Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Return to Ben Vorlich (Loch Earn)

Ben Vorlich at Loch Earn is a lovely hill. It is steep, shapely, easy to access and provides the most wonderful views across Perthshire's hills. It's less than an hour's drive from my house, and I see it regularly from afar. It's a fantastic sight from the A9 as one heads down from Perth towards Stirling, and is a distinctive part of the skyline from Perth's Kinnoull Hill - our regular quick walk. It is ridiculous then, that I haven't been up Ben Vorlich since July 1996. I remember the last trip very clearly indeed. It took place about a week or two before I got married. My fiancee was at that stage in Africa working at a remote mission hospital in Niger. The country was quite volatile at that time, and there was some sort of coup d'etat being attempted, and communications were down. I was, as you can imagine, a little anxious! 

On a blazing hot summer's day in 1996, four of us drove in my tiny Ford Fiesta to lovely Ardvorlich, on the minor road on the south side of Loch Earn. Then, as now, there were cars and minibuses all wedged into the verges and parking spaces by the loch. This time I was alone, in a VW, and it was February. The sun was shining, and its beams danced prettily on the loch, just as I remembered from before. This time however, there was a hint of steam on my breath, a hat and gloves on my body. A delightful stream runs down to the loch at Ardvorlich, and access path goes up it's east bank, as far as a bridge, where it crosses towards an impressive mansion, before resuming up the west side of the burn. The track gains height quickly then splits, the left fork by-passing the hill and the right one heading straight up a huge ridge ahead.

The path has eroded significantly over the last 23 years, it is now a significant, and in paces ugly path. It leads with increasing steepness up to a summit with a trig-point and an amazing view which quite unexpectedly seems to overwhelm the senses. The last, steep part of the climb is up a North facing ridge which is in the hill's shadow. The trig point was in glorious sunshine - and the views were stunning. 

February 2019 treated us to a freaky foretaste of Spring - it was abnormally warm when I went back up Ben Vorlich. Hats, gloves and thermal layers were dispensed not long after the start of the ascent, and I stood on top of the hill in Munro in February T-shirt! Back in 1996, the air was still, and unbearably hot; this time it was blowing a hard wind - but the sun still shone. Last time we continued on to scramble up Stuc a Chroin, before diving off the hills westwards to find a river and some water in the fierce heat. This time, I had to get back to pick children up from school and so had no time to go on and do the second hill, which meant a trudge back down the eroded ascent path.

Film Notes: Kolya

I stumbled across this DVD really by chance. I was noodling about ebay, and saw a quirky picture of a middle-aged bearded fellow, with a small boy on his shoulders, who was rather impishly putting his hands over the man's eyes. Jumping over to the Rotten Tomatoes site, I saw that this film had great reviews, and so grabbed it for not very much.

It turned out to be a charming, if sentimental, coming-of-age movie from Eastern Europe, set during the dying days of the Soviet system. The twist in the story is that person coming of age, is a middle-aged man! Louka, played delightfully by Zdenek Sverák, is a brilliant cellist, who has played with the Prague Philharmonic. Clashes between him and the Communist Party have resulted in him being reduced to playing at the local crematorium, for funerals. What seems to matter most to Louka however, is not ,subversive anti-communism, but his numerous affairs with fellow performers and cello students. His unattached, bachelor lifestyle, more typical of a twenty-year old, seems to have filled his days into his middle-years.

All this seems to unwind in a most unexpected way. Louka agrees to a marriage of convenience with a gorgeous Russian woman whose motivation is to get to the West. Her marriage document enables here to travel there from Czechoslovakia, which wouldn't be possible from Russia. Louka's motivation seems to be both financial and sexual, but to his consternation she dissappears almost immediately, leaving Louka with her young son; Kolya.

Those of us who are parents are aware of how much life changed when children arrived. In fact, our lives divide into the 'before' and 'after' their presence. Life without the busyness, exhaustion, joys and sorrows of children now seems barely imaginable. Young Kolya is the last thing that the selfish Louka is expecting, and much to his surprise it changes him in ways he can barely comprehend.

The film is really well-observed, which adds to its charm, and authenticity. This happens both at the level of adult-child interactions, of little Kolya's view of the world; and is loaded with wonderful period details from the latter years of the Soviet bloc. The film ends with twists in the story, both for Louka and Kolya, but also for the country as a whole. 

Anyone whose life has been turned upside down by children, or who was forced to suddenly grow-up when they became a parent; will smile knowingly at this film. Louka is certainly a more likeable character by the end of the film than he was at the start, but rather pleasingly he doesn't undergo a ludicrous character change like romcom writers seem to indulge in (The Proposal: fergoodnissakes!), but the love he develops for a child starts to shape him in new ways.

I thought it was a delightful film, amusing, wry, dated, well-observed, and with a charm that was quite lovely; and a nice twist in the tale.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Ben Cleuch, Mill Glen and the Ocils

Munro-ing in the North wasn't really safe yesterday, as the forecast was was extremely high winds. Plan B was to head into the Ochils for a dander around some of these less famous hills. I used to travel to Tillicoultry regularly for church stuff, and so had looked up at the great 'wall' of the Ochil ridge looming above the village along to Dollar for many years - but never been up it. My boss and I were working in Stirling a few weeks ago, and as we came out of the back of Bridge of Allan looked along the line of the Ochils and speculated that it might make a 'good walk one day'. That day arrived sooner than we expected!

