Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

Something that really touched me today was an article in the Cambridge Evening News by Jack Grove about a Muslim optician who not only overrode the Tesco computer system to get a pair of glasses to a dying Christian man in time for him to see the England/South Africa Boxing Day cricket game, but paid for it out of his own pocket. It was a good end to the year news-wise.

There seems to be a fad for putting 10 predictions for 2010 online, so here's mine.

  • The Large Hadron Collider at CERN will announce the existence of the Higgs Boson, only for leaks to reveal that interpretations of results were premature.

  • A new series of Star Trek - The Next Generation will be filmed.

  • The BBC licence fee will become a tax imposed on all instead of payable only by television owners in anticipation of a victory by the Conservatives, who have sworn to "tear up the BBC Charter". This will cause a tax revolt by people unhappy with the Corporation's toxic values.

  • JK Rowling will announce she is starting work on a new series of books about Harry and Ginny Potter's children.

  • Unhappiness with "green taxes" will boil over as the anthropogenic climate change continues to disintegrate.

  • Chaos will ensue among athletes training for the 2012 Olympics at London as the International Olympic Committee announces it is considering legalising some substances presently banned - probably including recombinant growth hormone - under standardised conditions.

  • US president Barack Obama's advisors will suggest that he consider Great Britain as a country friendly to terrorists.

  • Anime films from Japan will start to be routinely shown in mainstream European and American cinemas.

  • The Queen will take part in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey confirming that Great Britain is a Christian country.

  • Life will go on.

We're having some friends round tonight; it'll be sad without Professor Calculus, who last Hogmanay left our jaws hanging open when he lectured our French friend Amata about "that idiot Napoleon". But we'll raise a glass to his memory, and will sing what verses we remember of Auld Lang Syne upon the bells.

So, depending where you are, I hope you had, are having or will have a Happy New Year.

happy new year!

Akmal Shaikh - one among many victims of heroin

It's started already. Have a read:
LEYTON Orient Football Club logo - click to go to their messageboardWhere is the medical research that says that being bi-polar impairs your judgement as to what is right and what is wrong? Do you think that if I decided to go out now on the streets and start dealing drugs when I end up in court I could say to the judge; "Oh please your honour, I didn't know what I was doing- as I have bi-polar!" It is a pathetic excuse and can never be used in a court of law to excuse a crime.
This was, curiously, posted on a football website, about the execution on 29 December of Akmal Shaikh in China for bringing 4kg of heroin into the country, having been allegedly "duped" by a chap in Poland. I don't personally have a problem with believing that: a friend's son was offered a wad of money to take a package from A to B and, having been stopped by the police, found that the "easy money" had been payment for his being stupid enough to a picture of heroin siezed by US authoritiestransport a class-A drug. So he served his time in prison: paid the price, you might say, according to the law of the land he was arrested in.

What the fellow says in the quote at the top of the page isn't all that far off-target, but where I take issue is with the phrase "pathetic excuse" as part of a description of a serious mental illness, one that I have myself. I prefer the more measured reasoning of the Telegraph's Richard Edwards:
The episodes [of extreme mood swings] can last several weeks or months and at worst can include psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions that one has special powers or abilities...There is debate in legal circles as to whether those affected can claim it as a defence to their actions because bipolar [disorder] affects mood rather than cognition, and therefore does not necessarily affect a person’s ability to know right from wrong.
Shaikh's supporters pointed to the lyrics of a song for world peace inviting a rabbit to pray with him as proof of his mental illness, and even Reprieve, the prisoners' human rights charity, called the Syd Barrett: click to go to archivessong "bizarre" and "terrible". But if insipid songs voiced by grandiose personalities indicated serious mental illness, there'd be still more pop stars on medication than there presently are - even among the hubris-scarred Live Aid veterans, whose pomposity was outdone only by the scale of the hair and shoulderpads. (Actually, Syd Barrett produced some rather brilliant stuff in the florid phase of his illness.)

While I was in hospital and in the grip of a delusion that was urging me to break the law, a psychiatrist advised me that should I do so then my treatment would continue in prison, and that was enough to keep me on the right side of the law. The same principle has applied here in reverse: Shaikh bXinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (highlighted) - click to find out more about Alimujiang Yimitiroke the law not just in China but in its Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the treatment of Christians such as Alimujiang Yimiti, bravely exposed by ChinaAid, show that compassion there is especially a stranger in a strange land.

But there we may be hitting the nub of the problem - the Establishment's pavlovian response to selected shibboleths of diversity. Had he been called, say, Joe Bloggs and not Akmal Shaikh, and been born in Penzance instead of Pakistan, would Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Foreign Secretary David Milliband and Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis (whKate Moss preparing cocaine - click to read more about the impact of celebrity drug useo professed himself "sick to the stomach") have joined the howls of protest from Amnesty and Reprieve?

