Memoir


This is my favourite holiday reads this August picked up quite by accident when I was trying to spend a book token in waterstones – taking advantage of their three for two offer! You remember the feeling – you land your hands on two books you think you want and cannot find a third! I wonder how shopping on line could replicate that wonderful feeling of falling over something by accident?

Here is how the plot goes……

Whilst pursuing a volume of EM Forster through the warren of bookshelves that prop up her house, Susan Hill is struck by the number of books that she owns but has never read, or has read but forgotten that she owned; and the many old favourites ripe for another outing. So begins a year of re-acquaintance with her own library through an embargo on new purchases and heavily curtailed internet use.   

She was raised in Scarborough but took A-levels in Coventry, and published her first novel aged 18 while studying at King’s College, London. Besides half a century of prolific writing she has set up as a publisher. “Namedropping is a tiresome, if harmless, trait,” Hill admits, but necessarily indulges with a gracious modesty. All kinds of titbits spice her wide-ranging observations on literature from pop-up books to the real heavyweights.

One of the charms of this volume is how Hill’s opinions, always honest and courteously proffered, set up resonances with one’s own reading. Hill is sharp, versatile, and (a rare talent) almost always interesting!

 This is quite the most delightful of books – I promise you a wonderful trip around Hills bookshelves. Perhaps reading really is the only thing worth doing??

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Part One –

I hardly dare admit that I purchased this book but it proved a stimulating read….. as I continue to struggle what it is that makes for a respected politician of first rank. For those believers in the present paradise of coalition politics there will be much more of this legacy writing! And for those quick to dismiss beware – we all want to be remembered for something.

Having just spent four weeks reading a daily newspaper I am led to the belief that todays journalism is full of  fabrications, myths, gossip, fixing, power, legacy making.  In this book we have a glimpse of  a great schemer for whom nothing went to plan.

 He reached the cabinet, but his career at the top table was short and fragmented, terminated twice by scandal and a third time by election defeat. A very brief stint holding the, now defunct, title of trade and industry secretary ended in the disgrace of the home loan scandal. He was brought back as Northern Ireland secretary only to be defenestrated again. His cabinet career under Tony Blair amounted to a span of just 19 months. He then went to Brussels where he became one of the more effective and more disliked commissioners.  If you want proper accounts of what really happened over the Iraq war and many other crucial episodes, you won’t find them here.

He settles scores. We learn that Alastair Campbell, for all his declarations of loyalty to the Labour clan, only agreed to help at the recent election grudgingly because he thought it was a “lost cause”. This book claims  to be a frank  autobiography  but  much of it is  cold and  impersonal.  Inside the confidence and legacy making is a fearful and very secretive person struggling to be effective in this crazy world of claim and counter claim.

What did become of him? His friend, Charles Clarke, once : “Peter is the ultimate courtier.” His influence flowed from making himself very useful to whoever was the most important figure in the Labour party of the day. First, it was Neil Kinnock, whom he helped to rescue Labour from the pit into which it had descended in the early 1980s. Then, he was consigliere to Tony Blair, whom he assisted with the creation of New Labour. These were both significant contributions to political history. He relished the power and notoriety, but there is also a hint of self-loathing just below the surface of the text. He is not happy that “through much of our time in government, my influence was exercised largely behind the scenes”. He wanted to be the star, but wound up as the stage manager.  

Does he make sense of it all? Not really. He doesn’t even explain himself properly. Having spent more than 500 pages in his slippery company, the reader doesn’t feel that he has met the real Mandelson.  But the judgement is easy to make and   too obvious perhaps – the question for us is our legacy and the shape of the political system.

Now then – when will Mr Blairs pages arrive? To be continued.

It is August and time for a break…..

which means?

and

thats laughter just in case you forgot!

and

a little bit of good food

and the sea……. (secret Im off to Wales! Do you know where this is?)

 and castles … different from this home from home!

rest…..

See you in September

xxxxx James

This is a wonderful book – the first comprehensive account of the life and work of John Piper, including many of the overlooked tributaries into which his creativity overflowed. It contains in-depth research into all the major commissions within John Piper’s lengthy career, plus much new information on his work in print-making, stained glass, illustration, theatre design – and fireworks.

In patricular it sensitively uncovers the life and work of Myfanwy Piper; her collaborations with the composers Benjamin Britten and Alun Hoddinott, and her part in the avant-garde movement in English art during the 1930s. A picture is painted of how the Pipers were a key part the Pipers played in defining ‘Englishness’ in the mid-20th century – not least through the iconic Shell Guides.

Their had a huge network of friendships and collaborations, with Benjamin Britten, Kenneth Clark, John Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and others. As such this is a fascinating reflection of some of the influences  of modern British Art.

A real treat of a book!

 Last weekend I travelled north to Durham for the Miners Gala ( or better known in those parts as the Big Meeting) – here is my sermon for the day and some pictures taken by Trevor Smith – for which many thanks!

