Malcolm’s Blog

Our Mission Outreach Worker, Malcolm Bromhall, is putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard to be strictly accurate ) to share some thoughts and reflections during this current difficult time. You can also follow his Blog ‘Can I Just Say Something‘ on Facebook

 

Saturday 1 August: A very quiet sing-song!

Can you remember the first time you heard that Coronavirus had arrived in the UK? I think it was probably around the backend of January when a couple of Chinese nationals checked into the Staycity Aparthotel in York and were soon showing symptoms. Since then, by July 31, some 303,181 cases have been reported, leading to 46,119 deaths.

Now, for all I’m a bit vague about the dates, I certainly remember the venue. Ali and I had stayed there not long before and had found it a fabulous place to lay one’s weary head!

When the early cases of Coronavirus were reported, we were all told to wash our hands more rigorously and more often. If we just did that, all might be well…or so it seemed.

Since then, social distancing, and wearing a face mask have joined our ‘must do’ armoury, giving us this week’s memorable phrase ‘Hands, Face, & Space’. Sometimes, it seems like we haven’t come too far.

In the early days of the outbreak, Boris was often on the news, washing his hands to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday to You’. It seemed so very simple…a couple of quick verses would soon sort things out.

I personally find it quite sad that we appear to have gone from singing ‘Happy Birthday’, to not singing hymns in church, and earnest debate about whether the cast of the local panto should encourage audiences to shout ‘he’s behind you’ for fear of spreading the disease

Hey ho…such is a pandemic, I guess.

* * *

Darling Daughter, whose a bit of a whizz when it comes to organising kids’ birthday parties, decided that the traditional singing of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ would have to go at the newly-reopened, Clip ‘n Climb, Bicester.

“It’s not particularly appropriate,” she opined.…and the more I thought about it, the more I had to agree. If ever a song was likely to encourage raucous community singing and lead to lots of spluttering and ‘splashing’, this was it. So, perhaps she was right…it would have to go!

The search began for an appropriate replacement soundtrack. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ got my vote…but then Darling Daughter pointed out that most of her staff weren’t even born when that came out! She eventually settled for the ‘Happy Birthday Song’ by DJ BoBo!

(No I hadn’t either, but at least the song is from this century and he’s considerably older…I’ll call that a result!)

* * *

FINAL FOOTNOTE: At the time of writing it remains to be seen whether Saturday afternoon’s FA Cup Final, between Chelsea and Arsenal, will be preceded by the traditional cup final hymn, ‘Abide with me’…shall we all just hum it anyway! At least Henry Francis Lyte will be pleased! He wrote it way back when, and may be a tad surprised to discover that it’s still going strong!

Saturday 26 July: Little things mean a lot!

It wasn’t so long ago that the last thing I thought I would need before making a trip to the local supermarket was a ‘face covering’

I didn’t own one, I didn’t know where to buy one…in fact, I’m not even sure I knew what one was. I certainly thought the only place that blokes actually wore them was somewhere in the Far East on a ‘bad air day’.

How times change when you’re battling against a pandemic!

Today, I have a natty selection of face coverings to choose from. One of my favourites is the little, bottle-green number with white polka dots on it, which tends to live in the glove box of my car…just in case!

I’m also quite fond of the ‘fishing gnomes’ creation – a gift from my wife — and I defy anyone not to fall in love with the delightful NHS ‘rainbow’ face covering which I wear as a salute to my friend Gemma and her chums at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, where she is a nurse.

Of course, I also wear it with pride for everyone involved with the Brackley Community Hospital, and Brackley Medical Centre, both of which are set to open/relocate later this year.

* * *

I guess there have been masses of changes since the words coronavirus, covid-19, and pandemic entered our everyday lexicon. And I know that some of these changes have proved truly heartbreaking for those involved.

But while I have no wish to make light of any of these, I do want to tell you about a bit of trivia which has made a huge difference to me and a few of my buddies who perhaps ran the risk of heading into the ‘long lost’ category.

* * *

Until a few months ago I’d never really heard of ‘Zoom’. All I knew was that it was an early eighties’ hit by an American group called ‘Fat Larry’s Band.’

Now, of course, I know that it’s a clever bit of software that has allowed me to attend all sorts of meetings that I’m not actually at, to take part in various district training events, and even pop in to see my friend Hilary as she led worship in York….and all this without leaving home.

The great thing is that it’s also enabled us to ‘meet up’ with our friends from Ilkley, Northern Ireland, Kings Sutton, Banbury, Brackley and elsewhere for a fortnightly quiz night which, again, doesn’t involve any physical travel!

I don’t want to be too soft about this (well…my mates might be reading) but I do know that this ‘gathering of the gang’ has been such a special experience that we’ve decided to continue it on a monthly basis as we journey out of lockdown!

Incidentally, I worked out this week that when the gang’s all here, we span three generations, which provides proof…as if it were necessary…that while some of us might be a tad older….we’re still none the wiser!

Saturday 18 July: If you can’t be strong…it’s OK to show your weakness!

On Thursday, I watched part of the memorial service held at Manchester Cathedral to pay tribute to folk in and around the city who had died as a result of the coronavirus epidemic.

Social distancing meant that only 70 people were invited to attend the service, but hi-tech jiggery-pokery meant that there were many more who, like me, were able to watch it ‘live streamed’ in homes and offices around the country…and I guess, around the world.

The service was devised for people of all faiths and none…a time when people of all colours and backgrounds could gather together to say ‘thank you and farewell’ to loved ones, as well as to folk they perhaps didn’t know, but who had tragically died when they put service before self.

