Seamus Heaney (1939-2013.) A great voice is silent…


Seamus Heaney, perhaps the greatest living poet, died yesterday. I thought it appropriate to post some of his poetry…

Firstly, let us hear him read something- it gives some idea of the warmth and humour of the man;

Next, here are a couple of poems in word form. Almost always the best way to catch a poem in the soul. The first one about the process of writing (and so much more)

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney,

“Digging” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney.

Next something far darker;


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

Next, something of Heaney’s courage in the face of the violence in Ireland;

Funeral Rites

I shouldered a kind of manhood
stepping in to lift the coffins
of dead relations.
They had been laid out

in tainted rooms,
their eyelids glistening,
their dough-white hands
shackled in rosary beads.

Their puffed knuckles
had unwrinkled, the nails
were darkened, the wrists
obediently sloped.

The dulse-brown shroud,
the quilted satin cribs:
I knelt courteously
admiting it all

as wax melted down
and veined the candles,
the flames hovering
to the women hovering
behind me.
And always, in a corner,
the coffin lid,
its nail-heads dressed

with little gleaming crosses.
Dear soapstone masks,
kissing their igloo brows
had to suffice

before the nails were sunk
and the black glacier
of each funeral
pushed away.


Now as news comes in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
customary rhythms:

the temperate footsteps
of a cortège, winding past
each blinded home.
I would restore

the great chambers of Boyne,
prepare a sepulchre
under the cupmarked stones.
Out of side-streets and bye-roads

purring family cars
nose into line,
the whole country tunes
to the muffled drumming

of ten thousand engines.
Somnambulant women,
left behind, move
through emptied kitchens

imagining our slow triumph
towards the mounds.
Quiet as a serpent
in its grassy boulevard

the procession drags its tail
out of the Gap of the North
as its head already enters
the megalithic doorway.


When they have put the stone
back in its mouth
we will drive north again
past Strang and Carling fjords

the cud of memory
allayed for once, arbitration
of the feud placated,
imagining those under the hill

disposed like Gunnar
who lay beautiful
inside his burial mound,
though dead by violence

and unavenged.
men said that he was chanting
verses about honour
and that four lights burned

in corners of the chamber:
which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look at the moon.

Finally, something that makes us live a moment with him in wild places;


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly.  You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Viewing beauty through a screen…

I love this little film- a few friends shared it on FB.

It manages to ask all those questions about excarnation, and the subtle changes in our connection to people brought about by smart phones.

I believe that the lived experience is more important than the digitised one.

(That was quite profound- must tweet it. Where did I put my phone?…)

The myth of success, and better ways to use ten thousand hours…

There was an interesting discussion on the radio this morning about the so called ‘Ten thousand hours principle’. We heard a lot about this around the Olympics- leading to a general feeling that success in any given pursuit is related to one main thing- sufficient application. Time spent over and over again practicing, rehearsing, developing skill, muscle memory and endurance.

It is all based on this book;


This from the Wikipedia entry;

In Outliers, Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to high levels of success. To support his thesis, he examines the causes of why the majority of Canadian ice hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year, how Microsoft co-founder Bill Gatesachieved his extreme wealth, how The Beatles became one of the most successful musical acts in human history, how Joseph Flom built Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom into one of the most successful law firms in the world, how cultural differences play a large part in perceived intelligence and rational decision making, and how two people with exceptional intelligence, Christopher Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer, end up with such vastly different fortunes. Throughout the publication, Gladwell repeatedly mentions the “10,000-Hour Rule“, claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.

Makes sense right?

Success is thus democratised. With the right amount of hard work we can all succeed; we can climb the highest mountain, pass the exams, win the recording contract, make our first billion. The American dream has been quantified.

I do not want to squash your ambition; if you are aiming high, may success light your days, fickle though it will surely be- there is after all always another mountain beyond. My issue however is that the whole ten thousand idea is hogwash.

Some of this is about the relationship between application and ability. The nature of the kind of success we value is that it is a rare commodity, achieved by people with extraordinary ability. These people are out on the far edge of the bell curve- gifted with ability to run, climb, reason, sing, dance etc. Sure, in order to scale their own possibilities they need to work hard, make sacrifices etc, but do not pretend that their success was actually available to all, it simply was not.

Next, most of the successes that are quantified in this book are the ones that can be measured in terms of two things- celebrity and money. There is a nod to academic achievement too, but pretty much this is a marginal matter. It is success within a very specific context- democratic market capitalism. In order for our continued buy-in to our zeitgeist, we have to believe that the glittering gifts of our culture are available to us all, without exception.

Happiness and fulfillment- what do we know about them? Do people who succeed have a higher measure of these things, or a lower one that drives them on? Are they satisfied with their success? And where does that leave the rest of us scrabbling in their wake?

I think the answer to this is that success is not closely associated with happiness. This comes from a gentler kind of human being-ness, better understand as living in harmony and connection with each other. It is more about commonality than ascendancy- and a far better use for our ten thousand hours.

