Monday, 24 December 2012

Why are we waiting?

And so the world didn't end on Friday, although a lot of people have felt the power of this year's Winter Solstice as a time of alignment, transition and transformation. It seems like every generation of human beings has some notion that theirs will be the last, that an apocalyptic event will occur or a rescuing Messiah will come to signal the end-time. None of us really know when or whether that will happen and in the meantime we have to deal with the world as it is. 

I've blogged before about the way in which Advent can get pushed out by the run-up to Christmas, just as the days from Christmas to the start of the New Year can get lost as an in-between time, the dog days of a year that it has already passed its Best Before date. And yet this is an important beginning time. For some it is the start of the church year, and for all of us it is an opportunity to "open to new light from whatever source it may come", as the Quaker Advices and Queries have it. I always like to remember that Christmas starts on December 25 (or January 7 in the Orthodox church tradition) and continues until the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, twelve days later.  The Christmas Carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, is an example of this tradition. In our house we mark it by exchanging gifts of DVDs from Boxing Day until January 6 (they take up less space than partridges, geese, swans, milkmaids and drummers etc and are somewhat cheaper!). 

Of course a lot of us have questions about the traditional Christmas story and whether it has meaning for us in the modern world. Maybe these days more of us are merely continuing earlier Pagan traditions of Yule and other festivals associated with the solstice and the seasons the natural world. And yet for me, the rhythms of the Church calendar also remain relevant, because it is here that we can encounter the call to personal transformation and growth. Although it is good that people no longer feel that they have to attend church out of dutiful dull observance, as human beings we nevertheless have spiritual health needs. It is in meeting these that we find meaning in our lives, as Victor Frankl famously showed in his book Man's Search for Meaning

I don't want a life-denying and ultimately unhealthy secularism to triumph. There are many who really need to hear the message of how deeply they are held by a loving and abundant God, or whatever other words we might use for this: Light, Source, Spirit, the Divine, Other, perhaps just a sense of a Higher Self beyond our personal Ego. But for this to happen within the current manifestations of the Christian church,  it must find ways to put its house in order. In this time of waiting for the light of the Christ-child there is an opportunity for the church too to have a new beginning. 

Here are my three Christmas wishes for a waiting world: a real humility and penitential action to bring justice for all church victims of child abuse; a recognition that spiritual marriage can encompass gay couples; and a final turning away from the deep-seated misogyny that keeps women out of the priesthood. The world cannot understand why we are waiting. I'm not sure that the babe about to arrive in the manger will either.

Friday, 30 November 2012

A few pictures from Belgrade

I'm in Belgrade for work for a few weeks. Here are some pictures...

Lion over-looking the Rivers Sava and Danube from Kalemegdan Fortress

Where the two rivers meet

Belgrade skyline
The Church

The Mosque
The Synagogue

View from the office

My favourite picture in the office

Why is the Serbian for hairdresser the same as the Norwegian?

Turkish Coffee - Ottoman influence

Lunch spot

US in Serbia
Crazy Horse
Not so Crazy Lion

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Prayer for victims of abuse

As the BBC deals with the impact of revelations about sexual abuse of young girls by Jimmy Savile and others, let us not forget that this is not just about one institution. There was a culture of tolerance and denial about abuse in the world I grew up in in the UK during the 1960s and 1970s. It continues to affect all of us, whether or not we were abused ourselves, as so many of us were - by parents, teachers, other family members and people in positions of trust, named and unnamed. My prayer today is for all sexually abused children and adult survivors. I hope you will join me.

You may like to light a candle and have a moment of silence between each line to remember those for whom you especially need to pray.

