some news, all too briefly. He has been asked to sing the part of the Sorcerer in Dido and Aeneas, on the last day of the Summer term - what a thrilling way to conclude one chapter of his life so far!

Wanting to hear the music, I spent some time searching for reviews: and came up with this really excellent site (link under 'Music Review'):

It seems that most recordings have chosen a Sorceress, rather than a man (and of the samples I have heard, most sound pretty horrible, over-acting and screechy) but the music is a delight.

Alexander's regret that the choice of Opera contained far more female parts than male, in a boys' school, misses the point that this was presumably chosen to highlight the voice of an outstanding soprano - a girl who is set to do great things.
His lovely voice will make a delicious contrast. Roll on July!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

World Service

As a long-time listener to the World Service, I am confident that the standards are not what they were. In Scotland we heard quantities of short, illuminating programmes, from experts presenting their information, to local stations worldwide providing snapshots of their immediate concerns. Science, the Arts, in depth analysis - Bridget --'s reports from Russia were memorable.

Now we hear the News, trailers for programmes, bits of atonal 'linking' music, more News, some interviews of dubious quality with people of dubious interest - and the whole in need of a firm, effective Editor.

Gone are the more recent Plays contributed by different countries; gone are the phone-ins from listeners putting questions to international figures; in other words - gone is the international dimension. Replaced by domestically produced programmes full of waffle; 'world music' programmes usually consisting of an entire CD played without comment [lazy presenter!] its merit presumed to lie in its authentically different sound - not in any musicality.

Gone too is 'Lilliebulero' the theme-tune of the World Service since time immemorial ... which I can remember listening to all over the world, in Doha, in Jakarta, in Malaya - played by the Band of the Coldstream Guards [I think] with all that represented to expatriates, of home - or Home.

The regret lies in the loss of a first-rate service; which also served as an encouragement to other countries [some with no other access to world news] and other individuals - eg Burma's brave protesters. A loss to liberty: as well as a cultural loss.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Tea and Crumpets

A title taken from the life of the Earl of Suffolk, otherwise 'mad Jack Howard' whose life and exploits we were regaled with over *Tea and Crumpets* in the village hall this afternoon.

109 people turned up for this - a considerable triumph for the organisers. The hope was to raise some money for soldiers' charities - SSAFA, Ghurkhas, and Help for Heroes... and as tickets were £3 each and a collection was taken at the end, it should have raised something worthwhile.

It was a little surreal. We had a young man with us, Edmund, still at Headley Court in rehab after his armoured car was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. He spoke a little afterwards, and allowed questions - brave of him. He said that his life was saved in the first hour after the explosion: a girl of 19 turned up immediately and effectively - having learnt but never practised the drill, she put it all into action and the helicopter came with the medics and saved his life. We knew already from his aunt [a friend] that he had been given some totally amazing amount of blood on the return flight - something like 50 pints - and had so very nearly died, before he even reached Britain.

But, having eaten our crumpets, and drunk our tea, and had it all cleared away by volunteers (dressed in black with white frilly aprons!) we sang Wartime songs from both World Wars: with gusto - even the Generals, and I couldn't help feeling that it really was the weirdest business when a young man still in metal splints and a wheel chair, with all the memories of his ghastly experience desperately fresh, sat surrounded by people singing patriotic songs about a war 50 years ago.

What his mother and grandmother thought, heaven knows, as they sat with Edmund - smiling through.

This business of growing older - brings some judgements which aren't comfortable. Whether (seeing Edmund) on the futility and waste of war - which contrasts so strongly with my then-emotions during the Falklands when I lay awake all night listening to the "I counted them all out and I counted them all in" reportage - or whether on the venality and utter, crass, self-seeking awfulness of Tony Blair taking us into Iraq. Taking an army into a war, on a peacetime budget - it beggars all belief: especially when it is allied with the evidence emerging at the Chilcott enquiry, tame as that is compared to the information which would have emerged had barristers been permitted, and evidence on oath.

Growing older is not about how young the policemen are, but about seeing more clearly a world of chimeras, and being thankful you are no longer 'young' and inheriting such a colossal mess.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Walking towards Lent...

Some more of the poet Kahlil Gibran, whose poetry I read in intermittent waves of delight...

You progress not through improving what has been done, but by reaching toward what has yet to be done.

Of life's two chief prizes, beauty and truth, I found the first in a loving heart and the second in a labourer's hand.

