Friday, 16 December 2011

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

"'S' gorra be Welsh now, isn't it? No' tharreye do speak it, mind. I do talk tidy,  tha's worreye do do. Wenglish."

Nevertheless, the Welsh seasonal greetings are appropriate for my business blog Christmas message.

It'll be almost a year since I launched my coracle upon the waters, and an interesting year it's been. As you can find out if you read my work blog.

Meanwhile, there are a few inches of snow here on the Cheshire plain and much more up on the tops. It doesn't look set to stay though - but will we have a white Christmas yet?

Whether we do or not and whatever floats your boat, here's wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Leopard on the loose ...

There's been more for me from London - focus groups there last week as part of a freelance project - and more too from The Leopard.

I've updated the blog with some more poems and this month's featured poet, Jenny Hammond.

Jenny was one of the founder members. She turned up in a cold back room (not the lovely upstairs room we use now), hesitant, diffident and unsure what to expect. Three years later and she's had poems accepted by a range of magazines and is still a keen member of the group. I love this stuff ...

Check out The Leopard now for more Poetry from The Potteries.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

In cloud, and majesty and awe

On Friday evenings, my wife likes to practise with the choir at Astbury parish church, some seven miles north of here. It’s a well earned break for her after the working week and before her glass of wine to mark the weekend. In exchange, on high days and holidays, she’s asked to sing with the full choir. Tonight being Advent, off she went with her friend from round the corner and me in tow for my occasional fix of anthems.

‘Welcome to our Advent service, and one of my favourite evenings of the year,’ said the wife of the incumbent, a curate somewhere else but who often officiates on these occasions.

They dimmed the lights in the immense 14th century nave, lit the candles and the count-down to Christmas began ...

I really don’t understand why so many churches, even Anglican ones, are throwing out these old traditions like so much lumber. Sure, I can see how clap-hands-here-comes-charlie choruses and cringe-worthy disco-vicar style cheesiness might be seen as something of a panacea as congregations decline. 

Yes, we need to do something to pack ‘em in, but why do we have to dumb it all down so much?

I can certainly see how the oomph and warmth of evangelical and charismatic congregations can create and maintain viable faith communities – I should know, I’ve been involved with these things since my late teens. I’m not knocking it. But it’s often so ... well, so inane. There was more weight and eloquence in the dignified silence before the Advent candles than all the karaoke worship videos put together.

Ok, so we all knew what to expect, O come, O come, Immanuel, On Jordan’s Bank, A Great and Mighty Wonder (a particular favourite), and Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending, of course. I have to admit that Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence did surprise me, but for all I know, it might be an Advent staple. The choir had practised Bach’s Sleeper’s Awake but they didn’t sing it for some reason – much to my wife’s dismay and my disappointment. Nevertheless, with the candles flickering in the twilight, the stained glass, the tracery on the old screens and pews and some hefty hymns the service was quite something. So many churches sit lightly by the Calendar these days. In my more puritanical youth, I used to decry the very use of one. Now I realise what we were missing for all those years. There’s something about marking seasons and transitions, they give rhythm and structure to the year.

Someone complained afterwards that O Come, O Come Immanuel is a bit of a dirge. It’s not the jolliest of tunes, admittedly, but there’s such a sense of depth and mystery there. It never fails to give me the goose-bumps.

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty and awe.’

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Rural Zoar?

This morning I attended the communion service at St. Bertoline’s, Barthomley, just two or three miles from here.

Barthomley is a small hamlet, little more than a scattering of cottages and farms, with a few fine old buildings and the wonderful White Lion pub – one of the best pubs anywhere, ever.

If you like to drink your beer on oak settles and your services in 1662 BCP, then you’d love it.

Instead of the sung eucharist, it was Common Worship this morning, the Feast of Christ The King – with the famous ‘stir up’ Collect that gave this Sunday its traditional name of ‘Stir-up Sunday.’ People used to stir up the dried fruit for their Christmas cakes and puddings on this Sunday, and my wife did the same, even though she’s been poorly with cold.

St. Bertoline’s is a fine medieval church on an 8th century foundation. St Bertram (or Bertoline) was a hermit hereabouts and famously changed some loaves into stones to thwart the Devil’s temptation for him to break a fast. A neat reversal of the Gospel story of the Temptation of Christ. They still have some boulders there that are said to have once been loaves and the Orthodox church up in Audley managed to get hold of one to keep in a basket alongside their icon screen.

It was also the scene of a notorious massacre during The English Civil War. Some 20 villagers sheltered in the church tower as Royalist troops ransacked the village. The rector's son took a pot shot with his musket and brought one of the horsemen down. Enraged, the others lit fires and smoked the men out of the tower, stripping, bludgeoning and clubbing them as they emerged. The rector's son had his throat slit and perhaps a dozen were killed in all, the others managing to escape. It was one of the war-crimes cited against King Charles I at his trial, even though he was miles away at the time and had nothing to do with the massacre itself. I still shudder at the thought of it, though, whenever I enter this fine old church.

The style is what I’d call ‘rural catholic’, a kind of no-nonsense rustic Anglicanism with some ceremonial but nothing too spikey. The priest wears a cope for communion and faces the altar during the consecration, but there's no smoke and mirrors.

