Tuesday, 29 December 2015

RIP Lemmy

On 28th March 1981 I paid my second and final visit to the Queen's Hall in Leeds: both visits had been memorable, for different reasons. My first, some time in 1978, was to see The Stranglers, and on the way to catch the coach to the gig (trip organised by the Sixth Form society at school) I was knocked off my moped and sustained a sprained ankle - so no pogo-ing, sadly. My second was to see Motörhead, on the tour that was to form the basis of their Number 1 live album, 'No Sleep 'til Hammersmith'.

The venue was an acoustically poor barn of a place, but for Motörhead that didn't really matter. They were all about energy, speed and volume, and as we spent most of the evening trying to get our heads as close as possible to the bass bins sound quality didn't really matter (for at least a week afterwards too!)

What I remember was the band's sheer love of the music and of life itself, and Lemmy, as front-man and singer, epitomised this. He lived the true rock 'n' roll lifestyle: he allegedly drank a bottle of Jack Daniels a day for the best part of 30 years, and it was his drug habits that led to his departure from Hawkwind in 1975. Intelligent, witty and devil-may-care, he will be remembered as one of rock music's true icons.

The next life will be a much louder place from now on!


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Music of 2015

And so another year slowly reaches its climax, and here again is my look back at the music (mainly, though not exclusively, Progressive Rock) that has entertained and delighted me over the past 12 months. As with the last three years, this has been another wonderful year - we are living in a very creative time for progressive music at the moment, and making my selection has not been easy.

Before I run through my Top 20 albums of the year (and another 18 that I thought to be of particular note), a few other categories:

Live Albums
Three live recordings have really stood out to me, all of them quite brilliant.
3. Anubis - Behind our Eyes (Live 2014): some great prog from the Aussie boys
2. Lifesigns - Live in London-Under the Bridge: long-awaited, but worth it!
1. Snarky Puppy - Sylva: always recorded live, and always outstanding.

Discoveries of the Year
Acts that I've only become aware of in the past 12 months, that have really stood out.
3. The Room - although their debut appeared in 2012, it's only this year that I've discovered their melodic, catchy music. A great band live, and their sophomore effort 'Beyond the Gates of Bedlam' takes them a step further to recognition they richly deserve.
2. Louise Le May - A beautiful voice singing equally enthralling songs, Louise's voice reminds me in places of Judy Dyble. This folky delight needs to be heard wider, I think.
1. Tiger Moth Tales - Has I delayed my year-end list in 2014 for a further week, then Peter Jones' debut, 'Cocoon', with its evocations of childhood, would've featured highly. Since then, he has been almost prolific, producing his second album in the space of 4 weeks, as well as a collection of Genesis covers and a number of live shows. Here is a true talent.

Gigs of the Year
I've managed to get to a few shows this year: here are my Top 10, in no particular order except for the top 3
Abel Ganz & The Room @ CRS, Maltby
Cloud Atlas & Lifesigns @ Fibbers, York
The Enid @ Holy Trinity Church, Leeds
Fish & Lazuli @ Sheffield City Hall
Steve Hackett @ Leeds Town Hall
Lazuli & Alan Reed @ CRS, Maltby
Howard Sinclair & Heidi Widdop @ Wesley Hall Crookes, Sheffield

3. An Evening with Andy Tillison  @ Wesley Hall Crookes, Sheffield - a wonderfully intimate evening with Andy playing pieces from his Tangent, Po90 and solo material as well as some excellent improvisations and great banter
2. Steven Wilson @ Bridgewater Hall, Manchester - a quite simply stunning show on the Hand.Cannot. Erase tour: visually and aurally mind-blowing
1. Big Big Train @ King's Place, London - a show so good I attended the following night as well! Exquisite music played to perfection by an octet at the top of their game (and such a wonderful bunch of people too!)

And so to my favourite albums of 2015. But before I count down, I must mention a couple of EPs from the year: Big Big Train released 'Wassail' from their forthcoming 'Folklore' album alongside a couple of new tracks, 'Lost Rivers of London' and 'Mudlarks', and a live in the studio rendition of 'Master James of St George' from 'The Underfall Yard'; and David Longdon, along with Christina Booth & Rob Reed from Magenta, Nicks Beggs & D'Virgilio and Steve Hackett produced a wonderful new version of 'Spectral Mornings' with lyrics written by David. Both of these EPs were outstanding in their own particular ways and, although not full albums, merited mention in this year-end review.

Bubbling under the top twenty, in alphabetical order :
Alco Frisbas - Alco Frisbas
Anekdoten - Until All The Ghosts Are Gone
Beardfish - +4626-Comfortzone
Comedy of Errors - Spirit
The Enid - The Bridge
David Gilmour - Rattle That Lock
Grand Tour - Heavy On The Beach
Steve Hackett - Wolflight
Iron Maiden - The Book Of Souls
IZZ - Everlasting Instant
Karfagen - 7
Dave Kerzner - New World (Deluxe Edition)
Mew - +-
Mystery - Delusion Rain
Public Service Broadcasting - The Race For Space
Tom Slatter - Fit The Fourth
The Unthanks - Mount The Air
We Are Kin - Pandora

The Top 20
20. Unified Past - Shifting The Equilibrium
19. Nad Sylvan - Courting The Widow
18. Lonely Robot - Please Come Home
17. Built For The Future - Chasing Light
16. 3RDegree - Ones & Zeros
15. Riverside - Love, Fear & The Time Machine
14. The Room - Beyond The Gates Of Bedlam
13. Pasajero Luminoso - Afuerino
12. Karnataka - Secrets Of Angels
11. Louise Le May - A Tale Untold
10. Advent - Silent Sentinel
 9. Thieves' Kitchen - The Clockwork Universe
 8. John McLaughlin - Black Light
 7. Perfect Beings - II
 6. Snarky Puppy - Sylva

 5. echolyn - I Hear You Listening
     Another quite brilliant set of songs from this US group, a fitting follow-up to their eponymous 2012 offering
 4. Tiger Moth Tales - Storytellers Part 1
     Great musicianship, story-telling, and humour from the talented Peter Jones, and all written & recorded in a month!
 3. Theo Travis' Double Talk - Transgression
     Some exceptional jazz from the multi-instrumental maestro and his friends
 2. Steven Wilson - Hand.Cannot.Erase
     A haunting piece, full of musical dexterity and harrowing stories. Definitely on a par with 'The Raven Who Refused To Sing'.

 1. The Tangent - A Spark In The Aether
      An album that grabbed me on first listen and hasn't let me go all year. Andy Tillison has gathered a magnificent band of musicians around his own outstanding talent to give us a collection of songs full of energy, wit and imagination. From the excitement of the opening title track, the nostalgia of 'Codpieces and Capes', the dreaming of 'Clearing the Attic', the evocation of 'Aftereugene', and the aural pilgrimage of 'The Celluloid Road', this is a group of songs that take you on a journey of discovery and adventure. Quite simply brilliant.

(And yes, I have noticed that Theo Travis plays on the top 3 albums)

So there you have it: my 2015 in music. 2016 already has some great treats in store: here's to another epic year!

