Saturday, September 07, 2013

A quick review of an afternoon seeing Alan Bennett's People at the new Rep in #brum

The dry-acidic wit on Alan Bennett was turned of faith, volunteering and the aristocracy as his recent ‘People’ transferred to the reopened ‘Rep Theatre’ in Birmingham, from the National Theatre in London. This part-farce, part socially observant satire is the latest offering from the writers pen and contained the usual wit and wisdom, the question is – would a man so famous for his short soliloquies manage to hold together the script for a full 2hr play?

The story

The tale is a simple one. It is a take on the decline of a stately home in Yorkshire and follows two sisters as they battle for the future of their family home. 

The current inhabitant is a one-time model and now long term recluse who spends her days sleeping in her chair and reading a back catalogue of newspapers to catch up with the ones she never read. She wants a life of glamour and excitement and is not happy about the suggestion of  giving the house to the National Trust. Instead, she courts an auctioneer (as his mysterious benefactors) and then later re-meets a former friend from the '60s who is now a specialist film maker.

The other sister is an Archdeacon who flounces in and out of the play and has an air of ‘don’t you know what is good for you’ about her.  She wants the house handed over to the beloved 'National Trust' and have done with it. The character, as with that of her superior (the Bishop) is unfortunately very two dimensional. Her acting is hammy and – worst of all – the character doesn’t have room to breath. Whereas the inhabitant has small moments to grow and mature in our eyes, the other sister never has the vulnerable moments and this feeling only increases as the play carries on.

This relationship is played out among a wider cast of characters who play bit-parts that fill out one scene and change before the next. Each scene grows and falls as a small playlit and somehow manage to capture the imagination for the whole 2.2hrs.

What didn’t quiet work

The problem for the whole production was that it somehow didn’t quiet sit comfortably as a story from one of the nations greatest writers. The actors and actresses had some fine turns, but this was undermined by hammy setpieces when the winning supporter renovated the space and by a preference for some of the actors to play up to the space. 

This second point seemed even more criminal because the joy of Alan Bennett isn’t just his wit, it’s his focus on the small details. The production was suffocated by its lack of being small.  The characters tried to fill the magnificent new stage with their presence, instead of - as rarely did happen - drawing us into their space by speaking and moving in small, quiet ways.

A point brought most dramatically to life with the closing scenes which somehow lifted the play to a better level and demonstrated how small, simple acts and movements can make a real difference and a well placed soliloque deliver a moving and challenging critique of society.

The acting is only as good as the text

However these are niggles. What is more concerning is something that no actor or actress can ever iron out. The inability of Alan Bennett to know how to write for young women and , in some ways, to ensure surrounding characters move beyond stereotype. The bishop was an awful character (with no space to grow) and the young leading female was a poor stereotype of an eastern European woman with accent and misunderstanding played for laughs.

Final conclusion? A solid 3.5 stars. Like the decline of a stately home, the overall fabric of the tale is left wanting but there are flashes of the authors true talent hidden within the walls.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Could Jenny be just right? #greenparty #houseoflords

The UK system of democracy is fascinating. It's main body is elected by first past the post, a less than proportional voting system. The check and balance to this group is a body (now) appointed by groups that sit in the body they scrutinise.

Today a list of peers was released indicating who was nominated on behalf of which party. As per usual it's an embarrassing mockery of the principle of fair scrutiny. Party donors and former elected leaders of representatives fill the list.

Two names stand out though. First is Doreen Laurence. Nominated under a labour flag, she had spent a decade fighting the system to bring justice. How will she continue that fight and challenge the system when being politically whipped and sitting among those who may have failed her and her case?

Image by Tanoshimi released under Creative Commons
The second is Jenny Jones. A former Mayoral Candidate and current Member of the London Assembly, her appointment at first appears like the usual affirmation of the political norms. However, as a member of the Green Party - who are opposed to an unelected second chamber - she has been suggested in a unique manner.

A few years ago all Green Party members received a ballot paper. This asked each of us to vote for who we felt would make the best representative for the party in the upper house. Anyone from the party could have stood and between us we voted Jenny top.

Now we are in the situation of putting theory into practice. Jenny's move means she has a unique angle. She enters the lords and has a real mandate to be there from the party she represents.

For some greens this single act is nothing more than sacrilegious defamation of the Green Party's aim of a wholly elected second chamber. For me though, her taking the role is no more an affirmation of the House of Lord's then Caroline Lucas's win under First Past-the-Post being a green acceptance of the current voting setup.

The challenge for the Green Party is to take this further. To think about how, beyond the membership, it can discover other to elect to fulfil greenparty coverage in the House of Lords. Today doesn't mark the end of green disappointment in the House of Lords, it marks the start of subverting the selection system and opening up of how people get there.

Next is what happens when she gets there. will she vote and speak regularly? will she advocate for progressive politics or will she simply drift away to be an occasional attender and voter? The first act of quiet revolution is to take power - the second is how you use it. will she continue to bring a different approach? Nobody knows, only she is in control of that.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Sermon covering some of the #liesaboutpoverty report

Did you know that you and I may be complicit in allowing a grave injustice to happen and continue to be developed? It’s not a nice thought however, in this mornings sermon, I’d like to explain what the injustice is and how the gospel focus on repentance provides some of the tools to start challenging that injustice!

