Tuesday, December 29, 2009


We've just returned to Perth to find it under a heavy blanket of snow. Northern Ireland, where we have been for Christmas, didn't have so much snow - but was wrapped in ice.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Notes from the valley-floor

Where do you turn when you feel low? What is the most helpful thing to think about - when you feel crushed, or when your own mistakes, errors, sins and follies press in on your conscience with an unusual severity? Whilst we are all sinful all the time, there are occasions when we are reminded of that fact with a new force, or conviction. Likewise, we are all fallible all the time, yet - if we dare to allow pride to fool us otherwise, we set ourselves up for an inevitable fall. In such times, when the contemporary cult of self-esteem is just so much froth - where do you turn? There are probably several answers to those questions, which might involve, prayer, a wife, a husband, key Bible texts, a pastor, or a friend.

In addition to such invaluable resources, in just such an experience during the last year, I stumbled across a quite wonderful book, intriguingly entitled, "The Valley of Vision". Though I am all too easily impressed by the feel, smell and look of a handsomely leather-bound volume like this - there was a lot more than simply the aesthetics of The Valley of Vision which affected me. Rather - it was the content of this little book which is a lament for the sinfulness of humanity, which gets surpassed, eclipsed and overtaken by the grace of God in Christ - which engulfs the wounded soul like a tidal wave of mercy!

Such help comes from, what many people would consider, a highly unlikely source. The Valley of Vision is not a vague, poetic or touchy-feely book of sentimental spirituality; neither is it an ego-massaging psychology of the power of positive thinking genre. Still less, is The Valley of Vision a nod towards the success orientated neo-legalism of the prosperity gospel preachers. Rather - this book is a collection of prayers and spiritual journal entries from the much-maligned Puritans.

The Puritans have had a bad press it would be fair to say! Their close association with Oliver Cromwell and the extremes of the Protectorate have damaged their reputation as much as their much parodied hatred of anything that might be enjoyable! Within theological history, their reputation has often fared little better, with their Sabbatarianism often appearing Pharasaical, and their theological writing being sometimes impenetrably turgid. If you saw a chapter heading entitled: "Proposition #843 concerning the relationship between the helmet of salvation and the rest of the armour of God in the great analogy of gospel warfare as depicted by The Apostle Paul in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians" - you'd know you were amongst the Puritans!

The tragedy would be however, if that was all that we saw of that great Reforming movement in the church. "The Valley of Vision" presents the other side of the equation, as it allows these great Puritans to give voice to the depth, passion and immense warmth of their spirituality. The title of the book is a reference to the Puritan's great belief in human sinfulness - coupled with the idea that it is only when we cease to flatter ourselves with silly notions of our own worth, but instead accept that we find ourselves on the valley floor; that we are enabled to look up and truly see Christ! It is in so doing that we are actually enveloped in his love, grace, goodness, warmth, assurance and security. Puritan antagonism to 'worldly pleasure', perceived from outside as being a celebration of misery - was from inside the movement rather a desire that nothing but nothing be allowed to distract the broken soul from feasting on the eternal goodness of Christ; especially not anything either sinful or transient.

The assumption of all the prayers in this great volume is of human sinfulness. However, far from being a depressing or gloomy premise - it is the ultimate reality check, the required diagnosis needed; the shredding of all pretense. The Puritan use of Augustine's notion of original sin, isn't only the great leveller of all men before God - but the genuine spur to end introspection and to delight in Christ. So many contemporary Christian books, flatter and - like the L'Oreal adverts begin with the premise that "you're worth it!". Such sentiments might be of use to the self-assured or the proud legalist; but are of no help at all when we experience conviction of sin. When we look at ourselves, then contemplate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us- our whole being should be screaming out "I'm not worth it!" At times like this - a book like the Valley of Vision is pure gold, as it contains the words of many great men who have been in such a place, but found peace, solace, and a deep-rooted joy in Christ alone. The spirituality of this book resonates well with what I think might be the most wonderful lyric in recent Christian hymn-writing, that comes from the pen of Stuart Townend who wrote: "When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within - upwards I look and see him there- who made an end to all my sin." Such thoughts are too good to be rushed - and with over three hundred pages of short prayers and meditations; the book provides wonderful encouragement to the soul and joy in spade-fulls.

One of the strange things about the contemporary church is that you could almost divide us into two groups; those who faith is "full of emotion" and those who are "into doctrine" One of the glories of this collection of prayers is that they show nothing of this false dichotomy, between heart and head. In fact they show, in the way that the writers were so moved by, impacted by, even overwhelmed by, the doctrine of grace that any separation of the 'the word' and 'The Spirit' is a horrible distortion. For these writers it is the truth of the word, which the Spirit uses to both break and then remake them; which strips away the flawed treasures of earth, only to replace them with a glorious vision of Christ!

Here is one example I read the other night, entitled "The Gift of Gifts", a wonderful meditation for Christmastime:

What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts,
thine own dear Son,
begotten, not created,
my Redeemer, proxy, substitute,
his self-emptying incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.

Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I may become like him.

Herein is love:
when I cannot rise to him,
he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.

Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
he united them in indissoluble unity,
the created and the uncreated.

Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate,
to save me to the uttermost,
as a man to die my death
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect
righteousness for me.

Oh God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe,
rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed
in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;

place me with ox, ass, camel,
goat, to look with them upon my
Redeemer's face,
and in him account
myself delivered from sin;

let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child
to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine
and I am his.

In him thou hast given me so much
that heaven can give
no more.