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Overwhelmed

Last weekend, Storm Desmond hit the North West of Britain, bringing a months-worth of rain in 24 hours, and flooding and devastation to a number of communities around Cumbria. One of those communities affected by the deluge was Kendal, where I am currently based.

The first I knew that something big was happening was when I received a phone call around lunchtime on Saturday 5th December, asking if I could come to one of our churches, Sandylands Methodist Church, to help with evacuating some of the local houses. Fearing that driving there might be problematic, my wife Jude & I set off to walk. It was evident very early on in our journey that the River Kent was very high, and by the time we reached the bridge over the river it was almost high enough to breach the bridge! In fact, shortly after we had crossed, the police decided to close the bridge in fear for its stability.

The evacuation effort was under way when we arrived, and hot drinks, towels and soup were provided for those who needed them, as was childcare and muscle-power to take furniture upstairs in some of the affected houses. But the rain kept coming, and by 5:30pm we were told to evacuate the evacuation centre, as the water was threatening to get in. So we made our way home, at times through water above knee-high. Showered and changed, another call came to get to another evacuation centre, in the Town Hall. By this stage all of the main roads in and out of Kendal were impassible, and among the folk holed-up at the Town Hall was a bus-load of day trippers from the Wirral who couldn't get home.

The rain finally stopped in the small hours of Sunday 6th, when the enormity of the damage began to become evident. The church on Sandylands had flooded to a depth of about 2 feet in places, and was technically unusable. Such technicalities didn't stop them, however, and it quickly became a hub for help, advise and practical support to the hundreds of homes on that estate alone which had been swamped by the rising waters. Local charities and supermarket chains provided cleaning materials, food and other essentials, and people from the community and beyond rallied round to help in the clean-up. Sadly, many of the people were uninsured, or under-insured, and local businesses lost plant and premises.

The leaders of the church met on Tuesday evening to take stock, and as part of our meeting we were asked how were feeling. The best way to sum up my feelings then, and now, is the word Overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the damage caused by the water, and by the volume of it.
Overwhelmed too by the burden of responsibility on me in my new role as a Circuit Superintendent, which if I'm honest left me feeling lost, confused, out of my depth and wanting to run away (I didn't).
Overwhelmed by the energy, stamina, dedication and organisation of my colleagues at Sandylands, Wendy & Jonny, who have both spent the last week going above and beyond, doing all in their power (and beyond it) to hold that community together; to be the heart and soul and strength of an estate reeling from what hit it last Saturday. What they have achieved has been phenomenal, and has been rightly praised by the secular authorities as setting the standard for this kind of relief work.
Overwhelmed by the willingness of people who have volunteered to help with practical problems such as house-clearance, advice on where to find help with housing, insurance issues.
Overwhelmed by the generosity of the Kendal people, and those outside our town, who have given clothing, bedding, food, transport, money and even houses, to help those in need.
Overwhelmed by a community coming together for each other, truly saying 'We're all in this together'.
I hope in one sense that I never have to face something like this again in my ministry. But in another sense, I hope that all churches, and all communities, could demonstrate the same spirit, the same support, the same 'koinonia' (fellowship), the same 'agape' (unconditional love) that I have seen over the past week.

I have been overwhelmed.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Duncan Parsons - C:Ore

Combining faith & music (especially rock music) has proved to be a difficult and dangerous road for many to travel, particularly on this side of the Atlantic. Whereas in the States it is slightly more acceptable to invoke the name of Jesus in your songs, for the British, with our caricature of reserve and not wanting to cause offence, we tend to fight shy of it - unless it's in a purely 'religious' context.

Progressive rock, with its roots in the counter-culture of the 1960s, is more the place to find references to eastern philosophies or pagan rites, than it is orthodox Christianity. There are, of course, exceptions to this: Neal Morse, formerly of Spock's Beard and now of Transatlantic & Flying Colours, being the obvious case in point. His overt approach to singing his faith has won him a number of admirers, and also quite a few detractors, who would like him to leave the 'God-bothering' out of his music.

Song-writers, of course, write and sing about what's important to them, what fires them, what inspires them, and in this album Duncan Parsons wears his faith clearly on his sleeve (though other reviewers I've read seem to have missed this). The track titles are interesting, too, in that they are all single word titles, and they are lettered rather than numbered. That lettering actually gives the songs a subtle new meaning: King becomes Aching (A:King); Lief becomes Belief (B:Lief) etc.

The music is mostly played by Parsons, who covers a variety of guitars, basses, keyboards, alongside drums & percussion, vocals and ephemera such as stylophone, musical saw and Jaw harp. He is joined by a number of other musicians, notably John & Steve Hackett (playing harmonica), Nick Fletcher and Ton Scherpenzeel. Stylistically the tunes veer from standard rock to a more progressive feel, with odd time signatures, to a more folky edge on C:All. Duncan's vocals are not perhaps as strong as they could be, but they seem to fit the nature of the material well. Searching songs need a searching voice.

These are songs which tackle what it means to be a believer today: not primarily from a credal position, but from that of lifestyle and discipleship - how we live as people of faith. Yes, there are issues of devotion and worship, but this is seen as much in our service of others as in our piety & prayers.

For those who have no professed faith, I would still commend this collection to you. Musically it has much to commend it, drawing as it does from the depths of the English progressive tradition - the Canterbury scene, Peter Hammil, Stackridge, among others - and the instrumental passages, especially those featuring John Hackett's flute, are particularly uplifting.

You can get hold of the album through Duncan's website here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Steve Hackett - Leeds Town Hall 20 October 2015

In the week when his 14 disc retrospective collection "Premonitions" is released, spanning the early years of his solo career (1975-1983), it was good to spent last evening in the presence of Steve Hackett once again.

After a run of tours in which Steve reworked material from his time with Prog giants Genesis, it was good to come to a show where he (for the first half at least) focused on his own solo material. Indeed the title of the tour - 'Acolyte to Wolflight' - hinted at something more, and maybe, after perhaps over-playing the Genesis stuff, he could have drawn a little wider from his more recent own material. What we got was effectively 'Acolyte to Defector, and Wolflight, with more of the last tour.' Of course, Genesis = ticket sales, as his previous tours have ably demonstrated.

The content of the show wasn't much of a surprise: we knew what we were coming to; the set list for the tour has been pretty consistent throughout, and has been widely circulated, and from his solo material, there was a heavy drawing on the latest album 'Wolflight' - this is in effect the promo tour for the album after all. From his earlier solo canon, (as I've said) only the first four albums were referenced, the first set ending with a tumultuous medley from his debut, 'Voyage of the Acolyte'. Steve was joined just after the mid-point of the first set by brother John, when they played a wonderful cut-down acoustic version of 'Jacuzzi', and by Nad Sylvan, who sang on 'Icarus Ascending' and 'Star of Sirius', as well as for the Genesis material, which filled the second set.

