Friday, December 30, 2016

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Allt Da Ghob

An Evening of Blues with The Simon Kennedy Band & Lins Honeyman & Band

The Souter Theatre in Perth's AK Bell Library played host to a blues extravaganza on Saturday night, courtesy of two local bands, The Simon Kennedy Band, and Lins Honeyman & Band. As Blues Bands go, they couldn't be more different, but between them they put on a fine evening's entertainment.

Lins Honeyman's band got things underway with a set of predominantly acoustic blues  (they have an electric guitar on several songs), featuring a mixture of Blues, Rock n Roll classics, and Honeyman's own compositions. Honeyman is a well known figure in the Perth music scene, having been gigging for many years in the company of an evolving line up of musicians. The current band: Honeyman: vox, guitars, harmonica, mandolin; Andrew McCully: lead guitar, double bass; Les Dalziel: keys, double bass, electric bass; Jon Assheton: drums, percussion, cahon, and Peter Oates: violin; has remained largely unchanged for a while now (Oates being the sole recent addition). Over time they have increasingly gelled as a unit and were on good form on Saturday night, presenting the bluesy-est set list they have performed in a while. Having heard this band range across a whole range of musical styles, I have always rated their blues-based performances as the pick of their output. Whether that is a fair assessment of their work, or simply a reflection of the fact that I love the blues, is hard to objectively judge!

Lins did a solo spot mid-show, which was well-received, and included a Shakespeare-inspired audience-participation singalong. It sounds improbable, but it worked! Other highlights included a bit of Blind Willie Johnson, some Chuck Berry, and a cheeky bit of blues comedy in the form of Keep Talkin', a humorous blues with a lyric that would bring a knowing smile to the likes of Champion Jack Dupree, who was apparently similarly afflicted! Two Feet Mama is another slightly tongue in cheek blues song which Lins wrote when he was quite young, but which has made a recent return to his live performances; alongside an idiosyncratic take on a certain Jungle Book number at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to the soul searching song 'Sertraline'. The first half finale from Lins and Co, was 'Stranger Blues', which has been part of their set for some years. It has sometimes featured Les Dalziel and Lins himself, on Hammond organ solos, but with Les occupied on double-bass duties, and Lins wielding the harmonica, they were joined onstage by Mirek Hodun from the Simon Kennedy Band, who added a unique flourish to proceedings. Yesterday night, I was at one of my kids school parent's evening. One of the teachers, who had also been at the gig said to me, "I just love Lins' band... they just get better and better!"
As they combined solid musicianship, with a unique and eclectic set-list, delivered with Honeyman's trademark wit and whimsy, in a rootsy acoustic blues package, it's hard to disagree with his assessment.

After the interval, Simon Kennedy led his band onto the stage. Once a four piece band, the new SKB lineup features the eye-wateringly good drummer Brian Macleod and keyboard maestro Mirek Hodun,
who's left hand has replaced the bassist! While the first half featured lots of chat, humour, and acoustic vibes; the SKB were a complete contrast; from the outset they were full of highly charged, very loud, high-energy, funky electric blues. Led by Simon Kennedy's technically stunning, melodic guitar lines, trading licks with Mirek's very funky Hammond, built upon the foundation of Macleod's scintillating grooves; they kicked off with a Freddy King instrumental which set the tone for the second half of the evening brilliantly. Mixing blues covers, like Cannonball, and the El Media Stomp with Kennedy's own writing they showed why they are a real force to be reckoned with in the contemporary blues scene; and why they have gained national radio airplay.

Kennedy's own writing is mostly up-beat, intense, and earnest; but his lyrics are uncommonly thought-provoking and profound. If you are a fan of the the endless cliche's which fill the charts, then Kennedy's lyrics are not for you. His songs, do not feature any of the usual hackneyed phrases which rhyme such banalities as "sitting at home" with "all alone" and "waiting for the phone". Rather, he probes the human condition, and its' many sided complexities - drawing deeply on his Christian faith for answers to the many questions he airs. All this in upbeat driving, funky blues on tracks such as "Show them it's True".

The SKB then delivered a staggering version of the soul song, "The Letter", popularised (though not written by) Joe Cocker. Beginning with an eerie guitar introduction which weaved a chunk of "Stairway" into it, the band later morphed into a blast of 'Smoke On The Water"! In between that they belted out a stonking version of the song itself interspersed with an amazingly entertaining drum solo from Macleod, and a organ-solo, singalong from Hodun.

