Sunday, 26 August 2018


"Respect" by Aretha Franklin, who died ten days ago.

You may have heard it said when you were a child: "Respect your elders". Later in your life you might have heard people say "Respect has to be earned". So, who's right? And wouldn't you like to be shown a little respect from time to time? Respect seems to be in short supply these days.

Respect comes in different colours. You can respect someone for what they've done; for example you might respect a person for saving a life, even if you know nothing else about them. You can respect someone for who they are, whether that's Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, or Kofi Annan. You may show respect for the law: policemen, judges and so on. Perhaps you respect your parents, or perhaps not. But surely respect should be mutual. Policemen should also respect you; a father should respect his children. A teacher should respect the pupils - even the 5 year-olds - especially the 5 year-olds. Have you ever seen a parent cursing and swearing at their young child in a shop? Isn't that one of the saddest, most shameful and cowardly abuses that a grown man or woman can inflict on a young life?

Respect can be won; respect can also be lost. That feeling, when someone you looked up to, someone you aspired to be like, your own personal hero, lets you down, it's as if the ground you stood on crumbles beneath you, your hope is shattered and you start to question whether there is any good thing left in the world to believe in.

There is only one thing worse than losing respect for someone who meant something special to you, and that is losing respect for yourself. If you can't respect yourself, no-one else is going to. The Staples Singers had it right: "If you don't respect yourself / Ain't no-one gonna give a good cahoot". Losing your self-respect is like removing the foundations from a building; it's only a matter of time before the whole edifice comes crashing to the ground. It's no wonder that these two great songs "Respect" and "Respect Yourself" were both sung by gospel singers (Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples). They both knew how, growing up in poor black neighbourhoods, their self respect was about the only thing that couldn't be taken away from them.

"A little respect (just a little bit)" - can go a long way towards making life better for all of us.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."
Marianne Williamson

"Respect Yourself" by The Staples Singers

Thursday, 12 April 2018

A Change Is Gonna Come

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
Robert F Kennedy

Image:Robert F. Kennedy appearing before Platform Committee, August 19, 1964.jpg, Public Domain,

This is my third attempt. It’s so important I can’t mince words. A big change will come and it will be good but it is so big that no-one can fully imagine it.

For too long we have shambled along, muddling by. Our great stores of wisdom, the great religions, have forgotten their meaning and just repeat the same old patterns without knowing why. They have been used as tribal totems, banners to fight under, when they were made for peace. But still they gave a voice to men and women of goodwill and if their ways were mildly eccentric it didn’t really matter.

That’s all changed.

We are so arrogant, we think we’re so clever, as we preside over poisoned seas, polluted air, extinction of species, destruction of the rainforest, floating continents of plastic waste, global warming, poverty, war, mass migration and more. Faced with such monumental challenges we indulge in our own personal grievances and petty squabbles while nothing gets done. Time is not on our side.

We simply do not have the luxury of shillyshallying any longer. We will have to unite. The basic principle of the major religions is this: that if we truly care for each other without preference or prejudice, and if we truly care for the earth and all its plants and animals, we can have happy, fulfilling lives and there will be peace and plenty for all. That’s it. All the rest is embroidery. If we can all come together under these principles and set aside our minor differences, then we can start rebuilding our broken world.

All the old arguments about whether God exists now become obsolete. The question never made sense anyway. True belief cannot be contained in words; it has to be expressed in the way we live our lives. This belief-in-action is something everyone can share in. It’s simply a question of working together for the common good.

Everyone has a part to play in making our new world. We are all here for a reason. Some may be called to become martyrs for the cause, there will be activists, but there will also be a need for artists, poets, flower arrangers and people who sweep the floor. The one thing they will all have is a belief in a better world, and a burning desire to make it happen. They will be guided by a love of this beautiful world with its lands and seas, its plants and animals, and all of its diverse and beautiful people.

As Robert Kennedy said: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

It can be done, whether in our lifetime or our children’s or great-grandchildren’s, it can be done. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Take that step.

Take that first step - ask yourself: What is the unique gift that I can offer to the world? Then see what happens next.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Don't kiss the statue!


While it is good to do what you love, problems can arise when you love what you do.

Yesterday I watched a scene from the film “My Fair Lady”, starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. The film is a reworking of Bernard-Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”, in which Prof. Henry Higgins turns a Cockney flower-girl called Eliza into a society beauty, and then begins to fall in love with her.

