Saturday, 27 December 2008

Mixing Politics and Religion

As a child I was taught that neither of the above were suitable conversation in polite company. Invariably any discussion, I was warned,  ended in a huge row. On the world of blogging no such taboos seems to exist. So in direct contravention of my earlier, self-denying ordinance, here's my two-pennyworth.

Those who were disappointed that the Pope's recent address failed to offer a spiritual perspective on the current economic recession will doubtless be delighted with the pronouncements of the 5 bishops reported in today's Telegraph. Hard to find much to argue with in what they say although the timing does seem a little opportunistic. But in the interests of balance:
I spent a fair amount of my working life in Government. Not as a politician but a civil servant. Politicians I found on the whole did not enter political life for the sake of their egos and certainly not for the money. But somewhere along the way most appear to lose the plot. Why is that? I'll offer two thoughts.

a. Governing the UK is not  easy. In fact I'd say it's becoming impossible. How do you balance the need for wealth creation with redistribution; or employment rights with the need to lighten regulatory burdens; with the social issues which  arise from an increasingly diverse population;   with environmental and sustainability concerns against the fact that many "Green" policies could impact adversely on those with low incomes? Lots of these dilemmas are not new but resolving them without being confronted with a whole set of new problems is a hell of a challenge.

b. As the complexity of government increases so does the burden of expectation of those in government.  This is not helped at election time when political parties appear to offer the earth at no extra cost to the taxpayer. Indeed many will offer to reduce taxes and deliver more and better public services. If we add to the tendency to over-promise and under-deliver the other election-winning ploys that are often trotted out and which are frequently drawn round a more moral agenda (back to basics campaigns, politicians pictured with their families) then the scope for disappointment is huge. No politician will be elected if they offer a less rosy picture of life when they get into power. So when (not if) they fail to live up to their own hype the all-round sense of failure is hardly a surprise. Nobody learns anything: next election the stakes are raised because the promises become ever more extravagant.   

If we are to mix politics and religion then I have two suggestions to make. Firstly politicians need to be more honest with the electorate about what they can and cannot do. The scale of ambition should be about the art of the possible with a clear warning that they cannot do it on their own. The country as a whole needs to play its part.  From these modest beginnings they may be able to re-engage a cynical electorate.

For the church I'd prefer the message to be that there is more to life than just politics and to take back  that dimension that we have entrusted  to politicians and which they are palpably incapable of delivering. A message along those lines rather than the offer of political capital to an ill-deserving opposition party would certainly have got my vote. 

Thursday, 25 December 2008

A wonderfully  uplifting midnight mass with  my family - most Sundays the prospect of early mass appears to motivate only me to get up - followed this morning by the slow straightening up of the house following the reveillon last night and getting things ready for lunch today. Our's is an Anglo-French alliance which means considerable food preparation both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  
But with Wallace and Gromit in prospect later today everything is shaping up very well.
Christmas inevitably brings back memories of childhood. I remember one Christmas attending church with my grandmother. The sermon would inevitably pass a ten year old by but I did notice my grandmother making a note at one point. Afterwards she said to me she'd written down something the preacher had said: "Christianity is your life and the way you lead it". That just about summed it up for her.     
With these words ringing round my head I think this  may be my last Blog for a while. Not for ever in all probability but for a week or two at the very least. I had always intended this  Blog to be a way of trying to make sense of the world I live in. Why strengthening Christian convictions were mixed with angst about Charlton. In fact I am not sure I need worry: it's just the way it is. And as for any insights, those of others are considerably more interesting and readable. I have decided to be of more practical use to those around me. To put my hand up a bit more when others ask for help (I do little more at church than attend). And to remember the life is about the service of others not my own opinions. 
A very happy and peaceful Christmas. 

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Must do Better

School's out soon and with it the normal rash of assessments about my childrens' progress. I recognise the heading not because it is said of mine but because it habitually appeared in the reports I handed over to my parents.

