Friday, 20 December 2013

Things we like about Christmas #12

I AM currently reading An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman, a collection of observations and memoirs of the author from when he was professionally exiled by the Soviet Union to the southern Soviet state. The following is a quote from the book, from when the author first arrives in the capital, Yerevan:
Your first minutes on the streets of an unfamiliar city are always special; what happens in later months or years can never supplant them. These minutes are filled with the visual equivalent of nuclear energy, a kind of nuclear power of attention. […] During these minutes, like an omnipotent God, you bring a new world into being; you create, you build inside yourself a whole new city with all its streets and squares, with its courtyards and patios, with its sparrows, with its thousands of years of history, with its food shops and its shops for manufactured goods, with its opera house and its canteens. This city that suddenly arises from non-being is a special city; it differs from the city that exists in reality — it is the city of a particular person. Its autumn leaves have their own unique way of rustling; there is something special about the smell of its dust, about the way its young boys fire their catapults.

And it takes only a few minutes, not even hours, to accomplish this miracle of creation. And when a man dies, there dies with him a unique, unrepeatable world that he himself has created — a whole universe with its own oceans and mountains, with its own sky. These oceans and this sky are strikingly similar to the billions of oceans and skies in the minds of others; this universe is strikingly similar to the one and only universe that exists in its own right, regardless of humanity. But these mountains, these waves, this particular grass and this particular pea soup have something unique about them, something that has come into being only recently; they have their own tints, their own quiet splashing and rustling – they are a part of a particular universe that lives in the soul of the man who has created it.

I feel this way, too, both about travel and about occasions. What I take from a birthday, a wedding, a trip to the post box, will never be the same as any whom I accompany. And so Christmas, with familiar tropes and traditions, ought to be the same occasion for you and I, reader, and yet it never will be. Christmas has changed for me. Was it ever static? I now share the time between sets of parents and in-laws, each with their own traditions; this year, just one family for Christmas, gone is the recent tradition of pilgrimage along the A303: that will wait until New Year. Yet rather than be unsettled by ever changing traditions I shall this year be glad to see people, to be able – for the first time in four years – to be able to absorb events and details without the weight of an uncompleted PhD on my back. I can create a Christmas in my mind, with its tree decorations, family foibles and strange scheduling; the formal and the informal intercalated with the familiar and refreshingly new.

As media frenzies ensue with special programming and dozens of songs aiming for an unimportant Christmas milestone; as shops continue to fill our homes with stuff; the meaning of Christmas seems to be drowned out ever louder every year. Yet I simply look forward to sharing among others. And what I love about Christmas? That mine will not be the same as yours, and never should it ever be, for these moments are to be singularly savoured. Go, be merry. Go, create your own personal Christmas. Then share.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Friday, 16 August 2013

Love, Vast as the Ocean

WE’VE recently moved house and city.

Our new flat is looking good, we’ve had pleasant walks around the local area and, all in all, as a venue to write my thesis this will do just fine. But we do not know many people in the local area, so are not yet settled. Our schedules have permitted us only three free Sundays since the move, and on each we have visited a different church in order to find a new community. Our hunt is only beginning, but it has taught us a lot of our likes, dislikes and the issues that challenge us.

For the past four years we have had the pleasure of belonging to the Pavilion Christian Community, a free church in Bournville that owns and runs a community centre — a conveniently picturesque community centre with its origins with the Cadbury dynasty. Its heart for the community was evident from our very first visit, and it was a heart without agenda, which is something I think is important. In my opinion, using good deeds to lure people towards exposure to faith is deception; one’s motives in such a scenario are not to do good for the sake of doing good, but to trick somebody into a scenario they must approach of their own volition. Even worse is to not do good at all for your community.

Only one of the three churches we have visited so far appeared to outwardly provide for its local community. In a video shown to the congregation to introduce the scheme, a quote (I do not know who by) particularly caught my attention:

“If a church is not caring for its local community… it is missing something.”

It’s hard to disagree with this statement. But for me, a church that is not caring for its local community is not missing something: it is missing everything.

On another church visit, everything seemed to be going swimmingly. We were abundantly and exuberantly welcomed, the sense of community was immediately apparent, the size of the congregation was just about right for us, and the worship was lively and enthusiastic but without the weird people waving flags. I could almost imagine the piano player standing mid-song, stooping over his keys and taking the music off-piste, with full-blown jazz solos, such was his passion for worship.

But then it was time for the intercessory prayers.