Incidentally this reminds me of when I was at school in Greenwich and went in for a race. When I went to report my position, I was rather taken aback when the prefect shouted “NINE”! I was unsure how to answer this, until a teacher helped me out: “He wants to know your NAME”. What has this to do with My Fair Lady? Prof Higgins lives in Mayfair, which sounds like “My Fair”, when Eliza says it.

Perhaps if I had loved the work of my hands as much as the mythical sculptor Pygmalion, I might have done better at school. The danger comes from loving your work too much. Then you become the slave of your own creation, and it makes a mockery of your life.

What happens if your work is taken away from you? If you’re strong, like Doris Day, who trained from an early age to be a dancer then broke her leg in an accident, you reinvent yourself and start again. If you’re not so gifted, life loses its meaning. Too many people have not lived past their first year of retirement. We should get to know ourselves now, not our job, not what we do, but who we really are. We should find out now while there is still time.

If the prophets and the sages are right and there is a Heaven waiting for us, we will not be spending eternity catching the 7.21 train to the office, or waiting at tables. We will be our true selves, freed from the bondage of work. But why wait until then? We may have to work to live, but we should not live to work.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

It's raining again

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain
Telling me just what a fool I've been
I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain
And let me be alone again

-John Gummoe

As I sit here in my living room, party balloons pinned to the ceiling, Christmas tree standing merrily in the window - outside, the steady rain pours down from a cold grey sky and the whole world seems shrouded in gloom.

In these latitudes rain is always miserable. In songs llike the one above, in expressions like ‘a grey day’ or ‘a wet weekend’, we are always wishing it would go away. “Rain rain go away, Come again another day” we used to sing as children.

Yet we should be glad of the rain. When I worked as a language teacher in Arabia, rain was a rarity. The weather was pretty much always the same, i.e. solid sun out of a deep blue sky from dawn to dusk every day. When the rain did come however, it was like drowning on land. Traffic stopped, the roads filled with water, people fled to the nearest shelter they could find. But the young children ran outside, shouting, laughing and dancing, splashing in the puddles, their heads lifted back to feel the rain streaming down their faces.

My horoscope for today tells me that this is a day to go out and succeed in my chosen field. Apparently I am full of energy and enthusiasm, with the full force of the planets urging me on. But actually all I want to do is watch the raindrops running down the window and think of all the things I could have done better. Rain always trumps stars.

The meterological forcast is frequently more accurate than the astrological one. It tells me that in three days time the rain will clear up and we shall see some sunshine. Then doubtless I shall feel upbeat and positive, ready to take on and conquer the world, although perhaps by then my horoscope will warn me to be careful. All this goes to show is that my moods come and go just like the weather, while life goes on much the same. So today I’m going to enjoy being sad, and if you don’t like it, come back in three days’ time. I’ll still be here.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

You are the light

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good.
As we approach the Winter solstice, the nights draw in, the days are short and dark. Harvest is behind us and Winter just ahead. The trees stand like skeletons against the cloudy sky, as Nature hunkers down for the cold months to come.

Now as the old year comes to an end, we look forward to the new year, we light bonfires, beacons, candles, we keep vigil in readiness for a new beginning; in Church we light Advent candles for the one whose birth brought a new beginning to the world.

Back in May, things were very different for me. Bright, crisp early mornings, making way for warm sunny days, as I made my way across the North of Spain, through the Spring-coloured countryside along the pilgrim trail called the Camino de Santiago. It was day 26  - one of the longest legs of the journey, at 28½ kilometres – going from Villar de Mazarife to the city of Astorga. The walk was utterly beautiful but long and hard. The rough orangey track cut through the forest up and down slopes in an unbroken line for mile after mile.

One thing you soon realise when making this pilgrimage is that it forces you to confront your demons, even ones you didn't know you had. Before starting the Camino I had quit the voluntary work that meant so much to me, on a matter of principle. Now I was hot, exhausted, and racked with self-doubt. It was at this point that I arrived the the 'Oasis', a rest stop for pilgrims, with bottled drinks and fruit to eat in exchange for a donation. I sat down in the shade of a makeshift shelter, trying to muster the physical and mental strength to carry on. When I looked up, I saw that previous visitors had written on the wooden boards, and directly over my head was a simple depiction of a candle with the words “You are the light”. From my perspective, at that time, this was a message to me; I was guided to this spot; I was supposed to see it; that was all I needed. As I walked on I wondered: was it help from above or just a lucky chance? Then on my left I saw a concrete pillar some 30 feet high; beautifully drawn on the concrete, a hand reaching down from from the sky to grasp another hand reaching up, as if to save someone from drowning.

