March 28, 2009

Croak ....

Not very well at present. Still, the throat and the lack of voice is an incentive to get things done elsewhere....

My new Blog at The Gray Monk's Scriptorium seems to be coming together well, thoiugh I still have a number of things I need to figure out. HTML Code is NOT my thing!

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March 25, 2009

Moving slowly

The move across to The Gray Monk's Scriptorium is going ahead slowly and steadily. I'm getting to grips with the set up. layouts and various bolt-ons that are available and starting to experiment. Its interesting just to see how its done, but there are also some features which don't quite work as well as they could. One thing I haven't yet cracked is how to get on to Technorati in its various guises and there are still some things that work better in MovableType than they do in the base that Blogger uses. One invaluable feature in Blogger is the spellchecker. It certainly catches most of my typos and, as a rather crude two finger typist, that's important. As some observant readers here may have spotted previously.

Any way, further development needs to be done but will have to wait as I have a biggish contract on at the moment and a few other things down the pipe that will take up a fair amount of time for the forseeable. Bear with me, I'm still very much a novice when it comes to getting things to work in and on a computer.

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January 28, 2009

Inspiring lives

Yesterday driving to Tenby I listened fascinated to an interview with a Mr Jimmy Li, a Hong Kong based businessman talking about his life and the secret of his success. It was fascinating, because Mr Li was born in Canton in China about the same year that I was born in Cape Town - and into a very different society. His family was well off, but then came Chairman Mao and the Communists and Jimmy and his sisters ended up looking after themselves when he was aged about 9 because the Communists had decided that his father, a businessman, was an enemy of the state and gave him an option - leave or go to a Labour Camp. Then they decided that the childrens' mother needed "re-education" and sent her to a Labour Camp leaving the children at home to fend for themselves. Jimmy did this by finding a job at the railway station carrying bags, sweeping platforms and running errands. Some days they ate, some days they didn't.

I was moved almost to tears as I listened to him explaining that as "children of anamies of the people" they were pariahs and therefore not entitled to state aid, but that their impoverished neighbours shared everything when they had anything to share, and so Jimmy and his two sisters survived until their mother returned. At the age of 11 he decided that he was going to go to Hong Kong to seek his father or his fortune, but his mother refused to allow this until he was twelve, so at that tender age he left home and found his way, smuggled in the bottom of a small fishing smack with several dozen others, into Hong Kong. His first job was sweeping up the scraps in a factory, a job he did so diligently that the factory manager soon promoted him. But I cannot describe the feeling I got when I heard him describe his first morning at work. Arriving at six AM the manager looked at him and asked, "Have you eaten breakfast?" When he said no, he was handed HK$10 and told to go and eat. It was more money than he had ever seen at one time and he was almost unable to decide what he should buy with it because he had never seen so much food so readily available!

He worked hard and by the time he was twenty-one had paid off the "loan" from a relative that had paid for his being smuggled into Hong Kong and started polaying the stock market with HK$7,000 he had earned as a bonus and a further HK$3,000 from a friend. A year later they were both on their way to making their first HK$1 million and five years later owned their own factory. When they split up, Jimmy went on to open a chain of factories and moved his mother and sister into HK. He even opened factories in China itself - but then came Tianamin Square and Jimmy Li began a one man campaign through the media he now owned to attack the Chinese government. They retaliated and he was given an option - sell all his China based factories and retail business to their appointee or loose the lot. Three days later he had sold for a song - but now he really went for them. His media business is now based in Taiwan and elsewhere in the Far East. He has holdings in Europe and he has a fondness for the British and the colonial days in Hong kong.

Near the end of the interview he was asked why and his words went write through me.

"Because under the Western Colonial Rule we were given freedom. You cannot know what that means unless you have never had it. IN China there was no freedom and still is no freedom, but under the British we had freedom."

He also made a statement that really made me sit up and think. It was almost a throw away remark, but it is still amazing. He said, that in Hong Kong, there was no envy of someone else's wealth or good fortune, everyone knew that if you wanted it, all you had to do was work harder. Coming from a man who has taught himself to play the stock market, taught himself journalism, taught himself business management and taught himself to master English to the extent that he has an eloquence that is astonishing in someone who left school aged 9, I was dumbfounded. In just a few words he summed up what is most deeply wrong with our present society - it is founded on envy and greed - no wonder we are in deep trouble! When a man like Jimmy Li can walk in a street in the crowded old city of Hong Kong and see the wealthy drive past in a Rolls Royce or a Bentley and simply tell himself "One day I will own a car like that!" then you know you have met something or someone remarkable.

Jimmy Li, if you should be any chance stumble across this blog - I'd like to take my hat off to you, sir and shake your hand. You deserve everything you have!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 11, 2009

Baptism of Christ

Today we have celebrated the "Baptism of Christ" as described in the Gospel of St Mark. It is important to all Christians since, it it in this event that we are all joined in "One Baptism" into one fellowship in Christ. In short, it is in baptism that we share in Christ's baptism and therefore in each others. We are all a part of Team Christian no matter which branch we worship in or subscribe to. And there are 2.1 billion members of this "team" worldwide. Even in supposedly "Secular" Britain, those who claim belief in God still account for more than two thirds of the population and those who regularly attend church are still able to command a larger proportion of the populace than those who proclaim themselves "atheist".

We were reminded today in our readings and in the sermons that we are all members of a greater team, one that serves the Lord and, as with all teams, we are all called to play a part. Only then can we hope to further understanding of our faith and spread the message of the Gospel to all who seek to find God.

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December 22, 2008

Memories .....

Today would have been my Grandmother's 108th birthday. Sadly, she died in 1977 having been confined to wheelchair for almost twenty years. She was a strong but very quiet woman, brought up on a farm in the Eastern Orange Free State in South Africa, she could ride, shoot and do all the things a "Lady" should be able to do. Educated in the Pietermaritzburg Lady's College (I forget the correct name for this venerable Institution which I think no longer exists) she took prizes for dressage (Side saddle of course) and was an accomplished pianist, something she never managed to pass on to me!

Tookie HMH and HNH 1946.jpg
Hector Mary Heron and Henry Nelson Heron with their dog "Tookie" in 1946, the year I was born.

Gran, as we called her, was officially Hector Mary Heron, her first name the result of her being born the day the British Forces under General Hector MacDonald drove the Boer forces away from Harrismith and relieved a small 'seige' around her parents farm. Great Grandmother Hopkins, on being told that the General would have liked a boy born that day to be named for him, retorted "Well my daughter will be!" and promptly did so. Everyone else called her Mary and my grandfather always called her "Hoppy", his affectionate abbreviation of her Maiden Name. Abiding memories of her was her passion for walks, several miles to go shopping was nothing to her at all, and for nature. She raised both my brother and I as our mother and father both worked and it was she who saw our homework done and sorted out lunches and suppers.

In all the years she spent in her wheelchair she never complained of what she had lost or could no longer do, instead she found new things to occupy her. Sadly, the condition which had led to her being in the wheelchair in the first place was a degenerative one and slowly deprived her of the ability to speak coherently, though her mind remained sharp as a needle. She died six months after my Grandfather who had devoted his last years to caring for her - and just three weeks before her 77th Birthday.

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December 16, 2008

Progress - I think?

I seem to have the two big reports I have been writing almost under control. They are both now in "final draft" form and are with peer reviewers so I can make sure I have covered everything they need to address. At last I can sit back a bit and wonder when I'm going to get the money for the work, but that's another story.

Right now I'm relaxing, glass of good Shiraz at my side and the David Willcox version of the Messiah on the headphones. What more can any man ask for? I suppose only the live performance in the Abbey by the Schola Cantorum, but then I'd have to dress up and keep warm - and no wine. So I'll compromise, and just relax as I type this post.

Which may well be short. In fact, it is short.

Now back to the Arias and Chorusses. If there wasn't a God, we'd have to invent one just to get the music ......

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 20, 2008

I hate motorways .....

Particularly I hate motorways full of slow moving trucks trying to overtake one another, and motorists who duck and dodge in and out of the three lanes as if it were some sort of old fashioned pinball game. Yes, I know the Highway Codes says one should travel always in the left hand lane, moving to your right to overtake and then ease back into the left hand lane. But the damned book was written in an age when the damned motorways were relatively empty of juggernauts crawling along bumper to buymper in the left lane - and there certainly weren't the number of cars on them either.

I do use the left lane when it is reasonably clear and I can see that I will not have to pull out of it again to overtake a juggernaut in a few hundred metres. What's the point of tucking in behind a juggernaut when you are travelling faster than it is able too and you know you will have to either slow down behind it, or overtake it in less than a mile? Yet that is what a surprising number of motorists in Britain insist on doing. The result is that they weave in and out of the traffic, changing lanes regularly and making driving for everyone else a nightmare. And then there is the idiot who screams past you, dives into the gap in front of you - and slows down. And my other pet hate, the clown who can't maintain a steady speed and increases his speed going downhill, then slows to a crawl going up the other side. I sat behind one man this evening who managed to straddle two lanes and slowed to 40 mph - to the huge frustration of almost a mile of traffic who got stuck behind him.

The real problem here is that there are very few alternatives to getting to some places without using your car. To get to Chester by rail would have taken six times longer by train than by car even in the traffic and involved a vastly overpriced set of rail tickets. It would also have involved two changes of train and then a taxi in Chester.

Anyway, I'm now home for the moment and preparing for my next excursion. I wonder what the traffic will be like on Saturday as I try to get to Heathrow and my flight to Almaty. Hopefully their traffic won't be as manic as our motorways! Mind you, if its anything like Iranian traffic .....

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November 18, 2008

Hospitals as places of healing and rest ....

Not from where I'm sat, that's for sure, but at least I am currently inspecting one of the NHS's best. My brother on the other hand has just been discharged from one of Cape Town's oldest and, by the sound of it, most chaotic. His hip has been totally replaced, but they managed to dose him on so much of the pain killer that he went into hallucinations. According to him, at one point the ward tilted through 90* so that his bed was on the wall and he felt he was about to fall out of it and through the window opposite. Then there was the noise levels - and this is one of the features of Africa - certainly the Southern part of it. Nothing is done quietly, even at night and in a hospital. You must make as much noise as possible so that people know you are working and conversations should be held at noise levels which ensure that every word can be heard at least three doors away.

At least where I'm working the biggest problem is the visitors wandering into areas where they shouldn't be and trying to keep the patients suffering from dementia in bed.

My brother has now gone home after five days of very little rest and is trying to recover from a severe stomach bug and care for himself. As he says, you can't move fast on a zimmer and the bowels won't wait - but at least he has quiet and can get a little rest between racing for the loo! Hospitals these days don't seem to be about rest, resstant bugs are now endemic, a legacy of the abuse of antibiotics in the 1950's and 60's no doubt. Changes in the design of wards and the volume per bed have helped the heating bills and allowed more beds to be in smaller spaces - but it also helps the transfer of any bug that's running around. And, while the walls, floors and equipment you can see may be clean and bug free - you don't want to know what is lurking in te void hidden by the suspended celings...

Anyway, I suppose we should be glad that the hospitals are there, no matter how poor, for without them there would be nowhere for the sort of treatment my brother has just received to be delivered. It is't the sort of thing that can be done at home, nor even in a day surgery. All I have to do now is hope that his stomach can be sorted out so he can recover fully and get back to normal as quickly as possible.

These last weeks have reinforced in me the hope that when my time comes, I can go with dignity and in the peace of my own home. The thought of becoming a vegetable in some overcrowded and public ward fills me with horror. But then, that's me.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:36 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 17, 2008

Chester in my future?

Well, for the moment certainly. I have a contract to do some work that requires my presence in Chester most days of the week. Fortunately, this is the last week for the moment, but now a secondary contract has opened up and I'm likely to be required in Manchester doing similar work once I get back from Almaty in Kazakhstan. Actually, I have to say that I have found Chester a challenge and quite stimulating despite being hard work. It will be good to see it finished though so I can move on a try something new.

Almaty will be an even more interesting experience, partly because it is on the Chinese border and the old "Silk Road" trading route. It certainly seems to be an interesting place. I looked it up on the web and it boasts a magnificent burial site, from which a young man dressed in gold armour was recovered, which dates back at least 3,000 years. The site boasts Neolithic remains as well and has obviously been part of a human highway between East and West for as long as humans have travelled. It is claimed that finds as early as 10,000 years ago have been made in the archaeological study of some of the sites in this area.

Anyway, Almaty is a break from the "Chesters" at the moment, either Chester or Manchester is far enough from home to warrant staying in hotels or similar. And yet close enough to home to make that a nuisance. Guess I'll just have to count the paychecks and get on with it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:09 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 15, 2008

Playing catch up ....

The downside of working away from home is that an enormous amount of stuff doesn't get attended to in the course of a day. Lots of little things that you would normally do as a part of your days routine simply aren't picked up - so, when you get to the weekend. Everything has to be squeezed into as short a time as possible. At least I'm getting through a lot as I let the washing machine run its course. Now to get down to some real work I guess.

I've a report to write and an article for a paying Journal to finish. Neither will do themselves and unfortunbately I haven't yet mastered the art of writing technical stuff while answering the phone, making calls and sending e-mails - all on the list of things to be done TODAY!


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November 13, 2008

Good news

My brother is recovering, as I write, from a partial hip replacement in hospital in Cape Town. As he has no medical insurance, this has been an expensive operation costing something like SARand30,000, but it is a very necessary one. For some time now he has been suffering a lot of pain in the joint as he tried to walk. Now, hopefully, the replacement will give him at least twenty years without the problem. As he is four years younger than myself, it is a reminder that I have been very lucky in this regard.

His problem arises from having had secondary polio when he was around six, something no one spotted, though he ran a high temperature and displayed some of the symptoms. It was not until his 'teens that anyone noticed that the right side of his pectoral muscles had attrified - a sign of polio damage - and that his spine was also kinked due to other muscle damage. That has meant that for years he has been putting more strain on one hip than on the other - and the damage to the joint is the result.

Now all I have to pray for is that he has a speedy and uncomplicated recovery.

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November 01, 2008

Good news

The good news is that Joan, aka Da Goddess, has come through the surgery well. The operation was completed faster than expected and the prognosis is reported to be good for a speedy recovery. Thanks to all those who added their prayers to mine yesterday, it certainly helped her and her family to know that we were praying.

But, though the surgery is now behind her, she will need our prayers and support as she recovers.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 21, 2008

Trafalgar Day

Today is Trafalgar Day, the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar which gave Britain and its Empire mastery of the seas and the World the Pax Britannica which lasted a little over a hundred years. As usual our left-wing, military hating government have ignored it completely.

But then they've handed control of the once proud Royal Navy over to Europe and a French Admiral is now in charge ......

Better not remind him that a smaller British Fleet beat the living daylights out of the much larger Combined Fleet of French and Spanish ships. Where is Admiral Nelson when we need him ......

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:05 AM | TrackBack

September 28, 2008

Post hurricane meanderings ...

Visiting One Happy Dog Speaks the other day, I followed her link to another blog and found these stunning pictures on of the pre-storm surge from Hurricane Ike and the post storm damage. As Happy Dog, alias VWBug, asks, what draws us to pictures of devastation? I suspect its an element of "Thank God it wasn't me!"

The scenes of devastation in Texas and a couple from Cuba and Haiti certainly bring home to me the enormous power of nature. And before anyone says it, no, I don't think the storms have become more powerful in the last decade or so. Two things have changed which also changes our perceptions of these events. The first, is that we now have much more immediate pictorial coverage of them, the second is that as the low-lying coastal areas have been developed in so many countries and the human population continues to grow unchecked, more property and more people are in harms way whenever a storm of this magnitude does occur.

The more we pave over, the greater the run-off we generate. More run-off, less "soak away" means that rivers can't handle the volume of water. Here in Britain we have the added stupidity of the Environment Agency and the usual "green" suspects refusing to dredge rivers. As the rivers silt up - the volume of water increasing from run-off becomes a factor the river cannot deal with any longer. Add to that building on flood plains and .....

Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, these storms strode through sparsely populated areas and did as much damage to the environment as they have ever done. Now of course, we have thousands of homes and even more people living in the area the storm surge must invade - and the result is the tragedy in the pictures. Well, the hurricane season is now at an end for this year, and here in the idyllic Severn valley we await the usual winter rains and probable flooding in rather resigned fashion. A notice not far from my home advertises land for sale for "Recreational and Service use" - its flood plain land and despite numerous attempts the same crew of developers keep coming back and trying to get planning permission to build on it or to pave it over - either of which will lead to tragedy in the future. Some folk simply won't learn.

All of that said, I have nothing but sympathy for those affected by Hurricane Ike. The pictures say it all, but we really do need to think about where we allow communities to be developed and built since this activity is probably the single most likely cause of these disasters. Nature is as nature is, constantly changing and constantly a threat. We need to learn to live with it rather than trying to defy it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:48 AM | Comments (1)

September 21, 2008

The Media damages society?

My eldest daughter, who sometimes posts here as "the Postulant", recently sent me her thoughts on media coverage of events in an e-mail which I reproduce for your edification here. She noticed that the recent hurricanes in the US barely got a mention in our daily papers, more engrossed in the morass of a government running out of ideas and long out of honesty. She asks the important question, "Is the Media good for us or our society?"

I've come to the conclusion, having read a book called Quirkology, that the media actually damages society. It is good to know what's going on, but all of the emotional tugging is quite obviously affecting people deeply - the media is generating fear, anxiety and depression, all in the name of ratings. The whole knife crime situation is a prime example - a top copper was quoted this week as saying that more children were carrying knives now than ever did before, because they see reports that other kids are carrying knives and arm themselves in self-defence.

My colleagues and I listened to a brief demonstration on how to talk to the media at a recent conference and one of the things our PR guys said was "journalists often don't have time to get facts straight, so make sure you speak clearly, don't use too much terminology, ask them to read it back to you and be prepared to repeat yourself". I'm wondering where the "investigative" part comes into journalism if they're basically repeating exactly what some PR guy has told them...

So yes, your Katrina articles of 2005 struck a chord - how hypocritical of the media to fly in with celebrities, when they could have flown helicopters in loaded with food and water :S

I have long pondered some of this myself, particularly having been misquoted by the press on several occassions I am all to aware of the danger of talking to any journalist. Therein lies the conundrum; we expect to be informed of events as they happen, particularly via the visual media, but sometimes, to provide that information undermines any hope of achieving a resolution. As soon as the cameras appear at a demonstration the more extreme elements begin to "play to the camera" and I have personally witnessed such scenes. One, in particular, involved an rather fun demonstration where the atmosphere was almost carnival like - until the TV News turned up. Suddenly the heavy mob appeared, complete with hoods and balaclavas and attacked the police and the stewards. Naturally, the police retaliated - and the cameras, with some interesting editing, managed to show only the "brutal" police response.

It frustrated the British Military planners throughout the Second World War, that highly sensitive information passed to our US counterparts frequently ended up emblazoned across the front pages of US Papers. The German Abwehr didn't even have to get out of bed to gather secret information. Now its endemic in the UK, let the government of the day decide on something some civil servant doesn't like and you can guarantee it will be front page of the Sun or the Daily Mirror the next day. There is a very fine line between public information and propaganda, equally there is a very fine line between providing the public with essential information and causing untold damage to sensitive negotiations, military operations and commercial activities. The past week of financial crisis could probably have been much less damaging had the media circus not pursued it with such grim vigour and a determination to be as negative as possible.

The truth, as my daughter points out, is that the Media do damage our society. They print opinions, frequently misusing or using bias in the presentation of facts, to shape and change opinion. Its an old trick, one that the Communists and the Nazis used to great effect in the twentieth century - and one our socialist liberal dominated media now use with impunity.

In answer to my daughters initial question though I would say that the reason the damage done by Ike and other hurricanes has not been as well covered as Katrina in 2005 is simple. The fact that the US has not been shown as being incompetent in its response to these disasters has meant that our left wing liberal media have not been able to use it to do any "Bush Bashing" or to denigrate the US itself.

And that answers the main question. Is the Media bad for society? Yes. Certainly as long as it is driven by aparatchiks whose politics decide how information is presented or the facts distorted in order to present a biased or misleading picture. Something to watch methinks!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:53 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 16, 2008

A journey in spirit

Today I had my second interview with an assessor for possible selection for ordination. I think it went very well, at least we had a good discussion on a wide range of topics, al, of course, steered toward the aspects of my personality, background and intellectual abilities that he was trying to assess. It was an interesting session for many reasons, not least because I have done a similar thing in interviewing potential candidates for my profession. Certainly the content of the questions and definitely the discussions was different, but the purpose is the same - to get a feel for the person in front of you.

This is a journey I feel I must undertake, somewhat late in life I admit, but one that has been on my mind for many, many years. Ever since I first encountered Christ in fact. And that is more years ago than I care really to admit. A lot of fun, hardship on occassions and two divorces have not made the path easier, but it is something I know I must explore properly and now seems as good a time as any. There are many hurdles to overcome and a lot of baggage, both useful and unnecessary to be sorted and dealt with. A career in which I have been both a leader and a follower doesn't make it easy to give up control, but there comes a point where you have to cast your doubts aside and go where the spirit leads. Having started, I must now see where I am required to go. As the Centurion said in answer to Christ's challenge - "I am a man under authority, I say to this one come, and he comes and to another go and he goes. If you say the word .... " You cannot be "in authority" unless you also respect the authority of those in whose charge you are placed.

Your prayers will be much appreciated over the coming months.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:21 PM

September 15, 2008

Professional volunteers?

Today I have played host, on behalf of my former employer, to a group from Santiago in Chile. It may come as a surprise to most Europeans, but the Chilean cities are served by an entirely volunteer fire service. What is more they get some funding from the municipality they serve, but each member pays to belong to the service. Now that is novel!

But even more interesting is the fact that they draw their membership from university graduates, businessmen and generally middle class and well educated backgrounds. And that leads to the next little piece of interesting thinking. These guys are trying to find ways to put their people through our training regime - at their own expense. Why? Because they recognise the fact that, in order to meet the demands of a modern city they need to be at least as good as the professionals in other countries.

One thing is veryclear, these guys are entusiastic, they are determined to make a difference to their society and to provide a service that will be as good as they can make it. All power to them! It has been a privilege metting them and talking to them today. And I learned something else - my ancestors must have been busy and prolific. My surname is a common one in Chile and seems to have been carried there by an opportunist member of the clan. I wonder which one?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:05 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 02, 2008

Skipped day

It has been a long day. Starting out on a run to get my car assessed for repair. I was hit from behind while stationary on the M5 on my way north to Liverpool. At first glance the damage was negligible so I wasn't particularly bothered. A closer inspection on my return home showed that the damage was deceptive. The back end of my car is mostly a very tough and flexible plastic. Ergo, it absorbed the impact, folding around the crumple struts underneath it. Not being aware of this, my inspection on the M5 left me with the impression that I had escaped with nothing more than a sharp bump and a couple of small scratches. Not so. The crumple struts have crumpled. The good news is that they can be fixed and the insurance will see to it. Even better it isn't as bad as I thought when I discovered it.

Then it was to the bank for a long session sorting out a few banking matters. That took up the rest of the morning to be followed by a quick trip to the Abbey to host an Organ Recital and then to do my duty as Abbey Chaplain for the afternoon.

That last is always interesting, especially getting to talk to people visiting the Abbey. Some just want to admire the Abbey and are interested in the history, others want to talk about the spiritual side. One never knows what will come up in these conversations. It was a very quiet afternoon from a visitor perspective, but I still had a number of interesting chats.

The evening was taken up with a meeting on the Fabric - churchy term for the structure and fittings - which meant I got home late.

Footnote: I thought that I had posted this - I find I must havebeen too tired. I didn't switch the command to "Publish".

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:03 PM

August 25, 2008

Somebody's having a laugh

The Abbey sound system has failed yet again. Friday we sorted it, Saturday it worked brilliantly, Sunday we had trouble with the Pulpit microphone and the Priest's Radio Mike. Today the Pulpit refuses to work at all and the Loop system has collapsed completely. We don't know why. No one has touched anything in the system at all since Friday other than to turn it on for use in services.

So now we are back to Square 1. Sound Engineers and more diagnostic work to be done - but one thing is for sure. It seems to be related to something on the line from the pulpit microphone and the Loop system. So, starting there, some wires will be pulled, the Loop scrapped and we'll just keep going until this damned thing does what it is supposed to do, when we want it to and as we want it to.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:42 PM | TrackBack

August 20, 2008

Sound systems and echoes ....

Buildings like the Abbey have some peculiar properties, not least an interesting echo at certain pitches of voice or instrument. That makes putting any sort of sound system into them tricky. We have a very good - allegedly - system in the Abbey, but it has some interesting problems and at the moment as you fix one, something else goes wrong.

Today will be a long and interesting day I'm thinking since I have to spend it with the sound engineers as they try - for the Lord alone knows how many-eth time - to sort out the Parametric Equaliser, the radio control and the radio microphones that cancel each other out, drop out for no apparent reason when in sight of a receiving aerial and so much more. Oh, and then there's the spaghetti in the back of the cabinet - which, frankly, I took one look at at and asked if that wasn't a part of the problem with everything interfering with everything else.

Interesting how the "experts" all went straight into defence mode, protecting their mystique with jargon and waffle - until I got angry enough to tell them they have one chance to sort it out or its the lawyers. Nine months of amplified mayhem is enough! I know enough about electronic communications systems to know when I can bag and sell what I am being told as fertiliser.

Der Tag is upon the Sound System!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:13 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 11, 2008

A funny old day ....

Spent the morning talking to people from the German television station ZDF. The funny part was that neither of them came from Germany and neither spoke a word of German. The interveiwer was the product of an exclusive English Public School and so was the cameraman. If anything his school is probably the best known of all Public Schools. Just shows, never judge a book by its covers .....

They were here to make a short piece on the rising problem across Europe of the theft of any metal that can be ripped from wherever it currently is and sold to a scrap merchant. The other person interviewed was the Operations Manager of an Insurance company that specialises in Church buildings and some of his information was, I must admit, a real eye-opener. I know I have often said that I might as well sleep in the Abbey given the amount of time I spend there - well, there are Church Wardens who do sleep in their churches just to guard against theft!

After that interview I had to go to another. This time it was one in which my suitability for ordination was under scrutiny. I think it went well, but I'm never a good judge of the outcomes from these so I won't be holding my breath. Anyway, there is still another interview to go through and then I still need the "Faculty" of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself to proceed. The Church of England moves incredibly slowly and in a very complicated dance it seems!

Getting home, I fielded three phone calls in short order, all of them for work. Again, I have had very little paying work for the last couple of months and suddenly I'm swamped. At least I should get enough from that to pay the taxman!

Hiho, a strange old day - and there's more to come!

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August 10, 2008

Busy Sundays .....

An interesting encounter with a Dutch couple who were visiting the Abbey this morning has got me thinking. They commented that they used to enjoy visiting Amsterdam on a Sunday - because everything was closed and there were no crowds. Now that is no longer possible because all the shops are open and the place is crawling with trippers. Their point was that with the secularisation of everything and the twenty-four hour, seven days a week trading, no one has time to rest, to take "time out" from the pressures of work, crowds, people and the need to earn enough to enjoy a frenetic "holiday" once a year - in crowded tourist destinations.

This touches on something which runs very deep indeed. The likes of the Boardroom denizens still occuppy their exclusive clubs and restuarants on Sundays and have Saturday and Sunday "at home" with the family and friends (Assuming Torquil and Henrietta are on hols from their expensive boarding schools) - but those they employ are never given that option. At least in the days when Sunday Trading was banned, every family had at least one day in the week when they could all take time out together. Not anymore. I wonder if it has even dawned on the denizens of the various Boardrooms, Whitehall and the Westminster parasites that this is a major reason families are falling apart? Fathers and mothers frequently work different shift patterns and so Mum has Monday off and Dad may have Wednesday off. That is how the law is interpreted - as long as every employee gets two days completely off in any working week - it can be ANY two days.

This is why we frequently see half a family in church and never see both together at the same time. It is also why one sees feral children running around unchecked on a Sunday. Both parents are probably at work! There was a great deal of sense in having one day in the week on which no trading was permitted. There is no need whatever for the likes of Sainsbury's, Tesco or anyone else among the mega stores to trade 24/7 - except the greed of their Boardrooms.

It is perhaps time to step back and take a good hard look at where their corporate greed is taking us.

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August 08, 2008

Keeping posted

I have made several attempts to post something today, but it has been a busy one. Starting with a meeting which took up the morning, then the afternoon slipped by while I made sure I had everything recorded from the morning.

Well, I finally managed to cut the grass when my head could no longer stand the legal jargon, tech speak of reports and the constant searching for cross references. There does come a point when you wonder why you're doing something - and at that point the grass got a haircut.

This is now my Good Night. I think a drop of the proper stuff and my bed calls ....

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August 02, 2008

Requiem eternam

Last night the MDS choir provided the background music to our Requiem Mass, the setting by Byrd is sombre and was stunningly performed. An added bonus was the Funeral March by Purcell, performed by the timpany and brass from the West end of the Abbey during the Offertory.

There is something in music which reaches into the soul and this music not only does that, it lifts one out of one's comfort zone and takes you to places you perhaps have not considered visiting within yourself.

For those who may want to follow up and hear this music you need to look for:

Mass in Five Parts - William Byrd 1540 - 1623
Introit - Burial Sentences - William Croft 1678 - 1727
Gradual - In the midst of life we are in death - Henry Purcell 1659 - 1695
Offertory - Funeral music for Queen Mary - Henry Purcell 1659 - 1695
Communion - Thou knowest Lord the secrets - Purcell
Post Communion - I heard a voice from Heaven - Purcell

Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee (John Donne, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral. A sermon on the death of a friend c 1647)

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July 30, 2008

Installing an Abbot

Today's feast of music and worship has included the Mass this morning, an Organ Recital this evening and Compline to finish the day. The Mass setting was a modern one by MacMillan, a very unusual setting indeed and I will be honest, not exactly to my taste, though it did have some interesting moments. That said, the musical cogniscenti in the congregation loved it, so I guess if it floats their boats, then it has achieved something.

The stunning performance of works by Bach, Vaughan-Willians, Messiean, Dupre and Nielsen on the Milton Organ played by Carleton Etherington was, in my humble opinion, unsurpassable. I am not normally a Messiean fan, but Carleton's rendition of his "Communion" and "Sortie" almost convince me to change my view. And, as usual Carleton found a few Stops I have not heard before on that instrument. One part of the "Communion" counterpoints the highest note on the instrument - just audible at the top of my audio range in my aging ears - with the lowest. Well, I reckon there are some puzzled bats out there tonight - and some worried moles!

Now to my title! You were wondering weren't you? Well, ever since the Dissolution of the monasteries in the British Isles in 1537 - 1541, the "English Congregation" of the Benedictine Order has appointed "Titular" Abbots to the "lost" monasteries. We learned a year or so ago, that our "titular" had recently died and his successor was to be Father Aidan, a former Abbot of a Monastic community in Washington DC. A letter was sent inviting him to visit us and to preach for Musica Deo Sacra - but unfortunately last year the floods prevented this happening. So the invitation was sent again this year.

So, for the first time since the Abbey was surrendered to the King's Commissioners in 1541, we welcomed the Titular Abbot to our Abbey and his. The Vicar installed him formally in a Stall in the Choir in the presence of the congregation and of representatives of his House and his Order. As the Vicar said, we hope and pray that this small gesture will help to further the fostering of good relations between our two churches and between Christians everywhere. The Abbot then preached a very good sermon, one we hope will soon appear on the Abbey website. Keep an eye out for it at There may be further pictures and reports on MDS there too!

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July 29, 2008

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it

Those were the opening words of yesterday's sermon during Solemn Evensong the start of the MDS week.They not only reminded everyone of last year's devastating floods in and around Tewkesbury but also set the motto for this week. It was a real pity Mausi could only understand about half of the sermon delivered by the Dean of St Albans with the sound system at the Abbey obviously not feeling quite well last night.

The music sung by a first class choir is something one has to be experienced in person to really appreciate it. It was all the Monk had promised Mausi it would be. There is nothing like a choir to make the building come alive for it was built for music like that. The whole atmosphere inside turned distinctly medieval and Mausi could almost see the Monks of former times standing there instead of the choristers.

Another hightlight is the organ voluntary which is given at the end of each service. Last night we had Fantasia and Fugue in G by Hubert Parry. Very impressive! Mausi is certainly looking forward to the rest of the week.

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July 28, 2008

Musica Deo Sacra

This week sees our annual feast of music in the Abbey. Musica Deo Sacra (MDS for short) means Music Sacred to God. And it is a real feast of sacred music, sung in the context of the services it was written to enhance by visiting choristers, both professional and amateur from all over Britain and some even from Europe and elsewhere.

It kicks off tonight with a Solemn Evensong and includes music by Messiaen, Johnson, Byrd, Ireland and Parry. Tuesdays Mass in Honour of our Lady is accompanied by the music of Messiaen, with the setting by di Lasso and pieces by Biebl, Blinko, Moore and Buxtehude. Wednesday has a similar line-up of fabulous settings and so does the Friday Requiem. Saturday has a Solemn Matins and the climax on Sunday has a Sung Mass with the West of England Players accompanying the enlarged choir.

It is a real treat, especially as we had to forego it last year due to the floods.

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July 26, 2008

Lambeth - hot air or real debate?

Rapproachment. I think we need some of that following on from Lambeth and all the debates about "the plain meaning of scripture" in relation to women priests, gay clergy and a host of other "matters of faith". The difficulty I have with some of that is that the same biblical books which are so passionately against homosexual relationships also condone slavery and a range of measures which could be described as "anti-women" or, at the very least, discriminatory. While I do agree with the traditionalists that culture should be modified by faith and not faith by culture, I find I cannot ignore the scientific findings, reported in the Church Times, that suggest that homosexuals do not have a "choice" in their sexuality. Does this place them outside of God's all embracing love? I don't think so, so the question is not "can they be active members of the church?" but, can the church find ways to recognise their existence and their right to the Gospel?

I feel for the Archbishop of Sudan when he tells the Conference that the leaders of Islam in his country seize upon the openly gay activities of the Church in the US and Canada to condemn him, as a member of the Anglican Church as "Apostate and the enemy of God". The fact is, in my view, that if they did not have that excuse these same Muslim clerics would find another. That said, the Church in the US and in Canada does need to take account of the impact of their activities outside of their own little sphere - that is the essence of St Paul's letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 10: 32 - 33) - if something causes offence to other Christians, don't do it! If it causes difficulties for others - in Paul's words, whether Greek, Jew or something else - don't do it! Which probably means that the General Synod may need to revisit the recent decision on Woman Bishops ...... A letter in this weeks Church Times suggests that the House of Laity opponents to the creation of Women Bishops without legal safeguards for those unable to accept their oversight is growing and even worse, a poll of laity suggests that the the "people in the pew" are not behind this move either.

There is a serious question underlying most of this. It concerns the ministry of women, traditionally seen as "nurturing, child bearing and home centred," but it seems that it may not have always been so. There is evidence that women, certainly in the first years of the church (Up to around 400AD) may have had roles as Deacons, Priests (Then called Presbyters) and possibly even as bishops. Why are there no records of this? Probably because the creation of a heirarchy from 313AD onwards saw it become increasingly a reflection of the dynastic ambitions of the landowning and political classes. The entire Papal structure is a direct descendant of the Imperial Roman administration, yet it was not until the early 600's that the Bishop of Rome managed to persuade everyone to follow his authority and even then the Eastern branch of the Church refused to do so. Of course the Papal claim to being the supreme ruler of the Church is based on the words of Christ, "You are the rock on which I shall build my church ..." but there is little evidence to support the view that the intention was that anyone beyond Peter would have the same status. In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that the other apostles took any notice of what Peter was doing or wanted as they fanned out across the globe spreading the gospel.

So, back to Lambeth. This Conference is the first on record to not have any major resolutions on the table. Some would say that the reason for that is to avoid a damaging and permanent split, a typically Anglican fudge. This is probably close to the truth. The fact is that many "traditionalist" Bishops simply aren't prepared to make any accomodation - and the liberal Bishops are in the same boat. They cannot admit that their liberal approach is causing a problem for anyone else without recognising that it has probably alienated many in their own flocks. And it is certainly not helped by the openly "humanist/socialist" secularising agenda of most of the media and the political classes here and in other Western countries.

Can a real debate on these issues take place? I sometimes doubt it, entrenched views are very difficult to break down and almost impossible to change, but I do pray that those attending Lambeth (And some at least of those who stayed away but attended the Jerusalem alternate) will actually shut up and listen to one another. If they do not, they, and not the "people in the pew" will become increasingly the cause of the demise of the Anglican church in all its diversity. This is evidenced by the manner in which the debates in General Synod have gone recently. Far to often one hears the expression "we recognise your views and feel your pain, but ..." as yet another unpopular motion is rammed through without compromise or even attempt at compromise. Real debate seeks compromise or at least explores common ground and many feel that this is not happening either at Lambeth or in General Synod. Two weeks ago the Church Times ran a leader article which said "save us from the anoraks" - suggesting that far too many Synod members are there because they have an agenda or issue which may, or may not, have anything to do with the Gospel.

That, of course, is the weakness of any elected system of governance, not least in churches. Lambeth stands outside of that arena in one sense, though, outside of the Church of England, Bishops are generally chosen by their Diocese and elected by the Electoral College of the Diocese. That too is open to abuse, but generally works reasonably well. So, when over six hundred Bishops gather to discuss the matters which concern the mission of the Church throughout the world, one hopes above all else, that the Holy Spirit is opening their ears and their eyes to the matters which really affect the mission and ministry of the church. I agree in one thing with the Archbishop of Sudan, what we do in England affects the church in Sudan, in Australia and everywhere else. Likewise what is done in the name of Christ and his Church in the US and Canada affects us all. We have to be more alert to that and we do have to recover the concept that faith alters culture - not the other way round.

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July 18, 2008


One thing I guess I am not short on is memories, good and bad, but I would have to say mostly good. I was clearing out some files recently and came across the papers for my trip to Belgrade now almost three years ago. Several things stand out about that trip, not least the degree of warmth with which I was met at every level, even in the streets. I was reminded also by the fact that I recently had the pleasure of showing three young men from Serbia around the Abbey, so when I found this picture while looking for something totally different, I realised I should put it up as today's post.

The decorated dome of a small Serbian Orthodox Church which stands in the shadow of what will eventually be the largest Orthodox Church in the world.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, like their Romanian cousins to the East, is heavily influenced by the Byzantine style. The iconography is very Byzantine and the decoration follows a similar pattern.

I have been invited to spend a holiday there with a friend, Professor of Engineering at the University of Belgrade, and must find his address. Its time I visited him again.

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July 01, 2008

Word Power

I received a 'Round Robin" type e-mail earlier today which set me thinking. The message is essentially a reminder from the Bible that the tongue is a vicious weapon - perhaps one of the most dangerous in the world. The message set me thinking as I drove north to Blackpool and the conference I am attending this week.

Looking back at history, one is very quickly aware of the number of occasions when words spoken in anger, or simply in ignorance, have launched wars and misery for millions. Reading the book "The Rubicon" one is very soon aware of just how little politicians have changed since Roman times, and of just how cleverly they can use words to destroy one man (or a group) and raise another. Nothing much changes. Unfortunately it isn't just the politicians that use words to hurt or damage - we all do at some time or another, and yes, I do hold my own hand up on that one.

Part of the trouble is that what we say, and what others hear may be two different things. A lot depends on how we say something, how we present the statement in 'body language' and in the inflections in our voice. Sometimes we respond with a flippant comment or remark when the other half of the conversation is hoping for something more affirmative or sensitive. Perhaps we even meant it to be heard that way - but the way we said it is misheard and distress may be the result. This is often the case in disputes within families - one person is having a bad day and another wants approval or encouragement. Words are misheard or misinterpreted and the result can be a family rift that lasts a lifetime.

We all need to be careful what we say and how we say it - most particularly when we talk about others to anyone else, including themselves. It is all to easy to say something hurtful without intending to do so - and once said, the words cannot be unsaid.

As Omar Kayyiam, the 11th Century Persian poet wrote - "The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on; And not all the tear, nor all the sorrows, can change one line of it."

The same applies to everything we say - it cannot be unsaid and the words have the power to destroy someone's confidence, to inflict wounds that, for all they cannot be seen, still cut deep. Words have power and we need to remember that we have two eyes, two ears, but thankfully only one tongue. One should never speak in anger for that is when we are most likely to say exactly the thing that will do the most damage. Once said, an apparently small comment has the power to cause decades of hurt.

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June 25, 2008

Truth is often stranger than fiction ...

Is a truism that has some bearing on the reality of life - as I have discovered writing fiction. Yet every now and then you run into a true story that makes you sit back and wonder. In the extended post below is just such a story. I have followed up the links and it certainly looks the real deal, yet it is still one of those stories that you probably could not invent if you tried - and you certainly couldn't write it believably. Anyone who has read "The boy in the striped pyjamas" will understand what I am saying here.

It is this kind of amazing story though that fuels faith in many people and keeps hope alive even in the bleakest circumstances. Having read Herman Rosenblat's story I felt I had to share it.

August 1942. Piotrkow , Poland . The sky was gloomy that morning as we waited anxiously. All the men, women and children of Piotrkow's Jewish ghetto had been herded into a square. Word had gotten around that we were being moved. My father had only recently died from typhus, which had run rampant through the crowded ghetto.

My greatest fear was that our family would be separated.

'Whatever you do,' Isidore, my eldest brother, whispered to me, 'don't tell them your age. Say you're sixteen.' I was tall for a boy of 11, so I could pull it off. That way I might be deemed valuable as a worker. An SS man approached me, boots clicking against the cobblestones. He looked me up and down, then asked my age. 'Sixteen,' I said. He directed me to the left, where my three brothers and other healthy young men already stood.

My mother was motioned to the right with the other women, children, sick and elderly people. I whispered to Isidore,
'Why?' He didn't answer. I ran to Mama's side and said I wanted to stay with her. 'No,' she said sternly. 'Get away.
Don't be a nuisance. Go with your brothers.' She had never spoken so harshly before. But I understood: She was
protecting me. She loved me so much that, just this once, she pretended not to. It was the last I ever saw of her.

My brothers and I were transported in a cattle car to Germany . We arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp one night weeks later and were led into a crowded barrack. The next day, we were issued uniforms and identification numbers.

'Don't call me Herman anymore.' I said to my brothers. 'Call me 94983.' I was put to work in the camp's crematorium,
loading the dead into a hand-cranked elevator. I, too, felt dead. Hardened, I had become a number. Soon, my brothers and I were sent to Schlieben, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps near Berlin .

One morning I thought I heard my mother's voice, 'Son,' she said softly but clearly, I am going to send you an angel.'
Then I woke up. Just a dream. A beautiful dream. But in this place t here could be no angels. There was only work.

And hunger. And fear.

