Monday, 5 October 2009

I am never merry when I hear sweet music

Music occasionally makes me cry. While I was driving to work this morning, the radio launched into "Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes" from Tschaikovsky's Nutcracker. 'OK', I thought: we had the suites on record when I was growing up, and I've always liked the music. However, I very rarely hear it, and had completely forgotten how this particular section went. I listened a bit mechanically, noting dispassionately how good an orchestrator Tschaikovsky was, even set against such masters as Rimsky-Korsakov, and enjoying the music's chiffon layers of chuffing flute decoration, which well enough suggested falling snowflakes. But the sudden entrance of the wordless female chorus caught me utterly by surprise and (as they say) "blew me away". It brought tears to my eyes and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It may not perhaps be truly great music, but it is hugely effective, though the image it brought to mind was not realistic falling snow, but the artificial magic of the ballet stage, with the coloured lights, imitation snow, and smiling and gesturing dancers. Maybe that's why the music caught at me so, tapping into hidden memories of seeing Nutcracker on stage in London as a child.

My list of those magical moments when music has made my hair stand on end is thus now extended by one. Others include (in no particular order):

the restatement of the main theme near the end of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra;
the key change near the end of Ravel's Bolero;
the moment when the heroine is presented with the rose in Strauss's Rosenkavalier;
a particular descending melisma partway through Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending;
and the natural trumpet solo in his Pastoral Symphony;
the moments in Borodin's String Quartet when the rising scale passages miraculously arrive at exactly the right note to begin the next phrase of the melody;
the last phrase of Walton's A Spotless Rose;
the "sliding" theme in Nielsen's First Symphony;
the opening of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2;
and so on.

There are other Vaughan Williams moments: "walk out with me" in Toward the Unknown Region; the "city with her dreaming spires" in An Oxford Elegy; and my title phrase from the Serenade to Music. And there are other moments which may not produce an obvious thrill to the ear, but which are incomparable when you are actually preforming them: unforgettable little corners in pieces like Lotti's 8-part Crucifixus, Barber's Agnus Dei, Pearsall's Lay a Garland, Faure's Requiem, or Harris's Faire is the Heav'n.

It's funny how much of the music I enjoy performing (renaissance polyphony, baroque and early classical choral music) may be the sort of thing I am good at, but is not really what I want to listen to. I can spend a day happily enough working through some chaste piece of Byrd or Bach, but when I get home what I want is to be engulfed in billowing swathes of Bax or Richard Strauss!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Hills, Tents, and the Turning of the Year

Autumn arrived on Friday. It was a nice day, and the trees are still green; but there was just something about the angle of the sunlight slanting across the road at 8 in the morning which said to me that the year had turned. Summer has made a couple of late showings since, but it's on the way out.

Squirmle I is now eating raspberries, and we're trying to stay cool about his general faddiness (and aversion to vegetables). Squirmle II is trying to drink Mummy dry. We all had a great day on Bank Holiday Monday, with a picnic on the hills and a shared mint choc chip ice cream.

Our day trip to Greenbelt was also a success, though I think I only got to one complete talk, and spent much of the time chasing the Squirmle. I'm now catching up by listening to MP3s. I have again got the feeling that Greenbelt speaks more directly to me than any other religious gathering in my experience: its openness to discussion of practically any issue, its willingness to accept a huge range of liberal Christian viewpoints (and agnostic and non-Christian viewpoints), and its refreshing debunking of all the kinds of Christianity with which I have little or no sympathy.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Idylls of the Dad

