Monday, December 28, 2009


These T-shirt sellers definitely make the world a better place. Among their slogans:

Dyslexics are Teople Poo

Olaf Stapledon: The Star Maker

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read.

Philosophy is supposed to be a series of footnotes to Plato. In the same way, the science fiction I have read might be said to be footnotes to this work by Stapledon.

Arthur C Clarke called it 'the most powerful work of imagination ever written.' Doris Lessing (nobel laureate) and Virginia Woolf (uber establishment literata and name-check dream-chick) heaped praise on it.

It isn't really a novel. It's essentially an overview of a person's experience becoming more and more aware of all the life in the universe, and of the Star Maker himself. As such, it works like Russian dolls in reverse: each succeeding vision is larger than the rest. You wonder where the inventiveness comes from. You wonder if he's ever going to stop. You wonder what he was on when he wrote this.

Finally there is an encounter with the Star Maker himself, which, amazingly, doesn't disappoint.
Truly a classic.

Five faces of poverty

Rather intense blogging at the moment because I have time and health to try to think about the stuff I've been reading and thinking about when ill.

What is poverty? Pastor and writer Malcolm Duncan defines five faces of poverty:

1. Material poverty -- the face most obvious: low income, few possessions.
2. Spiritual poverty -- this is the one the evangelical missions and churches have focussed on: the lack of the knowledge of Jesus and his Kingdom. Of course spiritual poverty is in a sense the condition of all of us.
3. Civic poverty -- 'the lack of opportunity for the excluded and poor to shape their own future'. For example, I once knew someone whose life-savings had been snatched by the Marcos regime in the Philippines. 'The poor man buys a field; injustice sweeps it away'. Dealing with civic poverty has tradionally been the domain of politics, perhaps especially communism.
4. Identity poverty: the voices in the head that say we are worthless, won't amount to much.
5. Aspirational poverty: closely related to civic poverty and identity poverty, it is the crushing of hope.

This is from Micah's Challenge: The Church's Responsibility to the Global Poor, pp 151 - 163.


Be steady and well-ordered in your life so you can be fierce and original in your work.

--Gustave Flaubert, quoted in Wired UK, Jan 10, p 84.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Children in 'care'

In Denmark (so I read) 6 out 0f 10 children in care go to university

In the UK, only 6 out of 100 do. Far more go to prison or become teenage mums.

Anyone who sits in Magistrates' courts will note what a high percentage of offenders come from 'care' backgrounds.

Let's save money by investing in social justice.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blessed are the pacemakers

The main reason I haven't blogged much this autumn is I've been hospital, getting treatment for irregular (both slow and very fast) heartbeats. Part of the treatment was a pacemaker. I can't tell you the pleasure I get from listening to my heart-beat in bed, a steady 70 beats per minute, set by this machine embedded above my left nipple.

So much better than the horrible swooping feeling earlier when your heart appears to stop. Blessed are the pacemakers. A pulse is one of those things you never miss, until you haven't got it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The poor: the missing jewel of the evangelical church

Have enjoyed working through Micah's challenge which talks about the church's obligations to the poor, and boasts a preface by Gordon Brown. Cunningly the publishers then presumably persuaded David Cameron and the atheist Nick Clegg to also write commendations to keep up. So it's a well-accredited book.

It's also very good, if demanding, reading. Some themes:

1. Working among the poor is integral to the kingdom of God. Preachers shouldn't say, ' read your Bible, pray, invite people to church'. They should say 'read your Bible, pray, invite people to church, and be good news to the poor.'

2. It shows how God hates structural sin (unjust trade, for example) as much as personal sin.

3. It shows how the kingdom of God advances -- in N T Wright's arresting phrase, 'The call of the gospel is for the church to implement the victory of God in the world through suffering love.'

Somebody needs to write a popular version. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

At last a 'Christian novel' that I wanted to read

I'm not at all sure about the idea of 'Christian fiction' as a genre. Much better usually to think just of 'fiction'. What Jesus did with parables, novelists who are Christians can do with novels: attack people's hearts, invite people to explore further. And so on.

My Name is Russell Fink by Michael Snyder is perhaps an exception to this rule. It is funny, agreeably dysfunctional, and peopled with entertaining characters. To those who would avoid 'Christian fiction' because (a) it's a peculiar idea to start with and (b) it conjures up books for homemakers in the American Midwest that mention the word 'prairie' a lot, this is a mould-breaker.

You could give it to your non-Christian friends with no embarrassment. Book clubs could read and appreciate it. It is a happy, light novel of a hapless photocopier salesman finding God (and a girl), and solving the puzzle of his poisoned dog. In other words, it is completely unlike, thank goodness, The Shack. I liked it a lot. I see Amazon resellers have it for as little as £1.35; got to be worth a punt.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Reasons to read novels #433

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read." Groucho Marx.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a chunk of goodness

It's chocolate week, apparently. Not a bad time to note that fairtrade consumption of the stuff in the UK has risen from £1m of sales in 1998 to £26.8m in 2008. The joys and power of consumer pressure.

