Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Colin has been putting his sermons through Wordle which makes text-clouds. I ran my sermon on Philippians 2 through it, and it generated this one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Our Gentle Gloom

The Giant's Causeway

"The remainder of the afternoon went by in the kind of gentle gloom that descends when relatives appear", wrote Harper Lee in "To Kill A Mockingbird". We brought our own hideous brand of such 'gloom' to our long-suffering relatives in 'Norn Irn' last week. Boris, Norris and Doris had a great time playing with their cousins, seeing their Grandparents, enjoying loads of open space and (all but Doris), spending their mornings having a whale of a time at the CSSM holiday club at Castlerock.

As well as catching up with Stumpy 'hitler' Greenisland and his eccentric family, we managed a family meal out with everyone, a trip with cousins to the fabulous Giant's Causeway, a couple of rather nifty second hand bookshops, and a reminder of just how completely and embarrassingly useless I am at ten-pin bowling. P&O bounced, crashed and rolled us safely back across rather rough Irish Sea to Troon, and so we are home again.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Musee D'Orsay

The Musee D'Orsay is a huge art gallery lovingly created in the shell of a former station, one of the regeneration projects President Mitterand invested in Paris. Although there were one or two stunning exhibits, in general they were overshadowed by the wonderful building. Two huge hollow clock faces gaze out across Paris, over the Seine.

Inside, the building is dominated by the main hall, the former concourse of the station with its elegant curved roof towering over the space below.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Quasimodo Hunting

Notre Dame Cathedral by Night - inside and out

A rare and special treat for Mrs Hideous and I last week, three days in Paris by ourselves without the children. Nice hotel, wonderful food, boat trips long the Seine, mooching in museums, reading, exploring the city. The kids seem to have had a wonderful time in our absence, being looked after by their Grandparents (London variety) with the assistance of Pots (the mad one).

We may have blown all our air-miles on the train between London and Paris, but it was well worth it. If you're ever going to Paris and want some restaurant recommendations we found some stunning places. The French reputation for fine food is well deserved - its just a shame that the pound is buying so few Euros this year!

Last time we were in Paris it was for Mrs Hideous' 30th, and it was a cold Decembre. I found that putting my long winter coat over my rucksack produced a splendid Quasimodo look, which I tried to compliment with a stoop and suitable cries about Esmerelda and The Bells! This visit took place in mid-summer and so I wasn't equipped for such antics, and so sadly missed out on the fun of observing Mrs H's ashen-faced un-amusement.

Still a splendid time was had by all, and it was good to come back home and see the kids again.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Showing Boredom the Green Card

Seven weeks of summer holidays this year is a long haul for parents across the nation. It's not hard to spot our exasperated faces at swimming pools, play-parks and the like throughout the long summer. The difficulty many of us face is that any activity in which the youngest child can fully participate is childish and boring in the eyes of the oldest - making family days out potential times of tension as much as joy. Inevitably the lack of the focused discipline of the school day plays its part in unsettling them too.

We've found that the one of the most successful things with our kids has been the little green card that we were given in the Spring which gives us access to all the National Trust properties in the UK. This has meant free parking in beauty spots like The Hermitage or parts of Glen Coe, as well as access to a variety of historic sites, and places of interest, mansions, gardens, castles and coastal paths.

Last week, one such garden (pictured above) kept Boris, Norris and Doris happily occupied for an afternoon, running through rose gardens, hiding behind bushes, chasing each other across lawns, admiring views of distant hills and enjoying the inevitable cafe when sheltering from the equally inevitable rain!

Now I know that National Trust shops are to be avoided at all costs. They all stink of lavender pot pourri, contain wildly priced NT chocolates, and are typically staffed by older ladies who have been specially trained to look disparagingly at anyone who they suspect may not have been to a suitable Independent school. However, bypass the tweed and green-wellies and the NT holds many a fine opportunity for summer fun and learning too. A Historic Scotland membership card affords many similar treats as well.

One of the many advantages of living in Scotland is that membership of the National Trust for Scotland is cheaper than the English equivalent - even though their reciprocal arrangement facilitates access to each other's properties. I know of at least one family in England who have realised this and have joined the NTS as a result!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Book Notes: Pride by Michael Eric Dyson

Someone at OUP had a bright idea when preparing their series on the 'so-called' 7 Deadly Sins. That was, to ask Michael Eric Dyson to address the subject of pride. The ingenuity of the idea is that for a writer whose career is so inextricably linked to the notion of 'Black Pride' as a virtue - he would bring unique angles to addressing it as a vice.