I’ll be honest…I felt the first tear drop running down my cheek when the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, told both the actual and virtual congregation: “We have all seen the world through new eyes during this time, and we can all pray together and use the insights we have gained from this time to make the world a better place where we each value each other more, and think more about what we can give, rather than what we can take.”

Well, I discretely wiped my eyes and cheerfully reminded myself that the lockdown was lifting…but then I it occurred to me that for many folk, this statement could seem more like a threat than an opportunity. The relaxation of lockdown isn’t universally welcomed by those who are feeling lost and lonely..

* * *

It was the Samaritans who came to my rescue. (I wonder how many people have had cause to say that in their lifetimes?)

They obligingly put out a release reminding everyone that if they were feeling anxious or worried about lifting lockdown…then it’s OK! They’ve even gone on to give a whole heap of practical ways in which we can all help ourselves to cope.

Please, please, please do check it out HERE (and remember even if you don’t have family or friends close by, you are never alone. You can call the Samaritans any time day or night on 116 123 or use the link above. Alternatively, of course, contact your local church.

You’ll also find some wise words about worrying…or rather not worrying…at Matthew 6: verses 25-34

Finally, here are a few words about strength and weakness from my favourite book of the moment ‘The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse’ published last year by Penguin Random House and written by Charlie Mackesy.

“When had you been at your strongest?” asked the boy.
“When I have dared to show my weakness,” said the horse.

Smart philosopher that horse!

Saturday 11 July: Humour in all things

I have to confess that ‘Humour in all things’ is a phrase I often use to explain why I sometimes laugh at the most inappropriate moment.

I had such an occasion earlier today (Saturday, July 11) when I received the latest copy of ‘The Connexion’ which I have to say is a mighty fine magazine produced by the Methodist Church.

This latest edition is headlined ‘Sing a new song’ and I suppose looks at different ways Methodism can continue to be ‘church’ to a post Covid-19 population.

It offers a litany that worship leaders might use which includes the verse:
“And now we know something new.
We know that church is not committees, agendas and buildings.
It is us in homes, streets, hospitals throughout the world.
God is teaching us a new song for a new land.”

…a worthy sentiment, until I read that this particular litany had been given the green light by the ‘Liturgy and Worship Subcommittee.’

I hope my fellow Methodists will forgive me for yet another outburst of inappropriate laughter!

* * *

Talking about the pandemic…some of you may know that our Darling Daughter set up her own business last autumn.

‘Clip ‘n Climb Bicester’ does what its name suggests…it offers (safe) indoor climbing adventures for young people ranging from pre-schoolers and their mums/dads, to older brothers and sisters and all other ages and persuasions from twenty-something fitness freaks to Ali’s mum, who’s a sprightly 84.

Darling Daughter’s business was among the first to shut down as the nation came to grips with the Coronavirus outbreak…and, ironically, it was one of the last to be given the green light to re-open, which it will do on July 25.

Even more ironic, she has in the meantime been awarded a Visit England ‘We’re good to Go’ industry charter mark, showing that Clip ‘n Climb Bicester meets government and public health guidance on Covid-19 and that they have all the required health and safety processes in place to safely reopen.

I know that lots of businesses would be able to tell similar stories, but I’d like to ask you all to remember in your thoughts and prayers all those who have ‘kept the faith’ and made costly changes and improvements to ensure they were ready to open at the drop of a hat.

In particular, I’d like to thank the young lady who was so keen to be among the first to reach new heights at Clip ‘n Climb Bicester, that she persuaded her family to put off, for a couple of hours at least, their holiday departure on Saturday, July 25 so that she could be among the first to go climbing!

* * *

Well, that’s the end of my personal advert, and of my admission of unashamed love for the Methodist Church…warts and all. Speak to you all again next week.

Saturday 4 July: 100 days of lockdown

Earlier this week (Tuesday, June 30 ) we all ‘celebrated’ 100 Days of lockdown. Now, I’ve put quotation marks around ‘celebrated’ because it doesn’t seem the right word to use…I just can’t think what to put in its place!

On Tuesday, there was definitely a sense of a victory against the odds…a touch of the Dunkirk spirit. And I guess that with ‘100 days’ under our belts, and the pubs given the green light to open up at the weekend, it probably did seem like a time to celebrate and roll out the barrel!

Come Friday, however, the day on which I’m writing this blog, Tuesday’s shine is already looking a tad tarnished. The last I heard, more than 11,000 job losses had been announced. Retailers, airlines, sandwich chains…you name it, they had all been giving staff their P45s.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump had been busy buying up a world supply of Remdesivir, a medicine that works well for Coronavirus patients. (I was delighted to discover later that in the UK we tend to use Dexamethasone which is not only cheaper but just as effective…and there’s still plenty left!).

Now, I’m sorry if you’re a bit of a Donald Trump fan, but this week he rather let himself down on the vexed issue of the Lone Ranger’s Mask! He told reporters that he had nothing against anti-virus masks. He even wore one himself.

“I looked like the Lone Ranger,” he said.

* * *

Now those of us of a certain age, will remember the ‘masked stranger’ and his sidekick Tonto who together combed the wild west, righting all manner of wrongs.

As someone who often wore his Lone Ranger mask with pride, I can only assume that the President must have had his the wrong way up!

The mask that’s supposed to prevent the spread of coronavirus is supposed to cover your mouth and nose…the Lone Ranger’s mask, on the other hand, covered the area around his eyes! I think that’s a case of fake news, Donald!

* * *

Anyway, this weekend the UK government will lift many of the restrictions introduced as part of our battle with Covid-19. Pubs will re-open, we can go to the cinema, and maybe even follow that with a visit to our favourite restaurant.  But we can’t go to the gym, we can’t pop down to the local swimming pool, and we can’t support our local theatre or take to the stands at our favourite football club.

