Day off in London

24 10 2011

It’s at this time of year that I love London the most. Crisp autumnal-come-wintery air. Clear blue skies, into which the wind-weathered stonework and glistening glass architecture blends seamlessly; as if the designers had exactly this kind of hue in mind as the perfect backdrop for their creations. An early morning trip to queue up for theatre tickets. Then a quick detour through Chinatown, the streets lined with delivery vans containing exotic foods, odd shaped and mysterious-looking.

An espresso in a quirky little bar: single origin, Costa Rican – Las Lajas Perla Negra. Probably the oddest flavoured, most tongue-boggling coffee I’ve tasted in a while. The flavour lingers on, the liquorice bitterness enhanced and renewed by waves of fresh air as I breathe deeply, strolling over a bridge across the Thames.

Booksellers huddle up under Waterloo bridge, their cheeks a light red from the subtle sting of the wind. Tourists photograph skateboarders, BMXers and graffiti artists, honing their skills on the Southbank.

I’m sitting in the National Theatre, a great place to think and write. To my right I can see down into the foyer below; the drama students reading texts on the lurid green and orange sofas, like a giant cubist fruitbowl. The looks on their faces give away that they’re daydreaming of reading these lines on one of the stages just metres away. To my left I can see out onto the Southbank. Families enjoying the half term, kicking a football around; a strange flotilla of kick-scooters all lined up by the railings. Quite how, when and why they returned into fashion I have no idea!

And I’m just writing. It’s silent here, and light, and pleasant. And I have nothing in particular to do; I make a few tweaks to a talk I’m to give in a week or so, I jot down a few thoughts like these, and I just wrote the final chapter of my first book. Well, I say that with my tongue loosely lodged in my cheek. I have written no other chapters, nor do I know what such a book might be about. But if this little chapter would come anywhere in anything, it would most certainly be at the end. And so I, like the drama students downstairs, adopt a day-dreaming face and imagine giving a public reading on the little stage in the foyer. Nobody’s looking… what’s stopping me?

A young mother, trying to impress her son and reclaim her youth just fell off a scooter. She’s not hurt. She’s laughing. To be honest, she was doing quite well until she came off; scooting around whilst kicking a football. Multitasking.

I used to find London tiring; bustling, busy, impatient, heaving. And yes, it is all those things. But the fast pace just makes me appreciate the slow days all the more. Today I find it energising. There’s nothing nicer than just sitting, observing, writing, caffeinating and reflecting whilst the world rushes past. In just a few minutes, you can trip seamlessly from one world into another. Such beauty and diversity around every corner: representatives from every nation, each bringing a little thread of their own into the patchwork of our city: their foods, their art, their languages.

I wouldn’t swap it for the world. Why would I need to? The whole world is already here…

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Simple Displeasures

16 09 2011

At the top of my blog I just spotted an option to ‘Report as Mature’ by which they clearly mean pornographic and therefore only for the eyes of over 18s.

I object to the word ‘mature’ being used to describe that which is pornographic. Mature is a good word. Well-aged cheese is mature. A fine whisky is mature. Being wise and responsible is mature. Pornography is not mature; in fact, arguably the very opposite. Yet somehow we seem to feel that using a word like ‘mature’ makes it less of a taboo and more socially acceptable. Or maybe it’s designed to make consumers feel justified in their actions? Like it’s a wise and respectable thing to partake in… A pastime for the discerning adult.

Actually, I don’t much like the term ‘adult’ either… Not in relation to pornography. As if to be adult means to be obsessed with sex! It is both possible to be adult and not to be enslaved by lust, and equally possible to be enslaved by lust, without being an adult. Let’s not use flattering rhetoric to make it seem like it’s respectable to watch pornography… “It’s what adults do!”

Same goes for so-called Gentlemen’s clubs. By all means, call them that if they’re genuinely clubs where Gentlemen hang out, but if they’re simply strip clubs that are trying to flatter their clients, then that annoys me.

And thus it makes my list of things I don’t like. Just in case you wanted to know…

__________

ps. I give it about 20 minutes between the publication of this post, and someone hitting that button.





Simple Pleasures

13 09 2011

At our midweek small group the other week someone asked the question, ‘what are your top three simple pleasures?’ The results were fascinating. It’s amusing how the smallest things can bring such joy: often cheap, rudimentary or fortuitous experiences – popping bubble wrap, finding a coin down the side of the couch, sleeping in a bed with new sheets. Not that you would ever actually plan time in the diary to do any of these things as an evening’s entertainment: “Come on love, tonight’s the night we’ve been waiting for… we get to open and sniff a new bag of coffee!”