Another villain in this tragedy is British drugs policy, especially as relates to celebrities who use drugs. We've seen supermodel Kate Moss cut lines of cocaine and not be arrested; Amy Winehouse hospitalised after a multi-substance overdose and Billy Joel describe the routine nature of rAmy Winehouse - click to read moreehab for substance abuse disorders as "mental floss". (And sacked chair of the Advisory Board on the Misuse of Drugs, David Nutt - who seems to be trying to break into the celebrity circuit in his own right - admits to experimenting with highly-addictive benzodiazepines before giving lectures.)

All of this is no comfort to the Shaikh family who, presumably through no fault of their own, have lost their loved one. It might be worth noting, though, that in the UK, the 4kg of heroin he was carrying would be worth £40,000 ($63,700) at current prices before it was cut with potentially lethal contaminants to make it go further and earn up to ten times as much.

So should China have executed Akmal Shaikh? You could say that what he was carrying in his suitcase, knowingly or not, was as life-destroying as a bus ploughing through a crowd; like a suicide-bomb in slow motion. I cannot find myself condemning China for the move, but that doesn't mean we can become less suspicious towards the murderous tiger, whose colonial claws are already gripping swathes of Africa, nor can we pretend not to see the abuses towards its own citizens who may be members of house-churches that don't officially exist, or perhaps aren't even born yet. SPUC director John Smeaton highlights our own complicity in this:
click to read John Smeaton's post on Britain's moral powerlessness to stop the executionThe UNFPA's participation in China's forced abortion one-child policy is well-documented. Furthermore, when Colin Powell (a supporter of abortion) was US Secretary of State, the State Department verified the pro-life Population Research Institute’s allegations that the UNFPA was cooperating with China's coercive abortion programme...The UK government gave over 40 million US dollars to the "regular funds contributions" of UNFPA in 2007 (the latest report available), about 10% of the total income China received in regular donations from over 180 countries worldwide.
Presumably the diplomatic and political row over the execution of Akmal Shaikh will lumber on as China saves face while Gordon Brown searches for a figleaf to cover the intellectual, moral and political paucity of his position; and meanwhile, the products of the Afghan opium fields alone kill 100,000 people a year - the equivalent of over 1900 executions daily. Where are the wailing politicians?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

top tips for Tuesday

top tips for Tuesday

The ebullition having subsided I have drank off the potion, and my transformation into a popular-culture blogger carries on apace, although I'm working tomorrow therefore the potion's nothing stronger than a rather weak cup of tea. So I'm kicking off a new series of posts, due to run most Tuesdays, looking at different blogs. I'm starting with stuff (mostly) from blogs on my blogroll, so there's a lot of emphasis on the seasonal events that have just happened. (So I've got the top tips, but having been too hooked on the Christmastime TV schedule, specifically Sister Act 2 and Day of the Triffids, I've just waved goodbye to Tuesday!)

The first link however, has only a tenuous connection with Christmas, in that its subject penned a best-selling Christmas song. I'm not a big fan of the man who wrote Working Class Hero while a millionaire living in a Home Counties mansion, so my jaw hit the floor when I read a post by John Smeaton, director of SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), who's found footage where Lennon and Yoko Ono reveal their belief that overpopulation is "a myth". This was 1972, when Ehrlich's The Population Bomb had whole governments shaking in their boots, so I must (reluctantly) give a hat-tip to Dr Winston O' Boogie. And how well-done of John to find the clip. click to go to John Smeaton's post
The inspiration for this feature is Iain Dale's Daley Dozen. The patron saint of political bloggers is also a contributor to Conservative History Journal, whoser Christmas blog is about Dickens; not the ubiquitous Christmas Carol, but the Christmas scene from The Pickwick Papers. click to go to the Conservative History Journal post
Linda of Don't Poke the Baby is a photographer and Roman Catholic home-schooling Mom living in the US, and a strong pro-lifer; her blog is a valuable and fascinating record of life in the southern States - brilliant family pics in this one! (The pic to the right is from her blog header and is of a pro-life gathering in Washington DC.) click to go to the post on Don't Poke the Baby
Risa from Isramom returned to the US from Israel to celebrate Chanukah, and posts some super pics of a white Christmas in New Jersey and New York, including the "world's largest menorah".click to go to the post at Isramom
The Rt Revd David Thompson of the Anglican Diocese of Ely (which includes Cambridge) meditates on the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, assassinated by four knights who arguably misinterpreted Henry II's cri-de-cœur to be rid of the turbulent priest. WARNING: Edward Grim's contemporary account, which is part of the post, is the stuff of to go to the post on Bishop's Blog
Fr Tim Finigan of The Hermeneutic of Continuity is a Parish Priest and lecturer in Sacramental Theology who practices Mass in the Tridentine Rite (said in Latin with the priest and congregation facing the same way). Here he discusses a section of the Pope's Christmas sermon about the precedence of the liturgy in Christian life. There's some sad news in the comments: the death of David Taylor MP of the Labour Party, on of the staunchest pro-lifers in to go to Fr Tim's post on the Hermeneutic of Continuity
This is PR consultant and writer Ellee Seymour on memories of a very special Nativity service in Wicken, a nearby Old to go to the post on Ellee Seymour's blog
Straying from my blogroll, I've just viewed a tweet from Revd Bosco Peters, who posted a link to buzzmarketing daily's post on the most important tweets of the year - including a tweet from space, one from Barack Obama and, of course the famous pic of Flight 1549 lying in the Hudson after being successfully ditched by pilot Chesley Sullenberger; Twitter had arrived with a bang, and the internet was changed to go to the post at buzzmarketing daily
Penultimately, Yasin Akgun writes on The Conservative Blog (which is, confusingly, about conservatism with a small "c") about the possibility of David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, considering the "nuclear option" should a hung Parliament - in which no party has a majority - occur in next year's British general election, and another possibility: that Labour, running on ideology in the absence of ideas, may be tempted to rig with the to go to the post on The Conservative Blog
And lastly, here's Cameron himself with his New Year message, on the blog of the virtual prelate to go to the post on Cranmer

