Saturday, October 30, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A la Plage

At Sete. Good job we didn't go to the other beach we were considering, just down the coast. Apparently it's the 'capital of French nudism'. Yikes!

Book Notes: Captive State by George Monbiot

Although now over a decade old, and in some ways out-of-date, George Monbiot's "Captive State" is nevertheless a shocking expose Big-Business in the UK. Monbiot's case-studies demonstrate that across many areas of life, corporations have successfully used their power, and influence to work against the public good. Corporations relentlessly pursuing their own profits, Monbiot demonstrates, frequently trample on other legitimate concerns, regularly use corrupt and secret methods, are undermining the relevance of democracy and have in many cases held governments to ransom, endangered public health, or extracted inordinate sums from the public purse.

Monbiot was one of the first analysts to expose the short-comings of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) which Labour in opposition warned against, but expanded under Blair and Brown in office. Readers of Private Eye, will know that the warnings Monbiot issued over a decade ago about the way in which the PFI would work almost exclusively to the benefit of the corporations and to the detriment of tax-payers has been proven to be an astute prediction. While PFI might have delivered 'instant results' and enabled New Labour politicians to cut the ribbons at opening ceremonies for many public utilities, it has effectively mortgaged government to the corporations; while keeping the real debt off the public-books. Monbiot's case-study is the Sky-Bridge fiasco.

As the book moves through issues such as town-planning and local government ("how to buy planning permission"), the all-pervasive influence of the supermarkets, science, medicine and marketing, and world trade. He demonstrates the way in which corporations have been able to tame-governments in order to reduce them to becoming underwriters of their risks, developers of their markets, promoters of their products and spin-doctors for their images. Time-and-again Monbiot documents cases in which critical political decisions have been made by corporate-placemen with deeply conflicting interests - by government/industry co-operations in which poachers are also expected to 'gamekeep' with integrity. The results that the book documents include scandalous planning decisions by local authorities that harm people but enrich corporations, the public being denied the right to know when they are eating GM produce, unjust word-trade agreements, and the control of all aspects of food production by supermarkets. And more..

When corporations first began to develop they had to seek a license from the King! They were allowed to keep their Royal Patronage as long as they were seen as operating in the public good, they did not exists simply to propagate their own profitability. That was an extreme position which gave undue power of the state over free-enterprise. Now however Monbiot argues, we have reached another extreme in which the legitimate operation of the state to protect public good cannot operate effectively without the permission of the corporations. Their trump-card is obviously to remove capital from the jurisdiction of un-cooperative governments.

In a final chapter Monbiot includes a list of other issues that he could have written about in depth. The point of the book however - and one which clearly has not changed in the decade since its publication, is that there needs to be a serious discussion about the influence of the largest corporations in the UK. Monbiot would argue that the results of such a discussion should be a serious attempt to re-assert the primacy of democratic power-structures over boardrooms. Not to restrict free-trade, not to damage business, (the only business he specifically calls for breaking-up into smaller less monopolistic units are supermarkets) but to re-balance the decision marking processes of state so that for instance in planning processes, communities have a level-playing-field with corporations where their interests collide. He certainly has a point.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Liberté, égalité, securité??

I don't know how fraternal the good citizens of Magalas consider themselves to be, but our holiday house apparently needed three massive locks on the front door. Liberté, égalité, securité, perhaps??

Our Holiday House: Magalas

The Streets of Magalas 3

The Streets of Magalas 2

The Streets of Magalas 1

Book Notes: Between Heaven and Hell - A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley

“Between Heaven and Hell, A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley” is a curious and fascinating little book. Written in the form of a play, or Socratic dialogue, it is fully scripted, is based on a brilliant premise and proceeds with ingenious dexterity.

The deaths of two literary giants, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis, which occurred only a few hours apart, were barely reported on the day on which they both met their demise. This was because they somewhat misguidedly chose November 22nd 1963 as the day for their mutual expirations. That day, will forever be remembered as the day on which John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, an event which pushed even worthy literary obituaries off the news-agenda.