Thursday was marked by one of my best moments since the day we were first sent home with a small pink alien. The weather was my favourite kind: a sunny day with a few clouds in a blue sky, and a decent breeze to make the trees wave and keep the temperature comfortable. I took Squirmle I up to the swings, a walk which started extremely slowly as we ambled along, pushing the empty buggy and inspecting plants, stones, and lamp posts. Eventually he tired of this, and requested a ride. We had an energetic swing in our favoured fashion (with me holding the swing back and counting to the requested number before letting go). As is now usual, this was followed by a short walk through the woods to the railway. As we reached the fence by the track, I noticed some discarded fruit on the ground, and a tree hung with small round yellow things. I thought it might be a crab apple, and sauntered over in case it would be a useful source for jam-making. It turned out to be laden with small yellow plums, just ripening, and twined below with a lethally spiky bramble, also just coming into season. Somewhat to my surprise, the Squirmle (whose unvarying response to raspberries and strawberries is to say "Daddy eat it") consented to accept a proffered blackberry and gingerly nibbled his way through it. He wasn't even perturbed by the deep purple colour of his fingers after this process. I ventured to offer a plum, and he solemnly ate that too, while I munched my way through about four, all the while watching him nervously hoping that he wouldn't swallow the stone. We were greeted by a friendly passing spaniel, whose owner said that he had played there as a boy and was off to look for his former den. And we saw five trains, including a goods train.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Gone Already

My latest gadget is a thing that lets my iPod play over my car radio. Thanks to I.B. for telling me about this gizmo, and also pointing me towards the first thing I have tried out on it: a downloaded Greenbelt talk by John O'Donohue, poet, mystic, and ex-priest. Having listened to him three times this week, I was surprised and saddened to discover that he died over a year ago. Of course, I couldn't find his poetry in the bookshop -- bookshops are full of such dross nowadays! -- so I'll have to resort to the Interweb. His sonnet on the Nativity is one of those poems that pulls a cord somewhere inside.

He is one of those people who can induce a kind of passive faith, like passive smoking, by the way he talks, not about "God" (which is a difficult word, twined around with unhelpful brambles) but about people -- or, as he whimsically calls them, "humanoids". There is something to think about in his paraphrase of Meister Eckhart, which I have added to my Words of Wisdom.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Jam and Pyjamas

The garden continues to produce: sour cherry jelly has been followed by blackcurrant jam and gooseberry chutney (to a wartime recipe), and as the loganberries ripen I'm stashing them in the freezer for a future jam-making session. The white agapanthus is starting to open, and some anonymous blue flowers (Brodiaea?) have sprouted in one of the bulb pots.

We're trying not to make too much of it, but we were very pleased by Squirmle 1's success in doing a poo in his potty. He has also helped to make flapjack and produced some enthusiastic paintings. He drives us mad by trying to treat everything as a game in which Mummy and Daddy have to chase him, wielding toothbrush, trousers, shoes, sun-hat, or whatever. Meanwhile Squirmle 2's progress in sleeping has suffered a setback caused by a cold, but he has now learned how to grab things, and can shove himself a fair distance along the carpet by lying on his back and pushing with his legs.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

All the people my own age are older than me!

My college recently held a summer garden party for alumni, and we went along. Not many of my contemporaries were there, but meeting the few that had turned up did confirm the validity of a perception that has become increasingly clear to me in the last few months: at the time of life that I have now reached, all the people my own age are older than me!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Perelandra the Opera

Attending this musical event last Friday evening was an agreeably entertaining experience. However, I am afraid that I must disagree with the overheard opinion of one earnest C. S. Lewis devotee: "Beautiful beyond belief!". It might be possible (though rather difficult) to make a musically and dramatically compelling stage version of C. S. Lewis's most theological of science fiction novels; but (as much as I love his music) Donald Swann was perhaps not the ideal composer to attempt it. It is a pity that Gustav Holst died nine years before the novel was published.

Don't get me wrong: much of it was really rather good. The opening scene, in which the book's internal narrator with his doctor friend (identified as C. S. Lewis and Humphrey Havard) stumble into Ransom's cottage on a dark night to await his return from outer space, was a successful chunk of modern-day musical theatre, though I consider that obscuring the words by having more than one character singing at the same time is a flaw in an otherwise naturalistic piece. The musical style was generally what one might hope from a modern opera: supportive without being intrusive, occasionally pungent or angular without being objectionable, and orchestrated with much tuned and untuned percussion. However, as the line "I cannot imagine Perelandra" soared on a thread of eminently singable but slightly too predictable melody, I couldn't help thinking that Mr Swann had stepped a little too far in the direction of his more natural habitat on the West End musical stage. If you are aiming for something on a par with the chamber operas of Holst or Britten (and Swann occasionally does come quite near this), it is distracting for the listeners to find themselves suddenly in a musical world closer to that of Salad Days.