The heartbreak of love sings, the sadness of knowledge speaks, the melancholy of desire whispers, and the anguish of poverty weeps. But there is a sorrow deeper than love, loftier than knowledge, stronger than desire, and more bitter than poverty. It is mute and has no voice; its eyes glitter like stars.

The fear of hell is hell itself, and the longing for paradise is paradise itself.
Where can I find a man governed by reason instead of habits and urges?
I prefer to be a dreamer among the humblest, with visions to be realised, than lord among those without dreams and desires.

People speak of plague with fear and tremor, yet of destroyers like Alexander and Napoleon, they speak with ecstatic reverence.

Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.

Keep me from the wisdom that does not weep, and the philosophy that does not laugh, and the pride that does not bow its head before a child.

Art is a step in the known, 
toward the unknown.

When the earth exhales it gives birth to us. When it inhales death is our lot.

If reward is the goal of religion, if patriotism serves self interest, and if education is pursued for advancement, then I would prefer to be a nonbeliever, a non-patriot, and a humbly ignorant man.

An epoch will come when people will disclaim kinship with us, as we disclaim kinship with the monkeys.

Truth is the daughter of Inspiration; analysis and debate keep the people away from Truth.

Does the song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen to it?

The spiritual man is he who has experienced all earthly things and is in revolt against them.

If you wish to see the valleys, climb to the mountain top; if you desire to see the mountain top, rise into the cloud; but if you seek to understand the cloud, close your eyes and think.

Most of us hover dubiously between mute rebellion and prattling submission.

The butterfly will continue to hover over the field and the dewdrops will still glitter upon the grass when the pyramids of Egypt are leveled and the skyscrapers of New York are no more.

The poet is he who makes you feel, after reading his poem, that his best verses have not yet been composed.

The means of reviving a language lie in the heart of the poet and upon his lips and between his fingers. The poet is the mediator between the creative power and the people. He is the wire that transmits the news of the world of spirit to the world of research. The poet is the father and mother of the language, which goes wherever he goes. When he dies, it remains prostrate over his grave, weeping and forlorn, until another poet comes to uplift it.

~ ~ ~
Almost the temptation is to add... 'Discuss'

Friday, 5 February 2010

music, maestro

this is the link to a very beautiful short video recording of Andrea Boccelli singing the Lord's Prayer - with the Mormon Choir.

How satisfying!

Funny things, parties. If you give them, you [almost] cannot enjoy them: you are so busy making sure that everyone has all they need, and someone to talk to without getting stuck somewhere.

We had 53 people whom we especially wanted to thank for their support and encouragement during the past 2 years, while we tried our best to sell our previous house - so this was also to celebrate being 'the proud owners of ONE house, and NO bank bridging loan'

A huge buzz of chatter, as if these were people who had not seen one another for months, instead of on an almost daily basis! and trying to get them to start eating the food while it was still hot - or even warm - was quite beyond me. However they polished everything off, and seemed replete, and only afterwards did I re-discover the foil-covered dishes in the hotbox! with yet more food...

We thought of the villages which have lost their school, their post office, and their shop - just as our village has - and how often that seems to mean that everything is lost: and the residents think only of how they might reach the nearest town for their shopping - with diminished contact locally, so that new people moving in find it 'unfriendly'. We have a small village hall - previously the school - which is used for a variety of different activities, from a murder-mystery dinner; to a weekly lunch club; to a committee room, etc. and through that, and the church, we have a way of meeting one another regularly, and no-one is left out unless they choose not to come to anything. [Our other neighbours, for instance, don't accept invitations, although they came to the small drinks party we had soon after they arrived, to introduce them - and have never asked back. They probably took a look and decided not to bother!!]

Clearing up this morning: hoovering, taking away the dishes/glasses/cloths and flowers: life back to normal, the farmyard full of plump chickens, dogs, horses, and geese. As if parties happened every day and were swept away with the yard broom. Funny, satisfying, and 'please will you have another party next year, same time same place?' said someone last night, and all concurred!

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Wonderful recipes!

It is time for our party - postponed by the snow last month. It is a good time of year to have one: people have 'recovered' from Christmas, Lent is not yet upon us, and the dullness of winter weather makes a party seem doubly exciting.

Out came the recipe book: and the strange flutters of paper from ancient inspirations - each one has a memory, though by no means all of them were ever cooked!