Most people go to Tillicoultry for furniture shopping or to the factory outlet village; however they are missing a treat! Almost opposite the turning into those places, there is a small brown tourist sign for "Mill Glen" which points up a short road with on-street parking, by a briskly flowing river. Surprisingly, the muddy track at the end of this road climbs steeply into a stunning narrow glen, full of cliffs, trees and waterfalls which in other countries would be called a 'canyon'. The river powers down this narrow slot in the landscape, while walkers access is eased by a remarkable wooden walkway, and a series of bridges.

The path descends rapidly down to the waterside and the last of these bridges, at the point at which the glen bifurcates like a large 'Y', where two rivers meet and flow as one down towards the Forth. The 'nose' between these two glens provides a steep, but wonderful climb out of the glen and up towards the open country above. It's a good, bracing climb, but as these are small hills, doesn't go on too long!

A path leads all the way up this ridge to the first summit, a tremendous view-point called "The Law", at 638m. The path from there to Ben Cleuch itself is obvious and gains little additional height up to the cairn at 721m, classifying the hill as a 'Graham'.

Our initial plan had been to continue westwards over Ben Ever and back to Tillicoultry from its southern flanks. However, with the weather lifting and the sun making an appearance we turned Eastwards, and strolled over Andrew Ganne Hill (whoever he was!), and then over to "The King's Seat", another marvellous view point. As this hill is out towards the Eastern end of the Ochil's, it was a nice surprise to be able to see round to Loch Leven and The Lomond Hills, as well as the expected Forth panorama. 

An unnamed ridge runs from here, back to the head of Mill Glen, making a delightful circuit for the day. The Ochils are not the highest or most dramatic of Scotland's hills. They are not that popular either, we had most of these to ourselves for most of the day. There are paths, but they are not massively eroded by the tread of millions of boots. These hills are though, really beautiful, gentle and rather charming. I will be back!

(pictures from Andy, whose phone has a much better camera than mine!)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Film Notes: Blind Chance

Before there was Sliding Doors (1998), there was Blind Chance (1981), a more complex, yet strikingly less subtle story of a person whose fate is decided by whether they catch or miss a train. Like Sliding Doors, in which Gwyneth Paltrow's character both misses and catches the train - and the story bifurcates into two possible realities; in Blind Chance the story splits into three as different possible outcomes are explored for Boguslaw Linda's character, Witek.

There are a number of significant differences between the two films however. The first is that while Sliding Doors is a domestic story of love or loss, of success or failure, of happiness or disappointment, Blind Chance's outcomes are all to do with politics. What's more, they are to do with the politics of the emerging resistance to Poland's communist regime; culminating the film being banned when General Jaruzelski declared martial law there in response to the Solidarity movement.

While Paltrow's character ends up with a good guy or a bad guy; Witek either (1) catches the train and falls in with communists who get him to join the party; for whom he works with some commitment; or (2) fails to catch the train and has a fight with a station guard leading to arrest and falling into the company of the freedom movement, or (3) misses the train and returns quietly to medical school, avoids politics, marries a fellow student and had a child.

Its an intriguing film, and a fabulous period-piece about Poland in the Solidarity era; not a documentary by any means, but nevertheless a wonderful historical document. As usual for a Krzysztof Kieślowski film the cinematography is delicate, and perceptive; and the intrigues of human nature poignantly observed. I was (I must admit), a little shocked by the amount of sex and nudity in this film. I am not especially prudish; but by Krzysztof Kieślowski's standards this was very unusual. Several of his films contain sex references and enough violence to gain a (15) certificate; but I was surprised by how explicit he chose to go in this film. Sex, marriage and babies are of course, part of human life, and there was nothing here that was extraneous to the plot(s), but I'm not sure that so many naked shots were required.

The key question which hangs over the film is far more serious than what a handful of Poles looked like in 1981 with their kit off. Witek, the main protagonist, is portrayed as being incredibly malleable, and seems to receive all his life direction from his circumstances. He doesn't seem to have many thoughts or values of his own, to bring into the different scenarios into which he is plunged as his biography splits into three possible realities. His political and religious views are entirely shaped by fate in the unfolding scenes in his life; and the company he finds as a result of the caught/missed train scenario. While no one would be foolish enough to suggest that circumstances play no role in our formation, it is perhaps an exaggeration to suggest that we have no capacity for thought, analysis or moral judgement whatsoever, but are only and exclusively the product of our immediate stimuli. Krzysztof Kieślowski's severest critics have rounded on him for the apparent suggestion that a student would either end up working as a Communist Party apparatchik or an underground samizdat publisher on the flimsy grounds of a conversation on a missed train. But this is unfair on the filmmaker - who is clearly not meaning that we take the meaning of the plot that literalistically, but rather see it as a device for exploring the extent of individual agency. In that it is highly thought provoking and intelligent filmaking.  