The full set-list was:
  • Spectral Mornings (Spectral Mornings)
  • Out of the Body (Wolflight)
  • Wolflight (Wolflight)
  • Every Day (Spectral Mornings)
  • Love Song to a Vampire (Wolflight)
  • The Wheel's Turning (Wolflight)
  • Loving Sea (Wolflight)
  • Jacuzzi (Defector)
  • Icarus Ascending (Please Don't Touch)
  • Star of Sirius (Voyage of the Acolyte)
  • Ace of Wands (Voyage of the Acolyte)
  • Tower Struck Down (Voyage of the Acolyte)
The Genesis Material
  • Get 'em Out by Friday
  • Can-Utility and the Coastliners
  • After the Ordeal
  • The Cinema Show/ Aisle of Plenty
  • The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway
  • The Musical Box
Encore
  • Clocks - The Angel of Mons (Spectral Mornings)
  • Firth of Fifth
The band was essentially those who have toured with Steve over the past few years: Rob Townsend (keyboards, percussion, flute, saxophone); Roger King (keyboards); Gary O'Toole (drums, percussion, vocals) and Nad Sylvan (vocals), and for this tour they have been joined by Roine Stolt (bass, guitars & vocals). As a unit, the band played wonderfully well together, and the interplay between Steve & Roine, particularly during 'After the Ordeal' was outstanding. There was energy, enjoyment, artistry and virtuosity present in bucket-loads, and the near capacity crowd picked up that vibe and ran with it.


Reflecting after the show, I realised that a large part of the music I'd heard was 35-40 years old (or more). Yet it still (to me) sounded fresh, vibrant and alive. This is timeless Progressive rock! And I couldn't help wondering: how much of today's music will still be being played live in 2050?

But maybe, just maybe, we could have heard a little more from more recently...

Monday, 19 October 2015

John Hackett - Another Life

If any of you are interested, I've written a review of John Hackett's new album, 'Another Life', for Martin Hutchinson's Progradar site. You can find it here.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Thieves' Kitchen - The Clockwork Universe

Within the world of Progressive music there are certain bands who have developed a distinctive sound all their own, and to my mind Thieves' Kitchen are one of those bands. This is why, for me, the arrival of a new collection of music from the band is always something to look forward to with anticipation.

I first stumbled across the band through their 2008 album 'The Water Road', the first of their albums to feature the core trio of Phil Mercy, Thomas Johnson and Amy Darby, and was immediately struck by their complex rhythms and unconventional melodies. I delved into their back catalogue and discovered the delights of 'Head', 'Argot' and 'Shibboleth', the latter being Amy's debut with the band. Soon after, the fifth album 'One for Sorrow, Two for Joy' was released, to much critical acclaim in the Prog world, and now their sixth - 'The Clockwork Universe' - has finally been unveiled, a kind of concept album 'exploring the human experience of a complex world' (according to their website).

Key to the band's developing sound is the interplay between the solid foundation of Thomas's keyboards, the driving flair of Phil's guitar work and the haunting lyricism of Amy's voice. All these are in evidence on the new collection. 'Library Song' is the opener, a love song that brings stuttering arpeggios from the keys into contrast with soaring work from Mercy alongside Darby's enchanting vocals. 'Railway Time' explores the response to the inexorable advance of technology and the changes which it brings to life's rhythms, seen through the lens of the coming of the railway to what I think is a Welsh valley. Whether it's the subject matter or simply the 'feel' of the song, this resonates with the work of Big Big Train for me, and left me wondering how Amy would interpret some of their canon. Evident on this track is the work of support musicians Paul Mallyon on drums, and Anglagard stalwarts Johan Brand on bass and Anna Holmgren on flute, who together add a further depth to the music.

The first of two short instrumental tracks, 'Astrolabe', follows - predominantly a gentle, reflective piano piece, with the guitar picking up the melody half way through. Then we move on to 'Prodigy', a more driving, rocky number to begin with which then picks up a lilting flute leading into the vocal section: a song which explores the pitfalls of ones star rising too soon in life.

The 'epic' on the album, 'The Scientist's Wife', has the most pronounced fusion edge to it musically of all the songs in this set, and tells the story of love struggling against the demands of a partner's career. There are some beautifully poignant lyrics here: "Oh, to be very young, his everything, his only eyes for me! Sealed in our universe, with lines of force we drew our destiny." "In this magnetic age he stands alone, a fame apart from me. Lapses of memory, the empty days, the empty harmonies. When I sing, I sing alone; I'm fading to grey." The album closes with the second instrumental, 'Orrery', another gentle, reflective work featuring piano and flute which invokes the image of the revolving spheres of this model solar system.

This is a quite stunning piece of work, which repays repeated listening, and grows in stature with each listen. I cannot commend it highly enough to those of you who like your music a little askew from the norm, but with virtuosity and inventiveness present in spades.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Champions - again!

There was a time, back in the dim and distant days of yore, when it was almost considered an insult for Yorkshire not to be County Cricket champions (you may detect just a hint of bias in this post). Sadly, in my early youth, they were to enter a period almost unheard of in the broad acres of the Northern Shire when the championship fell from their grasp.

From 1968 a famine lasting 33 years ensued, until, to the plaintiff cries of the Scarborough gulls, the Tykes once again lifted the hallowed crown in 2001. Was this the longed-for Renaissance, we wondered. No, 'twas not to be, and the following season we found ourselves facing the ignominy of relegation to Division Two.

A period of regrouping followed, and our rightful place in the higher echelons of the English summer game was secured in a timely manner, ready for the club's 150th Anniversary in 2013. What better way to mark this auspicious occasion than to lift the cup? But again, the fates decided that that was not to be, and that we should only be runners-up that year.

2014
Undeterred, the young warriors trod on with determined step, and at the close of the 2014 season we were back where we belonged. The only flies in the ointment of glory were a surprise defeat at the (other) home of cricket early on in the season, and the suspension of our brave captain, Andrew Gale, which prevented him being presented with the trophy, having led his troops with such determination.

So, the 2015 season came, and the young team, hampered by calls on the squad
2015
from the England set-up, continued their impressive run of form, climbing inexorably to the top of the table yet again. With 3 games to go, and still at the time unbeaten, all opposition fell away, and the title was retained for the first time by them since 1968. A slight hiccough, as once again Lord's proved a stumbling block (despite us taking 3 wickets in the first over of the game), but the season ended in record-breaking fashion, with the highest points tally (286) and the greatest number of wins (11 out of 16 games).

The fact that this was achieved with so many of the first-choice players absent through international calls makes it all the more remarkable, and demonstrates the depth that Yorkshire have in their squad. It may be tempting fate, but maybe another golden age has begun...


Sunday, 6 September 2015

A Warm Welcome

So, the Methodist Stationing system reaches its final stage, as decisions made back in November last year and ratified by the Conference in June now come into effect. After living in Kendal for about a month, this weekend brought our official welcome to the area, and to my appointment as Superintendent of the Kendal Circuit.


Welcome from the Chair
People gathered from across the circuit at Stricklandgate Methodist Church, which is to be my main centre of work, for a service of welcome on Saturday evening. Most of the chapels were represented, as were other churches in the town, and the Deputy Mayor was also on hand to offer support. The service was very ably held together by my colleagues, David & Wendy, and the sermon was given by our District Chair, Richard, who challenged us all about the servant nature of Christian ministry. It was wonderful to see old friends from college present, as well as a contingent who had come up from Sheffield (probably to make sure I was really gone!). I actually love it when folk from your previous appointment come to see you into your new one - it gives a wonderful sense of continuity and of that great Methodist concept of Connexion - a bright succession!


