Thursday, 31 December 2009

2009: the end

We have just waved goodbye to our girls, who are off to welcome the New Year with friends in furthest Worcestershire. So, the house is once more empty, and we reflect on another year in which we have failed to move from too large a home.

But six bedrooms have their uses when there are family weddings to celebrate, as in May/June. Running from room to room through icy corridors - as we have been lately - causes us to remember the light, warm days of Spring, Summer and Autumn more appreciatively. Then, it's a beautiful place to be living - with the garden making several extra large rooms, where we often eat out breakfast, lunch, tea and supper - sometimes all four. Friends from London refer to coming to see us in the country, and indeed we can see the Cotswolds from our windows, barely a mile away.

Travelling for a fortnight through Liverpool, Manchester, Lancaster and Carlisle to Edinburgh in May, and back through Berwick, Durham, York, Nottingham and Northampton made me realise what a rich quality of life we have in Cheltenham. Spending time in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Yokahama in October reinforced that conviction.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Christmas Day carols

Yesterday, we celebrated Christmas at home with great jollity. There were 11 around the dining-room table - six English, two Taiwanese, two Japanese and a Canadian.

Sitting with the sun pouring in through the windows, we ate as much turkey and Christmas pudding as ever, and then, when it had grown dark outside, all sang carols together. A very happy day (though we missed having any of the grandchildren with us this year).

Friday, 18 December 2009

"A meaningful deal?"

Looking back from a time beyond my lifetime, will today's conclusion of the Copenhagen summit be seen as a turning-point, when we started to take seriously the business of saving the planet? Somehow, I doubt it. As well as the news from Denmark, the BBC reports that the number of cars in Beijing is now nearing four million. Not a figure that is likely to decrease anytime soon, I guess.

Happy Christmas! if I don't pontificate again before then!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Spoiler Alert

You may or may not receive a Christmas card from me, with this image on it. (I took the photograph in the austere 12th Century nave of Lescar Cathedral just before setting out on my Voie du Puy walk in April. Whether the carving itself is 12th Century, I rather doubt, but I find it quite a charming depiction of Matthew 2,14 even though none of the Holy Family is apparently riding on the donkey.)

The point is, I didn't have enough printed in order for all those on our rambling Christmas card list to receive one. Which brings me to the question, yet again, of whether we need to send so many people cards. Somehow, we're beset by a conspiracy to keep it going: every year, the additions to the list seem to exceed the (usually sad) deletions. Occasionally, you meet up with someone you haven't seen for decades, but have exchanged cards with: when you realise how little you now have in common, each reaches for the red pen.

What's to stop a greater ruthlessness? Well, I suppose it's something to do with the Christmas spirit. And we enjoy receiving cards ourselves, even from those who live next door. Possibly we all wish to avoid the King John outcome, the cards upon his shelf... were... only from himself.

Crazy isn't it! Especially in the days of instant messaging - and blogging. Particularly as I somehow feel it's not the same if I haven't written the addresses out by hand. I used not to, so this is a further indication that I am moving backwards into the Dark Ages. Seems too to give a lie to what I mentioned Ben Brangwyn said the other day, "Complex systems never return to a prior state."

Having written this, I see it's all really said much more amusingly by Jon Canter in today's Guardian. (And "Martin" is the hero of the story.)

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Olivier Azam is better known as the Gloucester hooker than as waiter in his restaurant in Montpellier here in Cheltenham. Today, however, I was lunching at Armagnac, and there he was, struggling a little with reading out to us the chef's specials: you could say we hung on the words of he who was suspended.

When the food came, however, it was excellent: frogs' legs, a rare delicacy, for my starter, and deliciously fresh mussels for a main course. Not that I eat out much, but on this form, the Armagnac chef has to be amongst the best in Cheltenham - and their businessmen's lunch the best value. (Too bad Caroline has 'flu.)

15 Rotunda Terrace always seems to have been a place for French food: Olivier's previous business there was fittingly "Le Quinze" - I photographed its window in June 2006 - and before that it was Le Beaujolais, scene of a number of memorable family parties as I recall.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Wave

Central London will certainly have known there was a degree of concern being felt about climate change yesterday! The noise level - at least where I was marching - was deafening. Things are rather different from when I last took part in this sort of thing: not only are participants more vociferous: everyone now seems to need to carry a placard, which makes for a great pile of rubbish at the end of the day.

An extraordinary variety of interests combined for the event, Young LibDems walking alongside Socialist Workers; Carmelites rubbing shoulders with the RSPB. The general mood seemed one of festival, though with a deeply serious overtone.