Until The Sun Breaks Through

Perth, lunchtime today

All Ice and Fog

Perth this morning

Friday, December 18, 2009


Ho, ho, ho (bah-humbug)


Hours of cleaning, sanding, polyfilla-ing!

Finally, making progress

At last it looks half-decent

HHmmm, not too bad


"At all times there must be absolute equity"... this apparently is the golden parenting rule, when you have two boys amongst your collection of offspring. So, having completed the decoration of "Boris'" room; attacking "Norris'" one very shortly thereafter was not a choice to be made, but a job to be done! The house stinks of paint, I stink of paint, all 'Norris' clothes and toys are stacked around the house, (which is descending into chaos), while 'Norris' himself has taken up residence on the floor of our bedroom - a position from which he was last dispatched when he was but a few weeks old!

Decorating is a dreadful job. Messy, malodorous, annoying, expensive, time-consuming and frustrating enough to either purge the mind of any perfectionist tendencies, or alternatively propel a die-hard perfectionist into apoplexy or therapy . Unlike almost every other type of housework however - decorating is something which makes a real difference to the way the house feels, does give a sense of satisfaction in its completion, and which doesn't need to be repeated again within 24hrs!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Note: "Baptism: Three Views", David F. Wright (ed)

There are several books which follow the "three views" or "four views" format, of being a round table discussion amongst theologians who disagree on an aspect of Christian faith. Each author is invited to submit an essay defending his/her position, the others are invited to comment upon it, and the initial author allowed a final word. The format works very well as a means for charting the landscape of an area of controversy.

Bruce Ware's defence of believers-only-baptism (anti-paedobaptism) is standard stuff, (i) links with the OT model of circumcision are weak, (ii) all provable NT examples of baptism are of believers and (iii) anything further is too dependant on arguments from silence, plus some critiques of the theological moves needed to justify paedo-baptism. Sinclair Ferguson's essay in defence of infant-baptism is magisterial (!), arguing less from individual proof texts, but from the form and shape of the grand-narrative of biblical-covenant-theology. This essay is probably the best explanation of the practice of infant baptism that I have read, and I would suggest that any baptist who wants to understand why their Presbyterian or Anglican friends have baptised their infants should start here. Especially devastating is Ferguson's complete demolition of the usual credo-baptist argument that suggests that Reformed paedo-baptism militates against the proclamation of the gospel or a full-blooded doctrine of regeneration! In Ferguson's hands, baptism (both of believers and their children) is a Christ-exalting sacrament which represents the gospel of God, and his initiative in the redemption of sinners - contrariwise, he seeks to present Bruce Ware's essay as reducing baptism to celebrating merely human response to the gospel! The two authors admit that their discussion at this stage reaches an impasse.

The surprising extra view comes from Anthony N.S. Lane, of the London School of Theology, who espouses a "dual-practice" view. Lane finds much merit in both Ware and Ferguson's proposals; but ultimately thinks that neither offer a water-tight (!) case against the other position. His view is that the New Testament is completely silent on the matter of the initiation of 2nd generation believers (Acts = 'missionary baptisms'), and that both credo-baptists and paedo-baptists have essentially filled in the silences in different ways as they have constructed their theologies! Additionally Lane is alone in examining the missiological context in which baptismal theologies have been worked out, pointing out that while some very group-orientated cultures find anti-paedobaptism unfathomable; the baptist movement was a direct result of the rise of modern western radical individualism. As such, Lane believes that as arguments from silence are useful but not binding, the church should embrace both forms of baptism - each household making the hard choices about when to baptise their children. What Lane insists upon is that Christian conversion must consist of four initiatory elements, (i) baptism (ii) faith in Christ (iii) repentance for sin (iv) reception of the Holy Spirit. What his view does not permit is any form of division within the church over the precise order in which these elements have occurred - as long as they are present. Ware and Ferguson are in turn intrigued, and wary of Lane's view. Basically, they both agree that it is unworkable in the realities of church life.

If you are interested in the debates surrounding Christian baptism (with a Protestant context), this book is must - a quite splendid laying out of issues and probing of their strengths of the various views.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Russian Ark

Russian Ark is one of the strangest films I have ever seen. Often films test my patience with their dreary predicatability and so I always appreciate a film-maker who takes the time, not merely to rehearse the usual cliche's, but to throw in a genuine surprise or element of quirkiness. Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark however stretches the viewer in a quite different direction, in that there is almost nothing 'normal' or predictable in its entire 90 minutes!

The unusual nature of the film is apparent from the opening scene in which all the action is taken from the visual perspective of an unseen narrator. It very soon becomes clear that the narrator is a contemporary with us, yet he is entering the Hermitage (formerly the Tsar's Winter Palace) two centuries ago; furthermore, not only can we not see him - but neither can the other people in the room! That is - all except one, The Marquis de Custine - a French travel writer who indeed visited the city and wrote of his experiences in 1839. The 'slipping in and out of time' idea is most amusingly illustrated when two characters from different centuries meet - and have a row about which one of them smells of formaldehyde!

The narrator and Custine then together explore The Hermitage - Russia's former Imperial Palace and now enormous art gallery. Curiously however - as they enter each room they enter a different time-zone and encounter hundreds of characters from across three centuries. Some of these characters can see them, some can't - always they observe and absorb. Whether it is the art on the walls, The Tsar's family happily eating while a revolution brews at their gates, or Peter the Great assaulting a servant, or Catherine the Great running for the toilet, or a great Imperial banquet taking place in the 1860s - all are observed.

