Friday, December 31, 2010

Music For Welcoming the New Year

In our house we often welcome in the New Year with a seasonal singalong to this seasonal sensation....

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme: An Appreciation

Stuart 'Woolly' Wolstenholme, April 15th, 1947 - 13th December, 2010

Tributes from all over the world are pouring in for Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme, keyboard player, vocalist, composer, guitarist, arranger, raconteur, wit, poet, and gentleman. Woolly was never a 'household name', his greatest prominence being as a founder member of English band "Barclay James Harvest" - yet the news of his tragic and untimely death has produced an astonishing outpouring of grief from fans and fellow-musicians alike.

In the mid-sixties, a group of young musicians retreated to a run-down farm-house in the Lancashire Moors to write, practice, rehearse, and bring a band together. Carrying an array of classical instruments as well as the standard rock-equipment of the day, John Lees, Woolly Wolstenholme, Les Holroyd and Mel Pritchard hid in the unheated Preston House, honing the craft that would emerge in 1967 as "Barclay James Harvest". From Preston House, all kinds of music flowed - much of it from the pen of Wolstenholme who also handled lead vocals in those days. Medieval, folk, rock, classical, CSN-esque, prog, psychedelia, pop, delicate guitar ballads and grandiose orchestral works all appeared in the bands first four albums. Sales didn't reflect the critical acclaim the band generated, and expensive experiments in touring with a full orchestra cost the band dear. As the band matured into the 70s, with Preston House, orchestras and musical experimentation a fading memory, Wolstenholme became a foremost exponent of the Mellotron, the early electronic keyboard that used taped sounds to generate all manner of effects. Wolstenholme was able on this instrument to create the grand orchestral sound that did justice to the Barclay's classical influences. The 1974 "Live" album is acknowledged to be amongst the finest examples of the Mellotron in full flight - and features the four members of BJH as an incredibly tight unit, at the height of their powers, with Wolstenholme at the core.

As the 70s progressed, Barclay James Harvest developed into a fine mainstream rock band, who by the time of the "Gone to Earth" album in 1977, and "XII" in 1978, had largely shelved their experimental edge and classical aspirations in favour of a more accessible body of work. Although they were rewarded with the vast sales and enormous tours which had eluded them in their early years, Wolstenholme was creatively frustrated. He was also no longer the pivotal figure in the band, as he had been in the early days, and found it hard to get much of his material onto their albums. In 1979, when BJH were on the cusp of the success that would earn them huge financial rewards, Wolstenholme left to make his own records.

This first YouTube clip is one of Woolly's final contributions to Barclay James Harvest, "In Search of England" - along with illustrations by Lloyd Ezra Fortune. By this stage, Woolly was fighting a loosing battle against the musical direction of the band. Listen for the final chord, a resolution which is a little bit of Woolly-magic.

Woolly's contribution to Barclay James Harvest is apparent when the output the band produced after his departure is assessed. Although very 'trendy for its time', it has dated badly and sounds thin and lacking substance compared to the Wolstenholme years. Keyboard sounds from the DX7 replaced the warm tones of the Mellotron and the throbbing of the Hammond organ - while arrangments without the Woolly-touch, became disappointingly predictable. Wolstenholme's contribution to the band was more than musicianship however - he had always been the entertainer, the front-man, the joker in the pack and the raconteur. All the early recordings of the band are graced by Wolstenholme's rich Lancastrian burr, introducing songs, band members and chatting between numbers. He was more outgoing than Lees & Holroyd the other two singer/songwriters with in the band, and his abilities as a communicator meant that it was natural that it was his wife who ran the fan-club, and he a unique place in the fans affections.

Not that any of this unduly distracted the remaining band members whose careers were taking off, especially in Europe. Wolstenholme's solo career (with his new band Maestoso) was sadly short-lived. Polydor records faced a dilemma when BJH's "Berlin" album began selling in unprecedented numbers. With BJH and Woolly on their books they appeared to be trying to market two versions of the same band - producing rival products. Polydor decided to back just one horse, failed to promote Maestoso and quietly dropped them. As usual, Woolly took the time to express his personal feelings in his lyrics. This next clip is a late bootlegged live version of "Deceivers All", a song dedicated to that record company!

