Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Michaelmas & Memories

Sunlight streamed though the tentative autumn mist, as the last day of September dawned.  Later I sat enjoying the gentle warmth of the afternoon sun, but the breeze had playful intentions, fluttering the pages of my writing pad and shaking the flowers, when I attempt to take close up shots.  The sedum has turned from insignificant green to a flamboyant rosy pink, but the day belongs to the michaelmas daisy, for on this day we celebrate the feast of St Michael.

Today I also recall two members of my family, who were born on this day -  for my paternal grandfather and my mother shared a birthday, and they seemed comfortable with this fortuitous bond.  Both were born into impoverished families.  My Grandfather, I believe, was born in Aberdeen, towards the end of the 19th century, possibly as late as 1891.  He must have been just less than five years older than my Grandmother, because she received her pension first.  According to my Father, my Grandfather sometimes referred to my Grandmother as "the Bride", During the short period after her 60th birthday and before his 65th, she became 'the pensioner". 

When I was born my grandfather was still running the ships chandlers in Milford, where my grandparents had spent most of their working lives.  The return of my Aunt from a year long trip to New Zealand, visiting family, provided the impetus for my Gran to abandon the town she had called home for 50 years and with my aunt decamped to Devon, to a house she had inherited, and waited for her husband to join her in retirement.  My Granddad did not rush into this move, and I think it was at least a year before my Gran could persuade him to leave Wales and settle in Devon.  Sadly, I don't think he lived there more than a couple of years, as he developed pneumonia and died. I thought it was very negligent of my Grandmother to have allowed this to happen and I may even have informed her of this. At the age of three or four I had no awareness that everyone will die and it is rarely a matter of choice. I do not know now if I actually told her, or if in my mind this is what I wanted to do.  Time has made it hard to distinguish between reality and intention.  

I grew up surrounded my legends of the time when the family lived above the shop, but I never stayed at 19 Charles Street.  My elder brother was born there, my sister could join in with the stories, but all I had was an interweaving of family folklore through the filter of a four year old.  The pigeon on the gas lamp in the bedroom, the rainwater that flooded down the staircase and greeted customers entering the shop, the washing line tied to the apple tree, which then grew... and mysterious references to 'the kitchener', which for years I assumed was a welsh word for kitchen, but was in fact the name of the pub close by - the Earl Kitchener

My mother was born in Handsworth, Birmingham.  She was a bright child and allowed take up the place she was awarded at the nearby King Edward Grammar School for Girls.  She took the 11+ a year before many of her contemporaries.  As the youngest child in the school she was given the privilege of greeting a speaker who had come to address the whole school in assembly and escorting them from the back of the hall to the dais, where the Head and other dignitaries waited. The memory of that seemingly endless walk, past all the older girls, stayed with her. Later, when dementia cruelly hijacked her brain, it was to this point in her life that she returned, when she was eleven, at the Grammar School and bombs were falling.  Towards the end of her life it was her maiden name she responded to, her husband, children and grandchildren all forgotten.  I often wondered how different her life might have been if the war had not dominated her teenage years.  If, instead of finding a job which she would be content to do, she had had the freedom to consider all her options.  Luckily she found her niche in auditing, but before this she worked briefly in a laboratory.  She discovered that she didn't have a passion for science, but she did meet my Dad…

Above is a photo he took probably after they were married.  I suspect it is taken somewhere near Neath, as it
a) Looks hillier than I remember the southern part of Pembrokeshire being and 
b) Mum is wearing a mac. She often talked about how much milder south Wales was  than her native Birmingham, and how she didn't need a winter coat, but had several macs so there was always one dry enough to wear.  Neath, she claimed was nicknamed the 'piss pot' of Wales, and with good reason!  The picture has the legend 'The Captive', continuing the family tradition of tongue-in-cheek nick names.

Today, there is no-one in my family who has a September birthday.  On the last day of September I will remember my Mum and Granddad, not with sadness, or bitterness, for despite their humble beginnings, their lives were good.  