The night came to a glorious conclusion when all the musicians crowded onto the small stage for a big blues jam, under Kennedy's direction. Everyone who had taken part (with the exception of Jon Assheton - as there were two drummers, but only one kit!) traded solos and brought the evening to a rip roaring conclusion. 

I had the privilege of being asked to take some photos of the gig, which was hugely enjoyable. One day I'll own a professional standard camera which can operate at high ISOs without producing this much 'noise'.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Notes: TOMMY: The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914-1918 by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes' Tommy is a huge book, which describes, in massive detail, every aspect of the experience and organisation of the British military campaign on The Western Front in The Great War. Its' 650+ pages contain chapters on recruitment, training, army structures, uniforms, trench life and warfare, military innovations, leave and entertainment, wounds, death and field hospitals, chaplains, communication, as well as the battles themselves.

Despite the fact that Holmes has an, at-times, rather pedantic eye for detail; this has been a profoundly sobering read. We paused, in our church for the two-minutes silence to remember victims of war this Sunday, almost exactly a hundred years to the day when the dreadful Battle of The Somme finally drew to a close. As we did so, I was almost at the end of this book, images from which pressed vividly on my mind. A century on from the war which was supposed to end all wars, the world looks more dangerous and volatile than it has in my lifetime. Putin seeks a renewed Russian Empire to the East, Trump has made noises about reneging on NATO commitments, leaving the Baltic States vulnerable and the possibility of a European ground war apparently more likely than at anytime since the early stages of the Cold War. Spending Sunday morning reading Holmes' accounts of the corralling of the teenagers of Britain into deadly trenches, then standing for a two-minute silence close to my two teenage sons was unnerving. I deliberately chose to read a WWI book during this centenary remembrance, and this volume is enormously  informative.

The book actually gets better as it goes on, some of the early chapters suffer from the repeated fault of being far too long, and overloading the reader with facts, at the expense of incisive analysis. One of the reasons that I have often struggled to read military history, is that the genre as a whole seems to suffer from this problem. All history writing contains facts; obviously! However, the best history writing has to be more than an archive of information presented in narrative form. The historian must analyse the vast reams of information, look for patterns and answers to debates, and then argue his or her point, using the information selectively; and footnoting rather than regurgitating huge amounts of data. To coin an unforgivably inappropriate metaphor, the chapter on military structures and reorganisations, was like wading through mud..

Thankfully, as indicated previously, the book improves as it goes on. The chapters on trench life and warfare were concise, and powerful. The discussions of military tactics and innovations were as well. Likewise the research and presentation of the life of the soldier away from the line, at play and at church, was also very well done, as were the sections on discipline, communication, the old and new army, horses, artillery, friendship, and aircraft. It is axiomatic that one of the major trends of the twentieth century was secularisation, from the high water mark of Victorian religiosity in the 1860s, through to the marginalisation of religious thought from the 1960s. There has been a long scholarly debate about both the causes of that process, as well as the starting point and rate of the secular advance. Holmes' analysis of the diaries of the trench soldiers, suggest that those who posit and early advance in secularism are closer to the mark - at least amongst this cohort of men. Fascinating too is his suggestion that the Catholic priests were more highly regarded chaplains than their Anglican counterparts, because Roman theology compelled them to wade through the battles to administer the 'last rites' to dying men in no-man's land, in trenches, and in shell-holes; often at huge risk to themselves.

Holmes makes a point throughout this work of debunking many of what he considers to be the myths which have grown up surrounding the Western Front, which he notes sometimes owe more to Blackadder than to historical fact. Such myths include the suggestion that the sons of the upper classes were shielded from loss, because the officers hid while the men went ''over the top'. This myth does not stand up to scrutiny at all, where the reverse seems to have actually been the case; with vast numbers of officers leading the fateful charges at Loos, Ypres, and The Somme et al. Likewise, Holmes is critical of the usual accusation that the planned advance across The Somme valley in the summer of 1916 (and the infamous worst day in the history of the British Army) was the result of sheer stupidity on the part of inept Generals. Holmes painstakingly points out that the battle was strategically necessary to stop German troops moving to other parts of the theatre where they could in 1916 have decisively overwhelmed several ill-prepared defences. 