Dyson's take on the subject is that pride is a 'virtuous-vice' something which is both profoundly necessary and profoundly dangerous. He points first to the virtuous nature of pride, of pride taken in one's work, in one's community and the dreadful consequences of a complete lack of pride. Then he turns the reader's attention to the damage of unrestrained, damaging pride, when it is used by the haughty, arrogant as an attitude which justifies a whole host of injustices.

Unsurprisingly the lens through which Dyson addresses his subject is the African-American struggle for civil rights in the USA. Thus the damage of a lack of pride is seen in a range of self-loathing behaviours he has observed amongst his own community - when they have mistakenly accepted the majority culture's constant assertions of their inferiority. He cites, for example, the way in which in the community of his youth a social hierarchy based on paleness of skin existed amongst the black community. The needed antidote to such tragic assimilation of prejudice, is he argues the corrective of a proper black pride. Correspondingly, when Dyson turns to the dark side of pride he sees it as the pride of the oppressor, of the pride of the white supremacist, or the passive supporter of the white dominated status quo - or interestingly the pride of the burgeoning black middle classes who he claims are assimilated into a system which uses them to justify the ongoing indefensible injustices of society. He does not shy away from naming names from Bill Cosby to Condoleeza Rice either.

Dyson writes intelligently and wittily, drawing from Aquinas on sin before God to Martin Luther King on the distortions of national pride which lead to war. He laughs at phrases he finds silly like "non-fiction", saying that it is about as useful a description as calling life "non-death"! Or take the following paragraph from his section on national pride:

If Martin Luther King's actions against the [Vietnam] war prove anything, it's that there's a huge difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the critical affirmation of one's country in the light of its best values, including the attempt to correct it when it's in error. Nationalism is the uncritical support of one's nation regardless of its moral or political bearing. patriotism derives from the word 'patria' or the non-competitive love of ones' country....... In this view patriotism is 'self-referential' while feelings of nationalism are inherently comparative - and almost exclusively, downwardly comparative.

Good stuff that - and stingingly as relevant in the war on terror as in the Vietnam war against which Dr King railed. Where this book is weakest is in its treatment of pride as a sin against God. While it is brilliant in its anthropological, historical and social commentary on the uses and abuses of pride - its weak point lies in a failure to fully mine the problem of pride as the primary sin causing ongoing human separation from God, of the fall, and our need of grace. As such it does not make the necessary forward step from identifying the sin to achieving true repentance towards God. As such the experience of 'conviction of sin' in which the sin of pride is revealed in one's heart in all its horribleness finds no place in his work. This adds an imbalance to an otherwise challenging, thought-provoking book.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Ullapool - always a favourite place of ours. I spent a few days at the Youth Hostel there which has the advantages of hot showers, friendly staff, good cooking facilities and a gorgeous location on the seafront. The disadvantage of the place is that it is adjacent to a pub. Not that I object to a good pub, it's just that there is a direct causal relationship between the proximity of the pub and the volume of the snoring that takes place in the hostel dorms. On the last night I was there a middle-aged hippie returned from the hostelry to the hostel in the middle of the night, crashed in waking everyone, collapsed on his bunk and lay on his back and proceeded to snore at levels which seismologists across Europe tracked as their instruments trembled.

The remnants of our much depleted sea-fishing industry can be observed close at hand in the harbour at Ullapool. Lobster pots like these are taken in and out by small vessels during the day, while large trawlers land huge catches late into the night - which are frozen on site and driven all across Europe. Langoustine landed here will be in Spain within 24 hours, the fisherman told me.

Four Star at Three Pounds and four shillings a Gallon? You've never had it so grim!

From the door of the Hostel

Ullapool, lovely Ullapool!

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Dearg's

I have finally managed to walk over the Beinn Dearg group of hills, near Ullapool. Several previous attempts have been foiled by bad weather, family commitments or both. This time however I managed the long walk in from Inverlael, and up alongside the ancient stone wall to Dearg's bleak summit. A long, and increasingly pleasant day allowed a meander back over the three adjacent mountains.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Strathpeffer Station

Strathpeffer Bandstand.

Trains once brought the health-conscious from all over Britain to take the invigorating waters of Strathpeffer. The water is still there, although the trains and the hordes have long since departed. Strathpeffer now seems to specialise in peddling an assortment of new-age remedies: astrological cures for astronomical prices.

