Death is All Around

This says a lot about the way we live but the total number of deaths of people we knew is about four times the yearly average – and it’s only April. So far Mike Gerrard (a Leicester musician and activist) Sonja Grossner, also a local musician, Pete Regan (friend of a friend) and this week my Uncle Ted, who was 91, have all gone. Then yesterday we learned that Kev Ryan of Charnwood Arts died on 22nd of April. He’d been ill for some time and seems to have approached death in the same calm and smiling manner with which he approached life. He was a lovely guy and will be much missed.

The odd thing is that only a couple of these deaths were directly Covid-related. Yet you can’t help wondering whether a second wave of deaths could be indirectly caused or hastened by the ongoing crisis in the NHS. Whatever the reason I’ve never known so many deaths in such a short space of time. Which just goes to show what a privileged life we’re leading.

Yet every privilege has its drawbacks; and the problem with our way of life is that we are such strangers to death that we fear it far more than those who see it every day. We regard long life as an unqualified good and will do almost anything to prolong our own existence. This can lead to procrastination and an unhealthy fear of death.

Ok that’s enough of the D-word. let’s talk comedy. Last night’s Big Night In saw a mash-up of Comic Relief and Children in Need with performers doing their piece at home either recorded or via live link-up and people donating online or by text. It was very successful as far as fundraising goes – they made £27m which the government have promised to match – and it seems a little churlish under the circumstances to say it wasn’t terribly entertaining because the fact that they were able to get it together at all was quite something. It was a real logistical achievement and they should be saluted for that.

And that’s about it for today. Stay safe and don’t be like these Pharisees in Ohio who proclaimed that they were safe from C19 from being ‘washed in the blood of Christ.’ Their pastor recently died of the virus.

Try not to laugh…

Kirk out

Cromwell Rides Again: a Review of ‘The Mirror and the Light’

Hilary Mantel is everywhere at the moment; there’s a documentary on the iplayer and Wolf Hall is back too, the series comprising the first two novels of the Cromwell trilogy. But it’s the third volume that I’m concerned with here. I’ve finally got my thoughts together to give you that long-promised review, so here it comes. Is it any good? Yes. Is it brilliant? Yes and double-yes. Does she deserve to get yet another Booker, making it a hat trick? Well, it’s a hard thing to pull off and it depends on the competition but I’d say she’s earned it, so yes again.

Why is it so good? Well, first of all there’s the character of Cromwell. Mantel has set herself a huge challenge here, to make us love the ostensibly unlovable Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s fixer who at first sight seems to have the morals of an East End gangster. Son of a thoroughly abusive blacksmith, Cromwell is taken under the wing of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he serves till the Cardinal’s downfall. Then, through a mixture of guile, bluntness and sheer hard work, he becomes Henry’s fixer, engineering his marriage to Anne Boleyn and then to his two successive wives.

The novel opens with Anne Boleyn on the scaffold, kneeling in prayer as she awaits the axe; and it continues in the same vein. It is strewn with brutal state-sanctioned murders of which beheadings are the most benign, followed by hangings, then hangings-drawings-and-quarterings and finally burnings at the stake, which can be better or worse depending on the type of wood used and how dry it is. Cromwell witnesses his first burning as a child and it marks him for life.

So how does Mantel get us to love this singularly unlovable character? She does so by making him a democrat; an egalitarian. Cromwell has risen from lowly surroundings and although in serving the King he serves his own ambition, he is generous to his social inferiors, promoting those with ability, treating women as his equals and allowing his daughters to marry whom they wish. Tragically both wife and daughters die early on from a fever, another reminder of the omnipresence of death in Tudor society. Cromwell’s democratic instincts also lead him to passionately promote Tyndale’s New Testament, a dangerous undertaking which challenges the authority of the priests. Cromwell may be modern but he is not modernised: he believes strongly in God and wants people to be able to read His word in their own language.

We know the main thrust of the story of course: divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived is imprinted on our childhood memories. But it’s the details we don’t know: the small beer drunk for breakfast, the prayers said at noon and at dusk, the Lenten fast, the stinking rivers, the rushes on the floor thrown out and renewed daily; the smell of the privy and the stench of Henry’s infected leg. But one of the most fascinating details for me was the HA-HAs: not the sunken hedges so popular in the 18th century but decorations with Henry and Anne’s initials intertwined. These had been put up in all the King’s houses like Christmas tinsel and of course they all had to be removed on her death, down to the very last one. Henry cannot be reminded of his murdered wife, now that he hopes to court another.