So, let’s be glad that things are getting a bit better…but let’s not throw away any new found freedoms through loutish or anti-social behaviour in a society as a whole..

And whatever we’re doing, let’s spare a thought for those in business who cannot, as yet, open the doors and welcome us in. Maybe as soon as they do, we should show them that they, and the services they provide, are valued…maybe then we can welcome EVERYONE back to our community.

 

Saturday 27 June: Let’s do better than going back to ‘normal’

Sorry about this, but if anyone else tells me – whether it’s on TV,  radio. or even in chance conversation — that they can’t wait to get back to ‘normal’, I’m likely to have a fit of the screaming abdabs.

Oh I know what they mean…they want everything to be like it was before, and I’m sure there must be plenty who take that view; some with good reason, perhaps.

But before we all drift back to some halcyon time when summers were longer and people were so much nicer, let’s just take a reality check.

I think we owe it to our children (and our children’s children) to pass on a world that’s a tad better than the one we inherited.

When I was born, in 1950, and for many subsequent years, World War II was something we only witnessed through black-and-white movies screened at the ABC Minors’ Club on a Saturday morning.

There, in the sugar coated re-tellings of some of the conflict’s harsh facts, the good guys (us) always won, and the bad guys (them) always lost.

Fast forward to the start of the recent, and ongoing, coronavirus pandemic. Much of society seems to function on very similar lines to those old time movies, namely: ‘in all things, look after number one’ and, in case that doesn’t work, ‘remember to do unto others before they do it unto you.’

It seems a kind of hopeless, and indeed helpless, strategy for life. And I pray, and believe, that we can all do much better than that.

* * *

Reading the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1-12) this week reminded me that you don’t necessarily have to be first in the queue or top of the heap to get your rewards. I was particularly encouraged by verse 5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” and verse 7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

I got to thinking about all these ‘blessings’ on Tuesday as Ali and I strolled around St James Lake in Brackley and enjoyed this week’s heatwave. A couple of things really chuffed me…like the number of people who said ‘thank you’ as we simply bobbed out of their way to enable them to continue their walk unimpeded. Or the strangers who greeted us with a smile as if to acknowledge our mutual existence and our enjoyment of the occasion.

If ever I needed a foretaste of the ‘new normal’, then those smiling folk on their lakeside stroll certainly gave me a glimpse of what things could be like. Bless ‘em all, that’s what I say!

Saturday 20 June: A hair raising tale!

Confession time. Until this week, I probably knew more about the story of Samson and Delilah from Welsh singer Tom Jones than I did from the Old Testament.

All that changed last Sunday (June 14) when I decided I really must succumb to that most recent of temptations…the lockdown haircut!

For obvious reasons, this required the assistance of Mrs B who has no previous male hairdressing experience, either with me, or indeed, with any of the younger Bromhall’s…we have three grandsons: Charlie, Ben and Harrison.

My decision was, indeed, a high-risk strategy. None-the-less, electric hair-clippers were ordered on Sunday, delivered on Monday, and put to use on Tuesday. For the record, I should say that neither Ali nor I swore, exchanged angry words, or fell out in any way throughout the whole process! A lockdown miracle if ever there was one.

It’s true that there were times when I wondered whether having my silvery-locks trimmed by the woman I love would herald the depletion of all my Action-Man-type strengths…but then, I quickly realised that I had never had such strengths in the first place.

I did, however, take the opportunity to find out more about Samson and Delilah as portrayed in the Old Testament.

* * *

You’ll find their story in Judges 13-16 and one thing that struck me is that when you read Samson’s tale from start to finish, he appears to waste most of his strength on practical jokes and getting out of scrapes!

He eventually gave it up altogether to satisfy Delilah, the woman he loved, and he spent his last days grinding grain in an enemy prison.

Definitely a touch of ‘wasted potential’ there, I reckon. Seems he totally under-valued his impressive God-given gifts and abilities.

However, if we fast forward to his one and only mention in the New Testament (Hebrews 11:32) there’s no mention of his heroic feats of strength; nor indeed of his spectacular failures.

He is simply listed, alongside others, who ‘through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised’.

* * *

I guess if we take a good look at the ‘Samson’s Story’ then the one thing it teaches us is that it is never too late to start again.

However badly we may have failed in the past, we can always ‘let go…and let God’.

I find that quite encouraging. And, if nothing else, I hope you’ll remember it next time you’re tempted to ask some inexperienced, wannabe barber to give you a ‘short, back and sides’!

Saturday 13 June: Tell it like it is

Last summer, Ali and I spent a few days in the city of Liverpool. To be honest, for me at least, the whole trip was a bit of a homage to the Beatles

In intermittent rain, we boarded an open top bus which took us past the house where John Lennon was raised; we paused briefly at the iconic gates of Strawberry Fields, and of course, we journeyed along Penny Lane, where there really is a barber…but I doubt he had ‘a photograph of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known.’

Our guide for this particular excursion was a typical Scouser with a suitable tale for every landmark and even the odd burst of song which he accompanied with a few chords on his guitar.

“Penny Lane,” he assured us, “took its name from James Penny, an 18th century slave trader.”

Now perhaps we should have known better that to take the words of a tour guide at face value…but that’s just what we did and most of us ‘tut-tutted’ our way round the rest of the journey.

Clearly we weren’t the only ones to be taken in by this urban myth. Just this week, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, vandals got to work with spray cans and black paint to deface road signs identifying one of Liverpool’s most famous thoroughfares because of its alleged murky links with the slave trade.