I'm still not sure what to make of the surprise ending though. Without spoiling the film for those who haven't seen it, it has the benefit of uniting the three story strands; and uniting the three versions of the character in a jarring equality!

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Film Notes: Camera Buff

Like many people I first came across Krzysztof Kieślowski through his later work such as The Three Colours Trilogy, made after his move to France from his native Poland. Only later did I stumble across his earlier, rougher films such as the Decalogue series, made in the drabber environment of Soviet-era Polish communism. This film, Camera Buff, comes from amongst these earlier pieces, made in 1979.

The first striking think about the film is that it is a period-piece for its time. The Soviet-era architecture, cars, clothes, and factories are obvious. What then hits the viewer is the social-economic setting of the film. The obvious heavy-industrial context, with wheezing factories belting fumes from their modernist chimneys, is the backdrop for a series of relationships which too are located in time and space. The deadening bureaucracy which controls the factory is typical of the era, as are the depictions of an adequate but basic life in the stagnant command-economy. Over all these relationships lurks the chubby party-boss, whose role is to oversee all the people and operations in the plant and the town for the party-state, and to protect the sacred Marxist-Leninist ideology. All this dates the film in the Cold-War era of the East generally, but what is even more interesting is that in 1979, it was obviously acceptable to portray the party boss interfering and censoring the film in a way which would not have made it to the screen in 1970, let alone before 1951.

The film itself concerns Filip Mosz, a factory worker deftly played by Jerzy Stuhr, who gets a film camera with which to record the life of his first child, who is born near the start of the film. The camera is obviously a scarce resource, and the party demand that he use it to film the jubilee of the factory in which he works. This is successful, and leads to the establishment of a small film unit at the plant, making party-approved pieces - but Mosz's slightly artistic takes on everyday life gain wider plaudits, much to the anxiety of the party.

The tension between art and political control forms only a sub-plot however. The main theme is the obsession of the artist, and the way in which it takes over his life, causing great strain within his marriage. The lens through which Mosz increasingly lives his life becomes that of an observer, and recorder of life; not a full participant in it. This process is seen as even when not filming, he views scenes in his life and marriage - as if through a lens; forming a square with his hands to imagine how the scene would appear on film; to the increasing distress to his wife (Malgorzata Zabkowska as Irka Mosz). His cinemtographical exploits also unintentionally damage colleagues on the way too, a price he seems willing to accept for his art.

In one sense the film points to the way in which art and creativity provides a meaning for a man in an empty, drab, and highly controlled world. If the bleak nature of the vast monoform flats in which he lives, and the dispiriting nature of his work as a buyer for a factory in a command-economy which was unresponsive to his needs; was the problem, then Mosz found his outlet in capturing things as beautiful, natural and innocent as pigeons on the wing, or road-menders toil. However, Camera Buff now looks strangely prophetic in the sense that in the mobile phone/social media era there seems to be a strong pull (dare I say it, especially amongst the young!) (I know, I'm an old fart), to film and observe life and the world - rather than fully participate in it. I love my camera, and for a long time took it everywhere, but I was away that sometimes capturing an image was at odds with enjoying experiencing the reality of it. Banksy, in his own inimitable style views it like this:

In 1979, Krzysztof Kieślowski imagined it like this:

Saturday, January 05, 2019

A Return Visit to Stob Coire Easain and Stob a'Choire Mheadhoin

There are some Munros worth climbing more than once; and these two are definitely in that category. The first time I walked up this fine pair of peaks, was before I began this blog; and my records were kept in a notebook. There are several things I can remember distinctly though, the first is the extremely early summer start, missing my turning up onto the ridge, and clambering through undergrowth, before experiencing an inversion on the summit, and having a lovely sleep up there too; before the clouds lifted and the sun blazed on the hills above, and Rannoch Moor below.

Looking down on Loch Treig (SMcL)

This time this it was quite different, a winter ascent with company! We began at the walkers car ark, and marched by the light of head-torches along to the dam and the lochside. Aware that I had missed a turn last time, we doubled checked with our GPS (which hadn't been invented then!), and found the correct track up to the sheepfold on the Lag Odhar ridge. The first obstacle of note is Meall Cian Dearg which looms ominously over the track below, looking high and impenetrable. As is so often the case, these impossible-looking hills are steep, but don't present any technical challenges; as a path weaves its way in and our of the rocky outcrops.

It's been a while since I have done a walk of this seriousness, and my lack of fitness took its toll on this long steep climb.The last section looked as if it would have been awful in the wet; but yesterday the peat was frozen solid to the hill, and provided some good traction. As we made the top of the Meall Cian Dearg (which is really just a steep end of the ridge), the morning sleeper train from London rumbled its way Northwards alongside Loch Treig below. The guidebook says that Rudolph Hess was kept in house arrest in this glen at the end of the war; that strange character, sitting in a lonely cottage under house-arrest, awaiting his fate, listening to trains rumbling over the moor.... a very odd thought indeed.