As if that wasn't strange enough (and dear knows it would be!) the film is also a cinematographical oddity, in that the whole film is one single unedited scene. For the whole hour and a half, the camera doesn't 'blink' once! With a cast of thousands, an astonishing backdrop, incredible costumes, and the constant changing or eras, with famous, infamous and unheard of characters drifting in and out of the frame - it is visually so unusual as to be utterly compelling.

Frankly it needs all these strange goings on to keep the viewer concentrating (and reading the occasionally confusing subtitles) as this film is almost entirely devoid of plot or character. What little plot there is consists of the Marquis de Custine being gradually persuaded of the value of Russian culture - as preserved 'ark-like' in the magnificent Hermitage museum. He begins being rather disparaging about the building as compared to say, The Vatican but by the time they reach the enormous Imperial Ball which closes the film he seems enraptured. The very final scene explains much of what has preceded - outside the Hermitage, we discover that it is surrounded by water, and is in fact a cultural ark carrying within it, centuries of Russian history, art, and culture, which lives on despite the 'floods' of wars, invasions, revolutions, civil-wars, executions, dictators and all the other convulsions of that great nation's past.

I found this film as bizarre as it was charming, and as strange as it was compelling. Whether that is because of the strange subject, or the strange presentation I don't know. Maybe it's simply because I have studied so much Russian history and spent a day exploring The Hermitage itself - that I thought that this film so perfectly captures the feel of the place and all that it represents so brilliantly. What I am sure of is this - if you like your films standardised, from the Hollywood production line - you'll hate this one!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Book Notes: HIGNFY Guide to Modern Britain

I picked this one up very cheaply in a bargain bookshop for only a few pence. Nick Martin provides a satirical guide to Britain taking wry sarcastic pot-shots at everything from MPs to family life, the established church (England), Royalty, education, MI5 and devolution en route.

To be honest, the book raises a few genuine laughs, attacks some very worthy targets - but mostly causes a kind of gentle wry amusement of the kind that leads to a raised eyebrow rather than a voluminous belly-laugh.

Most of all though this book is rather smug. Imagine Ian Hislop doing his smuggest - smuggy grin, - that's how smug this book is. Hislop himself only actually wrote the introduction which is quite entertainingly self effacing as he does his 'I'm hopelessly out of touch with the young' routine so well.

All in all, this book isn't worth the £10- rrp, but if you see it in the bargain bucket for 50p it can lightly amuse, fill a spare hour or a train journey.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


What are these people doing? Scuttling around central Paris in a curious little swarm of electric two-wheeled, er... thingies! When whirring at full speed they bounced along the pavements at a good six or seven miles per hour, and surprisingly seemed to negotiate kerbs, protruding tree roots, and pedestrian crossings without disloging their riders at all! But what is the point of these things? Why are they there? What are they called? Just one of the many curiosities that make Paris so utterly engaging!

Ponte Alexandre III

And Mrs Hideous... !

Book Review: "Should Babies Be Baptized?" by T.E. Watson

Watson's book came to me highly recommended, and indeed is held in high esteem within Baptist circles, with a Reformed perspective. Unlike the many tracts that straightforwardly argue for Believers' Baptism, Watson set himself a far more complex task in the writing of this book. His aim is quite a narrow one, to demonstrate to the Reformed churches that paedo-baptism is essentially incompatible with Reformed faith - and that Presbyterians and Congregationalists should therefore become Baptists.

In order to achieve his aim, he does two things. Firstly he rehearses the standard Baptist New Testament exegesis of the most contested texts. This he does with mixed success; on some texts he advances some flimsy arguments that simply belie his underlying assumptions, whilst on others he manages to successfully hole Covenant theology below the water line (woeful pun intended!).

So far so good. What comes next however is quite unusual. Watson, to his credit is brave enough to actually offer an anti-paedobaptist critique of the classic Presbyterian view of Covenant Baptism. (I remember being pressured by some ardent baptists on the subject. When I asked them the basis on which they specifically rejected Calvin etc. on the subject, it was blank looks all round!). Thankfully Watson has done his groundwork here, he is fully conversant with key views on baptism within Presbyterian (etc) thought from the Reformation to the 20th Century, and he offers a detailed - and sometimes persuasive critique. There is though at the heart of his argument here a gaping hole - in fact an embarrassingly monumental logical gaffe. His method of argument is to demonstrate that for each pillar upon which covenantal paedo-baptism rests, there is a paedo-baptist theologian who has gone into print to refute it; only leaving him to conclude that believers-baptism is the only credible option. Although he does make good points on the way, and amasses a fascinating array of quotations - the problem is that the structure of his argument is deeply flawed. Firstly, just because there is disagreement within a body of work, doesn't automatically invalidate every aspect of it - that much is obvious. Secondly though, what Watson seems to be completely unaware of (or perhaps just quietly ignoring!), is the fact that a Presbyterian could perform exactly the same exercise on an array of Believers Baptist literature! For instance, Watson and Jewett could be used to undercut each other on whether or not the children of believers have any special place in the church (Watson, no; Jewett yes) - or we could line him up against the American independent churches that practice Believers Baptism but refute Baby dedication; then we could line Spurgeon up against the current trend in Baptist churches towards a more sacramentally efficacious Believers-Baptism! Similarly we could turn Baptist upon Baptist in terms of their understanding of the relationship between Water and Spirit Baptism! Using Watson's method it would be easy for a Presbyterian to conclude (mirror-ing Watson) that paedo-baptism is therefore the only viable option! The fact remains that detailed spade-work through acres of paedo-baptist texts is essentially pointless when marshalled in so obviously flawed a way. Without the transparency of admitting that his own position is not one without difficulties, problems and complexities, to interact with; his method descends from discussion to polemic.

