Friday, 16 December 2016

Don’t-Listen-To-That, Listen-To-This! (A Christmas Humbug Hit-list)

When the Titanic sank in 1912, it carried a substantial library, passengers for the use of.

Now let’s just suppose… What if the shelves of that library were stocked with the only copies in existence, of any book or publication in the world? What poetry, novels, songs, music and other what-have-you would you like to be sunk forever in that library? Which excrescences of art do you wish were most definitely not still with us IN ANY FORM, but were instead, justifiably rotting at the bottom of the Atlantic?

As it’s the festive season, allow me to nominate a few Yuletide offerings that really, really, need to go into that timewarp of non-existence- and some replacements....

Monday, 12 December 2016

Fancy using an alternative Christmas Carol?

Our local community had a 'Living Nativity' event yesterday. Loads of people turned up to witness the Christmas story acted out on the streets, accompanied by the singing of carols- and we all ended up back in the church centre to share mince pies, mulled wine, and generally admire the way the donkeys behaved. Yes, we had real donkeys from a local donkey sanctuary. The local children were pretty good, too.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Dead Weight (Twisted Bible Stories)

Good grief, the man was heavy. Jude shifted the pole onto his other shoulder, but it didn't help. Ezra was a dead weight, and he was going to be heavy even if you split the load amongst four men carrying him on a stretcher. The stony road was digging into the soles of Jude's feet, and he wished he'd brought thicker sandals. How long had they been carrying him? Jude's shoulders ached with the load, and the others weren't finding it any easier. Why hadn't somebody brought a cart - or a donkey, or anything useful? Jude knew why - because Ezra hadn't bought them for the building company.

He glanced back at Ezra, his stupid old head bobbing up and down with the movements of the stretcher. They were carrying him head first, the miserable old whatsit, so he could see where he'd been, but not where he'd be going (That way, he couldn't try telling them where to go). Ezra was a useless works manager. Just because he'd been longest working with the family firm, the bosses had made him manager of the whole house building project. Him! Jude couldn't believe it. Everyone knew Ezra was a thief except the bosses, who'd been fooled well and proper.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Strange Experience

A few days ago, I had to go visit my doctor to get something checked out. It was nothing of great concern, but I wanted a medical opinion, so he had a quick look, fixed an appointment to have some more checks, and gave me a prescription. Like I said, it was nothing of great concern, but since the medical advice is always to 'have something looked at', it's what I did... just like we all do. It was all sorted in the space of an hour, and the medication afterwards cost me £8.50. Have you ever stopped to ponder the amazing simplicity of this?

Friday, 25 November 2016

Hunting Grizzly Bears with Mrs PGD

(Artist’s impression)

‘Bearitory’ (as the park rangers called it) was just a few miles from Lake Louise, in British Columbia. After taking a gondola ride up from the valley floor, we’d passed through a heavily reinforced steel gate defended on either side by Jurassic Park-style electrified fencing. And then finally, yes, there we were, walking straight into ‘Bear country’- completely alone Where the Wild Things Are, without a guide, and unprotected. We’re talking about Grizzly bears, here, the real deal. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Seasick Steve and the Joy of Fakes

I like Seasick Steve. Jools Holland likes Seasick Steve. Glastonbury loved Seasick Steve when he wowed the crowds a few years ago. I mean, who wouldn't love a guy who bummed his way around the USA for years, panhandling for dimes, riding the freight wagons and generally living on handouts- and then somehow started making excellent bluesy hit records?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

How to write about Christianity - A guide for perplexed journalists

Thanks to our American friends, 'Faith' (as in Evangelical Christianity) is hitting the news media and being badly reported. Again. Trump is all our fault, you see.

Many journalists, social commentators and other cultural pundits spend a great deal of their time trying to produce instant pen-pictures of global shifts in opinion and events. You might even be one of them. It’s hard, really. Sometimes, Life is just one damned thing after another, the Editor wants it yesterday, so where do you start? In puzzlement, usually. The irritating tendency of world religions to not fade away (as predicted very frequently through the 20th century) has led many to wonder not only ‘What is going on?’ but also ‘How can I write this piece about religion when actually I know nothing about the subject since not going to Sunday School all those years ago?’ No journalist likes to feel awkward or uninformed.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Assassin's Tale (Alternative Bible Stories)

I am going to find him. That little rat Belshazzar has scampered between the shadows of this palace for far too long. But tonight – that idiot Emperor's years of misrule will come to an end. By tomorrow, a new head will wear the Golden Diadem of Power, that of Cyrus the Persian- my employer.

Our preparations have been exacting. His close bodyguards have been threatened, then bribed to look the other way. Of course, they will then be blamed for the assassination, but intelligence and anticipation was never their strong point. The normal palace guards have either been distracted with drink, or sent out on spurious missions to keep them busy elsewhere. Afterwards, it will be blamed on an unfortunate and regrettable breakdown in the Emperor's personal security.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Brighton Pavilion- a rare moment of military genius

Ever been to Brighton pavilion?

