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.