My birthday falls in May, conveniently between two bank holidays, and with the weather getting warmer I'm wanting to be outdoors all the time. My mum and I (occasionally accompanied by my dad and youngest sister) have been walking the North Norfolk Coastal Path between Hunstanton and Cromer. We did stretches on it in May and September 2016, and this May did our final section. It's not a massive walk - about 45 miles or so, but that combined with the incessant flatness of my home country it makes for a really manageable hike that's less about clocking up the miles and more about appreciating the scenery of one of the most beautiful places I know...
This year the family had our summer holiday early - we went to the Scottish Highlands! When I was young we had a holiday by Loch Ness, going as far north as Fort William, but it was long enough ago that I only remember bits and pieces of it. On my last solo trip I went to Edinburgh and Aviemore, and had wanted to explore further north again, so this was the perfect choice for a trip away together.
Uncle Laban seems a decent enough guy, and even gives his nephew a job as a herdsman. Jacob settles in to watch the flocks... and also to watch Rachel, Laban's younger daughter. Older sister Leah might not be much of a looker but Jacob thinks that Rachel is the cat's pajamas and offers Laban seven years of labour to pay the dowry he doesn't have and make Rachel his wife.
Night has fallen in the wilderness. Beneath dim moonlight there's not much to be seen, and only the soft rushing babble of water somewhere down the bank. A man sits by the river, his mind like the landscape, full of darkness and the inexorable coming of tomorrow.
Now he stands; a figure is approaching. He's hard to make out, a shadow among shadows. Is he a tall man? Does he come as a friend? Are there more following him? Perhaps these questions are asked, but they go unanswered as the two men fall, somehow, to grappling with each other. Hooking limbs with feet and clinching necks with stubborn arms. They wrestle to throw, to try and take the other to the ground and overpower him. The river's rush is forgotten amidst grunts and panting and the sounds of grasping hands and flesh on hair.
Hours pass This was not what the waiting man had intended, to spent the entire night contesting with a stranger (Is he a stranger? He's no longer sure. Can you be so close to someone for so long without beginning to know them?) when he has so much occupying his mind. He does not want to do this now. He could surrender. He could stop the fight, and try to deal or negotiate. But something in him knows it's pointless. They aren't even speaking. There are no tricks left that he can play, nowhere left to run. He plants his feet, pushes back, and despite the ache in his bones, and the hollows under his eyes, he stays. He endures. He does what is before him. He wrestles.
For her birthday, my friend Hannah decided that what she really wanted to do was Waterfall Hunting. Having located a good spot for this (Pontneddfechan, about an hour west of Cardiff) we all assembled to go strolling through the hills and dales of Wales. After all the buildup, we tried to curb our expectations, but it turns out we needn't have bothered.
I have been adventuring! Two friends from my church group announced that they were planning a two day hike-slash-camp in the Peak District and my ears pricked up. I've walked with a full overnight bag before, and I'd done the suggested distances before, but never both at the same time. However after a little of my usual fretting I decided to go for it - you don't know if you don't try. Phil was expedition leader, with Harry, Manny, myself, and Hendrix the dog along for the adventure.
The walk we ended up doing was great, but also slightly more of an expedition that we'd been banking on!
Most of these photos are mine, but some are by Manny. The nice thing about adventuring with other people is that you actually appear in the photographs, and he has kindly permitted me to take advantage of this.
My friends have a quince tree! I have never seen a quince, nor eaten one. All I know about them is that the Owl and the Pussycat ate them with a runcible spoon. However, on the reliable information that they can be poached, and with half a dozen quinces straight off the tree, I had a go at making my own autumnal dessert.
This is 'Sometimes A Wild God', a poem by Tom Hirons, partner to the wonderful artist Rima Staines whose work I've been following for about seven years now. I have a couple of prints of her work. This beautiful artefact, however, is a collaboration between the two of them.