The congregation was larger than I expected, swelled perhaps by children brought along for the ‘Toy Sunday’ part – the donation of toys for The Salvation Army to distribute among the needy. I recognised a number of people, besides those I’ve met before or know from non-church contexts, such as a woman from the Stoke Stanza at The Leopard. Like me, she lives in Alsager and it seems that a number of people have taken refuge at St. Bertoline’s, either, one presumes, to escape from the guitars and waving arms at the lively parishes in the nearby towns or the innovations of the liberal catholic-lite brigade. I know of a number of medieval parish churches hereabouts which attract refugees from the towns. They are drawn by the language of the Book of Common Prayer, by the surpliced choirs and anthems, by a form of Anglicanism that is apparently on the wane in the towns and suburbs.

‘You need that approach if you’re going to attract the young people and families,’ the Stanza lady said philosophically, referring to the evangelical, wannabe-charismatic churchmanship of my local parish. ‘We can’t get the young people here.’

There can’t be many young people in Barthomley itself. I’ve met one or two, friends of my eldest. But there aren’t that many people there all told. The pub attracts people from further afield, of course. On a smaller scale, it looks like the rural Zoar of St. Bertoline’s is doing the same.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

'C'est jolie, la gare!'

There’s nothing very pretty about King’s Cross and St Pancras. Not if you leave out St Pancras Station itself, a Victorian confection narrowly saved for the nation and now the proud terminal for Eurostar. Yes, there are the caryatids holding up the eaves of St Pancras Parish Church, and there’s the other parish church, way back beyond King’s Cross where Mary Shelley lies buried. Other than that, and before the promised redevelopment which will alter its character forever, this part of London remains seedy and rough around the edges.

If you’re coming by rail from the Midlands or the North it’s the part you come to first and it’s probably the part I know best. I spent three weeks poring over prints in The British Museum during the summer of 1981. I sussed out the greasy-spoons of Bloomsbury, Holborn and Soho, but gravitated towards the leafy suburbs and distant Putney and Richmond to visit friends. I even got in with a charismatic ‘house-church’ and was baptised in the Thames. And I’m still alive to tell the tale.

It was lonely back then. I’m told it still is. Yet I met an old lady in a Methodist church who remembered the Coronation of King Edward VII and the cafe owners were always up for a chat.

That part of London is packed with education. Birkbeck, SOAS, UCL, University of London – they all seem to be jostling each other across the Georgian squares of Bloomsbury and into the surrounding streets. There’s a lot more there besides, umpteen language schools, the headquarters of all kinds of institutes and organisations, UNISON, the BMA, the United Reformed Church ...

I stayed in a hall of residence on Tavistock Square back in ’81 and have been back many times since for meetings at Universities UK, for seminars and presentations, both as a delegate and as a presenter. There are all manner of associations, not least the site of the bus bombing on Upper Woburn Place during the 7/7 attacks.

Where possible, I’ll stay with friends on London trips, out at Richmond or Wimbledon. It’s not always practical nor fair to prevail upon them though. So I’ll seek out ‘budget accommodation’ around King’s Cross. Budget being the operative word. I’m not fussy but it can be grim, grim, grim ...

Even so, I’ll miss it when they’ve gentrified and smartened it all up. St Pancras Station blooms terrifically – despite its ersatz public art – between the two thorns of Euston and King’s Cross. The British Library is a source of wonder. The iconic gas-holders, recently removed (bar one, I believe) always welcomed you back.

Will these architectural delights remain as impressive once they’ve desanitised it all?

‘C’est jolie, la gare!’ the French tourist observed to her boyfriend as she turned to look back at the Eurostar terminal as they crossed the road into the wilderness.

- You can read details about a presentation I gave during my latest visit to London on my business blog.

And don't forget to check out the latest poems on The Leopard.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Leopard prowls ...

More Poetry from The Potteries at The Leopard in Burslem on Tuesday night (25th October).

Everything from blowsy nights in Blackpool to Lollipop Ladies in rural Staffordshire. You can read the latest poems here on The Leopard blog.

I'm this month's featured poet, so there's a selection of my previously published verse too.

Friday, 30 September 2011

More from The Leopard

An excellent session at The Leopard in Burslem on Tuesday last.

Paul Freeman took this photo of some of the assembled bards. You can read some of their work discussed on the evening or submitted since on The Leopard blog - another of my on-line creations.

John Williams (no relation) is the featured poet this month. He's had two collections published already and is preparing his third.

I was challenged about 'political correctness' for my poem Prescription. One of the folk there thought my reference to the low or almost unknown incidence of myopia among the Inuit and Eskimo was an example of bleeding-heart liberalism on my part. I'd accept a guilty as charged verdict there - I take The Guardian intravenously. However he subsequently looked it all up in a scholarly article and found that this was indeed the case. And he's written a suitably remorseful and recondite response in Grecian style hexameters which you can also see on The Leopard blog.

Good poems, good chat, good company, good pub, good beer ... what more could you ask for?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Gleision Colliery

'There are tears in my eyes now, as I send my love from one end of Wales to the other, from Llanystumdwy in the flank of Snowdonia down to Cilybebyll in the Swansea valley, from one old writer at her computer beside the Dwyfor river to those unknown friends of mine mourning their loss beside the Gleision colliery.'