The first part of the novel deals with the machinations needed to bring Jane Seymour to court and Cromwell’s attempts to reconcile the King to his daughter Mary. He is successful in both these endeavours and as we know the King marries Jane Seymour. But the marriage only lasts a few years as she too dies, so off Cromwell goes once more to seek another suitable bride. What is clear from these machinations is not only the religious contortions necessary to reconcile Henry’s actions with church doctrine (these would not be out of place under Stalin) but also the way women are traded and moved about like pieces on a chess board purely for the purposes of breeding. It’s a genteel world on the outside but brutal on the inside. Speaking of Stalin there’s a moment reminiscent of The Death of Stalin where Henry collapses and appears to have died and Norfolk unwisely goes about shouting and proclaiming himself as heir. ‘Me! Me!’ It’s a farcical, almost comic moment – and by the way, if you haven’t seen The Death of Stalin I urge you to rectify that omission immediately. I think it’s still on Netflix.

After a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing involving painting of portraits by Holbein so each could see what the other looked like (no Tinder in those days) the King is induced to select Anne of Cleves as his next wife. Unfortunately illness spoils her looks and careful contriving is necessary to present her properly to the King. But Henry ruins all by his impetuosity; he rides out to meet her on the way and bursts in to surprise her. The meeting is not a success, and neither is the marriage. Soon another divorce is in the offing.

But does Henry blame himself for being so precipitate? Of course not, he blames Cromwell; and from the moment of that unhappy meeting Cromwell’s days are numbered. He is taken to the Tower and questioned to prove some sort of heresy as a pretext for his murder; questioning to which he submits calmly, only asking as to the manner of his death. Thankfully it is beheading, the most merciful of all the options – but even so he remarks as he ascends the scaffold that the executioner appears drunk. Not a good sign.

And so ends Cromwell and the trilogy.

And this review. Go read the book; available at all good outlets. Just don’t give Amazon any more money because I think they have enough.

Kirk out

Forget Hand-Sanitiser. You Need a Digital Detox

Thanks to Brian I discovered The National Day of Unplugging – or what I prefer to think of as Digital Detox Day. Methinks I’ll give this a try, I said to myself, and full of enthusiasm, rushed to convey the news to OH. ‘Hmm,’ said they, ‘this hath the very sound and trick of speech of that stuff on the Talmud I’ve been reading. Let me see…’ and lo! we discovered that digital detox day is in fact the same the Jewish Sabbat, only once a year rather than every week. The idea is simple; from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday you turn off all devices and connect with other people. And so I set an alarm for 5.37, then turned off my phone (the battery was dead anyway) replaced my laptop with a book and kept the TV dark. It helped that I was going out on Friday night, but all day Saturday I read, contemplated, focussed on my food instead of my phone and had actual, real-life conversations.

At the end of it I could feel the difference in my brain. At first I got all twitchy and reached for my phone every few minutes to check the weather or look someone up on imdb or see if there was a reply to my email – but after a few hours I got used to not having it and began actually to focus on what I was doing. Instead of reading the paper with my phone and laptop on and switching from one to the other, I just read the paper. I focussed entirely on reading the paper. Then in the afternoon OH and I went to our favourite cafe and talked – no phones, no distractions – and it was the best conversation we’d had in a long while.

If you’ve been following OH’s blog (and who hasn’t?) you’ll know that their current obsession is following the Talmud, so we’ve decided to do the detox thing together every week. Which means that from now on every weekend, from sunset on Friday to the same time on Saturday I will not be available via phone, Facebook, email, Skype or What’s app, so if you want to talk to me you’ll have to come over. There’s an excellent list here of what to do with your time during this period – it’s very positive and includes such things as ‘drink wine’ and ‘get outside’. Much better than a litany of thou shalt not‘s.

And as a sign of my commitment to reading more, I’ve bought a floor lamp. It’s very bright…

Kirk out


I mentioned yesterday that one of the books I’ve been reading is in the genre of Mormon crime fiction (though Mette Harrison may be that genre in its entirety.) As a fellow Goodreads reviewer commented, His Right Hand is very badly written, the narrative is interrupted by large swodges of exposition and if I could critique it in one phrase it would be the time-honoured show don’t tell. Harrison never passes up the opportunity to explain Mormon history (less is more might be another useful phrase) and dialogue is strewn with so many of these snippets that to read it is like navigating an obstacle course. The main character also has long and rather irritating periods of self-analysis in which she alternately considers it her responsibility to leap in and sort things out and feels guilty for everything that goes wrong; both equally unrealistic postures.

