And now what?

 

Military flags, Lichfield Cathedral

The referendum in Scotland is over. The narrowness of the result has left half of Scotland relieved, whilst many are sore, even heart-broken. This is democracy by referendum I suppose – a black and white duality that gives a one-size-fits-all answer.

My FB feed is full of people suggesting that the vote was rigged or finding other reasons to blame. It seems to reflect peoples anger and hurt as well as the refusal to let go of something that felt vitalising and alive. The referendum was a blank canvas onto which all sorts of hopes and dreams were projected onto, but it lit us up like politics has failed to do for a generation. Can it really be all over?

My own feelings are very confused, for all sorts of reasons. The referendum somehow never asked questions that I could get excited about. I tried to express some of this in a previous post, but do not feel that I said it well, and in the end I was left rather sore and deflated. For all of us now however the question surely has to be, what next?

For some, the issue remains sovereignty; authorship over national fate, and so the matter of devolved powers is top of the agenda. The constitutional changes needed to achieve this, not just in Scotland, but in the whole of the UK, are likely to have far reaching consequences. It will also be a protracted process involving lots of twists and turns, dodgy deals and uncomfortable compromises. This is democracy too. We make deals with the devil and rubber stamp them with 4 yearly elections in which people vote blindfolded.

What about followers of Jesus in these interesting times? Where do we look for leadership, for inspiration, for challenge to our inertia and complicity with empire? How do we continue to seek to be agents of the New Kingdom (rather than a particular earthly one?)

I started to make a list of things that I think might be important. None of them are new, but for my own benefit, I thought it was time to restate them;

  1. Our primary allegiance is not to a flag or a country, rather it is to Jesus and the New Kingdom. This is not to say that we should not seek to be enthusiastic engaged critical lovers of the place where we live however, rather it is an encouragement to see ourselves as agents of something deeper, something purer and more loving. Something bigger than now, so that the now might be carried forwards into something better.
  2. The rules of engagement with the place we live are given to us in clues by the life of Jesus, his sermons, the stories he told, and the stories of his failing followers ever since. Our job, which sometimes seems almost impossible, is to apply these rules anew in this context, this time. We have to start with the Shalom of God, made real in the person of Jesus.  We are to people a people who first of all are learning to love. A people who seek to make peace. Too often we have been easily sucked into to making war.
  3. Jesus had a skew towards the poor, the weak, the broken. It almost seemed as though he deliberately eschewed power in all of its earthly forms- particularly political power. That is not to say that he despised people in power- witness the ‘rich young ruler’, or the Roman Centurion – rather that he preferred the company of the small people.
  4. Justice. This word clearly means different things to different people, then and now. from one perspective, Jesus’ teachings seemed to focus more on our inner lives, to the exclusion of protesting injustice, but on the other hand, you might see his whole life as being a lesson in HOW to protest injustice. How to look in the face of power and take the radical alternative path of love. How to turn the other cheek. How to scandalize by simple acts of mercy.
  5. Community. Jesus seemed to place deep value in friendship, in shared life, in teaching and learning through close community. In a shattered society, where communality has been devalued and we worship instead the gods of individuality, personal growth, me, myself and mine. The way of Jesus might be described as deliberately putting the self (my ‘rightness’, my stuff, my needs, my art, my dreams, my own fulfillment) behind the rule of love.
  6. Healing, restoration, stewardship. Again, the life of Jesus that we know about tended to be transitory, always on the move; he had 4 years on the road then they crucified him. But in all those years he sought to mend what was broken- as if to return the world to the way it was made. In our time, the whole of creation might just be broken. We are all vulnerable, particularly the poor and the weak. How might we become agents of healing?
  7. Agents of peace and love might get angry- Jesus did after all. Because being engaged hopeful critics of culture and place might often lead to outrage. It is all too easy to forget the way of love, to turn from being people of the open hand, to people of the clenched fist.
  8. Agents of the Kingdom are not bound by narrow sectarian divisions. Hard boundaries and walls were never the Jesus way. Rather he looked beyond the labels, the religious and political differences and saw real people. He even formed friendships and allegiances across the boundaries- to the frequent anger and disgust of those around him. Tax collectors, Romans, Samaritans. This was not political expediency, it was love.

