Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Cricket in 2013

As we approach the end of 2013, I thought I would briefly reflect on the cricketing year.

In the minds of most England (and Australia) supporters must be the double Ashes year - the first time since 1975 that home and away Ashes series have been played. The contrast in fortunes, with England winning at home 3-0 but being totally out-played in the current away series and (at the end of the year) trailing 0-4, have been marked, and all credit must go to the Australian team for turning themselves around in such a short time: it can't simply be the presence of Mitchell Johnson in the side that's made the difference, can it (?). Serious questions are already being asked of the England set-up, and need to be if England are going to be in any state to entertain India & Sri Lanka next Summer.

As a proud and long-time member of Yorkshire CCC it has been good (in some respects) to see a number of the county players being called up for international duty, and a particular delight to see how well, on the whole, Joe Root has adapted to Test cricket. His maiden Test hundred, on his home ground, was a joy to watch - though I missed him actually reaching the milestone, due to a call of nature - and he has faced more deliveries in Test matches this year than anyone except Alistair Cook & Ian Bell. Maybe 2014 will see his county colleague Gary Ballance follow him into international colours.

Yorkshire celebrated their 150th year in style, but fell short of clinching the County Championship, ending second behind a very impressive Durham side who showed a better ability to produce results than any other team (only 2 drawn games). In the shorter format Yorkshire consistently lacked the killer punch and had what can best be described as a pitiful season. Congratulations go to Notts & Northants who lifted the 40-over & 20-over trophies respectively.

The end of 2013 has seen the departure from the world stage of two great ambassadors of the game, and another somewhat mercurial member of England's set-up. Graeme Swann at his best was a game-changer: he had the knack of taking wickets early in a spell - often in his first over - and could deceive even the best batsmen. His batting was explosive in the lower order, often providing vital runs scored at a faster pace than anyone else in the side: his strike rate of 76.49 was higher than Pietersen (61.74), Prior (61.81) & Broad (63.27).

Sachin Tendulkar played Test cricket in 4 decades, beginning at the age of 16 in 1989 and retiring in November at the age of 40, having played more Test matches (200), scored more runs (15,921) and more hundreds (51) than anyone else. He was the first man to score a double century in Limited overs International cricket, and ended his career with 100 international centuries in all forms of the game. He will probably be remembered as the second greatest batsman after Sir Don Bradman, and rightly so, and as the first overseas player to play for Yorkshire!

Jacques Kallis ended his Test career yesterday: third on the list of run-scorers behind Tendulkar & Ricky Ponting and second behind Tendulkar in the list of Test centurions, with 45 - the last of which he scored in his final innings. In terms of the great all-rounders in Test history, Kallis comes a good second to Sir Garry Sobers, with Sobers ahead in four of the five criteria I have chosen below.

Runs per Innings: Sobers 50.20; Kallis 47.46
Runs per Match: Sobers 86.37; Kallis 80.05
Matches per hundred: Sobers 3.58; Kallis 3.69
Wickets per match: Sobers 2.53; Kallis 1.76
Catches per match: Kallis 1.20; Sobers 1.17

Even so, Jacques Kallis has been a wonderful advertisement for the game, a loyal servant of South African cricket and one of its greatest exponents.

We wait to see what 2014 will bring us.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas Greetings from the Simms Family

As it's Christmas Eve, and we've still not got around to sorting out the cards for this year, here's a brief summary of our family's activities over the past year, which comes with our best wishes for a blessed Christmas and our hopes that 2014 will be a great year for you and yours.

The logo of the new Sheffield Circuit
Work-wise 2013 has been a year of consolidation and change. Life in the churches that John looks after continues to provide routine and surprises, and it was a great joy recently to bring 7 new people into membership, including two who have come into the life of the church through Toddler Group & Messy Church. Church life is now lived on a slightly bigger canvas, as the eight Sheffield circuits merged in September to  become one mega-circuit, and this has meant that John is seeing a lot more of the city than hitherto. So far it seems to be going well.


Crouton - oh yes it is!
John also made his debut in the Walkley Ebenezer pantomime in February (oh yes he did!) playing Crouton the head dough-boy in 'Beauty & the Beast', and is currently in rehearsal for the role of Grizelda the Witch in next year's production.

This year John & Jude celebrated their Silver Wedding in April with a meal at the Michelin-starred 'Old Vicarage' and then an 11-day cruise to the Canary Islands - both were fabulous!

This is our 'official' Silver Wedding portrait, taken on board the Cruise Ship.

 We've worn well, I think!


Jude finished work in September, as her job disappeared with the merger of the circuits, but continues to study for her degree in English at Sheffield Hallam University. She continues to write as well, and has just been awarded second prize in the International Rubery Book Awards Short Story competition: needless to say she (and all of us) was delighted! The anthology of the short-listed stories will be published early next year.



Mike on stage
James in Cymbeline
Mike continues to work as a barrister barista at the local Costa, as well as being involved in church life and writing and performing his music. He leads worship regularly, and was involved in a Mission Trip to Sicily earlier in the year. James completed his BTec in Drama at Norton College with a Distinction, and is now embarking on a Foundation Degree in Drama at the same college. He has performed in 'Macbeth', 'Cymbeline', 'How Many Miles to Basra' & 'Guys & Dolls', all of which were excellent (but then we would say that, wouldn't we).


Once again, we hope you have a great Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year!


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Music of 2013

2012 was a great year for music, particularly for my preferred genre of Progressive Rock, but 2013 has proved to be an even better year. There is so much good music out there at the moment that I have found the task of producing an end-of-year review quite daunting. Where do I begin?

Last year I produced a Top 25 of my favourite Progressive albums, but this year I have really struggled to keep the number down that far. Not only that: trying to rate them in order is proving really difficult. So, what I've decided to do is to produce a Top Ten (or possibly a Top 12) for the year, and list - in no particular order other than alphabetical -  another 30 that have particularly touched me/ moved me/ spoke to me - it's been that good a year!

Before then a few minor 'awards':

Gigs of the Year
3. Rush - Clockwork Angels @ Sheffield Motorpoint Arena
2. John Mayer @ London O2 Arena
1. Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited @ Sheffield City Hall

Live Album of the Year
Anathema - Universal
Stunning music in an equally stunning setting

Discovery of the Year
The Twenty Committee - A Lifeblood Psalm
A remarkable debut: follow the link above to read my review on Progarchy.com

Non-Prog Albums of the Year
A couple have particularly stood out for me:
The Temperance Movement's eponymous debut
Prefab Sprout's Crimson / Red - a tour-de-force of song writing brilliance from Paddy McAloon

Disappointment of the Year
This has to go to Dream Theater's self-titled album, which sadly left me quite underwhelmed. The band have just not been the same since Mike Portnoy left, and the music, for me, has lost its spark.