INfluence - Repentance - Background to the myths

Who influences you in the way you live your life? Maybe they are someone famous or maybe they are someone known personally. What is likely to be the case is that something untouchable has significantly affected your life - your upbringing, both cultural and geographic which will substantially affect the way you view things.

I grew up in Edinburgh and I know that that significantly affected my views on various things. A good example is Geography - for me anyone south of Berwick is ‘the south’, so to hear people refer to someone like yorkshire as ‘the north’ always raises a smile. There are of course some language differences, but I won’t cover those in a pulpit, as well as wider socio economic ones based upon the situation i found myself in.

While interesting - why does this potted biography matter? We are challenged by todays gospel reading to take seriously the need for repentance.  Those in the reading were similar in background to those who had been slaughtered and they were concerned they were also in trouble.  Therefore Jesus response to repent may have sounded odd to our ears.

However, help is at hand in the words of Canon Marcus Borg. He is a leading american theologian and he has spent a long time studying historical, sociological and other meanings behind key phrases in the bible to see what other truths he can reveal. A significant discovery he shares is a simple one - that if we trace the word repentance back to its greek core we find that it means simply “to go beyond the mind we have”.

What? I hear you cry - what does that mean? Think back to the opening question I posed... who influences you and the way you live your live. Then think about your own personal journey of faith and the way that your faith has changed the way you live your life.

Canon Borg explains

““The mind we have is the mind acquired by being socialised in our particlar place and time.....So to go beyond the mind that we have means seeing in a new way - a way shaped by God as known decisively in Jesus... that is repentance.”

Therefore Jesus call to repentance is about one of transformation. This transformation doesn’t just stop with us - it has nation changing consequences.

On Friday this week a slim, but important document was released. Titled ‘ The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ it was produced to shine a light on the attitudes behind some of the recent welfare reforms and demonstrates how we are all - politicians, media, churchgoer and public, culpable in promoting some dangerous myths that make life for the poorest in our society difficult.

What makes this report so significant are the authors - policy experts from the Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed and Church of SCotland Churches. Therefore they speak from experience, knowledge, a passion for the poorest and an understanding of church contexts:

Let me share the 6 myths - and why they are a myth

Myth 1: ‘They’ are lazy and don’t want to work

The most commonly cited cause of child poverty by churchgoers and the general public alike is that “their parents don’t want to work”. Yet the majority of children in poverty are from working households. 

Myth 2 ‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs

Churchgoers and the wider public cite addiction as the second most common cause of child poverty. While addiction is devastating for the families and communities touched by it, fewer than 4% of benefit  claimants report any form of addiction. 

MYTH 3 ‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly

Nearly 60% of the UK population agrees that the poor could cope if only they handled their money properly. The experience of living on a low income is one of constant struggle to manage limited resources, with small events having serious consequences. 

MYTH 4 ‘They’ are on the fiddle

Over 80% of the UK population believe that “large numbers falsely claim benefits”. Benefit fraud has decreased to historically low levels - the kind of levels that the tax system can only dream of. Less than 0.9% of the welfare budget is lost to fraud.

MYTH 5 ‘They’ have an easy life

Over half the British public believes benefi ts are too high and churchgoers tend 
to agree. Government ministers speak of families opting for benefi ts as a lifestyle 
choice. Yet we know that benefits do not meet minimum income standards. They 
have halved in value relative to average incomes over the last 30 years. We know 
the ill and the unemployed are the people least satisfi ed and happy with life. 

MYTH 6 ‘They’ caused the deficit

The proportion of our tax bills spent on welfare has remained stable for the last 20 years. It is ridiculous to argue, as some have, that increasing welfare spending is responsible for 
the current deficit. 

I would love to unpick each and every one of these myths but that would be - if it hasn’t been already - information overload. So I would like to focus on a myth that I know about and really get exhasperated about

“Myth 5 - ‘They’ have an easy life”

When was the last time you claimed benefits? Was it for yourself or for someone else? The last one I claimed was child benefit for my (relatively) newborn son. Before that it was a challenging mix of housing and jobseekers beneft. Challenging - not because I hadn’t paid in enough to the system - but because of the headaches involved in getting all the paperwork correct.

Think back to the last form you filled in - did you find it easy? Maybe it was for a passport or a pension - what do you remember about it?

I remember all the large, heavy, typed legal warnings threatening all sorts of repercussions on anyone who makes a mistake while filling them in. The impleied and real pressure of correct completion is a very real problem. Disability rights activists have highlighted many problems with trying to successfully complete very challenging forms without causing mental health problems for the individual completing it.

Sounds rather abstract really. So let me read, again from the report, a brief case study of a real person:

Alex moved out of his foster carer’s a few years ago. Like many young people his age, he is trying to stand on his own two feet.

In spite of his best efforts, including volunteering and taking courses, Alex has been unable to find work. Alex has dyspraxia and Global Development Delay.

Rather than feeling comfortable within the welfare system, Alex struggles to cope with the weekly panic of having to claim benefits. 