It was more than an hour from the start before the back markers left Grosvenor Square, by which time the early marchers had reached Parliament. The organisers estimated more than 50,000 taking part: BBC News at 10 said 20,000. Who is to say what significance this has?

Our coach driver thought it was all a waste of time, as his and 499 other coaches had been driving round all day, burning up diesel - the coach parking bays having apparently been suspended throughout the capital.

In Westminster Central Hall at 11 a.m. Archbishop Williams and his Westminster counterpart led an ecumenical service attended by 3,500 or so: neither impressed me so much as Michael Holman SJ writing in this week's Tablet: "Ours is a project of hope for a better future: that God’s Creation will be treated with reverence, that the poor will be better off and that we will be living more true to ourselves and to what God has created us to be – one family, living in solidarity with one another and with the many generations yet to come."

There are more of my photographs of The Wave day here, in case you are interested.

Friday, 4 December 2009

"A stained glass Bible"

This is the title of a book I've published via Blurb online publishing. Not of course all the Bible as seen in stained glass, but some of the familiar stories. Alongside a text derived from the New Jerusalem Bible is one of my photographs of a stained (or painted) glass panel, taken from the collection I've built up over the years - 30 or so in total.

It's print-on-demand book, so if anyone wants to order a copy, then they do so by accessing the book on the Blurb site, and filling in their requirements, just like on Amazon. You can preview some of the pages of the book online (to help you make up your mind about buying!).

How did this all come about? Well, Mini, my new daughter-in-law from Japan, is an admirer of stained glass, and this prompted Leo to commission me to put together a book of photographs for her. So, rejecting all the many non-biblical subjects I seemed to have gathered in, I restricted myself to a theme of Old and New Testament subjects.

The age of the windows I photographed is from the early 14th to the late 20th centuries. I was worried about including a couple of images taken in a private chapel I'd visited, but the owners were happy to consent to my publishing them - provided I didn't identify the location. I hope none of the other glass's "custodians" object to their windows being included, with attribution and a general acknowledgement.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Talking the talk

Over the past 48 hours, I've attended three meetings where sustainability or resiliance have been the watchwords. On Tuesday afternoon, there was quite a heated discussion in the RCE Severn Steering Committee about the extent to which we needed to sock it to our stakeholders. Should our working groups challenge businesses' CSR policies, and challenge too the whole notion of the sustainability of continuing economic growth, given Peak Oil and that we are already in ecological debt? Are children being equipped by our schools for a society based on the realities of resource depletion and global warming? What is our positive vision of a low-carbon, steady state economy or our plan for energy descent?

Some of these questions were addressed by Ben Brangwyn of the Transition Network at the University of Gloucestershire's IRIS Seminar that evening. Ben's "excited by local currencies," he tells us - not as a replacement for the pound sterling, but as a complementary process. And he's big on visioning: "Where will we need to be in 20 years' time? How do we get from here to there - year by year?" "We don't know," he stressed, "if this Transition thing is going to work: it's an experiment; but we cannot sit around and wait for someone to do a pilot." And he cautions, "complex systems can never return to a prior state." Sustainable Bungay was an example of what could be achieved with faith-based communities heavily involved. Or, talking of adaptation, what about Cheltenham becoming a City of Sanctuary? (There's a challenge!)

My photograph was taken at the well-attended meeting of the Gloucestershire Churches Environmental Justice Network yesterday, where Professor Daniella Tilbury spoke of the UoG's work in the sustainability field. What is it about our lives that has got us to where we are, was the question she posed. Not, "Who dropped that plastic wrapper?" but, "What sort of society makes it necessary to have such wrappers?" Strategies to change behaviours don't work: the consumer culture is here to stay. How do we influence without preaching? "The biggest problem we have in this institution [the UoG] is students."

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Davis family history

I spotted this sign when walking down Bond Street last week. This A.B. Davis was no relation of ours (or not to my knowledge anyway). But another A.B. Davis was my grandfather. His ancestry is currently taking up quite a bit of my time, thanks to an incredible piece of good luck.

I've mentioned previously about the family's origins. A.B.D.'s grandfather Peter is the earliest Davis of which we know much: his travel diary of 1835 is a vital record, if not a literary masterpiece.

Now, to cut a long story short, thanks to the curiosity and initiative of my cousin Bruce Coates of New Brunswick, he has acquired a slightly later Peter Davis diary, amongst many other (later) family papers. And, what's more, he and his wife Genie have struggled against many difficulties to transcribe it.

Last night, Bruce sent me this poignant entry made on the day Peter's father died, 30th August 1837: "Warm clear day. This morning about ¼ to 5 o’clock my poor dear Father departed this life without a struggle having bourne a lingering illness of nearly 3 months. In the 69th year of his age. May the Lord have mercy upon the soul of my best friend upon earth."

