Saturday, 6 July 2019

The Tide

The flood withdrew from the emerald isles and inlets
Of Anderitum; no longer lapped Anderidasweald,
Aligned this pebbled shore; now inhales twice
A day, to give back twenty feet of crabby shore.

Pevensey vainly masquerades as ‘terra firma’
But sheep cannot fatten there long for long.
Its Roman castle walls, breached by Norman greed,
Half crushed, have patient footings, metres deep.

History’s time and tide will bide their hour:
The flood will rise again, beyond this minimum.
Refloat the Castle, recreate the little isles,
Sculpt again a wooded coast of cornishe charm.

Our transitory life has it own internal tides.
But this historic tide has a slower ebb and flow,
By hour, by century, powered by a mighty Hand
And by our stomach to consume, before we die.

Alison Bailey Castellina
6 June 2019

As an explanation, I wrote this text as ‘wall art’ because I cannot find a poem about “Tides” that seems fitting. It is also about climate change and future sea level rise. More background:

  • In Roman Times, the English Forest of the Weald, was named after the mighty Roman Castle of Anderitum (Pevensey Castle) which controlled Saxon pirates in the English Channel.
  • The Saxons called it “Anderidasweald”, now shortened to "The Weald". Wald is a German word in origin.
  • The Weald is 150 miles long and 30 miles wide. It is half intact in many places, still being the most wooded part of England, so helping to manage our carbon emissions.
  • In Roman and Norman times, the English Channel was 10 metres higher. It created many little islands and inlets, including the sea on three sides of Anderitum Castle (Pevensey Castle) which the Norman fleet captured on their first morning, in October 1066. Bexhill and Hastings were peninsulas. The surrounding coastline was romantic and ‘cornishe’ in appearance, with various tidal inlets. 
  • Pevensey Castle is now a mile from the receded sea.
  • In medieval times, the sea level dropped by at least 10 metres. The old bay at Pevensey became land and ‘levels’ for sheep grazing. Pevensey Levels are a flat area, once a bay where sheep graze.
  • With climate change, this process will reverse, but this time, the flood will continue to rise and rise - unless nations reduce their carbon emissions in time
  • Christians attribute the control of sea level to divine Providence, but now our carbon emitting habits, such as flights, using private transport, energy use and eating non-local foods are contributing to the inexorable rise of the oceans, which will obliterate not just the well-rooted Castle, but our entire shoreline, towns, land and our ancient history.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Thoughts on 'Light in the Piazza' with Renee Fleming

Festival Hall, 18th June, 2019 with Renee Fleming, Dove Cameron and Rob Houchen

This is one of those post modern experiences which one cannot quite pigeonhole. The stupendous top notes of opera singer Renee Fleming, who sings at events like the inauguration of US Presidents, for the Queen and for Prince Charles's 70th are almost physical: their sound brings to mind 'flying'. Somehow, though, I was not as convinced by her lower, less smooth register and delivery, which seemed to lack the lyricism that came naturally to her co-star, 23 year old Disney star, Dove Cameron and honey-voiced Rob Houchen

Neither of the female 'power singers' could iron out the various shortcomings and oddities of this 2005 Tony awardwinning Broadway musical, Light in the Piazza, with both its music and lyrics penned by Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rogers, composer of 'Sound of Music', father of Mary Rogers, chair of the Julliard School. Somehow 'Carousel' got mixed up with classical and lost its way. The whole question of whether one can mix genres springs to mind.

Set in summertime Florence in the 1950s, the plot seems thin and undramatic until late in Act 1 when it is revealed that it is involves the hidden disability of the daughter of a American mother in a loveless marriage to an industrialist, back home. The mother goes into inner conflict over whether Italian love 'conquers all' or whether she will be sued for not revealing her daughter's (brain) injury. The thin plot, originally taken from a novel, leaves us with an odd ending in which it is not clear if all is fairly revealed to all parties, which I fully support happening - as in the workplace.