Bread from Holy Island - a Retreat on Lindisfarne, where the bread appeared fresh and hot each breakfast. All the more welcome as we came back from an early service at the little church - an arctic trek through the bitter January wind. Memorably cold; memorably inspiring. Going to bed was a matter of removing one's clothes [reluctantly and very fast indeed] climbing into a chilly bed, and placing all the said clothes on top of the bedding in the hope of warmth. Really silly - it would have been better to sleep in them all!

Nasi Goreng - an Aunt's much-loved recipe: almost impossible to re-create as she was someone who added little bits of this-and-that without writing them down - and the spices came from some unknown source. Indonesian Rijstaffel has a completely different taste in Holland. I remember choosing that dish in a restaurant, expecting the light and subtle collection of flavours that I had eaten in Jakarta during the years we lived there. Instead came an unmistakably Dutch invention: stodgy, and filling, but no idea of the subtleties possible.

Lots of recipes in my daughter's handwriting: her dinner parties, and supper parties, in London - quick and delicious after-work, and always decorative and usually scrumptious. We had one pudding which is still a winner: although the first time it gave huge problems, due to the instructions not specifying the SIZE of the 6 oranges to be used. I had large, Jaffa oranges - they were in season - but the amount of juice made the pudding swim and every ingenious 'thickener' had to be used. It turned out that the oranges were meant to be small 'normal' oranges... the quantity [my version] was amazing: luckily everyone loved it...!

So, tomorrow is a different opportunity - finger foods, or light buffet, or however you describe it. Some bought from Tesco [!] some made - including a Tarte Flamiche which is leeks, and tarragon, and cheese in a pastry case - enough for 48! which should keep us cheerful, I hope.

Timings - wonderful tissue paper bows will pin on the walls; the log=burner will glow, and quantities of food and wine will welcome our friends - who have been so supportive during the long 2 years of worry. How lovely to be able to thank them all.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A new candidate

Interesting experience, being one of 500 individuals converging on a theatre in order to sit for 6 hours in the process of choosing a parliamentary candidate.

Bureaucracy [were our names on the pre-registration list - only one? cannot admit t'other!] Oh for commonsense.

Tremendous buzz - people at tables reading through the CVs of the 6 finalists - people discussing animatedly inside the theatre. We had each a folder containing biro, stapled list of CVs, sheet for personal aides memoires, and a separate stapled group of 5 sheets listing the candidates, for the voting process [X for your choice, all gathered in buckets passed along the rows, taken and counted - then the one with least votes eliminated, and a second round of voting - until a clear winner with 50% emerged].

It was genuinely exciting to be part of a democratic process. Two of the candidates had called on us - remote as we are - and we had a chance to see what they were like. They all had web-sites; and these illustrated once again the absolutely KEY importance of a good website, as the means of putting across your own distinctive approach, experience, and background. Neither of the two candidates we had met had a good website: pleasant, cheerful but not comprehensive. Immediately one felt that one candidate was outstanding - solely on his website. If he had [apparently] glossed the extent of his experience at Westminster, then who except the other candidates would know?

Listening to the really excellent interview process - confidence-inspiring questioner, giving plenty of space for the prepared answers - part of our judgement needed to be about body-language, facility with the 'surprise' question ["you are on the Chilcott enquiry, what would your question be for Tony Blair?"] and how compelling might be their interest in concerns which matter to 'us' the audience. How to manage your time at Westminster [my question, which was put to each candidate] how to interest young people in politics, and really anything that pointed to a future that was hopeful.

One of our visitors was eliminated in the first round; the other in the second round, where a clear winner emerged. We recognised the power of local connections: perhaps there is an urge for accountability, and therefore someone with family locally must be more honest, less likely to be in any expenses scandal. People sitting near us all asked: "which is the local one" without weighting for other skills. It was a good choice; but at the same time there was one outstanding candidate, whose abilities as a Barrister meant she could face us without nerves, answer the question and the intention with clarity and conviction; and had the personality to complement all of this.

The sad part is that this one of the last of the safe seats: the remaining candidates have precisely 2 seats left - both due to have their 3 [only] candidates selected by HQ - and with all the people who were not adopted in other seats, this is a small opening. Without those safe seats, the alternative is to fight a Labour or Lib-Dem seat where the sitting MP is stepping down, and there is some equal challenge. But with so little time to go: perhaps weeks, it really is going to be hard for those excellent people.

We shall be the poorer without them in government. the one white hope of all of this is that we have people of utmost probity and ability, willing to serve. The people we listened to were exceptional candidates: it is amazing that such good people come forward.