But assessments are not just limited to students. Just about everything gets assessed these days. So here's one from me rather than one about me.

On the way in to work today there was an interesting Opinion piece in the Times about an alternative Christmas service, one for non-believers. Partly ironic, partly "alternative" spirituality, part pure sentimentality. Overall a bit of a dog's dinner.

So a couple of questions from me. If you are going to have a truly alternative Christmas why is it necessary to appropriate the dates reserved for a Christian festival. How about February? That way the humanist/non-believer/atheist "majority" (inferred from the article) would have something special to call their own. Taking the same dates feels a bit like sending out your cat to spray in next door's garden. Not very worthy.

Secondly what a joyless alternative gets served up. I can get truly exhilarated listening to the "Christian" Messiah. Atheists will have to make do with Do They know its Christmas, or Baby, its Cold Outside feat. Rod Stewart. Or Carl Sagan's humanist insights into the need for us to cherish the earth and each other. Or The Muppet Christmas Carol. Nothing here about hope, about God among us. Uplifting and inspiring messages that justify all the things that cause us to mark out Christmas as a very special time.

Final score: Non-believers 0, Believers 2
Assessment: Humanists have bitten off more than they can chew here. Must do better.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Very trying....

For an English cricket loving Charlton fan, not a good day. After India effortlessly knocked off nearly 400 runs in the 4th innings to take the First Test, I then watched the pain of my side denied a first victory in 13 games with a goal scored with virtually the last kick of the game. 
Still I'm trying to look at this way: for an Indian cricket supporter living in (and supporting) Derby County, today life must feel pretty good. 
I have felt for some weeks that the game is up for Charlton this year. Sometimes you feel that it doesn't matter what you do, the end result will always be the same. What the club really needs now cannot be bought for love nor money - its a bit of luck. Just enough to give the players and management a lift; to re-instill some self-belief; to give them some hope that they can start winning again.   But if not: well, we had a good run whilst it lasted and we can look back on the good times  if the lean times do come. 
If Charlton's cause looks lost, the same cannot be said of Anglo-Catholicism. In place of the Indy I read the latest "Forward in Faith" on the way in to work today. The front page was a great read - a series of quotes from the Anglo Catholic community speaking out against the proposed code of practice. Actually it was a front page worthy of the Indy itself. 
In nearly all respects I regard myself as a liberal. In matters of faith, I am unapologetically traditional.  I am not sure  the values I hold in everyday life need necessarily extend to spiritual life. So I am not convinced that because, for example,  I support  equality and diversity in the work place  that need necessarily mean I should automatically belong to a church that has signed up to women priests.  Surely religious views are a matter of moral conviction - and they are very personal. I don't dissent that others should see it differently: simply that my views are seen as valid. For me the strength of the Church of England has been its capacity to embrace diversity. Having the Anglo Catholics in the church at a time when synod has given the go ahead to the ordination of women bishops is tough all round. But the church has accommodated ambiguity in its structures before - I think all that is being asked now is that it continues to do so. Properly. The problem with a code of practice is that every breach would doubtless be met with a tut-tut and a shaking of heads - but no more. I think the church needs to find a better answer than the one on offer here. I pray that it does so. 