Sunday, December 27, 2009

top ten songs about New Year

Being Scottish, New Year's Eve, which we call Hogmanay, is important, in that it's been celebrated for centuries and so is one of Britain's venerable traditions that are messed with at one's own risk. I would like to present a top 10 of songs associated with the New Year.

As you can see from Pam's comment at the bottom, it never occurred to me to think that people with slower connections than me might have to wait for all ten videos to load, so I initially provided the direct link to the video she wanted on YouTube, but on second thoughts have provided links to them all.

10 - The art of falling over on Hogmanay has been perfected over centuries if not millenia, but not to look beyond the gentle haze would be a mistake because, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, feasclick to see 'Mary did you know' on Revd Bosco Peters' Liturgy site ts of the Blessed Virgin have tended to congregate in January, which is possibly why January 1 is now allocated to Mary, Mother of God. So I would like to allocate this slot to a song called Mary Did You Know, with sections from Jesus of Nazareth, a film made by Franco Zefirelli and produced by Lew Grade, both of whom had promised their friend Pope Paul VI that they would make a life of Christ; the video was posted by Revd Bosco Peters (above). The scene of her joy and misery is set in 1954's The Lord by Romano Guardini, friend and mentor of Josef Ratzinger, the present Pope:
The Lord: click r=to read reviewsEverything that affected Jesus affected his mother, yet no intimate understanding existed between them. His life was hers, yet constantly escaped her. Scripture puts it clearly: he is "the Holy One" promised by the angel, a title full of the mystery and remoteness of God. Mary gave that holy burden everything: heart, honour, flesh and blood, all the wonderful strength of her love. In the beginning she had contained it, but soon it outgrew her, mounting steadily higher and higher to the world of the divine beyond her reach.

9 - Here's one by Abba; I'd be in trouble with Maxima if I didn't include this, as the Nordic quartet is her favourite outfit.

8 - Here's a new year's song by Northumberland (Geordie) band the Unthanks, about the annual celebration in the region's Allendale when "guisers", people celebrating the new year, carry flaming tar barrels around the town square on their head.

7 - Buon Anno, Buona fortuna: Italian musician wishes us Happy New Year and good luck.

6 - Here's a tune that we're going to meet later: Auld Lang Syne, with words by Robert Burns but a melody that he almost certainly didn't write, but which has become inseperable from the song. I think Rabbie would approve. (For Pam and others who have to wait for long periods for a pageful of videos to load, here's the link to this video directly at YouTube:

5 - Slade, one of my favourite bands, released this at the end of December 1984; althought they're from Birmingham, they made use of London Cockney rhyming slang when singing about being "Brahms and Liszt on the floor". Unfortunately, it's all too true of new years' parties.

4 - I was disappointed to find that I couldn't find a video of Nancy Wilson singing her hit What are you doing New Year's Eve, but delighted to find this young lady singing the standard with the emotional force of the original. I don't know her name, but hope that she goes far.

3 - There's an English custom of "wassailing" at New Year: it derives from the Anglo-Saxon phrase "waes hael", which means "good health" in the sense of "be whole". It occurs to me that none of us are whole, but an invitation to waes hael might remind us to look upstairs and reflect on that which might make us whole. Here's Kate Rusby with Here we come a Wassailing.

2 - It's just another New Year's Eve: Barry Manilow's song for everybody who wishes the season was over quickly is set here to clips from the proto-Superman series Smallville. And it works.

1 - I said we'd meet this tune again! It was vaguely amusing to see people who hadn't darkened a church's doorstep for decades declaim Sir Cliff Richard's masterwork as a foul marriage of the world's best-known drinking song with a prayer. My answer, as a Christian, is: God bless you, Cliff! If people watching this video decide to explore Christianity then they will; and if they don't, they won't. But if you think Christianity is just about having nice thoughts, then I recommend you watch the video, which shows the grim realities that Christians deal with.