As we went on, the music continued to wander around between styles in a way which the producer, in his programme notes, lauded as eclectic, but which I found to be something of a distraction. Every now and then, Swann's enjoyably scrunchy harmony would suddenly culminate in a cadence so conventional that it could have come from a Victorian church anthem. The result seemed as much of a jolt as if a Flanders and Swann ditty had ended in a Schoenbergian discord. The use of uneven Balkan rhythms was an occasional feature, but its contribution was limited, and added nothing that composers such as Holst had not been doing long before: in an orchestral tutti near the end, the omission of a beat every few measures felt like mere affectation.

In word-setting, odd rhythms can be more of a hindrance than wholly irregular barring, and surely few serious librettos are best set to dance rhythms of any kind. One particularly beautiful passage, in which a solo flute undulated above soft chords, was let down by the banality of its melodic development; it rose wonderfully, but came down exactly the same way as it had gone up. (Then, even so great a composer as Vaughan Williams could suffer from such a momentary lack of inventiveness.) The name "Maleldil" is several times set to an irritating three-note phrase, and an exceedingly prosaic choral comment ("Day and night, night and day, the attack of the enemy continues") has a correspondingly plodding tune. (I'm pretty sure Swann himself sang this section when he gave an illustrated talk to the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society in the 1980s, and I think I thought the same then!) In general, the orchestration -- by Max Saunders -- seemed excellent to me (what do I know?), with harp, piccolo, and (as mentioned) percussion used to particularly good effect. Occasionally, though, the harmony felt somehow bottomless, despite the presence of double basses, horns, trombones, and bassoon in the orchestral line-up. I wondered if this was the result of orchestrating the work of an essentially pianistic composer, for whom sustained bass lines might not be a natural mode of writing.

The partly-spoken scene in which Weston arrives on Perelandra in his spaceship would benefit from lighting effects such as projection: even without them, it did manage to evoke the atmosphere of a black-and-white film version of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, which is very much where the figure of Weston is drawn from. Much of the action was recounted by a narrator (John Amis), leaving the singers only to comment on it before and after. The most successful sections, I felt, were Ransom's accompanied monologues, where the singer expresses the character's wrestling with his conscience and the perils of the situation against an accompaniment which skilfully catches the mood. Less successful were the songs of praise to Maleldil. It just seems to be hard for composers to recapture the fine, careless rapture of Haydn's Creation in any later musical idiom, and as the King and Lady of Perelandra echoed each other in a pious tableau, I was reminded of the stilted stained-glass attitudes of Elgar's Apostles. The grand finale was stirring, though, and the whole piece was shot through with occasional delights.

The word "tableau" puts in focus the dramatic problem. Opera is not a medium well suited to the clear depiction of complex and violent action, and episodes such as the fight between Ransom and Weston (the Un-man) were recounted in narration by the chorus. The title "opera" seems less appropriate here; this concert performance was presented as a "dramatic oratorio", and I can see why in the second attempt to produce this work it was termed a "music drama". In terms of potential staging, Perelandra falls into that awkward region inhabited by such works as Purcell's Fairy Queen or Handel's Acis and Galatea: not a straight concert-work, but not quite satisfactory as a stage-work either. My own thought was that it would be best served by mixed-media presentation, part chamber opera, part modern ballet, with costume and lighting effects, but without an attempt at realistic theatre: the dramatic sequences could perhaps be best realized by the technique of representing each character by both a singer and a dancer (as in Birtwhistle's Mask of Orpheus).