A couple of days later, I was walking around the camp, around the barracks, near the barbed-wire fence where the guards could not easily see. I was alone. On the other side of the fence, I spotted someone: a little girl with light, almost luminous curls. She was half-hidden behind a birch tree. I glanced around to make sure no one saw me. I called to her softly in German. 'Do you have something to eat?' She didn't understand. I inched closer to the fence and repeated question in Polish. She stepped forward. I was thin and gaunt, with rags wrapped around my feet, but the girl looked unafraid. In her eyes,

I saw life. She pulled an apple from her woolen jacket and threw it over the fence. I grabbed the fruit and, as I started to run away, I heard her say faintly, 'I'll see you tomorrow.'

I returned to the same spot by the fence at the same time every day. She was always there with something for me to eat - a hunk of bread or, better yet, an apple. We didn't dare speak or linger. To be caught would mean death for us both. I didn't know anything about her, just a kind farm girl, except that she understood Polish. What was her name? Why was she risking her life for me? Hope was in such short supply, and this girl on the other side of the fence gave me some, as nourishing in its way as the bread and apples.

Nearly seven months later, my brothers and I were crammed into a coal car and shipped to Theresienstadt camp in
Czechoslovakia . 'Don't return,' I told the girl that day. 'We're leaving.' I turned toward the barracks and didn't look back, didn't even say good-bye to the little girl whose name I'd never learned, the girl with the apples.

We were in Theresienstadt for three months. The war was winding down and Allied forces were closing in, yet my fate seemed sealed. On May 10, 1945, I was scheduled to die in the gas chamber at 10:00 AM. In the quiet of dawn, I tried to prepare myself. So many times death seemed ready to claim me, but somehow I'd survived. Now, it was over. I thought of my parents.

At least, I thought, we will be reunited.

But at 8 A.M. there was a commotion. I heard shouts, and saw people running every which way through camp. I caught up with my brothers. Russian troops had liberated the camp! The gates swung open. Everyone was running, so I did too.

Amazingly, all of my brothers had survived; I'm not sure how. But I knew that the girl with the apples had been the key to my survival. In a place where evil seemed triumphant, one person's goodness had saved my life, had given me hope in a place where there was none. My mother had promised to send me an angel, and the angel had come.

Eventually I made my way to England where I was sponsored by a Jewish charity, put up in a hostel with other boys who had survived the Holocaust and trained in electronics. Then I came to America , where my brother Sam had already moved. I served in the U. S. Army during the Korean War, and returned to New York City after two years. By August 1957 I'd opened my own electronics repair shop. I was starting to settle in.

One day, my friend Sid who I knew from England called me. 'I've got a date. She's got a Polish friend. Let's double

A blind date? Nah, that wasn't for me. But Sid kept pestering me, and a few days later we headed up to the Bronx to pick up his date and her friend Roma. I had to admit, for a blind date this wasn't so bad. Roma was a nurse at a Bronx hospital. She was kind and smart. Beautiful, too, with swirling brown curls and green, almond-shaped eyes that sparkled with life.

The four of us drove out to Coney Island . Roma was easy to talk to, easy to be with. Turned out she was wary of blind dates too! We were both just doing our friends a favor. We took a stroll on the boardwalk, enjoying the salty Atlantic breeze, and then had dinner by the shore. I couldn't remember having a better time.

We piled back into Sid's car, Roma and I sharing the backseat. As European Jews who had survived the war, we were aware that much had been left unsaid between us. She broached the subject, 'Where were you,' she asked softly, 'during the war?'

'The camps,' I said, the terrible memories still vivid, the irreparable loss. I had tried to forget. But you can never forget.

She nodded. 'My family was hiding on a farm in Germany , not far from Berlin ,' she told me. 'My father knew a priest, and he got us Aryan papers.'

I imagined how she must have suffered too, fear, a constant companion. And yet here we were, both survivors, in a new world.

'There was a camp next to the farm.' Roma continued. 'I saw a boy there and I would throw him apples every day.'

What an amazing coincidence that she had helped some other boy. 'What did he look like? I asked. He was tall, skinny, and hungry. I must have seen him every day for six months.'

My heart was racing. I couldn't believe it. This couldn't be. 'Did he tell you one day not to come back because he was leaving Schlieben?'

Roma looked at me in amazement. ' Yes,' That was me! ' I was ready to burst with joy and awe, flooded with emotions. I couldn't believe it! My angel.

'I'm not letting you go.' I said to Roma. And in the back of the car on that blind date, I proposed to her. I didn't want
to wait.

'You're crazy!' she said. But she invited me to meet her parents for Shabbat dinner the following week. There was so much I looked forward to learning about Roma, but the most important things I always knew: her steadfastness, her goodness. For many months, in the worst of circumstances, she had come to the fence and given me hope. Now that I'd found her again, I could never let her go.

That day, she said yes. And I kept my word. After nearly 50 years of marriage, two children and three grandchildren I have never let her go.

Herman Rosenblat, Miami Beach , Florida

This is a true story and you can find out more by Googling Herman Rosenblat as he was Bar Mitzvahed at age 75. This story is being made into a movie called The Fence.

Wikipedia Link

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June 19, 2008

A sad journey ...

Today I must drive across country to the land of the Iceni and Boudicca to a funeral to be held in Essex. The wife of one of my former bosses, a valued and respected colleague, has died very suddenly of cancer. She did not have long before it claimed her, bare weeks in fact.

Her courage in the face of it has been remarkable, but then she was also a woman of deep faith and her instructions for her funeral are that it is to be a celebration of her life, not a mark of her death. We are in fact asked not to wear the traditional black ties or other signs of mourning, something that I personally find encouraging. Carole will be deeply missed by her family and friends, but her faith and theirs will sustain them. And, as Christians, we know we can look forward to being re-united in Christ.

May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

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June 12, 2008

Good news

The sequel to Out of Time, entitled The enemy is within! has been accepted for publication by a small UK based publisher called Hallmark Press. Yesterday I signed the contract and now await the editor who will take on the book and correct my punctuation and possibly make suggestions for improving the text. And I am certain that there are areas that can be improved, so this is something I look forward to. Once that phase is complete it will be the turn of the typesetters - not as difficult as it used to be but still a vital part of the process since bad typesetting and proofing at that stage can ruin the reading experience for the reader.

The cover design is currently being developed - I have commissioned my brother and his partner, both excellent artists, Derek in particular being very professional as a commercial art designer, to create it. I am eagerly looking forward to getting the finished product in the near future and promise a sneak preview will appear here.

Tentatively a publication date of November is being given - just in time for you all to buy it for that Christmas present you want to give everyone you can't think of a suitable item for. Watch this space for developments!

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June 07, 2008


Yesterday was the 64th anniversary of the greatest seaborne landing ever attempted. By this time on this date the allies had established a precarious toehold in Europe and the fighting was fierce. Troops, munitions and equipment continued to pour ashore through the Mulberry Harbours and the breakout was being planned.

We need to remember the men and women who took part in this enormous effort, for the liberty of Europe, for the continuing freedom we enjoy and above all, for the dawning of an age when the democracies could develop and bring those freedoms to everyone. Sadly we know that those living under Communism had another half century of struggle ahead of them to win their right to freedom of thought, expression and choice. Even now, our freedom to exercise these things is under threat - and not just from the likes of Al Qaeda either. Our bureaucrats are just as bad as those of the Communist Regimes, endlessly churning out restrictions on our liberties, endlessly seeking to take to themselves powers that do not belong to them. They, and all those weakminded enough to fall for the mantra of "There must be Rules" are todays threat to our Civil Liberty.

The men and women who took part in the D-Day landings didn't do so in order to create a society frightened to speak out against its politicians. They didn't fight to create a society that has 20% of its workforce working in a totally non-productive bureaucracy created by socialist centralisers simply to control every aspect and reduce individual choice. It is time to look at where our "democracy" is going under our present political system and decide if we intend to allow the "soft socialism" of our intelligentsia to continue to dominate.

I'm pretty sure our father's would have said "No way!"

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June 05, 2008

Getting noticed

Some time ago Amazon invited me to join a "Shorts" programme. This is a programme whereby an author contributes short stories to their sales section which are "e-stories". In other words, stories which are in electronic format and published through their programme. One of the requirements is that you have at least one published book on sale through their site. I joined and submitted several stories - all of which are available on their website - if you can find them.

There are two problems as I see it (Mind you Amazon may see this differently!) the first being that the stories are on sale ONLY to those who live or are based in the US. No one outside the US can buy them. There is no similar point of sale on the UK based website or, indeed, any other. Secondly, when you search for tags Shorts" on Amazon you get a wide range of things, including the article of clothing described by that word. When you do find the stories you find that they actually only list 46 pages of titles and these are in order of popularity starting at those "Rated" 23 or more and diminishing to those rated 7. Who rates them and how is not explained. Any stories rated less than 7 have no chance of being found unless you know the authors name since they don't generally come up on a title search and, of course, have no ISBN. I am sorry to say that my stories don't appear on the 46 pages and probably will not, therefore, ever achieve a rating that would lift them to those giddy heights.

I'm not at all sure why Amazon limit the list of stories like this. I am equally unsure of why the UK and European sites have no equivalent of the "Shorts" programme. Ongoing efforts to get noticed have managed to get a few sales in and I must say a huge thanks to all of those who have helped by posting a link to my book (and coincidentally to the short stories) on their blogs. I recently cracked a milestone in sales of the book and I know that it is down to the word of mouth and many friends I have who have been kind enough to promote it to their friends. Thanks to all of you.

Now the good news, Hallmark Press will be bringing out the sequel "The enemy is within!" within months and that will be accompanied by a marketing campaign. I hope you will all continue to support me in this effort and the enjoy the second book as much as you have the first.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:42 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 28, 2008

Getting to grips ....

The one downside of travelling is having to come home and sort out the things that have piled up while you were away. Like the garden, the hedge that has decided to make a break for the skies and the lawn that has become a jungle. And the rain.....

Well, the garden I can sort out when it stops raining. It is said, by the predictors of such things, that it will stop at the weekend and there will be a short dry spell. Long enough, one hopes, for it to dry out enough for me to get the hedge under control and the grass cut. The weeds are thriving, but their flowers are pretty good, so maybe I'll pretend they are intentional for a bit longer - that doesn't apply to the thorny blackberry that's trying to invade. That definitely goes! And then there's the pile of mail. Well most of that can go into the bin - its junkmail, but it has to be sorted, checked to ensure it hasn't anything personal on it and then binned.

At least I have good news of a publisher. Hallmark Press is making an offer to publish and market, and they do mean market, the latest of Harry and Ferghal's adventures. I'll have to go to a meeting with them in the near future to see what happens next, but it looks and sounds good. It is a "Joint Venture" offer so it will all depend on who "ventures" what.

Then there are some more "paying" offers emerging, more work coming in for teaching and another to be discussed tomorrow evening for a longer term proposal. Every little helps, as they say, especially now Mr Brown and Co have doubled the tax they take out of my rather small pension. One sounds very interesting and exciting. Ce la vie, I'll have to wait and see.

Now, having just returned from a triple meeting, I think its time to surrender to the Jet Lag and take a carefully measured nightcap to bed!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 20, 2008


Well, that's our paper presented. It seems to have been very well received by our peers at this conference so I guess we can be pleased by that. The conference itself has been very interesting and we have both been struck by the different reasons behind the investigation activity in the US versus that in the EU and UK. Much of the fire investigation activity in the US is driven by civil litigation while in the EU it tends to be more the realm of the Police/Fire Service community unless the insurers are involved - then it tends to get very expensive.

The Conference ends tomorrow night and we then plan to do a little visiting around some of the sights here before we return home on Monday. Normal service will return to the blog after Tuesday - at which time the Monk hopes he will be able to put away the suitcase for a few months and catch up with his duties and responsibilities at home.

Watch this space for more news and updates.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 09, 2008

The touch of wars past.

South of Tehran lies a huge burial ground. Rather like the Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC, this cemetery houses special areas for military and religious leaders but it also has space for the common man. It covers a very large area and has a network of roads internally, several mosques and I'm told a Christian Chapel. Imam Khomeini is buried on it's Western side in a huge complex surrounding the catafalque and shrine which is part of a university devoted to the study of the Quran.

To me the most poignant and touching part of the complex is the Young Martyrs section. Here all the child soldiers of the Iran/Iraq war are buried, many with touching reminders of their stolen childhoods still adorning the simple graves. One in particular is visited and revered by everyone who comes here and my hosts had not had the opportunity to visit it either. What makes this small grave remarkable is the heavy scent of flowers that hangs in the air near it. Now the sceptic says - where are the blooms? That is the remarkable thing about it - there aren't any. What is more, winter and summer, wind or rain, the scent hangs heavily around the grave. The boy who lies here was just thirteen when he was killed.

The War Memorial to the fallen in the war with Iraq. The central plinth records the names of all the fallen, many of them naval. Only the Navy remained reasonably well armed after the Shah's fall and so bore the brunt of the early fighting and ships unsupported by aircover are very vulnerable.

In a central location is another huge mosque which houses the graves of a President and seventy odd ministers of state who were killed by Mujaheddin terrorists based in Southern Iran and funded by - you guessed it - the West!

Another very thought provoking visit.

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May 08, 2008

Impressions of a strange man ....

My hosts wanted to show me the home of Ayatollah Khomeini, to Westerners something of a demonic figure, but to the poorer classes in Iran, a saviour. There can be no doubt that this man had an austere vision, but he also lived it. His "home" here is next door to a hospital - essential because he suffered from a severe heart problem - and is pretty spartan. In fact it is just two small rooms with a kitchen attached. The toilet is actually outside, something not even the poorest in Tehran still have. The mosque is adjacent and is remarkable for it's austerity.

The house and the mosque are approached via a steep passageway, down the centre of which runs a swift flowing stream, its flow interrupted by bricks placed by the soldiers who guard this place to make a splashing sound in the stream. It also moistens the air in the passage rather pleasantly. For a man with a heart condition, this approach must have been difficult to say the least.

Khomenei museum1.JPG
My host, Parvis Yarahmedhi, explains the manner in which the temporary shrine was built for the Ayatollah.

So what was my overall impression of the Ayatollah? Difficult to answer simply since there is no doubt that he was an extremely intelligent man, one of huge compassion for the poor of Iran, but equally one of little sympathy for the Shah and his courtiers. I was compelled to recognise that the Ayatollah - or Imam as he is known in Iran (Imam means Leader in Farsee) - displayed many of the same characteristics of some of the Christian Saints. A man of rigorous and unshakeable faith, a man unafraid to speak out against what he saw as injustice and a man of very definite and very strong principles. On balance I think the nearest Western equivalent to him would be Oliver Cromwell, another man whose faith led him to revolution and the beheading of a King. I think that history will judge Khomeini in the same way eventually. The museum is, obviously, sympathetic to his memory, but it does show a man who rose from a middle class background, through education and hardship when he ran foul of the Shah's secret police, who went into exile for his faith and his politics and then returned to become, against his own better judgement, the leader of a nation about to be plunged into a war of others making.

Like Cromwell he liked music, he was a poet of some note and he was a great family man, adored by his children and grandchildren. But like Cromwell his religious beliefs were absolutes. Holy man or monster? In the end it depends on whether you benefitted from the revolution or, like the West, felt threatened by the overthrow of a "friendly" regime, whose corruption we could conveniently overlook, by one the Soviets were actively wooing.

It says something about the man that he dismissed the Soviet overtures on the grounds that Communism was un-Islamic and destined to collapse very soon. Unfortunately we compounded our support for the Shah by giving Saddam the weapons we took back from Iran and encouraging Saddam to launch the war to seize Iran's western provinces. The repercussions of that will be with us for at least another generation.

Khomenei mosque.JPG
Taken inside the mosque Imam Khomeini made his own, the rail behind us surrounds the platform on which the Imam sat to address the worshippers. I found it a very peaceful and restful place.

A very thought provoking visit - and too me proof, yet again, that a monster to some, may yet be a saviour to others.

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April 30, 2008

The view from the motorway ....

Tehran is a sprawling city, covering much the same sort of area as Greater London in surface area. The population is roughly 15 million by day falling to 8 million at night. It sits in a bowl formed by the Alborz Mountains, the highest peaks of which are perpetually snow clad. The peaks in this photo are some 3,600 metres in height, but behind them is another towering up to 5,000 metres. Just to the North East is another, magnificent cone shaped mountain which is a dormant volcano. The whole area lies on a large tectonic fault line and is earthquake prone, a factor which must be considered when building anything here.

The mountains are spectacular and the snow line changes on a daily basis.

Seen from the Expressway, the mountains north of Tehran tower over the city which sprawls between the ancient city of Ray to the South East and Darakeh in the North. The oldest part of Tehran is in the foothills of the mountains and the streets are narrow and overshadowed by tall buildings and lots of trees.

To the South East of Tehran is a vast area of marshes and lakes, lying in a depression known as Dasht-e-Kavir. Though it is a "depression", it is still some 3,000 feet above sea level according to my atlas, yet it is completely ringed by mountains and does not drain to the sea. Certainly the area immediately south of Tehran is extremely fertile and the crops produced by the timeless and intensive methods of manual labour are very rich indeed. Fascinating to watch people using these ancient systems to irrigate small areas in which grow wheat, tomatoes, strawberries and many other crops.

In winter the whole area can be covered by snow several feet thick - probably another reason for the fertility of it all.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:07 AM | TrackBack

April 29, 2008

Sharia Justice

While I was in Tehran a friend sent me some horrifying pictures of a boy of 8 having his arm crushed by a car as a punishment for stealing bread. After considering this very carefully - and waiting until almost the end of my stay - I broached this with my host. He made no attempt to deny it happens, but the look of pain and distaste on his face as he acknowledged it said a great deal. I should add that he is a practicing and devout Muslim, but, as he explained, the application and interpretation of the Sharia Law is left entirely to the courts and the judges are appointed locally. Many are, apparently, not terribly well versed in the actual content of the Quran or the Sharia.

Sharia Law falls into two parts - Civil and Criminal - and the interpretation and determination of any sentence depends upon the court's evaluatioin of the degree of "injury" caused by the offence against the plaintiff in a civil case or the degree of "offence" caused against the tenets of the faith in a criminal case. As he explained, some judges do make some very - to western eyes - barbaric decisions, but this child could have suffered the total amputation of his hand. By the lights of the community in which this happened, the sentence was a light one. Even so, I was left with the distinct impression that my host - and by extrapolation - many of his fellow countrymen, are distinctly uneasy about many of these sentences.

As originally conceived the Sharia is a legalistic interpretation of the precepts laid down in the Quran for the ordering of society. It is the work of 18th Century (12th Century in the Islamic calendar) Ottoman Turkish Jurists. It makes provision for sentences to be commuted by the "injured party" in the case of theft or murder and a range of other "offences". Very few of the "sentences" it contains are found in the Quran, these being the body of "common" law that has built up around the Code since its inception.

I would not personally choose to live under such a law, but I can look back at some of the "legal" practices of my own country and supposedly founded on "Christian" principles which match the equivalent period of our development - and find space to shudder at some of the things done in the name of our faith. That said, I still feel slightly sickened by the thought of a small boy being held down so that a car can be driven over his blanket wrapped arm.

Is this application of a "religious" legal system a true reflection of the faith it springs from? I don't think so, any more than I think the burning of "witches" and "heretics" in the name of Christ is or ever was a true reflection of Christianity. I suspect this is something that will need a lot of prayer and a whole lot more careful discussion to support those within Islam who genuinely want to see an end to such barbarism in the name of the faith.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:36 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 12, 2008

Report from Tehran

Tehran is an interesting city. In effect it is in two parts, the North, nestling in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, and the South, sprawling across the lowlands. The late Shah of Persia once decreed, and paid for it with his throne, that those in the south, in fact, anyone outside the city North of a certain part of Tehran, were peasants and not deserving of any "modern" amenity. Today, 29 years after the deposition of the Shah, the city is growing - it accommodates 12 million by day and drops back to 8 million at night - a little chaotic due to the absence, until recently, of any form of traffic planning and a largely absent public transport system.

That said, all of these issues are being addressed and development is being put into the Metro systems - currently only about 4 km in length - and into sorting out the roads. Traffic here is a nightmare for anyone used to the UK or European lane discipline, adherence to rules of driving and the "give way" courtesy. In Tehran it is everyman (or woman) for himself. Want to turn left but you're in the right hand lane? No problem, indicator on, swing into any gap and go for it. Leap and Dodge those who don't give way and then just force into the traffic on the other side until you can resume your journey. It results in remarkably few bumps we have noted ... So they must have a system - but its a mystery to us! I remember a phrase from my childhood that describes the pedestrians very accurately - "Honkentootenleapendodgers". There are only two types of pedestrian here - the quick and nimble - or the take a taxi and ride across!

The Iranians are nice people. We were welcomed and are being treated with the utmost courtesy. In fact this is something the Iranians are absolutely punctilious about, their tradition is that a guest is a sacred trust. They look after any guest and expect the guest to follow the rules of courtesy in return. It is a model of the Biblical treatment of guests, one found elsewhere in the Middle East, but probably nowhere as strictly observed as here.

Our Western idea of the Iranians rather suggests an unreasonable bunch of fanatics, in fact that is far from the truth. As with anywhere there are fanatics - I could easily find a number in the UK - and what we tend to forget is that they have borders with Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Armenia and Iraq. This is the home of the ancient Persian Empire, once part of Babylon and there are buildings and traditions here that link directly back to the time of Moses. They do have a culture different to ours, but you should expect that. Interestingly you do not see the men wandering about in the sort of "Islamic" dress so beloved of the migrant population in the UK, and the women are stunning. Some do wear the full burkha, but most don't unless they are visiting or working in a government establishment. And one thing I do notice in particular is the courtesy that young people and children show to their elders, to strangers and their parents. Nor do you see drunkenness in the streets - even though alcohol is obtainable.

They certainly do have some "old fashioned" laws, but these are not a barbaric people, they are a proud people and they have as little time for the Mujaheddin, Taliban and Al Qaeda as we do.

Perhaps what is needed is for us in the West to take another look at our "moral values" which cause such a problem between our regimes and theirs and see what, in our society, could be improved by adopting ideas from theirs before we try to impose some of our failures on them.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:33 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 28, 2008

Waiting anxiously

I am waiting anxiously to hear from a publisher. Like watched pots, it seems the e-mail I really, really want to see isn't likely to come until I am not in a position to deal with it.

The sequel to my book was submitted in a competition run by a new publisher to select five they would publish and promote. The cut off date was January and the decision date is end March. I have (probably in common with hundreds of others) had a message to say "due to the number of manuscripts ..." and so we wait. I really do hope that mine will be among the selected few, because, even if it isn't one of the top five, they have said that they might make an offer for later in the year for the runners up.

Having taken time to address all the issues the Writer's Services editors identified as weaknesses in the story I think (But I would, wouldn't I?) that "The enemy is within!" is now a really good story and read. I know at least one person who has read "Out of time" has said he can't wait to see the sequel. Well, to be honest, neither can I! In the meantime, why not visit my Blog and have a look at the excerpt I posted there?

And, if the competition doesn't produce a winner, there is another publisher considering the book. They have promised a decision by mid-April .....

Patience is a virtue?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:08 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 20, 2008

Keeping up with events ....

Sorry folks, no post yesterday, there was just too much happening. To deal with that first, I have a lot on at the Abbey and at the same time, Mausi and I are busy trying to redecorate one of the rooms in my Domus. A disaster with a wall paper that refused to behave as it said on the box meant taking time out to go and shop for more to replace the faulty stuff. That on top of a day already crowded with a Requiem Mass and funeral, a Said Mass and Meditation and a rehearsal for the Good Friday Solemn Liturgy.

Exhaustion set in around about 22.00 last night!

This morning at least got off to a better start and some early progress has been made in getting the room decorated. I have to say that I detest wall papering and redecorating largely because it never goes as planned, it always takes longer than anticipated and invariably reveals other urgent work that must be done first. Wallpaper is one of those messy tasks which is never as easy or straightforward as it is supposed to be and never, ever, provides the "finish" one was looking for. Add to that the need to clear the room of all furniture and relocate everything to another room where it is not only out of place but in the way of everything else that needs to be done - and you know why cats hate change as well.

Throw in a number of "three line whip" Church services and you have a recipe for extended decorating times ....

Today's major service was in the Cathedral in Gloucester. The Lord Bishop of Gloucester, +Michael Glevum, presided over the Eucharist to which clergy, Readers, Ministry Team members, Church Wardens and other members of "ministry" roles in the church (and there are far more than the liturgical ones) are "invited". The priests renew their vows of service and obedience at this service and a nice touch, the Bishops renew theirs to the people - on this occassion lead by a Choir Boy. It is at this service that the Oils of Annointing and the Crism of Holy Unction are consecrated and blessed in the presence of all the Bishop's congregation.

This is a service this present Bishop has built up - it has been a major event for the clergy in years past but only recently has it become a major event for "other" ministries as well. This year is one of the largest congregations I have seen - the Cathedral was packed. As the Bishop said, if those who claim the church is dying took the trouble to attend such services, they might find that their predictions of death are premature, especially when they see the diversity and scope of the ministries the church is exercising and encouraging in the world today.

On which thought, the wallpaper calls .....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:02 PM | TrackBack

March 13, 2008

Another day, another ......

It seems that my former employers have suddenly discovered a hole in their delivery system. I'm currently getting more days work from them than I really want to give - but can't afford to say no. This week I had all neatly mapped out with tasks and jobs I have been putting off for some time - and suddenly I have had to shelve all those plans so I could help out and salvage a situation. Now I have another day with them today and again tomorrow, time I really did need to spend on something else.

Still, it pays the mortgage.....

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February 22, 2008

Teaching across language and cultural barriers ...

I am currently teaching a group from Saudi Arabia. Their language skills are interesting, several are very proficient in English, one young man is acting as interpretter and is doing a grand job at "simultaneous" translation. The tricky bit is that your lecture has to be paced to the speed of translation. There are also a few cultural pitfalls one has to consider, so showing some slides is not on, while others - generally considered by the "advisers" as potentially tricky, are no problem at all.

One thing you quickly learn in teaching in these circumstances is that jokes and idioms don't translate. So if you want to make a little joke and raise a laugh or lighten the mood, you have to first put the joke into context. Fortunately I have enough experiences when things have not gone according to plan to be able to tell these within the context of the lecture and poke fun at my own efforts - which works reasonably well. Sometimes so well they remember that instead of what you wanted them to recall....

All of which said, it has been refreshing to have in front of me a large group of keen and enthusiastic people determined to get as much as possible from their two weeks course. Questions flow, responses are carefully thought out and translated lectures tend to get extended as they discuss aspects and ask for further information. I reckon I could probably extend this to four weeks if they had the time. As it is, I'm exhausted at the end of each day.

One of the more impressive aspects of teaching this group is their cheerful attitude to their faith. They have found the Prayer Room at the college too small, so asked if they could use the classroom. I readily agreed thinking it would be a bit awkward - but hey - if that's what they want. It's worked well, they have shifted the furniture out of the way, then painstakingly put it back once they finished. Wish a few of our own would take some lessons in consideration from them.

The weather hasn't exactly been kind, but they have shown up on time, even though they have been wrapped up like Michelin men on occassion. Mind you, with one morning kicking off at -6*C who can blame them. That said they have been cheerful and great fun to work with. Each day begins with Salaam allee equum. (Peace be with you.) and I have even learned to respond correctly to their polite "Kefaarlik?" (How are you?). On the language front I have learned that Abdulrachman means "Slave of the Most High" and Mubarak means "Happy" - who said learning was a one way street?

I shall be a bit sorry to see them go home next weekend, but it will have been a lot of fun. Now to catch up with my chores.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:53 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 13, 2008

Vanishing civilisations ….

Why does a civilisation simply fall apart? My studies to get into the life of St Patrick, who lived roughly between 385 and 461 AD, confronted me with a number of seemingly unanswerable questions, chief among them the question of why almost all Roman towns and the Villas that provided the food to them vanished from our landscape and would not reappear until almost four hundred years later – and then in a much cruder and far less pleasing form. Why did Rome itself, and almost all the cities of the Western Roman Empire fall apart so quickly? It more or less all fell apart in the space of sixty years between 410AD and 476AD. What caused it to go so quickly?

A lot of further reading provided some of the clues I needed. For instance, the fact that Britain, as a “border” Province, proved to be a breeding ground for ambitious generals with an eye on the Imperial Laurel. Following the campaign by Magnus Maximus (Macsen in the Roman British legends) and his son Vincent which ended in Magnus being assassinated in Northern Italy by agents of Stilichio and his son’s execution, Britain was not permitted to mint coinage. Thus, all money had to be imported after 389AD and there was a cash crisis in 405AD when the country literally ran out of money. Everyone was forced back onto a barter system, but the greater effect was that they were no longer able to pay the army to defend them. Coupled with that, after Boudica’s revolt all native born Britons were forbidden to train in arms, unless they could join a legion in Germany, Italy or the Eastern part of the Empire. Thus, in 409AD when the Emperor Honorius told them they would have to go it alone in future, they had a major problem. In 410 Constantius III sent tax gatherers and that was the final straw. Londinium held its own version of the Boston Tea Party …

The civil administration fell apart very rapidly after that, frankly, the Brits had had enough of paying tax and feeding the “Managers” who did nothing but shuffle paper and charge taxes. Those they could find, they killed. But, with civil government gone, a vacuum was created and into that stepped the old tribal rivalries under new leaders. The towns and cities could not be maintained without all the paraphernalia of government, so the people simply walked away from them and tried to subsist by farming any open space someone else wasn’t already using. Londinium was an empty shell by 429Ad and had all but vanished by the time Alfred the Great re-occupied the site in 889AD.

The same was happening along the Rhine and across the northern and western parts of Gaul and down into Spain. Cities and towns shrivelled without the protection of Rome or the civic authority needed to keep the streets repaired, the drains cleaned and ensure the garbage was removed. And into the void created by the departure of the bureaucrats and the empire troops came the Bishops and the local Senatorial families who claimed lands and the allegiance of the dispossessed and impoverished middle class.

Sound familiar? It should, because as I read I realised that I had been looking at it happening across Africa. Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Darfur, Nigeria. It doesn’t matter were you look, the same pattern emerges, crumbling infrastructures, power hungry “barons” who use muscle and influence to carve out their own fiefdoms as the central government loses its grip on its more remote parts. Corruption at the centre leaves the cities and towns crippled through lack of finance to maintain essential services and so disease, unemployment and crime begin to spiral out of control. And the "Middle" class vanishes.

The Roman British towns were abandoned because they could not be kept working without the trade generated by the free flow of goods from the countryside into the towns to feed the craftsmen who lived there and sold their goods and manufactured products to the rural communities and the passing traders. Once the money supply dried up, the craftsmen had no way of buying what they needed – after all, a farmer can only use so many brooches and a pair of shoes – well, how many pairs do you really need when the priority may be seed for the next planting, meat for the table or oil for the lamps. With no hope of sustaining trade the craftsmen had either to move to Gaul or further afield – or become farmers again.

It seems to me that we are watching this development afresh. In Africa for now, but the strain of absorbing the flood tide of migrants from those collapsing states – and the fact that they, like the Goths, Visigoths and Franks who swept into Gaul and Spain from Germany in 407AD have no tradition of democracy or of the skills that sustain cities and towns, it is only a question of how long before the same strains start to tear our “civilisation” apart.

I’m not sure there is a simple answer to this question. After all, at the centre of the Empire, Rome remained a functioning city, thanks largely to the Pope assuming secular powers and raising an army to defend it. I think something similar may happen here. I just hope that we don’t have a thousand year gap between now and the next Renaissance!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:16 PM | TrackBack

February 11, 2008

Remembering someone .....

Today would have been my mother's 83rd birthday. She died suddenly, although she had been getting frailer and more housebound for at least two years, in November 1999 so she is not here to celebrate it.

Grace Eleanor Frances Heron 1925 - 1999 May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

While she was alive she had the ability to drive me up the wall in frustration, yet she could also be extremely thoughtful and caring. It is fair to say that I have good memories and some not so good one's of my relationship with her and of our growing up, but she was, and always will be, our Mum. My brother and I still miss her deeply.

A candle burns in the Abbey today, just for her.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:17 AM | TrackBack

January 23, 2008

An anniversary ....

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of my arrival in the UK to start work and settle my family. It is now exactly twenty years since I arrived tired, a little nervous and very uncertain of what the future held for us at Heathrow and walked through the Immigration line unchallenged, my Irish passport seemingly an everyday sight. I would soon learn that it was just that; that my Irish heritage would open more doors than my British one, at least initially.

Looking back, there is a lot to celebrate and some things that have not quite worked out. But then, that is life. Over these years my children have grown up, two into beautiful young women with a wide range of talents, and my son into a big young man with a list of achievements already. I will draw a veil over the debacle that is their education - the British education system is not good at dealing with bright pupils unless you have the money to send them to Public Schools and I didn't. And bored bright pupils are probably more creative in dodging school they find discouraging, boring or simply biased against them than any others. Perhaps I should write a book on that some time.

My mother retired (She was in South Africa) and it became obvious that her pension was not going to sustain her. We were struggling at the time, but the only option was to have her join us so we could both go out to work. The two years that followed were probably the most difficult I have ever experienced, for my mother and I were not the most comfortable pair to have under the same roof - and my wife and she were complete opposites. Conflict guaranteed, but we did find a small flat eventually for her and got Social Services to set up her pension and income support and soon she had her own establishment and a small circle of friends. My divorce followed and I moved from London to the Cotswolds where I could live and work at the establishment I would remain at for the next fifteen years. My greatest sdaness here, is that I missed the growing up of the kids. Yes, I saw them once a month at my home and once a month at theirs when I went down to see my mother, but it was all the bits that make for reality that I missed. It seemed almost overnight that they were all grown and no longer had time in the schedule to visit. That said, I am remarkably lucky in that we do have a very good and trusting relationship and they know they can call or visit anytime - and sometimes do!

My mother died suddenly in 1999, though her health had been deteriorating badly for a couple of years by that stage. It was a terrible moment, primarily because I was in the Philippines when she was rushed to hospital and did not get back until she had died. There are all those things you wish you had said, all those little things you have never really resolved or addressed. Her funeral was quiet, a very small group in a large church, reflecting the fact that she had never really built a circle of friends around her here and many of those with whom she had spent the last years of her life were, like here, so frail that they could not attend. Clearing her little flat was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do and I confess that there are boxes in my loft that have not been opened since they were packed up then. I think that suddenly it was born home to me that I was now the oldest generation of the family .... And one of the strangest observations I can make is that I still, even after this gap of time, see something or hear something and think "I must phone Mum and tell her ..."

My second marriage was on rocky ground as well with my then father in law also in the final stages of a serious cancer. Gil died in the following July, quietly and with the dignity he had displayed throughout. His funeral was a complete contrast to my mother's.

So I now look back at a road that began inauspiciously perhaps in South Africa with my birth and a rather rocky path through the school system, then into work with a few deviations thanks to the then system. I learned of my Irish Citizenship on going through some papers following a major clear out of accumulated stuff and pursued it to get that status for my wife and children. Now I have reclaimed my British citizenship as well and I frequently respond to "Ethnic Monitoring" (Apartheid in disguise!) by ticking "Other" and filling in the box with "African Anglo Saxon Celtic Hybernian Norman". I became a Reader in 1982 in Bloemfontein, South Africa and Bishop Stanage is still my Spiritual Director. We migrated back to Port Elizabeth and then to the UK and I have maintained my Readership (Sort of "Lay" Deacon for non-Anglicans) and am now looking to seek ordination after many years of dodging that call.

Regrets? I have a few, but I think I have many more magnificent memories, friends, and a list of things I have achieved, among them Presiding at a formal Dinner held in the Signet Library in Edinburgh. For those who don't know this magnificent building is the home of the Scottish Legal Library and is used for State Dinners and functions. Most importantly though I have my friends and my kids. I am fortunate, though I have no idea why, to be able to say that I am still in contact with many friends in South Africa and even more scattered across and around the world. I have friends in Poland, Romania, Germany, the US, here in the UK, in Ireland, Canada and Australia. Even in the Middle East and some even more exotic places. My beloved grandfather was right - we ARE citizens of the world. Even more importantly I have my kids. I have to say I'm proud of them, I could wish that some things could have turned out different, but I think they have done very well - and will do even better once they have fully found their stride.

So, I look back on twenty years in the UK with a little pride and a lot of thankfulness. The UK has, by and large, been good for us. I don't like the direction our present government is taking the country and I am not sure it is even sustainable. I rather think the pendulum has swung too far and will swing back eventually, probably with a vengeance. But, as a voter, I have to accept some of the responsibility for it anyway. Do I regret coming to the UK twenty years ago?

Not on your life!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:18 AM | TrackBack

January 19, 2008

The end of the road ...

The Monk's trusty steed of the last few years, a rather comfortable Rover 400, has a problem. It's rear brake calipers have to be replaced. The bill will be of the order of £650, a figure rather too close to the resale value of the car as it stands. So it is decision time. Does he repair this trusty ten year old and keep it going until it, or he, is no longer capable of driving - or does he buy a smaller, spiffier and more modern set of wheels.

After weighing up all the pros and cons, the Monk has decided that, sadly, he and the Rover must part company. Even though it is a diesel powered vehicle it has now clocked up 103,645 miles, only 37,000 of which was done by its previous owner, it still performs very welll and economically. And, once the brake calipers are done it will soon be time to replace the cam belts again, have the CV joints checked and a raft of other "little" things which probaly will add up to large amounts of cash. So now he is looking about for a "new" chariot which will serve him as faithfully and as well as said Rover has. Not an easy choice since most of the cars he likes are way beyond his present pocket, and, in addition, he needs something that will serve for at least five and hopefully more years before needing replacement.

The Monk is very taken with the Renault Megane, several of his acquaintances drive them and have nothing but praise for them. It will mean changing back to driving a petrol engine, though with the way this government has surtaxed diesel that will actually represent a saving, it will mean getting used to having to do a bit more in slow traffic with the accelerator. One advantage of a diesel in those situations is that it will do around 15 to 20 mph idling in second gear without having to use the accelerator. No petrol engine the Monk has encountered has that kind of torque when idling.

Having looked at several options including Ford, Nissan, Honda and even Seat (Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar are way beyond his price range). He has even considered Vauxhall, not a car he would have given much thought to a few years ago. "What Car?", "Auto Trader" and several other websites have been explored, a number of dealers and other car sales people have been visited and masses of information collected. Now its time to sift and decide. Tricky considering that in the last twenty years the Monk has had four Rovers - all of them comfortable and all of them good cars. It wasn't going to be an easy choice .....

But, the choice is now made. The Monk is now the owner of a Renault Megane 1.6 petrol and will have to get used to driving a higher reving engine again. The Rover has been sold privately - to the Monk's son, who plans to use it for at least the forseeable future.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:48 AM | TrackBack

January 13, 2008

Baptism of Christ ...

Today in the Christian Calendar, we commemorate the beginning of Christ's ministry in his baptism in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptiser. Ritual washing is a feature of the Jewish faith at that time - and still forms an important part today. What was unusual at this point is that baptism was normally reserved for Non-Jews entering Judaism. John the Baptiser changed that and in Baptising Christ signalled the start of the Messiah's ministry.

Epiphany is about the revealing of Christ to a world beyond the Jewish faith and homeland. It is about the inclusiveness of the ministry. We should consider carefully how we, as gentiles, receive and have received our Saviour. We celebrate his birth and we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men, we celebrate too the miracles and the ministry, but at the end of the day, have we learned to put His teaching into practice? Have we learned that our Faith has to be lived.

What we sing, say and read we have to show in our lives - or it is all just meaningless and all of God's careful plan is brought to nothing ....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:35 PM | TrackBack

January 09, 2008

Politics ......

I find politics interesting, in much the same way that I find venomous spiders "interesting" - preferably dead. But just at the moment you can't seem to escape it. The Pollsters have been busy little bees, and yesterday, while waiting for my flights, I had to listen repeatedly to predictions that Hilary Clinton was heading for an embarrassing defeat in the US Presidential Primary being held, I think, in Maine. Likewise there was a great trumpetting that Labour had gained a few percentage points in the Polls against the Conservatives and even the LibDems had managed to lift their share. Only our Illustrious Leader remains low in the public esteem it appears. But just how reliable are these Polls?

THis morning the BIG news is that Hilary Clinton won the Primary. Yesterday she was lsated to lose - today she emerges a clear winner. Either the statisticians are getting their sums wrong, or the voters are telling "porkies" when answering the questions ... Or it could be "hanging chards" again ....

As I see it there are several things that beset all political systems of the democratic, multi-party sort. First it is the fickleness of uncommitted voters, I have known people vote for a candidate "because he has such a nice smile" - not because he is any good or offering anything new, different or beneficial. Likewise any politician who dares to tell the truth about their intentions might as well take a jump off the verandah of that Palace of Follies into the Thames wearing a weight belt and without a lifebelt.

The second thing is the Party platforms themselves. Party affiliations are all very well, but the problem comes in when the Party Ideology dictates the voting of the members. No matter whether a policy or a law is going to be good or bad - the party hacks must and do vote according to their Party position and not according to the ebenfit or otherwise the item will bring. In other words they represent not their electorate, but their Party. That is now an outdated and outmoded concept and it is time it was changed. Voting should not be a matter of "Whips" choice, but of how their electors see things.

Then there is the process of election itself. Personally I will never reveal how I intend to vote or have voted to anyone. That is the object of a "secret" ballot. Some people I know will deliberately tell a pollster the opposite of what they voted and some voters will vote on party lines simply because they always have, or worse, because that is how grandfather voted and I always ..... I call this the tribal vote. Again, it is in serious need of reform, for at the moment there are too many "Rotten Boroughs" where no matter who or what the candidate is if they have the right badge they will be elected.

Then there is the problem of answerability. Far too many decisions these days are in the hands of the incompetents who make up the civil service. They write the "rules", draft the legislation, draw up the questions for a referndum and always couch these in terms that require a legal expert to decipher. And always in a manner that ensures that there will be another thousand/ten thousand bureaucrats required to administer them. Once elected we hear nothing more about "consulting the electorate" and suddenly Parliament is free to do as it pleases for five years "because it is in our manifesto and the voters approved it."

The other big issue in our news was Gordon Brown's meddling in the NHS - again. I think I have now heard his "new money" and "new intiatives" around eight or nine times. Does he really think he can fool us by re-arranging the deckchairs again and again. There is no "new" money going into the NHS for medical care. All the "new" money goes to more and more "managers" on "performance related pay" and not into health care! Again and again twisted and selective use of numbers "prove" that "targets" are being achieved for this that and the next thing. All the while the things they are measuring are carefully selected to show only the "best" part of the picture. Selective vision is always a stock in trade for politicians. It is all about bribery to get votes. If they can convince enough voters that they really will get something for nothing if they will only vote for "X" then they will promise anything and "prove" they have done it. And sadly, there are voters out there who are easily swayed to vote for "X" because to vote for "Y" will cost you ....

I have commented before that our democracy here is weakening, the last General Election demonstrated that very clearly, only just over 50% of the electorate bothered to vote - so Blair's "Ringing Endorsement" of Labour was a sham - it amounted to 28% of the voters endorsing his policies .....

Politics and statistics of course share one thing in common. They are both about creative use of numbers or language to convince the populace at large that one group or another is "good for the country" and everyone else isn't. As they say, "There are lies, damned lies - and statistics" which could be renedered, "There are lies, damned lies - and politics."

