Monday, 30 November 2009


Being in London for two nights gave us plenty of time to see exhibitions (on Friday). First, we went to Cork Street, to look at the amazing "hyperphotos" by Jean-François Rauzier. The best of these were landscapes with a difference - a seamless stitching together of many images of extreme detail to form a large-scale composition. I was less convinced by the stage-set interiors, especially those with women lying (dead, one supposed) in the foreground. Not my sort of photography, but worth a visit.

On to a packed Royal Academy, the courtyard of which at present sees Reynolds confronting a massive array of silver profiteroles, the work of Anish Kapoor. What a delightful contrast to the drear Anthony Caro sculpture, dominating that space on my last visit!

I didn't in fact get to the big Kapoor show inside, which Caroline much enjoyed. Instead, I lingered over the three sculptors on display in the Sackler Wing, Gill, Epstein and the hard-to-pronounce Gaudier-Brzeska. Of the three, I particularly admired Gaudier-Brzeska's work. Though his life was the shortest, his work seemed the most radical.

From "Wild Thing" I moved on to "Hard Rain" on the railings at St Martin's-in-the-Fields. This is an extremely striking and accessible series of photographs to illustrate the words of the Dylan song, and accompany the build-up to Copenhagen. Well done St Martin's, which, in its much-transformed state, as I felt on a previous visit is fast becoming a centre of vision for this most central point in the West End.

Finally, to the National Gallery for "The Sacred Made Real". I had been urged to visit this show by a number of different people, and wish I'd left more time for it: though it's not a large exhibition, the work is of great intensity, beautifully curated and lit. Such a contrast between Gill's attenuated stone Christ Crucified at the Academy in the morning, and the painted wooden images here!

As always for me, the pieces by Velázquez seemed to shine out, and in particular Mother Geronimo. What a master!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Is aid to Africa redundant?

This was the question for discussion at a seminar I attended In London last Thursday evening. It was the fifth event of its type put on by my old college (University College, Oxford) for its alumni and friends, and - having been to a previous one - very worthwhile I judge them.

This year the panellists - seen here with the Master of Univ., introducing them - were an Old Member (Tim Evans, currently at the Word Health Organisation); Ngaire Woods, a current Fellow, and Director of the Global Economic Governance Programme at Univ.; Dr. Dima Noggo Sarbo, a former member of the Ethiopian Government and currently on the Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellowship Programme, and Dr. Kevin Watkins, a Univ. Research Fellow, and former head of research at Oxfam.

With the aid of some sharp quesions put by well-informed members of the assembly, a number of issues were teased out, some of which I hadn't previously considered very fully. The extent to which military aid tends to accompany development aid, in order to prop up repressive regimes; and the extent to which African governments are beholden to aid donors, at the expense of being accountable to their own repressed people. And is it possible to suggest African aid is redundant (because "unsucessful"), when UN targets of aid as a percentage of GDP are more or less uniformly ignored (save by the Scandanavian countries)? How, again, do you compare a trillion dollars of aid over 60 years, with a hundred trillion over 12 months - the amount provided for economic stimulus? Perhaps it's arguable, said Dr. Evans, that nowhere other than Africa are so many lives saved at the expense of so few dollars.

On the other hand, we heard, far too much aid goes to pay for European - as opposed to African - experts on consultancies. (This came up too the following evening, when Lady Greenstock appealed on behalf of Women for Women at a fundraising concert we attended in Perivale: W4W, working in Nigeria, Sudan, Rwanda and the DRC, employ only local advocates. And we have since heard news of Caroline's brave Goddaughter Harriet, who is with MSF in the DRC, again alongside primarily local aid workers.)

Someone at the Univ. seminar described China as the elephant in the room - but at least it was (eventually) discussed. The real elephant in the room - given the speed at which parts of Africa is developing - is surely carbon, which didn't rate a mention all evening. Depressing, that.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Cheltenham wind

I photographed these wind turbines whilst on the Mersey Ferry in May. Seldom enough in the British Isles do you see them in this sort of setting - to which even David Bellamy would have a job to take offence.

Good news therefore that our local Borough Council's Planning Committee have passed, without a dissenting voice, an application to build a 60 foot turbine tower in a park on the West side of Cheltenham! It's estimated to be able to generate about 17% of the electricity needed for Springbank Community Resource Centre, which seeks to regenerate one of the town's most deprived areas. Project advocate Andy Hayes was interviewed by the Gloucestershire Echo following the decision: "I think," he says, "the turbine is a thing of beauty - it represents very successfully the fight against climate change and the need for more renewable energy."