I first heard Woolly's music as a teenager. I stumbled upon Barclay James Harvest, as a youthful headbanger on a hillwalking holiday in North Wales with a group from my Sixth-Form college. At the outdoor centre, one of the instructors presented a slide-show of his favourite photos from years spent climbing, walking, and canoeing around the world. An excellent photographer who was soon to go professional, he spent hours sequencing his images to music, courtesy of a bank of slide projectors - in those pre IT days! The finale of his show was a triple-helping of BJH. I had never heard anything like it before, and was instantly hooked. It was the songs of John Lees which I loved initially - and Woolly's contributions to albums like Octoberon and Time Honoured Ghosts, I couldn't quite manage! My appreciation of Woolly though grew over time, as I began to appreciate his skills as a musician and arranger - especially of the other songwriters pieces. This became abundantly clear when Woolly suddenly returned to music after two decades in farming - teaming up again with John Lees, to form his rejuvenated version of BJH, following the demise of the original band in 1997. Seeing that original band in its final years was not a completely happy experience, although technically superb and surrounded with high-class guest musicians, there was a spark-missing. I didn't realise what that spark was until I saw John Lees Barclay James Harvest, live in Edinburgh in 2006. From the moment that they came on stage, smiling, laughing and plunged into a classic Mellotron-soaked rendition of their 1974 classic song "For No-One", it was apparent all that had been lost was recovered. The next YouTube clip comes from that tour, and features Wolstenholme singing and Mellotron- powering guitarist John Lees' apocalyptic song "After the Day".

After 1997, both John Lees and Les Holroyd formed their new respective versions of BJH, and both saw a revitalisation of their creativity. In John Lees version, not only was there a musical revival, but also a return to the humour that had enlivened the proceedings during the seventies. Wolstenholme and new bassist Craig Fletcher's verbal comedy sparring between numbers might threaten to de-rail a gig at times, but was riotous fun. At a special one-off gig on Easter Sunday 2009, Woolly greeted the enthusiastically applauding audience with a shake of the head, and "ah - all the usual tired faces, I see!". On the Barclay James Harvest band forum, there is a whole thread devoted to Woolly's wit, put-downs, one-liners and gags - many of which were satirical references to other band members, past and present! He also endeared himself to many fans with his interest in them, his ludicrous blogging of album progress, his hilarious multiple pseudonyms, many kindnesses and endless ability to entertain.

It was however during the John Lees Barclay James Harvest era that fans first became aware that Woolly was sometimes not well. Projects were sometimes sidelined, all activity on hold, and worried messages appeared on fans websites from Woolly's close friends. Worsening bouts of a severe depressive illness had blighted Woolly's life for many years, finally ending up with a period spent in a mental hospital. Fans wrote cards and letters to Woolly during this period, and read with dismay reports from those who had visited. Woolly's recovery was amazing, and over the course of the next few years he was highly productive and creative - not only touring with John Lees Barclay James Harvest, but also re-assembling his old band Maestoso for three final albums, One Drop in a Dry World, GRIM and Caterwauling.

These final three pieces of work form a remarkable end to an extraordinary career. The days of big recording budgets, record-company targets or the constraints of band-meetings were long-gone, which allowed Woolly to really let loose his creative talents. What emerged was a veritable carnival of sound, music, poetry, tragedy, hilarity, absurdity, and deep, awful melancholy.

Blood and Bones, from "One Drop" is a powerful musical epic, featuring the tender Requiem middle section. In this great song, Woolly meditates on death, and its meaning with great feeling. His complete mastery of composition and instrumentation brings these lyrics home with tremendous effect:

Standing on the Bridge of Sighs
And looking down, the water's out
We've had our run, there is no doubt
We're all washed up with the tide

Hanging from the Bridge of Sighs
The whole thing's gone and can't be had
From "Don't Look Now" that something bad
Is all washed out with the tide

Seems to me there's more to this than meets the eye -Something more than just this life we're living, Without a soul, we're nothing more than Blood and Bones.

Requiem Aeternam. Requiem, Requiem

The following Album GRIM, is a quite indescribable record, which is infinitely more than a mere bunch of songs. It is a world in itself - an amazing journey through the mythical Northern town of Grimroyd. The next YouTube clip is a glimpse of life in that strange and wonderful place: Through a Storm - again featuring Lloyd's artwork. Listen particularly for the way in which the contrasting jarring and soothing keyboard sounds are used and the shape of the whole piece, with its alternating moods of sorrow and anger.


The final selection of songs on the album "Caterwauling" is full of allusions to mental illness, of hospitals, doctors, medicines, delusions, fantasies, aliens, the madness of war, shellshock and Woolly's view of the futility of faith in a disintegrating world. Recorded on a shoestring budget, it features all the elements that made fans adore Woolly. Power, pathos, musical surprises, humour as black as night, and playful comedy. It is a fabulous record of remarkable depth - and following his death, heart-rending lyrical confession.

Woolly had never made any secret of his private battles - they come through in all his writing, right back to the earliest days of BJH. In the last three great albums, as well as his one post-retirement studio collaboration with John Lees; references to darkness, despair, illness, mortality and fragility are writ large.

The sublime "2AM", from "One Drop...." is musically as melodic as it is melancholic, giving perfect voice to lyrical imagery such as:

Can't hear the ticking of the clock -It seems for me all time has stopped.
Like grey smoke in a greyer sky- Here's where our wrecked past purpose lies
An endless jigsaw that just mocks - Lacking a picture on the box
No stars, no moon and what is more - No dawn to creep around the door
Some things to bother lesser men
It's 2 a.m

Whilst previously on Nexus, he had penned:

It seems I've fallen off the earth
No sign of hope, no sense of worth
And in my mouth a bitter pill
It makes me sleep, it keeps me still
I can't explain the words they miss
If there's a point in all of this
Why can't the gods who planets make
Just give me peace for pity's sake?
It's not those years and years I spent
Within a world without event
It's not these things that make me weep
It's more the devils that I keep.