The Declaration of Intent is read
One of the things that excites me about this appointment is the strength of ecumenical cooperation across the county, as well as in the town. As part of the service the Ecumenical 'Declaration  of Intent' was read by the Area Dean - a tripartite commitment by the Methodist, Anglican and United Reformed Churches to do all we can to work together in mission and ministry.

The welcome continued this morning, as I led my first service at Stricklandgate. Again, there was a good congregation who laughed in all the right places (which is always a bonus!), and reaction afterwards seemed to affirm that I had 'passed the audition'! I know it's early days yet, but things seem to augur well for a productive time of ministry here.

Ecumenical & Methodist colleagues and the Deputy Mayor
My thanks to my colleague Jonny for the photos!

Monday, 31 August 2015

Greenbelt 2015 - The Bright Field

They say (not sure who 'they' are, but...) that if you do something once it's innovative; if you do it twice, it's tradition; and is you do it three times, you've ALWAYS done it. This year was my third visit to the Greenbelt Festival, gathering for a second year at Boughton House, near Kettering, a wonderful greenfield site, with rolling fields for camping, caravans and for the festival itself.

After the 'shock of the new' last year, as the festival moved from its previous home of Cheltenham racecourse, there was much talk of how things would develop, and some worries about the financial viability of the venture. This year's event turned out to be noticeably and significantly smaller than the previous year, and it was interesting to see how things would begin to 'bed in' at the still relatively new site. There had been some criticism of the venue last year, so how were the concerns raised going to be addressed? How would a smaller festival 'work'?

I have to confess that, following my first visit to GB (for its 40th anniversary year), I was totally captivated by its ethos and intention: to provide a setting for issues of spirituality, theology, justice and peace to be discussed; to offer the best in contemporary art, literature, performance and music; and to offer spaces for people to explore ways of worship that were both innovative and challenging, and outside the norm of most people's weekly experience. In the light of that 'captivation' I signed up as an 'angel' - one who offers round the year financial support to the festival to enable it to carry on and provide these opportunities to explore the issues it does - so that, as best I could, I could enable this to continue.
The Bright Field

How did it work out this year? Well, the programme was leaner (and fitter?); there were fewer venues on site in which to catch the speakers and performers, in fact everything seemed smaller. Allied to this was a smaller number of stalls/ food outlets on site than previously - I was highly disappointed to miss my Goan Fish Curry this year (though the food I did purchase on site was excellent). The Angels' Lounge, though also smaller than previous years and at times quite crowded, still provided the much-needed facility for mobile phones to be charged, as well as the opportunity for conversations with friends old and new. And conversation was key this year, as soundings were taken of how the festival might develop in future years. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

The Mud Bath
I came with not much of a 'must see' list this year, but those acts that I did get to experience on the whole did not disappoint. Harry Baker's verbal dexterity, word-play and inventiveness was phenomenal, and The Unthanks were quite simply mesmerising. It was great to have the chance to hear 'Thought for the Day' regulars such as John Bell, Giles Fraser, Mona Siddiqui & Lucy Winkett for more than 3 minutes. Maybe my biggest disappointment of the weekend (apart from the weather from Sunday lunchtime) was, I'm sad to say, The Polyphonic Spree, who just didn't do it for me in the way I'd hoped they might. But then, not everything is for everybody, and the diversity of an event like Greenbelt is one of its greatest selling points for me.

Will I come next year? Well, like I said, it's not only traditional now, it's what we always do over August Bank Holiday weekend - just as traditional as plodging (love that word!) through mud by the end of the festival and frustratedly putting away a wet tent. Maybe things will change: maybe one year the sun will shine all the time on the Bright Field, but the companionship (sharing of bread) that one finds among God's people, as well as in the Arms of Jesus (!) will always be one of the biggest draws for me. It may be 4-5 hours drive each way, but Greenbelt: we'll see you next year! (probably)

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Church of Prog

Reflecting on events of nearly 2 weeks ago can be difficult, but I've been without the means to share any thoughts for the past 2½ weeks due to lack of Broadband, and this is my first opportunity to share my thoughts on 'that weekend' in Kings Cross earlier this month.

It is safe to say, I think, that for most of us who were there this was one of the most hotly anticipated events in the history of ever. A band whose popularity (if one can use such a word in Progressive circles) has been growing over the past 5 or six years - since the release of 'The Underfall Yard'; whose line-up seems to be constantly developing; and who have not played a live show in over 20 years, and never with the current line-up - at least to paying customers, were now finally taking to the stage to present their particular brand of Progressive Rock to a waiting and endlessly patient fan-base.

Arriving at the venue on the Friday evening, having caught the train from Cumbria earlier that day, one could sense - almost taste - the anticipation in the air. The venue was well-chosen: big enough to accommodate the numbers who would be attending over the three shows, yet intimate enough to make it feel almost like a family gathering. And to some degree that 's what it was.

Over the years of their ascendancy, Big Big Train have built an online community of followers and fellow-travellers - the Passengers - who have been instrumental to a large degree in bringing these shows into being. Much wisdom and frivolity has been shared, and many friendships forged over the aether, and it was wonderful to be greeted by, and to greet, people one had never met 'face-to-face' as old friends - sometimes people who had travelled from overseas to be there - united by a common love for fine music.

The concert itself was simply stunning. The music was tight - you wouldn't know that this was the first time it had been played in front of an audience - and David Longdon's vocals particularly shone. As a front man he was engaging with the clearly knowledgeable audience, and even performed a little role playing during 'Summoned by Bells' and 'Wassail', when he became the Green Man. Comparisons with Peter Gabriel were evident: in fact he seemed more at home in character than as himself at times. (What would Genesis have become had he got the gig ahead of Ray Wilson?)

The set came from material from the band's more recent recordings (2009 and later), in fact mainly from English Electric, and brought goose-bumps and even tears to many a grown man's eye, performed as it was with passion and flair. After each show the band were on hand to talk, pose for photos and sign autographs, adding to that sense of community and family that I mentioned earlier.

Reflecting in my hotel room after the Friday gig, the nearest analogy I could find for the events of earlier that evening was that it had been like the best of Church. That may surprise some, but indulge me for a second. There was clearly worship there, and the well-worn liturgy of the lyrics brought us together in a real, powerful and tangible way. But there was also this togetherness, this fellowship: what the New Testament calls 'koinonia' - mutual sharing & unity - that one so rarely finds, but when one does it transforms.

As a Christian minister, I would want to say that if more people's experience of church was like that, many could be the stronger for it. The Prog community is a wonderful 'koinonia', united by a love of beautiful music, and it was great to be a small part of it - not only on 14th August, but also (somewhat unexpectedly) on 15th too!

I only hope I don't have to wait another 20 years to share again.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Farewell to Sheffield

The Methodist ministry is, by its very nature, an itinerant one. Mr Wesley's ordained preachers were never meant to stay in one place for long, and, however settled one may be in a place, one knows that there will come a time to move on. For me that time has now come, and after 11 years in Sheffield the stressful process of uprooting is here.

