There’s hope for Merrie England

In posh frocks and best suits, we took train in the rainy morning up to London Bridge. It was that kind of fine rain that gets you wet. The event we were invited to was not a wedding, but it proved to be more like a wedding than anything else. We were going to Southwark Cathedral for the Ordination and Consecration to Bishop of our friend and former rector, the Reverend Doctor Andrew Rumsey.

At the cathedral we took coffee with a lady we know who must use crutches to get about. She bears considerable pain and disability in her life with a very English stoicism and understatement, and she often looks rather tired and drawn. But today she had battled through on her crutches and was looking very well, pushing the boat out to join in this important celebration.

And then we were all seated. There was a short warm-up act, a deacon or dean or some such, who made everyone laugh while explaining how things would go during the service. In a more secular gathering, he would have been the person who had to start his short speech by saying “There are no planned fire drills today”.

Then there was a procession. There were dozens of richly robed prelates and lords spiritual. Bishops, deans, deacons, priests, acolytes and singers. A number of people carrying shiny sticks, or candles, or holding up Bibles. And amongst this procession, all our clergy friends. In all this colour, pomp and pagaentry, a connection to people we knew. A young priest I know touched my shoulder as he walked past. Hey Nick!!

The final person in the procession was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who took the service. Our former vicar was presented to Canterbury by two mentors, one on either side: the Bishops of Salisbury and Southwark. Questions were asked, “Do you believe him to be of Godly life and sound learning?“, using a form of words that must be centuries old.

Canterbury went on to cause a clerk – “the Provincial Registrar” – to read out the whole of the letter of authorisation for the ordination of a Bishop – the letter patent. Here was language linking the everyday of the here and now, to the sweeping arc of history; here were words from the seat of power, from the Queen herself, relating to someone I’ve sat and had a pint and peanuts with. Just remarkable. One might feel part of a nation, tribe or group as it exists across the land today, but less often, perhaps, might we feel that sense of belonging across time, stretching back through the generations. And listening to this letter being read out, we were all part of Merrie England. Someone else deserves the credit for saying this, but there is hope for Merrie England when people like Andrew Rumsey are appointed to posts like this.

The sermon was given by the Reverend Canon Chris Russell, the Archbishop’s Adviser for Evangelism and Witness, and parish priest in Reading. And what a sermon! Of the art and craft of sermons, my old vicar used to say, “always start with personal stories”. Chris Russell did just that and took us from the inessential (in his family’s case, a shower head that lit up) to what we really need. What do we really need? What do we really want? What MUST we have? God’s call on our lives: all of us are called by God personally, and by name. We are called by name because we all matter, each and every one of us. God has questions for us, which must be answered – again, because we all matter to God.

Later on, the college of Bishops laid hands on their new colleague Andrew at the actual moment of his ordination. There were dozens of them; not all could get near him. The further away Bishops laid hands on nearer Bishops who in turn laid hands on Andrew. To see this very physical act, this laying on of hands, right at the pinnacle of the Anglican establishment, was a remarkable sight. History, tradition and the teaching of Scripture brought right into the present. The laying on of hands is a common enough practice in house churches and in Charismatic churchmanship, but perhaps less common in the grass-roots Church of England.

There was a giving of appropriate and symbolic gifts. A Bible, a ring; a cross, a crozier – all the “stuff” a Bishop might traditionally use to exercise their office. A word on the crozier. My wife organised that. It was again, a moment of connection. We’d driven across all England, all the way to a former mining village near Durham to collect this fine piece of work, which was now in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A craftsman by the name of Tom Keers made the Cleek (that is, the curved part made of horn at the top) and another, named Roger Marwood, made the shaft of oak- from Acstede – “the Place of the Oaks.” Both will be proud to see their work in such hands.

And then it was over: the rector was become a Bishop. The gathered prelates and lords of the church started to process down the aisle with their newest colleague among them. As they did so, there was a spontaneous round of applause and cheering for Andrew Rumsey, which he acknowledged with a smile. It was another human moment in a big, portentous, important occasion when powerful forces for good were at work.

