Wednesday, November 29, 2006

For the last time...

If all goes to plan (ie I somehow manage to pass all my exams, essays etc) this will be my last winter commuting from Perth to college in Glasgow. Having studied for about five years, part-time, in order to achieve an 'umble ordinary degree, it's hard to imagine not having college as part of my life.

Although I will greatly miss the intellectual and spiritual stimulation of college, as well as the fruit gained from having the discipline of deadlines imposed upon my reading habits, there's something else I will miss - freezing cold winter mornings at Perth station. Very early in the morning, at either 6:55 or 7:12, clusters of freezing bodies huddle under the platform canopies, lost under coats and scarves. Heavy clouds of exhaled steam hang thickly around them in the damp morning air, while the smokers amongst them gasp their last intake of nicotine before the hour and half journey. Their hot stinking breath rises fast and lingers around the lights in the canopy rafters, columns of pollution reminiscent of the great Victorian railway engines this vast station was built to serve.

Perth boasts a station which is bizarely disproportionate for its needs, despite the massive down-sizing it has endured over recent decades. Once the centre of vast tangles of sidings and engine sheds, it was the hub of much of Scotlands network of rural railway lines, as well as the end of the North British mainline north from Edinburgh. It took part in the "race to the North" as part of the last stage in the East and West Coast mainlines attempts to achieve prominence from London to Aberdeen, and had Queen Victoria as a frequent visitor, her train often stabled on the "Royal Platform" enroute from London to Balmoral. In later days it formed one of British Rail's regional centres from which a vast area of track and train movements were organised. It was said that at Perth, where six lines met, there was never not a train in motion. It was certainly a bottle neck for rail traffic which caused signalmen no end of testing and passengers numerous delays.

Today the place is strangely silent, few trains, few passangers, few staff. The group gathering on platform one, let out a collective groan when the muffled tannoy echoes out Scotrail's apology for the late-running 7:12 service to Glasgow. This, they are helpfully informed, is due to a late-running preceeding train; an announcement as meaningless as it is insincere. Meaningless because it given them no information of any use, and insincere because they all know that Scotrail will get compensation from Network Rail for the delay - none of which will reach the pockets of the travellers on platform one. Icy cold hands dip into pockets and fumble with mobile phones, and messages are left apologising for missed apointments.

The place though, bleak, rusting, and windswept as it is, I find charming -especially very early in the morning. The place is positively oozing with history. It's not just the soot from a thousand steam engines, clinging to pillars high above the platforms, nor is the poignant memorials to railwaymen lost in wars, nor is the merely the thought that when this station was great, it was part of what made this country significant. It's also that in the half-light of the early morning (especially at 5:40am when the London sleeper arrives) if you close half-close your eyes, you can almost see the place as it was.

At squint down platform seven will see an old engine pulling trucks loaded with potatos coming down from Bankfoot. Platform three is a hive of activity as men from the Tay fisheries load hundreds of salmon and great chunks of ice into blocks. Towers of smoke rise from the west where train loads of whisky come to and from the bond, while Edwardian bobbies march uniformed prisoners from coaches towards their new accomodation at "Number One, Edinburgh Road". Coaches from Inverness are marshalled for London, Oban, Bristol, Manchester and Carlisle and under the vast canopy at the North of the station, the volunteers of the "Perth Patriotic Barrow" sign up young men to give their lives for King and Country on the western front. Then I'm sure I saw my grandparents, driving off the motorail train from London on platform five, heading for a holiday in the Highlands in a mustard yellow Austin 1100.

"The train new approaching platform is the late running 7:12 service to Glasgow Queen Street". The tannoy rudely interupts my mental time-travelling, the world comes back into focus and the proud Victorian ironwork gains a century of rust, shrubs sprout from long-neglected gutters, sidings dissappear under forests of weeds, and a shiny, quiet, brand-new train glides effortlessly into the platform. We used to have uncomfortable trains and gleaming stations, now we have gleaming trains and uncomfortable stations. Progress no doubt.

This might be my last winter waiting on platform one for the early train. I'll miss it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Monday, November 20, 2006

Close Encounter......

On Saturday I experienced the most frightening thing I have done for many, many years. Driving down the A30 (Staines by-pass) towards the M25, a truck in front of us shed part of it's load.