The strange co-incidence of these three deaths however sparked an idea in the mind of Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft. In his mind, these three great men meet up in the transitional zone between life and the afterlife. They spend one whole night talking, discussing, and debating the ideas that defined their lives on earth, with the expectation that when morning comes they will discover who was ultimately right.

The reason that the three make such fascinating sparring partners is that they each had a specific and competing understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ, who he was and what he achieved in his life on earth. Huxley, identifies Jesus as a great teacher in a long tradition of pantheist gurus. Kennedy on the other hand is a pragmatist who wants to interpret the life of Christ through the lens of a demythologised humanism. Lewis, of course, is there representing orthodox or ‘mere’ Christianity.

The debate that Kreeft imagines for them ranges widely across all manner of subjects from authority, morality, judgement, the veracity of the gospels, the claims of Christ as recorded there, to the meaning of divinity. Anyone who has read Lewis’ Mere Christianity will be familiar with much of the territory of the discussion.

Kreeft’s fondness for Lewis is ultimately both the strength and the weakness of this book. Many of the arguments that Kreeft lifts from Lewis’ works and then places on his lips are convincing and plausible. Friends of Lewis have also commented on how accurately he captures Lewis in the way he spoke. What is probably a moot point is the extent to which Kreeft has done justice to the other characters he has sought to animate, but with whom he has less sympathy. That Lewis appears to have the edge in this argument might well be because his arguments are more cogent, but equally might be because Kreeft has rigged it!

Nevertheless, despite this obvious criticism which a Lewis-derider might throw at the book, it does provide a fascinating and easy entry point to many of these debates. It also provides a very readable yet profound introduction to several of the key lines of argument in Christian apologetics. What makes this book stand out is the fact that Kreeft knows enough of the subject to have written yet another dreary textbook; but instead amuses the reader with this unlikely post-mortem dialogue.

Perhaps this book is not as great as some of its reviewers might suggest; however I do love books that allow me to learn as effortlessly as this one did! It’s wise, witty, amusing, and quite unique.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Shadow of The Cross

L'Eglise St-Laurent, Magalas

Millau Viaduct

The Millau Bridge is breathtaking. It is one of the few man-made structures I have seen that has stopped me in my tracks, made me draw breath and start clicking with my camera, as if it were a natural wonder such as a great mountain! The old road winds its way off the surrounding hills and through the little town of Millau. However the sky is full of this astonishing structure which carries the Autoroute over 270metres above the shops, cafe's, offices, churches, houses and little bridges below. 270m is only the height of the road-deck too, the towers which hold the suspension cables reach far higher still!

Underneath the bridge the visitor-centre has a mind-blowing video about the construction of what (at the time) was world's tallest bridge; the construction difficulties they faced and the amazing solutions they found.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Book Notes: Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller

Tim Keller's book "Counterfeit Gods", is subtitled: 'When the Empty Promises of Love, Money and Power let you down'. His contention is that the strange melancholy that inhabits western culture today stems from the fact that since God has been removed as the central point of reference in peoples lives, they have moved other things into his place - things which may have promised fulfilment but have instead produced a form of enslavement.

An idol, as defined in this book, is a good or state that we depend on acquiring or achieving - to the extent that its pursuit defines or controls us. In Keller's view, humanity is an essentially worshipping phenomenon, and that as such the things which fascinate us and fire our imaginations stimulate our commitment and loyalty to the extent that they exert a control over us. In the absence of God; money, sex and power have too often expanded to fill the vacuum, and as these secondary things are given ultimate significance they become ruinous in the domination which the constant pursuit of them brings.