Not much to choose from really, as I said at the start, as fascinating as watching a Sydney Funnel Web approach to attack you. Not much you can do to stop it either once it bites.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:29 AM | TrackBack

January 05, 2008

Getting back to normal .....

Returning from a holiday with good friends and companions is a bit of a downer really. First, there always seems to be about twice the amount of laundry to be done, then there's all the mail to get through. And the fridge needs restocking and so do the vegetable racks ....

There is also the work related stuff, like several calls on the answer phone, a few more e-mails and everyone seems to need whatever they want on Monday. And the barber shop had closed by the time I got there. So Monday it is for a haircut!

At least the sun is shining and the breeze is gentle. It may be only 5*C, but its a sunny five degrees.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:36 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 03, 2008

More thoughts on civilisations collapsing ...

The chaos in Kenya over the last few days makes one despair of our civilisation's future. Since 1945 the western concept of democracy has been imposed upon a wide variety of nations and cultures, with, it has to be said, some varying degrees of success, but with some really spectacular failures as well. Africa is but one example of the failures. The Far East has several more examples and the debacle that is the Middle East provides some really educational views on the manner in which the concept of one man, one vote can go badly wrong.

So why is this the case? Surely anyone of sense can see the benefit of living in a state where the government is of the people and by the people? That after all, is the stated intention of democracy.

The truth is that it has never actually worked as advertised. Not even in the "Mother of Parliaments", Westminster. At its best there is a balance struck between the interests of the tax payer (Who, after all is said and done, pays for it all!), the interests of the commercial giants who buy and sell even our supposedly "honest" politicians, the financial investors who are increasingly loyal to no known state, the "collective" of Trades Unions and of course, the "special" interest groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty who highjack debates and the media attention to promote their often unbalanced views. Parliament broadly represents a wide range of interests, which just occasionally used to actually benefit the tax paying voter by and large. I am not sure that state exists any longer. Increasingly the only beneficiaries of much of what flows from that house of cards is of benefit only to limited groups such as lawyers, civil servants and other narrow interest groups. In other words it no longer represents government of the people for the people, but for the limited interests of the entrenched political and bureaucratic classes and their bankers.

In Africa the levels of corruption are the major problem, not the collective national debts, in keeping the people down. No wonder then, that the Kenyan President is reluctant to bow to the will of the voters - he and his henchmen are reluctant to relinquish their open cheque book which is the country's Treasury. Equally, their opposition want a share of the loot and are not prepared to wait. So, an election leads to a civil war and genocide. Where are the Amnesty International activists? Why, comfortably ensconced in the London studios of the BBC demanding that the British people put right a problem of their making.

How can I say that? Quite easily. Consider this question. How many European States have a record of successful democracy stretching back more than 100 years? The answer is not many. Even those who, like FRance and Britain, had elected governments before 1900, also had restricted franchises. Added to that you must consider the influence of the political classes even then - a class which has simply adapted and changed to suit the age it finds itself in, but which excludes any rivals by the simple mechanism of exercising control of money supply, access to education and selection to posts in both the representation of the people and in the Bureaucracies which "carry out the administration on behalf of the elected body". And again, that latter part, are the real rulers because they draft the legislation and control how it is interpreted and implemented - despite what our courts think. So, if our "Western" democracy is as young and shaky as that, what price imposing such a system on people and nations who have no history of democratic ideal; who, in fact, do not even share our cultural development which gave rise to this ideal?

Most of Sub Saharan Africa was, until the coming of the Colonial Powers, still developing from hunter gatherer societies and small scale agriculture into a settled community. Inter tribal rivalries were suppressed only by the imposition of White Mans Law, not by any shared way of life or even a desire to settle and become agriculturalists and industrialists. That too was imposed by minority interests, hardly chosen by the majority. And that pattern continues today, though now driven by those in Africa who see a benefit to themselves of adopting the greed and commercial rapaciousness of the worst of the Western culture while the rest of their population can be treated as ballot fodder when necessary.

The simple truth is that, for the bulk of Africa's people, democracy is little more than a chimera of freedom. It matters not who is in power as long as they have access to water, land and the means to support themselves, for that is the tribal way. The problem comes in when one tribe has all of that and another is denied full access. That is what is happening in Zimbabwe between Mugabe's Shoma people and the Matabele, and in Kenya between the Kikuyu tribe and the rest. Once Jacob Zuma becomes President of South Africa I expect that this will develop in the same way there, since Zuma is another in the dXhosa dynasty imposed by the ANC who will ensure that only his Xhosa cronies has access to the wealth and power of that nation.

Increasingly I find myself concerned that our democracy is going the same way as that in Africa. Our political class has become entrenched and no longer fears the electorate. In Britain we have been disarmed, deprived our freedom of expression, our right of self defence has been eroded and now we no longer control our own destiny. More than 80% of our legislation (And there is an absolute flood of it!) is determined by an unelected and unanswerable "Commission" in Brussels. Our existence as a nation is under threat because our political class have signed away our sovereignty and refuse to acknowledge that the tax paying voter has any right to any say in this process. The "United Kingdom" has, under Labour, become a set of rival principalities, the political pawns of the coterie of Scottish and Welsh nationalists who have taken full advantage of the democratic system to rape the English and remove them from any position of power. The entire farce that is our "democracy" is as much a chimera as that of any African State. Selection for any position is now made on the basis of gender, colour and sexual orientation, despite its being illegal to do so. This applies especially to any position within any of the current Political Parties in selecting candidates for election.

What is remarkable is that it has taken even less time to do this to our fledgling democracies than it took in Ancient Greece, a process described very well by Plato in "De Republica". It took the Greeks a lot longer to get round to entrenching a political class and creating the sort of bureaucracy that eventually strangled their freedom. Rome managed better as well - so why have we done so badly?

Partly I suspect, because we have failed to grasp the most important principle of all in democracy. For government to be "of the people and for the people" the people have to be involved. Ever major decision, such as the EU Constitution MUST be approved by the electorate. Secondly, those who fail to exercise their vote should have to show their reason for not doing so. Those in prison for serious criminal offences (and I don't consider tax evasion serious!) should lose the right to vote and one qualification at least should be that the would be voter is a tax payer and not a nett benefit taker.

The signs are there that our so-called democracy is about to go belly up. If you want to see them of course. The massive immigration that has taken place under Labour and since 1945 has changed the face of Britain for ever. As the second and third generation of those immigrants now insinuate themselves into the political class they are changing the cultural pattern of our nation and our civic foundations inexorably. If this continues the Britain of fifty years hence will be unrecognizable. It may be for the better, but, given the origins of those driving it, I doubt it very much indeed.

I suspect that our fathers and their fathers will be appalled by it. What we currently see in Pakistan, in Burma and the Philippines and now in Kenya and Zimbabwe should sound serious warning bells for us all - but our political classes don't want us to wake up, they, after all, will emerge with new names, new religions and new political ideologies to suit their ends. They have only one agenda - to survive in power at any cost. At least the African dictators are open about it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:14 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 01, 2008

Looking forward to 2008 ...

Well, the New Year is here. What will it bring us?

A cynic on the political scene will undoubtedly say "more of the same" - particularly from this government. But I suspect that even a change of government now will not change anything - socialism is now deeply entrenched in our society and the senior Civil Servants are all, without exception, socialist aparatchiks. Ergo, they will allow nothing to diminish their power to interfere in every aspect of our lives. And it serves the political classes well to keep it that way too. We no longer live in a democracy, that is a sham and illusion maintained for forms sake. Our society is now a Socialist Oligarchy verging on a Dictatorship. So, no, I don't expect any improvement on that.

Personally I am hoping to have good news on my latest book early in the next few weeks. All the indications I have so far are positive. I also plan to start work on a major project which is very close to my heart - details of which I will reveal as the year goes on. Business wise too, I expect to see a steady trickle of work, again, the indications I have so far are very positive and things are looking up. I doubt I'll ever be able to buy that luxury cruise or the holiday house in San Marino, but hey, as long as I can do the odd little trip to see friends, and pay the bills on time, I'm a happy bunny.

For family I am hoping that this will be the year they really get themselves established and careers start to gel for them.

And for my friends. Well, what can one wish for one's friends, other than everything they wish for themselves, good health, good company and continuing health.

May the year ahead bring all everyone reading this hopes for.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:12 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 31, 2007

Looking back on 2007

This has been quite a year, all things considered. Floods across Britain in June and July, particularly the floods in my own area, did an enormous amount of damage and tested the emergency preparedness to the limits. It brought a sharp reminder as well that we are now so dependent on all our technology that the slightest disruption can bring about real problems. The loss of a water treatment plant at Tewkesbury deprived most of us in the Gloucestershire area of clean drinking water for the better part of two weeks. Some of us were without electricity for several days and there was the very real threat that this would be the fate of a half million homes in the county if we had lost just one major distribution station.

On the bright side we finally got rid of Blair and his Spin Doctoring coterie of friends with their lies, damned lies and creative use of "truth". Unfortunately we haven't yet got rid of the Socialist dictatorship that has entrenched itself in Westminster and planted its "people" in all of our media and the Civil Service. But that will come, and what a house cleaning that will be eventually.

We have also seen our "new" Illustrious Leader carry on the lies of the Blair years with his signing away of our Sovereignty in signing the EU Constitutional Treaty - a document acknowledged by every EU Leader except him as being unchanged in all essentials from the one the French and Dutch managed to kill off - and declaring that "It doesn't affect our sovereignty and therefore there is no need for a Referendum" reneging on a promise to hold one. Of course, the reason he will not hold one is that he knows the British people will reject it out of hand.

On a personal level the year has seen highs and lows. My books continue to sell, though very slowly, but on the up side, I now have an agent and things look very encouraging there. A trip to Jamaica proved extremely interesting and quite entertaining even though it was work related and the same can be said of Libya and the work there. An interesting aside has been the large number of Christmas cards I got this year from Muslim friends and acquaintances, something to ponder on methinks - especially for the PC "lets ban Christmas" brigade in Westminster. Other high points include visiting Poland to deliver a joint paper with Mausi and the fabulous reception we always get from our friends there. Nor can I overlook the visit to Ireland and the opportunity to visit places my grandfather knew and lived in while also looking at the life of St Patrick. And then there has been time to renew friendships, to make new ones and to foster old ones.

All in all, it has been quite a year! Who said retirement could be slow?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:57 AM | TrackBack

December 28, 2007

Remembering ....

Every so often I find a comment on an entry which makes me realise just how much this and other blogs connect to a wide range of people all over the world. Today I found just such a comment posted to a post I entitled "Painting for pleasure". That post centered on the painting I had done of the SAS President Kruger, a Type 12 frigate in service with the South African Navy until her tragic loss when she was accidentally rammed by the Command and Supply ship SAS Tafelberg.

The comment is posted by Chief Petty Officer Nick de Villiers, who served on her from 1976 until her sinking. On the night in question he was on duty in her Boiler Room when the Tafelberg struck the ship and began rolling her over. I will let Nick de Villiers say it in his own words.

I was Chief of the Watch in the Boiler-Room when the collision took place .I can still recall climbing up the stairs in the boiler-room after doing a emergency shutdown and the water was already rushing down the hatch, and from the top of the boiler-room I was "walking" on the bulkheads port side to get to the fwd. hatch which took me to the upper-deck just behind the 4.5" guns as the ship was already on a heavy list.The Jupitor was at that stage already half in the water.

My thought's will alway's be with my fellow sailor's that She took down with with "Her".

.........CPO NJ De Villiers

Some New Yorker's reading this may remember the only "official" visit of a South African warship to their city early in the 1970's. Well, that was the PK, as she was known to her crews and she was, as I have already noted in the previous post, a "happy ship".

I am sure that sailor's everywhere will join me in remembering those who were lost with her, and the heroism displayed by those like CPO de Villiers as they escaped the sinking ship in extraordinary circumstrances. I am flattered that he could write,

Looking at your painting I can still recall standing on the "quarter-deck " with speed trials watching the huge wake it used to make aft.and now and again "a puff of smoke " that escaped from the funnel as more burner's where activated on the boilers........

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:42 PM | TrackBack

December 09, 2007

Musical mumblings ...

This week I bought for my own collection a CD entitled "A drop in the ocean". It is a locally compiled and produced disc - everything on it is performed and some even composed by local artists and the proceeds are going to the Gloucestershire Flood Relief Fund. It is an eclectic collection of music reflecting the range of tastes, styles and music of the performers and begins with a medieval sounding piece entitled "Bloody meadow". The performers range from soloists such as Carl;eton Etherington on the Milton Organ, rock bands, folk bands, the Tewkesbury Town Band, choral groups and even the local school, a group called Diamante.

The mix is entertaining to say the least, with the medieval opening followed by a rock piece called "Treat me right". That is followed by the Town Brass Band playing "Beyond the sea" (Appropriate for Flood relief!) and the Blues number "It had to be you" is beautifully sung by Cate Cody. Then turn down the hi-fi because Carleton Etherington's rendition of "Marche Triomphale" by Karg-Elert is thunderous and the Milton Organ obviously gets a full workout as he delivers a wonderfully triumphant piece of musical fireworks. In complete contrast is the humorous "Dear Mr Brown", a nicely comical "letter" to our Illustrious Leader who made the obligatory photo opportunities during and after the floods - and loads of promises which seem to have been translated into more Civil Servants eating their heads off and doing nothing constructive. This is followed by "I don't want to talk about it", "Steal away", "happy ending", "Every day" and "Stormy weather" - another appropriate selection - then comes "The Cobbler" by the quaintly named "Pholk Law", "Sea and Sand", Bric a brac (By the Angry Owl and the Porcupine no less), "Rescue" by the Carnellians, "In season", "A drop in the ocean", "Beautiful noise" by Andy Brotherton and finally "The times they are a changing" - the song made famous by Bob Dylon.

In the words of the song "Dear Mr Brown" - "Dear Mr Brown, we're so glad you came to see us. We're six feet under water, but we're glad you came to see us Mr Brown." Perhaps more telling is the passage which says "We're so glad you came to see us Mr Brown, just remember I'm a floating voter Mr Brown"

Rudyard Kipling put it rather well in his famous poem/hymn "Recessional" written at the height of Empire -

The tumult and the shouting dies; The Captains and the Kings depart, Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, An humble and a contrite heart. Lord God of hosts be with us yet, Lest we forget, lest we forget.

Westminster has already moved on to the next scandal/photo opportunity, but the people of Gloucestershire have, in this CD, shown their determination to get back to normal - and their acknowledgement that it is pointless waiting for government promises or the civil service to do anything positive. So we roll our own sleeves up and get on with it. The CD can be found in The Abbey Shop, Alison's Books, Tewkesbury, and the Music Shop in Church Street, Tewkesbury and most other record and music shops in Gloucestershire.

We're glad you came to see us Mr Brown.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:33 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

November 27, 2007

Wandering in Mainz

Wandering around Mainz we visited the Museum, part of the local Schloss and found a fascinating collection of artifacts from civilizations spanning several millenia. One thing I really do admire in German museums of this sort is that they frequently recreate full sized replicas of things they have excavated and which, for obvious reasons, are no longer intact. Thus, this display includes replicas of the small wagons the Celts frequently buried with their dead leaders. I have previously commented on this when I visited the Museum which houses the recovered remains of a number of Roman ships - and the full sized replicas of two warships from that period.

The River Gate of the city of Mainz - from its design and construction in the lower floors it appears to be built on the original Roman gate.

Walking around the old city is fascinating. Much of this was severely damaged in the period 1939 to 1945, but most of it has been carefully and faithfully restored. The Gutenberg Museum near the Dom is also well worth a visit for this houses books from the dawn of printing including one of the few surviving Gutenberg Bibles. The press he used was actually a converted wine press and his great innovation made possible the printing of multiple pages, but, was still limited to printing a maximum of 72 copies a day. The decoration still had to be done by hand and you can see a replica of his press in use as they demonstrate the making of his type and the setting and printing of a page.

Spotted near the ancient gate, this gargoyle inhabits the wall of a late medieval 'hospital' - now a restuarant.

The restored buildings around the Dom include some really innovative ideas. One, currently under construction has involved the preservation of a row of decorated frontages from the medieval period as a frontage for a new department store and offices. The gargoyles in the picture here provide an idea of the type of unexpected denizen one can meet in wandering some of these old streets. All in all, a place with lots to stir the interest, and I would have to say, people who are welcoming.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:34 PM | TrackBack

November 19, 2007

Exploring Tripoli

The Souk, or market, in any Arabic country is always fascinating. Essentially if it is saleable, they will have it, can get it and will sell it. The Old Souk in Tripoli is now mainly aimed at the tourist market, being next to the harbour and located in the bits of Tripoli on everyone's "must see" list, this makes sense. Yet you can still find the craftsmen and the sort of stock lists that make your eyes water.

Souk courtyard.JPG
One of several courtyards in the Souk. Jewellery, momentoes, rugs, prayer mats and Roman pottery jostle one another on sale.

Down one of the many alleys can be found the metal workers. The din is indescribable and probably exceeds the EU Health and Safety noise levels by several degrees, but it is fascinating to see metals being worked in the traditional manner. Copper sheets are hammered into bowls, sheets of brass become ewers and small cups even as you watch. The tools may be basic, but the skills are highly developed.

Coppersmith at work.JPG
A coppersmith at work - the din is audlible some distance away.

Brass ewer in the making.JPG
Decorated brass being turned into a ewer in a workshop which houses a forge, a smelting furnace and the workbenches to create this sort of item no bigger than ten feet deep and about eight wide. Don't ask about fume extraction ...

Definitely a place to revisit with more time and a better organised itinary.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:21 AM | TrackBack

November 18, 2007

Growing older?

I have often had to smile at the header on The Gorse Fox's blog page - The ramblings of an aging body housing a mind that still thinks it's 25! - and I know exactly what he means. I feel the same - and then my aging body decides to give me a sharp reminder that I'm not twenty-five.

Today I was Sub Deacon at the Sung Mass, and, as I rose from the Sidellia at the end of the sermon, my left knee locked, then a stabbing pain and I just about managed to reach the vertical and face East for the Creed. A bit of gentle exercise concealed by the robes and it got freed up enough for me to carry on and finish the service, although with some decidedly hairy moments when I needed to genuflect!

Aging is definitely one of those activities that sort of sneaks up on you. Gradually you begin to notrice that bits of you no longer function quite as they are supposed to, or, are very reluctant to function at all. I used to enjoy a bit of walking and sailing, now some of the joints I need to do either are so stiff that sailing particularly is almost an "extreme" sport in some boats. Likewise the walking, I have always enjoyed plenty of exercise, but suddenly my knees are giving me a problem and so it goes on.

At least I can still type - even if it is with two fingers! Growing older sucks, why can't I have the body of a twenty five year old and the knowledge and experience of my real age? That would be a much better combination!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:24 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 14, 2007

Sunday ....

Just got back to the Domus from the Abbey. It has been a long and rather eventful Sunday. Our Chapter meeting this afternoon covered a lot of ground - and then we had a Civic Service. Quite an interesting event really as the current Town Mayor is, like his Borough counterpart, a committed Christian. So are some of the councillors. These occassions always make me wonder about the way people encounter God, and sometimes how they will encounter God.

Recently I have had the opportunity to watch a number of "civic" style services and the thing that soon strikes you in these is how few of the people attending are able to say the Lord's Prayer. And then you realise that many of them have no concept of what it means or says, and they cannot sing the most common and popular hymns either. One can only hope that somewhere in the service something will get through, some word from a readingt perhaps, or something in a prayer will spark thoughts on what they do believe. For they do believe - but the question is, in what?

Sorting through the prayer requests on the prayer board for visitors and pilgrims can be a challenging experience and sometimes a revealing one. Like the person who left a prayer request that "Christians could be brought to accept Wiccan beliefs as valid expressions of God." Tricky one that, since the Wiccan movement is less than a hundred years old, was invented by a "gentleman" who went in for some odd practices with young and impressionable ladies which would probably get him arrested today for underage sex and pornography, and is largely founded on some of the zanier Victorian imaginative tales of pagan and druidic practices. The terms "ancient" and "God based" are not ones most people would consider in the same breath as "Wiccan". What these requests do show clearly though, is that people desperately want something they can believe in, something greater than their own intellect or ability, something bigger and more eternal than humanity and the mess it manages to create everywhere.

Civic Services tend to bring all of that into focus I'm afraid, since the bulk of the congregation on these occassions are there because they have to be and not because they necessarily want to be.

One can only hope that God can find a way to speak to them through it, and do one's best to make it meaningful and God centred for those who are there to worship and give God the glory. After that, it is in the hands of God.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 03, 2007

Looking back

Today I celebrate one year of retirement. And I seem to have worked harder than ever before for most of it and now, in the run up to Christmas, there seems to be even more work coming in - no bad thing according to my Bank Manager. That said, a long running conversation with a friend has given me cause to look back at where I have come from and what I have achieved since I left school forty three years ago. And, as I said to her, I think I have to pinch myself to make sure this isn't some sort of idle dream.

I seem to have managed to pack in quite a lot of things somehow, much to my own surprise, and probably to the amazement of everyone who knew me at school. I was much more interested in sailing, swimming and surfing than in school work so I left school without a university bursary lined up and no idea of what I was going to do for a living - truth to tell I wasn't even sure how to go about getting a proper job anyway and I certainly wasn't prepared for anything at all. I had some vague ideas about the priesthood and had in fact been selected as an ordinand, subject to completing three years working and national service. So I landed a job, thanks to my father's boss with a bank. Banker material I was not and three years of that proved it. I did go to Theological College, but found that I was not in tune with the direction that required at that time (Again if the truth be told I was far to immature!) and so drifted out into the world again. Having been a Scout (Sea Scouts actually!) I had also drifted into being a Scoutmaster and then into the St John Ambulance Brigade, which in turn led me into the fire service .....

Looking back from where I am now I still find it quite amazing that I can now wave two degreees, seven diplomas and umpteen certificates that I have earned at anyone who is impressed by these things. Considering that I started out from one of the tougher and poorer quarters of a place called East London - and it's not the one on the Thames, but one further South on the Buffalo River - some of where I have been and done is simply unbelievable. Another reason I pinch myself regularly. No one who knew me then would believe that I have been presented to several Royals, taken tea with the premier uke in the land and his heir in their private library, hosted dinners as a Mess President for people who feature among the famous and for those whose achievements are perhaps known only within their particular profession. The high point surely being asked to Preside at a dinner for several hundred held in the Signet Library in Edinburgh.

I have published books, currently two technical titles and one novel. I have several more in preparation and hope to publsih many more. Even my list of published papers surprises me - what could I possibly have to say that in interesting?

Even more amazing is the travelling I have undertaken professionally and the matters on which I find myself being consulted. There have been many highs along the way and a few lows as well, but on the whole it was a very enjoyable journey, with many really great colleagues and a lot of friends of all walks of life and all types as well. It has been an amazing journey, one made all the more interesting and enjoyablke by those who have helped me to achieve it and who helped make me the person I am. I can think of a very large number of people who have been an influence in my life, particularly in my formative years. My parents, my maternal grandparents, the priest who prepared me for confirmation, people who lent me boats and taught me to sail, people who taught me values and respect for others. Some stand out, others are less easily identified, a few, a very few, were negative influences, but even they had an ultimately positive effect.

Yes, I have some regrets, things I have not achieved, journeys not taken. I wish I had become a priest, but who can say if I would ever have made a good one? No, what is done is now done, what I have left undone is probably best left that way too. And there is still time to achieve some more if I stop blathering on and wallowing in the past.

As I contemplate the end of my first year of retirement, I find myself thinking, "Is that me? - Nah, can't be, that dumb kid from the Quigney couldn't have done all that, he didn't have the brains or the drive." Or did he?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:40 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 23, 2007

Crying wolf

I must apologise to my readers. Yesterday I fell for a hoax and published an appeal for a missing young man. It turns out that this, far from originating, as I was led to believe in my own home town, comes from the US and was originated as a joke by Evan Trembley himself. It seems he composed the email, using phrases lifted from other similar hoax mails and adding the details of his home town police department - missing from the version forwarded to me - sending it to a small number of his friends. They in turn forwarded it to their friends .....

I checked back with my sources in South Africa before composing that post, and they too believed it to be a genuine appeal launched for a missing boy from my former home town. Had we checked Google we might have learned otherwise. None of us did.

That said, we do live in a world where children "vanish" every day, and in some countries are much more likely to do so than in others. Africa has a big problem with this, so do several South American countries and even in Europe it is not that uncommon. We should not let this hoax, started as a joke among friends, blind us to the fact that there are children and young adults out there who are in danger, who are being abducted, kidnapped, raped and murdered.

What I have learned from this, is to do a bit more digging before passing something like that on in future, but I would hope that I will never let it cause me to turn away from a genuine cry for help. That is the unfortunate result of "crying wolf" too often - when the wolf does come, no one believes that he has. I hope that no one ever turns away from a genuine cry as a result of these hoax messages circulating in among the genuine.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:24 AM | TrackBack

September 22, 2007

Missing persons

Recently I have heard of a number of cases of missing teenagers. Now some may say that teenagers are naturally rebels and will usually have got into drugs or some other form of trouble and run away. They turn up eventually, Sometimes they even turn up alive and well. That is rarely a comfort to their families and there have been a number of cases recently of young women going missing between school, a party of a friends and never arriving home. As a parent I am all too aware of the worry you experience when your children are out in the big wide world and "at risk", but, in truth, the big wide world is a dangerous place and sometimes we have to let our kids go out and learn that for themselves.

I received a plea yesterday from South Africa which I have decided to place here. Having checked back with the friend who sent it to me I decided I could not just ignore it. I have a number of reasons for doing this, first is that this youngster may be in Europe or the UK. It is just possible he has run this far. On the other hand, he may be in SA or somewhere nearby and not in a position to get home. If anyone does see him, please pass the information on to the address in the e-mail in this post. I must stress that I don't personally know either Evan Trembley or his mother Evelyn Trembley, this story I received from a friend and colleague in Ministry and so I pass it on as best I can.

Evelyn Trembley.bmp
Evan Trembley - missing

My 15 year old boy, Evan Trembley, is missing. He has been missing for now two weeks.

Maybe if everyone passes this on, someone will see this child.
That is how the girl from Steve n s Point was found by circulation
of her picture on tv. The internet circulates even overseas,
South America , and Canada etc.
Please pass this to everyone in your address book.
With GOD on his side he will be found.

'I am asking you all, begging you to please
forward this email on to anyone and everyone
you know, PLEASE.

It is still not too late. Please help us. If anyone
knows anything, please contact me at:
I am including a picture of him.

All prayers are appreciated! ! '

It is a sad fact that each year many more boys than girls 'disappear' from their homes. Some are murdered and we hear of them in the press, others are runaways and there are many reasons for their running away. Still others are never found, never heard from again. These boys often end up in the sex trade, and it is far more prevalent than our press or our politicians admit. Perhaps they are not aware of the realities, or perhaps they are, but don't want to admit it. Boys like Evan have a market value in some quarters and, in under developed countries, are often easily made to 'vanish'.

Your prayers for Evan, for his family and for all 'lost boys, girls and adults, are requested - but do remember the familles they have left behind. We pray that Evan will be returned to his family safely, but I cannot fail to recall a similar case when I was a school boy - the victim then was found under a culvert some four months after his disappearance. It sort of hits a little harder when you knew the victim - and this boy needs our prayers now.

Pray for the lost and the stolen.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:08 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 21, 2007

Suing God

It could probably only happen in the US, although I wouldn't put it past some of the loony fringe Humanist movement in this country. It seems that a member of the State Legislature of Nebraska has filed a lawsuit against God for - you guessed it - Acts of God. His point is that such suits are "frivolous" and waste the courts time, but if that is so, I am sure he could have found a different way of showing this up.

This is probably one of those instances where the Plaintiff has more money than sense, because the only people laughing at this lunacy will be the lawyers appointed for both sides. Presumably God will be assigned a human representative to defend his case in the courts, to not provide such legal representation would breach His Human Rights. But that raises the question of "who pays" and in my experience, what the US legal profession call "Pro Bono" cases are paid for by the public purse. In other words the good God Fearing Tax Payers of Nebraska are about to fund a friviolous case, brought by a man who is paid by them, against God who provides everything for them, and they plan to pay God's Legal Fees.

A possibly pointless exercise all round. Perhaps all concerned would do well to consider the Court convened in Auschwitz by the Jewish inmates. They put God on trial for permitting the Genocide of their race. God was found guilty by that court, but the outcome was recorded as "God is, as God is. It is not for His creation to question His actions or to protest at His Judgement." Most of those involved in that case perished in the gas chambers and have probably since been able to ask their questions directly of the Almighty.

This case seems to me to be more about someone getting noticed by the media and not a lot about improving either justice or the standing of the legal profession. Hopefully, those of real faith will also see this for the nonsence it is and treat it with the scorn it deserves.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A court in Nebraska is being asked to cast judgement on the ultimate judge -- God.

State lawmaker Ernie Chambers filed a lawsuit Friday against the Almighty -- acknowledging he/she goes by numerous aliases -- for causing "fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues" and other alliterative catastrophes.

The suit, Chambers vs God, asks the court for a "permanent injunction ordering defendant (God) to cease certain harmful activities and the making of terrorist threats" which affect innumerable persons, including Chambers's constituents.

It asserts that God is "the admitted perpetrator" of such acts and said that God's omnipresence gives the local Douglas County District Court jurisdiction in the suit, adding that God's omniscience eliminates the need to issue a formal notice of the lawsuit.

Chambers told local media he filed the suit to make a point about frivolous lawsuits frequently seen in US courts, citing a recent one against a judge.

He asked the court to award him an unspecified summary judgment against God, or, in the alternative, issue a permanent injunction against God engaging in the damaging acts cited in the filing.

Neither God nor his/her spokespersons could be contacted for comment.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:03 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 14, 2007

Ah the weekend ...

Having had almost a year pass since my retirement, I had forgotten the anticipation one gets driving home from work on a Friday afternoon. There is the added frisson of having to dodge the weekenders and of queueing in traffic caused by the Friday exodus from the big smoke - and I discovered afresh that I don't miss it at all!

Ah well, the wages earned this week will help rebuild the reserves and keep the economy from faltering no doubt, it might even cover some of the tax demand that has landed in todays post. Never mind, that was expected having had a good lump sum and severance for taking early retirement, but I still find myself resenting that fact that it will simply fuel more waste by the incompetents running the country - both elected and unelected.

On the up side, I can now look forward to a weekend of relaxation, of doing some of the things that give me real pleasure. The ale is in the fridge and at optimum temperature, the food supply is secure for the weekend, the car washed and the bank happy. So - enjoy the weekend!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 06, 2007

RIP - Luciano Pavarotti

The death this morning of Luciano Pavarotti of Pancreatic cancer is a tragedy for his family, but, I suspect, a relief to the big man with the huge heart and voice. May he rest in peace and rise in glory with the faithful.

Pray for him and especially for those who mourn his passing.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 02, 2007

Religion is the root of all evil?

At least it seems that that is the conclusion of a little over fifty percent of the population in a new YouGov Poll taken for Jonathon Snow. If it is indeed what fifty percent of the populace think then it demonstrates very clearly that the Humanists and their fellow anti-Christian and materialistic propagandists are winning the battle for hearts and minds. Of course, a great deal depends upon the question you are asked for any poll and the "peer" pressure you may consider yourself to be under when you answer.

In this case the question appears to be straight forward enough - it simply asks the interviewee if they believe that religion has played a part in global conflict. As ever, the answer required is a straight yes or no, there is no room - it would defeat the purpose of the Poll if there was - for a more complex answer. And, in this case there isn't an easy answer.

If you simply take the surface value for everything then, yes, religion is a factor in conflict. But so is political ambition, greed and the thirst for power. When once you actually begin to examine the background to any given conflict you very rapidly realise that the "religious issue" is actually a smokescreen for the real agenda of the people orchestrating any such conflict. Usually, in classic comic book villain style, its about dominating a people, a nation or a group of nations and the "religious issue" is used to stir up emotions and fear. But then no Poll wants to look at that, its about finding simplistic answers that can be fed to newspapers and direct public attention away from what is good or desirable in the target philosophy, belief or organisation. If you want to destroy something, as Dr Goebbels demonstrated in 1936 to 1945, you first demonise it, then you persuade people that it is anti-whatever they consider good and moral - then you exterminate it. And there has been a concerted campaign against religion in this country for the last hundred or so years orchestrated by clever manipulation of the media and latterly of the history taught at school.

Take a good look at the history your children are taught today and you will find that in every case the Christian religion is blamed for a catalogue of ills from intolerance through slavery to global war. Name something that has resulted in a war in the history of the last two thousand years and somewhere along the line the history books being used in our schools today will make mention of Christianity as being the "cause" of the conflict. The Crusades were "caused" by Christians demanding equality in Jerusalem. How unreasonable. The Fall of Rome was "caused" by Christianity. Actually, recent research has turned up the fact that Rome collapsed because it had been so overrun by "immigrants" who owned no stake in it that the Imperial families simply decamped and left it to them. The wars in Spain - again "caused" by Christians wanting equality in their own country. Even the conflicts of the twentieth century are now supposed to have been "caused" by people trying to live up to Christian principles, but, in complete contradiction, we are told that Christian Churches "condoned" the holocaust. Surely a conflict of intentions - you cannot live up to the principles of the Gospel AND condone the holocaust.

Since the second world war, the socialist/humanist propaganda machine has really swung into gear. Pick up any newspaper, do you find any reports of the good things done by Christian communities? Of course not, but let the Vicar "misappropriate" a fiver from a collection in order to feed a tramp and it's splashed across the front pages of the newspapers. TV is no better, the Vicar is always portrayed as some sort of half baked twit not in full possession of his marbles and the congregations are portrayed as a bunch of complete nutters. Look at the reporting of the present difficulty with followers of Islam, all you ever hear about is the extremist views on both ends - even the moderates are portrayed as extremists and the overall image projected is of a religious conflict. No one is able to hold a rational debate on any religious issue because it is always misrepresented in the press and media so that it becomes provocative. That, after, all is what sells papers.

The net result is the outcome of the poll take by YouGov. Religion, in the minds of the majority, is now the root of all evil.

The strange thing is that we now see the outcome in a rather disquieting aberration in society - the creation of cult worship of people like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana and other media "icons". I find it disturbing that there are still people who, ten years after her death in a car crash, who mark the anniversary with elaborate little rituals and prayers, cards and bouquets littering the fence at Kensington Palace. For heaven's sake the woman was no saint, none of these idiots ever met her, and if they had they probably would not keep up this stupid and lachrymose pretense that she was the "saviour" of our nation. She wasn't and never could be. But this demonstrates something interesting, for, as the real religions are increasingly seen as "evil" and to be shunned, so more and more we see people turning to the worship of the memory of someone who has usually died rather tragically or pointlessly. Drive along any major road these days and you are sure to see rather forlorn little bunches of flowers laid beside the road or attached to a fence marking the spot where someone has died in an accident. Most of these are all that marks the passing of a young man or woman usually driving too fast and under circumstances almost certain to contribute to a crash. Tragic? Yes, but worthy of being treated as saints? Probably not.

So what is happening here? Religion offers people hope of life beyond the grave, whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu or something else is immaterial, they all offer some hope of a life beyond this. In the absence of that certainty, conferred by faith and teachings of that faith, you are left with nothing, so your only alternative is to create some little icon for yourself in the hope that this will provide an outlet for your spiritual needs. Sadly it doesn't and where there is no faith, there can be no belief in a hereafter - and most of those who eschew religion find that scary.

I do not believe that religion is the root of all evil. I do believe that it is often abused by people who seek to use it as a route to power or to attain power over the lives of others. It is worth remembering in this year of celebration over the Act which outlawed the carriage of slaves in British ships that it was Christian men and women who campaigned for that, not the Humanists or the the political classes - and the campaign began right back in the first century. And yes, I do know that certain bishops in the Church owned slaves in 1807. How many of you are aware that the slave trade was flourishing in Africa, particularly in Angola and the Arab controlled areas until the 1950's? Or that it is still flourishing even now in Darfur, Somalia and Sudan? That it has taken on some new guises in Indonesia and several other parts of the Middle and Far East? How many people know that Christians are working in centres to help people out of slavery and to rescue others - often in conditions where they are in constant danger? And many more are trapped in slavery themselves in so called "developing nations"?

It is not reported because it is not the message the politicians and others want you to hear. Remember, religion is the cause of all ....

Well, let me ask the question another way. Do you believe the world would be a better place if we all held no faith, if we all followed our instincts and obeyed no higher values than our human ones?

I know what my feeling is on that!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:44 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 23, 2007

Editor's reports .....

Well, I have the latest Editor's Report on "The enemy is within!". As Churchill once remarked, "It is not the end, nor yet the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning."

I felt a bit like that as I read the report. Essentially this one is far more positive than the first and even the second. It has highlighted a couple of weaknesses, which will take some work to iron out, it has made some further suggestions on improving the flow of the text and of the story, all of which is very positive. But the bottom line is, it is not "Publisher ready" yet.

One area I have to work on is to make the "villians" less Black and White and more "Grey" so that they are not entirely "Bad" versus "Good" and it is rather a case of "Grey" versus "Grey". That is not so easy to do, but it is doable with some re-writing. The point that the Editor makes here is that my "good" guys clearly have a three dimensional existence with moral dilemmas to resolve whereas the "bad" guys seem to exist only as immoral and therefore "bad" guys. The report does make one exception - it points to the fact that one of the "bad" guys is now almost pitiable .....

But the good news - I have just had another Royalty cheque from my publisher of "Out of Time". It isn't on the scale of J K Rowling's pay cheques, but hey, thanks to all those of you who have bought the book, helped sell the book or told someone about it.

Right, back to the keyboard, and the effort to resolve the issues with The enemy is within!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:51 AM | TrackBack

August 14, 2007

Letting go ....

Is probably the hardest thing any parent has to face. What provoked this line of thought? An exchange with a fellow blogger whose eldest son will be launching forth into the great big pond outside his own home yard and learning to cope with the bigger pond that is the school room and school yard in the Autumn. It reminded me of the first day at school for each of my own three and, perhaps to my own surprise, the first day I spent at school myself. As I recall the first lesson I learned on that day was that "friends" I knew in my neighbourhood and who were slightly older than me, weren't "friends" in the School playground. There they were not prepared to associate with a junior. That said, I was not one of those who cried when my mother left me in the care of the teacher on that first day, and I recall a feeling of slight superiority as I watched other kids succumb to that urge. I wonder what that says about me then and now?

At each stage of growth our kids present us with challenges. But the main things is the joy they give us, for the joys generally far outweigh the disasters that inevitably accompany the growing up process. Looking back I think I must have been a real trial to my parents. I conformed in many things, and ran amok in others. Homework happened to other people and I rarely completed mine, something I am quite ashamed of now. I have never been good at self study and there was no one home to ensure I actually did it - so I did the minimum necessary to avoid a caning. As one of my former School Masters told me many years later - "We could see the lights on and the intelligence there; but you evaded every attempt to engage your interest in what we were teaching!" He was flattered to learn that he had succeeded in teaching me a great deal more than he thought he had.

Children grow very rapidly once they hit school and from Day one they start to grow away from us. Suddenly Mum and Dad are not the only people who know stuff or can show us stuff. There is a whole new range of interesting and sometimes scary people out there suddenly impacting on us in different ways. As soon as we learn to read things more complicated than "Janet and John" there are other influences pouring into our heads. As parents we forget just how blank a slate a child's head is when we wave good bye at the bus stop or the school gate - and we are sometimes alarmed at what gets written on it and by whom! Suddenly our influences seem to diminish rapidly and the child seems to almost run away from our control as they learn to admire a teacher, or to hero worship one of their peers. Most of the influences from thsi will be good ones - provided we have ourselves prepared the 'slate' carefully and properly, teaching the difference between right and wrong; teaching respect for others and the rules of common courtesy and decency. These rules they will not get at school, these rules they have to have already learned when they enter those gates.

But, once we have started to widen their world, once they enter the school enivironment it often seems that we, as parents, become less important to the child. This isn't really so, but they do have so many new influences to deal with they do not give the same amount of time to us any longer. The chrysalis in which we placed them as babies is about to be torn open. We forget too that for much of human existence, childhood ceased at age six or seven and adulthood commenced at around fifteen. We have prolonged childhood and we have prolonged education, both good things to have done, but we have also forgotten that there comes a time and a point at which these fledglings have to learn to fly on their own. That is the hard bit.

This was brought home to me as I listened at the weekend to the latest exploits of my son. It is true that the "apple does not fall far from the tree" and it is sometimes uncomfortable to be confronted with another version of myself. Different, but comparable in so many ways .... But, he is an adult now and must make his own mistakes and his own decisions, as must both my daughters. That doesn't mean I love any of them any less, just that, hard as it is, I have had to learn to step back, to be there when they want to confide in me or cry on my shoulder - but I cannot fight their battles or steer their lives any longer. I have to let go, to learn to take a new role and position, one which I hope allows me to remain a friend, a confidant and - on those occassions when the family aversion to advice isn't in the ascendent - to offer advice.

Letting go is the hardest thing every parent has to face .....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:39 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 09, 2007

The changing face of leadership

Leadership is one of the most fascinating human attributes, and it is fascinating precisely because we cannot stereotype it. Look at the models of leadership we are most familiar with and you could be excused for thinking they are typically seven foot tall, built like Arnold Swartznegger, with that steely eyed expression that brooks no nonsense. Yet is that a good picture of a "leader".

Sir Winston Churchill certainly could not be accused of conforming to that mold and neither could Admiral Lord Nelson or Admiral A B Cunnigham, much less Sir Francis Drake or Queen Elizabeth the First. They were all small people who walked large on the world at the appropriate time, yet most of the time you would probably have been hard pressed to recognise them in the street. Sir Winston is perhaps the most poignant example of a leader whose skills of leadershjip were most evident at a particular moment - and not at others. Sir Winston was a political outcast right up to the moment he - to quote the late President J F Kennedy - "mobilised the English language and sent it marching out to war." Certainly Elizabeth Tudor would have recognised the skills he displayed and the foresight and depth of insight he brought to leadership of this nation during the war. Some of his decisions would not have been popular - and still rankle in certain parts of the former Empire - but they were the right decisions in the long run and they were often made in the full knowledge that they did not and would not meet the populist perception of what should be done.

Some are born to leadership roles and grow into them, others find themselves having to assume the mantle and either make a decent job of it, or are destroyed by their inability to carry others along with them. Nelson's "magic" was his ability to attract to his Flag those who were willing to venture ideas, opinions and tactics and have him adapt or reject them as he considered appropriate. He built teams of leaders - and leaders can be the very worst members of any team - in such a way that he was able to borrow their strengths and use them to best advantage. That was why they were prepared to follow him and to play according to his rules. Admiral Cunningham had a similar magic. He could be "one of the gang" without anyone ever assuming that this meant he or she was on an equal footing, but, when the moment required it, he could assume the full mantle of command and knew that his "team" (Like Nelson, the whole of his Fleet) would do their utmost to fulfil his expectations of them.