This Winter, when all around looks dark, remember this: You are the light of the world.

Friday, 27 October 2017

What we do to children

Useless things they taught me at school

In my adult life I have taught English to foreign students, programmed computers, and worked in administration.  I have rarely if ever used, and so pretty much forgotten, all these:

  • Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • French
  • Geography
  • History

Let's say I spent 15 years in education and two-thirds was useless; that's ten years of my life wasted, at a cost of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer.

Now a list of what was useful to me:

  • English Language and Literature, especially poetry and the appreciation of poetry
  • Music – including singing, playing and appreciation
  • Religious Knowledge – especially the thought-provoking discussions
  • Woodwork: I was never any good at it but it has still been a good practical skill
  • Physics: Newtonian physics, that is. Light, Sound, Motion etc
  • Latin: because it helps me understand English better
  • Plus independent critical thinking

Finally, the things I remember and treasure.

  • Spending an afternoon with my class at eight years old, in the park, under the trees, playing traditional singing games, like “The Farmer's In His Den” and “In And Out The Dusty Bluebells”.
  • Singing in my church choir and school choirs as a boy.
  • Listening to my class teacher at the end of each day when I was ten or eleven, reading from the great children's classics, like Black Beauty and Tom Sawyer.
  • In my secondary school, being given independence and responsibility: finding my own way three miles to and from school and arriving on time; freedom to roam in the lunch break; responsibility for finding my own way to the playing field a couple of miles away for sports.
  • In my senior years at school, English lessons being given over entirely to wide-ranging discussions covering political and moral issues, philosophies, the nature of knowledge and the strangeness of life. (We were expected to take responsibility for reading our set books).

I wonder how I would have turned out if they had spent ten years helping me to develop and deepen as a human being rather than stuffing me with useless facts that I would forget anyway.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Smoke and Mirrors

Autumn has officially arrived. We had the equinox, we heard the thunder, and now that Summer is over, the sun has come out. English weather.

I'm lucky enough to live in Wiltshire. Most people couldn't point to Wiltshire on a map; it's just somewhere you go through on the way to somewhere else, so Wiltshire retains its mystery. Everybody knows about Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circle, but there is ancient history in the soil, in the folds of the hills and in the white horses etched onto those hills. There is strangeness in the prohibited areas on Salisbury plain, the deserted village of Imber which can only be visited once a year, and in the loud thumps and bumps that can be heard from Marlborough to Warminster as the army plays with its toys on the Plain, while everyone carries on as if it were some grumbling volcano waiting to erupt.

In 2009 the four district councils of Wiltshire were amalgamated, bringing North Wilts, West Wilts, Kennet and Salisbury under a unified administration. Perfectly sensible no doubt, but it conceals the fact that, under the surface, they really are four quite distinct and different places, which rarely interact with each other.

So indeed it is with Autumn, running from the equinox to the solstice, but effectively sliced into two halves by the cross-quarter day known as All Hallows (or All Saints, or Halloween 1), or Samhain. Early Autumn can be characterised by still, sunny, misty mornings, trees in shades of green and gold, the smell of bonfire smoke, and flowers in the garden, after a final flourish, beginning to die back; a feeling of busyness following the lazy days of Summer. From November on, there is a distinct change. The earlier friendliness in the elements has gone; there are strong winds, rain from grey skies, cold mornings and cold nights, gathering darkness, a sense of closing in, stocking up ready for the freezing wastes of Winter.

In between these two states of being, we find ourselves in a no-man's-land, a hiatus hovering half-way between the in-breath and the out-breath, between the bright and the dark, between life and death. This is a threshold, a liminal space, a magical space, a dangerous place, a doorway into the unknown, to disaster or rich rewards. This is the time for heroes to abandon the safety of home and set out on bold adventures, to watch as the sun sets in red and rust, and to feel the call of the wild like fire in your blood. The veil between heaven and earth is thin; spirits roam out in the material world, voices in the darkness calling your name. At night you may look long at the logs burning in the hearth, the solid wood turning to ashes as the smoke rises, and you think about those who have passed through your life and now are gone.

The people of day come and go, do their work, talk and laugh, while just below the surface, the old mysteries stir in their sleep.

1 There is a technical difference which I will ignore