How do I apply this to now – to the UK, 2014, to post referendum Scotland, to Argyll, to Dunoon, to my house, to my self? One small decisions at a time I suppose. Most of the time I feel like I get it all wrong, that my hands have formed themselves, almost unbidden, into fists.

I think that whatever happens next is not my really my concern. Rather it is to seek always to form in myself the way of love. The Spirit within me will do the rest. One shuffling step at a time.

The referendum was seen by some followers of Jesus as a means by which justice might be increased, by which love could have more elbow room, by which old wounds could be exposed to the therapy of new sunlight. Hopes and dreams became wrapped up in an ideal of renewed nationhood. Amidst the disappointment perhaps all we can do is return together to the way of Jesus. The point was never nationhood, it was love.

May we followers of Jesus be part of the healing of our nation. May we try always to see through the eyes of the poor, the weak and the broken. And when others around us seek to build walls of division, let us smile and step back, hoping for the best, whilst looking for cracks, through which the light can get through.

paved with light

The Crown of London…

I have been listening to some music by Lau’s Kris Drever of late.

One song has stuck with me- writen by Kris’s brother, all about the fate of the 17th C Covenanters after the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679.

It seems all the more poignant a song in the wake of the recent Independence referendum, reminding us of the mess of politics and religion that gave birth to the Union of the United Kingdom. Some people remember the Covenanters as Godly heroes who stood up for truth against oppression. At the time they were seem more in the way we would see the Taliban fighting Jihad. Disenfranchised people in the grip of religion that proclaims truth whilst entirely missing the point.

The so called ‘English’ Civil war involved many thousands of Scottish soldiers fighting on both sides, but most tellingly on the side of the Parliament. Many of these were lowland Scots who saw themselves as fighting a Holy war to free Presbytarian Scotland of all Popery and Catholicism. There was some skulduggery along the way though- the Covenanters switched sides for a while and eventually invaded the North of England but were defeated at the Battle of Preston. After the Civil war, they were eventually defeated in Scotland by a Parlimentary army under Cromwell. The trouble did not end there though, as after the Resoration of the Crown, Charles II did not remember the deal he had made with the Covenanters.

Following the restoration of Episcopacy rebel ministers began to preach at secret open-air meetings in the countryside known as ‘conventicles’ A period of sustained persecution began. Oppressive measures against these illegal field assemblies where attendance was made a capital offence[1] led to an outbreak of armed rebellion in 1666, originating in Galloway. Advancing from the west towards Edinburgh, a small force of badly armed Covenanters was defeated at theBattle of Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills, a location which caused the whole tragic episode to be misleadingly named the Pentland Rising. To quell unrest in south-west Scotland, the government brought in 6,000 Highland soldiers, described by its enemies as an “inhumane and barbarous Highland host” which was quartered on suspected Covenanters and was accused of committing many atrocities.[1]

A further rebellion broke out in 1679, after the unexpected success of a group of covenanters, armed with pitch forks and the like, against government forces led by John Graham of Claverhouse at the Battle of Drumclog. For a time the authorities looked in danger of losing control of the south west of Scotland, as more and more people joined the rebel camp at Bothwell near Glasgow; but only a few weeks after Drumclog the rebels were defeated at the Battle of Bothwell Brig. In the weeks before the battle the Covenanters spent more time arguing among themselves than preparing for the inevitable counterstroke, which did much to contribute towards their downfall. Of 1,200 captured rebels taken to Edinburgh, some 400 were imprisoned in an area of Greyfriars Kirkyard over the winter months.[2]

It was the survivors of the Greyfriar Kirkyard that found themselves shipped off as slaves in the fateful ship ‘The Crown of London’. There is more of the story here.

This from here;

So, in November 1679, these unfortunates were lead on to a ship, the Crown of London, in Leith, where they were to be transported to English plantations in America to become slaves.

Under the command of one Captain Patterson, the Crown of London set sail in December 1679.

The captain’s planned course is unknown, but the ship’s first port of call was Orkney where, on December 10, 1679, she sheltered from a storm off Scarvataing, a headland in the parish of Deerness, a mile or two from the sheltered bay of Deer Sound.

In gales typical of the season, the ship was driven on to rocks after her anchor chain snapped. The captain and crew escaped the doomed vessel by hacking down the ship’s mast and clambering across it to reach land.

