Friday, 27 June 2014

Back it up!

I've been working on the part of my novel where Solomon Whitaker begins the laborious process of learning to write. He is determined to master the art because he has an important story to tell which must not be lost to later generations.

So I was quite naturally mousing around the cybershelves for titbits about learning to read among the working classes of 19th century England when I came across this delightful quote:

They spent nearly three hours one evening preparing a letter to a far-away sister, the mother painfully composing the sentences, the lad painfully writing them down. The glorious epistle was at last complete, the first great triumph of a combined intellectual effort between mother and son. Proudly they held the letter to the candle-light to dry the ink, when the flame caught it and ...the work of three laborious hours destroyed in three seconds. It was more than they could bear. Mother and son sat down and cried together.
From a biography of Will Crooks (G. Haw, 1907)

Even in the early Victorian period the motto above every mantelpiece had to be, back it up now!

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Forgive our foolish ways - some odd prayer requests

During my time as a minister I received some strange requests for prayers but none quite so odd as those which began very soon after I arrived in one of my several different appointments. I never actually met the person involved. She was only ever a voice on the phone but she always spoke as if she knew me.

“Robert,” she said, “will you pray for me...” The requests at first were quite ordinary, if na├»ve, pleas for help with the normal difficulties of life and I soon discovered that a colleague had for a long time been the recipient of these requests. Until, perhaps, his prayers began to lose their efficacy, or maybe he just became impatient with her or began to suspect it was all an elaborate wind-up.

After a while the requests moved on from pleas for divine assistance with day-to-day living to something akin to prayers for healing. “Robert, will you pray for me? I've got a terrible headache so I've taken some paracetamol. Will you pray for it to start working?” And from then on it seemed that the normal routine for taking medicine was to follow the instructions on the packet and then phone the minister to ask for prayers for it to have the desired effect.

Until what was, I suppose, bound to happen sooner or later. “Robert, will you pray for me?” she asked one Saturday afternoon. “I've got terrible constipation so I've taken some Dulcolax. Will you pray for it to start working?”

The next morning I announced the hymn following the sermon and preceding the prayers of intercession. “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways.” It was one of a small number of hymns that I was still reasonably comfortable with singing, being fairly light on doctrine and strong on poetic imagery. It was one which I used to choose quite frequently so there was no great coincidence that I had chosen it that morning. So, no, I did not pick it especially for the verse:

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of they peace.

The final prayer request I had from that person was one which, had it not been for all the others, I would have been sure was a wind-up. The phone call came through at two o'clock in the morning and, assuming there was some sort of emergency, I jumped out of bed and rushed to the phone. “Robert,” said the familiar voice, “I can't get to sleep so I've take some Nytol. Will you pray for it to start working?”

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A procession of witness - or something

The photographs of Ubeda's Semana Santa procession which Ben sent reminded me of a British Christian procession which I took part in years ago. It was for Pentecost (June 8th this year) which has traditionally been the marching season in several English regions, and which has become a time for a public show of Christian unity.

So here's the setting: our Churches Together area included two separate urban areas on the outskirts of a modest city and those villages represented two CofE parishes, Saint Wendy's and Saint Aethelstan's. At the St Wendy's end was the Salvation Army and at the St Aethelstan's end were the Methodists. In between the two areas was a large park and playing fields – the ideal place for an open air service. We decided to organise a joint procession of witness representing the four churches.

A joint procession, however, was problematic because there was no logical starting point which would be convenient for everyone. We hit upon the idea of two processions which would converge for the final half mile to the park. The trouble with this, however, was that the St Wendy's crowd had the Sally Army and their band whilst we at the St Aethelstans end had, well, nothing. But no, we had Father Cornelius, vicar of St Aethelstan's who was, in his spare time, chaplain to the Sea Scouts so he knew a thing or two about marching and could take care of the music for us.

We of the St Aethelstan's and Methoes crowd assembled at the top of Gasworks Lane. We gathered behind Dave the Metho who was going to lead the way in his car – with the windows open. Father Cornelius arrived looking thoroughly ecclesiastical in his shabby cassock and even shabbier donkey jacket. He handed Dave a tape. Dave inserted the tape into his player, started his engine and moved off slowly as the music began to play. “A Life on the Ocean Wave.”

Eh? What? WTF? Is this really appropriate music for a Pentecost procession? As Father Cornelius pointed out, though, you can't march to “Come Down, O Love Divine,” or “Holy Spirit dwell with me.” Well maybe not – but military marches? Nobody protested too much, though, because there were probably some who would want to march to “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” if they were given half a chance.

We carried on marching to the stirring military music which Father Cornelius had provided but when the opening bars of “Colonel Bogey” sounded through the in-car stereo Dave hit the button and refused to play any more. And Father Cornelius never did understand what the problem was.