This oriental fancy was built as an insane folly to house the antics of Regency fops in the 18th century. But in 1914, something amazing happened. It actually became useful.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The Beach – a Remembrance Day story about the Dunkirk evacuation, 1940

Everything was going wrong for William when he arrived at Dunkirk with the rest of his regiment. If Hell had a beach, then he was standing on it now. The whole seafront was a mass of defeated, tired, dispirited soldiers. The British and French armies had been soundly beaten, pushed back to the coast by the Germans- and thousands of young men in khaki and blue were now trapped on this long sandy beach, waiting to be either killed, captured or possibly rescued if they were lucky. William was only 16. Was he going to die?

The harbour was out of action, so hundreds of smaller boats had bravely sailed over from England to ferry the soldiers out to the larger ships that could take them back across the Channel to safety. The defeated servicemen, British and French together, were queuing up in long lines stretching down into the water, out into the shallows where they could be picked up. William stood in line, waiting.

Another German plane flew overhead firing at the lines of men, and everyone dived for cover in the sand. When it had gone, they all took their place in the queue again. Soon, William was standing ankle-deep in the water. As his line shuffled forward, cold waves were soon lapping round his waist. More boats came. He was near the front. Would he make it? There was a great big soldier standing in front of him, a Guardsman. Another boat came. ‘We can take fifteen men!’ shouted a sailor. One by one, the exhausted soldiers in front were pulled out of the water into the boat. William was nearly there! Would they take him? The big soldier in front was just climbing in.

‘That’s all!’ shouted the sailor at William. ‘Any more, and we’ll sink! You’ll have to wait! Wait? William couldn’t stand it anymore. Suddenly, he felt small and frightened and lost – and started to cry. Then he heard a big splash beside him. He was being lifted up by big strong arms, out of the water, into the boat. It was the big soldier who’d been in front, the Guardsman, who was now back in the water. He had given up his place.

‘You go first, son’ he said, gently. The boat turned away, leaving him and the queue behind. William never saw him again. 
(based on a reminiscence by a Dunkirk veteran)
In Memory of all those who paid the price.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

What Donald Trump is showing us about Christianity’s greatest weakness…

On the other side of the Atlantic, weird things are happening. To us Brits, the whole Trump phenomenon is puzzling. Why are so many Yanks giving passionate support to someone who says all the things he does? And one significant group allegedly seems to adore him – the American ‘evangelical’ Christians, allegedly. Why are so many of them treating him like God’s anointed?

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

I, Daniel Blake- That's Entertainment?

Oh dear, the director Ken Loach really has made a lot of people very cross. (By a lot of people, I mean of course, the right wing press.) 'I, Daniel Blake' is a cracker of a film, telling a difficult story with humanity and wit. What should a man do when he's had a heart attack, been told not to work by his doctor, but is then told by the Benefits Office that he has to find work if he's going to receive financial assistance? Doesn't sound like great entertainment, does it?

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Halloween, and rattling those bones....

Here's a nice little question for Halloween. What do you think happens to us after we die? Oblivion? A reunion with friends? Fluffy clouds, harps and angel wings? Possibly starting all over again, somewhere else? Your answer (if you have one) could affect the way you approach Halloween.

The festival's changed a lot since I was a kid. Yes, I remember bobbing for apples, but the pumpkin-and-dressing-up business only drifted over here from the USA when I was a teenager. (Blame Stephen Spielberg's 1982 film ET. Lots of British children saw the trick-or-treating going on there and said, 'I want some of that.' Thanks, Stephen. Kindly trip over your Oscar.) But the skeletons and gravestones and Things That Go Bump in the Night are all playing with our fears of the grave, the supernatural and other things we can't control. And that brings us back to the big question that we don't like to talk about. What happens to us after we die?

Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Troubling Genius of ‘As long as he needs me’

Every so often, a piece of popular art crafted for the mass market hits the big time- which is why one song from the musicals is still a masterpiece study of human psychology. Lionel Bart’s ‘Oliver’ turned one of Charles Dickens’ darkest stories into a musical that families would go to watch. It’s got poverty and shame, child abduction and exploitation, extreme violence and intimidation – perfect for a night out with the kids. Bart had to make changes to the story, of course. Fagin’s devilish nature was turned into Ron Moody’s adorable scoundrel (In the original story, he was hanged.) Bill Sykes became even darker (In the original, he saves victims from a house fire whilst on the run.) But then, rising above them all, comes Nancy.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Wishing I was lucky...

It’s strange how folk religion survives.

Vancouver airport must be one of the most pleasant airports, ever. Parts of it serve as an art gallery, featuring stunning sculptures from their greatest First Nation artists. The souvenir shops have genuinely good stuff, reasonably priced- and the food on offer is remarkably good. Pride of place in one section is a massive aquarium full of creatures from the North-East Pacific Ocean, fronted by a large fenced pool preventing people from putting their sticky hands on the glass. And guess what’s lying there at the bottom of the pool. Money, lots of it, hundreds and hundreds of coins from all parts of the world, thrown in by travellers waiting for their next flight.