Jan Morris, The Guardian. Sat 17 September 2011.

'Accuse me of sentiment too, mock me for mawkishness. I don't care.'

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

London Calling

I've been down to 't'Smoke' twice this summer. Most recently for a short family city-break which happened to coincide with the riots. Interesting. London looks spectacular from The London Eye in the early evening sunlight. Although I'm sure earth had plenty of other things to show more fair than the view from Westminster Bridge that Monday evening with police vans and ambulances streaming across.

We saw some of the damage the next day when we walked up Camden Market to Chalk Farm. We hadn't realised that area had been hit but I did want to get beyond the market and see the 'real Camden'. Joiners boarding up looted bike shops and other properties and The Guardian interviewing local residents was pretty real, alright.

By the Tuesday evening, of course, everything was quieter. Even the boys from The Met' seemed more relaxed.

A few weeks earlier, I'd been down for my old friend Bill's wedding celebration. Bill met Marlene from California when she was working in The City, until the 'credit crunch' put paid to that. Nevertheless, true love won through and they were married in California in May. They held a 'do' at St Ethelbreda's atmospheric crypt to celebrate. If you've not been, go. It's tucked away in a Dickensian corner and, like the nearby Sir John Soanes Museum, well worth a visit. One day, I'll tell the tale of how Bill and I renewed contact after losing touch for many years. Quite a yarn. For the moment, though, here are some pics from the evening.

Bill's Dad and myself
Me and Marlene (Marlene and I)
'You and the night and the music ...'
On a table with people I'd not seen for 30 years.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Poetry in Motion

I've created a blog (with some help from my eldest!) for the Stoke Stanza, one of the writers' groups I'm involved with. It meets monthly in The Leopard pub, a wonderful, historic and allegedly haunted inn down in Burslem, one of the towns that make up The Potteries. It features in the Arnold Bennett novels and was the place where Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley agreed to create the Trent and Mersey Canal.

See The Leopard

In you're in the area, why not come along? We're affiliated to The Poetry Society but you don't have to be a member, nor do you have to be a poet. You can listen in or read a short story or a poem you've written yourself or one by somebody else. The beer's good too and the quality of the discussions and feedback is as good as you'll find anywhere.

We aim to make The Leopard a show-case for new writing around Staffordshire, Cheshire and the North West. Watch this space!

The Poetry Society

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

New blog - Coracle Communications

Steering a steady course
A while ago now, I changed the name of my freelance business to 'Coracle Communications'.

'Candwr Marketing' was a poetic name but very difficult for non-Welsh speakers to pronounce. I'm not a Welsh speaker, either ('I do speak Wenglish when I'm nor speakin' the Queen's English, like ...'). I still wanted something that sounded Welsh and as coracle is one of the few Welsh loan-words in the English language it sounded appropriate. It also has that sense of something hand-crafted, bespoke and which requires skill to steer. And, as a freelancer, it seemed appropriate to refer to a one-man vessel.

So there's an object lesson in branding and communications! Don't use Welsh words that nobody else can pronounce ...

I've now created a separate blog for Coracle. You can find it here.

If you're interested in what I'm up to and how I can help with any marketing and communication projects, then please use the Coracle site.

For everything else ... continue to visit this one.

Friday, 15 July 2011

My brother's show

Barry's Beasts
Last week, I attended the opening night of my twin-brother's new exhibition at Bristol's Grant Bradley Gallery. He's exhibiting there with his mate, Barry, who creates wonderful 'Beasts' from found objects and pieces of scrap metal. The centre-piece was an extraordinary elephant and rhinoceros, built out of old cement mixers and tractor parts, facing each other down.

'A Slice of Life'
It was the first time my brother Mark has exhibited outside of South Wales, where he's built up a steady and loyal following over the years. As he'd chosen to show his Newport dockland scenes and slices of Valleys life, we weren't sure how his work would play out in Bristol. He's sold some, but sales have been slower than similar shows in South Wales. Yes, I know, it's just across the second Severn Bridge or through the Severn Tunnel by rail ...

I picked up an old university friend from the Black Country on the way down and we had a long drive back through the night, listening to Johnny Cash and P J Harvey then switching to 'World Music' on Radio 3. It took me back.

What more could you ask? A cracking good show in a cracking town, a cracking pizza across the road and a long drive back in the company of Mr Johnny Cash ...

Iconic Bristol skyline
My wife wasn't best pleased, mind. I collected our eldest from a party at 1am and we had to be off early the next morning for an anniversary bash back down South ...

Thursday, 30 June 2011

'The workers united ...'

Pen at the pre-march gathering
Until today my wife has never been on strike. Her union, the ATL, has never once taken industrial action on a national scale in its entire 120 year history. Today, that all changed. She went on strike and she joined the march in Manchester organised by the teachers' unions. I went with her.

I've been on rowdier marches. As you'd expect, a protest march by teachers is a pretty civilised affair. 'No talking there in the back row!' But there was a genuine sense of solidarity and seriousness of purpose. And also a sense of grievance and indignation at the things some of our politicians have been saying. 'The politicians are telling us that we are wrong,' said the very mild and moderate ATL guy. 'But that has only served to stiffen our resolve.'

