Dinner for one…

This new year, like many before it, at least half of all German people will see in the new year by watching the following. Go figure.

Many years ago, as a student, our host showed us this ‘famous’ English comedy sketch, and howled with laughter while we smiled politely.

At the time, we were in Berlin, which was still surrounded by a high wall, and we assumed the strange fixation on archaic, unfunny comedy was a result of them simply not getting out much.

But whatever the reason, this sketch has become part of German tradition.

Which only goes to say how much variety our cultures contain.

Whether you are watching dinner for one, or carrying coal through people’s back doors, Happy New Year to you all!

Thatcher and the tools of war…

One of the things that appalled us most about the Thatcher years back in the 80’s, was her support for some of the most despotic regimes in the world.

Everything was polarised then- communist/socialist/liberal (bad.) Fascist/dictatorship/ (OK- as long as they were not communist.)

The Pinochet government ‘disappeared’ thousands of Chillean citizens- but Thatcher was a staunch ally.

Today, at the 30 year unveiling of official secrets, we found out lots more about arms dealing with Iraq and Iran. We sold Iran a load of Chieftain tanks. About 100 of these were captured by the Iraqis during their dreadful war against Iran. Back when Saddam was a good dictator.

What the cabinet papers reveal today is the extent of the sophistry that the then British Cabinet indulged in to get around the arms embargo- selling all sorts of arms and equipment to Iraq.

But most staggeringly of all, they allowed Vickers, who made the Chieftain tanks, to repair, modify and re-gun them to be used against Iran. We were literally arming both sides.

When the Blair government eventually took over from the Tories, one of the things I was most excited by was Robin Cook’s idea of an Ethical Foreign Policy– including a new refusal to sell arms to despotic regimes.

However, this policy was soon in tatters during a row over the sale of Hawk Jets to Indonesia, who used them to bomb and machine gun the citizens of East Timor. This was the beginning of the great disallusionment for many of us in the possibility of a new kind of politics under Blair- which went all the way onwards towards the second Iraq war.

The issue for all of we Brits is the role that arms manufacture still plays in our economy.

We are the second biggest exporter of weapons, after the USA- 20% of the worlds armourments are made here.

The manufacture of arms is intrinsically bound up in this thing that some loosely call the ‘ military industrial complex’, and others simply call capitalism.

If swords are ever to become ploughshares, then we should listen to the stories from Thatchers cabinet- and to the subsequent ones from Blair’s cabinet.


Pucks glen meditation trail…

Today we spent much of the day setting up things for this trail- which is Aoradh’s way of seeing in the New Year. If you are local we would love you to make use of it. It will be up for around a week.

We have not finished yet- all the notices and poetry will go up tomorrow. here are a few photos of the work so far though-

The Pied Piper revisited (part 1)…

I enjoyed listening to this on boxing day.

It was a retelling of the weird old story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. As legends go, it is one of the strangest- you can feel in it the depths of some kind of tragedy that was the origin of the myth.

The story originates sometime in the 1300’s in Lower Saxony, Germany. This from the Wikipedia entry-

The earliest mention of the story seems to have been on a stained glass window placed in the Church of Hamelin c. 1300. The window was described in several accounts between the 14th century and the 17th century. It was destroyed in 1660. Based on the surviving descriptions, a modern reconstruction of the window has been created by Hans Dobbertin (historian). It features the colorful figure of the Pied Piper and several figures of children dressed in white.

This window is generally considered to have been created in memory of a tragic historical event for the town. Also, Hamelin town records start with this event. The earliest written record is from the town chronicles in an entry from 1384 which states:

It is 100 years since our children left.

What dreadful events were being described no-one knows. A mass drowning in a river? Plague? Mass emigration to avoid famine? Lured away be a pagan sect into the dark forest?

Whatever the origin, at some point, the legend began to be told in the form we receive today- a magical figure on which we can project all sorts of fears- the Pied Piper who leads children on some terrible dance of death. All except one, who lives a life of regret that he could not have disappeared with his friends to the whatever land they travelled to.

Anyway- as I listened to this, it appeared to me to carry a current resonance, and I started to write.

Here is the first part of my re-telling of the legend of the Pied Piper. A bit of fun for the new year…

The was a time when the city prospered.

Ships flooded the dockyards with spice and sandalwood from the far reach of the arm of Empire.

Old men were cushioned by safe investments and young men were well oiled cogs in an industrial machine whose engines never stopped. After lives spent accumulating, some sought to leave a legacy in stone- museums, galleries and monuments to their own magnificence.

And on the fat of it all we feasted. Even as others far away slaved in chains and died young in the service of our comfort.

We had so much that what we had started to mean nothing. We filled our dustbins and our landfill sites with food we could not eat and clothes of last years colour. Meanwhile we wanted more more more. More gadgets. More cars. Bigger houses. Faster food.

Soon not even the rubbish dumps could contain all that we threw away.