Much conversation is in Italian, reminiscent of Italian opera in an Italian square setting, not quite as appealing as it might have been, with the orchestra taking up half the upper stage. The review on Wikipedia hits the nail on the head in the paragraph entitled Critical Response.

I don't want to sound negative: I know the level of rare talent and skill involved. I don't want to come out against all innovation which has been difficult since harmony became the preserve of popular music. I am not undervaluing Opera North Orchestra's luscious sound, two lovely songs about 'walking' (a real blessing, to sing about), very richly orchestrated, or under-estimate Renee Fleming's acting. However, I have admit to coming out a little underwhelmed and mildly dumbfounded (while the enthusiastic audience were in raptures).

Where is the Giacomo Puccini of today who can master drama, find a good libretto and write luscious music? What on earth happened to the great American musical? My feeling is that both came out of Christianity, or at least out of a more unified social narrative.

Post modernism (which is also 'post Christian'), though not without compassion, has fragmented the unified narrative about life being 'tragic reality saved only by true love and faith', into many individual 'issues' - shards of individual pain, such as 'hidden disability' or 'the problem of a frustrating, loveless marriage'. A unified Christian approach, even when less compassionate, sets events into a wider tragic, 'universal' context. Mimi's illness and death in 'La Boheme' is veritably tragic, wrapped in a series of heart-rending responses meant to be life-changing and shameful, for the audience as well as for the characters. Life in classical opera is portrayed as an all-engulfing tragedy, just as much as it can be an engulfing joy in the American musical. One thinks of the feeling that pervades the more convincing (French) 'Les Miserables' and one can only call its atmosphere 'tragic' even if it is too relentless. The function of the harmony is to 'pull it all together' - both the tragedy and the joy.

This post modern, edgy, issue-based view of life cannot, in my view, support operatic-musical art, which has to be universal and 'comprehensive'. Without a unifying and moral vision at the foundation, opera's tragic drama and the harmonious melody of the musical largely wither away.

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Piano in my Family

The piano of my Christian grandmother, Ethel Bilsland FRAM is back in top condition.  It has cost me all my spare money to restore it, but with ongoing care and expense, it could last for another 200 years - far longer than me.  What a joy to see it once again not as a tired, sad old 'warhorse' but as the same piano with the same tone and black case, albeit with some new ivories, that I gazed up at and passionately longing to play, from the age of three.

I have discussed with the piano expert who restored it, why families care so much about the legacy of family pianos?  He said that these are objects which mean more than most people can explain. They are tied up with early memories of the pleasure of music, with much loved and influential musical people who share our genes and with the beauty of sound. In good shape, they are fine bits of furniture, adding refinement to any room.  Piano retention is not about investment or money, which is refreshing. Pianos are not 'gold bars' these days but they far more meaningful than money, to sensitive people, speaking of love, music, culture, art.

Some families keep old family pianos that are essentially valueless (having a poor tone) because they belonged to their parents or grandparents. They still think they are worth every inch of their floor space and get boundless rooted pleasure from having or playing them. It is almost as if they have a soul, in themselves. I am fortunate that this piano has 'quality', partly thanks to my musical aunt (LRAM) who held on to it as an adored 'friend' to the very end of her life. It is therefore in underlying good shape, having never been in storage conditions, even though it was very chipped and 'tired' to look at, before restoration.

Made in Leizig, in Nazi Germany, in 1936, it soon found itself in my family's posession, as a professional tool to teach promising singers, privately.  This Mark IV model was very popular in Britain, at the time. Each baby grand piano constructed by Bluchner's German workshops was unique, given its own identifying number, marked on constituent parts.  Like tailormade 'haute couture', each wooden piece is handmade for one piano and even transferring parts to another similar model, might not fit or work.  Piano construction is the art of fractions of a millimetre.

