Music to give life, 4…

Nothing opens me up like a three (or more) part harmony. Those moments when a melody lift and soar into the stratosphere will almost always be carried there by polyphony. Yesterday, some dear friends of ours took us out for the evening in Glasgow. We ate Iranian food and then went to see a gospel choir singing- massed ranks of voices pulsing and harmonising. Perhaps heaven really will be like this because who wants to play harps for eternity anyway?

The music I want to offer you today however, is not gospel music, but something different- 4 men from Boston who sing what might described as ‘folk-pop’, who call themselves Darlingside.

Despite my commitment to keep hopefulness front and centre of this blog through this year, the song I have chosen, at first glance, might be seen to be rather dystopian. Here is what they say about the album it comes from;

“It’s over now / The flag is sunk / The world has flattened out,” are the first words of Extralife, the new album by Boston-based quartet Darlingside. While the band’s critically acclaimed 2015 release Birds Say was steeped in nostalgia and the conviction of youth, Extralife grapples with dystopian realities and uncertain futures. Whether ambling down a sidewalk during the apocalypse or getting stuck in a video game for eternity, the band asks, sometimes cynically, sometimes playfully: what comes next? Their erstwhile innocence is now bloodshot for the better.

The song is like a stiletto wrapped in silk, but in my defence it does not leave me without hope.

On the one hand, it might remind us that without mankind, the wild things of the planet will do just fine. Rivers will run clean, forests will regenerate, wild creatures will no longer be crowded and fenced into shrinking corners of the world. The seas will swallow all that plastic in sediment.

It might remind us too that without wild things, we are buggered. The 70% decline in insect life is not just a disaster for insects and birds, it is a disaster for us too, because we are the top of the ecosystem. We depend on them, they do not depend on us.

So where is the hope? The hope is in the sublime beauty of this song; how it carries our humanity. How it displays our ability to love and value the very place that we are destroying.

Because perhaps we have to be able to imagine a world without us in order to once more realise that we are part of the world, not separate from it.

And just to prove they can do it live

Someday a shooting star is gonna shoot me down
Burn these high rises back into a ghost town
Of iridium-white clouds
Matted close against the ground
While the sky hangs empty as a frame

See the reddening horizon line
Feel the planet spilling on the space time
On the way down Somerset I take pictures of cement
For the history books on Mother Earth

To the west now it begins
In the sound waves in the wind
There is an echo going by
Of the mountains caving in
And the parted roads and I
Knew that one day we would die
And become smooth and old again
Like the ash that sweeps the sky

Someday a shooting star is gonna shoot me down
Burn these high rises back into a ghost town

There’s holy water lying in the crater well
Heavy metals high test gasoline
Blessed singularity
A telescoping memory
Where the sky still flickers through the leaves

The demonisation of the working class…

I am reading Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’ at the moment. It was loaned to us by a friend but despite their recommendations my expectations were low becaue I tend to skim past Jones’ columns in The Guardian. Half a book later, here I am to say I was wrong. It is a book that we need to read; a necessary, prescient mirror to hold up in front of a British society that has lost any sense of the injustice at rampant, growing inequality, and has replaced it with pervasive negative stereotypes that can rightly only be called demonsation.

Jones charts this through social media, through the virulent portrayal in press, film, music and television and of course, in post-Thatcher politics, both Tory and New Labour. Think of Waynetta Slob or Shameless. Think of the ‘Skyvers not Strivers’, think of the rise of the middle class as a social ideal. Now try to think of one positive image of working people from recent times. To be working class, it seems, should induce shame- as surely otherwise your aspiration would have allowed you to become middle class. If you are still working class, then you are scum. You are a Chav.