I hope you have a happy new year.

If you enjoyed this, click here for more Top ten songs about...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from the Draughty Old Fen!

Christmas tree at St GallicusBeing a typical bloke, I left my Christmas shopping until the last possible moment, and, having unexpetedly had to work late, found myself chaining my bike to a railing in town as many of the smaller streets were covered in a solid sheet of ice.

Maxima had asked for a Slanket which, she explained, was a blanket with sleeves. She wasn't impressed when I'd offered to cut armholes in one of our blankets, so I inched manfully along the ice but all the shops in Cambridge that might have one had sold out, and by the time I'd searched through them all the shop that I'd identified as selling her back-up present had shut. So I've included a note saying "IOU a Slanket" in the box of goodies containing more things to decorate one's nails than a sensible person would want to own.

I'd wanted to leave the next day, Christmas Eve free, as we had to take poor old Granum, Professor Calculus' dog, to the vet. On our return our cat Magus was jumping jubilantly round the house, having apparently ascribed its doglessness to his sulking valiantly in Minora's room.

There was a Crib Service at St Gallicus during which lay ministers Significatia and Peripatetica helped Rector Pellegrina pick out children for a Nativity play, so there was no time for Hollywood hissy-fits about who would be Mary/shepherds/angels etc. The Star, a great gold-coloured icon on a stick, was followed round in procession by a constellation of angels, shepherds, kings, Joseph, Mary with doll, donkey and infants with tinsel headbands ringing bells (I haven't worked out that last one). I'm always affected when children sing Away in a Manger.

Later in the night, after an hour's nap, we left for a Midnight Service of Communion, celebrated by Pellegrina at St Gallicus' high altar with the altar-rails moved up from their usual position. It was a beautiful service and what was best was to be joined by Minora, who has been expressing doubts about her faith.

It was alarming to come home, switch on the radio and hear news of the Pope being knocked down as he processed through St Peter's to celebrate Midnight Mass. I pray he's ok; the incident highlights his willingness to take the same risks as his predecessor, John Paul II, in order to be close to his people.

I note in finishing that the Met Office (remember, the guys who helped lose the Medieval Warming Period?) has just declared a White Christmas. Personally I don't object to snow, but draw the line at sheets of ice and, with apologies to Bing, am dreaming of the end of this White Christmas!

A Merry Christmas to everybody out there, and my sympathy if you find this a difficult time of year.

crib at St Gallicus

Sunday, December 20, 2009

a (virtual) service of carols and Lessons

click to go to Ellee Seymour's homepageMy cycle having frozen solid - brakes, gears and wheels, I've taken to walking to work and elsewhere, although - unlike Ellee Seymour (right), I haven't done a twenty-mile hike for many years, and that was because we took the wrong path descending from a Highlands hill.

It gave one time to think walking to the Draughty Old Fen's St Gallicus, though, for its annual tradition of a Service of Carols and Lessons by Candlelight, which was only possible because, as an old building, the church has lots of niches and architectural whimsies on which candles could be placed. It was good both to celebrate the joy of Christmas in the present and revisit the past and, if you can't make it home for Christmas, or like carols, or are just curious, I'd like to try to recreate the Order of Service for you. (Apologies to Pam and others who find it difficult to access YouTube videos.)

Rector Pellegrina processed up through the altar rails with Ludus, a Licensed Lay Minister, and the fourth candle on the Advent wreath was lit.

I'm told Cambridge has more choirs per square mile than anywhere else in the world, and can certainly believe it. For the Introit, we had the choir singing Rejoice and Sing, which I've had trouble finding, but I think it may have been a fragment of Bach's motet Singet Dem Herrn Ein Neues Leid - hopefully Pellegrina (or Editio, the choirmaster) will correct me if I'm wrong.

Pellegrina welcomed us in from the cold and remarked that it was good to see St Gallicus full to bursting point on such a night. The "O" antiphons - explained by Revd Bosco Peters in his Liturgy blog - have begun, so for the carol service she chose the O Emmanuel:
O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, hope of the nations and their saviour: come and save us, O Lord our God.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The first carol was Once in Royal David's City - here it is from Carols from King's, the annual Carol Concert from the Cambridge University college:

The first Lesson was Genesis 22:15-18, on God's promise to Abraham upon the latter's not holding back from being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac:
the binding of IsaacThe angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.’
Our next carol was a new one for me - A Great and Mighty Wonder. I never heard this in Scotland; obviously some carols are famous the world over, but I wonder if others are favoured in some regions and unknown in others?

I've heard Isaiah described as "a poet of genius" by friends who were able to read Hebrew and, looking at the beauty of sections of the compilation in English, I can believe it. Ludus read the second Lesson, Isaiah 2,6,7 about the Prince of Peace to come:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
The choir sang Goldschmidt's A Tender Shoot, and here it is, again, by the choristers of King's College.

