Friday, 21 December 2012

Bah! Hamburg!?

Merry Christmas from Phil Williams!

I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year – and whatever floats your boat continues to float it ...

I don’t know if it’s just me, though, but there does seem to be a frosty sting of austerity in the air. I wandered through Birmingham’s extensive Frankfurt Christmas Market the other day (without spending a penny ... I’d already had a sandwich so couldn’t face a frankfurter or a two-pint tankard of beer). I understand it’s packed on weekends and in the evening but there were few punters around as I passed through. Impressive though, it spilled out with Hansel and Gretel style stalls almost all the way down to New Street station from Chamberlain Square. Perhaps I was being tight (bah! Humbug! Bah! Hamburg? Bah! Frankfurt?!) – but I didn’t even stop to buy some tempting wooden toads with knobbly backs that you run a stick across to play tunes. The bloke at the stall did it well, but he also appeared desperate.

What do you buy for the man/kids/wife who was everything?
A knobbly-backed toad you can play tunes on.

It’s all about choosing your pitch. Or paying for it. The stalls in the main squares seemed to be doing better than those around the edges or down the side-streets. Surely, though, there’s a limit to how many stalls there can be selling virtually the same stuff. The experts will correct me, but there are only so many sausage stalls you can cram into a single market.

It was fun, though, and cheery. I take my hat off to Birmingham City Council for keeping up the cheer despite the impending cuts.

Merry Christmas one and all. ‘God bless us every one!’

Friday, 7 December 2012

Tum te Tum Tum Tum te te Tum te Tum Tum

‘Let us make one thing clear: Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living poet in the English language.’
Nicholas Lezard in a review of Speech! Speech! in The Guardian 2001.

Michael Schmidt, Director of Carcanet Press made the same claim as he introduced Hill at the John Rylands Library, Manchester last night. It’s always intimidating to be in the presence of a Behemoth, a Leviathan. Acutely so in Hill’s Gandalfian presence with his white, Athonite beard and broad, bald dome. As the allusions and references tumble forth you realise that his wide, pink skull contains as much condensed wisdom as the hallowed shelves of the Ryland itself – a cathedral to the written word.

There were many luminaries in the audience, established poets whose works are anthologised or taught in schools. Contemporary poets who lecture, review, run workshops, present TV documentaries. Yet whose collective output Sir Geoffrey once described as so much ‘land-fill’. What acerbic comment and withering judgements would the great man deliver tonight?

We found him in more avuncular mood. The wind and rain was so atrocious outside that he deemed those who had ventured out on such a night to hear him already ‘converted.’ There were scathing comments about bankers, politicians and middle-brow Radio 4 cultural output. Earnest young people who accost him to query his emphasis on ‘form’ would be better joining the ranks of the City execs rather than pursuing the unforgiving angel of poetry ...

Geoffrey Hill lectured at Leeds in my undergraduate days in the 1980s. We were all in awe of him. I only heard him once as my module choices took me in a different direction. I only remember a single line, one he had repeated again and again. Thomas Hobbes on Sydney Godolphin, struck down by ‘an undiscerned and undiscerning hand.’

'Well done, brave Hobbit!' ... Ed Reiss.
I have a photo of myself and Ed at Bill's wedding bash but this isn't it.
Hill must have given this lecture many times. Ed Reiss, the cousin of my friend Bill, a lecturer at Bradford and a poet and reviewer in his own right, had heard it too. He completed the line for me when we discussed it at Bill’s wedding celebration in London. Ed was there last night and I was delighted to hear Geoffrey commend a review he’d written in Agenda.

I was queuing for the great man to sign my second-hand copy of his Collected Poems which I’d found already signed in a Suffolk book-shop. I’d joked with Simon Armitage beforehand (name dropper!) that it reminded me of the incident in Gig where he claims to have found a copy of an early collection he’d signed for his parents in a second-hand dump bin. Just ahead of me, Hill was commending the partner of the poet Frances Leviston for a review he’d written of his previous collection. In doing so he also cited Ed’s review as ‘exactly what a review should be.’

I called Ed over and Hill was generous with his praise. It was a solemn, almost holy moment. It was like watching Gandalf confer an honour on a valiant hobbit.

I went home content and with one abiding thought. To illustrate the English Sapphic metre of a wonderful poem by Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Geoffrey told us he would render the stressed syllable as ‘Tum’ and the unstressed as ‘te’. Imagine then, his grave and magisterial tone as he proceeded to declaim, ‘Tum – te – Tum Tum Tum   – te- te-Tum-te- Tum Tum ...’

Never have I heard a ‘Tum-te-tum-te-tum’ intoned with such Churchillian authority.
(And thanks to Ed Reiss for rendering the caesura at the heart of the dactyllic foot).