Now for the election itself... whenever that might come.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The one they did not read for Carol...

On Death ~ Kahlil Gibran [from "The Prophet"]

You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

"On Friendship" by Khalil Gibran

This is something chosen by one of Carol's friends to read on Friday...

On Friendship ~ Kahlil Gibran (from "The Prophet")

Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside.
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the "nay" in your own mind, nor do you withhold the "ay."
And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;
For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.
When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.
And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

Friday, 29 January 2010

A Quaker funeral

We went today to the village where we used to live, to be part of a farewell. No experience of a Quaker funeral before this, imagined silence and wondered how it would work as a funeral...

Arriving with friends, we found chairs, and had time to look at what had been prepared. The village Hall, with chairs arranged in concentric circles, grouped so people could walk between, and in the open centre, a table. Small objects with an unknown significance - a pleated, white shell; the dark length of a fir cone; the Bible, a Quaker book of quietness; subdued flowers in purple and blue in a tall glass; a pot of bulbs.

The folded 'service' sheet had pictures of Carol, clear, bright and full of her character. There was her favourite hymn "In the bleak mid-winter" space for a Quaker reflective period, then her other favourite hymn "Be thou my vision" (my 'key' hymn: chosen for my Licensing with the Bishop of Edinburgh, and for my eventual funeral).

People began to arrive: the clusters increased to streams; Grassby's gently moved people to the back, then to the stage, then more and more... until finally there were about 300 standing and sitting (in a Hall licensed for 120 sitting, OR 180 standing!)

A wonderful and unsurprisingly varied group of people: padded patchwork jackets, cotton skirts, warm skirts, male earrings, vertically-high heels, long hair [men] longer hair [women] - and none of us felt 'out of place'.

The service began with an introductory word from the Rector, who probably wasn't entirely comfortable with this informality - and we sang, with great strength and clarity "what can I give him...give my heart" knowing that was the reason Carol had chosen that hymn.

I thought again of the heavy weight of words that occupy a funeral service; that comfort some [those who must cry] and almost crush others with the solemnity, and continuous statements: for an older generation this was a comfort, and who would deny them.

The silence gently introduced by the Quaker 'leader' was interspersed with short readings: we were reminded that the Quaker tradition is to keep silence for 2 minutes after each person has spoken, for reflection on what has been said.

It was a transforming experience: never-to-be-forgotten.
Everything about the words felt like another piece of a shimmering mosaic; We heard 'My friend' from Khalil Gibran's 'The Prophet'; small comforting verses; a few words from one ('I think of her as like the Cheshire Cat, the last thing you see is the smile, and that will stay with me always') and then another - someone spoke of going to an exhibition and seeing Carol with rainbow-coloured silk scarves - and thinking of her always as rainbow coloured... and BOTH those rang true for us too. I wished I'd heard the friend [?Cath] and the one which quoted Blake; some were inaudible, some were written out, some spontaneous, some were spoken through tears, but the overall impression was of a most joyous gathering of memories; of friendships; of laughter.

It was so totally different from any Church funeral, let alone the chilly neutrality of a Crematorium, that it could only be comforting. I wish I could capture in a few words, the sense of uplift, of spirituality, of unsentimental love and affection.

For us there has been a sense of lightness, of deepened friendship through the reflections of people we might never meet again, united through knowing one person. And the awareness of a personality with far more dimensions than we had ever encountered (something we both hugely regret - why had we missed having those conversations, and discovering that she loved that hymn/poem, that I knew well...) but all will be well - all manner of things will be well.

There was such an overwhelming sense of Carol's presence: of her own satisfaction that everything was right; of her companionship all through the day. If we felt it, her family were inspired by it to be the centrepoint holding everything.
Our sense of the huge blessing Carol has been to so many people, but in the end the sense of Dave, Paddy and Chris's own generosity as a family, in sharing so much of her with others.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Scribble, scribble, scribble...

... and the first Chapter went in at 1.15 am. Now it has been reviewed, and my literary allusions cropped by requests for explanations, simplicity. As this is an MA Dissertation, I imagine the reader, or "Reader" [marker] to be academic, well-read, and looking for evidence of imaginative understanding of texts - ie that I am making connections and drawing out possible connections. It appears I must make no such assumptions: the marker should have some knowledge of this subject, but the second marker may have none whatever. How odd.

