Sunday, 18 June 2017

Cords that cannot be broken

On its downslope the lane from Isham to Burton Latimer passes 'The Lilacs' pub on the corner, right by the Independent Methodist Chapel. The pub doesn't look all that ancient, so I wonder which came first. Who was answering whose world view on alcohol, or was it just an accident of opposites? In the dip is the railway bridge, It's forty two steps up and forty three down, with a good sight of the Midland Main Line permanent way from the top of the stairs. On the far side is a scrappy field but the travellers' horses seem to like it. A pretty foal gambols around its mum, revelling in the discovery of the propelling power in its disproportionately long legs.

Emerging into the streets of Burton Latimer it's already hot at eleven in the morning. I know I'm going to get confused by the road layout even with Google Maps at my beck and call, so ask at the nearest convenience store (shouldn't these be christened 'convenient stores' to avoid disappointment?) for a Kettering 'A to Z'. Nothing doing. Such a thing no longer exists, apparently. 'It's the internet', the shopkeeper says morosely. 'Sorry!'

A drummer of my acquaintance who used to play regularly at the WMC in Burton Latimer used to swear that all the inhabitants had one leg shorter than the other. I see no evidence of this as I look around B.L., and declare it a foul calumny. It must have been something in the beer.

With the ground of Kettering's football club (Southern Football League Division One Midlands) on my left I walk towards the windmills which loom over the housing estates. Kettering Town - 'The Poppies', because of their red shirts - are one of the great nearly teams of the English football world. Many's the time they've knocked on the door of the Football League proper, and their record in the F.A. Cup is a distinguished one, but significant glory still awaits them in their new temporary home. Perhaps they'd have been better calling themselves 'The Marxists' to give rein to their fans' grudges against the footballing elites.

St. Mary's church has a narrow frontage opposite a handsome Jacobean house. The latter was once a school, and tells me so by the inscription above its lintel. I walk to the rear of St. Mary's where there's a small modern satellite chapel at the end of a corridor, and eat my sandwich on their bench, admiring the way the churchyard drops away to a second tier, in a lovely garden-like fashion.

For a second week running I'm walking to shake off a sombre mood, this time after the death-dealing fire in the West London tower block. There's a connection. Grenfell Tower is situated in the Latimer Estate, which I know slightly from recording in the area, and here I am in Burton Latimer, which takes its name from the branch of the family which lived here in late medieval times.

This blog is primarily about our corporate life of faith, but I'm one of those who thinks it's difficult to keep religion and politics in two separate boxes, and I also think it would be wrong to ignore entirely the more serious national and international events as I write up my record of what happens during my Long Walk. I hope readers will look particularly carefully at what I am, and am not, saying in what follows.

I was too trivial and flippant in my use of Macmillan's phrase during last week's post. In view of the loss of life, it seems gross to say so, but how unlucky Theresa May must feel, for all that she and her advisers may or may not have dealt humanely or properly with the Grenfell situation in PR terms. For such a terrible thing to have occurred when and where it did, at a time of such difficulties elsewhere in British political life, almost defies belief. These really are the kind of events which cause kingdoms to fall. It's not directly May's fault and certainly not poor Sadiq Khan's. Of course any enquiry will find that things could have been done differently and better. First indications are that the Kensington and Chelsea Council have been extremely inadequate.
But behind all the hot-headed talk, for me a great paradox persists. Everyone wants the benefits that a caring, other people-oriented, liberal nation can bestow, after the manner of the Welfare State which has so nurtured our generation throughout the length of our blessed lives. But it sometimes seems as if no one is now prepared to accept the personal consequences of the public financial costs that such a system entails. And if we as the 'indigenous' people can't recognise this, how can it be communicated to the immigrant populations who have joined us, and who may be the ones to have suffered worst in this tragedy? It's simple. If we and our brothers and sisters want to be taken care of, we have to pay central government for the privilege - for hospitals, for social care, for schools, for looking after the elderly - or else the weakest will go to the wall, as they did in this case. The Conservative election rhetoric was correct: there is no 'money tree'. Yet they remain enmired in the dogma of 'low tax', while the Labour Party's slogan 'government for the many rather than the few' is Newspeak. They seem to be exploiting envy of the rich without telling the truth that we must all pay our way. No political party currently speaks for me. Do you feel the same?

The local West London churches have shown well in this desperate situation, and as they always do, ordinary people have responded with warm hearts. But the authentically Christian attitudes which work for the common good in both long-term policy and short-term need will quickly be forgotten, ignored or denied in the Press and the public consciousness, because the message is too difficult. We know the answer lies in the sin which bedevils us all, and in the redemption which God through Christ offers, whether or not in Sydney Carter's words 'Who can tell what other cradle/High above the milky way/Still may rock the King of Heaven/On another Christmas Day'.