Friday, 21 October 2016

‘The Girl on the Train’ vs. ‘Under the Shadow’

How can you make a film about women resisting violence, without wallowing in the experience of the violence itself? Two new ‘thrillers’ set me thinking. ‘The Girl on the Train’ and ‘Under the Shadow’ both share a feminist sub-text, but one was infinitely more successful at exploring the dilemmas without brutalising the senses, although you’ll have to search hard to find it at your local cinema.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Lovelocks and Moral Idiots

They’re everywhere we go. Well, everywhere scenic, that is. You’ll find them by stunning natural wonders, architectural marvels, and poignant memorials to the fallen.

And they have got to stop.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

And Then Our Money Disappeared… (A Warning)

Small print, we all love reading it, don't we? We’re into buying something online, but at the last moment there’s a little box saying that ‘Terms and conditions’ apply- so do we accept? Yes. Of course we do accept them, stop wasting my time, I want to buy that thing. We tick the box, because checking out every ‘Terms and conditions’ document would fill our days with trying to understand all sorts of legal gobbledegook (understandable only to lawyers, accountants and other Higher Beings), and nothing else would get done. So we tick the box for Yes, and hope that the people in charge have our best interests at heart. Which they do, of course. Every time. Of course.

But sometimes, not reading the small print can get you into trouble. So allow me to share a true story that might serve as a kind of warning about what can go wrong...

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Why Scrabble is Wrong (and a big shout out for Welsh-speakers)

It’s a great little-non-story for a Saturday. A few years ago, a bookshop in Camarthen stocked a few sets of the Welsh Scrabble game.  No-one bought them.

Now, after we’ve had all the jokes (about the board isn’t big enough for all those long Welsh words like llongyfarchiadau… which is not true), or the more prosaic explanation that Camarthen is in the south where there are more English speakers, perhaps I can offer an alternative suggestion- that it just shows the Welsh (or at least, Welsh speakers) are more intelligent than the rest of us.

Why? Because they don’t like Scrabble. It’s a Bad Game, a Very Bad Game.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Absolutely Bonkers- Kynren’s last night

Imagine taking a fast walk through a vast art gallery with a small child, pausing to quickly explain a few of the more colourful bits to keep their attention, so they don’t start fidgeting. Well, you’d focus on the busier bits, wouldn’t you? That’s Kynren’s approach to British history, writ-large, and… it’s Big.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Save Morgan Freeman’s Career! (A New Campaign)

It must be tough being Morgan Freeman. All the time, he wants to express his acting talent in a whole range of arthouse movies and voiceover documentaries, but casting directors keep sending him major big-budget roles that call for a certain type of character.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Bake-off, Channel 4, and The End of Civilisation As We Know It.

Oh dear. Oh deary me.

The sky has fallen in. Parliament must be recalled. COBRA must meet to discuss the security implications. The Queen must be informed. And a few nights ago, the announcement even made the headlines of the main BBC News, ahead of one or two other tiny items about more mayhem going on around the world.

The Great British Bake-off is leaving the BBC, to enter the commercial waters of Channel 4. Apocalypse Now, apparently.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

School Uniform- the truth at last!

I hated my uniform at Therfield Comprehensive School in the 1970s. 

It was one of the reasons I couldn’t wait to leave. There was a thick blazer with pockets that weren’t deep enough, and a school tie. What idiot invented ties? There was even a school cap that nobody in their right senses would choose to wear- I stopped wearing mine on the first day, after realising I was the only person on the playground with a hat. So when it came to A-levels, I was off down to the road to the local technical college where I could study English, Sociology and Geography with a lot of other non-conformists, and somehow manage to scrape together enough ability to go to Newcastle University, two years later. At Ewell Technical College I was allowed to wear Levi jeans and a Capital Radio T-shirt, and no-one in authority minded or cared. Bliss. Jeans were so magnificently 1970s and rebellious- so we all wore them like a uniform, when we could, as you do, when you’re 16 or 17.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Elusive Moose

Last week, Mrs PGD and I returned from Canada. All in all, we’d have to say that Canada is definitely everything you’d expect in matters Canadian, with an abundance of trees, maple syrup, Mounties (always getting their man), Rockies and what-have-you. Yes, Canada is definitely the place for seeing all these things in their natural habitat.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Total Trivia- Take the Toolbox Quiz!

Are you a real man? Possibly not, if you happen to be a woman. On the other hand, are you a real odd-job person, the sort who can turn their hand to fixing and mending anything? Let's see if your tool-box fits the test. You can have one Man Point for every one of these items found either in, or near, your toolbox. And if you're a Woman, you can have a Woman Point. Fair's fair.

OK, here goes...

1) Totally abused screwdriver (straight line head) that has been used to open tins, mix paint, test for electrical current (very bad idea), poke holes in plasterboard, accidentally stab hand, serve as a makeshift chisel and basically BE THERE for you through thick and thin. Oh screwdriver, I love thee, trusted friend.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

From 3000 years ago... a free gift

There's been far too much news lately- and then along comes the Chilcot enquiry (at last), turning our attention straight back to a string of decisions that took this country into war a few years ago. Iraq was already suffering, but as the man who pulled down Saddam's statue put it,
 '“Saddam is gone, but in his place there are 1,000 Saddams.” 
So yet again, the law of unintended consequences shows what happens when one massive decision goes horribly wrong if there's been no significant plan for working out what to do afterwards.
So... here's a free gift to counter all that News slapping us in the face, with 3000 years-worth of perspective. If you're not familiar with the Bible, don't worry. Just allow these ancient words to wash over you like poetry. Try reading them aloud, perhaps to the background of something playing in the background (Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto, 2nd movement?)