The singers for the most part did an excellent job. Neil Jenkins (Lewis) was in fine voice, though he might have done well to clutch a Pavarottian handkerchief in order to suppress that urge of the aging recitalist to express his musical feeling (or to feel his way through the music) with conductor-like gestures. The years have perhaps dealt less kindly with the larynx of Rupert Forbes (Humphrey), but he provided a good enough foil. Leon Berger (Weston) was splendid, even though the low tessitura of much of his part was clearly a little taxing and did not always carry. Hakon Vramsmo (Ransom) was engaging, lyrical, and mellifluous, and Alexander Anderson-Hall (King) produced some of those wonderful top tenor notes of the kind that stir the hairs on the back of your neck. Jane Streeton (Lady) was graceful and appealing, though occasionally overpowered by the orchestra, at least from where I was sitting. Clive McCombie (Spider) had a suitable gravitas for the king of the creepy-crawlies, and also covered some bass solo sections in the chorus part. (I remember his name from a rare performance of Swann's unpublished "South African Song Cycle" at the University Church in about 1983, though I wouldn't have recalled his face.) The brief solo aria for treble was nicely done, if (as with most boy trebles) quiet and a bit colourless, with uncertain tuning through a couple of Swann's ornamental twiddles. The choir dealt capably with what was clearly, in places, quite a tricky score, with only a few minor disagreements about final note-lengths, and the occasional "piano-crescendo" entry betraying that collective uncertainty which with all choral singers are only too familiar. The soprano solos from within the choir were accurate and atmospheric.

As for the venue, the elegant Sheldonian Theatre lived up to its reputation among Oxford music-lovers as the most uncomfortable concert hall in Christendom. I cannot think of any other auditorium where not only each row, but entire sections of seating can be reached only by treading on other members of the audience. Long ago I vowed never to sit on someone else's feet in the steeply-sloping upper gallery -- unless the concert was so poorly attended that I could stretch full length along one of the narrow shelves that passes for a row of seats (as I once did to listen to a student performance of a Beethoven symphony). Old acquaintance with the row numbers (from having been a steward for Music at Oxford concerts) enabled me to select a seat with a back, but leg-room was still severely constrained: the only proper seats are the chairs, where the floor is level but the prices are steep, and the acoustics are not great. Opening a window for ventilation on a warm evening wafts in the raucous cries of drinkers at the "White Horse" and the "Kings Arms".

Donald Swann is said to have considered Perelandra his masterpiece. Certainly it seems to be the only thing he attempted on this scale, but I fear it is inevitably doomed to stand alongside Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe and Scott Joplin's Treemonisha as a noble effort in serious opera by a composer whose light music will live for ever.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Growing infants and vegetables

Life is too busy to blog now...

The Squirmle had his first Terrible Twos Tantrum as he reached the age of two to the minute! How tragic can it be that Daddy is too busy to lift you into your high chair and Mummmy does it instead? He had (and helped to blow out) a 2-shaped candle on his birthday cake, though no party, as we thought that going to four friends' parties was quite enough excitement for the season. For the last few weeks he has been expanding his repertoire of second syllables and final consonants (now saying "boo-KH" with gusto), so there is some hope that he may be able to communicate outside the home (though he may not wish to: he refused to speak to the staff at nursery when visiting a new room last week). He has also completed his 15-piece Big Bus jigsaw practically on his own, which is pretty impressive. His counting is still enthusiastic, even though there can be few cultures in which the numbering system goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 14, 14...

Meanwhile Squirmle II has developed a beaming smile which he deploys occasionally after a feed, but is still scarcely capable of sleeping if not actually lying on Mummy or Daddy. He has the endearing habit (apparently not uncommon in breastfed babies) of saving up all his poo for two or three days, and then letting rip with a ghastly burbling sound which registers rather a long way up the Richter scale.

The roses are starting to come out now. 'Kathleen Harrap' has been out for over a week, 'Graham Thomas' has started, the yellow climber on the fence is going fit to bust, and the two red ones will be out soon. The single delphinium has been eaten by slugs, but is making a comeback thanks to the application of some 'eco-friendly' slug pellets. The gooseberry has lost half of its leaves to small green caterpillars, and something is eating the choisyas. We've had our first home-grown salad leaves, and some of the tomato plants may not be dead yet. Living off the land is a long way off, though!

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Science and C. S. Lewis

Watching a TV programme "The Narnia Code" (about Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia, which I reviewed very favourably in LibraryThing), I was struck by a couple of passing comments.