Keller's frame of reference for this is Biblical spirituality. While the biblical narrative most obviously critiques the worship of physical idols, Keller shows how in countless well-known Bible-stories the issue the characters faced was the idols enshrined in their hearts. Keller points out that while Jonah might be (in)famous for his aquatic adventures, the point of the story lies elsewhere. The story is pointedly about a man whose nationalism and even racism, was his idol; that governed his behaviour and informed his choices - an idol which we see being dismantled through the book.

If any Christians reading this book are tempted to feel in any way smug and to think that such a message does not apply to them, because (contra Alistair Campbell) we do "do God"; then Counterfeit Idols contains a shock. Keller argues that the Bible is full of stories of believers who while professing faith, are not people whose hearts are enthralled with God; but who are in fact obsessed with other things. While many of these things are not inherently wrong, many are good, they have grown to godlike-proportions in our minds through the influence they exert upon us. The human heart is an insatiable idol factory - and many people who would refute idolatry in their belief-system are functionally-idolatrous in their hearts, and therefore in life-choices. Many professed Christians are as controlled by the need for approval from others, or the pursuit of money as anyone else. This book is about finding freedom through the dismantling of such idols. Keller's argument concludes with the application of the Christian view that while counterfeit idols damage, restrict and mis-shape human existence, genuine worship does the opposite.

Keller's book, "Reason for God", was his lengthy contribution to Christian Apologetics, reflecting on issues of faith in the light of contemporary questions. If Reason for God was an apologetics of the head, then Counterfeit Gods is his apologetics of the heart! While his exegesis of the Biblical texts is insightful and helpful, casting new light on many well-worn stories; his exegesis of the human-condition is what satisfies so much. It is also his emphasis that our response to this issue comes not through guilt, fear or burdensome rule-keeping but by the joyous response to God's grace, which makes the challenge heart-warming rather than irksome. Ultimately it also illustrates the essential difference between God and these idols.

This book is not long, or heavy-going; yet makes a brilliant introduction to and exploration of a genuinely Christian spirituality. It has many insights and suggestions which will inspire people without Christian faith; but also deeply challenges professed Christians about where they actually derive meaning, identity and well-being. It probes us, asking if the choices we live-out are in any way distinctively Christian - and challenges us where they are not, to dismantle the idol that drives us. This is vintage Keller - great reading.

Counterfeit Gods is available on-line in places such as Eden, Waterstones, or Good Book Co. Here's the author introducing the book himself, c/o the ubiquitous YouTube.

A useful detailed review containing a break-down of the book, and quotations is here

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Book Notes: Bessie - Empress of The Blues by Chris Albertson

"Nobody Loves You (When You're Down & Out)" is a song I first heard many years ago - probably in the version by Derek and The Dominoes. Clapton subsequently revisited the song on his Unlpugged album, taking it to a new audience. While since the 60s this song had been so closely associated with Clapton, it properly belongs to a blues singer of a previous era, the great Bessie Smith.

Aside from her association with that song - and a vague recollection that her death might have been because of racism I knew very little about Bessie Smith - or the Blues scene of the 20s and 3os. However, I recently spotted a biography of Smith in a second bookshop, and read the eye-poppingly crazy life story of this legend.

Albertson's biography of Bessie Smith (despite its frequent self-adulation as the most important and well-researched book on her etc etc ), is not brilliantly written, and gets off to a tedious start in which a list of facts roughly hacked into prose is the supposed stuff of good biographical writing. By chapter four the reader is almost pleading for some of these facts to be interpreted, evaluated or set in their social context. Happily the book seems to shift gear about a third of the way through (I wondered if it was the same writer!), and becomes a far more convincing read.

The Smith who emerges from the book is as talented as she is wild, as committed to her performing as to the pursuit of pleasure. Ultimately she appears as a larger-than-life character who lived at the very extremes of any area of life she embraced. When it came to performances, she was never lacklustre or half-hearted, she sang the blues with fabulous phrasing and enormous power, her shows were legendary and she spent a huge proportion of her life on the road, giving her all. Likewise, she was no fan of constraint in any other of life, fighting, drinking, sex, men, women, - Bessie Smith seemed to attack life! There is a note of sadness that underpins this however - the picture that Alderson's eye-witnesses paint of Smith is of a restless spirit, a wrestless soul whose hedonism and excess masked an angst which perhaps only her singing could give voice to.