Not that we ever talk about class any more. Most 20th C social policy was dominated by analysis of how social class systems shaped and dictated life paths for good and ill, but it is as if this vast body of social research never happened. Inequality is no longer a political imperative. It has been replaced by the relentless pursuit of wealth and profit…


But, I need to stop ranting because there was another moment in this book that brought me up short- one that described how the liberal left might have joined in with all the Chav hate.

school photo

I should start with my own confession. I have spent my whole life working on my own personal escape plan from where I came from. Here I am above, back row in yellow, with bowl-haircut, from my primary school days. I was the second child of a single mother, entirely dependent on state hand-outs. My absent father was an Irish road worker but both his start in life and my mothers were much worse than mine. We lived in a nice house and never went hungry. Sure, we were ‘different’ from other kids, marked out by our clothes, shoes and our lack of foreign holidays but at the same time, there were always presents at Christmas and birthdays, piano lessons and pressure to succeed at school. Despite this, embarrassment and shame was a dominant part of my becoming.

Small wonder then that I did my best to hide my background. I told small lies about our lack of ‘things’ that seemed to be social markers. I tried to speak with a neutral accent. I went to church youth clubs full of middle class kids. I did enough schooling to become a graduate, via a third class Polytechnic. I ended up working as a social worker, where I inevitably ended up looking down at where I came from with the perspective of one who is no longer like them, but has now become something else. Someone else. No longer working class. I had managed to hide my inner Chav.

There is of course another way to characterise my rise into middle-class respectability. I might be better understood to be the poster boy for meritocracy. Perhaps I escaped because I was better than those who did not. Perhaps I worked harder than those who did not. This feels like bullshit though because the Chav is still with me. The shame is still in me. This despite the fact that I grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s, a much more benign time to be living on benefits than we are living through now.

In reading Owen Jones book, I realised something else though- my own prejudice against working people. In ‘escaping’, I promoted myself. I was not like them. They were racist, sexist unthinking football-crazed yobs who drank too much and lived in dirty conditions. Of course, they were not all like that, but even those that were not were not like me. I think this contributed to a certain kind of alienation and displacement in my life because I was not like the middle class either. I lacked the confidence, ease and security that characterised most of my peers. I was cast as observer, participating only at the edges. Either way, despite my liberation theology/ left wing leanings, perhaps I have to acknowledge that I have done my share of unconscious demonising.

Does this matter? It is not as though I have ever indulged in any of that daily mail rabid Chav hate.

Yes. I think it does. There needs to be a corrective, which has to start in us if it is to become a movement.

Perhaps this film says it all.

The back of William’s head…



This has been my view for much of the last few days- well, that and lots of stunning Highland scenery…

We are just back from our attempt at the Great Glen Canoe Trail.


Thanks so much to all of you who supported our trip via our Just giving page– we decided to use this trip to try to raise some money for Children of Peace, a charity who work with Palestinian and Israeli kids, bringing them together to foster greater understanding and friendship, and sponsoring some through higher education. (In case this is not obvious, the news of young people being routinely shot on the illegal borders between Israel and the beleaguered and embittered Palestinian people made this charity seem like the best recipient of our sponsorship.) We chose the somewhat arbitrary figure of £400 as our target, and thanks to some very kind and generous people, we made the target this morning.

The trip was not straight forward- read on if you want to know more!

We arrived at Fort William early Sunday afternoon, and tried to pick up a key for the toilets/showers/facilities from Corpach sea loch, having be assured the office was open all day. This is the Highlands though and there was no-one to be seen. Eventually we tracked down a canal worker who told us ‘all the keys are gone’, although then managed to find one for us anyway! We then took all our kit to the top of ‘Neptune’s Staircase’, the series of lochs that climb up out of the basin to the start of the canal proper. The sun was HOT the air still. A paddlers dream.


Day one was scheduled to be a short paddle of only 10K, although after a lovely journey through winding canal banks, with the occasional glimpse of the glorious Ben Nevis range, we decided to paddle further out into Loch Lochy (so good they named it twice) where we made camp.