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Taking Back Control

Words have power. ‘Taking back control’ probably swung it for the referendum Brexiteers, but there’s a little problem wrapped up in those three little words. Because we’re not in control. You won’t be choosing the next Prime Minister. You, personally, have no control over migration or the NHS or national sovereignty or any other of the hot topics bouncing around the airwaves or newspapers- and neither does Boris or Theresa or Andrea or Jeremy or anyone else. And that means, whatever you were promised and voted for about ‘Taking Back Control’ ain’t gonna happen, not really. You were sold a bum steer.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Exclusive timetable for Brexit: what happens next

The official Leave campaign have just released the following statement about their immediate plans for managing the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union:
Days 1-3: Finish getting bladdered and laughing at those Remain people. What were they thinking? Don’t they love this country, for pity’s sake?

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Not a 'Tragedy'- Why Words Matter

When horrible things happen to people, one word is regularly used by news-gatherers to describe the unfolding events: 'Tragedy'. The Orlando massacre or the murder of Jo Cox MP were 'tragedies', apparently, according to some newspapers and the BBC news. Sorry, No, they weren't, and we shouldn't say they were. Now, this might be caused by sloppy English teaching when these news-people were wending their ways through school, but they (and we) shouldn't use that word to describe those events. Why?

Friday, 10 June 2016

The House and the Rat- a story completely unconnected to the upcoming Referendum(b)

Septimus Dingle was a man with a large old house and a family he loved dearly. But one day, his youngest daughter came to him and said that she was sure she'd seen a rat near her bedroom at the top of the stairs. Or it might have been a mouse. She didn't know. but it was always exciting to tell tales and see what her father would do next. And it certainly worked this time. 

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Curse of the Certain Sort of Granny

It is time to make a stand against Grannies. Or at least, a certain sort of Granny. There are too many of them, and government statistics reveal that they will form the majority of the British population by 2025. So like it or not, we are all turning into Grannies, or something like them. Some would say this is not a bad thing. After all, Grannies give you hugs, they bring you treats, and sometimes they even let you stay up late when they’re babysitting because Mummy's gone out ram-raiding.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins and the importance of being crap

Many years ago when I was younger and fitter (best beloved) I did a fair bit of rock-climbing with ropes at a club in Birmingham that had lots of artificial cliffs and people who could dangle over the side of a sheer drop by one fingernail. After one session, I could hardly lift the tab on my Coke can or turn the key to start my car. But in the canteen, I came across a climbing magazine sporting the wonderful title 'The Importance of Being Crap' which extolled the virtues of Not Being Quite Good at Something. Because Being Crap gave you something to aim for, something to admire about people who Definitely Weren't Crap, and it kept you healthily humble.

'Florence Foster Jenkins' is the title of a wonderful new film about the celebrated eccentric (as in 'I am an individual, You are eccentric, She is Barking Mad') lady whose fortune enabled her to sponsor all sorts of musical events across New York City in the early 1940s.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Monday, 2 May 2016

ITV’s 'The Secret': The Trouble with Masks

ITV’s latest crime drama The Secret is a riveting study of manipulation by a sexual predator, who just happens to be a youth leader and worship leader in a Baptist Church. That’s the central premise of a drama based on a real-life murder case in Northern Ireland.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Celebrity Death Bingo, 2016

Now... this Grim Reaper nonsense is all getting a bit silly. Those of us baby-boomers born in the halcyon days of the late 1950s and early 1960s have certainly had certain advantages.

1) We saw all the best bands before they were charging £50 a ticket to see them at the back of an arena. (My personal favourite: Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Newcastle City Hall, 3 support acts including a Punch and Judy show and all for £7.50. And they were throwing out free lapel badges at the end.)

Friday, 22 April 2016

Why So Much XXXXXXX Swearing?

I went to see the comedian Mark Thomas in Newcastle last night, doing his 'Trespass' stand-up tour. Mark's a political activist in the best sense of the term. He's the sort who stages weirdly humorous stunts to shame councils and corporations and politicians into doing the right thing when it's easier for them not to.

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Time Vampires- a memory

The most boring job I ever had in the past, wasn’t having to clean out the bacon boiler in a supermarket. That was greasy and gooey, but in the end I saw it clean and sparkling. (Cleaning isn’t a boring job because there’s an end result, even if the thing you’re cleaning will be dirty again tomorrow.) Neither was it cleaning toilets in a factory – for the same reason. In the end, it all comes out sparkling. I took quite a pride in it, really.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016


Do you ever feel sorry for the dinosaurs? They were big, they were hungry, and by gum, they lasted for a very long time. Small children all have their favourites, especially everyone’s cuddly favourite, the T-Rex that embodied with big teeth and massive jaws, the idea of being the biggest, toughest kid on the block. And the palaeontologists tell us they lasted for millions of years, which sounds pretty successful to me.