All such moves are hard - on the minister, their family, and on the churches - as relationships, attachments and familiarities change and dissolve. All of my moves have been so, for a number of reasons, particularly the one that brought us here, as my leaving was not the most pleasant, and the experience left me with numerous 'issues' that took many years to resolve themselves. But this parting seems to be hitting me hardest of all of them.

One reason is the relationships that we as a family have built up - or re-established -  here over the past 11 years. Jude, my wife, was born here: in fact the house she was born into is only about 400 yards from where we currently live. Her brothers still live here, as well as members of the wider family, and old friends from school and church. This is 'home' to her. It was in this city that mine and Jude's relationship began, developed and, 27 years ago, was celebrated in marriage. Our two sons - boys of 13 & 11 when we came here - are now men of 24 & 22. This is the place, above all the places we have lived, that they now call 'home', and leaving children to forge their own lives is never easy for a parent, but that we must do.

The churches to whom, and with whom, I have ministered, are another reason for this parting being hard. As I have mentioned, I was not in a 'good place' when we arrived in 2004, but the love, care, support and prayers of God's people have pulled me through and, I believe, have made me a better minister as a result. It's not always been an easy ride over those years, either for me or them, but the good people of Stanwood, Rivelin Glen (latterly Hall Park Head), Stannington, Dungworth, Walkley and (principally, as they are the only congregation that I've been associated with for the entirety of my time here) Wesley Hall have shown me such love and support that I will always cherish and remember with great affection.

One thing that has amazed and appalled me in equal measure is the amount of junk that we have accumulated in our time here: junk that has now been recycled, charity-shopped or shredded. I hope that, having de-cluttered quite savagely, we can keep the amount to a minimum in future.

And so we move on:. a move that, for my sake as much as for the churches, is needed. We are both ready for and in need of fresh challenges and stimulations to bring out and develop the gifts that God had given us. I  leave one beautiful part of God's world for another, and as a Yorkshireman move back into 'exile' after 17 years back in 'God's own county', as we depart for Kendal and the Lake District. There there will be new geography to get to know; new people and situations to familiarise myself with; and new responsibilities as I take on the role of Superintendent Minister for the first time - a job, if I'm honest, I have coveted for a number of years, and one for which I am, perhaps, only just ready. I trust that, as always, God's timing is perfect. We'll see!

So, goodbye Sheffield, the City of Steel, a city on the move.

Monday, 27 July 2015

A month of Transitions

I'm conscious that things have been quiet on here in recent weeks. This is probably because they've been far from quiet elsewhere!

July 2015 will be one of those months that we remember as a family for a number of reasons. Here's just a snapshot.

Mike & Nadine's Wedding
Mike & Nadine
On 4th July our eldest son, Mike, married Nadine at St Thomas Philadelphia Church in Sheffield. It was a wonderful day, full of love and faith, and was a beautiful way to begin their life together.

The service was a perfect expression of their own personalities, with hymns, songs and readings chosen with care, and a particularly moving time when friends from church stood and prayed with and for them both.

After the service drinks and cake were available for everyone there, before the photos were taken. Then we all departed for the reception.

The menu was themed around the honeymoon destinations: so we had paella from Spain, crépes from France, and wine and lemonade from Italy, with much dancing and conversation to follow. A truly wonderful day!
Don't we scrub up well!

A Slight Scare!
The Birthday Girl!
About a week after the wedding, when I should have been preaching at one of my churches, I spent the morning sat with Jude, my wife, in A&E as she recovered from a 'minor cardiac incident'. The scariest part of it was that, in order to get her 'ticker' working properly, they had to stop it and start it again! Not something either of us wants to go through again in a hurry!

The Big 5-0
Thankfully by last Friday Jude was back (almost) to normal, and was able to celebrate a landmark birthday. She had wanted to have a party - who doesn't? - and wanted a theme, which she'd narrowed down to a choice of two. Thankfully '50 Shades...' lost out to 'Hawaii 5-0', and loud shirts, grass skirts and fruit punch (with or without rum) was the order of the day. The weather was a bit of a let-down for the BBQ, but we went ahead anyway, and a great time was had by all.


Farewells
Formal Farewells
The last couple of weekends have been spent in the sometimes painful task of saying farewell, as Jude & I prepare to leave the city that has been our home for the past 11 years and move to Kendal in Cumbria.

On Sunday 19th we gathered in the evening at Stephen Hill church for the formal farewell to four of us who are leaving the Sheffield Circuit (2 retiring, 2 to other appointments). It was lovely to see people from right across the city come together to worship God and give thanks for the varied ministries of the four of us, and it was a wonderful service, put together by our 2 least experienced Presbyters - a great job, Katie & Will!

Mike leading
Then yesterday, 26th, came my final service, at Wesley Hall. These are always the hardest ones to plan, lead and get through. There was a wonderful turn-out from both the congregations that I minister with, as well as one or two from other churches in the area. Mike (as above) led us in sung worship for about 20 minutes in a very powerful and wonderful way - it was something I'd always wanted him to do at Wesley Hall. I preached from Ephesians 6 - "Finally", and then we shared in a liturgy (which I 'borrowed' from a Lutheran Church in Minnesota, and adapted) where both I and the congregation gave thanks, asked for forgiveness, and let go of each other, assuring each of our prayers.

Quite out of the blue, there then came a presentation, which was generous both in words and in gifts: things which I will treasure as a memento of some of my best years in ministry so far. All there is left for us to do now is shredding and packing, before we embark - without the boys for the first time - on the next stage of our journey.


Final words and parting gifts

Monday, 22 June 2015

An Evening with Andy Tillison

I just love it when a plan comes together!

About a year ago, my wife, Jude, had an idea for an exhibition at Wesley Hall, one of the churches I minister in, based around some mixed media panels produced by Sue Symons around the theme of Creation, and the myths in the first chapters of the book of Genesis. As part of this we explored the possibility of arranging a few concerts and making it more of a mini Festival.

A few months ago I happened to get into a conversation with Andy Tillison at a CRS gig in Maltby (as you do), and suggested the possibility of him maybe doing a gig for us as part of the Festival, and I was delighted when he agreed.

That concert happened last Saturday (20th June), the night before Andy's 56th birthday, and despite some gloomy predictions from a number of us, around 40 people from as far away as Darlington & Basingstoke gathered for the occasion. Andy's set-up was quite small and unimposing: a couple of keyboards on one side and the church's Beckstein on the other, set out on a level with the audience, who sat quite close and gave the whole event an intimate feel that one seldom finds at gigs today.

The set consisted of a melange of material from various stages of Andy's musical journey, as well as a couple of covers and some new, improvised stuff too. We began with a rendition of 'The Music that Died Alone' from The Tangent's debut album, which moved then into a rousing cover of Rory Gallagher's 'Bullfrog Blues'. Next was a piece of improvised electronica, inventively entitled 'It's a Bit Like Pink Floyd', and which did exactly what it said on the tin.