So, to my 'bottom 30', in alphabetical order.
Airbag - The Greatest Show on Earth
Camelia's Garden - You Have a Chance
Comedy of Errors - Fanfare & Fantasy
Days Between Stations - In Extremis
Djam Karet - The Trip
The Fierce & the Dead - Spooky Action
Flamborough Head - Lost in Time
Godsticks - The Envisage Conundrum
Haken - The Mountain
Henry Fool - Man Singing
Ingranaggi Della Valle - In Hoc Signo
King Bathmat - Overcoming the Monster 
Leafblade - The Kiss of Spirit & Flesh
John Lees' Barclay James Harvest - North
Lifesigns - Lifesigns
Johanes Luley - Tales From Sheepfather's Grove
Magenta - The Twenty Seven Club
La Maschera di Cera - The Gates of Tomorrow
Maschine - Rubidium
The Opium Cartel - Ardor
Persona Grata - Reaching Places High Above
Riverside - Shrine of New Generation Slaves
Shineback - Rise Up Forgotten, Return Destroyed
Solstice - Prophecy
Sound of Contact - Dimensionaut
Thieves' Kitchen - One For Sorrow, Two For Joy
The Twenty Committee - A Lifeblood Psalm
Vienna Circle - Silhouette Moon
Violent Silence - A Broken Truce
Willowglass - The Dream Harbour

And so to my Top 10 (or 12):

10. Cosmograf - The Man Left In Space
Star-studded line-up working with Robin Armstrong to produce a powerful interstellar concept piece - stand-out tracks 'Aspire, Achieve' & 'The Man Left in Space';

9. Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)
Carrying on from 2011's evocative 'Grace for Drowning', this collection offers light and shade and some excellent musicianship - stand-out tracks 'Luminol' & 'The Watchmaker';

8. Manning - The Root, the Leaf, and the Bone
Great story-telling alongside some brilliant composition and playing. One of the undoubted highlights of the latter part of the year - stand-out tracks 'Among the Sleepers' & 'Palace of Delights';

7. The Flower Kings - Desolation Rose
Another excellent offering from Sweden's 'Kings' of Prog, with some simply spell-binding songs from Roine Stolt and the others - stand-out tracks 'Tower One' & 'The Resurrected Judas';

6. Moon Safari - Himlabacken vol 1
This band continue to delight me with their close harmonies and wonderful compositions: this is music to put a smile on your face - stand-out tracks 'Mega Moon' & 'Sugar Band';

5. Freedom to Glide - Rain
 A work that tells the stories of those from the front line in WW1, with a heavy dose of Pink Floyd: a bit like The Wall or The Final Cut without Roger Waters' personal angst - stand-out tracks 'Rain part 2' & 'Not a Broken Man';

4. Sanguine Hum - The Weight of the World
Thoughtful, intelligent Progressive music (in every sense), a powerful follow-up to their critically-acclaimed debut from last year, 'Diving Bell' - stand-out tracks 'The Weight of the World' & 'Day of Release'

3. Wintergatan - Wintergatan
Strange, unconventional, joy-filled music, using all kinds of eclectic instruments to create wonderful soundscapes: an absolute delight of an album - stand-out tracks 'Starmachine2000' & 'Sommarfågel'

2. The Tangent - Le Sacre du Travail/ L'Étagere du Travail
A breath-taking couple of albums from Andy Tillison & co., that I just can't separate from each other: 'Le Sacre' tells a symphonic story of the working day as only Tillison can, and 'L'Étagere' - by no means the sweepings from the cutting room floor - is a collection of very strong songs along with out-takes and live recordings - stand-out tracks '5th Movement: Evening TV' & 'Supper's Off'

1. Big Big Train - English Electric (Part 2)/ English Electric: Full Power
The 'English Electric' sequence came to its fruition with these two releases, following on from last year's English Electric (Part 1) - my album of the year for 2012. Again I cannot separate these two. Full Power contains all the material from Parts 1 & 2, along with four additional tracks, all of which showcase the band's ability to craft exquisite progressive music that elicits strong emotions from the listener. This is nothing more than a stunning piece of work, that will, I have no doubt, become a classic of the genre to rival 'Close to the Edge' and 'Selling England by the Pound' in years to come. This is a complete package: song-writing, musicianship and vocals of the highest order from Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Dave Gregory, Andy Poole, Danny Manners & Nick D'Virgilio; production & engineering second to none by Rob Aubrey; and a physical product that is quite simply a work of art - stand-out tracks 'East Coast Racer' & 'Curator of Butterflies (perhaps the most stunningly beautiful song I've heard in years).

So, there it is: one among many end-of-year lists. But what a year it's been! On a par with 1973? I think so.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Oliver @ Sheffield Crucible Theatre

I spent last evening at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield for the Public Dress Rehearsal of Daniel Evans' new production of 'Oliver'.

Lionel Bart's musical adaptation of Dickens' tale of the underside of Victorian London is a perennial favourite, despite its sometimes difficult subject matter (corruption, domestic abuse & murder feature highly), and it's good to see it revived as the Christmas Show this year.

This was a good, energetic performance with an enthusiastic cast. The singing and choreography were very good (apart from some singers being a touch flat at times) and there were some great comic moments too - almost a touch of pantomime in places, which is perhaps only right for a Christmas production.

It's the songs that make the show, and Evans has included even the lesser-known ones ('I Shall Scream' and 'That's Your Funeral') in this production. The Show-stoppers - 'Food, Glorious Food', 'Oom-Pah-Pah' (the only patch of light, really, in the second act), 'Consider Yourself' and 'You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two' were portrayed with the joy and exuberance you would expect, and the more reflective 'I'm Reviewing the Situation', 'Where is Love?' and the hauntingly beautiful and sadly poignant 'As Long as He Needs Me' brought the necessary seriousness to proceedings.

The cast, both young and older, worked well together and engaged the audience very well. For a dress rehearsal, this was an excellent performance. If you can get a ticket for this show (which runs now until 25th January) do so: you'll be in for a great time!

The Butler

The twentieth century was one of the most tumultuous and bloody that there was, with more lives lost in warfare than at any other time in history. On a smaller scale, too, those years brought uncertainty, upheaval and change - none more so than to the African-American community in the United States.

'The Butler' tells the story of one man and his family from the late 1920s to the present day as they are faced with the implications for them of racism, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam conflict. The central character, Cecil Gaines, was born and grew up on a cotton plantation in Macon, Georgia and in one fateful day witnesses his mother's rape and his father's murder at the hands of the plantation owner. Taken in by the mildly benevolent matriarch, he becomes a house servant until, for fear of his own life, he runs away, eventually ending up working in a hotel in Washington DC.

There he is 'spotted' by a White House staff member and is offered a position as a junior butler at the White House, and there he serves eight presidents during the course of a long and distinguished career, from Eisenhower to Reagan. These, as I've hinted at above, were particularly turbulent times for the American people, particularly the black community, and the story of their struggle for equality is played out on both the political and personal stage, as Gaines's son, Louis, becomes increasingly politicised and more and more involved in the struggle (and subsequently estranged from his father), and as younger son Charlie loses his life serving in Vietnam.