Being the "leader" is a nice balancing act - a tight rope between being one of the team and taking full and unreserved responsibility for its success or its failure. This is not a "committee position". Yes, he or she may have to consult their team through a "committee" forum, but, at the end of the day they, and they alone, are responsible.

I was struck recently by an item in the Scientific American concerning the changing concept of leadership which suggests that successful modern leaders are those who play by populist rules and fulfil populist expectations. To me that is not leadership, that is politics - and the two are very, very different. Sometimes a leader must be prepared to make a decision and act on it which flies in the face of populist sentiment precisely because that will be the fairest and least damaging choice. A populist leader will avoid making such a decision entirely and instead follow the crowd thereby abdicating all claim to being "the Leader".

My leadership training emphasised several aspects which I will try to summarise here:

1. Leaders listen, they listen to their team and they take on board the individuals needs, concerns and ideas,
2. Leaders use persuasion to carry their teams along with them, they communicate effectively and clearly, avoiding "buzz" words and phrases, slogans and other meaningless jargon when talking to their people. They NEVER ever talk down to a member of a team.
3. They know their people, their strengths, their fears, their weaknesses and play to these, never asking someone to do more than they can offer, but encouraging them to stretch their own limits and grow.
4. No leader ever asks a committee to make a decision for them. They consult, they may even delegate a part of the planning process and they will certainly persuade and enthuse - but the final "lets do this" is the Leader's alone.
5. A good leader is able to outline what they want the team to achieve and then stand back and let them do it. They don't micro-manage, set targets and demand returns and constant reports on progress, they set out the objective and the deadline, then let the individuals get it done.
6. Finally, a Leader is one who knows how to do the thing "right" according to the "rules", but will also know when doing the "right thing" is FAR more important than doing it "right".

Unfortunately most of the "studies" done on "leadership" in the last century have been done by men and women who have never been in a position of true leadership. Many have managed staff but they have never had to lead a team through adversity, through survival in a liferaft, through attack by an enemy when short on ammunition or shelter. That is when the real leaders emerge, when the youth everyone has teased and chided suddenly becomes a man and takes charge, leading the wounded to safety or extricating the family from the edge of disaster. It is not something that can be quantified, measured or even, as I said at the outset, stereotyped. And it is the error of our age to confuse "Management" with "Leadership".

Management is a function of leadership, not its equal and we would do well to remember that.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:36 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 06, 2007

Young warrior

My brother has kindly forwarded a copy of another old photograph, taken on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, it shows my Grandfather and his friend aged sixteen just before they were sent into battle on the Somme. Part of the 36th Ulster Division, the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers, in which they were serving, were committed on the first day. Henry Nelson Heron and his best friend fell side by side in no man's land and spent three days there in a shell hole unable to drag themselves back to their lines. When finally recovered, they were not expected to live. Thanks to maggots and the fact that the medics felt they would die if their damaged legs were amputated (they were dying anyway according to the senior surgeon!) they did not lose their limbs and they survived, but were subsequently deemed unfit to continue as infantry and were sent to the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Ada Eve of the Somme.jpg
Fusillier Henry Nelson Heron in 1916

Nelson, as he was known by his friends and family, went on to emigrate to South Africa in 1920 and carved out a career for himself. He was always a man of huge compassion and generosity and lived according to a set of values he gained from his father and mother and forged into a code by which he lived. He loved passionately his family, never turned a friend away in any need and never demanded repayment, but he was not a man to be taken for a fool either. That you did at your peril.

As I have unearthed more of his story in this last year I am amazed at just what he achieved and how much he gave to us, his grandchildren. Truly a man to be very proud to have known.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:30 PM | TrackBack

August 01, 2007

After the flood

Mausi's arrived in Tewkesbury last Saturday for another visit. The waters were already receding steadily but the Abbey couldn't be reached on foot on the footpath Mausi usually takes from The Monk's place until yesterday.

The waters are falling quickly now leaving behind mud and silt and smell...

Walking along there yesterday morning Mausi had a closer look at the devastation left behind. The grass will take some time to recover here. A distinctive smell like an outgoing tide hung in the air and masses of dead earthworms were lying around. Obviously during the high tide last week the locks on the Severn had been opened and the salt water had been pushed up all the way to Tewkesbury. Amazing!

In town people are busy clearing out and trying to dry the rooms where the water got into. Everywhere you see piles of destroyed furniture, carpets and other household goods. Some shops and restaurants are also badly hit. The whole floor had to be taken up in the restaurant where Mausi enjoyed here birthday dinner only last April. But at the least the weather forecast is good for this week, it's mostly sunny and there's even a little breeze which will hopefully speed up the drying process.

Seeing all the boats piled up on top of each other on the river Avon just tells you what forces have been at work when the floods reached Tewkesbury. But then the water had reached up unto that little bridge in the background.

River Avon with Tewkesbury Mill in the background

People have been doing a tremendous job around here. Apart from sandbagging their own and their neighbours' houses when the flood struck, hundreds of people had be looked after and cared for who got stuck in Tewkesbury Friday night a week ago and couldn't leave the town because all the roads were under water and closed. But since the middle of last week electrical power has been restored. And people have access to tap water again since the end of last week. Although it still not fit for drinking and has a greenish tinge to it when filling the bath tub, people can flush their toilets, take a bath and run their washing machines again. Outsiders can hardly imagine what a relief that is.

Having been through a few floods and discussions how close to the river buildings should be allowed in Germany as well during the last 10 years Mausi can only hope that British authorities will reconsider their plans of allowing buildings in areas which are in danger of being flooded. In Germany they've learnt it the hard way that you can't fence in water and even the dykes will give way at some stage. Now areas along the big rivers like Rhine and Oder have been turned into flood plaines where no building of houses is allowed at all. It took a bit of convincing politicians as for example at the Rhine Cologne usually gets most badly hit by the floods. Cologne is in the federal state of Nort-Rhine-Westfalia. In that state the Rhine runs along the famous Rhine river valley - no opportunities to have flood plaines there. So the flood plaines had be farther upstream in the Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinum although those states never had a flood problem. But for once common sense took over.

Posted by Mausi at 06:18 PM | TrackBack

July 24, 2007

Did the earth move for you?

The recent report of a severe earthquake in East Africa got me thinking about the huge forces at work in the surface of the planet we infest, sorry, inhabit. What is remarkable - and says a lot about the parochialism of the BBC and other "news" agencies - is that this 7.4 on the Richter Scale, barely registered at all on the Western Media, yet it killed four people and injured dozens more. Even more interestingly it occured in an area which is, not unnaturally, a very sensitive zone for earthquakes and one which, perhaps, should be more closely examined.

Earthquakes are something most of us would prefer to avoid, yet almost everyone will, at some time, feel at least a tremor in the earth. Personally I have felt three in my lifetime, all of them rather remote from where I actually was in relation to the quake zone, but still an unsettling experience. Certainly for those near the epicentre in each case it was much more alarming, damaging or injurious to life and limb than where I was during the quake itself. Frankly, that was close enough for me anyway.

My interest in matters geological wasn't, until fairly recently, much more than a passing acquaintance with some of the better known aspects such as plate tectonics and the whole issue of why volcanoes occur along fairly defined zones. But, more recently, I have been subscribing to a range of Geographic Society magazines and have learned a great deal more about this subject. One of the more interesting aspects being that geographically "inactive" areas, tend to have very poor soil, lack significant mountains and therefore usually also tend to be very arid. Mountains are upthrusts as a result of one techtonic plate overriding another, so it should be no surprise then to find that the Himalayas, the Andes, The Rockies, Caucases, the Urals and almost all "young" mountain ranges sit on the "upper" plate along these fault lines. Volcanoes tend to sit along the fault lines and, no surprises here, earthquakes are usually centred on them as well.

So why my sudden interest in the East African earthquake? Well, it's been quite a while since that area had one this big. Secondly, "rift" valleys tend to be in the same sort of geological timebomb scale as the so called "super" volcanoes. They occur when the crust ruptures suddenly due to stresses transmitted from the tectonic plate movements - and they can be utterly devastating. That is why geophysicists are watching an area running from the Bering Strait down the coast of Mongolia and into Northern China quite keenly. It is where they predict the next "rift" will take place, and if it is anything like their models predict - well, good by all mammilian species and most others as well. There are some who argue that the formation of the Great Rift Valley in Africa (and which extends from Ethiopia all the way South to the Drakensberg/Maluti Mountains in South Africa was reasponsible for one of the great extinctions in prehistory. This rift valley is also slowly tearing apart and will eventually see Africa tear into two landmasses - though probably not in anything like our lifetimes.

OK, so this was an event in a remote part of Africa, not on the tourist trail and it didn't kill any tourists from Britain or anywhere in the "civilised" world. So our media ignored it. Yet, if you stop and think about the overall picture, each quake in a sensitive zone like this does have an impact somewhere else in the world. Pressure released in the crust in one zone means a sudden increase of pressure somewhere else. Perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to what is going on under our feet. After all, the next time the earth moves - it might be exactly where we might all feel it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:02 PM | TrackBack

July 19, 2007

Disappearing blogs

Recently I have noticed a disturbing trend among many of the bloggers I visit regularly, they are stopping blogging, or blogging very infrequently. Reasons given are wide ranging, one, "The Anchoress" states that she finds she is getting very pressurised by the strain of constantly finding topics another, my Blogfather, Ozguru of G'day mate has pressures of work and family and just finds the daily task of clearing several hundred spam comments from his blog to much to deal with at present. Then there is Skipjack who seems to be posting very irregularly, On the Third Hand likewise and a host of others who have simply vanished.

I confess that I am finding the time spent blogging very demanding now that I work for myself. Every minute I spend on the blog is a minute not spent earning anything. And it does get a bit depressing to know that what you have written passionately about is unlikely to be read by more than a handful of folks, most of them your friends who share your views anyway - or if they don't are at least prepared to discuss them with you. Are we likely to have any impact on the "Great and the Good"? Not unless they actually read what we write here, or one of their lackeys does. And even then, they are unlikely to take much notice unless you happen to have touched some raw nerve that they are already worried by.

Does this mean the Monk is about to give up blogging? Well, not yet anyway. But he is certainly having to look hard at the time he is spending on it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:51 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 18, 2007

Forwarding jokes - Fun or Frustration?

Sometimes the only thing you ever seem to get from longstanding friends on the e-mail are forwarded jokes. There are two ways to react to this, annoyance at getting another joke, or to open it and enjoy it. Even if you have seen it half a dozen times before. I hold my hand up and admit to the fact that I frequently forward them on to those of my friends I rarely hear from or with whom I have infrequent contact - in the hope that they will enjoy it and that they will know that I am at least thinking of them.

Why am I rabbiting on about this you may well ask, surely there are far more earth shattering things to blog about? Well, yes, there probably are, and I'll blog about them in due course. What triggered this line of thought though was the receipt of a story which is not a joke - except in the broadest sense of the word - and which has, at its heart (as most really good stories do) an interestingly provocative truth. I have placed it in the extended post section, it is certainly worth a wider read.

The fact that it actually sums up incredibly well the entire purpose of the Christian message is also pertinent - and very, very telling.

This explains why I forward jokes.

A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.

He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.

After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight.

When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.

When he was close enough, he called out, "Excuse me, where are we?"

"This is Heaven, sir," the man answered.

"Wow! Would you happen to have some water?" the man asked.

"Of course, sir. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up."

The man gestured, and the gate began to open.

"Can my friend," gesturing toward his dog, "come in, too?" the traveler asked.

"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't accept pets."

The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.

After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence.

As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

"Excuse me!" he called to the man. "Do you have any water?"

"Yeah, sure, there's a pump over there, come on in."

"How about my friend here?" the traveler gestured to the dog.

"There should be a bowl by the pump."

They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.

The traveler filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself, then he gave some to the dog.

When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was
standing by the tree.

"What do you call this place?" the traveler asked.

"This is Heaven," he answered.

"Well, that's confusing," the traveler said. "The man down the road said that was Heaven, too."

"Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope. That's hell."

"Doesn't it make you mad for them to use your name like that?"

"No, we're just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind."


Sometimes, we wonder why friends keep forwarding jokes to us without writing a word.

Maybe this will explain.

When you are very busy, but still want to keep in touch, guess what you do? You forward jokes.

When you have nothing to say, but still want to keep contact, you forward jokes.

When you have something to say, but don't know what, and don't know how, you forward jokes.

Also to let you know that you are still remembered, you are still important, you are still loved, you are still cared for, guess what you get?

A forwarded joke.

So, next time if you get a joke, don't think that you've been sent just another forwarded joke, but that you've been thought of today and your friend on the other end of your computer wanted to send you a smile.

You are all welcome @ my water bowl anytime

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:57 AM | TrackBack

July 12, 2007

History - Irish style

Today marks the Battle of the Boyne, a rather unremarkable river in the borderlands between Northern and Southern Ireland. The battle fought here in 16-- saw the overthrow of the Stuart King's and confirmed William III and Mary II on the throne of the then very disunited kingdom. Given the Stuarts record on just about everthing (Charles II was just about the only one with a modicum of sense) it never fails to surprise me that they got the support they did in Ireland, let alone Scotland.

For Catholic Ireland all that seems to have mattered was that James II was Catholic, William was a Protestant.

James landed with an army raised in France and marched north, gathering support as he went. William seems to have been not only shrewder than his wife's brother, but the better general. He landed with his army, and skirmished back and forth until he found the place he needed. James army suffered heavily at the hands of William's regulars bolstered by the Protestant supporters and troops raised in Ulster. As is ever the case in Ireland, the battle split families, set brother against brother and set up the divisions that still sunder this beautiful land.

No doubt today will see the usual "marches" and protests. It may be worth remembering that the Orange Order was a response to the formation of the exclusively Catholic Defenders of Ireland, a forerunner of the Sinn Fein and the IRA. Feeling still runs extremely high on this issue, but perhaps it is time to start healing the wounds and allowing people to lay aside the blood and hatred of the past.

Easy for me to say? Perhaps, but let us not forget that both sides have suffered grievously in this long and troubled history and the reason I live in England and not the land of my ancestors is that my grandfather refused to be a part of that conflict any longer. I love Ireland and hate to see the divisions and the bitterness. I pray that this generation though, will see, finally, the start of a better and more harmonious future.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:25 AM | TrackBack

July 11, 2007

One man's meat ....

After several months of very little work, I have suddenly had a call from a client I did a small investigation for late last year. It seems that my report was sufficient for the manufacturer of the vehilce concerned to pay out quite a large sum to replace the truck. Small beer really for a manufacturer who, after all, probably simply took a vehicle off his production line and gave it to the client. Everybody seems to be happy with the outcome so I guess that is a success. But, the reason for the clients call, is he's had another fire ....

This time in a different make of truck and this time it took hold fast enough to chase the driver out of the cab. As a result I am off to the wilds of Cumbria in an hour or so (Just waiting for more information) and will not be back until late-ish tomorrow. One man's misfortune is anothers bonanza as they say.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:10 AM | TrackBack

July 10, 2007

Creative writing ....

In case you wondered why my posts have tended to be a bit of a mixture lately I have to confess that I have been rather busy on two fronts. First I am trying to find some paying work - as a self-employed retired person I have a pension that barely pays the mortgage and need to have a steady supply of "piece-work" to keep the bank happy. The last four months have been very lean indeed so I am putting a lot of effort into chasing every opportunity I see. So far there have been lots of promises, but little actual returns ....

Then there is the sequel to my book. Two weeks ago I finally got the sort of critical editorial review I needed. It has been generally good and helpful, the downside is that it means a major rewrite and expansion to address all the issues raised. Clue - it has gone from roughly eighty-nine thousand words to a little over a hundred thousand and I haven't finished yet!

This is a tough one to crack when you also have to chase a living - but, I haven't survived this long by quitting when things got tough.

So, heads down in the pit.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:03 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 22, 2007

Halcyon days?

Looking back on one's childhood tends to be through a filter of emotionally tinted glass, and this picture is no exception. It shows the pre-race launching slip for a mixed fleet of dinghies, their crews in the last throes of preparation. The Monk is the lad stood wistfully watching in the foreground, a position he occupied for a couple of years before finally being taken on as a forehand on a Sprog, in fact the one on the extreme left of the picture. At the time of this photo, taken around 1954, the Monk was considered too small to be allowed to sail and had to sit on the shore watching everyone else enjoying it until he was old enough to join in. Occassionally he would be taken on as extra ballast by one of the larger boats - usually when it was very light airs and unlikely to require much muscle power, or by his father on the rescue launch, again, when there was almost no chance of anyone needing assistance. Such are the forces that shape one's view of the world and sometimes one's personality.

Launching for the race, from left to right, the Sprog "Sash", the Sharpie "Toledo", the Winger "Wahoo" and the Sharpie "Panga".

The weekends spent here at the Yacht Club were a fun time for the most part. The Yacht Club kids tended to come in all ages and shapes and from every social background, and soon formed friendships among our own age groups. The older ones tended to sail with their fathers or have boats of their own to race, the younger ones looked after themselves playing on the beach, swimming (The Monk once swam off the end of the short breakwater in the background round to the Orient Beach on the other side with a group of friends. The next time we went out to do it we looked down to see a large shark basking among the footings .... It was off the menu after that!) and playing games in the adjacent goods sheds to the annoyance of the Dockyard Police. We also visited interesting ships in large groups, dressed for the beach and sometimes looking like a pack of Dickensian urchins - but always got a warm reception and usually some treats from the seafarers.

In those days the harbour was busy too, with many ships coiming and going during our sailing time. You learned the Rule of the Road did not include big power giving way to small sail - regardless of what it said in the book. Big ships simply did not dodge little dinghies in confined waters - something many users of the Thames in London would do well to remember. You learned to keep alert as the big tugs (700gt and possibly the most powerful then afloat) could appear suddenly and silently (steam remember!) around the end of a quay and you found yourself having to make an emergency tack to avoid him. Once the Monk got a hiding from his father for taking a quick tack across the bows of the Edinburgh Castle, a Royal Mail Steamer, who gave five short blasts on his fog horns. The moment he heard them he knew he was in deep trouble - it meant that the ship could not see me and that the Club would get a rocket from the Port Captain. Five short blasts on a big ship's sirens (Hers could be heard up to five miles away) mean "You are standing into danger of collision" and there was no way her 26,000 gross tons was going to be stopped for a small sailing dinghy - unless our wreckage fouled her screws! The Monk won the race, but boy did he get it in the neck, first the Club Commodore, then the Port Captain and finally his father .....

Did it scar the Monk for life? No, it didn't. He knew he deserved it and he knew full well he had endangered himself, his crew and the club's reputation. It was not a mistake he has ever repeated in that or any other similar situation. In short, a lesson in life that was well learned and never forgotten.

Yes, looking back, we took a lot of chances and so did our parents - the Monk was thirteen when he was given charge of a Sprog for the first time and fourteen when he won his first sailing trophy. Visiting the ships was also risky in retrospect, yet none of us was ever injured, molested or in any way threatened. A different world, one in which trust played a major part, one which, sadly, seems to have vanished forever.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:42 AM | TrackBack

June 13, 2007

Revisiting the past

The Monk has been busy recently, in between writing, trying to earn enough to pay the bills and the Abbey, searching through some of the accumulated detritus of several lives. In so doing he is turning up old photos and recalling long buried memories. The picture below, taken around forty five years ago, is of the Monk's father and mother in his father's favourite little ship. A thirty foot motor whaler built for the navy and, in this guise, operating as an all weather rescue launch for the local yachtsmen.

Aptly named "Buffalo Bill", this thirty foot motor whaler (built with a hard chine hull as a kit boat in 1940 - 44) performed sterling service for many years more than she had been designed to last.

My father was a consumate seaman and taught me a huge amount about boats, boat handling and seamanship. It broke his heart when this boat was destroyed when someone took it out in his absence because someone else had decided to go sailing in borderline weather and then needed rescuing. What the party who launched Buffalo Bill did not know was that there were two fuel switches, one isolated the main tank, the other the pump and filter system, unless both were ON the engine had only the fuel in the filters and lines - enough to get her to the casualty as it happened, and into danger herself. She was smashed to pieces on the breakwater which can be seen behind the tug. My father got to the launching place in time to watch his boat destroyed.

The design itself was simple, these boats were designed to be mass produced for the wartime navy and they were built with a rigid keel, on the same dimensions as a Montague Whaler, but, instead of the rounded bilge of the Montague, they had a hard chine shape. It was easier and cheaper to make. The engine was a simple four cylinder petrol unit, in this case an Austin, driving through a simple gear box operated by a lever, forward ahead, back for astern. Effective, seaworthy and all weather capable. On several occasions I saw my father, or was with him, when he took this boat in through breaking surf to retrieve someone and their boat from a beach or a rock lined gully.

It is how I choose to remember him, standing proud in the sternsheets of his pride and joy.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:08 PM | TrackBack

May 31, 2007

Guest posting

Slim Jim is an old friend, colleague and adversary in some things, and I welcome his agreeing to share some of his thoughts and occassional fishy tales with us on the Blog. The item below is (I hope) the first of many.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:27 PM | TrackBack

May 30, 2007

Fascinating research

As those who read this ramble regularly will know, I have been doing a bit of research into Roman Britain, specifically the period embraced by the 5th Century. Quite a number of things triggered this interest, not least my interest in the man behind the legend that is the cardboard cutout that we know as St Patrick. Researching that period has a number of problems, not least being the paucity of reliable records and accounts from then. We know quite a bit from studying what went on in other parts of the empire and even of what was happening in Britain itself, but there is almost no written evidence for any of the bits I am particularly interested in. I suspect that, if I were a Latin scholar, or even able to read the old Irish tongue, I might find something, but as it is I have to rely on translations and there are some interesting variations in those too!

Sadly, almost everything we have from this period is written down by someone at least two centuries later. And very often what they didn't know, they invented! Because several of the languages spoken in the 5th Century - and spoken by those whose "voices" we most want to hear - were not written languages at all, we have only the record of those who wrote in Latin and frequently theirs is a biased account. Then there is the political angle as well, because many of the accounts written in the 7th to 10th Centuries were about boosting the claim to primacy and therefore power of one group or another. That said, what emerges slowly and painstakingly from the plethora of information that one has to absorb and analyse to understand that period is fascinating in itself.

Several things I have learned about the collapsing Western Roman Empire are in themselves fascinating, not least because of how it gradually ceased to function and the former middle classes suddenly found themselves bound to the great magnates who emerged the ultimate victors, holding vast tracts of territory and almost all the wealth. I think I have remarked before on the interesting phenomenon of how certain "family groups" seem to translate themselves from one age to another wielding power and wealth as they go, changing shape, profile and sometimes title, but never actually losing that grip on power and wealth. The collapsing Roman Empire demonstrated this in more ways than one as the middle was squeezed out of existence and the lower classes found themselves transformed from "freemen" and slaves into peasants and serfs of the emerging states and their rulers.

The fifth century was remarkable for the fact that it is the transit period from the Classical World to the Medieval. One minute its citizens were living in a world where they had the leisure to run schools and teach children Reading, writing and arithmetic - and the next they had lost the ability to pass on their knowledge, and with it the ability to record their history and to enjoy their freedom.

A new book I am reading points out that the ever increasing bureaucracy of the Empire meant that the upper classes and the Emperor became ever more remote from the reality on the ground. To pay for this and for the hiring of mercenaries to replace the Roman troops they could no longer recruit internally, taxes rose and continued to rise until most people were faced with a simple choice - surrender their liberty and sell themselves to the highest bidder (slaves don't pay tax!) or be stripped of everything you possess and be hung for non-payment anyway. Then, later, as control slipped from the Emperor's fingers, the tax collectors, by now the only people with the money to hire lawyers and soldiers, simply waited until someone's property had been raided by marauding bands of brigands - and then descended to demand a mammoth tax bill be settled immediately - or the forfeiture of the property. Naturally, with the bully-boys to back it up if you argued about it.

No surprise that within seventy years of Alaric's sack of Rome, the whole facade just fell in on itself. The various "Prefects" in place across Western Europe simply turned their backs on Rome, kept the taxes and the land and engaged the soldiers to defend their own little patch. Look at the lineage of any of the noble families of Europe and I will guarantee they have at least one part of the family that stretches back to the senatorial classes in the collapsed Empire of the 5th Century. Interestingly one of the major reasons the written record is so hard to find for this period is that the Magnates put the bureaucrats to the sword in most cases, or kept just enough of them on to make sure they knew who owed them what - but for the most part, outside Rome (where most bureaucrats found themselves niches in the Church in Rome!), the bureaucrats were swept aside.

This purge of bureaucrats was no where more pronounced than under the Saxon invasion of England. The invaders had no use for the bureaucracy and so they basically drove them into the sea or chucked them out of office and burned their records. The amazing thing is that a lot of the books from the classical period in Britain found their way to Irish monastic communities set up after St Patrick and others established Christianity in Ireland and this knowledge and literature returned to Britain and Western Europe from this source almost three centuries later!

One of the most frustrating pieces of the puzzle that is St Patrick is trying to get past the corruption of the names of the only two places he mentions in his two authentic pieces of writing. Copyists have managed to render them both almost meaningless and unfortunately even the oldest copy contains errors - and it was made within a very few years of his death. That said, I am now convinced that we lost a great deal more in the 5th Century collapse of Rome than just the writings of its populace, I think we lost an opportunity to move humanity forward dramatically and the reason we did so was the oldest one in the book. Personal interests and greed among the ruling classes.

The greed of the great families in their pursuit of wealth and power ensured that all the benefit that could have flowed from the creation of a stable and technologically advanced state were thrown away in their desire to take more and more of the wealth for themselves and to ensure they remained in power. The lesson this has for our own age is there - for those who have eyes to see, or ears to hear. Don't expect a miracle though, we live with a political class today who believe that the past has nothing to teach us.

"He who forgets his past is doomed to repeat its failures."

One of Rome's great men of letters wrote that and it was the epitaph of his world, just as I suspect it will be of our own.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:00 PM | TrackBack

May 24, 2007

Selling books

My thanks must go to Cindy of Dusting my brain for a great idea. It is as simple as it is clever, she came across my book after seeing the link posted on Ozguru's blog G'Day Mate and has done me the honour of posting a piece on it on hers. Her suggestion is neat - if any of my readers are bloggers and would like to post a permanent link to the book on either the Amazon page for it and my short stories, or the Author House book shop for the book (or both!), I will provide them with a signed copy of the book free.

I can provide anyone interested with a suitably sized picture of the book cover and the links needed. All I need from you is an address to which the book can be posted. And it can be anywhere in the world, I am really serious on this.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:48 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 21, 2007

Getting noticed .....

Getting yourself noticed is the most difficult part of becoming an author. A friend asked me the other day that most difficult of all questions to answer - "why do you write?" I suppose the short answer is "because I have a story to tell." The longer answer is quite involved and does really begin with "for my own enjoyment" and an even longer answer must include "to escape the harsh realities that surround us the rest of the time."

One of those realities is the battle to get your books published. Getting noticed is the hardest part of writing. First you have to convince someone, usually faceless at this stage, that you can write a good and saleable story. Next is to convince them that there is a market for the story, that it will sell enough copies to make a decent return (after all the publisher isn't in this game for the love of it alone - they have bills to pay as well!) and that it isn't just a new take on something that is already in print. Not easy to do, especially if you are not a sales person. And most of us do what we do because we aren't able to sell refridgerators to Eskimos!

Bill Gates' recent remarks on the subject of books is interesting because it does actually flag up something that marks a clear distinction between those authors seen as "published" and those who are seen as "vanity" writers. I would have to say that I am, presently, seen as one of the latter in the world of fiction in that I went down the route of having my book published myself. Past experience in the field of technical book publishing led me to believe that the fact that my technical works were published in this way, albeit in a specialist category, would lead to them being treated in the same way in the world of fiction publishing. That is not the case and there is clearly a distinction made in the retailers (some of whom happily sell my "other" work) between what they can buy from the mainstream publishers and what they label "vanity" publishers. Having explored some of the other work published in this way I can now see why.

Part of the problem in the UK is the limited number of publishers to work with. They tend also to limit themselves to a narrow range of "specialities" and to a known "stable" of authors represented by particular agents. Even so they are swamped with MS submissions every year. One publisher told me that they get over six thousand a year and accept and publish just under forty of those. This raises the problem of describing your work and fitting it into a particular genre. Those who have read Out of Time will know that it has elements which are historical, elements of science fiction and some elements that are probably best described as "Adventure". Is it General Fiction, Adult Fiction, Children's Fiction, Fantasy, Space Opera? What is the market? Does it have the potential to be another Harry Potter for the publishers? Very often these are the crucial choices, make the wrong one and you guarantee rejection slips by the truckload.

That brings me back to Bill Gates. My short stories are published here on Amazon Shorts - another form of self publication (vanity again?) - as e-stories. It would seem to me that Bill Gates is essentially saying that this will be the case with ALL future publication. In short, all authors will have to take the self publishing route. There may have been a time when I might have agreed with him - in fact it is something my present publisher suggested when I was exploring publication - but now I am not so sure. A little research suggests that there will always be a niche for the written and printed word. Many folk like me may buy an e-story, but we then print it off. Why? Simple really, it is difficult to scroll back and forth when trying to study a text, but turning the pages back and forth is much easier.

That's the tricky bit. So, what am I doing in the meantime. Well, a lot of research for a new book I am planning, it has also had to do with discussions with publishers, several in fact and the glimmer of hope of finding the right one is starting to look as if the tiny flame of ignition may yet become the fires of hope. That and there is an agent looking at the folio of work as well. Hope springs eternal as they say, but it could well be that perserverance is beginning to pay off.

Oh, and the sequel to Out of Time is now in final draft form and with the said publishers and agent. It is just possible that I might just have managed to get noticed .....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:51 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 20, 2007

Harry's birthday ....

A bit of photoshop style retouching has removed most of the damage to the picture I posted on Friday. I have now taken this cropped version for today for a special reason. Today would have been his birthday. He died in 1977, sixty years after this picture was taken. I remember him as the best grandfather a boy could have, generous, loving and always there when I needed him.

HNH Dec 1917 repaired.jpg
The taller man is Bombadier Henry Nelson Heron - the real Harry.

May he rest in peace, he and his friends have more than earned it.

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May 18, 2007

Fragments from the past

The photograph below came to me today from my brother. It gave me quite a strange feeling since it shows my grandfather and several of his friends, one in particular, the model for Ferghal O'Connor in my books. The picture was takken in December 1917 in a professional studio, probably in France. Three of them are wearing the cap badge of the Royal Garrison Artillery which means that this was probably taken on either the Somme Front or near Ypres. Why did it give me such a strange feeling? Well, I have photographs of myself in a similar pose, but in a different uniform - and it was like looking in a mirror.

Bombadier Henry Nelson Heron is the man on the left, partly behind the shorter man in front. His best friend is the man stood next to him. They were 17 when this picture was taken - but they have the eyes of men who have been to hell and back.

This pair ran away in 1915 and joined the the Fusilliers in Enniskillen, part of the 36th Ulster Division. They were committed to battle on the Somme in July 1916 and they spent three days, lying wounded in a shell hole in no-man's land, having fallen on the first day to the machineguns. They survived only because the flies swarming on their wounds laid egs which hatched and the maggots ate the necrotic flesh. They kept their injured limbs (my grandfather lost most of his right thigh) only because the doctors didn't expect them to survive. Once recovered, they were sent to Winchester to recuperate, then found to be unfit for service as infantry - so were re-posted to the RGA.

I had not appreciated just how alike we were in looks until I showed this to a friend who knew me at the same age. On Sunday, I will remember 'Ada as we, his grandchildren, called him. It would have been his 107th. He gave his youth for our present, and what have we done with it?

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May 03, 2007

Power of nature

Nature in its awesome glory can be a wonderfully beautiful thing to behold - or utterly terrifying. A friend sent me the phorograph below today. It was taken by some brave (and very good) photographer of the storm surge which accompanied Hurricane Katrina as it hit the Gulf Coast. The settlement from which this was taken and a neighbouring one were erased from the maps - 14,000 people rendered homeless until their towns could be rebuilt. Such is the power of nature.

Katrina Storm Surge.jpg
This apparent "mountain" is in fact the wave front of a storm surge. All credit to the photographer, I can only guess at how he or she survived.

There is nothing quite like the awesome power of nature when she is angry.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:06 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 28, 2007

End of the holiday ...

Mausi's holiday came to an end today and she has returned to her normal hunting grounds along the Rhine. These last three weeks have been enormous fun, and provided us both with lots of opportunities to explore lots of interesting things. Unfortunately it didn't give us much time to post on the blog.

And now we both have huge backlogs of work to catch up with ........


Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:17 AM | TrackBack

April 27, 2007

Patrick's Mountain

Croagh (pronounced "Crow") Patrick in County Mayo is a rather intimidating peak. Crowned at it's top by a small Oratory chapel it is reputed to be the site of St Patrick's famous defeat of the devil and, some say, the place from which he banished all forms of serpent. Today it is a pilgrimage site, and pilgrims and other visitors take a challenging route to the top following a "pilgrim" route marked out by thousands of feet and markers giving the various "stations" such as St Patrick's Bed and other points at which the saint is said to have rested or performed some action. It is a very stiff climb and the path is so well trodden that erosion is starting to be a problem.

Croagh Patrick.jpg
Croagh Patrick seen from the tidal inlet below. It is a starkly beautiful place.

Sheep still graze upon it's slopes, a reminder that Patrick was once a slave shepherd, quite possibly on these very slopes. Sheep are funny beasts, not least because they cannot eat grass which is too long. Cattle like the grass long which is why many farmers and herders will put cattle into a filed, and when they have eaten it down to a certain level, move them on and put sheep in. In Patrick's day the sheep would have had a problem foraging in the lower areas because it was heavily wooded and the grass grew so well that it is recorded that haymaking was not necessary. That means that the sheep probably had to graze higher up the slopes and above the tree and scrub lines to find the low growing grass and plants they feed on. For the likes of Patrick this would, in its turn, mean that they would have had to endure exposure to the wind and rain with little shelter from tree, scrub bush or even huts.

The path to the top of Croagh Patrick is not for the faint hearted or the ill equipped. The advice is to start early in the morning and climb steadily throughout the day, to take plenty of water and to take frequent rest breaks. Part of the path runs up a ridge with steep slopes on either side - and the eroded pathways are covered in loose stones and slippery scree. Good walking boots are essential - although, in July, true pilgrims climb bare footed! - and there is advice to ensure that you have the means to summon help if necessary.

In Patrick's time it would have been a place of extreme loneliness and very harsh living for anyone, let alone a slave valued by his masters as less than the beasts he was tending. It certainly makes one think of our own ability to survive in such conditions, and on the faith that drove this man to not only survive but to return as a missionary to share that with his former masters.

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April 21, 2007


The little cathedral at Downpatrick has a number of unique features, not least being that it was originally the Quire of the larger monastic church "slighted" by Henry VIII's Commissioners at the dissolution of the monasteries. It also suffered at the hands of Cromwell's Puritans who quarried a great deal of stone from here for fortification elsewhere. The cathedral stands atop the Mound of Down and is approached along a road the leads past the former garrison barracks which later became the prison.

The Cathedral of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity in Downpatrick, Co Down, seen from the approach road at the East end.

The present cathedral was created out of the ruin of the monastic Quire in 1790 and has recently undergone a major restoration. It has several unique features, not least the preserved "Box" pews in the Aisles, the Nave pulpit and the "Return" seating for the Dean, Precentor and Canons. The Bishop's "Cathedra" is placed half way along the Nave opposite the Corporation Bench.

It is a lovely place, with a good feel to it and some wonderful glass in the windows. Not least the window commemorating Patrick himself. This two panel window shows a young Patrick tending sheep and the second an older Patrick as Bishop. For those visiting Co Down, this place is a must for both a prayer time and the tranquility. Christ is there present - and so is Patrick, Columba and Brigid.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:21 PM | TrackBack

April 20, 2007

Hillsides in spring ....

Spring is definitely upon us - in fact probably almost over in some areas - and as we have wandered around Ireland and now parts of Gloucestershire, you cannot help but be struck by the cycle of nature that we have so successfully disconnected from. Walking on Bredon Hill the other day, Mausi and I found ourselves enjoying bright sunshine and cool breeze. The ground is a carpet of tiny flowers (and the Monk is no botanist!) and the sheep have their lambs all in tow.

A curious lamb stares into the eye of Mausi's camera.

How different our lives are to those who lived here just a hundred years ago - and how very different to those who created the great Iron Age "forts" that crown this hill and adorn its surrounding areas. Kemerton Camp, Elmley Castle and the Bredon fort itself stretch human occupation of this area back at least a thousand years before the Roman occupation of Britain. We know a little of their lifestyle since it didn't change radically until the coming of the Romans, but even then, parts of it survived. Who were they? Some were definitely Celts, but there may well have been other tribes and races here as well, since the genetic record is confused.

A carpet of flowers springs from the hillside on Bredon Hill.

The great ditches and ramparts of the Bredon settlement command the heights of the hill itself and from here the view is spectacular. Worcester can be seen at one side, Tewkesbury lies south west of it and Gloucester's cathedral tower crowns the skyline to the south-south-west. The country was heavily forested in pre-Roman times - in fact right into the late Jacobean period - but this hill, like so many others would have provided the type of grazing needed for sheep - short cropped grass and small scrub. That would, in its turn, mean that the hill's inhabitants would have had little shelter from trees during the winter storms which funnel along the Severn valley around them and you do have to wonder how they survived some of it.

The life of an Iron Age inhabitant would certainly have been a hardy one!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:44 AM | TrackBack

April 19, 2007

Three saints in one grave lie ....

In the churchyard at Downpatrick Cathedral, formerly a monastery dating back to St Patrick's work in Ireland, lies a large granite boulder, placed here in the ninteenth century to replace a rather battered marker. The great slab marks the spot in which are reputed to lie the bones of Patrick, Columba (Columcille) and Brigid. The bones of Patrick were moved from an earlier grave to here along with those of Columba (buried at Bangor) and Brigid on the orders of the Earl of Ulster, one Lord de Courcy in the twelth century when he paid for the rebuilding of the small monastery that once stood on this site. The size and form of the de Courcy monastery can be judged from the fact that the present cathedral is only the Quire of the former monastic church.

Legend has it that the bones of three saints share a grave here at Downpatrick's ancient cathedral. The inscription on this slab says simply "Patrick", but here too lie Columba and Brigid.

According to legend this reburial was foretold in a prophesy and originally the three saints remains were kept in reliquaries in the church where pilgrims could come and pray before them. Then came the dissolution of the monasteries and the reformation. The three saints were condemned to be burned as superstitious fakes and the records show that one Lord Grey supervised the burning of the reliquaries (stripped of their jewels and gold of course!) and the bones in the town square below the mound. Again, it is reputed that the monks had secretly buried the saints bones in the grounds and replaced them with animal bones before Lord Grey arrived. The tradition is certainly very strong in support of this, but the exact place of the reburial is now lost.

That said, it doesn't matter - Patrick, Columba and Brigid are still as present today as they ever were. The Monk, who is named for Patrick, felt very much in his presence here and spent a very valuable while in silent prayer and meditation in these ancient and hallowed grounds.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:13 PM | TrackBack

April 18, 2007

Patrick's breastplate

Patricks breastplate.jpg

This tile sums up for me the loneliness of the boy Patrick, kidnapped, humiliated, beaten, probably starved, deprived of family and friends, left alone to herd sheep on a lonely hillside in a strange land. Here he found a faith that I can only envy, a faith that sustained him and brought him back to serve as missionary and Bishop to the very people who had treated him so harshly.

I hope I have the privilege of meeting him in the life hereafter, even if only for the briefest of moments in his company.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:10 PM | TrackBack

April 17, 2007

Patrick's first church

The village of Saul lies just outside and to the East of Downpatrick, almost within spitting distance of Strangford Lough. This is the site of the first church established by St Patrick - in a barn given by the local chieftain, a man named Dichu. Also nearby are the Struell Wells, where Patrick is said to have baptised many of the local converts. The present church is a recent building designed and constructed on the pattern of buildings dating from the 9th Century onwards, Patrick's original building has left no trace since it was a wattle and daub structure with a thatched roof. The tower too, is a much later invention - this one dates from 1932 and is again a copy of towers built for refuge from the 8th Century onwards.

Saul Church.JPG
The little Church at Saul, seen from the top of Slieve Patrick, stands on the site of St Patrick's first church and is where he died in 461 (Or 490 depending on whose chronology you follow!).

The present Saul Church stands on the site of St Patrick's "barn" church, which was in it's turn replaced by a stone monastic church of the Celtic style, and then rebuilt in the 12th to 13th Centuries as the monastery expanded. The monastic buildings were torn down in 1539-40 and the church fell into ruin. It was rebuilt as it is today in 1932 to commemorate Patrick's arrival in Ireland as it's missionary apostle in 1932 - the 1500th anniversary of his return in 432 AD.

I found this to be a very holy place - and I found myself wondering what this very interesting man would have made of the church as it is today. Or, for that matter, the society that has grown from the world he helped to create!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:01 AM | TrackBack

April 06, 2007

Good Friday

The Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday is an incredibly powerful liturgical experience. It begins with the sacred Ministers prostrating themselves before the bare altar and then moves through the readings and the singing of the Passion from John 18: 25 to 19: 42. This is followed by the bearing in of a veiled Crucifix, carried by the Deacon who reveals the cross and the figure by removing the veil at three sperate stations at which are sung the words, "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world."

Good Friday Cross.JPG
Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world.

Placing this between two acolytes who hold it steady, the cross is then venerated by the three ministers, followed by the acolytes and then the congregation, each making a genuflection before it and kissing the feet of the figure - or simply kneeling briefly in prayer. When everyone has had the chance to kneel at the foot of the crucified Christ in this way, the crucifix is carried into the Sanctuary and placed on the High Altar. While that is done, it is the Sub Deacon's task to go to the Lady Chapel with two acolytes and to carry from there to the High Altar the Ciborium in which lies the consecrated bread - the Body of Christ - from the Maundy Thursday liturgy. The Ministers, servers and congregation then make their communion and the final prayers are said.

At the closing of the final prayer, the Celebrant slams the book onto the surface of the altar, the ministers strip off their Chasuble, Dalmatic and Tunicle, throwing these onto the altar - and walk out, each going a different way.

I can only say that, as the Sub Deacon, I know exactly how the disciples felt as they hurried away from their crucified teacher, master and friend.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 21, 2007

Definitely a change of .....

A friend recently sent me the image below. It took me back to my 'teens, when I used to sail a fourteen foot long dinghy out to sea from the Yacht Club of which I (and my family) were members. Located on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa and being the country's only river harbour it used to see a lot of interesting sea creatures. And sailing a dinghy of the Sprog Class meant you generally had a lot of opportunity to meet some of them rather too close for comfort.

Definitely the time to act very calmly, and try to give the impression you really aren't edible!

Sprogs were exciting boats to sail. Fast, lively and very handy, they required a skipper and a forehand. Fourteen feet overall, they were Bermudan sloop rigged (Jib and Mainsail) and the hull was a streamlined version of the GP14 type common in the UK at about the same time. The Sprog had a small cockpit and was narrower on the same length as the GP14. Her sail plan was also slightly larger and, well handled, liked nothing better than to get up on her chines and plane through the water.