Looking back towards Ben Nevis from the bottom of Loch Lochy

As you will see, we were using camping hammocks- brilliant things, but they are essentially a compromise between comfort and warmth- given that the cold night air underneath you can be very unpleasant. There are various ways to combat this, but I certainly miss employed them the first night!


The next morning, after a porridge breakfast, we paddled off into a stunning flat calm loch- one of those stunning mornings when the opaque depths of the water hold hardly a ripple and it feels as though you are not floating but rather have been suspended. The spell was broken after an hour or so when I realised I was not wearing my glasses. There seemed no alternative but to return to our camping spot, with many apologies to my fellow paddler, who fortunately took the extra effort in good spirits, even when I found the things tucked up inside my stowed-away hammock, miraculously intact. It was that kind of day.


An extreme hot day. We scooped water straight from the loch to drink as it was cold and clear. Yes I know, there is always a risk, but this seemed one worth taking. We even swam later, when we stopped at the ‘Trail blazer rest’ site of Glas -dhoire (a lovely place to stop if you are planning a trip, with its camp spots in the trees and a composting loo.)


After a long pull through Loch Lochy, we arrived at South Lagan lock, which meant another portage. The first challenge was finding the spot canoes were supposed to disembark. There were no signs. Eventually someone shouted out of a window ‘Oi, not there, over there,‘ pointing to a muddy slip into what looked like someones garden. We had a pint of lovely beer each at the Eagle Barge inn, which is as it sounds, a food pub in barge moored just about the lock. We had earned it after all.

By the time we had set off towards Loch Oich, the wind was blowing against us again, which made passage into the Loch hard work. We had a vague plan to see if we could camp on the island in the Loch, but it proved rather overgrown, although very beautiful. Because we were scouting for a camp spot we took the left hand channel, which is not the navigable one normally, but it is quite lovely- a reeded area rich in dragon flies and fringed with flowers on the island.


Still, we were very glad to reach the trailblazer rest site at Leiterfearn as it had been a long hot day.


We found some good trees for the hammocks, and I made a rather better job of protecting them against the wind. Hammock hanging, we were finding, is as much art as science.


The next morning was misty at first – cold even, in great contrast with previous days. We were both feeling the aches and pains of our paddling efforts in the morning so we paddled into a stern headwind in silence, knowing it we faced a day of multiple portages.


As we paddled under the bridge at Aberchalder it seemed strange to see all the lines of cars, buses and campervans driving through the glen. Of course, I have made this journey myself many times, but today the people in the vehicles seemed like a different race. They were not like us.

At the first portage, past the lock at Cullochy, we met a very well equipped group of canoeists who were heading in the opposite direction. They passed the time of day, and also some rather dire warnings of the conditions up ahead on Loch Ness. Hmmm.

Talking of portages, I had  bought a canoe trolley on Ebay for thirty-odd quid. It was clearly not up to the job of carrying both our canoe and our baggage, so we ended up having to first take the canoe then ferry everything else. You get what you pay for I suppose.


The next stretch of canal was our favourite. The sun was out now, and we paddled through a green world of trees and hanging branches, which Will said reminded him of pictures of Mangrove forests.


We lingered a little at the next lock (Kytra) and encountered two more parties of canoeists. The first were travelling in the opposite direction, and gave more (slightly smug it has to be said) warnings about conditions up ahead. The other party were a group who had set off around the same time as us and had now caught us up.

After a companionable paddle along the last stretch of canal, we arrived at the dreaded long portage down the line of locks into Fort Augustus. There was nothing for it but to get on with it. The huge effort seemed all the harder as it was taking place in the midst of milling holiday makers from all over the planet, who often seemed totally unaware of the need to make space for a heavy canoe and a sweating canoeist. They were not like us.


Finally, we stood on the shores of the might Loch Ness, the largest inland water in the British isles. Our half way point.