I must carry 'the burden' of this much loved piano which has already cost my family thousands of pounds to keep it warm and housed.  Its ongoing care must influence all my life decisions, as piano conservation and carriage costs are a real challenge. It needs a ground floor, a relatively steady temperature, no moisture and never to be stored on its side, as the inner mechanism is fragile and can 'fall down', with gravity, which is hard, if not impossible, to remedy.  The sounding board can soon warp, in the wrong storage conditions.

  • Anyone storing a piano should employ a specialist piano storage firm, which can cost up between £1000-£2000 a year.    

It may come to doing that, but it would be worth it. A family piano, with all its unique specialness, once gone, is forever gone.  It is an emotional loss that cannot be remedied.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Life of Jesus in a Nutshell

Writer, Jeffrey Archer has written the life of Jesus in 346 words, so I have written it in three short paragraphs:

Yeshua's father, on His birth certificate, came from the Royal House of David but His secret Father was The King of The Universe. His mother was 100% human: she was also of David’s royal line. Like her forefather David, she was a poet and a spirited teenager of faith. The ultimate 'royal', Yeshua or ‘Jesus’ in Greek had a humble artisan’s family upbringing, in a subjugated country, keeping the low profile of an apparent ‘nobody’.

Hard working, unmarried, quiet and, apparently, a conforming Jew, when He reached thirty, after a trip to be baptised by a prophet in the River Jordan, He launched an explosive publicity campaign, telling veiled short stories and talking about a transforming Love backed by sensational miracles and rivetting preaching. His team of twelve trainee supporters were slow witted (being half educated) and often doubted Him; they took a long time to accept His revolutionary creed. His trainee women found it easy and supported him financially, including those He had healed. He said he was fulfilling 'old promises'. The ancient world had never seen anything like it.

Suddenly, after three years of 'film star adulation', He gave it all up to confront the corrupt, greedy and unbelieving rulers by tossing tables around The Holy Place. He was crucified due to their fear and intense jealousy - but actually, He said it 'had to be'.  All his male team fled save one (and a few women). Then He rose again with the aim of bringing to repentance, giving hope to, sustaining and saving (for eternal life) all those who would believe in Him. His cowardly male team saw Him walking through doors. As a result, they became world-challenging 'lions', telling people about Him and commissioning incredible books. The rest is history.

Friday, 30 November 2018

A common Remainer dream is: leaving the UK

Forgive me if this is 'wrong' for most Remainers - or for the few who read it -  but many entirely wrong assumptions have been made about why people voted 'Leave' -  so one has an excuse  The one thing I request : please deny and/or comment on the blog - kindly. 

A Place in the Sun: 'a dream retirement abroad'
A good proportion of Remainers I have spoken with about their motivation for wanting to stay in the EU is that they want to leave the UK, in retirement.  They were probably influenced by years of the Sunday afternoon BBC TV programme, A Place in the Sun’. This encouraged selling up and moving abroad to a characterful, sunny property, ideally 'improved' as a retirement hobby. It said that one can live more cheaply, while selling or renting out one’s main home, in the UK. A definite 'win win'.  Many, as a result, keenly want to retire to a villa in Spain, the South of France, an island off Greece or a vineyard in Italy and some have done so, giving up on Britain, entirely.

Those nearing retirement feel Brexit has ruined their life; it is a very unfair destruction of their deserved ‘dream of foreign ownership', an idea directly put in their heads, by the media. Brexit is very upsetting for them but this 'internal disruption' is not their fault.  The 'dream' was greatly encouraged by the BBC, ITV and estate agents, who saw a big profit in selling properties to the British abroad.

A silent majority of humble pensioners were confused and affronted by 'A Place in the Sun'. I recall an elderly lady, in some distress, sharing with me that the "BBC wants me to leave my own country, in my old age...".

For some people, retiring to Spain, Portugal, France, Eastern Europe or Italy was seen as their only viable financial option for a pension - and with those I most strongly sympathise. But again, this idea was put in their head by the media and it is probably not their only coping strategy. Life can be unfair; people encounter undeserved bad luck and ill health. Life in the UK is costly and pensionable jobs are more and more difficult to find. UK summers can be 'a wash out' (rain, rain,rain). 