The other significant problem with this book, is the deployment of the 'fallacy of the excluded middle' - that is to say the establishment of a false dichotomy of extremes, ignoring moderating options. Watson sadly resorts to such measures on several key points in the book especially where he seeks to move from principles to application. He is so keen to play strict paedo-baptists against strict baptists like himself, that he is entirely unwilling to examine any of the many believers through history who have not interpreted the matter in such overtly confrontational terms. So we get no Bunyan, no Lloyd-Jones and no F.F. Bruce with his famous desire to be a "Baptist but not an Anabaptist"; having a preference for Believers Baptism but not making the re-baptism of those he saw as baptised prematurely, an article of faith! Another critical ommission in this vein is Karl Barth, who did so much in the 20th Century to undermine paedo-baptism, but for whom re-baptism of those so baptised remained a blasphemy, an 'insult' to God!! Likewise no hint of David F. Wright, for whome baptism needs to be reformed within denominations, and is not cause to abandon them. The weight of such exclusions is to the great detriment of the book.

Intriguingly, while Hodge and Vos and their views are given a chapter each, the thorny issue of 're-baptism' is dismissed in a single sentence - as is the requirement to leave paedo-baptist denominations without reference to fruitfulness of ministry in that context! In so doing he makes the assumption that the reader, if persuaded by his attack on paedo-baptism, will automatically share his view that the sequence of the biblical command to "repent and be baptized" is the sole determining factor in the question of 're'baptism, and denominational affiliation. Of course he treats that text as a disembodied proposition, not part of a narrative; but that's really beside the point. What is more suspect is that Baptists frequently don't complete the sentence - because in Acts 2 Peter's actual order of events is (i) repentance - (ii)baptism - (iii)reception of the Holy Spirit - yet no argument is successfully formulated to demonstrate why the sequence is not binding in its third element! Some Baptist might be so bold as to argue that only Believers' Baptists actually have the Spirit, but the historical verification of such a position would be laughable. I remember having a baptismal interview when I was a student, with two leaders of a baptist church which descended into farce on this very point. One arguing that the sequence is vital (and that by implication paedo-baptists don't have the Spirit!) and the other arguing that that was plainly ridiculous (Wesley, Whitfield, McCheyne etc) but then not being so sure on why the sequence of the first two elements was then so definingly critical! (it wasn't a great evening).

Sadly, after ignoring all the moderating positions, and the views of those like Martyn Lloyd-Jones who strove not to make the Baptism issue a point of division between believers, and who served in a denomination with whom he had some disagreements on the matter (a very odd omission indeed as in the introduction Watson seeks to verify his Reformed credentials with a bit of DML-J name dropping!); the book ends on a sour note. Rather than seeking like Lloyd-Jones to place the issue in its proper context as a secondary non-divisive issue, Watson concludes his book with a double insult. The penultimate chapter calls paedo-baptists regressors into paganism, and the final chapter subtly entitled "the evils of infant baptism" says that it undermines the gospel. At least in Paul Jewett's book arguing in favour of Believers Baptism he says that the matters are so fiendishly complex, that at very least there should be sympathy, charity and understanding offered between sides.

If T.E. Watson was still alive today, I'd write to him and ask him to re-write this book. When he is in good form, arguing from the New Testament for his preference for witholding baptism until a credible profession of faith has been made - he is actually persuasive. What marrs the book is his handling of those he disagrees with, his hasty leaps from principle to practice, his somewhat divisive approach, his ignoring inconvenient moderate positions, and his lack of humility about similar problems which exist within his own camp. I suspect if he had stuck to the good bits, he would have won more people to his point of view.

I have subsequently had a book entitled, "Baptism: Three Views" recommended to me, it looks fascinating and which I plan to read next. The fact that it has "3" views is immediately encouraging in the light of some of my criticisms of Watson (above).

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan

Jesus Through the Centuries is a work of enormous scope, in which Jaroslav Pelikan seeks to establish Jesus' "place in the history of culture" spanning two millenia.

The book consists of eighteen essays on the interaction of culture and Christology, demonstrating the way in which they have influenced each other. In Pelikan's account, Jesus appears initially cloaked in the language and imagery of a Jewish Rabbi, but when the gospel is transmitted to the Gentiles, the image of Jesus becomes less Jewish, and instead the emphasis is upon Jesus as the 'Logos', the word, the fulfillment less of the Old Testament - than of Greek philosophical tradition. With breathtaking ease, and a quite astonishing range of knowledge and sources Pelikan continues his journey through the Christological debates of the 3/4 centuries, monasticism, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Liberation and Universalism.

Personally, how much I gleaned from each of the 18 essays was somewhat dependant on the background knowledge which I brought to them. Some of the patristic stuff, the Reformation and Liberation theology related chapters I found straightforward enough (the blurb does say that the book is pitched at the interested lay reader!), yet one or two chapters such as that on the Romantic movement, with many references to poets and authors like Emerson I found required some concentration!