Intercession is a strange beast. As a body, a church does have common issues, points of praise and concerns, and intercessory prayer is a good time to address them. But it is also an ample opportunity for whoever has been granted the responsibility of delivering the prayers to impose their own views, the assumption being that everyone is praying along with them. This makes me uncomfortable. Thus, in the middle of prayers of thanks for local marriages and prayers for healing for congregation members came the following, now paraphrased, clanger:

“As the House of Lords prepares to vote on the same sex marriage bill, we pray that Your definition of marriage, that it is a union between one man and one woman only, is preserved. We will continue to love our gay brothers and sisters, but we pray Your definition of marriage will not be changed in law.”

I opened my eyes at this point, and refused to participate in the remainder of the prayers. I do not intend to address the theology of homosexuality or marriage here — others have done so with far greater expertise than I elsewhere all over the internet. I know many (both gay and straight) on both sides of the argument, and you, the reader, may agree with this prayer, and that's fine. I simply disagree with being told how to think, especially when I think this particular prayer breaks that most basic of commandments: to love your neighbour as yourself.

So, what is love?

Love is friendship.

Love is empathy.

Love is sharing.

But love is more than that. Love is dropping everything to care for another. Love is placing others before yourself. Love is selflessness. Love is utter devotion to another, even when that other has unintentionally hurt you, or disagrees with you or pushes you away. Love will get in your way. Love will take you in directions you had not previously prepared for. Love is letting others have everything you have — and being further prepared to give more. Such behaviour does not come naturally to any of us.

Love, in short, is difficult.

To me, that prayer was a contradiction. It is not love if you offer mere pleasantries to somebody whose lifestyle you agree or disagree with. Indeed, it is not love if you quietly disapprove. And it is certainly not love if you claim to love someone, yet deny them of something that you can have — in this case, the ability to commit to another for life, to publicly declare love for another.

I have long been impressed by the Canvas house project in Birmingham. It is run by a Christian group but is not a church, and if you were to visit you might never know it has the backing of a religious organization. It is a refuge for students, a lifeline in the desolate student world of Selly Oak, where many find loneliness and sadness. The Canvas staff includes students. Canvas is literally a house, whose door is always open for a cup of tea, a chat, a game or a musical shindig. All are welcome. If you don’t ask about Christianity, Canvas won’t talk about it. It does not evangelize: that’s not what it is for. Instead, it is simply a place for companionship.

Canvas’ ethos contains the closest definition of love I have ever found.

“Our Christian faith pushes us to really want to take care of the people around us, not with strings attached, but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s it.”

Love, vast as the ocean, is the right thing to do.

Our church hunt continues.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Some People At The Zoo

A family arrive at the zoo car park, audibly excited.

Child A, eager and impatient: "Where are the animals?"

Adult, hot and harassed from their journey: "We have to get inside first."

Child A: "I want to see giraffes. They're my FAVOURITE!"

Child B: "Giraffes are stupid."

Young girl, transfixed by the sleeping tiger below us, herself in a state of reverie: "I'M A TORTOISE!"

We are watching the flamingos when another bird, a Southern Screamer, approaches. The Screamer is clearly on the look out for food from passing visitors, prowling the reinforced fence for morsels fed through the mesh. The Screamer has grey feathers, is short, dumpy and has a tiny beak, the polar opposite of the flamingos it shares its life with, but it is curious, intelligent, and an animal faithful to the very end, mating for life with its one true love. We make friends; we connect.

Passing Adult: "Blimey, you're not much of a looker are you?"

The Southern Screamer walks away, dejected.

Presenter: "Now does anybody know where we might find the European Brown Bear living today?"

Child: "India?"

Presenter: "Not in India, no. Much closer to home. Remember, this is a European Brown Bear."

Adult: "Canada?"

Adult: "Hey look! It's a sea lion! A Sea. Lion. Sea... sea... l i o n. Can you say Lion?"

The toddler, held aloft by her father, points at the sea lion, which is gracefully zooming round its pool, often bursting forth from the water and sliding along the enclosure floor to the door in the knowledge that fish lie beyond.

Toddler: "BIG ONE!"

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Annual Sabine Lisicki Blog Post

I started following Lisicki after the 2011 AEGON Classic, where I watched four players - 3 giants and Lisicki, the unknown wildcard - of whom Lisicki was hands down the best, most refreshing, happiest player. I chose her because she smiled.

I had no idea that she would become a notorious giant killer: Marion Bartoli, Na Li, Maria Sharapova and, as of today, Serena Williams. Superb stuff.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Les Invalides

Planet Chez Patrice by boltron-

At the base of the hill, the conmen swarmed. On the steps of the church, the homeless begged. In the midst of the market, kitsch was king.


THE last time I was in Paris, I was small. It rained. It thundered. The queue for the Eiffel Tower was too long. The Sacre Coeur was a dazzling white, and not knowing my Parisian geography, seemingly far away from every other landmark. We walked along the Seine, we talked of hunchbacks in the Notre Dame, and then we left again to head back to our campsite, close to Disneyland, which had a fishing lake and a river along which we canoed, narrowly avoiding collision with a local fisherman’s line. I wasn’t allowed on the monstrous loop-de-loop rollercoaster at Parc Astérix, so we went on the rickety wooden coaster Tonnerre de Zeus lots of times instead. In the campsite, for the first time, I ate anchovies.

Fast forward to the present day. Now a grown up, I was excited to revisit Paris, to see how accurate my fractured memories had been and to add new experiences, new observations and new opinions. I was no longer small and the queue for the Eiffel Tower was significantly shorter. On the first evening it rained, but it did not thunder.

I liked Paris. It was refreshing. It confounded all of my preconceptions: it was neither shabby nor pretentious, it was clean and, though busy, never hustling. It didn't matter that a demonstration cut short our bus tour, nor did it matter that we had insufficient time to see all the sights, for it was the perfect city to roam, to browse, to feel safe. We ate in the cafe featured in Intouchables. In the Passage des Panoramas we stepped back into a forgotten world, a world of stamps, old photographs and postcards. And, thanks to Helmut Newcake, we found a solution to our gluten-free patisserie needs.

But there was one thing I did not like, one thing that I did worry about: in Paris, poverty is heart-achingly apparent.


Having zigzagged up a maze of small streets, packed with faux-artisan boutiques and overabundant opportunities for a painted portrait of varying quality — as expected of a hill renowned for its artistic history — we arrived atop Montmartre disorientated and out of breath, hoping to walk straight into the iconic basilica before being pounced upon by a caricature artist. The main square was heaving, for the Christmas market had arrived, with stalls identical to every German market throughout Europe lining the churchyard thoroughfare. Parisians were parting easily with their Euros for their own slice of the kitsch, knick knacks and confectionery on offer.

Diverted from the Sacre Coeur entrance by the market hubbub we entered what we thought to be a side entrance of the church, only to find it to be an entirely different neighbouring church, a smaller, quieter affair but no less of a haven of serenity. As we made our swift departure a homeless man stood, bedraggled, at the door, his hand partially unfurled in the hope it might make contact with food, money or some sign of security. His other hand was positioned underneath, propping up the first. He said nothing, nor did he stand in our way. He merely leant in the corner by the door, seeking a shadow in which he felt he belonged. I fished out the only coins I had on me, totalling not much more than one Euro, placed them in his hand and moved on, feeling sad for him but disgusted that up here, with so much money spent superfluously on art and tacky Christmas trinkets and on the doorstep of a church, he was allowed to live in such a state. I was wrong to be so affected so prematurely, however, for he was not alone.

When we eventually found the entrance to the Sacre Coeur we found we shared it with hundreds of tourists, all taking the same photograph of the view across the Paris cityscape. We were all treated to a dire rendition of Rihanna’s Umbrella by a wannabe troubadour amongst the crowd. Pigeons weaved bravely among the people in search of crumbs. And, at the door of one of the most famous churches in the world, which is so lovingly preserved outside and lavishly adorned inside — even with a shiny disco Jesus — two homeless women begged for crumbs like the pigeons.

21Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!””

Mark 10:21-23

I find rich churches uncomfortable places to visit. I find rich churches surrounded by poverty distressing. Now, let us be fair, the Sacre Coeur may be working tirelessly with the local community and poor, as it should be, but it is just so hard to tell. I tried to contact the church upon my return but they have yet to address my concerns, months later. It is time to be frank: a church must be the moral lynch pin of a community. As long as there are people in need on its doorstep its work is not complete. If it is not seeking to fix these ills, then its heart is in the wrong place.

Of course, it could be that these people are not homeless at all but con artists, like the many that swarm at the foot of Montmartre. If this is true, then the church knows about it; in failing to remove them, it is supporting their deeds. Sacre Coeur: the ball is in your court. What say you?

We left, despondent.


The Metro, somewhere between Richelieu Drouot and République. A scruffy, dishevelled man boards the train and begins to sing. He is evidently homeless. His song is a lonely song, a simple melody without adornment or flourish but strong in sentiment. I do not understand any of the words, but I do not need to. He passes, silently but obviously, through the carriage, chipped cup held aloft, hoping for donations. The passengers ignore him and he receives none, and at the next station he bids a forlorn farewell.

"Bonne journée à tout le monde"

And with that, he is gone.

But then something strange happens. A man with an accordion immediately begins to play, perhaps in celebration, at the far end of the carriage. And at our end, in what seems to be coincidence, a third man begins a speech. His intentions are as clear as the first, unsuccessful man. He walks through with a collection cup just the same. And this time, everyone donates.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year