Holmes also demonstrates that the appalling casualty rates on the opening days of that notorious conflict were not simply the result of a brainless attempt to overwhelm machine-gun fire by sending wave after wave of men to walk into it; but by a combination of the failure of the artillery barrage to clear the path for the infantry (of both enemy troops and physical obstacles), and of the army of of 1916 being totally unable to communicate effectively while in battle. Specifically, the infantry were supposed to advance on foot through areas of no-man's land, cleared of man and wire, towards German trenches behind a 'creeping barrage' of constant shelling. The line of devastating shelling was supposed to land only fifty or so yards in front of them, and the two lines were meant to advance in parallel synchrony. However, when the infantry were slowed down by the unexpected strength which the artillery had failed to knock-out, and by the deep muddy soil, they fell behind the 'creeping barrage' of covering fire. However, they had no effective means of communicating their actual position to the gunners behind the front line. The two repeatedly fell out of sync, leaving the infantry hopelessly vulnerable. The idea that fools in command posts were indifferent to such slaughter is also debunked, in truth, in mid-conflagration, they often had no idea what was going on in the line. 

Similarly, the idea that mentally ill soldiers were routinely shot for cowardice (when they were suffering from what we would now consider PTSD) is examined. There were, of course, some instances where this was undoubtedly the case. However, Holmes is careful to paint a picture of an army struggling to understand such matters, in what was the very early days of psychiatry, and making huge strides in addressing the issue as the war progressed.

Having said all that, Holmes is not simply an apologist for the British Army, nor for the pursuit of The Great War in general. He is often critical of the war, the politicians, and the way in which the war was pursued; but in this book 'Tommy', he is very careful to critique these things in their social, technological and broader historical context. Many of the most stringent criticisms made of the Army are made (quite accurately) but with the benefit of both hindsight and a century of cultural changes; which were completely inaccessible to the protagonists.

Tommy: The British Soldier On The Western Front 1914-18, is a enormously informative read, introducing the reader to all aspects of this defining conflict of modern history. The four photographic sections inserted through the book are fascinating, and rather haunting too. If its' 650+ pages could have been trimmed to around 400, with less repetition and fewer lists of facts and more analysis and summary instead, it would have been less exhaustive a guide, but a more compelling one.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Carn Bhac and Glen Ey

Glen Ey is a delight. I have long meant to explore Glen Ey, having seen alluring photos of it in mountain guides, and seen it from afar, from the top of Beinn lutharn Mhor. I finally managed to explore it myself, yesterday, on my way through to Carn Bhac - the only one of that cluster of Munros west of Glenshee, which had so far eluded me. I had planned to get to this one earlier on this year - on my way to take part in a church event at The Compass Christian Centre in Glenshee. That walk though fell victim to an asault of incessant torrential rain, which made the prospect look nothing less than ghastly. This week we enjoyed a reversal of such fortunes, the dreadful weather forecast was changed to a decent one on Friday night - and so we packed and headed for the hills. In fact, the initial forecasts hadn't been totally wrong, it was simply that the heavy rain pssed through the eastern glens during the night, leaving the air wonderfully dry - but the ground like a swamp!

The starting point for Glen Ey looks complex on the 1:50 000 OS map, with paths going in all directions. In practice however, the village of Inverey, where the River Eye pours into The Dee, has a walkers car park with a clear wooden sign saying "Glen Ey". From there, the track is obvious, and winds its way alongside the river for five and a half miles, terminating at the ruin of Altanour Lodge. From there, walkers paths continue on into the upper reaches of the glen. Our mountain bikes convered the ground fast, over the track which is in pretty good condition. It's a ride which is full of interest all the way along. The river was swollen and charging down the glen, the base of the valley is typically glacial - flat bottomed and wide, but the track climbs significantly along its length. An uphill slog in though, means a fast escape from the hills at the end of the day! The flat valley floor is framed by mountains on every side, which seem to grow in stature as the track heads southwards into steadily more remote territory.

In wide, lonely Glen Ey, we met virtually no-one all day. The landscape is obviously not 'natural', in that the marks of mankind are in everything from the lack of trees to the deer management measures, shooting access tracks, and heather burning. On the other hand, it is positively a wilderness compared to 'bonnie Glenshee', one glen to the east of Glen Ey, which is a landscape mangled by the skiing industry, with its' cafe's, car-parks, bulldozers, fences, piles of earth and wire. 