Woolly's final album, Caterwauling contains numerous lyrical gems, not least the amazing song, "Shoes". In "Quicksand" Woolly pulls no punches about the experience of severe clinical depression. The soul-wrenching lyrics describe sinking into an abyss with no hand to pull him out to where there is air to breathe. An ammendum to the album is "Pills", a goon-show or Python-esque musical comedy in which a lunatic psychiatrist recommends pills, lunacy, and failing that, suicide. When this record was released, all the band's followers laughed uproariously at the tragi-comic madness of this finale. That track is now unlistenable, unbearable, too-painful, too dark, too horrific to contemplate hearing. The sad truth is that in November 2010, it was reported that Woolly was too ill to perform. On December 14th we were devastated to learn that during a catastrophic episode of mental illness on the previous day, Woolly Wolstenholme ended his own life.

Those of us who had the privilege of meeting Woolly will always remember a funny, kind, friendly joker - with a madcap and outrageous sense of humour. Those of us who love his music will always be affected by the breadth and power of his arrangements, the savagery and delicacy of his lyrics, which more than offset the occasional vocal-frailty - and his ability to conjure-up sound-scapes that sent songs spiralling skywards.

And now, the sadness for his fans - but especially his partner, friends, and band-mates is that that fevered creative mind, with all it's brilliant fragility is no more. The pen that wrote with such lyrical cunning, is laid down not to be picked up again. The great Mellotron that propelled good songs, and made them magnificent, is now silent; the tape stilled - to thrill us no more. The wit and the words have all fallen to the ground, the creativity stiffled, the stage is vacant the stalls are empty, the lights turned out. The tragedy is unspeakable - and marked with many tears. How bitter that Woolly lost - and his illness won; that the dreadful disease of the loss of hope, drained all the colour from life until he could bear it no more. How crushing the thought that someone who brought so much joy to so many lives, could be in so much pain, that he could leave behind so much pain on his passing?

In his lyrics, Woolly Wolstenholme searched for God, even railed against God, but ultimately couldn't believe that there was a God present in the universe. Certainly belief in God is severely tested by tragedies such as this, and by His apparent absences and inactions. For many people, theism is not compatible with suffering and darkness of this magnitude. For all the difficulties of belief, I continue to find greater difficulties in unbelief. What are music and words of the grandeur and quality we find here - but glimpses of the creativity written into our nature courtesy of having been cast in the image of a creative God? "There is something more than meets the eye, we are more than just blood and bones". Likewise, what makes this tragedy actually matter so much? If we are but the result of a billion collisions on a rock, tumbling through a void, with no inherent meaning - then the only insane people are those who invent hope for themselves - as neither life nor death actually have any meaning. Conversely, if we are made by a God, and endowed with His image (ie, creativity, personality, intelligence, conscience, love, knowability etc), then this explains why loss is so profound, and so deep. It matters not in purely localised or subjective terms, but in ultimate terms. The loss we sense is not trivial, but deep. For all the difficulties for belief that Woolly Wolstenholme's passing causes, I still find giving thanks to God for all he contributed, less problematic than denying God for all he undoubtedly suffered. I know that many see it differently.

There is so much more that could be written about the wonderful music, and joyful memories that so many people have of Woolly Wolstenholme. The Barclay James Harvest on-line discussion forum is already bursting with posts of wonderful recollections of the man and his music. No doubt the stories and recollections about both the man himself and the unique musical legacy he leaves behind will continue to build up, along with the book of condolence which people all around the world are signing. The grief of so many fans is unusual, striking, deep, and is in itself a testament to the remarkable person we have lost.

As fans of the music, we are at best acquantences of Woolly. He may have had endless amounts of time for fans, both at gigs and posting messages to them on -line; but our loss is minor compared to that of his immediate family, his close friends and band members in John Lees' Barclay James Harvest. While I have a wonderful record collection to delve into, and great memories to savour; they have an enormous personal loss to endure, particularly as they deal with the nature of his passing. This will no doubt be a slow process, and so my thoughts, love and prayers are sincerely with them as they negotiate the road ahead.

In memory of Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme. April 15th, 1947 - 13th December, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Quote Unquote": NT Wright

"For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.”

I developed stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?” This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.”

At this point the undergraduate would look startled. Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. “No,” I would say; “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.” What most people mean by “god” in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning."

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Film Notes: Warming by the Devil's Fire, A Film by Charles Burnett

The film-maker Charles Burnett was caught up in the Great Migration of African-Americans between the segregated South, and the economic and social opportunities of the Northern cities. In fact as a youngster he shuttled between family two places. In his experience the dichotomy between the two places was more than simply geographical, it was social, cultural, musical - and even spiritual. It is this experience and the dilemma's it produced in his young life that Burnett seeks to explore in this film, "Warming by The Devil's Fire" - his contribution to Martin Scorsese's box-set of DVDs exploring The Blues.