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Staying Awake

One of my weaknesses is Sci-Fi movies. Not the ridiculously bloated space operas of Star Trek or George Lucas but those great low budget pieces that get shown at odd times of the day (more likely night). More often than not they're in black and white and invariably comprise a heady mix of acting unknowns, creaky sets and infeasible plots. But there are some pearls all the same. I see the 1950's cold-war classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" has just had a high budget makeover and been remade with Keanu Reeves. I'll bet the original is far better. One original that may never be remade is a late 1980's low budget feature called "They Live" and directed by John Carpenter. The central conceit is that the earth has been invaded but that we earthlings have been hypnotised/brain-washed so that we now only recognise as "reality"  the fiction that the aliens have created for us.  But all is not lost. A resistance movement has started up and they have developed a way of helping see the "true" reality - via the use of special sunglasses. 
The clarion calls  of the rebels is: "They Live:We Sleep". When  the sunglasses donned we see the subliminal reality that the aliens have created beneath the veneer of "normality" - slogans like "Consume", "Obey" shout out from  otherwise  normal advertising hoardings; innocuous banknotes bear the wording "This is Your God". Like all the best science fiction the purpose isn't to thrill us with hi-tec action but to hold up a mirror to some aspect of our lives -in this case the suggestion that we are so in thrall to material wealth and the untrammelled capitalism of western society that we are incapable of seeing anything else. 
At the start of Advent we are told to remain watchful. Like the freedom-fighters in "They Live", we Christians maybe have to don some dark glasses to navigate our way through the commercial temptations and the pressures to consume ever more  that so characterises the modern Christmas. I occasionally have left mine home this week and the result has been the rise in stress levels that accompany the fear I have forgotten to buy something. I resolve to do better in the next week.    
But then maybe the frail nature of capitalism is being exposed without the need for special eyewear. In town today the shops are full of Xmas goodies and offering plenty of discounts to entice us inside. Some of the discounts make the recent VAT reduction   look a bit mean spritied . Among those discounting most keenly is Woolworth's although in their case it is for  little more purpose than clearing stocks before they close down for good. When they do that will be yet another piece of the High Street landscape and an abiding memory from my childhood gone. Another victim to the changing times and the very deep economic recession. 
Perhaps it need not be all bad though. Dare one hope that without lots of money to spend people may turn their attention to the real meaning of Christmas.


Monday, 8 December 2008

A Long Weekend

After a couple of mis-starts here's the weekend update. 
First of all a miserable defeat at Blackpool which leaves us bottom of the table. There comes a point when the optimism that precedes each game does a 180 degree turn. You then expect the worst. Even a draw or playing well and losing leaves you clutching at straws - or green shoots anyway. But at least resignation and despair makes defeat easier to swallow. 
I feel desperately sorry for the Board at Charlton. Two and a bit years ago they handed over a couple of seasons of transfer money to a new manager in the expectation that we could push on: from mid-table into Europe.    What I don't think they realised is that it was our talismanic manager, Alan Curbishley, that had kept the team punching well above its weight: almost certainly in a false position. Once he went the spell was broken and the team's fortunes sank. Even a good replacement like Alan Pardew found himself unable to stop the rot.
What next? I really don't know. Curbs back at the Valley seems the obvious answer, yet the man is unlikely to want a job outside the Premiership. Anyway they say you should never go back.  Phil Parkinson has a credible claim to the job but as Pardew's former No.2 he will inevitably be seen as part of the regime that got us in this mess in the first place. He will not be given time to turn things round.  All in all I don't have an answer and for that reason I feel desperately sorry for the people who have to lead the club forward in all this - the Board. 
In spite of my unforgivable absence from Mass the weekend was a reminder of some of the things that are important to me. A visit to  family in Devon on Saturday was then followed by a chance to catch up with a greatly missed  old friend in Dorset. It was a reminder that whatever else preoccupies us we need to find time for those dearest to us. I drove back in the glorious winter's morning  sunshine on Sunday in very high spirits.
Back to the here and now. In my mind there is a very confused set of thoughts going round about great leadership,  our lives as Christians and the example set by those in power be they politicians or football managers. It is not going away. But it will have to wait.   


Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Healthy Body, healthy mind

After a day spent in trains and offices what could be better than a good game of tennis.
In December.
At night.
Under floodlights.
Minus 2 degrees.
Are we mad? Well the good news was that we didn't have to queue. 
Actually, few things leave you feeling better than a bit of outdoor exercise on a crisp winter's day. Spirits definitely raised and maybe a tot of Irish Whiskey (medicinal) to  keep the mood up.  
As the gentle thwack of a tennis ball punctuated the bracing night air an idea struck me. 
This is when we should hold Wimbledon. How can we expect any Brit to triumph when we play in conditions that favour players accustomed to Californian or Mediterranean summers: to the weather routinely found on Bondi beach or the Copacabana. No, hold Wimbledon in November in fog and at night. That would sort the men from the boys and give us a fighting chance of delivering a champion.  

