Category: review


A white rabbit walks into a library…

I had a couple of hours to spare so I popped into the British Library between Euston and St Pancras stations. After one of the worst coffees in London, I strolled round the bijou, free exhibition celebrating 150 years since the first publication of Lewis Carol’s “Alice in Wonderland”. It continues until next January and you can see more details here.

You may find it fascinating to discover how different publishers and artists have presented how they have imagined the characters of Wonderland or the Looking-glass. After a while, however, I found them beginning to blur into each other and would rather have had a cup of tea with a Mad Hatter and a dormouse  with a copy of Lewis Carol’s books.

It is worth paying a visit if you happen to be passing. Three stars or 6 out of 10

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Galileo, Gordon and Pedro

The biting wind took the edge off the morning but otherwise we really enjoyed the couple of hours at Icarus Falconry. Here are Pedro(Burrowing Owl), Gordon (Harris Hawk) and Galileo (Great Grey Owl).

My companions gave the two-hour experience top marks. I give a lower rating to take into account the weather (not under the organisers control) and a couple of missing information boards. Having said that, the talk by our guide, a falconer, was informative and she did not invent facts if she happened not to be sure of them. I also liked the fact that, when flying the birds of prey, she took us to woodland, field, or walled-garden, according to which most suited the original habitat of each bird.

Hot drinks (tea, coffee, hot chocolate) were offered and were welcome against cold.

Overall four stars or 7 out of 10. Worth a visit but put your thermals on if you happen to go in late Autumn/Winter.

A slice of Cumbria

Toffee Shop, Penrith

Toffee Shop, Penrith

Now that slice could be a slab of Kendal Mint Cake, I suppose, but I am not a fan of it myself – I much prefer the traditional fudge you can get from the Toffee Shop in Penrith. Apart from my own, of course, they make the best fudge ever: soft, dissolve-in-the-mouth as it should be, not the chewy, long-shelf-life stuff sold to tourists and at the pick ‘n’ mix. I know, I know, lots of people like the standard stuff and it is unlikely to poison you so don’t let me put you off. I’m just saying, you know.

Meanwhile our holiday included a bit of the Pennine Hills as well as some of the Lake District and each has its own beauty and claim to fame that bear more than a fortnight summer’s holiday.  People say that “it’s a beautiful part of the country” and it is true; but they then complain about the rain – where do they think the lakes come from, then?

So here is a brief selection of photos of some of the places we visited.

 

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Not photographed above is the Pencil Museum in Keswick. We went as a bit of a joke – after all, how interesting can a pencil get? Well, the museum was small in size and took maybe 20 minutes to half an hour to look round (we took as long in the shop afterwards). There was a bit about the history of pencil making, quarrying of graphite, and how pencils are made today. Part of that history included some secret missions during World War II. We learnt about a real life ‘Q’ as in the James Bond – a fascinating detail.

We happened to arrive in Keswick towards the tail end of the Convention – a gathering of Christians which has been going for years. It meant parking took a little while to sort but one bonus was we were able to sit in on a lunchtime recital of poetry written and read by Stewart Henderson. He is a popular contemporary poet from Liverpool.

Finally, the photos of Ullswater do not show you that they were taken from a steamer (misnamed as it ran on diesel) chugging the length of the mere. It was a pleasant, if windy ride.

Cotswold Water park

It was Spring when I took these photos hence the lack of leaves on the trees but the weather was kind and it was pleasant place to stay just a few minutes from Cirencester.

Confusingly there are two “Cotswold Country Park”s on the map but I believe they are similar: well-tended and extensive grounds near the head of the Thames Valley providing holiday accommodation for families with a spare bob or two (or comfortably off generous relatives …). If you are the sort of family who likes walking, swimming, canoeing and sailing, then this is the place for you. Mind you, sitting comfortably with your chosen book was also an option. We were self-catering (which I don’t mind especially as I can more easily tweak the menu) but local pubs and town were not too far away for a bit of variety.

 

… or “charismatic introvert” I suppose. Alongside Susan Cain’s work (“Quiet” – see here for my review) Mark Tanner challenges some of the assumptions and prejudices, that society in general and parts of the Christian church hold, in his book, “The Introvert Charismatic: the gift of introversion in a noisy church” (published by Monarch, 2015). His context is the “Charismatic” church which is generally understood to be where the work and person of the Holy Spirit is given more prominence and there is more emphasis on special, “supernatural” gifts. Worship tends to be busy, loud and overtly joyful and large gatherings are the norm. The settings and activities are ones where extroverts thrive and where introverts struggle – though perhaps not obviously so at first.

Incidentally, I put the word “supernatural” in inverted commas because I would say that any gift from God is arguably ‘supernatural” and that includes gifts and talents which we regard as ‘natural’. I am not making any particular judgement about speaking in tongues or healing or words of knowledge or preaching or administration – all of which are gifts from God, all of which are intended for the benefit of the whole Christian community and all of which need to be exercised and practised with humility and care.

Helpfully Mark Tanner’s book is written for the benefit of both those who would regard themselves as extrovert and those who are introvert. Drawing on Susan Cain’s book he dispels some myths: introverts do like people, they do go to parties, they do speak to large groups of people, they do lead. Where they are different from extroverts is that they find those social encounters draining, whereas  extroverts thrive on them and are energised by them. You may not be able to tell who is an extrovert or introvert at a party but in the car on the way home the one is still talking and the other has gone quiet. He usefully points out that in the Bible there is both extroversion and introversion among God’s leaders – the point is not that one is better than the other but that both are needed if a church is to be healthy.

I was intrigued that he suggested that liturgy, such as Anglican liturgy, can be regarded and used as charismatic worship for introverts. He makes other observations and suggestions too as well as reminding introverts that they need their extrovert brothers and sisters as much as they need them.

Among the resources for introvert charismatics is a website www.introvertcharismatics.org which is a work in progress. I will be interested in seeing how it develops.

Overall four stars or 8 out of 10. This is not a book I expect to re-read or to keep – but there are a few people I would do well to lend it to!

Cottonopolis

“Manchester, the belly and guts of the nation.” George Orwell. Apparently, in Manchester they do not get hung up over which is England’s second city – Birmingham and London can sort it our among themselves!

Well, I don’t know about that. I do know that we had a pleasant few days in Manchester city – and, yes, it did rain, but not too much. We stayed in the Youth Hostel which is a stone’s throw from the Museum of Science and Industry and one day we went to Media City UK by tram. Highlights for us included the world’s oldest “intercity” passenger station, namely Liverpool Road which is situated in the MOSI. You may know that the first regular passenger service ran between Manchester and Liverpool on that line from 1830 to 1844.

We also made a point of visiting the “Blue Peter” garden which is next to the tram station at Media City. Children of a certain age and fans of “Blue Peter” would understand. It was interesting enough but smaller than we imagined. Worth a look if you are passing through – we were en route to the Imperial War Museum North which is several minutes’ walk away.

The architecture of the IWM (North) is worth a mention. It looks, at first glance, a bit disjointed or haphazard. It turns out that the architect took inspiration from imagining a shattered globe and taking some of the pieces to make the building. The sense of war belonging to a broken world is written into the very shape of the museum. Meanwhile the inside tells some of the history of war and conflict as it has been experienced particularly during the 20th and early 21st centuries. If you are looking for details of military campaigns and scores of maps you will find those few and far between. This museum does not celebrate military victories as such; it is more of a social history where issues of justice and of peace collide. Among the items to note are the cross and the twisted girders from among the ruins of the Twin Towers of New York.

We did visit the Lowry Gallery during our wander round the quaysides but it was being refurbished and few pictures were on display. Perhaps we’ll get a better view another time.

A mention should be made of the Bollywood Masala restaurant near Deansgate. I enjoyed probably the nicest chicken korma I have had for a long time and the crispiest “family naan” ever.

“This book is impossible: Thirteen years ago I knew this couldn’t happen. I was going to die, you see. Or go mad.”

So begins Matt Haig’s book, “Reasons to Stay Alive” in which describes his breakdown and how he adapted to life afterwards. I hesitate to say “recovery” because, as he himself points out, you can be a happy depressive just as you can be an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in years. There are five sections of unequal length: falling, landing, rising, living and being which approximately describe his feelings and insights following his breakdown when he was 24. With hindsight there were warning signs – but then hindsight generally has better glasses than foresight.

I noticed that most reviews on Amazon were very positive but there were a few who either did not like or did not ‘get’ the idea. Having read it all the way through I can see that this book could be helpful to someone who suffers from depression or who is close to someone who is. If you are not familiar with it, this book may not help at all. For example, one person criticised it because it was all about the author, “all about me”. That is to miss the point: depression is indeed often “all about me” but not in a “Look at me and see how important/special I am”. It is more of an “all about how worthless I am and I don’t expect you to take any notice of me let alone agree with me”.

Some useful ideas include page 126f “How to be there for someone with depression or anxiety”. For example, “Don’t take anything personally, any more than your would take someone suffering with the flu or chronic fatigue syndrome or arthritis personally. It is not your fault.” (p 127). The list of “Things that have happened to me that have generated more sympathy than depression” rang a bell too. Meanwhile, on page 166 onwards, there is his list of famous people with depression. It may or may not help you to know that the list includes: Buzz Aldrin, Winston Churchill, Carrie Fisher, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton and Emma Thompson. The point being that depression does not happen only to “bad” or “weak” people. In fact, it has been remarked elsewhere that it is “The curse of the strong“. A useful metaphor, on page 181, is that if depression is a dark cloud then you are the sky: depression is smaller than you. Although that makes sense, convincing myself of that truth may take some doing.

And finally,

Self Help

How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.

Overall four stars or eight out of ten. Worth buying a copy to read and to lend.

A few of books for Lent

In our parish it is our custom have a Lent course over five weeks and to read an accompanying book. The book may be a course book or the one which the course leaders have used to base their prayers and meditations on. We have settled on the one we shall use in parish for our Lent course. Meanwhile, most of the ones I am reviewing below will work well for individual reading but do not easily work for as course.

“Sacred Space for Lent 2015” appeared in a “you might also like…” on a website. This is a series of short daily Bible readings intended for prayerful reflection and a couple of prayer actions. Each week also has an introduction with suggestions for prayer and meditation. The brevity of each day’s reading means that you can’t use the excuse “I don’t have enough time.” And you can take as long as you like.

The next book is more of a good read. I found the title “The Lent Factor” slightly off-putting as it is an obvious ploy to catch the attention of those familiar with the “X-factor” and the like on television. However, the content is more interesting. The author, Graham James, has provided us with 40 examples of Christians whose lives have inspired him in some way. A few of the names might be familiar to you, even fewer appear in any calendar of Saints. You will find Julian of Norwich here but not St Peter. A glance at a couple of entries drew my curiosity and I am looking forward to getting acquainted with these companions in due course. By the way, Lent is 40 days if you omit Sundays or if you start on the 1st Sunday of Lent (22nd February this year) which is the Sunday after Ash Wednesday.

Thirdly we have “Reflections for Lent” which is also taken from a larger volume, namely “Reflections for Daily Prayer 2014/15”. This provides a daily reflection to go alongside the lectionary readings for morning prayer from Ash Wednesday to Easter Eve (the day before Easter Day). It does not include readings for Sundays, presumably the editors think that its readers will be at church on Sunday and will be catered for there. Included in the book are short forms of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer as well as some introductions. The feature which caught my eye was the section by Samuel Wells called “Making a habit of Lent”. There he introduces the traditional Lenten disciplines such as confession, fasting, giving to charity and Bible reading. I think it is a helpful summary and I intend to refer to this in a later blog.

Finally, we found a book that we liked to use. It has been around a few years now but I had not noticed it before. The title “Spot the difference” lays down a challenge from the outset: how can you tell the difference that marks someone out as a Christian? After all, you do not need to be a Christian in order to be kind and generous. The author offers us five sessions (which neatly fit our need for a course in the weeks after Ash Wednesday and before Holy Week) with a variety of Bible readings, scenarios to consider and questions to discuss – as well as prayers for each session. The style makes suggestions, and asks questions to provoke thought and reflection rather simply telling us what to think. The underlying message is, however, quite clear; namely, that a Christian is someone who is committed to Christ and to following his will in every aspect of their life. One downside to this book is that it does very much leave it to group leaders to decide how much of the material to use each week. You could use it all in a couple of hours in the context of worship but not every group will have that expectation.