  • For adult survivors of sexual abuse
  • For children suffering sexual abuse now
  • For the partners, friends and families of survivors
  • For churches, schools and national institutions, that they may grow in awareness and sensitivity
  • For leaders in all areas of life, that they may put in place wise and effective policies and procedures for child protection
  • For survivors from ethnic groups who may suffer the additional hurts of racism
  • For all who speak out on this issue and who work to promote education, training and understanding
  • For all those who know about abuse and refuse to speak out that they may have the courage to do so
  • For the men and women who perpetrate  these crimes, that they may come to a real understanding of the harm that they do and take responsibility to stop such behaviour

This prayer is based on a postcard produced by CSSA in the 1990s.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

On Reading: R.D. Blackmore

One of my childhood delights was to tuck up with a book and a box of mint crisps on a cold afternoon. Growing up in Bristol, summer holidays were often spent on the Devon coast, travelling via Somerset and Exmoor. So one of the books I particularly enjoyed was the swash-buckling tale of Lorna Doone, which my mother had in a nicely bound leather edition. Its world of familiar place-names coupled with the sense of historical adventure and romance was a good escape from everyday life. Blackmore's descriptive powers, although definitely somewhat flowery to modern ears, are at their best in describing the natural world and conjured up wonderful pictures in my head of places I had also visited and enjoyed.

At one point I discovered that he was not a 'one-book wonder' and I began to collect his other stories, picking them up in second-hand bookshops as I found them. I managed to acquire quite a shelf-full, mostly in red or green hardback editions published by Sampson Low, like the one pictured here. They included Perlycross, Alice Lorraine, Christowell, Tales from a Telling-House, Erema, Springhaven, Clara Vaughan, Craddock Nowell, Dariel, Kit and Kitty, Mary Anerley, Sir Thomas Upmore, and Blackmore's personal favourite, The Maid of Sker. When I moved to Oxford, I was particularly pleased to find Cripps the Carrier, as it is set in the then rural area of Headington, on the road to London.

Then, in one of my mad moments of clearing out stuff - and for followers of my knitting blog I can tell you that this included at one point getting rid of all my knitting needles! - I decided to sell my Blackmore collection. I think I had the idea of clearing some much needed space on my bookshelves... And to be honest, I can't say that I've thought about them all that much again until this week. A while ago, and caught up in my busy south-east England life, I tried to re-read Lorna Doone in my Kindle edition but I couldn't focus and found its circumlocutory style too hard to get into. But up here on Shetland for the past week, and slowing down to a holiday pace, I picked it up again and have thoroughly enjoyed it - it's a rip-roaring yarn and thoroughly enjoyable escapism. As a result, all those other Blackmore books came flooding back to me and I did wonder why I thought it was a good idea to discard them.

In my defence, the truth is that perhaps the world was right about Lorna Doone being his best work - would not the others have stood the test of time and remained in print if this were not so? Well, the good news is that, thanks to Kindle and other initiatives to put out of copyright books on-line, there is the chance to decide for yourself, with several of the books listed above being available free or at virtually no cost via Amazon or other sites. Including Cripps the Carrier...

There is a paradox here, perhaps: technology as both the enabler and the inhibitor of earlier and slower-paced forms of reading. I've had to make a conscious effort over the last year to give myself time to enjoy the nineteenth century novel again - there are so many riches to be found there but the complexity of language and the slower pace of the writing and unfolding of plot and character can be a challenge. There are regularly expressed concerns about children not reading, not being able to concentrate, not being connected to the natural world. And these concerns are not just expressed by the technophobic: I love all the benefits that new technology brings but have also noticed how it can drive me at times, making the pace of our busy lives even more stressful and fragmented. And yet the digitisation of our cultural heritage is also preserving these treasures for future generations. It is to be hoped that they will cherish them, curling up with their e-books on cold afternoons and getting out into the countryside to appreciate the descriptive powers of an R. D. Blackmore.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On Reading: The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace

Near where I stay on Shetland, there is a wild peninsula called Scatness. A footstep away from the airport, walking on it feels as remote from civilisation as a moorland deep in the heart of the Scottish mountains. To reach it you go down a long track with some lonely cottages, past what at first looks like a tombstone but turns out to be a memorial to the end of the second world war in 1945: "Erected by Italian P. O. W. for kindness shown to them by the people of Scatness while serving with the R. A.F. coastal command". It feels possible that no-one has set foot on the peninsula since. One rarely sees anyone else there, although once we were accompanied by a lone Border Collie whose daredevil antics on the sharp rocks terrified and amazed us but were treated with disdain by the rabbits he was chasing. Here you can watch and listen to the waves uninterrupted by anything other than the cry and swoop of fulmar, Arctic Skua and oyster-catcher. It's a wonderful, dramatic, isolated place. On one unseasonably sunny day last October, we watched half a dozen seals bobbing about in the water until, with resignation and disbelief, we pulled ourselves away to head for the boat home and a return to our southern life.