Probably the answer is to write something I feel I might be satisfied, even pleased, with - and trust that it will be read attentively, and without excessive pedantry. No academic endeavour can be complete in itself, always raising more questions, more avenues to explore - the trick is to know which avenues to leave for another time. But an entire 20,000 words written with copious explanations of simple concepts would be stultifying: and would omit all the interesting elements!

On with the motley!

Monday, 18 January 2010

A friend's passing

...sadness, shock, at a sequence too rapid to take in quickly enough to be prepared. A letter which time prevented from being written before Christmas, arrived on Friday. A friend, in hospital now for 7 weeks, tenaciously part of life. I wrote, and emailed our letter to her husband - short, loving, and with a little, cheerful news. Two days later, an email from another friend, had we heard that C had died - on Friday. Husband, 2 sons, her 2 sisters, all with her in a peaceful room as she slipped in and out of consciousness - adding to their conversation - and then further out, and was gone.

A long exploration of cancer. Her own speciality. What could be done, who would do it, and where - then following that through. Access to treatment with different specialists eventually meant volunteering for Trials: since she knew her cancer would be fatal, this was an active, energetic way of 'sharing' her experience in the single most helpful manner. Not talking about it to others, or relating her latest treatment, but doing it - and letting the benefit be useful to future candidates for treatment. Eventually, the treatment she needed, the specialist in London she knew could give it, meant being admitted to his hospital via A&E ...and her final 7 weeks, planning the next step until the end.

Strange the gifts of friendship we are given: this one especially. A course I ran when we arrived from Scotland, on Healing, drew people from a wide area together for 10 weeks - including C. One element repeated each week was the 'Triads' groups of three, which remained constant throughout. For each of those groups, something permanent emerged - prayer 'in absence' continued from that point; regular contact, and support. This was more remarkable in the end than the anticipated Healing and Wholeness services which people had intended to bring to their respective churches.

How much there is to miss...

Sunday, 17 January 2010

When did Christianity reach Ireland?

Wonderfully amusing coincidences! My Dissertation on Pilgrimage, is now on its second Chapter [of four - totalling 20,000 words before July 2010] and concerned with Iona and St Columba.

We have serendipitously a quantity of books which relate to pilgrimage, coinage, language, music, art, modes of travel, healing, Crusades, wilderness, 'anthropology', poetry, and of course Bede, and other contemporary accounts. There are marvellous, tottering piles with inserted notes - we both relish this shared fun, and swap stories over our meals!

With modest amounts of reliable information available on early Christianity in this area of Western Europe, there are plenty of questions to be asked - the first logical step was to find out where St Columba - Colum Cille - encountered Christianity. If he was born in the region now Northumbria, and was bringing Christianity to Ireland, was he the first? What about St Patrick? and so on.
Paulinus, sent to "the Christians in Ireland" from Rome at the same time as Germanicus was sent to England, to counter the Pelagian heresies, seems the earliest named individual. But - there were already Christians in Ireland!

While borrowing a book from a friend, he remarked he had been at a dinner party the previous night when the conversation had been on just this subject - When did Christianity reach Ireland! Much amusement!

The answer appears to be that it came from Gaul, to Wales and then to Ireland. Logic backed up by linguistics - as the changes in Irish language, and in Welsh, in response to Latin show up in monastery records.

As ever, a small question leads to fascinating research - and all for the sake of 2 accurate sentences [with citations!]. Very satisfying.

Winter draws away?

[Winter draws on was an awful Edwardian pun, innocently enjoyed by my grandmother] [= 'Drawers' a now-unused name for underwear].
Rain came with its heavy sound - pounding on the snowy ground, the roof, the road - washing away the residues of grit and salt, no doubt to poison the grass and the creatures dipping into puddles for a drink.

The spatulate fingers of neighbouring trees appear a warmer shade of brown in the sunshine. Every plumped up bird sheltering from the cold in an uncomfortable proximity along the branches has flown elsewhere.
All our previously-rejected offerings on the new bird-table look pretty forlorn and unappetising - but the little black dog sniffs hopefully around the base: how deep the instinct to scavenge goes!

Endless pps emails arrive from the heated summer of Oz and NZ, of densely snowed-in vehicles in Canada/Scandinavia - which seems slightly like coals-to-Newcastle in the circumstances, but may help them to feel cool, or superior!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pilgrimage and other things

Writing and reading about Pilgrimage: full of interesting information, and about 4,600 words on the subject - first chapter of a 20,000 word Dissertation.