It got me thinking about the things I like and dislike, and why. There are some things that just rile me up for no discernable reason, and many more things that bring a smile to my face, but when I stop to think about them are a little peculiar.

It also reminded me of this brilliant bit of narration in the film Amélie:

‘Raphaël Poulain doesn’t like peeing next to somebody else. He doesn’t like noticing people laughing at his sandals or coming out of the water with his swimming suit sticking to his body. He likes to tear big pieces of wallpaper off the walls, to line up his shoes and polish them with great care to empty his toolbox, clean it thoroughly, and, finally, put everything away carefully.

Amélie’s mother, Amandine Fouet, doesn’t like to have her fingers all wrinkled by hot water. She doesn’t like it when somebody she doesn’t like touches her, or to have the marks of the sheets on her cheek in the morning. She likes the outfits of the ice-skaters on TV, to shine the flooring, to empty her handbag clean it thoroughly, and, finally, put everything away carefully.

Amélie Poulain likes sportsmen who cry from disappointment. She doesn’t like it when a man is humiliated in front of his kid. She doesn’t like to hear “le fruit de vos entrailles est béni” … She enjoys all sorts of little pleasures, putting her hand in a bag of seeds, piercing the crust of crème brûlée with the tip of a spoon.’

What are your simple pleasures (or displeasures)? What are the things that amuse you or get under your skin?





Getting my junk together

31 08 2011

I have an annoying habit – which may well be on account of my gender – of leaving items such as keys, my wallet or loose change scattered in random parts of the house. I walk into the house, and tend to just put down the items on whatever flat space happens to be available at that part particular moment in time.

Having been irritated by this for quite some time, my wife has devised a simple but brilliant solution: a small rectangular plate, approximately 12x5cm, which resides permanently on the bookshelf. This is my space, and we have an agreement that all my random items are to be placed on this plate, and on this plate alone. Not every possession I own, of course, just those little things that I’m tempted to dump on windowsills and promptly forget about. And it works the other way round too; if I fail to put my keys there and instead place them in some unhelpful location, upon finding them, Helen relocates them to the plate. Thus my junk is confined to a 60cm² piece of porcelain.

In recent months I have been scattering thoughts in too many locations around the web – an article here, a blog post there – and I’ve tried not to duplicate material too much for fear of boring absolutely everyone at every juncture. But now even I’m losing track of what I’ve written and when, and so I think the time has come to put all my junk in one place.

So consider this blog something of a porcelain plate!

When I write articles elsewhere, I’ll link to them here as well. That way, everything I say, do and write is in one searchable location, and perhaps I’ll remember where I’ve left my thoughts, should I ever have need for them again.

And so I start with something published today… This is a talk I gave at Newday 2011 called God’s Plan to Change the World, which can be found at the Everything Conference website along with an interactive presentation, my first foray into the wonderful world of prezi.

It was a fun challenge to try to articulate something of the Everything concept to 14-18 year olds… you can be the judge of whether I succeeded! At least, if nothing else, it was amusing making everyone look as stupid as my sister did:


Enjoy!





I am a worm, and not a man…

13 08 2011

Yesterday I learnt a sad, hard lesson: I am inept at barbecuing.

Well, that’s not strictly true… I didn’t get far enough to test my skills at the actual cooking. I suppose what I mean to say is that I am inept at lighting barbecues.

There are many factors I could blame for my failure:

  • The charcoal was old, and perhaps a little damp
  • I didn’t have the right equipment
  • It was too windy
  • Once the coals started to get warm, the rain began to fall

But as they say, ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ and I know if I’m honest that the failure was not due to any implement, but to an individual. There is one person to blame for my incompetence, and one person alone: my father.

You see, nobody ever taught me to light a barbecue. Surely that was his job! I was taught to tell the time, swim, ride a bike, and spit cherry stones with laser-like precision… but nobody ever taught me how to get little blocks of charcoal hot enough to burn a burger! Why this omission from my otherwise adequate education?

The art of barbecuing is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. People seem strangely cagey about their methodology, and there is something unnervingly ‘cloak and dagger’ (or rather ‘apron and tongs’) about the way in which the secrets are guarded.