The following carol was Of the Father's Heart begotten. Here it is sung by senior students of a US school, but unfortunately I don't know which one:

Lesson 3 was read by Peripatetica, who helps with Pastoral Care, and is the passage which deals with what Christians call the Tree of Jesse, and contains the famous lines about the lion and the lamb lying together in peace:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, the Lion and the Lamb
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
The next carol was It came upon the midnight clear, sung here by Christian band Kutless:

The fourth lesson, dealing with the fruit of the Jesse Tree, was Luke 1:26-35,38, telling of the Annunciation. Not being sure how to depict an angel, in modern times - since 1977's Jesus of Nazareth, commissioned by Lew Grade to honour a promise made to his friend, Pope Paul VI - films have shown Mary responding to an agency we neither see nor hear, the only sign that something extraordinary's going on being a restlessness in the night outside.
after the Annunciation: what would you have done?
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
My favourite version of O Little Town of Bethlehem is by Boxcar Willie - really! - but I couldn't find it on YouTube; so here's Aled Jones of Walking in the Air fame singing it with Libera. The lines The hopes and fears of all these years/Are met in thee tonight still give me goosebumps.

Amicus, who coordinates efforts to raise funds for St Gallicus in spite of dungeon, fire and sword (as Terry Wogan would say), read the fifth lesson, Luke 2:1,3-7, the Nativity, the appearance in flesh of what "the hopes and fears of all the years" are about:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Now we had the choir again, with Rutter's Nativity Carol. Here it is performed by the Chancel Choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Conway, Arkansas.

This was followed by a worldwide favourite - Hark the Herald Angels Sing! Here's Nat King Cole:

Lesson number six was read by a young member of the congregation and was Luke 2:8-20, the angels appearing to the shepherds in a great host within a shining light and saying "do not be afraid", which the shepherds might have been forgiven for thinking was a somewhat incongruous statement.
the shepherds and the angelsAnd there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
There followed the choir again with Joubert's anthem, Torches.

Then another classic carol, While Shepherds watched, accompanied by the pictures from Christmas cards. While we were singing this, a collection was taking place. Please give to a cause this Christmas - to your church, or to the local soup kitchen, or else to a charity that you've seen on TV that has moved you. If you don't have the money to give, how about spending some time getting shopping for somebody who has difficulty getting out, say, or helping out at a local scheme that gives folk a first step onto a ladder that will see them climb out of a bad place?

The penultimate reading came from Famula, who read the story of the Wise Men in Matthew 2:1-12. I remember Rector Pellegrina delivering a sermon about the Magi last year, describing how while the shepherds were comfortable in their own skin, the oriental astrologers' need for attention and recognition may have sparked a wave of infanticide. Among the Christian communities within the pro-life community, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28 is traditionally a time when we remember the victims of abortion.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had cwise men?alled together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The choir sang the anthem The Three Kings by Cornelius - here it's performed in St John's Cathedral in Portsmouth, the young man being accompanied by the Cantores Michaelis choir.

And the carol, As With Gladness, performed here by the Royal Choral Society in the Albert Hall, where Britain's Royal British Legion's Festival of Remembrance is held every year.

The last Lesson was read by Rector Pellegrina: the most powerful passage, I think, in the Christian Bible, detailing the mystery of the Incarnation in John 1:1-14. This is a passage Ive turned to many times in my life, most recently when I went to hospital to visit Professor Calculus of blessed memory and found an empty bed: I went to the hospital chapel, located a Gideon's Bible and sat and read the passage. It was the Good News translation, not my favourite, but it did the trick.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Rector Pellegrina then gave a wonderful Address on the mystery of God's wiping the slate clean through Christ, which I think is something Calculus couldn't accept: not that Jesus came to redeem us, but that it is a mystery. The last carol was O Come, All ye Faithful. I hope you will indulge me in letting me post a video of the carol in the language in which I sung it in a distant boyhood, although none of us could hope to have touched the hem of Andrea Bocelli's ability:

We finished with the choir singing Bach's Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light, which is sung here by a choir in Tyler, Texas.

Pellegrina gave us a blessing, then made sure she was available to anybody who wanted to talk to her - aware, no doubt, that this can be a difficult time of year for a lot of people. She made sure that everybody left with something more than they'd come in with.