We abandoned bikes at the ruins of Altanour Lodge, which are now hidden behind a protective fence. The track itself ends at a turning circle a few yards beyond the ruins, and a walkers path continues then forks. We took the right hand fork which should have taken us south-easterly onto the southern ridge of Carn Bhac. In practice though, the path forded the Alltan Odhar, which in spate was uncrossable. The warm overnight downpour had melted the first of the winter snows which in combination were charging down the sides of the hills. We were forced to turn westwards, staying on the North side of the stream until just underneath the summit of Carn Bhac, where we were able to cross the burn and re-join the path. We left a little cairn marking the point at which we left the track so that we could re-trace our route, it would have been very easy to have descended a long way - only to have ended up the wrong side of a rising torrent. This was a swampy, squelch of a walk, but there is a bit of a path; suggesting that we were not the first walkers to have been unable to cross the Alltan Odhar.

The summit of Carn Bhac is wide and rocky, with a semi-circular cairn, which was plastered with driven snow. The views from this solitary munro are impressive, of such distinctive things as the famous Lairig Ghru through the Cairngorms, the Angels Peak, Devil's Point and Beinn MacDui around it, the Morrone at Braemar; and Beinn a Ghlo to the South. All that was left, was to return through the squelch to the bikes and Altanour Lodge, and fly down the track to Glen Ey and the waiting car in the fading afternoon light.

On paper this was an easy day out. 16miles, of which 10 were bikeable. At the end of it we were both really tired - and glad to get home! It was just so good to be in the hills again, after so long.

All photos taken on my phone!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Virginia Water Lake

It was a major nostalgia-trip for me, taking my family on the five mile walk around Virginia Water lake, at the southern end of Windsor Great Park. Virginia Water was the destination for countless family walks when I was a child, a place where my grandparents took me, and the destination of my first seriosu bike ride. As a teenager I cycled through Windsor Great Park time and time again, experiencing a glimpse of countryside in the noise of outer London, from the der par, through Smith's lawn and down the hill to the lake; and the little trailer in the woods which sold coke's and juice bars.

I have seen it in dry, hot summers, torrential rains, autumn colours, and in ice too. When I was a child, Ashford Congregational Church used to organise an annual Boxing Day walk around the lake. In those days, the paths could be boggy and wet, and there was no cafe by The Wheatsheaf car park doling out hot chocolate drinks to the wet and weary!

We found ourselves there on a crisp autumn day last week,

All photos enlarge to full size by clicking on them.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Notes: Autobiography, Eric Clapton

When I turned the final page of Eric Clapton's autobiography, my immediate thought was, "how on earth is this man still alive?" The fact that in 2017 he is returning to London's Royal Albert Hall for a series of gigs with his band, seems almost miraculous when one reads about how much of the 1960s he spent stoned, how much of the 1970s he lost to heroin addiction and how much of the 1980s to a serious alcohol problem. When you add to that the chaos of his relationships with wives and a staggering array of women, his survival is extraordinary.
The tone of the book is unusual, in that it is predominantly a confessional. Autobiographies of notable people, are usually replete with intricate details of their achievements. Politicians like to recount their key moments brokering deals, or bringing parties to the negotiating table, sportsmen like to dissect their greatest moments, with lessons for the reader on technique, training and tactics. There are no guitar lessons in Clapton's autobiography however, no speculations about the roots of, of enduring appeal of the blues, or explanations as to what he feels has enabled him to reach the heights of his profession and remain there for a half a century. Rather, we discover that he was massively screwed up as a kid, when he discovered that his 'parents' were actually his biological grandparents - and had to face maternal rejection. He found solace first in music generally, then in blues guitar. Then he says that he was lost in drugs and alcohol for so much of his life that he basically didn't ever mature beyond being a young teenager; despite having access to all manner of adult pleasures and pastimes. When looking back at the way he treated his first wife, he says things such as, "my moral health was appalling". He also documents several of his failures and misjudgements with the women and relationships in his life (as well as simply missing out several others who inexplicably do not get a mention in his tale). He spares the reader few insights into how badly he treated and used the women who came and went from his life, his drug binges and his bed. Perhaps this is carthartic writing; perhaps seeking some form of public absolution. Intriguingly, aside from his childhood issues and lack of sobriety he offers almost no explanation, or intended justification, for some of his shoddy behaviour.

