Friday, 16 December 2011

The times they are a changing

Bob Dylan's iconic song still sounds great. "The times they are a changing". This is a rather poor excuse for a lead in to a blog, as I just wanted to play it again. The first part of this blog could be described as payback, while the second part presents me with a moral dilemma. The first may be seen as petty, while the second as pretty awful.

You see, for years I went to extraordinary lengths to avoid street canvassers and charity co-opters. You know the street canvassers I mean. People with clip boards asking you for a few minutes of your time. They want your views on shopping habits, television viewing or a plethora of additional subjects. The charity street collectors have become known as "Charity muggers", or "Chuggers" - a title that most charities are not fond of. These are mostly young people earning around £6 or £7 an hour who stand on the streets of towns and cities up and down the land trying to separate you from your money. The causes change, and depend on what tee-shirt they're wearing that day. They don't work for the charity that they're collecting for, but for a "face to face fundraising company" who are commissioned by the said charity. They are almost always bright, cheerful, and for some, persistent. Over the years I have avoided them like the plague.

But the times they are a changing. It's payback time. Now, no one seems to want anything to do with me. The street canvassers ignore me, and the Chuggers don't give me a second glance. I've become so pathetic that I now head straight for all of these canvassers and collectors, giving them every opportunity to engage with me. But nothing. I am no longer part of someone's demographic target. You'd think that after years of giving them all the cold shoulder that I'd be pleased, but strangely I'm not. There's just no pleasing some people is there? It seems that I've been discarded; no longer relevant, and no longer wanted. Ah well, maybe AgeUK will be represented on the streets soon - surely I'll have a chance there?

Image I didn't want to show
From one type of charity fundraising to another. And this is where I have a moral dilemma. I have worked in charities most of my life, and I know what it's like to have to raise money. But where should the line be drawn below which you shouldn't go?

Let me take as an example child poverty in Africa. There is no doubting that the situation, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa is horrendous. The facts are staggering; the need is evident, and the statistics of which can be found on many web sites. And it's here that my moral dilemma begins, and is in two parts. How do you present that need, and what is being done to meet that need?

I usually have my tea about 6 o'clock and sit down to watch a bit of television. I've become increasingly concerned over the last few weeks at some of the TV advertising. It was particularly apparent last night. I was watching a channel which is dependent on advertising. In an hours programme there was four advertising breaks. Each one featured the charities Children in Need or Water Aid, and this at a time when families would be sitting down together (at least those families that still operate as a family). The adverts had images such as the one above, basically of dying children. The images, voice over and choice of music were all designed to illicit an emotional response from the viewers, and with the timing of the adverts, I can only assume that the target was the whole family, children included. I've done advertising courses, and understand some of the philosophies involved.

The images are undoubtedly designed to shock, and to make us pick up the phone there and then and commit to giving £2 to £3 per month. If shock tactics are required for people to respond to need, then it is an indictment on our society. I've worked in charities where disturbing images of human beings could easily have been used, but I've refused to go down that route. I've preferred another way of visualizing need, and how that need is met, and it's not one of shock. Children in Need or Water Aid may well be hugely successful through their advertising, but I find them offensive - a word that I use very reluctantly. This is the first part of my moral dilemma.

Sub-Saharan Africa
The second part asks what is being done to address the need? There is poverty across the world, but there is often a focus on the plight of those living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For as long as I can remember there has been famine in Africa, and every year there are appeals to address that need. My reader may well remember the 13th July 1985 when money was raised particularly for the famine in Ethiopia. This was the dual-venue concert held at Wembley Stadium and in Philadelphia, and called 'Live Aid'. It raised about £150 million, and was said at the time to have "changed the perception of Africa". This was now over 26 years ago.

The current British Government has committed £203 million a year until 2015 to parts of Africa, and who knows how much is being provided through national and international not-for-profit organisations. No matter how much is given, the need doesn't seem to diminish, and more is required. On its Facebook page, the Department for International Development says, "We're helping people to lift themselves out of poverty, for good". Their relatively short-term plans for some of the most deprived areas of the world are to be applauded. They are working in partnership with the Kenyan Government to improve the long-term prospects of farmers and local communities which I've no doubt will bring an improvement. The building of wells by the likes of Water Aid is no doubt an excellent step forward, and for relatively small amounts of money, hundreds of lives are saved. Save the Children's child sponsorship scheme will also improve the lot of the 5,000 or so involved at any time. But what of the future?

Despite billions of pounds and dollars being poured into Africa over the last few decades, we are still being inundated, every year with appeals for yet more money. Kenya is working with others, but what of their neighbours? What of those countries still riddled with violence, or those with allegations of corrupt Government against them, or those who may be just simply incompetent? If individual countries don't change, why should the situation in those countries change? We save a few lives; improve the lot of others, only to find that they are quickly replaced by more people in need.

Here's where I have a dilemma. I don't want my money to go to countries dominated by violence and corruption; they should be sorted out before they should expect international aid. But, the plight of those living now in poverty and deprivation is so horrendous, that they cannot be ignored. I cannot punish the poor, the hungry and the dying because of the actions of those who rule over them. So until something is done about "regime change" in some areas, I guess we're going to have to put up with daily requests to dip into our pockets and purses to meet the needs of the world's poor.

It may be right that in many ways, "The times they are a changing", but in respect to world poverty, they are not changing at all, or at least not quickly enough.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

What is it about art?

Nottingham Castle
Do you often ask yourself questions? I do. The older I'm getting, the more questions I'm asking. Yesterday, I rambled on about the question, "What is a book?". I've another question today, which I'll come to shortly.

What drives us to ask questions? See, I even have a question about questions. Someone once said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity; there is no cure for curiosity". Curiosity may have killed the cat, but isn't it the driving force towards enlightenment?

Life has developed; inventions created; philosophies expounded because man has been curious, and this curiosity has allowed us to reach beyond what we can see, and touch new ground. Curiosity makes us ask questions. My question today is a simple one, "What is Art?".

Exhibition Brochure
I keep delving into subjects that are outside my knowledge zone, but I'm curious you see. Today's question arose as I was sitting in Nottingham Castle. Slight pause here. It should really be called "The Ducal Palace", as the actual castle was destroyed about 350 years ago, with the present building being completed as a home by the 2nd Duke of Newcastle in 1678. Whatever, it is a magnificent structure, and will always be referred to as Nottingham Castle.

I was in the building to see an exhibition of some of Anish Kapoor's work. I'd previously seen one of his huge installations in the turbine room at the Tate Modern, and anyone who has visited the Nottingham Playhouse, will have seen his Sky Mirror on permanent display outside. His installations can be seen in many parts of the world.

The exhibits, by his standards are quite small, and they are really fascinating to see. A television was showing a BBC programme by Alan Yentob (I keep bumping into that man), which explored the work of Kapoor through interviews with him. I watched the whole programme, because it gave an insight into the mind of the man, and consequently some understanding of his work.