I first came across the poem almost by accident, and it's rare that I'll stop for poetry that isn't spoken aloud, but I read it all the way through three times and then stopped and looked at it for a bit. There's no telling why some things hit you and other things don't, but Hirons seemed to catch on something that rings true. Something terrible and horrible and beautiful and incomprehensible. The kind of thing where it's more a feeling than anything you could put into words yourself, but when someone else says it, you go 'Yes. Yes, that's exactly what it's like."
So I bought a copy.
It came in the post. It's small, and neat, and unassuming. The paper is solid, not flimsy or cheap (as someone who draws, I'm a student of paper), and it manages to be professionally smart yet subversively tactile at the same time. As I say, it's nothing half-done, it's an artefact. Not just a carrier for the poem, but an object in and of itself, made with care. There are six illustrations, and the cover, all done by Rima in simple black and white.
You can read the poem for yourself Here. Perhaps you'll feel the same, perhaps you won't. Who can say why some things hit you and other things don't.
It's been a long summer this year, or at least it's felt long to me. Lots has happened, good, bad, and somewhere in between, in a lot of different areas of life. A strange season, and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, but that's life for you. Things can't be peaceful all the time or we'd be bored and never grow at all.
In some ways it's been a struggle, but as always there's been time to regroup too. To take time out, to spend time with the people I care about, and to be contemplative, which is something I'm finding more and more essential...
Ah, Sodom and Gomorrah.The tale that launched a thousand picket lines, almost all of them in the
southern states of the USA.Yes this is
THAT Sodom and Gomorrah – the one from which we get the word ‘sodomy’. As in "What he was doing to that poor sheep was a bit Sodom-y, don't you think?"
I can feel you all bracing yourselves already.Don’t worry, it’s gonna be fine.
(Also, for the 'Mean Girls' fans out there, you have no idea how much I wanted to entitle this "Sodom and Gomorrah: too gay to function?")
It's May 7th 2015, and it's election day. I've cast my vote, and with it my hopes and ambitions for the country I live in.
I've also been looking back at the history of politics. As this excellent video points out, so much progress in law and citizens rights have come from the bottom up, not the top down. Ordinary people have protested, fought, sometimes even resorted to extreme measures to make themselves heard by those in power. Suffragrettes threw themselves in front of racehorses and endured the indignity of force-feeding when they tried to starve themselves in protest. Black communities and their supporters suffered power hoses and organised resistance by armed police (this is still troubling areas of America right now, as race has affected class and caused more inequality).
It's important to remember this history of humanity pushing to gain it's own freedoms, and in Britain so much of it is recorded in folk music. I love that there's a great tradition of this; people making up their own protest music, remembering struggles, triumphs, and civil disobedience, and the old stories getting handed down through the years. Here are three of my favourites.
1) 'Palaces of Gold' by Leon Rosselon.
He wrote it after a coal mine slag-heap collapsed at Aberfan in Wales in 1966, running downhill onto a school and killing 116 children and 26 adults. The National Coal Board were slow to respond and largely escaped the consequences of this tragedy. The song is mainly about how we might be a little quicker to deal with the trouble of others if they affected us personally. This beautiful cover is by Lady Maisery.
2) 'John Ball' by Sydney Carter.
John Ball was a 'hedge priest', a travelling preacher with no parish of his own, whose belief that the extreme inequality between the rich and poor was wrong made him a figurehead for the Peasants Revolt that marched on London in 1381 to address the king. They failed and were violently repelled, although some workers rights were secured in the long run by their efforts, and Ball was hung, drawn, and quartered. Thank goodness that that won't happen to any of us today, whatever the results of the election! This song is based on a sermon of his, and the Young 'Uns sing my favourite version.
3) 'The Nailmakers Strike Part 2' by Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry
There have been a lot of strikes by nailmakers over the years. Some were due to poor working conditions, others happened when new technology and cheaper foreign imports cost local people their livelihoods. Some strikes were more peaceful than others. In Dudley in the 1840s the army was called in when nailers dying of starvation had their wages cut by their employers and desperation turned them to vandalism and capture of the nailmasters. When the authorites had distributed bread, ending the riot, most prisoners were given light sentences after pleading Starvation
I'm not going to church at the moment. Except I am. But I'm also not.