The Davy Lamp Kelloe and the Banner being processed down the Village

The Hundredth and First Miners’ Festival Service

Saturday 10 July 2010  Durham Cathedral

 Luke 10.25-37 And who is my neighbour?

Who do you think you are? Who do you think you are? Those of you familiar with this Television programme will remember that celebrities are asked to take a trip down memory lane by way of exploring their identity. They research their family trees in search of their roots. They travel back to birth places making all kinds of connections.

For me, this is the homecoming – back to my roots. I am filled with pride and gratitude for this opportunity to celebrate and pray for the people and communities that make this the best of all English counties. 

I was born into a mining family and all of my early life was spent in the shadow of East Hetton pit on the edge of the village of Kelloe. It was there that I went to school and from there to Spennymoor for my secondary education before university. I returned to the north-east in 1985 when I was ordained in this cathedral some 25 years ago. I served my curacy in Consett just after the steelworks closed. All across the North East we were struggling to cope with post-industrial life of closed factories and closed pits. Coal is in my blood. It has shaped my life – it has infused in me a strong set of values and a certain robust attitude to people and living. Being brought up in such a community has shown me how life is built on hard work, struggle, hope, goodwill and encouragement as well as the beer, the humour, the leeks, the pigeons and so much more.

Of course since those days I have travelled far, moved on, changed by other experiences but my pride in my roots and the way it has shaped my identity will never ever diminish. I’m glad to tell people where I come from and what my father did before the devastation of the industry in those bleak years of the 1980s. So I speak to you as well as a Miner’s son as well as a Canon of Windsor also, conscious of the heritage of Coal. I have very vivid memories of Durham Big Meeting. Especially the early start in the morning in our village with the lifting of the banner and its journey through the village. The music, the standing together in good times and bad, the remembering lost friends and the price of coal.

In the inside of this service sheet there is reproduced the picture of my village banner. You will see a picture of the Good Samaritan, painted onto the banner, the story that we have just heard from Luke’s Gospel, and the challenge, the command is written below the picture of compassion and support (go and do thou likewise). So this afternoon I want to ask how we build lives upon that directive and what happens to us when we respond to those in need, those vulnerable people whom society walks past on the other side.

 The Kelloe Banner

Some of you might think that any sermon on the Good Samaritan is an exercise in explaining the obvious.  Everyone knows what this most familiar of all Gospel stories is getting at – provides us with a model for what is meant by practical Christianity – the Good Samaritan in the kind of person who responds readily and generously to his neighbor in need.

But for a moment, let us look a little more closely at the story. We need to remember that the priest and the Levite were probably prevented from going to the help of the wounded man – from behaving in a spontaneous human way – by the religious rules of purity and defilement. And it’s true enough that Jesus thought such rules absurd he got angry when rules were allowed to take precedence over the needs of the suffering human being.  Religion, any religion, or creed for that matter, can keep people apart, dampen compassion, and inhibit our human instincts to help another human being.

The third traveler who follows the priest and the Levite is not simply a good plain practical man whose generous response exposed the absurdity – even the hypocrisy – of the ecclesiastical establishment. The third traveler, this is the big surprise of the story – is, of all people a Samaritan. The Jew who fell among thieves and got mugged was by long and bitter historical tradition a sworn enemy. The goodness of the Good Samaritan was not then simply the natural goodness of the ordinary man who can be relied on to do the decent thing; it was the extraordinary goodness of the man who was ready to regard his worst traditional enemy as his neighbor.

The point of the parable is as sharp as that.  Goodness is more than helping the person you know or like; for Jesus, goodness demands that you love your enemy. Even to put it that way is to blunt the point. For the enmity between Samaritans and Jews was not personal and therefore within the scope of an individual to control; it was an ethnic enmity. Deep seated, emotional and irrational, the product of centuries of nationalism. It was not then the callousness, even less clericalism which Jesus in his story of the Good Samaritan intended to expose and condemn, shallow and cosy, self satisfied decency. The point is this – let us beware of restricting the meaning of the words neighbor. How far is our generosity to go beyond easy or conventional bounds?

So there’s the story and what of us? Without a doubt, we face uncertain and difficult times socially and economically. What is to be our response? One of the things I remember down on the racecourse was hearing the passion and the anger of those who wanted to build a better world. A better society, built on justice and fairness. The plea for a decent wage and protection.  Our voices, our hopes still need to be heard in building a society where all are cared for and especially the vulnerable and marginalized. And in this new economic climate, we need to keep on insisting that government has an absolute responsibility to protect and safeguard those parts of the country that struggle for sustainability.

But good nieghbourliness doesn’t begin or end with government. The challenge to build a better society starts in the communities within which you live and have responsibility. The days are gone when backdoors can be left unlocked and neighbours were neighbours because, in part, they knew everybody else’s business! As times change, are we, are you, building communities where all belong? Where the stranger is welcomed? Where we keep an eye out for the bored teenager or the pensioner, isolated and in need of some company? Who is your neighbor and how do we nurture neighborliness in our villages and communities? What barriers do we need to overcome?