Part of the Exhibition 
As I wandered around the exhibits, I kept being reminded that to Anish Kapoor, "Art is illusion". Could this be easier to say for a sculptor of unusual forms, than say some of the 18th and 19th Century painters who's works were in adjoining rooms?

I went into one of those small adjoining rooms with its wonderful classical music quietly playing away, and gazed at the magnificent paintings on display. I swear that if the seats had been more comfortable, I would have dozed off, so peaceful was that moment. Instead, I was curious. To my right were old masterpieces; to my left was modern sculpture/designs/forms. All in the name of art. I was curious, not doubtful. What is art?

The Art History web site says, "Art lacks a satisfactory definition". Perhaps not all things are to be defined. It goes on to say, "It is easier to describe it as the way something is done, rather than what it is". Britannica Online says that Art is "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others". In a very interesting essay published in 1896, with the English translation published in 1899, Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) wrote on the subject of art. You can read the full excerpts here.

"In order to correctly define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure, and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man. Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship, both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression". 

These feelings that the artist infects others with will be very varied, and to Tolstoy, the degree of the infectiousness of art depends on three conditions.

  1. On the greater or lesser individuality of the feeling transmitted;
  2. On the greater or lesser clearness with which the feeling is transmitted;
  3. On the sincerity of the artist, i.e. on the greater or lesser force with which the artist himself feels the emotion he transmits.
 To Tolstoy, "this third condition - sincerity - is the most important of the three. It is always complied with in peasant art, and this explains why such art always acts so powerfully; but it is a condition almost entirely absent from our upper-class art, which is continually produced by artists actuated by personal aims of covetousness or vanity. The absence of any one of these conditions excludes a work from the category of art and relegates it to that of art's counterfeits. If the work does not transmit the artist's peculiarities of feeling and is therefore not individual, if it is unintelligibly expressed, or if it has not proceeded from the author's inner need for expression - it is not a work of art at all. If all these conditions are present, even in the smallest degree, then the work, even if a weak one, is yet a work of art". 

Mirrored Surfaces
In my humble opinion, Anish Kapoor embodies the three conditions of Tolstoy on which art depends.

I think that the publicity material produced for the exhibition sums it up well.

"Kapoor's works can be both mysterious and contemplative. One of Kapoor's lifelong interests is in the spiritual function of art and the exploration of universal truths.

His work is not about organised religion, but instead he is interested in belief, passion and experience. His work affords a space for silent reflection in our busy lives". 

The exhibition is on in Nottingham until the 11th March 2012. It is well worth seeing, and seeing more than once.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Round the Wrekin with Books

I was watching Alan Yentob's programme on the BBC last night about the future of books. Co-incidently, I had been reading some articles a few days previously on the same subject, and these were from 16 years ago. The question that keeps cropping up is, "What is a book?".

On the 5th August 2010, Google Books said, "After we exclude serials, we can finally count all the books in the world. There are 129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday". Not being an expert in the field, I have no idea as to how such a figure is arrived at. It's similar to the United Nations telling me that when I was born, I was the 75,433,461,990th person to have lived since history began. (By the way, that's the actual figure from their web site).

I would guess that throughout history there has been concern about the future of 'books'. When parchment replaced papyrus as the favourite writing material, I'm sure that there were some who regretted the move. Similarly, when codices took the place of scrolls, I can imagine some wondering where will it all end. With Gutenberg around the middle of the 15th Century originating the idea of the mass-produced book through his printing press, the lovers of beautiful hand written and hand printed materials would be wringing their hands in despair. His process has by and large remained unchanged for 500 years, but today, with the dramatic progress with the computer chip, the same fearful thoughts of where will it all end have come to the fore. Throughout history, people have either embraced change, or complained and worried about it.

But what is a book? Many people seem to have tried to arrive at a definition on which everyone can agree, but it's doubtful that this is ever going to happen. Edward Hutchins, in a posting to the Books Arts List on the 8th April 1995 says, "When I defined books for myself, I chose not to look at what a book is, what it is made out of, or what it looks like. Instead, I chose to consider how a book is used and what purpose it serves. For me, a book is 'a structure for storing and sharing information'". He goes on to discuss the views of Phillip Smith on what gives an object "bookness". Their view is that perhaps instead of saying that a book IS this AND that, we should be saying that bookness CONSISTS of this OR that. So to Hutchins, bookness constitutes "pages, covers, binding, sequence, narration, illustration, table of contents, durability, shape, purpose, meaning, use, acceptance, ISBN number, book-shelve-ability, etc".

If a book is a "structure for storing and sharing information", does it matter what that structure looks like? Has the codex had its day? Of course, for many people, how the information is contained is vitally important, and only the bound codex will do. Many will agree with Edward Hutchins when he says, "I want something visually interesting and stimulating that I can touch and handle.  The electronic age opens new doors, but it's the loss of the tactile feel of a tangible object that I miss. While computer whizzes and forward-thinking visionaries are soaring into flights of virtual reality, I'm happy to remain behind wallowing in the pleasure of cradling a physical object in my hand and savouring the anticipation of turning the next page". 

Alan Yentob, perhaps in humour, suggested that someone could come up with an App that provided the smell of a book that so many say that they enjoy. Now, I love my physical books, and while I don't have as many as I once did, it is still a delight to handle them, to read them, and to see them on the shelf. But the world is changing, and changing very fast. The discussion about digitising books seems to be in two parts. One for the present, and the other for the future. The present seems to cover books that are already in hard copy, and the future is about books that are yet to be written. Millions of books have already been digitised, and millions more are in the pipe-line. The combined might of Google, Microsoft and Apple will ensure that this trend will not be reversed, so there is little point in lamenting it. Probably more people are enthusiastic about this though, than those who are not, as it brings access to works that perhaps would be difficult to find otherwise.

The British Library has teamed up with Google to initially digitise 250,000 publications, and has made 45,000 titles available to iPad owners. Microsoft is also funding the digitising of publications throughout the world. This Tsunami will not abate until every extant publication in the world has been digitised. In addition to the three giants mentioned, countless smaller operations such as the Gutenberg Project in the States are hard at work digitising publications. Cost verses free access to digital publications is for others more competent than I to discuss.

I've been wondering a lot about the future, and where this leaves the ordinary man and woman. Digitising what is already in hard form is one thing, but what about the publications of the future? Will there still be a place for hard copy, or will everything be produced in digital form? What time-span is covered by the future? Is it ten years, twenty years, fifty years? Judging by the speed everything is happening at the moment, I suspect that it won't be at the tail-end of the time period, and the end results will probably be phased in. Being in my middle 60's, I'm nearer the end of life's journey than the beginning, so I have a vested interest in knowing the future.

I suspect that the days of the codex are numbered, and that sometime in the not too distant future, the only new works that will be available, will be digital through whatever e-reader is available. The current younger generation are already immersed in the digital world, and they and the generation to follow will only accept their reading material in digital form. There was a time not so long ago when I would have regretted this very much, but being pragmatic by nature, I now accept the inevitability of it all; but more than that, I actually think that I embrace it.

