Saturday, 28 September 2013

Tewkesbury, unjustly neglected

This photograph was taken in the late Peter Healing's garden of tranquility, by the North side of Tewkesbury Abbey. Having discovered it last July, I'll try to return there whenever I'm in Tewkesbury. Old acquaintances staying nearby had invited me to lunch with them yesterday: they told me I had more than repaid their kindness by walking them to this garden. In a month of cornucopia, Creation Time no less, the vine and fig tree are loaded, and berries weigh down the shrubs either side of paths: you hardly think there would be room for them.

On our way there, we stopped to glance down one of Tewkesbury's alleys: there must be upwards of 50 of them. The house on the corner of this particular one belonged to a man known as Cork Legged Packer: he rented it to the eponymous Mrs. Lilley, a widow who ran a china shop.

We said our goodbyes, and seated at the bus stop a pony and trap trotted past. Falling into conversation with a man on a day trip from Pwllheli, I learnt that 95% of its population speak Welsh: he only acquired some English when refugees arrived from Liverpool to escape the Blitz. It made me think of the continuing blitzing of churches in Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, not to mention the mayhem caused in the shopping mall in Nairobi; but it reminded me also to offer a prayer of thanks for at least a measure of peacemaking this week in Syria and with Iran. As well as for the sobering - hopefully eye-opening - new IPCC Report.

Friday, 27 September 2013

"A community of Women"

I haven't been to Meantime for a while, but was glad to be able to pay a visit this morning. Vicky Hodgson, a Worcestershire photographer, has mounted an exhibition of images of women who work in the somewhat run down area immediately surrounding the workshop/gallery, tucked in near to Cheltenham's High Street.

This is a woman's view of women. There's no glamour angle. The subjects are posed, after discussion and with agreement, their clothes carefully chosen, their look directed at the lens. It's a cooperative venture, in other words, one perfectly underlining the usefulness of Meantime's role as a reflection on, of and for its neighbourhood.

The end-of-residency discussion last night drew in some of the "models": Herefordshire artist, Anna Falcini, who has written interestingly about Vicky's residency, also attended. I was sorry to miss it. (We were supposed to be at the RNT relay of Othello, but I made a right muddle over our tickets: red faces when an email arrived from Cineworld this morning, hoping we had enjoyed it.)

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Roadmender

Dialogue with teams of present day road repairers is not easy on account of the noise their machines make. So you bustle past, to get out of their way. Not so on Folly Lane above Slad yesterday. Surprisingly, it's unadopted, so here was a riparian owner with his DIY kit - two wheelbarrows, a spade, a rake and a bag of the black stuff. And time for a chat.

The three of us had parked near the Woolpack and climbed up the path on the South edge of Worgan's Wood. From the East side of the Painswick Valley, we looked over to Whiteshill and Pitchcombe before turning onto the Painswick Old Road at Brownshill Court (its once fine entrance looking very neglected). Wick Street was entirely new to me, a delightful hamlet with a fine early 17th Century manor house - not attracting a lot of sun in the Winter though I guess.

It was a warm day for some steep climbing, and a pint of Old Spot at Laurie Lee's local went down beautifully. Hannah, recently installed as mine hostess, offers a sensible, slightly minimalist pub lunch: the best soup I've tasted for a while! Our cup overflowed when we saw Kathy Lee in the other bar.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Troy and destroy

John Bell was the speaker on Thought for the Day this morning. He came on immediately after someone salivating over the prospect of life on Mars. John reminded us that "Adam" meant "earthling", and that the earth does not belong to us, but we belong to it - by decree of its maker.

You feel this when kneeling on warm soil to plant garlic and onions, as I have been doing in this lovely spell of mild weather. Softneck Thermidrome garlic this year, and 500g of Troy onion sets - netted against the birds, who enjoy tweaking the sets out of the soil.

I was slow to fix the mesh tightly round our sprouting plantlets earlier, and the result is a plague of caterpillars. It's either I who go into destroy mode, or they who remain in it.

The Autumn raspberries don't look up to much either, but the late Summer canes (seven foot tall in some cases) are still fruiting plentifully. As are the beans and Caroline's tomatoes and figs. She even presented me with her first melon the other evening.

