Friday, 26 November 2010

Unlucky Heather?

"Something significant will happen to you on January the twenty-ninth," said the gypsy, handing me a small piece of white heather, wrapped in silver foil.
I hadn't really expected to have my fortune told in the centre of Birmingham as I did my Christmas shopping.

A few frantic thoughts went through my mind:
'Should I say I don't accept psychic readings because of my own spiritual convictions?'
'How much does she want for the heather?'
'If I say anything wrong will she curse me like in that film 'Drag Me to Hell'?'

It all began innocently enough. I have some gypsy ancestry and I'm sympathetic towards travellers because they get pushed from place to place by nimby-loving communities.
So I stopped when I was confronted with the words:
"Buy some heather to help the gypsies,"

The gypsy (named Carol) looked re-assuringly as if she wasn't about to put a curse on me. She looked normal and had a kind smile. That was the moment she looked into my eyes (I indulgently imagined she recognised my gypsy ancestry, like a spiritual chord between our peoples). She simply handed me the white heather and said: "Something significant is going to happen to you on January the twenty ninth."

As I reached into my pocket for change I noticed some white heather crushed underfoot on the pavement. It was crushed and neglected, like the travelling community. They are a community who rarely even get their side of the story told in the media stories which concern them, who simply live a different lifestyle and are distrusted and treated like outcasts by Government councils.

I took the white heather. "God bless," said Carol. I said the same back and put the heather in my pocket.

The first law against gypsies in England came into force in 1530. It condemned their 'greate subtyll and craft meanes' of deceiving people through palmistry. Superstition of course. Like the idea that a curse would be placed on anyone who offends a gypsy (as stereotyped in the Sam Raimi horror film 'Drag Me to Hell').

The idea that white heather is lucky came to England from Scotland as part of a Victorian love for Scottish traditions. No-one seems to know for sure exactly where the idea that white heather is lucky originated from. Some say that white heather grows over the graves of faeries, or that white heather grows on patches of battle-ground where no blood had been shed. Knights in battle were supposed to be invisible from their enemies if they hid in white heather.

In a country where most superstitions tend to revolve around bad luck, it is nice to have one which is considered lucky.

But the question remains: what will happen to me on January 29th 2011?
Watch this space.

The following picture was taken at Calke Abbey and shows a grave covered in white heather (it is not supposed to be prophetic).

Monday, 8 November 2010

A Sketch of the Time

A Sketch of the Time 1 (June 2010)

Outcasts and heretics were buried in far off wild places – separated from people both in life and death.

The fear of death came almost constantly at that point. The news items on the bulletins seemed twice as serious, twice as awful as before. The city became three times as cold and alienating, people seemed meaner, stranger, more selfish than ever. And late at night, that was the worst time – when the fear of death, its sheer severity and finality crept into his heart like an unwelcome guest.

The elderly showed almost no wisdom – people swore loudly or were drunk in the morning on the trains. Implied violence was everywhere. And sometimes real violence. It reminded him of being back in the hospital, where a false peace would descend for a while, a kind of truce during which everyone would be waiting for the next awful event, the next violent outburst. 'It was good training, the hospital', he thought, 'not so different as here outside'. Peace does not equal surrender.

If ever there was a time when people would faint from terror – this was that time.

That he had expressed this fear of death made him feel guilty, as if he had somehow effected their morale, or betrayed them all. Like a crow singing its raw, shrill song among the more harmonious, sweeter-sounding birds. He wanted to sing a healing melody, to speak of beauty, true peace and love, but it eluded him at that time. There was nothing of the kind to be observed, or else his eyes were darkened and he found only what he was seeking. Fear, violence and darkness.

A Sketch of the Time (2) Nov 2010

Outcasts and heretics were buried in far off wild places – separated from people both in life and death.

As he sat taking notes in the morning psychology lecture, the wind howled outside as it hit the side of the university building. At the front of the lecture hall, there were models of a take-apart human head with an exposed brain, a giant ear and a heart (probably from some previous medical lecture). It was an overcast day with drizzly rain. The wind seemed to mock those in the lecture theatre:

'How is all your study going to help you survive, here, outside in the real world?
How is learning how to construct a psychology article with appropriate standardised referencing going to help you survive?'