Anyway, I sailed one of these from about my fourteenth birthday until I left East London for Port Elizabeth after leaving school. On one occassion my crew and I, sailing well out into the harbour entrance, in light airs, encountered a shark that was bigger than our boat. We learned a lot about sharks in the hour or so it spent following us around the course. Good thing we didn't know that this particular type was known to occassionally attack boats. Apparently some of them had discovered that edible goodies came in boats ....

The picture took me back to the moment we first saw our shark. It was about the same size as this one ........

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March 17, 2007

Magonus Sucatus Patricius

"I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Portitus, a priest of the village Bannavem Taburnia; he had a country seat near by, and there I was taken captive."

Thus begins one of the only two documents that can be traced authentically to the authorship of the man we know as Saint Patrick, apostle to the Irish, who lived between 385 AD and 461 AD. At the age of fourteen he was seized by raiders at his father's estates somewhere near the mouth of the Severn, and taken to be sold as a slave in Ireland. There he remained as a slave for six years before he ran away, escaping on a ship to Gaul and then placing himself in a monastery.

His return to Ireland is a convoluted story and not without some irony as he was not the first, nor even the second choice for the task. Nor was his mission the first to attempt to bring Christianity to the Irish - yet his dogged acceptance and his steadfast faith seems to have been what the Irish found so irresistable. The slave returned to conquer the slavers, with love and faith instead of the sword and destruction. Patrick brought the fire of faith to Ireland, it was the fire of his love for God that sustained him throughout what he regarded as a God imposed exile. He missed his family and yearned for the comforts of their home and presence, but felt driven to fulfil what he considered was the task God had set him in penance for a 'sin' he had committed in his youth. We do not know what that 'sin' was, we may guess, but we cannot know. What we do know is that it haunted him throughout his period as a slave and throughout his ministry.

Typical of the man he chose to have the monks and clergy of the Irish or Celtic Church wear a tonsure which should have been the badge of shame to him - the tonsure forced upon all slaves in Ireland at that time.

Would he recognise the beanos held in his name all over the world with green beer, green clothes and all manner of supposedly ultra-Irishness? I think he'd be appalled, precisely because he loved God before all things and sought to serve God in the only way he knew - as a slave of God.

I shall be marking his feast with meditation and prayer - as he would have marked any festival. And just after Easter I will be visiting his grave in Downpatrick. He was steadfast in faith and steadfast in duty. A true man of God. Below is an English poetic version of a poem ascribed to him in the Gaelic version.

St Patrick's Lorica - translated from the Gaelic by C F Alexander, set to music by C V Stanford

I bind unto myself today The strong Name of the Trinity, By invocation of the same The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:19 AM | TrackBack

March 09, 2007

One of those days .....

I am having one of THOSE days - nothing wants to run smoothly. I am trying to sort out an accumulation of paperwork, stuff I really should take more time over, but am always too impatient to deal with properly. So I have ended up on the phone trying to get some sense out of telephone clerks who neither care nor know enough to be able to point you in the right direction. I have also had conversations with two separate computers - the kind that tell you to choose from a menu, then refer you to a new menu, and you go round and round in circles without ever getting any of the information you want or need - or ever coming into contact with a live operator! One infomred me that the call would be monitored for customer quality. I hope it was - and I sincerely hope they listen carefully to my summary of their service when the frustration level got above my safety limits.

Then I tried to log on to my e-mail account. Forget it. It appears that BT Yahoo are having one of those days as well. They have a major server problem and any customer trying to log on to their account in the normal manner is given a polite notice which says

"Sorry, your attempt to log on has failed!"

Extremely helpful. So I found a back door and got into my mail. Ever tried to find a call number for help when this happens. Yeah, I know, Porcine aviators are cleared for take off on Runway 1 at Heathrow! But I did win that round, I did get to speak to a live operator! At least I think he was ....

Anyway, he tells me that they have a major server outage and that I am one of thousands affected. Well, that's comforting. Misery loves company. So I shall now put on a CD of soothing music, and go and do something away from the computers. Amazing how much satisfaction you get shredding old accounts and other useless bits of paper ......

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:13 PM | TrackBack

March 03, 2007

Weapons of honour and war

Several of the readers of the book Out of Time have wondered why a Midshipman would carry a knife and not a sword. This is a misunderstanding, a lot of people hear the word "dirk" and think of the Scottish "Sgain dubh"(Black knife), the small sheath knife that fits into the sock when in Highland Dress. The "Dirk" carried by a Midshipman is, in reality, a small sword as can be seen in the photograph. It was sized to fit a young man of twelve to thirteen when he joined the Navy. Naturally as he grew up he would have made use of a larger weapon if he needed to, yet a dirk in the hands of a small boy at close quarters would have been absolutely lethal.

A Midshipman's Dirk from the early 19th Century. The blade is around 14 inches in length and the overall length is a little over 19 inches.

The carrying of a sword was considered the mark of a gentleman until after the Napoleonic wars so this marked out Midshipmen as being "Officers in training". They were not "Commissioned" but held a Warrant in the same manner as the Sailing Master and Master's Mates aboard the old wooden walls and were, more properly, "Warrant Officers". The Dirk symbolically sat between a sword (Officer and Gentleman) and the Lower Deck "Warrant Officer" who would have carried a cutlass when he needed a bladed weapon. As not yet an officer and not yet considered a "Gentleman" a sword was not appropriate. Certainly the Warrant Officers never "wore" a sword as part of their uniform.

To further complicate matters, following the great mutiny of 1797 when the Fleets at the Nore and at Spithead mutinied in response to Parliament's callous refusal to pay the sailors and their families the monies owed them, Naval officers were required to wear their swords slung from the belt and not on the hip. It is said that this indicates that the King no longer considered them to be "gentlemen", however, I suspect that this is much more to do with the fact that certain elements in parliament were simply being vindictive. Funny how history moves in cicles, because almost a hundred and fifty years later, at Invergordon, the Fleet mutinied again - over Parliament's cutting the pay of sailors by an "across the board" one shilling per week. For an Admiral one shilling in the 1930's was small bear, for a seaman it meant the difference between feeding his family and not doing so. Following that debacle, the Dirk dissappeared as a Midshipman's "sword". I wonder if that was supposed to prevent a bunch of mutinous Midshipmen assaulting their MP's?

Either way, the Dirk carried into battle by Midshipmen was worn with pride as the mark of their status, and it was used on occassion with determination to defend their lives, their ship or their men. It is a proud badge and has an even prouder place in our history. Sadly, I have no doubt that many of our so-called "leaders" today will simply see it as yet another piece of our history to shudder at and attempt to denigrate.

Perhaps we ought to remind them that it was boys carrying these that frequently were sent to board and seize the slave ships and who gave their very lives in suppressing the slave trade. It is a weapon of war yes, but it is also a badge of honour and we should honour those who carried it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:56 AM | TrackBack

February 25, 2007

Lenten beginnings

The First Sunday in Lent already. Ash Wednesday been and gone, same can be said of Pancake Tuesday .... the year seems to be accelerating. I find myself rushing about as never before and the last five weeks are now merging into a blur. Today I am involved with three services at the Abbey and one at our sister church, plus a reception this evening. Tomorrow I must get myself up at a very early hour to catch a train to London so I can be the first speaker in a seminar at the biggest hot air generating plant in the UK. Me? Surrounded by politicians and civil servants? I think I will need some serious therapy after a day of that .....

And that is what Lent is about. Therapy of preparation, review and renewal. A time to look at how well we have performed as Christians in the year past, and how we can do better in the year ahead. A time of prayer for help and for improvement, a time to take stock and sort our selves out.

My Lent seems to have started up as a bit of a muddle and rush. From today it will start to become much more what it should be. I pray that everyone else will experience during Lent a spiritual renewal. May you have a blessed Lent.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:23 AM | TrackBack

February 05, 2007

A society running on guilt?

There are definitely times when you have to wonder about the society we live in - the society we have created around us. Look about us and what do you find? Anyone who does manage to rise above the average, who dares to stand above the crowd, immediately becomes a target for those who cannot stand anything or anyone who threatens their cosy view of their own self importance. It often seems to me that those who do this have something to hide themselves, in that they hope that by distracting the rest of us, by diverting our attention to the misdemeanours or flaws in someone else, they can themselves be made to look and feel better.

I know I have written on this subject before, but enforced watching of CNN and the debates (a year in advance of the elections!) on the merits of the various potential Presidential Candidates, and the so-called "Experts" on military affairs (many of whom do not seem to have held any high ranking post and many more who seem never to have served in any military capacity in a war zone!) all decrying everyone else, it does stike me that there is something desperately wrong with our society and the attitudes it engenders. This made me think deeply (always dangerious!) on how I view the people around me and the manner in which I select my friends. Surely I cannot be unique in selecting those I feel comfortable with as friends, people for whom I have some affinity? I would not choose to have Mr Blair as a friend simply because I have nothing in common with him, least of all his political philosophy, but primarily I see nothing in him that attracts me to his company. That can be said of a vast number of people I meet, we share the same space briefly (in the figurative sense) and move on. We are polite, we deal with one another (mostly) courteously, but I would not seek to pursue a future contact as there was no meeting of minds.

I cannot pretend to understand the mechanisms that operate in selecting friendships since it is always complex, especially in the social context. I am even less able to understand why some people seem to take great pleasure in pulling down someone for some error of judgement at some stage of their lives, completely ignoring all the good things that person may have done. Why this line of thought you ask? Well, it was occassioned by a news item here outlining the recent case of a man who has done a huge amount of charitable work bringing help to literally thousands, but who is now the target of a vitriolic campaign over an alleged misdemeanour committed in his youth. Local opinion is that he has an enemy in the press who is determined to destroy him. They even name the name, but shrug and say 'it is our way'.

If it is 'our way', what does it say of 'our' society? And while this may well be a different place and a different culture, I have to say that I find the same approach in the UK. As soon as some newspaper takes a dislike to some public figure, they are vilified. I am constantly surprised by the way the media deal with some of our public figures when I am abroad. And yes, I do know that I am pretty negative about politicians and bureaucrats! I also believe that we should be accountable for our actions - but I worry that our unhealthy fixation on the wrongs of others is nothing more than a comfortable way of hiding our own shortcomings.

If I look back at the Witch Hunting age of the 17th Century I have to ask myself whether we have replaced the Witch Finder General and the Witch Finder Army with a more insidious version. Has our Press, our 'Caring' society become engaged in a new witch hunt in which any man or woman who dares to be different, dares to have an opinion not shared by the 'people' (in reality usually the latest set of prejudices driven by the chattering classes of which the Blairs are a part) must needs be hounded and 'investigated' until we can find something we can 'accuse' them of and destroy them.

I hope I am wrong, but I am concerned that we are living in a very sick society, one which will destroy itself from within unless we can learn to accept that we are all flawed, we all have things we are ashamed to admit to and we are all somewhat less than perfect. Only when we learn that we cannot improve our own standing by dragging down another will we be able to move forward again.

But I won't hold my breathe for a while yet.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:54 AM | TrackBack

February 02, 2007

Will we ever be smoke free?

During the last years I've often lamented the fact that Germany is a Federal State. If you look at everyday politics you get the feeling we still seem to live in this conglomeration of little kingsdoms that lasted until the 20th century. Every federal state is seeking its own advantage and trying to fulfil its own interests instead of contributing to the interests of the whole country. After the experiences that led to WW II precautions were taken to prevent a centralist government coming into power ever again. So we have the 'Deutsche Bundestag' which is the representative body of the Federal Republic of Germany and is elected by the people. It passes Federal laws, elects the 'Bundeskanzler', exercises parliamentary control over the Federal Government and sets the Federal Budget. The corresponding institution in each of our 16 Federal states is the 'Landtag'. Then there is the 'Deutsche Bundesrat' representing the 16 states ('Länder'). Its 69 members are not elected but delegated by the 'Länder'. One of its most important tasks is that it has to approve any of the Federal laws passed by the 'Bundestag' that impinge on the responsibilities of the 'Länder'. You can easily see what might happen of course: one party may have the majority in the 'Bundestag' and another one the majority in the 'Bundesrat' which might effectively slow down your law passing process.

Under the last government from things got so bad that almost no necessary laws and reforms made it through the 'Bundesrat' with each party shoving the blame to the other one. With the present government coming into power at last changes were put into effect. The responsibilities between Government and Länder were newly defined with the aim of fewer laws having to get the approval of the Bundesrat. Well, trust the politicians to make a mess of everything. Somehow they must have completely lost the overall picture. When the reform was approved it turned out that now even more laws have to pass the approval of the Bundesrat than before!

Another example that is affected by this is the proposed ban on smoking. The Government thought the general ban on smoking in public places, restaurants and pubs a great idea and started drafting up a law for it. Until the Länder said 'You can't do that, it's our responsibility now'. And right they were. So now every single one of the 16 Länder decides for itself if it would like to put a ban on smoking in pbulic places or not. You might be allowed to smoke in one restaurant but not in the one in the next village because that is part of another Land.

Some of the Länder want to ban smoking in places where food is served but not in pubs. But they all claim that they want to protect the non-smokers. I think this discussion hypocritical. If you want to protect the non-smokers then ban smoking in all public places like restaurants, pubs and bars. Then perhaps even the non-smokers would return to these places. I cannot see why Germany should not survive a ban when quite a few neighbouring countries like have. No one thought that Italian coffee bars would survive a ban on smoking - but they did. And I heard a few months ago that the Irish have even invented a new pastime - "smirting" (smoking + flirting), meaning you smoke outside the pub and chat up to the girls.

I sometimes wish we could take a more practical and down to earth approach on problems around here. I cannot believe that we shall have to hope for a European law to reach a consensus on smoking in Germany. But that may well be the case.

Posted by Mausi at 05:33 PM | TrackBack

December 27, 2006

An Italian view on the nativity in a German church

Visiting the Marktkirche (Market Church) in Wiesbaden we found this wonderful Neapolitan nativity scene which provides an entirely different vision of the nativity. The scene draws upon the structures and social understandings of Naples and is assembled in painted terracotta. These scenes have apparently a long history in the Naples area and put together in a specific order and manner.

A most colourful and fascinating sight

The stable is always in the centre and lower portion and appears to be in a cave. Descending from the scene above it come the Wise Men with an inn scene immediately to the viewer's left and the shepherds occupying the right hand side of the scene. Herod's court is above the stable while above the inn is a typical Neapolitan domestic situation.

The whole presents a colourful but very Western interpretation of the Christmas story. Judging by the interest shown in this 'crib' by all the visitors during our stay it strikes a cord with many particularly the children.

The church itself was built in the mid nineteenth century to replace the one destroyed by a fire in 1850. From the descriptions of the earlier church it would appear to have been a Baroque decorated building whereas the new one follows the Gothic tradition. The church is of red brick with a very high vaulted nave, galleries over the aisles and an impressive organ. The pulpit is decorated confection standing very high above the congregation and covered by a large sounding board


All in all a very interesting building, obviously well used and much loved by its congregation.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:41 PM | TrackBack

December 24, 2006

Another good review!

Its always good to get a good review, but especially so when the reviewer is also someone you know, knows about the ships the sea and the life aboard. Skipjack has posted a great review of my book and has done me the homour of posting his comments on Amazon as well.

Thanks to all who have bought it - I hope you have all enjoyed it. Skipjack says he felt I rushed the end, and perhaps it is a little crowded, but there does come a point at which you have to draw things to an ending - and this one has left openings for the next story, and possibly some beyond that! Watch out for the sequel, it should go to the publishers around April all being well.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:45 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


In Germany today is called "Heiligabend" (Holy Evening) and to me it has always been the most important of the three days Christmas holiday. I remember that as a child this day was filled with expectation and excitement. A bit of dread, too, that the "Christkind" might find my sister's and my room not tidy enough to leave a present for us under the Christmas tree. For before we were invaded by Santa and his reindeers, the Christkind used to bring our presents. It was aided by "Knecht Ruprecht" who would carry along all presents in a large sack. And he had to walk on foot - no reindeers for him.

December 24 was the day when the christmas tree, which had been bought a few days earlier, would finally be taken indoors. My mother always insisted on a real tree, no fake one, and it had to be a fir and not a spruce tree. We were allowed to help my father setting it up properly and then my mother would put the decorations on it. During the first years I remember we had balls in all colours and lots of 'lametta', thin strands of aluminium foil. Over the years it finally changed to only red balls and little ornaments made from straw. Very beautiful.

And my mother also insisted on real candles on the tree. We never had an accident but now that I know a bit more about room fires it gives me a bit of a nightmare. My father always took pains to put candles only in places where they did not interfere with twigs and branches and to put them in an upright position. But he refused to take other safety measures such as putting a bucket of water close by or a small fire extinguisher It was of course lovely watching the candles on the tree burn. When my parents could afford it they bought real beeswax candles which together with the scent from the fresh fir tree gave off a wonderful aroma.

When the tree decorations were finished we would all sit down together for a cup of coffee and homemade Christmas cookies. Afterwards my sister and I were sent off to our room. We could barely await darkness for the Christkind would not come while it was still light outside. Suddenly we would heard hear a small bell jingling and rush to the living room. And there was the tree, the candles ablaze for the first time, the grown up smiling and indeed a few parcels for us under the tree. Now came the hard part: we were supposed to do a little performance, like reciting a Christmas poem or a piece of music. Only then were we give our presents a first inspection.

Traditional dinner on Heiligabend consisted of a potato salad with sausages, a favourite with us children. After dinner we all would sit down together and play games, listen to music and watch the candles on the tree burning.

These evenings have stayed in my memory as times of peace and quiet where the family got together. With the snow we had in those days and the darknes and the cold outside it felt especially good and safe to be inside together in the warmth.

I wish all readers on this blog a very merry and peaceful Christmas.

Posted by Mausi at 12:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 19, 2006

Baroque Messiah

Last night attended a superb performance of the Messiah in the Abbey. This is an annual event, performed by the Schola Cantorum at Tewkesbury Abbey under the direction of Ben Nicholas. The Schola was formerly the Abbey School Choir, but sadly the school was finally, after a long struggle to remain open, closed at the end of the last scholastic year. The Choir however, was saved, moving to a new home in Cheltenham at Dean Close School. It formally became the Schola Cantorum when it moved and still sings Evensong in the Abbey at 17.30 on three evenings a week and other services as well when possible.

Last nights performance of Handel's masterpiece was accompanied by an orchestra of the same size as those that performed in the baroque period - in other words - small! BUT, don't confuse small with lack of volume. Baroque trumpets, harpsicord, chamber organ and the full suit of violin, viola cello, double bass and wodwind in the Abbey's vaulted nave make more than enough sound for anyone. The soloists did a superb job as did the chorus and the trumpets in echelon - at the West End with the orchestra at the other end - for "And the trumpet shall sound" sends shivers down the spine. In a departure from his normal arrangement, Ben Nicholas made a small, but significant change to the orchestration for the final great "Amen". Carleton Etherington manned the Mighty Milton at the beginning of the final chorus and supplemented the orchestra and chorus with some subtle chords from the organ, barely noticeable at first, but gradually rising in volume until with almost full organ he joined the great crescendo that concludes the very last Amen. As ever his timing was impecable and the organ ceased speaking at the exact moment the orchestra ceased - but the Milton's resonance is such that the echo rolled for several seconds beyond the cessation - and then the audience erupted in applause.

And the applause was very well deserved, for the Conductor, for the soloists, for the boy choristers and for the chorus. Nor must we forget the musicians whose playing is superb and without whom occassions like this would be rare indeed. What a privilege to be able to sit in the midst of this and listen to such a fine performance. Wine for the soul of the finest quality.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 18, 2006

Christmas cards .....

Well, the intentions were good. I bought the cards in plenty of time, I even managed to get most of the overseas ones done two weeks ago - and posted, which is a good idea if you want them to get to their destination. Pity I have had less success with the local ones!

And now I'm on the point of missing the mail altogether. So todays post is a short one, because I have to get to the post office before it shuts and, as the tide is still high, this means having to drive there! So todays posting is a short one - sorry folks, but there simply aren't enough hours left in the days at the moment!

I'll try for something a little more interesting tomorrow!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 03, 2006

Human destiny?

Stephen Hawking has declared that the human race has no option but to conquer space if it wishes to survive. Now I freely admit that I understand very little of the professor's pronouncements on matters of physics or the mathematics underlying it, but this I do follow. It makes perfect sense, but that is where I have a worry. Sense is not a strong point with most of the human race, particularly the ruling classes; that is; the politicians and the bureaucratic classes, and they control the money that goes into research. Research fuels the development of the things we will need to do this, and research is a very low priority unless it is on something linked directly to "how many votes will this get us at the next election."

There is so much exciting research on space, the origins of the universe and the means to get us up there, that it is difficult to see why the politicians can't see the advantage of spending some money on it. Just look at what has been discovered thanks to space programmes: vastly improved computers are a spin off; fibre optics are a spin off; medical research has benefitted because we needed to know the answers to certain exposure risks; synthetic fibres have been developed from the programmes and the list goes on and on. Currently there are a number of programmes being jointly managed between Russia and the US with Europe also doing a great deal in the joint partnership - a partnership which is far more productive than Blair's "Special Relationship".

Among the many things current research is discovering is that Einstein was wrong a number of points - to be fair he thought he might be as well - and we have now discovered that the speed of light is not constant, it varies as does the speed of sound. Gravity also does not behave as Einstein predicted and is stronger in some cases than it should be, or weaker in others. It is also distorted more powerfully by some bodies than others and we have other, as yet, unexplained matters which need further research so we can begin to unravel the knowledge we will need to lift ourselves fully into the cosmos. The research currently going into Fusion Reactions is encouraging, but hopelessly underfunded, all power to the French who have had the courage to take the lead while our own shower of incompetents are still pouring money into black holes that win them votes from the ignorant.

Stepehn Hawking is right, we must conquer space if our race, or whatever it is evolving to become, is to survive. Sadly though, I suspect that the first people to be shipped out will be those carrying the nanny bureucrat genes - and they will breed and strangle any further evolution, thus ensuring the race dies out anyway. Funny that.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:57 AM | TrackBack

November 30, 2006

Anniversaries .....

The last month has seens a number of anniversaries, some good, some sad. Today sees another, St Andrew's Day may well be Scotland's Saint's day, it is also the annual speech day of a public schoool of some renown in South Africa - and it is the day one of my mentors, the father of a very dear friend took his own life at the age of 82. He had had several run ins with cancer, all his contemporaries and friends had predeceased him and he simply felt that continuing with a life that required a pharmacy load of pills every day and which did not provide him with any real pleasure was no longer worth living. It was a reminder that sometimes our prowess at keeping people alive exceeds our ability to recognise the fact that their life no longer has any meaning for them. It is a tragedy when that happens.

Earlier this month was the sixth anniversary of my mothers death, again unexpected and perhaps a little premature, but when I look back at how she was at that point, I have to confess that having become housebound and to a large extent isolated, she too had outlived all her friends and no longer enjoyed the quality of life that she would have liked to have. Perhaps she too had had enough. We remembered her and several other of my mentors, friends and family at the Requiem for All Souls, just as we remembered Ashley whose anniversary falls today.

With the passing of these anniversaries I am more and more conscious of my own mortality. It is made the more pointed by the realisation that I have outlived, in number of years, several of my family in the last generation, although, to be fair, there were some pretty good reasons for that. All of my seniors in the family are now gone, I am the senior generation, and its not that comfortable a feeling to look back on.

Why the introspection? Well, it's in part due to the anniversaries falling at this time of the year - the two I have mentioned and slew of birthdays we used to keep as children and young adults - and it's Advent Sunday looming. Advent is about preparation, and to an extent in preparing, we have to look backj and see what we did right, and what we could really do better. Always a sobering perspective ......

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:05 PM | TrackBack

November 28, 2006

A confusion of papers ....

The Monk has been having one of those mornings when he planned to do one thing today and hasn't been able to get anywhere near it - because he couldn't find the vital thing he absolutely had to have ......

Well, I suppose every cloud has a silver lining somewhere. Having had to tackle the vast pile of papers and documents that he has accumulated since retiring, his office area is now clean, clear of clutter, re-organised and ready to rock and roll. That has to be a bonus, that and he has now found what he needed, too late to do it today, but its now in the diary for tomorrow which will probably be a better bet anyway. Now that my work area is sorted out anyway .....

Filing? I HATE it!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:50 PM | TrackBack

November 17, 2006

All this Modern Technology

It was brought home to me lately just how unobtrusively new technologies sneak into our every day lives and how quickly we become dependent on them. First I've read the Monk's book 'Out of Time' where he describes how three young men from 1804 are suddenly transported into 2204 on board a spaceship full of all sorts of fancy electronic equipment and computers of course. It soon becomes evident that the people from the future have become so dependent on their computers that they are quite at a loss if those break down. Skills that were a matter of course in 1804 are lost by 2204. The interesting thing about the book is that the people from 2204 can learn as much from the three youngsters from the past as vice versa.

This reminded me that pocket calculators had not been invented when I went to school. When we wanted to solve a trigonometric equation we had to use a slide rule or a logarithmic table. But we knew what we were doing and we knew the definition of sine and cosine. A few years later when I was trying to earn a bit of money by helping young students with their homework and pocket calculators had been introduced in school I noticed that to the pupils 'sine' just meant they had to press certain buttons on their calculators in a certain sequence. They didn't think any longer about what they were doing. Which is quite a common pitfall with calculators and computers: people often feed it numbers, let it do a calculation and then believe the result without ever even cross checking the order of magnitude.

The second experience was the nervous breakdown of my father's computer shortly after his death. I don't think the two events were related as this computer had a breakdown regularly - my father would always push the machine to its limits. For various reasons it took me quite some time to get it reset and to restore its communication with the internet. In the meantime my sister and I suddenly realised how dependent we had become of the latter. How often do you look up information of some kind or other on the internet? Several times a day, don't you? At least I do. I wonder how we ever managed without computers before.

And now I am trying to teach my mother to use a computer herself. After using computers myself for more than 20 years I have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner who has never even used a mouse before. And to whom opening, saving and storing of files and data means nothing. Yet.

I've always thought what an interesting life my grandfather must have led. Born in 1887 he saw the first cars and aeroplanes. He bought his TV set to be able to watch the landing on the moon. And he gave me my very first radio when I was ten. He died in 1972. Life must have been a never ending series of wonders for him. He was always interested in everything new and managed very well. The trick is, I think, to keep an open mind and always find a way round becoming enslaved by technology. I mean, we could write letters again instead of emails, meet friends in person instead of chatting to them, go to a shop instead of buying via internet .... Says someone who feels lost without computer. Sigh....

BTW, my favourite cartoon about is one that our secretary at university had pinned to the door to her room. It shows two neolithic males, one holding up a burning match stick and the other saying: "I can't keep up with all this modern technology." Priceless!

Posted by Mausi at 10:06 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 12, 2006


061112_ahorn.jpgOne of hte things I like about living more or less in the country is that you do not need the calendar on the wall to tell which time of the year it is. Every year I am fascinated by the first fresh green in spring which I can watch creeping up our hill every day when coming home from work. But even more spectacular are the colours of autums. One of my favourite inhabitants in my garden is this little maple tree which I try to cultivate as a bonsai tree. I got it when it was still a single twig, about 10 cm high. It has now been in my possession for 25 years. A very hardy little fellow, easy to keep even in winter who always greets autumn clad in this bright red colours.

061112_euonymus.jpgAnother red autumnal dot in the garden is this Winged Spindle, a member of the Euonymus family which for some reason is called 'Pfaffenhütchen' (a little clergyman's hat) in German. I think, the fruits of some spindle trees or shrubs resemble hats as they are worn by the clergy in some countries. Whatever - the red colour is just great.

Another unmistakable sign of autumn are the wild geese and cranes flying south. I always enjoy watching them. Luckily, we live en route and are able to watch them almost every year. It never ceases to amaze me how they keep their formation despite their constant change of positions. And they are talking all the time. I'd certainly be out of breath before long if I had to keep flying and talking for hours at the same time. This year they were rather late. We've had a very warm October and they probably have been discussing if it was worth going south at all. Now they are all on their way and I wish them luck and a safe journey to their destination.

The rest of us who stay here are now looking forward to a comfy time indoors. With the storms howling outside and the rain pounding against the windows there's nothing like sitting inside with a cup of tea and a good book. We are ready for you - Winter!

Posted by Mausi at 10:27 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 09, 2006

Book update

A nice surprise yesterday was the receipt of two messages from friends who have finally found and received copies of my book. They are both delighted with the story and the style - and one in particular is over the moon to discover that he is not only named but described in it - doing what he does in real life but rather more earthbound. Or seabound .....

Suddenly it all seems that much more worthwhile, knowing that someone is enjoying the effort you put into something. OK, so it won't make me a million, probably won't even pay back my inmvestment, but what the heck, if it gives my friends and their friends some pleasure it will all have been worthwhile.

For anyone else going down this route, a word of advice, you may find yourselve listed as being on Amazon, but don't expect to find your book on their "Hundred Best Sellers" or even as an easy to find item. I rather naively believed it would get a little publicity that way, but believe me its buried deeply behind layer upon layer of big name promotion and even the search engine has difficulty finding it. Well, you live and you learn, at least it is now in print, it can be ordered through a bookshop or direct from Author House and all you need is the title and the author's name.

Out of time by Patrick G Cox. An extract from my friends comment is in the extended post below.

An even bigger surprise was when I opened it at random and the first thing I saw was my name. No wonder you have been so quiet lately - you must have been beavering away for quite a while to produce such a substantial tome.

I have only read the first couple of chapters so far, and am enjoying the rollicking pace of the adventure. I hope you have the greatest of success with it. We need more light-hearted adventure stories in this sad old world at the end of the age! And of course for me the technical complexities are also great.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:42 PM | TrackBack

October 31, 2006

All Hallows Eve

The Church is at last starting to awaken to the fact that, if you want to convince people of faith in faith, you have to go out and meet them where they are and not where you think they should be. Tonight is All Hallows Eve - or Halloween as the Americans have it. The celebration is a paganisation of the medieval Christian concept of the Dead being allowed to revisit their familiar habitats for the one night of the year - a descent into a dualistic vision of nature which divides the sacred and the mundane. For those who have read the Da Vinci Code, a Gnostic concept manifesting itself in the medieval church and again today as we deal with people rushing about dressed as ghouls and ghosts.

This year the Bishop of Gloucester has decreed that we will make an effort to reclaim the celebration for Christianity. If people want to have a party for All Hallows, then let's have a Christian one! So he is leading a procession from one of the parish churches in Tewkesbury, replete with torches and festive spirit, to the Abbey where the young people taking part will join him in celebrating the Eucharist and then in a tour of the Christian understanding of All Hallows - an understanding that has nothing at all in common with pumpkins, dualism, witches, warlocks, demons or anything magical. I confess it is reassuring to see this happening and reading the rubrics for the event it is even more reassuring to see that great care is being taken to avoid the obvious pitfall of making the whole thing far too structured and far too stuffy. There is room for a lot of fun in our religion and its time we put it back.

As we celebrate the feasts of All Saints, All Souls and the lives of those who have gone before us into the light of Christ, let's put aside the mumbo-jumbo and remember with love and affection all those who have guided and shaped us in our walk through this life and into the next.

May the Saints of God pray for us all, now and at the hour of our death, that we may with them, rise in the fullness of the resurrection in, with and through Christ our saviour. Amen

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:43 PM | TrackBack

October 29, 2006

Farewell to all that ....

Last Friday night saw the retirement dinner for a colleague and me. It was a formal affair, held in what used to be our Mess. Once I had the privilege of being the President of the Mess here, and for this, the final occassion in which I will be Dining In, I was once more asked to Preside. It was a lovely evening attended by a host of former colleagues and a number of friends of us both, but most importantly, by my three children and their respective partners. Things have changed significantly in the Mess since my Presidency, not least the Mess having been completely redecorated and refurnished in a more "modern" and "more welcoming" style. Well, I suppose if you like a decor that would suit an airport lounge, then, yes, it is modern. Sadly, it now has only one piece of its historic memorabilia left - and that required almost open war to have it restored. It can be seen in the photograph below - and any fire fighters reading this will instantly recognise it as Charles Vigor's Victorian masterpiece entitled "Saved".

Dining In Set out.JPG
The Mess Silver on the tables set out for a Dining In night for the Gray Monk and a Colleague who retired this month with a collective service record of over eigthy years between them.

We had the privilege of the use of the Mess Silver for our Dining In Night and made the most of it. Some of the pieces on the tables go back to the Victorian Fire Service and others are of more recent date and recall the dark days of World War 2. Our guests included the Chief Inspector of Fire Services, a former Commandant and Chief Fire Officer, the Lord Abbot and the local MP, together with a number of past and present colleagues and my three children and their partners. It was a grand evening, one everyone present enjoyed to the full, with all the usual formalities observed. Three speakers addressed the table, the third reading an e-amil from a colleague from Ireland who could not attend as he was unable to absent himself from duty in his own service. I must say that I was very flattered by the speakers comments.

Self and kids.JPG
The Gray Monk revealed in his other persona and accompanied by his son and daughters!

It was good to have had this opportunity to enjoy one last formal meal with my friends and colleagues and a great privilege to have had the use of the Mess to do so. Looking back on my career, it has been a huge privilege to have served the community both here and in South Africa (and a few other places in the world!) during the thirty six years since I joined the fire service and it has been an even greater privilege to be able to pass on my experience and the experience shared by others to the next generation of officers.

As I was reminded listening to the speakers, we are all the sum of our own experience, the experience and influence of others, our mentors and our friends. As it says on Christopher Wrens tomb, "If you seek his monument, look around you", so it can be said for all of us - if you seek to know the man, look at his friends and colleagues.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:16 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 17, 2006

Interludes and diversions ...

With the latest Galley Proofs for my book now in my hands, I am that little bit closer to the moment of actual publication. But, having taken on a job for a client I am finding that time for that and for this blog is seriously limited! Fortunately my work for said client is now nearing completion so it should not be difficult to find time later this week to complete the proof read and sign off the Galley. Then I have to get on with another project, writing a handbook on another subject dear to my interests - the investigation of fires and explosions.

I get a lot of fun out of writing - as some of you will have gathered following this blog and my ramblings around the many and varied things that take my fancy. Some of former colleagues remarked on the way I sit down and simply pour everything I know on a subject into a document, then go back and correct it, often expanding it as I recall further information or find more information that needs to be included. My next step is to get several people to read it through and comment on the flow, the level of information and any ommissions or perhaps expansions needed. The problem I suppose is that, while I enjoy this activity, it doesn't actually earn you enough to pay the bills - so I have to take on the diversions which do.

The latest one has been quite a challenge one way and another. It has meant looking up a lot of information on a very wide range of things mechanical and interviewing and consulting with a range of people from operators through to maintenance fitters and engineers. Examining the equipment has been interesting as well, not least because I have seen a few things on this job that I had not seen before. Eureka! Another learning experience to be savoured and filed away for future use!

In between comes the fun - like yesterday. Yesterday I could hardly believe that my former employer was actually paying me to stand by and supervise the burning of four brand new cars. It felt a little unreal to say the least. But, it won't stop me sending them the invoice for my services!

I could get used to this .......

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:06 AM | TrackBack

October 10, 2006

Life's a maze ....

In the North Cotswolds and close to the Gloucestershire - Oxfordshire border is the little village of Wyck Rissington. There is not much, beyond its position on the Ickneald Way and its rather sleepy charm to attract visitors, but the little church here is a gem and houses two (and probably many other) rather interesting items. First is the organ, which is still as it was when Gustav Holst was the resident organist for this Parish while working as a composer of a wide range of music.

The organ at Wyck Rissington, still very much as Gustav Hollst would remember it.

The second is the legacy of the last Rector of this Parish until 1984, the Reverend Canon Harry Cheales. It is a liturgical maze, which he built in the garden of the Rectory, and which no longer exists except in the mozaic plan preserved inside the church itself. The maze was dismantled when the Rectory was sold on Canon Cheales death as it had been consecrated and formed a part of a liturgical "pilgrimage" and which could not therefore be left in secular use.

A mosiac plan of the Mystic Maze at Wyck Rissington.

Canon Cheales was an interesting man in many ways, the Diocesan Exorcist until his death and a man much interested by all matters spiritual and particularly the "mystic" religions. He built the Maze following a particularly vivid dream in the 1950's and led his congregation through it once a year as part of the regular service for that day. You will notice if you study it carefully, that there are Roman Numerals at intervals. These were the Pilgrim Stations and at each was a fine wood carving (all except three now decorating the Chancel of the church. Three have been "lost", probably stolen) and each represented an aspect of the Christian journey to faith.

Numbers I to V represent the five Joyful Mysteries:

I. Annunciation
II. Visitation
III. Nativity
IV. Presentation
V. The Boy-Christ in the Temple

Numbers VI to X represent the five "Sorrowful" Mysteries:

VI. Agony
VII. Scourging
VIII. Crowning with thorns
IX. Carrying the Cross and
X. Crucifixion

Finally the last part of the journey is through the five "Glorious" Mysteries -

XI. Resurrection
XII. Ascension
XIII. Descent of the Spirit
XIV. Falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary
XV. Coronation

The route is intricate, but the true follower is able to make their way from one station to another without ever crossing their track or returning along the same path. The final transition between Station XIV and XV requires the follower to cross the water, representing the full transition from follower to disciple and the full acceptance of the faith. At XIV a sign proclaimed "Life after death; If you don't believe it - turn back!" At this point the path entered a tunnel representing death, then crossed the water on stepping stones, the transition to a new life in Christ and finally reached XV after passing through a gate labelled "Gate of Judgement".

The final destination was a Sequoia Tree situated at the heart of the maze and representing eternal life. Every part of the maze had a symbolic meaning linked to some aspect of the Gospel.

Every year, on St Lawrence Day, August 10th, the Rector led his flock through the maze in the proper order pausing at each Station for Prayer and contemplation. It is a pity that the actual maze is now lost to us, but the memory of what it represented is still there.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:12 PM | TrackBack

October 04, 2006

The first day of the rest of my life?

Yesterday was my last day on the staff of a well known - indeed internationally known - training establishment and I left the gates and a large part of my working career last night with very mixed feelings. There is the obvious one of leaving behind the friends and colleagues one has worked with and the income that goes with actually being employed. (The pension is such that I will need to find an alternative source of revenue fairly swiftly!) But there is another aspect which concerns me probably even more. This institution has been consistently briefed against by the civil service (who noticeably fail to mention the cost of running their hugely expensive college in a former stately home and which delivers nothing any university in the country could teach at a fraction of the cost!) and is now being run down - presumably to be broken up and disposed of as soon as they can justify it. Our international customers cannot believe that we are allowing this, much less that our politicians are stupid enough to be promoting it!

The ultimate losers will be the taxpayers who will, as a result, get a service from the now deprofessionalised services we formerly trained, that will be increasingly driven by cost cutting and reduction of service delivery. The people being parachuted into it as "Managers" have no idea of what the service provides or does and are completely incompetent when it comes to taking command of incidents or emergency command centres - but that's alright according to the civil service manadarins, because it simply means that we have the right gender or ethnic balance in place in the management now and, after all, only a fraction of their time is spent dealing with an emergency. Responsibility is now being pushed down to the lowest levels in the hierarchy so you will soon see the incident commanders being prosecuted by the HSE because they have failed to observe some management dictat drafted to protect the managers and not in any way workable on the incident ground. Worse, the centralised training that made sure everyone who had a responsibility for incident command had the full suite of skills and the underpinning knowledge to support them has been swept away and replaced with a cockamamie system of "skills acquisition" driven by a mantra that "it is unecessary to know what you are doing, you only need to be able to do it". This mindset will shortly begin to kill people - in fact it already has. Two dead in a shire because the incident commander had neither the experience nor the knowledge they should have been able to acquire - and two more in a major city for the same reason since the inception of this politically motivated and half baked approach was instituted on the orders of that arch buffoon - John Prescott, ably aided and abetted by a civil service coterie hell bent on destroying any claim to management that is not from their favoured school of "generalism".

So what will I do with the rest of my life? Well, I have several irons in a number of fires at the moment - one of the biggest ironies has to be that my former employer is desperately trying to persuade me to do part time work for them - twice the money and none of the responsibilities I have carried for the last thirty six years. You gotta love it!

I wonder if I could get away with writing a biography? Probably not, a former colleague and boss once remarked that if we did we'd probably have someone suing us on every single page. Mine would probably be every alternate page, but I know exactly what he meant. We know where the bodies our lords and masters want to keep hidden are buried. Silence, though, may not be golden if what has been done to our service in the last five years ever comes to court. I hope it does.

But, for today at least, I have the freedom to enjoy a look forward to being free of the managers whose arrogance is exceeded only by their complete and blissful ignorance of the service they are destroying. It's a wonderful feeling.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:34 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 28, 2006

Final days .....

It is interesting how the time just seems to slip away as the final day as a full time employee approaches. Even more interesting is how much work which I have been beavering away at reducing, finalising or simply passing on to my successor has suddenly assumed the importance of "life or death" and must be completed - or completed as a "consultant" post retirement. It begins to seem that, far from retiring, I shall be doing more than ever for my soon to be ex-employer, but at a higher rate of pay for each day! And they tell me that this is good economics.

Well, my bank manager would certainly agree that the economic balance is in my favour - but surely someone should have identified that, if I go, there will be a need for some continuity and a successor? Apparently not, for every time I have raised the issue I have been told that it is "in hand" or not necessary. Amazing how the perspective has changed as the scope of what I have been carrying on their behalf has emerged with the handover. I feel quite sorry for my successor - since he will have to shoulder my workload and the load he is currently carrying as well. No wonder there is stress beyond all reason.

I noted with interest Mausi's piece the other day setting out how much time she devotes to "administration" and how much to her "real" work - the science which she is supposed to have been hired to do and to manage. I know the feeling since my job up to now has been sinking into a similar quagmire of meetings and paperwork. It never fails to amaze me how all these "support" staff seem to exist only to check the forms that I have had to fill in so that they can file them. I still have to do the work of organising everything that I filled in the form to get anyway! And each form seems to require at least three people to handle it before a fourth files it. I think I could be excused for thinking that in reality my job is only there to create full employment for people who can't do anything productive anyway - but that would, I suppose, be unfair to most of them since it is not their fault that their jobs are so unproductive.

One thing I will certainly not miss is this constant paperchase. I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of my time writing "business cases" to spell out in Janet and John language for our "management" the blindingly obvious. "If we don't do this - our customers will go elsewhere" should be sufficient, but no, we are dealing with civil servants here. I am more than ever convinced that there are two qualities that are absolutely essential for employment in the civil service - the absence of any ability to actually think independently of the hive mind located in Whitehall, Berlin or any other capital, and a determination to make sure that nothing ever actually happens that would change their cosy little grip on the levers of power. I was once told by a very senior civil servant that, to survive in Whitehall, it is essential that you find a problem and make it your own. You must under no circumstances ever solve it - that would be suicide - you simply make it your own and you become indispensable as you are the only person who "understands" it. For that they get paid between £100k and £300k a year. Oh, and get a Knighthood and a pension with perks you and I pay for.