It now seems that the graffiti attack may have been a case of mistaken identity. Historians and politicians alike say there is little evidence that wealthy James Penny had any links at all with this suburb on the south side of Liverpool.

In fact, Mayor Joe Anderson, says it’s far more likely that its name came from a historic toll bridge that ‘cost of penny’ to cross!

* * *

Seriously though, Liverpool treats its history with due respect…and it doesn’t deliberately cut corners when it comes to relatively recent times. It strives to ‘tell it like it is’.

For example, the city has it’s own International Slavery Museum which doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to explaining how it got much of its 18th century wealth.

At the time of writing the museum is shut because of the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s website offers some fantastic ‘virtual tours’…well worth a peek!

Matthew 5:37 sums it up neatly in a short passage which reminds us that it’s wrong to tell porkies or to try conning people to believing that which they shouldn’t.

So, my motto for the week…let’s just ‘tell it like it is’.

Saturday 6 June: Heroes & Villains

Now, I know there will be exceptions, but — by and large – the Covid-19 outbreak has revealed more heroes than villains in our community. Those of us who’ve spent weeks clapping on our doorsteps, haven’t done so to show our support for the bad guys…it’s the heroes, our emergency workers, who’ve been earning our support.

Knowing who we’re supposed to clap and cheer, and who we’re supposed to boo and hiss, is one way to help us recognise the heroes, and maybe the villains, in our communities.

However, this week, the brutal killing of George Floyd has thrown the distinction between good guys and bad guys well and truly back into the melting pot.

I guess it’s at this point that I should own up to the fact that for several years I have been a police chaplain, so I suppose it’s difficult to pretend I come at this with a completely open mind.

I make no apologies for this…in the UK I’m broadly on the side of police as upholders of law and order, However, when I look around the world I see too many examples of police brutality and police officers being used to uphold corrupt regimes.

On May 25, 2020, it is alleged that, in the United States, George Floyd was pinned down for 8 minutes 46 seconds by an officer who knelt on his neck. George subsequently died.

The officer, and three of his colleagues, have since been fired by the police in Minneapolis, and all four face legal charges relating to second degree murder.

Since the alleged assault, various protests and demonstrations have taken place in cities around the world under the ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner.

Sadly, and unusually, this was the third death involving high-profile public debate to have impacted on me one way or another in the past 12 months.

The first was on August 15, 2019 when Thames Valley roads policing office, Andrew Harper, aged 28, was dragged more than a mile to his death as he investigated a burglary at Sulhampstead in Berkshire.

A second trial is due to start shortly after the first was halted when three jurors went down with coronavirus in March this year.

On August 27, 2019, Harry Dunn, a 19-year-old from Charlton, died as he made his way home on his motorbike near the American base at RAF Croughton. He was hit by a car driven by US citizen Anne Sacoolas who is said to have admitted driving on the wrong side of the road. She subsequently claimed diplomatic immunity and fled back to the States.

Three very different cases which, maybe, promote very different responses in us all. However, I hope that in all three cases the words of God, as set out in Micah 6, ring true, and that all of us, no matter how high or how low, will learn:

“To act justly and to love mercy
And to walk humbly with our God.”

Saturday 30 May: Zoom around to our place!

It was my wife’s birthday last Monday.Darling Daughter had spent months arranging what sounded like a fab ‘girlie day out’, which included Crazy Golf in Oxford, and cocktails at some swish rooftop bar. Guests were invited from near and far…in fact, in one case, from ‘so far’  that the return trip would even have made a government advisor’s outing look like nothing more than  ‘popping out to the shops’.

(I should perhaps stress that the birthday in question ended in a ‘zero’…we don’t do this kind of thing every year!).

Anyway, the recent you-know-what epidemic meant that all our plans went out of the window…not that Darling Daughter was to be defeated!

She teamed up with her 8-year-old son to launch a dawn attack on the house, bedecking it with birthday balloons; she arranged a mid-morning photoshoot in front of the house with the delightful (and very talented) photographer Caroline Rushton; and even linked me up with a firm called Feast, who delivered a tasty ’Datebox for Two’ for Mrs B and I to enjoy at our leisure.

Darling Daughter also organised a bizarre lunchtime picnic for her and her mum…complete with politically-correct ‘social distancing’. In short, then, she’d more than earned her place at the ‘virtual party’ we held in the evening which, just as in the original Plan A, included guests from near and far.

Over the past couple of months or so I’ve become quite a devotee of ‘virtual’ events. I’ve attended, and/or hosted, virtual quiz nights, virtual staff meetings, virtual circuit meetings, virtual church services…even popped up to York to attend one a couple of months ago. Coming up soon we’ve got a virtual ‘Murder Mystery Party’ to look forward to!

* * *

The basic thing about all this ‘virtual’ stuff is that you don’t actually have to be there…you just log in via your computer!

There’s no travel time! No need to tidy up before your guests arrive…and no need for any elaborate catering. We all just come as we are and share whatever’s on our mind.

Now…does that remind you of anything? Try this from Matthew 6…it’s the bit where Jesus says::

25 I tell you not to worry about your life. Don’t worry about having something to eat, drink, or wear. Isn’t life more than food or clothing? 26 Look at the birds in the sky! They don’t plant or harvest. They don’t even store grain in barns. Yet your Father in heaven takes care of them. Aren’t you worth more than birds?

Now that works for me…and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a virtual world or something much closer to home!

Saturday 23 May: A round of applause for all the lonely people?

I wonder when we first decided that infants and junior schools were ‘safe places’ to be? Seems to me that they’ve always been a tad dangerous.

It was at junior school in Birmingham where I ended up losing my footing on what we called ‘dead man’s belly’…a wibbly-wobbly slide produced by the previous night’s snow flurry.