The wind increased in volume and frequency, unnerving and irritating some students and the lecturer.

He imagined that we were all seated in Thor's Cave – the medical models becoming fossilized bones while the wind howled outside the entrance of the cave, shouting:

'Folly! Folly!' Come out of your ivory cave!
In years to come what will you remember about your lecture? It will not help you to survive!'

The laughter and conversation of the students during a break drowned out the wind's voice for a while – a sort of counter-attack against the real world of survival and grey skies and drizzly rain and howling winds which cry 'Folly!'

But when the laughter had died down the voice of the wind remained and increased in its insistence on being heard.

And he imagined that they were high up on a bleak cliff-face, hidden inside the cave – and despite the strange fossils it was a comfort, a kind of peace to be safe and warm, hidden in the crevice of the university, sheltered from winds which cry 'Folly!'

They say that is true peace – to be sheltered, like a dove, while the storm rages all around. Rather than to be surrounded by sunshine and warmth (while the storm rages inside).

Then he went outside.

Friday, 15 October 2010


There is nothing which is quite so bittersweet as nostalgia. It seems to cause a longing which is as intimate as the sound of blood pulsing to the brain.

Nostalgia is often linked with 'a longing for home' (and some people say with 'a longing for God'). It is a constant theme for writers like Hermann Hesse. Hesse's fairy-tales are littered with references to an elusive return to a 'home', often symbolized in a mother figure. His writing is quite haunting because of this. Can home be found in the past then? Or is it an attempt to return to a mythical Eden which is now guarded by an angel with a sword?

In Christian circles, people will often look down on those who indulge in nostalgia. There's even a scripture quoted to defend this perspective, from the great apostle Paul: "One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

This was from the same Paul who would continually tell those who would listen to him, about what he was like in the past and about his road to Damascus experience. Maybe he didn't think about his past excessively. But I like to think that later on, locked up in prison, with time on his hands, he finally thought more about his childhood and the people he used to know at the start of his 'race'. After all, when did Paul's race really begin?

We can never go back, no matter how much we may wish to, and that is the bitter part. Those moments from childhood which were good and happy can't be returned to. Unless someone invents a time machine they are going to remain as memories. Maybe they are romanticised anyway. The past is safe, secure, a place of refuge. The fears and the pain of those times can be forgotten or minimised.

But the sweet part is in the possibility of a meaning behind those events. Whether it is a first crush, or music, or a half-forgotten computer game, or a film, or a favourite old story - these things can have a meaning. They were character-forming events which have been given significance by us. There may well be a meaning beyond that - why would they leave such a lasting impression otherwise?

In the meantime, the events which take place now may be the cause for future nostalgia. And the present, as scary as it can seem, will also appear safe in the future.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Princess Who Wanted Snow

If you're looking for a present to give to a child (aged 6+) this Christmas then this collection of stories would make a wonderful stocking filler at £6.99.

My first short story has been published in the book 'An Advent Calendar of Stories' by Bridge House Publishing. The story is called 'The Princess Who Wanted Snow' and it's about a fiesty princess who has been trapped in a castle by a selfish prince. It's a magical story from the point of view of one of the castle cats (named 'Aly'). The princess tells the prince that the only way she will marry him is if he makes it snow. The problem is that it never snows.

It was inspired by a tiny cat I saw when I visited an old castle whilst on holiday in Portugal and the first draft was written on that holiday.

There's a story in this book for every day of Advent, stories about angels, animals and dragons.

You can order the book and find out more at:

The hero of the story: 'Aly'

Saturday, 28 August 2010


I often feel an intense pressure to be content with what I have rather than wanting more. Either that, or a pressure to simply count my blessings (because I could be bed-ridden, because I could be blind, or deaf or unable to walk, etc. etc. etc.)
I even feel bad (and ungrateful) for writing about this. Because I'm sure it is a veiled complaint, and I should just be counting my blessings. Not whining about how trying to feel content or putting myself in the shoes of suffering people often feels like dying. I overheard a little boy say to his mother recently: 'No-one likes whingers and I'm a whinger aren't I?' (he was so upset about this that he was crying about it).

