Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thank You

A confession: this year has not all been sweetness and light. For example, at one point, I even posted a blog that somebody took the wrong way and thought was about them (it wasn't) but it was symptomatic of an awkward situation that something less than a molehill became something more than a mountain.

So as I look back at the end of the year, I would be less than honest if I said that there were no regrets.

And then something happens that blows all that out of the water, totally humbling me, and re-writing my whole take on the year. What happened?


Not just from a theolgical, reflective, "Love came down" so let's get everything in it's place kind of way. No: I mean, from an experiential this Christmas way - this Christmas happened.

Not since I was a kid, and perhaps not even then, have I been the recipient of so many gifts from so many people. So many tokens of love. So many small and not-so-small (and one or two downright large) gifts from people who told me that they wanted to express their thanks for something they have received from me this year, or just their best wishes towards me. And wide-eyed and slightly astonished I have stood there, and let the gifts grow under the tree as Christmas approached. But it wasn't till Thursday afternoon when I actually opened these presents that I sat in frank astonishment and gut-churned awe at the pile before me.

I've never had a Christmas like it.

And after the emotional journey of these past few months, which actually (quite rightly) almost none of you know about, the gift of that moment, and the sense of being in a community of love in this place - was a wonderful thing. A present I shall never forget. So for those of you here who read these postings: from the deepest place in my heart - thank you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nadolig Llawen

Merry Christmas!

The tree is lit, the presents are wrapped, the duck (ah yes, no goose and no turkey in the vicarage this year; actually, because I was ill for the Mothers' Union lunch I think I may have missed out on turkey altogether this Christmas) is patiently waiting in the fridge, and I'm almost ready with a Christmas morning sermon.

I hope the day finds you well. My Christmas Eve started appropriately pleasingly with Radio Wales again asking me to comment on a story about carols, and as they were broadcasting from Ponty market it was hardly a stretch to walk the thirty seconds across the road and get in a Wales-wide plug for people to come here to church tonight... Though if you were listening at 7.25am, I'm not sure you'll still be up and raring to go at midnight...

If you have clicked onto here because you got a Christmas email from me - thank you! What a kind friend you are to look at my blog. At least there are no stories of offspring achieving 23 A* results, or of me becoming a grandparent. I did write the first draft of a novel this year, get published in Korea, and travel to the States, Switzerland, Italy, France and Builth Wells. I still haven't learned to foxtrot or fly a fighter jet, and given what happened when I went go-karting, perhaps I shouldn't think of trying the latter just yet.

Musically, I continue to foist myself on an unsuspecting (and undeserving) public. The Quartet is fun, and getting to run the Big Band again was a blast. Then there was the choir, the kids, instrumental stuff and the odd solo item.

And I saw David Tennant in Hamlet, Michael Buble in Tampa, Bob Wilson in Gatwick Airport, loads of friends in loads of places (worth more than all the famous people in the world - well, except maybe DT - he was amazing - no offence), read all the Miss Marple books, loved series 4 of Doctor Who, quite enjoyed Quantum of Solace, got very opinionated about the Damian Green stuff in the news, and felt that perhaps the people who run Strictly Come Dancing should go to Florida in order to learn about how to do voting properly.

If I did see you this year: thanks for the time. If I didn't - here's to next year! The dog sends his best wishes.

But they are the second best wishes here: for friendship is always amongst the greatest gifts. A merry Christmas to you. Nadolig Llawen. Peace and glory, as the angels sang, glory and peace, and let's meet up again soon.


I stood on my doorstep a clear New Year's night,
Watching the Milky Way dance through the icy sky.
This was a time to count all the stars in heaven:
Not one was hiding, playing, pretending coy semi-blindness,
And (like them, with them) I could see and see and see.

That pin-pricked dark remains still,
Locked forever in my remembering,
A galaxy entire in my mind's eye,
Neurons encompassing nebulae.

Which wonder is the greater?
The universe?
Or those numberless solar systems contained within me?
How can something so big be held by something so small?
How can God lie in a cattle stall?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Favourite Night

This is always amongst my favourite nights of the year: the annual Pontypridd Carol Service, here at St Catherine's.

I love a Carol Service. I read a lesson in Blackburn Cathedral in my school service when I was 12. I think my Mum has it on tape somewhere. That school choir did a terrific service, and the cathedral was (almost) always packed for the event. The one night that we were far from full was (I think) in my upper sixth, when there was a bad snow storm. The service went ahead, but out of a choir of 250 only about 30 of us made it - and so you can imagine the size of the congregation. But we had a great time!

A Carol Service is part of the magic of Christmas for me. We rehearse the story, going over familiar words and letting them weave their mystical power in our hearts and minds. Promises and unimaginable truths taking root and forming over aeons, hopes becoming reality, God becoming one of us, the infinite contianed in a feeding trough with the familiar attendant cast of shepherds, stars, wise men, angels and watching mother and stand-in father. But as we speak the words, that cast is no longer them; it becomes us. We sing the carols, and silently the stars go by over our heads and the wonder is re-born in us today.

A gentle call to a world far from God. People who know nothing of Jesus finding themselves inexorably drawn. Powerful magic. I love this night.

In the last couple of years I have particularly worked to make this a town event - a night for our whole community. We have readers from all sorts of local groups - the hospital, the golf club, schools primary and high, the police chief superintendent, the mayor. I give a short reflection at the end - a drawing together of strands; a playing of the melody of the night. This is a wonderful time to tell folk of Love come down.

Here's the choir, getting ready to sing a piece I wrote (all 6/8 and bouncy) and a Welsh lullaby; we also had the schoolchildren of Ysgol Evan James singing When a Child is Born and Feed the World (both in Welsh!), as well as Dan & Kirsty playing a super violin & guitar duet, Deck the Merrily, and lots of congregational carols - mostly traditional, though two were accompanied by MGQ (jazz quartet). All in 75 minutes. By candle-light and tree-light and with just a sprinkling of angel-light in the air.

Lord, thank you. As I write, there are one or two from tonight in my mind. Bless them, I pray. Shine on them. Let this not just have been a "moment"; and help me in all that this week holds be here for them.

Strictly Comparisons

Did you vote? Did you care? Tom & Camilla stumbled in the first part, but maintained their top rankings in the audience vote - & it turned out that the Great British Public were right, I think. This competition should be won by the best "showdance" (what the Americans call "freestyle").

T&C had that. The weakest link in a great final ended up being the best finalist and a worthy winner. An encouragement to all of us who feel outshone by those around us! Keep going!

And the old romantic within me (never far from the surface) always enjoyed his story - so desperate to do this that Tom moved his wedding day and postponed his honeymoon. Added to which, Camilla had been in two previous semi-finals... They even made me switch allegiance from Lisa and Brendan...

But: a little comparison. Get through the (overlong) intro. Be prepared for some familiar faces on the judging panel. What follows is the best showdance in the most recent American series. And T&C might not have had it their own way against Brooke and Derek.

What do you think? Pretty impressive, hey? (And streets ahead of anything else on that show.)

Sadly, I remain in total awe (and perhaps a little envy) of these people. I don't even know how many feet I have. But I'm sure they're all left...

Thursday, December 18, 2008


THIS is priceless. Priceless. It makes our efforts putting the decorations on the St Catherine's tree seem a bit less fraught...

We only spent an hour putting the thing in the pulpit (as opposed to the two hours we laboured with the monster we had last) and though I had fallen 12 feet off a ladder the week before, I resisted falling 20 feet on this occasion as I helped with the lights, tinsel, baubles and yes - the star.

But do click onto the Blue Peter clip - it's pure magic. It will make me smile for days; and that poor presenter will have nightmares for a long time, because he will never be allowed to forget it!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cafe Church 2

So we did it again. More people came - as David Carver said they would, though I didn't believe him! Actually, half as many again. And with a couple of excellent songs from Matthew Truelove, lots of minced pies and all the twelve trees in church lit up, it was lovely. (You can of course see TL singing here. Enjoy!) We had some friends (not regular church attenders) there - which was super - and Matthew Jones back from Uni on his 19th birthday. So we sang 'Happy Birthday', which he secretly loved.

In content, this is not a million miles away from a usual Sunday evening.

In feel, it is a small departure, but small things can be significant: and given the way that folk are responding to this form of worship, I think we shall let it run on. January 18th or 25th for the next one.

P.S. Day 17 of the lurgy. On antibiotics. A bit better.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Feelin' Blue

Day 9 of the worst cold I have had for a couple of years. Feeling miserable. Spent 5 days in bed - but eventually you have to try & get on with things. The church have been great - Aled took the 8am on Sunday, Gill was up all night Saturday in order to preach at the 11am (and she was super), and TL up & offered to lead worship at the 6pm. Fantastic.

But this week is really full on. And I am feelin' blue.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Christmas CD Review #3

Now we are talking! OK, I guess with the Tony Bennett, the best comparison I can give you is Diana Krall's Christmas Songs from last year. And Diana's was far better. An easy-listening, swinging Christmas croon. Tunes you know, done in a way you want to hear them, fun for the car & the kitchen, but also a decent repeatable listen.

Harry Connick Jr is totally different. This is a jazz man at the peak of his powers, giving us a jazz CD that shows off a variety (though I don't think all) of his talents. The version I have is the 18 song disc from Barnes & Noble, and the generally available disc of What a Night in the UK only has 15 songs. That version still comes in at about an hour - so pretty good value when compared to Mr Bennett.

And there are plenty of comparisons to make. Both singers duet with their daughters - Harry wins. His daughter is about 12 and the track is a bit cutesy, but it's also a laugh & makes fun of the "old man" (42 - what, a third of TB's age?) in the arrangement (obviously done by HCJ, who does all his own arrangements). HCJ is in his prime. At his peak. Phenomenal. Throwing in guest artists because he loves to, though as a listener I just wanted more of him.

It's not an easy listen. I think one track is simply misjudged (one of the two duets with Kim Burrell) & other stuff is nice, neat, hard-core Big Band. Last time's Seasonal offering from Harry (Harry for the Holidays) used a lot of New Orleans type rhythms. Here, we go (mostly) back to swing. But it couldn't be further from the simple expectations of the Tony Bennett album if it tried - and I think it probably did!

I kept loving it. Even O Come all ye Faithful, which at first I did not like (I have a thing about crooners needing to avoid sounding too 'holy' on these things), I went back to, and it's now starting to make sense to me.

There are familiar songs (Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Winter Wonderland, and the best Jingle Bells I have ever EVER heard), a few of Harry's own (What a Night, Santarrific, the very Gospelly Song for the Hopeful) and a couple of instrumentals (Sugar Plum Fairy - well, OK, it grows on you; We Three Kings is fantastic) and if you are going to risk a jazzy addition to your Christmas listening this season, then risk one that demands something of you. Risk this one.

Though Harry for the Holidays is also great. And if you are feeling a bit cowardly but want something to lift you, go for the Diana Krall.

What a Night is getting 4.75 stars out of 5. I feel mean at 4.5. And it's not quite a 5 - the first Kim Burrell duet just doesn't have me.

And here is a picture of the dog & I listening to Harry as we finish putting the tree up. Christmas is coming! We need ourselves a Goose with Body/Mass Index issues!

Christmas CD Review #2

So I put the tree up. And in this house it's traditional to do it whilst a John Rutter CD warbles in the background.

Now - I have a long-standing love of John Rutter Christmas music, so I was delighted to see there was a new one out. I think that A Christmas Festival is his 312th Christmas CD.

The good points first: good versions of two great carols, O Come all ye faithful and Hark, the Herald Angels - both with the Wilcox descants that frankly define Christmas. Big orchestral accompaniments in the Rutter manner..

The down points. Everything else. Dull, dull, dull. Sickly sweet. The squarest calypso you ever heard as Rutter's combined forces attempt The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy. ("No, Miss fforbes, he came down from the glory, please. Try again!") We even get Elton John-lite in Magical Kingdom. ("Strange and exciting and scary and new... You could dream them too." Sadly this is a genuine lyric.)

If you don't have it, treat yourself to his Christmas Night - Carols of the Nativity. Lots of unaccompanied English carols, one or two of his own, satisfyingly low on sugar, high on the yearning melancholy of good choral CD. Quite the opposite of this.

1.5 stars out of 5. Save your cash.

Christmas CD Review #1

So I've been in bed for four days with one of the worst colds I've had for ages. Time to catch up on some Christmas CD releases, and to bless you with my thoughts so you can rush out and buy them for yourself, or even make use of the excellent new Amazon MP3 service.

First up - Tony Bennett's latest, A Swingin' Christmas, with the Count Basie Band. Well, on seven of the eleven tracks anyway. And there's gripe number one, right there. The CD is at its best with the Basie band swingin' away (I'm sorry, I find that apostrophe as offensive as you do, but it is in the title) and TB croonin' (presumably) over the top.

Tony Bennett is about 96 now, I think. And frankly, if my voice holds out anything like that well, I'll be a happy man. Sure, he occasionally barks when he can't reach a note/forgets a melody, and things that would have worked 20 years ago (OK, 40) sometimes sound forced. But he is remarkable. You are listening to an old man sing - but to an old man sing, this is not like the groanings of Ol' Blue Eyes (they all loved those apostrophes, see) in his dotage.

Gripe number two: track three clearly doesn't belong on this CD. It has strings, a completely different vocal sound, and worst of all (Camillofan will appreciate this) eight bars of Toots Thielemans. 'Nough said.

Gripe number three: only thirty seven minutes of music. I guess TB had to get back to the rest home. Still, taking away the four minutes of track three, it is thirty three pretty good minutes of classy, relaxing lounge Christmas music.

3.5 stars (out of five)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

So now we know

So, the serjeant at arms (er, pictured) was not presented with a warrant or told one was needed by the police when they came to search an MPs office. "Excuse me madam, we'd like to commit a felony on your premises, is that alright? Sign here."

She, of course, told the Speaker, in the vaguest terms that "something was going up", but he did what we all would do when carrying the responsibility for the wellbeing of order in the Mother of Parliaments: ask no questions, tell no lies.

The The Home Secretary, who politically is in charge of the police force, tells us that the whole investigation was begun by "the Cabinet Office" (the government, or possible its civil servants, or possibly just her) and then set on its merry way and she took no further part. It would be wrong for the Home Secretary to be kept informed of a major Police Investigation.


That questionmark isn't mine, it belongs to her predecessor as Labour Home Secretary, John Reid. He said: "I have to say I'm surprised to say the least that she wasn't informed that her opposite number, effectively was about to be arrested. I cannot think that if I had been told that this had been done after the event that I would have remained as placid as she has done in the circumstances." Which I believe is Parliament-speak for "What the hell do you think you are playing at?"

The Government are maintaining their high standards of Democratic principles. The Seven-strong Commission which the under-fire Speaker wants set up in order to see a "speedy and immediate" inquiry to report back "as soon as possible" has been put on hold. Of course.


Harriet Harman, leader of the House (Labour), explained: "I don't think it's wise to set up a concurrent investigation when there's a police investigation underway." And clearly, given everything, they can be trusted.

Certain words come to mind. Piss-up. Brewery. Except they belie the seriousness of all of this. MMP commented recently that all this makes her feel unsettled: well it should. We trust our Government to do their best for us; but all of the PM's tasty soundbites about being there for "families and small businesses" in the "current economic downturn" (I think he means recession) sound sour and unpalatable to me when free speech is pushed off the menu.

Now we know?

Now I'm having a laugh. A very hollow one indeed.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Enough (revisited)

Thanks for those who have been commenting. Exile has been disagreeing with me. He feels I am over-reacting and, from his home in "the land of the Free" finds himself defending the Government because I am being too harsh on them.

The worry is that the last seven years have seen more erosion of civil and parliamentary liberites than any period in our history.

There will come a time when we say "How did we get here?" unless there is a moment at which we say "This now is too far".

Suppose an MP has been helping a constituant with a complaint against a police authority. Up till last week, the constituant was safe in the knowledge that as an MP any such help given on Parliamentary property was subject to safeguards which meant that the constituant could fully disclose details to the MP because there could be no police raids on the MP's office to get at that material or at the constituant's details.

No more.

And this change comes not with Parliament's debate, but with the say-so of a civil servant - according to the Home Secretary. That is unbelievable.

Something like this has never happened before. Yet a civil servant can change the nature of Parliament and nobody questions it? I mean - nobody in the line of command goes, "This is new"? Or "Do you think we should run this by someone?"

David Cameron was informed beforehand. And what if he had rung up Gordon Brown? What if the PM had been informed by the Leader of the Opposition? That's an unbelievable scenario. No-one would have left the PM in that situation.

The Home Secretary clearly knew, as did the PM. A PM who made his name through judicious leaks is now seeking to imprison those who leak against him - that is not allowed in our democracy, or ought not be.

But - even if the Exile is partially right about my over-reaction (and I don't think he is) then we come back to this: anti-terror legislation should be used for terrorist suspects and only for terrorist suspects. For revealing the government's incompetence on checking illegal workers in the Houses of Parliament, for revealing that the Home Secretary thinks that a recession will increase crime, for revealing that some labour MPs would vote against the undemocratic and unBritish increase of detention without charge to 42 days, a Tory spokesman is a TERRORIST? Needing nine anti-terror officers to arrest him?

The police yesterday accused Damian Green of "grooming" a civil servant into making leaks. Using a word loaded with sexual overtones & saying he paid the man to do it. The man's lawyer hit the airwaves faster than a speeding bullet to refute those charges. I didn't know the police did "spin" like this; perhaps they have been coached...

Are we allowed to question the government?

Ken Jones, chief constable of Kent and Sussex police said: "To meet that responsibility in a way which delivers effective law enforcement to the people of our country requires complete trust between government, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Leaks can and do erode that trust." So we'll round up anyone who questions us, and then there will be trust.

No, Mr Jones - then there will be tyranny.

I despise the terror legislation as anti-democratic. It invited such behaviour and we were assured it would not happen - how could it in Britain? This is how.

And I don't know how things work in the country where you live, Exile, for despite my many visits & great respect for its people, I have never understood the place. But I do know how we work. And it's not like this.