This was a deeply moving story, with some very strong characterisation and some brilliant cameos from the likes of Robin Williams (Eisenhower), Leiv Schreiber (Johnson), John Cusack (a particularly creepy Nixon) Alan Rickman & Jane Fonda (Ronald & Nancy Reagan), who all portray these iconic leaders in a real and non-caricatured way (it would have been easy to go simply for an impersonation, but they manage to avoid this). But central to the story are the Gaines family: the increasingly radicalised Louis (David Oyelowo); younger brother Charlie, always to some extent under his brother's shadow (Elijah Kelley); the underlying strength of the family, the recovering alcoholic mother & wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey); and the strong-willed and dutiful Cecil (Forest Whitaker). It is their struggles with each other, and with a nation working through the pain and uncertainly of inevitable change and racial tension, that holds the story and these ground-breaking times together. All of the main characters put in very good performances, though at times some of Whitaker's dialogue was a little hard to understand, delivered as they were in a mumbled southern drawl.

Somehow the Gaines family always seemed to 'be there' at these important moments - it almost at times felt like Forrest Gump! Eventually, as the nation reaches the momentous events of 2008 and, it seems, the struggle for justice and equality is won as Barak Obama enters the White House, so Cecil & Louis are reconciled and all is well with the world. Of course we know that there is still a long way to go in terms of full equality and an end to the pernicious blight of racism, but this film does give one hope that we are making progress in the right direction, and does so without the use of too much schmaltz.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Ekklesia - Church as Gathering

I've recently been preaching at a couple of Church Anniversary services, where I was reflecting on the nature of the Church. One of the things I said was about Church as Gathering, drawing on the root meaning of the Greek word that we most often translate as 'church' - ekklesia. Here's what I wrote: maybe it might speak to you.


In our gathering we bring together our diversity, our different gifts, abilities and graces, our unique contributions, to create a rich, wonderful grace-filled community of God’s people.

There is no better community on earth than the community of the Church. Here we bring our joys and triumphs and celebrate together; here we bring our trials and temptations and struggle together; here we bring our pain and our failures and weep together.

Here we are welcomed and accepted for who and what we are: whatever our age; whatever our bank balance; whatever our skin colour; whatever our gender; whatever our orientation; whatever our ability – or that’s how it ought to be.

The focus of our gathering is a table, and behind that table is a Cross, and on that table are the symbols that remind us that, whoever we are, we are united by a common – and yet an uncommon – love. We gather because of that love: the love that we have, however fleeting at times, for the God who loved us so much that he gave himself in Jesus Christ for each one of us.

There are times when that love will bring us to eloquent speech, to raptures of praise and thanksgiving. There are others times when our gathering will be struck dumb as we look desperately for evidence of that love in a world of pain and conflict and hatred: when we struggle to see God anywhere, and we wait the whisper of the breath of God on our cheeks and the faintest murmur of a word from God in our ears and in our hearts.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Steve Hackett - Sheffield City Hall 30 October 2013


It's not often I get excited (just ask my wife), but my anticipation of last night's gig by Steve Hackett was quite high. I had very much enjoyed his reworking of some of Genesis's back catalogue, Genesis Revisited II, which he released last year, and had heard some glowing reports of earlier concerts on this tour. So it was that #2 son James and I found our way to Sheffield City Hall for the penultimate show of the tour.

Sheffield City Hall is quite an intimate venue for an arena that seats around 1,500 people, and our seats on the end of the front row of the circle gave us a great view of the stage. Despite the tickets saying that there was no support act, we were treated to a 30 minute acoustic set from Alan Reed, who entertained us wonderfully with songs about the dangers posed by religion, the Balkans conflict, the Holocaust and (just to cheer us up) the delights of his homeland of Scotland. A brilliant, rousing set, which warmed the crowd up well for the main event.
Alan Reed


The set, which stretched to 2 hours 25 minutes with the encores, was made up of songs from the classic period of Genesis's creativity from 1971-76, re-created by the 6-piece band of Steve on guitars & backing vocals, Nad Sylvan on vocals & percussion, Lee Pomeroy on bass, pedals, guitars & backing vocals, Gary O'Toole on drums and vocals, Roger King on keyboards and Rob Townsend on flute, sax, keyboards & percussion. They played as a tight unit, and clearly enjoyed what they were doing - as did the large, knowledgeable and appreciative crowd. These are all highly proficient musicians, and the music was excellent, with some great improvisations in places around the main themes of the songs, and they seemed completely unphased by an apparent keyboard malfunction during 'Blood on the Rooftops'. The music was enhanced by some stunning visuals and a great light show.

















The set list:
Dance on a Volcano














Dance on a Volcano
Dancing With The Moonlit Night
Fly on a Windshield
Broadway Melody of 1974
The Lamia
The Return of the Giant Hogweed
The Musical Box
Horizons
Horizons


















Blood on the Rooftops
Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers...
...In that Quiet Earth
Afterglow
I Know What I Like
Firth of Fifth (joined by Steve's brother, John for the flute solo)
The Hackett brothers during Firth of Fifth















The Fountain of Salmacis
Supper's Ready
Encore:
Watcher of the Skies
Los Endos (including Slogans from 'Steve's solo album 'Defector')

Rob, Roger, Nad, Steve, Lee & Gary

It was quite poignant to hear something from 'Defector' in this show, as the last time I saw Steve, which was in the same venue, was back in 1980 on the Defector tour. I got to meet him back-stage then (a big thrill for a 19 year-old), and I was fortunate after this gig to attend the after-show and meet Steve, Nad, Lee & Gary (still a big thrill for a 52 year-old!).

A wonderful, unforgettable night with wonderful people.

Me, Steve & my son, James

Nad Sylvan & me

Monday, 21 October 2013

A Late Birthday Present

I turned 52 in April of this year, and throughout the course of the day I received a number of messages and greetings. One of those was from my eldest son, Mike, who rang me from work. The conversation went something like this...

"Dad, could you buy me 2 tickets for John Mayer for your birthday, and I'll pay you back when I've got some money?"
"Erm, OK."

Now I enjoy Mr Mayer's work, but Mike is a BIG fan, so I was left wondering just who this present was for, but, whatever...

Those tickets were for the first of his two London shows this month, which took place at the O2 last night. Let me tell you about it...

We travelled down on the National Express from Sheffield on Sunday morning, arriving in Victoria Coach Station at around 15:15. The journey was uneventful, and the weather when we arrived was pretty miserable. We grabbed a bite of lunch in Subway, then hopped on a tube to Greenwich. The O2 Arena - the old Millennium Dome - is quite an impressive place, and this was the first time I'd visited the place. A touch of t-shirt shopping (a necessary ritual at any gig) and then a spot of Fish & Chips before taking our place in the queue.

Having booked the seats on the day they went on sale, and having asked for 'best available' when I booked, we were, naturally, almost as far away from the stage as it was possible to be and close to stratospheric in height. Despite not being able to make out much detail on the stage, however, it wasn't a bad view once the screens came into play, and by 19:30, along with around 18,000 others, we were ready to enjoy the show.

First on, for an opening 30 minute set, was Gabrielle Aplin. When she was announced as the support act Mike was doubly delighted as he'd been enjoying her music since before she became 'big' and had seen her last year at 'The Plug' in Sheffield. This was clearly a scary prospect for her, playing such a large venue and to such a huge crowd, but she managed very well indeed, despite the screens not being on and the lighting not being tailor-made for her set. Her music spoke for itself, and spoke eloquently.