Earlier this year, a reduction in his Disability Living Allowance started a domino effect on his other benefits and he had to move from his one bedroom fl at into a bedsit. “Every two weeks, I panic in case I haven’t done something right on the [Jobseeker’s Allowance] form. 
“It’s horrible. I have a little money, but if they did cut my money for, say, two weeks I wouldn’t know what to do… There’s been a few changes with my money this year, which has been quite worrying. Very worrying, actually. It’s a bit complicated, but because I’m sort of more able to live on my own they cut my Disability [Living Allowance].”

Despite the instability in Alex’s life, he feels that his confidence is growing and says he is more “able to deal with knock-backs.” However, a stable job is still the ultimate goal; not only offering the prospect of a secure income, but the difference between make or-break

That is the reality of our viewpoint. By thinking that claiming benefits is mentally or physically an easy choice or thing to do we all enable people on benefits to become financial whipping boys while the government faces financial truths.

However, the report I read from has a vital reminder - we are to be people of hope and light and that is the note I wish to finish on.


I started this sermon by reflecting on the meaning of the word repentance - about how - like a butterfly from a crysalis - repentance is about breaking free from what bound our view and understanding before and now we can take flight and draw closer to the will of God.

Whenever I think about the will of God i continue to come to messages of peace, justice and love for the poorest in society. That is, as the report says not to glibly accept that ‘the poor will always be with us’ but to view the fact that there is poverty in this world as a sign that we are not yet living in the kingdom of God and so should be seeting about building it today.

6 simple myths are being put about that are enabling the welfare state as we know it to be redrawn, sold off and the poorest in our societies marginalised, brutalised and stigmatised.

Nobody deserves that. We profess that we believe in life in all its fullness - yet until we repent about our silence on this topic - we are enabling people to be opressed by poverty and declining standards of living.

Today’s gospel highlights a continued theme throughout the life of Jesus. He challenged, critized, rebuked and turned tables in churches because they became too focused on themselves and worshiping false idols of money and power. Today’s gospel he turns to those who think ‘it’ll never happen to me / we are better than the galacians’ and says that if  they do not repent the violent end could happen to them.

Therefore my first act of repentance, when I read this report was to email my MP and highlight that they have been sent the report. In my email I acknowledged that I learnt things in the report and would be altering the way I spoke about each of the issues. I knew my life had been changed but I also knew that unless those in power were also challenged to change the injustice will continue.

Our faith, through drawing near with God, can and will change the world. The question is - will we risk doing so - and state that popular truths have no fact behind them - or will we stay quiet because as long as it doesn’t affect me it’ll all be alright.


Monday, February 11, 2013

The #popes predicament - or leadership in the churches

Rarely can news ever be truly surprising. However, unless The Guardian liveblog (among others) was mislead, the announcement today of Pope Benedict's retirement was a genuine surprise.

Pundits, politicians and preachers now flood the airwaves to provide their views and construct a narrative of the pontif's reign. What the talking heads cover is the character of the individual, I'd like to look forward and consider the characteristics of the next Pope.

1) Ecumenical in outlook

The current pope, from a UK perspective, played a key role in either seeing off or accelerating divisions within the Church of England by enabling the creation of the Ordinariate. While it may have taken the heat out of an element of the CofE's internal theological politics, from the outside it seemed like some nifty poaching. The Catholic Church, alongside all churches in Europe, are forced to consider their place in a truly multicultural Europe. The new pope should be willing to facilitate further talks and public activities to demonstrate to the world key points of unity among Christians.

B) Global in Outlook - Recent popes have come from Europe. Statistics show mass growth in faith among people outside of Europe. Therefore maybe it's time for someone from outside of the churches traditional geographical power base to come forward and reflect new global patterns of worship and growth.

C) focused on young people - the Catholic Church institutional has a challenging history when it comes to young people. What is less well covered are the global young people's days that fill stadia with thousands of young Catholics for prayer and worship. If the pope is to nudge the church from a difficult past to a positive future then they must take clear action to tackle abuse while also ensuring today's young people are invested in and recognised in.

D) a communicating pope - leadership within the church is a difficult situation. From the experiences of the current pope it is also clear that fresh faces can be difficult to bring forward. It would be fascinating to see, in an age of social media where spokespeople are more fluid, flexible and fast moving what attitudes to communication the new pope brings.

E) a liberating pope - finally it would be excellent to see a pope whose faith developed through struggle. The catholic faith is at its clearest when speaking out on issues of social justice. This can only come to life through lived experience and listening to the experiences of others. As both head of a faith group and head of state, he will be in a near unique position to bring to the poorest and most powerful a message of liberation.

( The one big issue I haven't covered is the role of multifaith because I haven't seen how it has been done previously )

The new pope will have a physical and virtual inbox overflowing with issues. I'll be interested to see what characteristics they bring and what issues they truly take to heart.

Fascinating times ...