Once on the main ridge, the path comes and goes, and some thought is required to keep on track; as in the cloud the ridge is broad, featureless and remarkably long. When finally it narrows and the ascent to Stob a'Choire Mheadhoin begins, the finest section of the walk begins. From here, over the two peaks is a very fine ridge walk; with enough to keep the walker entertained even in the thick fog which wrapped itself around us constantly. We walked much of the way with a couple from a couple of miles up the road from us in Scone, who we fell into conversation with on the way, which was pleasant too.

Unlike my last trip, which involved a long dreamy sleep on the summit, followed by watching the sun-shimmering over Rannoch Moor; yesterday was just too cold to stop for long. For the first week in January conditions were good, there was no snow at all, even at altitude. In fact the Ptarmigan in their pure white camouflage stood out like a sore thumb, with no snow to merge into. In fact, we were so cold that we route-marched it back to the car. SMcL needed to collect some things in Aviemore, which meant a longer drive home; but having done the walk in good time, we were back for 7-ish.

Spot the ptarmigan (SMcL)

Last Sunday I was interviewed in church (Nethybridge CofS, if you're interested), and they asked me what my New Year's resolutions were. I replied, "to get to the hills more". In that regard, 2019 has got off to a flying start.

Abernethy New Year Houseparty

Our whole family is just back from a great few days at Nethybridge Outdoor Centre, where we joined their New Year Houseparty. I've never been to anything like it before, but really enjoyed it. We were there from Sat-Weds, and had access to all their on-site activities like tennis, table tennis, swimming, dry-ski-slope, walks, games, etc; as well as joined in the Hogmanay Party, with ceilidh and fireworks. The centre in situated in beautiful woodland in the Cairngorms National Park, and and so has an abundance of mountains, rivers, lochs, climbs and bike trails on its doorstep. Alongside this there was a programme of evening meetings with light-hearted entertainment, as well as the Christian worship and teaching that the Abernethy Trust offers. It was this last aspect that I was able to contribute a bit too as well.

The accommodation was  basic but comfortable, and the food regular, plentiful and good value! It's a while since we have all piled into a family room together, and snored and coped with each other's irritating habits, but it was fun. One of the highlights for me was getting to know some of the staff a bit. Because I was helping with the meetings, I worked closely with them; putting the programme together. Abernethy seem to have managed to create a nice balance between professionalism and friendliness which makes working for them a joy.

The other guests were fascinating too. I enjoyed some really intriguing discussions with people from a huge variety of backgrounds; and opinions! There were Scots, English and Northern Irish folks to start with, and others who had lived all over the world. There were people from High-Church, Low-Church and No-Church, full-time parents, farmers, engineers, academics, charity-sector workers, teachers, physios, psychiatrists, retired folks, and youngsters, toddlers, a Cathedral verger and many more! I don't think I have ever encountered such an eclectic mixture of interesting people in one place before.

In the meetings we looked at the lessons from some of the Bible's more overlooked characters. These were Barabbas the convict, Bathsheba, King Omri, Hezekiah and Barnabas. The centre has a great band, made up of staff past and present, and they led us in worship every night too - which was really encouraging. I got to speak in the local CofS at Nethybridge too. I had suspected before I went that it might be a small or sleepy affair; but that just exposes the folly of my prejudices! The beautiful country kirk was crammed to the gunnels with people, with extra chairs in the aisles to accommodate them.

The only real disappointment was the complete lack of snow all week. When the snow comes, the centre runs a bus to and from the Lecht every day, and my kids were desperately hoping to fill their days on the slopes. Alas, twas not to be! I felt a bit sorry for them, as the possibility of snow had been a major draw for them coming up there with me. However they seemed quite happy flinging their Mum around at the Hogmanay Ceilidh, as 2019.

Abernethy is a great place. I hope I can go back one day.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Film Notes: For The Love of God

I have to confess to being a bit of a history nerd. Having spent several years studying it, accumulated countless books and an insatiable reading habit, I find the past utterly absorbing. It's common to hear politics, ethics, education, nationalism or multiculturalism being described as 'a battleground of ideas', but every historian is equally aware that our view of the past is every bit as contentious. We are all aware of "Black History Month", which has grown steadily in significance, as the once accepted racism which erased Black people from our historical consciousness has been increasingly rejected. Historians once looked for great themes and great men (yes, it was usually just men!); many these days look for "usable pasts"; which are often little more than selective trawls for evidence with which to weaponise history for contemporary polemics.

Religious history, has of course been subject to both these trends. Biographies of saints and martyrs have been produced to stir the devotions of the faithful; while the memory of atrocities committed in the name of "belief a", are kept alive by the adherents of "belief b".

What we make of the history of the church, is then something of great importance, and not just for history geeks like me. How the history of Christianity is handled is a significant marker in the current battle of ideas. Of course some Christians want to paint a picture of unbridled progress and blessing; while some atheists, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, wish to portray every aspect of the church's record as being fundamentally malign.