Isn't this worth a thousand dry facts unearthed via FamilySearch?

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.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Sustainable Japan?

We are off to the airport in the morning, having come to the end of our trip, which has passed incredibly quickly - a good sign that we have all been enjoying ourselves. Here in Yokohama (today) we have been dazzled by the modern architecture of Minato Mirai, where I've been talking sustainability with RCE colleagues, Zinaida Fadeeva and Aurea Tanaka at the UN University Institute of Advanced Studies. Their team is funded by the Japanese Dept. of the Environment, for ten years - a sign of at least a degree of commitment to the subject.

Bicycles abound in the cities - more than at home - and public transport, particularly the train service, is excellent. Seeing the huddling of houses together, as the Shinkansen passes at vast speed through the suburbs, makes you think our town sprawl energy wasteful. But even up on the Buddhist monastic stronghold of Kôyasan - we spent the night before last in temple dwellings there (delicious vegetarian food, and a wonderful chanting ceremony at 6 a.m.) - to find a heated loo seat is a matter of course. And the shopping malls in the centre of Osaka and here seem endless.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Todai-ji in Nara contains this, the largest wooden structure in the world, and it houses the Great Buddha, which is one of the largest bronze figures in the world - originally cast nearly 1,300 years ago when Nara was Japan's capital city. Round the back of the statue is a column with a hole in its base the size of one of the Buddha's nostrils: to squeeze through it is a sign that you are ensured of enlightenment. I declined to try this afternoon. (Mini however made it without any trouble.)

We were commenting on the absence of beggars in the streets anywhere we had been so far. Today, we came across a Buddhist monk with his bowl outstretched: apparently he prays whilst begging; responding to which is I suppose no worse than paying for a mass for the dead.

The other beggars we saw in droves (or rather herds) were the sacred deer of Nara-koen, messengers of the Gods: never can there have been such tame animals! Charming at first, they become something of a trial at lunchtime. But Ida loved their attention of course!

Now, we are all exhausted.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Kyoto 2

We have had our first rain today, though not enough to dampen us or our spirits. After a short bus ride, we walked up a delightful pedestrian street, Sannen-Zaka to meet a former sudent of Caroline, her daughter and grand-daughter at the Morioka pottery: Caroline, Mini, Fujo and her daughter had lessons there. I talked to the charming and elegant widow of Kasho Morioka III (who doubled as a child-minder) and met her potter son. Fine teaware seems to be their speciality: it looks beautiful to my inexpert eye.

After lunch we jostled with all the other tourists, including hordes of neatly-uniformed schoolchildren, and walked up to Kiyomizu-dera, the most striking religious complex we've yet visited. There, we took off our shoes and walked down into the completely dark passage leading to an eerily lit carved stone wheel: we were "figuratively entering the womb of a female Bodhisattva, who has the power to grant any human wish," so the guidebook said. It was certainly the nearest I've come yet to getting the point of Buddhism - more potent than the rows of white prayer messages pegged to wire lines that you see in each of the sites.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

News from Kyoto

Here's a photograph of Mini and Leo in their formal Japanese wedding garb, attended by the two "miko", sort of supercharged altar servers, at their Shinto ceremony on Friday last, performed in the romantic surroundings of a hotel on the outskirts of Kyoto, by a wide river, overlooked by mountains and set in beautiful gardens.

Suffice to say, the marriage celebration day went brilliantly, with Mini looking amazing in her kimono, and many of her friends having made a similar effort to dress traditionally, because of the English connection. (In the same way, Caroline will take all her foreign students to see round Gloucester Cathedral, though in the normal course of things we would never darken its doors.) Leo must have posed quite a problem to his team of dressers, but he looked very splendid in his long skirt made of much the same material as a pair of wedding trousers at home, and his white socks and flip-flops.

So, on the one hand we had the strangest ritual for the couple, with just family present, seated either side of a small chapel-like room in the hotel, the shrine at the end, the priest wearing a hat which was a cross between a bishop's mitre and a space helmet and shiny black plastic clogs on his feet; and on the other hand the largest barrage of digital cameras you have seen, flashing endlessly at the couple when they emerged in front of the other guests: Leo, not the easiest person to get to sit for his photograph, lapped it all up, and Mini looked completely unfazed too, though they must each have been in a state of exhaustion by the end of the day. I certainly was; but it was a sensationally happy one for us all, and it was warm and sunny!

For me, the most moving moment came when Leo and Mini had departed during the ceremonial lunch; and then returned into a darkened room, filled with the sound of Imogen Cooper's Mozart, dressed in their Painswick wedding outfits (almost) - before, a very Japanese couple, and now an English one!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


I dreamt I had an interview with God. 'So you would like to interview me?' God asked. 'If you have the time', I said. 'My time is eternity. What questions do you have in mind for me?' 'What surprises you about humankind?'