The basic facts of his musical life are in there, John Mayall, Graham Bond, Cream, Blind Faith, and all his solo work. All the albums, and his collaborators are mentioned, as well as what was going on musically at the time, be it blues, raggae, folk, rock, or pop. However, for obvious reasons many of these are rather vague in their recollection of detail; as the main story is all about the state that Clapton found himself in at the time, and his tempestuous relationships. If you open this book hoping to find the definitive story of the Baker/Bruce feud that broke Cream, then you will be disappointed and left with little more than the acknowledgement that they didn't always get on (who knew?!)! 
The relationship between musical creativity and chemical intoxication is a curious one. The Beatles recorded some of their very best and absolute worst music when heavily drugged (personally I refer the more colourful LSD fuelled Pepper material to the heavier drugs which seem to undergird the White Album). Reading Clapton's autobiography, I was interested to note that the music of his which I admire most has been that in his most sober and controlled periods. While there were certainly plenty of chemicals flowing in the 1960s, behind much of the music of Cream through to Derek and the Dominoes, he wasn't out of control in that most productive era. However, I didn't really like a lot of what he did from then until the Journeyman/Unplugged era - which is when he finally completely sobered up. In terms of his own playing and musicianship, he freely admits it suffered badly during his periods of heavy addictions.
One of the tragedies of the book is that Clapton got to know the great Muddy Waters, but was unable to really develop the musical or personal relationship as it coincided with his heavy drinking days. The other is the awful story of the death of Clapton's four year old son Conor, the effect that the loss had on him, and how he dealt with it. This is painful and difficult reading, and Clapton is very open about this devastating part of his life.
Like great musical biopics of recent years, like "Ray" or "Walk the Line", the great plot of this book is about the fact that the central character doesn't end up dead like one of his girlfriends, a Jimi Hendrix, a Janis Joplin or a Phil Lynott; but conquers his addictions - and emerges from the rubble with a coherent and decent life. In fact, the final chapters of this book are all about Clapton's last two decades of sobriety, which have enabled him to build a happy marriage with his second wife and their three daughters. He also details the way in which he has been able to invest so much of his time and fortune in his Crossroads Addiction Recovery Centre.

One of the intriguing things about Clapton's tale of escape from alcoholism was of his encounter with the 'higher power' known to all aficionados of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He talks rather candidly about his scepticism about organised religion and its doctrinal systems; yet, about reaching a point of 'surrender' before God as being a critical step in his recovery. He also suggests that his previous attempts to reform himself failed as he didn't ever reach that point. This is actually an essential element of the book as without this, it would end as an overdose of smugness; self-rescue and self-promotion. With it, it seems that hitting rock-bottom, he was lifted up by a hidden benevolent power. The book then ends positively, with a sober man, with a content family life, still playing the music he loves. There is an enduring note of sadness in it all however; a trail of debris from the damaged relationships, painful splits and some who never made it alive through the drug-fuelled frenzy. Also, somewhat skirted around is Clapton's ill advised anti-immigration outburst in the mid-70s that sounded racist, from a man who spent his time hanging out with BB King, Muddy Waters and playing Black people's music. Perhaps the confession about dreadful state he was in at the time is the best explanation for that sorry episode that we are likely to get.

Clapton's autobiography is a fascinating, if not at times, a rather bleak read. It does provide an intriguing insight into the guitar man behind such enduring classics as Steppin' Out, Layla, White Room, Sunshine of Your Love, and being the prime contemporary exponent of such blues standards as Crossroads, or Born Under a Bad Sign.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

College Days..

Recently I found myself walking past this place; Strode's College, where I did my A-levels, way back in the 1980s. In those days it was an odd combination of being a school 6th form, and an adult education college. It was also a state school, on the site of a former private school; which is perhaps why it looks so grand, when I am but a peasant!

Book Notes: Transgender by Vaughan Roberts

Many years ago the noted Anglican clergyman John Stott issued a book which went through many editions and updates called, "Issues Facing Christians Today". Over the decades, the issues he discussed changed, with early versions being more weighted towards matters such as industrial disputes, and Trades Unions, and the latter to more individual or personal concerns such as medical and sexual ethics. How much issues facing Christians have changed again since Stott's demise is perhaps seen no more clearly than in the new series of issues-based ethics introductions being published by The Good Book Company called Talking Points. I have just been sent a copy of the first of them, a slim 70-odd page booklet called Transgender by Vaughan Roberts.