As the procession of lords spiritual, prelates, clerks, singers, acolytes and men carrying shiny sticks made its way out, I saw the Archbishop of Canterbury stop, greet and touch fists with a ten year old boy, who like me, had an aisle seat. Canterbury didn’t need to do that. In doing so, in stopping to greet that lad, he made his day. And mine too.

Extraordinary complexity

We live in times of extraordinary complexity. Perhaps it was ever thus: were there ever truly simple and straightforward times? Yet, our willingness and our ability to discern complexity is under attack as never before. It is under attack from social media; it is under attack from the rise in sentimentality we’ve seen over this last twenty years or so, and it is under attack because of the fashion for hyperbole and over-statement.

The deplorable rise of “spin” – the use of language to conceal, obscure or divert people from the facts – has much to answer for.  The use of carefully chosen, politically charged, and nuanced phrasing, has, paradoxically, eroded our capability to discern nuance.

We look back at events like the Great War, and perhaps see simple causes, straightforward effects, obvious and clear protagonists and antagonists.  We view such events through the simple lens of modern thinking.  Cliches such as “senseless slaughter” come to our lips; we take off our hats, and rightly, spend a moment in silence to remember the fallen. 

But it was never that simple: that war was no simple struggle between good and evil, nor even a titanic battle between two great empires, the British and the Austro-Hungarian.  Britain, even the British Empire, was part of an alliance, and not even the senior partner at that.   

And then, consider what else was happening at the same time as the Great War.  The struggle for female emancipation and women’s suffrage.  The Easter Rising and the struggle for independence in Ireland.  The Russian revolution.  The technical innovation happening as a result of the war; the changing relationship between the New World and the Old.  

All of it points to a time of complexity to which we don’t do justice by over-simplifying what happened. It is not less true today.  I’m minded to reflect on our shortening attention span.  My boss wants 3-5 bullet points, size 21 font, one slide in Microsoft PowerPoint – just the salient facts to present to the Board.  In the second war,  Churchill reputedly turned to his underlings and asked them to provide for him a “report on the current state of the Royal Navy – on one side of a sheet of paper”.  As writers we do have a duty to keep things simple, to use short words, sentences and paragraphs, and to cut out unnecessary waffle. There is a case for simplicity – but we have made the case for simplicity our idol. 

How are we going to comment meaningfully and profitably on the hideous complexity through which we are now living? Three bullet points won’t cover Brexit nor explain the reasons for and against it.  One side of a sheet of paper may not cover the reasons for our changing culture.  A few photographs will not explain the balance of power between the West, China and Russia.  The job of the commentator is made doubly difficult by the fact that everyday folk have lost interest in complexity.  Today we have Twitter and Instagram – but think of the walls of text in a Victorian newspaper.  Today we want to see things reduced to three bullet points, the sound bite, the black and white. We want to see the spectacle of wrong and right, of bread and circuses.  Who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

Walk East Til I die, by Mike Pinnock

I like a good outdoorsman’s travelogue, and this falls into the same category as Nicholas Crane’s “Clear Waters Rising” or “Two degrees West”.  An Englishman of a certain age sets himself to do an all-but impossible adventure – what’s not to like? I’m an Englishman of a certain age myself – but Mike is older.  I should admit early on in the interests of transparency that Mike is a relative of mine.   

All that said, I liked the historical accounts in this work better.  There’s only so many pints of lager you vicariously enjoy.  Mike paints an interesting story of Eire today and in the past.  My wife and I visited Kerry on our honeymoon in 1990, and we were told that almost no-one lives within twenty miles of the west coast of Ireland, except for those whose living depends on tourism.  Mike’s account bears that out – there seems to be no-one there.  A far cry from queuing up to walk along Crib Goch in Snowdonia, as you’ll have to do on any fine weekend in summer.  