One of the things that I love about the north-east is that we are men and women who have hearts as well as minds.We’re not afraid to cry. We see and feel and know as much with our hearts as our heads. This means that we should always open our hearts to the possibilities of building better selves where we bother about one another and show that we bother in ordinary, everyday acts of care, concern and love.  This means all of us have to change, take risks, feel our way into a different way of thinking. Developing communities begins with building a better self. Building a better world begins with local relationships – your street, your school, your village.  Love in the ordinary. Walking the walk. Bothering even when it might not suit us. Jesus says to you and me ‘ Go and Do thou likewise ‘ . Amen.

 

I take some pride in the fairly challenging task of having read all 1100 page of this seven year research project! Good to learn more about Windsor from a slightly different perspective….

In 2002, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s coffin lay in state in Westminster Hall after her death at the age of 101: for three days, 200,000 Britons – people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds – queued to pay their respects. 

She was not born royal nor, on her marriage to the second son of George V and Queen Mary in 1923, did she have a realistic prospect of being Queen Consort. The daughter of a large family of military-minded, devoutly Christian Scottish aristocrats, the Bowes-Lyon Earls of Strathmore, she was the first British “commoner” to marry into the royal family, the first to break the dreary tradition of marrying minor German princesses which had been established since the Hanoverians came to the throne.

She was a star from the start, showing the true celebrity’s ability to communicate in a crowd; above all she had a dazzling smile – something her parents-in-law considered to be distinctly unroyal. “It is so hard to know when not to smile,” she told Cecil Beaton, at their first photographic session in July 1939. And beneath the ostrich feathers and the fluff, there was a steely determination to do her patriotic duty, to support her husband to the hilt and, if possible, to spread happiness in a dark time of war.

Elizabeth found her real role when her traumatised husband was left to carry the burden of kingship after the abdication of his elder brother David as Edward VIII in 1936. She was an actress with an instinctive understanding of what people wanted of a Queen Consort, an ability to communicate with people in a crowd and a smile that lit up any occasion. When war came she showed her intense patriotism – “Keep the old flag flying, Hooray” she wrote to her friend Osbert Sitwell. When Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Blitz, she declared: “Now we can look the East End in the face.” She and the king formed a successful, mutually supportive partnership during the Second World War. She was party to all his decisions as his private secretaries were not: Shawcross reveals that she used to attend the king’s weekly private lunches with Winston Churchill.

When George VI died suddenly at the age of 56 in 1952, her world collapsed. She bought a ruined castle on the remote coast of Caithness and contemplated retirement, but it didn’t last; she made a new life, representing her country on countless tours and heading her favourite charities. She became “the Queen Mother” – “horrible title”, as she commented – revelling in her life, public and private, until a few months before her death.

It was a long life and this is a long book – I think too long. Shawcross has grappled manfully with the official biographer’s tedious task of describing Queen Elizabeth’s frocks and shoes, charity outings and repetitive foreign tours. There is a bit too much of the “idyllic childhood” and girlish letters, but his account of her formative experiences running the hospital for wounded soldiers at Glamis and of losing friends and a brother in the First World War is illuminating, and he compensates for the fluff by interpolating skilful precis of social, political and historical background.

There is a sense of pussyfooting around some difficult personal themes, such as Queen Elizabeth’s dislike of the Windsors, which she has always denied, even to Edward VIII’s official biographer. Among her strengths was her ability to glide over the surface of life, skimming like one of her favourite helicopters and retreating from unpleasant personal confrontations by avoiding them.

She loved literature and poetry and the Scottish people, soldiers and the landscape; Ted Hughes was one of her later friends. Above all she liked fun: jokes, champagne, good food  and wine.

She was adored for her life-enhancing qualities by her courtiers and staff, particularly the latter to whom she was ever loyal. On one occasion, when approached by a member of her household to complain about the behaviour of one of the staff, she told him firmly, “remember, they are indispensable and you are not”.

Hers was a long life worth celebrating and Shawcross has done it admirably in this well-written book.  It is too long and at 4lbs 5oz, your wrists will be stronger as a result of your reading!

 

I have never found it terribly easy getting back into the swing of work after a break and this post Christmas one is no exception. I have caught up on e mails and essential elements of administration before going into town to replenish the empty fridge. Thank God for Marks and Spencers….. and their ever full shelves of low fat food. As I write it is snowing in Windosr and from the sight of the skies from my study there is plenty more where that came from!

A new year and decade…. 2009 was quite a year for me but it hasnt inhibited my desire for new resolutions! So – have a laugh at my expense and follow the strength of my resolve as I kiss and tell ( but only ten – OK?)

In 2010 I resolve myself to:

  1. Sleep more
  2. Learn a foriegn language – probably French
  3. To be kinder to animals and especially Cats
  4. To be more careful with language
  5. To write more
  6. To cook more
  7. To buy less books
  8. To make more bread
  9. To stop picking my finger nails
  10. To listen to more Bach

There are more but thats a start….. what about yours??

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