Have a merry Christmas.

despite the thermofascists, French farce at Copenhagen

Writing about the Treaty of Versailles in his 1994 masterwork Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger summed up why the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations Climate Change Conference was flawed from the start:
Versailles: Lloyd George, Orlando, Clemenceau and Wilson - click to read moreit is almost always a mistake for heads of state to undertake the details of a negotiation. They are then obliged to master specifics normally handled bu their foreign offices and are deflected onto subjects more appropriate to their subordinates, while being kept from issues only heads of states can resolve. Since no one without a well-developed ego reaches the highest office, compromise is difficult and deadlocks are dangerous. With the domestic positions of the interlocutors so often dependent on at least the seDaryl Hannahmblance of success, negotiations more often concentrate on obscuring differences than they do on dealing with the essence of a problem.
Graced by the likes of Leonardo diCaprio, Daryl Hannah and Helena Christensen, Copenhagen 2009 has barely limped past the finishing tape despite the supporters of both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama claiming that their man struggled alone to achieve a comPolly Toynbee: click to go to her Guardian homepagepromise against the odds. Labour snob-for-hire Polly Toynbee captured the air of frustration with ordinary people whom the Establishment has gone out of its way to gag:
Most leaders in Copenhagen were out ahead of their people. Most understand the crisis better than those they represent, promising more sacrifice than their citizens are yet ready to accept – while no doubt praying for some miraculous technological escape.
Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping spoke for the G77 group of the corrupt régimes of developing countries who had brought their begging-bowls to the Baltic when he asked what OLumumbia Di Aping - click to read about his remark at the Daily Mailbama would tell his daughters about his part in abandoning their Kenyan relatives, then developed the tired old theme comparing of climate-change "deniers" to scum who say that the Holocaust never happened by saying that Copenhagen spelled "incineration" for Africa and was comparable to the Nazis "sending six million Jews into the furnace". (Sweden's chief negotiator Anders Turesson called the reference "utterly despicable" - maybe the country's still ashamed of its politicians' initial apathy towards the Aftonbladet blood libel scandal.)

Shortly before the conference began, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown had a swipe at people who believe the hard sciLord Christopher Monckton: click to read more on Watt's Up With Thatence showing that changes in climate are not predominantly due to the actions of humankind, calling us "flat earthers", and the attacks have not let up. In Lord Christopher Monckton's case the attack was not metaphorical; as reported in the tap, the anthropogenic climate-change sceptic had the correct paperwork to enter the conference but was excluded, then was assaulted by a Danish policeman despite having followed St John's Ambulance recommendations to keep his hands in his pockets; he had turned his back and was walking away when he was knocked unconscious.

Coline Covington - click to go to her home pageOther attacks are more insidious. The First Post's resident psychoanalyst, Coline Covington, spoke of Sarah Palin, as a typical climate change "denier", as having the sort of narcissism seen in small children; displaying her membership of the Richard Dawkins school of rhetoric, she sets up her straw man at the start of the article by talking about Nick Griffin, leader of the neo-nazi BNP. She says, referring to Palin and by implication to many of us, "Climate change threatens our narcissistic omnipotence. Deniers do not want anyone else telling them they cSarah Palinan't drive large cars or run two refrigerators...This is a mentality resembling the narcissism of small children who want to hold onto their illusion of omnipotence and control over mother."

What Covington is referring to is more than the sexually-deviant scribblings of Sigmund Freud that imprisoned many children in their abusers' houses by interpreting their reports as libidinous fantasies; she's talking about narcissistic personality disorder, in a disappointing confirmation of the hostility of many psychiatric professionals towards people with personality disorders, and their over-readiness to inflict the diagnostic sentence upon people of whom they disapprove.

Copenhagen has failed, and that's disappointing because, for opposition against the thermofascists to turn to an effective resistance movement, we need to know exactly what we're resisting. The reason it's failed is precisely as Kissinger identified, that there were too many powerful egos with long memories at the conference.

Case in point: there will be consequences for Obama's humiliating China for not meeting Kyoto targets in the presence of that country's Prime Minister: had he watched Li Yu's 2007 Dam Street Dr henry Kissinger - click to go to his homepage(Hong Yan) he would have learned the lesson you can find in the most basic internet guide for doing business with Chinese people - "Never allow your protagonist to lose face, and try not to lose face yourself." Heads of state like Britain's Gordon Brown, the US's Barack Obama and India's Manmohan Singh would have done better to send their foreign ministers or, even better, senior diplomats. Is Henry Kissinger still working?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

the real predator hides behind the Tiger

Tiger Woods doesn't have his troubles to seek: the man who has everything lacks a shed in which to escape the celebrity goldfish-bowl that is constructed around anybody good enough at whatever it is they do (and lucky enough) to make a lot of money, usually for the purpose of pulling them apart when cracks creep up the façade.

Kosher Sex - click to read an interview with Rabbi Boteach at about.comThere has also been a degree of compassion: for example, David Skelton at Platform 10 reminds us that "every Bobby Charlton there was a George Best, for every Michael Vaughan there was a hard drinking genius like Iain Botham"; and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex took a more analytic view of why men cheat in the Jerusalem Post, opining that somebody who has become as successful as Woods through their innate competitiveness is living with the toxic anxiety that "they are only special to the extent that they keep on winning". (Although he does then pose the million-pound question: "Many have said that husbands like Tiger Woods are sex addicts. But then why aren't they addicted to sex with their wives?")