The back lawn is littered with apples, and both lawns are also littered with rose and other prunings: we need more room in the deep freeze for juice and a couple more brown bins.

I photographed these onions this time last year on our visit to the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Astley revisited

February seems a while ago now, but our four days at Astley Castle have recently been brought back to mind by the news that it is one of the half dozen buildings shortlisted for this year's Stirling Prize. Though it won't affect the result, there's a poll on the BBC website, which shows Astley with strong popular support - not quite the front runner, but almost: the judges' announcement will be made on Thursday.

You don't often see the Castle photographed from this angle. It makes three aspects clear. First, the building is beautifully set, with mature trees in its extensive surrounding parkland, a moat, and a large garden within that. Secondly, the heat exchangers (you can see them to the right centre of my photograph) are just one of the measures introduced to make the building very energy-efficient. And thirdly, there is something of the stage set about Astley, which, coupled with its history, much enhances the romance of your stay.


Monday, 23 September 2013

"The world we made"

Jonathon Porritt's new book envisions the world as it will be 37 years hence, in 2050. It's a fictional memoir, looking back to yesterday, today and the intervening years, and postulating that we have responded to all the warnings that he amongst others have issued to date: that unless we alter course sharply, our world then will not be a pleasant place into which to be born.

It is getting on for 37 years ago that I first met Jonathon, in the heady, fairly early days of the Ecology Party: with the eloquence and passion he showed at Party gatherings, he stood out from the pack. I admired, not least, the way he used his experience as a comprehensive school teacher for tackling conference hecklers; but more significantly he was amongst the first to join me and others in recognising that God and his creation were the elephant in the room. As a result, we went on to establish what is now Christian Ecology Link. (I took this photograph of him at our annual conference last year, where he was a keynote speaker.)

Nobody has worked more unrelentingly for the green cause. Not that we have always seen eye to eye. In sending me my copy of The world we made Jonathon expressed the hope that what he has written about population "won't be too infuriating." "Hostile to addressing population issues," the book says, "was a great army of environmentalists and left-wing politicians in Western countries," arguing "that the real issues were poverty, injustice and over-consumption in the West." Mea culpa. The book goes on, "This kind of approach was not just stupid, but cruel." As Jonathon envisages in his inscription, my question remains, does the end then justify the means?

Various turns in Jonathon's career have been marked by his publishing a new book, but none will - I guess - have brought great riches through royalties. The world we made may just be different. "For me," Jonathon says in his postscript, "writing this book has been a big deal." And indeed an immense amount of research and imagination has gone into it. As you expect from a Phaidon publication, it is beautifully produced and presented. Comprehensive, authoritative, easy to read, and aimed at an international non-specialist market, I foresee it selling well. The question here is, will it release the energies in its readers that are needed to produce the change it predicates? And as a supplementary, how much flying will the author have to do to promote those sales?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Family history

One of my fellow Wednesday walkers is married to an archivist who works at Cheltenham College on and off. She has kindly looked up the old records and come up with this splendid photograph. William has the same look on occasion to the team captain, we think: not surprising, as it's his great-grandfather.

A very modest man, it was therefore all the more interesting to find out that he had a distinguished early career. As well as singing bass in the choir, he won numerous art and other prizes: he also performed, aged 16, at his house mid-term entertainment - "mounted the platform and entertained us at the blackboard, skilfully converting rhombuses and parallelopipeds into frogs, beetles and other wonders of creation (talking amusingly to himself meanwhile).” It rings true!

Friday, 20 September 2013

"The Art of Fielding"

I have a copy of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, one of the Great American Novels, given me as a school prize. (I didn't win many.) As a ten-year-old, it was above my head, and indeed it remains unread. But I have just learnt a bit about Melville himself from Chad Harbach's debut novel The Art of Fielding, which I finished yesterday.

Harbach's book looked intimidating - for being ostensibly about baseball, another no-go area for me, though I doubt it's any more arcane than cricket (which I love). I don't often think either about tackling books more than 500 pages long, but I needn't have worried: the story swings along nicely, with some neat twists. Whenever it threatens to get too frightening, the plot veers towards grand guignol.

I particularly liked the author's inventiveness with adjectives ("clean, chromatic, shapely, sun-kissed" for "girl/women": "bread-based" for religions) and names: Opentoe College; Sarah Coowe, an infectious-disease specialist; Angela Fan; President Valerie Molina; Chef Spirodocus.