John Mayer's set was brilliant throughout. He covered material from a number of his albums; his guitar-playing, both electric and acoustic, was tight and energetic - in fact I would say that, on his day, he is one of the top blues guitarists around at the moment; his voice, which had been causing him some problems recently, was back to its best, and whether it was country, blues or rock, he was throughout the consummate showman. The knowledgeable crowd joined in with most of the songs, too.

The Set-list:
Wildfire
Half Of My Heart
Paper Doll
I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)
Something Like Olivia
Going Down The Road
Slow Dancing In A Burning Room
Free Fallin'
Blues Run The Game
Queen Of California
Dear Marie
If I Ever Get Around To Living
Belief
Waiting On The World To Change
The Age Of Worry.
Why Georgia
------------------
Can't Find My Way Home
Gravity


The show was accompanied by a backdrop of scenes from Monument Valley animated with stars, snow, blossom falling, Chinese lanterns taking off, and people dancing around camp-fires among other things, which visually enhanced the spectacle, particularly for those of us who couldn't make out the players on the stage. The band were excellent (I didn't make a note of their names, sadly) and all-in-all it was an excellent evening in a great venue.


All that was left was to find Mike's friend's place in Lewisham, where we were crashing for the night, which took us about an hour, as every taxi I tried to hail completely ignored us. Home today after a tourist-y stroll around Westminster & St James' Park.


I can truthfully say that, as birthday presents go, it was definitely worth the wait!

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The Temperance Movement

My maternal grandmother (God rest her soul) was, among other things, a staunch tee-totaller and zealous member of the local branch of the Temperance movement. She tried many times, without success, to get me to 'sign the pledge' when I was about 8 years old: by the age of 22 I sometimes wished I'd taken the hint. But I'm pretty sure that she would not have been that keen on this Temperance Movement.

I came across the band 'The Temperance Movement' at the recent Greenbelt Festival, and was quite simply blown away by their energy and the sheer earthiness of their rock 'n' roll, and decided there and then that their up-coming debut album was one to buy.

The eponymous collection loses nothing of the dynamism of their live performance. This is rock music in the tradition of the Stones: riff-heavy, driving, bluesy for the most part, but with light and shade too. Ballads like 'Pride', the country-tinged 'Lovers and Fighters' and the delightful 'Chinese Lanterns' sit wonderfully alongside the heavier R'n'B (in its original sense) of 'Ain't no Telling' and 'Be Lucky', and the downright boogie of 'Midnight Black' and 'Take it Back'. Phil Campbell, the singer, gyrates on stage like a youthful Jagger, and his voice has the edge of Frankie Miller, with the band reminding me of Bob Seger's Silver Bullet Band - but with balls!

A genuine delight of an album - if you like good old-fashioned blues-based rock 'n' roll, then you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Stories of Genesis

A few years ago my wife introduced me to the concept of 'Fan Fiction'. This is where fans of particular TV series write their own stories involving the characters, and share them in on-line forums. They seem to be quite popular, and Jude has written a few tales about Horatio Caine and co from CSI: Miami.

Recently an advert popped up on my Facebook wall for a book that described itself as 'a new kind of fan fiction': 'Stories of Genesis, volume 1' by Chris James. It contained a collection of five short stories based on characters from songs by Genesis, and, as a long-time fan of the band, I found it a fascinating read.


The first story, inspired by the title track of the 1976 album 'A Trick of the Tail', tells of Mr Magrew's big adventure away from the City of Gold, meeting people unlike himself, who were all without horns and tail, and of his journey home. There's a nice twist at the end, too, but I won't spoil it by telling what it is.

Next is 'The Chat Show Host', which relates the dreams of Jason Jones ('JJ'), the eponymous host stuck in provincial TV waiting for his big break, and of Duchess, a fading star hoping to resurrect her career. JJ's dreams of success hang on his ability to humiliate Duchess live on air, and the story shows how sometimes our plans can be interrupted by events.

My favourite story in this collection is the next one - 'One Regret', inspired by 'Dreaming While You Sleep' from 1991's 'We Can't Dance'. This is one of the better late-period Genesis songs, in my opinion, and James brings a wonderful depth and poignancy to this tale of guilt and inner torment following a hit-and-run accident.

The longest story is 'The Final Battle', taking up more than half of the book's length, and is the one which most closely follows the 'plot' of the song that inspires it, the monumental 'Supper's Ready' from 1972's 'Foxtrot'. For those who know the song, you will know how complex the tale is, with its apocalyptic imagery and scriptural allusions. James' tale, with a strong sci-fi feel to it (his usual genre for writing, it appears), tells of the struggle by an angelic army against the Eternal Sanctuary Man, and gives an interesting modern slant to ancient concepts and themes.

From the longest to the shortest tale in the fifth and final chapter - 'The Agent Lunges', inspired by 'Down & Out' from 1978's 'And then there were Three'. I must confess that this is a strange tale, and almost comes across as an afterthought, but it rounds off the book nicely. Again, no spoilers!

Overall, the stories are engaging without being direct re-tellings of the songs, and a second volume is planned for later in the year. Fans of Genesis's music and lovers of a good yarn will enjoy these tales: I certainly did.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Progarchy

A few weeks ago now I received an invitation from Brad Birzer to write some material for a blog he curates called 'Progarchy'. As the name suggests its focus is primarily all things do to with Progressive music, a particular obsession of mine (in case you hadn't noticed!).

With the cricket at Headingley being rained off today, I had some time on my hands, so I've just written my first piece for the site: you can find it here.

Maybe you could look around while you're there - you might find something interesting...

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Eight into One

The Methodist Church is a strange animal for those who know how it works, let alone for those who don't. One of its peculiarities is the arrangement of Methodist Churches into Circuits, in which are stationed a number of ministers for the sake of pastoral care, worship and the general life of the church.

Until yesterday, the Methodists of Sheffield (the 4th largest city in the UK) had been arranged into 8 such circuits, arranged like wedges of a pie radiating out from the city centre, with the Victoria Hall standing proud in the centre of the city (and the pie). Today we joined those 8 circuits into one body to oversee the mission of the Methodist Church in Sheffield.

The New Circuit Logo
We did it today because 1st September is the Methodist New Year, the day when ministers start work in new appointments and the life of the churches starts up again after the summer hiatus. And we did it by gathering together representatives from the 66 Methodist congregations, together with representatives of the other Christian churches and faith communities in the city and civic dignitaries, for a service of worship and dedication in the Octagon Centre, on the campus of Sheffield University.

The service contained drama, prayer, traditional hymns and contemporary worship songs, a welcome for a new Probationer Minister in the north of the city, a commissioning for the new Superintendents and the ministerial staff, and a challenge to be the story of God's love and mercy from the Chair of the Sheffield District, Revd. Vernon Marsh. That story was poignantly illustrated by the centrepiece of the stage, where boards containing the names of members from the eight old circuits had been arranged to forms the outline of the Cross.

The Cross, and the candles taken to the Churches
We prayed together these words:

We make our new circuit in the fellowship of God
on the roads of the city, in the lanes of the villages,
in the housing estates and tower blocks,
to the noise of the tram, to the cries for love.