Another, equally explosive, controversy linked with Tiger Woods emanates not from him but from one of his associates but has been eclipsed by the lurid chain of revelations about Woods' sex life - and perhaps that's the point.

Anthony Galea - click to read Tom Leonard's article in the TelegraphThe Telegraph's Tom Leonard revealed this week that Woods' doctor, Anthony Galea, has been under investigation by the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for allegedly supplying performance-enhancing drugs to sportspeople, after his assistant was arrested crossing the US/Canada border with a laptop containing his patients' treatment and four substances, including human growth hormone (HGH). This is often used to look and possibly feel a bit better, and has been referred to as "the fountain of youth".

This is worrying. I'm sure what was in Galea's assistant's car was actually recombinant growth hormone, which is made in a laboratory either totally synthetically or with the aid of genetically-modified bacteria.

Human growth hormone is what it says on the tin. It's been harvested from the brains of cadavers since 1958, when Dr Maurice Raben of the Tufts University School of dwarfism sufferer Monique Johnson - click to read her stoy on CBSmedicine first treated a 17-year-old boy who had dwarfism (which can result from a lack of human growth hormone from one's own pituitary gland) by injecting him with HGH he had harvested from an autopsied corpse.

From 1958 until the practice was banned with the advent of the recombinant hormone in 1985, a minority click to read more about Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease at the Alzheimer's Society websiteof HGH recipients were dogged with the symptoms of Creuzfeld-Jacob disease (CJD), a degenerative neurological disorder manifested by dementia and movement disorders, which had first been identified in the 1920s in the Fore people of New Guinea, who practiced rituals involving cannibalism. (CJD would later become famous as "mad cow disease" - bovine spongiform encepalopathy or BSE - and would be traced to bovine brain material being present in cow-feed.) The US National Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases Service reports that 28 out of 7,700 recipients of HGH in the US were identified as having developed the symptoms of CJD, 109 out of 1,700 in France, 56 out of 1,848 in England - and in 2002, a Dutch man developed symptoms 38 years after the treatment, the longest recorded gap.

Although no longer acceptable as a medical treatment, the price of recombinant HGH creates a market for the original stuff in communities of people engaged in the worship of Narcissus who haven't yet realised that to put a few years onto your lifespan and look like a Greek god doesn't bring you a whit more happy. Intelligence suggests that HGH is being harvested from corpses in the Baltic region, Eastern Europe and - of course - China, where possessing organs or bodily fluids that somebody richer than you wants can be a capital crime. Others may be paying over the odds for consignments of HGH that are packaged like medicine and have the right labels and warnings, but since it's produced illicitly there's no way to tell, and no comeback when your memory starts to go.

In sports there's a huge market for performance-enhancing substances like steroids, erythropoietin, HGH and of course painkillers so that one can ignore the warnings screaming "stop". So perhaps this is why the media are on a continuous drip of revelations about enough mistresses, porn-stars and the rest to people a netball league, and why it's not going to stop anytime soon. So, whether or not Woods has taken performance-enhancing drugs (not all of which are illegal), perhaps it's time for him to hire other folks' muscles to create a space where he can sit down and figure out how not to let things spiral out of control again. Who knows, his silence might even prompt Anthony Galea to find his voice.

Narcissus, with apologies to Caravaggio

Related post - Victor Conte and Dwain Chambers' secrets

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Professor Calculus RIP

I needed to get hold of Professor Calculus last week and, when I couldn't get an answer phoning his house, phoned the pub; Caupo told me he hadn't been in, but had looked a bit dicey the day before.

Calculus was a child of the Raj, having been born in an area of India that is now Pakistan. As was the custom, his primary education took place "back home" in England; his parents decided to return in time for him to observe the Battle of Britain going on above his head. One of his favourite childhood stories was about a schoolfriend who took a trophy from a crashed Messerschmitt in the form of a boot but had to get rid of it when the lower leg it contained began to smell.

He graduated from the Home Guard to the Army at the same time as, a younger student than usual, he graduated from university and, his didactic streak showing through even then, was attached to a unit as a member of the Royal Army Educational Corps. Once he'd had enough of getting from the top of a cliff to the bottom at an alarming rate, he joined the Medical Research Council and was part of much vital research.

Having tried life as a teacher in England, he decided to up sticks with his young family and go to Africa, where the Department of Overseas Development would pay him more than he earned in Blighty. Of all the countries he taught in, he loved most Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, the latter so much that he described himself as a South African. He raged against the racial inequalities in those countries and refused to teach in institutions where segregation was practised, sometimes going up against people of faith in this.

Eithe despite or because of being an atheist, Calculus would invariably start discussions about religion whin I'd go over to visit him for our weekly session of discussing politics, history and science and being generally grumpy, more often than not over a glass or two of wine. It never ceased to frustrate him that he couldn't trust in an agency he couldn't see, feel or prove with an algebraic equation. He went to see Rector Pellegrina recently, and asked how he could have faith. Pray, she replied. Although always a model of courtesy in front of a lady he demanded to know how he could pray to have faith when he didn't have the faith to pray, and left happy to have spent the time in her company but ultimately unfulfilled.