'That they get bored with childhood, they rush to grow up, and then long to be children again. That they lose their health to make money, and then lose their money to restore their health. That by thinking anxiously about the future, they forget about the present, such that they live in neither the present nor the future. That they live as if they will never die, and die as though they had never lived.'

God's hand took mine and we were silent for a while. And then I asked, 'As a parent, what are some of life's lessons you would like your children to learn?'

'That they can't make anyone love them: all they can do is let themselves be loved. To learn that it is not good to compare themselves to others. To learn to forgive by practicing forgiveness. To learn that it only takes a few seconds to open profound wounds in those they love, and it can take many years to heal them. To learn that a rich person is not one who has the most, but one who needs the least. To learn that there are people who love them dearly, but simply have not yet learned how to express or show their feelings. To learn that two people can look at the same thing and see it differently. To learn that it is not enough that they forgive one another, but they must also forgive themselves.'

'Is there anything else you would like your children to know?' God smiled. 'Just that I am here...always.'

From the magazine of a parish situated in the path of the proposed Heathrow Third Runway.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Off to Japan!

This time tomorrow, we shall, God willing, be airbound for Tokyo! We are there till 31st, celebrating, Japanese-style, Leo's marriage to Mini. That takes place in Kyoto, but we shall be visiting other places whilst we are there, including Osaka, Koya-san and Yokohama.

(Yes, we have offset our carbon - not that I'm convinced that's much more than a cosmetic response to the runaway train of climate change. I see this as being both our first and our last visit to Japan.)

As Ida's second birthday is whilst we are en route, she commemorated it at the weekend, whilst staying with her father and grandparents in Dorset: we all met up for a jolly lunch there yesterday - see photograph.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Stern about

The Summerfield Lecture at this year's Cheltenham Festival of Literature was the most authoritative I've heard for many years. Nicholas Stern gave it, his delivery low-key, almost deadpan; his message dynamite.

He gave us the up to date scientific consensus: not small probabilities of something unpleasant because of climate change, but big probabilities of something catastrophic. "Business as usual" for the next 100 years means a 50% chance of the earth's temperature being higher than for 30 million years, and movement of peoples on a massive scale. "This is not a Black Swan event."

Lord Stern explained exactly what's needed to give ourselves an even chance of limiting temperature rise to something manageable: the target is an 80% cut in each inhabitant of Europe's carbon emissions by the time 40 years have elapsed.

We need to decarbonise electricity, and switch all transport to using electricity; we need to develop low-carbon technology in every sphere; and we need to halt deforestation. A new industrial revolution is required to achieve the low-carbon growth needed to overcome world poverty.

The lecturer was hopeful of a robust outcome of the conference at Copenhagen, seven weeks ahead, but negotiations were at a critical stage. "We have an agreement to lose."

Saturday, 17 October 2009

James Joyce

Declan Kiberd's Cheltenham Lecture yesterday represented for me all that's best about our Festival of Literature. Here spoke someone, of whom I'd never heard, on a topic of which I lived in some fear, and by whose language I was transported for the whole hour.

Professor Kiberd, looking a little like an apologetic Groucho Marx, flattered us initially by extolling Cheltenham: "one of the last of the intimate cities." As, he said, was Dublin at the time of Bloomsday, "the dailiest day". People walked. They must circulate in the city streets, like blood in the body, "the weather as uncertain as a baby's bottom" (Simon Dedalus). Bohemia in Dublin was compulsory: in Paris, optional. Joyce was in revolt against a sort of arrogant bohemianism: culture separated from everyday life.

The lecturer, as a writer on Ulysses, described himself as like a soccer correspondent for the book. He quoted the Balinese response to Margaret Mead: "We do everything as well as we can." Joyce would have liked that bit of self-help philosophy: he wants you to become the parent of your own reading. "The ordinary is the proper domain of the artist: the extraordinary can safely be left to journalists."

Kiberd was particularly strong on Joyce's love/hate relationship with Catholicism. Religion has declined into fretful rule-keeping, yet Joyce hung around churches in Holy Week, knew the Latin of the Triduum liturgy by heart, and particularly loved it when they sang Lumen Christi at the Easter Vigil. "Good idea the Latin. Stupifies them first;" but after saying this, Bloom administers his own viaticum, offering bits of white paper to the gulls in the Circe episode: when they aren't fooled, he resorts to Banbury cake. Later again, Bloom gives Stephen the Eucharistic coffee and bun.

