Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Food Bank: here's how it works

In light of yesterday's announcement about a proposed freezing of working-age benefits and the incessant negative comments about Food Banks from some of those who will be implementing the freeze, here's how they work.

Our Food Bank Distribution Point is open on Tuesday afternoon's between 1-3pm in Bell Street Hall, Bell Street, Great Baddow. CM2 7JR.

For further information about Food Banks check out The Trussell Trust site and follow on Twitter.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Gideon and the young mum

Gideon, a man of wealth and privilege, stood up in front of his friends and supporters. This was his big moment, an occasion that would define his career and more importantly convey the values on which his life was based. To loud applause he set out his priorities for the future, not just his future but the future for a society he knew he had been destined to govern.

In the rain a young mother pushed a second hand buggy with her infant child wrapped up in a baby coat bought at a charity shop. She limped as she walked, the lasting effect from the beating she had received from her alcoholic partner before she was able to find respite in the local refuge. She didn't know how long she would be able to stay there because funding for the refuge was being withdrawn. Since leaving her part-time job, fearful that her partner would find her, she had no income. In her hand she clutched the food voucher given to her by a social worker. She had heard of Food Banks but had never dreamed of being in a situation where she would depend on one. She was no scrounger, just grateful for the promise of some food to tide her and her child over until she received her next instalment of child benefit.

The speech was going well. Taking a deep breath, Gideon looked squarely into the camera lens, aware that his real audience was not around him but out in the country. He had chosen his words carefully, read his script several times to avoid the unforgivable sin of omitting a crucial paragraph and practised the look that would communicate sincerity. Now came the key moment. The words that Gideon hoped would commandeer the headlines of news reports and papers. And so Gideon declared that if elected his government would freeze working-age benefits, including child benefit, for two years, building on the one percent cap imposed from 2012. He was also pleased with the well trailed tax cut on 'drawdown' pensions. The hall echoed to the sounds of cheers from the party faithful. Political editors breathlessly reported the news on television and radio as social media timelines began to fill with accounts of the announcement and website front pages were redrafted. Now they would see how serious Gideon was about meeting the demands of the times.

George turned off the radio as The World at One ended, sighed, placed the Food Bank Distribution Centre sign outside the hall door and prepared to welcome that day's clients with his team. Fortunately yesterday had been Harvest Festival in many of the local churches and most had collected goods for the food bank. There would be enough food for the next few weeks, though the increasing demand meant that stocks were depleted more rapidly than before. The door opened and a young woman, her expression conveying her deep sense of embarrassment, pushed her child's buggy into the hall and handed over the damp voucher.

Gideon was applauded by his team of advisers as he entered the hotel reception room and the maid prepared to serve the drinks. He loved the sound of popping champagne corks in the afternoon, it sounded like... victory.

Any similarity to real events or persons is entirely intentional.

Friday, 26 September 2014

simply Marvellous

Every now and again I come across a film  that lifts the spirit. Once is such a film and Marvellous is another. Last night Kate and I were looking for something to watch on T.V. and I had seen a trailer for Marvellous, thought it looked interesting, so persuaded Kate to watch it. The film is a biopic of the life of Neil Baldwin and it is glorious. Neil is someone who many have dismissed as having 'special needs' and yet his life affirming attitude to situations and people demonstrates that time and again he is the one ministering to the needs of others.

Marvellous follows Neil's exploits as a circus clown, his work at Keele University and his time as kit man with Stoke City during the tenure of manager Lou Macari. Neil's relationships with his mother, clergy, friends and footballers are explored with humour and humanity. The subtitle of this blog is 'reflections on faith, family, film and football' and in a sense that is what Marvellous is all about. Neil is a Christian and his faith is portrayed with a sympathetic touch, rarely seen on television or in film, as is the vicar with whom Neil develops a lasting friendship. There is some gentle ribbing about the Anglican Church but it is portrayed in a positive, even affectionate, light.

Neil's mother is the rock who sustains him through life and the portrayal of the relationship is beautifully judged, particularly his mother's fears for Neil as she approaches the end of her life. Some of the moments between the two are heart-rending, not least when Neil is visiting his mum in a care home.

The film experiments with format in a way reminiscent of Dennis Potter. In several scenes the masterful actor Toby Jones, who plays Neil, is in character in dialogue with the real Neil Baldwin. There are also scenes with Lou Macari, then manager of Stoke City, commenting on some of the incidents portrayed in the film. These never interrupt the narrative flow and enhance our understanding of Neil's character and relationships. There are several moments reminiscent of Woody Allen's Zelig.