However, if some Remainers want to leave a green UK, can they really expect to influence the future of the ‘left behind ones’, financially and literally on lower incomes but highly taxed, who help to pay for their dream of 'escaping the UK'? Wouldn’t this be a kind of exploitation of the 'left behind ones' without capital, which, on top of the loss of direct democracy would result in a sense of deep injustice and even perceived 'slavery', soon leading to revolution?

The dream is not dead....

We strongly believe that after ‘Brexit’, working and living abroad will still be possible for the British, possibly even buying properties. We have no hard evidence for this, but other nationalities have always managed to live all around the world. Some British managed it before joining the EU. Health insurance would be payable, so this would probably preclude the least well off doing it (but they mostly voted ‘Brexit’). Even if one wants to live abroad, it is wise to remain resident and taxed in the UK. To achieve this one has to be resident in the UK for a certain number of days each year (about 6 months), so many people living abroad come back for the autumn and winter.

Buying abroad: is it worthwhile?
'A Place in the Sun' never discussed whether it is worthwhile financially buying a first or second home in the EU. It never warned that one could be trapped abroad alone, in one's late 70s and 80s, by rising house prices in the UK.  It never mentioned the possibility of 'Brexit'.  Properties are losing value across the Continent in areas not close to job opportunities because property prices are not increasing across the Channel, as in the UK. Old, remote, rural properties are not valued as much for their character - so could one sell on at a profit - or at all? Would one want to stay in the same place all the time? Taxes on purchases can be high. Local corruption is a real challenge, as well as planning laws and regulation in a foreign language. Pipes could freeze when one is absent. People could break in and squat. There are high taxes on a second home. 

Alternatives to owning abroad
The alternative is to rent. Then, one can go anywhere and everywhere affordably, and feel at home, self catering affordably, using AirBnB.  If one has residency rights, one can also rent repeatedly or long term, to become part of one local community. In fact, this is what the wealthy British did in the past. The poet Shelley left England to escape his creditors and rented in Italy.

Weather on the Continent
The British tend to imagine that the weather in sunnier climes is always clear blue skies but it is not. It is 'Continental weather', often far more extreme and colder than in the UK. There are real threats from heatwaves, monster snow storms, volcanoes, floods, earthquakes, landslides and bridges collapsing. Winter in the UK is mild with a warming Gulf Stream, sparkling Christmas lights, a spring ‘to die for’ plus the endless appeal of what one Californian director told me is 'The Centre of the Universe' : London. As Dr Jonson said “He (and she) who is tired of London is tired of life”.

The very fashionable ‘villa owning' dream comes directly from ‘A Place in the Sun’ and similar TV programmes but the idea was always 'half baked'. It needs revisiting. How about a series of timely follow-up documentary showing what really happened to some of the full time emigres as they aged, partners died, when the exchange rate altered and Brexit emerged? 

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The vulnerable young today

I went to a high level conference this week on young people, run by The Office of National Statistics (ONS) and The Prince’s Trust, involving policymakers, Millennials and some of those born around 2000 (Generation Z?). The latter groups told us how it feels to be young today and it opened my eyes to the superficiality, emptiness and dangers of their world.

First, their levels of emotional health, ONS says, are decreasing and the self confidence of nearly half is on 'life support', an effect intensifying since 2011, when these things peaked. Those from poorer areas have lower self confidence and lower happiness in greater numbers, but this is not the overall answer. One key reason appears to be ‘social media’. Young people today are hyper-sensitive to what they see their peers doing on social media - and it is negatively affecting their emotional wellbeing.

This is what they shared:
  • If they see ‘selfies’ from some far flung exotic place, they mope and their confidence shrivels. It makes them feel worthless, for example, if their school friend posts a photo up some mountain in Africa or Asia. (One might be tempted to laugh at this, but it is real effect). Yet paradoxically, this does not stop them being glued to their screens drinking it all in almost even while they feel it is so damaging them. They seem 'addicted' to it.
  • They have a strong preference for ‘glamorous creative’ jobs in operations like YouTube over serious career paths such as becoming a scientist, doctor or lawyer. Yet they privately wonder how things turn out for YouTube professionals and would like more data on it, to try to resist the 'influence'. 
  • They change jobs at a high rate (which ultimately does not look good on anyone’s CV). 
  • There are high levels of loneliness among the young and the inevitable lack of money is forcing them to live at home with their parents. 
  • Rocketing house prices/student debt is leading to high levels of pessimism about the future. 
  • Many younger ones are thinking about not going to ‘uni’ even though this is trumpeted at school, but doing apprenticeships, though they accuse employers of not taking these seriously enough. 
Looking at the statistics (published September 2018): 
  • They expect to earn much more at age 30 than they do (average earnings at 30 are £23,000)
  • Far fewer go into the creative industries than planned
  • They may not be fully aware that the average age of marriage is now 32, and still climbing.
Thinking about this in Christian terms - which the young are incapable of doing because most of them have been deprived of a Christian education - they clearly lack a protective inner core of true values to defend them against the manipulation of the world and that of its many (financial and sexual) exploiters. They do not know that God values them and loves them unconditionally, even if, currently, they are lonely, think they are worthless, unattractive, or lacking in talent.

They need to comprehend that not getting masses of “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook means absolutely nothing. It does not mean you have no real friends and will never find love or meaning. It does not mean you have inadequate looks or social skills or even no real friends. Having 1000 online friends, but no real friend to talk to, is meaningless. Great people often swim against the tide and are unpopular in their generation. One might consider that the masses can be 'sheep people', too easily manipulated by advertisers. Einstein would not get many ‘Likes’ on Facebook today. VIPs, good looking 'Party People' (and serious animal lovers) do well on Facebook and also those more serious thinkers with media skills who use Facebook as a vehicle for the discussion of ideas.

The young also need to be taught this Commandment:  'Thou shalt not covet, want or envy' other’s photogenic good looks, their partners, their travels, their skills and so on. This is partly because it ruins your self confidence which is part of your survival kit. It is also because you are not 'God in the signal box' and human beings cannot perceive the life journey of another person. How can one know that happy photos on Facebook do not follow years of deprivation, misery or illness or that this happy person will die young and must enjoy their good things now? It is the longhaul that counts: one can only evaluate life's outcomes at 64, not at 24.

The young do not grasp that one must 'rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn'. Anyway, what are the lives of complete strangers to you? You have your own unique path and true self, to find and then to make useful. The most moving revelation came from a young woman who, in a cry of pain, said:

“There are so many choices out there and no guidance whatsoever through this thicket: there is no one to tell us which way to go in any direction. For example, if we choose a career it could be defunct in 20 years. What guidance is there?”

She might as well have added “Who are we? What is our true destiny?” The secular world will give the answer “You are a consumer of products and services” which is a half truth. You are much more: you are made in the image of God and have a soul. It is God holds the key to who you are.

At the bottom, the issue is always the same: it is about true identity. Jesus said one finds that in Him and then one benefits from divine guidance. In my view, the young clearly need to be taught the Bible. They are desperately lost but since they are living in such a spiritually barren secular society, the only people who can teach them are Christians, not any form of officialdom.  Yet Christians are openly despised.  No wonder some people say the West is focused on self destruction.