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Hang on a minute.......

To early Mass. Whilst I've forgotten most of the religious education of my Primary School I do remember that the first Sunday of Advent is the start of the church year.  As a child Advent was the start of a seemingly interminably long period that ended with those much anticipated presents on Christmas Day. Recently I have looked forward to Christmas less with anticipation and more with dread. The pressure to spend, eat and drink when we have plenty of everything seems a bit incongruous. I can well understand that in Victorian times the prospect of Christmas in the middle of a long cold and hard winter must have seemed like a ray of hope.  What is so special about Christmas now? Seems to me its an excuse to spend money we haven't got on things we don't need and in any case we could afford to buy on  360 other days of the year.   
Today's homily at least suggested that there was more to think about at Christmas than the opening times of Marks : the real meaning of Christ's coming. On that basis  I am going to enter into the spirit of the thing. Quiet contemplation mixed with the watchfulness that we are exhorted to display as Christians. I will of course do the other stuff; but I want this to be  the year  I enjoyed Christmas  and I think now I can.  
Surprise, surprise! The rain held off for an hour or so which meant we could get some digging done at  the allotment.  Although the plot looks a bit bare that means its quiet for the weeds as well as the veg. We've not always been too lucky in having neighbours who keep their plots under control. Now at least on one side they've done wonders which means that when the border is tidied up it will stay tidied. That's sufficient motive to get the whole thing looking decent - not a prize-winner perhaps but not an eyesore either. And we are still getting the odd cabbage and with luck there'll be sprouts before too long.  

Saturday, 29 November 2008

abandon hope.........

It seems only yesterday that we were on a high after the match against Reading. Since then its been disappointment heaped on despair. The events of the last three months have seen us tumble into the relegation places, move a manager on and now release the striker who, nominally at least was brought in to replace Darren Bent.
There are times when the thing you most need is to stop falling and feel you're standing on solid ground. For Charlton in truth the falling started soon after Alan Curbishley walked out the door (and at the time there were plenty who thought that a positive development) and we haven't really stopped since. An unwise choice of replacement for Curbs (Iain Dowie) a clutch of new players brought in at considerable expense but who did not strengthen the team,  dismal form prompting more managerial changes and all the time the light at the end of the tunnel was no more than a new trap door opening. We now face the real prospect of 2 relegations in 3 seasons. Unthinkable really but best face up to it and start dealing with it.
What do you do when things are so out of control, nothing you do makes any difference (in fact it seems to make it worse) and you are reduced to the role of hapless onlooker. There are at present plenty of suggestions doing the rounds. Some of them involve reshaping the team, others a change of manager, others hoping that new owners will coming charging over the hill, laden with gold to bail us out. 
Today complete with new manager and a clutch of new loan signings we take on Southampton in a relegation six-pointer. Southampton themselves have preceded us on the journey out of the Prem and into the lower reaches of the Championship. Last season a whisker away from the drop. But recent form suggests that they are finding some form. Charlton in recent weeks haven't always played badly either but that in itself is a concern - playing well and losing is no basis for survival. 
 If anyone has the key to turning this round it ought to be   Phil Parkinson although  if he has he was certainly keeping quiet about it when Pards was at the helm. One grain of hope is that he does seem to have put in some work on his communications skills with the press at least and it would seem  the players.  The margins between success and failure at this level can often be measured not in terms of team strengths but in confidence and self-belief.  If he really can improve things in this area then who knows the free fall may stop and the Charlton machine will rise gracefully back into the air again. But then again, I know nothing.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Fight the good fight......