Perhaps only the foolish, unwary or brave would step into this vast field of two millenia of contention! Certainly the aim of presenting a fair and balanced picture of the church's moral and ethical record, which is neither a Hitchensesque hatchet-job or a series of 'lives of the saints' hagiographies is a bold one. However, this is exactly what CPX (The Centre for Public Christianity in Australia) have done in a 90 minute film entitled "For The Love of God: How The Church is Both Better And Worse Than You Ever Imagined". Fearing the worst, I watched this film with some trepidation, but they have really pulled it off, it is a great piece of work.
Filmed with high quality production values, CPX presenters John Dickson, Justine Toh and Simon Smart, are filmed in locations around the world, where Christians have made an impact for good or ill; and assessed the history. They tell stories such as massacres in the Crusades perpetrated on innocent Muslims in the name of Christianity, to Martin Luther King Jr's noble quest for Civil Rights; from Christian failures to oppose Nazism, to roots of Western charity and philanthropy in the early church as it was persecuted by Roman Emperors. The story telling is enhanced by dramatic readings of historical texts, and segments of academics discussing and assessing the meaning of the stories.

Wonderfully put together, well-researched, and presented in a lively style, the film itself is compelling viewing. The analysis is fascinating too; as they seek to assess where the church has gone wrong and where it has made a contribution. John Lennox, the noted Christian professor of Mathematics at Oxford describes the 'shame' of some of the things done in Northern Ireland in the name of Christianity. On the other hand Rowan Williams explores the way in which many disputes driven by other factors such as land, power, or resources have gained a religious veneer or justification; but were not inherently caused by clashes of belief.

The treatment of Colonialism is quite remarkable. Coming from Australia the film begins with the damage done to Aboriginal people by the white settlers, who brought everything from land-seizures to new diseases to Australia; sometimes justified in the name of Christianity. Yet, they also show that it was Christians who almost uniquely rejected a racist hierarchy of races, because they couldn't accept social-Darwinism, as their faith told them that all people were made in the image of God. Likewise the role of William Carey in India is examined, and not just in term of his exemplary work in education, and development. His long campaign against 'Sati' (widow-burning) can be seen as either imposing western values on India; or as a bold step towards the equality of the sexes, and thoroughly in line with the idea that basic human rights are universal, not allocated by the powerful; or awarded in response to capacity or contribution. This, likewise is an idea which only became embedded in western culture when Christian ethics replaced Greco-Roman morality in which things such an infanticide were almost de rigueur.

Robert Woodberry's thesis that Protestant missionaries have left a massively positive contribution towards social and economic flourishing in virtually every context in which they operated, is also given a well-deserved hearing.

Equally fascinating was the (perhaps not immediately obvious) subject of character. The weight of evidence that the ancients, despite all their philosophical sophistication, saw humility as despicable; was very well explained. The Christian view of the cross of Christ. the humiliated God, was radically counter cultural; and leads directly to so many of the values which we in the west assume are universal, but actually are rooted in Christianity.


Finally the filmakers ask us to examine the record of the church, as it stands up against the teachings of Jesus Christ himself. The obvious point that Jesus' ethical teaching commands great respect isn't laboured, but rather what is observed is that where the church has stuck to his words and example, it has been beautiful; but where it has veered off into contemporary cultures, it has looked ugly. Central to this discussion is Jesus' charge to his people to "love their enemies". This main thesis is explored through a charming musical metaphor, which I won't explain, but will leave you to enjoy on the film.

The film can be viewed as a single 90 minute "Cinema Cut" or in several shorter episodes; 1) War and Peace, 2) Rights and Wrongs, 3) Rich and Poor, 4) Power and Humility. It can be rented or purchased online, for streaming or by buying the DVD from https://www.publicchristianity.org/fortheloveofgod/ from where free clips, and study guides for groups or schools can also be downloaded.


This honest film leaves little room either for Christian triumphalism on one hand, or mud-slinging anti-Christian polemics on the other. In that sense, CPX have done a remarkable job in opening up a sensible discussion in which the very real contributions of Christian ethics, and Jesus' teaching can be  seen alongside many of the sins of the church. As such the film will perhaps contain surprises for people on both sides of that debate. There is some uneasy viewing for Christians, especially on the Crusades and the Nazis; while some secularists will be alarmed at the extent to which so many of the values we celebrate in the western liberal tradition have distinctly Christian roots, and were pioneered in history by Christians. Furthermore, many of them are grounded in Christian beliefs, and sustained by them, and indeed inseparable from them.


CPX are to be congratulated on the way in which they have stepped so nimbly across this historical minefield, and produced such a stimulating, thought-provoking film, which is both visually stunning and academically rigorous.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Christmas Collage

Here's my "Christmas Collage". A few weeks ago I e-mailed a few friends with two questions: 1) How will you celebrate Christmas, and 2) What does it mean to you! Here are some responses! Enjoy..

Christmas day in our house starts with the kids opening up the presents Santa has left in their stockings before we head downstairs for everyone to get stuck into their bigger presents. After everything’s been opened and the wrapping paper has been tidied away, we all get ready to head out to church. I’m usually on the sound desk for the Christmas Day service where we have an orchestra belting out Christmas carols to good effect. Once the service has finished, we head back to our place to start getting ready for the Christmas meal. I cook the meat and prep the vegs the day before to make things easier but I still seem to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen. That’s ok though as everyone helps out. We usually have a set of parents round for the meal – this year it’s my mum and dad – and we have a great time eating too much and laughing loudly. Once our visitors are gone and all the dishes are done, I usually sit down to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special which, in good old timey-wimey fashion, happens to be on New Year’s Day this time around. Christmas Day – a time of food, fun and family but not necessarily in that order!