And then there are the philosophical riffs: “... the Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”

Franzen evinces a genuine concern for the environment: Harbach, it seems to me, doesn't, even though one of the characters has a lyric comprimario role as the Green voice. Addressing the question of whether his lover should or shouldn't make a major property investment, he says: "Thoreau's Journals...When a philosopher wants high ceilings, he goes outside. He doesn't buy an oversize house that requires massive amounts of dwindling resources to heat in the winter. And to cool in the Summer. Let's not even talk about air-conditioning... Do you think you get a free pass because the house is old and lovely? ... Waste is waste, sprawl is sprawl. Your good taste doesn't count. If there's any kind of exclusionary, private-club-style afterlife, St Peter won't be asking questions at the gate. You'll just be lugging all the coal and oil you've burnt in your life, that's been burnt on your behalf, and if it fits through the gate, you're in. And the gate's not big. It's like eye-of-a-needle sized. That's what constitutes ethics these days - not who screwed or got screwed by whom."

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Cycle Norfolk - 3

Not much cycling today, as we were homeward bound. We had a happy overnight stay with good friends, still living in the house where we got engaged 38 years ago. They don't look much older, whereas...

The house has grounds all round, including an enormous walled garden, now mostly down to grass (and sprouting mushrooms when we inspected it this morning). At £20 a go in petrol alone, you can tell there's a lot of mowing. We share their dilemma of knowing when to move, and where to. Who wants our big brown furniture? And as for pictures...

You can't drive that way, but the cycle path back into Norwich runs attractively along the West bank of the Yare - once past an enormous sewage farm. There was time to visit St Peter Mancroft, and collect another sundial photograph, the "hand" being St Peter's keys in this instance. What a church! It stands alone, a stone building amongst the city's many other churches, which are flint. From the West end, you are dazzled both by the impression of light and by the gold of Seddon's reredos beneath the East window - the central figure of which is Comper's seated, beardless Christ, with something of the look of a Greek God about him.

In London, we ran into rain again. Before Liverpool Street, we passed the Olympic stadium etc., seen for the first time. Then in amongst the forest of skyscrapers which make Wren's steeples look as if they have strayed from a model village.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Cycle Norfolk - 2

Only the faintest drop of rain today - more or less perfect for cycling. We set off at 10ish, the sun shining, bidding our hostess a cheery Goodbye. Within a mile, however, ping went my back tyre. (The nearest village was Rougham, so what should I expect?) Back like bad pennies we gloomily walked to our friend's house: she, however, quickly dug out an old bike rack and in two ticks off we all set in her car to the Fakenham cycle shop. Amazing. ("T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far...")

From Fakenham, it's a doddle to where we are staying this evening - 40 miles South-East in Kirby Bedon. Both places are on Route 1 of Sustrans' marvellous National Cycle Network: I still have the old route map from my 2011 ride to Ampleforth, up through Lincolnshire. The difference between route levels is barely ever more than 40 metres: as far as Norwich, we more or less followed the line of the River Wensum.

Sitting outside Great Ryburgh Post Office, drinking coffee, we inhaled the scent of hops being malted. "Lovely day for bicycling: you must visit St Andrew's and see our stained glass," we were urged. Not Wailes' best, we thought, having followed this suggestion. But the screens and Ninian Comper's other extensive work in the church were well worth pausing to admire. A hint of late Strawberry Hill Gothic about them.

The next stop was to photograph a signpost indicating "Gateley" - off our route unfortunately: the parish name is apparently old English and translates as 'clearing where goats are kept'. No link, I think, with my grandfather Gateley's family, his great-grandfather, who kept a pub, hailing from Ireland (Co. Roscommon). On past the imposing gates of Sennowe Hall and to a bridge across the Wensum by an equally imposing mill - a beautiful spot, but only one among many today.

From near Guestwick, the path joins the Marriott's Way, a good surface, and so we progressed with no danger from four-wheeled vehicles as far as Norwich, except through picturesque Reepham. Time ran out for us to visit "Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia" at UEA's Sainsbury Centre, let alone any of Norwich's churches, but the final lap was shorter than I had expected so there was time for a hot bath before dinner.