Between the songs, Andy regaled us with anecdotes and some of the stories behind the tunes. One was about the next track, a beautiful piece from Andy's 'Electric Symphonia #2' (my album of the year in 2014) dedicated to his mother, who taught him to play piano - 'Andante for Dorothy'. We then delved back into Andy's past with a couple of songs from his days with Po90: 'Dead on a Car Park Floor' from 'Afterlifecycle' and 'Blues for Lear', but sandwiched between these was another piece of electronica: a tribute to the BBC children's programme 'The Clangers' which somehow managed to incorporate Vangelis' 'Chariots of Fire'!

After a break, we began the second half back in Tangent country with a song that Andy hadn't planned to perform, but did anyway - GPS Culture. There then followed an excellent piece of spontaneity involving extended bass and drum solos (all played on the keyboards, of course), before we returned to the Multiplex album for 'Vivace'.

One item on the set list had been flagged up beforehand, and had been hotly anticipated by many of those present, and it provided a fitting climax to the main set - a solo rendition (with bass and drums pre-recorded) of the epic 'In Earnest', the emotional story of a man with dementia whose only lasting memories were of his time as a wartime pilot. A great song, and beautifully performed: there were people there who were new to Andy's music who were visibly moved by the song.

Persuaded to play one more tune, Andy gave us a kind of lounge jazz instrumental version of 'Three Times a Lady' which made it feel like one of the old standards, and that drew the evening to a close. I was looking for something that would help us to celebrate creation and creativity, and Andy gave us that in spades. He is one of the most creative musicians I know, and has such a down-to-earth, unassuming way of engaging with an audience, and this endeared him to a crowd who, to be fair, were on the whole already 'with him' from the start. But even those new to his music left moved and thoroughly entertained by the occasion. A truly magnificent night: as Emma Roebuck said afterwards as her review of the night: "You should have been there!"

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Modern Prog Classics - some analysis

In the week leading up to Monday 25th May 2015 Progzilla Radio broadcast the Top 100 Modern Prog Classics, as voted for by their listeners. The results can be found here.

Since the poll was published, I've been doing some analysis of the results (because I'm on holiday and it's raining):

The 100 songs come from 64 albums (assuming the studio version of the track was chosen)

There are 48 acts represented:
    27 have 1 song in the list;
    5 have 2 songs
    9 have 3 songs
    4 have 4 songs
    1 has 6 songs (Steven Wilson)
    2 have 7 songs (IQ & Big Big Train)

The most songs from one album is 5 (The Raven That Refused To Sing)
The most different albums represented by a single act is 6 (IQ)

Of the 48 acts, 30 are from the UK; 8 from USA (including Transatlantic, who are 50% American); 8 from Scandinavia; and 2 from the rest of Europe (France & Poland)

There are 7 tracks under 5:00; 11 between 5:01 & 7:30; 23 between 7:31 & 10:00; 28 between 10:01 & 15:00; 12 between 15:01 & 20:00; 11 between 20:00 & 30:00; and 8 over 30:00.

The shortest tracks were 3:16 (Spooky Action & Anisina), and the longest was 77:54 (The Whirlwind)

17 of the tracks were originally released in the 1990s; 42 from 2000-2009; and 41 since 2010
The five most popular years were 2013 (16); 2012 (9); 2014 (8); 2000 (7) & 2006 (7)

Which perhaps goes to show that, in terms of modern Progressive music, the best years appear to be now; the UK seems to be a strong force on the prog scene; and we still like an epic!

Friday, 15 May 2015

Wassail





13 weeks from today, Big Big Train play their first live show, and I will be there! For now, here's the title track from their forthcoming EP, due for release on June 1

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Spectral Mornings 2015

There are certain songs and tunes that stay with you throughout your life: music which has a certain timeless quality to it. For me Steve Hackett's 'Spectral Mornings', the instrumental title track of his 1979 third solo album, is one of those works - something that can lift the soul and brighten any day. I remember it being a high point when I first saw Steve and his band in concert back in July 1980, and it has stayed as a part of my musical 'inner furniture' ever since.

So when, 36 years after its initial release, I heard that lyrics had been written, my interest was raised. Musically Spectral Mornings has always been a 'lyrical' tune: would words enhance or hinder that quality? I needn't have worried.


The new version of the song (well, 4 new versions actually) has been conceived as a fund-raiser for research into Parkinson's disease, and pulls together a stellar collection of musicians from the current progressive rock scene, under the guiding hand of Rob Reed (Magenta). The lyrics have been written by David Longdon (Big Big Train), who provides the vocals alongside Christina Booth (Magenta) - and what a duo they prove to be, playing to and off each other's strengths with spine-tingling emotion and power. The backing comes form Rob Reed on keys, Nick Beggs (Steven Wilson band etc) on bass, Nick D'Virgilio (BBT) on drums, Peter Jones (Tiger Moth Tales) on recorders, and of course Steve Hackett on guitars.

The four different mixes each bring their own particular slant to the song, from a quiet piano on the acoustic mix, to an almost Celtic feel in the opening section of the instrumental mix. The 'Classic' Mix is probably the nearest to the original, musically speaking, but the vocals simply take it to another level. I didn't think it was possible to improve on the original version, but I think it might just have happened! But judge for yourselves... and then buy this CD!



New horizons (Brighter skies)
Spectral mornings
The sunset (A new sunrise)
New horizons (Brighter skies)
Spectral mornings
The human soul, letting go
May each new dawn always be yours.

© David Longdon 2015. Used with permission

Monday, 20 April 2015

111 years of worship & mission

Last evening I attended a service at one of our local churches which is due to close next week. The congregation of Horizon Methodist Church, situated in Hunter's Bar on the west side of Sheffield, had taken the decision, after much heart-searching, to call time on the life of worship, service & mission in that place.

It was, some might think strangely, a joyous occasion. A congregation had gathered from across the city and packed the church to capacity, and the opening word from the Minister, Rev Gareth Jones, summed up the emotion evident in the place - "Wow!"

We sang; we reflected; we gave thanks and confessed; we looked back, let go and moved on. And the occasion had a certain poignancy for me, as I had not only preached in this church on a few occasions but, for a brief time back in 1987 when I lived in the YMCA that was situated just up the road from the church, I had myself been a member of the church (it was known as Endcliffe Methodist Church then) - the second of only 3 churches of which I have formally been a member. The first (my home church, Grove Road Methodist in Harrogate) closed sadly in 2009: now Endcliffe/ Horizon is closing, and with it another part of my past.

Yet we move on, praising God for all that is past, and trusting God for all that's to come.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

A high point on Low Sunday

For most of the 20-odd years I've been in ministry I've taken the Sunday after Easter (traditionally known as Low Sunday) off. How I fill that day has varied from year to year, but this year, for the first time, I spent it at a gig.

The Robin 2 in Bilston, Wolverhampton, is renowned for hosting an excellent roster of bands, including a considerably large proportion from the broad Progressive genre. Today's fayre were two bands: London-based 'The Gift', and Sweden's 'Änglagård'.

The Gift have been around for about 10 years, on and off, and have released two albums, 2006's 'Awake & Dreaming' (re-released in 2014) and 2014's 'Land of Shadows', and have an accessible sound that reminds me in places of Genesis and Fish-era Marillion. In a short (30-35 minute) support set, the band gave us material from both albums played with aplomb and enthusiasm, ably led by front-man Mike Morton who engaged naturally with the appreciative crowd. These are talented musicians, who should be more widely known.