From the top of the truck a rock somewhere between the size of a grapefruit and a football dislodged and came bouncing down the road towards us, like bouncing bomb. As it had started off on top of the truck and fallen a considerable height, each bounce took the object as high as my windscreen. I can still see it spinning in the air in front of my eyes.

A quick check to the right informed me that I couldn't swerve into the slow lane to avoid the object because the car alongside us was breaking hard too. Thankfully the rock thumped into our car at the low-point in its bounce - hitting our front bumper very hard - not the windscreen or bonnet which it would have done at it's highest. It all happened too quickly for my life to flash in frnt of my eyes in the traditional manner. The object turned out not to be a rock but a large, compact lump of heavy clay-like earth.

We contacted the police, who filled out some forms. By the time they had done that the lorry had crossed into another police force's area and so they were unable to do anything except send the neighbouring force a note (which presumably enabled them to fill in another form).

Without witnesses and with the trucking company denying even being at the scene, it seems there's little we can do except pay for the repairs.


Three Cheers for Religious Extremism!

If there is one thing about which everyone is agreed, our society must root out what is called "religious extremism". The media rant about it, polticians despise it and it is obvious fodder for political cartoonists and satarists alike. It seems that "reasonableness", "tolerance", "education" and "the law" are the tools to be used to rid the UK of this menace.

The only problem is that as yet, none of these groups has taken a moment to define what this "religious extremism" is supposed to actually be. It's not merely that the "F" word can be used to shut down any discussion about religion (fundamentalist/ism, that is), but that the word has become almost devoid of any meaningful content, and is deployed as a pejorative dismissal of any person who has stronger beliefs than the speaker! The word is therefore used as a power-tool with shifting meaning, rather than a helpful adjective with a shared understanding of its content.

A Christian who believes that The Bible is inspired by God and wishes to live by it is dismissed as a "Fundamentalist"; whereas a Muslim who believes that the Koran comes from God and wishes tolive by it, is praised as a "Moderate" if they condemn terrorism! The Evangelical Alliance is currently at loggerheads with The Daily Telegraph who juxtaposed a peaceful Christian protest led by Brain Mahwhinney with some Islamists with placards reading "Behead those who insult Islam" - inviting the reader to dismiss both as comparative examples of "religious extremism" (boo - hiss!). We urgently need a new word which distinguishes those willing to use violence to persue religious ends from believers of all faiths committed to exclusively peaceful means.

The problem with all this is not just that this agenda is used by secularists to avoid ever having to listen to any argument from a Christian perspective. The greater problem with all this is that I have met some truly wonderful genuine religious extremists in my life, and cannot join in the roar of dissaproval. Take "J" for example, an excellent surgeon who could have made a lot of money in the UK but was driven instead by his Christian faith to invest his life in delivering health care improvements to people in Asia. This is all-consuming religious extremism! Or take, "D". working hard in the centre of London offering practical help and Christian spiritual hope to some of the most deprived members of society, or "A" working with city kids with social and behavioural problems, or "R". who has dedicated his life to sharing the gospel and serving the people who come to the Christian centre he runs in inner London, or "K" helping young men get off drugs.

All of these people are genuine "religious extremists" doing what they believe God has called them to do; seriously seeking, with God's help, to serve others in a Christlike way. So let's drop this pernicious use of the term "religious extremist" as a catch-all dismissal. In truth religious extremism is an empty term, because what determines the benefit or danger to society of the believer is not their level of extremism, but the content of the religion they profess.

Take 6: Live in London

The Mrs and I had a brilliant night at The Barbican in London on Friday, where we saw Take 6 live.

The terrible photo here was taken with my phone from the back of the hall and it shows the group in full flight during their encore.

I have never heard singing like this before. Range, power, passion, delivery, style and harmonies - what harmonies! Some of the songs were funky, others soulful, many spiritual and many of them almost tear-jerkingly beautiful.

Alongside many well loved Take 6 songs such as "Spread Love" and "Mary and Martha" they also sang a beautiful version of Bill Withers "Grandma's Hands" and an absolutely stunning rendition of Twila Paris' song, "Lamb of God". Very moving indeed. Their arrangements are spellbinding and their delivery virtually flawless - an absolutely brilliant, brilliant night.