I have a sneaky feeling that it was around the same time – and definitely the same place – where I became very envious of a classmate who had amassed an unbelievable number of signatures on his first ever plaster cast … oh, how I wished I had a limb in plaster!

Looking back, it seems to me that infants and junior schools were essentially just accidents waiting to happen.

I suppose I have to accept that I’m of an age where we built up our resistance to things like MMR infections primarily through contracting the very conditions we were worried about…seems to me that we convinced ourselves it was much better to catch something nasty than to have a jab that might fight it off in the first place!

There was always a full house for our ‘chicken pox parties’…might as well get that one out of the way too!

Nowadays, everything seems a bit different. We expect ‘perfect’ to be the ‘norm’…so we certainly don’t expose our kids to any unnecessary risks.

Of course, I agree with the sentiment but perhaps I worry a bit about the kind of society we’re nurturing…is it one in which we’re just not able to face up to adversity?

This thought was going through my mind the other day when I heard that nice Dutch-lady-turned-adopted-Londoner Annemarie Plas announce that she thought it was probably time to call it a day when it came to ‘clapping carers’ … something she had essentially pioneered about nine weeks ago.

Now, I knew we’d have to stop one day but surely not yet? And then someone reminded me off all the people for whom this Thursday night ritual had provided a sense of purpose to their lives; had, perhaps for the first time in a long time, connected them to the community around them and given them a sense of belonging. Perhaps a belief that their voice — or maybe their handclap — really could make a difference.

So I think I’m going to keep on clapping and hope that the hundreds of nurses, doctors, administrators, care workers, police officers, fire officers, paramedics and ambulance staff won’t mind if, this week at least, I also put my hands together, not only for the heroes, but also for those whose participation means that, once again, they really do have a voice which deserves to be heard in our community.

Saturday 16 May: My kind of guys!

You may already know that this coming week (May 18-24) has been dubbed Mental Health Awareness Week. Now, I know that weeks such as this are usually a long time in the planning but, I have to say, this one in particular could scarcely have been more timely placed on the calendar.

In fact, the Mental Health Awareness Foundation, the organisation behind the idea, reckons that the week ahead could be the most important one they’ve every hosted, and you probably don’t need me to tell you why…but I’m going to anyway.

The foundation’s research confirms what many of us already had a vague ‘gut feeling’ about…namely, that protecting our mental health is going to be central to us coping with and recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, with the psychological and social impacts likely to out last the physical symptoms of the disease.

No surprises there then, but what did surprise me, very pleasantly I should say, was the theme the foundation had chosen for the week ahead. It’s something I think that we can all relate to….’kindness’.

I think I could do worse than to quote the foundation’s Chief Executive Mark Rowland, who said: “We have chosen kindness because of its singular ability to unlock our shared humanity. Kindness strengthens relationships, develops community and deepens solidarity.

“It is a cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health. Wisdom from every culture across history recognises that kindness is something that all human beings need to experience and practise to be fully alive.”

***

Now, I have a long standing buddy who has taken to reading this blog in recent times — well let’s be honest, it’s only been going for a couple of months — anyway, I think it’s fair to say he doesn’t necessarily agree with my views on faith! If fact he’s probably yelling at his laptop even now reminding me that Christians don’t have an exclusive deal when it comes to kindness.

And I would have to say “Yep, you’re darn right there, mate.”

It seems to me that kindness is something we can all give and, indeed receive, regardless of whether we would describe ourselves as people of faith or not.

I’m going to quote another high flyer right now. These words come from Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England.

I’ve never me the chap, but I guess it’s reasonable to assume that he’s a fairly hard-nosed sort of fella, but just listen to what he had to say about the subject: “Now is a time to put values above valuations. We must seize this time to shape a society that tips the balance in favour of good mental health, for all of us, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.”

The good thing is, it’s dead easy to join in — just try to be a little kinder…simple!

Saturday 9 May: Everybody needs good neighbours

It was a bad time to suffer an attack of ‘writer’s block’. Feeling rather smug, I had climbed the stairs to my office-at-home (aka the boxroom) last Thursday morning some 24 hours ahead of my usual schedule for writing this blog.

But, when Ali came home at the close of business, I still had a blank screen in front of me. In the olden days, I would at least have been knee-deep in screwed-up paper, kicked about in frustration. Maybe old technology had some advantages, after all!

Ali and I sat outside awhile generally chewing the fat, and me squirming uncomfortably when she asked the inevitable “What have you been up to today, then?”

Truthfully, and based on the evidence, I would have to reply ‘Not a lot’ but we kept on chatting anyway…and here are the eventual consequences.

Somewhere in the conversation it occurred to me that what had really been lacking that day was ‘people’. It’s ‘people’ who provide me the words via the things they say or do, or just by being the kind of people they are.

Now, I didn’t see anyone last Thursday…which was kind of deliberate because I wanted to spend the time hammering on my laptop – and whilst some people might need to lock themselves away in splendid isolation before their creative juices start flowing, I clearly need a bit of outside help!

Just see what happened during the next 24 hours….

As is now tradition, at 8pm we went outside to ‘clap the carers’ and once again spotted two sets of nearby neighbours also putting their hands together. “When this is all over,” said one neighbour, “we ought to have a party, right here in the street”.

Ali (always one for a party!) suggested we should hold it next day…VE Day…and so, at 8pm on Friday, that’s exactly what we did. We suitably be-decked the house in red, white and blue, Ali sported a posh frock, and I gave my Union Jack kipper tie one more outing!

This time there was no hand-clapping – just a bit more time getting to know each other better, and of course, singing the obligatory “We’ll meet again”.