Anne Frank once wrote in her diary about how her parents urged her to be grateful and to think of those in worse positions than herself. At the time she was in hiding from the Nazis in an overcrowded annex. With childlike innocence she asked something like: 'What's the point of thinking about those worse off than you when you yourself are suffering?'. I can't remember her exact words, but that was the general jist.

I think the whole, 'being content/thinking of those worse off than you' thing can get out of hand. I know there are plenty of people who can't be bothered to think of others and who are never content or grateful. But there are also plenty of people who will do it almost all the time. And then there are those strange people who simply tell others to be content and think of those worse off (all the time).

So really, there needs to be a word for the phenomenon of excessively thinking of others and overly trying to be content in the English language. The best I can come up with is: 'Gratitudemania' (and for people who never count their blessings it would be 'Gratitudephobia').

They are, I suppose, three separate things – being content with what you have, counting your blessings and thinking of others. These three remain. And the greatest (and worst) of these is 'being content'.

There isn't really much choice for us anyway, when the newspapers and TV are full of stories of people in unenviable positions. Maybe they are the victims of the latest crisis or disaster (and there is always a crisis). Maybe they are severely ill and are not getting proper treatment. Maybe they are just plain unlucky.

Obviously I do count my blessings and try to be content and think of others. I'm just not sure of the purpose of it if you have to do it all the time (unless it really does spark you into action of some kind). I've been known to take myself off to a darkened room, lie down and simply count my blessings. Sometimes, I admit, it does make me feel a little better. But the 'trying to feel content' usually just makes me feel like I'm dying. It always feels better to be wanting something than not to want anything. The self-help writers put it this way: ''You have a right to your desires and needs” (within reason).

Maybe there is always going to be that tension between wanting more and being content with what you have. And a tension between thinking of others and thinking of yourself. Maybe you just have to accept these tensions in life.

But I'm still suspicious that some people would tell a minority, oppressed girl in the third world, who had no arms and no legs, who has just lost her entire family in a war - that she should think of those worse off than herself and count her blessings.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Giving up smoking

Giving up smoking is hard. It has been one of the hardest things I've ever done. I've been cigarette free for over six months now. I'm not saying I will never smoke again, but, if I have the occasional cigarette at a time of crisis I hope I will never become addicted again.

The problem with being a Christian and giving up smoking is that all the forces of Hades are unleashed to stop you from succeeding. There are some interesting life stories out there about Christians who have instantly been healed from the addiction. One famous Christian singer prayed about it, spewed up a black substance and completely lost the urge to smoke. These kind of stories saturate the Christian world. But if there is no sign of instantaneous healing, if you have to give up day after day after day, how can it be done? Whoever you are.

Firstly, let your nose and lungs rebel. In a way that is more rebellious than complying with the cigarette companies and self-destructive tendencies.

With me, I drastically cut down on cigarettes before I gave up completely. If you are smoking more than a packet a day, try to cut down and only smoke after meals and in the morning.

Next, you need a good reason. I got married so I wanted to give up for myself and for my wife. Do it for others if it helps and doing it for yourself isn't enough.

Most importantly reward yourself for it. I heard a preacher once say "God knows when you do something hard, he sees that and rewards it." Allow God to reward you through your own actions. Go easy on yourself and buy something you really want. That isn't a lack of faith, it is using your brain.

Set a day to give up completely and then try not to think about smoking at all. I got ulcers in my mouth when I gave up and people said I wasn't nice to be around - it's a great excuse to think cruel thoughts about everyone who will irritate you (and that will mean everyone).

When something goes wrong the first thing you will want to do is to have a cigarette. That's the worst part. If you do have a cigarette, give up again. Keep a chart and just put a mark on the days when you fail. Be relentless, but be relentless a day at a time.

I didn't use an NHS group, but they can be helpful for many. I used nicotine gum and an inhaler. Use the support. Supposing no instantaneous healing takes place you are going to need some kind of support.