It might also be that even though most of us are ‘ordinary’ in the reach of our achievements, the value of what we are has nothing to do with celebrity or bank balance. There is such beauty in small things, in moments of grace, in every day loving.

Greenbelt 2013…


Will and I are just back from GB 13- the 40th year anniversary of the first festival, back in 1973. We had a lovely time. I spent time with some old friends and as ever immersed myself in new music and ideas.

I did not take a camera this year- we were on the train as far as Preston and so took a minimalist approach (the photos here are all pinched from the GB website.) However, I thought I would pick a couple of highlights from each day;

On Thursday Will and I were picked up at Preston station by Andy and Hannah, and set off down the M6 into bank holiday traffic. The inevitable happened- and accident closed the motorway in both ways and so we all got out of our cars and had a chat to one another. In fact, Will and I went over onto the empty opposite carriageway and had a game of cricket. That evening we really enjoyed Eliza Cathy and Jim Moray.

Saturday, rather amazingly belonged to Graham Kendrick. Firstly he did a worship set- all the old favourites, including the dreaded ‘Shine Jesus Shine’. Kendrick was charming, in a geeky slightly fey kind of way. We even had a ‘give God a round of applause’ moment. Hands were waved and (please do not judge me) I cried.

I think I cried for what I was, what I loved, what has gone, but was (despite all the foolish edges) still beautiful. Music does that to you.

Later Kendrick did an acoustic set of his folk songs- the things I listened to back in the early 80s when you were listening to the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

The other highlight for me was Dave Andrews– telling stories of a life of community activism- trying to live a life motivated towards the poor.

Sunday highlights would be; Jim Wallis, another man living a life of protest against those in power. I also enjoyed John Bell’s talk about the operation of power. Musically, the Moulettes were simply stunning- unusual, quirky, gorgeous music, including the use of a Bassoon.

I really enjoyed the wall of noise that was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club too…


Monday morning saw Will and I listening to Pete Rollins, weaving stories, jokes, theology and philosophy together. He is very entertaining, and some of his points hit home. There is a knowingness about Rollins that has an elitist edge however which I do not warm to. He seems to be at his most creative out beyond the edge, looking at us all with a sardonic grin. It is an approach that excludes and intimidates me a little.

Finally, I might as well mention the Greenbelt institution that is Martin Joseph. Songs that are mixed out of fragile emotion. Each one teeters and might fall on each note, but in spite (or because) of this it all soars heavenward.


Off to Greenbelt…

Mud greenbelt 2012

(Hope we do not get a repeat of last years conditions!)

Will and I are going down to Greenbelt Festival on our own this year- Michaela and Emily are simply too busy with other things. In fact, it was a late call to decide to go down, partly because Will was desperate to go, and also because I get the chance to meet up with some old friends. Oh- and my mate Andy had some spare tickets!

This year we are going as punters- no responsibilities, no installations to set up/services to lead. I have strangely mixed feelings about this however. Greenbelt has provided for me a sense of loose ‘belonging’ to a wider ‘church’, and I am not sure that it will be quite the same experience without actually contributing something to the festival. It will certainly be a lot less stressful however!

I watched a DVD last night called Greenbelt/40, the journey so far. It was full of the music of my youth- trips to the festival in the early 80s. It was a slightly surreal experience- like watching your life pass away into the distance. It did leave me wanting to look forward, not backwards however….

May there be sunshine, good conversation, great music and new ideas…

Are you ready for doomsday? Get your score here…


You can never be too ready for Armageddon.

Or perhaps you can.

Check this out- you could not make it up…

For the record, I expect to be dead after a couple of weeks.  (Assuming I have not already been raptured.)

What is it about rich western societies that constantly need to invent some dark hidden enemy to fear in order to give life meaning? Why not live in the light? It is much easier to read books.

TV comes to Ardentinny…



Some of my friends were on TV the other day- Beechgrove Garden came to Ardentinny to work on the lovely walled garden project. You can watch it all unfold on the i player, here.

We lived in Ardentinny when we first came to Scotland- a beautiful little village surrounded by lochs and mountains.

Here is the story on the Ardentinny website (where the picture above was borrowed from.)

God’s awkward squad; dissenting and the life of the Spirit…

History is littered with awkward difficult people who refused to conform. Their lives are often surrounded by conflict, particularly when their convictions confront the people in power. Think of all those Old Testament prophets.

What fuels this kind of dissent? It is often painted (by the after-the-event supporters of the dissenters at least) as a matter of conviction colliding with circumstance. I wonder however whether dissenters also are gifted/cursed with a particular kind of personality- a skew towards a simplistic world view, an arrogance even.

We can all think of people like this- they tend to be difficult to be around. Others shrink from the force of their opinion in groups, or retreat wounded from their harsh words and deeds. People I know who fit this category have often been an almost destructive force in the workplaces and groups I have been part of. They can often be far more focused on ‘the task’ than those whose task it is.

