Godspelled

Enchanted by God; searching for a re-enchanted Christianity

It started with the lockdown beard. After a couple of months of the Covid-19 lockdown, when we were all looking for projects and interests to alleviate the boredom of being shut in, I decided to stop shaving. And not only to keep my beard short and tidy, as I've usually done in the past, but to see what it would look like if I grew it longer than I ever have before.

You might imagine that growing a beard as a hobby is much like watching paint dry. It doesn't offer quick returns. But on the other hand, it cultivates a deal of patience and fortitude. There are days when you want to give it all up and take up the razor again. But there are days, too, when you can enjoy looking in the mirror to see how it's coming on. When it's every bit as comforting as having a pet you can stroke for hours on end, only this one never needs taking for a walk, or having you clean up its mess after it.

Like most hobbies, there are many ways you can study your new hobby and learn more about how to practise it and gain better results. You wouldn't believe the number of videos you can find on YouTube about how to grow and cultivate and tend a beard. I flirted with the idea of growing a yeard: a beard you grow for a year with no trimming — or only the most minimal, to maybe stop your moustache getting in your mouth at every mealtime.

I started using beard oil, and when I didn't like the fragrance of the one I bought in Superdrug, I bought some essential oils and carrier oils and mixed my own. I brushed it several times a day with a boar bristle brush. And kept on stroking it.

And next, I noticed the number of bearded men on those YouTube videos who also shaved their heads completely bald. Most of the were much younger than me, men losing their hair in their twenties or even their teens, who cope with their hair loss by shaving it all off. 'Embracing their baldness', it's called. I lost most of my hair by my early 30s, but I coped with it just by coping with it. But now I grew curious about what I would look like if I shaved my head completely. When I hinted to the women in my life what I had in mind, the response was not welcoming. Clearly, I would need to work at bringing them round to the idea.

Then on the Internet I found the Macmillan Cancer Support challenge 'Brave the Shave'. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago, it was good to know that Macmillan were there to provide support if I needed it. Fortunately I haven't needed it, but I've had lots of occasions to see the wonderful help given by Macmillan nurses to cancer sufferers, most recently to another retired priest in the parish here, who died of prostate cancer earlier this year.

Many people undergoing radiotherapy or chemotherapy for cancer lose their hair, so the grand idea of Brave the Shave was that volunteers wanting to take part in the challenge would have their hair shaved in solidarity, but also, and chiefly, to seek sponsorship from family and friends. Signing up to the challenge looked like the ideal way to meet the objectives of satisfying my curiosity about shaving my head, honourably finding a use for my beard (after five months I was sure enough that I didn't want to continue growing it out for a whole year), and also raising money for a very good cause.

I set the date for the shave: Monday October the 19th, and publicised it through the Macmillan website, social media, and whatever else I could think of. The big day came, the shave happened, and (so far) I have raised £530 in sponsorship. You can judge the Before and After here:

Before and After Braving the Shave

I think it's an improvement.

And, because it's 'a Thing' to film this kind of adventure, I filmed it too.

Just in case you read this and would like to donate to Macmillan Cancer Support, here's the link to sponsor me.

I first saw this book when I was taking Holy Communion to a housebound parishioner before lockdown happened.

Just after I arrived at his home the district nurse arrived to do some procedure, and while I waited he gave me this to look at. You've only got to read the first page or two to know that it's a gem, well worth reading.

Be sure to get in a good supply of tissues, because you will read this and weep. But they are the best kind of tears. Rachel Clarke is a palliative care specialist, and writes movingly about her experiences in training, and now in her work in a hospice. She tells the stories of patients living through a terminal illness, how they and their loved ones face the uncertainties and fears of receiving the diagnosis and prognosis everyone fears. But the emphasis is on living through this, because death is a part of everyone's life experience. Ultimately this is a book full of love, joy, and hope. It's about the wonder and preciousness of life, the importance of love and living life to the full. And it's strangely comforting, with its descriptions of what happens to the body of a dying person, that will reassure and take away a lot of the natural fear we may feel.

#books

Yesterday morning I was talking (by Zoom) to B. and P., two old classmates. It's sixty years this month since we started, as 11-year olds, at secondary school. Back in July we should have been attending our class reunion at the Latymer Reunion Day — of course the day didn't happen on school premises, but we 70-year olds were pioneers in holding the first virtual class reunion. It was attended by just over 20 former classmates, and was, well, an experience. Because too many of us were trying to talk all at once, there wasn't as much opportunity as I would have liked to really exchange news or hear what we've been doing. And anyway, many of these are people I haven't actually met for over 50 years. So someone (all right, it was me, actually) thought it would be a good idea to compile a sort of Yearbook Sixty Years On, where we might share then-and-now photos and a few paragraphs of what we've done since leaving school. These contributions could be collated and made available electronically to all our contemporaries. Yesterday's conversation was about how we might do this, and what form the electronic sharing might take.