The lecturer described Bloom as the womanly man, akin to the central figures in so many Shakespearean tragedies, as contrasted with the comedies' manly women heroines. And Stephen Dedalus took to drink as the shy person's revenge, his way of dealing with the insult of the actual.

I see from my copy of Ulysses that I tackled it 40 years ago: time now to do so again I believe.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A sustainable Festival?

Tim Smitt, responsible for "finding" the Lost Gardens of Heligan and for making a reality of the Eden Project, prowled around the Garden Theatre stage for an hour yesterday - a Festival of Literature event - with the large audience in the palm of his hand. He is a man of quite amazing energy. And given that he said he wanted to kill negative people, I need to tread carefully with my "But.."

Employment for Cornwall? Yes. Educational intent? Clearly of central importance. Local sourcing? Admirable. Encouragement to travel to the venues by public transport? Certainly. Sustainability rhetoric? In spades.

But what Tim Smitt has launched are massive, disruptive activities. And they need the hordes to keep on coming in. How much do peoples' visits really change their lives for the greener, rather than serve to enable them to tick one more must-see leisure destination off the list?

And I have the same sense of dissatisfaction with the Festival of Literature itself. So many thought-provoking events; but so little potential for any coherent building upon the process within the community! Like animals in our different cages at the zoo, we are fed tasty titbits by people of ideas; but at the hour's end, when they've signed their books, off they've snuck into the Writers' Room, having left us without any mechanism to connect up to discuss those ideas in a coordinated way, so that something may come from them. A sustainable Festival surely needs to develop some mechanism for follow-up.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Literary punishment

Old friends have been staying for the Cheltenham Literary Festival. They are gluttons for punishment, having sat through five separate events yesterday! We ourselves thought three were enough - but only overlapped on one occasion, Jenny Uglow talking about Charles II: a gambling man. (Here she is signing a book for Philip afterwards.)

I learnt a lot from Jenny Uglow's talk, or rather I relearnt it: I must have heard it all before at school, but that was long ago and far away. It's one of the pleasures of retirement that one can enjoy going back to school - even whilst remembering how painful school was in other ways. But I'm sure Fr. Hugh Aveling never told us that Charles II was grey-haired by the time he was 33, or that Louis XIV had 42 wigs.

Part of the enjoyment of the Uglow talk was that it was well-illustrated: Charles Saumarez Smith, on the other hand, who has spent all his life in the visual art world, gave us nothing to look at. Much as I enjoy the elegance of the way he speaks, it did make for rather a dry hour.

The most fun we had was with The Seven lives of John Murray, robustly chaired by Marcus Moore, with John Murray VII himself present on the platform, and going on tremendous riffs about authors published by his illustrious ancestors. Though the Murray archive has departed for Edinburgh, we learnt that 50 Albermarle Street was still full of an immense variety of items with disparate literary connections. A soufflé!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link

We had a good meeting at home last week, on Tuesday 6th, in a format rather different from the usual. There were 10 present, including a visitor from Zimbabwe, who led our concluding prayers. He described the steep inflation in Zimbabwe until recently, when the Zimbabwe dollar was replaced by the American dollar as the official currency. There is 90% unemployment. AIDS is rampant. Neither press nor radio is free internally. Farm invasions continue, and the new owners are far from being good stewards of their land. Tobacco production is one-third of what it was. There is little crop rotation. Cattle herds are almost all wiped out. Woodlands are cut away to provide fuel, and game reserves poached. Telephone lines are stolen for their copper content. In the cities, shanty towns are bulldozed. Foreign aid sent through the official channels is often sidelined.

On the other hand, there was much to be positive about. Many people in England raise funds, which are channelled through individuals in Zimbabwe, and used, for instance, to pay for schooling at primary, secondary and tertiary levels and in particular the relatively expensive exam fees, as well as other essentials. In the schools, the children are keen to learn. Committees made up of local women are often best fitted to know those in real need.

The country has gold, platinum and diamond reserves. And power-sharing has brought some improvements. Western democracy may be a long way off, but there is a strong sense of relationship, of family. The country's economy is kept afloat to a great extent by the generosity of its 3m overseas workers, who send hard currency home to their families. Many of these families include children whose parents have died of AIDS, and are being brought up by uncles, aunts and grandparents.

The country's Catholic bishops have spoken out: "God hears the cry of the oppressed!" was the title of a controversial pastoral letter a few years ago. "We are all guilty: we need reconciliation," is the theme of their latest, "God can heal the wounds of the afflicted," issued only on 1st October.

Although there is evidence that the cold season has lengthened over the years, there are as yet no great signs of climate change, as in Kenya. Greening the planet is not a live issue in Zimbabwe. Our visitor quoted the current Oxfam advertising: “People in developing countries aren’t thinking about how climate change will affect them. They already know.”