We make our new circuit in the fellowship of God
in the offices and factories,
the schools and universities,
and in the shopping centres.

God has no favourite places.
There are no special things.
All are God's, and all are sacred.

By the community that is God,
Father, Son and Spirit,
may each step we take weave us together as one
until we become what you, our God, are calling us to.
Amen.

We concluded as we shared bread and wine together, and were sent out to be the people of God called Methodist in the communities of this city, each congregation being given a candle to symbolise our unity in Christ. Whether any of us were any clearer just how this new arrangement will work, I'm not sure: it will take some months to develop now that it has been birthed. But the congregation left envisioned and inspired to be a company of hospitality, hope and healing.

Now the work begins.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Greenbelt at 40

For many years now I have been aware of the Greenbelt Festival, but have never been to it: until this past weekend when, with many thousands of others, my wife Jude & I drove to Cheltenham racecourse and enjoyed the life of Greenbelt.



It wasn't my first experience of a festival - back in the late '70s and early '80s I shared in the many joys of Glastonbury (before it sold out to commercial interests), Knebworth and Reading, and in 2006 - after a 25 years gap - survived 2 days at Leeds. By then my attitude to the mud and music had changed somewhat (does the music have to be that loud?). So when it was suggested that I go to Greenbelt this year, memories of these events came to the fore.

So what was it like?

Greenbelt is a very different animal from those other eventss. The music is only a small part of what the festival is about: it's as much about art, literature, theology, worship, justice and peace as well. The constituency is strikingly varied: all ages, races, spiritualities, theologies and orientations; people of faith, little faith and no faith, and yet with an underlying purpose for justice. The theology is open, radical and inclusive; the food varied and eclectic - it's the first time I've eaten Tibetan cuisine!; and the overall atmosphere is quite simply divine (in the true sense of the word).

We shared in comedy with Milton Jones, who also talked about the importance of faith to him, and why he doesn't do church gigs. My mind was stretched in debates about the purpose of marriage; what women want from the church; and the radical theology of John Caputo and Peter Rollins, Marika Rose & Lucy Winkett (still processing most of it, particularly the Rollins). We chatted with Vicky Beeching about being real in a virtual world, and I met Twitter followers 'in the flesh' for the first time. We broke bread together in small groups within a congregation of thousands, strangers and friends united in a common loaf and cup and a common Christ.


Musical highlights included the London Community Gospel Choir, going strong after 30 years; The Temperance Movement, a great rock outfit, with elements for me of the Stones, Frankie Miller (remember him?) and Bob Seger (with balls) about them; Thea Gilmore; and a wonderful last night set from Courtney Pine.




I make no bones about being an ageing hippy (albeit a sell-out with short hair ;) ), and for me the seminal festival was Woodstock in 1969. I'm old and wise enough (?) to realise the naivety of the 'Woodstock' ideal of peace, love and understanding - an ideal that lasted at best for the 3 days of that festival in August 1969 and had completely evaporated by Altamont 4 months later. But that ideal is no less a good one to aim at now than it was then, and comes close to my understanding of what Jesus was trying to say when he talked about the Kingdom of God/ Heaven. Jesus never defined the Kingdom, he only ever alluded to it, but I have come home from Cheltenham with a sneaking suspicion that he might today say 'The Kingdom of Heaven is like... Greenbelt.'

I'm already looking forward to Greenbelt 41 in August 2014!

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Progressive Journeys

One of the wonderful things I like about Progressive music is the great variety there is out there. Even within the current crop of bands there are those who seem to channel the spirit of the 1970s, creating music that wouldn't have seemed out of place back in the heyday of Prog, but there are others who are carving their own particular Progressive niche too.

For music to be truly Progressive, I believe, it needs to take you somewhere new - somewhere that no other music has taken you. Two bands in particular have done that for me in recent weeks. Both are bands that have been around for a while, and that I have heard tell of, but had not, until recently, listened to, and both have opened my eyes to the further possibilities of Prog.

The first was The Enid, who I encountered at Sheffield's annual city-wide music festival, Tramlines. They are a band whose line-up has changed many times since their inception, under the constant guiding hand of Robert John Godfrey, and I had heard much praise for their release 'Invicta' last year - though I 'd not managed to hear it. Their set was simply spellbinding: full of consummate musicianship, energy, drama and pure emotion, it left me breathless and physically and emotionally transported - almost a spiritual experience. The music, combining elements of classical, rock, dance and electronic, was a revelation.

The other band was The Tangent. Again, I'd heard much about them, and had had their music recommended to me, but had never listened to them, until this last fortnight. Taking the plunge, I asked on the Facebook 'Big Big Train' group page which albums people thought I should particularly listen to as a new-comer to their music, and many of the replies pointed me towards their latest release - Le Sacre du Travail (The Rite of Work).

The work describes itself as 'An Electric Symphonia' and seeks musically to model Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring' while telling the story of a working day in England. Here again we see a cross-over between the classical and rock genres, and a very effective and engaging one it is too. The journey happens over five movements and takes us from the morning commute to the tedium of office life, the evening rush hour and the later evening in front of the TV. Lyrically and musically Andy Tillison ( the driving force of the band) has produced a fine piece of work, and having acquainted myself with his work, I am now immersing myself in his earlier material - all of it of an equally high standard. What I particularly like about his writing, across his albums, is his harking back to his formative years, growing up as I did in Yorkshire in the 1970s, hearing what we now consider to be Classic Prog for the first time - in songs like 'Muffled Epiphany' on the latest album, and 'The Sun in My Eyes' on the earlier release 'A Place in the Queue'.

I would warmly commend both of these acts as a way of stretching your musical understanding, taking music to a new level and rejoicing in the depth of creativity that is still present - albeit not in the mainstream - of British music.

Monday, 22 July 2013

A Transforming Community

How a small Christian congregation adapted for a new mission situation.

When I arrived in Sheffield 9 years ago, one of the congregations I was given charge of was a small mission chapel situated in the Rivelin Valley which went by the name of Rivelin Glen. It was an interesting place in a number of ways: the only way to get to it was down a cobbled path; the interior was stark, with pews, a raised dais with a harmonium and a lectern, and a painted bible text on the wall behind the preacher; and the congregation, though small, consisted mainly of young people from the nearby estate. The work was overseen by Connie, a lady then in her 70s from another local congregation, and Phil, a man in his 50s with strong Pentecostal and dispensationalist leanings. An interesting group, to say the least.

Over time the work fluctuated, but the young people kept coming. They saw the chapel as 'theirs', and preferred its aesthetics to those of a nearby 1970s Methodist chapel: 'it feels more like a church', they told me: 'that other place doesn't feel right.' Sadly because of the demographic of the congregation, income was poor and the building was old and badly in need of repair. We eventually reached the point where Rivelin Glen was no longer usable, due to problems with dry rot. But the young people still wanted to meet together.

We tried meeting in homes: Connie's front room had functioned as the church hall for a while, but didn't seem conducive to regular worship. We tried meeting in nearby chapels, but that seemed too far removed from the 'mission field' of this group, who clearly saw the estate on which they lived as where God wanted them to be. Eventually we decided to meet in a Community Room on the estate at Hall Park Head, in the heart of the community, close to the bus terminus.