I learned much of Irlsh history.  You’ll not be learning this kind of thing in English schools, not this last 40-50 years. I’d heard of Michael Collins, of the Easter Rising, and of the Irish Free State, and few would not have heard of Eamon De Valera.  What Mike has done has coloured in the gaps a little, brought to life some of that fascinating past, some of the terrible suffering.  From the medieval saints, through the Norman overlordship, and onto Cromwell’s atrocities, then the Potato Famine and the emergence of Eire, Mike has provided some insights into Irish history without ever being partisan or taking an obvious side.  

Great future inventions

I was minded to write about some of the great inventions we may yet see, and to look at the rich imaginations of some of our great sci-fi writers.

1. The diamond flechette gun in Alistair Reynold’s “Chasm City”.  A small and easily concealed hand weapon, made out of diamond and exotic forms of Carbon – because there is no metal in it, of course, it can be carried with impunity through airport scanners and other such devices.  It is clockwork and as well as being made of diamond, fires bits of diamond as projectiles. It might be clockwork but I don’t think the users wind it up. It is, as characters describe, a thing of ‘intense, evil beauty’.  “Chasm City” is set in the 27th century.

2. The Turing Gate in Paul MacAuley’s “Cowboy Angels”.  In an alternative reality, Alan Turing is not hounded to death by the state for being gay, but emigrates to America where he goes onto invent a strange gate or means to move between dimensions and alternate realities.  The Americans of that reality (not ours) take it upon themselves to visit their particular brand of democracy on all other Americas in existence. All well and good until they visit the reality where President Nixon was elected.

3. The cortical stack, allowing Digital Human Storage, in Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” and it’s two sequels.  This memory device is about the size of a cigarette butt.  The device is implanted in the spinal column soon after birth and records everything – sensations, memories, feelings. All can be backed up, everything can be uploaded into a computer as digital data.  Humanity is reduced to big data – both freed from death and enslaved by eternal life.

4. Douglas-Martin sun-power screens in R.A Heinlein’s “Let there be light”. Two inventors in the 1960’s perfect bioluminescent screens that can be used to convert electricity into light, or, if stuck in the sunshine, act as an effective solar panel, generating electricity.

5. The Bobble, in Vernor Vinge’s “Across realtime“.  A spherical and perfectly reflective indestructable minature cosmos, which can be created in any size from tiny up to tens of kilometres across.  They can last for moments – or for tens of millions of years.  Anything trapped inside endures NO duration at all, no matter how long they or it are stuck inside. They are effective one-way time machines.  Vinge has his characters use them as perfect (if someone inconveniently shaped) fridges, as remarkable air bags to protect aircraftmen in crashes, as restraints for madmen, as time machines, and as a means to contain political prisoners. Oddly he misses using micrometre sized bobbles as a building material.

6. The piece of paper as a computer in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”. In the Diamond Age – late in this century – nanotech is all. An everyday piece of paper is many tens of thousands of molecules thick.  It’s a small matter to design the inside of it so that those many molecules can act as a kind of electro-mechanical microprocessor, churning through sums, doing calculations – doing computer stuff, in fact.

7. The genetically modified millipede used as sutures, in William Gibson’s “Count Zero“, set in the early 21st century but written in the 1980’s.  Our young hero is slashed across the back in a knife attack whilst on the run. The surgeon places a length of this millipede over the wound, ensures all the many legs are properly lined up on each side, and with a flourish, rips the spine from the brainless bio-artifact. It’s death spasm causes the legs to contract, neatly sewing a huge wound together in a split second.

8. Windows running on your clothes, and displaying in contact lenses, in Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”.  Vinge can’t call it Windows of course, but calls it “Symphony”. Your clothes are embedded with threads acting as powerful microprocessors, and they are able to send information to contact lenses. Augmented reality – you want the low-down on this neighbourhood? Just google it and the info scrolls across the top right of your field of vision.  Communicate with your computer by sub-vocalising or just thinking what want to say,

9. The means to broadcast sound direct to your aural nerve – the “friend” device as seen in Stephen Baxter’s “Ark”.  Developed before 2020, the device renders earphones obsolete. A small instrument in your pocket, or your mobile phone, broadcasts sound in perfect hi-fi direct to your brain.  It’s a side issue in Baxter’s story which is about rising waters flooding the whole earth.