Ok - so the calumnies and aspersions cast by Cameron and his cronies pale into insignificance against Maggie Thatcher's notorious, 'the enemy within' comments. But steady on, Tory Boy, you push people too far and they'll push you back. Teachers know how to deal with bullies.

I learned a few lessons today. Firstly that I've lost my way a bit in recent years. I've not been on a protest march since I was a student - although I've been on other kinds of marches since. I'd also ended up on the 'dark side' in management ...

But this was my milieu. Getting out there on the streets to show solidarity in a just cause. The highlight of the march for me was when a train passed over the viaduct alongside the Castlefields Arena as the rally was taking place and the driver gave a hoot of support. Yayy!

Ok - so I don't have a lot of time for the oddballs and the anarchists and all the hangers-on who appear at any demonstration, no matter what the cause. But there were people there today who'd never marched before, who'd never dream of marching or protesting under normal circumstances. They don't deserve criticism from right-wing politicians or the Tory press. They deserve our respect. And they deserve a hearing. Their presence spoke volumes.

Another lesson was that the police can't count. Or, perhaps more accurately, choose not to. They've got their helicopters, their rather embarrassed guys with the cameras to take pictures of the militants - but their estimation of the numbers in Manchester today were around 2,000, as opposed to the 5,000 estimated by the organisers. Estimating crowd numbers is never an exact science, but I was there and I'd estimate the numbers to be somewhere between the two - certainly further towards 5,000 than 2,000.

Surely the police must have sophisticated ways of calculating crowd numbers? So if they did err on the skimpy side, what's their agenda?

More encouragingly, perhaps, I've always found the British bobby to have a very dry and insightful sense of humour. I was both rather perplexed and impressed when a young bobby appeared on the pavement alongside the march taking pictures of some of the activists. He was quickly surrounded by some of the more anarchic types - one of them with a megaphone urging him to take off his 'silly hat and silly jacket' and join the march. He took it in good grace and carried on taking photos. Although he clearly didn't like it when people started taking photos of him. Funny that ...

But he carried on taking pictures of them taking pictures of him taking pictures of them ...

Anyway, at the end of the rally when the organisers thanked everyone who'd contributed, special mention was made of the police and they were given a round of applause. Teachers are aware that the police are contractually unable to strike and that their pensions are just as vulnerable as anyone else's. 'We're standing in solidarity with the police on their pensions too,' the organisers said.

One of the coppers, watching from a vantage point, responded with a slight, elbow level wave. It was slightly cheeky, perhaps a tad ironic, yet also rather furtive and subversive. Very warm, very human, very heartening. Good for him. Well done that bobby. He's just trying to do a job like anyone else. And let's hope he's able to retire with his pension intact.

Friday, 24 June 2011

'It's the Church, stupid.'

The minister of the Baptist Church we used to belong to in Leeds came back from attending the ordination of a friend into the Roman Catholic priesthood in Rome. He told me that he'd enjoyed his time there, meeting Christians from a different tradition and finding out more about how Rome ticked. He'd found it pretty cold and austere, though, and, unsurprisingly perhaps, had felt, as one of these upstart schismatics that the answer to every question he was likely to ask would come back, 'It's the Church, stupid ...'

Us Prots have never been that good at ecclesiology. Sort yourself out some kind of relationship with Christ, read your Bible and the church thing would look after itself. Other than a series of sessions over three consecutive Sundays, there wasn't much taught about the Church in our Baptist setting.

There was a distinctive ecclesiology among the Baptists, of course, in the way things operated - with the congregational structure and the 'Church Meeting' where decisions were made.

Further back, in our restorationist days with the so-called 'house-church' or 'new church' movement, ecclesiology was very much on the agenda. We had it sussed. We had the Ephesians 4 ministries - 'apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.' We were restoring the Church to its original purity and power, and some of us believed that we would exceed those halcyon early days because we'd sort all problems out entirely. Hardly surprising that we were soon disabused of that one ... well, most of us were anyway.

I was reminded of both our restorationist days and the Baptist minister's comments at an Orthodox conference I attended yesterday. Someone had dropped out so my Orthodox priest pal kindly invited me along. I only attended the one day but I heard more ecclesiology than I had in years. No more surprising in an Orthodox setting, of course, than it would be in an RC one. If you believe that yours is the One True Catholic and Apostolic Church then it's going to feature pretty strongly in your programme.

'It's the Church, stupid.'

But wait ... seeing as how the theme of the conference was The Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church, there was an added dimension, one which the Orthodox Church as the Ark of Salvation feels itself robust enough to handle ... without the timbers igniting and the vessel leaking or capsizing.

Our local Anglican parish church is moving in a more charismatic direction, and I was surprised to find quite a few people at the conference who'd been involved with charismatic things. Not that they'd call themselves charismatic in the Western sense, of course. The Deanery which held the conference is a missionary one and many of the clergy and conference delegates were either disaffected Anglicans or former charismatic evangelicals.

Once I'd got over the impression that I was at a Lord of the Rings convention - Saruman led one session, Sauron a second and Gandalf a third - I found that they don't do things that differently to the rest of us. They use PowerPoint (for lectures, not worship of course), they have coffee breaks, they have break-out and discussion sessions, Q&As ...

And there's a lot more lay involvement than outsiders might think.