We've been worshipping there now for about 3½ years. And things have changed. The congregation has changed: only Connie is left from the group I inherited, but others have come in and transformed the dynamic in a wonderful way: those with skills and gifts in technology, in worship leading and in children's work. People who had belonged to other congregations, and those who still worship elsewhere in the city, come to Hall Park in varying numbers to worship and read the Bible together. Their style is very interactive: preachers are never left unchallenged or uninterrupted. And most importantly, their focus is very much outward. In the two hours that they meet together about ½ hour is spent in worship & study: the rest of the time is taken up with what they call the 'Welcome Cafe', a non-threatening space for anyone from the estate to come and share tea and cakes and a chat, with craft activities for the younger children, who seem to really appreciate what we do. There is a hope that in the coming months there may be scope for providing debt counselling services here too.

I've used the word 'we' a lot here: the truth is I stopped being the minister to this congregation about 3 years ago, but have maintained contact with them, and lead worship there regularly. They continue to be an inspiration to me, and I hope and pray that their mission will continue to grow as they reach out with God's love to that estate and the people with whom they share their lives.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Fulfilling Ministry

During the course of my annual appraisal I have been confronted by this question: 'Consider aspects of your ministry which have been particularly fulfilling.'

I had to stop and think.

Ministry - in its institutional sense - has been not just a part of my life, but has been my life, for the past 26 years (if you count the 3 years I spent in College in between my first 2 years and the last 21 years as a Circuit minister). It's not just what I do; it's what I am. So I don't often think of it in terms of fulfilment.

But it got me thinking: what do I most enjoy about this way of living? What is it that makes it worth getting out of bed in a morning (something I tend to do quite early)? There were two things that came to mind, but before I touch on them I want to take a step back, and consider something that happened at my Ordination in June 1994.

When Methodist presbyters are ordained by prayer and the laying-on of hands, they are presented not with a certificate of Ordination, but with a Bible. Mine sits on my prayer stool and I use it in my personal devotions, but it also stands as a reminder to me of the heart of my ministry.

Before a person can be accepted for training as a Methodist presbyter they must first be an accredited preacher. The Word of God is central to who we are and what we do. So the things that I find particularly fulfilling revolve around the Scriptures.

First of all, there is preaching and leading God's people in worship. Surely there can be no higher calling than to usher people into the presence of Almighty God, and to interpret God's timeless message for today. Yes, there are times when one wonders whether it was worth bothering (!), but more often than not the glimpses of God's glory outweigh the frustrations.

Secondly, there is the related act of sitting with a group of people and reading and discussing Scripture together. I've done this in churches, in homes, even in retirement and nursing homes, and the collective wisdom that is shared is, at times, quite humbling. God's word speaks through ordained and lay; young and old; trained and untrained; male and female. There is something holy about coming away from a passage thinking, 'I never saw it that way before.'

So I'm grateful for the question: when the less fulfilling aspects of this life crowd me out (as they sometimes do) I can remember what makes this life worth it.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Music of 2013 - the mid-term report

Well, we've passed the mid-point of the year, and so far 2013 has produced some outstanding Progressive music. I've been a little dilatory in reviewing most of it, so I now aim to make amends.

The stand-out album of the year so far must be Big Big Train's 'English Electric Part 2', which I have written about elsewhere. This record still blows me away every time I listen to it, and if you haven't heard it yet, do yourself a favour, and do so. NOW! ;)

The music of Thieves' Kitchen has always had, for me, a jazzy edge to it, coupled with some fine musicianship and, in recent years, the hauntingly sublime vocals of Amy Darby. Having waited five years since the release of their last album, 'The Water Road', we were treated this year to 'One for Sorrow, Two for Joy', and here we are presented with a wonderful collection of songs, ranging from the folk ballad of 'The Weaver' to the prog epics of 'Germander Speedwell' and 'Of Sparks and Spires'. This is music that may take time to grow on you, but the effort is well worth it, I think.

Steven Wilson, as well as being a thoroughly nice bloke, must be one of the busiest men in Prog at the moment - possibly in the whole music industry. Not only has he worked at remixing classics from King Crimson & Jethro Tull in the past few years, he's now working on perhaps THE seminal Prog album, Yes's 'Close to the Edge'. And when he's not in the studio with other people's music, he's busy making his own. This year saw the release of 'The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories)', a bunch of songs that move from the rocking 'Luminol', whose opening bass riff puts me in mind of Yes's 'Tempus Fugit', to the haunting and melancholy title track. Wilson seems to do melancholy well: there are many examples in his canon as a solo artist and with Porcupine Tree, and this collection adds further depth and breadth to that repertoire.

Currently touring with Wilson is bassist Nick Beggs, who, with John Young & Frosty Beedle, produced Lifesigns. This is a lighter prog, some might say almost with a popular edge to it (I know, popular prog: whatever next!), but none the less enjoyable for that. The five songs range from 8½ to 13 minutes in length and showcase the musical dexterity of the players wonderfully. Beggs's bass-playing is remarkable in places! One of the defining marks of Progressive music is a virtuosity of playing, one example of which among the many noted here is that of Spock's Beard, whose eleventh album 'Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep' was released earlier this year. Now without singer and drummer Nick D'Virgilio, they still managed to produce music to their usual high standard: sadly I was unable to see them when they toured the UK in May (I was cruising round the Canaries at the time.)

One of the most enjoyable albums I've heard this year is the eponymously titled debut from Swedish band Wintergatan. I'm not sure how I would define their music (if that's important) but I simply find it joyful and life-affirming. Check out this video of theirs on YouTube and see for yourself. It just makes me smile! Other discoveries for me this year have been Johannes Luley's 'Tales From Sheepfather's Grove' with its wonderful echoes of classic-era Yes; 'Dimensionaut' from Sound of Contact, fronted by Simon (son of Phil) Collins, who is clearly his father's son, both vocally and facially; and the second album by Days Between Stations, entitled 'In Extremis', a concept album exploring the final stages of life, with a strong whiff of Pink Floyd about it.

Yes, the concept album is alive and kicking again, not just 'In Extremis', but in space too. Cosmograf (the talents of Robin Armstrong and assorted friends) brought us 'The Man They Left in Space', which does just what it says on the tin, and tells the story of an abandoned astronaut. (We also have 'Le Sacre du Travail', the latest from The Tangent, but I've not got round to listening to that yet, so it will have to wait until later in the year.)

On the heavier side of Prog we've had 'Enigma' from Aeon Zen, which, although a bit screamy in places, is a good collection of songs, and Riverside's 'Shrine of New Generation Slaves' which continues their excellent pedigree. On the quieter side I've particularly enjoyed Vienna Circle's sophomore offering 'Silhouette Moon', and the third album from Willowglass, entitled 'The Dream Harbour', awash in places with that prince of prog instruments, the mellotron!