The prisoners, however, were not so fortunate.

They had been confined to the hold and the hatches battened down under the captain’s orders. The reasoning behind this act was simple – the captain would be paid for the number of slaves on board the vessel and recompensed for those who died on the voyage. He would receive nothing for an escaped prisoner.

So, when the ship left port, Patterson took steps to make sure none did.

One member of crew did attempt a rescue by breaking through the deck with an axe. His valiant efforts meant that around 50 prisoners escaped and made it to the Deerness shore.

The remainder perished as the ship broke up and sank. It is said that over the following days, bodies washed up over three miles of the Deerness coastline.

Why do these things matter?

They are part of what made our nation. Upheavals that led to the death of thousands. Power ebbing and flowing, rebellious ideas flaring and then being snuffed out. Religion being employed as a cutting edge. And in the middle of it all cruel powerful forces use small people to achieve their own ends…

The peaceful democratic process of the recent referendum seems such a blessed contrast.

We would do well to honour this process- no matter whether we are saddened or relieved by the outcome. Let the killing times be at the back of our minds- after all, not so far away, just across the Irish sea, they never quite stopped…

Here is the song;

It’s all about poverty, stupid!

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Some sobering news for education systems in Scotland, via the Joseph Rowntree Foundation;

  • The gap between children from low-income and high-income households starts early. By age 5, it is 10–13 months. Lower attainment in literacy and numeracy is linked to deprivation throughout primary school. By age 12–14 (S2), pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy. Attainment at 16 (the end of S4) has risen overall, but a significant and persistent gap remains between groups.
  • Parental socio-economic background has more influence than the school attended.
  • Children from deprived households leave school earlier. Low attainment is strongly linked to destinations after school, with long-term effects on job prospects.

We have been attempting to tout education as the means by which we make societies more equal for generations now. We tried a tri-partite education system, with children streamed by ability, then we switched to comprehensive education. We tried experimental community schools for a while (I went to one) then sort of gave up and said that the problem was caused by bad schools, bad teaching.

You could argue that the politicians employed the old divide and rule trick- they made schooling all about choice, individuality and parent power – none of these things bad in their own right, but they were sold to us using league tables (which masked the inequality by making inner city schools look like they were under performing.) The end result is that we as parents increasingly looked after our own. Those that could afford to send our kids to private education felt under even more pressure to do so.

What the Rowntree report makes clear is what we have always known- inequalities in educational attainment are not about bad schools or bad teaching, they are about one thing- poverty. It is not as if every piece of research in this areas has not told us this.

Equality is not something that can be promised to the next generation, no matter how much we hot house our kids through exams. Blair famously said that his three priorities in government were “Education, Education and Education.” The fool forgot that you can not treat a problem be focusing only on one of the symptoms.

The report mentioned above lists a whole set of things that it thinks government can do to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor, but the reality is that the only guarantee of any kind of change is to bring greater equality of income into our society and lift poor people out of poverty.

social class

 

Re-wilding our dead mountains…

View over the Dark Peak from Froggatt edge, Derbyshire

I have spent much of my adult life looking upwards towards mountains, longing to be lost in the shape of them. This started out in the crowded landscape of the Peak District, chewed and nibbled by quarries and industry, leaving only the millstone edges and the heavy dark peak with their wet peat wrapping of dead forest. It progressed to the cosy mountains of the Lake District– bare crags and scree spitting like broken teeth from the bare grasslands. Nowadays I have the high places of Scotland, path-less and unforgiving, untidy with scrub, alive with deer and ticks.

What I am just coming to realise is that these beautiful landscapes are anything but wild. Sure, it was more obvious with the first two of my places of adventure, but it is even true of Scotland. George Monbiot (rapidly becoming a real hero/prophet to lefties like me) is about to publish a book on Re-wilding and the impact of farming practices on our ecology. Once you look at the British landscape through these eyes, you will never quite look at it the same way again.

A cross on the subsidiary peak

Could it be that those rolling hills and high mountains that have beckoned me all my life are actually barren wastelands created by the depletion of almost every indigenous ecosystem? A wasteland created and sustained above all by our agricultural practices and supported by vast amounts of public money in the form of subsidies?

Monbiot suggests that we do not see this because of the myths that we have adopted as fact about our landscape- myths that are so powerful that they have achieved some kind of stranglehold on politicians, ecologists and members of the public alike. Here is Monbiot in an interview with Steve Wheeler on the Dark Mountain blog;

 Yes, that’s right, and in fact shifting baseline syndrome – the idea that what you experienced in your youth is the normal state of the ecosystem, and so conservation becomes an attempt to recreate the ecosystems that existed in your youth, oblivious to the fact that those ecosystems were themselves highly depleted – it’s that syndrome that is responsible for the dire state of conservation in this country. In some other parts of the world, too, but Britain is a particularly extreme case. There’s no other place on earth where conservationists are quite so frightened of nature, and where they try to such an extent to manage and suppress natural processes. There’s nowhere else where conservation so closely resembles a slightly modified form of farming, and that’s because conservationists, like everyone else, appear to be profoundly ignorant of what was here before farming, and what could be here without farming, so they focus on the species that have happened to survive 6,000 years of farming – which happen to be tough, weedy, rapidly reproducing, ‘R-selected’ rather than ‘K-selected’ in the jargon of ecologists, rather than the species that did live here and could live here again.

SW: It struck me, to be fair to some of these conservationists, that there’s a strong psychological reason when they talk about the dangers of undergrazing and so forth: there is a fairly messy phase that the ecology would need to go through before it became a rich, old growth forest, and that looks like stinging nettles or bracken, which to a lot of people elicits a reaction of: ‘Oh look, these weeds are coming here, this is a less beautiful landscape, this is less useful for the needs we wanted it for’. There’s a lack of faith and trust in the succession of species – that one stage needs to happen first and then the next colonisers will come and the next.

GM: Almost every stage is a stage of increasing richness over what was there before. Some of the upland sites are so impoverished, have so little life, that any recovery in terms of scrub, bracken, brambles, would actually mean an increase in biodiversity. It’s fascinating how almost every aspect of the discussion about what we’re trying to conserve and why has been completely distorted by our perceptions of the present overwhelming the past and the future.

For instance, conservationists will, with a straight face, assert that their grazed open grasslands are more biodiverse than woodland. You say ‘What do you mean?’ and they say ‘They’re more biodiverse’. And you ask which taxa they’re talking about and the answer is ‘flowers and butterflies’ – it’s always flowers and butterflies! So you say, ‘Yes, strange to relate, grasslands are more diverse in non-woodland species than woodlands are’. But they don’t see it, and they genuinely believe that more flowers and butterflies equals greater biodiversity in total, and ignore all the other taxa, whether they’re beetles, moths, spiders, mammals, birds, fungi… trees! – whatever they happen to be. All of those are ignored, because they only happen to see biodiversity in two groups.

cuilin ridge from Sgur nan Gilean

Does it matter then? Are these places not still beautiful, vibrant, compelling? To stand high on the Cuillin ridge with clouds lapping your feet on one side, an clear air the other (as above) is still transcendent. The reality Monbiot wants to wake us up to however is that we have stopped looking at what we are losing. We have become transfixed by the ‘conservation’ of certain totemic species which we have preserved, even re-introduced; sea eagles, otters, beavers, salmon. At the same time the diversity of the wider eco-system is in terrible decline;

SW: You’ve been at pains to point out that you want to rewild the uplands but leave the lowlands for agricultural practice – albeit perhaps not as currently practiced, but generally. Do you think that kind of agriculture is sustainable?

GM: Well, it depends what you mean by sustainable, which is a term that has become almost meaningless. Can it be sustained? Probably, yes, if the phosphate doesn’t run out, which is probably a couple of hundred years off. But at great cost to the natural world, and already we see that cost in terms of the extraordinary losses of wildlife in almost every nation on earth, including our own. A remarkably rapid loss, such that even since my youth – which admittedly was quite a long time ago – there have been profound changes.

I remember when the riverbeds were so thick with eels migrating to the sea in the the autumn that they looked almost black, and now the european eel is a highly endangered species, there are very few of them left – it would have been inconceivable to me if someone has said that that would be the case. For some 10,000 years following the ice age there was this massive migration, and now it’s come to an end, just about. I remember on summer nights, the moths would pack the windows, so that you could scarcely see out, of all sort of colours and shapes and sizes, which was a wonderful adventure for a boy like me, just to log the species stuck to the window, trying to get in. Fields used to be covered in white mushrooms, all gone now, and that’s just in my lifetime.

And as I say, that was already a highly depleted ecosystem; but it’s been so radically depleted in that short amount of time, and largely by agriculture, so it’s plainly unsustainable in terms of maintaining even the barest scrapings of life. It might be sustainable in terms of preserving food production, but it depends where you are, we’re now seeing in the interior of the United States large areas rapidly becoming unsuitable for agriculture through a combination of climate change, aquifer depletion, and overuse of the soil.

cowal hills, winter, snow

If Monbiot is right- then what should we do about it? His radical suggestion is that we change the subsidy system away from supporting upland grazing towards re-wilding; simply put, we get out of nature’s way. Switch the subsidies towards permaculture, with proximal zones where we do nothing.

Farmers will not be pleased- many of them anyway. Some are living in marginal subsistence situations already. Others are reaping vast profits from the subsidy system.

How about people like me for whom our ‘wild’ places are a poetic adventure play ground? We might need to get used to far less tidy landscapes- I can tell you that it is MUCH easier to walk and climb in the Lake District than it is in Scotland- mostly because the former is much less ecologically diverse (even though Scotland is heading in the same direction.) A walk up Cat Bells with the crowds in their creaky new Gore Tex will convince you of this if anything will;

Michaela, Cat Bells

It is not that we did not enjoy the stiff climb, the uninterrupted views out over Derwent Water, the sound footing on constructed paths. However, we did not consider the bare slopes, accommodating of our exercise as they were, to be anything other than normal- which perhaps is exactly what they were.

Wilderness.

What does it mean to us? Is it worth fighting to preserve? Do we think that our current economic systems can ever be trusted to do this?

Doing church the new/old way…

a church under reconstruction?

Michaela and I have just had a really lovely trip up north to spend some time with friends who are part of Garioch Church. We had been asked to be part of something called a ‘sounding board’- a group of people from outside the church who meet a couple of times a year to reflect on where the church is heading, and what challenges it is facing. We were looked after by Andrew and Jane magnificently and it was a privilege to hear something of their story, not least because it enabled us to reflect anew on our own.

Garioch is an area on the outskirts of the city of Aberdeen- a string of villages over a 10-15 mile area. It is a largely affluent place, with pockets of deprivation, fueled by prosperity from the oil industry. We had never spent any time in that part of Scotland before, and in many ways it felt like a different Scotland to the one we knew. It was busy, bustling, full of industry and people had a pace of life very different to our small west coast town.

The church has been trying to find a way of being authentically present in this new context. What they have done is really interesting and genuinely innovative. Rather than seeking to follow a familiar model of church planting, which goes something like- small group of people with lots of energy start a gathering, invite friends, it grows and so house becomes too small so they rent a hall, it grows so they need to buy own hall, appoint staff, etc, they did this;

Gairioch church wanted to remain based around homes, families, small community. They wanted to be a local, connected expression of faith- engaged in their small context. What they now have are three thriving home groups which are the focus of ‘church’. Once a month they meet in a school hall where they can make a bit more noise and feel a wider sense of connection.

Simple huh? Sounds very like that elusive but often used idea of trying to connect with a New Testament idea of what church looked like?

Alongside this deliberate emphasis on the small, they have found themselves having to grapple with some familiar themes- what does leadership look like in this context? How do you survive community? How do you continue reaching out when there is so much to do within the social context of community itself? What does teaching look like when traditional ‘preaching’ no longer fits? What about all the children? How do we manage all these competing demands with such limited time?

It was rather special to see them feeling for answers to all these questions- to appreciate the freedom that allows them to try, and the long tradition of Christian collectives who have done the same.

My own small community feels special too. We are different, in that we are one (rather isolated) community, and in many ways the pressure to lead, to organise, to manage is very different. As a result of this we are less hierarchical, more driven by the need to be joint travelers, not leaders and followers. This made for some interesting parts of our discussion at the sounding board day. How much do we as leaders, in taking responsibility, remove this in both obvious and more subtle ways from the people we lead?

I came home inspired, humbled and also grateful for the fact that people remain inspired by Jesus towards the new. That Christians in these times are still looking for new ways to love better, to live better, to serve better.

Yesterdays post was a rather cynical one about church names- I removed it as although a whiff of controversy in blogging is usually a good thing, I never like giving offence, and it turned out that some friends of mine have a church whose name I accidentally lambasted. As part of yesterdays post however, I said this, and I will repost it as a prayer for our churches everywhere!

I think the words of Jesus lead us on a path emphasising a whole different set of principles. Rather than our success he promised that the last shall be first. Rather than our satisfaction, he promised a hard road. Rather than storing up comfort and riches he pointed us towards the lost and the least.

When Church is defined as being the provider of success and abundance I also cringe for those whose experience has NOT fitted into this shiny stereotype. People who even whilst in this kind of environment feel unable to share pain and brokenness. People whose lives fall apart for no apparent reason.

I pray that the people in the shiny Churches grow in to abundant life, so that they can become a well of blessing for the rest of us whose lives are full of beautiful aching brokenness…

I think we can take heart and courage, because good things are growing in the cracks of Old Church.

The patience of the potter…

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It is a wild wet day here- the first storm of the autumn. Emily is home from university for some TLC (tonsillitis no doubt brought about by loss of sleep and excessive parties) and will is stretched out on a floor cushion in his onesy nursing a cold.

Michaela is potting. She has been making some large bowls based around pebble designs.

No matter how much you might like to rush the process of making pots, it is simply not possible. One of the most important skills employed seems to be a process of learning patience.

First you take a lump of raw clay. You then work the clay to ensure it is smooth and free of air bubbles (which would result in the pot exploding in the Kiln) then you use your hands and imagination to shape a pot. It takes Michaela several hours to get to this point;

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Next you have to wait for the pot to air dry- getting as much moisture out as possible. If you do this too fast, the pot with crack, if you do not do it enough it will be destroyed in the kiln. This can take around 4-5 days, depending on the thickness of the clay and the weather conditions.

Next you carefully stack your pots in the kiln, using ‘kiln furniture’ (carefully covered in bat wash so nothing sticks.) The kiln then as to warm up over several stages, taking around 11 hours to get up to around 1000 degrees centigrade.

Michaela and the kiln

It will then take another 10 hours to cool down sufficiently so that you can open the kiln. Some pots will have survived the firing, some may not. Even then, you do not have a completed pot- you have something that has been biscuit fired- it is hard and porous. Next you need to glaze the pot.

This involves brushing one or more glazes in liquid form on to the pot, carefully layering and sponging. This too can take an hour on some of the big pots. Many potters hate this stage as it is the least creative.

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Then the pot goes back in the kiln. Carefully stacked on bat-washed kiln furniture. Glaze sets like glass so if two pots touch they are like Siamese twins, only separated by risky surgery. Another 11 hours getting up to temperature, and the same to cool, and you open the kiln with excitement and trepidation.

The colours of the glazes are fickle- they often depend on subtle differences in temperature in different parts of the kiln. Sometimes Michaela has fired pots three times to get the right colour.

All of this is one of the reasons why I am no potter…

But I love watching the things work, helping out when I can, and I am so proud of Michaela’s pots.

I should add that for those of you who want to try your hand at pottery- Michaela and Pauline run courses– which are very busy-  I think the next few 4 session introductory courses are almost full. However, we will also be hopefully running to residential weekends over the winter- watch this space!

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The season draws to an end…

william, cricket

William is back at school today- the summer holidays are over up here in Scotland.

A bit of a shock really- but it has been such an amazing summer here, full of hot long sunny days. We have not had a family holiday this year as everyone has been so busy with other things, and money is rather tight, but what I will remember this year as ‘the year of cricket’. All this sunshine has given opportunities to be out playing the beautiful game like never before up here in Scotland- in fact (much to Emily’s disgust) it has almost taken over our lives for the past couple of months…

Last week was a case in point. William played games of cricket on Friday, Sunday, Monday (one in Ayr, one in Stirling,) Tuesday (Ayr again) and has another match this evening in Galsgow. The Ayr matches were for the under 15’s regional side, in which he got wickets against very high quality opposition.

The years, they all too soon turn sepia…