My photograph shows an elegant lady, posted as sentinel at allotments alongside the cycle path.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Cycle Norfolk

We are staying in rural Norfolk, having come here by train and bike today. There was over an hour between our supposed arrival into Paddington and our departure from King's Cross, ample time, I thought, to bike between the two along the Regent Canal towpath, our most tranquil route. But the Cheltenham train came in late, and it was slow going through the rain, so we ended up having to run the length of platform 11 to catch our connection. Then we had to squeeze our bikes in between the end carriage doors, there being zero other provision, this despite the service feeding Cambridge, Ely, King's Lynn, the most cycling-friendly part of England. (As Amanda tells Elyot,"Very flat, Norfolk.")

King's Lynn merits further exploration, but we much enjoyed what we had time to see of the old town, whizzing round the outsides of Clifton House (with its 18th Century barley sugar columns either side of the front door and extraordinary Tudor tower at the rear), the Guildhall, the Old Gaol, the Custom House and the so-called St Nicholas' Chapel (almost the size of a small cathedral). It was St Margaret's Minster that impressed me most though. Not just the Norman West front: the 13th/14th Century arcading and brasses too - but also the modern crucifix above the pulpit, altar frontal and stained glass in the large N-W window under the tower. A vibrant church!

We were glad to complete our 15 miles here before dark, and get out of the rain. This after only a minor detour - not bad considering I had no proper map. As my photograph shows, our kind hostess, a very old friend, has begun to look uncannily like Basil Hume. He was never, to my knowledge, a cat-lover: she gave us a cat as a wedding present.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

"Thurs. wed."

We don't usually read The Times, but in Cornwall it was bought by our hostess. I happened to glance at the Forthcoming Marriages in Thursday's edition, and spotted the announcement of Katie and Rob's. (He's Dewhurst: hence - doh! - the anagrammatic heading.) Prior notice had in fact been given us of this happy news; and we heard how Rob, a while before popping the question, had flown over from Australia - to question the pop, who was sunning himself in a deckchair on the lawn.

This photograph of Katie and brother Pad was taken on the same lawn almost 24 years ago to the day.

Friday, 13 September 2013

"The literary landscape of Shropshire"

This is the subtitle of a recently-published anthology edited by one Margaret Wilson, whom I don't know from a bar of soap. A copy arrived here while we were away - with compliments: a nice surprise! The reason became clear when I looked down the list of contributors: my ancestor Peter Davis' name appears alongside those of others rather more celebrated - Boswell J., Darwin C., Dickens C., Lawrence D.H., Milton J., Owen W. to name but a few.

Though thanked for the contributions Ms. Wilson selected from Peter Davis' Diary of a Shropshire Farmer, I can't for the life of me remember being asked about this beforehand. Ah well, no harm done: rather the reverse, as the two extracts are well selected, and sit alongside a handsome photograph by a Geoff Taylor, taken I fancy from (rather than of) Peter Davis' family home, Dean Park.

The book looks and feels good: it would grace any coffee table - I couldn't fit the whole of the cover onto my scanner.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Church crawling

Jenkins to hand, Caroline and I set off inland today on a wet morning to look at two churches with seven stars between them. Even looking at lesser churches in Cornwall gives me great pleasure, if only for their churchyards' old slate tombstones: they last long enough to reveal much fine lettering still.

Getting to Blisland was itself a delightful journey of discovery, passing garden-gate produce stalls, ancient signposts and through a maze of narrow lanes. The church is almost worth visiting for its name alone: the only one dedicated to the brothers Protus and Hyacinth, whose feast was yesterday. John Betjeman raved about the Victorian screen, which runs gaudily across the entire width of the church. I especially liked looking up to the giddy-making wagon roof of the nave.

Blisland has a newish community building to boast of also: a vast shed, housing shop, post office, café with internet and large screen, doctor's surgery... all run, it's said, on as little energy as possible. There's a sign pointing out the cost of a drive to the nearest supermarket: "Shop here and save yourself a fiver."