And on a rather different scale, one day earlier this month Spain saw over 50% of its electricity come from turbines. Chris Goodall as always writes positively and authoritatively on the background to this story in Carbon Commentary.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

BBC4 x 2

Today's Guardian has a "Spanish Spirit" supplement, which says the best known Churriguera retablo mayor is in the church of San Esteban in Salamanca. The article's accompanying photograph isn't as detailed as the one I took in San Esteban - and even that doesn't really do it justice.

Our visit to this (and sundry other equally magnificent Catholic churches and cathedrals in Spain) last Autumn came back to me last night as I watched Don Carlo on BBC4. I'm not a great fan of opera on the small screen, or even at the cinema - Cineworld have of course stopped their relays from the Met., which I regret. The Covent Garden production of Verdi's grandest opera came across superbly on TV, however, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Marina Poplavskaya's Elisabetta stole the show for me - even with the great Rolando Villazón singing the title role. Her acting was terrific, and what a joy to hear a young, still lyric soprano, with no vibrato, in that great dramatic part! Only 29, Marina lives over a pub in Soho, the daughter of a Moscow chemist with five specialist diplomas, but working as a taxi driver because she can earn more.

The Poplavskaya family held to their Russian Orthodox faith throughout the Soviet years, keeping an icon hidden in a wardrobe. Nicholas Hytner's Don Carlo has plenty of icons of one sort or another to evoke the atmosphere of 16th Century Spain. Orthodoxy and the Reformation are the themes for last week's and next's instalments in Diarmaid MacCulloch's History of Christianity, also on BBC4. I really don't watch that much TV normally - just football (as I've said before): this week seems to have been an exception. But I'm not sure I am going to stick with MacCulloch. I envy him the opportunity of skipping around Europe and Asia Minor, seeing the sights, and he is distinctly likeable. Further, his substance is interesting enough: he makes it all sound fresh. The accompanying pictures are, however, repetitive and ultimately distracting. Radio 3 would be a much preferable forum.

Odd, that the previous week in MacCulloch's exploration of "the extraordinary rise of the Roman Catholic Church," there wasn't a single mention of St Benedict.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

"Stupid" again

This morning, I saw "The Age of Stupid" for the fourth time, in the course of showing it to St Gregory's Parish 55 Club.

It was particularly worthwhile, as most of the audience members (though staunchly Catholic) weren't "the converted" when it comes to climate change - nor were they active sceptics (at least judging from their response). As it was a mainly elderly assembly, I was expecting perhaps questions along the lines of Boyle Roche's "What has posterity ever done for us?" So, I had handy Pope Benedict's "The whole of creation... must not be bequeathed to future generations depleted of its resources."

In fact, I guess the majority of those present were people who perhaps don't give much thought to issues such as global warming, or associate it with something that might be of concern to Christians - unless (as some certainly had) they came across it via CAFOD or one of the missionary organizations.

After the film, there was I felt a stunned silence, and then came applause. The question is: how best to follow up a well-attended meeting like this? It was a pity none of the five parish clergy were able to be present for the film. And I can't see many of the audience rushing to book a coach ticket for London, to be present as part of The Wave on 5th December.

How did I manage to sit through "The Age of Stupid" a fourth time - and on seating that was well less than comfortable? Interestingly, my attention didn't flag: it is a really good film! I have found myself moved by different parts on each occasion.

(Thanks to Olivia for the photograph!)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Two: much joy

After a hectic weekend (we spent time with friends in Quenington, Coleshill, Greenwich, Hackney and Oxford), finally we reached Hampshire in time for Laurie's 2nd birthday celebrations this afternoon. Claire prepared a delicious tea (with Great-Aunt Sarah's birthday cake to top it all) for a grand family and Godparental gathering, even though it was a mere six days since they'd moved into their new home.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Time to dig

Yesterday being Martinmas, I have this morning been enjoying a bit of St Martin's little Summer - digging up some more of the garden for next year's vegetables. It's been wet, but the rain hasn't penetrated that far yet. Soon, however, the Winter will be here.

Meanwhile, begonias, lobelia, geraniums and even tobacco plants are still busy flowering - not to mention the climbing roses. It always hurts, throwing plants in flower onto the compost heap, but I want to get bulbs into the big pots, and some pansies on top of them.

The leaves on our flowering cherry are a wonderful red, as are the beeches on Crickley hill, where we walked earlier this morning.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Christian Ecology Link annual conference

Jerry and Sue Barr have sent me this report of the CEL Conference on Transition Towns last Saturday:

"An inspiring conference on Saturday 7th November brought like minded Christians together from across the country at St Mary's Church in Ottery St Mary, Devon. Appropriately, most travelled by train: we were met at Exeter St David’s and bussed to the venue in the Parish church, a beautiful but chilly mediaeval building with ambitions to go carbon neutral in the near future - a challenge indeed!

