Music to give life 3…

Continuing a series exploring the more meaningful parts of my playlist. Looking for the music of hope. The criteria I set for myself was something like this;

It has to be beautiful
It has to open up something in my soul
It has to have brought me at least close to tears. (It does not take much to be fair.)


I first heard Over the Rhine at Greenbelt Festival about 6-7 years ago. They played an unfashionable slot on the main stage mid-afternoon, to an almost empty field. I was passing, on my way to a seminar on some obscure aspect of theology or other which seemed important at the time. I missed the seminar because the music nailed me to the spot. The broken edge of her voice mixed with his harmonies. The shape of their songs. Slide guitar punctuated by delicate finger picking and simple piano. If you have a weakness for Americana, it does not get much better than this.

Cut forward a few more years. My Daughter Emily (who lives and breathes music) and I are heading north on the M6. She has recently passed her test and is driving, which give sher previously jealously guarded music choice privileges. That’s the rule right? Will and Michaela are in the back, sleepy and only semi-engaged in the social side of family travel. Then this album comes on via Emily’s phone which is plugged in to the stereo. I had not heard it before.

Perhaps it was the treasure in the moment. We were all tired and unwinding after a long weekend full of good things- a wedding; good friends; us all together again. The feeling of expansion into another phase of life when one’s daughter is old enough to drive you home. Or perhaps it was just the music.

But that is the power of music right? It can capture a moment for us and seal it with sound and emotion into something precious.

Before long we were all weeping. That is no big deal for me, but even Will, in the awkward mid-teen phase, was not immune to the power of a song like this one;

Or perhaps you might prefer this song instead, from a different album;

On giving offence…


I hate conflict, so much so that I would do almost anything to avoid it, a strategy which has the downside of potentially making things worse in the long run. But conflict, when it flares up, makes me feel ill. I churn around it, stewing in my own sense of hurt and injustice. It is sour and toxic, turning me inwards. It also tends to leave me incoherent, so that holding my own in a high octane discussion is that much harder.

That is not to say that you CAN avoid conflict. It is easier if you are in a work role, which is one-step removed from where it really matters, but conflict will come, sooner or later, unless you cut yourself off from people entirely and that brings a different set of problems…

I wish I was better at it, because sometime confrontation seems the right thing to do. The next time I hear some smug middle class person look at news of other people’s poverty and tell me that ‘Charity begins at home’, I don’t want to simper and inwardly seethe. Rather I want to look them full in the face and say “NO. You are mistaking charity for bloody nepotism.” When I hear someone tell me that objecting to racism and sexism is ‘political correctness gone mad’ I want to ask them why they only hold that belief in relation to things that have affect others…

Or perhaps I am getting a bit Falling Down in my old age? Certainly conflict matters less these days, but it still matters, probably too much.

A neighbour has stopped talking to us. I am not sure why- some perceived slight on our part. Smoke from a fire. A hedge cut too severely, or not enough. Attempts to reach out, to speak in the street, have been rebuffed. Perhaps the knowledge of a different place on the political spectrum. It bothers me, more than it should.

Michaela told me something recently though which seems relevant. She has completed a business mentoring course for creative businesses, and one of the things she was told that it is necessary for as many people to NOT like what you make as those who love it.

Think about that.

The logic is this- in order for your art to be distinctive and connect with people in ways that matter, it needs to repel. It needs to give offence. Even if the offence is as simple as ‘Ugh. I would never allow that in MY house.” Obviously at the same time, it needs to be an inspiration to others. Blandness and middle-of-the-road marketability does not make for a good artistic strategy it seems.

Perhaps it is not a good personality strategy for those trying to live a life that means something either.

I am reminded of an old poem inspired by that story of Jesus smashing up a temple. Because anger is not the opposite of love.

And conflict is not the opposite of compassion.



He stood in the door of the temple

And saw red


The beautiful ones

Stressed up like sharks

Creases sharp enough to cut

Hunkered down over their spreadsheet scriptures

Their holy bottom line


These beautiful creatures

Who can never have enough

Who are blind, but for the glint of golden things

Their altars slickened with the substitutionary sacrifice

Of the poor


Tear a rib from me Father

Make them anew

Turn over their chemical tables

Snap the twisted strings of their DNA


My blood boils




Music to give life, 2…

Part of a series exploring the deeper and more meaningful parts of my playlists.

The next album I wanted to mention is this one;

Yvonne Lyon Metanoia

Yvonne lives but a strong stone-skim from us, over the other side of the Clyde in Greenock, and although we have the pleasure of counting her as a friend, let that not fool you. I can be very judgemental about music. It needs to make me weep remember?

Yvonne has been making lovely music for years. She writes songs that find their way inside you. You might appreciate their craft, but ultimately songs like this have the capacity to become close friends. The sort that carry you through the difficult times.