Lockdown and the Coronavirus have, of course, been devastating for so many, but for those of us lucky to survive, I’d like to think that the re-discovered concept of good-neighbourliness and friendship has been given a new lease of life. Those we have lost deserve no less.

* * *

It occurs to me that for a man who spent so much of his time ‘on the road’, Jesus knew quite a lot about neighbours:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment,” he told his followers in Matthew 22, adding: “And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.”

A challenge, and not a bad philosophy, for us all!

Saturday 2 May: Laptops ancient and modern!

Let’s face it…the Covid-19 figures don’t make great reading.

By and large, I’m a ‘Humour in all things’ sort of chap, but even I have to agree there’s some grim statistics going the rounds.

My early years, and indeed, some of my early politics, were overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. The conflict began in 1955 (the year I started school) and ended in 1975 (the year after my second child, Toby, was born).

Now, I think I’m right in saying that, within weeks of Coronavirus taking hold in the United States, the death toll in that country exceeded 58,220…that’s more than the number of Americans killed in two decades of battling in Vietnam.

Makes you think…but I guess there’s all sorts of anguish hidden behind both sets of head counts…along with all sorts of heartaches and oceans of tears.

My sincere hope, and my prayer, is that we will all see much more of the love, care, thanks and protection that have been part of our regular UK street scene in recent times.

To all those who comfort and care for us – from the nurses, and doctors and their various back-up teams; to those who look after our daily needs – the postmen, the binmen and all those who deliver to our doors; to the friends and the family who hold us in their thoughts and prayers – and to so many others — let’s say ‘thank you’ as we in turn take time to remember all those whom they love and who in turn, love them.

* * *

Do you ever think that these Corvid-littered times are getting increasingly ‘stressy’? I know I do…and I’m increasingly convinced I’m not alone!

So, why on earth it ever occurred to me that now would be a great time to order a new laptop, I guess I’ll never know.

All I needed was something like the old one…slightly less ‘clunky’ perhaps, but by  and large, the same! What I got was a whole new box of tricks which I swear would even have had Bill Gates scratching his head!

Sadly, the Bible doesn’t have too much to say about laptops…be they ancient or modern. But I’ve found a couple of ‘go to’ verses which kind of fit the bill, especially if you just add three or four words to clarify things!

Here then is Romans Chapter 8 verses 38-39…with any essential editorial additions shown in brackets!

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation – (not even a new laptop) — will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.”

Amen…that, at least, seems to work for me!

Saturday 25 April: Who’s in the driving seat?

Many years ago, back in my days as a journalist, I had the pleasure of working on the Scarborough Evening News in North Yorkshire where I was introduced to the delights of Tadcaster Ales, sea fishing…and placard writing!

Now, for those who don’t know, ‘placards’, or ‘placs’, were those sales-inducing posters (aka bills or billboards) positioned next to the newspaper seller’s pitch which often gave him his ‘cry’ for the day.

(Just before this time I spent a few months on a training course with a fellow journo called Sinclair Newton, who worked on the Worcester Evening News. Sinclair assured us that his newspaper’s distribution team included one fervent salesman who would shout out to anyone who cared to listen “Man found dead in a matchbox…read all about it.” Sold out every time!)

In Scarborough, we had no such cover-all cry but we were, nonetheless encouraged to come up with appropriate sales lines which would do their bit to maximise daily revenue.

In those days, from about Whit Week onwards, it seemed that every self-respecting northern town would have its own ‘factory fortnight’ when major employers would shut down and everyone would head to the coast for a week or so. It was Whitby for the well to do, Bridlington for those on a tight budget, and Scarborough, for anyone in the middle

Hence, for about six weeks, we would know that, as far as placards were concerned, it was a case of one size fits all. Hence…

‘Urgent message for Northern holidaymaker’

This was guaranteed to give a short-term sales boost…even if it did refer to a Page Six filler giving just one paragraph concerning an hitherto unsung chappie from Leeds, Sheffield or Bradford…or anywhere else north of Birmingham. In a way, I suppose it’s a bit of a variation on ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’.

My time in Scarborough came back to mind on Friday morning just as I was catching up with Donald Trump’s remarks on the Covid-19 Crisis and his backing for domestic bleach as a possible antidote.

(Please don’t try either of this remedy at home!)

I guess we’d all agree that Covid-19 is a Bad Thing. But, I also believe that it’s brought out some of the best in those around us. Maybe it was Thursday night’s ‘clapping for carers’ or the pooling of ideas that led to the starting of drug trials in Oxford that same day. More likely, I suppose, it’s going to be any number of similar events that will eventually lead us closer to a Corvid-19 solution.

I for one, think I will certainly put my trust in any of the latter before I reach out for a large bottle of Domestos.

* * *

The problem with us all, I guess, is that we like to think we’re in control…maybe, we’re not in the driving seat, but we sure as heck think we know how to steer!  However, speaking personally, I’d like to think that someone much wiser than me is in overall charge of the journey.

So, I’m just going to defer to Proverbs 3:5 which gives a timely reminder of who is really in control.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” says the proverb writer, “and lean not on your own understanding.”

Makes sense to me!

Saturday 18 April: How Captain Tom kept me on my toes!

It’s fair to say, I was just beginning to get a bit bored with the whole darn thing. Isolation, social distancing, even getting to know the nice family over the road thanks to the weekly ‘clap the carers’ sessions….it was all starting to wear a bit thin.

But then along came a 99 year-old chap from Yorkshire who, with his newly-oiled Zimmer frame, had set out to walk 100 lengths of his garden to mark his 100th birthday, from which he hoped to raise £1,000 for the NHS.

