Writing tips

Isn’t NaNoWriMo fabulous? The magic works again, time after time; it’s working for me today after a shaky start; and here are the writing tips I’ve been relearning.

  1. Write like Trollope. Get a servant to wake you early (in my case, the servant is not supplied, so I have to rely on iPad’s Bedtime feature), then sit down and write.
    This wasn’t working too well for me this morning, I started feeling I didn’t like the story and it wasn’t going anywhere, but I kept writing anyway, and a breakthrough (eventually) came.
  2. Write like Dickens. If you’re stuck, go for a walk! Dickens used to walk from London to Rochester and back, but just round the block will do.

And then here’s one of my favourites — because so many of my fellow NaNoWriMo-ers obsess about plot:

Don’t start with plot! Find the characters, see them, describe them, listen to how they talk. Then let them run, and the story makes itself.

There’s magic. And it’s a lot of fun, too.

It’s all about you, Jesus

I suppose it’s natural for the Christian Church to go through fashions and cycles in what it believes and does, just like everything else. (This is what the Tao Te Ching teaches us.) It’s just distressing when you’re having to live through a particularly unattractive and heterodox phase, which may also be unhelpful and downright dangerous.

The other day I posted a bit of a rant on Facebook about some of the modern ‘worship songs’ that are typical of the current cycle. They are so relentlessly Christo-centric — this is the essential characteristic of what I’m describing — that I wanted to stand up and shout “Jesus is NOT. GOD. ! He is the incarnate Second Person of the Holy and Blessed Trinity (ever heard of it?)!”

Of course this was a bit of an exaggerated reaction, as some of the comments pointed out. But when you’re protesting about bad theology, you probably have to use somewhat intemperate terms. (cf. some of Martin Luther’s descriptions of the Pope.)

Diagram of the Trinity

Of course I believe Filius est Deus, as it teaches in the popular medieval Trinity diagram. But of Jesus I would prefer to say he is the Son of God, or the Son of the Father. (Or even, as he preferred, the Son of Man, which some of my scholar-friends would like to explain as the Human One.) The problem with many of today’s worship songs is, you could almost believe Jesus alone was God, there was no Father in sight, and the Spirit was, of course, the Spirit of Jesus only. Now, the reason I’m a Christian at all is that I love Jesus — he captivated me and won my heart when I first seriously began to read the Gospels. But, though I may sometimes pray to Jesus, when I fall down to worship, I mean to worship God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This has been orthodox Christian practice for ever.

It turns out that many of the songs I find difficult come from the same source: they are copyright Hillsong. If you look at the Wikipedia article on Hillsong Church, where they originate, you may well wonder why so many of the mainstream churches would want to use them as much as they do? It turns out they are a Pentecostal Evangelical church with some very reactionary attitudes.

An example from last Sunday is the popular Your grace is enough, which has the chorus

Lifted on high from death to life
Forever our God is glorified
Servant and King, rescued the world,
This is our God.

Sure, I want to say “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.” But it’s much too much of an over-simplification to say of Jesus, “This is our God”. And I’m not sure Hillsong Church really looked at Jesus when they drew up their list of beliefs. I can more easily imagine Jesus looking at this list and shaking his head and saying, “Hey, that’s not what I meant at all!”

Lots of their songs also have a heavy emphasis on the Second Coming:

He shall return in robes of white,
The blazing Son shall pierce the night.
And I will rise among the saints,
My gaze transfixed1 on Jesus’ face

At a time when so many world leaders and their followers seem to be intent on pursuing policies that could destroy the human race, all life on earth, the whole planet, it’s particularly unhealthy and unhelpful (and frightening!) for Christians to be promoting an end-of-the-world mentality — even hope, God help us. It just encourages the crazies who seem to think that by destroying the earth, they could precipitate the longed-for Parousia. It would be much better to have a generation-or-more moratorium on thinking about the Second Coming at all. Yes, don’t expunge it from the Creeds, but don’t preach about it or give anyone the impression we’re expecting it imminently2.


The Bishop of Oxford has just written a hymn to accompany his diocesan focus on the Beatitudes. I applaud his creativity, which is way beyond what I could do, and also that his hymn is way more literate than the Hillsong lyrics I’ve quoted. But I note, as well, that it’s a hymn to Jesus. No harm in that per se: there are lots of great hymns about Jesus. But the words suggest that the kingdom, the earth, the church, the Spirit, are all Christ’s; the Father doesn’t get a look in (except by implication that the Son of God must be Son of somebody.) And in the light of the present climate of Christolatry, it would be good for some of our best hymn-writers to be working on correctives, and good if all the hymns we sang were more about God the Trinity.