The Sidney extract came from Arcadia - 'If mine eyes can speak to do hearty errand/Or mine eyes' language she do hap to judge of ...'

As Lezard put it in that Guardian review (a cutting of which lay at the back of my second hand Collected Poems), ‘One may ask oneself what the hell Hill is going on about, but just listen to the glorious way he says it.’

Sir Geoffrey signed my second-hand collected poems a second time. ‘And again’.
‘Again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord,’ I muttered, dropping in an allusion of my own. I first read Hill at school (Genesis), heard him at university, heard him again as the 80 year old patriarch of English verse. Resurgat.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

My wife sings in the choir at the magnificent Astbury parish church on ‘High Days and Holidays’ in exchange for practising with them on a Friday night – one of her few ‘me-times’ during a busy week.

She also sings at the occasional wedding or other service. I like going with her when it’s Candlemas, Easter or Advent – or one of the other major festivals. I love all that. Funnily enough, my wife doesn’t. She is inveterately ‘low-church’ and was perfectly happy when we attended a Baptist church. She’s very pragmatic and doesn’t like ‘fripperies’. She's not keen on wearing the very fetching red choir robes either. I think they’re cool. What she does like, though, is the music. 

They have a very competent and knowledgeable conductor up there at Astbury and they do proper anthems and the kind of traditional Anglican music that is so rarely heard these days. Where else could my wife go – other than to some kind of choral or operatic society – to sing ‘proper’ music? I mean, no disrespect to ‘happy-clappy’ or ‘contemporary’ Christian music buffs (oh, alright, I’ll come clean, with a lot of disrespect for ... ). I'm sure that contemporary worship-songs demand a level of musicianship in a different way, but let’s face it – if you want to sing something more stretching then you're going to have to look elsewhere.

Sure, I accept that these songs are intended for congregational use rather than trained choirs. That said, they so often sound as if they are intended for praise-bands on stage rather than people with a diverse range of singing abilities in the pews or the plastic bucket-seats.

The traditional Advent hymns ‘get’ me every time. Those lines in ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ that run, ‘In ancient time didst give the Law/In cloud and majesty and awe ...’

We also had ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ last night, which struck me as strange outside of a Eucharistic context, but still ... what a cracking hymn.

Some Christian traditions observe Advent as a kind of mini-Lent, not something I have done hitherto. But it makes a lot of sense. If Advent is the season where we remind ourselves of Christ’s first and second-comings and prepare to celebrate his Nativity, then it seems appropriate to mark it in some way. I’m going to explore ways of doing that this Advent season. I’m not quite sure how but I do consciously want to avoid the vapid commercialism that is such a feature of this time of year. Sure, I’ll enjoy my turkey and my Christmas pud’ when the time comes, but I was struck by the note of ‘repentance’ in the sermon last night. Not in any po-faced, pietistic way, but that sense of preparing our minds, adjusting our focus. The rector used a beautiful and striking analogy drawn from London tube-trains ... how we feel the wind and breeze of them before they arrive. I’ll carry that with me as I feel the soft breeze on my cheek, the wind begin to stir and ruffle my hair.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

What It Says On The Tin

I sometimes wonder whether this blog is in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act. It’s billed as ‘Phil The Bard’ but there’s often very little ‘bardic’ on it – (‘I am Taliesin ...’).

Even the header photo is misleading. My daughter set it up and took it. Much as I appreciated her trouble, there are inaccuracies.

For a kick-off I never, ever, ever, ever (did I say ‘ever’?) drink beer from a can. It’d more likely to be a bottle-conditioned ale. My daughter, bless her, found an empty bottle of Stout that my wife had used in cooking. She did drink Stout from cans, my wife, when the kids were babies. It helped with the lactation. But that’s too much information. If I’m going to drink Stout I’ll have it from hand-pumps down at my local or else from a bottle. Never from a can. Same goes for other ales.

So, this is a misleading blog. A bardic blog with few poems on it. Well, I’m about to rectify that as I’ve had seven poems published in recent weeks. It’s like buses. You don’t get one for ages and then they all come at once. I’m pleased to say that I’ve had six in the latest edition of Iota (Iota 91) and one in Planet, the Welsh Internationalist Magazine. This is the first time I’ve made it into Iota and to have all six submissions accepted is very gratifying. It’s the second time I’ve been in Planet. What a great magazine it is.

What I’ll do is reproduce one of the published poems here and put it along with the rest on one of the side links should anyone be kind enough to want to read them.

Or you can read them here and here.

If you do, then pray let me know what you think. We bardic types like that. We’re all ego. We’d like to think it’s art.