Finally, consider praying about it. If you are not going to be instantaneously healed then God owes you! (He must have some responsibilities). If you don't 'do prayer', keep it open as an option in times of intense temptation.

So this is it. This is how it happens. You give up smoking, write a blog entry about it and then you give God the credit and glory if he has helped you. Just a drop in the waters of millions and millions of people saying exactly the same thing. Or you hold back and take the credit yourself.

So what should I do? Should I thank God and say I couldn't have done it without him or should I claim that it was my own willpower which did it? And what if I start smoking again anyway? What if a year from now someone close to me dies and I start smoking again? What's in it for me, I mean, to give God the credit?

Two choices: give thanks to God, or say it was all down to me. Two choices, smoke or don't smoke. Two choices, rebel or comply.

But all the forces of Hades couldn't stop me saying I can't do it without God.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Je ne regrette rein

What I've learned in life is that I usually regret the things I've said rather than the things I haven't said. I shall probably regret writing this blog entry for instance.

But there are two times I really regret not speaking up when I should have done.

Regret 1

Date: Four years ago
Place: Birmingham Council House
Regret details: I had been reading the notices on the council house and was lingering by the pillars at the entrance there. The only person nearby was a young homeless woman. She came up to me and asked for money (I attract beggars all the time). I can't remember if I gave her any or not and that wasn't the regret. What I remember is that she went off to light up a cigarette, as homeless people often do.

Suddenly one of the council house workers came out of the building. The building, in some ways, is like a fort - there is even a gateway which looks a little like a portcullis through which the councillors drive their plush cars. It is as if they are holed up in their garrison, safe from the people on the streets.

The council woman was dressed smartly in a power dress. I didn't recognise her and wasn't sure if she was a councillor or not. But I watched as the homeless woman went up to the council worker and asked for money too.

"Do you have any spare change please?"
The council worker's face contorted into a sneer and she pointed to the cigarette.
"If you didn't smoke you would have money!" she shouted (many council workers can often be seen smoking undisturbed near the pillars there).
The homeless woman just stood there.
But the council worker was unrelenting:
"Why don't you get a job? You're just a lazy scrounger!"
The irony, of course, was that Birmingham City Council had it in their power to help her get accommodation, and from there a job.
"You're not getting anything from me! Don't smoke!"

I should have said something and defended the homeless woman. But I didn't.

Regret 2
Date: Six years ago
Place: A midlands job centre
Regret details: I was looking for work and used to go to a certain job centre. At the job centre worked a man with a ponytail. He used to guard the reception area and walk around the job centre and stare at the job seekers making sure they were all looking for work. I often felt like a slave chained to an oar being forced to row a boat when the man was watching us on the job points. One day a man turned up to sign-on but he was a few minutes late. Ponytail man/slave driver said:
"You're too late to sign on."
"I'm only a few minutes late" pleaded the man, "how will I live for the next two weeks without any money?"
If he wasn't allowed to sign on he would have no income at all.
Ponytail man grinned and said: "You should have thought of that before you turned up late!"
Even though the man continued to plead, ponytail man wouldn't show any mercy.

I should have said something then too.

These, weirdly, are the only two times I actually regret not speaking out at the time. Usually, I just regret things I have said.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Killer Question

I have often dreamed of glory. Yesterday night I finally had an opportunity to win it.

I was set to ask a question in the BBC Regional Election debate in Birmingham Town Hall.
"If elected, how would you and your party treat the Christian community in the future?"It was to be a moment of glory. I'd dreamed about such things. Along with the recurring 'meeting someone famous and getting an interview with them' dream, this one was that I would be questioning politicians with a killer question. I imagined my question would galvanise the election debate, making it more interesting, it would be speaking up for Christians in the UK, securing possible promises for the future and probably it would herald in a revival.

Before the debate I had some spare time so I went to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to look at my favourite piece of art there. It is a stained glass window depicting David playing the harp to a tormented King Saul. Above David a stained glass angel subdues a stained glass demon. 'There are unseen forces at work today' I thought to myself.