Thursday, December 06, 2012

2012 - A Feeble Birthday for the Methodist Church

Happy Birthday Methodist Church! It's been 80 years since the Weslyean, Primative and United Connexion's came together and it's a sad reflection on the state of the church that no-one has seen fit to mark it. But why does this matter?
The first reason a lack of celebration matters is the fact this highlights what can only be described as a lack of confidence in ourselves to have a story worth telling. Looking at my bookshelves I find a mirriad of political and social stories covering 1932 - around 198something and then a flurry of books around the turn of the millenium revisiting some key questions facing the church. It is clear that we have spent time looking at our place in the world, but not really promoting the people
This year could never be considered a tickertape year for the Methodist Church. The ongoing challenges of declining membership and undertaking a significant culture shift within the church to meet the society of today has lead to some very hard decisions. It just saddens me that, for an institution so often mocked for being stuck in the past, we don't have the fundraising or movement building nous to celebrate that past and  80 years of changing lives around the connexion. It can only lead me to a simple question: Is our movement's story that uninspiring?

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Sunday Song: A Very Modern Methodist (with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)

A wee treat for you that was originally posted in the UK Methodist Group. With Methodist Conference 2013 being hosted by Westminster Central Hall we would have the perfect setting for a performance of this fine ditty....

(Reproduced here with the author's permission to enable wider sharing)


I am the very model of a modern mainstream Methodist,
I find myself under attack both by the fundamentalist,
And the growing number who are all completely secular,
And claim that the whole universe is solely molecular,
The one lot think I’m stupid and the rest that I’m a heretic,
Despite my finest reasoning and arguments so very quick
And so I play the middle line against the pull of each extreme
Whilst they all think that I am on the evil and opposing team!

We still think Wesley’s sermons are the pinnacle rhetorical
And our Eucharistic wine is still non-alcoholical,
But at least our bread is bread unlike the Ordinariate,
Who can keep their rotten wafers, even when they transubstantiate!

I am the very model of a modern mainstream Methodist,
We tend to be quite open and aren’t really over-prejudiced
We’ve got female ministers and have a preaching laity
And think that they are equal in the sight of our deity,
We are still debating on the issue homosexual,
Is it that immoral; is it socially contextual?
But you’ll never find us being a little bit disparaging,
And we give them blessing services as we discuss gay marriaging.

People think I’m properly supposed to shun the demon drink,
But I enjoy a pint or four and I must say I really think
That all God’s gifts are good for you when used in moderation,
After all ‘twas God Himself invented fermentation!

In fact when I know off by heart ‘And Can It Be’ and ‘Love Divine’
And don’t believe you’re justified ahead of time by pre-design,
And when I think God tends towards being fairly lenient,
By making sure His grace is free and totally prevenient.
When we arrange our churches in an order circuituitous,
And know that to be Methodist is really most fortuitous.
It means we know that we are right when holding forth doctrinally,
Though our congregation sizes tend to trend declinally.

And when I know of what you speak by Wesleyan and Primitive,
And think that my theology is totally definitive,
And when I’m really rather rude about the poor old Calvinist,
You'll say I am the model of a modern mainstream Methodist!

Written by Thomas Jones 2012 (with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)


Monday, August 06, 2012

The lib dems are in trouble - bring on real 3rd party politics

The failure of the Liberal Democrats to secure Lords Reform is a key political moment of this parliament. This ideological carrot, offered at a the end of a very long political stick of issues many in the party were unhappy to support, has gone rotten before the party got to taste it. If their use of power means they cannot get core legislation passed then it is highly likely their upcoming elections won’t prove enjoyable viewing for the yellow birds of politics.

However, we shouldn’t toast their impending political implosion without realising the consequences. The collapse of a small, yet relatively successful, political party could risk turning the beginnings of a multi-party state, back into a more dull and difficult two-party state.

For if the lib-dems collapse it is an imperative for any third party to step up and fill that gap. The continuing decline in voter turnout makes clear that the general population do not view any of the main political parties as ‘talking their language’, and as consensus breaks over solutions to the economic crisis there is a clear gap for a third party to step up.

The failure of the Liberal Democrats to secure Lords Reform is a key political moment of this parliament. This ideological carrot, offered at a the end of a very long political stick of issues many in the party were unhappy to support, has gone rotten before the party got to taste it. If their use of power means they cannot get core legislation passed then it is highly likely their upcoming elections won’t prove enjoyable viewing for the yellow birds of politics.

However, we shouldn’t toast their impending political implosion without realising the consequences. The collapse of a small, yet relatively successful, political party could risk turning the beginnings of a multi-party state, back into a more dull and difficult two-party state.

For if the lib-dems collapse it is an imperative for any third party to step up and fill that gap. The continuing decline in voter turnout makes clear that the general population do not view any of the main political parties as ‘talking their language’, and as consensus breaks over solutions to the economic crisis there is a clear gap for a third party to step up.

The ability of a third party to set up is difficult. The two main contenders, the Green Party and UKIP have both have very different levels of success and both continue to poll around 5% in public opinion polls. This distance, from less than 5% to electoral success is made even more difficult by the fact that when either of the main two parties get out and campaign they inevitably focus on a variation of that well worn lib dem phrase, only ONE OR OTHER PARTY NAME will win here, deligitmising any other political debate.

This is a dangerous taste of what could come. Throughout history all political parties have contributed to shaping the nation we have today. However the problems of tomorrow are not solved by the solutions of yesterday.  If this is true then we also need some new thinking. However without realising that the time to take alternative arguments is now, then the chance of a lifetime to radically shift political thinking will be missed.