I kept thinking about this remote part of Shetland as I was reading Jim Crace's excellent historical novel, The Gift of Stones. At the southern tip of the peninsula, looking towards Sumburgh Head and, ultimately, Fair Isle is the Ness of Burgi an Iron Age promontory fort and blockhouse. It is reached by a steep scramble up the rocks, with a rope handrail to your left for perilous clinging onto should it be windy - as it usually is on Shetland. The Historic Scotland sign among the ruined structure says: "We cannot be sure what this building was used for - a platform for rituals, a symbolic display of power and prestige, a defensive refuge, a coastal family home, or a mixture of these?" It is precisely this not knowing that adds to the air of mystery and excitement about this now uninhabited spot. I always feel a sense of awe at the thought of previous generations of humans occupying this space and eking out whatever precarious, or indeed rich and powerful, existence they could make possible there. Whatever kind of life it was, it couldn't have been easy. And it is no easy life that Crace describes in his story of a prosperous but insular Stone Age coastal community learning to come to terms with the arrival of invaders who bring a new metal [bronze] that threatens their livelihood.

“ The sea viewed from the clifftop is a world that’s upside down. Its gulls have backs. You’re looking down on wind. The shallows, from above, are flat and patterned, green with arcs of white where the water runs to phlegm…" Crace's prose is poetic, short sentences painting a succession of pictures that repeat and circle round each other. The narrator is the adopted daughter of a story-teller who as a boy lost the use of his arm when the community was raided. Her voice and his words form the backbone of the unfolding story. He weaves tales to earn his place in the group, unable to work as a knapper, carving the fine stone tools they make to use and trade. This difference, and his search for stories, lead him on trips away from the community. Walking the clifftops he brings back descriptions of the landscape that embellish the tales he produces for his listeners on his return. On one of these forays he meets a woman and her daughter living alone. The mother makes her living from the land and by offering sexual favours to passing men. He is both fascinated and appalled; gradually a kind of friendship develops between them as all three seek to find their place in the threatened community. Eventually, as the dust-jacket blurb has it,  'it is the fearless imagination of the storyteller that provides the community with a life-saving gift'. This is never a comfortable novel but Crace's strong descriptive prose makes it believable and leaves you feeling that you have had a real taste of what Neolithic life must have been like.

Crace's littoral descriptions are one of the particular delights of this book. "The clifftop path was cut by wolves and goats. It made no sense. At times it ran, ankle-deep, as straight as sunlight across thickets of winkle-berries…I breakfasted on fruit. But then...(t)heir paths ran out. I did the best I could, but made mistakes. I finished up on rocky promontories where going on meant sprouting wings. I found good downward paths to silent coves which offered no escape except by going back. I fell from rocks. I cut my shins. At least I wasn’t lost... Any fool could turn about and follow the clfftops home.” As with our walk on Scatness, a lone dog keeps the story-teller company. Available food consists of guillemot, eel, seakale, goose eggs, scallops, mussels, crab, and laver and samphire "picked at low tide in summer from the marshes".  In one of his stories, the story-teller describes what it is like in the world beyond what is familiar to his audience: “The landscape changed. It was not cliffs and coves. Low heathland swept gently to the shoe where thrift and black-tufted lichens lived side by side on rocks with barnacles and limpets. There were clumps of seablite, flourishing on spray, There was arrow grass and milkwort. All the herbs and medicines and dye plants that we saw bunched and dried and up for barter in the marketplace were in abundance here… I collected seablite for its purple fleshy leaves. Good for stews and dyeing wool.” And as the community make their way into this new world at the end of the book, it is these words that are repeated  as they are leaving the village, acknowledging the description from the story teller. His gift has made the unknown seem familiar, the unsafe seem possible, as the next tale for this small human community unfolds.  