What will change in the future if new material is only available in digital form? There'll still be the need for writers, so that won't change. Someone will still have to publish the new material, so I guess that won't change. I suppose that there will still be a place for literary agents, so that won't change. What would change is a role for printers of new material. Bookshops would no longer sell new works, or public libraries lend them, but there would still be many 'not new' publications to go around.

I love reading, and I love reading in bed. Having seen so many people in the street and on public transport with their e-reader's, it all seems so much more comfortable and accessible. After years of balancing heavy books, my body deserves a rest. My critics may disagree, but if there's one thing I've learnt in life, it's that though we may not like something, it doesn't mean that it's not going to happen.

I may well be talking a load of rubbish, and I shall continue to buy the book as we know it for as long as I can. But in addition, I wouldn't be surprised if next year I bought myself an e-reader, to begin phasing myself in for the new dawn. What do the experts think?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

L.S. Lowry Exhibition

Head of a Man 1938 L.S. Lowry
Today was a cold but beautiful winter's morning and early afternoon; the bright blue sky giving no indication of the promised weather ahead.

My friend Colin and I had arranged to go and view the new L.S. Lowry exhibition at the Djanogly Art Gallery in the University Park, Nottingham. You can read a review of this exhibition from another Nottingham blog here, as it's much better than anything that I could do. To learn more about Lowry, and The Lowry art gallery in Salford, click here.

The only work of Lowry that I really knew was his famous depictions of industrial scenes around the Lancashire mills, with his painted people being described as 'matchstick men'. This does him an injustice, as there's much, much more to him than that. So here was an opportunity to expand my knowledge base, and perhaps to get a glimpse of the man behind the paintings.

The Djanogly Art Gallery is named after Sir Harry Djanogly, whose family had fled Nazi Germany in 1936 for the safety of England. The family settled in Nottinghamshire, and Harry was born two years later. The family started in the textile industry, manufacturing stockings and hosiery, and the business grew into a multi-million pound empire. Though Sir Harry (he was knighted in 1993) maintains a low profile, he has been one of Nottingham's largest benefactors, being particularly generous towards education and the arts. Schools, colleges and both the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University have benefited greatly from his generosity.

The Pond
The exhibition is in three different rooms at the art gallery, and once I'd got used to negotiating my way through scores of primary school children who were sprawled on the floor in front of paintings, I was able to enjoy the experience.

The gallery promotional blurb says that the exhibition is "focusing on the artist's work from the 1920's to the mid-1950's. Includes early paintings and drawings of the industrial subjects that made him famous, and an extraordinary body of work produced under emotional strain in the years leading up to the Second World War. Troubled subjects such as his staring portraits, wastelands and derelict houses, form the dark underbelly to the good-natured portrayals of Manchester's working classes. They will come as a revelation to those who know Lowry only as the painter of the Lancashire mills". They certainly did to me.

Clifford's Tower
"The Pond" above was I think one of my favourite exhibits. It's a huge painting which dominates one end of the room, but many of his smaller sketches in another room were absorbing in themselves.

Another painting that I enjoyed was his "View from Ancoats Hall, Manchester", painted in 1930. Ancoats Hall would have particularly been of interest to Lowry; he had taken to heart the work of Friedrich Engels, "Conditions of the Working Class in England" (1844), and many of his paintings depicted those conditions. Ancoats Hall was initially the home of The Manchester University Settlement, which was modelled on the first University Settlement that was established in London. The idea was, "that men and women from Universities lived amongst the poor and helped remove some of the inequalities of life". The Manchester Settlement is still going strongly today.

The Cripples
L.S. Lowry was born Laurence Stephen Lowry in Stretford, Lancashire in 1887, and lived in Pendlebury near Salford for over forty years.

Success did not come easy, as he had to battle with some critics who thought of him as a naive 'Sunday painter'. Lowry was irritated by people who thought he was an amateur painter, self-taught and untutored. He said, "If people call me a Sunday painter, I'm a Sunday painter who paints every day of the week".

In fact, he attended art school, the reason why, he describes himself. "Aunt said I was no good for anything else, so they might as well send me to Art School". He began evening classes in 1905 in antique and freehand drawing, and was later to study at the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and at the Salford Royal Technical College. He greatly admired the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and as the L.S. Lowry web site says, "Far from being a naive Sunday painter, Lowry was an artist looking for his own distinctive way of painting and drawing - and for a subject matter he could make his own, preferring eventually the view from the Technical College window to that of the posed model".

Street Scene
How did Lowry come to depict street life so well? A job that he kept quiet about was that of rent collector, which led to him walking all over the city. What did he see? "Children playing in the streets, people returning from work, going off to work, gossip on the front steps, incidents, market places and Whit processions". He said himself, "I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it all the time. I tried to paint the industrial scene as best I could. It wasn't easy".

Following his Father's death in 1932, Lowry was to spend the next seven years caring for his elderly, bed-ridden Mother, who completely ruled his life. She demanded his attention, and Lowry could only get to paint late at night. He said, "She did not understand my painting, but she understood me, and that was enough". Lowry observers say that these were years of isolation and growing despair, reflected in his paintings, where they depicted derelict buildings and wastelands "as mirrors of himself". When she died, painting was his "salvation".

Success came with his first London exhibition in 1939 - the year his Mother died, but at the same time he was moving away from the subjects that people wanted him to paint - the subjects that had brought him success.

It was his loneliness that brought about change. "Had I not been lonely none of my works would have happened". From this period there are some difficult pictures to like of solitary figures and down and outs.  "I feel more strongly about these people than I ever did about the industrial scene. They are real people, sad people. I'm attracted to sadness and there are some very sad things. I feel like them".

There is no doubt that Lowry was a complex and brilliant artist. On the one hand he paints crowds of happy people going to a football match, as well as happy families enjoying a day out at the fairground. On the other hand he paints brooding, staring portraits and unpopulated landscapes. This is what makes L.S. Lowry such a great twentieth century artist.

I shall be back to the exhibition in the new year,as knowing what I do now should help me to understand and appreciate his paintings even more. It has been a really good day.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

If you can't serve all the people ...

I love Belfast. I lived there during the 1970's and 1980's at the height of the 'troubles', and two of my sons were born there.

It is by far the most wonderful place that I've lived in, and its development since the beginning of the peace process has been exciting to see. However, it can also be the most frustrating of places to those people who care about it. Political and religious views are still very much polarised, and when the two are brought together, and immersed into each other, the results are the continuation of a 400 year old struggle.

Take two examples that are very much linked. On the 28th November 2011, there was a ceremony at City Hall where the Lord Mayor of Belfast was handing out certificates to successful young people on their completion of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. Part way through the ceremony, the Lord Mayor left the room as he refused to give an award to a 15 year old who happened to be an Army cadet. He let his political views interfere with his job.