Our first speaker was Ben Brangwyn, a co-founder of the Transition Town movement and a Devon Hi-Tec businessman. He is not a churchgoer but confessed to having been inspired by what he heard from the faith community at the recent climate change conference in Southwark Cathedral: “This is not what I have been used to hearing from the church”. He went on to make reference to the recent report by the NGO ‘Global Witness’ on the impending global energy supply shock and the inevitable increase in energy poverty that will follow. “Government just hasn’t got it,” and “continues to live in the fantasy land of everlasting porridge,” in the face of the twin challenges of peak oil (and the lack of an energy descent action plan) and climate change. Ben used as an example the fragility of the supermarket stock and supply system and the potential impact on unprepared local communities. By contrast Transition Towns are working together to increase resilience in the face of current fossil fuel dependency and build communities for the future. He suggested that people of faith are in a position to shift the usual “green gloom and doom” scenario from crisis to opportunity by “taking the shiny paper off where we are now” and working together to make a difference. “To do it alone is too little, to wait on Government will be too late”. We heard more of the initiatives developing in Transition Totnes through re-skilling, joint purchase of solar and PV panels, the establishing of a local energy company and even garden and pig sharing!

The Rev. Prof. Tim Gorringe followed with a theological reflection on the Transition movement and the rethinking of what it is to be God’s people. He referred to the ‘Transition Handbook’ as “being so unbelievably positive and not about frightening people into change”. The church is constantly in the process of change and the church’s role in Transition is prophetic with all of humanity being called to share in the shaping of God’s world.

The Ottery St Mary team shared their experiences in setting up ‘Sustainable Ottery’ over a period of two years: they have recently held their big launch event. In place are a number of working groups embracing a range of activities from local energy production to job generation, including a “grow it, cook it, eat it” programme. The churches have been central to ‘Sustainable Ottery’ and the conference workshop venues were at Methodist, URC and Salvation Army premises.

A question and answer session chaired by Brother Samuel, a Franciscan from nearby Hilfield Friary, reflected the frustration of many of those present in attempting to get their local church involved in Transition. There were interesting responses including the suggestion that the church needs "to transition" itself and is challenged to engage more with the wider community. Among the panel members was Martyn Goss, the Environmental Officer for the Exeter Diocese. His workshop on engaging the church with the Transition movement was particularly helpful and encouraging.

The day ended with inspiring worship in St Mary's before delegates were bussed to the station to journey back to all corners of the UK full of carrot cake, hope and enthusiasm."

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Cheltenham Music Festival 2010

Christopher Cook, our Music Festival Chairman, welcomed us to the elegant surroundings of the former Daffodil Cinema this evening for the launch of next year's programme. But there were no moving pictures alas.

Instead, Festival Director Meurig Bowen gave us a quiz. Which is the odd one out of the four composers whose anniversaries will be celebrated next year, Schumann, Wolf, Gesualdo or Chopin? I said Chopin, because all the others wrote music for the voice. He said Chopin too - but for a non-musical reason: he was the only one who was not "odd". (Well "mad" was the word he used actually.)

The mooted programme comes across as excitingly varied - which is what Meurig has led us to expect. Nothing stereotyped here! Let's hope those with deeper pockets than me will ante up what is needed in the way of sponsorship, as the economic outlook is bound to cast doubt on the level of box office takings.

But Meurig left the best news of all to a private aside to me after his speech: for the first year in decades, we shall be able to walk out of the South doors of the Pittville Pump Room and be able to admire the gracious prospect of the Park - rather than the ugly profile of the catering marquee. Three cheers for that! It looks like the successful end of a very long campaign that I (along with a few others) have been waging!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

"Called to be a people of hope"

This is the title of the pastoral guidelines issued by the Clifton Catholic Diocese fairly recently. It promised that a committee would be formed to review existing deanery and parish structures and make recommendations.

Well, a draft report has now been issued, on which we are invited to comment. And so I have commented as follows:

1. I note the Committee interpreted its brief to mean "laity and clergy will work together to implement whatever plan is ultimately agreed after consultation." In the light of my past experience (during 35 years living in the Cheltenham Deanery), this would mean a radical turnaround. Laity and clergy have not - to any significant extent - worked together in the past. Lay members have occasionally been asked to carry out some fairly minor tasks, but there has been no real spirit of community of endeavour, as the clergy have always "run the show" their own way. Letters sent to priests (and even the Bishop), however politely couched, are routinely ignored - not even acknowledged.

2. "This report thus seeks to make recommendations for the future organization of parishes taking into account the resources of people, clergy and buildings that we currently have, and are likely to have in the foreseeable future."

2.1 I don't believe the draft report does genuinely take into account the resources of (lay) people. There has never been any significant effort made to analyse the strengths of the lay members of the parishes I have been in: many varieties of talent might be placed at the service of the Church if such an analysis were to be undertaken.