A noble endeavour…especially for a soon to be centenarian! Yes, the legend that is Captain Tom Moore was beginning to roll. World-class sportsmen, leading politicians, singer and radio presenter Michael Ball, even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge…they were all quick to sing his praises. There were even calls to make him a ‘knight of the realm’. Good luck, Captain Tom!

Now, in my journalist days, I used to live in Yorkshire which is probably why my ears pricked up when I heard Captain Tom described as a ‘proud Yorkshireman’…even though he now lives further way from that fine county than even I do.

But, it turns out that Tom was actually born and bred in Keighley, a town in West Yorkshire, about 10 minutes’ drive from Ilkley (‘moor bah’tat’ etc). He trained as a civil engineer, and then enlisted in the army at the start of the second World War, rising to captain and serving in India and Burma.

Soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment formed a guard of honour as Tom completed his 100 laps. At the time of writing (Saturday, April 18) he had raised more than £21million…and was still going strong!

* * *

Coincidentally, Jan and Andrew (great friends of ours from days gone by), joined us from Ilkley on Friday to take part in a quiz (or more accurately a ‘virtual quiz’) which brought  together a whole bunch of other friends from times past, together with our daughter, son-in-law and youngest grandson.

The re-union theme is set to continue on Sunday, and extends even further than we’d expected.

For instance, did you know that earlier this year, Ali and I spent a few days in Liverpool where we took the almost compulsory Beatles Tour. This included a trip to Strawberry Fields, a place made famous in the John Lennon classic ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

Now, if you were to visit the BBC Songs of Praise Facebook Page, you’d find that Strawberry Fields is to be featured in tomorrow’s programme in an item on diversity. But scroll a little further and you’ll find the programme is also to include insights from Anna Herriman.

Anna is blazing a trail to be the first female deaf preacher to use British Sign Language in the Methodist Church. I’m told that some of the clips were made at Kidlington Methodist Church, where I have previously worked, others were filmed at Wesley Memorial Church, where, before working for the Methodist Church, I worked for Christian Aid.

My colleagues at Christian Aid included a young lady called Hilary Blake, who I later discovered was about to become a Local Preacher. Now…here’s the coincidence…the first time I heard Hilary preach was at Kidlington Methodist Church where I was eyeing up the place before being interviewed. The second time will be…tomorrow (Sunday)! Hilary is leading an online service on behalf of the Central Methodist Church, York …where she now lives and works!

Once again, it will be a voice from the past leading me forward!

Saturday 11 April: Zooming off to the next meeting!

I suppose in canine terms, I’m best described as something of an ‘old dog’. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still young enough to be taught a few new tricks…it’s just that you may have to explain them to me a time or two before the penny finally drops!

Even this blog, now in its fourth week, only came into being after several years of thinking ‘I’ll get round to that that one day’. And it took a worldwide epidemic — with its still-growing strike rate and accompanying lockdown – to convince me that ‘one day’ might as well be now.

Actually, I’m amazed at how many ‘new’ ideas I, and people like me, have come to terms with in this Covid-19 phase were all struggling through.

For example, up until a few weeks ago, I’d never even heard the now ubiquitous Zoom. (A clever bit of software which allows you to join loads of others at must-attend gatherings without ever leaving your desktop or the kitchen table…what’s more, it’s free!)

So far, it’s enabled me to attend a church business meeting and an afternoon tea party (coffee in my case…but when it’s all ‘virtual’ who cares!).Thanks to Zoom I’ve also been able to record Bible readings for a Sunday morning church service and take part in a Good Friday reflection based on the passion narrative set out in St John’s Gospel.

I think it’s fair to say I’m ‘sold’ on the possibility of adding Zoom to my toolbox.

My mum-in-law – who, as custom dictates is a tiddly-tad older than me – has made even more progress. Pre-coronavirus, she was strictly a Word doc or email sort of person. But just before strict isolation, my wife, her eldest daughter, introduced her to the delights of Facebook…mum-in-law has now renewed and revived relationships with friends and family in various parts of the world as she continues to build up her ‘followers’ here, there and everywhere.

I shouldn’t be surprised if we were all invited to a ‘virtual reunion party’ sometime soon!

* * *

Of course, change isn’t everybody’s cup of tea and I suppose that’s certainly true when it comes to matters of faith and trying to weave together the disparate views and aspirations of churchgoers.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Church of England was getting itself in a bit of a tiz over the introduction of women vicars. Now, even the appointment of new women bishops doesn’t come as that much of a surprise to us.

This summer, the Methodist Church at its annual conference in June, was to have considered feedback from churches throughout the UK on the report ‘God in Love Unites Us’ which includes a recommendation to enable people of the same sex to marry in church.

However, whilst the Covid-19 epidemic might have forced the likes of me and my mum-in-law to come to terms with new technology a little more speedily, it has, understandably, had the opposite impact on the Methodist Conference which is now, temporarily, on hold. I guess for all of us, it’s a case of: ‘Watch this space!’

Saturday 4 April: A Face in the Crowd

Do you remember when it was OK to be in a crowd? Of course, now we’ve got the risk of Coronavirus we’re not allowed to have crowds any more. Two of a kind, that’s the rule…and even they must be two metres apart!

But back in the day, crowds were something you’d either love or hate. My wife, Ali, was always uneasy in crowds. A kind of claustrophobia, I suppose.

I quite enjoyed ‘em…but I’m not daft. I know that crowds can change from being best mates to worst enemies in a matter of seconds.

Back in my days as a newspaper reporter, I remember mingling with a crowd on a picket line at a local factory. I was there to cover an industrial dispute and it was all very amicable. Lots of dark humour, but nothing ‘nasty’.

