Saturday, 28 February 2009

Eight plus one deer

Nearly an ideal day today for a long walk! Not too hot, pretty dry underfoot, and nobody about on the Gloucestershire Way between Stow and Winchcombe. But hardly a moment of sunshine, alas.

This stretch of the Way passes through some of the most remote parts of the Cotswolds. In the long stretch between Condicote and Ford you hardly see one house. And so, of course, the deer have nothing to fear. I particularly liked the albino one on the right of this group. (I am informed it may be a fallow deer amongst roe!)

Thursday, 26 February 2009

the open west 2009

Caroline and I have been up to the Summerfield Gallery this afternoon (at the University of Gloucestershire's Pittville Campus), to see part of a new show, called the open west 2009. It's rather good.

As wide a variety of contemporary art as you could wish to find is well shown in a wonderful space. And it's not just a case of never mind the quality: feel the width, as the finish of most of the work is excellent.

In the background of my snapshot you can see Soo Jung Choi's "Romeo and Juliet", a charming and thought-provoking essay on a familiar theme (acrylic on canvas). (Foreground: the exhibition's hard-working organisers, Sarah Goodwin and Lyn Cluer Coleman.)

"Romeo and Juliet" rubs shoulders with Clara Clark's "train", a large, noisy, primitive-looking sculpture ("chicken wire, paper, sawdust, wood, motor, pulley"); whilst around the corner you find Jessica Harrison's stomach-churning, almost pointilliste "Monster" ("fly legs on paper").

Yesterday, I visited the other venue where the show is up, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum. What impressed me there was the lyricism of Anna Bush Crews' film "Seapot 24 (the spout)", and the extraordinary concentration of Thurle Wright's paper constructions. Not that I would want to buy one.

You can catch the open west 2009 anytime over the next five or so weeks. By the way, some male artists have been selected also!

What a rare joy to find such ambitious displays in Cheltenham!

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Day of reflection

On Saturday week, I have persuaded Frank Regan to come up to Gloucestershire, to lead a Day of relection.

Frank was born and raised in the Bronx and was until three years ago a Catholic priest. He describes his principal concern as being to understand faith today in the junction where culture, politics and ecology meet. He spent 22 years as a chaplain with the Young Christian Workers in Peru and 10 years in London working in Justice and Peace ministry. Now semi-retired, he lives with his wife in Devon.

Frank presided over a Day of reflection I went to in May last, further South from here, at Woodchester: there he spoke with authority, but in a quiet way, eliciting responses from those of us who came. We didn't feel "talked at." Nor were we terrified into making commitments we couldn't manage. But we were cajoled into a new way of looking at our lives in relation to the bigger picture.

Frank has chosen quite an enigmatic title for this Day, but the substance becomes clearer from the titles he has given his two sessions. In the morning, Our planet in peril: our prophetic response. How do we cope with the bleak realities long-term here on earth? What might be a Christian's leadership role, given that most prefer to remain in denial?

After lunch, Frank will speak under the heading From prophets to mystics. It can all so easily become too much for us. We lose hope very quickly. Does mysticism hold something for Christians in this time of crisis?

As usual on these occasions, a number of people have said they are interested in attending, but haven't indicated definitely. So, dear blog reader, if you would like to come, do please contact me. If you click on the poster, you will see my contact details. (Bring food to share, and let me know if you need assistance getting to GL52 6NR.)

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The gardener's friend

Not a very bright or sunny Shrove Tuesday, but not cold here either; so I have been in the garden, doing the sort of jobs I ought to have done in the Autumn, but never got round to - raking leaves etc. My companion showed a keen interest in the insect population I was uncovering.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Great Coxwell's sow and litter

For the first time this month, Caroline and I drove off together across the Gloucestershire county boundary. Not many miles, though we could have touched on three other counties in the process.

First stop was over the Thames to Inglesham, Wiltshire. Notwithstanding Hans Hotter was singing Der Leiermann for Michael Berkeley's Private Passions guest (Dominic West) on the car radio, there was a touch of Spring in the air.

After a pub lunch in Coleshill (Oxfordshire, we were assured), we drove a short distance to Great Coxwell (Berkshire, according to Pevsner) to look at its stupendous 13th Century barn. More than 50 yards long, it is "as noble as a cathedral," in William Morris's words.

But I'm glad Caroline suggested we should explore a bit further before turning the car round: the village church of St Giles (even older in origin than the barn) has some interesting glass: engraved 18th Century in the East window, and a combined Good Shepherd and Good Samaritan window in the South wall of the nave, possibly Kempe or Clayton and Bell.

The church's most intriguing feature though is this sow with her litter, a rustic mediaeval relief carved high up on the West face of the tower. Its simplicity and humour contrasted so markedly with the ponderous sensationalism of Jeremy Paxman in BBC's The Victorians which we watched on television later.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Learning about El Salvador

The murder of Óscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, in March 1980 awoke something in me. It wasn't exactly a spiritual conversion I experienced, but a realisation that faith had to mean something today. This awareness was intensified by the subsequent brutal killing of six Jesuits at San Salvador's Christian university (UCA) in 1989.