It's perhaps helpful to put him in some sort of context. Niall O Donnghaile, who is a Sinn Fein member, at aged 25 is the youngest ever Belfast Lord Mayor, and it was only three weeks before his appointment that he was elected as a Belfast City Councillor. His rise to the top has indeed been meteoric, but he unfortunately forgot what he said when he was elected Lord Mayor last May. "I do want to be a mayor for all ... not just unionists, loyalists, but republicans and nationalists, and many different people who make up our city". Refusing to give an award to a young Army cadet does not fit in with this statement.

Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister at the Northern Ireland Assembly has said that this was a mistake. Niall O Donnghaile has since apologised. His apology has been accepted by the young person; by the young person's family, and by Belfast City Council. But still the opposition want to make political capital out of the incident. In today's Belfast Telegraph, there is a report saying that community groups in the city are "boycotting the Lord Mayor" by withdrawing invitations to him attend their functions. City Hall today confirm that two groups have cancelled or postponed their invitations. As this often happens anyway, it's hard to make out a case that the Lord mayor is being boycotted.

The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) have called on the Lord Mayor to resign because he is not 'inclusive'. In response, a Sinn Fein spokesman said, "We won't be taking any lectures on inclusion from the DUP. These are the people who, for 100 years, would not have a Catholic Lord Mayor, never mind a Sinn Fein Lord Mayor". So, are they any better?

Belfast City Hall
The second example concerns the Deputy Lord Mayor, Ruth Patterson who is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). When she and the Lord Mayor were elected last May, she refused to accept his congratulations or to acknowledge his presence. You can read the BBC Northern Ireland account of this here.

Allegedly, seven months later, she will still have nothing to do with him. The same Sinn Fein spokesman said, "Today, the DUP Deputy Lord Mayor will not talk to the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, never mind shake his hand. So whatever lessons we need to learn about outreach, and we all need to stretch ourselves in these matters, we won't be taking any lectures from the DUP". This is why I said earlier that Belfast can be so frustrating. This is such a shame, because at Northern Ireland Assembly level, the DUP First Minister, and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, despite holding strongly divergent political views, do seem to attempt to work together for the good of Northern Ireland.

When you are elected to positions such as Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor of a great city, you are elected to serve all of the people, not just those who agree with your political views. Similarly, you are not elected to solely promote your own views, to the detriment of the city as a whole. At least Niall O Donnghaile apologised, though I haven't read that he promises not to do it again. There is no apology from the Deputy Lord Mayor, in fact, her stance has been supported by her own political party. Thank god that there are thousands of Belfast and Northern Ireland people who are more enlightened than many of their politicians, and want to see the city move forward in terms of inclusivity.

If you can't serve all the people, then don't put yourself up for election. Of course, politics is about fighting for what you believe in; always has been, and always will be, and I'd hate to see the day when that stopped. However, in a democratic society, it's more than that. It's accepting "the will of the people" who have voted in their representatives, and there should be no disrespect shown to those representatives, or displaying hissy fits when things don't go our way. If you can't serve all the people, then don't put yourself up for election. Respect and good manners should not be seen as old fashioned. The following video may seem a bit strange, but in my world, it helps to cement the message above.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Another Great Jazz Night

Sonny Rollins
No apologies for mentioning them again. The Midland Jazz Connection were at the Test Match in West Bridgford last night, and the music again oused quality throughout the evening.

The MJC were again led by Paul Ricard, and the trio this time included Paul on piano, with Andy Wilson on guitar, and Mal Trott on saxophone. I have to say that of the many songs played, the trio's rendition of the classic "Autumn Leaves" was particularly beautiful, with the three instruments blending perfectly together.

Having spoken about the piano playing before, I thought that this time I would simply mention the saxophone. We were told that Mal was a great fan of Sonny Rollins, and anyone who has listened to recordings of Rollins will have no difficulty in detecting his influence. I can give no higher compliment than that. Mal had a great stage presence which compelled you to look and listen.

I found the following recording of the Harry Brown Quartet playing on the old Pebble Mill at One BBC programme in 1982. I hope that the Mal Trott on saxophone is the same Mal Trott from last night, or I'll feel really stupid, and have egg all over my face. Most of us look quite different now to how we looked nearly twenty years ago. However, I will proceed with confidence, and say that they are one and the same, until someone tells me differently. Don't let the slight interference at the start put you off.

The Test Match don't seem to advertise their jazz programme very well, so I'll do it for them in relation to the Midland Jazz Connection. Paul does a solo session on the first Thursday evening of every month, and the MJC are there every second Thursday of every month. Simple isn't it? I look forward to January 2012.

While we're on the subject of music, I've just come across a Nottinghamshire group that is blowing my mind away, and I can't wait to hear them live.

Maniere des Bohemiens
They are called Maniere des Bohemiens, which according to the 'LeftLion' magazine (issue 44) means "Manner of the Gypsies". Their style is described as "Infectious, rapturous, blindingly improvised Romany swing music". They acknowledge the influence of Django Reinhardt, and as I've been listening to his music for years, you can certainly see that influence in their playing. I'm very glad to see this gypsy jazz-style music alive and well in Nottingham. The clip below gives a flavour of their music, and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do. It's a live gig at Nottingham Contemporary in May 2011.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

"There is nothing for young people to do".

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us
are looking at the stars".
Following last summer's riots in many cities, one reporter said, "Angry young people with nothing to do and little to lose are turning on their communities, and they cannot be stopped, and they know it".

Writing to a Shropshire newspaper last year, one young person said, "I am 17 and live in Shrewsbury. In my area there is nothing for young people to do. People often complain about 'yobs' hanging around on street corners causing trouble - especially during the summer holidays. I have just looked on the Shropshire youth website and there are only six results for things to do in my area, and only two of them are during the holidays. I think that young people should have more of a say in what happens, more money should be put into young people's activities, after all, we are the future of the nation".

In a Derbyshire survey of young people, the question was asked, "What do you think are the issues facing young people in your area today?" Top of the list was 'Nothing to do' with 77%, followed by 'Alcohol' at 74%, and 'Drugs' at 69%.

You will have noticed a theme already in what has been said, and that is, "There is nothing for young people to do". The Education and Inspections Act 2006 placed a statutory duty on local authorities to secure access to sufficient positive activities for young people, including seeking and taking account of their views about provision. This doesn't mean that local authorities have to provide the activities; they just have to ensure that someone does. This requirement has spawned a multi-billion pound children's and young peoples 'industry', with countless thousands of jobs and an endless supply of expensive buildings. And still, as the Government web site 'DirectGov' says, "There's millions of pounds available to create better activities for teenagers in England". But the cry goes out again today, "There is nothing for young people to do".

Even when there are activities in an area, there are perennial excuses why they are not used by some. There's a cost attached to it (meaning, I want it for free). It's too far away (meaning, I want it on my doorstep). Now, let me say this, I have no real issue with positive activities being made available for young people, and many statutory and voluntary youth services do a fine job. However, I do have concerns about the concept, presentation and expectation when addressing the issue of having "nothing to do". The message that many young people have grown up with is that how I fill my 'free' time is the responsibility of someone else. Society is complicit in this, from Government Acts that require areas to provide "secure access to sufficient positive activities", to communities across the country demanding facilities for young people.