Friday, 17 August 2012

Celebrating the Olympics

Like many, I was a late adopter of the wonderful event that has been London 2012. Undeservedly, therefore, I got to go into the Olympic Park twice last week, to watch a couple of raucous matches in the Water Polo Arena and the Preliminary round of the 10m platform diving with Tom Daley in the Aquatic Centre. As everyone else has observed, travel into London was superbly smooth and everyone was utterly welcoming and friendly. There was also a splendid exhibition of the history of the Olympics at the Royal Opera House, an odd but good juxtaposition as the reminder of dance as an alternative form of athleticism and movement was very welcome.  Here are a few pictures from the Park,  a taste of what life can be, and a promise that this blog is now active again, too!

Looking towards the Aquatic Centre

The Royal Barge 'Gloriana'
Supporting Team GB

Saturday, 18 February 2012

On Reading: Puffin Books 2 - Living in Narnia

I can't remember when I acquired my first Narnia book but I do remember being helped to choose it in a bookshop with my Mum when I had one of those delicious birthday or Christmas book tokens to spend. 'You must read this', she said, flourishing the attractive green and yellow book. She didn't say why but the title was intriguing and I liked the look of it, so it was added to the pile. And thus was I transported to C. S. Lewis's magical world, one I still enjoy now as much as I did then. I gradually acquired the others in the series - in those days one read them in the order that they were written, although there is now general consensus that they should be read in chronological Narnian history order, beginning with The Magician's Nephew and making The Horse and His Boy the third in the series rather than the fifth. I can see from the annotations in my copies that my historian's mind had already plumped for this preferred order but I'm pretty sure that I bought them in the original publication order. For some reason, I kept seeing them for sale at the back of churches; I couldn't understand why this was but I can remember buying The Last Battle from one.

A clue to this mystery was provided by my father, who expressed his antipathy for the books; it was clear that he really disliked me reading them. This was puzzling because in general he was a great reader and our house was full of books of all kinds. Although it didn't have the 'long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude' that Lewis describes for his own solitary childhood, it did have the 'endless books' and like him, 'Nothing was forbidden me...I took volume after volume from the shelves'. Dad's answer was even more puzzling: he didn't like the religious allegory, he said. I didn't entirely understand this but I knew that it was something to do with the books being available in church and also the household tension about religion itself. My mother and I went, and so did my maternal grandparents, but Dad didn't. For most of my teens I was caught up in this tension and didn't know how to resolve it. I stopped going to church but I still knew strongly that I had a spiritual side and that the exploration into that was ongoing. Meanwhile I kept on reading the Narnia books and felt a deep trusting loyalty to them, whether despite of or because of Dad's antagonism to them.

As life has turned out I've ended up 'living in Narnia', or at least that part of Oxford where Lewis also lived and worshipped. These days it is possible to take something of a Lewis 'tourist trail'. He is said to have had a religious conversion experience travelling on a bus up Headington Hill. The local park has a 'StoryBook Tree', with carved figures from the Narnian chronicles, as well as one of Smaug, Tolkien's dragon. (Funnily enough my Dad could cope with Tolkien - no allegory there, then...) Nearby there is a plaque on a house once occupied by Lewis's wife, Joy Davidman. A seat at Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry has a brass plaque with his name, with a lovely 'Narnia' window nearby, and he is buried in the churchyard. Near to his former home, The Kilns, there is a C. S. Lewis nature reserve on land once owned by Lewis and now in the care of the local Wildlife Trust. Some say that this is the 'real' Narnia, although to my mind that's a bit of a stretch - there's an expansiveness about Lewis's description of terrain which surely owes more to his imagination and the landscape of his native Northern Ireland. Last time I looked there were no mountains or seascapes in suburban Oxfordshire, although I wish there were! At the same time, there are some lamp-posts in the local streets which might well be the prototype for the one under which Lucy meets Mr Tumnus, as beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes.