This is a dangerous taste of what could come. Throughout history all political parties have contributed to shaping the nation we have today. The two main political parties have much to offer the situations faced by the country today. However the problems of tomorrow are not solved by a reliance on those who provided the solutions of yesterday.  We still need some new thinking. However without realising that the time to take alternative arguments is now, then the chance of a lifetime to radically shift political thinking will be missed.

PS - Of course it isn't just a 3rd party that is needed, its a 4th, a 5th etc and a wide an active civil society...

Friday, May 18, 2012

reviews #wingsofdesire from Birmingham

For the past week there has been a small technological feast growing in central Birmingham. Victoria Square has been slowly taken over by flight cases, spotlights and portable staging. On paper, a 9.30pm piece of outdoor theatre might not sound good - yet having walked through the square for three days curiosity took the better of me. Last night I fought through exhaustion to experience "Wings of Desire".

The performance starts with Goldie (he of Celebrity Big Brother fame) welcoming us and explaining that 'angels only see the world in black and white'. After a few more heavily laden, scene setting words, the real action starts as the circus troup take to the stage and begin to dance (something!) out.

What evolves, through a mixture of dance, film and visuals is a representation of a personal struggle and strife to move from the angels world to that of the human. Why? because the angel had tasted love and wanted that again.
Overall the story was a simple one. Man meets girl and falls in love. What makes the piece come alive is the constant rotating of viewing opportunities and some outstanding physical moves.

The dancing and gymnastics was stunning. A highlight of the evening is a beautiful single piece where an individual in bright red does some stunning rope work suspended in-between the pillars of the old town hall. The same pillars later explode with some stunning visuals that show off technologies ability to create amazing mirages.

The let-down of the evening had to be the majority of the dialogue. Both on film and also on stage, the spoken words were too heavily laden and too sparse to be anything other than a distraction and interruption. While they helped shape an understanding of what was going on, they were too well crafted to be believable. A low light was a cracking video being spoilt by a spoken word track that kept repeating words (to the effective of) birmingham's a dump but I like it. This wasn't enjoyable and left a lot of the dialogue feeling like an overly earnest arts-council funded project desperately trying to be 'in touch' with its location. More relaxed, discursive dialogue would have worked much better.

Today the Olympic flame touches down in the UK and the nation of Cornwall will eat cream teas to celebrate. The flame, an addition to the 1933 Olympic Games, was meant to link one empire with another. Now it serves as a moral booster ahead of the games. For me, I'd instead suggest you take yourself down to Victoria Square and enjoy the (free) show tonight. This show, like the Olympics, is at its best when all is silent and we get the opportunity to marvel at the strength, beauty and delicacy of the human body.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Welcome @scm_britain members


Welcome to my blog - especially if you come across it after reading an excerpt from it in the latest 'Movement' magazine of the Student Christian Movement.

Click this link to read my interview with Hattie in Full

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dawkins, Stirchley, Bicyles .... On contacting a councilor in #BRUM

A fine pint. A good book, read by a fire. A cycle ride. These are things of a quality life. Unfortunatly cycling is becoming confusing in Birmingham. Until late October I'd cycle to and from work on the National Cycle Route. It made sense and ensured I didn't spend a lifetime in traffic jams clogging up my lungs with pollution. However, on the route there are on or two rather tight corners (including a blind bridge) where ... Even if approached walking the bicyle....there are some problems. Being the ever-eager local citizen I emailed my local councillor to ask for some mirros, to ensure everyone can see round the corners and progress as they wish. The answer was unsatisfying and I have yet to hear back on the final email. More bizarrely was this story about further confusion added to one section of the route. Due to an irratically reliable rail system and snails pace traffic, bicycles provide a key way for Birmingham to reduce pollution and increase everyone's health. It's a shame that it appears that the council wishes to demonise cyclists. From: John Cooper Date: 24 October 2011 17:23:51 GMT+01:00 To: Nigel Dawkins Subject: Re: Mirrors on National Cycle Route Dear Mr Dawkins Thank you for your response. It is good to see we have both got safety as our prime concern. My email concerned a few blind corners which present a challenge to everyone, pedestrian and cyclist, using the route. Would you be willing to install some mirrors (or similar) to ensure all are safe on this vital route? With Regards On 24 Oct 2011, at 15:38, Nigel Dawkins wrote: Dear John,   Thank for the email. Its an interesting point you mention but let me put a different view.   When I use the route as a pedestrian I am always unnerved by the speed that some cyclists travel along the route. There is clearly a view that it is exclusively a cycle track and that pedestrians must take their chances.    I have raised the issue of signage to inform cyclists that they are sharing this route with pedestrians and that they should be more considerate in their speed. We get exactly the same issue through Hazelwell Park where cyclists speed past park users.   Therefore I think the issue is not one of mirrors but cycling at a speed that is considerate to those who may be just round the corner.   Kind regards,   Nigel This email has been sent by Councillor Nigel Dawkins,  Selly Oak Constituency Chairman, elected councillor for Bournville, Cotteridge and Stirchley telephone : 0121 314 8742 (answering machine)   > Subject: Mirrors on National Cycle Route > From: John > Date: Mon, 24 Oct 2011 14:15:45 +0100 > To: Nigel Dawkins > > Dear Mr Dawkins > > I am a regular cyclist on the cycle route that takes people from cotteridge through cannon hill park, edgbaston etc into central birmingham. > > At two or three different points there are some dangerous turns/bridges that would benefit from something such as a mirror to enable both bicycle and pedestrian to see round corners and ensure no collisions or similar. > > Would you be able to sort out mirrors or similar at various points early on in the route? > > With Regards > > John