What we are doing is spoon-feeding people, rather than teaching people how to hold and use the spoon for themselves. One dictionary defines spoon-feed as, "To treat another person in a way that discourages independent thought or action, as by overindulgence".

By encouraging people to think that the solution always lies with someone else, we destroy the concept of independent thought and action - we don't have to think for ourselves. This, I feel is where we are largely at today. Young people providing their own positive activities is not on the agenda, for that means having to think for yourself, and to be a bit creative. Perhaps outreach services could be more time-limited, and focused on helping young people to be creative in how they can use their time, then they're on their own.

I know that the world has changed since I was a young person, and much of it for the better, but not all of it. This will sound like an old fogey viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but fifty years ago when I was a young person in a small rural community, there was nothing provided so that I and my friends had something to do. Our leisure hours were filled through "independent thought and action". What we did seems very tame when compared with today's high octane world. But the actual activities don't matter. We don't have to do today what I did fifty years ago, but the principle of independent thought and action should be translated into the modern world - and I passionately believe that it is possible.

I don't get angry when I hear that "there is nothing for young people to do", I just get very sad, and I blame the whole of society for being complicit in not encouraging independent thought and action, and for overindulging young people. Thankfully, I know that there will be exceptions to this, and that up and down the land, there are young people who are thinking and acting for themselves, but I can't help feeling that they are in the minority. I would love to know if I am wrong.

I guess that it's important to know how we view life, for as Oscar Wilde says, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars".

Monday, 5 December 2011

My Village, My Home, My Life - part eleven

Chapel House, Tainant
Last week was a great week for family and local history. I left the village of Penycae over 43 years ago, and it's taken me all this time to get an interest in my roots. I think that I'm making up for that, as there's hardly a day goes by without me researching my family, or researching my local area. I'm loving every minute of it, though with over 1000 names now in the family tree, I still haven't come across anyone that has made a big impact on the global scene.

The family over the last 150 years or so have been good, honest, down to earth coal miners, and my admiration grows daily for both husbands and wives as they battled with dangerous jobs, poor money and bringing up large families in two roomed cottages.

My Grandmother's side (Mum's Mother), is the Valentine family, and for at least three generations they came from the tiny hamlet (is that tautology, as is there any other type of hamlet?) of Tainant, which is about one mile outside of the Penycae village. Let me bore you a bit more with some stats about Tainant. According to the website, and the Land Registry, there are currently 23 properties in the hamlet, with the oldest being just under 200 years old. The main family home is no longer there, but one or two other properties lived in are still occupied. The most expensive house purchase is Chapel House, which is the converted old Methodist Chapel, and in 2005 sold for £333,000. The least expensive sold for £17,500 in 2000. I tried to take a picture of Tainant when I was up there last week, but because of its topography - winding valley with heavy tree growth on either side - it wasn't possible to see more than one house at a time, no matter where I stood. It has been fascinating piecing together the very large Valentine family that has its roots in Tainant.

Another thing that I did last week was to join the Clwyd Family History Society. Their office and Resource Centre are only a few miles from Penycae, and they focus on the history of North East Wales.  Clwyd no longer exists except as a 'Preserved County', which is largely ceremonial. The area it covered ceased in 1996 and became Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham. Regional reorganisation has often amused me, as in 1974 Clwyd was established from a merger of Flintshire, most of Denbighshire and part of Merionethshire. The wheel has largely turned full circle in less than twenty years. The Society is run by volunteers, and produces excellent material for those interested in the family history of that area. One booklet that I came across was the burial register of Salem Baptist Chapel in Penycae, which has been extremely helpful in filling in some gaps in my family tree.

1st Salem Chapel 1806
During my visit to the village last week, I met up with the person who looks after the burial register, who helped me to find my way around the graveyard. During that time, and having coffee with him and his wife at their home afterwards, I learnt much that I was unaware of.

Previously, I'd been researching where Penycae Particular Baptist Chapel was situated, and low and behold this is what Salem had been called in the past. The present Salem Chapel was built in 1878, and while I was vaguely aware that there had been another one before that, I did not know that there had actually been three Salem Chapels.

The picture opposite is of the first Chapel, which was opened in 1906. "T Capel Cyntaf" means the first Chapel. Two cottages at the top of Bridge Street were converted into the Chapel. This is opposite the small graveyard which was used by that Chapel. Unfortunately, all burial records from that time were lost a long time ago. The plaque which you can just see between the upper floor windows is in the present Chapel. This Chapel lasted for about twenty years, before there was the need to provide a bigger, purpose built building.

2nd Salem Chapel 1825
In 1825 the newly built second Chapel was opened. It stood on the corner of Bridge Street, Chapel Street and Church Street, just a few yards from the first building.

It stands directly opposite the present Salem Chapel, and those who know the graveyard can see from the way that they are facing, which direction the Chapel was in.

Though there is a burial register, it is not easy to find graves in what they call this middle graveyard, particularly those that are unmarked, and there are plenty of those. After a while, it became difficult to work out where one line of graves ended, and another started. Mind you, it was damned cold and windy when I was there, so the thought processes were probably weakening.

3rd Salem Chapel 1878
And so, just over fifty years later, the current Chapel was opened in 1878. I think it's a lovely stone building with a graveyard on either side of it. So far, I've found 14 relatives graves at Salem, but as there are another 17 graves with Valentine's in them, there may be more relatives to come.

It was decorated inside about five or six years ago and looks beautiful. It has a balcony at one end (that's the top windows in this photograph), and behind the pulpit at the other end is a magnificent early 20th Century pipe organ. Though Church music, along with all other forms has moved on a bit over the years, I still think it's hard to beat a quality pipe organ, played by a quality musician.

I learnt two things from my new friend at the Chapel. The first was that my Father drove a lorry for a man who ran a local haulage firm in the late 1940's. This filled in a gap that had been annoying me. There was a two or three year gap between when my parents moved to the village, and when he started working for the local electricity company. What had he been doing in that time? While I'm still trying to get official confirmation of this, it looks like he was driving a lorry.

The second thing I learnt was concerning a brother who died before I was born. I think that the first thing I knew about him was when my Father had been buried, and I was eleven. For over 50 years I've been trying to find out information about him; where were they living at the time? And what did it mean when the grave says that he "died in infancy"? My Mum would never speak of it; perhaps it was all too painful. However, last week I found out that the address given was the Wern, which would have been my parent's first married home - this also helped to give me a more accurate time line of when they moved to Penycae. The burial register also said that my Brother died at 11 hours old. In researching the family tree, I've noticed how many children died very young, but 11 hours must have been particularly distressing.

All communities have their stories to tell, but isn't there something special in stories about your village, your home or your life? As soon as I think that I've come to the end, somehow something else crops up, so who knows what the future will bring.