10.  The monomolecular spray-on hosiery in Iain M Banks’ “Against a dark background”. Others have said there are more ideas on one page of an Iain M. Banks novel than in whole books by other others. Here, he proposes a monomolecular covering for the female leg that looks great and feels great – spray on tights, in effect.

Buchaille Etive Mor

We took the sleeper from Euston, for a long weekend in the Highlands. As well as some hillwalking, there was a serious task at hand; the scattering of some ashes of a young woman who earlier this year, had taken her own life.

Our journey north was enlivened by about four fingers each of Glenlivet. We arrived at Glasgow Central after an adequate nights sleep, perhaps disturbed in my case by some rather odd whisky dreams. After a quick breakfast in the Gordon Street Cafe next to the station, we nipped off through the chill city streets to get our rental car. By 10 a.m we were parking up at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside, in light rain.

Ben Vorlich

Past the rather impressive hydro-electric power station, you go under the West Highland Line, turn uphill keeping some rapids in a gorge on the left, and up a private road into the brown valley. Up ahead, there is a black industrial-looking dam.

Power lines march off into the distance. Dodging some maternal cattle who were monopolising the road, we broke right straight up into the hills, a long slog. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in a draughty cleft in the rocks, and pushed on to the summit. As we did so, the weather broke with a vengeance. Another half an hour later in starting, and we’d have been forced to turn back from the summit. In a howling, lashing storm, we bagged the summit and retreated as fast as possible. Fortunately there’s a clear path, even in thick clag. We were off the hill before 2pm, meaning that we’d bagged a Munro in less than four hours. Rather pleased with ourselves, we got in the car and drove north to the Clachaig.

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In Glencoe, we pitched our tents, not without some wind-related challenges, and retreated through the storm to the warmth of the pub:

“The evening shadows on the dry stone walls
The night draws in and the ale house calls”

(Chris Rea, “Chisel Hill“)

Buchaille Etive Mor

Around 10.30a.m, a party of eight of us set off up the Lairig Gartain. On the walk up the glen we had twice to ford streams that were running quite full and needed crossing with care. This was the largest group of people I’ve been on the hill with for twenty years. Six of the people present were university students less than half my age, and a handful of those young people were experienced hillwalkers. Everyone was quite fit, but the collective pace of such a group is slower than that of a smaller party. The route lay zig-zag up into Coire Altrium, negotiating through a band of cliffs and broken ground up onto the col between Stob Coire Altrium and Stob na Doire. We did not reach the ridge until after noon, and we paused there for refreshment. The day was wide open; whilst it was cold and windy, the weather seemed to be clearing.

The delicate light and remarkable visibility improved as the afternoon wore on.

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Along the ridge, things seemed further away than they really were. We met two parties as we continued north-west. The first was two guys, one of them with a rope over his shoulders. He reassured us in a strong Italian accent that the summit of Stob Dearg was by no means too far away. The second party was formed of more members of the university hiking club.

As we moved up towards the main summit of Stob Dearg, we were visited by a very tame raven.

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Strange, very strange, was this, to my eyes. I only found out later that this bird is a regular denizen of this summit. I should have known my local history better: A mountain with a route up it called Raven’s Gully might well have such birds lurking at the summit. The raven afforded some remarkable wildlife photography, with Ben Nevis prominent thirty miles away in the background.

At the summit of Stob Dearg – the shapely triangular mountain commonly referred to as “Buchaille Etive Mor”, the party paused for a moment of reflection. Earlier in the year, someone known and loved by members of the party had taken her own life whilst suffering from depression. Ashes were scattered. It was fitting that such an event should take place on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.