The title, 'Warming by The Devil's Fire' refers to the view of his gospel-music-loving family; that The Blues that epitomises the other half of his life is inherently evil; in fact The Devil's music. This conflict between Blues and Gospel, was one of the key issues in defining African-American culture, both sides of WWII. It is also a core issue in the identity of The Blues as a musical and cultural form. This conflict has been fuelled not merely by rational debates about the cultural drivers of secularisation; but also by more sinister theories that the devil himself would dispense Blues-playing abilities in midnight encounters at Crossroads, in exchange for the souls of the Bluesmen themselves.

Burnett opens up this historical and mythical area in this intriguing film. Spliced between an amazing array of classic blues performances from the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Son House, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and others, Burnett tells the story of a young Black boy in the 1950s caught between these two worlds. His family are gospel-music loving respectable church-goers, but the lad is 'kidnapped' by his wild-living uncle 'Buddy' who introduces him to the world of the Blues. This initiation includes the music, the girls, the debauchery, and a curious midnight crossroads encounter - in which the devil fails to show-up, but W.C. Handy makes a sinister appearance.

In his film, the boy called 'Junior', is intrigued by what he sees and learns. Burnett seeks to replicate his own experience of his Blues-loving uncle. Finally he is reconciled with his family, who rescue the young boy from a wild Blues party, for which he is patently too young. While Junior is impressed with the Blues; the surprising redemptive reversal in the final scene, is that Uncle-Buddy ultimately changes sides and becomes a preacher of the gospel.

While the tension between these two sides is described nicely in the film (and the music is brilliant!), the issue isn't adequately analysed at all - which is a disappointment. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly the gospel-music family are absent for most of the film, their music and their voices are not heard. Secondly, unlike other films in this Blues series, there are no 'documentary' style straight-interviews in which opinions are sought. The issues are left dangling. Perhaps the intention is to enhance the sinister mystique which lingers around some aspects of The Blues. In fact it leaves too many questions unanswered. Specifically is there an inherent tension between this musical form and Christian spirituality?

That might sound like an obscure question - but it is important. There are books published which argue that musical forms have fixed social and spiritual meanings. Pop Goes The Gospel is an infamous publication on this line - which supposes an unchanging association between music and its meaning. As such it proposes that white, western, musical forms are inherently more 'Christian'. I profoundly disagree with this perspective, which is bordering on ecclesiastical colonialism. I am convinced that music itself is intrinsically spiritually and morally neutral - and that the meaning attached to the form is socially constructed, and therefore changes according to context. I remember being told that Christians should not listen to jazz. Jazz, it was said, was irredeemably linked to the sexual immorality and drug-abuse of some of its pioneering practitioners. By the time I encountered jazz, its meaning had shifted entirely, and in my context it invoked images of pipe's, slippers, cardigans and old-men using slightly embarrassing words like, "cat" to describe hot players! Blues - may therefore have become adopted as the music of rebellion in a specific context, and gained a dark mythology to accompany that - but to suggest that this means that the music itself is inherently 'of the dark side' in all contexts is barely sustainable.

Sadly, all such questions are missed from the film. If the fictional narrative of the film would have made actual interviews with people, Bluesmen, and/or Gospellers, incongruous then the film would have been immeasurably enriched by having some dialogue between characters with differing views on the matter. As it is, we are left with an unfinished narrative - interspersed with an absolutely stunning soundtrack.

This is a good contribution to Scorsese's series of film exploring The Blues, as the mythology and social meaning of the music, is well-worthy of a film, alongside the others focusing on the African roots of the music, Piano Blues, British Blues and so forth. Wim Wenders contribution has so far been the only weak link in what is proving to be a brilliant series of discs.

Lost beneath the flakes

The rider was rescued unharmed and is inside defrosting...

Ice Curtain

Perth has become icicle-world this week - great shards of ice hanging like curtains from guttering groaning under their weight.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Book Notes: Surviving Spike Milligan by John Antrobus

After Spike Milligan's death, a small library of books were produced by all manner of people who either knew him, or researched him. Some of these are serious biographies, some are expose's - John Antrobus' "Surviving Spike Milligan" is something else, quite different altogether.

Antrobus was a writing-partner of Milligan's, collaborating with Spike on numerous projects from Goon-Show scripts, at Associated London Scripts, and on-and-off throughout Milligan's life. The book he has produced neither tells the story of the man's life - nor seeks to dig the dirt; rather it confronts the reader with the experience of life with The Milligan, which was in turns hilarious, disturbing, perplexing, insane and heartbreaking. Antrobus manages to capture the enigma that was Milligan, through stories, anecdotes, snippets from scripts, recollections of dialogue and examples of some of the flights of imagination that could characterise their writing sessions. What gives this book its charm is the way in which Antrobus writes. He approaches this book, not as a detached, dispassionate historian, rather as a fellow-conspirator in Milligan's rapid-firing quest to expose and ridicule the lunacy of life.

Milligan strangely managed to maintain his status of being a national treasure, despite the fact that everyone who met him points out how appalling he could actually be at times. Antrobus' book doesn't hide this either - but with great affection (and I suppose grace) he doesn't let this side of Milligan's character to lessen his appreciation and indeed love for the great man. Milligan's eccentric comic genius is almost universally acknowledged; his frequent bouts of extreme mental illness is equally well-known. Antrobus, reflects on the hilarious times, as well as the dark moments, when the sign "I am very ill" would appear on Milligan's office door, and he would shut himself in for days - or check into a clinic for sedation, when life was just too painful to face.

This book contains numerous asides about the author himself, but it's well-written, so it hardly matters. it also contains many, many hilarious moments, nostalgic recollections, and moments of genuinely deep sadness. Milligan emerges as not just the mad-cap, rapier witted comic known from his many radio and TV appearances, but as a complex and most unusual personality. Staggeringly crushed and yet monstrously egotistical; frivolously generous but shockingly selfish; an insane man raging at the insanity of it all - all can be said of Milligan.

What comes out most strongly though, was Milligan's restlessly brilliant comic mind, which could dissect any situation instantly, in order to raid its comic potential. Nothing was easier prey than social mores and taboos, which might usually be politely negotiated - but through which Milligan would deliberately crash, where he thought they were mad. Who cannot help but laugh when they read that Milligan greeted the news of the death of his old friend, the comic and singer Harry Secombe; with the words, "I'm glad he died before me - otherwise I would have had to have him singing at my funeral". In The Dustbin Dance, Milligan takes the famous "there may be trouble ahead - let's face the music and dance" motif; but in his twisted mind it is lunatics who face the miseries of life by leaping into dustbins and dancing. Naturally Milligan casts himself in the lead-bin.

Of all the Milligan books, this one I think is perhaps my favourite, as it so brilliantly explores the man's mind - without pages of analysis, but with many bizarre recollections and observations. I conclude with a quote from the book, (p61), Antrobus' recollections of a mealtime conversation between Milligan and Harry Secombe, a lovely picture of Goon-ish humour.

Harry Secombe comes in blowing a large raspberry.
"It's all in the mind, folks! I've just been to the doctor about this terrible wind! He issued a Force Nine gale warning to all shipping and prescribed three tins of baked beans daily... take one every half-mile. So at least I'm getting excercise...."
He blew another raspberry and sat down at the table, full of giggles. Spike looked indignant.
"You'll get us thrown out of this restaurant, you mad fool!"
"I've just been thrown into it, Spike. A strange co-incidence, wouldn't you say?"
Harry blew another raspberry. Spike crossed his eyes.
"I will inform the management it's dangerous to feed you."
"That's alright. I brought a sandwhich. Do you know what's inside it?"
Spike: Yes - everything that's not outside it. Including me.
Harry: Correct!
Spike: You force me to eat elsewhere
Harry: I thought this was elsewhere. A moment ago I said, I'm going elsewhere - and I came here.
Spike: As soon as you go somewhere else, it stops being elsewhere.
Harry: That's terrifying. You mean.... as soon as I get there, it's here?
Spike: Exactly. The only way to keep somewhere elsewhere, is never to go there.
Harry: How fascinating! So it's all here then? The whole damn thing?
Spike: It was here all the time.
Harry: You're right!.... (Shouts) Waiter! Waiter damn you! Set fire to your trousers and bring me a menu immediately!
The waiter approaches with a menu, smiling, in the game.
Waiter: Yes, Sir. Coming Mr Secombe.
Harry: I haven't got time to eat today. I'll just have a bill, please.
Waiter: How big would you like it, Mr Secombe, sir?
Harry: What would you suggest?
Waiter: Twenty-Seven pounds velly good today.
Harry: Splendid. That's sounds right to me. I'll have that. And while I'm waiting I'll have lunch.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dustbin Dance

Curse these modern-type wheelie-bins, folks!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

You've Got to Move!

Paul Jones and his wife Fiona Hendley were at our church last week, talking about their lives and 'showbiz'(!). Paul was an atheist for a quarter of a century, Fiona experimented with all kids of spiritualities - until together they came to faith in Christ in the 1980s. Here's a YouTube clip of Paul (this time with his Blues Band, not with his wife!) singing a gospel blues, and giving it some welly on the harmonica for good measure.

Book Notes: Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick

I remember standing outside The Kremlin one icy November day and watching Mikhail Gorbachev, Fran├žois Mitterand and their entourages, sweeping by in a fleet of black limousines. By then, Glastnost was eroding the secrecy and oppression of Stalin's state, while Perestroika was CPSU's final attempt to overcome the stagnation of the Brezhnev era. Little more than two years after I stood there, Gorbachev would be swept from power along with the Communist system on which he depended.