 

After a short break for refreshment both of the punters and of the stage, the floor seemed to become noticeably fuller as Änglagård took the stage. Änglagård have been around since the early 1990s, and released albums in 1992 & 1994 before a hiatus which lasted (after a brief return in 2002-03) until 2009, with a third studio recording appearing in 2012. Their 90 minute set drew from the full range of their material, most of which comprises long-form, complex compositions, and which takes its inspiration from Progressive rock, jazz and pastoral folk. How you actually describe their style of music is difficult to say: emotive, full of energy, ranging from quiet & lyrical to experimental and atonal; always surprising and engaging and at times quite wondrous and awe-inspiring. I've not seen many bands who count party blowers and balloons in their instrumental repertoire!



The musicianship throughout was of the highest order, with everyone displaying a natural virtuosity. That said, this is not 'easy' music. Back in my school days there were certain albums that were sometimes described as 'difficult to get into', and Änglagård's material would certainly fall into that category. My wife, Jude, who accompanied me to the gig, came away unconvinced, and maybe they will always be a kind of 'Marmite' band (she was sold on Moon Safari & Lazuli last year!). But if you like your music with an edge, Änglagård are a band to look out for, if you don't know them already. For me they, along with The Gift, were certainly a high point on Low Sunday.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Hand. Cannot. Erase.



I've been a fan of Steven Wilson's music for a number of years now, ever since I discovered the Porcupine Tree album 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. Wilson is at the forefront (many would say) of the current wave of Progressive Rock music that is steadily growing in influence and interest, and is in much demand not only as a writer and performer but also as an engineer, producer and re-mixer. Albums from the 'classic' era of Prog, by such luminaries as Yes, Jethro Tull & King Crimson, have recently benefited from his ear and expertise.

Wilson's music does not suit everyone. His sombre, melancholic air in many of his compositions has earned him the ironic sobriquet of 'Chuckletrousers'. That air is certainly present in his latest offering, the fourth under his own name, "Hand. Cannot. Erase", which explores themes of loss, love and depression in the imagined life of a woman Wilson read about, who had been found dead in her flat and whom no-one had noticed for months, even years. Lyrically it carries the usual pathos that one has come to expect from Wilson, and musically it rises to harsh crescendi and falls to soft, almost lilting harmonies, giving echoes of not only his solo material so far but also his earlier work with Porcupine Tree. As an album, it is possibly the best thing that he has released, and after the quality of 'The Raven that Refused to Sing' that takes some doing.

As a live show, however - WOW! I had the immense privilege last night of spending the evening in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, where Wilson and his band were on the third leg of their tour. It was the first time I'd seen the man play live, and can honestly say I was completely blown away by the whole experience. Wilson has assembled a group of musicians with a virtuosity and flair  it is difficult to find the equal of anywhere else at the moment. Wilson, a consummate multi-instrumentalist himself, was supported by the keyboard skills of Adam Holzman, the powerhouse and subtle drumming of Marco Minnemann, the dexterity of the almost ubiquitous Nick Beggs on bass and Chapman Stick, and the awe-inspiring Guthrie Govan on guitar.

The show combined the music with a visual experience second to none. Stage lighting was used creatively, and an LED screen showed video and animation to bring new life to the songs. I was particularly moved by the stop-motion animation used during 'Routine'. Towards the end, as the band played a couple of songs from 'The Raven...' (The Watchmaker and the title track) a veil was lowered between the audience and the band, on which more animation was projected. Very effective.

The set included all of the current album, interspersed with material from the earlier solo albums and from the vast Porcupine Tree back-catalogue, including 'Let's Sleep Together' and 'Lazarus'. Where I was seated (third row, centre circle) the sound quality was superb. All in all a totally absorbing, immersive experience of contemporary Progressive music at its best.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Tiger Moth Tales - Cocoon

One of the problems with compiling Year-end lists of albums is that as soon as you've drawn up said list another great album comes along and throws everything up in the air. Had I come across this album before the end of December, my top 30, even my top 10, probably my top 3, would have been quite different.

Tiger Moth Tales is the project of one man, Peter Jones - a fact that I needed to keep reminding myself of as I listened to this album, because the musical variety, dexterity and virtuosity on the full range of instruments is simply astonishing, as is the production. Drawing his musical influences from the classic era of Progressive rock but also from more contemporary acts, Jones has given birth to a collection of songs of stunning grandeur that will, I hope, come to be seen as a classic of the genre.

The central theme (the concept?) of the album is childhood, and Jones structures his 69 minute essay around the four seasons of the year. After an instrumental Overture which sets the scene with soaring keyboards, guitars and sax vying for attention over powerful drumming, we have the first of four vignettes which use mainly sound effects to evoke the mood of the seasons: Spring comes with birdsong and gambolling lambs; Summer with an ice dream van and a pebbly beach; Autumn with fireworks, a brass band (perhaps at a Cenotaph memorial, or in a park), migrating geese and scrunching leaves; and Winter with carols and trudging through snow.

Between these flags are the main songs. 'The Isle of Witches' begins with the words familiar to a generation of children: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin." - the start of Listen with Mother - and goes on to tell the story of a group of three witches who lived on a remote island and their battle with a group of wizards who coveted their island. The music is brash - almost death-metal in places, with a certain Arjen Lucasen bombast about it, loud church organ chords and at times a kind of Middle Eastern feel. 'Tigers in the Butter' is a song about the ease with which children use (or used to use) their imagination in play, where forts are constructed from suitcases and bathtubs become the Seven Seas. "We lived our lives in fantasy", he sings, and "Anything can happen in this place: the doors are open wide; take a step inside." It begins, perhaps naturally, with an Indian feel, with sitar and tablas, before guitars take over and Steve Hackett's influence on Jones is clearly seen. There were echoes for me of Lifesigns too, and vocally of Paul Carrack.

'The First Lament' is a stirring instrumental piece which begins with a low drone and pipes of some kind which carry a haunting, Celtic ambiance. After two minutes piano and guitars come into the mix, and the song builds in pace and volume with the guitar motif becoming increasingly complex and heavier. With a minute to go it then drops back to the simple theme on guitar and piano, with the pipes returning at the end. Quite magnificent!

Autumn (where we have reached) is the most eclectic season, with two contrasting songs of whimsy and delight. 'The Merry Vicar' (a song close to my heart!) is a playful tune with a strong. driving rhythm on drums and guitars leading to syncopated keyboards, a jazzy piano section and time signatures all over the place. Lyrically it almost has the English eccentric whimsy of Vivian Stanshall or Noel Coward, as Jones makes 'cassock' rhyme with 'wazzock', and sings of this man who's "doing a lot of good for God, he's giving the church a bit of a prod" - which is why I warm to him so much! In contrast 'A Visit to Chigwick' is much more elegiac, channelling the golden years of children's TV and in particular shows like Trumpton, Camberwick Green & Chigley, and evoking a bygone age (did such a time really exist? A question the song poses towards the end) in a way that perhaps Big Big Train do to such great effect, but this time using sounds from 60s & 70s TV. The Genesis influence shows itself again in the keyboards towards the end.