The Orthodox Church claims to be pneumatic, of course, and would argue that it has never ceased to be charismatic in the true sense of the term. But the mileage seems to vary as to what extent they would regard the authenticity of spiritual gifts and 'workings' outside the parameters of the Orthodox Church herself. Some clearly took a harder line on this than others, although they would all acknowledge that God the Holy Spirit does work within all Christian traditions and indeed beyond the faith and out in the world. Certainly, the former Protestant and Catholic charismatics I met at the conference all had stories to tell, whether from Brazilian favellas or ordinary parishes in the North of England, of things they still considered to be genuine and extraordinary workings of the Holy Spirit. Although, like me, they were very sceptical of many contemporary claims.

High spots? Well, meeting the Belfast contingent was one of them. I warmed to them and their unfeasibly young priest straight away. 'Och, it's grand being Orthodox so it is. As we're neither Cat'olic nor Protestant, so we aren't, we've got something different tae offer tae both sides of the communidee ..'

It was one of the Belfast bunch who gave me one of the best laughs of the day (and there were a few). I was relating the story about my Baptist minister friend to one of the delegates as we stood side by side in the urinals (as you do).

When I ended with the quote, 'It's the Church, stupid,' the Belfast deacon emerged from the loo cubicle in his black cassock and funny hat. 'How's that? It's the stupid Church?' he quipped.

For me, though, the high spot must have been the pregnant stillness as the faithful gathered in the gloom of the conference centre chapel for Vespers. A silence so tangible you could have stacked it on top of itself. Andrew Walker, the Orthodox sociologist and honorary Anglican canon-theologian, once wrote that he considered the Orthodox silence as the missing note in Western worship. There may be echoes of it among the Quakers, perhaps, who knows? It's not an empty silence, it's a reverent silence full of expectation.

We say a lot. But there are times when there is nothing that can be said.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

University of Chester anthology

I was pleased to have two poems published in the University of Chester's 'Still Life' anthology.

I receive my complementary copy from the Sheriff
I attended the launch event last week and was among those who gave a reading. It was great to hear some of the other entries to the University's bi-annual poetry competition and to see new and familiar faces. I had a good chat over a pint with one of the poets and his wife in the Bear and Billet afterwards.

You can find out more about the anthology and the prize-winning poems here.

I didn't win a prize, but hey, one of my entries is mentioned on the blurb on the back-cover and snippets were read at the prize-giving ceremony last year. Next year in Jerusalem eh?

Some of the poets
You can order copies from the University's website but as one of the contributing authors, I can get them at a discount. Let me know if you'd like one.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

It's about time ...

It's about time I started blogging again. The last time was back in March - and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. There was my Gran's funeral, for instance - bless her. She was 96 but it was still a shock.

Since the last time I posted I've taken a half-day creative writing workshop at a theological college - bunging in some material from the Psalms, hymns and bits of liturgy - a GCSE English lesson at a secondary school in Crewe (on the basis that I've met Gillian Clarke several times and heard Seamus Heaney read). I led a four-week Lent Study Group on poetry and spirituality (or 'spiridewealidy' as it'd be pronounced in California).

I also took over as 'mine host' at the bi-monthly Poems & Pints session at The Bear Town Tap in Congleton. We raised over £50 for Animals Asia's Moon Bear Rescue Project.

Now that's an applicable charity for the Tap. For those of you who aren't 'local', Congleton's known as Bear Town on account of its citizenry using money set aside to buy a new Bible to purchase a new bear instead. This was back in the early 17th century and the town bear was used for baiting, of course. The good people of Congleton have been baited with the following rhyme ever since:

Congleton rare, Congleton rare
Sold the town Bible to buy a new bear.

Of course, they didn't actually sell the Bible, but they did us the money set aside for that purpose.

Fittingly, the town has adopted the Moon Bear Rescue project as its charity for this year. Representatives came into Astbury primary school, where my wife's now teaching, and explained all about it. The poor bears are farmed for their bile to provide a completely superfluous ingredient for Chinese traditional medicine. I won't horrify you with the details, but it is truly appalling. Thank goodness someone is doing something about it and freeing the bears to enjoy some kind of quality of life in a special sanctuary.

That's outside of work - on the self-employed side of things I've also done some interim account handling for a design company and completed several market research projects.

But it's time to get back blogging.

I've not been to the Poetry Society's Stoke Stanza at The Leopard in Burslem for a wee while, but I noticed that a newcomer has mentioned it on their blog

It captures the atmosphere pretty well, I thought. I must get there next time.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Let's fly kites

Spring has sprung and now we've passed the Equinox, the nights will grow shorter and the days longer. It's a fresh spring day with a slight nip and a light breeze.

It's Lent but not the weather for kites. Now there's a strange connection. A few years ago I was surprised to read that in Greece the first day of Lent - 'Clean Monday' - was traditionally a day for families to go into the hills and fly kites. Lent starts two days earlier in the Orthodox calendar, apparently. They don't do Ash Wednesday and the ashes on the forehead thing, but their fasting regime is much stricter - although, with some casuistry, the Greeks have managed to wangle it that shrimps are classified as vegetables ...

Orthodox priest flying a kite
According to Bishop Kallistos Ware, the Orthodox are 'encouraged to associate Lent with fresh air, with the wind blowing in the hills, with the coming of spring. Lent is a time for flying kites - a time for adventure, exploration, fresh initiatives, new hope.' (Lent and the Consumer Society, in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World ed. Andrew Walker and Costa Carras, London 1996).

I like this.

I'm in between jobs at the moment. I've just finished some freelance projects (I've had a good month) and am seeking my next. I've no idea how long that will take nor where it will come from. It's a bit like a kite, a sudden dip in the breeze and it plummets, only to rise up on the next eddy. I'm going to have to get used to this.

I wonder what new initiatives I can take, what adventures are in store?

Orthodox kite flying, Ilam, Derbyshire
I'm running a four-week Lent Study Group on poetry and creative writing - linking practical workshops with work by old and contemporary poets and aspects of the Psalms and various liturgies. It's the first time I've done something like this for a sustained period, so it's a form of kite flying. It seems to have got off to a flying start.

I could get even more corny and start tugging on the kite string metaphors for all they're worth. I've done enough of it already - but I will say this: even when the breeze has dropped, it's still worth the climb to enjoy the view.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

For Realism

Who'd have thought of going to Birmingham for a day out? Well, during the February half-term I took a break from launching my glittering freelance career to do just that. We started off at the city's marvellous Art Gallery - one of the UK's great provincial collections - and its special exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite drawings.

We then went our separate ways, my wife and kids to The Bullring and yours truly down to the Jewellery Quarter to explore.

According to a trail-guide leaflet I'd picked up at the Art Gallery, Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter offers the visitor a 'unique urban landscape.' Well, it's certainly striking. I was taken with it, in fact. If you've never been it's worth a stroll around, a quirky blend of workshops and bling-merchants, Victorian cemeteries, a striking cast-iron urinal (sadly no longer in use) and the city's last remaining Georgian square. It still has a lived-in, work-a-day feel too, although you can see signs of gentrification around the edges.

My grandfather grew up near there, in a two-up/two-down Brummie back-to-back with an outside loo, no running water and 11 brothers and sisters. I'm half Brummie you see, my grandparents moved down to South Wales during the War. I looked up the length of Hockley Street towards Farm Street where he grew up, wearing a sister's cast-offs until he started school when he and his next sister received a set of 'parish' clothes which marked them out for scorn from the other kids.

Realism or Romanticism?
My granddad's old man was rather fond of the drink and would send him into the house to fetch his tea at the end of a shift (they worked in the same factory) then disappeared into the pub for the rest of the evening. I remember meeting my great-grandfather once. He was in his late 80s and  living in a high-rise as the Council had cleared the old slums. My granddad was completely teetotal on account of his dad. He wouldn't even touch trifle if it had sherry in it and once threatened to walk out when a surprise family celebration happened to be held in a pub.

It was his sisters that made the biggest impression, though. Real characters. All fiesty and five-foot nothing. There was Dot and Else, Lil and Minnie and aunt Nell who had been diagnosed as having the worst case of cerebral palsy in the Midlands. She was great. Her face would light up when we walked in and she'd call Aunt Else to fetch her purse so she could give us a tanner each. The Book of Common Prayer she gave us when we emigrated to Australia as £10 Poms in 1964 is one of my most treasured possessions. Long before my time, her mother used to wheel her right across Birmingham to the hospital where they'd twist and bend and manipulate her limbs. She was almost cork-screw shaped towards the end, her head facing back over her shoulders. The vicar who conducted her funeral said he'd learned more about faith and endurance from her than anything he'd been taught at seminary. They were the salt of the earth, all the Tonks girls.

Anyway ... a week or two later, on Radio 4's Poetry Please, I heard Roy Fisher's 'For Realism' which deals with that part of Birmingham and the slum clearances - it talks about 'the corner of Farm and Wheeler Streets', Lucas's lamp factory, 'a man in a blue suit/facing into a corner/straddling to keep his shoes dry.'

There's realism for you. That and my Granddad's mum wheeling Nellie right across town week in, week out.

'A conscience
builds, late, on the ridge. A realism
tries to record, before they've gone,
what silver filth their drains have run.'

Roy Fisher

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

What do you drive to?

It's Radio 4 or Radio 3 for me on long car journeys - which are quite rare when I'm driving alone. Usually if I'm driving for a few hours I've got the family with me and we're all fighting over the CD player. Thank goodness for i-pods. They keep the kids quiet.

On those rare occasions where I have the CD player all to myself I try to match the sounds to the mood. When I drove up to Manchester for a job interview recently I bobbed on a U2 CD, assuming it'd put me in an upbeat frame of mind. I didn't get the job but the CD did the trick.

Heading down through the Midlands today to see a client about some freelance work (how pretentious does that sound, 'client'?), I played Jacques Brel's Quand on n'a que l'amour. There's nothing like some Belgian/Gallic melodrama to brighten up the M6. Why doesn't someone do something about that? If this was France they'd have some sculptures along the crash-barriers, or at least painted screens so we don't actually have to see Birmingham ...

For some brain-food when I wasn't thinking about the meeting ahead, I played a CD I'd borrowed of George Szirtes reading his poems. Now I like listening to poetry in the car. I got through the whole of Paradise Lost on a series of trips to South Wales.

Coming back, it was chill-out time, so I unwound with The Unthanks - suicides, press-gangs and fatal fishing boat accidents have never sounded so harmonious.