Locals who remember Lewis, especially those who attended the same church, say he was withdrawn and rather curmudgeonly, criticising aloud when he disagreed with the sermon. He is said to have left services early to avoid mingling with the rest of the congregation. I certainly don't agree with everything he wrote, either; under a critical eye the Narnian stories can be seen as misogynist, imperialist and militaristic, and Lewis's God can sometimes resemble a kind of benevolent-omnipotent public school headmaster. At the same time, the series as a whole remains for me one of the best expositions of the reality of the Christian faith journey, one that doesn't necessarily reflect the form of Christianity imposed on it by modern, mainly North American, adherents of Lewis. Lewis himself said that 'a children's story is the best art form for something you have to say' and his Narnia chronicles are a perfect example of this. Perhaps this is what my Dad disliked; knowing the power of story and feeling it to be a trick, a sleight of hand to get children hooked on religion. Despite his concerns, I was and continue to be a grateful recipient of Lewis's story-telling, and I am also grateful to be living in Narnia. You can take your own virtual tour round it on the link below.

Living in Narnia

Sunday, 5 February 2012

On Reading: Puffin Books 1

A few years ago, a friend and I who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s were discussing the female role models we had identified with as young teenagers. Suzi Quatro was an easily agreed first choice. We settled on Sheila Rowbotham as our second, as we had both read history at university and been influenced in making that choice by her 1973 book Women's Consciousness, Men's World. For the third choice, after some hesitation, I suggested Kaye Webb. "Oh yes", said my friend enthusiastically. We knew nothing at all about Webb but we both knew immediately what her name meant to us.

It is hard to imagine now how desperately we, as intelligent young girls seeking a world in which we could be active participants, looked around for evidence that women could have interesting careers. Our respective schools were not sending anyone to university, although we were both determined to go. Notions of career, despite the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, were still heavily divided on gender lines. When an engineer came to my school as part of a series of talks on careers for the sixth form, the Deputy Head announced at the start that the girls may be wondering why we were being included and promptly told us that he expected some of us might marry engineers. We had to look outside our immediate world to imagine other possibilities.

Quatro showed that you could be the person who stood at the front in your leathers, singing and wielding a guitar. Rowbotham offered an analysis of the social structures that prevented more of us from doing so. And what of Webb? As editor of Puffin Books from 1961 to 1979 she opened up for us the biggest possibilities of all - access to the vast world of words and the imagination. These were the days when a 10 shilling book token went a long way. Webb's predecessor had also been female, the poet and writer Eleanor Farjeon, but Webb was more adventurous and trebled the list within five years. She also founded the Puffin Club in 1967 and introduced the Peacock imprint for older readers. (See Puffin By Design by Phil Baines, Allen Lane 2010)

But what my friend and I also realised that day was that it was just seeing Webb's name inside the front cover of our books that had meant so much to us. Hungry as we were to find our place in the world, here was daily evidence that a woman could be in charge of something important. The possibility this held out to us made a real difference to the choices we made and the future we could envisage beyond the narrow confines of our daily lives.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Welcoming in 2012

29 January is a bit late to be writing my first blog post for 2012 but it feels important to welcome in this particular year in its first month.

Spent yesterday at a workshop on Healing Fear with Chris Luttichau of Northern Drum . Chris introduced the day by mentioning how the course came into being after the July 2005 bombings in London, when his Native American teachers contacted him to say it was important to stop fear spreading out into the world from the UK in the way that it had done in the US after 9/11. This connected for me with something I thought in 2001 when the Times' journalist Hannah Betts wrote in response to the Twin Towers' attack something along the lines that it was 'clearly no longer the case' that the worst fear was fear of fear itself. I felt at the time that she was wrong, and still do.

Many see 2012 as a significant year for the planet. There is clearly much of concern in our current economic and world situation. At the same time we need to maintain our perspective and awareness of what is good about our world. Chris mentioned the Human Security Report Project at the University of British Columbia in Canada, which points to the marked decline in conflicts throughout the world since 1992. Despite this many people remain very fearful. It seems to me that it is essentially a spiritual crisis that we are facing, and that healing fear is a good place to start.

Chris's workshop introduced us to shamanic practices as tools for spiritual healing, both on a personal level and in the world as a whole. This is something practised by the uncontacted tribes who feel a particular responsibility for care of the collective consciousness. The day concluded with all of us participating in a powerful ceremony to send a healing light out into the world.

Imagine the possibilities and potential for a changed consciousness on the planet if we all made a commitment to confront and heal our fears and send love and healing out into the world in 2012. Happy New Year!