But then something happened. Climate change? Earth being struck by a comet? Whatever it was, the world cooled down, and the best survivors just happened to be the creatures who were smaller, furry, social and intelligent enough to handle it. There was nothing actually wrong with the dinosaurs, but they couldn’t adapt to the new climate conditions, and so they faded away.

The Jurassic Park films (based on Michael Crichton’s original novel) play with the idea of bringing the dinosaurs back for human amusement, but then, gosh, would you believe it, everything goes wrong and then we have Jeff Goldblum et al (with attendant children) running for their lives and always forgetting to have a really big gun next to them. It all goes a bit Frankenstein (Scientists playing God and coming a cropper), but that’s Hollywood for you.

So which of our long-cherished public institutions could be in danger of going the same way of the dinosaurs in Britain? The Monarchy? Parliamentary Democracy? The National Health Service? The Church of England? Take your pick. Of course, we’re not unintelligent reptiles subject to the laws of evolution because we can also change the environment we’re in- we’re not subject to it. It all depends on the degree to which people are willing to notice the way the wind is blowing, and be prepared to make changes that ensure our survival without losing our identity- which isn’t always easy. How far can you change an institution before it becomes something completely different and alien- especially for those who liked it, just the way it was?

One solution, of course, is to put them in a theme park, for paying visitors. To some extent, that’s what happens already, as palaces and stately homes and cathedrals now open their doors with a view to tourism topping up the coffers. But remember the Jurassic Park thing. What might happen if the inhabitants of Buckingham Palace were to suddenly revert to their original nature, the one that put them in charge in the first place (Wars of the Roses Part 2, anyone?). Or if Parliament started taking on the established forces and started chopping off a few crowned heads (or their corporate equivalent). Or if a cathedral was to start doing again, the very thing that caused it to be built in the first place, and God’s Holy Spirit suddenly broke out among the people?

Dangerous creatures, dinosaurs. Hard to tame. Best keep an eye on them.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Looking after Eden

I did something a bit weird yesterday. There’s a bit of green space near where we live, surrounded on four sides by a hedge, two lines of houses and a road. There are several trees, a few footpaths, and a swing put up by some social entrepreneur. And somebody has added a few easy-to-climb slats up the side of one of the trees so it can be easily climbed. Sometimes, children come here with a football. And that’s about it. Nothing spectacular, this green space is simply there, it occasionally gets its lawn trimmed by council workers, and it does what its meant to do. Like Charlie Dimmock, it’s green, it provides a bit of space between all the other stuff, and it’s easy on the eye.

And it collects litter. Nothing massive, of course. This is Morpeth, so no supermarket trolleys (getting them up the hill would cause a heart seizure) no needles (at least, not yet) and no burned out cars (Although I’m expecting to see a burned-out mobility scooter turning up soon). But we do get cigarette packets, plastic bottles, sweet packets, tin cans, and the usual what-have-you.

Of course, it’s partly the wind. Green space can’t create litter all by itself, unless you’re counting the leaves, blossom petals, or the odd dead branch. And the litter probably won’t be coming from the houses immediately next door, because those places look fairly tidy, and there’s no obvious point to keeping one side of a fence tidy, if the other side is visible and reminiscent of the back streets of Basra. So the wind is probably part-responsible for bringing all these blessings from elsewhere.
But most of the litter comes from people passing through. Commuters, school pupils, adults going to and from the pub. What’s interesting is this- that they probably wouldn’t drop litter over the fence of someone’s house or garden, because that would be an imposition, a symbolic assault on someone else’s territory. An Englishman’s Castle, and all that rot. But a shared green space, maintained by the council? That doesn’t belong to anybody, so why not drop litter here? It’s not as if there are any litter bins.

But that attitude’s just daft too, because the green space actually does belong to everybody, which is why we pay our rates to get underpaid council workers coming round on the occasional basis to pick up litter at unsocial hours.

So yesterday, I did something weird. I took out a black binliner, and went out picking litter. Gosh, I did feel smug about it. I was just waiting for someone to stop me and ask ‘Excuse me, what do you think you’re doing?’ but of course, thankfully, they didn’t, or else my head would have exploded with self-satisfaction. But once the Smug Factor faded away, there came Curiosity. How did that bottle actually get there? How did a bottle top become so half-buried, it needed to be dug out? Why do they still make Monster Munch crisps, when they taste so awful? And why do people drop litter if they don’t like to see the places where they live, looking scruffy?

After 30 minutes, my bag was full, the place was looking better, and all of a sudden, something had changed. This green space, in a strange way, now had a personal dimension. In a curious way, it had become mine, because I’d gone to the trouble of looking after it. How odd. I’d had a little exercise and fresh air, and a local space was now a little bit greener and loved. And it was so easy.