St Neot's church is more celebrated even than Blisland's - "the cathedral of the Moor" - on account of its mediaeval stained glass. But it seemed less welcoming to me, possibly because of the sign forbidding unauthorised use of the photographs we visitors take. It's not as if there's a decent choice amongst the church's own photographic postcards. And anyway, dissemination of religious images is all part of spreading the Gospel surely! Why alienate visitors in this way?

Yes, the glass is interesting, especially the Old Testament scenes (Eden and Noah in particular). But give me Fairford any day.

During our stay, we met the owner of a remote Cornish home, who was moaning about a proposed wind turbine. "Only 450 yards away, and it will take £100,000 off my house," she had complained. We happened to pass by the property on our way to Blisland: it's sunk in a deepish, very wooded valley. Even if she's right about the loss in value - surely doubtful - you have to ask how many people in less fortunate circs. would give their eye teeth to be able to arrest an unwanted "development" within 450 yards of where they live; and to question whether one individual should be able to elevate her property rights above the needs of the world for more renewable energy. This, along with the extreme "whiteness" of the retired and holidaying community down here in Cornwall.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Foot patrol

Our hostess knows lots of people down here, as has become apparent. One came to supper this evening, and remarked on the contrast between dress codes in Cornwall and Hampshire. "People don't mind what you look like down here," she said. To which I was tempted to add, "So long as you have a dog to accompany you. Or preferably two. Otherwise, what would there be to talk about?" Temptation then resisted, but when she exclaimed: "I won't ever go for a walk without a dog!" I couldn't help myself murmuring, "And I won't (if I can manage it) ever go for a walk with one." Bad experiences of being tripped up by extending leads don't help.

In previous September visits to Cornwall, I have made for the surf - a highlight of coming here. This year, I don't feel in the least tempted. Funny. The house is so near the sea and to Polzeath beach and yet so far away from it, and the weather is uninviting. Today, there hasn't even been a glimpse of the sun, though we escaped any rain on our windy walk from Pentire Farm via The Rumps home.

So we were able to watch the surfers from a distance, well-shepherded as they are these days by lifeguards. This hut sits on the South side of Hayle Bay: the sign outside tells passers by that the beach is today watched over by five "veterans". Ready to hot-foot it into action, I observe.

From above Polzeath, there's no danger of confusing wetsuited surfers with seals, as once we stupidly did when walking on Worm's Head. Today, rounding Pentire Head, we had (real) porpoises pointed out to us by fellow walkers: much more interaction between coast path traffic than there is on the pavements of Cheltenham, where you may be looked at askance if you offer a "Good morning!"

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


It's been a dry day, but only fitfully sunny: cool in the wind. Walking down to the Coast Path across Beniguet's large, springy-turfed lawn, we made our way this morning via an almost deserted Daymer Bay and the golf course to St Enodoc's Church.

After buying postcards and admiring John Betjeman's tombstone, we skirted Brae Hill and climbed over the dunes to the beach, where the Padstow ferry was kindly waiting for us. Nicely sprayed during the crossing, we were unloaded into a seething mass of people: to escape the crush, we fought our way uphill from the Harbour as quickly as possible before collapsing into a café. Having set off eventually to continue in the direction of Stepper Point, I realised my poles were still propped up against the café wall; so we redeployed to collect them and explore instead the nether reaches of Padstow itself. The beautifully-maintained church of St Petroc turned out to be well worth discovering.

All the Apostles are clearly distinguishable on the four faces of a handsome 15th Century font, and an early 17th Century Prideaux monument plus later memorials leave one in no doubt as to which family has been running the place for some centuries. Peter Prideaux-Brune, the present incumbent of the big house - a Catholic - must surely be happy that the church is now officially shared, with the blessed sacrament reserved in the Lady Chapel. (I have not spoken to him since 1956, when he and I sang in Messiah together under Roger Bevan.)

Monday, 9 September 2013


We are in Cornwall for four nights. The journey seemed easier for a lunch detour: we left the M5 at Taunton, heading roughly South to Cricket St Thomas. Kilima Farm, though not on top of a mountain, is well situated overlooking Crinkley Bottom: my Goddaughter and family are now in residence with her mum, who looked after us hospitably. Then on to Honiton Station, to collect Sarah, arms strapped following her fall on the tennis court, from her train, and two hours later we were here.