Wednesday ended with the shocking reports from Mumbai.  I suppose the reports that the "terrorists" were seeking out holders of British and American passports was a reminder that in this war on terror we are the enemy. It was also a reminder that we take peace, order and normality for granted. 
The words of  Andreas Liveras  a British multi-millionaire marked me. His final hours were broadcast to the world through the BBC. He'd gone down to the hotel dining room for a pre-dinner drink and something to eat. He could reasonably take for granted that all would be well, his visit to India  would end and he'd come back home to whatever life awaited him back in the UK. We cannot live our lives in any way other than assume that this will be the case. Perhaps the people in Baghdad were living out their day to day lives  on the night when the words "shock and awe" took on a new meaning.  And so tonight I'll go to bed wondering whether Charlton can pull things round, if my daughter will get through her GCSE mocks OK, my son will make any progress with his university application; if my contract will be renewed.
Is that reasonable or is that just complacency. I remember as a boy going to a Christian retreat and being terrified by one of those "fire and brimstone" sermons designed to shake me into repentance. The message then was you might be going back to your tent in 30 minutes but what if this was the night when God's judgement rained down on the world. What account would you be able to give of yourself?   I am not sure about fire and brimstone but perhaps if we embraced the notion that all this  could end very quickly, that those plans for our futures were futile, that the reckoning was going to begin now and not in 20 years we might treat the here and now and the people around us very  differently.  Certainly we would remember that in the war on terror the victims are not "terror" but fellow human beings. 


Monday, 24 November 2008

Better days ahead?

"Recession: A Time when money is returned to its rightful owners"
No time to catch up with the detail of today's PBR. But I caught some of the headlines on the way home. Presumably its still up for debate whether this is a much needed stimulus for the UK economy, a damp squib or a cynical pre-election bribe. 
I would like to think it will help those people facing  difficult times. Not sure whether a 2.5% drop in VAT was the right measure. I preferred the 20% income tax rate and was sorry when it was dropped. 
Taxes and public spending being in the news here are two passing thoughts. 
a. Every government pledges that it will pay for some of its election pledges by cutting down on Whitehall waste.  This is easier said than done. The fact is that no pound spent by Whitehall feels like it is a wasted pound in the hands of the beneficiary. Even a bureaucrat travelling Business Class at ludicrous expense will justify the cost one way or the other. The recipient of a grant or benefit will call foul when that money is withdrawn and will do so far more vociferously than the tax-paying public who will obviously see little or no direct benefit.
b. In today's paper there was extensive coverage of the battle being fought out in Manchester over plans for a new congestion charge. Now a congestion charge which raises money for better public transport seems like a pretty good idea to me. Wider public benefit, reduced congestion  and cleaner air. What's not to like about that? Hang about and maybe most of Manchester will tell you. Votes in the balance and if it falls then prospective green taxes may follow suit.  Perhaps taxation isn't the best way to catch people's attention. Sadly perhaps we need some environmental catastrophe before something which commands a consensus of the majority can actually be done.    
Yesterday was not one of the better November days in living memory. Snow, hail, frozen rain and just plain torrential rain for the most part. But as I returned home from a shopping trip I realised that no rainbow ever turned up except when we had rain. So a bit of consolation when I was on my home. David Bailey it isn't but you get the drift. 