In my view, this album is her best yet. It starts with some stomping folk, takes turns through some electronica, but remains all about the songs. Strange then that these are not new songs. Yvonne has released them before on other albums, but this time, she took the great risk of handing over control to others to re-mix and re-shape. The end result is a varied jewel of an album that does not detract from her own creativity but adds to it, stretches it even. It is no surprise (but a great pleasure) to see it getting rave reviews.

Yvonne has been honest about how this album emerged out of a difficult time in her life and this is carried in the music, which often seems to contain an honest fragility. It is perhaps this that I respond to most, because glimpses of beauty and brokenness in the other allows me to see the same in myself.

Ultimately the album is about hope, so here is a track from the album called She survived the winter.


Music to give life, 1…

At the beginning of this year I made a bit of a promise that I would try to be a bit less miserable on this blog and focus a bit more on grace and hope. I am not sure whether I followed though on this, certainly the output has been a little sparse. I would hate you to think that this was because grace and hope is in short supply in these parts – far from it. So, this post marks the beginning of a new occasional series.

For Christmas, our kids engineered it so that we now have a Spotify account. Now, please do not take this to be a commercial, after all there are other platforms. I am also conscious that music streaming services have brought sweeping changes into the music industry that have not all been good, particularly for artists, some of whom are struggling to make ends meet. But… I can honestly say that access to such a vast reservoir of music has brought blessing into my life beyond what I ever expected. I keep discovering something else so beautiful that it makes me cry, so I thought I would share some of it with you here.

The criteria to make it into this series is something like this;

  1. It has to be beautiful
  2. It has to open up something in my soul
  3. It has to have brought me at least close to tears. (It does not take much to be fair.)

Today I start with this album;


Like most of us, I first came across Marketa Irglova as an actor in the lovely film ‘Once’  I have heard her singing since as part of Swell Season, and was also familiar with her first album ‘Anar’, which is lovely, full of sumptious harmonies.

Then I started to listen to Muna, (which is Icelandic for ‘Memory’ in case you did not know.)

This song in particular broke me.


God, I’ve been sent here blind to learn to see,
Remembering you were always there with me.
But do you know just how hard that’s been?
Could all of this have really been foreseen?
I’d like to say a prayer, how does it go?
I’m tired. Tell me, God, does it show?
What could have called for such a handicap?
I was sent out here without a map.
All this time I’ve had to guess the way,
To keep moving when I wished to stay.
I’ve been wrong as much as I’ve been right.
You tell me: ‘Walk by faith and not by sight, and
Keep your heavy heart afloat.
You are a timber carved by knife, but
Someday you may serve as a boat.’

What I lose here on earth…
…Is lost in heaven.
If I ask you for help…
…it will be given.
But you’ve waited this long…
…you weren’t ready.
My devotion was strong…
…it wasn’t steady.
I have one more question…
…you have the answer too.
But what does that mean?
You’re I, and I am you.
Why speak in riddles?
Then let me show the way.
That’s all I’ve wanted.
That’s all you’ve had to say.

Well come on then, God, show me,
Which way you would like me to go, and
I won’t resume to question,
How I was ever supposed to know.
There have been signs along the way, but
They’ve been so very obscure.
At times I thought I knew their meaning, but
How could I’ve ever been sure?

God, I was sent here deaf to learn to hear,
To have faith in you and never fear.
Life is an ocean, you its every wave,
Your arms would cradle me, and keep me safe.
You’re right, all this, and more I need to learn,
All this unease just makes my stomach churn.
It was I not you who set this trap, but
You did leave me here without a map.
All this time I’ve had to guess the way,
To keep moving when I wished to stay.
I’ve been right as much as I’ve been wrong, so
All I hear from you is: ‘You are strong enough,
For all you’ll ever have to face,
The only map you need is Love,
To guide you through this illusion of a maze.’

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth, as it is in heaven,
Give us today our daily bread,
Forgive us, Father, all our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us, and
Lead us not into temptation, but
Deliver us from evil, for thy is the kingdom, and
The power, and the glory,
Now and forever more,

New book out soon!

Double waterfall

Just a wee heads-up that I will have a new book of poetry out soon. It will be printed in the same format as Listing, in what Proost describe as a ‘pocket liturgy’ size, which in practice means a lovely little book that can be carried in your pocket, which, dare I suggest, might work particularly well for this one…

…because it concerns itself with wild water. And there is nothing more poetic than watching water in wild places.

This book gathers together brand new poems along with some of my older writing into chapters entitled River, Ocean, Irrigate, Souls swimming and Flow together, and was partly inspired by our up and coming exhibition @ Tighnabruaich Gallery which begins at the end of March.