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And then onwards and down. First, down to the col, and then, the steep descent into Coire na Tuliach. Until the party went down into the gully, the light remained absolutely remarkable. One might go on the hill for two years and not see conditions like it. Tired now, the party descended to Lagangarbh, and crossed the river. Only as we approached the road on the long tramp back to the car, did we reach for our torches. Our timing was perfect – in more ways than one, for the following day was rainy too. We were lucky enough to do our hike in all too brief weather window as Autumn slowly turned to Winter.

Stand up, hold my hand
I hope you understand
Here where time is still, I walk the hill

Stand here, close to me
Here for all eternity
I wait as others will, I walk the hill

(Stuart Adamson)

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By train to Euston

The train hisses through anonymous railway stations and anonymous towns. The stations fly past to quickly for me to catch their names. The towns? Houses and streets, industrial units, perhaps the odd ancient church standing out through the early morning mist.

Across the heartland the train goes, through the very essence of middle England. You don’t need to know what the names of the towns are, to know what they are like. The rails shine with use; the electrical wires and their supporting posts flash by. In the distance, green fields and hills under an early morning sky of pale blue. The molten sunshine of not long after dawn washes everything clean. It all looks idyllic. Frost-covered green fields, patches of ground mist.

Emily Barker at St. Peter’s, Tandridge

Earlier this year we attended the first pop concert in 800 years, at St. Peter’s church, Tandridge village. It was an unseasonably cold night in March, and late snow lay on the ground. Tonight, we returned, in mid-October, on what was another unseasonable night. This time, however, the weather was very warm. To be able to walk around on a mid-October night in shirt-sleeves is most unusual.

This event, like it’s predecessor, was a benefit gig aimed at raising money for the fabric of this wonderful and ancient church.  In this case, money is sought to install a much-needed loo: prosaic, but a vital human need.  And this evening was both human and prosaic, warm and uplifting, but friendly and community-oriented.  The Rector, Andrew Rumsey, introduced the evening with a warm-up act of a brace of autumnal songs that might have even been written for the occasion.

The actual support act for Emily Barker were two gents called Roy Hill and Ty Watling. These gents looked and sounded like characters from Mark Knopfler’s “Sultans of Swing”

…Check out guitar George
He knows all the chords…

Mind, Ty Watling did indeed know how to make his guitar cry and sing, and that he went on to do.  Roy Hill was of indeterminate age, and was in good voice, and made banter with the audience about how much better this was than their usual pub gig.  They started dark, with a song about pain beginning, and finished with a deeply moving number about failing mental health, yet, they were always somehow encouraging, humane, and uplifting.

Emily Barker came on and immediately impressed everyone with her beautiful clear voice and her guitar playing.  This evening has seen a series of guitarists bringing great joy and beauty into the world through their playing, song-writing and singing, like Chet Atkins:

…Money don’t matter as long as I scatter a little bit of happiness around
If people keep a grinnin’ I figure I’m a winnin’…

In between the numbers she told us stories of her early life with a discernable Aussie twang.  It is always engaging when pop stars do that – you want to know that they do go to the shops, that they were once kids in the back of a car going on holiday, singing along to cassettes.  She performed an old Bruce Springsteen number – “Tunnel of love” – to illustrate this story.

Somehow, the fact that she is a supremely skilled professional guitarist and pianist, a powerful and gifted singer and a talented songwriter did not discourage or demotivate. After the concert I was speaking to a lady in the audience who has Downs Syndrome.  She wants to write songs – and she was saying, by no means demotivated, how high the bar has been set by Emily Barker.  The lesson is, everything is possible; anyone can do anything if they set themselves to it.  A lady you might pass in the street, wearing blue jeans and a cardigan, has a voice like Aretha Franklin, a solo voice so beautiful, so powerful, as to carry an entire church in stunned silence.

“To one, he gave five bags of gold, to another, two, to another, one bag, each according to his ability” – Matthew 25:15.  It’s what you do with what you’ve got that matters, not how much you’ve got.

There’s a pattern emerging here with these concerts: Not so much inspiring, as inspirational.  Do new things. Dare to create, dare to do something new with your bag of gold.