Monday, 22 September 2014

A prayer for Clive

I've been a fan of Clive James both as a broadcaster and writer for many years. James has a brilliant mind and is a truly gifted communicator. People will be familiar with his biting satire on television, his novels, memoires and his witty, sometimes devastating, reviews in print. Not so many will be familiar with James' work as a lyricist, or translator of Dante's The Divine Comedy, or his poetry. As James approaches death he has published 'Japanese Maple' which may prove to be the last in a series of farewell poems. It is a stunning piece of work and yet I found it tinged with sadness as James contemplates this autumn heralding the end of his life.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, chose to tweet a link to James' poem with the hashtag #humanist, and I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it is because Copson believes that the poem supports his world view but I think there is more to James' world view than Copson allows. Consider this article Lest we forget, Jesus the man for the BBC's A Point Of View. During Christmas 2008 James' invited us to remember Jesus and at one point comments:
I know that my redeemer liveth? Well I doubt if he can redeem me. I wish he could. But I do have faith that he lives on, as an ideal. All the Christian religions are lucky to have him, and those of us who have ceased to be Christians in the old way are lucky to have him too.
The piece concludes with the following:
The bird of morning will never sing all night long, but nor, if we are wise, will the memory of that man (Jesus) ever die.
So I pray that even in these last days Clive James will remember Jesus and come to know the wonder and joy of being remembered by Jesus when he looks on the Japanese Maple for the last time.

Friday, 19 September 2014

F.A. Watch

It turns out the main qualification needed to become an international football association executive is a long arm to wear all the watches you get given. This week F.A. Chairman Greg Dyke agreed to give back a watch worth £16,000 that he was given as a 'freebie' before the Brazil World Cup this summer. Apparently this is a common practice and Dyke has said he has been given several such watches among other items in various 'goodie bags' during his tenure. I shudder to think how many watches Sepp Blatter has accumulated over the years in his role as FIFA president. I wonder if he has one inscribed 'love Qatar'?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 18 September 2014

born of frustration

I have to confess to being more than a little frustrated by the Scottish Independence Referendum. It seems to me that whatever happens decisions will be made which directly affect my family and community and yet I will have no say in them.

If Scotland votes 'yes' to independence then that will have an impact not just on Scotland but on the whole of the United Kingdom in all sorts of ways. If you don't believe me take a look at what happened in the financial markets when the first positive 'yes' opinion poll was published.

If Scotland says 'no' then the political leaders of the mainstream parties have already made vows
(they can't use the word pledge after Nick Clegg so spectacularly broke one over tuition fees) which again will have a huge impact on all of us. They have done this without any consultation with the electorate. I would suggest that their complacency and then horror at the prospect of the break up of the U.K. led them into panic promises which they had no right to make and have no mandate to deliver. If you doubt this then ask yourself why they left it until the last minute to publish their prospectus for Scotland, and for the whole of the U.K., so late in the campaign.

I am not saying whether the Scots should vote yeah or ney, though I find it ironic that a 17 year old French schoolboy studying in Edinburgh gets a vote and Sir Alex Ferguson along with many other Scots doesn't, but let no one suggest this doesn't affect the rest of us in the U.K..

Then this morning I read the opening canticle from Morning Prayer and it put things into a wider perspective. The canticle is Psalm 67 and it is a healthy reminder that ultimately politicians and the electorate including Salmond, Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, you and me are accountable to a higher authority.

God be gracious to us and bless us • and make his face to shine upon us,
That your way may be known upon earth, • your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; • let all the peoples praise you.
O let the nations rejoice and be glad, • for you will judge the peoples righteously and govern the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; • let all the peoples praise you.
Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, • and God, our own God, will bless us.
God will bless us, • and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

demotivating twitter

Each morning I take a look at my Twitter timeline over a cup of tea. It's a quick way of catching up with the news, picking up links to stories and blogs I might want to read later and seeing who is up and about. There are a few people who I look out for because they usually have something interesting or funny to say. Check my timeline and see who I frequently RT if you want to know to whom I'm referring. And then there are the celebrities.

I started following some of the celebs when I was new to Twitter and thought it might be interesting to see how they engaged with this fresh social media environment. Experience tells me that they fall into two categories; those who use Twitter as a tool of self-promotion and those who use Twitter to engage with others. I won't bother to name the former as anyone who has been on Twitter for a while will know who fits into this category and from time to time I cull the more tedious ones. In the latter category I would place several well know authors who are prepared to interact and answer questions including Ian Rankin (I'm a big Rebus fan), Susan Hill (scary writer & MUFC fan) and Archdruid Eileen (no further comment necessary).