I was going to be a hero, like David. The politicians were like a three headed Goliath, like Cerberus at the gates of Hades, like a multi headed hydra, get the idea. I had a sling and shot in the form of my question.

In percentage terms my motivation was say 50% fame and glory for me, 40% trying to impress my wife and 10% caring about any answer. But who cares about pure motives? People ask all kinds of questions for all sorts of reasons.

At this point I confess I read my horoscope (which I rarely do). It was in the Metro and read: 'Cancer: If you want to know the answer to any questions at this time, then do yourself a favour and ask yourself, not others.'
So, after that, I felt more like King Saul consulting the witch of Endor just before a big battle.

In the town hall waiting room I mentally prepared myself for the attack. Finally we were led into the town hall proper, which had been converted into a makeshift studio by the BBC. The politicians strode forward to take their seats. Liam Byrne, I'm sure, whispered something about feeding me to his gods, but I may have imagined that. Labour's Liam Byrne, Tory Caroline Spelman and Lib Dem John Hemming were perhaps not political giants, but that night, one way or the other, they were giants in my head.

The 100 strong crowd was warmed up with the immortal line:
"If anybody wants to spontaneously applaud please feel free to do so."
Then filming began.

Nightmare scenario! The questioners had all been pre-selected by the BBC! The questions had all been verified and checked by them. The agenda had already been set. That question which I had emailed back to the BBC a couple of weeks before had already been thrown into some bin somewhere.

And so the debate began with discussion on whether the lib dems could now win the election following Nick Clegg's TV debate success. Then came a question on local service manufacture. Then a question on immigration where a BNP spokesman ranted to us all, supported by his audience plant (or weed). Then the guy sitting next to me decided to heckle.
"Bigot! Nazi! Fascist!"
'Could I heckle my question in now really quickly?' I thought frantically.
But it was all over before I knew it.

In the end, thwarted at my crushed dream, I decided to go up and meet Nick Owen, the journalist/presenter who was hosting the evening.
"Hi, I'll probably never meet you again. I'm a trained journalist but have kind of fallen out of the whole thing for a while - how did you get your big break in journalism?"
"I just kind of fell into it?" he answered.
I didn't even ask him for an interview (someone is bound to be interested in an interview with Nick Owen). Two crushed dreams in one night.

So when I got back later that night and watched the debate on TV (it could never be live, of course), I saw myself for a brief moment in the audience. It was a strange kind of glory.

So here's to all those questions that never get asked, the questions which are intimidated into silence by all kinds of giants. The questions which are talked over, unheard or simply unspoken. They are still there. And despite it all, no-one can stop the dreaming. Although they can crush them for a while.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

2010 Election

Today I wrote off to change my address for the electoral register. There are pros and cons to doing this. I had a month or so when the Government didn't know where I lived and I took a perverse, twisted pleasure in this fact. I had to face the truth that it was probably going to be the last time that this was ever going to be the case. But, it was good while it lasted...

Over the next few months MP's will crank into action once again, doing what they love to do. There will be arguments on whether Britain is broken or not broken (even if 'broken' is a misdiagnosis and the country is merely sick).

It doesn't matter, because this year we will have the treat of seeing our political leaders in TV debates. It is vaguely exciting - all those college lectures on US presidents winning and losing elections simply because they sweated a little or hadn't shaved properly will be more meaningful to me.

Sadly, 16-18 year olds will still not be able to vote. But don't worry young people, I'm sure that the Conservatives will be keen to tell you that you not being able to vote is your responsibility.

It isn't even as if Labour have been that nanny-esque that they have not been placing all the responsibility on individuals as it is. Didn't they make up the word 'meritocracy'? Haven't they pressed and pressed for single mothers and the mentally ill to find work whether they like it or not? But politicians set the agenda too often and now it is all about personal responsibility vs nanny state or broken society vs non-broken society or Gordon Brown stammering a little too much in a TV debate.

But as someone who remembers what it used to be like under a Tory Government there is no way I will be voting for them either. I would rather die (which, I'm sure they would say is my responsibility).