But, these people, for good and ill, are often those who we remember. They make milestones in our personal histories, and also in the history of mankind…


I came across one such man recently when I was doing some reading about those dark times of the reformation (see this post on the Covenanters for example.) I say ‘dark’ because despite the tradition I come from celebrating this as a kind of glorious outpouring of freedom and enlightenment, it often took place in the context of much pain, bloodshed and heartbreak. The question I find myself asking over and over again is whether we can regard something as ‘good’ when so much evil is done in the name of Jesus. Can the ends ever justify the means?

I offer you this story by way of example (If you want to know more of the historical context that he lived in check out the aforementioned post);

John Lilburne aka ‘Freeborn John,’ 1614 – 29 August 1657

John was from a line of dissenters. His father was the last man in England to demand to be allowed to settle a legal dispute via trial by combat. By the 1630’s John was apprenticed to radical opponents of the religious times and already forced to flee to Holland because of his involvement in radical pamphlets.

He was a man whose bravery verged on lunacy. Whilst being whipped, pillaried and imprisoned, he continued unabated in writing, arguing and protesting what he called his ‘Freeborn rights‘. His writings about these were so powerful that he is credited by being a major influence on the fifth amendment of the American Constitution.

The English Civil War saw John become a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel, a fiend of Oliver Cromwell. However, dissenters do not do well in terms of military discipline and he fell out with his superiors, and then, in April 1645, He resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion. In a time of religious extremism, John argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others, and would have no part of it.

Alongside such principled stands, John continued falling out with everyone around him- fighting vindictive public spats against former friends and allies.

He then redoubled his efforts to campaign for the freeborn rights of men. His views grew out of the radical movement known as ‘the Levellers‘, but John was more of a leaver than a joiner, so he refused to describe himself in this way.  He spent time in and out of prison, not just for his radical views, but also for his pursuit of former colleagues who he continued to attack in print.

And this became John’s life- fighting enemies to the left and right, raising high moral causes, in and out of jail, in and out of exile.

John began life as a Puritan, but ended it a Quaker. After all that violence, he had done with fighting, and came under the influence of a man of peace.

One epitaph written after his death was this one;

Is John departed, and is Lilburne gone!

Farewell to Lilburne, and farewell to John…

But lay John here, lay Lilburne here about,

For if they ever meet they will fall out.

Was this a great life? Certainly John did some great things but he seemed to be cast in the role of a stone-in-shoe for most of his life.

I am left pondering still the power of passion, faith and ideas, mediated through the mess that is humanity.

Thank God for dissenters.

And God save us from dissenters.

The measure of followers of Jesus, despite the context we are in, has to be the example that he set. He too was a dissenter, a table over-turner, a man who made no compromises to unjust ways of being.

But he was also a man who subordinated all things to love.

Rowan Williams on spirituality and whinging Christians…


He always was worth listening to carefully. Sure he never got used to packaging up media friendly sound bites, and even though many counted this in a list of his faults whilst in office, I always loved the fact that there was depth and intellect in everything he said. I have wondered how his voice might develop after being released from all the pressure of his post.

Early signs seem to be business as usual. Here are a couple of extracts, courtesy of The Guardian;

Firstly on whinging Christians, by which I mean those who see Christians in this country as under some kind of attack from the forces of evil. Check out the pages of Christian Voice and you will see what I mean;

Christians in Britain and the US who claim that they are persecuted should “grow up” and not exaggerate what amounts to feeling “mildly uncomfortable”, according to Rowan Williams, who last year stepped down as archbishop of Canterbury after an often turbulent decade.

“When you’ve had any contact with real persecuted minorities you learn to use the word very chastely,” he said. “Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. ‘For goodness sake, grow up,’ I want to say.”

True persecution was “systematic brutality and often murderous hostility that means that every morning you wonder if you and your children are going to live through the day”. He cited the experience of a woman he met in India “who had seen her husband butchered by a mob”.

Nothing confirms some Christians in their sense of persecution more than issues around homosexuality- it is almost as if every legal/social step forward offered to gay people is seen as some kind of prod of the devil-horns into the side of the church. Considering the fact that gay people have suffered (and still suffer) actual persecution this always seems to me to be a terrible miss-representation of the Gospel.

Rowan Williams then started out on a wider theme- that of ‘Spirituality’;

Sharing a platform at the Edinburgh international book festival with Julia Neuberger, president of the Liberal Judaism movement, Williams launched a withering critique of popular ideas about spirituality. “The last thing it is about is the placid hum of a well-conducted meditation,” he said.

He said the word “spiritual” in today’s society was frequently misused in two ways: either to mean “unworldly and useless, which is probably the sense in which it has been used about me”, or “meaning ‘I’m serious about my inner life, I want to cultivate my sensibility'”.

He added: “Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is.” Neuberger said she found some uses of the word self-indulgent and offensive. Williams argued that true spirituality was not simply about fostering the inner life but was about the individual’s interaction with others.

I am still working on a collection of ‘Spiritual’ poetry. I think I just found a quote for the introduction!