Sunday, 23 November 2008

"Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man". 
Sunday. Sunday starts with  8 o'clock mass. And the reason for the quote above is that I have returned via a very long winded route to what my grandmother called "high church". As a boy I went to a small church school on the South East London/Kent borders. Our church was the local Cof E which observed very Anglo Catholic traditions. Every Wednesday the priest visited and taught us incomprehensible things (to my very young  mind anyway) like the catechism. Thirty years later  and after periods punctuated by Sunday School (United Reform), agnosticism and  apathy I returned to regular church going. I was confirmed in the C of E but then courtesy of my wife and children became  a (non-communicant) regular  at the local Roman Catholic Church. The desire to remain CofE whilst not giving up on  catholic worship has taken me full circle to a church that could have been the one of my boyhood. Does this simply prove that the Jesuits were right as the earlier quote suggested. Or is something else at work? The reason for this blog I now realise is in part the search for an to answer that question. But for now 8 o'clock mass is a cornerstone of my life and I am eternally grateful for the peace and spiritual nourishment that it brings. 
Nourishment of another kind sadly missing today. Rather than harvesting home-grown vegetables to go with the Sunday roast,  heavy snow, sleet, hail and rain forced me to seek alternative forms of physical labour - the local gym to be precise. On the treadmill (they have little televisions) I watched England getting their customary pasting from Sehwag and Co; whilst burning off the excesses of the previous week.  If our cricketers could only raise their game this would be a great "win, win":  watching sport and getting fit.
On the Charlton fan pages this evening the talk is of only one thing - Pardew's replacement. In truth whilst I felt it was time for him to go I do feel sorry that things didn't work out for him and that after two years he lost his job. Yes, he was well paid and yes he probably doesn't go  away empty handed but I doubt whether that was what he hoped for when he signed on the dotted line.    
At the highest levels of professional sport the margins between success and failure are ridiculously thin. For Alan Pardew he may well reflect that two or three moments in a game or decisions on a particular  team selection could have changed everything . Actually I hope he does think that because he may then see that he still has a lot to offer the game. 
One of the posters tonight said that they have been supporting the team long enough to know a relegation team when they see one. I was there yesterday so I know what they mean. We may yet  get the right person in and when we do, they may well  start a revival. But in football there have to be losers as well as winners and the biggest challenge for us fans is to recognise that as with  others before us - Wimbledon, Leeds and Leicester, for example - things can get worse before they get better. 

Saturday, 22 November 2008

.....12 hours later

I use to play football at weekends. Park stuff, certainly not the Premier League. And more often than not the team I played for was not exactly setting the place on fire. You know when confidence is low.  You allow other teams to dictate play, boss you around. And when you do get the ball it is treated as the proverbial hot potato - to be got rid of at all costs. 
Watching Charlton today put me in mind of those days. The defending was not school-boy; school-boys would not have committed the sort of howlers I saw today. By the time the opposition's fourth goal went in I was laughing. I actually applauded their fifth because it was well taken and was the first time we hadn't actually handed it to them on a plate. 
We have got some good players: Moutaouakil, Bailey, Bouazza, Hudson and so on.   Pound for pound they match anything in the Championship. But today I got the feeling they would all have been plying their trade somewhere other than the Valley.  Maybe doing a bit of Christmas shopping at nearby Bluewater. 2 - 5!  That was a bit of a let-off really.  
I am not good at the body language thing but   watching Alan Pardew being interviewed on Sky was painful. He didn't look into the camera. He looked a  haunted man. Sure enough a couple of hours later and he was on his way.  By mutual consent - a compromise agreement. He doesn't take the club for too much compensation and he can argue he wasn't sacked.  A sad end but the best outcome in all the circumstances.  I hope he can move on to something that works better for him. For Charlton something better is getting pretty pressing. Don't fancy League 1 next year.
Tomorrow is time for other stuff on my list.  To early Mass - to lift the spirits and to help me see things in their  perspective - followed by an hour or two's digging on the allotment. By 4 o'clock tomorrow evening the grouchy spectator at Charlton today will be a fading memory............. 

It's 8:21.......

......and its very cold, the sort of weather that prompts you to start a blog. So here goes.

I am no obsessive so no single theme - in any case I couldn't hope to match the passion or devotion of those other bloggers. But in no particular order here is what might turn up:

- Charlton Athletic 
- Religion
- Allotment gardening
- Music 
- Politics   
- Film
- Books

At present Charlton are likely to turn up most. To start with we're at home today and I'll be there. We are in a relegation dogfight already and a blog seems as good a place as any to vent my feelings. I fear Sheffield United may present yet more opportunties for a cyber-rant but I go full of optimism.