And although there was little tradition of thrift, there was a culture of sharing. Coming back to England for the first time for a couple of years, he was amazed by the range of goods available on supermarket shelves. "All we have is gift," he said: "Are we programmed to accept as gift, or are we programmed to accumulate possessions, and to go on doing so?"

It was, as I say, not like a normal Christian Ecology Link meeting; but it brought home to me the fundamental reason I belong to CEL: as a response to the need for the planet's resources to be cared for and shared out more fairly.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Brendel in tandem

Richard Stokes, Alfred Brendel's interlocutor on the stage of Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre last evening, and the celebrated, recently-retired pianist gave us full value for money. The Everyman is used during the Music Festival, of course, but Brendel, a frequent July visitor to Cheltenham during the greater part of his playing career, will probably never have graced its stage before last night's Festival of Literature event.

We were as surprised as the audience at the first performance of Beethoven's G Major piano concerto must have been, by Brendel starting by introducing his interviewer: a very civilised idea, I thought, and one which could well be replicated for other events.

The two were obviously good friends, Professor Stokes being able to bring out twin aspects of his subject, his high seriousness and his impish, almost schoolboy humour. As Brendel said, wit and profundity are not mutually exclusive. In some works, Beethoven Op 31 no 1 was an example he gave, when a pianist hasn't made an audience laugh, he should become an organist.

As an illustration that a musician needs to sing and speak in tandem, we were treated to a story passed down by the late Sándor Végh: as a young violinist, he was playing for Chaliapin. "You can sing well on the violin, but you don't speak enough," the Russian bass advised. Later, Végh said he learnt the "speaking" from Casals.

Last night, the pair were introduced by current Festival Director, Meurig Bowen (seen here at the outset - I wasn't allowed to take photographs later on). I was proud to see my 1976 photograph of Alfred and Adrian Brendel, with Imogen Cooper plus Greenway cat, flashed up on the big screen.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Putin: the fear of God in me

For many years I have supported Pax Christi in a very small way, and believed in the vital importance of reconciliation between peoples. So, I was distressed last night to hear Oleg Gordievsky talking in Cheltenham Town Hall about the implacable determination of Russia, in the thrall of Putin and his cronies, to rebuild the Soviet Empire by all means at its disposal.

He spoke in hair-raising terms about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko three years ago in London, as well as his own dramatic escape to Finland in June 1985. Without having the opportunity to take him up on his pessimistic forebodings, I sat opposite him afterwards at a sponsors' dinner, given by the Summerfield Charitable Trust to mark its 20th anniversary. (Here he is with one of the Summerfield Trustees. The hyperlink is to the Trust's anniversary publication, which - as I mentioned a while back - I was pleased to have had a hand in.)

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Cheltenham Festival of Literature

Once more, we are in the thick of the Literary Festival hereabouts. More people than ever have been clogging the Town Hall corridors this weekend. Imperial Gardens is a tented city, on a scale which would amaze the Festival's founders of 1949 - or even those running the 1999 Festival I daresay.

The traditional Friends' stall has now been more or less hijacked by the Festival organisers. I did a stint on it last night. There are the traditional piles of books - mainly poetry - but though commerce was brisk for cards, mugs, tea towels, shopping bags etc., I sold just one book. This says it all to me about the way the Festival has morphed.

Saturday, 10 October 2009


MEANTIME is described as an independent arts platform for the production and presentation of new work, dialogue and exchange, supported by Arts Council England, Arts Development and Virtual Arts Centre at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, and the University of Gloucestershire.

Its entrance, tucked away behind the multiplex cinema, is not promising, but belies a useful first floor space - perhaps the only one of its type in central Cheltenham since the closure of the Axiom. Its occupant/exhibitor these last couple of days has been a young artist, Ben Garrod, with his "Photounrealistic Painting" show.

Ben bafflingly - to me - introduces his work as follows: "Taking a JPG from the MT website, I made it a BMP & using MSP pixelated a section with the simplest resizing operation possible. Thus losing much of the already sparse 411. With an R285 @ BSU it went from RGB to CMYK. & @ the DDC the colours were re-photographed and mixed into the appropriate VM bases. So through the process described above PBW became 15 others, mainly 30BB38037 & 1015R70B with some Martian Skies. This piece is concerned primarily with the creeping dissolution of the space between space & information & is inspired in part by Gregg Egan's PKD award winning novel Permutation City."

What it really seems to amount to is that he's taken part of someone else's digital photograph of MEANTIME's North end wall, blown it up, and painted the resulting pixels as equivalent panels with approximately the same colour in Dulux paint. Ben will correct me, no doubt if I've got quite the wrong end of the stick.