I visited it last week and had rather hoped that the old station, pump rooms and institute would have the tired, run-down feel of a neglected seaside town. I thought that exploring it might feellike walking down a rustng pier several decades after the last end-of-pier show had shut, with tattered Little & Large posters peeling from walls. Sadly I was denied such ambience, as the place was sparking, refurbished and gleaming with new paint and investment.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Up the Dirie Mor

The road to Ullapool, bleak, wild, rugged, vast and alluring. The mountains around here are all demanding, involving long walks across bogs, awkward river crossings and weather that constantly threatens. The wonderful Dirie Mor, the broad strath that leads through this great landscape is a great drive, which never seems the same, varying constantly with each drive in different weather and light. It's quite possible to stand in the Dirie Mor in brilliant sunshine, and watch storms lashing the Beinn Dearg mountains, lighting attacking An Teallach but the Fannaich's lit up in streaming sunshine.

Alarmingly, there are plans afoot to desecrate this great landscape with a line of Britain's biggest electricity pylons due to march right through its heart. Whether the plan is for wind farms or nuclear generators I don't know, I am just dismayed that soon the view above will be gone for ever, and replaced with something as awful as the 'artists impression'* below.

* 'artist' ie. me - I use the term loosely and advisedly.

Still Remembering

Still remembering Grandma.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Book Notes: Intelligent Church by Steve Chalke

I was looking forward to this, as Steve Chalke is a colourful and controversial character who has a reputation for making people think. The nature and purpose of the church is a subject which has also occupied our thoughts a lot over the last year.

This book though was a disappointment. Although each section is written with Chalke's customary pithy pizzaz and illustration, the whole thing seemed to lack any coherence other than the author's personal preferences of the moment. As such it seems theologically patchy, with the Bible not being used as the primary source of his thinking but as a treasury of illustrations of his ideas - to be raided only if and when it coincides with his thought. While he thinks that the church should be socially engaged he limits this to addressing 'social sins' but seems to be saying that the church shouldn't talk about personal ethics, as this is judgemental and excluding. However he provides no basis for distinguishing between these categories, nor any answer as to why his selection is not merely arbitrary or a pandering to the whims of the age.

In general terms Chalke, he longs to see the church not as an exclusive circle of the initiated, but as an open place in which non-judgemental space is offered for all to participate and explore the Christian life. Along the way he makes some very good points too. What is surprising is possibly how unsurprising that insight it is, and how much of what Chalke writes, he flags up as if it were innovative or shocking - but would barely raise an eyebrow in even some very conservative churches. What I was looking forward to most were some of his 'how to' pointers at the end of the chapters, which sadly proved to be the weakest part of the whole.

Ultimately though the problem arises in that Chalke seems to be offering the church a straightforward choice, between inevitable decline or accepting his ideas. However, he does not justify this with any evidence either contemporary or historical to demonstrate that the loss of the distinctiveness that his programme would entail would actually encourage growth, or a re-engagement with society. To be sure, Chalke proposes some new compelling distinctives for the church and passionately restates the church's mandate to solidarity with the poor and oppressed; however he does not address the possibility that his vision of a church more atune to contemporary culture might not be the attraction that he asserts. The only piece of evidence he cites is the growth of his own church, in Waterloo, which he attributes to the principles in the book. Critics might also point to his personal prominence, experience, leadership skills, motivational genius, brilliant social concern and the significant resources brought to the project.

So this was a bit of a disappointment. If you want to read about the church, Stott's "The Living Church" provides a very readable biblical vision of what the church is, providing solid foundations for all further discussion. Simon Jones' "Building a Better Body: The Good Church Guide" asks many of the challenging contemporary cultural ecclesiological questions that Chalke does - but I think does it better.

Personal Escapology

The rarest commodity is time - that's why the best birthday present I get most February's is the promise of a week free of children - which I use to escape to the hills. I can do so confident that Boris, Norris and Doris are safely in the hands of their Grandparents (London variety). Personal escapology is a wonderful thing and for me that isn't about runing off to find the real me, more having a break from the reality of them! Actually I was hugely entertained by a cartoon in Private Eye which featured a man running in sheer terror away from an exhibit entitled "Come and discover the real you!" But I digress..........

The rainbow I saw as I drove to Glen Affric was the last decent light for photos all day, however it was a great hill-day in an area which is new to me.