I know I was not alone in my appreciation either, there were barely any seats left in the Barbican - and the crowd went completely bezerk in their appreciation of the band and would have called them back for encore after encore, had the house-lights not come up and the 'elevator music' started to signal the end of the evening. I'd love to hear them live again.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

How Not To Build A Drain

I suspect that only the NHS builds drains as ineffective as this one at Ashford (Middx) Hospital.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

Shopping Masterclass

My father-in-law (F.I.L.) conducted a shopping masterclass whilst staying with us over the weekend. While being subjected to being dragged from clothes shop to clothes shop for an inordinate length of time by his wife and daughter he was a approached by a shop assistant. Friendly, over-eager and keen to show off all the stores many wares, she bowled up to my F.I.L.:
Shop Assistant: "Are you OK, can I help you?"
F.I.L.: "No"
Shop Assistant: "Er, why not?"
F.I.L.: "Because I'm just bored"

Psalm 90 looks like this

Psalm 90 looks like this: It begins with God, the everlasting to everlasting. Then it contemplates two pressures on humanity, firstly our temporariness and mortality; then the truth that we will be judged by God. These pressures are not resolved either by grim morbidness or flippant denial; but by turning to God. In verse 12, the Psalmist seeks the wisdom of God to respond fully to the human condition. Then as he prays wisely, he finds himself praying for:

Forgiveness(v13), which God gives in Christ removing the fear of judgement.
Joy(v14-15), which is our strength and of which God is the true source.
Encounter (v16), a fuller revelation of God for us.
AUseful life (v17), knowing the blessing of God on what we do here, in our short lives.

I had the privilege of sharing this stuff with my friends at the Nazarene church in Perth yesterday.

Gourmet Night!

The wife and I were invited by Forgandenny's own Lord Lucan and his good lady, to join them at a gourmet night being run by the Acanthus Restaurant at the Parklands Hotel, in association with Perth's best deli, Provender Brown. We had a great night, sampling some really well prepared, creatively cooked, interesting food. This was a very different dining experience for us, for a couple of reasons. Firstly everyone booked in for the gourmet night had the same food (there were about 25 folk there) and secondly instead of having most of the food in one large course - here we had loads of tiny courses, enabling us to sample lots of different flavours and cooking styles in one night. Another nice touch was that they had selected wines to go with each course - and because so many people were having the same that didn't equate to a bottle per table per course. The only thing I missed out on was the wine, I'd had a headache all day and was preparing to preach at church on the Sunday, so I managed a sample sip of each flavour and demolished a bottle or two of mineral water instead!

Along with the good food and company, the many small courses with time in between them meant that it was a great format for hours of leisurely conversation, rather than the bolt and rush atmosphere in so many restaurants. There were only two downsides to the evening, the coffee was too weak and the bill!
The menu was as follows:

Organic Pumpkin and Truffle Veloute with a corn grissini (Vida Organica Sparkling Chardonnay: Argentina 2004)
Cepe Ravioli, Foie Gras blanc and peppered rocket puree (Tokay Pinot Gris, Jean Baptiste Adams: Alsace 2003)
Grilled Halibut with a Lobster and Saffron Risotto, panache of vegetables. (Chardonnay, Sherwood Estate: New Zealand 2003)
Roast Saddle of Lamb stuffed with McSween's Haggis, pommery mustard and shank faggot, cannelloni beans and an apple and rosemary jus. (Rioja reserve, Remelluri: Spain 2001)
A selection of cheeses, with savoury confits. (Cockburn Vintage Port 1991)
Lemon Tart,with organic blackcurrant sorbet. (Botrytis Semillion, Bewlitt Springs: Australia 2005)
Petit Fors and Coffee

Here we go again.....

Friday, November 03, 2006

John Lees Barclay James Harvest

I had a great night last night, at the JLBJH gig at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh. The band were in brilliant form and the crowd were really bouyant and in good voice too. After the dissapointment of seeing a rather flat concert by the old BJH in 1992, to hear this rejuvinated version of the band turning in a performance of the quality that the vintage line-up managed in their 1970s heydey was quite something.

BJH founder members John Lees and Woolly Wolstenhole (guitar & keys respectively) were in especially fine form, Lees' unnasuming quietness in contrast to Wolstenholme's madcap carrying on. Last time I say the band they got bogged down in their weaker late material - but following the successful release of their retrospective box set, they turned in a flawless set of their classic material. For No One, Child of the Universe, She Said, In Search of England, Medicine Man, Poor Wages, Mockingbird, The Poet/After the Day were all especially strong. My full (and embarrasingly gushing) review can be found at .

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Live in Edinburgh - tonight!