Tuesday, 28 October 2014


As we approach Remembrance Sunday next month I am reminded of the first Remembrance service which I conducted after being ordained. I was a recent arrival in a northern town, the new minister of the largest of the “free” churches and soon after the various welcomes were done and boxes unpacked, I had a letter from the Town Mayor inviting me to attend a meeting of all church leaders at the Town Hall. The mayor's idea was that the town should have a civic remembrance service with all churches represented. What he wanted was for a short opening service in the Town Hall after which everyone would walk to the War Memorial to conclude with an act of remembrance. It seemed like a thoroughly good idea to me – though I would now want to bring in non-religious groups as well, but that's another story.

The only ministers who turned up for the meeting were myself (Methodist), the Baptist minister and the Salvation Army Captain. Both the Anglican clergy sent apologies, one to say that because the War Memorial was outside his parish he would not be able to take part. They had their own War Memorial inside the church and so, as always, they would do their own thing. The other Anglican wrote to say that as the Town Hall was outside his parish, he would not be able to be involved – but the War Memorial was inside his parish so he would lead an act of remembrance there along with other members of his church. And anyone else who wished to do so was welcome to join them.

I objected. Surely what we were proposing was unified thing, a single Civic Service beginning in the Town Hall and concluding at the War Memorial. The vicar shouldn't just say he's not going to be involved and then walk in and take over at the end. “Quite right,” said the mayor. “I will write and tell him so.” And so it fell to me, the new guy in town, to organise and lead the whole thing and conduct the Act of Remembrance. And the vicar didn't show up at all.

When we got home that morning, we heard something to put church territorial sensitivities into perspective. A newsflash on the radio said that a bomb had gone off at the War Memorial in Enniskillen...

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Rather more than just a boat trip

Half a century ago when my friend, David Bowker, and I were yet-to-be-enlightened enthusiastic Jehovah's Witnesses, we began our time as “pioneers” - full-time knockers on doors – in Salford's Docklands area. It was a grim place then with row upon row of run-down terrace houses backing too closely upon each other and fronting directly onto the too narrow streets.

David and I had bought into the Watchtower illusion – we were brought up with it. Soon, very soon, this dismal dockland and all else would be swept away by God at Armageddon and the world would be transformed into a paradise for the sole benefit of Jehovah's Witnesses. Well, all these years later the old dockland is certainly different.

Last weekend, after a very long absence, I revisited Salford Docks. Or Salford Quays as it is now styled. And what a transformation! I had come with Margaret because part of her birthday treat for me was a trip along the Manchester Ship Canal to Liverpool. Our journey began near the Lowry Centre just across the water from Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium, and the site of W. T. Glover's long since vanished factory where I began my working life.

Perhaps the most notable symbols of transformation were the teams of rowers out on the water. Years ago I would not have dreamed of the possibility that anyone would ever want to go rowing on what was then very dirty, oily, smelly and polluted water. But there they were.

To do justice to the five-hour trip would take far long than I can devote in one post. Let me just say that, far from crossing anything off my to-do list, I found myself adding lots more things to it – places to visit for a longer and closer look, people with whom to share the experience, and episodes for my writing.

This bridge, distinctly reminiscent of Sydney's Harbour Bridge, is at Runcorn close to where the Weaver Navigation joins the Manchester Ship Canal – and not far from where, in my current novel, Solomon Whitaker began his final boat journey after unloading his cargo at Frodsham.

At last, we reached the end of the Canal. Beyond the locks here is the open water of the Mersey Estuary and, beyond it, Liverpool – similarly transformed from the place it was when I left the northwest for Cambridge thirty years ago.

The more I visit my old haunts in the northwest, the more I want to keep coming back to re-acquaint myself with a place I loved and to get to know the new place it has become.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

"Without my imagination...

I’m not usually a fan of coach trips,preferring to plan my routes individually according to my own inclinations. Last week had to be exceptional, though. We were in Iceland, so what better introduction to that amazing country could we have than with Reykjavik Excursions’ splendid tours?

First thing on Wednesday morning we set off for a day visiting some of the places I’d learned of years before in geography lessons and never seen in real life. The first stop, though, was for morning coffee somewhere quite unexpected. A tomato farm. I guess Ben, who had joined us from southern Spain, was familiar with tomato growers but probably not with one quite like this Icelandic establishment which brings together the organic and the high-tech – and releases a boxful of bees shipped in every week from Belgium to maintain the year-round pollination necessary to keep this place going.

Leaving behind the tomatoes we drove to Geysir. Cool mountain springs? Nope – quite warm ones. Most of the visitors gathered around the biggest of the geysirs and watched, fascinated as the pool surged and bubbled until suddenly it boiled over.

We couldn’t move on, of course, without first climbing the peak overlooking the hot springs. And, yes, the view was definitely worth it.

From Geysir we drove to the Gulfoss waterfall. An awesome sight.

The last leg of the day’s trip took us to the Thingvellir National Park where we were able to enjoy some walking in Iceland’s great rift valley where the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates of the earth’s crust meet. Or rather, don’t meet. They are very slowly drifting apart at a rate of about seven millimetres per year.

As we stood in  awe of the unimaginable natural power simmering away so close to us, we were very conscious of the fact that the volcano at Bardabunga was all the time threatening to erupt - and possibly close the airport by the time we needed to come home. It hasn't erupted yet, but  it could do so at any time.

Waiting for our return flight from Keflavik Airport, I spotted among the posters and photographs advertising the island's attractions, a quote from an Icelandic author which rang bells with me:
"Without my imagination I couldn't go anywhere." (Vigdis Grimsdottir) Iceland stimulated my own imagination and I want  to go back!

Saturday, 2 August 2014


This is Henry, our dear old greyhound who died this week:
When he came to us about seven years ago he had never lived in a family home and it took him while to get used to it. Bertie, our bearded collie who was still missing his sister, adopted him as his new best friend and Henry learned how to be a family member. Gradually he learned to play and have fun. He was a great companion to all of us, a very friendly dog who introduced us to lots of new people when me moved to our new home here in Leominster. We're going to miss him lots.

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...”