The surprise of the book was that the final chapter suggested a late 20th Century dichotomy between particularity and universalism, with Re-thinking Missions, the definitive document of a christian universalism, Karl Barth's career a re-statement of particularity, and Vatican II, seeking to affirm elements of both. Whether or not Pelikan wished to leave the reader with a sense of his own persuasions on the matter I don't know - but the book did come to a conclusion weighted heavily towards universalism. All in all however this is inspiring and instructive reading. It is illuminating to see how the church over two thousand years has sought to hold together three essential things, (i) the Christ of Faith, (ii) the historical Jesus (iii) who together satisfies contemporary questions. We judge some of them to have got this right, others to have lost their grip on one or two elements of it. This in turn provides us with the humility to assume that we don't manage that perfectly in our own day; but the thought that the more we think, learn, and pray - the image of Jesus will clarify for us. Of course, we will only see through a glass darkly, this side of glory, and complete vision will elude us until then. Books like this, though are a fascinating map of our journey thus far.

Another top book recommendation from Dr Stumpy Greenisland, I might add.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Bright Lights, Big City

All that effort lighting the place - a shame really, it was too darn expensive to buy anything despite their extensive efforts!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Film Notes: Man on Wire

Man on Wire is the story of French tightrope walker, daredevil, and eccentric Phillipe Petit and his illegal yet exhilarating, tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. In 93 delightful minutes of original photos, contemporary interviews with the participants, historic reconstructions and original film footage, the story of this great event of daring, planning, cunning, beauty, art and exhibitionism is told. The film fast forwards and rewinds in time, so one minute the team are hiding from guards trying to smuggle their ropes into the towers, the next we discover how Petit was gripped by the extraordinary desire to build a tightrope through the skies - and unlike some time-slipping films it works brilliantly as it comes to a grand conclusion.

Fantastically produced and with a sound-track that is achingly beautiful, this film is at once, charming, bizarre, funny, endearing and ultimately curiously moving. The dynamics of the band of eccentrics who pursue this ludicrous dream are fascinating, the planning and the risk-taking is breathtaking and Petit's reaction to constantly being asked "why" he did it - so gloriously French that it is just fabulous! ("I have done something so wonderful, so beautiful and you come along and ask "why", "why?" - there is no why!")

This is the oddest, and perhaps most wonderful DVD I have seen in a very long time. To spend an hour and a half immersed in the strange world of Phillipe Petit; courtesy of this utterly beguiling film, is as endearing as it is terrifyingly bizarre. Utterly captivating.

In the footsteps of Quasimodo

On the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral


Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Notre Dame Cathedral

Book Notes: "Belching Out The Devil" by Mark Thomas

Campaigning comedian and journalist Mark Thomas' latest target for his satirical expose is The Coca-Cola Company. Fast-paced, easy-reading, but containing some shocking revelations, Thomas travels the world to reveal the misdemeanours of the worlds biggest brand, from violations of labour rights in the developing world, to over-extraction of water in drought-ridden areas, to allegations of collaboration with violent union-busting gangs in Columbia.

Mark Thomas writes with passion, anger, wit, eloquence and an appalling overuse of foul language. He also rants, (but ranting with style, is OK by me). The result is hardly a balanced or nuanced discussion, but a deliberate attempt to marshall all the evidence to persuade the reader not to purchase Coke again - and to stimulate a grass-roots alternative to the shiny corporate image which Coca-Cola spends billions every year marketing. In this task he is very successful and persuasive.

Of particular note are three things. Firstly Coca-Cola's refusal to take coherent responsibility for the whole "Coca-Cola System". That is to say that while the company makes the syrup for all Coke - mixing and bottling is carried out by franchisees, whose malevolent actions Coke seeks to distance itself from. The reason that this is disingenuous is that (i) Coke control all other aspects of mixing, branding, marketing, site location etc - but claim not to be able to ensure basic workers rights, which is unpersuasive (ii) Coke actually own/control most of these sub-contracted firms (iii) Coke actively claim responsibility for any good that these sub-contractors claim e.g. number of jobs created by 'Coca-Cola'! Thomas' book is a sustained demand that Coca-Cola actively take responsibility for the whole system - ensuring that what happens in communities and bottling plants throughout the world actually follows the fine-sounding policy documents and corporate social-responsibility documents regularly published by the head-office.

Secondly, Thomas' book exposes the way on which Coca-Cola consistently refused to be drawn on any of the key issues about effects of their business model on vulnerable people in countries as diverse as Peru, Mexico or India. Lists of unanswered questions, corporate spin, interviews avoided and misleading press releases all make a sorry tale of a company happy to make huge profits in the developing world, but deeply resistant to challenges to the many ills which take place under its logo. Following reading the book I went to the Coca-Cola website, and trawled their press-releases to see if there were refutations of any of the specific claims made in the book, and in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme that accompanied it. I was surprised to find not one mention of any of the issues involved, and the company essentially being in denial about it - focusing instead on relentless promotion of their brand image.

Thirdly the book highlights the stories of many of the people and movements throughout the world who are seeking to resist the dominance of, and exploitation they have suffered at the hands of Coca-Cola; from bottling plants where to join the union can mean death or beatings, to Indian villagers whose wells have dried -up because of Coke's excess water-extraction, to other soft-drink producers who have had illegal and shockingly brutal campaigns against them by Coke seeking to maintain its monopoly in a market.

Finally the book is entitled "Belching out the devil" because on one of Thomas' trips he discovers a fringe Catholic cult, who use Coke (and its gaseous after-effects) in bizarre exorcism ceremonies. Paradoxically, of course, Thomas is asking us to see that he devil of the piece is the sugary brown fizzy stuff itself, and the irresponsible actions of the global corporation who make it. A fascinating read.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Public art that raises a smile

Public art?! I must admit that a lot of contemporary public art just annoys me - and gives me brief (and rather disturbing) outbreaks of Dailymailitis as I find my self muttering darkly about the scandalous waste of public money by self-seving liberal elites, and the emperor's new clothes ad nauseum. However, when walking through Paris, we stumbled on the above. A piece of public art, that just made everyone who saw it smile, or even laugh out loud while reaching for cameras. Mrs Hideous noted that if we had had young 'Norris' with us, he would have simply loved to have found a stick, and waded into the water to try them all out!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The General

Still keeping an eye on things from his plinth...

Parisienne Budget Foodie Fun!

The French are justifiably proud of their food. They have every right to be so, because even for the least auspicious looking little cafe, the minimum standards of expectation are so high, that lovely, well-prepared food is the norm, not the exception. Even in busy service stations, the French don't seem to inflict the reheated slop on their travellers that is the norm in the UK's generally lamentable pit-stops. The French atitude to food is in fact so good, that the highest praise that can be heaped upon it is to say that it is perhaps the opposite of their attitude to toilets.... (I generalise, of course!).

When in Paris, it therefore seems appropriate, not merely to visit the usual landmarks, but to savour some of the tasty treats bursting forth from the many fine French kitchens that dot the city. The problem for food-hunters in the Euro-zone however, remains the crippling exchange rate. The days of going to Paris with a wallet of strong pounds which seemed to double in value when spent in weak Francs or latterly Euros, are long gone. Eating out in France is now as expensive as it is essential!

Here then are some recommendations on how to get some very fine food without taking out a second mortgage!

1) Don't just guess, use a reliable guide book. Some of the best meals we have had have been tracked down courtesy of the "Paris Top -10" book published by Dorling Kindersley.

2) Several of Paris' top, multi-Michelin starred chefs have 'other' restaurants as well as their flagship ones. The food in these places is absolutely stunning, the chefs design and oversee the menu and are happy to put their name to the quality of the produce. While the star-chef himself might not always be in attendance, the quality of the food prepared is breathtaking, but served in a less pretentious atmosphere, and without a bill at the end that would make a millionaire wince or choke on his after-dinner mint. In this genre, Guy Savoy has "Les Bouquinistes" on the Left Bank; Alain Ducasse has "The Spoon" just off the Champs Elysees - and it was the latter in which we treated ourselves.

3) Go at lunchtime not in the evening. The food is just as good - but the prices less like the GDP of a medium sized country.

4) Look for lunchtime specials. The Spoon (on the ground floor of the Hotel Marignan), with its funky collisions of Gallic and Oriental flavours, has a lunchtime tasting menu (called the Bento Dej), which was simply tremendous and provided four courses for little more that £30/head- before drinks. The set-menu we enjoyed for that price was as follows:

Warm pumpkin Soup
(poured over delicate pieces of poached egg and various seeds and pulses)
(served with a choice of eight flavoured pastes, such as oriental, pea, mustard, apple curry)
Tuna Ravioli with Hot and Sour Sauce
Veal and bulgar wheat 'risotto -style' with vegetables and spices
Now that does not add up to a cheap meal. But it certainly did make it one of the genuinely best value meals I have ever eaten - world-class food for a lot less money than you'd think.

Arc de Triomphe

Commissioned by Napoleon - 1806


I have been experimenting in the kitchen... Sometimes my culinary ambitions are so far ahead of my expertise that the results cause the recipients to mumble uncertain phrases such as, "er, well, it's certainly interesting...." Last night's effort however actually seemed to work. The dish doesn't yet have a title - though all suggestions are of course, welcome.

1) Get one chicken breast per person, and cut deep into its length with a sharp knife to open it out ready for stuffing.
2) Chop a Simon Howie Haggis into slices and place one slice of it inside each chicken breast (but don't use up the whole haggis - save a bit for later).
3) Fold the chicken breast over, encasing the haggis inside the chicken breast.
4) Wrap the stuffed chicken breast in a tin-foil parcel ready for the oven - but prior to sealing the parcel pour in a nice measure of cheap scotch.
5) Place the chicken parcels directly onto the over shelf for 50 mins at 160'C.

To make the sauce. Add a large dollop of the remaining haggis into a saucepan with some vegetable stock, some boiling water, some gently fried mushrooms, and a good hearty glug of cheap scotch. Warm gently, then prior to serving attack it vigorously with an electric blender - grinding the pieces of haggis down into a smooth sauce and making the sauce really foamy and light.

Serve the chicken parcels with a measure of the sauce poured over, jacket potatoes, spicy salad and a few steamed vegetables.

Well - we liked it anyway!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Seine

Book Notes: Tramping the Scottish Hills by W. Kersley Holmes

The local author Maurice Fleming (one-time editor of The Scots Magazine), had a clear-out of old books from his enormous collection. I am aware of this only because his son who occasionally comments on this bog under an elusive pseudonym, arranged for one of them to come my way. I am delighted that it did so too, as it is a thoroughly charming volume.

W. Kersley Holmes was a Scottish hillwalker, who recorded many of his mountain exploits in the 1940s. A fastidiously polite and somewhat whimsical hill-diarist, his memoirs are fascinating reading for the contemporary Highlandphile.