The Gas Fridge

What else in 1980s bedsit land
but 1960s furniture? Earlier even.
Items I had not seen since pre-fab
parlours, great aunts' kitchens.
Then, unexpectedly,
where I prepared for finals
and for unemployment, a gas fridge.

Half the height of ours at home,
it fed, like cooker and gas fire,
on the 50p coins I pressed and turned
into the meter every second day.
It showed its life by a pilot-light,
blue and awkward behind its back.

To ignite it I would stoop and drop
match after lighted match
down its fissured tube, hope
that they would reach and catch
before they fizzled out.
I could waste half a precious box
before I found the knack.

Who would have thought
that Einstein patented the spell
that drove ammonia around
those cooling pipes without a sound?
A pity then no patent way
to keep the pilot light from going out
in Mrs Hossey's redbrick bedsits.
'No blacks, lovey, no coloureds.'

Just two pints of Stones
in The Little Park on my 21st
birthday. The Sheffield drifting
in the South Atlantic, charred
and stricken. Boys my own age
between her decks, burning.

If you've enjoyed that (and even if you didn't) have a look at the page on the right with the rest of the poems. Why not visit the Iota and Planet websites. Take out a subscription too, if you are so inclined. The good people there would be very grateful. These magazines deserve our support.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Above Us Only Sky?

Two chapels, two towns, two Spitfires ...

It’s the Heritage Open Day weekend. On this weekend in September buildings that aren’t always open to the public throw open their doors for people to visit. It’s been going for some years now and is a crackingly good idea. I never miss it. Private houses, old mills, factories, churches, chapels and lots of other things besides open their doors for people to mooch around. It’s all run by volunteers and I’m told that the event has gone from strength to strength each year. I’m also told that our own region, North Staffordshire and South Cheshire, is one of the areas where it’s really taken off.

I can’t prove that, but even as an incomer, I’d like to think it’s true. I don’t think I’ve ever known one of these weekends where I haven’t been delighted or surprised by something new. Whether it’s been a Victorian mansion, a non-conformist chapel or the leaning church tower in Wybunbury, I’ve enjoyed them all. I bet you didn’t know that experts from Pisa came over to Wybunbury to learn how a Staffordshire man had propped up the church tower to correct the lean back in the 1700s?

I love it. People taking a pride in their heritage, in their built environment, in structures that mean more to them than bricks and mortar.

Take yesterday, for instance. We decided to bob down to Hanley to take a look around BethesdaMethodist Chapel, one of the stars of BBC 2’s Restoration programme back in 2003.

The unusual apse at the back of Bethesda
It’s open at various times throughout the year but we thought there’d be more of a buzz about the place this weekend. What a place!  I knew it was the largest non-conformist chapel outside London but the galleried interior is immense. A giant octagonal pulpit with twin-staircases projects into the body of the chapel and the acoustics are superb. Unusually for a Methodist chapel there is a crypt beneath where prominent members of the congregation were buried. There are memorials to local worthies and notable ministers around the walls. These were stolid, active, public-spirited people. I had to smile at the epitaph of one of the chapel officers, ‘enterprising in business’ and whose piety was ‘unostentatious’ and sincere. ‘Unostentatious’. Blunt, direct, straight-down-the-line. They didn’t mess about.

As we were exploring the vast interior of the chapel there was a sudden hubbub and vistors made for the main entrance and a side exit opened for the purpose. Word went round that a set of Spitfires were heading for The Potteries Museum just across the road. They’d arranged a fly-past for the Heritage Weekend. There’s a Spitfire on display inside the Museum, of course. Reginald Mitchell the engineer who designed the iconic fighter plane was born in Butt Lane near Kidsgrove.  Now some working Spitfires were heading our way.

We clambered down some broken steps into a brick-walled yard, the sound of approaching engines bouncing off the walls. We couldn’t tell which direction the Spitfires were coming from as the roar of the engines seemed to surround us. Across the road people were waiting on the steps of The Potteries Museum and a guard of honour in blue berets stood to attention. Suddenly, there they were, two Spitfires, one after another, so low you could see the light gleam on their cockpit glass. They swooped over the rooftops, banked and flew into the distance. The roar of the engines diminished then resumed as they hurtled back for a second pass. I’ve never seen a Spitfire in flight before and I was thrilled. Sure, I know it’s a weapon of war but they pack an iconic punch. There’s the local, Mitchell connection, of course, but also the continuing resonance of The Battle of Britain. 

We knew a Battle of Britain pilot when we lived in Leeds, a quiet, unassuming chap, a real gentleman, far from the ‘Yoicks! Tally-ho!’ cliché of popular depictions. He’d shot down six Luftwaffe planes. A friend once bluntly asked him, ‘Did you kill anybody?’
He dropped his head thoughtfully. ‘One doesn’t like to think so, but one must have done, of course.’

I thought of him, alone amidst the throb and roar of his machine, heading dutifully towards each encounter. I remembered him telling me, too, how he’d been sent up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne by train to break the news to a family of their son’s loss. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done. As the train neared his destination his heart sank further and further. A few months later, he had to make the same journey again, with news of the loss of the second son.

Holy Trinity RC church on London Road, Newcastle-under-Lyme is the polar opposite to Bethesda Chapel. You couldn’t imagine two places of worship more different in tone. One all tiered pews and confident pulpit, with a thin communion rail beneath. The other an eccentric construction of decorated blue Staffordshire brick. One dusty and devout, the other full of an almost Mediterranean light. They have lightened up the interior of Holy Trinity over the years. Old photographs show how cluttered and crepuscular it used to be. 

Holy Trinity, London Road, Newcastle-under-Lyme
It’s now all post-Vatican II with a forward-facing altar and fresh coats of paint. I confess that I am not a fan of RC kitsch, I prefer Orthodox iconography. In context, though, it has a kind of garish appeal. The whole of the RC Church seems to have undergone a good taste by-pass at some point in its history. It's part of its charm.

Holy Trinity has a lurid replica of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham and various competent but uninspiring sculptures. It's light and airy though and has a strangely homely feel. The parish has a fascinating tale to tell. Holy Trinity was among the first RC churches to be built after Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the first to be built on a main road. It’s first priest, Fr Egan, seems to have been a real character.

One of the things I like about Catholicism (and Orthodoxy come to that) is its matter-of-factness. They’re completely unapologetic and comfortable in their own skins. 

They’ve got part of the forearm of the Blessed Thomas Maxwell interred in the wall of the Martyr’s Chapel round the back. They make no bones about it. Groan ...

They ‘Expose’ the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel for the faithful to venerate and also use it for the Sunday school. I imagined mischievous and screaming kids running around in the presence of a holy relic. We Prots are squeamish about all this stuff, of course, but I sometimes wonder whether we could learn from the everyday, kitchen-sink piety of our more Catholic brothers and sisters? They might not be as ‘unostentatious’ in their devotion as the Methodist chapel steward, but there’s something very grounded about it, in a different kind of way. I can imagine Fr Egan and the stolid burghers of Bethesda Methodist Chapel comparing notes even now and looking down and commenting on what the rest of us are up to. I hope they appreciate that people continue to care for the buildings they helped establish, and the faith they represent.

Two towns, two chapels – above us only sky? Or the same heaven overhead?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Why Whitchurch?

Where have you been this summer? Scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef or snorkelling off Skegness? Watching the Olympics or sunning yourself somewhere where there’s been some sun?

I’ve watched some of the Olympics. I was one of the cynics it won over.  I’ve also been to the Lakes, went ‘Ape’ (did ‘Go Ape’ for the first time) and went kayaking. I am not the most ‘gainly’ of people. These things are not my natural milieu but I thoroughly enjoyed them. I also visited Dove Cottage, and paid my respects to the Wordsworths at their family plot in Grasmere church yard. I’ve been to the gardens at Woolerton Old Hall, the Arboretum at Quinta, The Potteries Museum (once again and always worthwhile) in Hanley.

I’ve also been to Whitchurch. That’s Whitchurch in Shropshire, not one of the 14 other places in England and Wales that bear the name.

Why Whitchurch? Well, my eldest went camping there with some of her pals. She seemed to like it. So, meandering about after visiting the gardens at Wollerton Old Hall, we thought we’d drop by and explore. I’ve been there before, of course, or at least, around its ring road a few times. I’ve even driven through it, just for a peek. But I’d never got out of my car to have a look round. It’s worth doing. Honest. Even if it’s just for half an hour, which is probably about how long it would take to see the place ...

Seriously, poor old over-looked Whitchurch is trying very hard to get itself noticed. It’s even declared itself to be a walker-friendly town, whatever that means. There are boot-print motifs on posters in shop and pub windows telling you how it suitable it is for walkers and hikers. I must admit, I’d never thought of Whitchurch as a walkers’ destination, but perhaps the posters with the boot-print motifs will convince the world otherwise.

'Frog he would a-Wooing go ...' Randolph Caldecott
It’s easy to scoff. The place is trying its hardest. The ‘Heritage Centre’ does its best with not a great deal to go on. A few Roman artefacts in a sand-pit from when it was Mediolanum, the settlement in the middle of the plain. An early fort and then a civilian settlement grew up half-way between Wroxeter (Viriconium) and Chester (Deva) and there’re a few clasps and potsherds to prove it. There are some interesting clock mechanisms – a foundry in the town built some hefty tower clocks – and a whole room devoted to Randolph Caldecott the Victorian children’s illustrator and Elgar’s contemporary the composer Sir EdwardGerman. I’d never heard of him, but my wife had. They even have an Edward German music festival centred on the rather quirky parish church, St Alkmund’s, an 18th century red sandstone pile on top of an early Norman foundation – the ‘white church’ from which the town derived its name.

A steep high street, some half-timbered houses, a few tempting looking pubs and that’s about it. Whitchurch, population 8,934, home to the wonderfully nick-named ‘Allbran All Stars’, among the founders of the Cheshire Football League before they joined the Mercian Regional Football League. It boasts a short section of the Llangollen canal, the grave of Sir John Talbot killed in the last engagement of the Hundred Years War and a railway station. Whitchurch was once the hub of a thriving branch-line before the Beeching cuts.

Was it worth stopping? Yes it was, because we need the Whitchurch’s of this world. We need the small market towns where nothing much happened, where no battles were fought and no-one of sufficient note was born to put the place on the tourist map. Sure, it’ll get a smattering of visitors, it may even get some hikers. There’ll also be people like us who’ve driven around the ring-road a few times but never stopped, who say each time we pass the place, ‘Your/my great-uncle Hal lived here once. I wonder why ...’ and who stop the car and take a look. Will we go back? Yes, we will, perhaps on the way back from the Welsh borders or passing by one languid afternoon. We’ll stop and see how it’s doing, whether they’ve re-printed the pamphlet in the Heritage Centre, ‘Whitchurch And The History of Cheese.’ We’ll be glad we stopped, glad that we could still walk or drive. Glad that we could return.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

'Real Bloomsbury'? Real Mac'?

Support small publishers. They reach the parts others do not reach. I purchased a copy of ‘Real Bloomsbury’ by Nicholas Murray the other day, part of the ‘Real’ series by the marvellous Bridgend imprint, Seren. Check them out. Some wonderful poetry and general ‘Welsh-iana’. As well as poetry collections by contemporary poets they publish town and regional guides – Real Newport by the poet Ann Drysdale (‘Tidy’), Real Cardiff by series editor Peter Finch, even Real Merthyr (‘Fair do’s) and Real Aberystwyth.

Now they’ve ventured over the border, and it's not Real Bristol or Real Liverpool as one might expect – but Real Bloomsbury. The titles beg some questions, of course. Is there a ‘false’ Bloomsbury, an ‘inauthentic’ Merthyr? But you get the idea.

‘It gives a good walking tour of Bloomsbury,’ said the manager of Skoob Books as I browsed in the Aladdin’s Cave basement they’ve been driven into by vertiginous Brunswick rents. He’d been explaining as much to three American tourists who’d clearly been wondering why it was full of second-hand books and not the latest Harry Potter. It’s a second-hand book shop, ladies. The clue is in the title.

‘It doesn’t mention us,’ he complained.
‘Ah, yes, but it does,’ I chirped. I’d had a sneak preview in the library at Goodenough College and noticed a passing reference.
He flicked through the pages, looking for it. ‘But not in the index ...’

But it is there. As are Judd Books on Marchmont Street, various statues, fountains, squares and gardens and more blue-plaques than you could possibly take in on an afternoon’s stroll. As the blurb on the dust-jacket tells us, ‘he even mentions Virginia Woolf.’

Another question begged – why Bloomsbury? Why has Seren bounded over Offa’s Dyke and missed out Swindon (silly question), Marlborough, Reading (another silly question) or Hounslow? Might it be because the London Welsh have their Headquarters here, just on the boundary between Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell? Some 30 years ago now I met some London Welsh by chance in a tremendous pub in Holborn – which I’ve yet to find since. The Welsh are there. There in Llundain, chief city of the Island of the Mighty. There were there before David Jones marched away In Parenthesis (I bought a copy of that in Skoob), before they buried the head of Bendigeidfran under the White Hill where London's Tower now stands. They are there in Bloomsbury among the academics and the students, the guest-houses and hotels, the hospitals and the headquarters of all manner of wierd and wonderful organisations.

'An extremely accurate MAP of Mac.'
For that reason, and many others, Bloomsbury deserves the Seren treatment. Perhaps all towns do. Even Swindon. Give me a chance and I’ll write one (well, not about Swindon). I’m tuned into genius loci and my eldest daughter has taken to drawing mind-maps of the places she visits. She took herself up to Macclesfield (Mac’) the other day to visit her grandmother in hospital. She found her own way there by train and on foot and drew a map of the place when she got home.  The route from the train station to the hospital takes in Poundland (‘Yes, everything’s £1’), The Cheshire Building Society, a Big Sports Field, and a ‘wierd school-like building – possibly a school?’ – which is the best description of the exclusive King Edward’s School I’ve heard so far. There are also some ‘really gorgeous old houses’, a ‘cute Victorian museum’ (‘Must visit, it has mummies and stuff’).

‘It kind of counts as a day out,’ my daughter records, pathetically perhaps, but then, we live in Cheshire.  ‘It also kind of counts as Manchester,’ she also observes, rather hyperbolically. She is 16 and like I say, we do live in Cheshire ...

‘Weren’t Joy Division from here?’ she asks (she’s seen Control and keeps nicking my albums), ‘Or was that Salford?’
Quick, someone write a Real Macclesfield and answer her questions.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Can't Compline?

I've landed on my feet for a while with an interim position for two days a week at the rather special Goodenough College in London. It's an international hall of residence for postgraduate students and if you're interested you can find out more about it on my business blog, Coracle Communications.

We're often told not to mix business with pleasure. To some extent it's hard not to when you're working somewhere like that which has a distinctive community feel all of its own - and where there are various talks, exhibitions, concerts and extra-curricular events going on. Of course, it's best to keep the professional and the general interest side separate on such occasions.

That said, I find I'm benefitting greatly from some of these extra-curricular aspects. I attended one of the College's 'Port Talks' the other week and found it really helpful - all about decluttering your email and organising your work priorities.

There's something very holistic about that. Equally, as I'm around on a Monday I've attended the candle-lit Compline service that takes place at 10pm that evening. I do like reflective liturgical services, but I wasn't familiar with the Anglican Compline setting. Where has it been all my life? It's lovely.

Goodenough College Chapel - simple, dignified, beautiful
I've only been twice and won't make it every Monday (I've got people to see and things to do) but there's something about the rhythm of it. Just the job before you settle down for the night. I must admit, it threw me a little the first time as they divided the chapel in two for the chanting of the Psalms and the various responses. There were only two of us on my side of the aisle and my chant leaves a lot to be desired. My wife can do Anglican chant but I never learned and so I tend to trail along with what everyone else is doing. As there were only two of us I felt a tad exposed ...

It was easier going the next Monday as there were more chanters on my side of the chapel. Not that it had thrown me the first week, I'm old enough and ugly enough not to be intimidated so easily. And once you get into the swing of it, the chants suggest themselves.

Why don't more places do this? I can see why chant has fallen into disuse, but look what's replaced it? Grim sub-Cold Play power pop and slop.

Ok, ok, there's nothing more boring than a born-again liturgist. But I'm unrepentant. Bring back the chant. We need it. It can do us good.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Olympians for an hour

Two days before a wet Jubilee weekend the Olympic Torch came to Crewe.

I went over with my daughters and some of their friends to see it set off on the Cheshire section of its journey. The platform at Alsager station was full, fuller than I'd ever seen it before and the London-Midland carriages so packed that the conductor hadn't the time to collect all the fares.

John Williams the poet was there, with his wife and son, there were people I recognised from the Co-op or generally from round town (or 'the village' as it still likes to call itself).

We stayed at the station end at Crewe, as my youngest daughter had to get back to school and we needed to dash so as not to be too late. We lined the pavements and waited.

Eventually, with a dull throb of police motorcycle engines, the first of the sponsored corporate vans hove into view. All balloons and fixed and cheesy grins. Banks and financial services with buses and lorries decked out like carnival floats, models and dancers waving from the tops and sides. 'You can tweet us all day long,' they said. As if we would.

More helpful was the hand-written sign held up in one of the windscreens. 'Olympic Torch, six minutes behind.'

As the corporate jollities rumbled on, a cause for genuine mirth. A bloke came running from the main station car-park, dragging his luggage behind him, tie flailing, clearly late for a train. With the pavement lined with spectators he had no option but to run down the middle of the road.

'I'm late!' he kept calling, White Rabbit fashion as the crowds applauded. 'I'm late for my train!'

Out there, alone and exposed in the middle of the road, he did the decent thing, the British thing. He turned his plight into a joke. He began to wave and acknowledge the applause, to act as if he were part of the procession itself. Good on him, well done that man. You can keep your corporate clap-trap and ra-ra-ra, what he did that day made me proud to be British. We are all Olympians now.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Candlemas and keeping one's head

I posted about Candlemas this time last year. It was a new one on me when I accompanied Pen to Astbury parish church where she was singing in the choir. Few churches seem to bother with Candlemas these days and the idea of a pivotal point between Christmas and Lent holds little purchase in these increasingly liturgically-lite times.