Then there came a time when it all started to go wrong.


Everywhere, rats.

They were in the warehouses, in the store rooms and scurrying under the tables of all the restaurants.

They were under the floorboards and in the kitchen cupboards. They stripped bare the sofas then started on the insulated cables.

In the attempt to get rid of all these rats, no effort was spared. Men in clean overalls poisoned, trapped, shot and burned them in their thousands. But it seemed to make no difference- if anything their numbers increased.

In desperation, the mayor of the city offered a prize. “Let it be known across the world” he said “that anyone who can rid us of this vermin that has invaded our city will be handsomely rewarded. They shall receive a prize of £10 million pounds.”

So from all over the country they came. Then from all over the world.

Scientists with genetic theories and chemical potions and tiny cameras on the end of flexible rods.

Commercial pest control companies with an army of men and women prepared to go further than ever before- into the slimiest sewer and the darkest cellar. They dug and shot and stabbed and burned in every corner of the city.

Religious nuts who cried to us all to ‘Repent’ so that God would have mercy on the sinners of the City and take back the plague from the unrighteous. So that he would let his people go.

Mad inventors employed light beams and sound waves and all sorts of machines that whirred and clicked and rattled.

All failed to make any appreciable difference on the number of rats. At night, the noise they made kept us all awake- the scurrying and the scratching. The passage of a million claws in and round and over.

As their numbers grew they were bolder in their hunger. They no longer stayed hidden in the dark places- they were in the corners of rooms, watching, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

There were stories of faces bitten whist people lay abed, and children running screaming for protection.

Everything was affected- schools closed, hospitals were under siege. Factories were clogged with fur and the flesh of the rats and places of business were eaten full of holes. The dockyard cranes rusted on their rails from under use- no captain wanted to take on this kind of cargo.

The stories spread like wildfire- they were twittered and blogged and gossiped in the bars and pubs. Anger grew- something must be done. The fat cats in the town hall did not have to live like this- they had protection. Rather than spending money on fancy cars and big salaries- they ought to be looking after the citizens.

Some fed these stories into megaphones of their own particular cause and began to stir up violence. Windows in the town hall were smashed and slogans written on walls.

The rioting began.

The response from the authorities was predictable- first police in riot gear, later the army. Finally, when the numbers on the streets seemed almost as numerous as the rats, the tanks were called in to stem this new vermin from smashing and looting and burning.

It was all falling apart.

Eaten from within.

To be continued…

Things to do on boxing day…

Make a water wheel of course…

This is one of the pieces for our Aoradh New Year Meditation Walk in Pucks Glen- details here. The challenge has been to make something durable enough to last the week turning in cold water (which I am not sure I have managed) and also to be light enough to be moved by a small waterfall. I made the bearings out of some skateboard wheels, which I am really pleased with. Time will tell if it lasts the course…

We have had a lovely Christmas- I hope you have too.

It started with an Aoradh get together to share our ‘secret santa’ presents…

It was lovely.

Then we went to midnight Mass @ Andrew’s Church up on the hill- lots of incense, familiar liturgy and lovely music.

Christmas day was slow and lazy and full of both laughter, and the good kind of tears- the BBC nativity reduced me to a jelly of tears. It’s earthy realism, allied to some genuine theological questioning was great- and the combination of great acting and a brilliant script was one of the most moving things I have seen for ages.

Then we opened presents. Despite all the discussion about trying not to do the present thing this year, I had some lovely things. Home made food parcels, books, clothes.

And a lovely calendar made by Michaela using the words of some of our favourite songs.

I am a man blessed. May the year ahead give me many opportunities to bless others…



The Fragile Tent Christmas card, 2011…

Dear friends- may you be gifted with joy and peace.

By way of a Christmas card, I offer a picture, and a poem. The picture is by Janet McKenzie, whose art  inspired this lovely book.

Mary. Mother of God.

Where you born already divine;

A scrap of human flesh with a

God only skin deep?


Or did the shape of Messiah-

The mewling lion of Judah-

Need nurture?


At the breast of this mother

Scarcely beyond child herself

You took in milk


What sort of woman

Might school the star maker?

Whose sharp words


Could cut through a

Heavenly tantrum like a

Shaft of light through shadow?


Did she teach the turning of

The other cheek against some teenage



Or perhaps this was always the point-

Power and might made tender flesh

The highest now most lowly


The filling up of hungry mouth

The arms that hold

The pride at a first step


The learning and the loving

The pulse of blood in fragile vein

The summer cough


From this material

A man was made

Who became Messiah

Plastic Jesus…

Another nativity scene

Kids in tea towels and cardboard donkey ears

A tinselled angel picking her nose

And a manger knocked together by Joseph’s dad

From bits of broken shed


Jesus may be plastic

But Mary holds him tight


Cameras flash back from stars

Wrapped in baking foil

And I smile

Another proud father


It is all so ordinary-

The small school chairs

The smell of stale milk and disinfectant

The creak and rattle of the old piano

As the children sing again

To welcome the Christ child

And the end of term

Modern fairy tales…

…stories are always important. Even in an age of communication overload.