After I phoned the pub I called home and instructed Minima to go over: she found him unwell and, calling her mother, the ambulance was called. He was taken to hospital, where he seemed well until he suddenly deteriorated and, this morning, died.

What can a person of faith say of somebody who dies an atheist? Calculus' rage against inequality and injustice was matched only by his frustration at himself for feeling unable to trust in the God about whom he was instructed in school. We would regularly go round the houses of faith and knowledge not occupying the same space until Kingdom Come, and faith being a gift. I had no answer for his forlorn question as to why he hadn't been given that gift.

This evening, after seeing the empty hospital bed and asking the Ward Sister for the details, I went to the hospital chapel. At the back of this there's a "prayer tree" where you can write your petitions on notelets then clip them to nylon leaves. I asked Jesus to have mercy on somebody who had tried to touch His face but felt he had failed, and furthermore to send His mother to stand at Calculus' side to be an advocate for the mystery of God's loving forgiveness.

As for me, I trust that the miseries of the empty hospital bed, vacant chair and unfilled glass are transcended and resolved by the joy of the empty tomb. Sleep well, Professor Calculus. I miss you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

the X Factor: challenging but not strictly bullying

click to go to the X-Factor websitePersonally I prefer to watch dancing on the TV and listen to music on the radio, as it doesn't work so well the other way round. So I tend to prefer Strictly Come Dancing (called this here instead of Dancing with the Stars because in the UK we had a programme called Come Dancing that ran from the 1940s to the late 90s) to X-Factor.

Jo Wood and Brendan Cole: click to read moreBut the BBC seems unable to do anything without introducing a degree of the bullying that is institutionalised within the organisation as it exists today. Last year's Strictly was marred by the judges' campaign against John Sergeant for his crime of consistently being the public's favourite, and this year Craig Revel-Horwood homed right in on Jo Wood, who was so vulnerable as her marriage to the spectacularly adulterous Ronnie Wood deteriorated that her partner Brendan Cole admitted he didn't know how to move ahead. I stopped watching at these points.
Simon Cowell - click to read more on the X-factor website
However, there's much more chattering about the challenging manner of Simon Cowell on ITV's X-Factor, which a Brit would have to be Rip Van Winkle with extra somnolence on the side not to have heard about, and which has just finished in Britain.

Cowell is a hard-nosed businessman but not a bully: there's a difference. He puts his charges under pressure deliberately because the business side of showbusiness is not known for its touchy-feeliness. But he will accept the mitigations of his often kinder co-judgJedward: click and immerse yourself in the hysteriaes Louis Walsh, Danni Minogue and Cheryl Cole - and, crucially, he accepts the public's votes, not least as regarded atonal Irish teenagers Jedward (John and Edward Grimes) whose style I would find difficult to describe.

Jedward were interesting. Had they won the X-factor every adult in the land would have been annoyed to bewilderment; but it's happened before, that's what punk was about. For a brief and - for them - shining moment they had the sort of notoriety I haven't seen a TV programme bestow since we all ran about buying stickers saying that we'd killed JR. Both the Labour and Conservative parties brought out eve-of-war posters casting each other as the surreally-coiffed pair, which is certainly something the lads can show their grandchildren. (Click on the two pics below to read more on Iain Dale's Diary)

click to read more about the Consrvatives' take on Jedward on Iain Dale's diaryclick to read more about Labour's take on Jedward on Iaian Dale's Diary
Which is something good. There seems to be a perception that Simon Cowell is depriving his protegés of something by not guaranteeing them a cast-iron contract that will ensure decades of success. It's not like that, because the entertainment industry remains one where talent will out: and it's notable that Hear'Say, who won a 2001 talent-show programme called Popstars, contained classically-trained pianist Mylene Klass, while Britain's Got Talent, another of Cowell's vehicles, was won in 2007 by a tenor called Paul Potts who'd been winning smaller-scale competitions for years, and this year's runner up in the competition, Susan Boyle, has famously been singing in clubs for decades. Talent shows, whether they be on the end of a pier of in front of a TV audience, don't create talent, they merely give it a platform.

I wish winner Joe McElderry well. For as long as Cowell keeps him on his label he won't go far wrong, because people who are good at making a lot of money generally don't sJoe McElderry - click to go to his websiteet themselves or their money-makers up to fail, which is perhaps why much of the commentary has a jealous edge to it. And if McElderry's single The Climb makes number one - which despite highbrow harrumphing is a big "if" given competition from George Michael and the Children in Need single - it'll be for no other reason than that people choose to buy it. He may prove to have staying power like Myleene Klass, but if he doesn't he'll have a pile of stories to tell his grandchildren. And, thank heavens, he isn't Jedward.