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

hears about a 'Flash Evensong' occuring at St Pauls, as part of #OccupyLSX

If two or three Christians gather in a room, at least one is destined (rightly or wrongly) to say that 'the media ignores us'. This certainly hasn't been true over the past week.  Ever since the first tent was pitched outside St Pauls Cathedral, as part of a global 'occupy movement', suddenly church ethics have been at the forefront.

At first nothing happened, then suddenly the church accepted the protest, then decided it would be wise if they moved, then said they would shut if they didn't move. Then St Pauls Cathedral Shut.

The newspapers and media went wild, and somehow the cathedral staggered through (for full coverage of this side of the story see Dave Allen Greens very high quality blog), meeting its legal obligations by holding eucharist behind closed doors.

While St Pauls shut the public out, something bubbled up and suddenly a 'flash evensong' sprung up and christians gathered to worship outside this iconic church.  As someone who regularily tweeted with Artsy Honker, the person who organised it, I emailed over some questions to find out more about this surprising, and exciting, move:

Artsy Honker
Please, tell us a wee bit about yourself
I'm a freelance musician and a church organist; I've lived in various bits of London for the last eleven years and currently live in Leytonstone.

You've somehow started an evensong movement at the Occupy London event. How did that happen?
I thought it would be good to have Evensong at St Paul's cathedral, and half-joked about doing it myself if they weren't letting people in for worship. Things sort of snowballed from there. I've had excellent help and support, particularly from the person who has the @FlashEvensong twitter account, but from lots of others too.

How did you feel in advance of the first evensong, 
when did you realise people had come along to take part?

Like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs! I didn't know how many people would turn up and I worried that either it would be just me, or that there would be so many I wouldn't have enough hymn sheets or something. But I knew I could count on at least some of the people who said they'd come, and so I decided to go for it. I was really glad I did.

Describe the moment of the worship that night that felt most like true worship to you?
For me, that was probably while we were singing the psalms. But I'm a musician, and I worship best in song. Others might have found other parts of the liturgy more meaningful.

What was the reaction from other occupiers as the service started?
Most of them left us alone; a few people joined in with us, but I don't really know if they were part of the protest camp or just visiting.

Why is there a need for an act of worship at the site?

The cathedral is a place of public worship, and has been for hundreds of years.

 Have you made any moves to encourage members of the St Pauls Clergy to attend/hold similar outdoor services?
All sorts of people are part of the occupation
Photo by Flickr user npmeijer 
I know that there was a service on Sunday afternoon that one of the St Paul's clergy was involved in; unfortunately I only found out about it after arriving, as it wasn't very well-publicised! I have tried to keep the cathedral "in the loop" about what we are doing, but as most of my communication on the subject is by twitter it may not have been noticed. Of course we would be delighted if any of the clergy of St Paul's could join us.

Do you know of any other religious events occurring within the occupation?
I've heard talk of some Quaker meetings, and I think there is a meditation/prayer tent. There were also celebrations of some Jewish festivals -- see here for links to the FaceBook pages:

Tonight another evensong will happen, how do you decide on the hymns/text?
We're using the same hymns as on Sunday: three well-known hymns. This is at least partly because I still have printouts from Sunday and I don't want to waste too much paper! But for another event on Sunday (which I can't attend because I've already committed to singing Evensong elsewhere) people are chosing them with an online poll.

 Social  media has been a strong part of creating these small acts, what role do you find it plays in creating and connecting christians around the uk?
I don't think of social media primarily as a tool for connecting Christians; rather it is a tool for connecting people. It does make getting in touch with people regardless of geography or circumstance a little bit easier; a lot of the people I speak with regularly on twitter, for example, are people I wouldn't have met in my everyday life. But some I agree with and some I argue with, just like in any other group of people.
St Pauls, 16 October, still open to the public
Photo by Flickr user garryknight

 What message do you think self-organising worship to occur outside a major cathedral sends to those inside the cathedral:
I don't know what message is being perceived, but I hope that those inside the cathedral see that we value the cathedral as a place of worship and would like it to be open for public services.

and those walking by
Again, it's hard to say. But I hope that the message is that Christianity is not just about the cathedral, or any building for that matter -- that we are all, if we choose, part of the church, and we are able to worship God wherever we are or whatever our circumstances.

Finally, if someone wanted to get involved but couldn't tonight, how can they find out more?
The best thing to do is probably to follow myself (@artsyhonker) or FlashEvensong (@FlashEvensong) on Twitter. Reading my blog at would also be good.

