Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Marriage Preparation Course

Mrs H. & I really wish that we had done some form of 'Marriage Preparation' before we got hitched in 1996. In our case it wasn't so much that we were deluded love-birds who couldn't imagine ever needing to actually work on our relationship; nor was it the simple arrogance of youth which doesn't look to gain wisdom from those who have walked the road before. With us it was more to do with the fact that we came from different parts of the UK, were studying in Scotland, were getting married in Ireland, and she spent the summer running up to our marriage in a remote corner of Africa! As such we ended up being well-prepared for a wedding, but not so well prepared for marriage -this made the learning curve steeper and harder.

Interestingly the things we were least prepared for were the practicalities of sharing, space, time and well, everything really! We didn't disagree about the nature of marriage, the theology of marriage, the purpose or permanence of it; but the practical merging together of two different lives required some thought.

Happily, since we got married in 1996 a very practical Marriage Preparation Course, has been growing around the UK. Usually hosted by churches, but run in all manner of venues including registry offices; the Marriage Preparation Course helps couples to think and talk through the issues which affect most marriages as they develop over the years. I know some folks who have done it in London, and have said that it was really useful for them.

As it's now February - the 2010 summer marriage season will soon be upon us! If you are reading this and you are one of those thousands of engaged couples counting the days until your wedding, now is a good time to investigate the course. For more details about the Marriage Preparation Course click here, and to find out where the nearest course to you is, type your postcode into the box after clicking here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A truly loathsome T-shirt: and I the proud owner!

Being married to a Dr. means that I am frequently subjected to that profession's notoriously dark biological sense of humour which inappropriately finds amusement in all things bodily. If the subject be digestive, reproductive, malodorous, embarrassing or just plain appalling - then so much the better.

A while ago I blogged about finding a copy of the delightful "Bristol Stool Form Scale" on the printer at home (click here to view this charming diagnostic aid). Imagine my joy and delight therefore when my wife appeared home tonight from a medical conference with a weird look on her face and the words, "I have a present for you" upon her lips...

What should come out of her bag, but a lovely T-shirt, with nothing less than the legendary Bristol Stool Form Scale itself printed across the back, and the name of a well-known laxative emblazoned on the front! Truly this is most loathsome T-shirt ever to have been printed.

I am, naturally proud to be the owner of such an ultimately lamentable garment, but am trying to imagine a context in which I might wear it. Once every couple of years I have a trip to the hospital to see the Consultant who is treating me for a mild bowel disorder. Next time I am at Perth Royal Infirmary I think that the T-shirt might well have to be worn. But when else? It's not really the sort of thing for trips to Tesco's - I got weird enough looks there last time I wore my "Interpretive Dance" T-shirt; what would happen with this one I can't begin to imagine.

But for those of you who missed it the first time, here's the infamous chart; coming soon to a T-shirt near you!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood both stars and directs Gran Torino, and in the process all but resurrects his long-gone Dirty Harry character - albeit in retirement and with a different name.

Warning - the following review contains several spoilers!

The story concerns newly widowed retiree Walt Kowalaski, a bitter, angry cynical racist Korean War veteran, who spends his days brooding with resentment against all the changes that modern life has brought to his neighbourhood. His own kids have long since joined the white-flight to the suburbs, their children appear to Walt to be vain and vacuous; while they have been replaced with immigrants from South-East Asia whose language, culture and customs irritate him. To add to his irritations he is pursued by an eager, naive young Catholic priest who had made a promise to his late wife to pastor him after her death. Worst of all though, the neighbourhood - once peaceful - is ruled by ruthless and violent gangs.

The main thrust of the movie concerns the way in which Kowalski ends up as a community hero for standing up to the gangs, often violently, as they try to recruit their kids to their ranks. In turn, Kowalski himself softens in his attitude to his Hmong neighbours as he gradually begins to see them as fellow victims of the forces of destruction in the neighbourhood. Such a story might seem quite naive, and the idea of a an inner-city collaboration between new immigrants and old racists against criminals somewhat far-fetched. This isn't the case however. I remember meeting an old civil rights campaigner in Philadelphia, who fought against racist city Mayor Frank Rizzo (initially elected by the white minorities to defend their interests against the Black communities). He told me how he subsequently joined Rizzo's campaign team for his re-election, because this potentially violent, right-wing Mayor with a thuggish reputation was the only one of the candidates who he thought would actually wage war on the drug-gangs who were by then a far greater threat to the communities of North Philadelphia than the city government! In Kowalski's turnaround - there is one pivotal scene, when he suddenly realises that he has 'more in common with these gooks than with [his] own family'.