Well, I have less than five working days left at this particular duck factory - and I plan to start the wind down from tomorrow. My office is slowly being stripped of anything that is mine - and the rest can go to the shredder or the bonfire - their choice entirely. Roll on the 4th!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:22 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 25, 2006

The music of Celts

While in Ireland recently, I had the opportunity to attend a live concert at the special visitor centre and theatre adjacent to the Rock of Cashel. This was the Bryn Boru concert which is a group of extremely talented musicians and dancers who put on the most stunning performance of music, song and dance - with a dash of Irish humour thrown in for free. My companion, who has suffered a brain tumour and now lives with epilepsy and diabetes, is herself a talented musician. Although, with her eyesight now failing due to glaucoma, and her motor co-ordination not the best, she listens and appreciate things rather than sees them or performs them. For her this was possibly the highlight of the trip - although the previous evening we had been taken to a pub called Strawberry Hill and been treated to a totally unplanned and impromptu concert by a group of musicians who practice and play there as it is their "local".

Celtic music at its best is emotive, provocative and full of a sense of pride in their achievements - and in the anguish of their suffering through various conflicts, suppression and the years of poverty. Ireland was poor for much of its history, dirt poor and ruled by absentee landlords and owners from afar. Thus a tradition has grown up which allows simple things to be used as musical instruments - the tin whistle, the fife, the bodrhum, the fiddle, the harp and of course the Celtic pipes. This last is a strange instrument with a bag tucked under the players elbow and strapped to to his waist, a simple bellows is operated by the other elbow while the chanter is played by the fingers and the drone pipes are keyed and operated by the wrist of the hand holding the upper part of the chanter pipe. The drones lie across the lap with the top end cradled over the left elbow as the player makes the music of the soul.

The Irish Harp - no pedals, a sounding case and a tuning system that is as simple as it is complex in its sound.

The concert was an amazing performance, solo harp, solo accordian, solo fife all blended into an extended performance interspersed with the most amazing dancing. At one point the piper picked up a tin whistle and wandered through the audience playing a jaunty solo and being teased by one of the dancers - whose fine baritone led performers and audience in several renditions of well known Irish songs. But it is definitely the versatility of the players which takes one's breath away. A harpist plucks out the most complex melody on her harp, then, as the accordians and the fifes pick it up and the bodrhum starts its rythmn - she stands, unclips her flowing skirt and steps off into the most amazing reel across the stage to be joined by several more ladies and finally the men as the performers pick up and develop the original tune. It is difficult to find the words to describe it all - and I sat enthralled, wishing I could capture even a tiny part of it on video - but not wishing to distract the performers even for a second with a camera!

At the end, the performers all stepped out from behind the curtain - and as this was the last performance for this season - invited the entire audience to the end of season ceilligh downstairs in the bar! What a party - the music never stops! Celtic music is best described as the music of the soul - for that is where it resides. The rythmns make your feet tap and your hands clap, your voice lifts to the songs and the heart sings with the beat of the drums. Young and old leap to the dance - it is irresistable and it is a part of everyone with even a trace of Celtic blood in their veins.

Resistance is futile!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:25 PM | TrackBack

September 13, 2006

One man's hero .......

During my visit to Dublin I have had to confront a number of images, not least the concept of "terror" versus "freedom struggle". It is difficult not to be confronted by this if you have any Irish connection, and like anything in Ireland, there are more sides to the truth than the usual two or three. I will, on this occassion, focus on three - the Republican, the Loyalist and the Myth.

What brought this musing on? A number of things really, not least the fact that I have had to deal with my own feelings about certain issues of loyalty, fealty and nationalism recently in a number of different spheres of my life. In Ireland, everywhere you go you are confronted by the myth enhanced facts - and there certainly are facts beneath the imagery that is presented of the "struggle" for freedom from the "Oppression of the English". There certainly was a famine in the nineteenth century and it was a human tragedy of epic proportions. There were evil landlords, but there were good ones too. There were those on both sides who exploited the poor and there certainly were the idealists on both sides who justified every attrocity carried out in the name of their "cause" - either "unionist" or "nationalist". The scars from both run very deep indeed - and strangely show in the way the towns and cities show a paucity of architectural development beyond the utilitarian and functional in housing and in commercial premises. Little wonder really since the "landed gentry" increasingly cut themselves off from the working classes who seemed incapable of adopting any sensible approach to the problems they all faced. So the rich got richer and the poor got poorer - and the middle classes plotted their way to power.

A look at the history of this beautiful country and its quarrelsome people tells its own story. Why did the "English" - in reality the Anglo-Normans - invade in 1169? They were invited to do so by none other than the "King" of Leinster who cherished ambitions of the High Kingship. When the Normans then went on to take full control, it set the scene for the next 800 years - since the Earl of Gloucester, a member of the deClare family, was a vassil of Henry II who was quick to demand that the oaths of fealty bound the Irish throne to himself. Ever since the Irish have been divided on the question of who should rule in Ireland - the English King or Queen or an Irish ruler of one sort or another.

This history set the scene for the present troubles as, over the centuries, any attrocity committed by one side of the "struggle" has been matched by a response from the other. These boiled to a head in 1916 with the Easter Uprising, harshly suppressed by the British forces - again, ironically Irishmen taking arms against their fellows. A very large part of the Irish population had joined the British Forces in 1914 - and served loyally and with distinction, badly led, under valued and treated as mere cannon fodder by incompetent generals, but loyal to the death. They returned home to a new war, one led by Middle Class politicians whose zeal for shedding other peoples blood in the name of their cause tore their beautiful country apart and drove many of their best young men away. My grandfather was one of those, but to listen to my host, whose grandfather was responsible for a number of murders in the name of his "cause" and who was obviously a hero in his eyes, all was made alright by the fact that his grandfather always prayed for his victims and attended confession afterward. And while he was out planting bombs and shooting "traitors" to the republican cause, his wife was working for the British in Dublin Castle and passing all their secrets to the men lying in wait to commit murder. But it was all alright - because they prayed for their victims.

Contrast that attitude with the far larger number of young Irish men who went off to fight for their King and country - another "cause", this time the making of the zealots in Serbia and the intractible Austro-Hungarian nobility. They fought and died in their thousands for something far greater than mere nationalist ambition, or so they thought, yet, when they returned home to work the land, the factories and the wheels of commerce, their republican fellows saw them as traitors to be eliminated. Bomb fodder in the campaign for the "liberation" of the Irish nation.

The supreme irony must be that Irish "Home Rule" had been agreed by the British Government and the Irish Home Rule advocacy in 1914 - and the "Kaiser's War" prevented it's implementation, yet the British and their Irish counterparts had an agreement that, as soon as the European War was over, Ireland would get Home Rule. But that was not good enough for the Republican Movement who set about aiding and abetting the German war effort in return for guns and bombs. One does have to wonder how many men could have been saved had the IRA's spies not passed on the plans for every major offensive the allies mounted in Flanders and France. I fdound myself wondering how those who did this reconciled their consciences to the slaughter of their fellow countrymen at the Somme, at Ypres and on Paschendal. My Grandfather ran away to join up at fifteen together with his best friend. They were together on the first day of the Somme, and on the second as they lay wounded in the bomb and shell pitted landscape of no-man's land on the second and the third. How ironic that they survived because of the maggots in their wounds when they were found - only to be shot at in a bus queue by one of their own countrymen after being discharged in 1919.

My Grandfather left Ireland, turning his back on his country, his home and his countrymen in bitterness and anger - and never returned. But it was alright for the gunman because, no doubt, he prayed for those he would kill and injure in that bus queue before he opened fire. No wonder that men like my Grandfather never could bring themselves to say the name of any of the leadership of the Irish Free State without a curse, and no wonder there is so much bitterness directed towards the Catholic community in the North.

Will this hurt ever be healed? I doubt it, for, as in Israel and the Middle East, the blood of centuries lies spilled for the vanity of evil men and women whose ambition blinded them to the value of the lives of others - even those who disagreed with them. There can be few more evil things than the abuse of the faith of any man to justify a political "cause". No political cause is worth dying for and perhaps it is also time for there to be a reality check for those who promote the idea that, because the ruling authority is not the local crook, it is alright to resort to bombing and shooting unarmed civilians. The tragedy of Ireland is that it combines sites of great holiness and beauty with unspeakable evil dressed up as necessity for a "cause" of "liberation".

It was once said to me that every place of great holiness always attracts people and things of great evil, because evil will always seek to drive out the holiness. Listening to my host, I felt that very keenly. His heroes are my villians, and my heroes his oppressors. I wonder if we will ever find a middle ground on that? Somehow I doubt it very much indeed.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:39 PM | TrackBack

September 11, 2006


A magazine called "" has published an article recently that almost every second working person in German feels rushed in his or her job. They are under the impression that they have to do more and more work in less and less time.

According to the magazine this is because generally people have a bad time management and find themselves in a permanent struggle against the clock. The only way out of this were not to pay attention to the clock and just get on with your work. Another clever idea is described in the article to find out about your own sense of time. Close your eyes and open them again after what you think are three minutes. If you opened your eyes after less than 2.5 minutes you tend to overestimate the amount of time that is available to you. If you open them again after more than 3 minutes there is a danger you see yourself as a victim of time and don't make the most of your possibilities.

Hmmm. I've tried this and my sense of time is pretty accurate. Still, for most of the week I too feel myself rushed in my tasks. I wonder if this is a sign of the times we live in or just of this period of my live. I often have a feeling that I have to work on too many different things at the same time and are forever juggling priorities to keep everything going. I try to concentrate on getting my work done and often forget about the clock. But when I get one thing finished and see what is left for the day that needs to be done - the clock strikes back. Besides it is quite true that over the last years we have to do more and more work with fewer people.

Being incorrigibly optimistic by nature I never cease to hope that this phase in my life will pass and I will one day be able to work on a clean desk and get rid of all the piles that clutter it at the moment. After all it is preferably to having to work on an assembly line, isn't it? Or having to do some kind of work that you don't enjoy at all. I still like mine - sometimes...

Posted by Mausi at 08:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 30, 2006

Oh dear the end of the day and nothing for the blog ....

It has definitely qualified as "one of THOSE days"! It started with a sleepless night last night and continued through having to finish a paper for a conference when half of what I wrote wasn't making any sense, a series of meetings - the last of which finished a few minutes ago - and finally I have arrived home just in time for bed.

Earlier, when I had a moment and tried to get onto the blog - the site wasn't accessible. Now that was probably because the compuiter had just automatically updated itself and in the process "lost" all its USB ports and wouldn't talk to half the network. It took the IT man several minutes to sort that one out (my paper suspended somewhere between a USB port and the portable disc drive it was supposed to be storing itself on!) but eventually he did. Now it won't talk to a number of the bookmarked sites I have on my browser. Conclusion, the latest update has damaged more than it has fixed. Note to IT - don't fix what ain't broke.

On that note. Good night dear reader! Hopefully tomorrow will be a little calmer and a lot more rational!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:58 PM | TrackBack

August 22, 2006

Something nice ....

Every now and then something happens that makes you take another look at your own self-image and how others see you. Yesterday was one of those days.

Now perhaps I had better explain a little about this first. I have been with my present employer for around fifteen years, and during that time I have fought many battles, losing some and winning others. Time will tell whether or not I won the important ones or not. In all of the history of the place of my employment we have had an officer's mess, since 1992 and the start of the take over by non-uniformed and non-service staff, it has been known as the "mess club", but the traditions of the original concept have stayed the same. Until recently. When I had the privilege of taking over as President some ten years ago the finances were in trouble mainly because our lord's and masters had cut off our income streams (membership fees were stopped and the concession we had operated was taken away from us, awarding it to a contractor without consultation or compensation). It fell to me and my small team of helpers to rebuild it - which we did successfully, turning a projected 6k loss into a 7k surplus by the end of my Presidency. It wasn't easy but it was achieved. All went well until the latest tranche of parachutists arrived - and promptly laid claim to the silver, the income (again) and ordered the cessation of "formality".

Now it was the clubs tradition to present to each member on departure or retirement, a lead crystal engraved decanter and two tumblers, total value about £45 a set. The club funded this itself, it did not come out of any purse held by the organisation. Naturally, if you cut off the income, then the ability to buy these gifts vanishes as well. So I faced the prospect, along with several others of equal length of service, of leaving shortly and not having even this mark of our service to look back on since the club is now struggling to survive at all. Ironic really, since it was me that changed the Constitution of the mess to embrace all members of staff and extend this little gift to them as well. So, civilian members of staff who left in the last three years have all walked away with the full gift, but those of us leaving now, whose service to this place goes back a long way and is the reason it actually exists, will get nothing.

But last evening I was left speechless when a colleague, who will be retiring at about the same time as myself, walked into my office and presented me with a familiar looking presentation box. In it was the decanter and one tumbler, the other is damaged. Apologising, he explained that he had been presented with a decanter when he had left after his first spell of service here and knew that he would not get another. However, when he had found this set in a cupboard he was clearing in his office he felt that I ought to have it as he knew too that I would not get one officially and "can't think of anyone who deserves the acknowledgement more than you do."

I still don't know what to say. Even if someone does come up with an "official" one, this one will mean more to me than anything else. Who gives a damn about the idiocy of the management when you have the privilege of working with people like this? And that is a fact - I have had the privilege of working with guys (and some girls) in whose company I would be prepared to take on the Hell itself. Just give us the tools (and a good water supply!) and we'll finish the job, in spite of the management.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 21, 2006

Swimming in treacle ....

The closer I get to the actual date of falling off this particular perch, the more work seems to find its way onto my desk "for your urgent attention before you go!" The net result seems to be that if I can't leave before I have finished all the tasks currently in the pile - I'll still be here when I hit my 100th never mind my 60th! The really tricky part is that I am not able to take time out to sort out a couple of things I need to do before my departure so that I can actually start to work for myself. And then there is a little issue surrounding intellectual property ......

Funny thing that one. Especially when you consider that the reason I do what I do, and was employed to do it in the first place, is that I came with a background of experience in a particular set of fields and the knowledge to support it. My employer has benefited from that and paid me to share that knowledge and experience, but, now they have decided they no longer need me, are trying to say that they own both the knowledge and the experience and a copyright on it! This is not the first time it has been attempted and I have no doubt it will not be the last, my problem is that, having been one of their technical authors for more than ten years there is very little that I have not, at some stage, prepared some material on for them. Ergo, my style of writing, expression and references are stamped all over it - and anything I write in future will look a lot like it! A look at the copyright law as it is written and interpretted at the moment tells me that I have two choices, risk being sued or take a job as a shelf packer in the local supermarket and make no attempt to use my knowledge and skills for my own profit. There is a third option - one I regard as downright immoral - pay my former employer a "License" fee to use my own knowledge and experience!

Now I do know that I am very far from being alone in this predicament and I am equally aware that it is something which is not in the interests of the politicians, civil servants or corporate boardrooms to allow it to be sorted out. They all have their reasons for blocking, delaying or simply philibustering to make sure the law as it stands doesn't change - after all "intellectual property" is the one thing which could bring them all down since they have none of their own, they must needs rely on the law to steal it from those who have. Fortunately I have discovered that there are ways to beat the beasts - and I shall explore these as soon as I am out of the treacle mine!

And I have found a way to get the jobs off my desk. It's called an Industrial Skip.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:12 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 18, 2006

Venturing out into new waters ....

The Monk has ventured into a new field (for him anyway) and is now locked in discussions with a publisher. While he has previously published a number of technical scribblings in the form of a book, several study guides and numerous articles for technical magazines and papers for conferences, he has never before seriously attempted anything in the line of fiction. That has just changed and his first work of fiction is now in the hands of a publisher, the culmination of a lot of work, a lot of soul searching and a serious testing of the patience of numerous friends who have helped edit, proof read and all the miriad things that go into getting a written novel into a printable and readable form.

The book will be published around the end of November and is titled "Out of Time" and is an old fashioned adventure story set in a Sci-fi universe two hundred years from now.

Several things have given rise to the inspiration for the story and its gestation has been years in the moulding. Among the fun things was how to name the various characters in the story and some have come from grave stones, others pure invention or the combination of names of several different people the Monk has encountered. Some are family and friends and one or two are people the Monk has taken a dislike too at one time or another. It has been enormous fun making it grow and getting to know the characters who feature in it. One of the most important things was to actually flesh them out, turning them from words on a page to real people in a real universe. Then there is always the question of "what happens to them after this" - important as this is where the fairy stories always leave one wondering - is "happily ever after" all its cracked up to be? Or is there something more to this?

While Tolkien is not everybody's cup of tea, his greatest achievement in writing his great tome about the struggle of "Middle Earth" was that its characters are more than just idealistic cardboard images - you could expect to meet some at least of the human ones in the street (I suspect some of the less savoury ones are actually running Whitehall!) and even the mythical ones such as the Hobbits are all to human in many of their attitudes to life. That is what the Monk has tried to do with the characters in his story. The other aspect of any Sci-fi setting is that the alien worlds have to be believable or at least scientifically possible - to many flights of fantasy and you lose even the marginal credibility the genre has. And, like Tolkien, there has to be an overall theme. Why are they doing this? What is the motive? Is there a deeper message such as the struggle between good and evil, between the corrupt and the guys who try to get it right?

It has been fun, there is much still to be done, but it is now in the final stages - and while the Monk does not anticipate getting fabulously wealthy from it, he hopes at least that some people will try it and even buy it. When published it will be on the AuthorHouse Bookshop site and on Amazon. Something different as a Christmas gift perhaps?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:12 AM | TrackBack

August 14, 2006

The End is Nigh!

This morning, as I woke up, the guns, bombs and rockets should have been falling silent in the Hizbollah/Israeli conflict. If they did not it will be for one reason only, the unwillingness of the Lebanese government to disarm and disband the Hizbollah army operating out of its territory. Should that be the case, I have no doubt that Israel will continue to defend itself - especially as the Hizbollah leadership is trumpetting their version of the ceasefire as a "triumph" demonstrating that they have defeated Israel and that the nation of Israel can be destroyed and driven from the face of the planet.

Coupled with the Iranian President's belief that the "Hidden Imam" is about to return, perhaps, as the blogger Planck's Constant suggests, we should be even more on our guard. For those who do not know their Islamic legend, the Hidden Imam is the twelth after Mohammed himself and he vanished in myserious circumstances eleven hundred years ago. His return rates with Muslims on the same scale as the Apolcalypse in Revelations does with fundamentalist Christians - an end of the world scenario. More worrying, the Iranian Presidnet has given this event a date, 22nd August. It is almost certain that the latest terrorist attempt at mass destruction of passenger aircraft was linked in some way to this - as is the conflict in Lebanon.

One at least of the signs of the Imam's return is supposed to be a "great light" appearing over Jerusalem, bringing great destruction upon the people who deny Mohammed. Given that Iran is in the hands of a fundamentalist idiot backed by the same sort of militia that Chairman Mao created in his "Cultural Revolution", we ought to consider this lunatics predictions in another light - the possibility that he is about to attempt a strike against Israel using some sort of nuclear device. That would certainly create "a great light" and destruction - but I doubt very much it would bring about the rapture - unless mutually assured destruction can be regarded as creating the window of opportunity for the creation of a "new heaven and a new earth." Let us all hope and pray that someone, somewhere, has the sense to be prepared to take immediate action against anyone attempting anything of the sort. I would rather live with a radio-active wasteland in the Middle East and Iran - and the fuel shortages that will go with that - than allow these morons to triumph.

War was declared on behalf of Iran and Syria and the fundamentalist Islamic crew the day the Hizbollah guerillas crossed into Israel and abducted the two soldiers. Neither Hizbollah nor anyone else on their side of the divide gave a damn for the civilian casualties - primarily because they are good good "martyr" fodder for the propaganda war against Israel. It is naive in the extreme to think that anyone on the Islamic Fundamentalist side even considers the cost in human suffering since their religion dictates only one thing - you are either Muslim or you are dead - and if dead and non-Muslim, then you are going one way, while all "true" Muslims go the other. The UN and all the collected Aid Agencies are doing nothing to stop this war since their attempts are seen as weakness and the aid they render simply supports more terror. As Kruschev once remarked "The West will sell us the rope we will use to hang them." Now we are giving the Islamic fundamentalists the goods to fight us with. As I have previously said on this blog, we have either to fight, and fight to win totally, or we might as well surrender now and all become Muslims. You cannot reason with terrorists, you can only shoot them.

The biggest problem anyone facing a terrorist assault has is to discern the enemy. By their very nature, these people hide in the civilian population, they do not wear a uniform and they have no care for the people they use as a shiield - everyone is sacrificed to the "greater good" as they see it. We face a long and uphill struggle with this one, and its one we dare not lose, no matter what it takes.

The end of the conflict in Israel may well be nigh - but on its outcome hangs the fate of the West.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:12 AM | TrackBack

August 03, 2006

Musica Deo Sacra

Music Sacred to God, an evocative term, and a very descriptive one. For one week in every year we play host to a choir of professional singers and musicians who come together at Tewkesbury Abbey to perform music written across the centuries for the glory of God and the embellishment of worship. People come from all over the world, many of them making it a pilgrimage, to take part or simply to be able to worship in services raised to a level far beyond the ordinary by the use of Mass Settings or Anthems written specifically for worship but usually these days heard only as concert pieces. During Musica Deo Sacra they are heard again in their context and setting.

Throughout the week there is a resident Chaplain, this year that role is being fulfilled by Brother Patrick Moore, a Benedictine Monk in his own right, and presently Scholar in Residence at Sarum College. It is a feast of music, of liturgy and of learning for the evenings are filled with lectures or opportunities to meet and talk to some of the country's most eminent theologians and musicians.

We started on Monday with a glorious Solemn Evensong, begun with Bairstow's "Save us Lord". The Preces and Lesser Litany and Responses set to music by Michael Walsh and the Canticles to a setting by Kenneth Leighton from the Magdalen Service and tailed by an anthem set by Edward Elgar - "Great is the Lord". On Tuesday we had a Solemn Eucharist in honour of the Holy Sacrament using the 1943 Missa Brevis setting by Zoltan Kodaly. The Introit was William Byrd's "Laetentur coeli" and the anthems used for the Gradual, Offertory and Communion were by Berkeley, di Lasso and Bairstow. Our preacher and Episcopal representative - whom I Chaplained - was the Rt Rev Colin Buchanan, a noted speaker and author - and a noted Evangelical. His sermon has certainly given many food for deep thought - it was excellent as, indeed, was that preached by the Lord Abbot on Monday night.

Sadly I could not get out of work to attend Wednesday's Mass, but I attended the Organ Recital and Compline! The recital by Carleton Etherington was, as ever, a virtuoso performance. Yet again, he produced a stop on the Mighty Milton that few of us had heard before and managed to play two pieces that had the organists in the audience on their feet applauding his rendition. One, we think, must have required the use of his toes as well as his fingers, and another required such a spread of keyboard he could only have used his entire forearm! And his finale - Reger's Variations on the theme of Nun danket all uns Gott - left everyone breathless. What a musician, what a performer!

To follow that, Compline. What can one say of the acapella performance of one of the most beautifully simple services in the liturgical book. Our resident Benedictine Chaplain declared when it was over, "I can do no other than to go to bed and hope the Lord will bless me with more music of this calibre tomorrow!" The service opens with the words:

"The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end - Amen"

And surely there can be few ways to end a day than with the beauty of the plainsong chants and the canticles and antiphons by Byrd, Tallis, Blytheman and Parsons? Tallis' setting of the 10th Century hymn "O nata lux lumine" opens the service, and Byrd's setting of the 8th Century "Christe, qui lux es et dies" was the Office Hymn. This was followed by the plainsong Nunc dimitis and Blytheman's setting of the Compline responsory "In Pace". After the blessing has been given, the chior make their way round the back of the High Altar and standing at the statue of Our Lady Queen of Peace, sing the Parsons setting of the "Ave Maria". Brother Patrick was right, you could do no other than go to bed before anything could spoil the euphoria in one's spirit!

I will post more on this as I have the opportunity.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:50 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 31, 2006

If all our heroes are yobs .....

The latest outburst of football mania has seen the usual crop of hero worshipping youths imitating their footballer idols. Now I have no doubt that the young men who play the game are very good at it, but their behaviour on and off the ptich tells me that they are little better than hooligans in their private lives. Taking the recent world cup behaviour of the French Captain and the Italian player in their contretemps - what does this say to youngsters? That it is OK to behave in this fashion? Or taking the English footballer Rooney who has trouble controlling his temper at any time? Is this saying that its OK to vent your temper on everyone around you?

It seems to me that the hero models which young men and women adopt as their role model will influence their attitudes toward others, their behaviour and their expectations for their own lives. It cannot be otherwise. It would also explain in large part, why our society is now beset by yobs, managed by vandals and seemingly rewards the very worst traits in humanity. Looking back over the last few years I have to ask myself why wearing one's wife's underwear (I'm told that some people do and are still very nice people ...) should be something one's wife would tell a journalist - or why the journalist would ensure it is headline news. Why should boys be encouraged to aspire to the achievements of a man who cannot string together two sentences without expletives and, however good he is with a ball at his feet, cannot control his temper and behaves violently toward anyone who challenges him. Why should we expect our sons and daughters to idolise the Pop stars who use cannabis, cocaine and other 'hard' drugs, consume vast amounts of alcohol and throw up in public, and still grow up knowing that this is not how decent people behave in a society that actually has some sense of decency? Obviously we need to think carefully about this and other related issues, there is likely to be no 'quick fix' to it and there is certainly not going to be a short term solution.

Looking at the heroes of the likes of Mr Blair and his cronies in office you rapidly discover that, although they now try to hide it, their heroes were the likes of Lenin, Marx, Che Guevara, Castro and other equally evil men. Those that did not go for that clutch are adherents to the cults of Dr Spock, Freud, Scargill and other "worker" leaders, most of whom one soon finds lived the life of Riley at their "members" expense. It is Blair's "60's" generation who have raised the anti-hero to the status of saint, actively promoting people whose attitudes and actions have caused the collapse of decency, morality and even of the societies they were supposedly reforming. Dr Spock himself stands exposed as a man who wrote best selling and extremely damaging claptrap about raising children while not following any of it himself. Lenin was possibly the most evil man of all time - millions died for his version of Marx's flawed theories and Che Guevarra is described as a psychopathic killer - but these are the portraits one finds decorating the studies and offices of our leaders today. Mass murder for "socialism" is evidently justifiable, as long as one can categorise the dead as "capitalist swine", "bourgeois pigs" or "fascist obstructionists" and instantly turns the perpetrator into a hero for the Left wing liberal.

Looking back at the heroes of my own youth, I find that there were one or two sportsmen, mainly cricketers, and a couple of round the world yachtsmen, but the main 'heroes' in my life were people around me, people who knew life, who had fought in the War and had learned the lessons of life in a very harsh environment. Several were decorated pilots, one was a decorated naval officer, others were likewise ex-servicemen with and without decorations. My heroes of literature and the media included Winston Churchill (and I know he can be described as a drunkard and all sorts of other things), a couple of Admirals who had served their country well - and a Bishop who had likewise served. Many of them were ordinary people - the most ordinary being a man who held the Distinguished Service Order for acts of bravery bordering on lunatic disregard for his own skin whom I had the privilege of meeting - yet they not only knew how to behave with decency and respect towards everyone they dealt with, but they applied common sense to everything they did. Boy's comic magazines of the period provided lots of decent, clean-cut and, yes, idealised stereotyped heroes for youngsters. Some readers may even remember "Roy of the Rovers" in the old Lion weekly, an idealised football team that seemed staffed entirely by good role models, but sadly, todays equivalent seems to be as foul mouthed as the real ones.

I grew up admiring the likes of Nelson, Tyrrwhit, Jellico, Keys, Fraser, Sommerville, Cunningham and Ramsey (surely the only Admiral to have ever flown his "Flag" on an MTB?), Hipper and Scheer also featured as did Graf von Spee. My fathers tales of having served under Mountbatten (and meeting him several times) gave an interesting insight into the way these men behaved and how they led the men under them. Do we have anyone of that calibre leading our young people today? I'm afraid not, so I think we can expect our society to continue its downward slide into oblivion. A pity to waste so much that was good - squandered by the likes of Blair and his cronies for their short term benefit while they exploit a situation of their own promotion. Our society will not improve until our current crop of anti-heros are replaced by real ones, the politicians, popstars and footballers, replaced by real leaders of men and women who are true heros and not the money-grabbing, coke snorting, foul mouthed and ill-behaved shower of complete ordure we currently have shoved at us in all the media.

As the old Yorkshire saying is, "Clogs to clogs in three generations", their success will be measured by its duration. And so, sadly, will our present society's success.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:41 AM | TrackBack

July 28, 2006

A slight bump ....

Yesterday was not a good day for the Monk. It started out OK, except that the moment he was half way to his garage, the heavens opened and by the time he'd got the garage open he was more than slightly damp. Taking that in his stride, the Monk made his usual journey and arrived moderately drier than he started. His morning went reasonably well up to the point he had to go from one part of the site he works at to another. Having already handed over the site vehicle to someone else, he used his car to fetch some items he had left behind. That is where it started to unravel.

Starting to reverse out of the parking bay, the Monk failed to see a white van pull across from his left as he started to move. The rest is, as they say, academic. Neither vehicle was moving very fast, but the damage to the Monk Mobile is decpetively slight. Several panels have realligned themselves and will take considerable work to straighten out. The lamp cluster and the bumper took damage as well - the bumber being penetrated by something on the van - which ironically has a dent in a door and a smear of the Monk Mobile's paint.

The damage to the near side rear fender of the Monk mobile.

Now comes the real question, if the damage repair is more than the value of the car - and everyone admits that the Monk Mobile's marque is heavily undervalued at present. The Monk could be facing a large bill for replacing the vehicle - something he is loathe to do especially as the present one is reliable, comfortable and, until now, in good condition!

THis will be one to ponder deeply. Apart from the damage to the car, the Monk is especially chagrined by the fact that this is the end of his unblemished accident record, slight as it is. A lesson driven home rather pointedly that one can never be too careful.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:15 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 23, 2006

Being there ...

One of the many joys of being part of the ministry team of a place like the Abbey, is the opportunities that it provides to meet people. Yesterday afternoon I was the duty Chaplain. It was a strange sort of day, hot, humid and even a passing thunderstorm - it missed us but dumped a months rain on the other side of the valley - brought lots of people just looking for a place to sit, a place to be out of the soft rain that began around 2 pm and perhaps even to explore a building they had not seen before. We all have different styles for carrying out this duty, my own is to be seen, to be there if anyone wants to talk and to share the building and its special feeling with anyone who looks as if they want to do so.

Naturally we also have a special sequence for prayer and to make people welcome as well, and it is always interesting to see how people respond to this. Yesterday we had the majority seating themselves and taking time out to listen to the prayer intentions and to join in the prayers. Equally interesting are those who seem to think that you are interupting their exploration of a museum and some will actually raise their voices in conversation while you pray. It doesn't bother me at all, since we must all respond in the end to God as we see the need - and some simply don't like to admit that they need to pray. I frequently feel sorry for these folk as their lives must be very limited if they have no hope of anything beyond this. On the other hand it is really humbling to have people from the other end of the spectrum, those who do need to pray and who visit to find more than a historic building, seek you out to thank you for leading the prayers or for saying what they could not find the words to say.

There are those as well who find the fact that we let dogs (on leads) and sometimes strangely dressed people in and wander at will difficult. But the whole purpose of the building is to provide everyone - congregation and visitors - with the opportunity to encounter God. That is why we try to have Chaplains on duty throughout the summer and over the major festivals. It isn't always easy to do this, and sometimes one does encounter those who are either hostile or rude, but as we remind ourselves, the Apostles suffered far worse.

Being a Chaplain is both a privilege and a service. We are there for those seeking, for those who do not know they seek, and above all, we are there to serve God. A privilege indeed.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:44 PM | TrackBack

July 13, 2006

Cluttered roads, Grockles and Gromit Pods ....

Checking on the Gorse Fox (His excursion into Roman Toga for a party is quite something) recently I came across his thoughts on motorists towing caravans and those who buy, rent or drive huge motorhomes - usually with a spare vehicle towed behind - and block rural roads with them. His piece entitled Unusual View makes him a man (fox) definitely after my own heart! Please somebody allow me to mount a Plasma Cannon so I can blast caravans and motor homes out of the way! Think of the satisfaction you would get passing through the dispersing cloud of ionised gases that would be all that remained after a hit from such a suitable Star Wars weapon!

This is, of course the season for the influx of visitors towing things or simply driving slowly so they can sight see along the route. It can be irritating as all get out when you are the tenth car in the tail behind them and your forty five minute journey is rapidly doubling in time. The other irritation - and I was amused to see that, like me, Gorse Fox uses GPS - there do seem to be an inordinate number of people who either can't read a map or won't invest in GPS around at the moment. I travelled behind one recently who spent almost ten miles slowing to a crawl at every signpost - and then accelerating as soon as anyone tried to ease past him.

OK, so I suffer a bit from the "but I live here" syndrome and often don't think about the fact that there are parts of the County I could easily get lost in, but I do think these visitors frequently seem to have a major blindspot or a complete absence of rear view mirror to help with their major disability - any form of consideration for the poor motorists trapped behind them!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:05 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 10, 2006

Circus Maximus anyone?

Can I really be the only person who can see the link to the Roman Circus and the present day obsession with football (soccer to my American, Australian and South African readers) and pop stars and concerts? The terminal decline of the Roman Empire and civilisation in the West can be marked, in large part, by the rise of the 'stars' and 'star' attractions in the gladiatorial arenas dotted all around the empire. The more spectacular the circus went the reasoning, the more likely the populace is to not notice the fact that the country is falling apart, the politicians are robbing us blind and the civil service is corrupt and self serving. Distract everyone with a big spectacular and keep them happy while we make off with the silver.

The only beneficiaries in the longterm are the overpaid football stars - who judging by the few seconds worth I have had the misfortune to see - are all either members of Equity or just plain foulmouthed thugs and the Pop Stars are no better, popularising cocaine snorting, drug taking and excessive lifestyles that provide very little of virtue as a guide to future generations. It is my considered view that the obscene salaries paid to footballers and the wealth pouring into the pockets of pop stars are merely a symptom of a society that has completely lost its way and will rapidly be be reduced to irrelevance when it is seriously challenged by an ambitious new empire. I don't know who the threat will come from, I suspect it will be internal, and may even be already gathering strength, but I do know that our present society is about as secure as Rome was in its last few years of hedonistic pursuit of self aggrandisement among its political classes.

Western society had better start to look at how its pursuit of "freedom" and "rights" are masking the underlying weakness of our entire system of political government and the burgeoning bureaucracy which, again in parallel with the Roman model, is slowly but surely strangling it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:25 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 04, 2006

Don't park that ship here ....

My thanks to a former colleague and new reader of this blog for the photographs in this entry. The harbour entrance to the City of East London (South Africa in case you were confusing it with that other small city in the UK) is very tricky at the best of times. East London is South Africa's only river harbour and the tides and flows from the river make entering and leaving quite an artform. The city always had the services of three huge tugs (680 gt and developing around 100 tons bollard pull each under full steam power) but these have been replaced by small Schottel and Voith-Schnieder tugs of less than half the weight and bollard pull.

Saf 2.JPG
The SA Agulhas hard aground on the West Bank - the wrong place to try and park any ship at this port!

The latest casualty at this port is the SA Agulhas, a Safmarine "feeder ship" which collects containers for distribution along the coast, dropping off and picking up as she goes. She lost power as she cleared the bar at the extreme end of the Western breakwater that extends for almost a mile into the Indian Ocean at the mouth of the Buffaloe River and was taken by the tide, wind and current onto the shore behind the breakwater. This is a very rocky shoreline and thus far attempts to pull her off have failed.

saf 14.JPG
The SA Agulhas aground off the Western Breakwater at East London. The entrance channel is in the forground and is between the viewer and the short pier visible with its fixed beacon in the picture.

In recent years several ships have been stranded in this position - all of them still there. The Agulhas would seem to be the latest victim of the unmanned engine room scenario so many ships now operate under. Minimal manning means that the engine room is frequently not manned at all once the engines have been started and run up to operating temperature. This, in turn, means that the "running maintenance" that used to be done by the oilers and greasers is also no longer carried out - and engine failure due to undetected minor problems suddenly becoming bif ones is becoming a more frequent problem. When an engine fails and cannot be restarted in a position where the ship is close to the shore, the results can be very expensive indeed.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 01, 2006

Kentucky ramblings

With the conference over yesterday, I travelled south from Cincinnati to the Richmond home of some very good friends and am now sat in their porch enjoying the greenery, the birdsong and the gentle breeze making the warmth of the day pleasant. I had hoped to have a chance to see more of Cincinnati, but the location of the conference hotel and the schedule meant we were not able to get out much at all! And, when we could, it was too far from the bits I would have liked to see anyway!

I had hoped to catch a meeting with a couple of fellow bloggers, Laughing Wolf being one, but again, the conference schedule and the distance between Cincinnati and the Wolf's Lair, made that a non-starter, especially as I had missed a communication about going to Richmond post conference. My apologies to Laughing Wolf for the confusion I caused in having missed everything. I did at least manage to keep a date with the family of a placement student who came to stay with me in May 2004. This young man was a delight to be able to provide the opportunity for and now that I have met his family I can say that he is a credit to them and a product of their support and encouragement. It made me wish that I could do this for more young men of his calibre as I am sure there are many more out there, it was just my good fortune to have met Miles. Now he is working hard to break into the career path he would like to follow and I am sure he will succeed.

I like the US and I have always had a great respect for their belief in themselves. It is my experience that they are friendly, will go out of their way to help a stranger and are generous to a fault. Yes, there are problems with the worldview one sometimes encounters and I know that many outside the US worry about the fuel and oil consumption ascribed to a "wastefull" or "greedy" populace, but we forget that a century ago these worldviews were being expressed with a great deal less consideration by a number of European "Empires" - whose legacy has driven much of 20th Century history. On the whole the majority of Americans I have had the pleasure of meeting are sensible people, defensive of their national position and very conscious of the issues everyone faces such as global warming, wealth creation/distribution and a peaceful world society that is free and fair to all. That they do not subscribe to "quick fix" solutions like the scientifically deficient Kyoto Treaty says a great deal about their genuine desire to find real solutions to some of these issues rather than political posturing.

Yes, I can be accused of being an apologist for the US and I do have reservations about some of the things I see here - but I have similar reservations about Blair's Britain, or the Bureaucrats vision of a United States of Europe. Let's face facts, most of the critics of the US have never been here, and have not studied at first hand the problems this country faces in its own right. Their opinions are informed by the biased reporting of the Sun, Mirror and Guardian and reflect the bias of the reporters. Much of European thought on the US and its worldview is, in my opinion also a reflection of the biased vision of the "Internationalist" view of European Liberal Socialisim which detests the fact that the majority of the American population will never subscribe to their view that they and they alone are capable of providing a "free and fair" world society. Long may it continue so!

Yes, I like the US, and yes, I like a lot of what they stand for. Most particularly I like their attitude of self help and self advancement. A quality lacking in far too many populations today. That said, I note with interest that their bureaucrats are as bad as ours in dreaming up unnecessary and complex forms and procedures to hinder everything and everyone. Airport security is so complex now I wonder anyone actually gets through it and I really do wonder at the insistence that baggage - all baggage - must be collected, then is removed to be x-rayed again at the US destination and collected again after clearing customs. At what point was I supposed to have accessed it to put in some weapon of mass destruction during the flight? Or is it just a case of they don't trust the bureaucrats at the departures end to have done it properly? Whatever, its still a nice country!

I will be winging my way home again onm Saturday and hope to have some pictures to share then!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:45 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 18, 2006


Yesterday I went on my annual trip to Glastonbury. No, not for a rock fest or a new strain in New Age mysticism, or to try the latest strain of grass, joss sticks or anything like that. This is the annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury, widely acknowledged as the cradle of English Christianity. Certainly one has to acknowledge the fact that it was a sacred site in pre-Roman times and again in the late Roman period, but this "second awakening" was brought about by the establishment of a Christian community here, probably on the fringes of the British village. No one can really be sure why this place became the centre of Christianity it did, but certainly the activities of it's greates Abbot, Dunstan, will have played a major part in the early medieval period.

Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea brought the youthful Christ here in the "mystery" years missing from the Gospels, and it is legend again that says he returned here bearing the Holy Grail (NOT the Dan Brown one!) after the Crucifixion. A Jerusalem thorn tree still grows in Glastonbury in the grounds of the parish church, the present one a cloned sapling of the original which died in the 1970's and which was then dated scientifically to a date sometime in the first century. In short, it is a place in which fact and legend blur very easily, never more so when faith and belief enter into the picture.

It is here too that a grave was discovered by the monks preparing ground for the extension of the Abbey Church, which was identified by its grave goods and the bodies as that of the legendary King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. They were reburied in the Quire of the new Abbey and the site of the new grave was reopened in the 1780's and declared to be "very probably that of Arthur and his Queeen." Although I suspect by then the evidence for such a claim was long gone. The Tor which stands just outside the town has long been known as Avalon, so again fact, legend and faith blur at the edges and for some merge.

Today though the town was Christian, with a procession of witness down the High Street and in at the main gate of the ruined Abbey. Dunstan would hopefully have approved as the chidren's pilgrimage group led the way, followed by the assembled parish and other clergy, nine Bishops and servers from all over the country. The Mass celebrated under the shade of the ruined piers of the Chancel arch and the remains of the Abbey Church walls, was, as ever, very moving. The weather was kind, warm, sunny and a gentle breeze for a congregation which included people of all Christian Denominations, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican all worshipping together in harmony. It is in that unity at worship that the presence of Christ is truly to be felt.

That is why, I set aside this day each year for Glastonbury. May Dunstan and all the Saints pray for us as we journey to join them.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:17 PM | TrackBack

June 12, 2006

Wooden walls

I know that Mausi has already written on this subject, but I have for some while been cogitating on the life aboard these ships as well. Our recent visit to Portsmouth reminded me once again, of just how recently we, in Britain, have moved from considering that living in cramped accommodation was a part of shipboard life, to a more generous allocation of space for the crew. Mind you, that does depend on how you define "generous". For the men who manned ships like HMS Victory, todays four and six berth "gulches" for Junior and Senior ratings serving aboard a Type 23 Frigate or a Type 42 Destroyer, the space would seem palatial. The idea of having a central "canteen" style Mess instead of eating in the same space in which you slept would seem anathema - as would the idea that you showered at least once a day. But a luxury would be the fact that you could go to the heads without risking getting a thorough wetting for your pains.

HMS Victory from harbour cropped.JPG
HMS Victory seen from her Starboard Quarter - a ship is divided into six 'parts' for the purposes of viewing anything from her - which gives a good idea of just how small she is.

At 225 feet from beakhead to transom, the Victory is actually shorter than a modern Frigate or a destroyer, yet she carried three times the compliment of a Type 42 Destroyer and roughly four times that of a Type 23. And almost all of the crew lived on the lower gundeck. The lucky ones, those whose rank or their "Rate" as ship's specialists gave them the privilege of a private space, had usually to earn that the hard way. Even the officers started out in the cramped, dark and no doubt pungently evil smelling Gunroom right aft on the Orlop Deck, one down from the Lower Battery deck where the crew lived. Each Midshipman had, if he was lucky, a tiny cubbyhole as a cabin, barely big enough for a small 'cot' and his sea chest. They shared this space with the Purser, the Boatswain and often the Sailmaker. In a battle their chests and their dining table became the ship's surgeon's operating table and the whole area a hospital.

One reason it would have been an evil smelling place is that there was no access to any toilet for its inhabitants, so either a communal commode was used (emptied by their "Messman") or they did what many of the crew did when no one was looking - and used the scuppers or a gunport! Letters home from those newly joined frequently made mention of the foul aroma of the cesspit from the bilges. Mind you, as Mausi pointed out, the aroma of over 800 unwashed human bodies living in close quarters on the enclosed lower gundeck must been quite something as well.

There must be a lesson in this somewhere for todays generation. Consider this: no health and safety (they could never have achieved anything under todays rules), no personal privacy, no smart lawyer or trade union to take the Captain to court on Human Rights - and yet the men who manned these "Wooden Walls" built the greatest Empire the world has yet seen. Quite an achievement.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:38 AM | TrackBack

June 09, 2006

Bad back .....

The Monk has been absent from these pages for the simple reason he put his back out badly last Friday, then drove to London and back - by the time he returned home his legs had stabbing cramps to the knees! Sunday and Monday we will draw a veil over! Tuesday he rang the Doctor, and now, thanks to modern Physiotherapy and hefty doses of painkillers, he is able, once more to sit at the computer long enough to type a short post.

Hi-Ho! - and go back to work, although, according to the Doctor, driving is probably going to set the whole thing off again!

Actually Doc, its more likely the hefty digging I will have to do to find my desk or even get into my office! Whatever, The Monk is back and Mausi is off to present a paper in Helsinki next week. I wish I was going with her, I am told that Helsinki is one of the more beautiful Baltic cities, particularly at this time of the year!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:02 AM | TrackBack

June 04, 2006

A quiet day

Last week I met an American lady who has worked here in Germany for three years and is due to return to the United States in the near future. She told me that one of the things she really had to get used to at the beginning of her stay over here is the fact that all shops are closed on Sundays in Germany. She could not buy groceries, she could not take her clothes to a dry cleaner and there was quite a lot of other things she could not do either. But she also said that after a while she quite liked it because she got more things done on Saturday and then really had the Sunday to herself to enjoy a bit of piece and quiet or meet friends. Eventually Sunday became a special day of the week not just one where you caught up on the household chores you were not able to do while out at work. And she also said she'll miss that day when she goes back home.

Being used to a quiet Sunday myself all my life I have never thought much about it. Not until I stayed for a holiday with the Gray Monk. It came as a bit of a shock to me that we were able to go shopping for our Sunday lunch after church and that while we were eating the neighbours were out in the gardens noisily mowing their lawns and clipping their hedges. It made me realise just how much I enjoyed a really quiet day of the week. In Germany lawn mowing on Sunday is strictly forbidden. You may pull out a few weeds, though, if you do it quietly.

On today's post I'd like to share the photo below with you. In my opinion there's nothing like a view of the sea to put you in a tranquil mood. I hope you enjoy the photograph as much as we enjoyed the real thing on our way from Oban to Craignure.

The sea between the Scottish West Coast and the Isle of Mull

Have a quiet day!

Posted by Mausi at 08:34 PM | TrackBack

May 31, 2006

Driving issues

One of my brothers in law drives a lot. My son drives a lot and in time past I used to drive big red lorries (as well as other things) a lot. I no longer get much pleasure out of driving, mainly because it is (a) a chore, and (b) there are too many complete morons on the road. In driving big red lorries at sometimes rather high speeds, I managed to always arrive in one piece and to avoid hitting anything on the way. That isn't to say there weren't some very hairy moments - there were - but it did teach me to expect the driver in front to be totally irrational when faced by a mirror full of red grill and flashing lights. That is assuming he could use a mirror and could hear the siren and bell, later three tone klaxon and still later the electronic yelp system.

As an accident investigator at one point in my career, I was always amazed by the number of motorists who claimed they did not hear the appliance as it came up behind them. Invariably you then discovered that they had a radio or hi-fi system turned well up and the windows closed. On one occassion an appliance was hit as it went through an intersection on a GREEN signal, the motorist having run the RED. OK, we did have control of the traffic signals from the Control Room, but they didn't change that fast! This guy's excuse later to the police - after the crew on the damaged appliance had cut him out of the wreck of his GTi - was that he'd seen the light change but thought it would cycle back to green for him as he got to it. Yep, the court thought so to! Or not, the magistrate was not very sympathetic.

What made me think of this? Well, I was recently cut up by a clown on my way to work. Now I would be the first to admit that I drive to the limit and get annoyed by the "10 miles an hour under the speed limit brigade", so I was going steadily at the limit, when this guy sailed past on a blind rise a fair bit over the speed limit (you can tell - if he makes you feel that you've slowed down to park, that is!) and immediately had to brake hard and slew into the gap between me and a small van ahead of me to avoid the oncoming juggernaut. I can now smugly say that I had seen both - again driving emergency vehicles teaches you to observe the traffic three or four vehicles ahead if you can - so I was ready when he slammed on his brakes to avoid tailending the van. He only just made it. A hundred yards on he braked frantically again as he almost missed the turn to where he wanted to go.

Driving around the countryside these days is a real lottery. I don't mind the tractors, I don't mind the occassional harvester, and I quite enjoy the odd steam traction engine belting along at all of twelve miles an hour if he's in a hurry, but I do get annoyed by the assorted Grockles, Grommits and Lookattatters who insist on cruising around at town speeds when you are trying to get to work. These are the people who speed up so you can't pass where the road is safe to do so and slow right down for corners and any bend. They can turn a 45 minute trip into an hour and a half. And they always travel in convoys!

Ah well, at least I get to live around here permanently, they only visit, but I do wish motor manufacturers would try to get the major defect all these motorist's cars have, and which affects every make of car when that type of person buys it, fixed.

Will somebody please sort out the rear view mirrors so they can see the tail they're pulling? Or better yet, create some sort of grapnel so I can hook onto the inevitable tow hitch they always seem to have, and kill my engine so I don't waste fuel grinding down through the gears while I'm stuck behind them!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:21 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 25, 2006

Simple or not simple at all?

When everybody tells you about the imminent danger of Global Warming it does not really come as a surprise that this year again May started on a rather high temperature level. We've already experienced temperatures around 25 Centigrades and more this year. In Germany we usually have a spell of cold weather between the May 12 and May 15. The nights can even be frosty. These days are called "Die Eisheiligen" and are named "Pankratius", "Sevatius", "Bonifatius", and "Sophie". Well, this year those days and nights were quite warm - ah, Global Warming, remember? Apparently, it is not as simple as that for we've got the cold days now. One of my colleagues even had to scrape a thin layer of ice from his windscreen this morning.

Anyway, Global Warming is quite an interesting phenomenon. It is supposed to melt the ice in the polar regions, which increases the amount of water in the oceans which in turn decreases the speed of the gulf stream. That means, some areas on our planet will experience lower temperatures in the future. England? Scotland? Probably. Perhaps the ice will just be shifting from the poles towards the equator?

The really frustrating bit about it is that there's no way to actually predicts what is going to happen because our environment is such a complex system. But then we are not even any good at predicting simple things. Take "Langton's Ant" for example, a most intriguing two-dimensional system invented by Chris Langton with a very simple set of rules. A little ant is wandering around on an infinite planar grid. The squares on the grid are either white or black. The square the ant steps on turns its colour from white to black or from black to white accordingly. If it lands on a white square it will take a right turn, if it land on a black square it will turn left.

You, the observer, just sit back and watch the ant scuttle over the grid. After the ant has completed a few thousand steps you suddenly see a sort of simple symmetric pattern emerge - it looks very much like a four-leaf clover. That suddenly disappears and the pattern becomes chaotic. After that comes the biggest surprise: the ant is obviously determined to find a way out and starts repeating a 104 step cycle whereby she builds a "highway" straight out of the mess. And the ant keeps building the highway for ever, never goes back to a chaotic stage again.

I must admit that I was immediately intrigued by the little ant when I stumbled across it a couple of years ago. Although the rules are so very simple there is no way to predict what will happen. One just has to watch what the ant will do. The ant reminds you that even apparently simple things might not be that simple and straightforward after all. I wonder what surprises Global Warming warming will have in store for us. It is probably not a straight case of warming up everything on earth at all.

If you would like to see The Ant for yourself - try a google on "Langton's Ant". There are lots of little computer programmes available on the net for you to download and enjoy.

Posted by Mausi at 08:39 PM | Comments (2)

May 07, 2006

Sunday ramblings ......

Coming to the end of a glorious four weeks holiday, actually last years leave allocation, I face returning to work tomorrow with the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I know that my desk will be piled high with work that has simply been left for me to address when I return. The end of the holiday has also meant that the flat feels empty as Mausi has returned to her lovely home in the Taunus Mountains and I no longer have the fun of her company to liven up my day. That said, we have had a great four weeks exploring Scotland, South and West England and even a bit of Wales. It has been tremendous to have time out of all my other jobs and duties like this, and I am grateful to the Lord for giving me the joy of friends who mean so much to me.

Of course, while all this has been in progress there has been a major upheaval in the political scene, one I have studiously ignored since it only makes me angry and I have had no desire to get annoyed - Monday will be time enough for that! But it has made me consider the wisdom of several books I have been reading as I go through the process of selection for possible ordination.

One of the books, written by the present Bishop of Durham, reminded me of the fact that Jesus came into a world riven by political agendas and died because of them. His sacrifice at the hands of the Sanhedrin was made inevitable by His confronting their agenda which had little to do with their disapproval of His claims to Messiahship and everything to do with the agenda of power - and their remaining in control of it! Other books reminded me that the quest for political power is certainly not a modern invention, the Bible tells, in the prophets, the story of conflict between the way of God and the way of political power - materialism, power mongering, "deals with the Devil" are all symptoms of people who have turned away from the path God has set and His laws, to impose their own, all designed to ensure that they obtain the wealth and hold the power.

But, as Mr Blair is discovering, power corrupts very swiftly, and human sentiment is fickle. He swept to power in 1997 behind the image of a shining knight on a white charger who was going to make Britain a fairer and politically correct place to live, and now he is so covered in ordure that the stench of the corruption of his administration makes the Sanhedrin look good. Human nature is so easily led astray, so easily corrupted by holding power for too long, just as was the case among the various courts in Biblical times among the Israeli and Judaic nobility in antiquity. It was their corruption which led to the division of the Kingdom built by David and Solomon and ultimately to its disappearance as they courted power for themselves. It was this that the prophest railed against so loudly.

But equally striking in my reading was the fact that the ordinary people were, as ever, caught between their "leaders" and the harsh realities of life. I was again reminded that the exile invloved not, as one would think, the removal of the entire population of Israel and Judah, but of its nobility. The Babylonians weren't stupid, you needed to leave the peasants in place to continue working the land and plying the ir crafts in order to keep the tax coffers filled. One does wonder what the populace thought of the change - probably not a lot in the end since one bunch of "masters" was probably much the same as another in the end. As the Margrave of Brandenburg is famously on record as saying; "Es ist ein untertanen untersacht ..." (It is an underlying principle that.. ) and he went on to say that the general populace had nothing to say on any great matter that counted for anything, a principle held by those in power since the invention of politics and still practiced today even by those supossedly elected to office anywhere!

Jesus came, not to replace that corrupt power mongering earthly system with a new one for us to manipulate and corrupt, but with an incorruptible kingdom, one based entirely on a renewal of life and a purification of our nature. It is that which we celebrate in this season of Easter and in our daily worship.

Christ is risen, He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:20 AM | TrackBack

April 30, 2006

Iona - a place of singular peace.

About a hundred years after the death of Patrick of Ireland, a young monk named Collum Cille copied a book he was not authorised to copy. His familial connections to the High King and his stubborn belief that books belonged to everyone, resulted in a civil war and his exile from Ireland. That exile also sparked the Christianisation of the Western Isles, the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland, for Columba as he is now known was a man of considerable gifts, deep faith and spirituality. He landed in Iona from a sea going corracle - a boat made from willow frames and covered with hides - sometime around 570AD to find an island with a population of around 1200 and, with his twelve monk companions, founded a monastery on the site of the present building.

Nothing remains of Collum Cille's round huts and wattle and daub church, such organic buildings need regular replacement and only some post holes from their orginal upright timbers have been found beneath the present building which dates from the 13th Century and the coming of the Benedictines. The community here suffered badly under the Vikings who raided it several times and the beautiful beach at it's North Eastern end is the site of a massacre of the monks, rounded up by the Vikings and slaughtered on the beach.

The legacy of Columba however, remains, and his presence can still be felt.

The Abbey on Iona, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, lovingly restored by the Duke of Argyll after it had fallen into ruin by the late 19th Century.

Today the Abbey is home to the Iona Community, and ecumenical group who keep the worship and the monastic traditions alive. The Community was the brainchild of the Rev George MacLeod in the 1938, a plan very much in keeping with the Deed of Trust set up by the Duke of Argyll who deeded it to the National Trust of Scotland for use as an Ecumenical place of worship, prayer and retreat.

The stretch of water that separates Iona from Mull, seen from Fionnphort looking across at the East of the Abbey.

The island itself is separated from Mull by a narrow channel of deep water, about a half mile in width. Access is by means of the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry from Fionphort, a small vehicle and passenger ferry which runs back and forth roughly every half hour. The astonishing clarity of the water is something to enjoy - in fact our fun photo of the crab was taken while waiting for the ferry on the Iona side of the channel - through about two feet of water!

Definitely a place to be visited again.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:43 AM | TrackBack

April 29, 2006

Reaching the Isle of Mull

Our long and winding drive round the sea lochs of Western Scotland and the Highlands eventually saw us arriving in Oban for the night. The next morning we had to make an early start to get a place on the ferry to Mull. Normally one needs to book a place for a car, but we were lucky, there were spare places and we got on. The ferries between Oban and Mull are quite large ships, loading through the bow and stern depending on which end you get on. This one runs from Oban to Craignure (Pronounced, Craig-new-ree) and crosses the spectacular Firth of Lorn before entering the Sound of Mull the entrance to which is guarded by the restored Duart Castle, home of the Chief of the Clan MacLean.

The ferry "Isle of Mull" approaching the dock in Oban. The approach is interesting involving two sharp doglegs before she is able to swing round and back onto the vehicle loading ramp.

Scouting for targets? A gull soars effortlessly above the ferry on the way to Mull.

At Craignure we found the Scottish Tourist Office very helpful and friendly and within minutes we had been booked into a comfortable B&B at Lochdon. The Wild Cottage reception we got from the owner made our stay on Mull even more fabulous than it would have been - she and her husband made us feel like long lost friends and treated us as such throughout our stay! I commend them to anyone planning to visit Mull, Iona and Staffa!

Duart Castle stands on it's promontory, behind it a shallow bay provided shelter for the Lord's galleys to be drawn ashore.

Duart Castle is a fascinating place, started in the 12th Century and enlarged and rebuilt several times, the present buildings were rebuilt and restored in the 1890's and completed in the early 1900's. It is now the home of the Lord and Lady MacLean. The original Keep is open to the public and a rewarding visit. Like many other castles built in the same period it stands on a commanding position and the draw slips for the galleys kept by the Lord's of the castle can still be seen in the rocks below. The purpose of the castle was to proclaim control of the access and waterways and it certainly did that. The galleys were used to intercept shipping and exact a tax, a practice that continued well into Tudor times.

Today visitors are welcome to the Isles and the defensive purpose of the castle is no longer needed, but it gives a fascinatiing window on the past.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:07 AM | TrackBack

April 17, 2006

Heading North

Well, today I am breaking the habit of a lifetime. I am about to hit the road on a Bank Holiday, to join the dubious pleasure of "motoring" North amidst the teeming hordes of returning holidaymakers - 18 million of them attempted to leave London and other major centres for other parts of the country on Thursday and Friday bringing gridlock to the roads. I am hoping to avoid the worst of this as I drive North with Mausi to explore the Western Isles and Highlands and to visit Iona.

We will be posting things, or our favourite Postulant will from time to time as we have the chance to do so. Expect a full report of our wanderings when we return, with Mausi on camera there should be lots of interesting pictures to share.

The Easter Feast reached its climax yesterday at the Abbey and we seem to have enjoyed record congregations this year - a reversal of the reported trend of shrinking attendance. Those who came to worship with us seemed to have come from far and wide, but a fair proportion were local folk who regard us as their spiritual home. Even some of those from abroad expressed that thought which suggests that the search for faith and for spiritual growth does indeed know or recognise no boundaries. We also made history this Easter when two woman priests concelebrated at the High Altar on Maundy Thursday with the Vicar and three other clergymen. This is the first time a woman has shared in the Eucharistic celebration and a concelebrant at this Altar since the ordination of women was made legal in 1988 and it represents a huge step forward in the spiritual life and growth of the Abbey congregations.

The motorway beckons, the Highlands beckon and I must away to Iona. I am praying for a lack of traffic and in particular for a safe and pleasant journey.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:31 AM | TrackBack

March 25, 2006

Islamic view of Christianity and the future of Britain ...

Found this comment from a prominent member of the Islamic community on Dodgeblogium and it certainly made me sit up straight. Here, out in the open, is the vision of the followers of Islam for the future of Britain. I quote from Dr Abdalqadir as-Sufi himself -

Join with good-will, to show your fellow British that we are different and we have a higher religion, itself the completion and cleansing of christianity, and that we bring good news to our country and our future.

The quote is taken from a lengthy piece on his website - and it is worth reading as it is very revealing - urging other Muslims to join the Conservative Party. So, that is the cunning plan, having infiltrated and converted the Labour Party to be a puppet of Islamic thought and turn it against all things Christian, our good solid British Islam followers are now going to do the same to the Conservatives. History repeats itself - this is how Byzantium was overcome in the 12 - 15th Centuries. This - and the concept that all non-Musilims are "Dhimmi" and cannot be allowed to hold positions in authority over Muslims - is how Christianity has been suppressed across the Middle East and in all Muslim countries. Take note Britain, this is where secularism and pandering to the demands of the militant proselytising of Islam will lead this nation all too quickly.

Two rays of hope shine out of this darkness, firstly the revelation that Islamic "Schools" are hotbeds of child abuse, and secondly, the Law Lord's rejection of a high profile case brought by a Muslim girl demanding the right to dictate what was appropriate wear for attendance at school. She demanded the right to wear the full veil and shapeless gown to hide herself from the world, saying that this allowed her to "take back her body and her sex from the malicious eyes of males" and our own beloved PM's wife defended her. The Law Lord's have thankfully seen through the stupidity of their case and rejected it, hopefully paving the way for further reduction of the imposition of other extreme Islamic practices and views being imposed on us all.

I have to say that I found myself agreeing with the Doctor's summation of Blair and his government and of one or two other rather pithier comments on the political state of Britain. I cannot and never will agree with his summation of the West as "unenlightened" and I will certainly never see Islam as being superior in any way to Christianity. Christ was the Word, not the bearer of a word.

I hope that the Conservatives resist the view expressed by the good Doctor, whose name - as-Sufi - should warn of his position in the theological debate, and make a stand for absorption and tolerance rather than the dominant position awarded by their Labour colleagues to these views.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:07 PM | TrackBack

March 20, 2006

Another blast from the past ...

Going through my photo album the other day, I discovered this picture of a training crew from the 1970's drilling with a Merryweather Comet wheeled escape ladder at the station I spent a large part of my career at. These ladders were carried on the back of an applaince usually referred to as a "Pump/Escape" and weighed almost half a ton. They were incredible useful, being fifty feet in height fully extended, and very manoeuvrable.

A drill crew prepare to extend the 50 foot wheeled escape.

It took a four man crew to slip it from the carrying gear on the appliance and to "run" it to the position required. Once in position, the wheels could be "scotched" and the ladder extended, then the pitch altered to drop the "head" into the opening you wanted on the building. The head of the ladder was also steel "shod" and this could be used to "run" the extended ladder into the window, smashing out the frame and glass so that you could affect a rescue.

One of the drills practiced with it - and one of the reasons almost everyone's building regulations require internal risers in a building above 60 feet in overall height, was the "extension" of this ladder by securing a "first floor" ladder to it's head by lashings! Quite an art, but very effective. This gave the fire service an overall "reach" for fire fighting from a ladder of - you guessed it - 60 feet! Not many people, least of all our wonderful civil servants who write the Building Codes, realise that we no longer use these ladders and the 60 feet benchmark is no longer valid as a result - it should be much lower!

Ah, the fun we had with these ladders! Many are the stories of them being chased by a crew who had let it "run away" while drilling on a slope - or, even better, had lost one off an appliance en route to a "shout".

Those were the days!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 14, 2006

Polish travels ....

Another trip into history was the opportunity to visit Poland again last year, when we were treated to a trip through the Province of Poznan to see the sites associated with the first Polish Kings, crowned at Poznan and baptised at one of three possible sites near here. Another interesting site is that of Biskupin where there is a recreated wooden fortified village - reportedly the earliest such settlement associated with the Polish Kings in Poland.

The Cathedral at Gniezno in Poland, one of the first Christian churches built to celebrate the conversion of Poland to Christianity in 994.

King Mieszko I was the first of the Kings and it is he who converted to Christianity and was reputedly baptised at this island site - although both Poznan and Gniezno claim this honour as well. The whole area has played a very large part in the formation of the history of both the Polish nation and its people.

Well worth another visit for me, and I can commend it to anyone else with an interest in the history of our European forebears and their road to our present civilisation.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:54 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 13, 2006

Memories of a fun career .....

This time last year I was among very good friends in Kentucky on a valuable and really useful "tutor exchange". I wish I was back there this year, but pressures of work prohibit it completely for the moment! Still, my thoughts are very much there as several of my friends are now busily engaged in delivering another of their excellent seminars in Richmond.

The painting below is one that took my fancy when I was there for several reasons, not least that it reminded me of several fires during my early career, and of the apparatus that we then managed to do the job with. It was not unusual to see appliances with their "bonnets" (or in the US "hoods") raised in this way - if you were pumping for extended periods the engine needed all the cooling it could get!

A painting of a fire scene in the late 1950's in the US, note the raised bonnet flaps - done to increase air movement and improve cooling on appliances that had no secondary cooling system fitted!

While the painting is of a fire at least 20 years before my own career took off, there were still appliances like this one "on the run" until the late 1970's when diesel powered units gradually replaced the petrol engines we had used until then. One reason we were slow to adopt diesels where I worked was down to the fact that our pumps needed to run at a higher "speed" than the diesel engines then fitted to vehicles generally produced. This changed in the 1970's as more light weight diesel engines capable of higher speeds and quicker acceleration became available.

The sight of a raised bonnet also became gradually less common as the appliances were fitted with secondary colling systems which had heat exchangers fitted to the gearbox oil, the sump and the radiator and diesel engines are generally cooler running than petrol units. Water for the secondary cooling comes from the fire pump while it is pumping and circulates through a closed loop system back to the pump where it is discharged as part of the hosestream.

Altogether now - "Aaaah, those were the days ....."

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 12, 2006

Memories of travels past ....

It is now almost a year ago that I enjoyed a fabulous week with my good friends in Germany, including a day spent exploring short stretch of the Rhine. Searching through my "happy snaps" of that trip I came across this one of the famous Krone Hotel. Situated on the North Bank of the Rhine, it is located just downstream of the Mäuseturm situated near Bingen.

The Krone Hotel with its almost fairy tale architecture.

Wandering around the Rhine Palatinate area it is easy to see where the inspiration for a lot of the illustrators of the fairy tale books and children's cartoons got their inspiration. The castles perch high above the river on rocky outcrops, their towers rising like fingers and crowned with turrets. A beautiful area and one laden with history as the Rhine has been a highway for migration and commerce since human settlement began in Europe.

There is so much more to explore that I think I will have to find ways to keep working simply to pay for more trips there!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:24 AM | TrackBack

March 09, 2006

They still don't get it ...

A news headline in one of the national daily's caught my eye this week and caused a sharp rise in my blood pressure. The Independent ran the headline "Nuclear Power - expensive, dangerous and unwanted" or words to the same effect. The article then went on to rehearse all the usual arguments about how much better and safer wind turbines and "renewable" sources of energy would be and how dangerous nuclear power is, how difficult to dispose of the waste, etc., etc., and so forth, etc.

They still seem to be unable to grasp that some of the contamination that occurred in the past was a result of our not fully understanding some of the matters we have since learned - by experience - to be important. How much contamination arises from burning fossil fuels - besides the usual list of Carbon Dioxide, Sulphur Dioxide and the range of other "greenhouse" gases? Quite a lot actually, many of them even less well understood than the odd stray nuclear particle! The generation of power from coal certainly kills many more people each year than the nuclear industry has killed since the first nuclear reactor went "hot", and the wind turbines they love so dearly are decimating the wild bird population, are a hazard to aircraft and pump out vast amounts of non-ionising radiation in the form of magnetic fields that exceed by a huge factor those that have exercised minds on the anti-mobile phone mast debate. The noise of the turbine apart, I would not want one of these things within several miles of my home!

Part of the problem is the misunderstanding of the difference between "high" level and "low" level waste from the nuclear piles. In fact the "high" level end waste is very small indeed - nuclear fuel rods are recovered, stripped, the Uranium fuel processed to remove the unwanted isotopes and the Uranium re-enriched and returned to it's "carrier" for re-insertion into the nuclear pile it came from. Recyclable and reusable. Very nearly a perfect example of a "renewable" energy source. The small amounts of unusable material that remains is extremely long lived and very dangerous and all sensible processing plants take proportionate precautions. The larger problem is the "Low" level waste, contaminated clothing, tools and other equipment. Yet even this can be safely cleaned and then destroyed or stored until the mainly short-lived isotopes they hold have decayed to the point of safe disposal.

There have also been huge advances in safety, in containment and in operating procedures since the days of the Windscale fire and the Chernobyl catastrophe. It is important to remember that neither of these involved a "nuclear" explosion, one was a straight forward fire in the graphite core - successfully extinguished - and the other a very large scale steam pressure burst. Chernobyl certainly scattered radio active material and some nasty isotopes across a very large area of the European continent and the Northern hemisphere, but the reactor involved was an out of date design being subjected to a procedure designed by a bureaucrat to go wrong from the start.

If the current population levels remain or continue to rise, planting wind turbines and wave power generators will certainly not fulfil the demands for energy. In fact the changes they will cause in the local environment will have an impact no one has yet fully assessed. These will get even worse if the demand for power increases due to the "global warming" we are threatened with - ironically by the same bunch who so strenuously oppose nuclear power. Nuclear may not be able to provide all the answers, but it does offer two very important advantages. It doesn't pump tons of Carbon Dioxide, Monoxide and Sulphur into the air. The waste heat doesn't dissappear up the chimney to help heat the atmosphere and it does provide a cheaper source of energy than many would have you believe.

Unfortunately the author of the article has, as is now usual with the media, allowed their personal prejudice to cloud what could have been a useful and informative piece. To suggest, as the headline certainly does, that nuclear should be removed from everyone's thinking, is the argument of the simpleton. We simply cannot afford to rule out anything at this stage and would be extremely foolish to rule out the one source of energy which is both plentiful and capable of giving us reliable and relatively reasonably priced power.

The main problem with making progress on nuclear energy is not the waste management or the "safety" issues - Scotland's granite pumps out more "background" radiation than Dounreah ever will - but prejudice. Prejudice is, unfortunately, frequently a stronger force than common sense.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:16 PM | TrackBack

March 07, 2006

Ah, memories ....

Surfing the blogosphere is often fun, sometimes sad, and sometimes very entertaining. Recently I visited the blog of One Happy Dog Speaks and was amused by her stories of her youngest child - who obviously has an adventurous streak and a very enquiring mind. It put me in mind of the fun my own children gave us as they grew through the crawling stages to toddlers, then the Terrible Two phase and on to the Fearsome Fours and so on.

At risk of embarrassing them all, I decided to share a couple of amusing incidents from their early years ....

One of the funniest (and there were certainly many to choose from!) involved our youngest, aged around 18 months. An active child with a very enquiring mind, if any of the three was going to poke a stick into something disasterous it would be her. The piece d'resistance was an evening when I had been on duty for a long weekend (Working in the Emergency Services as a senior officer I had to be "On Call" at the HQ two nights in each week and one weekend in three - starting at 0830 on a Friday and coming off duty at 1730 on the Monday) and was just settling, glass of welcome beer in hand with my wife and the two older kids in the living room so we could catch up. The older pair were engrossed in whatever was on the telly and my wife was filling me in on the weekends events ( I usually had to be selective about some of my weekend as quite a lot wasn't very pleasant!).

Eventually we noticed that our youngest was missing from the group - and so were the two dogs and the cat! One dog was a Kaffrarian Hound - a term used in the family for a mixed breed - with a thick pelt, curly tail and jaws like a crocodile hidden behind magnificent mustacheos and goatee beard, the other a pure bred Golden Spaniel with, as far as we could work out, only enough brains to get her from one meal to the next. The cat, a silver tabby, actually ruled both dogs even though she was a quarter their size. We knew they had to be somewhere in the house since the front door was closed and the rear door was a stable type with the lower half closed - in fact I could see this from where I sat in the living room. Apart from the telly the silence in the rest of the house told us there was something afoot!

My wife went to check the playroom upstairs, and I walked to the kitchen. Mystery solved, there was our daughter sat in front of the grocery cupboard, the cat and two dogs sat, crouched or lying in radial positions around her. The entire kitchen floor, daughter, dogs and cat were now all snow white - just eyes and mouths showing through a complete dusting of cake flour - around 10 pounds of it! All I could think of was how funny it looked - and laughed.

On seeing me, the dogs shot straight into their beds under the table, the cat gave me a basilisk stare and daughter shot from seated, to crawl to fast toddle - straight past me depositing a fine dusting of flour on my dark uniform trousers as she headed for her mother, through the dining room and into the living room - a fast moving cloud of flour trailing behind her and depositing on floor and furniture with equal impunity. She collided with my wife returning from the hallway and covered her in the fine white mess in an instant. The dogs added their share as they rushed to join this interesting little body - you never know when toddlers might shed something in the way of "edibles" do you? - and our dark brown furniture and the deep pile of the carpet in the dining room also absorbed the deposits.

It took weeks to clean up the remnants, the vacuum cleaner gave up the ghost shortly after. Part of the problem was that we both collapsed in laughter every time we thought of it for some time afterwards.

All three kids learned fairly early that the dogs made good waste disposal units - but they also learned fairly swiftly that if you held the ice cream cone still at dog level for more than 5 seconds - you lost the ice cream! It was constant battle of wits between my wife and I trying to get the kids to eat a balanced meal and the kids feeding what they didn't like to the dog conveniently parked in the "fall out" zone beneath the high chair. My son was the most adept at that one!

All three were - and still are - individual and inventive. They provided us with huge pleasure and fun as they grew each finding their own ways to make sure that the saying "Insanity is hereditary - you get it from your kids" was proved true!

Watch out kids - its my turn!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:26 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 04, 2006

I don't only do ships ....

Just to prove that I do - occassionally - paint something other than a ship or ships, here is my latest offering, a picture of the Abbey seen from the North West, in fact from a photograph I took from the "Ham". And before there is confusion over whether I was stood an a chunk of Honey Roasted or Smoked, the Ham is a roughly ham shaped piece of flood plain situated between the Mill Avon and the River Severn at Tewkesbury.

DSCF0003 (2).JPG
The Abbey towers over the houses fronting Church Street and backing onto the Mill Avon and the Ham.

I am quite pleased with the outcome of this painting and find the creation of these "daubs" quite relaxing. I get quite a kick out of them when they turn out well - and I do have some that don't! This is my fifteenth painting in this medium, acrylic on prepared board, and with each one I have learned a whole lot which goes into the next. I reckon at this rate I may even achieve something a bit above the level of "daub" by the time I reach my 100th birthday!

Anyway, it gives me some pleasure, even if it won't win any prizes for original art! But then I'm not into unmade beds and the other sorts of things that seem to get the big "art" prizes these days.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:08 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 03, 2006

Anyone got a 48 hour day and fourteen day week?

Having spent the last two weeks "on leave" - using up the leave I could not get to take during the last working year - I am returning to work on Monday with the distinct impression that I might as well have stayed in the office and just shut the door! There have been daily phone calls and e-mails, there is also the stuff I brought home with me because I thought I might get it done at home, and then there is the stuff I wanted time out to do for myself.

Well, I haven't actually achieved most of it.

The problem at work is that there are too few of us to do far too much. For example, those at my level in the department I am part of once numbered seventeen. Then we were reduced to eight, then five, now I am the only one in uniform and there is one other "manager" who allocates the course tutoring for all of us. The trouble is that my role is to teach, to develop new courses in my specialisms, write the course documents, research and write the student materials and to attend meetings, special interest groups, project boards and considerably more activities than I will bore you with here. All of us are under tremendous pressure and there is simply no one any of us can "delegate" any of our work too. Ergo, we do it ourselves or it simply doesn't get done.

Now it may seem to you that when you are allocated to teach a course all you have to do is turn up for your class and teach. You'd be wrong, since each course is different and each class has different levels of expertise, prior knowledge and ability, so it takes quite a bit of preparation. On top of that we are required to do the course admin once the course is booked to run. That involves a considerable amount of pre-course paper shuffling so that our "support" staff ca do some more shuffling and not provide the things we haven't filled in the right bit of paper for. That in itself means that more and more tutors simply ignore the "support" side where they can and make sure that they have everything they need themselves even if it means working outside of teaching times (like evenings and weekends) to get everything we need together! No wonder we are frustrated, angry and doing our damndest to keep the lid on the a growing overpressure in our collective boilers!

The Management argue that we are simply being "difficult", that our "Associate Tutors" can be hired in to assist - but these staff members (part timers) are NOT available to do the development, the papwer chasing and the preparation of notes etcetera! Their time is simply too expensive!

Well, this couple of weeks has actually helped me to focus on something quite important. I need to have some time in the day for "me". So, a little later this year, I will be looking very seriously at moving on in my career, and no, I won't be moving to something that makes me work even longer hours, it will include time for the things that give me pleasure and which make my life fun to live. In fact, I plan to start looking around quite soon, but in the meantime, I also plan to simply start saying "no" a bit more frequently.

It might make a difference to my workload, it will certainly make a difference to my quality of life.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:13 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 17, 2006

Capital departure

Many years ago, the Monk was reading for a degree in Public Administration - one degree course he has never completed - and had to read a number of treatises on the theory of Macro-economics. It was probably this more than anything else that convinced him that -

(a) economics isn't a science, and
(b) those who have lots of money get more, those who haven't get even what they have taken away from them.

This is probably why he upset all the lecturers on the subject. However, one of the many references he was obliged to read in pursuit of this deep and meaningful insight, included in interesting treatise by the Treasurer of Louis XIV of France. This gentleman wrote that all the wealth of the world was finite, and that it tended to be concentrated wherever a countries laws allowed it freedom of use, opportunity to be increased (presumably at someone else's expense) and the taxation system allowed the "owner" to keep the major portion of his wealth intact. He predicted, correctly as it turned out, that the France of Louis XIV would remain a centre for the wealth of the world only as long as those factors were in place - or until some other nation offered a better environment. The reign of Louis XV tried the taxation route to increase Royal coffers and swiftly accelerated a trickle of wealth transfer to something more like a flood - yet it did not really become fully apparent that this had happened until the French Revolution.

One reason that the Russian revolution failed economically is almost certainly because the real capital, the liquid assets of the nation, had gone long before the revolution actually occurred, all that remained were the non-liquid assets which have no value if they cannot be used to create or generate income. This pattern has been repeated numerous times since then, Britain under the various Socialist inclined regimes pre-Thatcher, saw a flood of wealth being transferred offshore, leaving only the "hard" assets which, again, decreased in value as soon as they could no longer be part of the wealth generation process. As soon as the taxation policy changed and the wealthy could have their wealth here and enjoy the full benefit of a system which allowed them to keep most of it, the money came pouring back. But, could the trend be about to go into reverse?

The Monk had this interesting thought as he watched the news a few days ago, on which it was announced that yet another of the countries iconic companies, was being bought out by a comapny in Dubai. The liquid assets - and in this case a lot of "hard" ones as well - have suddenly ceased to be based in the UK and now belong to the "wealth" of a foreign nation. To be sure, the trade and at least some of the employment remains here in the UK, but the real wealth generator, the profits, have moved abroad. The capital, the instrument for wealth creation, is gone, because even the money that came this way to the "sellers" has catually gone into offshore holdings and accounts, very little will be lying around in UK assets!

Looking around, it soon becomes apparent that a very large number of the supposed "assets" that make up much of the so-called "National" wealth are, in fact, foreign owned. Several of the bigger banks are majority owned and controlled from abroad, most of the larger shipping lines, even those that have ships "flagged" in the UK, are in fact owned in toto or in part, by foreign "holding" companies and their assets - the ships - are in fact owned by the banks, which, you've guessed it, are owned by foreign based companies. So, it would appear that the "assets" both of a "liquid" nature, and some at least of the solid ones, are already departing from the control of this government.

Our Armed Forces are being reduced, undermined and further reduced, while the bureaucracy grows apace - a letter in a recent edition of the "Times" certainly points that up. According to it's authors, under the heading of "Regulatory Reform", the government has simply introduced a mechanism for the Government and the Civil Servants to bypass Parliament and impose further restrictions and laws without the traditional tests. The arms industry has been broken up piecemeal, asset stripped, sold off and shipped abroad. Our car industry has had the same thing done to it, with almost all vehicles now manufactured here being built by foreign owned companies. The capital has simply moved away to new "growth" points elsewhere, and as the capital goes, the assets follow - and so do the jobs, the industries and eventually, the commercial activities.

We no longer innovate, we no longer manufacture those few things that we do manage to innovate, the accountants simply sell the idea abroad - and ideas are a form of capital as well. In the 18th Century only a complete fool would have considered spending the money they held as "capital" in liquid assets earning income, now it seems to be almost commonplace to do so and one wonders why we are encouraged to do so, unless it is simply a way in which we can be encouraged to part with what little capital we do possess in order that some offshore holder can move it abroad. Perhaps the 17th Century Treasurer to Louis XIV was not so far off the mark after all. Europe is no longer a place where wealth can be accumulated - so it is moving abroad.

No wonder the "unemployment" figures keep rising. And it is probably too late to even attempt to stop it - and no one has yet succeeded in doing so. Enlightened self interest among the wealthy, the powerful and those in possession of the wealth take good care to make certain that any attempt to do so is doomed to fail.

If I am right, it may well be an interesting world in the next decade or so!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 13, 2006

Another egocentric blog?

Well, well, well, according to some research carried out for a German newspaper, bloggers are not responsible for the decline in journalistic standards in the wider media. At least, that is the message you get if you read the original German dialogue and not the abridged translations. Apparently we may be simply egocentric hackers with no training in journalistic skills, but we are still doing better than the journalists who fail to observe even the most elementary of "Journalistic Standards". Now I wonder which ones those would be? Balanced reporting? Sell more papers through sensational headlines? Push our particular (or the publishers) political agenda? To hell with facts, get a good story?

I picked up the original debate and the first source from another blogger, called David's Medienkritik in his rather well put together piece entitled SPIEGEL ONLINE Interview: "Bloggers are often Narcissistic Egocentrists". The researcher is obviously serious in his assertion that the majority of bloggers are simply attention seekers who do not give a fig for the facts on any given subject but simply want to make a noise. In some senses he may well be right on some issues, but there are many of us who do try to get it right, even though, strictly speaking, we have no "professional" obligation to do so. Still, I guess he's entitled to his opinion, and probably has the data to support it, but I have to say that I agree with David when I look at the examples of reporting in Der Spiegel on US politics and policy. I would hardly call it balanced, and even some of the facts are not quite accurate - close, but not accurate.

So, does the good Dr Lief have a case? He most certainly does when he charges the journalists with failing to do more than simply "google" their researches and copy anything they find on the internet. Interestingly, a lot of what was being said in blogs supportive of the Democratic Party campaign in the US, was repeated as "fact" in some European news media - including Der Speigel - leaving one wondering about the sources the reporter used!

Does he have a case in accusing bloggers of being egocentric? Well, perhaps, since there must be an element of attention seeking in keeping a blog. Who among us is really happy knowing that no one out there is really interested in what we think or say? I know I'm enough of an egotist to hope that a few people at least think about some of my ramblings, but does it really matter to me whether its thousands or tens? Probably not in the longer run, but then, I'm not trying to make a living out of peddling my thoughts on any given subject, I do this more as a way of expressing myself and my opinions and sharing these with friends whom I probably see very infrequently. Occassionally I will feel strongly enough to make a more public noise, and usually I will at least try to ensure my facts are straight. This piece is a case in point - my first source gave a distinctly tilted view, it being a precis of a translation. Thanks to my second source, I got access to the full German version, and it becomes clear that the attack is on lazy journalists, not on bloggers!

So, are bloggers responsible for the decline in journalistic standards? Contrary to the impression created in the original precis, Dr Lief is attacking lazy journalism, and I think that this spin on his aside on blogging is more a desperate attempt to find a scape goat for the mass media's realisation that we are onto them. They have also realised that people have woken up to their attempts to control our thinking and to mould it to their world view. They do have to realise that many of us now have access to sources which allow us to check on the accuracy and bias of the news media. The BBC is at last waking up to the fact that we no longer accept their "party line" as being unbiased and are striving to be more even. Perhaps the message for the author of this study and for the publishers of magazines and newspapers should be - start giving a full, informative and accurate report, and perhaps then, you will see a decrease in attacks from the blogosphere!

In the meantime I will keep blogging, and reading other peoples blogs whenever I have a chance. There can be no better way to form a balanced opinion than to read other peoples takes on a range of issues and then weigh up the facts for yourself. That is the key difference between reporting for the media and blogging - I can voice my opinion and my slant on the facts, a journalist should be reporting the facts, not his or her opinion of what the facts should be.

Am I an ego-centric blogger? I'll leave the jury to decide that one, but I suppose I should plead guilty and be done with it.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 06, 2006

A Pan-European military?

I recently discovered this on a blog called "Dodgeblogium" and think it makes interesting reading. If I get the drift of this argument right, the current constant cutbacks in the UK's armed services could be to make it fit into a new EU controlled European Defence Force. If that is so, surely we should be told? Or perhaps, in Blair's secretive and "internationalist" government, the last people he wants to know about it are the voters. After all, we might not approve.

But I must say that there is, buried in the item by Mr Fawkes, an interesting concept. Put simply, he suggests that, once a Whitehall Department has set something in motion they essentially cannot stop it. I must say, that that makes some sense as I have, in the course of a career spent building a professional service now largely destroyed by the Civil Service, that they do seem to have a complete inability to think through consequences and to change direction until their heads are lopped off for the final disaster. And everyone knows they never do have to account for the mess anyway, so they simply move on the the next disaster in waiting.

Putting aside my personal prejudice for a moment, I have several times noticed that the momentum of the Whitehall juggernaut is such that it rolls happily on no matter what, apparently completely unaffected by any change of government or policy for some considerable time. In fact, a friend estimated while I cogitated on this, that it is about ten years between any change of policy and direction from the politicians before the effect actually works its way down to the coal face. That would certainly seem to be born out by the fact that Primary Care Trusts (who run the Hospital parts of the NHS) are still closing Cottage Hospitals and transferring their services - at great expense - to the part of the NHS that delivers GP services. This despite a several times declared policy change from the Minister of State that they have changed the policy and now want to keep the Cottage Hospitals. I reckon the last Cottage Hospital will have closed it's doors to patients before the Minister's new policy actually gets implemented by the Trusts.

There are other even more serious examples, some of which will, I think become evident as Mr Brown's profligacy in spending taxpayers money starts to bite. In my own experience, and I suspect that Mr Fawkes may have shared similar ones, it takes on average around five years to get any Civil Service Department to actually accept that a change of policy or direction might be necessary. And that is only the start, now you have a battle of endless rounds of "consultation" most of which is ignored unless it coincides with the Departmental agenda, numerous "meetings", further "studies" - the outcomes of which are written well in advance of the actual research - and this will take up another three to five years before the actual change is even put into force.

After that inertia may delay the full implementation and impact of the change for anything up to twenty years.

The author John Winton once described the old Admiralty as "decision robust", meaning it took years for the effect of any decision to be felt. That is, sadly, no longer the case, but it certainly describes both the Civil Service and the Government in general. I think, when all is said and done, I rather prefer the style of government described in the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta "Iolanthe" which has a line in one of the songs that goes along the lines of " In good Queen Bess' glorious days, when England was governed by the Lord's; they did nothing very much, but did it rather well ..."

Probably explains why, under the supposedly "corrupt" government of the Lord's we actually built the biggest Empire ever - and threw it away when we gave it to the Civil Service to run.

On the other hand, perhaps this is the example we have been looking for of "perpetual motion". Directionless, lacking leadership, but grinding on in an unstoppable forward motion into oblivion. There must be a way we can adapt the formula for calculating kinetic energy to calculate the inertial energy of any given government departments policy activity ......

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:08 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 29, 2006

Half full; half empty - it's all a matter of perspective

The sign, they say, of an optimist is that he or she sees a glass that is half full, when a pessimist sees a glass half empty. I recently rediscovered a link to a blog entitled "The Nice Jewish Website" and the first post I discovered there reminded me of this. The post is entitled "G-d damn it!" and he goes on to say that most people using that expression and "Jesus C****" are actually using it to express something good!

So why not say "G-d bless it"? Perhaps it is sheer idleness of speech, perhaps it is something else and perhaps it is just the way we express our surprise, but this lad is absolutely right about one thing - we should be thankful for everything we usually say "G-d damn" about. I recommend that you take the time and the effort to visit this site and ponder on his thoughts on this little issue. In fact, to wet your appetite, I am going to include a little bit of his writing ...

I cringe every time I hear it. All the same though, I just bite my tongue. I really don't understand why it is such a hot phrase. It's even more popular then yelling out "Jesus Christ!" all the time. Now don't get me wrong. Yelling "JC!" is still a popular local colloquialism for both non-Jews and Jews. I learned everything I know about Jesus from my Jewish mother who won't admit it, but yells it all the time. Even in Israel this summer there was a very sweet Jewish girl I was following around and whenever she saw something amazing like ancient ruins in Jerusalem or five thousand year old Torah texts her first reaction was "Jesus Christ!" He'll save you, babe, I would tell her. She always smiled big afterward.

So what is the deal with that? If you look at it right, all the G-d damn things people seem to be bitching and complaining about are really, Baruch Hashem, God blessed things. Beer? What a blessing that is. Your girlfriend? God's most gorgeous gift in the world. Television? Okay, often times it is a curse, but God gave us freewill and we can turn it off whenever we want. The Democrats? Thank God for them. They are the reason I am a Republican. I could go on and on.

This is the sort of attitude we should applaud, it really does make a difference to the world and to everyone you meet. I would dearly love to have been a fly on the wall when he told his girlfriend that Jesus would save her! Especially in some of the places it would have been said. And her a good Jewish girl too!

Reading this guy's ramblings I could not help but draw a contrast to the rantings from the Iranian government which has now decided to make a very public and International declaration that the Holocaust did not happen, that it is a "Western Conspiracy" and a "Zionist Fabrication". All I can say is that I find their rantings less and less palatable, and less and less rational. Their glass is definitely in the "half empty" category and will continue to drain away as more and more people find their behaviour and attitudes unacceptable.

I agree entirely with the author of "G-d damn" when he says that everything we have, every waking moment and every contact is a gift from G-d, and one we should give thanks and praise for. Perhaps if we can persuade enough people to join in with that action and the sentiment that underpins it - we can finally drive the advocates of hatred and distrust out of the limelight and out of power!

As all Jewish blessings begin, let us continue ...

Baruch atah Adonai, Elohaynu, melech ha-olam (Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe,)

Saying together,

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe,
for you have given us life, hope, love and fellowship.

What more do we need?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:49 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 26, 2006

Flat refusal to stop being naive

As part of my new job I've been receiving customer service training. It occurred to me pretty early on that if everyone was naturally polite and hard working, training would be unnecessary. Everything would be done right on the first try (and occasionally on the second, because we're human) and staff wouldn't need to be trained to deal with abusive customers (who despite the old adage, are NOT always right!)

I know, I know; I'm hopelessly naive, but I think that a certain level of naivety is healthy in a human being. If nobody was naive, who would have the ability to be idealistic?

And now for something completely different:

I found a better article on Takashi Murakami at:

And Gray Monk may turn up higher than page 4 on google as a result!

(Marketing 101 y'see).

And here's an entry that made me laugh:

Posted by The Postulant at 07:56 PM | TrackBack

January 18, 2006

Superflat society

While wandering around the internet, doing research for a silly book that I'm writing, I've come across two interesting people. The first is Takashi Murakami (not dead yet), a Japanese pop artist and the second is Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Danish philosopher.

At first glance, these two people don't have a lot in common; Japan and Denmark have completely different traditions and have played very different roles in world history.

Where they converge is on their perception of the societies that surround them...

Takashi Murakami is the creator of art that most readers of the Gray Monk would probably think is silly and quite frankly, it is. Japan is well known for it's obsession with cartoons and this obsession has spread to the West and even to some of my sensible friends.

Murakami's work parodies aspects of Japanese cartoon culture, sometimes in a grotesque way, because his point is that Japanese culture has become flat and meaningless. In a country where even police stations have life-size models of cartoon characters on their doorstep as mascots, he's trying to turn the obsession on it's head and say "grow up!."

The response from the art world is predictable: galleries and museums all over the world wax lyrical about his creations and can't get enough of the merchandise. His work is idolised in Japan and has been turned into toy figurines, wallpaper, posters and various other commercial items. He also designed the colourful Louis Vuitton bags that are so popular in knock-off market stalls all over Europe.

The irony is that he is one of a group of artists in Japan who call their art "superflat". To quote from BT Monthly Art Magazine (found at

"Superflat is a concept being proposed by artist Takashi Murakami, whose paintings deal with two dimensional spatiality rendered somewhere between traditional Japanese painting and modern anime. The phrase, though coined by Murakami for his art, has recently drawn attention from young scholars due to its connotations: 'devoid of perspective and devoid of hierarchy, all existing equally and simultaneously."

Murakami also has an interesting habit of only giving a small part of his theory at a time to anybody who tries to interview him, so the interviewer who managed to track him down for a documentary that was shown on UK TV recently had to be persistent to get any more of the superflat theory out of him. He seems to want to avoid becoming a leader of a counter culture.

In that he is similar to Søren Kirkegaard. Kirkegaard not only published several books under his own name, but also published books that contradicted him under pseudonyms. He wanted to avoid anyone turning his ideas into a "philosophical system with systematic infrastructure." (taken from

Now lets look at what Kierkegaard wrote well over a 150 years ago:

"The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence. ... whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up, and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels. In antiquity the individual in the crowd had no significance whatsoever; the man of excellence stood for them all. The trend today is in the direction of mathematical equality, so that in all classes about so and so many uniformly make one individual.... For leveling to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of leveling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage — and this phantom is the public..."

Another way of describing superflat culture, n'est pas?

And now, because I'm an intellectual omnivore (I'll devour any old rubbish), let's skip to a recent Western animation: "The Incredibles"

For those of you who have missed it, the idea behind the film is that all of the superheroes have to go into hiding, because people keep suing them for injuries sustained while being saved. This results in super people trying to raise their children to be ordinary.

Son: I thought you said I was special!
Mother: Everyone's special...
Son: That's just another way of saying everyone's the same.

To me, that exchange sums up the thoughts of Kirkegaard and Murakami quite nicely. It also explains why we will never have another Leonardo Da Vinci in this day and age.

Posted by The Postulant at 12:29 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 08, 2006

Painting for pleasure

One of my hobbies, for which I have far too little time these days, is to paint. I am not an artist, I daub, others paint, others may produce works worthy of the Turner prize or the like, I daub. The thing is, I find it fun to plan a painting, to try and find ways to create the image I want to produce and to get it to look like something realistic.

For some time now I have been pondering the idea of trying to reproduce as a painting a rather nice photograph from a book of a ship most South Africans would know and recognise, the SAS President Kruger. She was a Type 12 Anti-submarine warfare Frigate built on the Tyneside for the SAN in the 1960's and was, with her sisters, SAS President Pretorius and SAS President Steyn, the pride of the South African fleet. Sadly she was sunk in an accident off the West coast of South Africa on 18 February 1982 when in collision with the large Fleet Command and supply ship, SAS Tafelberg. Sixteen Petty Officers and other ranks were killed in the accident when the Kruger cut across the bows of the Tafelberg, and the Tafelberg's ice re-inforced bows smashed into the Kruger's Portside exactly on the Petty Officer's Mess, located below the motor launch slung on davit's in the picture.

My painting (Acrylic on artist's board) of the SAS President Kruger putting on speed during an exercise.

The two surviving frigates did not fare much better. President Steyn was decomissioned in 1980 and canabalised for spares for the other two and the President Pretorius had to be decommissioned in 1985. They swung around bouys in Simonstown as rather sad reminders of what might have been for a number of years and have only recently been broken up and the hulks sunk, as is naval practice, as targets for the new weapons and warfare systems on the ship's which have replaced them. The four new replacement ship's are from German Yards and are based on the joint European MEKO design. The PK, as she was affectionately called, was always known as a "happy" ship to her crews and her loss was a serious blow to morale and to the fleet as a whole since there could, at the time, be no prospect of replacing her.

Why this picture? Well, I just happen to like the look of the ship, the setting and the apperance of efficient preparedness that she presents as she builds up to her full power.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:49 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 04, 2006

A bad start?

Looking back to this time last year, the world was still reeling from the shock and horror of the tsunami in South East Asia. We didn't know then, and we probably still don't know, the full scale of the death toll, or what it's long term impact will be. This year it seems to be someone elses turn to suffer the disasters.

South Eastern Australia has been in the grip of a severe drought for several years, and now is ablaze with bush fires sweeping through NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Homes are being destroyed, towns threatened and there seems little chance of a respite, until there is some really decent rain across the entire region - something it seems, that remains a remote hope! In the last few days there has also been the news from Germany, first of an avalanche that has killed two, possibly three, members of a party of skiers near the Austrian border, and, near Munich, the snow laden roof of an ice skating rink collapsed and has killed at least eleven and maybe more, with many more injured.

Add to that, the Russian Federation's little dispute over gas supplies to the Ukraine - which impacts on the EU members who buy their gas from Russia - and there is a strong possibility that 2006 will see some serious life loss in the Ukraine due to lack of heating fuel for thousands of Ukrainians.

Not really an auspicious start to the year!

The optimistic way of looking at it though, would be to look at all the good things that have happened as well. Certainly the tsunami evoked a relief effort and an outpouring of aid from the developed world that is surely unparalleled. The Hurricanes in the Southern US also saw a huge relief effort and again a rush to send aid and to make donations to aid agencies which must surely be unequalled. Help has been given too, to many other nations, Niger, Sierra Leone and many others have received help when they needed it, and will continue to receive help until they sort out their problems.

Others would also say that the elections in Iraq, the news that Western troops will soon begin withdrawing and the release of the hostages taken in Gaza were all good news events as well. And, yes, they certainly are. So, perhaps we should take a different view.

Perhaps we should look at the disasters and admit to ourselves that the world is a dangerous place, one in which life exists in a pecarious balance which is easily upset. One stone or one snowball do not make an avalanche, but may well be the trigger for one. And just as easily not. We do have a tendency to see only the disasters and to overlook the things that don't go wrong on a daily basis. Perhaps that is because "good news" is "no news" as far as the media are concerned. Good news never sells a newspaper.

Well, we can wallow in the bad news, or we can look back at these events and tell ourselves that we can learn from them and move on to try and avoid that mistake a second time. Alternatively we can say to ourselves, "well, it's not a good start, but it isn't as bad as 2005 and it can only get better!" Neither extreme is a good position, as such an attitude will evoke either an over-reaction or no reaction at all. Surely we should be looking at these events, learning the lessons and then moving forward in hope and in the knowledge that we have done what we can to mitigate the effects of such disasters, while at the same time recognising that we can never completely eliminate the risks that go alongside daily living.

So, I look forward to this year in hope that we will be able to steer a path through the year which will allow us to reach the next one older, wiser, perhaps a little more dented than we are now, but still intact and enjoying the journey. That is the key. That and to look to see what God intends us to learn from all of this, for He is there, in the midst of our tragedy, weeping with us, and there in the midst of our joy, when we don't look for Him as we forget that He is part of both joy and sorrow to us.

With apologies to a brother in law who sent me this some years ago, here is my philosphy for the years ahead ....

"Life is not a journey to the grave to be undertaken with the intention of arriving safely in one pretty and well preserved piece, but to skid across the finish line broadside on, thoroughly used up, worn out, leaking oil and shouting GERONIMO!"

I salute all those of my friends who did just that in the year past, and all those who, like me, continue the race to the finish in the year ahead! I'll see you through the year - or through a window somewhere! Have fun and enjoy the ride - and above all, remember that God is taking the journey with you.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 01:11 PM | TrackBack

January 02, 2006

Galileo ascends the heavens

So the European Space Agency has managed to get it's Galileo satelite aloft at last. At 3.4 billion Euro something of a snip, even if it had to be launched on a Russian rocket. The project is aimed at providing an alternative service to the US Based GPS and one of the spurs to this is the fact that GPS is essentially a military tool which does not offer the same accuracy to civilian users as it does to the military - or so they say. Frankly, my little car mounted GPS unit is accurate to within about thiry feet as far as I can see which is as accurate as I need it to be!

I can't help wondering what Galileo himself would have made of this, particularly what he would have made of his name being given to a space craft which will carry out a task which, if one is strictly correct, will refute the principle he initially espoused, of our place in the centre of the Cosmos. I wonder if he and Nicolas Copernicus have finally agreed their theories on this? After all, both drew on Aristotle and on Plato, although Galileo intially favoured the Platonic vision of the world being the centre of a spherical universe. I suppose in a sense he is, in the fact that we now have a network of geostationary satelites hanging about above our heads, and few not so stationary ones which do revolve around us, right. We are now at the centre of a small universe created by our technological advances in the last half century.

Leaving aside the realms of fantasy, one can only applaud the achievement of the ESA in getting this satellite aloft. It will enhance the global navigation systems, and it will also provide us with a great deal of useful information as it whizzes around above us. It is also an example of how well certain sections of the EU dream work. Co-operation between scientists and other technological efforts and agencies is a great way forward, a pity that it seems to have to carry the burden of a useless and expensive political bureaucracy as well. Let's face it, the politicians and the bureaucrats are simply a drain on the enterprise that things like the Galileo project epitomise - and quite often jeopardise by their stupidity and strict application of "rules" written by idiots in offices with no understanding of what is to be achieved by someone else.

As a UK resident, I am saddened by the fact that no British Scientists or UK based technology companies have had an input into the satellite, not all that surprising as Whitehall has notoriously cut and restricted funding for all our ventures in the direction of space. If half the money wasted on some of Mr Blair's attempts to socially engineer society were spent on more projects like this one, the investment in the economy and in technology would create a major jobs boom. A pity therefore that Galileo must be seen as something achieved by men of vision in France, Germany, Spain and Italy - but not particularly in the UK. It would be nice to think that, with the UK, Germany and France being the three big funders of the EU, a little of that funding to the ESA would have come to UK based firms or scientists, but it seems that, thanks to the shortsighted policies of Labour and the Civil Service, it has not.

I suppose we should all rejoice that the EU is at least in this area, much more forward thinking than the UK. Perhaps this success will kick a few of the closed minds of Westminster and Whitehall into realising that the exploration and exploitation of space is very much part of the 21st Century. But then, pigs might fly one day!

Personally I salute the achievement of the ESA, and I hope that Galileo will not prove as controversial as its namesake!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:56 PM | TrackBack

January 01, 2006

Happy New Year

Where, oh where, did 2005 go? Either time has started to speed up or I have just been so busy that I barely noticed it disappearing into the sunset!

It has been a very mixed year in many ways, there has been a lot of fulfillment, but there have also been more than a few moments of pain and bereavement. MommaBear died at the end of October after a long a difficult fight against cancer, my first wife's father died, also of cancer only a few weeks before that. The list gets longer and one gets ever more conscious of the fact that the generation ahead of one is now almost all gone - and one's own generation is now, to use a rather Pratchettesque metaphor, the group of aging Mayflies hovering just above the water which hides the trout .....

On the upbeat end is the fact that I have added a couple of qualifications to my professional quiver, I have been made a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Fire Fighters and have enjoyed the love and support of a range of friends all over the globe. What more can a man ask for? Well, several things, but that would be pure greed. No, the things I would really like to see in the new year all concern my many friends. I would wish for them to have the joy, love and support they need as they struggle to deal with the things which have given them trouble in the year now past and which will not simply go away in the year ahead.

Some will need help as they cope with children growing up with disabilities, some with coping with marriage failure and their own failing health, others who face the new year alone through the loss of partners or friends. Many face financial hardship as incomes become less certain due to a wide range of factors. For them all, I pray that the Lord will give them all they need in the year ahead. And not just for them , but for everyone I know.

The year ahead promises to be busy, to be challenging and to bring plenty of tears as well as laughter and joy. It was, as someone once remarked, ever thus! For myself the schedule includes a lot more travel, a lot more work, but it also has several things for me to look forward too. Visits from friends, a planned holiday and new friends to make. It will be busy, but it will also be fun.

My friends and all who chance this way in the blogosphere, I wish you all a very happy new year and everything you hope for yourselves in the year ahead.

Prosit Neujahr! to all of you
from Mausi and Gray Monk

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:01 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 17, 2005

Napoleon revised?

A year or so ago, I recall reading a book published by a British historian who argued that the Napoleonic wars had been fought, much like the war in Iraq, on misinformation and the self-interest of the titled and landed ruling classes. He argued that, had Napoleon and the French Revolutionary principles triumphed, the world would have been a much better place. Well, according to a new book by a French author, that may have depended on who you were, where you were in the hierarchy of society and how "French" you could claim to be. Certainly it did not apply to anyone who was black, Russian, or from the peasantry of France!

It seems that the great Napoleon is being reviewed and some of what is now emerging from his letters, papers, journals and other archived resources is far from being a pretty picture of a great leader, reformer and enlightened governor. Recent finds of mass graves from the great retreat from Russia in 1812 - during which he managed to "loose" 450,000 to starvation, sickness and capture by the Cossack cavalry who harried them - show that many were teenage conscripts, large numbers simply froze to death and many were actually eaten by their compatriots in an effort to stay alive themselves. His General and Governor in Sainte Domingo (Haiti) ordered that all black rebels be shot, no prisoners taken and even went so far as to order that the executions were to be carried out in a manner "to strike terror into the hearts and minds of all who witnessed them". He also ordered, and there is evidence that Napoleon was fully aware of this, that women and children were to be slaughtered as well - as blacks they were obviously "giving succour" to the rebels. His orders were explicit - everyone over the age of 14 was to be killed. Genocide on a grand scale.

His treatment of the nations he overran in Europe was not much better, despite the image we have been given. More and more attrocities are coming to light in the Baltic States and the Rhinelands where his troops marched across into Poland and the East. Even worse was his record in his campaign in Egypt and the Holy Land, with the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Jaffa on the beach to the North of the city. To save bullets the defenceless men women and children were bayonetted and drowned by his troops at his orders! Capping the murder of some 4,400 people in this way, was his treatment of his own troops when, a week after the massacre, they contracted the plague. Despite his imagery of "compassion" and the personal exposure - he may well have had some immunity from having contact with another form of the disease in his youth - there are indications that he had the disabled poisoned and may even have hastened the deaths of many who might have survived the plague itself.

Even in France his record is hardly one of compassion or enlightenment. He was absolutely ruthless in dealing with any insurrection or enemy. His famous pronouncement that the way to deal with the Paris mobs was to give them a whiff of grape, was hardly an invitation to a glass of wine. Rather it was a reference to the use of "grape shot" - bags of musket balls fired from a cannon with the same effect as firing a very large calibre shot gun - into any demonstrating crowd. This is how he "saved" the corrupt Revolutionary Directory and manoeuvred himself into the position of First Consul and then Emperor.

According to the new book, Napoleon Bonaparte is best compared to a certain Mr Hitler on his record of "enlightenment". In fact, the author sums up his Napoleon's feelings for his soldiers by quoting the end of the "bulletin" he issued to announce the fate of the Grande Armee in 1812. It rambles on about betrayal, enemies undermining morale and then concludes with the statement "but the Emperor's health is unimpaired!" Roughly six million people fell victim to Napoleon's world ambitions - a remarkably poignant number for a variety of reasons, not least because this is the number of "civilians" killed in his wars. The military losses are something totally separate!

Most of this will come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the history of the Napoleonic Wars, the real surprise is that it is the French themselves who are now airing these views on their national "hero". Even more ironic is the fact that this book is published just as the British celebrate the - to quote Churchill - "end of the beginning" for Napoleon in the battle of Trafalgar. Even more surprising is the revelation that this was planned by the author and his publishers and supporters. Perhaps we should also look again at the question of his death in captivity on St Helena. Perhaps the murder theory is, after all, correct, but perhaps we should look at the French connections again to see if there was perhaps someone who wanted to put an end to the scheming and ambitions to free him to return to France!

The real irony in all this is that our own politcians and those of almost all the rest of Europe have fallen for the Napoleonic vision - one shared by Bismark, Hitler and Kaiser Wilhelm - of "uniting" Europe under one government. So all the wars to retain our freedoms and our democracy have ultimately been undermined by the very politicians who have always started the wars! What a pity the chosen form of government is the unelected Napoleonic model of rule by decree - even if they are today called "directives"!

One thing is for sure, the new view of Napoleon will blow some academics of revisionist British History into a real flutter to defend their views. It will also not be popular in some quarters in France, but it is refreshing to have some of the nastier side of the Napoleonic "achievements" out in the open.

Maybe the likes of Nelson, Marlborough, Rodney and Wellington weren't such evil power hungry men after all!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:14 AM | TrackBack

December 07, 2005

Citizen or subject? Now there is a question!

Wandering across a few blogs I came across this question on "One happy dog speaks" and it made me think. In Britain we have traditionally been regarded as "Subjects", although Mr Blair is more keen on the term "Citizen", but what is the reality?

I don't necessarily agree with the rather crude definition that it means I own a gun, but it does mean that I enjoy an number of freedoms - freedoms Mr Blair and his closet communistas are determined to remove, control or take away. Read Happy Dog's summary and think about the matter that really underscores our status in this Kingdom - no right to self defence, no bearing of arms (not even pen knives with a blade of more than 3 and a quarter inches!) and now our freedom to express our religious views, our freedom to say what we think of the behaviour of cultures that are free to attack ours and even our freedom to bring our children up as we believe they should be have all been removed.

So, are we free men and women and "citizens" of our island fastness, or prisoners of Blair's "modern" Marxistic state and "subjects" of his army of Thought Police? You decide.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 15, 2005

Flight of the Navigator

One of my favourite DVD's for when I want to just switch off and slide along in neutral while my batteries recharge, is the 1980's film of the same title as my heading. It features a twelve year old boy who is abducted by an automated exploration ship from a distant planet, who is returned to his home eight years late. The ship would normally return its abductees to the same moment it took them, but discovered, after the abduction and examination on it's home planet, that humans don't travel well through time. Hence the late return.

From there the story takes an amusing turn as first the boy, terrified by the fact that he returns to find his home occupied by strangers and his younger brother now approaching his twenties, eventually is "abducted" by scientists who just happen to have found the spaceship and to have it in a NASA hangar. How did they catch the spaceship? It wiped out it's star cahrts bumping into a High Tension power line. Oops! Needless to say, boy and spaceship get together and the rest, as they say, is pretty hilarious - especially when the spaceship develops the mindset of a twelve year old boy after it scans him to get the star chart information!

What made me think of this?

Well, for years - and especially having grown up in the Southern Hemisphere - my internal compass has been 180 degrees out! Thus, navigating my way around the UK has been fraught with interesting deviations and diversions as I get directions wrong (usually reversed!) and then I have a problem with the basic geography of the place. After all, I grew up were there weren't four River Avons, where the spaces between towns and cities were pretty huge and where they don't tend to be one amorphous mass! In short, this was one manually navigated and operated missle looking for a navigator!

Well, I got one. Thanks to a very dear and now departed friend I have a GPS device which sits on my dashboard and tells me politely to turn left or right, to take the motorway or the exit as appropriate. Suddenly I can find places and I even know how far I have to go and how long it will take. Add a visual display of the road ahead and the turns and distances to way-stations and suddenly I don't have to worry whether I am going the right way - it even tells me when I take a wrong turn and tries to get me back onto the route it has chosen.

There is only one problem. The idiot who inputs the destination data! Enter the placename gremlin. Have you any idea how many places there are in the UK with the same damned name? Unless you know which one you want you can end up travelling in the wrong direction and ending up in Cornwall (Kernow if you are Cornish!) instead of somewhere in Northumbria! Ah well, it adds a bit of interest to the journey when you throw in a route through the scenic parts instead of the direct one.

And before you all start suffering from laughter induced head injury - no, I haven't yet achieved that feat, I do have some geographic sense, unlike the hero of my opening story who winds up in Tokyo looking for Miami from Cape Canaveral.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:45 PM | TrackBack

November 05, 2005

Gunpowder, treason and .....

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the "Gunpowder Plot" in which the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions tried to blow up the King, James I (the VIth of Scotland), and all the Parliamentarians of the day. Then, as now, it numbered among its ranks the "great and good" - or at least those who think they are - and the hanger's on, cronies and "lobby fodder".

Cutting short the Stuart dynasty might well have spared us Cromwell, but, depending on who followed James I, might have led us to a French style Revolution! Then we could well be in the same situation as the French with an agricultural policy that's a mess and subsidies from everyone else to prop it up. On the other hand they still have fleet worthy of the name and an airforce to support it - we just have bureaucrats. So perhaps we should mourn the fact that he failed - we would certainly have been spared the present PM - his family would have been prime guillotine fodder.

Interestingly, Guy Fawkes old school, situated in York, never celebrates Bonfire Night, and always holds a memorial service for him. An interesting case of one man's terrorist being another freedom fighter I guess - and certainly something our current bunch of politicians would do well to think on long and hard.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:15 AM | TrackBack

October 29, 2005

Why I can never be a liberal socialist

Recently I have had the opportunity to be challenged by a number of my more "liberal" acquaintances on a number of issues central to my belief in what society should look like and how it should respond to a number of issues currently troubling it. What I have found particularly strange is that twenty or so years ago I was considered to be a raving left wing liberal in my then environment, and now, without changing a single item in my stance, I find myself considered, in my present environment, to be somewhere on the extreme right of Ghengiz Khan.

In part, the problem is in my core belief that for society to work there has to be respect for the people at the top of the tree, there must be openess and there must be a discipline within every person within society. Excusing a persons criminal activities because they are drug addicts - and therefore somehow not responsible - or because they are beneath a certain arbitrarily chosen age - and therefore not responsible, is, to me, lunacy. It ignores that fact that individuals make choices, sometimes acceptable in the wider sense of the society in which we are placed, and sometimes not. Those choices remain ours, and the consequences must be ours as well.

Then there is the facet which I find least attractive among my supposedly "liberal" friends, one they seem to be unable to acknowledge, but it is also markedly noticeable in all individuals of this ilk. That is the urge to deride any country or nation that does not share their socialist ideals or liberal values as somehow flawed or even uncivilised. Thus, all the good work and all the technological achievements of the US can be ignored or belittled while heeping scorn and derision on the US government - and by proxy its citizenry - for its refusal to kowtow to such things as the Kyoto garbage sheet, nuclear disarmament, ludicrous demands for the reduction of energy use and so on. Hurricane Rita and the devastation wrought on New Orleans is a good example of how all the instant experts could tell immediately that it was all Mr Bush;s fault - perhaps including the path of the hurricane, while their favoured political party in opposition would, according to them, have done much better, perhaps even diverting the hurricane completely.

It is this refusal to acknowledge the blindingly obvious which nauseates me. Lock up criminals and treat them as criminals for meanginful sentences and crime rates fall, but in the eyes of the liberal socialists of this country, this is merely evidence of society's failure (meaning yours and mine) to "engage in resolving the causes of crime" - and, yes, you guessed it, inevitably they point to "poverty" and "lack of educational opportunity", or "discrimination" of one form, or another. The newly introduced private members Bill, which is aimed at giving every householder in England and Wales the Right of Self Defence will, we already know, fail, because the government is afraid of upsetting it's own adherents to the myth of the criminals "victimhood".

There is never a proper debate on any of these issues simply because, if anyone dares to challenge these myths there is an immediate barrage or abuse thrown at the challenger to the effect that to fail to subscribe to this claptrap is somehow to display one's own descent into barbarianism. Thus, the likes of Ken Livingstone can argue that promoting the violently anti-jewish ranting of a Muslim extremist is "redressing the balance". Or George Galloway can defend his friendship with Saddam as "defending civil liberty and civilised debate", while anyone expressing a contrary view is immediately branded a "fascist".

In this lunatic view, respect is never earned, it is always questioned, it is always challenged - except, of course, by those least deserving of it who simply demand it - or you could get knifed, shot or simply beaten to a pulp. Thus, our "child protection" squads defend the out of control juveniles and even those above the age of criminal responsibility (at sixteen far to high!) by arguing that until the magic age of twenty no one is able to tell right from wrong - and will even perjure themselves to argue that "right" is really "wrong" because it infringes the "rights" of the criminal. The problem is that the court system has now been so corrupted that it usually upholds this!

Our education system, our health service and even the Quangos set up to dole out the huge amounts the National Lottery sets aside for "charitable works" are now entirely run by the liberal socialist clones. Thus, no matter what government directive, nothing will change, simply because it does not meet the criteria set by the people in charge - all supposedly "liberal socialists". So, a Lifeboat station that applies for a small grant to buy a new towing vehicle for their inshore rescue boat is turned down because it cannot provide detailed statistics of the ethnic and socio-econmoic backgrounds of the people the rescue service they provide has helped and will help in future. The education system is now set up to pump children's heads full of the socialist nonsense that if only there were no national boundaries and everyone accepted that all religions are the same, all cultures are the same and we can all exist as one big happy family if only we will trust the nanny state to distribute everything fairly, there will be universal peace. Or even that children who grow up with no consideration whatsoever for anyone else's property, personal privacy, achievements or a sense that work is required in order to obtain rewards, will be model citizens in the future.

Even worse, in my view, is the constant drip feed of insidious denigration of the achievements of great figures in our national history. No matter the achievement, it may even occassionally be grudgingly acknowledged, it must always be somehow degraded by qualification such as the issue of slavery, or by the character assasination of the leader concerned. Nothing anyone does is ever good enough, particularly if the person happens to be of a different political view to theirs. Put men and women on the moon? Hear the whinging that the money could have saved X thousand from poverty in some hell hole, or provided a cure for AIDS, or some other favourite problem to throw money at. Completely ignoring the fact that the exploration of space benefits those of us who remain earthbound by the creation of some technologies which would in all likelihood never have seen the light of day if the denigrators had been funding research projects. Just look at the advances in photovoltaic cell technology in the last thirty years - all for powering up space craft. Computers, electronics even terrestrial transport - and most definitely air travel - have been improved as a result of technology developed for the space projects.

Take a look a country run by supposedly "liberal socialists" - the UK - and what do you find? A country which has no funding for research in aerospace, nothing whatsoever for new technology in energy generation and, despite the hype and spin, no investment in anything other than those areas which will gaurantee the continuance of the socialist myths - "full employment under state control", "fairness and dignity for all under social security" and "free at point of delivery health care" which is anything but. It certainly isn't efficient and it is most emphatically not fair - it practices a definite bias against elderly and infirm patients and the management of worthless civil servants make decisions which deny effective treatment of many ailments purely on the grounds of cost, without any reference to medical opinion and advice - unless it agrees with what they want.

No, I can never subscribe to the liberal socialist ideal of universal mediocrity. Human nature is not tolerant, it certainly is programmed to take advantage and that is all this culture is encouraging. The universal benefits system - again it is anything but universal - simply encourages the feckless and idle to remain so. The lack of an element of punitive action for criminals simply reinforces the belief that the criminally inclined can do as they please and take whatever they want and society is powerless to deal with them.

About the only comfort I can draw from this is that sooner, rather than later, something, some threat, will arise that will wipe these ideologues from power and replace them with precisely the sort of regime they so decry - only it will not be tolerant of their criticism. Perhaps then they will come to their senses and realise that cuddling up to dictators and appeasing lunatics, pandering to criminals and defending the indefensible, is not the best way to ensure a fair, reasonable and decent society.

But, by then it will be too late!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 23, 2005

Universal experts and the global warming debate ....

The Reverend Mike has posted an excellent diatribe on the subject of those who step outside their particular fields of expertise and sound off on matters they have little competence to assess. He is right, and I agree with his sentiments on this one. Still, I don't think I can say this any better than he, so go visit his post "Going to seminary is not like staying at the Holiday Inn Express."

I have to say, that I think he has it absolutely on the button when he says that far too many of those in the "green" camp are simply anti-technology - any technology!

Mikle being a nuclear engineer, he is all to well aware, as indeed am I as a "fire engineer", that computer models are all too limited in their ability to project anything more than an analysis of the data fed into them, and within the parameters the programme has defined. Garbage in; garbage out! This is why we should be very careful of falling for the doomsday scenarios predicted by "computer models" of our climate, our atmosphere or the oceans (which, being a part of the atmosphere, also have "climates". As yet, there is no computer model which can assess or analyse all of the interactions and all of the variations. So we wind up with little fragments which require some huge leaps of "logic" to stitch them all together.

We all agree that something is happening, and we need to do something, but we also need to put aside the doomsday predictions and the fear of technology and come up with some really creative and sustainable answers. And at present, nuclear power offers the best solution for heat emmissions, emmissions of "greenhouse" gases and economy of fuel use.

Mike is right, climatologists, engineers and all the disparate technological disciplines need to actually work together to find a solution - one not driven by the prejudices of small and vociferous groups who hate technology!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:38 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

October 22, 2005

Saturday ramblings ....

Today I am waiting for my three "kids", all of them now grown up and adults I am proud of, to come up for a lunch together. We are celebrating a collective birthday - all of us have birthdays in September and October - and plan to have a good bash at a local eatery. But it is also, for me anyway, a time to reflect on how we interact with the world and the people around us.

Recently I have had to face the fact that I seem to be losing a number of friends to a variety of ailments and other causes, cancer being the number one at present. I find myself wondering, as I attempt to offer comfort and hope, how I would cope with the pain and the inevitable assaults of doubt, anger and fear of the unknown that I see and hear from them. I have to say, probably not as well as they have!

Then I look around at what all my friends have done and how my own life is enriched by their friendship. And I am humbled, I can only hope and pray that I bring as much to them as they have given to me, and this goes for my kids as well. I find that my life has been, and is being, incredibly enriched by their presence in mine. So, as I go to lunch with them today, I hope I can at least convey a big thank you and a load of love for them, but it occurs to me that I will also have to look at all my friends and friendships and ensure that I give back at least as much as I get from everyone.

It isn't, and should never be, a "bookkeeping" exercise, it is really just about making sure one is there for one's friends no matter what, and that one makes sure they know that you value them as highly as they value you.

Sermon over! The housework demands attention .....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:01 AM | TrackBack

October 10, 2005

Natural Disasters

The horrific aftermath of the earthquake in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan and the landslides and mudslides which have followed Hurricane Stan in Guatemala have once again brought home the consequences of living in areas prone to natural events. The death toll in the earthquake seems to grow by the hour, and I will not be surprised if it eventually approaches the sort of proportions reached by the tsunami last Boxing Day. The sheer scale of the quake and the extent of the damage is almost beyond comprehension, yet it is a perfectly natural force and event.

Our prayers need to be offered to support those trapped and injured, those that have flung themselves into the breach to carry out the difficult and often dangerously thankless task of search and rescue, and with those who must now try to come to terms with the loss of family, friends and their homes and livelihoods. As some writers have said, nature is indeed red in tooth and claw, and the natural forces which shape and mould our planets surface, or it's atmosphere, are not forces we can control. I listened with mounting shock this morning to a news broadcaster saying that one vilage in Guatemala, now buried under forty feet of mud and rubble, may be declared a "mass grave" and all rescue efforts have been stopped. However, when you consider it carefully, this is not as callous as it sounds. Mud is notoriously unstable and difficult to work in, rescue or survival for those buried in it, almost impossible - and unsurvivable. Better then, to mark it and take steps to ensure it does not happen again.

Sadly, I suspect that very soon, the survivors will be rebuilding in a similar location simply because they have no other choice.

When you consider the death toll from the earthquake a similar picture emerges. Too many people, too little land that can be used to support them and a geological landscape that is a major subduction zone between the Indian Continental tectonic plate and the Asian plate. There is a reason the Himalayas are so high - its all about the fact that Asia is riding up and over the Indian plate! It follows that if you put a lot of people into buildings built on a faultline of this magnitude (or the San Andreas fault in Cailfornia), if you get a big quake, its going to kill lots of people. Quakes of this magnitude are not new in this area, they happen fairly frequently, but until some 50 years ago, there were not the same numbers of people affected by them and the traditional building structures did not concentrate people the way modern accommodation blocks, office blocks and shopping centres do.

Make no mistake, what has happened/is happening in Pakistan is a human tragedy, what is heartening is the swiftness of the response from every corner of the world. If we can all learn something from this, it is that we are all, under the skin, human beings, God's creatures, and when one of us is hurt or injured, we are all hurt. As John Donne famously put it, "if a promontory is washed into the sea, Europe is the less". If a town in the America's is buried in mud, or an entire region of the Indian sub-contnent is devastated by an earthquake, we are all, in some way affected and therefore involved.

Our prayers are needed for the living, the injured and the dying, but we must be practical as well. Now is a good time to reach into our pockets and do what we can to send the aid that is vital to save the lives of the thousands who are homeless and without livelihood. Now is the time to show the true meaning of "Christian Charity" or charity by any other name, now is a time for action which can do much to promote the true "brotherhood of man".

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:02 PM | TrackBack

October 05, 2005

Defending one's country

Recent images of British troops and their Scorpion armoured vehicle engulfed in flames from a "Molotov Cocktail" at first provoked anger in my response. After all, we - that is; our troops on our behalf - are supposedly there to help ensure that the country moves forward into an era of free speech, tolerance and democratic freedom. Or so we are told. At least, that is what most of us choose to believe, and, even severely cynical types like myself, would like to believe that we can, if we can but win over the bulk of the population to more moderate and intelligent views, make a huge difference to the region as a whole.

Of course, there will always be those who do not want this, they will always portray anyone who disagrees with them as the "enemy", and particularly those who are "foreign". How does one counter the insidious propaganda of the street? The TV and other media channels are not trusted by the bulk of the population because they are inured to the fact that, under the previous regime, the state control of the media only told them part of the facts. Now that the media is, so they are told, controlled by the US, they trust it even less. That leaves the "Chinese Whispers" and rumour mills free to operate unchallenged and far more believed in than the regular channels.

What drives a young person in places like the West Bank or in Gaza - or for that matter in Baghdad or Basra - to rush out into the streets in the face of armed soldiery and armoured vehicles to throw stones and petrol bombs? This is a question I have often asked myself, particularly as I have also been on the receiving end of them even though I was there to save property and lives and not as a member of the armed forces. Could it be that these young men and women feel that they are defending themselves and their ideals from a foreign invader who wishes to stamp out the way of life that they are familiar with?

That question was brought into focus again for me recently when I was reminded that someone I know and hold in a great deal of respect, was among a small group of boys (he was "old", at 17, among his peers) who, in 1945, fought against the Russian Army invading Eastern Germany. He and his group fought with what little they could find around them, not with regular weapons, but with stones, petrol bombs and whatever else they could find, driven by the belief that they had no choice but to defend their homes, sisters and mothers from the invaders. They even succeeded in destroying at least one tank - something the Russians have not forgotten and have spent a long time trying to avenge. As we now know, they were right to fear the Russians, just as the Russians could probably argue that the German forces sowed the seeds that led to the "retribution".

I ask myself what my reaction would be to the "invasion" of my country by foreign forces who then set about changing and imposing "foreign" institutions on me. Would I reach for the Molotov Cocktail? Would I engage in a guerilla campaign? The answer is probably "yes".

The problem is that we need to acknowledge that there is a limit to what can be achieved by force of arms. Once that limit is reached, we have to win hearts and minds. This applies not only to national problems but to individuals as well - every one of us fears change, particularly if it threatens our ability to sustain our belief systems, our personal security or our standard of living. This is patently what we have failed utterly to do in the Middle East, we have failed to provide the support and the reassurances that individuals need to begin to understand that the changes will actually benefit them. This is why the "Insurgents" are having things all their own way, why they are able to spread their poison so easily. They play on the fears of the individual - and yes, they play the religious card ruthlessly.

The West needs to get to grips with the fact that Islam and Nation are indivisible in the minds of it's religious leaders and of the bulk of the population of places like Iraq. Once we acknowledge that, and can demonstrate that we do not threaten their beliefs, only the institutions which are corrupt in governing them, we may begin to erode the support for the insurgents. Then peace may have a chance.

Once the successes can be broadcast, once the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Guantanamo Bay situations can be put aside, and the hospitals, schools and other services can be seen by all to be functioning and operating correctly, then we may find a road to putting aside the need for petrol bombs and stones against tanks. Until then, we have a long and arduous road to walk in order to win over the young men and women who feel compelled to defend their way of life and their country.

I suspect it will be a very difficult road, bedevilled by the need to suppress the forces of terror who are hard at work trying to seize power for themselves. Hopefully, however, we will not again see the train of events that led to the Basra incident. Perhaps lessons can be learned and perhaps a little more effort at communication will help.

We can but hope.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:31 AM | TrackBack