The final song, 'Don't Let Go, Feels Alright' draws the album to a fitting climax, The piano arpeggios give way to the guitar picking up the theme from 'The First Lament', the sax returns, and we consider the loss of childhood innocence, a hankering for those days, but also a need/ desire to move on with life. These things have made us who we are, but we must move on and become who we can be. The song ends with birdsong: we are back in Spring, the circle continues, but we move on. And that sense of movement is there for me in the seasonal passages, as we walk along the beach, through the fallen leaves and through the snow.

This is an album that yields more and more with every listen. If you've not heard it, get yourself a copy! You can find it digitally on Bandcamp, or get a physical copy through the website.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Methodist Stationing - some reflections (part 3)

In a break from my tradition over the last 4 years of penning my own posts on this blog, the following comes from the pen of my wife, Jude.

Those familiar with the Methodist Church's system for deploying ministers will know something of the strain that it places on those ministers, and on the churches that are searching for the right person to lead them on the next stage of their journey. But what about the minister's spouse/ partner/ significant other? How does this affect them?

What follows below is a very personal, and at times painful, reflection on the events of the past few months. It is raw at times, but it is real and, I firmly believe, needs to be said and to be heard. I hope its sentiments strike a chord with those involved in the process - however they are involved. Do feel free to comment below.


Stationing – from the other side
I was recently told by the person charged with offering me pastoral care during the stationing process that if I wasn't prepared to go wherever God led my husband, then I shouldn't have married him. Yes, really; I kid you not. I start this guest blog with that little anecdote not so that I can get your sympathy from the outset, but because the idea behind it highlights the difficulty of the position that I find myself in just now.

I wondered whether 'from the other side' was the right title to use, as there is within those words enormous potential for misinterpretation. Amongst other things, it could be seen as implying a taking of sides, opposition, maybe even outright conflict, and the possibility of deep and inextricable entrenchment, and I don't think that's really the idea that I want to convey. On the other hand, I saw a Star Trek meme on Facebook the other day. There stands a smiling Captain Jean Luc Picard, finger pointing to the future, saying "Don't just hope for a great 2015, make it so!" – a sentiment that fits with the current belief that if you dream hard enough, or believe hard enough, or even at a pinch actually work hard enough, you can do, be, get, achieve, anything at all. Personally I think that's a load of bollocks, and a dangerous load of bollocks at that. But I digress. The point is, the difficulty for me is that at this moment in time, the only way I can see of making 2015 a great year for me is by leaving my husband.

As you'll know if you've read John's previous blogs on the subject, this summer John's appointment in Sheffield comes to an end, and in September he takes up a new role in Kendal, Cumbria. And here's the problem: I don't want to go. Don't misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with Kendal. It seems a nice place, with good people. Our new house is lovely. And I know that it's the right place and the right appointment for John, a new role and a new challenge in his life and ministry. There's nothing wrong with Kendal – except that it's not Sheffield.

I love Sheffield. I have friends here, and family. I have a role (several actually), I have things to do, things I want to do here. Here, I like to think that I serve a purpose, that I'm useful, that I make a difference. Not being here means leaving all that behind. My friends can't come with me, so no more talking over coffee or lunch about the things we hold dear together. My children aren't coming with me, so no more being there and being mom. The roles and purposes I fulfil here will stay here, so no more doing what I've enjoyed doing here. Forgive me if I seem overly dramatic at this point, but it feels to me that here I am something, but moving away means losing everything, and becoming nothing.

And forgive me if I'm wrong, but I assume you're already formulating a response. Let me stop you right there. (Unless you're thinking of sending commiserative chocolates and flowers. In which case, carry on. But forget the flowers.)

Seriously. Please don't tell me that I'll soon make new friends, that I'll always be mom, that I'll soon feel at home, that I can always find a new job, a new role, a new purpose, a new whatever. The only thing I hear in those words is "It doesn't matter." Never mind, you can always get a new one, like a broken watch or a lost hat. It does matter, and I do mind. I don't want a new anything. I want the relationships, the places, the things I have now, that I've found and built and nurtured over the last ten years. I don't want to have to start all over again.

And for God's sake please don't tell me that God has something wonderful in store, or that it's all in God's hands, or that all things work together for good, because you don't know that any more than I do. Don't tell me that God cares, or that I simply ('simply'?) need to trust in God, because right now it feels like God doesn't give a damn any more than anyone else. And do you really think that reminding me that I lack the faith that everyone else apparently has is going to make me feel better?

In the next week or two a large number of Methodist churches will hold their annual Covenant Service, using the Methodist Covenant Prayer:
          Christ has many services to be done;
          in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
          in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
to which the response is:
          I am no longer my own but yours…
          I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you,
          as and where you choose.

This year I think I shall forego the Covenant Service. I was always told not to make promises that I couldn't keep, and I'm just not prepared even to mutter the words (either stubbornly or hopefully) through gritted teeth when I know that I don't mean them.

I've never considered or felt myself called to be 'the minister's wife'; I feel called to be John's wife, and he just happens to be a minister. (I suppose I should be grateful that our pastoral friend stopped short of suggesting divorce, though I admit I have considered the option. Once. Briefly.) To return to the pastoral sentiment with which I began: on this occasion, I'm not prepared to traipse around the country after my husband. I don't want to deny myself just to keep everyone else happy, and I'm not 'willing' to do so, either to please Christ or to please John. That doesn't mean I won't do it, though, because let's face it, what other option is there? When it comes to the stationing process, the 'significant other' of the minister has little choice in the matter, despite what the Methodist Church says. (Actually, what the Methodist Church said in my case was, "What you want is very important, we must take your needs into consideration too." "OK, I want to stay in Sheffield." "You can't, there are no appointments in Sheffield." Yes, really.) There's also the minor detail that the house comes with John's appointment, and Sheffield City Council don't allow tents in the park.

The upshot of all this, then, is that in September it will be time for John to move on, and I shall just move on by default. But still, I want. I want, I want, I want… I know, it's whiney and selfish and manipulative, and I can only suppose it makes John feel bad. (Which, just for good measure, makes me a rubbish wife too, because a good wife is supportive and sacrificial, isn't she? So yes, let's add that to the list of stuff I feel really crap about at the moment.)

I notice I keep saying 'at the moment', or 'just now'. Maybe I am clinging after all to the possibility that something might change. But it won't be John's calling that changes, or the ending of this appointment, or the beginning of the new appointment. And I suspect that Sheffield and all it holds is unlikely to move any closer to Cumbria any time soon. So… yep – once again, it's ME that has to do all the changing to accommodate everyone else. Well, that sucks!

Actually that sums up where I am (at the moment) – it sucks. So if – when – we meet, and you ask how I am, and I say I'm fine, please understand that I'm not lying or fobbing you off. I'm not in denial, and I'm not resigned to the situation or getting used to the idea. It's just that there's nothing you can say right now, and nothing I want to hear, that will make my 'I'm fine' more than what it is.

Jude