We've lost the sense that Medieval people had, of being on the threshold of the sacred. They expected miracles - and lived quite naturally in a liminal world.

Perhaps we consider them naive to believe there was really something sacred in the bones of a saint: but we have learnt to ask too many questions about faith, which shivers in the neon-light. And who benefits?

Nile Grove in Edinburgh, now closed, alas! taught people contemplation, as part of the Spiritual Direction training - peace, silence, and the depths of light...

Light is the lovely up-waking: snow-shine! [there isn't much sun] first thing today, when the school bus paused, rumbling, for the last child to arrive. The little black dog rushes out with a lovely exuberance, to taste the snow, and find whatever the birds have dislodged from the frozen bird-table.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Keep on trying...

Today I wrote to a Bishop (will Bishops fight for a Christian presence in this traditionally Christian country? particularly in Teacher training colleges, if children are ever again to learn/discuss the Lord's Prayer in schools, etc) and to the BBC (indignant at their lack of coverage of conditions in Gaza).

Anywhere else in the world - from floods in Cockermouth to the tsunami in Thailand - BBC reporters interview locals, Relief Agencies, and reflect through words and images what is being done to help those caught up in a disaster. Gaza has no such reporting. WHY?

In an entire YEAR only 41 lorry-loads of building supplies have been permitted to cross the Israeli checkpoints, not enough to repair a single house, let alone the bombed blocks of flats, public buildings, schools, and hospitals. The whole infrastructure awaits repair: roads, sewage, water... so they must use contaminated ground water (babies are being born with heart defects due to the chemicals)

Medical supplies are prevented from entering: the rationing of food supplies means that never enough is allowed in to feed the refugees adequately; the people are prevented from earning a living - prevented from using their farmland by Israeli snipers - anywhere else in the world the BBC would be reporting on this as a terrible injustice...

I'm one of so many people who want to hear some clear accounts of life as it is, for human beings, not terrorists, just ordinary courageous human beings, in Gaza. The political agenda which dictates whose disaster is reported, is an extraordinary bit of information control: in the aftermath of the tsunami, Disaster Relief Agencies took their people and their help where it was needed - it would have been shameful if they had elected not to help politically-complex states.

Back to the little black dog - all squeaks and enthusiasm at the prospect of the great outdoors. Life is full of contrasts...

Sunday, 10 January 2010


Snow Sunday! Roads into the village are clear one way though not further: much phoning and the wonders of e-communication have allowed Services to be re-negotiated. So instead of my heading over the hills and across a field, for Christingle, and even further along dark, high-banked lanes to a more remote church for Evensong, they've had their Service sheets by email [they already had the hymns]. Up and down the valley, clergy have swapped services to avoid travelling too far, and encouraged Church Wardens to lead the services wherever possible.

In this village, with people from a different, cancelled service, we spoke of the Wise Men, of the different forms they have taken over the centuries - through imagination, art, poetry - to represent 'all' Gentiles. The original [Matthew 2:1-12] tells so little, only that wise men came from the East and bore 3 gifts - we have clothed them in majesty, given them names, reduced them to 3 Kings, and placed them firmly on camels.

What they saw, in the end, cannot have been what they were expecting. They were tracking a King: so they looked for him in a palace, and brought symbolic presents that must have looked singularly out of place to Mary and Joseph, and the child Jesus - although part of me likes to believe that ‘symbols’ have many different values, practical as well as representative, and perhaps each gift helped the little family to survive in their flight, and exile in Egypt.

Not for the Magi the direct visitation of the angels, with clear instructions on how to find the baby: that is reserved for the shepherds. The wise men follow the bright, enigmatic star, using their intelligence to plot its path, making assumptions in their visit to Herod - and with what fatal consequences.

They came to search for Jesus, representing all of us Gentiles - everyone [which is to say, Greeks and Turks, Serbs and Albanians, Tutsi and Hutu, Israeli & Palestinians] together with the Jews -- what is now, in the 21st century, a multi-national church of God. BIG questions for the start of the new decade: essentially involving church with open doors? or closed.. what nature of welcome can we bring to this melting pot; and at the bottom of it all, are we gift-bearers or gift-receivers - or both (which changes everything).

Friday, 8 January 2010

Snow much more than we bargained for

Through the evening and night, snow fell. The little black dog set off in a series of extravagant zig-zags: looking for the scent of something she recognised, or perhaps simply enjoying the strange newness. I had forgotten her Halti and so we both ran sometimes feeling more like flying...