The large white holiday house, which members of our friend Caroline's family have been coming to for 60 or so years, was built with servants in mind: it's a long walk round from dining-room to kitchen when you've forgotten to put something by the hatch. The house name, Beniguet, means "blessed" in Cornish, no doubt because of its position. Now it's dark, there's just one light over the other side of the Camel river - reminding us of  looking out from Agios Stephanos in Corfu towards a dark Albania opposite. In daylight, we can see, as well as the Estuary, Brae Hill, Padstow, Hawker's Cove and Stepper Point: as fine and wide a view as one could wish for, especially when there's a sunset like tonight's.

Before then, Caroline's immediate family, down for a long weekend, had driven off back to Hampshire, the youngest at 12 months old already shows signs of having inherited her grandfather's right-wing views.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Whittington Show

Despite an iffy forecast, it has been a fine day as usual for the Whittington Show. Charlotte came to lunch, and we took her up Ham Hill with us, sneaking in the back way and parking outside Kim and Ruth's. Doing this, we get to see the fête proper twice, on the way to the Court and on the way back: otherwise, it can be an effort to drag ourselves down to the village and back, what with the attractions of the Press, the church and the Court itself - where Jack was today looking particularly dapper, sitting in splendour in the bay window of his bedroom. Hugo presided in the hall, having to close the door when too many threatened to invade the house. Jenny, Lucy and Giles were on downstairs room duty.

At the Press, John cruised genially; Rose and Patrick were busy selling, and 20 or so stalls were set up under the trees, showing fine books from other presses, marbling, weaving, bees and much else: it's a unique gathering surely; and more and more come each year. Miriam peered through borrowed specs.; Freddie brought Zazie and guests; Kitty, Antonia, Rory and Judith, Toby and Ursula and family, Heather, Julian... And by the produce tent, I spoke to Jill and the Frys, and of course Ian with photographs and fudge as well as beef brochures. Roger and Dave were around the Hall, where we paused for tea before returning to the car, clutching second hand books for the grandchildren, the brass band still playing, but clouds gathering to spoil the brightness of the afternoon.

Friday, 6 September 2013


The Yew Tree at Chaceley is only half an hour away, but I had never been there before yesterday. Caroline and I were the only customers, sitting on the lawn separating the pub from the River Severn. After winding along the road that leads North from Tirley - a much hedged-in lane - it's a surprise to come across such an open landscape all of a sudden - as if you've reached the seaside.

No doubt passing traffic is usually heavier than it was during our lunch hour, the landing-stage being big enough to accommodate a fair few barges. And as indicated by a weathervane, there's a sailing club just downstream, though we only saw one yacht on the river.

Thursday, 5 September 2013


This morning, probably for the last time this Summer, we ate breakfast outside. The fair weather we have enjoyed for so many weeks is coming to an end, we hear: a ten degree drop in temperature is forecast for the weekend.

From our garden alcove, we look out over the marmalade to Caroline's pond, fringed with Alchemilla Mollis, and also with these upright Aces of Spades - but of a different hue. The cobwebs don't photograph so easily: they are still more wondrous.

Today is D-day for the sweet peas, all now turned to straw on their sticks: I can then dig in the horse manure, collected from Bentham yesterday, right across the larger vegetable patch. Farewell wild rocket also therefore.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


Yesterday our parish, St Gregory's celebrated its patron's feast day - with a feast! And in three days' time, at the Pope's instigation, we shall be fasting (and praying) - for peace in Syria and worldwide.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A sparky evening with Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link

In May last, Fr. Tom Cullinan addressed Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link on “Christ and Ecology”. “We need,” he said, “to allow that which God brought about in Christ’s ministry (and the mystery of his cross and resurrection) to reproduce itself in our age. In other words, we need to become extremely aware of the conditions we are living in; of the social order we are part of, and of what’s happening on our planet.”

Fr. Norman Tanner S.J.’s talk to CCEL last night, “Ecology in Christian tradition from the early church to today” had a different emphasis. The Professor of Church History at Rome’s Gregorian University brought us “a few scattered historical reflections”. Central to his theme was the humanity of Christ, who showed us that an ecological life meant the best, the most sensible way to live.