During my visit this morning, the sun shone obligingly in just the way it had done when the original photograph was taken.

Despite Ben saying the process was more important to him than the end result, that was of course all I could judge - and I liked it.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Feathered friends

Our back garden now has a new structure, so magnificent as almost - one would think - to require planning permission. It contains two chickens, much to the delight of Ida, Agnes and Caroline.

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Gloucestershire Way - again

This afternoon Caroline dropped me off at Birdwood, on her way to Ross-on-Wye, and I walked - aided by my new Leki - a further seven or so miles of the Gloucestershire Way, to Gloucester. Perfect weather for it! Warm, still, and bone dry underfoot - it's a section which could get extremely boggy, I imagine.

There was nobody else about, either on the path or on the River Severn, but I saw quite a bit of birdlife: a heron and a black swan flew off separately as I walked along the river past Minsterworth, and there were many more swans and lots of duck on the reservoir near Linton Farm. Had I been foraging, there were potatoes left lying around after their harvest; pears and apples - orchards abound - and of course it's been a brilliant year for blackberries.

The drawbacks about this section of the Way are the number of stiles and gates, and the traffic - both road and rail. And this photograph shows how it is impossible to see Gloucester Cathedral (from the West) without peering through a forest of pylons and their cables.

Saturday, 26 September 2009


"Don't have blood on your feet," is the striking message on one of many leaflets I was given this morning, visiting Cheltenham Town Hall for The Incredible Veggie Roadshow. I thought it would be a considerable distance outside my comfort zone, but I was wrong: I rather enjoyed it, and was impressed by most of the samples that each of the food stalls was generously offering.

One of the non-foody exhibits was of 100% Vegan Footwear: it was there I came across the aforementioned message. Though I didn't buy any of their shoes, the company responsible does them in 17 different colours, so its stall looked very attractive: they are only sold via mail order catalogue and website.

The manufacturers' name had a familiar ring about it: Freerangers.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Change of season

Our granddaughter, Ida was wearing her Winter coat today, whilst I was in shorts. In the garden, it was warm enough for them, and for shirt sleeves, but there is a chill in the morning air now, certainly.

Everything is very dry. The front lawn looks a real mess: Caroline is threatening to get some chickens and put them on it - they can't make it any worse. The apples are plentiful, and we have almost come to the end of a tremendous crop of plums on our Victoria tree, but few of them have grown to their proper size, some being more like prunes. My late leeks have shrivelled up, and I almost broke the fork, lifting parsnips on Tuesday. Surely the ones I saw at the Farmers' Market in Cheltenham Promenade today can't be grown organically!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

More on photobooks

A few months ago, I reported my delight at receiving through the post the first book I had had published by Another book arrived today, and I experienced a similar frisson when opening the package. In some ways, this is a more ambitious effort: the format is enormous - 12" x 12" - and I have taken more trouble over the narrative.

As you can see from my picture - I could only scan part of the front cover - the book records my walk in April this year from near Nogaro to St Jean-Pied-de-Port along one of the ancient routes which lead eventually to Santiago de Compostela. Soon after my return, I posted a brief report about my experiences, but this is a fuller version, running to 48 pages, with more than 200 photographs.

Unlike some print-on-demand publishers don't allow just anyone to examine or order the book by going straight to their site, but if you should wish to have a look at it online, I can arrange that: just put a private comment on this blogpost with your email address, or do so by saying hello via my visitor's book.

Monday, 21 September 2009

A rather cosy club

On Saturday, driving through Winchcombe at teatime, we saw guests streaming out of St Peter's after a wedding (not this one), all the men wearing dinner jackets and the women slinky evening dresses. Yesterday, I went to a party given by friends whose daughter's wedding (again, not the one in this picture) had also taken place the day before: a mother of another bride-to-be was bemoaning how the village churches around her home only seated "about 60 at a squash", and were therefore far too small for the wedding they had in mind. Two others I spoke to at this same party were discussing the probability that their parish church would be declared redundant: "there were only three of us at Morning Service today."

Clearly, there is still a strong wish amongst many for a church wedding, albeit attenders dress for them with the subsequent dancing in mind. Yet there is insufficient commitment to keep the parish church going week in, week out.

The Jesuit theologian Fr. Gerald O'Collins, giving the Tablet lecture earlier this month, set out seven dreams for the future of the church. One dream is of a church reaching out to others - to those who have lost touch with the church, as well as to other Christians and to members of other faiths. "At times they feel that they have intruded on a rather cosy club, made up of the regular parishioners."