Football is central to the film as it is to Neil's life. A committed Stoke City supporter, Neil strikes up an extraordinary relationship with Macari leading to his appointment as kit man. At one stage Macari even plays Neil in a testimonial game against Aston Villa and later comments that Neil is the best signing he ever made at Stoke City. There is plenty of cruel banter from some of the footballers and at one stage a player calls Neil a 'Mong', however, Neil gives as good as he gets and there is an hilarious incident when Neil takes his revenge with the players' underpants. A favourite moment is a scene recounting an incident when Macari is interviewed about a new signing he has made. The genuine video on which the scene is based is embedded at the end of this post and I defy you not to laugh.

A recurring theme is the way that Neil mentions famous people who he knows. Others dismiss his fantasising only to discover that he really has met these people, can count some as genuine friends and has the pictures and signatures to prove it. In the end you feel that these people felt privileged to have known Neil rather than the other way round.

Marvellous is a wonderful account of a life well lived and enriching the lives of others. Kate summed the film up when she commented at the end that it was everything Ricky Gervais's Derek tries but fails to be.

And here's that video as promised:

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Behind the Sofa

My first memories of watching Doctor Who are from the mid 1960s, sitting in my pyjamas having had my evening bath, in front of a coal fire at my Gran's house in Belfast. I can also remember the series that gave me my first nightmare: The Underwater Menace. Broadcast in early 1967, the plot
revolves around plans to raise the lost city of Atlantis. One of the early episodes ends with Polly, one of the Doctor's assistants, held down on an operating table and about to undergo surgery to convert her into an amphibian. These days the series isn't highly rated by Whovians, and some episodes are missing, but it had me waking up in a cold sweat that night because I was strapped on the table next to Polly and about to be converted into one of the Fish People.

Over the last couple of weeks another debate has been taking place about whether Doctor Who has become too scary for children. These debates come around every couple of years and it's bizarre really because I always thought the main point of the programme was to scare children. My problem with the more recent incarnations of Doctor Who is that often the series are so wrapped up in a plethora of subtexts and cleverness that there isn't time for the scream inducing moments. When my now teenage children first started watching a few years ago, I found myself watching them to see how often they jumped, closed their eyes or, yes, wanted to hide behind us or the sofa. I have to say the answer is they didn't do it often enough. That's not to say we don't enjoy watching Doctor Who, and there have been some fantastic episodes, it's just that it isn't very scary and it should be.

Now back to my nightmare. Perhaps it wasn't a nightmare after all but a premonition, for as a Christian you could say I have become one of the Fish People.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


In amongst so much negativity surrounding the Scottish Independence Referendum there was one significant point of light and hope for the political processes of the United Kingdom. The referendum gave 16 and 17 year olds the vote and this has galvanised discussion about enfranchising this age group for future elections. I have always thought it strange that a 16 year old could be expected to pay taxes and yet not have a vote in elections which may determine how those taxes will be spent. One of my earliest political recollections is the phrase 'no taxation without representation' and it has stuck with me through the years since I began studying political history. I remember casting my first vote in a national election in 1979 at the age of 19 and it was a momentous time both personally and nationally. Needless to say the party I voted for didn't get elected.

Some people have questioned whether a 16 year old is ready for the weight of responsibility that comes with voting. Yesterday I heard two young people discussing the right to vote on BBC Radio 5 Live. One had voted in the Scottish referendum and the other, from England, wanted to know what it was like. It was one of the most insightful pieces of political discourse that I have heard in a long time and the presenter stopped asking questions and sat back to let them engage in debate. I was driving my daughter, also 16, during the broadcast and as it came to an end she simply nodded and gave a thumbs up. We then continued to discuss the issue on the journey. Both the contributors on radio and my daughter demonstrated more political maturity in those few minutes than you will hear across the party political conferences over the next few weeks. If you don't believe me just look at this morning's headlines about Ed Miliband's speech, which have focused on whether he has blown his chances of electoral victory, not because of the merits of policy, but based on his ability to memorise a speech! Is that what we have come to? Sadly, I fear the answer is yes, when the chief quality determining our political leaders seems to be how much like Hugh Grant they can look in a television debate.

So I'm in favour of giving votes to teenagers like my daughter. Let's face it, they can't make more of a mess of this politics business than we have managed over the years.

Update: You can hear the debate on 5 Live referred to in this post at 1:51:25 here.

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.