What I mean is, I'm not going to the main gatherings on Sunday. Skating is an hour away, I train for three hours every Sunday between 12.30 and 3.30pm, and although I could just rock up to Late Church in my sweaty skate gear for 4.30 I suspect nobody wants that. I don't want that! This is not me quitting church, this is not me becoming an apostate or drifting in my faith, and this is not me breaking up with my community. They are still my People.
I had to make a decision, service or skating, and if I'm honest in the end it wasn't that hard to make, for the reasons below. What I'm doing now is a bit of an experiment, it's not a permanent arrangement, and I'm certainly not recommending it for everyone, but this whole thing has made me think a lot about what Sunday gatherings provide us with, and what we think church actually is. There are things I miss and want to keep, and things I don't mind letting go.
I have a lot of time for Stephen Fry. I find him clever, witty, kind-hearted and often very funny. And it just so happens that this week something he said has gone viral on the internet. Everyone's already talking about it so I'll just let you watch it...
It's a good question, voiced angrily and with passion by a man in the public eye known for his intellect and quiet polite demeanour, all of which give it extra impact. This is the kind of thing that any faith has to be robust enough to weather, or else be discarded. People have already been responding, and the responses have fallen into two categories. There's Giles Fraser's 'I Don't Believe In The God Fry Doesn't Believe In Either', which hears Fry saying he can't believe in a God who is such evil maniac to allow the suffering he does and replies "Well it's a good job he isn't like that. God is actually very loving." but for me that is too vague and doesn't really answer the question. If Fry is mistaken in his idea of God as a "capricious...evil...maniac" and Fraser's loving, good God is the reality then why, as Fry puts it, do there exist small parasitic insects that burrow into your eyes and eat them from the inside out? We're back to square one. (Incidentally I also don't think God is capricious because if I was a capricious God and someone told me I was unacceptable and evil, they wouldn't have long left to say anything else! And I wouldn't use a burrowing eye-worm to do it either. True psychopaths don't murder by proxy.)
The other response doing the rounds is Pete Greig's 'Amen to Fry's Atheism', which actually attempts a little theology and some helpful anecdotes, but for me is still too vague. It talks about God actually sharing our suffering with us, but this can come across as very disingenuous, like when you tell a friend about something awful happening to you and they sympathetically reply "Oh yeah, I feel your pain." They don't. They mean well but they just don't.
Before going any further, I would recommend Krish Kandiah's response, which to me best addresses the question that's actually being asked. And in a lot fewer words than I'm about to use...
This August I finally got to take on a challenge I've been hankering to do for over two years now: Hadrian's Wall.
This partially ruined wall marked the edge of the Roman empire in 122AD when Emporer Hadrian, struggling to invade Scotland while dealing with his rebellious British subjects at the same time, withdrew troops from the more Northerly Antonine Wall (earth ramparts) to consolidate their position. At 6m high this engineering feat took three Legions (15,000 men) only 6 years to build and is a symbol of both the power of Rome and it's limitations. It stretches from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the North East of England in an almost straight line clear across the country to Carlisle, and then on to Bowness-on-Solway where the river becomes unfordable and attacks from people wading across would no longer have been possible.
This idea of what it means to be invader and invaded has been with me for a long time, and the Wall symbolises a lot of that for me. My dad and uncle walked it together a few years ago while I was in university, and I'd been hoping to do the same (although unlike them, we won't have to walk from the Wall to our lodgings each night, as Nathan and Dad will be having a parallel holiday and have kindly agreed to pick us up and drop us off each day!) This year I mentioned it to my Mum and we decided to do the trip together. We would start at Heddon-on-the-Wall, the first place the Wall itself becomes visible, and finish in Carlisle. It's a 55 mile trip, it was to take us almost five whole days of walking, and as usual I kept a diary...