Then some folk from out of town arrived. And it was clear they were intent on stirring up trouble. Me and my photographer were definitely the enemy!

I remember they tried to wrestle the camera out of my mates’ hands. The crowd that had been such a jovial bunch, suddenly changed to something far more menacing.

Overall, I’ve been in a lot of crowds and most of them were good natured. And there is something very special about being part of a big crowd…especially when you’ve all got something in common.

Back in 1986, I was part of what was probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever part of. It was at Wembley, and Oxford United were playing Queen’s Park Rangers in the final of what we then knew as the Milk Cup.

United won, watched by a crowd of 90,396…which included me and my son Toby. A jolly day was had by all…and much of that was thanks to the good-natured banter among the rival supporters.

* * *

One way or another, crowds played an important part in the life of Jesus. And you can imagine the crowd that must have gathered as he made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday…a day Christians will still think about at the start of Holy Week 2020 this Sunday (April 5).

When I think about the people who gathered on that first Palm Sunday, I often wonder if they were the same folk who had made up the crowd at Bethlehem, some 30 years or more before. That crowd that filled the streets to such an extent that there was no room in any of the inns for a heavily pregnant young woman.

Anyway, back to that first Palm Sunday crowd. ‘Hosanna. Hosanna’ they shouted. ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’.

So where did it all start to go wrong?  When did the chant change from ‘Hosanna’ to ‘Crucify him’?

I want you to imagine another crowd now.  See if you can picture this in your mind’s eye. It’s the biggest crowd you’ve ever seen. And it’s made up of

every man, woman and child that there’s ever been. It stretches back and back and wider and wider as far as the eye can see…and there at the front is Jesus.

But look a little closer because YOU’RE in that crowd and I’m in that crowd too. And all the people that we know and love, and have known and have loved, are also in that crowd.

Now, just imagine the crowd slowly getting smaller. Suddenly you can see where it ends. We started off with countless millions, now perhaps we have a few thousand. And still it shrinks.

Finally everyone’s gone….except you. But you are not alone. Because Jesus is still there. He’s there for you. Right by your side. You see, he didn’t die for an anonymous multitude but for countless individuals. For you and for me.

With Jesus we are never just a face in the crowd. We’re special. But equally, we’re never alone. As we step out into Holy Week, at this most frightening of coronavirus times, let’s remember that whatever we might be going through, he’ll always be there beside us.

Saturday 28 March: 

It was last Friday (March 20) that Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all our pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants and nightclubs to call last orders.
Now, as someone who’s been known to frequent a variety of such venues – and oftimes with a degree of gusto — I have to say the order came as a bit of a blow.
But hang on a minute, wasn’t this particular order kind of important? Wasn’t this part of our crucial battle in the war against coronavirus? Yep, this was definitely life and death stuff. Things couldn’t get much worse…but then they did!
Following a weekend of sunshine when half the world seemed to set off for the nearest bit of beach or hint of greenery, Boris went even more serious when he used his Monday night broadcast (March 23) to introduce even further restrictions.
The headline writers called it a ‘lockdown’… although, that was not a word that passed Boris’s lips in his speech to the nation!
Nevertheless, I guess we all got the drift. With just a handful of exceptions we were confined to barracks. We could shop for ‘necessities’ – as long as we didn’t make a habit of it; could take a bit of exercise – a walk, a run, or a cycle ride; and we could look after our own medical needs, and indeed those of others.
Pretty much everything else was out of bounds and, of course, no matter what we got up to, we had to make sure we left at least two metres (about 6ft) between us and the nearest person to us.
It’s all good common sense sort of stuff…but it made pretty grim reading.

* * *

However, just when you thought this week’s news wasn’t going to give us too much to smile about, along came a very smiley, Dutch-born lady called Annemarie Plass.
She’s the one who got us all clapping our hands, and generally making a racket on our doorsteps to show our support and appreciation for the NHS.
There were no special words to say, and the only reason for putting our hands together was to make a noise! In fact, all we had to do was to believe. Believe that somehow or another our rowdy rumpus would make a difference.
It reminded me of a story from John’s gospel (John 4:43 -54) where Jesus healed the son of a Roman official without the merest hint of a sign or wonder. It just needed the official to believe.
Now I must admit, I was one of the cynics who, at the start of last week, wondered whether our doorstep antics would make the slightest bit of difference and I even doubted whether anyone would turn out to give it a try.
But, remembering that my wife now works for the NHS, I thought I’d better give it a go.
Well, my wife wasn’t the only one who got a lump in her throat when we went outside and started clapping on the doorstep. It seemed we had joined an unseen, ragamuffin orchestra making a din in the streets all around us.
No, it wasn’t a miracle…just the sound of ordinary people showing their appreciation to all those forgotten heroes who are rightly proud to work for the NHS.
Glad tidings of great joy.

Saturday March 21:

In week when we’ve all been trying to get our tongues around words like Coronavirus and COVID-19, it’s kinda easy to forget that Sunday (March 22) is Mothering Sunday.

My childhood memories of this day all seem to revolve around posies for mum and doing the washing up after Sunday lunch.

But these days, when so many of us are fearful about the future and there is uncertainty all around us, I guess we’re all tempted to turn our thoughts to the skies in a despairing kind of way.

This year, Churches Together in England are calling all of us to light a candle, and maybe say a prayer, as we think of our mums and try to get our heads around the reality and implications of this hitherto unknown virus which seems to be bringing almost everything to a standstill.

So at 7pm this Sunday, I encourage you all to light a candle – or turn on one of those battery powered thingies – as a visible celebration of all that our mums did for us and as a symbol of the light of life, Jesus Christ…our hope for better things ahead.