Enough. A thousand vicars in a thousand parish mags will be struggling to come to terms with this in next month's edition, and doing no better than me.

I cross the A6 towards Windmill cottages, perhaps originally named after a traditional structure, but now in the lee of a modern and extensive wind farm. It doesn't often happen, but here it does, that a footpath marked on the map and by fingerposts on the ground has simply been abandoned, probably with landowner connivance. I wander forlornly around the front gardens of Windmill Cottages as long as I dare, but can't find its beginning, and when I've made the two-sides-of-a-triangle trip by road I see that the other end's closed off as well. However, crossing the road, I can still walk the last half mile to Cranford St. John over the tussocky fields.

In the church Sue has got the vacuum out while her husband Jem is cutting the grass out back. I nearly give her a heart attack when I suddenly appear on the doorstep. She kindly gives me a few moments to contemplate lovely St. John's by myself, and when she returns I explain what I'm doing. Sue and Jem's walking exploits put me to shame. They're gradually working their way around the coast on foot. 'Oh, the South West Path', I say, but no, they polished that off long ago. Currently they're up to Foulness on the Essex marshes (where my Uncle Maurice and his Fort Halstead boffin colleagues used to go to watch exciting new munitions explode - real life 'Q's from the Bond films) and somewhere around Aberystwyth on the other side of Britain. Sue and Jem like to walk the west coast during summer, and leave the bleak east for wintertime. And they're not the only doughty walkers in Cranford. One of the churchwardens has beaten the bounds of Northamptonshire in times past, sleeping rough in bus shelters and all sorts. Sue and I agree that we're neither of us as young as we were, and that we can't manage as many miles as perhaps we once might have done. And that provincial bus services aren't always as frequent as we'd like.

On a shelf by the plate I spot a 'blast from the past' name, who's recently led a service of worship and praise at Cranford. Trevor Dearing is a now retired Anglican clergyman who saw a charismatic revival at his church in Hainault, Essex during the 1970s,with an emphasis on healing ministry. Some churches in which we were involved became engaged with this continuing Christian tradition at about the same time. As I get older, I find the miraculous oddly easier to accept than I did back then, though in a rather abstract way. Personally I find the greatest possible miracle of all to be our existence here and now. I'm not sure that God needs to give us anything more, or prove himself any further through Supernature when Nature itself is so very extraordinary.

Daniel Foot, Priest in Charge of St. John's these past thirty four years, also has care of the redundant church ten minutes round the corner at Cranford St. Andrew, right next to the Big House, whose gates are being painted today. I spend some quiet minutes in the cool of St. Andrew's, and then head out along the road and field called Top Dysons towards Barton Seagrave.

                                                              St. Andrew's Cranford.

Barton Seagrave is now really a suburb of Kettering, separated from it only by jolly Wicksteed Park. As I sit near St. Botolph's church, below the happily situated cricket ground, I can hear the Park's miniature train hooting its way along the track. The church is solid and Norman, and around it cluster the lovely village centre buildings of age, including a Church conference centre in the pleasing Georgian regularities of the Old Rectory. Over the road is Castle Field where the mottes and baileys are all that remain of the ancient Hall and its fishponds. Thereafter I pick my way through and then below the new housing estates parallel to the little River Ise and the main line out of Kettering. I notice glumly the new-normal four bedroom and no garden format of the houses, doubtless mitigated in the developers' eyes by the view across the narrow valley, partially landscaped for the better walking and convenience of dogs. Eventually I find the path which runs along a section of the old branch line to Thrapston until I can cross the A14, and then am once more thwarted by a right-of-way which ends in a closed field after an annoying nettly path. The only benefit this dead-end confers is the toasty smell as I pass the gates of the Weetabix factory on my way back through the edge of Burton Latimer. If you're going to live in the aroma of someone else's workplace, I suppose this isn't a bad one to have, better than the slightly sour whiff of brewing around Northampton's Carlsberg, but not as nice as I remember the chocolate coated air in York near Rowntree's.

Stats dude:  17.5 km. 5.5 hrs. 23 degrees C. Nice breeze. Cloudy for an hour or so at mid-day, but sunny otherwise. A goodly number of butterflies: mostly tortoiseshell. Kites: mewing unseen in the trees. Pub stops: one, in Cranford. Tea shops spotted for future sampling: one, also in Cranford. 4 stiles. 16 gates. 8 bridges, over river, railway and road.

This was terrible timing.
And I wish you had
Reached out a hand
And stopped this dreadful fire.
I don't know why you didn't.
I pray for those who died
And for those who mourn...

And now I pray for something else
Let's call it a miracle
That you'll help turn the sword of anger
Into a ploughshare of peace
That somehow something good
May be built
From the ashes of Grenfell
And that our nation
May rise as a phoenix
With renewed credibility
To set the needy world an example
Of mutual love and care
To Your great glory.
I ask it in Jesus' name
Who though without sin
Suffered and died for our sake

Monday, 12 June 2017

Muddling through

In the planning, everything on a map seems so straightforward - that path, then that track, past the stand of trees with that stream always to the right. But in Harold Macmillan's somewhat overworked phrase: 'Events, dear boy...'

The previous day was doleful, both because of the confused, messy post-election political situation, so much inflamed by the gleeful, prurient machinations of the press, and because later on we heard that an old friend had passed away earlier in the week, taken too early by cancer, one of the young dancers who forty years ago had been part of our company as we toured Israel. So it's a relief to be out in the open, shaking off the effects of sadness, intrigue, disinformation and alcohol.

There's a weather spike, one of those brief day-long meteorological variations which seem to me to be more frequent. As I leave Irthlingborough eastwards it's very warm and there's a heavy, gusty wind rushing up from the south-west. I'm heavy-legged as I acclimatise, following the Nene Way out of town.

Nature is abundantly doing its thing. Black-headed gulls dip playfully towards the glistening river against the breeze, snapping up insects as they go, before returning at breakneck swooping speed on the extra pairs of wings the gale gives them. Either side of the carefully cut grassy path, where the nettles stand neck high, a thousand kingfisher-blue damsel flies dart and dive. Here and there small tortoiseshell butterflies join the dance. Little pink and white convolvuli poke up between the blades of grass. I hear the distant call of a rare cuckoo, as comforting a childhood memory as chocolate cake. A field of barley ripples silver in the wind.

As I walk I think. (A Cartesian variation!) I could have voted for any of the three main parties with equally good logic, and have never felt as disenchanted with all of them as I do now. Maybe I have a species of what Sartre called 'La Nausee'?  How about you?

What weight should I as a Christian apply to the fact that Teresa May is a Christian? Does it make any difference to me at all? It should mean that our values, hers and mine, might be somewhere in synch. But how could one tell through the froth and spin of party and press releases, the need to pitch a line, any line, that would reel in the voters? My gut instincts are for the left, but they seem like a bunch of incompetent chancers. 48 hours after the event I'm still metaphorically (and sometimes literally) shaking my head. (Since time of writing, news has broken about Tim Farron's resignation, which raises other questions about how people of faith stand in relation to political process)

A footbridge isn't any longer where it once was, so I miss the footpath up to Little Addington: a trifling presentiment of what's to come later in the afternoon. Next to a smart allotment (for benefit of clergy?) is St. Mary the Virgin's Church. I eat a sandwich by the back porch in which I see a dusty and not very recently used Alesis electronic drum kit. Relic from a defunct worship band? Churchwarden's guilty pleasure? Unwanted gift?

After GB in the Bell pub, where drinks aren't apparently much of a priority (the gentlemen barmen look most disappointed that I'm not staying for lunch, desperate even, there being no other takers), I press on to Great Addington past the playing field shared by the two villages. It has a lovely view down over the valley to enjoy as one exercises. I pass the house owned by John and Ruth Wayman, whose son Robbie was a childhood friend of our Matt. Robbie is now an airline pilot, which I find slightly scary for reasons with which many parents will identify. Our lives in their hands. That's the way of things, folks, and the more so with each decade we survive.

Even in a regional town, kids go on to do extraordinary things in our vivid and brave new world. Back in the nineteen seventies at the School for Girls in Northampton, Suzanne Skey was perhaps never going to set things alight academically, but she had a great and sensitive skill as a dancer, sufficient to carry her on to a coveted place at the London School of Contemporary Dance. Who'd be a dancer? They practise their art through a constant background noise of injury and discomfort for little in the way of financial reward, and as with all athletes, time at the top can be short. We know little of Sue's subsequent career, but it was certainly varied and enabled her to see the world, dancing in what would now be described as burlesque in Paris (she loved the costumes) and spending some time being sawn in half by her boyfriend in a Mexican circus.

All Saints at Great Addington is open, and inside I enjoy the coffee maker placed beside the pulpit - to stimulate the preacher or keep the congregation awake? - and the remnant of the staircase up to the long ago-removed rood screen. On the wall there are photographs of Uganda where missionaries Jane and Derek Waller have been after leaving South Sudan. These two brave people have now taken up an invitation to serve in Madagascar, where hopefully life will be less threatening and more stable. Africa seems to get into the hearts of some, like our old friends the Glovers, and won't let them go. As with so much else in 2017, conceptually the notion of 'mission work' now seems very complicated. There's aid and relief work in all its many forms, and there's the legacy of colonialism, and there are questions abut who should be preaching to whom, as Africans sometimes point out. And there are many interfaces between the Muslim and Christian worlds, in Birmingham as well as in Kampala.

Away from Great Addington, everything is at first peachy, though walking westwards into the increasingly robust wind is becoming strenuous activity. The pull up to lonely Poplar's Farm (is this correct use of the apostrophe, OS? Did it once belong to a Mr. or Mrs. Poplar? At any rate, it's currently refitted and vacant!) is a hard one, considering it's only a rise of 150 feet at most. There are lots of windmills hereabouts, which tells you something, as does the lack of trees. There's nothing to break the force of a gale. But as I start to zig-zag across the countryside, avoiding the need to risk life and limb along the main road, things go awry. All the fields here are arable: rapeseed, barley and wheat, and there are very few gates and stiles as a result, which means there are very few waymarks. And unusually the topology as I'm viewing it doesn't match the map at all in terms of trees and field boundaries. I turn left too early, and convince myself that the 'paths' I'm following along the field margins match the cartological plan. But by the time I twig that I'm very much mistaken (and then only by intermittent sight of the water tower at Finedon which is presenting itself in the 'wrong' position), the configuration of fields and ditches sets me a problem solved only by a series of dodgy moves through dense hedges and relentlessly unyielding crops which leaves me frustrated and sweary. Eventually I complete my yomp into Finedon along the heavily trafficked A6. Thankfully there's a cycle track/footpath, or else I'd really be in trouble.

Finedon was once called Tingdene, which I rather like. I don't know what to make of it. I've been through the place often enough on the main roads, but never stopped to look. More than most places of its size there's almost a sense of 'town and gown'. There are areas along and just off the 'A' roads which are clearly of the working people, and sometimes what's on offer through the shop fronts reflects that. But behind the popular fa├žade there are lovely old houses in various vernacular building styles, and close by you'll find antique shops, posh beauty parlours and an upmarket funeral directors' - just past the Conservative Club, should you feel the need. And the Vicar of graciously proportioned St. Mary's is Richard Coles, radio presenter, author, former keyboard player with chart-topping Communards and priest. He is, though he might not thank me for saying so, rapidly turning into a national treasure. An energetic chap too. He's just become Chancellor of the University of Northampton. Sue and I swapped smiles with him in Waitrose the other day, so although he doesn't know me from Adam, we're almost mates, me and Richard. The only problem is, we need more clergy like him. I suspect we might not agree about a lot of things, but no matter. He can't carry the burden of being the acceptable face of public Anglicanism all on his own. Well, him and Justin, I suppose. And John. Try Richard's recent book: 'Bringing in the sheaves'. It would make a fantastic study for housegroups, at least in my Fantasy Parish Church...

                              For the ashes of Dr Who fans: funeral directors': Finedon

I think I'm on the home stretch now, walking back over the hill to Irthlingborough past what I presume is a shaft to the tunnel between the two towns referred to a couple of posts ago. But even now, when the line of the path should be obvious, veering away on a slight angle from an overhead power line, I get on the wrong side of a hedge and pay for it with an exhausting trudge along two sides of a field sown with rape right up to its deeply ditched boundaries. Eventually I emerge near the cricket club where I stop and watch a few overs to calm myself down. The batting is efficient, the bowling workmanlike and the fielding elderly even though this is Division Two of the County League. The car park is full of Audis and Mercs. I take away the memory of a beautiful pull for four through midwicket, a shot I would have loved to have been able to play but never could.

Stats man:  23 km. 7 hours. 22 degrees C. Wind gusting 40 mph. 3 stiles. 5 gates (and two of those church ones!) No one to talk to: everyone's head is down, either to cut through the wind or because they too are suffering from political nausea.

From where we are
We see no plan
No solutions
Little mercy
Scant integrity.
We trust
That reality
Is not as we perceive it
Or that our reality
Is a mere illusion.
But please Lord,
Give us a glimpse of the truth
At least in part
For without a vision
Your people may perish.