We were all in the chancel with the lights dimmed as the associate priest and the robed choir processed in with a Taize chant. Taize-rs on stun!

It's not all about theatre of course. I was interested to hear Ella the associate priest (her husband is the rector) pray at the outset, 'Lord, we don't seek theatre but an encounter with you ...'

Theatre can help. I'm no tat-queen but I do like a bit of a show, a bit of choreography as someone I met on a train once put it.

I'd defy anyone not to get goosebumps in a candle-lit 14th century chancel as the choir chanted the Nunc Dimittis ... 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant de -| part in | peace: ac - | cording - | to thy | word ...'

Afterwards, I chatted briefly to Ella about current trends in worship and liturgy. She and her husband used to be involved with an independent evangelical outfit and we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of that particular scene - and how some of both are entering the Anglican bloodstream through the New Wine conferences and networks.

There's a balance, of course. Many of the people they're now getting at the 10am service aren't familiar with the Anglican formularies at all, and it's debatable how many they really need to become familiar with. But is minimalism where it's really at? People like me who were out in full-on independent charismatic evangelicalism for many years are approaching some of these things as I would a long lost friend. Wannabe hip and trendy vicars look at me daft (as we'd say in South Wales) as they can't wait to sell off the family silver.

'I go from a corruptible crown to an incorruptible ...'
How far do we take these things? Today King Charles I is commemorated in the Anglican lectionary. He's still regarded as a Martyr in some Anglican circles. Every year I find myself debating with High Church Anglicans on-line as I horrify them with some Puritan and Parliamentarian sympathies ...

I've outgrown my adolescent penchant for the Puritans, some of them wouldn't have been out of place in a Taliban cadre ... but still believe that poor old Charles I made things worse for himself and for everybody else with his Divine Right malarkey.

He certainly faced the block with dignity and courage, though.

Perhaps T S Eliot put it best:

We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.

(From Little Gidding)

That's where we're all headed. At Candlemas, as Ella reminded us, we turn from Christmas towards the cross. Ahead of us lies Lent and Passiontide.

I'm sure Charles I would have approved of aspects of the service last night. I'm not sure what he'd have made of a female priest, but the liturgy itself would have struck a chord, I'm sure. The Puritans too, might have had an issue with a female president and I don't think they'd have liked the 'theatre' much ... although they weren't the kill-joys that they are often portrayed. Both are folded in a single party.

For all their faults, both, I'm sure, could have said, 'Mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.' Lord have mercy. In the face of our own faults too, let us aim to say the same.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Ken Jones, runner, winger, gentleman

I was never a sporty lad. I had two left feet and my co-ordination was terrible. Rather a disadvantage if you were growing up in South Wales during 'The Decade of the Dragon', when Welsh Rugby carried all before it.

Sure, I used to watch the games, I enjoyed the Internationals. But after a few seconds on the rugby field I was squashed flat. I wasn't built for it nor could I run very fast.

Imagine my surprise at Christmas when my twin brother presented me with Ken Jones, Boots and Spikes, a book by Steve Lewis published by Sports Books.

Ken (1921 - 2006) taught us English at Llantarnam Comprehensive in the mid-1970s. We didn't know he was one of the greatest sportsmen Wales had ever produced, until our fathers and uncles started to express their astonishment. Ken Jones? You've got Ken Jones?

It was typical of the modesty of the man that he never even mentioned his fame until we asked him about it directly. Even then he would only allude to it when it was necessary to do so. He used to write the match reports for The Sunday Express. My Dad used to read them avidly and we still took the paper even after our parents were divorced. I remember reading them to compare Ken's account with what we'd seen on the telly the day before. It was one of the first times, I think, that I began to appreciate the level of skill involved. He didn't just tell you what had happened, he captured the spirit of the game.

Ken had a very resonate and distinctive voice and we used to take turns to imitate it during break. My brother could do a very good impersonation. We meant no harm and we respected him. I was quite a bookish boy and so enjoyed his English lessons but even those who weren't that way inclined appreciated them. I remember some of them saying so. Now you don't often get that from 14 year old boys!

It was through Ken that I first became aware of contemporary Welsh poetry, the 'second flowering', works by writers like Leslie Norris (also 1921 2006). Ken used to read us The Ballad of Billy Rose. It's stuck with me to this day. Through that I also encountered Norris's moving Elegy for David Beynon (scroll down for the poem) which remains one of the most moving poems I know. Both of these have sporting themes and helped me realise that the sporty and arty sides of things needn't be mutually exclusive.

I've written a tribute to Ken. It's going to appear on the Sports Books website.

I'll share it here too.

i.m. Ken Jones (1921 – 2006)

We never saw you run,
were too young to cheer
you sprint or watch you dash
across the grass to score another try.
We felt the wind of it alright,
our fathers and our uncles told us,
until the boldest – or the cheekiest –
came out and asked you straight:
‘Sir, are you famous?’