The power of the wind coming off the Loch was a shock. Our weather forecast had told us to expect winds of between 8 and 10 MPH. It was actually gusting to over 40 MPH. In those conditions the surface starts to spray- you can see it here;


It might look pretty, but this is no place to be in an open canoe. To paddle out into water that 35 foot yachts would not willingly go would be madness. Even if you could make progress into these conditions you would do so at great risk; certainly you would be swamped by waves and be bailing as much as you paddled, and there is always the risk of capsize- which in a solo heavy loaded canoe is pretty much impossible to self-recover from. Along with our canoeing companions, we had no choice but to wait. And eat chips. The weather was strange. Sunshine, heat and mountains perhaps will produce odd weather.

If anything, conditions worsened, so we reviewed our choices. We could wait overnight to see if things improved. The weather forecast suggest a window of windlessness at 4AM, but given that it had been so inaccurate we had no way of knowing whether this was believable. It could also lead to us being stranded half way up. Those who had got through over the last few days were all heading in the opposite direction, and most of them had rafted up and come through under sail.

We considered asking Michaela to come and pick us up and take us up to Inverness, to let us have a go from the other end. The thing is though, it may still have been impassable. In the end, there was only one decision, we had to go back. Back up that blood line of locks and back to where we came from. Fortunately, some of the other stranded canoeists helped us get our stuff back up the hill. They were waiting a while longer so kindly volunteered to get us on our way. Still, we both were subdued and disappointed as we loaded up again to set off back over already travelled waters.

But, propelled by the strong wind, we dug in hard. The canal banks seemed to fly by and after two more portages we were back on Loch Oich, revelling in the wild conditions. We stopped for a rest at Well of the Seven Heads, wondering if a cafe might be open, but no luck so we set off again, back through the Mangrove forest and all the way down to South Lagan. The Eagle Barge was closed so we stopped to cook a tea of spicy rice. Still it was past 9.30PM when we set off into a darkening and challenging Loch Lochy, searching for a suitable camping spot.In the end however, we made it all the way back to the Trailblazer rest site at Glas-dhoire, bursting out the last of our energy as the darkness gathered, about 10.30 at night.

What an epic day it had been; on the go almost non stop from 7 AM, seven portages, disappointment followed by the exhilaration of fast sustained paddling in wild conditions, and about 30 K of waters covered. We slept well that night.


In the morning, the sun was shining, but the wind was blowing hard. We had shared our site with a group of kids from London who had paddled half way up the loch the day before- good for them because that must have been a tough effort. We described what awaited them and the leaders decided they would try to get further, but if not, would raft up the canoes, rig and A frame and let fly their spinnaker to give the kids a thrill. We fancied joining them, but we had mission of our own. We were heading home, and this meant tackling the loch.

Unless you have been in big waters in a canoe, you will not know what I am talking about. I kept my VHF radio close to my chest and fought to keep the canoe stern on to the waves as we were blown, bounced and pushed down towards Gairlochy. It was magnificent. What a contrast with our passage up the loch. You will understand the lack of photos- it was simply not possible to stop paddling. The bottom of the loch was the toughest- the wave reach was around 18 K, more than enough to raise waves of about a meter, which we actually ended up surfing. I knew were unlikely to be able to paddle broadside to conditions like this, so in order to keep the waves to the stern of the canoe, we had to leave the relative safety of the shores of the loch as we neared the wide section at the end. I think we both felt a combination of relief and anti-climax when we reached the more sheltered waters of the canal heading into Gairlochy.


The rest of the day was just hot paddling though the canal system. The last stretch seemed the longest of all. After days of over estimating the time taken to cover distance, the opposite happened and each twist in the canal we thought would be the last. We were tired because it had been another epic day.

We arrived back at Banavie with mixed emotions. We had failed in our crossing of Scotland, but we had succeeded in so many other ways.

I had the deep pleasure of a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my son, who is on the verge of adulthood, soon to be off on adventures on his own, perhaps far away. We had not even a cross word between us for the whole trip. How blessed am I?


We raised some money for a cause we believe in (assuming people do not ask for half of their donations back!)