According to the same grauniad report, Cadbury's Dairy Milk's conversion to Fairtrade --so welcome -- is thanks to a large farmer's cooperative in Ghana, called Kuapa Kokoo, itself nurtured over many years by the pioneers of the Divine Chocolate brand. Chalk up another unheralded advance for the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Restoring my faith in independent bookshops

Spent part of my lunch hour at Topping & Co, Bookseller in Ely. It isn't huge, but it does restore your faith in the bookselling business.

Unlike the big chains, the fiction shelves weren't crammed with the latest, ephemeral titles, prised into the shop by publishers as 3-for-the-price-of-2s.

I can't say I recognized every book on the shelves (that would spoil the fun). I thought I could pick the main theme though. Whoever buys for this shop loves good books, in all their idiosyncracy, stubbornness, contrariness, brilliance. Books, mostly, that will still be good books a generation from now. Today's publishers, in contrast, seem to worship me-tooism and celebrity and the moment.

They love hardbacks at Toppings, and good luck to them. I wish I had enough money to buy a hardback every time. They hold very frequent author evenings with your ticket price redeemable against the (presumably) signed, hardback price. Sometimes they hold the evenings in the shop, at others, at the local village hall, which (this being Ely) happens to be an 11th century Cathedral.

Books aren't products. People aren't consumers. Books are filet of mind and people are people. May this shop last as long as the Cathedral has.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Reasons to write novels #34

You learn more profoundly if you have to work it out.

Here's St Augustine:

no one disputes that is is much more pleasant to learn lessons presented through imagery, and much more rewarding to discover meanings that are won only with difficulty.
(On Christian Teaching

(You could say much more about this quote. For example, Augustine also thought that a 'helpful and healthy obscurity' was a characteristic of the scriptures, and shouldn't be a characteristic of Christian teachers; those questions could be argued; but leave that aside for a moment, or imagine he is just talking about parables.)

Boccaccio in his Life of Dante (1374) made a similar remark about poetry:

It is obvious that everything that is acquired with toil has more sweetness in it than that which comes without trouble. The plain truth, because it is so quickly understood with little effort, delights us, and is forgotten. So, in order that truth acquired by toil should be more pleasing and that it should be better preserved, the poets concealed it under matters that appeared to be wholly contrary to it. They chose fables, rather than any other form of concealment, because their beauty attracts those whom neither philosophic demonstrations nor persuasions could have touched ... [poets] are profoundly intelligent in their methods, as regards the hidden fruit, and of an excellent and beautiful eloquence as regards the bark and visible leaves.

Both these quotations are lifted directly from the discussion on storytelling in Jules Lubbock's art history book, Storytelling in Christian Art from Giotto to Donatello.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The cannabis factories of Cambridgeshire

Here's how it works:

1. It's run as a business by Vietnamese organized crime syndicates. Chased out of Canada by aggressive policing, they've arrived here.

2. They find a nice detached house for rent in the kind of new-build neighbourhood where everyone has two jobs and is out all day; there are no neighbours looking out for each other.

3. They pay cash.

4. They invite in the first of the contractors, electricians who divert electricity from before the meter, feed it upstairs and set up transformers, timers, fans, and 600W lights. Each house uses £19,000 of electicity each year.

5. Next the whole upstairs is lined with polythene

6. Finally the cannabis plants arrive as little cuttings in rockwool, with plenty of compost.

7. They supply the needs for the gardener: a freezer full of meat, herbs and vegetables, a wok, a rice cooker, a TV.

8. In comes the gardener, often someone who has been trafficked. He lives in the bottom of the house. He isn't allowed to leave. Police often find instructions on how to raise the plants in easy Vietnamese steps. The people who trafficked him claim they will send money to his family.

9. The gardener never leaves the house. The downstairs looks normal; the upstairs, curtained off, with plenty of condensation, and a huge fire risk.

10. Cannabis plants are tender and not unlike tomatoes in their general cultivation. Normally they take a season to grow, coming into bud as the days shorten. However in the intensive, carefully planned care of the specialists, a crop can be ready in 10 weeks. Each room will produce about £32K's worth of cannabis (per year? per crop? I can't remember).

11. The cannabis is taken away for processing.

Cambridgeshire police are shutting down approximately one of these factories every week. The gardener gets 1-2 years in jail and is deported; the landlord gets a bill of perhapd £12,000 to rebuild his house. (£1000 for the door the police kicked in; several hundreds or more to be reconnected safely to the grid...)

How to solve the problem?

1. Police forces should talk to each other. Each force is only arresting the 'gardeners'. No-one is going after the serious professionals who run the operation.