Then there is another group of tweeters who I have come to regard as Christian celebrities. These are well known Christian personalities who it turns out engage with Twitter in much the same way as their secular contemporaries. There are those whose timelines seem to be full of little more than self-promotion: 'you can watch me on this', 'here's me with X, Y or Z'. Then there are those who fire epithets into the twittersphere with monotonous regularity but hardly ever engage in dialogue with others. More recently some of this group have taken to sharing with us what are little more than inane motivational clich├ęs often on the theme of leadership or self improvement.
Usually this stuff is so fatuous it would make David Brent cringe or a Sun sub-editor blush. It's interesting to see how many of these tweeters have given up referencing the Bible for their world redefining insights, probably because you aren't going to find gobbets like 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail' in the scriptures. If I seem to be harsh about this it is because I genuinely find some of this stuff damaging and offensive and I despair when I hear this rubbish repeated as if it is holy writ. It is revealing to read these pearls of wisdom before going across to morning prayer and encountering a meaty chunk of the Psalms.

Of course there are those who are able to summarise in 140 characters a profound and often challenging insight. Others have the skill of being able to get to the heart of an issue and shed a new light on it from a Christian perspective with a telling phrase. Some are gifted at communicating in a sentence or two reflections of deep spiritual import or distilling a passage of scripture into a nugget of wisdom to live by. Others simply brighten the day with a joke or link to a funny cartoon. Again I guess anyone who has been on Twitter for a while knows who these people are but if you want one example of a person who communicates with spiritual maturity and humanity check out @Digitalnun.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to be the best that I can be by pushing the boat out from the shore and searching for the hero inside of me.

Friday, 12 September 2014

optional ethics

Over the summer various ethical issues hit the headlines and became matters of public debate. One subject that particularly caught my attention was surrogacy following the case of baby Gammy, the child with Down's Syndrome born to a Thai surrogate mother and apparently rejected by his commissioning parents. I've been interested in surrogacy since I first researched it for a dissertation while studying in Oxford. My work was actually about The Warnock Report on Human Fertilization and Embryology and I used the topic of surrogacy to explore the underlying ethical assumptions behind the report.

What struck me about the recent discussions on surrogacy in the media, both mainstream and social, was the lack of ethical considerations in so much of the argument. For several days I heard and read interviews with those involved in surrogacy including: surrogates, clients, facilitators, doctors and lawyers. The practical, financial, legal and physiological aspects of surrogacy were explored in some depth. What I didn't hear was anything more than a cursory acknowledgement of the ethical questions raised by these matters. In the case of baby Gammy the issues were sharpened by the apparent rejection of the child by his potential parents because of his condition, though the full facts of that case are still to be clarified.

I listened in vain to BBC Radio 4 Today over several days while on holiday for one person to address the question of whether surrogacy was right or wrong; whether surrogacy was something we should be engaged in at all. I heard powerful emotional and unchallenged testimonies from surrogate parents and those who had become parents through surrogacy but the obvious questions were never addressed. Does surrogacy treat children as a commodity? What happens when the child acquired through surrogacy doesn't turn out the way the client parents hoped? What is the psychological impact on a surrogate child? Do we as a society view children as a gift or a right?...

My daughter took her GCSEs this summer and had to consider her A Level options. Her stronger subjects were in science along with philosophy and ethics and she had hoped to study philosophy as well as the sciences in the sixth form. However, due to timetabling issues it was impossible for her to study philosophy and physics together, much to her and our dismay. It seems crazy to me that a school would not consider philosophy an appropriate subject to study in combination with the sciences. If you want to know what happens when you separate scientific endeavour from considered philosophical and ethical reflection then you need look no further than Richard Dawkins twitter timeline.

Have we as a society lost the ability to reflect ethically on the issues confronting us today or are we simply reluctant to do so? Do we take seriously the challenge of educating our children not only to develop their knowledge and understanding of the world, but also to develop a moral framework within which that knowledge and understanding might be considered and used?


Thursday, 11 September 2014

and faith?