When I am tempted to don my “Humbug” hat, I am equally reminded of the crushing Narnia sadness, “forever winter and never Christmas”. This salutary reminder brings me quickly to my senses. Yes, I dislike the relentless retail feasting and somehow thirst instead for the simplicity of a divine birth in a humble stable. This for me is Christmas. God came to dwell with us and life for individuals in the human race changed forever!


When my wife was pregnant with our now 18 year old we were discussing the core values we wanted to instil. One was truthfulness. In our family, anyone will always be in more trouble for a lie they tell to cover something up than whatever it was they were covering up in the first place. We decided that we could not credibly tell the children to be truthful if we set an example of lying to them – so no Santa. We still do everything associated with Christmas but without the scarlet-clad obese Laplander. We still do stockings, but I take them into the children’s rooms – always wearing a particular red jumper so that they can say ‘some fat guy in red brought them’. 
This has had an unplanned side-effect – the children buy each other presents (as no magical mystical reindeer driven apparition is going to do it for them). I tend to go into a nearby large town with all 3 children one Saturday; when one sees something which they want to buy for one of the others, the other 2 make themselves scarce in the same shop and I go with the buying child to the till. All 3 arrive home with bags laden with gifts for their siblings and hurry to their own rooms to wrap them up – so Christmas morning always has the element of surprise and humour with the stocking gifts. Also, from the age of about 11 (eldest), they have started buying and filling stockings for my wife and I – so we pretend to be asleep as the 3 children, when they wake approximately 4.30am, trounce into our room hissing ‘SHHHHHHHH’ loudly to each other and put stockings at the foot of our bed. Now aged 18,16 and 13, we all still give and receive stockings of gifts in this same way. When my middle child was about 9, a friends mother was complaining to me that her daughter had lied to her ... to which I unhelpfully replied ‘but you started it ... we reap what we sow!’


I am one of those people who enjoys the festive season. Christmas is a real marker of time and as our family has grown, and changed, so have the memories. It brings back both happy and sadder times. The wise men had a long, exciting, and expectant journey ahead of them. Mary also looked forward to the birth of her first child in such unexpected circumstances. I try to relate these different elements of the Christmas story to my own life and am aware of the  excitement I feel at the prospect of my eldest son returning from university in a couple of weeks to spend time with the rest of the family. I am truly blessed, and am being given so many gifts on a daily basis many of which I take for granted. God sending his own son to this earth, well, that is the gift of all gifts. Christmas fills me with hope and expectation for a New Year and new challenges, and for what lies ahead. As God promised to shine his light into our darkness, he promises to be with us in the very personal areas and experiences of our lives if we let him. I am thankful that whatever lies ahead in the coming year for good or ill, that I do not face it on my own. As Mary faced her future, unknowing what lay ahead, so God promises to be in our unknowns. As Mary did not expect God to work in her as he did, sometimes God surprises us in how he turns up in our lives and can use the most unlikely scenarios for good.  


I Love Christmas Time! For me, Christmas is in 3parts. (1) as someone who believes in the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is a reminder of Christ's coming into the world, God as man. My faith revolves around this, God in Jesus becoming human and living amongst us. So we celebrate Christ coming amongst us. (2) These days, Christmas is celebrated as a time for family. Unfortunately my family do not, as yet, follow what I would say is a Christian path. Yet Christmas. draws us all together. I love driving down to Bristol (~440 miles) for Christmas listening to the Drive Time phone in. Everybody driving home for Christmas, to be with family. (We don't win, but generally come in about 3rd, 420miles, Perth to Bristol. (3) Christmas for most is a fun, family time. But I always think of an ex colleague who, for him, was a terrible lonely experience. No family. Lonely. Nothing. Seeing everyone have fun apart from you. Tough So I'll celebrate Christmas this year with my family, for whom I'm so grateful to God, yet for whom I pray every day, and remembering those whose Christmas will be particularly lonely.


Christmas 2018 - for the first time we will be in Canada, with family, for Christmas. Suitcases and jet lag but no Church catering, a rest. Don’t know whether we will get to church but snow is guaranteed. For us Christmas is a time to remember the birth of Jesus with family and friends!


This Christmas we will stick close to home. No crowded airports or icy highways planned for us. We’re hoping a Scottish friend will come to stay for the holidays, as she’ll be working in the southern part of our province. We will host Christmas dinner for my family, so it will be busy and loud (and fun). My older daughter has a soccer tournament between Christmas and New Years, so there’ll be no staying in pyjamas for days on end. For our family, Christmas is about celebrating Christ’s birth by spending time together as a family and being thankful for all the gifts of health and prosperity that we have been blessed with in our part of the world.