Alongside the main characters in the book, (Smith and sometime husband Jack Gee), the book does provide a nice thumbnail portrait of the world of the Black music scene in the inter-war years. In the middle of the Great Migration, these blues singers like Ma Rainey, Clara Smith and Bessie, took their tent tours throughout the segregated South, as well as playing major Northern venues. It describes the way in which the record industry worked and the TOBA tour circuit which took Black artists around the country. The image of the Bessie Smith company, with Bessie at the helm, Jack Gee coming and going, musicians and dancers - all aboard their own railroad car criss-crossing the country is a striking one. That railroad car was the scene of countless, absurd escapades, drunken fights, orgies, of all-manner of liaisons and complex love-triangles, and midnight escapes as the car was hitched to the nearest train to escape the next fight. The rockers of the 60s and 70s thought they were wild-men when they threw the odd TV out of a hotel-window. Most of them were tame - compared with Bessie!

The most marvellous scene in the book takes place when Bessie hears that the KKK, are about to let her tent down in the middle of a performance, as her national success they deemed inappropriate for someone of colour. The deep south in the 20s was not a place in which black people would normally not be extremely frightened by such a threat. Bessie however, marched out and screamed torrents of obscenities at the stunned and be-sheeted Klansmen until they dispersed in confused bewilderment!

Alderson's book also hints at the many contradictions in Bessie Smith's life. It seems that while sexual promiscuity might be the norm on a Friday night, and a drunken brawl on a Saturday night might be the norm. Come Sunday morning, Smith might equally march her troop to church - to sing to God, and Amen! a sermon espousing quite different values. Yet through all the complexity and confusion of her life, Smith used her great voice to lay-down some of the definitive blues recordings of the inter-war years.

Bessie Smith was indomitable. She wasn't just a woman, or a singer - she emerges by the end of the book as a force. It's tragic, that with a career reviving after the depression, and perhaps with some of her excesses tamed and some domestic stability emerging for the first time, she was killed in a car-crash outside Clarksdale, Miss. Alderson takes great pains to cast doubt on the traditional story that Smith died because she was refused blood at a whites-only hospital in segregated Mississippi. Instead, he interviews several witnesses who suggest that this couldn't be the case, as it is neither a likely cause of death given the nature of her injuries - or that the ambulance driver would have taken her there, when the hospital for 'coloureds' (sic) was so close by. Alderson's research rather points the finger of blame at the truck driver involved in the accident who abandoned her at the scene and drove on into Clarksdale.

Much of Bessie Smith's music has been saved for posterity - the record companies making more money in retrospective releases than the artist saw in a lifetime! Her fine voice, and the sheer power of her personality is stamped all over these tunes. Numbers such as "Nobody Loves You (when You're Down and Out)" can be heard freely on the internet too. Free music - Nobody knows when your down and out . Having read the biography - it feels as if seventy years later, and listening through the internet, I can listen to Bessie Smith at a safe distance. I certainly wouldn't have risked getting into a fight with her.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Film Notes: The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's remarkable film set in East Germany. Ulrich Mühe plays a Stasi officer, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler - a dedicated communist who both enforces state security and teaches Stasi recruits the rudiments of interrogation. He is sent to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress-girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), to bug their apartment and report on every aspect of their lives. The initial premise is that these artists are suspected of disloyalty to the state - but the reality soon emerges that a senior party official is pursuing Sieland, and seeking a premise to remove his rival.