These excerpts from the introduction probably tells this story as well as anything might;


The imagery of moving water – rivers, streams, rolling waves – has long been employed by humans as a means of seeking to understand things beyond ourselves. In some parts of the world water is a much rarer commodity than it is where I live, on the western fringe of Europe, amongst the remains of the temperate rain forests. From ancient times we hear of sacred rivers, or shrines sited at springs and wells. In fact, many of these sites seem to have been adopted by the new religion of the Celts, to become holy wells or holy springs. Certainly, the ancient Hebrew texts inherited by the Celts were also full of the same imagery; streams of living water, water springing from rocks, God moving across the face of the waters, water turned to wine, the baptism of new believers and so on. Sometimes the water seems to be used to describe God, or an aspect of God, at other times it is used to describe life itself.

But the title of this collection – ‘Where the streams come from’ – suggests something else too; the idea of an origin; a beginning; an uprising; a source. This might be a matter of history – after all, we all live downstream of all that has ever been and upstream from all that is yet to be. It is also a question of science; the explosive expansion of the universe, the accretion of material into stars, orbited by planets, an accidental alchemy that leads to life and the unfolding evolution that flows forward towards us. For many it is a theological question- one that some promote above all others. God is our creator and the universe is his clockwork toy, slowly winding down to a time of his choosing.

For poets it is ultimately a spiritual question, one concerned with trying to see beyond the surface into the meanings that make everything come alive. Learning how to exist in the flow of all things, not merely to observe and record, or to define and measure, nor to decide between what is sacred and what profane. Not even to save. The flow I refer to is that which we sense in wild places. The flicker that we feel in the pits of our stomachs when an animal roars at a distance. The tears at sunset. The pang at the sight of geese flying away for winter. That sense of staring into moving water and wondering… if. Spirituality like this can arguably only ever be partially expressed and only then using the mediums of poetry and art.

More on release date etc later, but in the meantime, some more moving water;

moving water

Ever wondered how people go about drawing graphic novels?

2000 ad

I suppose we all grew up with comics. They were a guilty pleasure for me – for some reason my mother thought that they would addle my brain somehow so I used to read them in secret, borrowed from friends or picked up in those bargain bins they used to have in the news agents for pennies. Beano. Hotspur. All those ones with Spitfires and plucky tommies dodging bullets on the covers. As a student, my mate Mark had a thing for 2000AD, which both thrilled me and horrified me with its creative dystopian bleakness. Then I sort of stopped reading comics. They were for kids after alland my mum might have been right all along.

Something is changing though. The dominance of Marvel might be part of it, with the superhero genre taking centre stage. They are emphatically NOT my thing though, even the films that transcend the limitations of the superhero genre (bombastic conversation – ludicrous fight – bombastic conversation – ludicrous fight – repeat) to deliver something more nuanced and intelligent tend to leave me cold. And anyway, these films are live action now, despite all the CGI. No, something else is going on. The Graphic Novel is on the rise…

Forget comics. These are not disposable pieces of distraction. They are not even comic. They can be moving, inspiring and challenging in ways that all the best art really should be.

My window into this world is my mate Si Smith, who for years I have heard get excited about graphic novels and animated films that I had never heard of. I still mostly did not ‘get’ them, even if it was hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm. I am too wedded to words perhaps. Also, the incredible craft needed to put together a whole story line in graphic form is hard to grasp for muggles life me.

Well, time to change all that.

A few months ago, I got my first read of this. 


It is brilliant. You should buy it. If it is a new art form to you, here is some advice; treat reading it almost like you would a spiritual discipline. Lectio Divina or something like that. I know, that sounds blasphemous right? Follow me on this though- I suggest reading it through once quite quickly. Then notice the sound track- read it through again, much more slowly, allowing the songs to filter in too (there is playlist on Spotify under the same name if you use this.) Of course, the story will have nagged at you as you were reading. Then it might be time to think about meaning. What is this story about? Why is the main character doing what he is doing? What is driving him? Perhaps too, you will come to ask, what is the relationship between this story and Lent? Next, allow individual images to speak to you. Expressions, moments of tender observation…

Or you could forget all that and just enjoy the creativity- which brings me to this. Si has been running a side blog that reveals something of the process of how a piece of work like this comes together. Check it out here.

It gives a glimpse onto the way that each image is constructed layer by layer. A lot of the images are from another piece of work, also brilliant, called Abide with me.


This is a very different piece of work, concerning itself with the ever present but often ignored issue of dementia. It is the story of one day, told from three different perspective, in three different zines. A man with dementia, his wife and their visiting son.

It is really great to celebrate the success of a friend, but this is no puff piece. Don’t take my word for it, get hold of these things for yourself. Allow them to open up a new world for you. You won’t regret it.