Try it, yourself, this week. Wear gloves if you really have to. Buy one of those litter-picker things for under a fiver if you want to get serious. Trust me, you won’t be putting anyone out of work. But litter-picking gives you a wonderfully strange sense of connection with the area where you live- this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Friday, 18 March 2016


A few weeks ago, I was walking into Morpeth, crossing the river at the metal footbridge by the Chantry, when half-way across, I saw a woman I didn’t know, staring down at something.

‘Don’t do it!’ I said, jokingly. Well, I do talk to strangers sometimes, even if it does embarrass my children.

The woman turned, smiled, then pointed back down at the river. ‘See? It’s a kingfisher.’ And it was. There, perched on a branch, really still, down near the water, sat this tiny bird, an iridescent gleam of metallic blue, peering intently down at the water. We both looked, silently, at the creature for a minute or two. Then the woman, said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ So she left me to it, me and the kingfisher. 

Then I heard footsteps. Someone else coming across, an older man. I turned, furtively whispered, ‘A kingfisher!’ He stopped too. Both of us, gazing, entranced. Then, after another minute, the bird suddenly darted away.

‘I’ve never seen one of those before,’ I said. ‘

Amazing,’ he said. And with that, we parted. Three strangers brought together by a common delight- in a beautiful little river bird.

It left me wondering. Why is it easier talking to be about kingfishers with a complete stranger, than to be talking about our deepest beliefs… about Life, the Universe, and Everything? Or about God?
I suppose talking like that could be challenging. It could sound like I’m right, you’re wrong. Why don’t you come to our group / our club / our church? That won’t go far, not in Modern Britain. We're suspicious of getting dragged into anything. Leave me alone, you self-righteous weirdo.

But just suppose, sharing our passions, our beliefs, our faith, was actually about sharing our treasures, our pleasures, those times when we’ve had those kingfisher moments that made our heart sing and the world suddenly came fresh and alive again?

If you’re a person of faith, does it give you kingfisher moments? It could be that moment in communion when you receive the bread and the wine, or share the Peace. Or for others, it could be that sunset you saw last week. Or the Northern Lights. Or that time in your life when you were just sitting, 'being there', and you suddenly felt yourself filled with the warm presence of Something good? It’s going to be different things for different people, of all faiths and beliefs.

So... here's an Easter challenge. Can you name two or three really good things in your life? Because being able to voice and talk about your delights with some feeling might just be the most powerful thing you can ever do for someone else. There’s a hoary old Sunday school song that goes ‘Count your blessings name them one by one…’ Well… can you? What are the things that make you glad? Because if you can name your treasures and moments of delight, and talk about them- then you might just have hit on the most amazing thing you can share with a neighbour, a friend or a relative, like I did, with the kingfisher. And once we start sharing from our heart, you never know where it might go next.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Where is Robert Mugabe? (Headline- Newsweek, 10th March)

The President's Mansion- a short story

The long black sedan car had hummed its way to the top of the white-graveled drive, and finally stopped at the front door. After the chauffeur cut the engine, there was a long silent moment as the President gazed out of the tinted window at his retirement house. Yes, it had been a long time coming, but he was finally here. The chauffeur climbed out to open the passenger door for those last few steps of his final journey out of office. With a heave, the President lifted himself out of his seat to step out with a satisfying crunch on to the white, sun-bleached gravel that had been specially imported at his own request.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Nostalgia corner

In 1980, ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ was a satirical BBC show featuring some young upstarts who went on to carve out very successful careers. Just as the result of the U.S. Presidential election was announced, they closed one show with this.

So just in case the current US presidential campaign continues to get even more scary, here’s an updated version. And by the way, I do love our American friends and wish them well. Please… just don’t vote for him. For all our sakes, please don’t. Thank you.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Important security update- do not delete

From: British Airports Authority
To: All air passengers planning to return to the UK through any British airport, from 1/03/16.

Important security update for our valued passengers

Due to the developing security situation across the Middle East, the Far East, North Africa, Southern Africa, Central Europe, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Northern Europe, most of Western Europe and just about anywhere else counting as 'foreign' apart from Canada (which is relatively harmless), and those parts of the USA not affected by Donald Trump, and also because of the upcoming referendum on membership of the EU, the Foreign Office has informed all travellers and NGOs with British staff to make them aware of the following, when planning return trips to the U.K.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

‘We’re all Doomed!’ (… or why the remake of Dad’s Army was never going to work)

This evening, my wife and I wasted some hard-earned money going to see a film that was so bad, we walked out after 35 minutes, a new personal record. What’s puzzling is that:

a    1) In all the hype and publicity and nostalgia for the original show, no-one in the 2016 film  production team thought that giving a bit of time to creating a new decent script was worth it, because:
      2) They hoped that enough idiots like us who enjoyed the original would pay out hard-earned cash, and what’s worse,
c     3) Those hard-bitten cynics and bean-counters were absolutely right, curse them.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The New Order

The President sat at his polished oak desk, gazing out of the picture window across the palatial lawns of the Mansion. Sprinklers were doing their work, keeping it all green and verdant. Ten years he'd been here now, ten years making himself President-for-life, using all the tricks he'd learned whilst crawling his way to the top of the pile. Now it was all silk suits, flags waving, and uniformed flunkies saluting as he stepped out of chauffeur-driven limousines. After ten years, he knew his rule was secure. He turned in his chair, gazing around the palatial office at self-portraits and photographs of meetings with the heads of powerful states. His country had come a long way from the first days. He remembered the times addressing vast crowds of angry workers outside the factories, calling them to join the revolution. Oh, how the authorities had trembled and sent out their informers and security police to stop him. Amateurs, he snorted to himself. Amateurs.