The film centres on the mind of Wiesler, as he spends his days and nights watching Dreyman and Sieland. He takes notes as they debate artistic freedom and the state, as they entertain party-loyalists and dissidents, as they sleep, eat, make-love and even the bathroom is bugged. Everything is typed up onto official reports. Yet, what he observes, creates a massive internal dilemma within Weisler. Their life, their passion, their enthusiasm contrasts so vividly with his dead, cold, humanity-devoid work as a party apparatchik that for the first time he allows himself to face his own repressed doubts about the party.

As Weisler makes the critical mistake of allowing himself to see the surveillance subjects as people, it is only a matter of time before he is forced to choose between his instincts and training - and this new-found humanity which is encroaching on his consciousness. Brilliantly, this is done with hardly any dialogue; but simply through letting the camera spy on Weisler, as he sits in his surveillance suite in the attic space above Dreyman's apartment. While Clive Davis' review on the Spectator website derides this aspect of the film as if the writer couldn't be bothered with a dialogue, he misses the point entirely. The point is that Weisler was one of hundreds or thousands of State-drones whose unquestioning loyalty to Honecker was being eroded as they were exposed to new ideas as the 80s progressed. While they could not speak openly, but maintained an image of ruthless loyalty, every exposure to life, art, love or passion brought them a step closer to complete rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

While what Dreyman experiences and discusses, especially the suicide of blacklisted director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), fuels Weisler's doubts from one side - the behaviour of the party hierarchy assaults his ideological convictions from the other. As the film develops, the behaviour of Seiland becomes more erratic as she faces the opposite dilemma of whether to take the party-patronage and save her career. Standing as mirror-images either side of the hidden espionage curtain, each faces the life-wrenching dilemma of choosing between treachery and loyalty. I won't spoil the film for you by giving away the critical choices that each makes. Suffice to say that the film grips the viewer as the Stasi raid Dreyman's flat looking for incriminating evidence against him. Finally the film comes to an exquisite ending, in the post-communism era, completing a truly remarkable movie.

Opinions have been deeply divided by The Lives of Others. On one hand it has won rave reviews and awards - but been savaged by some critics such as Clive Davis, who hated its pacing and dialogue. I am unashamedly amongst those who thought that this was a really great film. Convincing, exhilarating, and as painful in its betrayals and lost hopes as it was in its braveries and loyalties. It may not have been accurate in every detail about life in the former GDR, but to miss the point of the film because of such minor details is to by crippled by ones own pedantry. In fact, the sense of oppression, of the fear of speaking-out, of the dead-hand of the state bearing down on every aspect of life; is as well captured as are the sparks of creative life which were beginning to challenge the darkness during the 80s.

I have watched many films which are so predictable, featuring characters so implausible that the final credits are a blessed relief. The Lives of Others, on the other hand impresses itself so deeply on the mind that a deep interest in the fates of Dreyman, Seiland and Weisler grips the viewer. The end of this film left me moved in a way I have not been by a film in a long time. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was the greatest shift in European history since WWII. This little-drama, set within that massive drama, is a quite brilliant study in loyalty, treachery, bravery, power, corruption, freedom and hope. Unforgettable cinema.

German with English subtitles, one sex-scene gains it a (15) certificate.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Wintery Light Beginning

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There's something special about the way that Perth looks as more Wintery light comes in. During the summer, the colours of the roofs, the stone, and the hills behind, seem to get washed-out under overhead sunlight; and then lost behind the haze that so outwits cameras! It might not be sunny that often in Winter, and long dreich day sunder grey skies might be the norm, but when the clouds do eventually part, winter-sun is the best. The first signs of wintery-light are changing the way the town looks already.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Norman Wisdom RIP

I have just read of the death, aged 95, of Sir Norman Wisdom. The last of the music hall comics to find mainstream film success - Wisdom became a household name in the 1950s and 60s. His clowning, bumbling character (often named Pitkin), varied only slightly in most of these films remaining, hapless, innocent, and plucky. On running gags played on Pitkin's ability to infuriate the hierarchy of whichever organisation the film was set in (army, council, shop etc) with his antics.