Basically, it’s a murder mystery set in a Mormon community not far from Salt Lake City. A prominent member of the church is found murdered and – here I could warn of spoiler alerts but you’re hardly likely to read it so I won’t bother – in this seemingly perfect family all is not as it seems. Not only is the deceased legally a woman though living as a man (the transgender narrative pursues me everywhere) his wife is not the sweet submissive woman she appears. There’s a gay extra-marital affair and an illegitimate daughter as well as another gay son, all fuelled by more batches of cookies than you could ever wish to lay eyes on, baking cookies being the denominator of femininity in this community. But what kept me ploughing through this was not so much the plot as the insight it afforded into Mormon society and the slow revelation that those inside it care far more about maintaining the structures than about maintaining the people. There are complex layers of authority and what we in the Society of Friends would call oversight, but they have more to do with policing than caring, and they don’t shrink from casting out those who do not conform.

I can’t recommend this book as a novel, but I guess if you’re interested in finding out where Mormons are at, it’s as good a guide as any.

Now: it has just come to my attention that I started this blog intending to write about something else altogether. Synchronicity, when things pop up in a random sequence of coincidences, is something I notice from time to time. You may be thinking of a song you haven’t heard for years, switch on the radio and there it is. Or you might be talking about a person you haven’t seen since childhood and they pop up on Facebook. That sort of thing. It seems to mean something but since Jung first came up with the idea, nobody has been able to say precisely what; and so it was that having picked up this book without any idea of the theme, I also picked up Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet. Though both are crime novels, the settings (Baker St and Utah) could hardly be further apart. Or so you might think; yet turning to the rarely-dramatised Part Two of Conan Doyle, what do we find? ‘The Country of the Saints’ in which an as yet unknown character finds himself in Utah and meets the caravan led by Brigham Young. This turns out to be a lengthy back-story to the main murder. Who’d have thought?

I mean, what are the chances of picking up two crime novels more or less at random – in the UK – and finding they both have a Mormon theme?

And how am I doing with watching less TV? Not so bad; last night I read for a bit, then got the keyboard out and played before watching a couple of episodes of Doc Martin. Then reading some more before bed. Total viewing time: 1.5 hours. Not too bad.

Kirk out

Nobody Expects… The Bishop!

It’s natural to one of my generation that anything absurd or strange immediately recalls Python, and this one also serves as a timely tribute to Terry Jones (video unavailable but watch this instead, it’s really funny.) Those of you not of a religious bent (no pun intended, I don’t do that sort of thing) may have scrolled through the recent announcement by the Council of Bishops without it touching the sides, but it took many of us by surprise and I have taken the time to respond to this helpful blog post which explains some of what’s going on.

Basically I’m thankful not to be an Anglican any more because I no longer have to wrestle with dogma and creed. Quakers have always taken an approach to change which is both thoughtful and fluid; we are therefore able to respond to social change without feeling hidebound by doctrine and I’m happy to say that Friends embraced the rights of gays and lesbians as early as the 1970’s. There are a number of sections in Quaker Faith and Practice which deal with this. But if you’re an Anglican (this goes double for Catholics) you have to wrestle with a creed and doctrines that most of us now find outdated and irrelevant, and square the impossible circle of holding on to tradition whilst engaging with society at the same time. It simply can’t be done. So what’s a bishop to do?

I have no idea, but the Bishops’ statement does not seem helpful – but to be fair it does seem to have been more cock-up than conspiracy, at least according to this Church Times article.

What do you think? Perhaps it could not matter less to you but there are gays and lesbians (incredibly) still in the church who will be deeply affected by this debate.

Kirk out

Sex, Sex, Sex – But Not For You

Well, I just don’t know where the Church of England is at right now. It seems to have got its cassocks in a twist about sex (again) in the context of civil partnerships and come up with the spectacularly retrograde advice that sex is only between a man and a woman, and even then they have to be married. So just in case you’re unsure, sex before marriage is out, sex outside marriage is out, and sex if you’re in a gay or lesbian marriage is out. Sex is also out if you’re in a civil partnership but not married. Clear? Basically if you’re not sure, don’t do it. It all sounds a bit like this to me.

What’s not at all clear is where the hell this is coming from. It seems to have come out of the blue and to run counter to the cautious, slow-moving liberalism of recent decades. I wouldn’t say I’ve been following the C of E’s deliberations closely but I do keep an ear to the ground and I’ve heard no rumour of this at all, nor can I find any articles or interviews yet which enlighten me.

You’re probably thinking this couldn’t matter less in your life, and you’re probably right – but it matters to a lot of people. About eighteen months ago I went to the best church service I’d ever attended, a Pride celebration in the parish church of Loughborough. It was fantastic, and in stark contrast to this, probably one of the worst services I’ve ever attended. People felt included and accepted; there was a real sense of communion and love. Instead of people crying outside the church there were people being celebrated within it. This church statement basically tears all that up, because if gays and lesbians can be married but can’t have sex they can’t be fully married.

At the moment I can only speculate on where this is coming from. Is it an attempt to appease Catholics or hard-liners within the church? Or has some faction or other has got hold of the decision-making process? I don’t know. We shall see how these things unfold. But these problems always arise when you have creeds and dogmas. I’m happy to say that Quakers have accepted gays and lesbians as full members with the same rights as straight people ever since the 1970’s. We don’t have a top-down approach to change but a thoughtful, consensual, across-the-board process in which everyone can take part.

Not that I’m wanting to be smug or anything…

Kirk out

How Clean is Your Husting?

Last night OH and I attended a local hustings. The word ‘hustings’ comes from the old Norse house thing where a thing means a parliament or discussion, as it still does in Iceland.

Locally these things – I mean these affairs – are usually pretty well run; civilised and with a minimum of shouting, unlike some I’ve seen clips of (though to be fair the clips aren’t likely to give a balanced view). Questions were submitted in advance to all five candidates (Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Tory and another which I’ll come to in a minute) and the hustings was chaired by —– and hosted by Churches Together in Loughborough. This proved in the end to be a significant factor.

When I first read Queenie Tea’s political pitch my reaction was, ‘what a waste of time.’ I couldn’t understand why a couple of artists would choose to faff around standing a non-candidate in an election where momentous issues were to be decided. But Queenie Tea proved to be a welcome bit of light relief and far from seeming to detract from the other candidates, offered some comforting insights as well as tea and biscuits.

Questions ran on the usual lines: Brexit, the NHS (huge support for Labour on this and derision for Jane Hunt’s assertion that under a Tory government the NHS would not be for sale) and the climate emergency. I found the Green candidate disappointing; he was the only BAME member of the panel but I thought failed to show the necessary passion and conviction needed for Green issues in these times (it has long been a regret of mine that I can’t vote Labour and Green at the same time.)

Then the questions diverged a little. As could have been predicted, there was a fairly hostile question on antisemitism in the Labour Party accusing Corbyn of being anti-semitic (lots of no’s.) Stuart dealt with this competently and confidently, saying that there were problems in all parties, that Corbyn was not an antisemite (applause) but that Labour should have done more, and more quickly, to deal with a small group of people who had probably joined in 2015 and who were bringing the party into disrepute. Then came the most bizarre moment of the evening, a long speech (practically a rant) on ‘Christian values’, asking candidates how they would uphold these in the face of the ‘descent into depravity’ of the last 30 years and citing examples of Christians not being able to wear crosses or pray with people in hospital or refuse to bake cakes. There was clearly a lot of unease at the tone of this but here Queenie Tea’s response was the most sensible, blaming rampant consumerism for the decay in values while the others waffled a little and failed to pick up on the homophobia and lack of cultural diversity implicit in the question.

At this point I was waving my hand around furiously as there was a comment I really wanted to make – but sadly we were out of time so I’ll have to tell you instead. Churches Together in England have rejected a Quaker nominee for president because she is a lesbian married to another woman, which has caused great hurt and upset in the Quaker community as well as among GSM people. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog I have come across many examples of homophobia in the church and a few years ago walked out of a sermon to find a young man weeping outside. How can this be Christian? On the plus side last year I went to a Pride service in Loughborough which was the best service I’d ever been to. Now I ask you, which speaks more of Christ – condemnation or inclusion? There’s a very apt saying going around Facebook: ‘if you want to put the Christ back in Christmas feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, help the poor.’ Those are Christian values.

Kirk out