And another of Fr. O'Collins' dreams is prompted by the human race seeming bent on destroying the earth and itself. "The cry of the poor earth must be heeded." He dreams of a church serving those in distress - linking the altar and the soup kitchen. "Young people... sense the difference between what we say and what we do. They respond when there is no gap between our words in church and our actions in the world."

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Not amused

Caroline bought a bike for Agnes' birthday on eBay, so collecting it was my excuse for an outing to near Nuneaton on Friday. My reward for riding a 19" frame lady's bike from its former owner's to Nuneaton Station was a stop-off in Birmingham on the way there: I wanted to pop into the Art Gallery to see Burne-Jones' Perseus Series, on loan from the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, the first time it had been on view in the UK. (The show was closing today.)

The pictures tell the story - as gruesome as any Tarantino film - of Perseus visiting the Graiae, Medusa's sisters, who shared one eye between the three of them, and making off with it; cutting off Medusa's head, and using it to win the affection of Andromeda (before turning various people to stone). It amazes me how the Victorian establishment obviously lapped all this up: Burne-Jones' commission came from Arthur Balfour, the future Prime Minister.

I fell asleep in the train going back, waking up with a jolt as it pulled in to Cheltenham. I had put my book on a low shelf beside my seat. Only as I was pushing the bike down the platform, the train moving off to Cardiff, did I remember.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


En route home from East Anglia, we paused in Oxford in order to go to the Botanic Gardens. I'm ashamed to admit it was my first ever visit. Nor even this time was I there principally to see the Gardens themselves, but because they were the venue for "Susurrus".

This is one of the Oxford Playhouse's "Plays Out", put on to encourage audiences to think differently about theatrical work and where it's performed. At the entrance, you pick up headphones, a miniature iPod-type device and a map. At each of eight different points, you are invited to sit down and listen to a passage on the tape, with appropriate music as you walk round in between.

Susurrus - meaning a soft murmuring or rustling sound - is perhaps not the most appropriate title for a play being performed quite so close to the Oxford traffic. Though the content itself is dark, the musical reference points (Britten's Dream, Janet Baker, and Maria Callas's last UK concerts) and the beautiful setting of the Gardens made it, for me, both a nostalgic and an enlivening experience.

For Caroline, it was rather less so, but both were glad we had made the effort to set aside an hour to go. Susurrus is on till 27th, I see from the theatre's website: if you are anywhere near between now and then, I recommend it.

I certainly hadn't appreciated how extensive and impressive the Botanic Gardens were, nor how close to the Cherwell: next week, with the new term starting, people will doubtless be in these punts if the weather holds.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Sense of achievement in Suffolk

As we were driving all the way to North Norfolk for our Friends' wedding last weekend, we thought we would extend our trip by a couple of days, taking up the offer of another good friend to stay in her cottage near Framlingham. So it was that we found ourselves walking to Framlingham on Monday, inspecting the handsome castle, fine church - and also this ductile iron cover in the middle of the road with its philosophical message.

It reminded me of Beethoven's "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" written at the start of the last movement of the score of his Op 135. Here's an interesting take on that, which you won't find in any Gramophone catalogue.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Icky and the immobile homes

Though caravans by the seaside invariably dismay me, these colourful beach huts at Wells-Next-The-Sea lifted my spirits when, coming out of the dark woods behind, I first saw them on Sunday morning. The previous day's wedding celebrations had continued with all meeting up for breakfast together, leading to a windy walk on Wells beach. Even, for three hearties, a swim: I kept well wrapped up.

In the woods were swarms of twitchers, looking apparently for Icky, the Icterine Warbler. They can't have been best pleased to have a noisy post-wedding party walking through their midst.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A Quaker wedding

On Saturday last, we were present for the first time at a marriage in a Friends' Meeting House. The celebrating couple and their guests sat round in an open square. There was piano music from a CD player before the appointed hour; then silence. Virtually the only formal words spoken were those of each of the parties: "I take this my friend John," in the bride's case, "to be my husband, promising through Divine assistance to be unto him a loving and faithful wife, so long as we both on earth shall live." It was delightful in its simplicity and in the sincerity with which the words were spoken: how often does the presence of a priest or minister prevent one from remembering that marriage is a sacrament administered by the parties to one other.

The guests originated from 15 different countries, all coming together to celebrate in Wells-Next-The-Sea on the remote North Norfolk coast. There was a party in the evening in one of the seaside Whelksheds, part museum witnessing to the town's maritime history, part John's studio.

We had stayed a distance inland the night previously, in a gracious estate house with 16th Century origins: above shows the kitchen. On the night of the wedding, our B&B (recommended) was of similar age, in the incredibly picturesque village of Little Walsingham. The atmosphere could not be further removed from that of Lourdes.