For a large audience in London, Romero's witness was recalled last evening by Fr. Dean Brackley SJ, in a lecture entitled, "Crosses and Resurrections in El Salvador - The Wider North-South Divide and Our Vocation to Solidarity." It didn't make for easy listening.

Fr. Brackley, for the last two decades Professor of Theology and Ethics at UCA, replaced one of his murdered fellow-Jesuits. The author of a number of books, his pamphlet "The University and its martyrs: hope from Central America," describes the sequence of events leading up to the onslaught, and sets out the challenge of the UCA as a model for a university in the 21st Century. He described UCA's three functions - teaching, research and (most importantly - and uniquely) "social projection." This last involves each undergraduate in committing to a target of 600 hours community service: both students and professors engage, for instance, in engineering and agricultural projects, legal assistance and tutoring in poor communities. (The average number of school years completed by children in El Salvador is six.)

Fr. Brackley believes every university community can learn something from UCA's philosophy: the importance of studying the real world, and the way contact with the poor can foster learning. Students experiencing community service pass through three phases. First, having overcome their initial fear, they find themselves useful - sometimes for the first time. People they thought threatening turn out to be basically decent, but nonetheless suffering injustice. Secondly, the bloom goes off: down-and-outs can be angry. They can also be con artists. Thirdly, students begin to ask about the nature and causes of problems they are facing - homelessness, drug addiction etc. "They begin to tug on the string of their local situation and run up against the tangled complexity, the structural nature, and the enormity of the evil and injustice around them." This can tempt them to give up and drop out. Or it may lead to the students allowing "others' suffering to break their hearts."

Middle class culture, Fr. Brackley says, pulls us from the struggle for life, to the point where we become disoriented about what's really important in life. But life is not a spectator sport. If we listen to the stories of the poor, "we can begin to see our reflection in their eyes, hear our story in theirs, recognise our hidden struggle for life in their open struggle against death. In this way, we let these strangers break our hearts. Solidarity is born."

In rich countries, we find Christians with faith and love, but lacking hope. We know in our heart of hearts that things are much worse in the world than we usually admit: the poor bring that crashing home to us. Then we realise that sin abounds, but grace abounds even more. "I asked Teresa, a grandmother, whether she was eating well. She whispered in my ear, Don't you think it's more important that these little ones should eat?"

Since posting the above, I have learned that the text of Fr. Brackley's lecture is being published in two instalments on the Thinking Faith website: the first instalment is already available there.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

"Skylight Red"

A couple of months ago, we had a visit from my cousin David McMillan, who was on a European tour from his home in the Southern part of New South Wales. Leo and I had visited him and his wife when we were in Australia in 1998: even though it's in the Murray River area, there is always a shortage of water.

The image of a bush fire advancing though a forest of tall, straight trees came into my mind when I saw this sculpture on Tuesday, by Chinks Grylls. "Skylight Red" is etched on mouth-blown, antique glass, and is on display at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum as part of its "On the edge" exhibition.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The Catholic Herald's angle

I have decided I am really not a fan of The Catholic Herald under its present regime, which veers between the conservative and the reactionary. This week it has excelled itself, with an article seeming to castigate Catholics who belong to green organisations.

The heading Green ideology ‘as deadly as Communism’ announces a discussion of the new booklet by Russell Sparkes: "Global Warming: How Should we Respond?" I have it on order, but a chat with someone who has read it carefully informs me that its tone and content broadly encourage Catholics to work for the responsible stewardship of the planet.

What the Herald's journalist has decided to do however is to pick up on Mr Sparkes's condemnation of a few easy targets - extremists within the green lobby, for example those who argue in favour of abortion as a means of limiting population growth. But aren't there always extremists in every broad coalition? And, goodness knows, don't we need to form such a coalition if we are to stir Government into action to combat climate change?

The article mischievously states that the booklet is published by the bishops of England and Wales: this is nonsense. It is published by the dear old CTS. As their Sales & Marketing Manager has confirmed to me by email, it is a privately published booklet.

Many Catholics are members of the long-established ecumenical charity, Christian Ecology Link. This was started by a small group of Christians, Catholics included, who came together at an Ecology Party conference (in Malvern - 1981 was the year), primarily for the purpose of prayer. We were concerned that there was a lack of Christian spirit within a political party that had set out to be different. So, the twin aims were developed, of "Christianising" the party, and encouraging the churches to which we each belonged to develop a care for God's creation.

It's hard to undo the harm such an article does!

Friday, 6 February 2009

Ripe for development?

The word is that this and the other open land between us and Leckhampton Church has all been optioned (if not bought) by builders or developers, who are just waiting for the dominoes to start falling via the planning process. I - and many others - support LEGLAG, in opposing any such development, for many reasons, including the increased likelihood of flooding. Well, as you can see it was pretty boggy today, as always in Winter. Albeit scenic of course in the snow.

Caroline has set out intrepidly for Hampshire, loaded with sandwiches, blankets, mats and a shovel - as well as Agnes and Ida. They are to stay with William and Laurie for a couple of nights, whilst Edmund and Claire go to Norfolk for a wedding: it seems likely to be a white one.