2. Cannabis seed, though not seedlings, is legal to buy in the EU. You can apparently download seed catalogues that list the different qualities of each seed. The sees are genetically modified to produce female plants only, the ones that bud.

3. A national strategy could move the organized criminals on, just as happened in Canada. But it isn't happening.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Another one bites the dust

Telegraph chatters
A vote of no confidence
The Speaker, unplugged?

Tracking the sun, the old fashioned way

Solar panels don't move when the sun does, which is a drawback. Ideally you need some technology that moves them around automatically, so that they stay in the sun all day. The answer, as my daughter pointed out, is already to hand. Tie them to a dog:

There is an issue with rolling over, but otherwise, it's promising.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Political haikus

Was musing on uses for twitter and noticed that someone had mentioned how twitter's 140 characters is the perfect medium for the 5-7-5 format of a haiku. Clearly, we need a new breed of columnists, such as the political Haiku writer who brightens our days:

Home Secretary
Smith is In hot water but
has her own bath-plug


Boom and bust no more!
(according to Gordon); just
The wrong kind of bust

Too true

'Any fool can write a novel, but it takes real genius to sell it.' (the now late) J G Ballard

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Persepolis -- the best book on Iran I've ever read

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is a insider story of:
  • the Iranian revolution,
  • the Gulf (Iran-Iraq) War (about which we in the West were so cruelly complacent),
  • how fugitives to the West are mostly welcomed by the alternative cultures, not the mainstream ones
  • Teenagerhood
  • Freedom and its contradictions
and with a walk on part by
  • God.
It's all told in cartoon form. It's the best thing I've ever read on Iran and one of the best books I've read about living under an Islamist regime.

(I also just finishedThe Reluctant Fundamentalist.
This novella also a lot of fun and well worth reading, but compared with Persepolis is a bit pompous and self-important.)

I found it the sort of book you have to put down while you walk around and try to think about it. Things like:

  • Why don't we understand Iranians as victims of totalitarianism, quite as much as people in Mao's China or Stalin's Russia?
  • How much teenagers need surrogate parents and grandparents;
  • How people can end up on the streets; and get off them again.

What a gem of a book.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In praise of TED

TED is a series of conferences in which a stellar array of speakers are given 18 minutes to give 'the talk of their lives'.

Everything is available freely as downloadable video or audio. Everyone's there: Tim Berners-Lee, Al Gore, Billy Graham, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Martin Rees (whom I nearly bumped into on King's Parade in Cambridge on Christmas Day), Bill Gates. There's Hans Rosling, the man who makes statistics dance, and scores of others.

Dare I say, the breadth of lectures available, it's even better than living in Cambridge.

The whole thing is the brainchild of someone called Chris Anderson who founded a series of computer magazines in the UK and then moved to the States, but is a different Chris Anderson from his good friend Chris Anderson who is also UK born and also moved to the states and edits Wired magazine and has already appeared in this blog. So good, God made two of them evidently.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Legal access to all the world's music. Downloaded on the fly, not stored on your hard disk. Ad-funded, or you can buy a subscription. Build playlists. Only recently opened to non-invitees. I'm totally sold. Even a complete musical puddinghead like me. It's the utter business.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Some other Updike quotes

The little flourishing of John Updike quotes that has occurred in the press now he's died are worth filing somewhere:

On religion:

I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and women spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say: 'This is it: carpe diem, and tough luck.'

On writing:

Writers may be disreputable, incorrigible, early to decay or late to bloom but they dare to go it alone.

Reasons to write novels #17

'The inner spaces that a good story lets us enter are the old apartments of religion' (John Updike)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The meaning of life

Easily found in Sebastian Faulks' book Human Traces, which I've just finished with my reading group. The book, by the way, is beautifully done, its characters rich, its historical scenes and ideas vivid as it explores what it is to be human through the lives of two head-doctors. Such a fine writer.

(Digression: The jacket warns you that this book is 'ambitious' which means in this case that two extensive chapters are given over to psychological lectures, and is thus a publisher's aide memoire to give the author smaller advances in future, so that he doesn't spend quite so much time in the library for his next book.)

The main protagonist, Sonia (wife to one shrink and sister to the other), reflects on her life and losses and still concludes:

'Was it worth it? Was it worth the agony of loss? ...

'... it was enough, because nothing in any other world that might by chance have existed could have surpassed in majesty what she had felt; and she was transfigured by that joy, always, and even beyond death.'

Love is the meaning of life; simple really.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Parenting classes and social mobility

'There's an urgent need to improve parenting.

'The evidence base is now very strong indeed ... you can make mums (and it is almost invariably mums on their own) who want to be better parents. You can make them better parents but you need to train them.'

Martin Narey, Head of Barnados, and former head of the Prison Service, in a radio discussion on improving social mobility. (BBC Week in Westminster 1/17/09)