Today has been a beautiful day, my Mother would have enjoyed the subtle change of colour as leaves began to turn.  if the weather had been this good they would have  enjoyed a last day in Saundersfoot, before they closed the caravan for the winter.  My granddad could have taken an evening stroll on The Rath or down by the docks, as the last of the suns rays spilled across the Cleddau, bathing the farmland and villages opposite in a golden glow or glorious welsh greyness, with the infamous words "It can't rain, the wind is in the wrong direction...."

In a few hours September will slip away, but for now I will remember family members who have lived, loved, laughed, left the stage and shared a feast day with St. Michael.

Monday, 29 September 2014

All A Matter of Definition

KHT  "How long is a very long time?"
me    (Heart sinking) "It is not definable, it varies from situation to situation"


KHT  "How long is a very long time?"
Me    "Well, it is longer than a long time, but not as long as a very, very long time…"

(exasperated sigh)

KHT  "Just tell me how long is a very long time!"
Me    (Encouragingly.)  "Well done.  You have asked an impossible question!"
KHT   (Suspiciously)    "What do you mean?"
Me   "There is no single answer to your question. It depends on each circumstance.


Me    "2 years."
KHT  "Ok 2 years"  departs happily
Me    "Wait it has changed again, 6 months"
KHT   (mutterings off) "Humph!"
Me    "Now it is 90 years…."
KHT  "90 years?"
Me    "Now it is 10 minutes"
KHT   "I think I will stick with 90 years!" 

Sometimes only an incorrect answer will suffice...

Thursday, 25 September 2014


I know it is designed to work, and indeed for many it does work. Just not for me!

"A simple, but practical, solution!" I hear you cry.
And my heart sinks...

"Idiot proof! you declare.
"Not for THIS idiot!" I mutter in response.

"Just follow the instructions!", you advise, encouragingly…
"What instructions? I ask in bewilderment.

"Look, everyone knows how it works.  It's self-evident!"
"Evidently…….not" I respond.

"Well it is designed so that you instinctively know how to use it, WITHOUT instructions…"
"So, if that is true, how come I do not know how to use it?  Instinctively, or otherwise?"

"You are just not trying!"
"On the contrary. I think I am very trying.  After all there is no denying that I haven't a clue what to do…"

"Can't you just take this seriously?"
"I take my own inadequacy very seriously.  All around the world people can succeed at this, but not moi!"

"Give it here!"
"That's what you always say…"

"What really is your problem?"
"Maybe it is just lack of confidence.  I start off well enough. Then at the point I have to change direction, I panic, and suddenly have no faith in being able to complete the task. Basically, I screw it up when I doubt my ability."

"So, just have confidence in yourself!"
"No, I can't do it. I did once, but that was a fluke, pure fluke….Do you think this means that I don't trust God?"

"No, I think it means you prefer a tin opener to a ring pull. Oh I can't watch…."

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Challenging Comfort Zones

On a sun soaked September afternoon, the great, the good and the gatecrashers gathered at St Peter' Ipsley, to meet with the new Bishop of Dudley, who was spending an action packed day in the deanery.  His impressively breathless itinerary featured visits to a school, the local hospital and a garden project, before meeting with the local clergy.  Bishop Graham then led Celtic Evening Prayer, and then took afternoon tea and questions, with members of local churches.

The session provided an opportunity for the Bishop to put a few more names to faces of the hundreds of people he must meet each week in the course of his duties and for members of the churches to get to know the Bishop a little better.  In addition to disclosing that he had 20,000 bees and a dog, a couple of offspring and a wife, the Bishop shared a bit about himself, his faith journey, and the importance of encouraging others. Bishop Graham also reflected on how as a church we need to be relevant and attractive to young people. He urged us not just keep doing what we have been doing because we want to preserve what we have for ourselves, but instead be willing to adapt and embrace change if that is what God is calling us to do. Churches are very busy places, run by committees, ruled by custom and practise and regulated by rotas. I wonder if the Bishop ever compares on all the activity within churches with the hive of activity in his garden and compares the results.  As churches we need to taste more of the sweetness of worshipping God and work together, with the self-discipline and common purpose of those who dwell in hives.