He smiled, remembering the riots he’d fomented, the street-fights with political opponents, the secret deals fixed behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms. Then there were the daily marches he’d organised with hundreds, then thousands of students and workers and peasants, all demanding change. One day, the police and army panicked, they’d started firing at the demonstrators- and that did it. The blood of the martyrs had seeded a revolution that threw out the old order and midwifed the new.

So now, here he was. The New Order.

The priests had to go, of course. After a few weeks, executing them all had definitely been a smart move, he was absolutely sure of that. Parasitic crows, the lot of them. All their shrines and churches and mosques and congregations were a threat, an alternative source of popular power, and he couldn’t be doing with that. The foreigners in the Western world had bleated about human rights, but as long as he approved and signed their lucrative oil and gas supply contracts, they couldn’t actually do anything. In fact, some were now clamouring to sell him all sorts of amazing new products, especially the sort used by security forces to clamp down on dissenters. Some were really nifty. He kept a few samples in his desk just for fun.

Meetings were more enjoyable now as well. He’d created jobs for all the intelligent and loyal members of his close family, which made cabinet meetings feel like clan reunions from the old days. And of course, nobody felt too inclined to disagree when the President had decided to name the national days of the working week after his mother, his father, his two brothers and one sister, and the weekend days after his two favourite cats- for a joke.

So what next? The President had settled on giving his people a permanent reminder of who he was, a Son of the Common People who had set them all free from the ridiculous dictates of religion and superstition and democracy. Because whatever you do for the people, they'll always forget what you've done unless you give them reminders, symbols to keep them on the straight and narrow. So putting his face on all the currency was an obvious move. But then it happened, the brilliant idea that floated into his mind in the middle of a sleepless night. A statue, that's what I need. He'd immediately turned on his bedside light, grabbed a pen and paper, and started scribbling.

Ten weeks later, the design had been made a reality, and the grand public unveiling planned. This gleaming gold statue of the President was 20 metres high, its plinth placed on a giant mechanical turntable situated in the main square in front of the palace. It was all designed to turn- and timed electrical motors would ensure that the President’s face would always face the sun as it tracked across the sky. It had cost a lot of tax-money, of course – but when the currency was also named after the President’s mother, people could hardly complain. Not, that is, if they had any sense.

Yes, he thought. That's the way to do it. Show them who you really are.

A few days later, on the Festival of the President's Birthday, crowds were bussed in from the countryside to loyally acclaim the new installation, accompanied by fanfares from a succession of traditional musicians, a symphony orchestra, and a serenade from last year’s winners of the Eurovision song contest. But just as the unveiling was about to happen, a Presidential Aide came hurrying up to the palace balcony where the president and all his family were waiting for the big moment.

‘Sir, there’s a problem!’


‘It's the statue!’

‘What’s wrong with it?’ hissed the president, trying to not look foolish in front of his family.’ I saw it yesterday evening, and everything was working fine. Stop fussing! Tell them to proceed!’

‘Please Mister President! Don’t...’

‘Do It Now!’

The aide gulped nervously, nodded, and disappeared down the stairs to pass on the Word. And so after another added fanfare, the curtains around the statue fell away... to reveal the face of the Dear Leader. Drums rolled, fireworks exploded overhead, a youth choir sang their praises, and applause from the crowd was dutifully and enthusiastically given. Because after all, the secret police were watching. The President smiled. The little moment of doubt was over.

But then he saw it, what the Aide was talking about.

It was the Sun. Something in the sunlight was reflecting differently off the face on the statue, something they’d never actually tested before the great unveiling this morning. The great Face was definitely in the likeness of his own face, but the features were shifting, creating their own shadows as the mechanism turned – and what he saw in the face seemed to be strangely... alien.

Then he remembered something from the back of his memory, an illustration he’d seen in a child's religious book long ago of another ancient kingdom, and another golden statue. Babylon, yes, that was it. The great golden statue standing on a plain outside the city. And who was the Emperor in that story... Nebo.... Neba.....Nebuchadnezzar? Something like that. And all of a sudden, he wished there was a priest here to tell him more about the story. Because this vision of his own Face was frightening him now, more than any other face in the kingdom. And the most maddening thing was- he didn’t know why.   

Sunday, 21 February 2016

I Believe... (Tales from the Creed No.1)

Algernon Bagshot had always been a difficult child. From the first time he drew breath, his eyes seemed to be perpetually questing for reasons why things were the way they were. Why had his bottom just been spanked? Who were these upside-down people dressed in white? And who was that person holding him crying, when she had obviously wanted him to be out here instead of in there, where everything had been warm and snug, if a little cramped?