So short a book, can obviously not do justice to the ethical, political, medical, theological, psychological, and pastoral areas associated with this contemporary debate. In fact, Roberts restricts himself to only addressing a few aspects of the discussion, with a significant reading list for people who wish to explore various aspects of the subject in greater depth. What Roberts does attempt to do is the following, (i) provide Christians with an understanding of the contemporary debate, including accurate definition of terms such as gender dysphoria, transitioning, non-binary, and so forth. (ii) Roberts identifies two responses which he regards as emotional and inadequate, which are rejection or discrimination against people with any of these gender identity issues, and at the other extreme, uncritical acceptance of the current transgender movement's claims. (iii) Roberts seeks then to use the Bible as a model for developing an understanding of gender which is essentially binary, but damaged by the fall. His aim is to reach a point which is both compassionate, loving, embracing of all people, but yet faithful to Christian/biblical orthodoxy. This is no small challenge, and there will no doubt be angry responses from people to his 'left' who will be dismayed by his understanding of the Bible, and from his 'right' from those who would want to use scripture to stir up discrimination, exclusion and disgust towards people who Roberts insists are precious bearers of the image of God, like everyone else.

Roberts is an interesting choice of author for the Good Book Company to ask to kick off this series of booklets. While he is a leading voice within conservative evangelical Anglicanism, he has spoken openly over the last few years about his personal struggles with his sexuality. He has been criticised heavily, especially by some gay Christians because of the traditional/conservative conclusions he has come to  about sexuality; but it does mean that his writing about issues relating to human sexuality or gender rather wonderfully lacks the harsh tones and angry judgementalism that mars some writing. One of the most compelling descriptions of Jesus is found in the fourth gospel which says that he is "full of grace and truth". So often, the church has felt that it has to choose to be one or the other of those things. There have been those who have made finding 'truth' the whole of the Christian life, and have little compassion for people, in the difficulties and complexities of their struggles and messy lives. On the other hand, others of a different disposition, have found that accepting people like Christ did, has led to an abandonment of the search for truth, and a collapse into a weak, relativist basis for ethical reasoning. People will no doubt criticise Roberts for this book (it is after all a deeply emotive topic), but critics from within the churches should at least give him credit for making a deliberate and concerted effort to approach the matter in a Christlike way, "full of grace and truth".

Where Roberts does not venture is into the problematic world of public policy. As this is written as a thought-provoking primer for churches, he doesn't go anywhere near the debates which are raging about bathrooms, membership of sports teams, or other aspects of human rights law. That's hardly a criticism of a tiny booklet, but there is clarity needed for Christians on the relationship between what Christians privately believe and practice, and what they would vote for the secular state to pursue. LibDem leader Tim Farron, is widely thought to have conservative personal ethical views, but thinks that the state should be very liberal and permissive of all choices, for example. Perhaps a future title in this series of booklets could address the relationship between the Christian voter and the secular state.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Notes: The Dark Night of The Shed by Nick Page

One of the few perks that come my way as a blogger, and writer, is the steady stream of offers of review copies of books for which publishers are keen to garner publicity. The vast majority of such offers I ignore, there simply isn't the time to sit and read everything. In fact, as I have got older I have read less, but far more selectively than I did when I was young and lived under the customary illusion that my allotted time was inexhaustible, and could be frittered away on unremarkable books. There are, after all, more than enough books worthy of filling my remaining years, even if I were to be given an unusually large quota. Such thoughts occupied me as I (grumpily) surveyed the publishers e-mails recently. Then I spotted this, "The Dark Night of The Shed:  Men, The Midlife Crisis, Spirituality & Sheds" by Nick Page. Reading the small-print, I discovered that this was in fact a book about grumpy middle-aged men, written by a grumpy middle-aged man, for grumpy middle-aged men. Friends have told me that I have been a grumpy old man since I was about twenty - it's just that my body has finally caught up with my personality (my detractors have been less kind). So perhaps this was just the book for me. I had come across the author, Nick Page before. I reviewed one of his books on this blog many moons ago - and even had a brief, but hilarious, e-mail correspondance with him, in connection with a job I did in the early 2000's. So, thinking this might be timeworthy, I accepted the copy.

One of my neighbours has recently built an absolute palace of a shed. When I asked him why, he said, "Middle aged men, either buy a motorbike, have an affair, or build a shed; and the other two looked dangerous." Nick Page confesses, not so much to having a classic midlife crisis, but to having something of a middle-aged glitch, a wobble, a temporary derailing and re-assesment of himself and his life. This disturbing life re-orientation, which entices so many of us to take up extreme sports, make sudden chaotic harmful decisions, or diminish us into unrelenting grumpyness, drove Page (like my neighbour) towards a shed. It was in his shed, as he built it, developed it, and then inhabited it; that this volume was forged - and a poignant little book it is too.