Friday, 25 November 2011

The Enigma of History

Offa's Dyke and the Clun Valley
You know how it is, a question pops into your head, and you've just got to find the answer. No matter how obscure the issue, or how irrelevant it is to everyday life, you've just got to know.

This happened to me a few days ago when I was studying a map of the area in which I was brought up. I was pin pointing where my relatives lived, and it was as I was looking at Ruabon that the question popped into my mind.

On the west side of the village was a line marked Offa's Dyke, and on the east side, under a mile away, was a line marked Wat's Dyke. The question that wouldn't go away was why were there two earthen Dyke's running so close to each other? And a subsidiary question was, while we'd all heard of Offa's Dyke, why hadn't I heard of Wat's Dyke? It was barely two miles from where I was born. This niggled away at me, and I had to look into it.

Offa's Dyke is Red Line and Wat's Dyke is Brown Line
 I've dipped into about half a dozen archaeological works to find the answer, and there is conflicting views, particularly about Wat's Dyke.

However, digging through the mystery and the speculation, and the view that "nearly everything about Wat's Dyke remains uncertain", I'm hanging on to a consensus view, that makes sense to me. If my reader knows something else, they will no doubt let me know.

Wat's Dyke is up to 60 miles long, running from Basingwerk, Holywell, Flintshire, down to the river Severn at Maesbury in Shropshire. You can read about the Wat's Dyke Way Heritage Trail here.

Offa's Dyke is much longer, and runs from Prestatyn in the north, to Chepstow in the south,  a distance approaching 180 miles. The Dyke roughly follows the existing border between England and Wales. You can see the Offa's Dyke Association web site here.

I still hadn't answered my question of why, but I became captivated by the thought of what. What did the Dyke's look like? And reading about them took me back over 50 years to school drawings of castle escarpments (I hope that's the right word).

The Dyke's were generally, for most of their length made of a ditch, the soil of which was then made to construct a rampart. A bit like planting a row of potatoes, but a lot, lot, lot bigger. The Wat's Dyke varied in size over its length, with the rampart reaching anything from 6.4m to 12.2m in height. At Wrexham General Station, the bank was found to be over 6m wide, and the ditch in many places was at least 1.2m deep. Offa's Dyke was much bigger altogether, and as originally constructed, it was thought to have been about 27m wide, and 8m from the ditch bottom to the bank top. As can be seen from the diagram above, the ditch was always to the west, facing Wales.

The British Isles about 802 AD
So, who built the two Dyke's, when and why? At last I'm coming to answer my question, at least in a way that satisfies me.

The general consensus seems to be that Wat's Dyke was built by Aethelbald, king of Mercia from 716 - 757 AD. Mercia at the time was largely the area that we now call the English Midlands. The name Wat seems to be of uncertain origin.

King Offa was Aethelbald's successor, and reigned from 757 - 796 AD, and was responsible for building Offa's Dyke, which was an improved version, being much stronger and longer. It is thought to have been started in 785 AD and taken many years to build. To understand how and why such an impressive Dyke came to be built, it's perhaps helpful to look briefly at Offa himself.

One historian has summarised him like this. "Offa was King of Mercia from 757 to 796 AD. His kingdom covered the area between the Trent/Mersey rivers in the north to the Thames Valley in the south, and from the Welsh border in the west to the Fens in the east. At the height of his power, however, he also controlled Kent, East Anglia and Lincoln, and had alliances with Northumbria and Wessex, sealed by the marriage of two of his daughters to their Kings, Aethelred and Beorhtic respectively. He was, therefore, effectively an early King of England".

In response to the unrest emanating from the Princes of Powys along the Welsh border, he constructed the Dyke; either as an agreed boundary, defensive structure, or some other reason; historians and archaeologists are uncertain. Speaking as a layman, I think that there would have been easier ways to mark a boundary, and I can only assume that it was built to help keep the Welsh out of his kingdom of Mercia. The ditch facing Wales leads me to this view. He built it west of Wat's Dyke, so extending his own kingdom further into Wales.

It's amazing that after over 1200 years, so much of the Dyke's remain. I think that's testimony to the worker's of the day, and hundreds and thousands of walkers every year are enjoying the fruits of their labour. To another historian, "the origins of the Dyke are shrouded in mystery so that many of its aspects are speculated upon rather than being fully understood". What I've written may well contain some speculation, but I'm content that my questions of why, who and what have been answered. I now await the next question to pop into my head.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

My Village, My Home, My Life - part ten

Penycae Reservoir, Keeper's House
I spent the first 21 years of my life in Penycae, and I've written quite a bit about the village. However, over the last few months I've been putting our family tree together, and I came to realise how little I knew about the history of the area.

Before Penycae became an ecclesiastical parish in its own right in the late 1800's, it was part of the ancient parish of Ruabon. In "A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, 1833 & 1849" by Samuel Lewis, he describes Ruabon as "a parish in the Union of Wrexham, containing in 1841, 11,292 inhabitants. The parish is situated in a picturesque part of the county, within three miles of the great Holyhead road, and is bounded on the south by the river Dee. The village seems to have been indebted for its original prosperity to the noble mansion of Wynnstay, in the immediate vicinity, and to owe its present importance chiefly to the mines of ironstone and coal which abound. The parish comprises an important part of the Denbighshire coal tract, of which the principle seam is here nine feet thick; and its mineral wealth in coal and iron ore, which has caused the establishment of numerous works. The whole give employment to from 1400 to 1500 men and boys. Offa's Dyke and Wat's Dyke both intersect the parish, and in their courses approach within a quarter mile of each other, near the village".

Wynnstay Arms, Ruabon
People have lived in Ruabon for over 3,000 years, and this ancient parish comprised the townships of Belan, Cristionydd Cynrig (or Y Dref Fawr), Coed Cristionydd, Cristionydd Fechan (or Y Dref Fechan or Dynhinlle Uchaf), Dinhinlle Isaf, Hafod (or Hafod y Gallor), Moreton Anglicorum (or Moreton Above), Moreton Wallichorum (or Moreton Below), Rhuddallt and Tref Robert Llwyd. The names Above and Below refer to their proximity to Offa's Dyke. ie, above it or below it.

Local history did not form part of my school curriculum, so most of the above names were unfamiliar to me. Of course, I knew about Offa's Dyke, but I wasn't aware how extensive the name Cristionydd was. In Penycae, I was born into the part of the village called Pentre Cristionydd, and until I left the village, I lived in a council house on a street called Cristionydd. By the middle of the 19th Century things were beginning to change, with new ecclesiastical parishes being formed, resulting in Ruabon parish becoming much smaller.

On the 24th May 1844, Coed Cristionydd and part of Cristionydd Cynrig went to the new parish of Rhosymedre. On the 3rd September 1844, Cristionydd Fechan went to the new parish of Rhosllanerchrugog. On the 28th October 1879, Moreton Above and the remainder of Cristionydd Cynrig went to the new parish of Penycae. So that's when my village became part of the newly formed ecclesiastical parish of Penycae; 28th October 1879.

St Thomas' Parish Church, Penycae
In anticipation of the new parish being formed, the parish church of St Thomas' was consecrated in 1878. However, at this time, most of the population of the parish were non-conformists, and attended their own Chapels.

These were, Salem Welsh Baptist Chapel; Groes (Sion) English Baptist Chapel; Groes Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel; Tainant Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Chapel; Soar Welsh Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, and Copperas English Primitive Methodist Chapel. Baptists and Methodists obviously abounded in my village. In "The Statistics of the Nonconformist Churches for 1905", the aggregate number of adherents for the two Baptist Churches was 449, and for the four Methodist Churches it was 577. Half of these Churches are no longer open, and those that are, do not have anything remotely like the numbers of 100 years ago. It should be said in balance that the 1905 figures were probably inflated by the Welsh Religious revival of 1904.

Groes Welsh Calvinistic Chapel, Penycae
Perhaps a word about non-conformity would not be out of place here. The Welsh have always been of an independent spirit, and have not liked been told what to do by London; be that Parliament or the King. There was also a strongly held view that every man had the right to worship God as he saw fit. An Act was passed in 1662 that required everyone to conform to the Church of England. Those who didn't were called non-conformists. Quakers, Baptists and Independents (later to be called Presbyterians) were the first Welsh non-conformist groups.

Following years of persecution, which began to ease by the middle of the 1700's, non-conformity increased steadily. Researchers say that by 1851, about 75% of the Welsh population belonged to a non-conformist group. Part of the persecution was seen in the act of marriage. Between 1754 and 1837, non-conformists could not legally marry outside the Church of England - except for Quakers and Jews. This exception is for another story. Non-conformity is still very strong in Wales, and it's little wonder, as they had to fight so hard to get their religious freedom. Salem Baptist and Groes Methodist are the only non-conformist Chapels in the village with their own graveyards; adherents of other groups tended to be buried in the parish Church cemetery.

Council Offices Wrexham
Local Government reorganisation in Wales has often fascinated me. The area of Penycae has come under the following Administrative counties.

Pre 1536 it was in Powys Fadog.

1536 - 31st March 1974 it was in Denbighshire.

1st April 1974 to 31st march 1996, it was in Clwyd.

From 1st April 1996 it has been under Wrexham County Borough Council.

For the general population of course, life goes on, irrespective of what Administrative area they are in. The same concerns require the same answers. For the family historians, it also doesn't make a huge difference, as up to now the Records Offices have stayed where they are. The only thing to remember is that Denbighshire and Flintshire will not be the same during the years, as I've found out for myself. So at the present time, the parish of Penycae is in the County Borough of Wrexham. 

Miners at Bersham Colliery
Another thing that I've learnt about the history of my village, is the place of coal over the years. Now don't get me wrong, I was well aware of coal mines such as Hafod, Bersham, and a bit further afield at Gresford, and many of my male relatives were coal miners.

Hafod and Bersham mines became one when they linked the seams together, and one of the seams actually ran under the village of Penycae, which caused some subsidence where we lived at Cristionydd. The mine was closed in 1964.

Gresford was a large coal mine, and suffered one of the worst mining tragedies in British mining history, when in September 1934, at about 2.00am, an explosion rocked the mine killing 266 men, with only 6 men on that shift surviving. Only 11 bodies were ever recovered, and that section of the mine was never re-opened. The whole place was closed in 1973.

We were well aware of the dangers of coal mining, and family after family dealt with either the loss of a loved one in the mine, or watched them suffer for years the effects of dust on their lungs. But what choice did many of them have? There were no alternatives, but stories abound of comradeship and humour between coal miners.

I didn't know anything about the smaller mines in the village, which began I think in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and which were long gone by the time that I was born. A list of Denbighshire coal mines in 1896 didn't have any of them listed. However, another list (see here) said that there were mines at Afoneitha, Bryn-y-Felin, Cristionydd, Fronheulog, Groes, Mill, Mountain Level, Plas Issa and Stryt Issa, with a Zinc mine at Copperas. I have no idea of when they started, or how long they lasted. What a thriving little community it once was.

The above information is probably of interest to a limited audience, but for me, it is another insight into the village in which I was born and brought up.

Bridge Farm, Tainant, Penycae

Monday, 14 November 2011

Memorial Gardens, Nottingham

View of the back of the War Memorial
With no plan in mind on Saturday afternoon, I set off for a walk along the Victoria Embankment. It has become obligatory to begin my walks in this area with a cup of coffee from the Trent Bridge Kiosk. So, suitably refreshed, I began my dander.

I'd only got as far as the Wilford Suspension Bridge, when the familiar sounds of a football match assaulted my ears. Looking to my right, I could see two youth football matches taking place on the Meadows Recreation Ground, and decided that this was for me.

Watching a game of youth football on a Saturday afternoon was something that I hadn't done for years, so I joined the crowd at one of the matches. When I say crowd, I'm assuming that any number over one, not associated with either team is a crowd. There were no budding starlets that I could see, but the goals flooded in, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, which after all is what it's supposed to be about.

I took a shine to one of the full-backs, who reminded me a bit about myself when I played at that age. He was one of the smallest in the team, just like I was, but was energetic, could control the ball, and was a fierce tackler, just like I was. My mind wandered back to the days when I also played youth football, and wished that the pitches then, were half as good as those on the Meadows. Remember also that 50 years ago, football boots weighed a ton (at least the one's I could afford did), and the ball was leather with a laced area where you pumped the ball up. The ball got heavier the muddier it got, and heaven help you if you happened to head the ball directly on the laced area; how our brains are still intact is something of a mystery.

Standing beside this flat Meadows pitch reminded me for some reason or other about a pitch I used to play on in Penygelli, Coedpoeth near Wrexham. If memory serves me right, the pitch belonged to Penygelli School and was on a horrendous slope (nothing in Penygelli was flat). None of us could ever run up the full length of that slope with the ball, as by the time we would have got to the top, we'd be too knackered to do anything with it. At least you knew that for one half, you'd be running down hill. The changing room was a converted cattle shed, with minimal conversion taking place. No showers or wash basins of course, so you just had to put your clothes back on at the end of the game over your body that was caked with mud, and get home as fast as you could to have a bath. I'm sure that it wouldn't have seemed so bad if you'd won, but as I don't think we ever won a match at Penygelli, that luxury wasn't afforded me. It was all great fun though; ah happy days.

Memorial Gardens Water Feature
When the Meadows football match was over, I noticed a small gate in the hedge, and went through it. I found myself in the Memorial Gardens, which I'd never been in before. It had been closed off for many months due to the new flood defence scheme being put in place, but now it was open.

I didn't have my camera with me, so I whispered to myself those immortal words of Arnie, "I'll be back". And today I was, with camera ready to capture the moment.

The Memorial Gardens was built on land donated to the Corporation of Nottingham (forerunner of the City Council) in 1920 by Sir Jesse Boot, the founder of Boots the Chemist. This was to provide open space and a memorial site in memory of those who lost their lives in the First World War. This complemented the Recreation Ground which was opened in 1906, with the Memorial Gardens finally opening on the 11th November 1927.

At this time of year you don't see the gardens at their best, but I loved the place. There are plenty of benches, and your walk takes you through a mixture of natural and cultivated areas.

The water feature sits at the centre of the garden, and as the top picture shows, you can look down from the far end of it to the backdrop of the back of the Memorial.

The autumn trees had few leaves remaining on them, which afforded a brightly covered carpet to walk on. This wouldn't last for long as the gardeners were beginning to sweep those leaves up while I was there. It felt quite cold walking along the side of the River Trent, but somehow, inside the gardens, sitting among the trees and bushes, it seemed warmer.

Statue of Queen Victoria
By the water feature, standing on a huge plinth (hope that's the right word) is a very large statue of Queen Victoria.

It somehow gives the gardens an air of grandeur, but I couldn't help wishing that someone had been a bit more creative with her pose, as it seems identical to every statue of her that I've ever seen. Perhaps like superstores or Barrett homes there's just one template.

It also seems a shame that the statue is surrounded by a high metal fence, which prevents the public from getting close to it. Apparently, this had to be erected because of previous vandalism to the plinth. While perhaps understandable, it is none the less a shame.

Another area fenced off is the old toilet block and maintenance store, both of which were under the War Memorial. I read a proposal from about 2007 to the City Council to change the use of this area, and provide a cafe. I've no idea what happened to that proposal, but nothing has been done, and that again is a shame.

Still, in spite of the fenced areas, I think that the Memorial Gardens is a beautiful place, and I was glad to have visited it. I shall be back next Spring and Summer, when I hope that the camera will capture the place in glorious colour.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Does God Intervene in the Affairs of Men?

It's been an emotional Remembrance weekend. Actually, with the BBC programmes leading up to it, it has been an emotional week, as I found it all very moving.

The clue is in the word Remembrance. Those killed and injured from 1914 to 2011 have been remembered, culminating in Sunday's event at the Cenotaph in London.

One serviceman was interviewed in London on Sunday at the Cenotaph, and was asked what he felt the mood was like in the country. I liked his answer. He said that it wasn't so much support for war, but support for the troops. I think he's right.

Many in the country like myself, abhor war, but are realistic enough to know that just as there has always been wars, so there will be wars in the future.  The Royal British Legion, and scores of subsequent service charities, are not in existence to glorify war, but to remember those who died, and support those who suffer. I was watching the remembrance event from Whitehall on Sunday, and it brings home to you the far-reaching effect of war. There was one poignant moment when names scrolled across the screen of those British service personnel killed since the last Remembrance Sunday; I counted 44 names. I think that it is right to remember the casualties of war; not through the eyes of narrow parochialism though, but to take a truly world perspective.

In World War One there were 886,342 UK fatalities; in World War Two the figure was 383,667, and since 1945 there has been 17 different areas of British military conflict with 3,473 fatalities. The country was told after the Second World War never to forget the horror of it, so that it might never happen again. This was a dream never to be realised. Apart from Britain itself becoming involved in 17 conflicts since 1945, according to the Peace Pledge Union, since that year, there have been over 250 major wars in which over 23 million people have been killed, tens of millions made homeless, and countless millions injured and bereaved. The Imperial War Museum says that there has been "fighting somewhere in the world almost every day since 1945". Other researchers are more specific, stating that there has only been 26 days of peace across the world since 1945. That's 66 years, or 24,090 days, with only 26 days of peace - makes you think doesn't it? Remembrance Sunday is about casualties among service personnel, but what about civilians? According to the New Internationalist - Issue 311 'Peace', "In armed conflicts since 1945, 90% of casualties have been civilians, compared to 50% in the Second World War and 10% in the First World War". These are people generally who are remembered by no-one, except their families. I don't give these figures as an anti-war statement, but simply to show how many we are remembering. The numbers are staggering, horrifying and incalculable. By all means let's remember and support those within our nation affected by conflict, lest we become immune to the smell of it all.

While watching the Remembrance Day event, the familiar strains of the hymn, "O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come" could be heard. In countless services up and down the country over the years, thanks has been given to God for victory. When I was in the Church, and following some tragedy, I was often asked, "Why does God allow such and such to happen?" I had my answers, which over time became more and more unsatisfactory. Let's assume for arguments sake that there is a God. This is not the time or place to discuss the opposing views of the likes of Richard Dawkins or the Theistic philosophers. There is a greater question than the Why, and it is, "Does God intervene in the affairs of men?"

German World War One Belt Buckle
On Saturday night, while searching the Internet for some answers to the identification of my Grandfathers World War One uniform, I stumbled across a German military memorabilia site.

There were belt buckles for sale from both world wars. The one shown opposite was from the First World War, and on the Second World War buckles, the crown had been replaced by the eagle and swastika. However, the words, "Gott Mit Uns" were on both war buckles.

Using the Internet translator, the words turned out to mean, "God (is) with us". I hope that I'm not being naive, but it seems to me that here we have people on opposite sides of the conflict believing that God was with them, and believing that God would give them victory. But only one side won; does that mean that God had deserted those who believed in him from the other side? Britain of course has always believed that God is on her side; from the Crusades, through battles with Irish Catholics or Scottish Dissenters. But, "Does God intervene in the affairs of men?"

Did God bring victory against Germany by directly intervening in the war? Or was the war won because Britain and her allies were just eventually better than Germany? If God does intervene, then some might like to ask, why didn't he do it sooner, and save the lives of millions? For some, questioning the Almighty is out of place, as who can know his will. Quite frankly, this is a cop-out. If God doesn't intervene in the affairs of men, then perhaps he is just allowing his created beings to work out their own path to what is good and right. That makes a bit more sense than saying that he supports some of his followers more than others. I am asking the question simply because I don't have the answer,  but I believe that it is a right question to ask.

You see, it's not just a question for matters of war, as it crops up in other areas of life.

I remember last year in a Golden League meeting, the 100 metre race. There were the top sprinters of the day involved in the race (the money on offer ensured that!!), and two of them in particular caught my attention.

Both were separately interviewed before the race and spoke of their Christianity, and that God would be with them. One of them won, and obviously the other didn't. The winner gave thanks to God for the victory, but the loser wasn't asked for his views. Two Christians battling it out for a top athletic prize believed that God was with them, but for one he obviously wasn't. (The often quoted phrase is that God always answers prayer, it's just that sometimes he says no). "Does God intervene in the affairs of men?" Does an omnipotent, omniscient Being, who has the world before him, care to intervene in a race, and choose one of his followers over another? Could it not be that on the day, the winner was just quicker than the loser, and there's no more to it than that?

This post is not meant to question the morality of war, or the existence of God. I've simply asked a question that I don't know the answer to. If anyone out there feels that they have an answer to the question, I'll be glad to hear it.