Throughout this period, from the death of Konstantin Chernenko, until the death of Soviet Union itself, David Remnick was present - writing insightful dispatches for the Western Media.

His book Lenin's Tomb, wonderfully captures the last years of the Soviet system. The first part of the book details many individual stories of people, moments, and movements - as they jostled to comprehend and influence the changes around them. His understanding of, and sympathy with, the people he writes about is affecting, and his knowledge of the dark world of Kremlinology and the inner wranglings of the one-party state is so thorough that he writes with great skill. Most striking of all however are the contacts that Remnick seems to be able to draw on in documenting his history. When the Stalinist faction within the CPSU first began to resist reform their spokesperson was Nina Andeeyeva. During that crucial time, Remnick spent time with her, listening and debating ideas. Likewise when Gorbachev rehabilitated Bukharin as a method of seeking to detach the extremes of Stalinism so as to protect the Leninist legacy - Remnick discusses the matter with Bukharin's widow. She was clearly as fascinated by the developments of the 1980s as she was to recall the tragedies of the 30s. Ligachev, Yeltsin, Kalugin, Fr. Men, Sakharov - and many more figures of significance appear in these 500+ remarkable and breathtaking pages. The book concludes with a detailed account of the attempted Coup d'Etat which finally ended the old order and the trials which followed it.

Alongside these sketches of the famous, infamous and powerful are also a handful of pen-portraits of lesser known figures, which are equally significant for what they represent. These include the amateur historian who collected the names of the people who disappeared in purges for decades, storing little index cards in shoe-boxes, which kept the flame of history gently burning below the radar of the censors and controllers of information.

The book begins with another story about the re-awakening of history, and features an army general with a huge decision to make. In the forests of Eastern Russia Gorbachev had finally allowed the excavation of a mass-grave dating from WWII. The Russians had always claimed the massacre was committed by the Nazi's, but the Poles and German's always insisted that these were the victims of Stalin's orders. The digging would reveal for all what CPSU files secretly contained - that the occupants of these mass-graves were sent there by Russian bullets; and laying the shame of the communist party open for all the people to see. As digging commences, word reaches the Colonel that the reactionary coup is underway. He receives orders from the Stalinist putch-ists to cease digging (the past must be kept from the people) and simultaneous orders from the more legitimate government to continue! Obviously if he continued to dig and the coup had been successful - he might have earned himself a place in the next unmarked grave of the disappeared. His choice, mirrored the choices of tens of thousands of people, soldiers, nomenklatura, apparatchiks, party officials, and citizens, as they decided whether or not to bow before this threat to their emerging freedom. Many more of their stories fill the pages of this book.

While this is a long book, and covers enormous ground, it is utterly compelling. There is a tragic beauty in Russian history, as there is in so much of its finest music. Remnick captures it all so well, in the most fascinating book on the subject I have come across since reading Susan Richards' "Epics of Everyday Life" many years ago. Space precludes mention of many very significant and moving chapters in this book - suffice to say that it a unique and brilliant read. As a teenager in the West watching the disintegration of the so-called 'evil-empire' I was amazed, shocked and scared in turns. Remnick allows the outsider to gain a little insight into what that staggering era was like from within the fragmenting system itself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Speak Out for Freedom

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains the following statement, listed as Article 18:
'Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18).
This has been a foundational piece of International Law for decades, and is especially important for individuals, families and communities in states where they form part of a religious minority. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the standard by which both extreme 'theocratic' (or perhaps just cleric-o-cratic) states and atheist dictatorships are held to account. Furthermore it is a document which claims support from around the world, from Christians, Muslims, Jews and Atheists amongst others.

Today, Article 18 of the Declaration is under attack. The 57 States who form the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference) will seek to pass a "Defamation of Religion" resolution through the United Nations. This resolution effectively undermines the freedom of religion by giving states the power to define acceptable opinions within their boundaries. The "common statement" against this resolution, signed by people of all faiths and secularists states the dangers in the following terms:
United Nations resolutions on the `defamation of religions’ are incompatible with the fundamental freedoms of individuals to freely exercise and peacefully express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. Unlike traditional defamation laws, which punish false statements of fact that harm individual persons, measures prohibiting the `defamation of religions’ punish the peaceful criticism of ideas. Additionally, the concept of `defamation of religions’ is fundamentally inconsistent with the universal principles outlined in the United Nations’ founding documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the protection of the rights of individuals, rather than ideas. Such resolutions provide international support for domestic laws against blasphemy and “injury to religious feelings”, which are often abused by governments to punish the peaceful expression of disfavored political or religious beliefs and ideas. Moreover, existing international legal instruments already address discrimination, personal defamation, and incitement in ways that are more carefully focused to confront those specific problems without unduly threatening the rights of freedom of expression and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
In many countries religious minorities, such as Christians in the Middle East, face either state-sponsored, or state-permitted persecution. At the present time, such activities are clearly a breach of International Law. If the 'defamation of religion' resolution was to be passed, it would by default provide a legal basis for persecution. As such it must be fought.