BBC2 showed a season of Wisdom films when I was a youngster. While they sometimes seem rather slow today, and much of the humour relates to violations of deference and chains of command that are largely absent today - they are still a source of happy memories for me. I remember sitting in front of my Mum and Dad's old black and white TV, and laughing until I cried at films such as The Bulldog Breed and Trouble in Store.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Book Notes: Stalin Ate Mt Homework by Alexei Sayle

While some childhood memoir books use extravagant writing to tease out every possibility from a relatively mundane plot - Alexei Sayle's Stalin Ate My Homework, does the exact opposite. Without flowery prose or many deliberate 'jokes', he tells the story of his early years in an understated, almost matter-of-fact voice. It's this which makes the book so compelling, because while the story being told is so bizarre, so endearing, and so profoundly unusual that it might be ripe for hyperbole, and adjective straining comparisons; it is told as if it were all completely normal! This is in fact what makes the book so funny.

While the realisation that his family were a little different grows on the young Sayle through the course of the book, he still manages to astonish the reader with the childlike sense that being raised by committed communists with unfettered admiration for Stalin was just another part of growing up. Spending his holidays enjoying the perks of Union conferences, or travelling on delegations to parts of the Eastern Bloc, were all just aspects of what it meant to be brought up by parents whose life-purpose was ideological and whose ideology informed every decision, from what to buy to what to watch on television, to what to read. It clearly had an effect on Sayle which contributed to making him an odd character! In one entertaining passage Sayle discusses why he was never able to really enjoy hobbies like other boys who built airfix models or went train-spotting:
I kept trying and trying, but perhaps I just didn't have that collectors impulse or maybe it was simply that my hobby, and my family's hobby was the elimination of private property via the violent expropriation of landowners, industrialists, railroad magnates and shipowners; organisation of labour on publicly owned land, in factories and workshops - with competition among the workers abolished, and the centralisation of money and credit in the hands of the state through a national bank, and the suppression of all private banks and bankers. So writing numbers down in a book was likely to have a hard time competing with that. (p132)
Alexei's father, Joe Sayle appears in the narrative as almost saint-like, dependable, warm, principled and loving. His mother, Molly on the other hand is positively incendiary! While she obsesses over her only child, she yells, shouts, intimidates, interferes with everything while swearing like a trooper - through much of the book. Some of the funniest scenes in the book describe Molly hurling abuse at the capitalist propaganda (ie BBC TV), and the whole family tuning into the Queen's Speech simply in order to generate these high-volume denunciations!

The book concludes with Alexei both irritating his parents, by siding with Mao (different groups, different meetings, different newspapers, different doctrine) against the Russians; and being irritated by his parents when they start attending all the same parties and clubs as him!

Alexie Sayle's memoir is highly readable, almost unbelievable, hugely entertaining, and quite revealing. I did enjoy the way in which he sought, at times, to paint himself in the worst possible light! It's quite unlike anything else I have read - at times funny, constantly surprising, and utterly intriguing. It is also crying out for a follow-up book, in which we might finally discover what sense he made of the ideological indoctrination of his childhood. Apparently, Molly Sayle called the book a 'pack of lies' to which he responded that as a typical Stalinist she was alwasy wanting to re-rite history, airbrushing out its inconveniences!

A clip of Sayle reading from his book is on YouTube here:

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pakistan Flood Victims Fundraising Event in Perth!

On Saturday October 30th, "An Evening of Music, Food and Fun in aid of Save The Children in Pakistan" is planned for Perth. A variety of bands, ensembles and soloists are already in rehearsal, preparing their diverse sets to entertain the crowd with an eclectic mix of rock, jazz, blues, classical, soul and Scottish music. There is even talk of an open-mic at the end for the general amusement of the audience and an opportunity for any Perth's Got Talent wannabees!