The forecast was confident - 10 days of winter. Essential supplies of milk and bread: the village had neither, so off to a village normally 20 minutes away. The main road East through the Valley had been gritted into a welcome slush - the side road climbing over the hill led into an arctic landscape: one set of tracks only, and a slithery-slow journey. No milk. The previous day's sell-out of bread included the frozen pastry, AND all the flour. Home again with small trophies.

Yesterday, cheered by a brilliantly sunny day, and the forecast of hard frosts/snow, it seemed a good idea to head West to the next village with a well-stocked shop. Uphill. The gritter passes, turns right and heads down-hill onto the parallel road along the valley. Unfortunately this leaves our hill untreated - as I discovered on rounding the first sharp bend.

The sunlight encouraged ideas of thawed snow further up, but then a compacted, icy stretch was quite impassable even after several attempts. The car slipped neatly in to the side of the road...

A cheerful farming neighbour dropped me home in his 4-wheel-drive, and 2 hours later, another kind neighbouring farmer came and, with bagged-up wood-ash and a large spade, we went up to rescue the car before the night fell. He drove it helter-skelter up the hill, straight through the [softened] icy stretch, belching black clouds of exhaust, and vanished from sight. All the field-gates were drifted, with nowhere to turn before the woodland.

It felt so bitter-cold on the high slope, in the evening sun's afterglow, sharp as swords to breathe. Below, walking the little black dog, the air felt comparatively warm! and we sped along the narrow snow-way behind cottages and fields, dodging unfriendly dogs, and calling greetings to their owners. The light on the hills was a wonderful tinge of palest strawberry-fool - nothing to cause such a colour, no 'red sunset' just the softest reflected glow from a pale sky.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

and the snow came [finally]

After all the weeks of other people's snow, we have our own... during the night the transformation that returns us [all?] to a childhood delight, happened here.
Gone are the ice-filled puddles where the tractor enters the field, gone the crimped ridges of frozen mud along the road-edge - everything is smooth and newly white.

Too late to have misgivings about plants in the garden (could I have wrapped them better against the cold) they are out of sight - small lumps in a mystery of shapes.
Looking at the sky, full of light and distant dove-grey, it isn't hard to believe this fine rattle of snowflakes will not persist - but immediately a fountain of snow rushes past the window in a draft...

The gritter - not being in such demand here as in snowier counties - has cleared selectively, and there's a chance of reaching the next village for bread and milk (which were sold out yesterday).

The small black dog thinks less well of this novelty: we huddle briefly into the cold wind, but no interesting smells persist in such cold.
...and no birds sing.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

the coldest time of winter...

I've been finding some readings for the Christingle service next Sunday, and discovered one by Laurie Lee, which will accompany T S Eliot's 'The Coming of the Magi' with us singing 'In the Bleak mid-winter' to separate the two. The weather forecast is snow for the whole south... strange to think that 6 years ago, when we were in Scotland, that inundation of snow was normal, and so was laying in food against being cut off...
The two poems capture so much more than word alone... as poetry always does.

The Journey of the Magi T S Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Twelfth Night by Laurie Lee

No night could be darker than this night,

no cold so cold,
as the blood snaps like a wire,
and the heart’s sap stills,
and the year seems defeated.

o never again, it seems, can green things run,
or sky birds fly,
or the grass exhale its humming breath
powdered with pimpernels,
from this dark lung of winter.

Yet here are lessons for the final mile

of pilgrim kings;
the mile still left when all have reached
their tether’s end: that mile
where the Child lies hid.

For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows;
for men with shepherd’s eyes there are
signs in the dark, the turning stars,
the lamb’s returning time.

Out of this utter death

he’s born again,

his birth our saviour;
from terror’s equinox he climbs and grows,
drawing his finger’s light across our blood
the son of heaven, and the son of God.

Monday, 4 January 2010

First fruits of the year

What a wonderful start to the year - the news that our eldest grandson, Alexander, has been awarded a place at Oxford to read Modern Languages.
The exciting part is that it has been such a wonderful surprise: until 2 days before the application deadline last Autumn, no-one had suggested he was a prospective candidate. His references were due to go off to UCAS when the decision was taken to apply to Oxford because his subjects had such promising predictions.
We heard when we went up for his Concert/Pantomime/Carol Service: that he had been asked for an Interview.
and now, to start the New Year, here is this good news!