When I mentioned this to Alison she said, “Yes, but it is about the Beatitudes, and the theme is about us becoming more Christ-like.” But in fact the Sermon on the Mount has a different emphasis from encouraging Jesus’ followers to be more like Jesus (desirable, and uncommon, though that would be.) A couple of years ago I made a detailed study of the Sermon on the Mount, while I was in the process of learning it by heart in order to tell it at the Scholars’ Seminar of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. And I’m clear that the major theme of the Sermon on the Mount — you could say the major theme of Jesus’ teaching altogether — is: You have a Father in heaven – God. Live, then, as God’s children.”

That’s much more of a Jesus Agenda than modern worship songs are promoting, for all their claimed devotion to Jesus.


  1. You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  2. Martin Luther again had the right attitude: “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.”

Montaigne and how to live

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell cover

I just love this book: I’m currently reading it for the second time; it gives me that kind of warm glow of comfort and pleasure, that makes you want to sigh “Aah” as you read it; I’ve marked and commented on so many passages throughout the book, smiled at many of the annotations I made the first time round, and added many more. Hey, I’ve even picked up my copy of Montaigne’s Essays and am trying again to actually read them.

The title and sub-title tell you exactly what’s between the covers: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. Sarah Bakewell knows and loves Montaigne, and she delivers so much more than she promises. This isn’t just the life of Montaigne, but his after-life as well, as she tells the story of how Montaigne has been loved and hated, interpreted and misinterpreted, by readers in every century since his own. He was a hugely popular author from the first publication of the first edition of his Essays, yet the Roman Catholic Church placed it on the Index of Prohibited Books less than a hundred years later, where it remained for nearly two centuries until 1854. Descartes and Pascal, Diderot and Rousseau, George Sand, Flaubert, Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot and the Woolfs, Stefan Zweig: the list of writers and intellectuals who have been fascinated and attracted or repelled, but certainly, always, influenced by this modest 16th century French writer-philosopher, still goes on. And together with them, goes the crowd of ordinary, anonymous readers who have loved Montaigne and feel they know him as an intimate friend.

Just what is going on here? What’s this all about?

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a French nobleman who in 1570 ‘retired’ from local politics and resolved that from then on he would write down his thoughts. About life, the universe, and everything; but chiefly about himself. He looked into his own heart and soul, and saw there the whole of humanity. His resulting Essays are a kind of ragbag of stories, drawn from his own life, from his wide reading of classical and contemporary authors, like the rambling conversation of one of your closest and most entertaining friends. And that’s what generations of readers have found: not just amusement and entertainment, but a mirror of their own souls also. Bernard Levin wrote, ‘I defy any reader of Montaigne not to put down the book at some point and say with incredulity, “How did he know all that about me?”’

So the Essays become something like the sea in e.e.cummings’s poem:

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

Montaigne lived through the terrible and destructive civil wars of religion, which ravaged France between 1562 and 1598; a time of violent turmoil which makes even our own fear-filled times look peaceful. So his way of living and writing has something for us in our own troubled times: it speaks of how we can remain human, when the whole of society around us seems insanely intent on tearing itself to pieces. And what are these answers to the question, How to live?

Here’s just a selection of Sarah Bakewell’s twenty attempts at an answer:

  • Don’t worry about death
  • Pay attention
  • Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted
  • Question everything
  • Be convivial: live with others
  • Live temperately
  • Guard your humanity
  • Reflect on everything; regret nothing
  • Give up control
  • Be ordinary and imperfect

Montaigne has been described, e.g. by Brainpickings, as the godfather of blogging. That sounds fun, and maybe my ‘essays’ on this blog will be a way for me to explore thoughts in retirement, as Montaigne did.

And in the mean time, let me pick up my copy of his Essays again.

Just a little test

 

How do you publish text from StackEdit to WordPress?

So: here’s what this stub is about. Today I’ve been playing with StackEdit which I discovered. It’s a Markdown editor which works in any browser, or as a Chrome extension (maybe a Firefox extension, too?) And I wanted to find out how to use it to publish to my WordPress blog. Looks like it has worked. Though I still don’t know how it worked.

Written with StackEdit.

Being a man

Retirement. It’s a time that any philosopher – and who doesn’t want to become a philosopher when they retire? – can delight in. A time for taking stock of your life: for looking back, for looking forward, most of all I hope for living fully in this present moment. A time for reflecting on the meaning(s?) of life, and of death, of the universe, and everything.

And here’s one of the things I’m finding. That this time of reflection is calling into question many of the things I’ve been taking for granted for most, if not all, of my life. Like who I am, including just being a man.

Yes, just as the present time is a hard time to be a Christian, or to be any variety of religious at all, so too it’s a hard time to be a man. And I don’t mean that in the way that the anti-feminists do, who think women have things so much their own way these days, that it’s men who are the disadvantaged sex. That’s just a load of BS.