Norman started with an illustration from the early 4th Century, given us by St Jerome: St Paul of Thebes lived in Egypt as a hermit, a raven supplying him with dates and bread. But hermits did not completely disassociate themselves from the world: St Anthony visited Paul once a year. When Paul died, his grave was dug out by lions with their paws: Anthony placed the body in the grave, the lions covering it up. Both saints lived to 100, their good lives “an image of ecological balance”.

“Good” lives, that is, not just ascetic ones. Jesus is symbolised as a fish: the Eucharistic bread and wine flow into the rest of our lives, where we enjoy a meal at leisure: it completes a natural symbiosis. Ecology implies a mixture of beauty and suffering – the suffering necessary for growth.

A feature of the early Church is life in community – in villages, families, monasteries, nearly all with their animal and vegetable kingdom attached. Where humans and animals live together, as they did, each animal (not just dogs and cats) is known by name. Most people live in the countryside, and farming is – as St Benedict wrote – an integral part of a balanced life. This synthesis does not need emphasising: it is just there.

Within these manageable units, mutual correction between the human population is possible, and the norm. This changed with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, which placed more value upon each person’s relationship with God, than upon God’s place within an ecologically balanced community. Individualism grew stronger – and we became too polite. “All of us for ourselves” and “the sky’s the limit” get in the way of a balanced life for the community. The question today is: how do we hope to achieve ecological balance?

Now, aware of resource constraints, the problems of overpopulation and habitat destruction, there is a new imperative to live simply. We nevertheless need to remind ourselves that the reasons for doing so, characterised in the early Church’s history, remain valid.

Norman’s talk provoked a flurry of contributions from the large audience. One audience member questioned whether concerns about overpopulation were not exaggerated, which brought a sharp response from Mary Colwell, environmental adviser to our Catholic Bishops Conference: “Even if we are able to feed seven, going on nine, billion people,” she said, “at what cost? 60% of even the animals and plants in the UK are already under serious threat of extinction because of the way we have to use the land.”

She went on, “The problem is that the Christian Church has nothing to say about the natural world: it doesn’t know what it thinks about nature generally and our relationship with it.”

Mary Paterson passed on a recommendation for Richard Bauckham’s “Beyond Stewardship: The Bible and the Community of Creation”. On the controversial question of population, Clive Burton pointed us in the direction of Albert Bartlett's classic YouTube lecture, "The most important video you'll ever see".

Feedback since received includes a note from Canon Andrew Bowden: he found helpful Norman’s stress on the importance of ‘community’ and 'collegiate theological discussion' for a healthy ecological life. At the same time, he asked “Where would we be in our understanding of ecology without the scientific individualism unchained by the Reformation and Renaissance?”

Gordon McConville, Professor of Old Testament Theology at the University of Gloucestershire, also liked the connections to “community”: Norman “said some very interesting things, even if some members of the audience thought he was working with an idea of ecology that they were not expecting.”

From Mary Colwell came the comment that she "really valued Norman's ideas that community, simplicity and connection with nature are great insights the Church has to offer the world today, wise ways of living whether there is an ecological crisis or not."

Norman himself said he enjoyed being with us – and that he had learned a lot! Thanks to him for sparking this particular evening of 'collegiate theological discussion'.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The grave nearest their home

On Radio 4 yesterday Samira Ahmed asked, "What can we learn from a broken teapot?" According to legend, when a 15th century shogun smashed his treasured pottery, Japanese artists repaired it with gold. Kintsugi, as the practice is known, gives new life to damaged goods by celebrating their frailty and history. Samira considered how we might live a kintsugi life, finding value in the 'cracks' - whether it's the scars showing how we have lived, or finding new purpose through loss.

Today was a beautiful day for a joyous memorial service, the send-off for a grande dame, who had been blessed with eleven grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. Eleanor had hosted many wonderful parties at her South Warwickshire home over 60+ years, so it was entirely right that the field by the house should once more be filled with cars: considering the few friends one might normally expect to have left at the age of 94, a huge crowd assembled.

Her youngest grandchild spoke of the emotion that in her final years her grandmother (happily never lady gaga) came to display - such a contrast to the twinkly, warm smile and stiff upper lip characteristic of the person I had known. Eleanor had herself lived through painful, kintsugi times.

Another granddaughter, Francesca Zino, read this most appropriate quotation, attributed to Emerson, the 19th Century American writer: "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."