The first thing is that Nick Page writes with warmth, wit, and great insight. Several times in the course of reading "The Dark Night of The Shed", I thought, "yes - that's me!" The foibles of being forty-something are first and foremost quite amusing when given the observational comedy treatment. Perhaps if such material was presented by a precocious twenty-something I would have become quite apoplectic with grumpyness, but given that Page is a year or two ahead of me; I can laugh along; and we can all be self-deprecating together. While some cultures greatly esteem age, and approaching middle-age is celebrated as a grauduation to a superior caste; Western-culture is youth-centric and nothing but increasing irrelevance seems to beckon us. Men in their mid-forties routinely score the lowest on happiness indicators, and alarmingly highly in diagnoses of depression and experience of suicidal thoughts. Page is disarmingly honest about what it feels like to hit this age and stage; and experience everything from career stagnation, to the sudden absence of dependent children. Clearly the experience of a mid-life redefinition is widespread. For some it is a full-blown crisis, while for others merely a murmur. Likewise the reaction to these feelings range from shed-building to  disastrous attempts to recapture lost-youth. Nevertheless, Page has done us all a great service by honestly facing up to, and giving voice to the experience. For many readers, simply redifining their experiences as normal and just like everyone else, will be worthwhile.

Ultimately, Page discovered, at his writing desk, in his shed-of-middle-age, that this debilitating, shocking, and disorientating phase of life can be navigated successfully, (even in Western culture, and with or without a shed) and even used for good. Drawing on sources as diverse as Percy the Park Keeper, Carl Jung, Moomins, The Old Testament story of Jacob, the experiences of countless friends called 'Steve', the life of Jesus, and the Orthodox Liturgy; Page ends up not merely coping with; but embracing the challenges of the years. In doing so, he even shed something of his grumpy demeanour, so perhaps there is hope for us all!

In one particularly entertaining section, Page writes about the death of the 'gods' of youth, which young men serve. These include Dosh (the god of wealth), Exhaustus (god of work), Kudos (god of status), Rumpo (god of sex), and Lycra himself  (the god of youth). His point is that we are socialised into giving such things the functional status of 'gods'; but as we feel the first signs of the ageing process these gods which have taken our time/energy and service and to whom we have looked for meaning/status/pleasure/security, suddenly appear to have feet of clay. Worshipping the wrong gods, must be replaced with worship of the right God; and it is in a deep-rooted rediscovery of Christian spirituality that Nick Page found a route through the tumult. Like the biblical character Jacob (a fraudster and rougue, who was brought low and wrestled with God), Page found that the place of re-orientation was in the conscious shedding of the 'idols' of youth, and wrestling with God. Where better for him to wrestle, than in his shed, his man-cave, which eventually turned into his prayer-chapel? Honesty and courage are the two characteristics which Page finds are the essentials for an authentic wrestling which goes deep enough to do the required work.

Emerging with less of the machismo and pretention of the young man who entered the experience, Page seems to come back from his 'dark night of the shed' with a renewed sense that a life spent serving others in the imitation of Jesus is a full and complete life; undiminsished by ever-slowing running or cycling speeds, and despite being overtaken by children in activities that he taught them to do! His conclusions, about humility, Christ-centeredness, the spiritual disciplines and some pithy wisdom about the importance of embracing creativity, and de-culttering, are delivered with a thoughtfulness which avoids dumbing such thoughts down into nauseating self-help cliches.

I was surprised not to see Tim Keller in the list of references at the end of the book as on the material related to The Prodigal God, and on the Counterfeit Gods, it read extremely closesly to Keller's two books of those names! Both of these would make excellent follow-up reading to this book, and helpful additions to his suggested additional resources.

Finally, Page calls men to a middle-age which is characterised by a joy which comes from a deeply-rooted spiritual life.
So why are we so grumpy? Many middle aged men are clinically grumpy. We can't help it. It's an instinctive knee-jerk grumpiness. It starts because we don't like change, or we don't feel valued, or we don't feel involved, or we're just annoyed at the sheer, banal stupidity of modern life, but before we know it, grumpiness and cynicism seem to be our default setting. It doesn't have to be that way. Grumpiness is a choice. And Jesus calls us to joy. I know, I know. Nothing is more irritating than being told to 'cheer up.' Like those posters that tell you to 'Think Positive'. You just want to take a flamethrower to them. But I want to let you know an important fact: it's true........... It takes some time though to change the muscle-memory of our own negativity. And we have to want to do it. Because we can get addicted to grumpiness. We get a kind of thrill about it, It makes us think that we know best, that we're not going to get taken in, unlike those silly, hopelessly optimistic idiots. Well, we're called to follow Jesus. To be like him. And whatever else he was, he was not an old grumpy-pants who thought that everything was better in the olden days.
With my predilictions so exposed and excuses rather elegantly dissected, it is perhaps time to get on with something positive....