No, it’s in the light of all the recent news and discussions about the ways men have thought and spoken about women, have abused and exploited them in the workplace, in relationships, have treated them as objects for their own ends. From the Weinsteins and Trumps of this world, who think that abusing women is something they have a right to do because they have the power, right down to the wolf-whistling builders and gropers in crowded places. And probably, unbeknownst to many of us, even by us who have never meant to be abusers, but just didn’t know any better.

Just the other day we were eating lunch in a local restaurant. At the table behind me were four young people, probably no more than older teenagers. A boy and three girls, two of whom looked as if they may have been Indian sisters, and the other a blonde girl who looked as if she might have had Downs Syndrome. I noticed them because the boy was talking so loud I could hardly hear myself think, let alone take part in the conversation among my own (hardly quiet) family. He sounded as if he was on some kind of soapbox, as if he was actually haranguing these poor girls, pontificating as only an opinionated male can, setting out what he knew and believed as if it could not possibly brook dissent or contradiction. Alas, the words that stood out most from the stream of verbiage were ‘Scripture’ and ‘baptism’: as if to pour vinegar into my wounded soul, the noisy young Alpha male was also a ‘Christian’.

So where does this kind of attitude and behaviour come from? This youth was no hardened male chauvinist, cauterised in the fires of a long life of domination over women. He did, it’s true, look and sound like a boy who had ‘benefited from’ a private education. Was this the way his private school was teaching him to think of, relate to, and speak to women? Even worse, was it the way his church or Christian fellowship taught him that men should speak to women? Was it the way his father spoke to the boy’s mother and sisters, or to his female colleagues, and other women of his acquaintance? Had he just imbibed it from his peers, from social media or contemporary culture? Is it genetic, in our nature, or only in our nurture? Or, God forbid, both?

There was a degree of Verfremdung about the whole event, because this wasn’t some middle-aged hooligan or boor, but a member of a generation which, I would have hoped, might have been learning, or be being taught, better. So that I felt all the more embarrassed for my sex. All the more resolved: this is not how I want to be. And if I have been this way, I ask for the grace to change, and if necessary to make amends at least to some of the women I may have wronged.

So, what was school good for?

This post first published on January 6, 2017

(From Pink Floyd’s classic music video)

It turns out several Web friends also still have their old school reports… so I have quietly refiled mine. (Better not tell Alison.) But that blog post about why I kept mine? and speculating that it was because being Top of the Class was the only thing I was any good at, the only thing that made me feel I was any good at anything… it all looks a bit bleak, doesn’t it? It looks as if I had a miserable, unhappy childhood?

And yes, I don’t remember being a child, still less a teenager, with any sense of joy or real happiness. My school days are not a time I look back on as ‘the best years of my life’. I can understand why teachers and adults generally try to perpetuate that myth. It could be the only thing they think they can be good at, is making children’s lives happy and worthwhile. I feel sorry for them too. But that’s another problem.

The things I remember about school days, are predominantly fear and boredom. I wasn’t afraid of the teachers; mostly I trusted them because I learned how to cope (obedience – at least when they were looking – and jumping through the academic hoops). But I was afraid of just about everything else: playtime, games, other children, being made fun of, looking foolish in the eyes of my peers… Often, being afraid of going to and from school. This was the dangerous place where you could easily become the prey of teachers if you weren’t wearing your school cap, or of other pupils if you were. Or, you ran the risk of meeting pupils from one of the other schools in town, especially the boys from Huxley Secondary Modern who were said to hate us, be constantly lying in ambush to attack us, taunt us with their hate song:

“Latymer loonies
Smell like cheese;
D’you wanna go to Huxley?
YES, PLEASE!”

Should I mention, at this point, that I never met any of them in seven years, and was never attacked – by them – on my way to school? Perhaps they had their own myths and fears about our hatred and ferocity, and ran for hiding when they saw me coming? Though with hindsight I have every sympathy with them. Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved, who had been told at 11 that they had failed, and were second-rate scholars? The grammar school system, much vaunted as the great post-war engine of social mobility – and certainly it was what got me to university, as one of the first generation in my family to do so – was also the great divider of society, relegating the overwhelming majority of children to that stigma of ‘failed the 11-plus’.

And boredom. Hours and hours of boredom in dull dull lessons. I used to think in my arrogance that it was because I was bright, and had to spend so many hours waiting for the less bright members of the class to catch up. Who am I kidding? If I had been really intelligent, I would have used those opportunities to learn better, to learn more, to seek more knowledge and abilities than the basics, to aim for outstanding excellence, rather than just to satisfy the exam system and be Top of the Class. True, the teaching styles of the 1960s left much to be desired, based as they were on writing down everything the teacher said, rote-learning, regurgitating class-notes in tests. We didn’t have the inspirational, life-changing teachers you come across in other people’s lives, or in the movies. (Dead Poets Society, anyone?) The ones I loved, and who, yes, did change my life in some way, were relatively few. Lovely Miss Loewenstein who taught English, and scary-edgy Miss Edwards, who started me on Latin, but also gave me my love of German.

And yet. And yet. Miserable though it was and I was, school did make me the person I am, and for whatever is good about that, I am indeed grateful. It’s often said that the commonest and greatest phobia for many people, is the fear of public speaking. Well, my secondary school really worked hard at teaching us how to do that. Can you believe that, in the first year of secondary school, we had a timetabled lesson each week called Speech Training? Perhaps part of the agenda was to get all these North London kids speaking ‘properly’, using correct Received Pronunciation; but it was also a way of spotting and correcting genuine defects in speech. I wasn’t pronouncing my r’s: when they got me to read in house assembly, it came out like, “Pwaise the Lord with the sound of the twumpets.” And actually I’m glad they worked on me to try and change that. Though you can still hear it in my speech quite often, I’m at least glad I don’t sound as bad as Jonathan Ross. But see this video: is it really a speech defect, or is it simply becoming an alternative way of speaking?

Lots of the diaries from my school years (confession time: I still have most of those, too) record my pride but also my embarrassment about speaking in front of the class or the school. And of course I still have nerves about public speaking in unfamiliar settings. But it isn’t the huge terror many say it is: it has, after all, been my life.

Another thing for which I am forever grateful about my school years, is my faith. If I am a Christian, it’s down in large measure to the influence of school. In those days the law about a daily act of worship in schools was still actually observed. (There was none of this modern nonsense about teachers not wanting to lead an act of worship because they – or many of the children – don’t believe. Ritual doesn’t require belief: it requires performance. That is how faith is taught, communicated and nurtured. So probably the teachers’ reluctance to lead corporate worship is a fear that they themselves might ‘catch’ religion? Well, I couldn’t possibly comment.) It wasn’t designed to interest or entertain, like modern school religious assemblies are required to do. In fact I don’t recall anything like a comment or a homily. Assembly consisted of a hymn, a Bible reading, and a prayer read by the headmaster, often one of the BCP collects at Morning Prayer, but also sometimes prayers like the prayer of St Ignatius: Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest… It quietly, modestly, without fuss or perhaps even noticing, puts God there in the start of the school day.

And then there were the Christian teachers, who believed in what they believed, and wanted to share that Good Thing with the children. I was often blissfully unaware of it at the time, but even though I never went to the Christian Union (why would I?) there were other occasions. Like the day our form teacher invited some of us for tea and conversation about our ideas and what we believed. I didn’t realise at the time that there was a faith-sharing Agenda. As a teenager I was always bolshy about people trying to get me to believe as they believed. I was ‘C of E’, for God’s sake, like everyone else – what else did they want? Also a Protestant: I would believe as I chose to believe. It now seems extraordinary that the school even organised a group excursion to Earls Court in 1966, to hear Billy Graham speak during his London crusade. I especially resented his whole style of emotional manipulation and appeal, though it made a big impression on some of my friends… And yet here I am, where I am today. The Spirit works unpredictably, through all our life experiences.

So, yes, in ways that it and I probably never knew or imagined, school helped make me what I am. For sure, I can imagine ways in which it might have made me different. But that is fantasy. For what I am, it was certainly good for something.

(And, pace Pink Floyd, we do need yes education. The best of it is probably not conveyed by the Curriculum, the exams we study for, or the school system. But it may still, often, be somehow imparted by school in spite of itself.)

Seeing the way God sees us

Occasionally Facebook throws up a ‘memory’ of one of my blog posts of yesteryear. And sometimes I think, Actually, that’s worth another look. I’ll post it in my new blog.

So here is the first of those. Originally posted on 5 October 2012.

This unaccountably made me cry this morning:

If you come to a parish church in England after the service, what you will see is a (small) crowd of elderly people, middle-aged people and young families, balancing biscuits and cups of coffee in one hand as we do crowd control on the children with the other, and making slightly awkward conversation about the weather, holidays, cricket scores, the news, the progress of flowers and vegetables. We don’t necessarily have very much in common with each other, by all the usual standards. We’re embarrassed, probably. (After all, this is England.) And yet that’s not all that is going on. We’re also celebrating the love-feast. Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other. We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us. That is, as if we were all precious beyond price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we apes jump to recognise: status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority.

From Francis Spufford, Unapologetic.