You would speak of it then,
never to boast but only to underline
a point, conjure an image in our minds
pertinent to the passage in hand.
Ken Jones, runner, winger, Olympian,
medallist, columnist, all-round athlete -
now ‘Third-Year English’ on a wet afternoon.

You took us in your stride, stood no nonsense,
stopped us in our tracks whenever
we went too far. You must have known
how we found your voice, rich and resonant,
ripe for mimicry, that we’d take turns
each break to ‘do Ken Jones’, echo
your rising cadence, deep Blaenavon tones.

Could you have known
how the quietest among us read
your sports reports each Sunday
after match-day, admiring felt them catch
the spirit and the rhythm of each game?
How we heard hidden treasures in the verse
you read us and realised its value?

We broke no records,
never breasted tape, scored no tries
to speak of – but we ran, Ken,
ran although you never saw us run.
I expect you barely even felt us
take the baton from your hand.
We’re running with it yet, Ken,
and will keep on running
until it’s time for us to pass it on.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Making Friends with the Enemy

Jo Berry's father was killed in the Brighton bomb in 1984. Since then she has been on an extraordinary journey, working for peace and reconciliation, even alongside her father's killer.

I was struck by Jo's story and her gracious dignity when she came to speak in Alsager on 16th January. I wrote an account for various church magazines in the town and I reproduce the article here with Jo's permission.

Making Friends With The Enemy
‘It’s a journey and it’s a choice ...’

On 12th October 1984 Jo Berry was setting out for a two-year development project in Africa when the ‘phone rang with terrible news. A bomb had exploded at Brighton’s Grand Hotel where her father, Sir Anthony Berry MP and her step-mother were attending the Conservative Party conference. In the hours which followed, even worse news emerged. Her father was among the dead.

‘I felt I had been thrown into a war,’ she told a gathering at the Alsager Peace Centre on 16th January. ‘I had never thought of him as an IRA target, still less about the issues that lay behind the conflict.’  Over the next few years that would change dramatically as Jo sought to understand her father’s killers. It was journey that would lead to her working alongside Pat Magee, the only member of the gang convicted for the bombing, in peace and reconciliation initiatives in trouble-spots across the world.

‘For me, the question is about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Pat's story and understand his motivations,’ she said. ‘The truth is that, sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t and this choice is always there.’

Shortly after the bombing, Jo found herself sharing a taxi with a Belfast man whose brother had been an IRA volunteer killed by the British Army. She visited Northern Ireland and became involved with groups supporting the victims of violence or working for reconciliation. Later, she would work with Colin Parry who lost his son in the Warrington bombing, another tireless campaigner for peace and conflict-resolution. She met former IRA and INLA men, Loyalist paramilitaries, former UDR men, British soldiers and ordinary people on both sides of the sectarian divide. And in 2000, following his release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, she finally met her father’s killer, Patrick Magee.

Jo movingly described that initial three-hour meeting. For the first hour he stood by the conventional ‘justifications’ for political violence she had heard many times before, how he’d felt that non-violent protest was not enough, that the beleaguered Republican minority had to take direct action even if it meant planting bombs and taking civilian lives. She heard him out and, touched by her dignity and empathy, asked to hear her story in all its rawness, anger and rage. In order to objectify the bomb victims as ‘targets’ he had forced himself not to think of them as human beings. Confronted by Jo’s calm dignity he said at last, ‘I’m really sorry I killed your father.’

At their next meeting, Pat Magee was profoundly moved by a question Jo passed on from one of her daughters, ‘Does that mean that Grandad Tony can come back now?’ Pat began his own journey, joining Jo on speaking platforms, conferences and workshops in Northern Ireland, the Lebanon and other regions scarred by communal violence.

Although there remain differences of opinion between Jo and Pat on the legitimacy of violence to achieve political ends, they have worked together to promote peace and reconciliation with varied groups. ‘The very fact that we share the same platform says something in itself,’ Jo explains. ‘And wherever we speak together it creates an impact.’

Jo fully acknowledges the dilemmas involved. Not all her siblings and relatives share her views, but they have come to respect her stance. ‘It starts with us. We need to take responsibility, be vigilant, show empathy and respect, see the humanity in everyone.’

For more details of Jo’s work on conflict-resolution see:

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


Have you been Boondoogling this year yet?

Geoff Sutton, one of the regulars at the Poetry Society's Stoke Stanza at The Leopard in Burslem has.

You can read all about it here.

And return after the next Leopard session on 24th January to find out the results of Geoff's boondoogling extravaganza!