On my way out of the Conference, someone aged about 40 muttered to a friend, “I hated my twenties”. I hated them too, until I found faith in Christ - in my late twenties. Actually, it was the misery that was His megaphone, as C S Lewis perceived.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Do you have your back against the wall? A lesson from history

This below was inspired by a sermon by Rev Dr Peter Sanlon, 21 October, 2018

Having one’s ‘back against the wall’ is a familiar phrase. Probably originating in military terminology, it means to be cornered and having only one way forward, which is either a steep, risky route or fighting an enemy hand to hand, or both. Most of us have tasted this experience in the sense of being in a metaphorical ‘corner’ at least once in our lives. Sometimes, we have faced it, more than once. I had a testing period in my life of facing it regularly through illness. One can find oneself:

  • without a job or a roof over one’s head;
  • facing one’s funds running out within days; or hours; 
  • alone, abandoned, paralysed or disabled in some way, unable to help oneself, through effort;
  • traumatised by some event or inner turmoil leading to a paralysis of will, mind or body;
  • at the end of all one’s human options; 
  • experiencing some of all of the above, at once.

I call it ‘The Eleventh Hour Scenario’ and I believe that the Divine Hand fashions these scenarios just like a novelist tightens the screw, in the final chapter of a thriller, to bring about total darkness before dawn. A magnificent example of this appears in The Book of Isaiah, Chapter 36 when terrifying, warlike Assyrians, having conquered the Middle East, surround the walls of Jerusalem under the command of King Sennacherib in 701 BC. He is clearly a military leader not short on ruthlessness and overweening self-confidence. His message to King Hezekiah and the Jews is a mixture of taunts and mockery. His messengers try to bypass Hezekiah and his counsellors, who speak Aramaic, by speaking directly to the Jews on the walls, in Hebrew. The message is:
  • Where are your resources and Egyptian allies (‘where are your friends, family and church when you need them?’)? In fact, the City had new walls and underground aqueducts which still exist, put in place by Hezekiah 
  • Who are you 'few' to stand against our numbers ('you are such a loser')? 
  • Where is your God? See how weak He is even in your own eyes and see how other gods have been crushed.('Your God should help you')
  • Why trust your King and his God i.e. rebel against them now and save yourselves? 
Already King Hezekiah has sent Jerusalem Temple’s doors to buy off the Assyrians and had exhausted all the city’s financial resources. He has nothing, humanly speaking, to fall back on, except prayer and faith. Being a good king, he throws his full weight on God and it is in recognition of the King’s complete surrender at The Eleventh Hour, that the divine answer comes via the Prophet Isaiah. 

God says He has been blasphemed by Sennacherib and his messengers. As a result, says the Lord, in Chapter 37, the Assyrians will fail to conquer Jerusalem and Sennacherib will fall ‘by the sword’. Within a short time, the Assyrian hordes die, en masse through The Angel of God and only the remnant return home to Nineveh. Sennacherib is later murdered, according to the prophecy by his own sons. Amazingly, many of these facts are verified outside the Bible, in seals dug up and in the records of the Assyrians. The Eleventh Hour Rescue was, and is, real.

Today, like Hezekiah, people of faith are surrounded by enemies just as Jerusalem was (and is) encircled today. ‘The Eleventh Hour for Christianity in Europe’ is upon us and a new Technological Dark Age is dawning. The way that Europe is heading, today, unless there is a revival of the Christian faith within twenty years, historic churches, notably in the UK will be sold off in huge numbers during the 2030s and 2040s. A remnant of faithful will worship ‘underground’, as in the former Soviet Union. Christians may be hounded out of the public sphere. All this could happen within the lifetimes of many living today. The Christian West will return to the Hellenistic or Assyrian world, or even worse to a bleak, barren, atheist, technological dystopia, familiar from Hollywood films.

What can we do, both personally and nationally? The lesson is always the same. We have to give up our self reliance and human wisdom and turn (back?) to faith. We must put all our hopes in Him and admit that only He can ‘do it’. We must call on The Almighty and He will act on our behalf for, as He later shows Hezekiah, He can halt and even reverse Time i.e. change History.

I have long pondered why God specialises in creating The Eleventh Hour Scenario? The reason is that it is only when have exhausted all our own resources and all our self reliance that God acts, through His Son, in visible might and power so that:

a) we learn to live by faith alone and not by our human strength; and
b) all the glory for our rescue goes to Him, because there was no other explanation for our survival/escape.