Thank You

Of course, this interesting story is doing the rounds at the moment so 
Read in the Guardian about it or listen to the interview on the World at One or read about Pete Philip's experience of visiting and praying at the occupation site/

Friday, September 23, 2011

hears from #dalefarm - of activism and advocacy

Travelers have never had great support in the UK. Look through history and it isn't long before you see tales of prejudice, hate and mistrust towards a more nomadic approach to life.  
The issue reached the headlines again this week as Dale Farm, and planned evictions. Today the media styled 'battle' for Dale Farm reaches a climax, after a court injunction stopped the bailiffs from acting on Wednesday. 
A friend of mine, Tim Gee, was at Dale Farm on Wednesday so I thought it worth finding out a wee bit more about him, his actions and what benefits he felt they brought:
Could you tell us a wee bit about yourself
Image of Tim Gee
from Guardian Comment is Free
I’m an activist, an author and a blogger. I’ve spent the last month dividing my time between my home in London and the Dale Farm traveler site in Essex.   
Why did you head over to Dale Farm?
Initially I went out simply to find out more. But on meeting with residents there it quickly became clear that a plain injustice is being threatened. People from one of the most discriminated-against groups in the country have bought a bit of land on a scrapyard to live with their community – but still the Council wants to move them on. As a poignant sign near the entrance reads: if not on a scrapyard then where?
What was the atmosphere like?

I’d say the atmosphere on the plot where the supporters are staying is one of determination. All of the supporters are there to make their contribution towards preventing a very immediate tangible wrong from being done. Most are willing to take admirable personal risks for the cause. But there is also a spirit of assistance for one another to learn new skills, to prepare psychologically for the potential horror of what may come, and a growing understanding between the residents and supporters on the site, forged through solidarity. Have you ever been involved in 'traveller' activism/defence before?
No I haven’t – I’ve mostly been involved in environmental stuff. There is an interesting link here though: arguably it was when travelers camped on the site of the proposed road over Twyford Down in 1992 that the bottom-up part of the environmental direct action movement really got started.       
Were the media labeled 'activists' people who had traveled in or part of the traveller community?
What is special about Dale Farm is the unprecedented solidarity from members of the settled community who constitute the majority of activists and supporters on site. The biggest in terms of physical bodies on site is Camp Constant – a base for Civil Disobediants and Legal Observers which has similarities with the Climate Camp in terms of the decision-making, food, structures and so on.

Then there are a number of NGO and CSOs including the Gypsy Council, PAD and the Irish Traveler Movement of Britain which I believe have people born into both the settled and the traveling communities involved.   
How were 'outsiders' helping, rather than antagonising a tense situation?
Every decision made by activists is led by the wishes of residents. Activists were invited by residents and if a majority or consensus wanted the supporters to go the activists would go. On the council’s stated eviction date last Monday many of us accompanied brave residents in their homes who would otherwise have been alone as the bailiffs approached. But in the event, the defenses were so well built that the bailiffs were not even able to breach the perimeter.   
You’re a poster boy for Quakerism this year - did your Quaker beliefs influence your attendance and/or your response to the situation
Quakers are often asked questions like that and often find it hard to respond. It isn’t that Quaker beliefs influence me one way or another, but that I try to live my life a certain way and being a Quaker is part of that. Having said that there were certainly aspects of the shape of the struggle that correspond with Quaker methods - including consensus decision making and nonviolent resistance, but I was only aware of two or three other supporters there having Quaker connections.
 What would you see a 'just' solution to the situation being?
Dale Farm travelers being able to keep their homes. Proper pitches being supplied by councils across the country. A decrease in the shocking racism that prevails against travellers. And more understanding between the settled and traveling communities to resolve those tensions that remain.  
Finally, you have a book called ' Counterpower' coming out in the Autumn, covering people’s ownership of power - if you had to write a brief item on what you saw/experienced at Dale Farm - what Counterpower did you see in action?What I saw at Dale Farm marked a change from protest to resistance. For months and years people have pleaded with the council and the courts, yet the system continued to discriminate against Dale Farm residents. On Monday a different method was tried. Blockades were built, people wore arm lock-ons and a woman chained her neck to the front gate. This is people claiming power and defying the authorities. As the television cameras reported live, the court system for once found in the residents’ favour, granting a temporary reprieve. It was only a small victory, but also a rare one - perhaps an indicator of the beginning of a wider rebalancing.

Tactically I see this as comparable to the Roads Protests in the 1990s. Almost all of the large protest sites were eventually evicted and the highways built. But as protesters claimed power, a wider societal shift took place and 77 proposed roads were scrapped. I don’t know if Dale Farm will live or not. I hope that it will. But to win the wider battle for human rights for the traveller community may take many more such confrontations. But I think with the attention Dale Farm is getting, things are beginning to change already.   
Pre- publication copies of Tim Gee’s book ‘Counterpower: Making Change Happen’ are available in the New Internationalist shop ( 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Arms Fair or Unfair? Films inspired by DSEi

It would appear that this little blog isn't the only place to have a look at last weeks arms fair. BBC One's 'One Show' took a surprisingly deep, light hearted look

and of course there is the brilliant 'Where is the Love' film from a few years ago - see what happens when young people find out what happens on their doorstep...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

From Discipleship to Direct Action at DSEi Arms Fair ( #stopdsei )

Hattie Hogson (Right), joins Rev Chris Howson,
Lizzie Gawen (SPEAK network) and Georgie Hewitt(Manchester SCM)
(Photo by Chris Wood/SCM)
What does your faith challenge you to do? Last week, my twitter feed exploded with protest as the bi-annual arms jamboree landed in east london.  Highlights included the immortal tweet from Rev Chris Howson explaining  

Briefly got to the entrance of DSEi by saying I had come to perform the official exorcism! Soon escorted by security to official vigil!
12/09/2011 19:16

Overall it was clear that Christians of all stripes were joining with people of no faith to make clear that people within the UK were not happy at this armed jamboree.