Despite his ability to write science fiction, I have tended to regard C. S. Lewis (half-consciously) as something of a scientific illiterate, simply because he says hardly anything about biology. However, it was made clear that Lewis was a keen follower of the astronomy of the day, and fully aware of the demands that its findings make of the religious believer. (As Ward said on the programme) Lewis somewhere stated the almost inevitable opinion that any serious religion must be cosmic in scope, and take into account the whole of the universe as perceived by modern science.

There was a nice little analogy from Polkinghorne. Why is the kettle boiling? Science can offer a good deal along the lines of "because the water is undergoing a change from the liquid to the gaseous state...", but the answer might also be "because I want a cup of tea: would you like one too?"; and here science has nothing to say. Science is successful not because it can answer all the questions, but because scientific method effectively selects questions of the type to which it can give answers.

The modern materialist, it was noted, begins from the existence of matter as primary, and the arising of our delusory personhood is seen as something weird and anomalous. Lewis, by contrast, asks why we cannot start with what is obvious to us, and view consciousness as primary.

I thought of a scientific analogy comparable to Paley's watch (so perhaps ultimately as misleading). Some non-believers point to the Earth's marginal position in the physical universe as somehow confirming its cosmic significance, the majesty (or the sheer brute size) of the galaxies being so much more what the cosmos seems to be about. Why should the meaning of the universe be focused on a small, dim planet? However, if you found a building full of very large and complex pieces of equipment such as electricity generators and cooling coils, you wouldn't be correct to presume that these are therefore the truly important things, and that the small screen in a side room on which scientific observations are displayed is insignificant because it is small and not placed in the middle. To make a very small but important scientific observation, it may be necessary to construct a very large laboratory. To make a very small but important sentient species, it may be necessary to construct a very large universe.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Eastertide: New Life, New Stress

After all my musings on the topic of creation, I was struck afresh by Genesis 1 at the Easter vigil service this year. I heard the tale more clearly than before as a simple expression of faith by the ancient authors. No one this side of insanity could take literally the description of the vault of heaven dividing the waters above from the waters below; but the account stands pure and simple as a statement of spiritual affirmation. Believing that the world had such a form, the authors stated their conviction that God was the source of it; but what they happened to believe about the physical constitution of the world is immaterial to the underlying affirmation.

Despite the incomprehension of our well-meaning but blinkered musicians when anything exotic such as a Taize chant or a responsorial psalm is called for, the service was grounded in reality and quite uplifting, from the bonfire in the churchyard to the generous spraying of the congregation with water from the font. It was also a welcome brief respite from the turmoil of home life, where the active and increasingly self-willed Squirmle 1 is now manifesting his unsettled feelings at the recent arrival of Squirmle 2, and the latter is giving his mother much discomfort and frustration and virtually no sleep. (I can hear him squawking now, at a minute to midnight, and he may not take much of a break before 5 a.m.)

Wednesday, 18 March 2009


Counting has now become one of the Squirmle's chief amusements. At least two months ago he was saying "wu'" with enthusiasm on seeing a figure "one", but as he also occasionally said "wu'" for several other numbers we took little notice. However, the continual low-key counting of things, whether on children's TV, in numerous books, or just when out and about, has obviously sunk in, and in the last few weeks he has started recognizing and naming most of the numerals. We now usually count the (14) stairs as we go down them, and he can often be heard chanting wu', two, 'ree, bor, bye, si', eigh', noyn, ten, tweol'. (There seems no particular logic to the persistent absence of 7 and 11.) He does understand the notion of enumeration as well as mere sequence: I offered him one hand to help him down the stairs today, and he held out the other hand and said "two".