I'd been waiting for news about the latest U2 album for a while and the only information coming out was about delays to a release date. Then on Tuesday evening I discovered that not only had it been released but that I'd already got it! Free!!
Coinciding with the Apple launch of their new products it turned out that Songs of Innocence had been delivered to everyone in the world with an iTunes account. So I went to check and yes, there it was marked as purchased in my account and after a bit of faffing about I had it downloaded onto my PC, iPod and iPad and all at no charge. Nice on.

My rule of thumb with U2 albums is that the ones that take longer to get into usually end up as favourites, with a couple of exceptions like The Joshua Tree which was stunning on first listening and still sends a shiver up my spine. I'll post a review once I've had a few listens to Songs of Innocence.

The reviews I've read so far have been positive and informative about the background to the tracks, however, one thing struck me as odd. In the New York Times review John Pareles lists what inspired U2 as musicians and songwriters in the first place:
During its five years between albums, U2, which released its first recording in 1979, publicly pondered how to stay relevant. Its solution, on “Songs of Innocence,” is to reimagine its young, retrospectively innocent selves and recall what fired them up: family, neighbors, lovers, street action and of course, music. Liner notes by Bono, the band’s lead singer and main lyricist, fill in many of the back stories, describing the songs as “first journeys.”
All well and good but something was missing from the list of what fires U2 up and that something is Faith. Faith has always been there in U2's music either obliquely or explicitly and I don't think this album is any exception. Pareles draws attention to Bono's cover notes for the album but I wonder whether he read them carefully enough, or was there a particular reason he didn't want to reference this aspect of U2's influences? Bono is quite open in explaining the place of faith in his background. He writes about Cedarwood Road the subject of one of the tracks:
The Rowans at No.5 had a cherry blossom tree that was the most luxurious thing in the world to me. That family were like an old testament tribe. I learnt a lot from them. The depth and deep disclosures of the scriptures. In their company I saw some great preachers who opened up those scary black bibles and made the word of God dance for them, and us. Sometimes I would think it should be the other way round. One minute you're reading it, next minute you're in it. Lou Reed, God rest his soul, said you need a busload of faith to get by. That bus was full of Rowans and I was on it.
And the lyrics are a bit of a give away. The Troubles:
God knows it's not easy, taking on the shape of someone else's pain. God now you can see me, I'm naked and I'm not afraid. My body's sacred and I'm not afraid.
Or Song for Someone:
And I'm a long way from your Hill of Calvary. And I'm a long way from where I was and where I need to be...
One of the strengths of Bono's writing is that faith doesn't get an easy ride in U2 songs, recognising the tensions and all too apparent failings confronting the individual and the church. Sleep Like A Baby Tonight takes on the appalling reality of child abuse in the church. And Bono slips in an uncomfortable line in Every Breaking Wave directed at himself but a challenge for those of us who preach:
I thought I heard the captain's voice, It's hard to listen while you preach...
So a simple plea to reviewers. If you are going to explore U2's influences, don't leave out something which is clearly at the heart of their music, even if it does make you feel uncomfortable.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Carry On Knitting

Yes folks the Carry On team have come out of retirement to bring you another classic, Carry On Knitting. Unfortunately some of the old cast are no longer with us but do not fear for Her Majesty's Government have provided some up and coming 'characters' to keep you rolling in the aisles. The new feature stars Brooks Newmark the charities minister who takes a novel line on the work of the Third Sector. Here's the minister's statement during a recent conference:
We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics.
When they stray into the realm of politics that is not what they are about and that is not why people give them money.
The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.
I laughed so much I nearly dropped a stitch! Oh, wait a minute, it seems Mr Newmark was serious about this. Does the minister have the first idea about what work goes on in the charitable sector of our nation? Is this what the government is thinking of when it talks about the Big Society? Don't get me wrong, knitting plays its part, and many have benefited from this particular charitable good work, but this comment ranks alongside other gems, including the PM's favourite 'calm down dear', in its patronising ineptitude.

As for the suggestion that charities should keep out of politics, it seems the minister believes it is O.K. for charities to help clear up the mess in our society but not ask any awkward questions about what has helped create the mess in the first place. In other words, leave the politics to the professionals because they know what they are doing and the rest of us should be grateful for their whit, wisdom and expertise. If you doubt their brilliance, just have a look at PMQs any Wednesday lunchtime, now that really is a Carry On.  

Anyway, I'm off to dig out my knitting needles and I know just what to do with them, however, it won't involve the use of any wool.