In fact, perhaps they are even more important now- the ones that mean something that is. The ones that are not manufactured- squeezed through the entertainment machine, shrink wrapped. We can recognise all the big-brother-X-Factor-Britain’s-got-talent stuff for what it is- mindless twaddle to inoculate our Saturday nights. But then along comes Susan Boyle, and we all scramble to share the story.

Our stories say so much about who we are, who we wish we might become, and what we value along the way. I suppose this was always true- the stories collected by Hans Christian Anderson were the same. They come to define us- they unite us in a common understanding of the world.

There is a way of understanding stories as underlying narratives that shape our culture and our humanity. So we are who we are because of the story that we were born into, and we find ourselves acting as characters within this story. The degree to which any of us change this narrative according to our own choices is a matter for debate.

But enough of all this, time to tell a story. It is ‘true’- in the sense that it is based on something true, but not in the sense that it is absolutely accurate. That is not the purpose of stories. Neither are they meant to steal from the people who are contained within them. The characters in this story are free-

There was a school in a small town near where I live. It was an ordinary school, full of an ordinary mix of young people learning how to be old people. It was full of chatter and laughter and the bubbling of stewing humanity.

For some, the place was a stage on which they acted, reciting lines with growing confidence.

For others, it was a dark forest full of dangers. Each corridor a mass of thorns. The school yard belonged to wild animals hunting in packs.

And in this ordinary school, the teachers, with the best of intentions, decided to hold a talent show. Notices were posted, names gathered, egos bristled and the stage was prepared for great things.

So it was that on the appointed day, the show began. The recreation hall was full, and although most kids learn cynicism and scorn much more readily than algebra, it was a welcome break from the classroom and so there was an excited buzz in the air.

Violins screeched. Chanters howled. Dancers of a variety of shapes and sizes danced. Some had far too much confidence for their levels of ability, some were entirely the other way round. All had this in common- they were backed by their supportive group- they represented their ‘tribe’. They each represented a constituency.

Apart from one.

She was not well known, and not understood at all. She managed to always be at the edge of things, unnoticed.     Her school work was always completed, and averagely correct. Her school uniform was standard, if never stylish. Her hair was pump-water straight, and she wore heavy glasses as if to complete a disguise.

So it was, when she stood at the edge of the stage, there was a gasp, then some giggles. Unkindness is such common currency.

A perspiring deputy head teacher, also looking strangely bemused, stepped up to the microphone. “Ahem…” he said “Please put your hands together for Alice Smith, who is going to sing ‘Take me home country roads‘.”

The sniggering grew louder. Like the release of a gas valve, the whispers spread. What was she going to sing? Did she not know any decent songs? Who does she think she is anyway? Look at those shoes/that hair/the state of her.

But the teacher was not done “Alice has asked me to say that this song was the favourite song of her late father (ahem) who sadly (ahem) passed away a few weeks ago.”

The whispers ceased and silence opened like a cave as someone cued a crackly backing track.

I would like to tell you that Alice sang like a cross between an angel and a rock star, but this was not so. Her voice wavered in an out of the sound mix as her shaking hand moved the microphone around. She was for the most part in tune, but sang with a thin reedy voice.

Somewhere into the first chorus, her throat closed itself off into a sob. She tried to keep going, but the words came out in bursts and gasps, until she could sing no more. The backing track played on, and the hall was frozen mid breath.

Then in the middle of the audience, a girl stood up and started to sing.

Another girl joined her- then a boy. Then another and another. Eventually the whole room was full of children singing ‘Take me home, country roads, to the place where I belong, West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads…’ The saccharine sweetness of the words took on Shakespearean grandeur.

Something happened in that room. Many were openly weeping.

And God smiled a wide smile.

Christmas for the spiritually poor…

Tonight our housegroup met to exchange ‘secret Santa’ gifts, to sing carols and to celebrate the coming King.

But our celebrations were muted by several situations affecting our little group. One of our members is over at the hospital in Greenock sitting with her husband who is not expected to live through the night.

Another is in hospital recovering from an operation.

One of us has been really ill and has not been able to eat for several days.

Then half way through our meeting, we had a phone call to say that Helen’s father, who lives in the North of Scotland, was in some kind of crisis and no-one could contact him. Fortunately it all turned out to be a misunderstanding, but it brought home again how fragile we humans are.

Yet how beautiful.

Michaela read these words by Archbishop Oscar Romero

No-one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being spiritually poor.

The self sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others- those who have no need even of God- for them there will be no Christmas.

Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone.

That someone is God.



Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

Life owes us nothing.

But we owe the life in us everything.

And we pay that debt in love.