The car park at the end of the dead-end Affric Road, has a view-point which tantalizes the taste-buds of anticipation with glimpses of tops and ridges, far above the Loch and the Affric River which issues from it.

Getting up onto the long ridges on the North side of Affric involves several miles of walking, but in the early morning sunlight, with deer, squirrels and countless singing birds for company, in fragrant woods ringed with high peaks, such walk-ins are all delight, and never a chore.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh lies off the back of the ridge, an outlier projecting Northwards from the predominant east-west line of hills which separate Loch Affric and Loch Mullardoch. The hazy-sunshine allowed long-views down lonely Mullardoch from Fhionnlaidh, I hadn't seen a soul all day, and basked up here on this distant mountain, in splendid isolation. 22miles, and 2500m of ascent is a long day, and failing to find the track back to Affric Lodge, involved a leg-numbing detour along a road too. Driving back to the hostel at Cannich I thought I had earned my Curry and Pint of Ale, which I got duly stuck into after a self-indulgent doze!

I didn't walk that far every day. On some days a combination of foul weather forecasts and my own tiredness meant shorter or lower level walks, like this one down towards the Plodda falls.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Book Notes: The Soldier's Return

One of our neighbours (and occasional visitor here too!) had a clear-out of books recently and amongst those that found their way down the hill to the Hideous-house, was this one, "The Soldier's Return" by Melvyn Bragg. My forays into fiction are comparatively rare, and I picked this up one rainy afternoon - having read some of Bragg's non-fiction, intrigued as to whether he could 'do' stories as well as history and ideas.

The book concerns the post-conflict experiences of Sam, a 1946 returnee from the Burma campaign and is set in Bragg's home-area of Wigtown, details and history of which he clearly delights in weaving as a backdrop to the nicely drawn characters he introduces. Bragg is presumably old enough to remember soldiers returning to Cumbria, and it seems likely that such childhood impressions fuelled his imagination here.

When Sam returns to his family he finds himself alienated and lost. His wife and son have forged a closeness and bond in his absence that threatens him; his reintegration into civilian life is problematic and he both misses and loathes the camaraderie and horror of conflict. He is haunted by the battlefield experience, something about which he is unable to speak to those who did not go through it. The story concerns the troubled demobilisation of this soldier, and his family. As such the book is driven not by narrative but by his state of mind. Simply but compellingly told its a good read - worth reading, but not really the 'masterpiece' the jacket describes.

One thing that concerned me throughout the book, (well perhaps until the final twist!) was the lingering suggestion that such excruciating post-war readjustments were being portrayed as the norm - and written in the comparatively peaceful 1990s how we imagine it should have been back then. What surprised me was the way in which real veterans of WWII spoke so fondly of their return, in comparison with the traumas of Bragg's novel. In the book three soldier's are spoken of, Sam (his struggle to re-integrate), Ian (who is killed in battle and his family left to cope) and Jackie (who has a complete nervous breakdown).

My Grandfather, like Bragg's character, must have experienced some similar emotions and transitions. In the photo above, taken during home-leave in WWII, he is pictured with my Grandma in Walworth, E. London, surrounded by buildings which are bomb-damaged. It was taken immediately prior to his return to the European conflict, where as a member of the Pioneer Corps of the Royal Engineers, he was engaged in such things as bridging the Rhine for advancing allied forces. Perhaps by the time he told me about the war, forty years of healing had taken place, and maybe we can picture Bragg's character eventually chatting to his grand-children in similar ways. Maybe though, not everyone was as damaged by the experience as all the characters that Bragg draws.

I was musing these very questions in Ullapool last week. Also staying in the Youth Hostel there was a soldier on home leave from 'a conflict zone' (I guess Afghanistan, maybe Iraq). Clearly tense, jumpy, nervous and bursting with an excess of adrenaline, he described landing back in the UK less than 24 hours before, hiring a car and disappearing into the Highlands to fish for a week - in order to calm down before he could cope with his family. He hinted darkly that he was still so 'high' from battle that he couldn't trust himself around naughty children. His regime for three weeks of leave was a week in isolation 'de-toxing' from conflict, a week with the family and then a week with the troops re-psyching himself up for the tension of war. "Three weeks isn't long enough to come-down" he said, "you never really come down in three weeks, if you did - you'd never be able to go back."
It was this conversation with the squaddie three days after I finished the book - that made me realise that it is a better book than I gave it credit for while reading.