I wanted to propose as a kind of subtitle, Whatever happened to Malcolm George? Malcolm had been one of my closest friends at primary school; but since we left school at 18 I've not seen him, and he has not been involved in any former class reunions. In fact I think his entry in the old students' database held by the school probably reads Whereabouts Unknown.

He was one of the most popular and sought-after of my friends. Tall, good-looking, intelligent, strong, outgoing, he attracted girls in ways I could only fantasize about. He was the first of my friends who actually had sex. At least, he was the first who told me that, so who knows whether or not it's true?

And last night I dreamed about him. In my dream I was walking home at night, through dark empty streets, to the terraced house where I lived. There were no streetlights, no lights in any of the windows. Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me, hurrying and gaining on me. I walked faster, reached my door, desperate to get inside to safety and shut the door behind me. But, fumbling with my key, I knew it was too late. I turned to face my pursuer and possible assailant.

“Malcolm!” I cried. For I recognized him, knew him at once. Even though, in the way of dreams, he looked little like he had in 1967, but hardly any older either.

We went inside, and he told me he had come to help me deal with all the ghosts there were in the house. I hadn't known there were any, but one appeared in the fireplace by way of proof. It seemed there were going to be lots of them.

Such was my dream. Who knows where these things come from? Obviously I dreamed about Malcolm because we had talked about him in the morning, and for some reason he was important to me. And the ghosts? My subconscious is telling me, perhaps, that all our memories and happinesses and regrets are 'ghosts'. Our life is full of them. Why have people been so afraid of them? They seem alarming, terrifying... but after all, what is there to fear? Dealing with them is just what reflecting on our lives is about.

Yesterday's post was originally intended to be just the preamble to this poem, but in the end turned out longer than I expected. I was looking for a suitable poem for dark times, and what came to mind was W. H. Auden's September 1, 1939. It's another poem I first encountered in the Sixth Form in one of our A-level set texts: Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton.

The poet is sitting in a New York bar on the day of the outbreak of the Second World War, surely one of the darkest times imaginable. Several of the references need thinking about and explaining, or at least 'discussing'. 'What occurred at Linz' was that Linz was the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, and a city which he planned to turn into one of the great cities of the Third Reich. Is it fair to Luther to include his teaching as part of the 'offence' which led to the madness of the German people and the rise of Nazism? Certainly it has been argued that the Two Kingdoms doctrine in European Protestantism was a factor. But yes: Discuss.

Not so many people today, perhaps, are familiar with Thucydides and Pericles' speech about democracy that he records in the History of the Peloponnesian War. It's been on my 'Books To Read' list for so long that I gave my old (un-read) copy away in 2016 in the Great Cull of Books. As for mad Nijinsky and Diaghilev, you can Google that for yourself if you really want to.

What I love is the hope for dark times that Auden brings out in the final stanza. In dark times it can feel as if the whole world is benighted, lying in stupor and despair. But everywhere there are flashes of light where the Just exchange their messages. The poet aspires to show an affirming flame, to be one of the message-exchanging Just.

So may we all aspire.

#poems

There have been far too many dark times in the course of my long-legged life. Times when the world suddenly felt a more dangerous place, overshadowed with threat and fear. For my first twenty or so years, I wasn't paying enough attention to be really concerned about them. The Korean War, the Suez crisis of 1956, the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Six Day War of 1967, even the Vietnam War, kind of passed me by. (I feel guilty, saying that about Vietnam: I should have known better, as so many of my generation did.)

I became more aware after I was married and we had a young family; which I suppose are not a bad reason for being more invested in what's going on in the wider world.

1979 was a dark time, with the election of Margaret Thatcher and its effect on our society and economy. Then the Falklands War in 1982. By then I was a priest and often perplexed about whether and how to preach about some of these events. Did I dare to say what I thought, or should I try and be balanced when it was clear that Christians in my congregation could sincerely hold different views from mine?

Of all the dark times to date, the one that troubled me most was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, on my 41st birthday. Somehow I sensed that this was an event which really would destabilise the world, almost as if it threw it off its axis and it would never right itself.

I think I was right. Since then the dark times have rolled on and on as if the world had entered a tunnel without end. Successive Gulf Wars, a never-ending war in Afghanistan, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq that followed (it wasn't just wrong, it was illegal), the 2008 Stock Market Crash, the Syrian civil war, the barbarity of Islamic State. It's a terrible enough list and I know I have left out many other wars and insurrections and calamities that have driven millions of ordinary people to flee their homes and face the horror and dangers of being displaced persons, in preference to the almost certain death of staying in their native land. And we in our wealth and security call it 'the refugee crisis'.

Add to all these the looming crisis of climate change, the Brexit referendum, and the Covid-19 pandemic. If you weren't feeling depressed when you started reading this, you probably are by now.

It's the task and challenge of our times: How can we live a life of virtue, goodness, love, and hope as we try to set a course through such times? We who enjoy wealth and relative peace that give us so much greater responsibility to remake the world, to build a world in which all can enjoy peace, freedom, security, a decent life?

If ever there was a time for the simple daily prayer 'God help us', I reckon it's now.

Here's another poem I first read in the Sixth Form. It was in the collection Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton, which was our set text for English Literature A-level.

There's something about the gleeful malice of Betjeman's prayer, or curse, whichever it is, that you can't help loving. He was fascinated by suburbia even while he snobbishly despised it. Yet he also feels a sympathy for the 'bald young clerks' who are forced to toil for the 'repulsive' 'stinking cad' who is portrayed as a rapacious, lecherous, sexist capitalist.

Slough probably doesn't deserve this. I expect it's a decent enough place to live. It can't help sounding like one of the more depressing places described in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, can it?

#poems

So I've made the decision to move new blog posts to Write.as. I'm aiming to move away from Wordpress which has been my bloggy home for a long time but now feels excessively complicated and unwieldy, offering far more options than I need, and making it harder to find the ones I do want.

You can still view my old blog here.

I may find a way to repost some of my old blog posts here. Or then again, no. Follow me to the new home if you will.

This is another post chiefly to experiment with including images in my posts. In January 2018 we had one of those 'holiday of a lifetime' experiences when we travelled to New Zealand for three weeks.

On the way we stopped over in Singapore for 24 hours. It was Alison's brthday, and the hotel brought her up a little birthday cake, and the waiter sang Happy Birthday for her.

This picture was taken in portrait mode, so when it was uploaded to snap.as, it was turned on its side.

Using the code <img class=rotateimg270 src="https://i.snap.as/hibkC6s.jpg" /> I can turn it the right way round...

   

   

But it overlaps the content above and below unless I insert a line of &nbsp; around it.

On the other hand, a picture like this one, in landscape orientation, renders perfectly:

Alison in Singapore, January 2018

snap.as obviously has a preference for landscape oriented images!

Still trying to find some ways of posting photos on these blog posts. The native Write.as way is to use Snap.as, their own photo hosting app.

I also tried embedding pictures from Google Photos, but I can't make this work. If you enter the link to a picture in Google Photos, it is clickable, but won't embed the picture.

Snap.as has an annoying bug of rotating photos in portrait mode and rendering them as if they were in landscape mode. The workaround I discovered was to use CSS and a rotate command.

       

jerm and ship

       

<img class="rotateimg270" src="https://i.snap.as/0YOEjU5.jpg" alt="jerm and ship" />

Though as we saw, it rotates the image.

In fact, even if I take a selfie in landscape, it turns it upside down ![](https://i.snap.as/E8DdV06.jpg)

But you can rotate it with the rotateimg CSS class selfie <img class="rotateimg180" src="https://i.snap.as/E8DdV06.jpg" alt="selfie" />

I even have to remember to hold my phone the right way up for a landscape selfie! and it's not the way I intuitively do always. viz. the controls must be on the left.

It's a glitchy kind of thing that is being discussed in the Write.as forum. Maybe they'll find a way of correcting it, sometime.

So I'm taking the plunge and taking a trial subscription with Write.as. It's billed as a minimalist platform for blogging and just about any kind of writing you want to post on the Web. It's cheaper than Wordpress, and without all the extra features which make Wordpress more of a tool for businesses (or individuals!) to produce any kind of ambitious website. Write.as is simply for blogging and plain writing.

Let's give it a try and see what happens.

First issue: you can include photos in your posts, but if the picture is taken in portrait orientation it rotates it. Why? And how can you stop it?

It's not a problem with photos in landscape mode.

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.