Part of the new breed of British Prog, we've seen the second full-length album from the distinctive-sounding Godsticks, who gave us 'The Envisage Conundrum', and the stunning second from Sanguine Hum in 'The Weight of the World'. These are two bands whose following will, I hope, grow over the coming months and years, because they are producing some outstanding music which deserves a wider audience.

So, so far it's been another great year for Progressive music! It's wonderful to see this resurgence in a much-maligned art-form, in this country and elsewhere, and the rest of the year promises more excellent examples of this genre. Bring them on!

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Playing the History

Regular readers of this blog will note my particular love of the Progressive genre of rock music. One of the things that stands out for me in this genre is the way in which Progressive music draws on classical music for its structures, forms and ideas, and this was illustrated well last night at a performance of 'Playing the History', a project by John Hackett, Marco Lo Muscio & Carlo Matteucci, in Wesley Hall Crookes in Sheffield. With John on flute, Marco on organ & piano & Carlo on bass and guitar, they entertained a small but appreciative audience with their interpretations of some classic progressive works.


In the liner notes to the CD of the project - which is officially launched on July 1 in Rome - the three artists say that 'the core of our idea is to give a place of honour to progressive rock music on the same level as the works of the great classical composers', and in order to achieve this they have produced fresh instrumental interpretations, without vocals or drums, of a number of progressive pieces.

The arrangements are based around flute, bass guitar and organ or piano, with the addition (on the CD) of further guitars from Giorgio Gabriel & Steve Hackett  and saxophone from David Jackson, and feature works by ELP, Genesis, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator, Pink Floyd, Anthony Phillips, Rick Wakeman & Steve Hackett, as well as original material by John & Marco. The sound is lyrical and haunting in places: Marco's arrangement of Steve Hackett's 'Horizons, from Genesis's 'Foxtrot' album, for piano and flute particularly stands out, as does the re-working of King Crimson's 'I Talk to the Wind', and one of the new pieces - 'Bilbo's Dream' (come on, it wouldn't be real prog without some Tolkien references!) is, I hope, destined to become a classic. Indeed, John Hackett writes in the liner notes: "With Bilbo's Dream Marco Lo Muscio has written a masterpiece - it deserves to be heard in concert halls throughout the world alongside the few really good pieces for solo flute such as the JS & CPE Bach A minor sonatas and Debussey's Syrinx."

A great collection, and a fine piece of music. You can order a copy from John's website - www.hacktrax.co.uk, where you can find details of further concert performances.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The History Boys

As a Yorkshireman born and bred, I've always had a fondness for the work of Alan Bennett, and his play 'The History Boys' is one of my particular favourites. It concerns the trials of a groups of sixth-form students working towards the Oxbridge entrance exam in the early 1980s, the machinations of their starved-of-success headmaster desperate to enhance the reputation of the school above all else, and the conflict between the different teaching styles of Hector and Irwin.

The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield is currently showing the play, and I was delighted to be there last Friday evening. The story was well-told in this production, using music from the period to good effect and the cast to move scenery & props to change locations around the school. The cast worked well together - it was very much a team performance rather than a collection of individuals, and they were led by a brilliant Matthew Kelly as Hector, taking on the role made famous on stage and screen by the late Richard Griffiths.

I approached this performance with a little trepidation, as the film version which I'd seen previously was of such good quality that I wondered how they could possibly come up to that standard. That film, blessed as it was by so much great young talent - Russell Tovey, Dominic Cooper & James Corden to name but three, set a high bench mark for the play, but this cast came through admirably well, playing it with humour and pathos in equal measure, and engaging the audience throughout.

A wonderful production, and a great evening. Another triumph for Sheffield Theatres!

Rush - Sheffield Arena 28 May 2013

When you've been in the business as long as Rush - it's 40 years next year since their eponymous debut album was released - you have to have something about you in order to remain at the top of you game for so long. Recently recognised for their contribution to rock music with a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Rush seem to have that 'something'.

A year on from the release of their 19th studio album, 'Clockwork Angels', the Canadian trio brought their new material, along with a fair selection from the extensive back-catalogue, to the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield. They'd last been there on their 'Time Machine' Tour in May 2011, and can always count on a good following from this part of the world.

The set was, as I've mentioned, wide-ranging from their back catalogue, with the majority of material in the first half of the show coming from the 80s & 90s. Standards of their repertoire such as 'Subdivisions', 'Tom Sawyer', 'Far Cry' and 'Spirit of Radio' were great crowd-pleasers. The second half of the show focused on the latest offering 'Clockwork Angels', essentially a concept album though not played in its entirety nor in album order. For it they were joined by a live string section, who clearly relished playing the music and rocked along as they played. They concluded with some of their 70s material (more my cup of tea), ending with a blinding rendition of the opening and closing sections of 2112.

The staging of the show was good: lighting, pyrotechnics and video brought a lively dimension to the performance: not that there was anything lacking in the vitality of these old rockers, fast approaching or just passed 60 (despite Geddy Lee's joke about them needing a break half-way because of their age!). The musicianship from all three of them was excellent. My only gripe about the show was the sound quality, but that may be due to our seats being to the side of the stage and quite high up, rather than front &centre.

On the whole not a bad night out for a father who remembers this band from his teens, and his son who's still there!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Well, we've all had a few days now to come to terms with the fact that Britain's first female Prime Minister has died, at the age of 87, after struggling for the past few years with the effects of dementia. In the immediate aftermath of her death there was much said in many forums that was emotive, passionate, vitriolic and downright abusive, but these were the kinds of feelings that 'The Iron Lady' seemed able to engender in people - whether they were her supporters or her detractors.

It's not easy - certainly for those of us who lived through her leadership - to be ambivalent about Margaret Thatcher. I turned 18 in 1979, and so the first election she won was the first I had voted in (though not for her or her party). To some, she's the Woman who saved Britain; to others the woman who destroyed Britain. For those of us from the north of England she will be forever synonymous with the erosion of the traditional industries of coal-mining, ship-building and steel-making, and the almost civil war of the 1984-85 miners' strike, which tore apart so many communities and families in our industrial heartlands, and pitched ordinary working folk against the 'bobbies on the beat' who had for so long been stalwarts of decency and community.

Margaret Thatcher always professed to be a person of faith. She was brought up under the Methodist umbrella in Wesley's home county of Lincolnshire, but showed little of his Arminian zeal for the excluded and marginalised in society; she famously quoted the Prayer of St Francis on the steps of 10 Downing Street following her victory in 1979, but then promulgated policies that seemed to reverse the sentiment of that prayer, bringing discord, hatred and division and sending the country to war in the South Atlantic. I have to confess that I have always found it hard to see her as a fellow-traveller, following in the footsteps of Jesus, though I concede that she may have felt the same way about me.

There is no doubt that her legacy is huge and tangible. Not only do the present government of this country look to her with almost sanctified awe (as did Blair and his ilk), but the present financial crisis we find ourselves lumbered with is, it seems to me, as a direct consequence of the policies that she and her government adopted and fostered. Thatcher and her '-ism' made greed virtuous, and politicised a Darwinian 'survival-of-the-fittest' mentality which led to 'the fittest' being 'the richest'. Upward mobility was almost deified, but obviously came at the expense of those unable to lift themselves as high as others. 'Labour isn't working' (as the Saatchis had screamed from the hoardings in 1979) became its own parody, as unemployment soared, and Society (of which there was no such thing, according to Mrs T) gave way to the individual, out for all that they could get. Credit beyond peoples' means was encouraged, so that we could have all that we wanted now, and thus we got used to living on borrowed cash (and, as we have now discovered - at least those on the lower rungs of life's ladder - borrowed time too).