No matter. But as he grew up, Algernon clearly wanted reasons for everything, and so he began collecting answers. Where does the water go? Down a pipe to the sea. Why must I go to bed now when I’m not tired or sleepy? Because you need it. What’s that thing they’re doing on TV? Not for your eyes. Go to bed.

So as he shuffled off to bed, the questions and answers stacked up in his mind, ready to be processed as he fell asleep studying the patterns on the bedroom curtains.

Grown-ups know stuff.
They’ve lived longer, so they know more than I do.
When I’m bigger I’ll know stuff too.

Friday, 19 February 2016

This week's news for Lent

For someone who hasn’t been reading the papers at all this week because of a ‘Lenten fast’, and only half-listened to the radio instead, it’s been a bit disorientating. What have you all been doing with the world whilst my back was turned? Come on, shape up, and start taking some responsibility for yourself. I can’t do this stuff all on my own.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

What are you giving up for Lent?

Chocolate? Hmmm…. Too easy, and too necessary to keep me awake mid-afternoon. Cake? But solid, juicy fruit cakes are a gift from God. Meat? No. There’s something I ‘use’ that probably does me and our world far more damage. So for purely selfish reasons, I’m going to be starting a Lenten fast involving NOT READING ANY NEWSPAPERS from Ash Wednesday up to Easter. If that sounds a bit weak, it’s because I’m an obsessive reader of online newspapers who needs to break the habit. Why? Because over the next few weeks, I’m going to see what my life could be like without being repeatedly told by…

The Guardian and the Independent
… That the world’s going to hell in a handbasket due to global warming, eating meat, Donald Trump, gun-toting American rednecks, whilst being fed self-satisfied platitudes demanding to know why can’t we all be nice to each other, and by the way, don’t you think all the people who disagree with us are racist bigoted homophobic scumbags who need to be re-educated quickly… preferably by our leader-writers?

The Daily Mail
… That the country’s going to hell in a handbasket due to immigrants, the European Union, Muslims who are going to murder us in our beds, lower moral standards (but please don’t look too closely at Mail Online), with added platitudes saying that it’s all either the fault of Jeremy Corbin, or the Church of England who have just gone soft by running food banks for the poor and asking why they are hungry.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Parable of It.

Since Peter was aware of being himself, there had always been a nagging thought that he wasn’t alone. It (whatever it was) had always been there in the background, and he found this unsettling. As a child, he had always wanted to be alone, completely alone, but found that it never happened. He was always looking over his shoulder, wondering if he was being followed.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Why is ‘Hairspray- the Musical’ such an act of genius?

For those who’ve never encountered it, ‘Hairspray-the Musical’ is one of the best theatrical experiences you can ever have, offering witty lyrics, great tunes and superb song-and-dance numbers. But it also lifts the heart. Why?

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Parable of the Lifeboat- a Mind Problem

There was once a lifeboat crew who really enjoyed their work. Lifeboat crews are usually unpaid, and each lifeboat station is run by a network of volunteers and supporters- but this particular crew were particularly well supported. Local businesses would make regular contributions for maintaining the boat, the boathouse and its tractor, and there were many fundraising events that brought villagers and townsfolk out in force. Their boat (the Amelia Dagsworthy) was particularly well kitted out, with all the latest gadgets and hardware.

But there was a problem.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

A parable for teachers everywhere... and for anyone else approaching their annual performance review

The Carrots
Douglas was an excellent vegetable gardener. He had been doing it for years, had built up a vast store of experience, and occasionally won prizes when he could be persuaded to enter competitions. But it took quite some persuasion – he honestly wasn’t bothered about comparing his efforts to those of others. He believed that the important thing was to make the best efforts possible in the time available, and grow the best vegetables.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Has it been long enough yet?


(From our New Delhi correspondent.)
India is now mourning the death of its greatest, most sacred cow of all, Ziggarami Stardusteri, living incarnation of all that is great about our proud nation. When news of the great creature’s death was announced last week, millions surged on to the streets to express their sorrow.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

An Angel's Dictionary

Many years ago, Ambrose Bierce published a satirical 'Cynics Word-Book’ (retitled ‘The Devil's Dictionary') of cynical definitions about Life, the Universe and Everything, based on his observations about life in San Francisco during the 1860s. It’s all wonderfully dark, but let’s begin the New Year with some (slightly more wordy) alternatives.
‘(n.) Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.’ (Ambrose Bierce)
 The good thing about Science is that’s it’s true whether or not you believe in it.’ (Modern T-shirt slogan)   Fail. Anyone saying that doesn’t understand Science, which is all about making a hypothesis, then testing it to destruction. Any body of knowledge is based on a series of interconnecting hypotheses about why things are the way they are, all subject to change, depending on whoever comes up with a better hypothesis that then needs to be considered and tested.
Some hypotheses (eg Newton’s laws of thermodynamics) have stood the test of time better than others (phrenology, eugenics) but they’re all up for testing. Establishing the Truth in Science requires a lot of belief that the Truth is Out There waiting to be discovered, and it can sometimes be stranger than we can possibly imagine (Thank you, Professor Brian Cox).