The Dark Night of The Shed, is a short book, a straightforward read; but a profound one nevertheless in which serious themes are unusually helpfully explored, with wisdom, whimsy and a good dose of disarming humour. If you are planning your mid-life crisis anytime soon, the pages of The Dark Night of The Shed, might be an ideal place to start.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book Notes: The Age of Evangelicalism - America's Born Again Years by Steven P. Miller

Steven P. Miller's book, "The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born Again Years" is both a brilliant piece of work, and a rather frustrating read.

On one hand, Miller is a meticulous researcher, who roamed through vast collections of books, speeches, letters, sermons, archives and newspapers to assemble his history. The references which support his account are extensive, varied, handled extremely well and are impressive. Also, Miller is an astute political analyst who has woven a huge amount of research into a tightly argued and coherently constructed whole. Furthermore, Miller is an unusually good writer who, with adept turns of phrase (and barely wasting a syllable), has managed to assemble his hugely comprehensive account and analysis into a book of under 200 hundred pages. There are many historians or political scientists who would struggle to inform the reader as impressively in 400 pages, as Miller does in less than half that number.

A nice little example of Miller's rather sharp writing could be this paragraph about George W. Bush from p120.
"While abandoning drink eased Bush's subsequent entry into the family business of politics, embracing faith enhanced his electoral potential in a Republican Party for which megachurches were the new country clubs."
Or this, from p122.
"Bush's embrace of faith-based compassionate conservatism had the potential to heal evangelical political wounds still raw from the Carter and Reagan years. Despite strong differences over issues national defence and tax policy, evangelical activists from across the political spectrum harkened back to the spirit of Anglo-American reform. William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who led a successful crusade to end his nation's involvement in the slave trade, was a popular shared point of reference by the 2000s. A Christian paternalist who was most decidedly not a social or economic radical, Wilberforce (or rather, Wilberforce as invoked by modern evangelicals) suggested the ideological parameters within which compassionate conservatism might operate."
There is however a "but" coming; and it is a significant one. While the content of the book is excellent, it is let down by its title. That might not seem like a big problem, but it is, if you are left thinking that the inside fails to deliver on what the cover promises. 

In truth, this is a book about the relationship between Evangelicalism and American National politics from Carter to Obama in general; and the rise and fall of the American Religious Right in particular. As such, it is not a book about Evangelicalism and America as the title suggests. So, while the book is quite brilliant on the decline of the early evangelical political movement (which was Democrat leaning), and equally impressive on the rise of the religious right, and on its subsequent decline; we learn little about the nature of American Evangelicalism in these years, aside from its political orientations. Maybe, Miller is a political scientist who doesn't really think much else matters - or maybe he has delivered a fine manuscript about faith-politics which his publisher has failed to title and market adequately. Either way, a book entitled "The Age of Evangelicalism", would presumably tell us more about the faith and lives of these evangelicals; the changing nature of the movement, it's growth or decline, it's theological landscape, it's age/sex/class/racial/geographical shape, it's response to the huge cultural and economic shifts from the 1970s to today, than this does.

So, while it was not the book I thought I was picking up to read - it was an excellent, astute piece of work, in which vast research is rigorously analysed and presented in sharp, lively prose. To solve this book's problem it simply needs to be retitled, "American Evangelical Christianity and National Politics from Carter to Obama", then it would do what it says on the tin. I wonder if I am the only reader to have though this?

At the Air Forces Memorial, Runnymede

My Grandparents used to take me up here when I was a small child, and the climb up the tower to the 'cockpit' lookout on the top, seemed like Mt Everest. My Grandpa served in the Army, while my Grandma was in the WAAF during WWII.

The view from the 'cockpit' at the top of the memorial is remarkable, from Windsor Castle in the West, across Heathrow Airport, the Wembley Arch, Central London, Canary Wharf and The Shard in the East.