I do not rejoice (one of her favourite words) at her passing, though I have to confess that the first thing to pass through my mind when I heard of her death was a particular song from 'The Wizard of Oz'. Nor do I, though, rejoice at the effect she and her policies had on this country. We will never be the same because of her - but not, to my mind, in a good way.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

A Mother's Tale

I was struck by a minor dilemma this week when preparing for worship: how do you combine the Parable of the Prodigal Son - essentially a tale of a father & two son - with Mother's Day? My solution was to try and look at that story, so well-known in Christian lore, from the mother's perspective - not easy for a bloke!

The response to what I came up with has been such that I felt it would be right for me to share it on this forum. Don't be shy at letting me know what you think: does it speak to you? Does it shine new light on an old story? Or is it just fanciful nonsense?

A Mother's Tale

I suppose our family is much the same as many others – there are times when everything is peace and calm and love and understanding; and then there are the normal days! Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love my two boys: it’s just there are moments when it seems they can’t bear to be on the same planet as each other, never mind the same room!

Simon – he’s the elder of the two – he’s always been the conscientious one, you know: takes being the ‘first-born’ very seriously. As soon as he could he went off to agricultural college, so that he’d know how to run the farm properly – did well too; got his head down and studied hard – not really a natural student, but came away with a good qualification. And Jo & I were really proud of him.

Josh, now he’s a different sort altogether: headstrong, adventurous, lippy, winds his dad and his brother up all the time. In a way I blame myself: he was a bit of a surprise, shall we say, and it wasn’t an easy pregnancy, and we thought we’d lost him at one stage, but it all worked out in the end. But I think we spoiled him a bit, you know, what with being the ‘baby’ of the family – there’s 8 years between him and Simon, you know.

I’ll never forget that evening. Josh had just turned 17; we were sat round the dinner table enjoying a nice bit of lamb, and Josh turned to Jo and asked him “What’s my share of the farm worth?” Well, Jo was a little taken aback, and Simon just glared at him over the peas. My first thought was whether he’d got himself into trouble, you know, and needed a little help. “Why do you ask, son?” said Jo. “Well, to be honest” he said, “I’m sick of life here. I want to get out and see the world, experience things, taste things, you know. I don’t want to be stuck here all my life, and to be frank I can’t wait for you to die before I can enjoy all this. So, give me my share now.” Simon stood up and shouted: “How dare you talk to Dad like that!” and there was a lot of other things said that I don’t want to repeat, and they both stormed out with much door-slamming. When they’d gone, Jo & I just sat there: I was aching inside, and I knew Jo was upset because he didn’t say a word.

The next day Jo got up early and went into town. He was gone ages, but when he came back he called Josh in and gave him a large envelope. “You know that Simon gets twice as much as you, because he’s the elder, don’t you? Well, here’s ⅓ of what this place is worth: take it, but that’s it – there’s no more.” And with that he turned and left the room. Josh looked at the envelope for a few seconds, then opened it, flicked through the notes and smiled that cheeky smile of his. Then he was off up to his room, and half an hour later, with his rucksack on his back, he was away through the door with nothing more than a “See ya!” as he left.

On the surface life went on much as before after that, except that it was noticeably quieter. We didn’t hear anything from Josh directly, though some neighbours who’d been over to the city said that they thought they’d seen him, a little worse for wear shall we say, with a rowdy group the other week. I do wish he’d just let us know he’s OK. But I’ve noticed a change in Jo since Josh left: he seems a lot quieter in himself, and in an evening he’s taken to going off by himself for a walk down the lane towards the main road. Most evenings he just stands at the end of the track, staring down the road. Simon just gets on with things: doesn’t seem to miss his brother at all; in fact I’ve even heard him saying to some of the farm-hands “Good riddance to him!” Breaks my heart to hear him say things like that, but what can you do?

It’s been months now since we’ve heard anything. We occasionally talk with those who go to the city, but no-one seems to have seen or heard from him. Oh, why doesn’t he just come home? I’m sure we can sort things out. Jo still goes for his evening walks, but always seems a little sadder when he comes home.

I can’t believe it! I never thought I’d see this day! It’s Josh: he’s home! Jo had gone out as usual this evening, and it seems that he’d spotted this dishevelled character coming along the road – he almost smelled him before he saw him! Jo’d turned away, but something made him look again at him, and then he recognised him. He looks like he’s hardly eaten for weeks; unshaven and unwashed, but that didn’t stop Jo: he ran up to him and threw his arms round him and wouldn’t let him go for ages. When he did let go, Josh just collapsed at his feet in tears. Then he told Jo what had happened to him since he’d left us: how he’d gone off to the city and partied; made lots of new friends, until the money had run out; and then he’d struggled to get a job and ended up back on a farm, but this time looking after pigs of all things. The pay was more or less nonexistent, and he ended up sleeping in the sty, he was so desperate! He even thought about eating the pig-swill, he was so hungry at times! Oh, my poor boy!

Then, he said, one night he started thinking: “Even the farm-hands at home do better than this. I can’t go on living in this way: I’m going to have to swallow my pride and go home, ask dad if he’ll take me on as a farm-hand.” So he upped and set off home.

“We’re having none of that!” Jo said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done: you’re my son and nothing is ever going to change that. Work as a farm-hand, indeed!” The he called me over and told me to prepare that calf we’ve been fattening up: we’re going to have the biggest party there’s ever been! I say, OK, but first things first: let’s get this boy in a nice hot bath and get him some clean clothes.

Naturally Simon heard all the commotion and wanted to know what was going on. When I told him he was furious and stormed off to the barn by himself. Jo told me to leave him be; he’d have a word with him later. For now, let’s celebrate! Josh’s back!

Half way through the night Simon still hadn’t shown his face, so Jo went to find him. He was still behind the barn, chuntering to himself. Jo said to me later that he’d never seen him so angry. “I’ve stuck by you and mum through thick and thin”, he said, “even through that winter when we got foot & mouth and we could’ve lost everything. And what thanks do I get, eh? You’ve never once told me to invite my mates round for a party. And this waste of space of a son of yours” – he couldn’t even bring himself to call Josh his brother – “he comes back after blowing his inheritance on wine, women & song, and this happens! It’s just not fair, dad!”

Jo didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then he just said softly: “Simon, I’ve never been good at talking about feelings: I usually leave that to your mother. But we’re so grateful that you’ve been here all this time, especially when things were tough, and you know that this is all yours when we’ve gone. Nothing can take that away from you. But you also know that your mum & I have been worried sick about Josh since he left us; we didn’t even know until today whether he was alive or dead. But now we know: our son…your brother… is alive! We can’t help but want to celebrate. If not for Josh, then come in for me and your mother.”

And you know: that was the best Mother’s Day we ever had.