“Sacred Space for Lent 2015.” by the Irish Jesuits; published by Ave Maria Press, 2015

“The Lent Factor. Forty companions for the forty days of Lent” by Graham James; published by Bloomsbury, 2014

“Reflections for Lent. 18 February – 4 April 2015” by Malcolm Guite, Ben Quash, Frances Ward, Lucy Winkett; published by Church House Publishing, 2014

“Spot the difference. A group study course for Lent.” by Nick Fawcett; published by Kevin Mayhew, 2006

Interstellar (12A)

Strictly speaking this could have been called “Intergalactic” but that is splitting hairs, I suppose.

This was a superbly crafted and well-produced film set in  a possible near-future earth. NASA has become an underground organisation because people have accepted, as an overriding priority, the growing of food under dust-bowl conditions beset by blighted crops – space travel has been confined to myth and propaganda. In this world we are introduced to an ex-NASA astronaut, Cooper, and his family, currently doing his bit on the family farm with his father-in-law and his two children. After some twists and turns, our hero discovers that his skills are needed elsewhere so he leaves his family in order to save humanity. He is sent through a “wormhole” (a short-cut through space) to re-establish contact with some explorers who went on ahead.

There is some physics involved here because the astronauts travel at near-light speeds meaning that hours experienced by travellers works out as years passing for those left behind. That hazard of space-travel is one of the sub-themes running through the film: what happens to the people left behind? What happens to the travellers when they get back? How do they deal with the changes?

I found it a bit mawkish at times. For me, sentimental old fool that I am, that meant reminding myself that these were pretend families and the heart-wrenching moments merely a plot device.

Another theme was a poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night” (click link for the full text on PoemHunter). I suppose it was intended to help us understand Professor Brand (Michael Caine) with its defiant pessimism. Or maybe his bleak optimism. While I am not a fan of this pessimistic world view, I find it a mark of a good drama, film, TV show etc, when it can weave more than one strand together – sometimes in contradiction with each other, sometimes in appreciation of another work, sometimes with a nod to the past, sometimes with tongue in cheek.

The special effects were, well, effective, the plot was OK, the acting fine including the capable old hands of John Lithgow and Michael Caine. Forgive me, but you will have to look up the names of the main characters for yourself (e.g. the official website) as I did not recognise them; they performed well enough to bring an appropriate tear to the eye. Special credit should be given to those who played the Murph character. At a published 169 minutes (more like 3 hours) it was perhaps a bit overlong. For a fellow cinema-goer. sitting a few seats away from me, that was “three hours I shall not get back again!”

On its presentation, effects, acting skill and well-crafted narrative this merits at least 4 stars. However, two reasons for giving it three: I liked it but it is not one I am in a hurry to see again, nor do I intend to get the DVD; secondly, its sentimentality was a bit over done.

Do watch it if you like sci-fi / thrillers; it is safe for teenagers.

Overall, 3 stars or 7/10.

Gladstone Library

From my top floor bedroom I could see across the treetops to Queensferry on the river Dee in the distance and the tower of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on the far horizon. To be honest, I only confirmed this using the zoom function of my camera; the photo was not especially clear.


I was staying at St Deiniol’s which houses the Gladstone Library founded by a Victorian Prime Minister at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. It houses his original collection of books and papers though the library has grown over the century to provide a resource of theological books; not quite the size of a university library but certainly larger than any diocesan library I have known. This is a good place to do some private study whether Biblical or other Christian topic. Having said that, I would not expect to find anything to help plan next week’s Sunday School or an All Age service – though you might find a book or two on the theology of them.
The grounds in the village of Hawarden are pleasant and the bus link to nearby Chester (about 20 minutes) was regular with generally several buses an hour (check times for Sundays and bank holidays, of course).
The most obvious indication that you are in a different country is seeing all the signage in two languages: Welsh and English in the one, English alone in the other. On the bus, crossing the border, you would be none the wiser that you had left one country and had entered another unless you were paying attention to, for example, the road signs. The second clue is that after you passed the Airbus factory at Hawarden airport, the road leaves the flat Cheshire plain and starts the climb the first of many hills that characterise the Welsh countryside. The elevation gave an extra boost to my view (see above).
A week was long enough for my purposes; other residents were there for a retreat, some for conferences. If you wish to find out more try this link to the library.

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