Saturday, 1 December 2018

Missing him


Today I was trying to think of a book I could read to a 14-year-old boy that I know, who is making a slow recovery in hospital. Then I remembered a book I had read at 14, a cracking yarn by ‘Charles’ (in reality Elfrida) Vipont called “The Heir of Craigs”.

I had always kept that book and despite the fact that I had not read it in fifty years, I could still see the cover clearly in my mind’s eye. When I went to get it however, there was no trace of it. Somehow, at some point, some house move maybe, I must have let it go. How could I do that? It was a part of my history, almost a part of me you could say. I felt a sense of loss – I no longer had this book that I hadn’t looked at in half a century.

There was no other way. Within half an hour I had found a second-hand copy in good condition with my favourite on-line bookseller, Abebooks, and soon it will be back with me once again, and I can breathe a sigh of relief.

If only you could do that with people.

In this last July I attended the funeral of my younger brother. It was a good funeral, the church was full and I delivered his eulogy without a hitch. A great gathering of friends and family was held at his favourite pub, and we all went home feeling we had given him the best send-off he could have hoped for. I carried on with my life and all was well. Actually he had lived 150 miles away and we only saw each other at very irregular intervals so his passing didn’t really change very much for me.

Last week, on a grey and blustery day, my older brother and sister, my deceased brother’s fiancĂ©e and his closest two friends gathered at the harbour a short drive from where he lived, and watched as his mortal remains rested briefly on the surface of the water before disappearing beneath the waves. It was an intimate moment, which brought us all together in a mutual bond of sorrow.

Now that the brother I rarely saw is gone, I miss him, and there is no replacement. He was the only one. His presence on the planet had been sufficient, just knowing he was there, and now he isn’t. I suppose if there’s one comforting thought that comes from all this, it’s that, hard as it may be to imagine this, other people probably think the same about me as I do for my brother. I hope my presence is on the whole a good one.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Respect!


"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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4524203


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!

Source: IMDB.com

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.