We proved we could paddle long distances and still enjoy it. In fact, we may have got the bug. Already we are wondering about other long distance paddles- The Spey perhaps?

We also learned a lot. We need to re-equip the canoe, which is old and battered, but still has a good hull. It needs new thwarts, and hopefully a sailing rig. The hammocks need underblankets. We need to read the weather better. We definitely need to spend some money on a better trolley! We would take less clothes, and get more creative with our cooking.

We will share it with others too perhaps. Anyone fancy coming along next time?

(Oh- by the way, Will had his gopro attached to the bow of the canoe so if he ever gets around to editing the video I will post it later…)






Canoe fundraiser- preparing…



Will and I are working hard to get ready for our canoe trip across Scotland. We will set off to Fort William on Sunday morning, with a plan to paddle the first stretch of the Caledonian canal to our first camp alongside Loch Lochy by nightfall.


The canoe has needed a bit of work- rigging it for touring with cargo retainers and also we have had to do some fibreglassing on the skid plates. It has had a hard life and has some hard miles to do yet!

I was reflecting on this, when the canoe and I both almost met our ends together. It seems all the more special that ii is now being used to raise money to give life to others…

children of peace

…which takes me to a little reminder that we are still hoping for some donations to Children of Peace via our Justgiving site. After all, if ever the border between Israel and the Palestinian peoples needs people who work for peace, it is now. Perhaps there might yet be hope for the next generation- when Trump and Netanyahu will just be pantomime villains in the ridiculous past…

By gum though, we seem to have  lot of stuff (but no, the guitar is not coming with us!)


Andy’s wilderness retreat videos…

I always tease him about his technology/photography addiction, but my mate Andy has made some lovely videos capturing both something of his own wilderness journey and also gives a flavour of what these weekends are like. He is a talented chap.

Many years ago, I remember a debate with someone else (Jonny Baker?) about photography and spirituality. I was pontificating about how the digitisation of lived experience is a problem- in that might become a means of detachment rather than connection from place and person. The counter argument however is that photography can also be a way of looking- you see things more vividly, framing and focusing attention. Andy’s video might be a primary example of this;

Trying to love when your teeth are clenched…

I avoided the big wedding yesterday- I am no royalist so find all the sycophantic pomp and ceremony hard to take. But people began talking to me about the words spoken by Bishop Curry to all the millions of people who were watching. I went looking for them and watched this;

For reasons I can not go into here, I need to be reminded again about the call to live a life of love. Even in the face of hate. Even in the face of people unjustly accusing you. Even in the face of bullies. Even when you want to punch faces. Even when you want to build fences.

We live in the shadow of unlove. But the call of Jesus is to love anyway.

Working this out is the problem, because, if you read this, it is pretty much all that matters (from Galatians chapter 5);

I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love…

 It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day.

I know how much I fall short of this, but today I decided again not to make war against those who attack me. Perhaps I will fall short of love, but I will at least take steps in that direction.

By the way, the Bishop crops up again in this wonderful reply to the kind of Christianity that pumps up Trump and all his kind;

Wilderness retreat photos, 2018…

I was away at the weekend, here.



For the first time, we needed two boats, with 17 people coming on the retreat. I worried about the size of the group being a too much, but in the end it worked really well.

The highlights this year for me;

  • The usual experience of a small space expanding and holding me.
  • Spending time with old friends
  • Making new ones.
  • Emily coming for the first time
  • Significant contributions from others in leading things
  • Listening to Mozart’s requiem in a candle lit cave
  • Sharing the journeys of others
  • The stillness we find before an ever moving sea
  • The laughter of naughty boys.

I am back home now, picking off ticks and allowing photographs to wash me in the warm water of recent memory.

I am deeply grateful.

Apart from the aforementioned ticks, one other thing that was less than welcome was the huge amounts of plastic on the island. We filled bag after bag with the stuff to carry away, but it seemed as if we hardly scratched the surface. A powerful reminder of the need for us all to change our ways.