It has been this way since primeval man first learnt to burn things and eat them. For many thousands of years, women and children have been banished from the grill, lest they discover the techniques behind the wizardry of the embers. Women were told ‘this is a man’s job’. Or perhaps if he were feeling a little more devious the male in question would adopt a tone of faux-chivalry and say, ‘put your feet up love and let me serve you’, whilst children were scared with stories of explosions, scorchings, and facial-scarring.

But presumably there would be some point at which the child would be taught the methodology of barbecuing? Just the male children, of course. Stone-age fathers who gave birth only to daughters would have been scorned, or considered cursed, for having not produced an heir to the grill.

At some point in time, the young boy would come of age and be allowed into the circle of trust – perhaps once he had undergone a right of passage, such as slaughtering a wild boar with his bare hands, or spending a night in a snake infested cave – only then earning the right to learn the secrets of the cinders. At that point, and not a moment before, would a father take his child to a remote forest, and teach him the ways of barbecuing. And as they left the village, the other stone-age fathers would exchange knowing looks; today is the day a child becomes a man.

Somehow I missed out on this experience.

At some point in the early ‘90s, the father to son transmission of the secrets was interrupted, and I was never inducted into the order of the embers. I feel that perhaps I was the only one. Did I not prove myself? If there was some kind of task I was meant to complete in order to ‘come of age’, nobody ever told me! I would happily have wrestled a bear, or drunk the blood of a goat, or whatever it took to earn the right to learn this precious skill.

And so, alas, last night I spent hours standing before a pile of frigid coals, using an entire box of matches, googling many tips and techniques, writing the majority of them off as old wives’ tales, and finally retreating inside to the hob and the electric grill. I smelt of smoke and had nothing to show for it.

I can’t help but wonder if Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, felt the same sense of shame and bewilderment as I did? Was King Louie some self-referential device, used to vent the author’s personal angst at his inability to barbecue?

What I desire is man’s red fire, to make my dreams come true.’

All this is to say that I am not to blame for my failure. I am the victim of inadequate parenting! I have been overlooked and under-taught and I protest that my inability to light a barbecue in no way diminishes my masculinity.

That’s my excuse, and I’m clinging to it ‘til I die.

p.s. Dad… I’m only joking; I don’t blame you. But seriously…

Give me the power of man’s red flower, so I can be like you!





Riots, Looting and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

8 08 2011

London is in shreds. Rioting has begun to spread: First in Tottenham, then Enfield, and now many other places, including my neighbourhood, Brixton. It’s shocking and saddening when you hear the reports and see the footage of buildings you pass by every day, with bricks through windows and flames tearing their hearts out. Each shop represents a staff of dozens; people’s livelihoods. Each person injured is a son, or a daughter, or father or mother. Each person arrested is a needless waste of human liberty.

I’m not in London at the moment. I’m on holiday outside the city for a few days, and my news is coming from TV reports, online newspapers and twitter searches. It’s strange watching the whole raft of people commenting on the various riots; some in proud approval, some showing off their haul from various shops (a few seemingly oblivious to the inherent stupidity of posting a photograph of your own face next to a stolen plasma screen!), some in shock or fear. Every time I hit refresh there’s a new threat, a new rumour, a new precaution. People speculate about how it’s all been organised and where will be hit next. Who knows how far this will spread?

It’s hard to know if any of the protests were legitimately warranted, even in their nascent form. It’s not yet clear whether Mark Duggan’s death was due to police malpractice, or whether he shot first, and I dare not speculate.

But what is clear is this: responding with violence will achieve little. Violence has a nasty habit of escalating. We could cite hundreds of examples, but one leaps immediately to my mind.

In the Bible, the book of Judges chapter 15, Samson’s father-in-law gives Samson’s wife away to someone else; perhaps a legitimate reason for him to be somewhat irked! Samson responds aggressively, the Philistines up the ante, and the whole thing spirals out of control:

‘Samson said, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves.

When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his companion.”

So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death.  Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam.

The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. The people of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?”

“We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.”

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?”

He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.”’
(Judges 15:3-11)

What is striking about this scenario is the futility of it all. Things so quickly leap from the actions of one person, to the burning of crops, to murder, to mass murder, until over 3,000 men are involved, and 1,000 Philistines get pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone!

How quickly too the threats, excuses and defences leap to the tongue:

“I have a right to get even” (v3)
“Since you’ve acted like this, I swear that I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you” (v7)
“We have come […] to do to him as he did to us” (v10)
“I merely did to them what they did to me” (v11)

Humans have an uncanny ability to legitimate their actions and defend the indefensible, at least in their own minds. Even if Duggan was the victim of police malpractice, a violent retort is hardly the answer. How does burning buildings to the ground establish justice? How does robbing a shop, or decimating a bus?

But let’s be clear: most of what has been done this weekend is in no way related to the Duggan incident. I don’t know what motivated the hundreds of youths to smash, maim, burn, destroy and steal, but I doubt that for many of them it was a passion for justice.

Just this week I’ve been thinking about a talk I’m due to give in a month or so. It’s on the latter chapters of the book of Esther, and at this point in the story, the Jewish people are facing extermination. The Persian King Xerxes permitted the Jews to defend themselves, to kill their attackers and ‘to plunder the property of their enemies’ (Esther 8:22) and yet three times we are told that ‘they did not lay their hands on the plunder’ (Esther 9:10, 15, 16). I don’t know why they refused to take the plunder, even when the King had permitted them to. I assume it was to show something of their character: they were not in this for selfish motives, to make money at others’ expense; rather they were trying to establish justice. So they protested strongly, they fought, but they refused to cross over into greed.

Looting would only have undermined their cause, but they demonstrated the purity of their motives by refusing to plunder their enemies.

Of course, at other points the people of God did take spoils from war, so I’m hardly holding them up as a shining example! But for all the questions this passage does raise about the legitimacy of war or self-defence, it tells us one thing: In standing up against injustice, you don’t have to go to extremes. You have a choice. You can draw a line; saying ‘this far and no further.’ You are able to go as far as is necessary to protect yourself, to prove a point, and yet still resist greed and selfish motives. You have a choice about how you conduct yourself.

There is nothing honourable about the way in which people have conducted themselves these last few days. This kind of mindless looting is immoral, and it undermines the original cause: the pursuit of truth and justice. The higher the injury toll goes, the harder it will be to gain sympathy for the cause, and the death of Mark Duggan, innocent or not, will very soon be irretrievably buried under hatred, pain, bitterness and cynicism.

I pray for peace on my home streets. I pray for the family of Mark Duggan. I pray that justice will be done for all involved. I pray for the police, that they may have wisdom to handle the riots with integrity. I pray for those arrested, that they would be truly repentant. I pray for those who are contemplating rioting tonight; that they would think before throwing away their lives. And I pray that Isaiah 2 will be fulfilled even quicker than expected:

‘God will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:2-4)





Elephant Café

25 07 2011

Brixton Village has fast become one of the coolest areas to hang out in South West London. With an eclectic vibe, a plethora of interesting places to eat, and the brilliant Federation Coffee, there is always something new to do and see in this fast-evolving little arcade. Each time I visit, I come away with a mental list of new places I need to try…

Our latest experience: Pakistani street food at Elephant Café.

This tiny little restaurant is a great find. Tables spill out onto the street, and the kitchen area is so close that it’s positively exhausting watching the chef’s head bob back and forth as he turns out dishes at breakneck speed, inches from his customers. We were very grateful to get a table on Thursday night, being a group of five out for a birthday meal.

The menu is short and succinct – no messing – which meant we got to try virtually everything between us. Samosas and Pakoras were a perfect way to start. Both the lamb and vegetarian options were equally good, packing just a little spice; enough to excite the taste buds, without killing those of a faint disposition. Then the main courses: a choice between curry and thalis. Most of us went for the thalis (and the poor guy who took one for the team, deciding to dissent from the common option, looked a little sad as ours arrived!) Lovely, simple, warmly spiced lamb mince curry, served with a punchy daal, rice, raita, salad and naan. The chicken was equally good, with a little more sauce than the lamb. There was plenty of food, and none of us left hungry.

The restaurant has no license, so we took our own drinks: a couple of bottles of wine helped the food go down nicely. And as if the great food and fun environment wasn’t enough, the price was a real surprise: a meal for five, excluding drinks, came to £42. A bargain!

We ended the evening with a stroll through the village, enjoying the bands playing in various aisles, and the colourful lanterns dangling overhead. The newly opened ice cream parlour beckoned to us, but our full stomachs resisted… An excuse to return in the not too distant future.