I don't often drive down that spur of the M6. So I hadn't realised they'd turned Fort Dunlop into a Travelodge. What the ..?!

They've bolted a big blue hotel onto the back of it. At least the original building's still there, though. I always look out for it. That and the whopping big empty gasometers. I suppose those are the closest we'll get to sculpture along there.

But who cares when it's sing-a-long Jacques Brel? Well, if I knew the words I would ...

What're your driving tunes?

Or do you travel everywhere by train?

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Freud would have a field day

Ok, I'm not getting all confessional here, but I do have very wierd dreams. Freud would have a field day.

This morning, for instance, I awoke from a recurring one. Unlike Gregor Samsa I had not been transformed overnight into a gigantic insect, but the Pterodactyl had been round again.

He's a bit different this one. He's a kind of 'Poetry Pterodactyl.' You've heard of Ted Hughes's 'Thought Fox'? Well, this chap runs along similar lines.

'Hi, I'm Ptery the Poetry Pterodactyl,
you got a nice pantoum for me today?
What happens in the dream is this - I'm up at one of the regular Poems and Pints sessions at The Beartown Tap in Congleton, only for some reason we're all outside in the woods. It's all a bit Wicker Man. As we're reading and declaiming our verse, there's a sudden, ominous booming and beating in the sky. A gigantic Pterodactyl-like creature appears above the trees, swooping and squawking. He's a bit like one of those giant flying lizards that the blue guys ride in Avatar.

He's the Poetry Pterodactyl and he's come for his supper. According to the dream, he lives in a cave down near Hodnet in Shropshire, where the famous Follies are. As soon as we start to read he somehow senses what we're doing and flies north to find us. He homes in on our Muse and swoops down, splintering boughs and scattering brushwood, cawing for his fix. No-one seems particularly perturbed, although we are all in awe, he is rather large and very impressive. We've seen him before, he's a regular visitor and somehow we know he's not going to gobble us all up. One of us then takes some poems and feeds them to the monster, who gulps the A4 pages down greedily, swallows them and flies off with a final swooping and cawing. I don't know whether we all chant or invoke him in some way, the dream doesn't have that much detail, but we do give him some poems to eat and off he goes.

I don't know whether he represents anything, a terrible craving that must be fed, or whether he's a form of wish fulfilment for us poetic dabblers - a rapacious audience that does not exist. Perhaps I just eat too much cheese.

I have wierd dreams. I still have the occasional one where I wander into a room where there are bosses and former colleagues who disappear when I approach them or walk past me as though I'm not there. Those are redundancy dreams and only to be expected. They're getting less frequent as I get busier.

I don't know where all that leaves me with Ptery the Poetry Pterodactyl. Perhaps if I don't feed him, he'll go away?

But I've grown quite found of the chap ...

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Candlemas - from darkness into light

I might be a born-again liturgist these days, but I've only ever been to two Candlemas services. I attended my first last year and my second this very evening, both of them at St Mary's Astbury, that wonderful 14th century church just this side of Congleton.

My wife practices with the choir there in exchange for singing with them at a few weddings and services a year, mostly on high days and holidays. Tonight it was Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

I might be missing something, but very few churches seem to celebrate it these days, certainly not at the 'low' or evangelical end of things where I've spent most of my time. It's a pity, because it's a service rich with meaning, an ancient turning point in the Christian year. As it was, we had to put up with karoake-style DVDs in our own parish this morning, so it was great to get to a service pregnant with symbolism - light and darkness, sin, suffering, sacrifice and the glories to follow. In fairness though, it was a good sermon, but the karoake ... !

Tonight's service gave the antidote to all that. As the service notes said, it has a certain 'bitter-sweet' flavour. Simeon's words from Luke's Gospel, enshrined in the familiar canticle, Nunc dimittis, speak of the 'falling and rising of many' and warn Mary that 'a sword will pierce through your own heart also.' As we move from Christmas towards Lent, there's the reminder that ahead lies sacrifice and blood before we reach the glories of the Resurrection.

The words of the ancient hymn based on the Liturgy of St James had particular resonance. 'Let all mortal flesh  keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand ...'

Monday, 24 January 2011

'Don't laugh, I've seen it happen!'

At last, instruction manuals are developing a sense of humour.

On the weekend I blew up our steam iron. It gave up the ghost with a hiss and spat out gunk all over one of my favourite shirts. I am pretty domesticated but do tend to damage electrical equipment fairly regularly.

There was nothing for it but to buy a new one. We ordered it on-line and I picked it up from Comet earlier today. I read the instruction manual, always a good place to start, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was written engagingly in English.

Here's the fourth point on the list of important safeguards:

'4. Don't iron clothing while it's being worn - you'll burn or scald the wearer (this is not a joke - I've seen it happen).'

Now, that wouldn't be at all funny ...

Well, it's the first time I've seen a first person comment in an instruction guide. I was heartened. There are people who write these things, people with families, relationships and life-experiences - such as seeing someone ironing someone's shirt while they were wearing it.

Or have they made it up? Are they circulating an urban myth to prevent us doing the same?

Whatever the case, it's made me think twice about doing it ...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

It's all Greek to me!

Reading between the lines

I was privileged to sit in on a friend's Ancient Greek lesson earlier this week. We practised writing the Greek alphabet on mini white-boards. It was all very therapeutic. I was fascinated by how, when copying them, you suddenly saw a connection between the shapes of the capital and lower-case characters. There were all upper-case originally and with no spaces between characters and lines. I'm told these only came in as people began to read silently, an ability Plato initially regarded as a major miracle.

My friend had a framed clay tablet from Ur of the Chaldees, the present day Iraq. He'd picked it up from a museum over there for an attractive price. The museum authorities were selling off papyrii and clay tablets by the dozen to ease the load on their archives. They've got hundreds of thousands of the things. Bills, inventories, accounts - all indelibly etched or pressed into wet clay and then left to dry in the sun. What a great way to ensure proof of delivery or demonstrate ownership.

They say writing developed as people abandoned a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle to live in towns and cities. There was much more reason then to label things and lay claim to them, to keep accurate records and accounts.

So that's what the first writings consist of. Boring stuff.

How fascinating then, that the earliest examples of the Greek alphabet that have come down to us are both poems, fragments of verse. They must have had their accounts and inventories too, of course, but I find it strangely heart-warming that a major Classical influence first bursts onto the scene with a couple of poems. And bawdy ones at that! All about getting drunk and getting laid.

Here - read them for yourselves.

Ok, so there's more to it than that. There's word play and scholarly debate. Ambiguity and tension between appearances and reality. All very philosophical.

I've been working on a poem inspired by the whole thing. I won't publish it here yet as I'd like to send it off to some magazines or a competition.

But isn't it interesting, language and meaning, the way writing developed?

Aren't human beings interesting? Isn't the world a fascinating place?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Goodness me, it's Theophany

'When thou O Lord wast baptised in the Jordan ...'

Well, it's like buses. You don't get any Festivals for a while and then they all suddenly come at once ...

Christmas, then Epiphany ... now it's Theophany (at least it is on the Eastern Calendar).

At the invitation of an Orthodox friend, I bobbed down to the beer garden around the back of The White Lion in Barthomley this afternoon to observe the annual 'blessing of the waters'. A well chosen location. Running water, shelter in case it rains ... and the splendid half-timbered and unspoilt pub to retreat to afterwards.

A Methodist lady joined us from a funeral in the nearby parish church (very historic and well worth the visit in itself). She sussed that I was a fellow 'spectator' and wondered whether I'd partaken of the 'blessed' water (from a bottle not from the stream) and kissed the cross after it'd been dipped into the running waters below. I'd done both, knowing that it's permissible for Christians of other persuasions to do so. I encouraged her to do the same if she felt it was appropriate.

She was hesitant but did so after Fr Samuel said, 'If you love the Lord, you can kiss his cross.'

'Well,' she said, afterwards. 'I've learned something new today. That was a completely new experience.'

I've seen water blessings before, but not at Theophany. And being an awkward and reductionist Prod, I've wondered how long the blessing lasts. Does it wear off during the year and need repeating annually?

Of course, it's a way of remembering the baptism of Christ and the significance of that event, when, as the Orthodox hymn has it, 'the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.'

That's quite something.

'When Thou O Lord wast baptised in the Jordan,
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest,
For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee
and called Thee his beloved Son!
And the Spirit in the form of a dove,
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself
and hast enlightened the world,
Glory to Thee!'

I'd had my lunch so didn't join the Orthodox for a meal but I did have a pint. I don't know whether that debars me from the Epiphany communion down at St Mary Magdalene's this evening. I've been invited down there too.

And there's a CAMRA branch-meeting at my local this evening.
And that's a picture of The White Lion over there ... it's unfeasibly quaint.

Lots of Festivals and some liquid refreshment. Can't be bad.

In moderation, of course.

PS - I skipped the Ephiphany communion. You can have too much of a good thing ...

Monday, 3 January 2011

My business Blog

I've now created a blog for my business venture.

You can see it here.

Have a look and tell me what you think.

Sunday, 2 January 2011


Those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star ...

In my more liturgy-lite, independent evangelical/charismatic days, Epiphany was always one of those feasts we overlooked. Sure, we had Christmas and Easter, but we never really bothered with Lent, Advent or any of the other traditional fasts and feasts of the Church year.

I wouldn't say I observe them with any great alacrity or discipline now, but I certainly believe there's a lot to be said for marking time in this way - it provides a rhythm and a structure to the year. Not in a superstitious sense, as if these seasons are magical or intrinsically more 'spiritual' in some way. But as opportunities to pause, reflect and celebrate the key events of the life of Christ and special anchor-points for the Christian faith.

 I attended a Churches Together service on an Epiphany theme on Sunday. Since then I've been Facebooking away with an Orthodox friend about the Troporian for Pre-Theophany and about Theophany itself - the next Feast which comes up in their Calendar. The Devil may have all the best tunes, but the Orthodox certainly have all the best words. As well as a good line in beards and funny hats.

For the last ten years or so, I've grown to love and appreciate this Orthodox prayer used by the Eastern Churches in their liturgies over the Christmas and Epiphany period:

'Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!'

May we all gain that light of wisdom and know that 'Sun of Righteousness', the 'Orient from on high.'

I can feel a hymn coming on ... 'As with gladness men of old/Did the guiding star behold ...'