I thought it was time to look beyond fun stories and to find out what drove a young Methodist, Hattie  Hodgson, to use her whole being - both body and voice - to take non-violent action to challenge the arms fair....

"my main aim was to disrupt the fair as much as possible, in the hope that it would spur arms dealers and traders to think twice about the normality of their actions and trade"   Hattie
  • Could you tell us a wee bit about yourself...
I'm a student in Leeds studying Managing Performance, which is effectively arts management. I sit on the General Council of the Student Christian Movement. I also have a soft-spot for dancing, I can rarely keep my feet still!
  • ...and a wee bit about your faith
Well someone once asked if I was a 'Cradle Christian' and, although I have been attending church from a very young age, I had to say no. The story I have been told is that I turned around to my atheist parents aged about 8 and announced that I wanted to go to church and so I did! In recent times, I have become more denominational in my faith- recently becoming a member of the Methodist Church
A 'die in' outside the National Gallery,
which had a dinner for arms dealers occurring inside

  • I understand you spent some of last week in London, challenging an arms fair - what’s wrong with the arms fair?
It could be argued that the DSEi arms fair trades in death. It uses British tax payers’ money to normalise the sale of machinery that is designed to kill. There also seems to be little regard given to who arms are sold. This year the guest list included regimes such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia- regimes that have been known to use weapons against their own civilians. 

  • What did you do to highlight this?

Due to the distinct lack of press coverage the arms fair and resultant protests attract, I knew that our actions would have a relatively small media impact. Because of this, my main aim was to disrupt the fair as much as possible, in the hope that it would spur arms dealers and traders to think twice about the normality of their actions and trade. We went about this in many ways, from singing peace songs on the Docklands Light Railway, surrounded by arms dealers, to blockading the main road entrance for about 20 minutes, to handing out specially produced newspapers with messages of peace to those entering the fair. 

  • Have you had a chance to speak with those attending with the event to find out why they went to the fair - or indeed speak to those selling arms there to find out what they thought they were doing?

The contact we had with arms dealers was limited we did attempt to engage them in conversation they were not very willing to participate. However, the few people we did speak to seemed to be of the opinion that this was a necessary evil. I have experienced that people tend to focus on the positive effect the arms trade has on the UK economy as justification for its existence. 

I think it should be taken very seriously. The discovery of illegal cluster bombs being on sale at the arms fair is clearly a sign that, as much as they claim to be, the UK government is not enforcing UK law at the arms fair. When we bear in mind some of the regimes invited to do business there, there is an argument that this could lead to sale that are not only unethical, but also potentially extremely dangerous. 

  • Now to turn to you, how did you feel as you took part in the actions

Two gents front right are arms dealers,
being serenaded by protestors reading newspapers
I felt like what I was doing was very important. As I have already stated, if nothing else, I hoped our visible presence and actions would force arms dealers and traders to think twice about the normality of the trade they participate in. Obviously, there was a sense of nervousness as I began each action or blockade but the courage of the people around me affirmed the importance of what we were doing. 

"Obviously, there was a sense of nervousness as I began each action or blockade but the courage of the people around me affirmed the importance of what we were doing" Hattie

  • Had you taken part in anything like this before? 

This was really the first time I have felt the desire to participate in direct protest actions. Although I was in London when the decision on raising university tuition fees was made, my actions on that day mainly involved directly lobbying MPs in the Houses of Parliament and, luckily, I managed to avoid being kettled. I did not feel I could become more involved with the student fees demonstrations because I do not believe that violent direct actions, or those that adversely affect people not involved, are ever an acceptable form of protest. 

  • Did you faith play a role in taking part in this action, indeed did your Methodist background impact?

My faith was instrumental to my participation in the protests. Jesus is after all known as the Prince of Peace. As a young Christian trying to live out my faith, I felt that I could not stand by and let an event that so actively enables warfare be surrounded with such a sense of normality. One of the key messages of Methodism in the UK at the moment is the idea of discipleship. If I am truly attempting to be a disciple of Christ, then I feel called to oppose and disrupt activities that are so clearly opposing his message.

"If I am truly attempting to be a disciple of Christ, then I feel called to oppose and disrupt activities that are so clearly opposing his message" Hattie

  • Will you do it again - if so how can we join you? If not, what would you suggest?

I will most certainly be participating in direct actions again, although the next DSEi arms fair is not scheduled until 2013. In the meantime, I suggest that people who want to get involved in protesting the arms trade visit the Campaign Against the Arms Trade website at There are lots of different ways you can get involved, including a specific campaign to end arms industry involvement in universities and higher education- a campaign that the Student Christian Movement supports. 

  • Hear more voices of protest from the week on this video: