To Nano or Not?

Posted: October 30, 2014 in Books
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Next month is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) which should now really be called InNoWriMo because the movement is now an international one. I’ve participated in the last two Novembers, each one successfully writing the requisite 50,000 words leading up to what exists as an unfinished over 100,000 word novel on my hard-drive. This year I’m busier than ever and in the throes of a fascinating course on Shakespeare and his world alongside all the usual pressures of family and work as Christmas rapidly approaches. Leaves me with a question to answer in the next two days – do I go for it again? If so, what do I do? Do I continue my previous story, ‘The Roar of the Lion‘ and see if I can finally finish it, or do I do something new – I have the beginnings of a sci-fi novel rumbling about in my head all of a sudden. I really shouldn’t do it, but I’ve got this nagging suspicion I’m going to dive into the heady waters of the NaNoWriMo sea and see what comes out at the other end…

Left Thumb or Right Thumb?

Posted: October 11, 2014 in Faith
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There was an interesting programme on TV the other day that was trying to pin down if there is a real difference between men’s and women’s brains. It would seem as if there are differences although the debate rumbles on as to whether this is down to nature or nurture. In reality it’s probably a bit of both. As part of the programme and the taster for it on the One Show earlier they conducted a series of tests that viewers could carry out to see if the way their brains worked were more stereotypically male or female. One was to clasp your hands together with the fingers interlinked in an alternating pattern – go on give it a go right now before reading any further. You may be aware that different sides of the brain are said to be responsible for different aspects of thinking. The left hand side is supposed to be responsible for creative/emotional thinking (‘female’) and the right more logical thinking (‘male’). Which of these is dominant for you is thought to determine which thumb you have now at the top. If your left thumb is on the top, your right brain side is dominant and vice versa. My right thumb generally ends up at the top – you may spot that whilst I’m preaching and not concentrating on what I do with my hands – it would seem as if I have a female brain, although I’d prefer to put it emotionally aware and artistic brain! Strangely enough, though, in the other tests my thinking seemed to concur with the stereotypically male way of thinking.

Is being creative tied to our gender? I don’t think so. One thing is clear though, expressing ourselves artistically is something that we’ve always done as humans, it’s part of who we all are. Did you see the news this week about the finding of cave paintings in caves in Indonesia dating back to almost 40,000 years ago? Amazing paintings of animals and hand outlines where paint has been blown over hands held onto the cave surface. Stunning. Similar paintings exist in caves in Europe. People have always had the desire to express themselves wherever and whenever they existed, whether that be in a simple doodle, painting masterpiece or the Great British Bake Off!

Why is this? It’s got to be more than just device required to communicate. Sure some art serves a functional purpose such as road signs, but for much there is no such reason other than the desire to be creative or express emotion or ideas or create beauty or just to have fun. Sometimes we dismiss this as we get older and we realise that we’re no Michelangelo or Van Gogh as childishness. I find this a shame. You see I believe this is to cut ourselves off from something that makes us human. I believe that our creativity and appreciation of beauty is not a random part of our identity, an accident of the way our brain works, but something passed on to us and so valued by the one who made us, the one who’s creativity came up with the greatest canvas ever, the universe, and moulded us into being like a potter a pot. All beauty owes its existence to him and points to him, the one who looked at all he had made and said ‘it is good’.
Church newsletter article, Sunday12.10.14

On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation's Cycling Soul
On the Road Bike: The Search For a Nation’s Cycling Soul by Ned Boulting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Boulting’s ‘How I Won the Yellow Jumper’ (see my review here) which I devoured and loved. What is it? It’s not really the story of how we came to win the Tour de France and quickly rise as a cycling power as a nation over the last few years. It’s not a systematic history of British cycling either. It’s the account of a number of our cycling greats – a say number because it is in no ways complete and looks often into either those who are alive and forgotten by the mainstream or the more idiosyncratic. Interwoven around this in Boulting’s easy to read style is his own story of falling in love with cycling and becoming a MAMIL (middle-agged man in lycra), something I can readily relate to. Again I loved it! It’s not a heavy weight book, it’s language is accessible to the non-cycling buff, which successfully conveys something of why we take to the bike and ride and how many Brits have done this despite it being unfashionable and eccentric to do so. Others may not rate it 5 stars, but I smiled my way through it, a knowing smile from both enjoying the jokes and realising that I have come to see cycling in much the same way as Ned has.

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Travelling Light

Posted: September 7, 2014 in Faith
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Many of you know that I often vanish over the August Bank Holiday weekend to the Greenbelt Festival. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Greenbelt is a Christian Arts festival, a kind of miniature Glastonbury if you like, with bands, poetry, comedy, literature, circus, painting, communion, talks and loads more. This year it also had den making. And rain. Lots of rain. All night Sunday. All day Monday. The start of Tuesday. This outpouring bought with it the bonus gift of mud too with much hilarity as floods of brown water squirted out unexpectedly from walkways as you crossed them and the anticipatory tension of the car sliding when trying to drive out of squelchy field (car-park)! 
 
This year the festival moved from its home at Cheltenham racecourse to lovely new grounds at Boughton Hall, Kettering due to redevelopment at the racecourse. This is not the first time it’s moved, but the first in my association with it. I was a little nervous about the change. Cheltenham had become a special place to me because of Greenbelt, and I didn’t know what effect the move would have. I shouldn’t have worried, I quickly realised that the festival is not in fact the location but the people – sound familiar? The grounds of Boughton Hall are stunning too with lakes, tree-lined avenues and all sorts of other interesting features, bringing a new dimension to the site. The only major downside was perhaps a lack of major artists, hard to book during the upheaval and uncertainty perhaps, and plumbed in toilets! This latter change was due to the fact that we had no access to permanent buildings or venues at Boughton unlike Cheltenham, the festival was completely under canvas and temporary in nature. Another change was the loss of a phone signal, something I quite enjoyed although I imagine many struggled with withdrawal symptoms! The theme of the festival this year ‘Travelling Light’ captured these changes well.
 
I only got to one talk this year re-evaluating the church’s response to The Life of Brian (fascinating) and yet the overall theme did resonate with me. It was a great chance to ‘get back to basics’, to find value in being rather than doing, in relationships rather than possessions or achievements and in community rather than isolation. As much as I enjoy my emails etc. it was also good to be away from the computer and phone and tv and enjoy a more tangible, simpler life for a while. There’s nothing like camping to highlight what is important and what is not, what we can live without and what is vital or truly important to us. Away from the ‘clutter’ of modern living, I found myself thinking about how the many refugees from war that we hear of in the news manage when they have run away from all their belongings and live a much more basic life than we did at Greenbelt and found myself more than once drawn to pray for them. I also remembered again the simple centrality of the Kingdom life we’re called to, that of loving God and our neighbours, something we all know and recognise but are so easily distracted from.
 
Church Newsletter Article 7th September 2014

Greenbelt 2014 Review

Posted: September 3, 2014 in Faith
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A great review of Greenbelt ’14 can be found on the New Internationalist blog here: http://newint.org/blog/2014/08/27/faith-greenbelt/. Captures something of why I love this festival, although that is very hard to pin down; more something that just is than anything definable. My own review will follow at some point soon I hope!

The King in Yellow
The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having been introduced to the King in Yellow in a Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game scenario at the wonderful Continuum Con earlier this year I thought I should look up some of the source material behind this part of the Mythos and so when I saw the original book was available for free on the Kindle I downloaded it instantly.

It’s not quite what I expected. The book is a series of short stories, some related with shared characters and themes, others entirely independent. After the first few, most aren’t connected to the King in Yellow specifically (see here for an outline of the included stories and a little more information on the King in Yellow.) The rest are a strange collection of romance, adventure war and observation.

So what did I make of it? Some I adored. Some I’m not sure I got. Some felt clumsy whilst others really well scripted. In the end I’m left wondering whether to give it 1 star or 5 because whatever the quality of the writing, somehow the book has a haunting quality to it which has stayed with me since reading it, a mood, an mystery, something hinted at which is hard to pin down. The best horror in literature or on the screen is always that where little is revealed and detailed but much eluded to. While the King in Yellow didn’t describe what I hoped it might, it has spoken of lots more, just beyond the periphery of my vision, whispering on the edge of my consciousness…

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The Image on the Streets

Posted: July 20, 2014 in Books, Faith
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(Title should read: ‘The Word Image on the Streets’ but I can’t work out how to format it!)

Two fantastic schemes have caught my eye recently – quite literally! The first is called ‘Books Around Town’. All around London are special benches which have been decorated with art inspired by famous literature, anything from Sherlock Holmes to Peter Pan to Paddington Bear and Samuel Pepys Diary. Charlotte and I were in London last Saturday and stumbled across one decorated  with characters from Jacqueline Wilson’s books. I’d love to have the chance to wonder around London a bit more looking for some of the others, especially those with Wydham’s Triffids, Hawking’s black hole and Darwin’s tree of life on. (See www.booksabouttown.org.uk for more about the scheme and details of trails around some of the benches.)

The other scheme has been instigated by the Art Fund and others and is called Art Everywhere. There idea is to de-privatise art and get it back out on the streets. The 38,000 members of the public voted choosing their favourite pieces of art, and the 25 pieces with the highest number of votes are being displayed as posters in 30,000 locations around London such as on bus stops and billboards. Keep your eyes open next time you’re in the City as you never know what you might see. (For a sneak preview see arteverywhere.org.uk)

I think both schemes are brilliant and hope that they capture the public’s imagination; that’s certainly the intention of those behind them. It’s got me thinking about the Bible again. Is there some way we can get the Bible out on the street once more? Art has always been a significant way of capturing and provoking the imagination. The Church has always been a part of that until the Protestant Reformation when we discarded it and focussed purely on the written word. Today visual art has never been as popular. Perhaps it’s time for us to reclaim it. Is there some way we can get illustrations or key symbols from classic Bible stories out there to get people re-engaging with them? Or catchphrases? Or something? I remain convinced that Scripture’s stories are as good as any soap opera or classic; there’s something there for every taste and background – if only we could grab their attention first. How about designing a series of illustrated postcards that we put through letterboxes once a week for a month? Or painting a mural on the church face? Or? Or? Suggestions on a hand decorated postcard please, or an illustrated email if you must!