The two arms of the march met with perfect timing and merged for the final bit along Foundry Road. By this time quite a strong wind had gathered which was very fitting for Pentecost even though it added to the confusion as we tried to organise ourselves for our open-air service. The Sally Army at least knew what they were doing – must have done that sort of things before. Rev Pete, the vicar of St Wendy's, took charge because we were on his territory. He had said that he would organise the PA system for us and it took no time at all to set it up – all he had to do was switch it on because it was a megaphone.

Rev Pete addressed the Almighty through the megaphone and handed the instrument to me. I was doing the reading. The one from Acts with all the funny names which you are supposed to stumble over because it you don't, people will think you are being a smart-arse. I never colluded with the stumble-over-the-names thing because I didn't think they were all that difficult after all and, anyway, I didn't mind being a smart-arse. But I stumbled that day. Have you ever tried to do a Bible reading on an exposed playing field on a very windy day whilst holding a megaphone? Try it – it isn't easy. I should have known what the PA system would be and come prepared with a polythene bag to put my Bible into.

And then Rev Pete preached the sermon. I can't say that I am all that good at remembering sermons but Rev Pete's Pentecost offering that day was one which I can't forget. He gave a masterly exposition of the parable of the floppy glove. “What is this?” he asked through the megaphone as he held a limp glove aloft. “You can't see? No, of course not. It's just a limp piece of cloth. It does nothing. It just falls and flops about. Useless.” And then he put it on his hand, the non-megaphone hand. Raising his arm aloft, he continued, “Now can you see? It's a glove. A gloved hand. It's dynamic, powerful, ready for action. It has shape, it has purpose...” And this was an illustration of the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit by which Jesus would transform his lifeless followers into dynamic disciples.. You can fill in the rest.

And that, folks, is not a scene for a comic novel. It's a true story. It really did happen just like that. Only the names have been changed. I can imagine someone saying at a Churches Together meeting, “I've just come back from watching the Semana Santa processions and I've got some great ideas for our next...”

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Early May

I love the first week of May. It's the week when most of the trees are newly in leaf - just the late leafers like ash are still to catch up. So the week could not be allowed to pass without plenty of walking in the woodlands which are close by in every direction from our new home.
Queenwood on Dinmore Hill had long been one of our favourite stopping-off places on our many journeys between South Wales and Cheshire. Now that we live nearby, it had to be high on the list of places to visit last week. It looks great in every season but it is especially beautiful at this time of year.

I had a very treat in store this year. Almost invariably when walking in the woods during springtime, Margaret would be delighted to see the bluebells in flower, but I hardly ever noticed them until she pointed them out. For me, they always merged into the background greenery and become almost invisible. A short while ago, however, I'd had cataract surgery on one eye. So now, what was my bad eye is my good eye and the transformation is remarkable. I hadn't quite appreciated, though, how much better colours appear.

Suddenly, I could see the bluebells!
All I can say is, Wow! Just wow!  I go back early next month to have my second eye done. Then I am going to go around looking at things!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Semana Santa

Ben sent these photos of the Semana Santa procession as it passed near his house in Ubeda, Andalucia.
Those black hoods look distinctly sinister to me! The elaborate carriage bearing the figure of Christ is carried on the shoulders of the penitents and where they have to pass underneath overhead telephone lines they get down on their knees and shuffle along the cobbles. Great pics, Ben. Thanks!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

How is you memory?

“What were you doing on the night of... between the hours of... ?” If I'm being asked to remember a drama script that might be fairly easy, but if I'm being asked to remember what I was doing..., that might be rather different.

Last night, when we took our dog for his usual evening walk, there were police officers stationed at various points around the Grange, the park here in Leominster where we take Henry every evening. Apparently there had been an incident a week earlier which they were investigating.

“Excuse me, were you here at this time last Friday? Did you notice anything unusual or suspicious?”

“Yes, of course. Always here at this time. No can't think of anything. What about... no, can't be sure...” And then I said that if this was a drama script and the question was “What were you doing on the night of... eight months ago...? I would answer right away that we were at the theatre.

“And we'd have helicopters, sniffer dogs and lasers and wrap it all up in no time,” said the copper.

But we could only be vague. Couldn't say that we had seen anything note worthy.

Returning twenty minutes later, Margaret said just as we approached the officer we had spoken with, “Wait a minute – we didn't see anything. We weren't here. We were at the Courtyard Theatre in Hereford for a performance by Fascinating Aida.” Doh! (And they were pretty good actually.)

Friday, 11 April 2014

Crompton's Mule

It's revival time. Time to revive my other blog, Crompton's Mule which I started as a place where I could give an airing to some of ideas of Freddie Whitaker, a significant character in my current novel Heron and the Carpenter. Freddie's story didn't diminish so much as get overtaken by Judy's ferreting out the possible details of Grandfather Solomon's story. Inevitably, Freddie now plays a lesser part than I envisaged at first.
A lesser part in my novel, that is. In fact, Freddie's story grew until now it has become my next project to follow Heron and the Carpenter. Not as a novel, though. It will be the non-fiction work I thought I had left behind. More of that in due course, however. For now it's time to revive my other blog with an excerpt from The Gospel of Eleazar for Holy Week.