The event takes place at Perth Baptist Church Centre, 7:30pm. Entry is by ticket, for which there is a minimum donation of £5 (£3/concessions). All the money raised will be going to Save The Children whose work to help re-build flood damaged areas of Pakistan continues, even though the news agenda has moved on to other things. The urgent provision of housing, healthcare and clean-water supplies is essential for the people of Pakistan and the more help we can offer at this critical stage - the better their long term hopes will be.

Tickets are available from Perth Baptist Church - please come, enjoy and donate - you'll only be missing the X-factor on TV anyway!

Friday, October 01, 2010

When the mighty fall

I stared at the screen in disbelief. I scrolled to the top of the page and read it all again, unable to process the information I was receiving. The words in front of me were not complicated, confusing, or requiring translation, it was simply that they were so laden with shock and menace that as I went back and read them again for a third time, a surge of adrenaline pushed my mind into a hyperactive search for an alternative explanation. But no other possible explanations could be found. It was true, a great man had fallen.

The uprooting of a tender sapling, whether wrenched from the ground by storm, or torn up by foraging beasts, is a sad thing to see. The seed has made its way from the parent, nestled into the ground, pushed its way up into the light, only for the flame of its potential to be snuffed out. The loss of a sapling is a silent thing, an unnoticed thing, as it is predominantly the loss of what might have been.

Not so when a great tree is ripped from the landscape. When the majesty of a widespread horse-chestnut, is humiliated by the roar of chainsaws, it dies a noisy death. Motors whine and smoke, the tree groans its death-roar and plunges earthward splitting, cracking, crying, and landing with a dull thurrump that crushes the saplings it has sown. When a great tree falls, it leaves a gap. A tree-line gains the black space of a broken tooth. There is light where light should not be, there is no shade where shade properly belongs - there is the sudden and unwelcome presence of emptiness, of visual loneliness, where imperious trunks and arching boughs held aloft ten-thousand leaves to filter-green the yellow sun.

Such loss is not the fear that what might be, will now not. No, this is the bereavement of unwelcome loss, of the ripping away of what is, from the place in which we are accustomed to finding it. No longer will people find our house if we say, "oh just turn left past the huge tree - you can't miss it." Because we do miss it, our great landmark, our point of reference has been so cruelly destroyed.

What makes this tragedy almost incomprehensible is that for so long, he gave the impression of stability, of permanence. Yet even as his lofty branches disturbed winds high above the earth, and he summoned saplings to strive to emulate him; he must have been planning his own collapse. How could he capitulate to gravity so easily after surviving so many storms? How could the veteran of great battles with hurricanes and planners, sell his birthright for the proverbial mess of pottage? How could the thing which seemed so solid, simply sell-up, walk-out, give in, fold? The strange thing about this implosion is the awful space left behind, the vacuum of meaning, the disappointment, and the damage done to those who once nestled in its shade.

Feeling drained, I drew back from the computer screen to let the words sink in. Sink-in they did, and as the words released their meaning, the meaning revealed its consequences and the tugging weight of dread and despair sunk into my stomach, where it remains. What had once been an inspiration to persevere is now the subject of a sorry battle in damage limitation.

My initial thought is shameful. Why not follow-suit? If we had followed him up, why not down? Why not go AWOL? Why not forget the inconveniences of being a disciple, and instead just follow desire? Why endure the quest for what is best, when the mediocre maps out a path of least resistance? Why calibrate the scales of conscience with the burdens of 'right' and 'wrong' when negotiating by the axes of 'fun' and 'not fun', might yield so much more..... fun. I feel like a trampled sapling, head bowed, earth-bound, robbed of the vision to tower, stripped of the will to look up and aim skyward.

Yet - the warm gracious sun shines still, and I find that however much I lack the courage to re-engage with the imperative for growth; it turns my weary head upward. I find that I cannot, not respond to its light, its energy, its warmth. Grace connects with something in my very structure that means that even when I am hungry for the comforts of capitulation, I cannot ultimately surrender to its allure. Almost against my will, the light draws me to itself, and reveals the allure of surrender as fake, smarmy, phony charm.