For me this year, Christmas falls at the same time as my main deadline in the six years of studying architecture. I think that will lead to Christmas having a different feeling from usual. So in my situation, Christmas, and it’s associated festivities, will be about Peace - a time away from the work where I can rest and focus on Jesus. I plan on it being a period where I can switch off from the demands of the course and instead reflect on God. Whilst I may not be able to enjoy the holiday as much as I usually do, I hope that it can impact my faith and understanding in a fresh way to how it normally does.


Rather than the traditional meal, each member of the family says one item of food which they really enjoy and would like incorporated into our main Christmas meal. We then concoct a 3 course meal which incorporates the 5 items chosen by the 5 members of the family. The items chosen over the years have varied and have now matured (I think the smoked salmon (child 2) and asparagus (me) starter was 3 years in a row), but one year, when young, one daughter chose scrambled egg and the other chose poached egg .... so we did have scrambled and poached egg on the same plate. When the children were young (and the choices of food reflected that), my wife and I would have a quiet candlelit Christmas evening meal after they went to bed. Now they are teenagers, it’s a fabulous family time – like every Sunday dinner, but with everyone’s favourites in one meal. I may ask for lamb this year.


If we're spared" (as my old mother used to say) until Christmas we will be involved in the following: Church, Family, Food, Holidays. I love Christmas time for all sorts of reasons, however mainly because I get a rest from work. Nobody wants to hear too much from a charity like Mission International at Christmas time, other than to report on how well the BIG meal has gone, so we get a lull in the regular activities of fundraising etc which is great. The BIG meal is over, the teams are all home, the many activities are on hold until the New Year. Its also a time for me to reflect on how the year has gone and to seek God for the future. Maybe I'll read a new book, listen to some guys preaching, store up some 'food' for the incoming year.


Christmas this year will start with an Advent wreath so we can anticipate Christ's birth by candlelight after tea each evening. (That's my intension, but reality of homework and family schedule may mean we only have candles once a week.) The wait involved with Advent is something I value and desire to pass on to my children. We'll attend service at church on Christmas Eve which leaves Christmas Day wide open. On Christmas morning the kids will wake, there will be presents under the tree, a leisurely breakfast, FaceTime family across the time zones, then a drive down the mountain so we can wander along the beach, look for whales in the distance and shells at our feet. 


We will be celebrating Christmas with our lovely family in Scotland!!   I love all things Christmas - seeing family and friends, carols, the Christmas Eve midnight service at church, presents, decorations and not least it always prompts me to really think about what my faith is all about and to thank God.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Short Answers

Last week I did some work for this chap, Andy Bannister. Amongst other things, like writing and debating, he makes these little "Short Answers" videos about various aspects of Christianity. I've been thinking about which one to post up here as a sample. I suppose the best would be these two as they are about Jesus himself, the heart of the faith. They are nicely made, and only a few minutes each. There's loads more  of these online here, where I've just noticed you can ask a question too.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tonight's Sunset in Perth

Film Notes: Son of Saul

Son of Saul, is without any doubt, the most horrific film I have ever seen. It left me numb,and in shock, while my wife felt physically sick. Watching it is something of an endurance test for the viewer - and yet despite this, it has won countless accolades including the Cannes Grand Prix, and the 2015 Academy Award for best foreign language film. What is it that made the film juries, and the countless critics who's scores accumulate to 95% approval on the Rotten Tomatoes meta-critic site, so endorse this appalling spectacle? There are several reasons:

The first is that this is a film about truth. The action takes place over two-days in the heart of the Nazi's death-camp at Auschwitz. Using the best first-hand account of how the industrial scale murder-factories looked, were run, staffed and organised, the details of the story-line might be fictitious; but they are rooted in truth. Life in the camps has been depicted before, in films like Schindler's List,  where the viewer thought for a moment that they were going to be asked to watch a mass murder by gas; but are spared at the last second. Likewise, I've seen disturbing depictions of the labour-camps before; but Son of Saul, is set right in the heart of the killing. László Nemes might just spare us the sight of the asphyxiations themselves, but he does not spare us the victims screams - and hopeless banging on the gas-chamber doors.

The central character, Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), is a Hungarian Jew. imprisoned in the death-camp. Primo Levi, in "The Drowned and The Saved", his Auschwitz memoir, describes the various roles prisoners were given. The useful like him, were put to hard labour, others were selected for medical experiments, while others were condemned to what he called "The Gray Zone", that is joining the Sonderkommando. These most wretched of souls gained a few months of life, by running the death-machine. Saul, was a Sondercommando, and we first meet him herding fellow Hungarian Jews to their death, taking their possessions for the Nazi's, hauling out the naked bodies from the gas-chambers, and scrubbing them clean for the next train-load. This is so intense, so incomprehensible, that it is hard to watch. However, the fact that this happened, as recently as in my parents' lifetime, means that it has to be faced.

The second reason that the film has been so lauded is the extraordinary cinematography. In interviews, László Nemes has described shooting the film in a messy way, all from human-eye-level. The fact that the narrow depth of field means that the main characters faces are in focus, but the background is constantly out, is also remarkable. It creates initially a sense that Saul has his head-down, trying to avoid seeing, what is all around him; the eye-level filming drawing the viewer right into the hell. The strangely muffled sound-track adds to this curious sense of the recoiling-self seeking to protect itself through a form of cognitive dissonance. This technique also allows the filmmaker to allow the horror of the gas chambers to appear on screen - while seeking to avoid the gratuitous, or prurient details the focus of the shot. Saul, has to help remove the naked corpses of the newly-slain from the gas-chambers. Yet, while the bodies are dragged, with no ceremony or dignity whatsoever; László Nemes places them just beyond the focal length of his cameras. The result is visually striking, absorbing and deeply, deeply disturbing.

The third, and most important reason that Son of Saul resonates so powerfully with audiences and critics, is that it is ultimately a film about humanity. The underlying narrative is that the Nazis denied that the Jews were human; and treated them in accordance with this twisted view - and as a result lived in complete denial of their own humanity. I was sickened by the way the Nazis called the dead "pieces", unable to face up to, or even comprehend what they had just done. I believe it was Auschwitz survivor Rabbi Hugo Gryn (1930-1996), who says that he never once asked "Where God was in Auschwitz"; but was constantly asking, "Where is humanity?". Despite the loss of his liberty, dignity, morality, hope and the abject denial of his humanity, Saul, of the Sonderkommando, holds onto one tiny shred of his personhood. Without spoiling the plot, Saul is determined to find a Rabbi, amongst the prisoners, and give a proper burial to one small dead Hungarian-Jewish boy from the holocaust. This one body, like that of the 'unknown soldier' of WWI, comes to mean much more than just itself; but a representative of wounded humanity. Saul's bewildering desire to commend his 'son' to the earth and to God, is a powerful portrait of a man clinging to some shred of humanity, while living in a hell-on-earth. The one thing with which he will not be parted, is his desire to give one little human the right departure, and to commend him to God with some dignity. 

That beautiful, yet minute thread of light, is the only hope found in this horrendous depiction of evil. I'm sure that watching it was the right thing to do. I don't think I could watch it again though.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Through The Chalamain Gap to Lurcher's Crag

Creag an Leth-choin, or Lurcher's Crag, is a wonderful top, high in the Cairngorm plateau. Apparently, it was once considered to be a Munro in it's own right; but now is simply listed as a 'top'. I have previously blogged 'in defence of Munro-bagging', but the down-side of it is equally obvious; walks like Lurcher's Crag are missed-out, when they are so worth doing.

We began our walk at the 'Sugarbowl' Car Park on the road from Rothiemurchus up to the Ski Centre. Our oldest has left for university, so it was just the three of us, who crossed the road and followed the well-engineered path down into the gorge of the Allt Mor, and across the wooden footbridge. Here we caught up with a group of fifty or so folks walking up, with guides, to visit the reindeer enclosure in Glenmore. The guides were carrying sacks of feed, and were happy to chat about the 60+ years of reindeer in these hills, since re-introduction; how the tourists pay far too much for guided trips to see them, and how they control their numbers through surgery (!), not culling.

The Chalamain Gap

Our conversation was brought to an abrupt end, as they took the right fork in the path to the enclosure, while we veered left; across open country, towards the famous Chalamain Gap. Without the large group in our way, we were able to pick up speed and follow the excellent path, uphill all the way into it. The Chalamain gap was carved by post-glacial overflow at the end of the last ice age; in a very short space of geological time; when vast quantities of meltwater, trapped behind the retreating ice-sheet found a run-off from the Lairig Ghru to Glem More. What is left is a steep, boulder-lined defile, cutting into the side of the mountain - through which access to the Lairig Ghru can be gained.

I've been through the gap once before, many years ago, on my way through to mighty Braeriach. Scrambling through the boulders in first-light, the moon was framed in the gap.... a sight I'll never forget. This time is was bright, sunny and very cold, as we ascended through the increasingly rocky terrain. My younger son and I enjoyed the rough ground; my wife and daughter did not! However, the excitement is short-lived and a good path resumes, from the exit from the gap, all the way down into the LairigGhru - through which I walked just a few weeks ago

Across the Lairig Ghru

The path up Lurcher's Crag is very easy to miss, from the main track. A tiny cairn, above a bog to the left of the path marks it's start; but it soon becomes an obvious route - only petering out on the rocky ground on the summit. The view though, get better as the ascent continues, not just of the Cairngorms, but of everywhere to the North of them initially; and then from the summit, right down the great Lairig Ghru itself; between Ben Macdui to the left and Braerich to the right, with the Devil's Point just visible at the back.

Down the Lairig Ghru

Were it not for my daughter's complaining, we would have continued along the tops, around to Cairngorm; however she was at her tolerance point for hillwalking (mental I should add - physically she could walk for ever, if motivated!) and so we planned a route down. Rather than retrace our steps, we traversed to the Lairig Ghru viewpoint at 1010m, and the around to the Miadan Creag an Leth-Choin ridge, from which there is a path back to the ski-centre. By this stage is it was bitterly cold, and large hot chocolate drinks at the ski lodge were in order, before the trek back down the road to the car.