Organisations can sign up to the "Common Statement", alongside the signatories from the major world faiths, human rights groups, humanist and secular-societies, here. Individuals can sign any of the petitions which oppose this resolution, such as this one here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Haar haar haar

Not the blitz - just the haar

At least one of these white masses is a solid mountain...

The Tay steams in the morning sun

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010


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Over the last few years loads of people seem to have given up blogging. For many people Facebook has taken over as a place to post brief messages and pictures, while Tweeting less than 7o odd characters is time-consuming enough for others. I have always been disappointed when favourite blogs begin to slow-down, then are only updated erratically and then grind to a complete halt. This has happened several times with blogs that I always linked to from here and read enthusiastically. The latest one which seems to have ground to a halt was an intriguing photographic blog called "1 Pic a Day", based in Singapore. I don't know the photographer but have enjoyed her quirky and imaginative pictures for a few years - it's the latest apparent end-of-blog disappointment.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ben Vorlich, Stuc a Chroin & Perth

Fifty kilometres separate Kinnoull Hill in Perth with Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin by Loch Earn. On hazy summer days that gap seems to grow and those two most charming mountains give them impression of being almost beyond the horizon. The winter combination of the autumn trees and sandstone of Perth in the foreground, and the sun picking out every crease in the ice-dusted peaks behind - seems to bring these distant mountains forward to the very edge of the town itself.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Lifting Haar over Perth

As the haar begins to thin-out and break up, Perth City Centre
suddenly appears through the gloom.
(click on photo to see at full-size)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book Notes: Baptism Explored by D. Robin Taylor

D. Robin Taylor is a Baptist Pastor, who has written a very surprising book about Christian Baptism, the content of which has been the material he has used in preparing candidates for Baptism for many years. The book celebrates people turning to Christ in repentance and faith, and directs them to use their baptism as a way of expressing three truths which lie at the core of the experience of being a Christian. These three are: (i) washing and cleansing from sin, (ii) being dead to self, and alive to God, and (iii) deliverance from evil.

The heart of the book lies in using the New Testament to map out the core of Christian discipleship, which revolve around those three things and which the texts link to baptism. This is foundational stuff, which is great to read and to re-affirm - even for readers who themselves turned to Christ many years ago. Exploring this material in preparation for baptism must make the baptism-services that the author takes in his church in New Zealand, very profound and inspiring occasions.

All of this is very wise, biblical and pastoral and inspiring. Yet there is something else about this book which means that the adjective 'surprising' must be added to that list! Since the Reformation, Protestant Christianity has been at war with itself over the subject of Baptism. The battle lines have been most starkly drawn over the subject of whether the children of believers are the fit subjects for baptism, or whether the only valid baptism is that which takes place post-conversion.

Taylor, although a Baptist Pastor who practices the immersion of believers on profession of faith, is one thinker who is convinced that it is time to bring this damaging war to a close. In his chapter on the subjects of baptism he outlines (very succinctly) a moderate position on baptism. His contention is that as scholars on both sides of the debate are godly men and women, handling scripture honestly - and both drawing hugely on arguments from silence, we must accept the validity of the baptism of all our Christian brothers and sisters, even if it is not the mode of our preference! In the schema that Taylor develops in the first third of the book, he demonstrates the reasonableness of both accepting the infant baptism of people whose Christian experience really did begin in their very first years as well as those who were baptised after profession of faith. Likewise he demonstrates why he will not withhold believers-baptism from an adult convert who was baptised prior-to-conversion, but for whom that fact has no ongoing significance. The thorny question of 're-baptism' is therefore not crudely formularised but placed within the context of the discipleship of the individual! This is so, so important because it makes discipleship the aim of the exercise, not party-allegiance or conformity.

Personally, there are two things which I find to be appallingly sub-standard in the baptism-war. The first is those of Presbyterian persuasion who smugly patronise Baptists as those who are not able to comprehend the depths of covenant theology. This is simply not true, there are many baptists who do, but their hermeneutics gives priority to the clear examples of the New Testament 1st generation baptisms, over and against the weight of such theological construction. The other shoddy occurrence is when Baptists disingenuously claim that receiving believers-baptism is simply a matter of obedience to Christ, nothing more. This is at best manipulative nonsense, at worst simply false. The truth is that it is a question of interpretation and obedience.

Two woeful errors flow from these twin evils. The first is that many Presbyterian (etc) churches will prevent gifted individuals serving in key roles if they do not present their offspring for baptism. This is a thoroughly unwarranted division of the body of Christ. Likewise, some baptist-churches practice a closed membership system in which those baptised prior to conversion are "in-Christ", but "2nd-class"! That such membership policies are hostile to the New Testament picture of the body (Paul) or the family (Hebrews) is so obvious that it is hard not to label them as being downright sinful.

Taylor's vision in Baptism Explored (let's get back to the book review!) is that Christian believers must unite around the gospel of Christ and that it is time to declare the baptism-war over. The oft-repeated claim is that a flexible approach to baptism is unworkable in practice and that churches must work policies of exclusion. Taylor's book - and the experience of his church shows why this is not the case.

It is a delight to read a book about baptism that is supremely concerned with Christ himself, and with a pastoral passion for the spiritual health of the disciple. Too many books subsume such concerns under the requirements of party-loyalties, for one side or the other and read like manifestos for the pompous or angry! Here is a book which calls people to baptism, to understand it, to live it, and to live out their baptism as part of living for Christ. There is one element which I would want to question Taylor on though. He deals with the cases of children who move from infant baptism seamlessly into adult faith without any apparent conversion. I think that his discussion here requires some clarification, maybe by more clearly differentiating between visible, outward conversion and inward regeneration. Unless this is clarified the book could be accused of either playing into the hands of the ultra-baptist critique that infant-baptism in inimical to genuine conversion or to having the 'Federal Vision' being espoused by a Baptist Pastor! The latter is quite an entertaining thought, at least!

The book concludes with the delightful 'liturgy' that Taylor uses in services of 'believers-baptism'. He favours a triple-baptism in the Trinitarian formula, with each immersion representing one of the three core meanings of baptism outlined above. This is a great way to end the book, and I'd love to attend a service like this! If I was ever personally persuaded of the requirement of post-conversion-re-baptism I'd probably go for something along the lines that Taylor suggests here.

This is a simple, but profound book, which (almost uniquely) champions discipleship and Christ-centred-ness itself, above the outward form of the sign that points to it. It promotes the unity that comes from making Christ himself the central reference point for all our discipleship. One critic suggested to me recently that where baptismal-parties exclude one another from the church it reveals that their baptismal-party is in fact an idol claiming a higher-allegiance than Christ in their policy making (ouch!). I fear that she may have been right in some instances, but even where that is the case, Taylor is seeking to help us to chart a course out of such a pointless impasse.

This book is a short, easy-read with a clear pastoral focus. On occasion it raises questions which are beyond its scope to answer. It seems abundantly clear that a full-scale theological work is now required to accompany this pastoral book, and to engage with those on both sides who will vehemently disagree with it. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that he was in a 'minority of one' in his desire to chart a baptismal course that mediated between the two classic strict positions. I suspect that Taylor will find himself in similarly unpopular territory. Nevertheless he makes an important and idiosyncratic contribution to the discussion.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Perth Date for Paul Jones and Fiona Hendley

It's now only two weeks until Rock and Blues legend Paul Jones, comes to Perth with his wife Fiona Hendley for their "An Evening With....." event. Featuring songs, stories, reflections and thoughts on their long and illustrious showbiz careers, Paul and Fiona will also chart their journey from scepticism to faith in Jesus Christ, and how that faith now illuminates their lives. Tickets for this entertaining and thought-provoking evening are only £5, for details click here.

Monday, November 01, 2010

River Deep, Mountain High

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In the Gorge a L'Heric (click on photo to enlarge)

Film Notes: The Road to Memphis

Martin Scorsese's exploration of The Blues contains seven films made by different writers/producers each of whom have examined a different aspect of this distinctive musical form. Highlights of the series include Clint Eastwood's examination of Piano Blues, Mike Figgis on the British Blues Boom of the 1960s, and Scorcese's own look at the African roots of Blues forms in "Feel Like Going Home".

The Road to Memphis is Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner's contribution to the series, and focuses on the players who congregated around that city in the heydey of the blues movement. While this film does not scale the heights of Eastwood or Figgis' films, The Road to Memphis is nevertheless a charming exploration of a period in history, as viewed through the memories of he participants many years later. Bobby Rush, Rosco Gordon and Ike Turner all make nice performances, but there is no doubt that B.B. King steals this particular show. King always had enviable quantities of both talent and charisma - and was sufficiently individual in his playing and singing to be instantly recognisable despite his legions of imitators. Above all, there is the sweet, sweet sound of his guitar which is heard no better than on the version of "The Thrill is Gone" which King plays on his return to Memphis documented in the film.

Some of the performances in the film are quite eccentric, Rev Gatemouth Moore is in fact almost terrifying; although to be fair not as bewildering as Bobby Rush's backing dancer who is possessed of quite the most extraordinarily agile... The finest moment of the film is without any doubt the film of B.B. King returning to Memphis. The camera catches BB gazing wistfully from the tour-bus and reminiscing about times, places and players of the past. As he does so, his thoughts seem to come alive as archive film is spliced into the bus sequence. As they drive into the famous Beale Street, voices such as Howlin' Wolf and Fats Domino are conjured up.

It's not the greatest blues documentary around - but is a charming slice of history, with some lovely musical moments.

Gorge a L'Heric

This slightly spooky looking old bridge is part of an old walkway through the gorge. Click on the image to enlarge.

Sun, Sea, Sand, Shade

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010