The film, moves towards an inevitable show-down between Kowalski and the gangs, especially after the brutal rape of a his young next-door-neighbour, who has forged a bond with him as they have together resisted gang-power. The fact that he was unable to protect his young friend, pushes Kowalski towards a definitive final response - and we see him polishing his gun before going to confront them. The final scene though comes as a complete surprise. (spoiler warning!) unarmed, Kowalski allows himself to be gunned down in front of witnesses. As a result of his self sacrifice justice is achieved as the gang are imprisoned, and his friends are saved as the threat to the neighbourhood is removed. Kowalski's body absorbing bullet after bullet as he seems to soak up all the evil in a breathtaking act of self-sacrifice is loaded with strongly redemptive imagery - which Eastwood seems to re-enforce as the body is pictured lying with his arms outstretched in a cruciform shape!

The film has caused a lot of discussion, with both rave reviewers and detractors being very strong in their responses. It certainly has one or two flaws, but Eastwood himself, snarling and growling his way to the gritty conclusion is on top-form, and the much criticised story-premise, is, I think, with some precedents in recent American history. The film gains its 15 certificate because of the language and violence it contains, so its not for the easily offended and is a film for adults to consider. In its defence, the language is realistic for its context, (rather than just used for its shock value, as in say The Big Lebowski) and the violence while essential to the plot is not gratuitous or voyeuristic.

Films in this genre walk the curious line between social-commentary, serious issues and entertainment, and on the whole Gran Torino manages that very well. There are several funny moments, some brilliant dialogue, a couple of pieces of hilarious subtitling when Kowalski and the aged Hmong grandmother are insulting each other with no language in common. However this doesn't detract from the presentation of the sadness of the all too real problems of gang violence and abuse; nor from the dark, but inevitable progress of the film towards its climactic and stunning conclusion.

Playing Hard-Ball

After several seasons playing "Kwik Cricket" (the softball introductory form of the game), number one son (aka 'Boris') yesterday graduated to playing hardball, at the club's first winter nets. He was naturally a little nervous before going as he's watched the older lads playing such 'proper cricket' across the ground many times. I've seen him watching some pretty quick bowlers getting the lethal leather to climb alarmingly from just short of a length - whizz past batsmen's noses and thud into the nets, with a mixture of admiration and apprehension.

He started off with a bit of bowling, which was great because this is probably his strength. He's bowled at me several times with a hard ball, so the only novel bit was bowling to other lads. Last time he bowled at me he caused a tasty bruise on my shin too. Spotting the ball drifting onto leg stump, I tried to effortlessly flick him through mid-wicket with all the elegance of David Gower - but ended up hopping about clutching my shin with all the panache of Barry Chuckle. I had to admit that he was at least a yard quicker than I'd anticipated; but noticed that he was more interested in whether the ball would have gone on to strike leg-stump, than about whether his poor father would ever walk again. In the nets last night, he got his line right pretty quickly, getting in a good groove in and around off-stump during the time I was there. The adjustment for him was with length - a move up the age-group means a longer wicket, and although not at a full 22-yards yet, he did take a few balls to find a reasonable length.

I wasn't there when he was batting - but the coaches seemed to be happy enough, saying that he was developing a sound defensive technique, which is the essential foundation on which to build an armoury of more attacking shots. The big change here is with equipment. Kwik Cricketers play dressed in shorts and T-shirts, whereas hard-ball cricketers go out to bat these days dressed like medieval knights in armour. I'm old enough to remember a handful of test cricketers who didn't use batting helmets, but now even kids routinely hide under their plastic lid. This might seem a little over the top to some - but it's probably a good thing. If the bounce was very low in the indoor net last night and the helmet superfluous, a time will come when they will face some aspiring Michael Holding and being used to wearing the helmet when the time comes will be an advantage. Viv Richards, famously never used one - claiming that "if you need one, you shouldn't be out there". In retirement however he admitted that this was all bluster and that the real reason was that having learnt to bat without one, he was never comfortable with it on.

The step-up to 'real cricket' was a challenge, but Boris absolutely relished it. It's "SO" much better than kwik cricket, he says!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

All Around the World

I was pointed to this on YouTube today. Sad, poignant, moving - and worth sharing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Us sola scriptura types have traditionally not placed a great deal of emphasis on the church calendar. In debates now long forgotten by everyone else, the disciplines of Lent such as fasting were thought to have the stench of self-righteousness and works-justification about them; while the church calendar hinted at tilting us towards the authority of tradition and so away from the Bible. All of these were no doubt real and present dangers in 1530...

In 2010, I am not convinced that we need to be so reactive, but can pro-actively use ancient church traditions for our good! Endlessly Restless, in his blog has suggested a helpful and positive way to use the Lent period running up to Easter. His emphasis there is not on giving something up for its own sake, but on adopting a good habit instead. He's invited us to join him in a 47-day reading through John's gospel, stopping to pray and reflect during the day. To see the reading plan and the suggestions he makes click here:

The first challenge he sets out is to mark a phrase or verse in the text that you have not noticed before! Today's section (John 1:1-18), is so packed full of awe-inspiring theology, of Incarnation, ripe with Trinitarian implications that I have usually glossed over the following phrase which is part of John the Baptist's description of Jesus:

16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.

The 'fullness of his grace' is a wonderful phrase, which focuses our thoughts not just on our overwhelming need of God's grace, but on Christ himself, where that grace is to be found. In him that grace is not in short supply either, but we are supplied from his fullness!

"We have received one blessing after another!" John's previous sentence has usually overshadowed this one, when he mentions Jesus' eternal pre-existence. This sentence dramatically earths that insight, as Jesus incarnation from unlimited time, bring to us within time, unlimited blessings, one after another! This phrase reminded me of Paul's joyously convoluted sentence: He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? The picture is of a millionaire who we have committed a crime against: instead of pursuing us in the courts, gives us his Rolls, his mansion, his fortune, and his friendship, why then would he quibble over sharing a mars-bar with us!? The suggestion is ludicrous in its proportions! So if God has gives us Himself in Christ, we can trust that He will not withhold any good thing from us, in this life or the next; because in Him is 'one blessing after another.'

(I have no intention of blogging all the way through John - but posted this to kick-start the process!)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Aonach Mor

Not hillwalking - hill cheating on the Gondola. The views just aren't the same if you haven't dragged your reluctant limbs all the way up yourself!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Red, White and Blues - A Film by Mike Figgis

The flourishing of American Blues music in the UK in the 1960s was so comprehensive and so surprising that it acquired a title: "The British Blues Boom". The fact that the Blues, especially in its electric form, in which the sounds of Africa processed via slavery, the Mississippi Delta and urban Chicago, and typified by players such as Muddy Waters, took root here in alien soil is well known. What is a less frequently told story is the process by which The Blues found its way into the British consciousness. Mike Figgis' film, "Red, White and Blues" traces the roots of this movement, from Jazz and Dance Bands, through skiffle and on into fully fledged Blues. Once Brits were playing blues, Figgis examines their extensive collaborations with African-American bluesmen, both in the USA and on the many package tours of American bluesmen which came to the UK in that era to satisfy the burgeoning demand here.

Figgis tells the story with great affection and through the voices of an array of stars associated with the time, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John Mayall, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison, Georgie Fame, Chris Barber, The Beatles, The Stones, Jeff Beck and even Tom Jones and Lulu! Along with archive footage, and interviews Figgis gets a number of these musicians to indulge in some playing, singing and jamming through some classic blues numbers at Abbey Road. Of all the performances in the contemporary stuff, the revelation is Lulu singing (the 2nd best ever version of) Drowning in My Own Tears. On the importance of the British Blues movement to the history of Blues, BB King states that it kept the Blues alive, while Clapton recalls arriving in the USA full of excitement that they were going to meet Muddy Waters - only to discover that no-one there knew who he was talking about!

In the process of transmission of the Blues, according to Figgis' history, there was one song which had a hugely significant influence in bringing the format from exclusive jazz circles, and to the attention of the men who would popularise it. That song was Humphrey Littleton's Bad Penny Blues - credited with inspiring The Beatles Lady Madonna directly, and countless others songs less plagiaristically. It's a great DVD - one which blues aficionados will watch many times over.

Down Glen Etive

While to the right, The Buachaille grabs all the immediate attention, the view down Glen Etive is inviting and beckoning in a delightful, but infinitely more subtle way.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Deceivers All

Inside every child there is a window,
It gazes out upon a world,
Full of promises of things that are to come.
-And in the man, another window:
it's closed and shuttered on a world
Full of promises still left undone.

(Lyrics from "Deceivers All" by Woolly Wolstenholme" from the album "Songs from the Black Box"

Monday, February 08, 2010

Marriage Course Conundrum

It's been a strange week for those of us involved in running The Marriage Course in Perth. I can't think of a week that has been more encouraging and discouraging, all at the same time.

On the encouraging side, over the last few days we have heard from three couples, who did the course with us - and the hugely positive difference it has made to their lives. On Saturday we met with loads of other folks around Scotland involved with Marriage Courses, in Edinburgh. One of the people speaking about setting up the course in his own church, was doing so because of the effect it had on his marriage. The privacy that couples are given on the course is so well enforced that we had no idea that they were struggling with difficult issues - or that they had learnt to manage them successfully using the tools taught on the course. We've recently been made aware of - or directly told of, a whole group of really great stories of couples who have been so helped by doing the marriage course. The stories are wonderful - but not available for public broadcast! We are however newly aware that there are loads of people who have needed (like us) to learn practical stuff about communication, time management, conflict resolution etc. and newly aware of how effective the marriage course format has been in helping them that we are really keen to offer the course again.

Why then the discouragement? Simply this - it's proving very difficult to encourage more couples to come and join us for a course, especially within our own church. Most of our advertising has been within the fellowship, yet increasingly the only people who will come do so from outside, where word of mouth has been a better advert.

I am unsure as to the reasons for the reluctance of so many people. I could speculate that the reasons include a 'marriage counselling' stigma wrongly attached to the course, suggesting failure rather than initiating investment in marriage. I also think that the absence of some of the cool opinion formers and associated ill-informed commentary has done damage. Most serious though I think have been our failures in promotion, making the course understood, accessible and welcoming; and perhaps most significantly our failure to build a team to own and run the thing with us.

Either way - this week is a tangled and curious mixture of encouragement and discouragement, when we have been made aware perhaps more than ever of the good that's been done; yet disappointed at the lack of response to our invitations. It makes for a strange week!

Feel Like Going Home - Martin Scorcese's Exploration of the roots of the Blues

In the DVD box-set "The Blues: A Musical Journey" which Martin Scorcese put together in collaboration with a whole series of producers and writers, Scorcese himself contributed one film. All kinds of aspects of the blues are covered in the series, such as Clint Eastwood's superlative Piano Blues film, and Scorcese set himself the task of examining the roots of the blues.

Any exploration of American Blues would have to have examine the African roots of the music, as well as the distinctive forms the music took in Texas, The Delta or Chicago. The USA is probably the most racially-hyphenated nation on earth, in that vast swathes of the population describe themselves as 'Italian-American', 'Irish-American', 'Polish-American' or 'African-American' etc - each group bringing different things into the whole. Scottish folk music, for instance, has a huge following in the USA, where the descendants of Scots have carefully treasured, preserved and developed elements of the culture that were carried across the Atlantic in the wake of the clearances.

The preservation of Africa in the 20th Century culture of African-Americans is, within this mix, a unique and amazing story of human resilience. Obviously the migration of this population was uniquely inhumane, involuntary and grotesque; but in addition to that the slaves were subjected to a systematic programme of de-culturalisation. The film points out that in the ante-bellum period merely owning a drum was a capital offence for an African American.

Scorcese's film seeks to establish if the much-vaunted African-roots of the blues are a reality or merely a sentimentalised culturally galvanising tool to assist in forging a resurgent Black identity in the wake of the civil rights era. In the company of Corey Harris (American Bluesman, and African musician), archive recordings from the Lomax's, interviews with musicians past and present, from Mississippi to Mali the common threads linking this musical heritage are established - alongside the distinctive forms which the music has taken in different locations.

As well as featuring great performances from Corey Harris, Keb' Mo', Taj Mahul and various lesser known African musicians, as well as archive treats from John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Son House; this is a thoroughly entertaining piece of social/cultural history.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Outlines on the Tay

A short walk today over Kinnoull Hill - unusually without the children in tow. I had always thought that Kinnoull Hill was somewhat devoid of wildlife; actually it turns out that there's plenty, just that the kids scare it all away before we get anywhere near it! Hundreds of birds are up there, some seen, many more heard, then pausing by the pond I saw deer, and saw two red squirrels chasing each other round and round a tree-trunk. The Tay looked fantastic from the cliffs on the southern side of the hill, the tree-line on the near bank curiously parallel to the reflection of the tree-line on the far bank.