My next thought then is this. If I am to be called on from here and to grow; if the light calls me upwards, and grace lifts my head from despair. Might I be the next proud man to make much of standing firm, only to cause this damage to others if I was to fall? Might it be better to remain small, to serve as inostentatiously as possible, not to spread branches wide, in order that my potential for harm is restricted? I have seen a great man fall - and no doubt in the years before it happened he felt as confident as I do now that I would never do such a thing. Is my confidence realistic, or unfounded? Do I trust myself to remain pure in motive and action - or have I just lacked the opportunity for such delicious self-destruction, thus far? I have been told that I should not trust myself so much as trust in the facts of grace to mean that I will be kept from falling; from satisfying the worst parts of my nature. Yet this too troubles me as I have seen a great man fall, and restraining grace seemed absent. Now I know that it is true that restraining grace must at times be withheld in order that we foolish humans do not flatter ourselves with silly notions of our supposed perfection. Yet this too is a troubling thought. What if the wider good required that restraining grace was withheld from me for a season? To what depths might I sink? What scars could I inflict on the shoots of potential, who are pushing upwards around me?

Perhaps part of the security is to lack the false security of self-reliance. To imagine that we stand is almost a pre-requisite for the inevitable fall. The illusion of self-sufficiency is only a deadly foe if it is allowed to assume the appearance of reality. While the light of humility shines, such illusory impressions are clearly seen for what they are; it is only in the half-light that their outlines can be mistaken for solid reliable forms. But humility is itself a most slippery creature, that escapes as soon as it is presumed caught!

How then am I to prevent a repeat of the calamity I have witnessed - and which I know in my worst moments I am capable of? If restraining grace doesn't apply, if self-reliance is a delusion depending on humility - which I may not grasp, what can I do? I settle on four things:

The first is that I must never sink into the complacency that assumes that I am immune to calamitous sinful self-destruction. I must (without becoming excessively introverted and introspective) meditate upon my own character flaws, and expose the temptations to which I am most prone. In order to manage myself, I must know myself.

Secondly, I must pursue humility. This however is akin to chasing tomorrow, an impossible journey to a destination that consumes itself! The point is that striving for humility as an achievement is inherently self-contradictory. No - it must be achieved not by working within, but by looking outwards. Humility cannot be generated, earned or grasped. Rather, it can only be a reaction, a spontaneous response to the revelation of truth. It happens when we see ourselves, not in comparison with our equally flawed peers - but in the moment of revelation of ultimate purity. The writer to the Hebrews says "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith", and it is when we do this that we do not try to gain humility as a badge, but simply see its sheer overwhelming appropriateness.

Thirdly, I must take all warnings of great men who fall; as a constant warning against assuming that I have done the first two things adequately. If on this march, a body or two lies at the side of the road, it cannot make the whole column lay down in the misery of defeat - but it should make us alert, watchful and careful. I pray that the lesson my life will teach will be that of a faithful marcher, not that of a cadaver warning of the dangers of desertion.

Fourthly and finally, I must see that this struggle is not one I face alone. Far from it, in fact. While I have responsibility for my actions, the load is at the very least shared! I must remain confident that the grace which has brought me 'safe thus far' is the grace that will 'lead me home'. I must accept that He who began a good work in me will see it through to completion - even if I cannot explain cases where this appears not to have happened.

So I stared at the screen in disbelief, and for all my mental wrestling no other possible explanations could be found. It was true, a great man had fallen. And so I prayed for the great and fallen man. I prayed not in the self-promotion of presumed superiority, but with deep sorrow and I prayed for those who he brought down with him, in his self-destruction. Then I prayed for myself, and asked God in His mercy never to let me cause harm like that, to bless me with His restraining grace, and to help me keep my eyes on Him, and to lead me 'not into temptation'. And I once again entrusted my soul, my sinful, tired, flawed soul into his hands and dared to believe the words: "To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy - to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen."