Tuesday, September 27, 2011

an occasional taste of heaven

I blame that Owen & Liz Smith I do. If they hadn't moved next to me in Pontypridd I'd never have known. And now I've bought a bottle of wine I can't open for a decade.

They used to cook late. I'm guessing they still do. Even though he's working his way up the political ladder. They used to land food on the the table, fresh from the Aga, about 9pm. I could sense it from my house, my lonely house, my poor unstocked kitchen.

Who am I kidding? I'd already eaten well, but I loved their company & their food - the best cooking in South Wales, and I'm including the Bunch. And my taste for wine was slowly educated. I mean, who wouldn't like a bottle of St Emilion that cost his usual weekly food budget?
 So that's where it happened.

And now, here, today, I finally made it to the place behind the label. Kirsty, Sam & I drove down from St Meard to St Emilion, exchanging one unheard of French saint for another, one slant on paradise for the source of that taste I have loved this last decade...

St Emilion, the village, is a regular tourist trap. San Gimignano with even more wine shops and less ice cream. But beautiful is a very similar way. We parked by a chateau just to the north of the town & dived in. Took the tour. Wandered through vineyards & winemaking facilities & caves and tasting sessions. Dined in a cafe by the church carved out of the limestone.

I bought a bottle I can't open for a decade - a bottle of the good stuff. 2009. From Chateau Villemaurine. And then I added a bottle of their easy drinking 2007 that Dan & Kirsty & I enjoyed this evening.

It is dangerous to play with dreams. They can disappoint you. They can turn around and bite you. Or they can simply come true. Tastes can be all you hoped for. Places can be divine. Heaven touches earth and your soul sings for joy at the wonders life throws at you. You feel that on days like these you could ask for anything. Anything. Your heart's desire. There's a little magic in the air, so why not? God is good, and today is going to be a good, good day.

And after the hard times, times when you have simply trusted because you know who God is despite all that life throws at you, these days are priceless. They are worth recording, setting in stone and remembering. These are the days I say "Thank you" for bringing me through all the days when all I could say was "please".

This is earth; there may be troubles ahead. And yet - and yet we are granted an occasional taste of heaven, and it is glorious.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Holidays are such a gift.

So here I am enjoying the home & hospitality of Dan & Kirsty Jones, in St Meard de Drone, in the heart of the Dordogne. It's mid evening and the sun is still beating down, although the heat of four O'clock is well past and the shadows have consumed the front garden. Dan is just coming back from an afternoon's teaching, carrying a guitar under each arm, and I am on the patio writing this in anticipation of another lazy evening meal and a bottle of the local wine. There will be cakes.

Life is good.

But then, it is good. Two and a half months on from moving, I get the chance to look back & to realise I am in such a wonderful place. All is gift. Yes, there are challenges, yes there are things that are pushing me, yes, there are concerns on the horizon. But when I compare these days with a year ago, these are good days indeed.

Let's stick with the holiday for a moment.

Friends are precious. Dan and Kirsty are, and have been for some years, precious friends to me. I value their kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness and humanity. The way they see the world, and live within it. To be their friend is to be fortunate. To talk, to think, to laugh, to consider, to share & be a part of their wider lives - this is the joy of friendship. And though we have hardly spent much time maintaining that friendship since last time I was here, falling back into it has been a joy. A gift. A grace.

There is a stillness here that blesses my soul. A restfulness, a peace.

But then, right now, that peace creeps up on me surprisingly often. A week to enjoy it taking first place is a splendid pleasure. And a reminder that when we do the right thing, it can live alongside us. Their decision to move out here has not been entirely trouble free (O Lord, grant them the sale of their house in Ponty) but it surely has been the right thing for them. Rightness brings peace. And my move also has carried that sense to me.

I've been chatting via email to another friend, and as part of that, going into some of the things that took me into deciding the time was right to take the decision to look beyond simply choosing another parochial post. He replied by referring to another vicar he knew who did a similar things and is working in a university & was asked by people why he had given up the ministry. I've been asked why I have left the church - which is a ridiculous question; I simply wouldn't know how to do that! I love the church. My decision to change career is precisely that: my employment has altered; not my heart. Indeed, I have altered my employment in many ways so that my heart might be freer to express itself. That's a thing of joy, not sadness, a thing of rightness, not loss, a thing of peace not turmoil.

The light is slowly fading. Flo, my god-daughter, is ready for bed. I have been reading to her from The Enchanted Wood, a book I loved at that age. Life is good when you get to pass on old memories and start to work on living out new dreams.

Tomorrow I head off to St Emilion; if you've ever read my profile on this site, that should ring a bell. I've never been. I'm ridiculously pleased to be going there & am looking forwards to touring round a chateau. And, in the midst of a holiday, to reaching out and touching a little physical reminder of heaven.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Have you ever been somewhere you've never been before, with people you've never met, and felt like you'd come home?

It's an emotional experience. I don't think you can plan for it or reasonably expect such a thing to happen.

I had something very like it happen to me tonight, and the context is unusual enough to bear a little examining. I mean, I guess I have been hoping since I arrived here that I would walk into some church somewhere & have that magical sense. It hasn't occurred. Well, not really; there was one service that was kind of close in some ways, but not in others. And as I settle into the village church here, I really am not feeling that at all. But still, there you go. Some things are worth the work. It seems right to be there.

The job isn't the context either - though I am enjoying it enormously. As I am beginning to get used to it, and find my feet, I think it will do very nicely, and I will be able to serve the University well - as well as to develop new skills and find new pathways forwards for myself.

No - tonight I went to Bradford. Bradford BMF. British Military Fitness.

Regulars know I was part of the Outdoors Fitness group that met in Pontypridd park, and how that group became a really important friendship group for me, as well as rather transforming my fitness. So when I moved here I looked for an equivalent & found the BMF website. I've been going to the group that meets in Horsforth park - it's a huge group, sometimes with 60 people in it. That's easily more than double the biggest I ever remember Ponty being. And we get split off into different abilities - beginners, intermediates, advanced; in Ponty that was blue, reds & yellows, here it's blue, red & greens. We have coloured bibs here so there's no hiding. In Horsforth you need the bibs (they have numbers) as the group is so large it's hard to know people's names. It's very focussed - not a lot of chat, not a lot of socialising, and yet it's good because you work hard. I do mean hard: in Ponty I was a yellow; in Horsforth I'm a red. The greens (equivalent of yellows) are way beyond me - far too much running. And all that whole social side, the banter & the friendships were really important in Ponty. It kept you going when the weather was bad: you wanted to be there alongside everyone else.

Like Ponty, Horsforth meets Tuesday & Thursday evenings, & Saturday mornings - well, it's more like lunchtime here.

This week I can't do Thursday. And I do want to fit two sessions in; I'm off on holiday next week & you always feel it if you miss too many times. So I looked & saw that the Bradford park (about the same distance from my house as Horsforth, in the opposite direction) meets on Mondays & Wednesdays. I Google Earthed it so I knew where I was going, & set off.

The group was about twenty people. They were chatting & joking in advance. Phil, who works in my office was there. I wondered if it was all a bit closed & cliquey at first - but no, really not. I soon got working with some of the other blokes - Keith, Mick, Steve - and our instructor, Mark, was great. We were all in it together, across the ability range (unlike at Horsforth, but just like Ponty) and I soon had more muck on my hands, legs, arms & shorts than I'd had in weeks of the very clinical Horsforth set up. I loved every minute of it.

I especially loved discovering that I was keeping up with the top of the reds here, even pushing the greens. You can't keep a competitive spirit down for long.

The whole thing was a blast. It felt like being home again. With new people, in a new place. It was great.

Now - I know I've taken my time here, but let me pause for a second. A military fitness class in a Bradford park felt like being at home. Jeff Webb, what have you done to me?

Isn't "home" a strange concept?

The familiar, the place where we belong, where we fit. I think it is one of the most powerful ideas out there because so much of the time so many of us actually don't quite fit, or live or work or play or worship somewhere that we almost fit. And then you hit paydirt. That precious, precious, unexpected golden moment when everything works & you feel - real. No pretence. Happy.

And it went dark, and we carried on, and my spirit soared, and my body worked harder, and I smiled through the physical pain with genuine pleasure and deep felt gratitude.  

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I took myself off to the Grand Theatre last night to see how Opera North is doing. Having been spoiled for years on the riches of Welsh National Opera, I was somewhat cautious of trying the local fare here. Many, many moons ago I did attend a Butterfly at this very theatre by this very company; it was OK. No more.

This Butterfly was far more than OK. At the end you should be so emotionally devastated you are almost unable to applaud, and indeed that is how I found myself. Yes, there were faults (I'll come on to those) but there were glories I shall not forget for a long time, and they deserve the lion's share.

Tim Alberry's production, receiving a first revival, is almost without qualification excellent. Beautiful colours, a simple design, different levels, no tricks, a beautiful backdrop and a well-thought through orchestral interlude between Acts II and III. I could have done without Goro's return at the very end. A quibble.

The principles were superb. The seconds - Ann Taylor's wonderful Suzuki and Peter Savidge's world-weary and world-class Sharpless were amongst the very best I have ever seen. Anne Sophie Duprels was a Butterfly of two halves for me; in Act I I found her voice too old, and I didn't warm to her. In Acts II & III I found her transformed. The stubborn-ness of her hope, her joy at the sighting of Pinkerton's ship, her weariness at the end of the night, her despair in the morning, her realisation of the truth - this was magnificent.

And in Noah Stewart's Pinkerton I felt I was watching the best actor I have ever seen on an opera stage. A beautiful voice & a devastatingly handsome man, he was everything Pinkerton should be (unlike the standard roly-poly naval officers we are so often subjected to). He drew my eye constantly because he was so very natural. His smile, his surprise, his impatience for his bride - if this was simply theatre, rather than opera, I would have felt I had seen a great actor. This is his website. Click onto the video (there may be an ad at the beginning to endure) and enjoy his singing. Signed by Decca, I hope to see more of him.  

Faults? Apart from that re-appearance of Goro at the end to stare at the dead Butterfly (as if we needed the comment; we didn't, we felt it all), I was not entirely convinced by the orchestra & the conducting of Italian wunderkind Daniele Rustioni. OK, I have been spoiled by the orchestra of WNO, which I believe to be something rather special. It has a "sound": you can recognise a recording of the WNO orchestra, because they have that priceless commodity, a definable musical identity. They have a perfect opera orchestra sound: deep, rich & full, but never overwhelming for the singers. Here at Opera North, Rustioni did lose control occasionally for me: both in terms of some ragged edges (I wasn't always convinced the celli got him, though I must say that the opening of Act II was very tight) and also I mean this simply in terms of volume. Sometimes I couldn't hear the singers, who, in the big moments, were forcing the notes out over a band that was just banging it out. Not being able to hear the singers at an opera is not a good thing, especially when they were this good. Mr Rustioni - as you do more of this, please remember the voices on stage matter. Be kind to them. Making the band in the pit sound loud without actually being as loud as they possibly can be is a real art, and it allows the singers to flourish which means everyone comes across at their best.

Butterfly is about love. The perception of love. About falling madly in love with someone else who is merely using you, and how that ruins lives. Most (if not all) of us have been in that place to some degree, it's why art is so powerful. We recognise Butterfly not as social commentary on Imperialism as Americans abuse poor naive natives in "less advanced" cultures, but as personal history. We have all been Butterfly or Pinkerton or both. We have all (well, most of us) been used and dropped, or have used someone & dropped them, we have all know unequal relationships, we have all sat at the end of the rainbow and found not gold but broken dreams. Butterfly reminds us - with gut-wrenching beauty - that each person is a person, and that the cost of selfishly forgetting this truth is sometimes unacceptably high. If Pinkerton hears Sharpless' plea "Be careful" early on, there is no tragedy. But he wants his fun, and in his youthful enthusiasm thinks pleasure has no human cost.

Grand emotions in small moments. Grand betrayals unseen by anyone. Beauty & tragedy vying for pre-eminence. I love this opera, and I loved this performance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

a gift

One of the gifts of this time for me is, of course, that I still often think like a vicar even though I am one no more.

I say "gift", because it's not always a present one would pay to have!

I do realise just how Christian you have to be when you have to be a Christian professionally. People know who you are; you can't get past that, nor should you, but there are days when it would be nice just to be able to be grumpy without worrying about it.

Now that I can be grumpy occasionally without worrying about it, I worry about it.

I mean - was the only reason I tried to live like I meant it because I had to? Because people would see me fail, name me a hypocrite and utter those infamous words, "Call yourself a Christian"? Clearly not. Yet such motivation was an encouragement, I'll admit it, to a better standard than my lazy self might otherwise have managed.

There was one occasion when someone at St Caths was cross with me, and for whatever (probably excellent) reason had built up a series of things to throw in my face. The one that hurt was when I was accused of speaking very dismissively to another of our members on a couple of occasions; it was a real "Thou hypocrite" swipe. And it was perfectly fair, which made it all the worse.

But I mean, who's perfect, hey?

However; I had spoken badly to this other church member, and now it was being thrown back at me, and I had no answer. So I went quiet; and afterwards went to see the person in question. To apologise. Not because anyone would know, not because I had to look good, but because a million times I say faith is about loving God, and from that place it is then about loving those around us. And if I say those words a million times, they actually catch my heart too. Here I had failed; there's only one thing you can do when you fail - well I guess there's two: you can bluff it out. But instead, I took the better path; I went to apologise.

And that saint of God graciously received my apology but then turned the whole situation it on its head by talking of how much the Lord had blessed him through me, time & time again. He never felt an unkind word from me because he had received so many words of blessing.

If ever I received a gift from anyone it was that day. Feeling miserable, and made so by the (perfectly fair) accusations of a friend, my tears of sorrow became tears of gratitude as I was lifted up and turned around by the saint at my side to whom I had gone simply to make an apology.

Who's perfect? The one who is forgiven. The one who is so forgiven they may forgive others, freely. And receive more forgiveness themselves.

So I tell you what, here's the gift of these days: no professional pretence.

I need to stop worrying about motivation and spiritual laziness, about appearance and perception and not offending any who watch & judge. I will be me, and you should be you. Do you know what - there will be awkward moments. Imperfections. Rough edges. We are but people. O yes, we are gloriously human. And in that glory we will have the gift of being able to give and receive forgiveness, free from false expectations, sometimes chased by worries it is true, yet filled with hope.

Monday, September 05, 2011

advantages of moving north #1

I just booked my first ticket to see United at Old Trafford in ages. Ages. Oh the advantages of living in the North.

And of not working on Sundays.

Not that the game is on a Sunday - but I no longer have to work on Saturdays in order to be ready to work on Sundays too. I get weekends these days. (Weekends - you gotta love 'em. Who knew?)

Sorry Prof Hackett, honoured friend of Durham, it's to see your beloved unlucky Black Cats suffer again. I'll send you a photo.

Glory Glory Man Uniiiited....