What fascinated me most as I read Holmes' meanderings was how much has changed since the 1940s. Obviously mountains are never a number of 'metres' high; and maps are always 'inches to the mile', and many spellings of Scottish peaks have subsequently altered, or been standardised by the OS. Below those obvious surface differences, many more significance divergences emerge, lurking in the author's occasional asides. Clearly in the 1940s the ancient tradition of Highland Hospitality was still (presumably enhanced by wartime camaraderie) in operation. Holmes on one occasion speaks with confidence about making for a remote hamlet before nightfall to find a home willing to let him stay.

I was also struck by the author's lack of faith in the OS maps he had available in the post-war years, revealing his frustration at the errors of cartographers, particularly in regard to paths apparent on the map - yet absent on the hill! I have only one OS map on which I am sure there is a significant mistake, and this I suspect is a printing rather than surveying problem. The hills were also frequented by far fewer people in those days - and while Highland estates allowed Holmes and his companions to drive along many Glens now long since closed to public vehicles; today we at least have reliable waterproofs to protect us on the elongated "walk-in". Holmes often reports that his kit failed and he walked for hours, absolutely soaked through to the skin.

Yet for all these differences, some things remain the same. For a start, the hills themselves are little altered. Granted - some of Holmes' descriptions of Glens have changed in terms of forestry use; but the ridges, tops, scrambles and views are just as they were in his day. The path behind Benmore Farm up Cranlarich's Ben More, maybe more eroded and harder to lose in fog than it was in 1947 - but it is still as unrelentingly steep, and rewards the walker with an equally stunning vista. Likewise Beinn Eighe might not be as exotically unvisited as it was in austerity Britain, with campsites, youth hostels and new tarmac roads now adjacent - but the silvery quartz and little pinnacled ridge is still just as Holmes describes.

The other thing that remains, is the effect that the hills have on those who climb them. Holmes must have spent every weekend on some peak or other, from the Pentlands to Wester Ross, and he clearly adored the visual impact of the scenery as much as the exhilaration of pitting himself against it in strenuous long-distance escapades. He eulogises his mountains, speaks of them as he would of friends, fondly remembering rain-sodden peat hags as well as soaring sun-lit ridge scrambles. As anyone who has been in the hills within the last year or two will know - The Highlands' ability to kindle such emotions has lost none of its potency since Holmes' explorations over sixty years ago.

Hotel Des Invalides

The Hotel Les Invalides, in addition to containing the remains of Napoleon also houses France's national war museum. Containing displays of material relating to all the major conflicts that France has been involved with since the Franco-Prussian wars, especially the twin horrors of the Western Front in the Great War and Nazi occupation in WWII.

As well as the usual array of military paraphernalia there were many old grainy photographs of the decimated French countryside around Flanders, Ypres, and The Somme, battle, tactics and casualty reports. The war museum is arranged chronologically, each room representing a year, allowing the visitor to gain an appreciation for the development of the conflict. The fact that the British Army had thrown everything at the Germans at the Somme I knew - what I had failed to understand was the stage the war was at when this happened, the pressures the Generals were under and the strategic significance of that fateful slice of French mud, upon which so much blood was spilled.

The walk-through of the WWII exhibition (again year-by -year) was disturbing in a quite different way. Much of that exhibition featured photos and archives about German occupation, both of the occupied zone and Petain's Vichy puppet state. Chillingly, there were many pictures of Hitler, Goering and other sinister figures smiling while visiting the Paris landmarks we had spent the previous two days enjoying. While I like some of the black and white photos of the city, and the Eiffel Tower (below), they do strangely also invoke some dark memories etched into this city's past.

Another interesting aspect of the museum was that (naturally) the history was told from a French perspective. Whilst our histories often dismiss the French capitulation with a derisory shrug, and eulogise the Dunkirk escape; the French do the opposite! In this museum, the French rear-guard action which allowed the British to flee safely is celebrated, and the huge loss of life incurred remembered. The sufferings of the French under occupation are also marked (from reprisals for Resistance action to punitive taxation).

Finally, what the French do so much better than us is to make their museums and galleries multi-lingual; accessible to all. This is one of Paris' cheaper attractions, and well worth visiting. Purchasing anything in the Euro-zone at the moment is an uphill climb against the exchange rate, so to get this much benefit without punching a huge hole in the holiday budget makes it a top-visit when in Paris.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

At Napoleon's Tomb

Under the great golden dome of Les Hotel des Invalides, on the banks of the Seine

Underneath a breathtaking painted ceiling

Surrounded by vast murals and gold arches

Next to an overwhelmingly opulent altar

Surrounded by reminders of great military and civil achievement, and encased in multiple coffins, of lead, tin, marble, and granite; resting on a giant green granite plinth - lies the body of Napoleon.

Standing in amazement before the great art, architecture, expense, achievement and sheer scale of it all, my wife commented;
"Man can do all this - but still there at the centre of it all, is a body in a box".

Metro Metro Metro Metro!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set! (4)

Apparently when this was built there was an outcry from those who said it would ruin Paris forever!

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set! (3)

When they light this great pile of scaffolding up at night - it looks even better!

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set! (2)

It must be the most photographed pile of iron and bolts in the world. It remains irresistibly photogenic though!

Monsieur Eiffel's Magnificent Meccano Set!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Postcard from Paris

My older son, Boris has been asking to visit Paris since he was about four years old. It was around then that he was given a video of Disney's take on Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame - and was intrigued. For years we have told him that we would take him there, "one day", but that he would need to be at least ten; and be able to enjoy sitting in a restaurant with us and enjoy experimenting with strange food served pretty slowly! This year he met all those requirements, and so rather than a birthday present, or party or outing with his friends, we took him to Paris.

Paris is a wonderfully photogenic city (well, the historic centre is anyway), and contrary to popular myth is stocked with many friendly and charming Parisian's. On the Metro, one lady asked us if we were Irish and in Paris for the football. On discovering that my wife is indeed Irish she roundly denounced France's cheating handballed winner in the World Cup qualifier the night before - "this is not how we should win", she said. Who could disagree!

In terms of wonderful things to do, see, experience and eat - Paris is simply fantastic. Museums, galleries, history, churches, modern buildings, abound. The only negative thing about this is the exchange rate; we kept asking ourselves "how much?!?!" and moving on minus purchase. Books were the best example because many of the English language books had the price in Sterling printed on the back for direct comparison. One that caught my eye, about France under occupation in WWII was priced at £7.99 but on sale in Paris for €18- . With an exchange rate of close to 1:1, the book was duly returned to the shelf.

The photo above, is of a Notre Dame gargoyle, which family consensus maintains bears an uncanny resemblance to myself. This is the place that young Boris wanted to go to most of all - up the towers of Notre Dame, to imagine young Quasimodo clambering up over the stonework and looking out over Paris. It's a LONG wait to get up the tower, but well worth it, and one of the cheapest trips in the capital (€8, but under 26 year-old free).

The follow-up parenting task is to help young Boris appreciate that this was a huge treat requiring gratitude; not the norm generating demanding expectations!

More photos to follow - if I get time.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Film Notes: Kes

Ken Loach's 1970 film "Kes" is a classic of its kind. Brutal, honest, painful, with moments of joy, humour and tragedy. The film, based on Barry Hines' book A Kestrel for a Knave, concerns a schoolboy in a poverty-stricken Yorkshire mining estate. Young Billy (David Bradley) is trapped in an inescapable cycle of deprivation, caused by poverty wages, an absent father, a failing school and a troubled mother. His problems are exacerbated by the ridicule and abuse he receives at school and a bullying older brother at home.

The film takes place in Billy's final year at school in which the various factors contributing to his hopelessness, coalesce to seal his fate - of not being able to escape from the poverty and powerlessness that has been his lot. His school is an especially grim place, with a headmaster (Grice) who thrashes and berates his pupils, in the apparent belief that education in a meritocracy should lift people from their circumstances - and if it fails to, is simply the fault of the individual. Unwilling to see the social-economic system as the problem, Grice is left with the only option - to blame the victim. While Grice is a worrying character, Brian Glover as the idiotic (and juvenile) PE teacher is like some PE teachers I remember from school, slightly dangerous - and very funny. Colin Welland, as Mr Farthing is one of few sympathetic characters in the film, a teacher genuinely interested in helping the boy, yet his sympathy and care is in itself also powerless in the face of wider social forces.

Sullen, quiet, withdrawn and defeated, young Billy finds an interest which at last inspires him, spurs him to read, to engage and instills hope within him for the first time. He finds, and hand-rears a baby kestrel who he names 'Kes', teaching, training and flying his beloved bird every day. The relationship between the boy and the wild creature is beautiful, and a key part of the film. In one memorable scene, Billy speaks to Mr Farthing's class about the art of Falconry - suddenly speaking with knowledge, authority, eloquence, and passion; qualities entirely absent from his life until that point.

Once again though, the central message of the film is rammed home by Ken Loach that most political of film-makers; as even this individual hope is snuffed out in the cruelest of ways.

This is a really memorable film, quite brilliantly acted and directed. There are several films in which child-actors with very pronounced accents are a problem for the viewer from outside that region - but not here. This is rather a captivating representation of a group of people, a time, a place, a set of social circumstances and the characters interactions within it. This is emotionally charged, thoughtful and highly political film-making. HMV have been selling the DVD at around £2 as well, an absolute bargain!

Remembrance '09

I don't think I am alone in sensing that the Remembrance day observance struck an unusually sombre note in the national consciousness this year. Perhaps the pictures on the early evening news of soldiers coffins being paraded through Wooton Basset, the dead of Helmand, has changed our views. I may be wrong - it may be simply that my oldest son is now of an age to ask serious questions about it all; or maybe it was that he was affected by attending the Black Watch memorial service in Perth last week that brought the reality closer to our home. Either way, at church on Sunday when the 2minutes silence was respected as usual - there was a poignancy in the air.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I found myself in the timber section of B&Q on the Crieff Road in Perth. The two-minutes silence was duly announced and virtually the whole shop stopped, in total silence. My Grandparents described the way that in decades past, when memories of World Wars were fresh and raw - the whole country would come to an Armistace standstill to remember the fallen; cars would pull off the road, trains would wait at stations and trading and conversation would be postponed.

During my childhood, the stalemate of the cold-war meant that our exposure to the victims of war was minimal. Today however, our more volatile world, and our governments' willingness to engage our armed forces in conflicts means that such rememberings are resuming their significance. My son, (who is 10) learnt more about the horror of war, and the seriousness of it through the tears he observed from the bereaved of the Black Watch last Friday, than he will from any history book.

As usual, at this time of year I pause to read a little from the First World War poets, whose words are so powerful, moving, alarming, and as deceptively simple as they are disturbing. Of them all, I find Seigfreid Sasoon's words consistently engaging and thought-provoking. This is his poem 'Survivors' which describes the shell-shocked, injured and bewildered patients of Craiglockart military hospital where Sasoon was incarcerated.

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're 'longing to go out again,' -
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,-
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Craiglockhart. October, 1917.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Icicle Land

This last one is of the front bumper of the hire-car!