2.2 Even allowing for a priest being a necessary pastor for each parish, that doesn't prevent lay people also having pastoral roles; and yet we see very little sign that this possibility is being embraced. We don't even know, except accidentally, if there are fellow-Catholics living in our immediate neighbourhood.

3. There is no word in the draft report about the possibility of cooperation with other Christians, to enhance the pastoral care of the whole community.

4. Nor is there any mention of the environmental impact of what is proposed: a significant increase in car use is inevitable.

5. Generally, I look forward to the time when the Church recognises that it is not essential for priests to be celibate - or male.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Stupid at my age

I set up a Christian Ecology Link table - alongside other similar organisations - last evening at the Bacon Theatre here in Cheltenham, where The Age of Stupid was being shown by the Cheltenham Film Society. Even though it was a free showing, the numbers attending were slightly disappointing: do people know it all already, or don't they want to know?

On second viewing - I wrote about seeing it at its premiere - I found it almost better than at first: I like the way the stories aren't all cut and dried, and how they weave in between each other. It was good there was a discussion session immediately after the film, and that most of the audience stayed for it.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Today, we drove over to near Kington, in Herefordshire. Agnes and Ida have moved there, to a little cottage under the woods - an idyllic setting. It's not as isolated as it looks, being on the edge of a small hamlet, and only five minutes' drive from Kington itself. (I think Agnes will be driving mostly, rather than going by her new bike - which we took over, complete with child seat: it's very hilly.)

The rented cottage has a good library (for children as well as adults): I was interested in "Memories of Kington", a booklet published by the Kington History Society. We have a portrait in our hall of my 4th Great Uncle, John Meredith of Kington, who died in 1848. I was interested to read today that in 1836 he gave the ground on which the National Schools in Kington were built. And was amazed that his brother (or possibly his nephew) employed as many as 120 men.

I was never very sure how to pronounce the name Meredith, but the booklet records that a Miss Meredith of Kington "puts an accent on the Mer-."

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Student engagement in sustainability

I have been at a national forum discussing this today, at the University of Gloucestershire's high-tech Centre for Active Learning. "It's so important to get students to turn lights off!" exclaimed one speaker, as the sun beat down outside and the lights blazed away in the Centre where we all sat. Apparently, the computer mechanism works with some delay in adjusting the levels of light and heat. A bit like getting the Queen Mary to change course.

This seems to me to say it all. Students are well ahead of the game in their desire to live simply, and usually that's all they can afford to do anyway. But do their teachers always set them a good example? Even though their talk is all about sustainability, do they walk it? If not, it shows.

"Students have the numbers to make a real difference," said UoG Vice-Chancellor Patricia Broadfoot in her opening address. Yet "student status depends on conspicuous consumption," observed Gill Kelly of QMU, Edinburgh. How do we all discover the knack of habit discontinuity?

Monday, 2 November 2009

"The Verneys"

We visited Compton Verney in July, to see a marvellous exhibition of Constable portraits, as well as the permanent collections: it's a great day out (and not too far away) - recommended for a visit any time it's open if you have never been.

Those eponymous Verneys are only distantly connected, it seems, to the family who live still at Claydon Hall in Buckinghamshire, about whom I've been reading in advance of our next book group discussion.

It was The Young Elizabethan that got me reading as a teenager - a Verney was I think its founder. And I first came across the great Murray Perahia when he played in Claydon's drawing-room nearly 40 years ago.

I've enjoyed Adrian Tinniswood's account of the 17th Century Verneys of Claydon, published by Vintage a couple of years ago, but I had better not say too much on the subject in case others in the group happen to be looking in. (I doubt it.) I am irked, however, when writers as scholarly as Mr. Tinniswood would no doubt claim to be get basic things wrong. "He rarely came up (sic!) to Claydon more than once a year," he writes about one of the clan who went into trade and latterly based himself in London. "Down" is surely not pedantic, just correct - even if it does require a footnote for American readers!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Back to GMT

Before leaving for Japan, I repeated the feast/fast diet I had tried with success on my last long haul flight in 2003: it works well in overcoming jetlag (more of a problem going West to East than vice versa). Coming back yesterday, I had made no such preparations: I ate and drank normally and stayed awake throughout (watching one or two good TV programmes and 1, 2, 3 films - all more or less cheesy). So far, so good - but I shall soon be ready for bed.

Meanwhile, Agnes and Ida, alongside us on the plane, are today settling into Herefordshire. Agnes had a new bike, complete with seat, for her birthday and we shall take it over to her on Wednesday.

Japan? A great trip! I'm working on the photographs. Good to get back to English breakfasts though. And soap in the bath.