Prior to becoming Bishop of Dudley, Bishop Graham had been Rector of Hexham, and he divulged that one of the last things he did prior to his departure, was to grant permission for Parkour to take place within the Abbey as part of contemporary worship.  He agreed, knowing that a precedent had been set at Portsmouth Cathedral.  For the uninitiated, the Oxford Dictionary defines parkour as  "The activity or sport of moving rapidly through an area, typically in an urban environment, negotiating obstacles by running, jumping, and climbing."

Two years ago I spent a long weekend in Hampshire, and during this time visited a trinity of cathedrals -  Winchester, Salisbury and Portsmouth. Three buildings, all built to the glory of God, but completely different in ambience.  Winchester was set up for a lazer light show, hence the translucent curtain beyond the wooden screen, which gives  a wonderful sense of both light and mystery.  My fellow traveller was disapointed that the screen was there, interrupting the view, but I didn't feel that it detracted from the building at all. It reminded me off the curtain separating the holy of holies in the temples of the Old Testament. If I visit Winchester again I doubt if the screen will be there and I will have a different experience within the same cathedral.

This view of the flooded undercroft, complete with one of Antony Gormey's iconic statues, is still the background to my computer desktop. I must admit that Winchester Cathedral was my favourite of the three.

Sunday was Salisbury - solemn worship, sitting in the stalls. Despite the harmonious excellence of the choir, I felt that it lacked the spiritual intimacy of Winchester.  This surprised me, as I had explored the former as a tourist, but attended worship in the latter.  I just felt that Salisbury Cathedral was more interested in being 'Salisbury Cathedral' than a place of meeting with God. In fairness to Salisbury, it is hard to balance the differing demands of a House of worship and tourist attraction.  How many of those present were there to worship God, and how many to tick a box on their tour itinerary.  Maybe I just react negatively to formality within worship, but it is to be expected within a place such as this. .  However I love choral music and the singing was delightful. Once the service had run its course we did a quick amble round the building, pausing to admire the font feature with glorious reflections.  We walked past the deafening noise coming from the Refectory, and vowed to find a quieter place where we could sit and chat.

Spending a day in Portsmouth was a great delight, with docks, shops cafes and seriously scary Spinnaker, it is a great place to explore. The cathedral is very much smaller and simpler than the other two, but as I was chatting to one of the guides I remembered seeing the clip of parkour at Portsmouth.  "This is where you had the gymnasts climbing the walls!" I said, as I remembered.  The elderly female guide looked totally horrified. "Oh no!" she replied, "we would never have anything like that here!"  I went home and found the link.   http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/7462358.stm   On the clip the clergy were very committed to bringing parkour to the Cathedral, and as I watched again, I was struck by how the athlete resembled the work of the Holy Spirit.  Leaping high, disciplined and reaching unexpected places.  Inspiring. 

Bishop Graham encouraged us to welcome all into our churches. if we truly embraced this challenge, how would our churches change, and are we prepared to let go off some of what we hold dear, to allow that to happen?  Would we allow people to run and jump in our churches, leaping over altars and fonts,  performing gymnastics with grace?  When the Holy Spirit is at work in our churches, do we notice, or are we all too busy maintaining the status quo?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Lost For Words

There is so much that I want to write, but the words are elusive.

A thousand thoughts and idea crowd my chaotic mind, but fail to find any coherent form or flow.

I look at the world, and I feel great sadness at the acts of violence and aggression that are carried out against others in the name of religion, by those who do not put into practise the spirit of the teaching they have received, but instead are carried along on a fervour of extremism in the name of the faith they claim to follow.

I look at my country, where the safety nets protecting the poor, sick and vulnerable, which have upheld this nation over the last 70 years, are being dismantled by those who do not require them.  Causing those in need to plunge into an abyss of poverty.  

Yet despite all this, the inherent goodness of people wanting to do their best for others, is unchangeable.

As a nation we may have largely given up on God, but his Spirit is still at work within his people, even if they are unaware of it.