The letter O has also been joined by B, K, M, T, et al., and walkign along the street now has to be interrupted so that we can spot the letters on the manhole covers.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Faith, Unbelief, and Rowan Williams

I turned a corner today, in a quiet way. A friend has lent me Rowan's Rule, the biography of Archbishop Rowan Williams by Rupert Shortt (dedicated, intriguingly, to Glyn Paflin). Reading it, I realized what I should have known already: that many great minds have grappled with almost exactly the same problems as me, and have not found them an insurmountable barrier to faith. I noted in particular that Williams has written a counter to Don Cupitt's Taking Leave of God, which I would like to investigate (I once read much of Keith Ward's Holding Fast to God, but found myself scribbling ripostes in the margin); also that, in his engagement with the issue of homosexuality, Williams could offer a reading of Romans 1 which is both revisionary and yet not dismissive of the notion of authority. Wandering through the dining room, I then found (among the religious books incongruously lodged between cookery and DIY) a book of essays by Archbishop Michael Ramsay called God, Christ and the World, which emphasizes the Christocentric nature of Christian theism, and specifically addresses the "death of God" theologians of the 1960s.

There is a sense in which I have not lost faith, but merely lost my grip on the beliefs (conscious or otherwise) which were, for the time being, supporting it. Reading about Williams's deeply nuanced theology, informed by mystical writers such as St John of the Cross, I felt there was something I could respond to. It may be that I have merely abandoned some unsophisticated assumptions about God's nature and action which had crept up on me while I was theologically and spiritually comatose, distracted by the busyness of life. Having stopped believing in a God who does not exist, I may be able to trust in a God whose "existence" is not so much an issue (as hinted at by Williams in Tokens of Trust).

I am sure that my director for this week has been at least mildly frustrated by my arid inability to engage with biblical texts in a straightforward way, but last night (no, the night before last - I see it is now past midnight) he set me to Acts 8 and the tale of Philip and the Ethiopian, who travel through the desert yet find water, the water of baptism. From this passage I took the idea that if one seeks to understand the Bible, one must have someone to explain it; and that among a multitude of voices claiming to do so, some (such as Rowan Williams) may be more worthy of my full attention than others (such as Gerd Ludemann). To whom should I turn for a way of reading Scripture? By their fruits ye shall know them: Williams is a spiritual being if anyone is, and can take me to St John of the Cross, the Desert Fathers, and T. S. Eliot; Ludemann can offer only the tedious and florid outpourings of the Gnostics, pretending that being suppressed and forgotten is some kind of guarantee of their value.

Inspired by Ramsey's Christocentrism, I sat with an icon today. My director used the phrase "journey of exploration", which to me immediately conjured up T. S. Eliot: and the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. And sure enough, returning to the Rowan Williams biography over dinner, I found a discussion of St Teresa of Avila, for whom, at the last stage of consummation in prayer, "life is normal again". I thought instantly of the sage returning to the market-place at the end of the Ten Ox pictures of Zen Buddhism. Williams makes exactly this comparison with Zen enlightenment, and then quotes T. S. Eliot: "know the place for the first time". I thought of my Original Face.

De noche iremos, de noche, que para encontrar la fuente;
sólo la sed nos alumbra, sólo la sed nos alumbra.

Father Mariano de Blas

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Thoughts and Non-thoughts

Quite by chance, I was leafing through some old notebooks, and stumbled on notes from a lecture on St John of the Cross (date and name of lecturer not recorded), which I went to as a graduate student when I was supposed to be in the laboratory. The final sentence in my notes seemed unexpectedly apposite:

For some people, sensitive to the inadequacy of our knowledge culture, the alternatives may be atheism or contemplation.

I am not sure I understand what "our knowledge culture" is in this context, but with the apparent failure of both natural theology and scriptural authority, the only option left for the rescue of any kind of Christian religion beyond the merely subjective might have to be direct experience. That is, contemplative prayer. I see that I wrote about this in September: I have made no progress in any direction for four months! So I have signed up for a week of Guided Prayer next week. How that will work for an agnostic, I am not sure.

The advantage of Zen is that one doesn't need faith in anything beyond the process of zazen itself (and presumably, to some extent, in the wisdom of one's teacher). The Christian mystics seem more daunting in their assumptions. St John of the Cross, says my lecturer, described a process of "abnegation, with no satisfaction or reassurance - only longing for God and for all things only in God". The contemplative process is the spiritual parallel to the intellectual process which, through apophatic theology, denies everything said of God as inadequate. However, judging from the above quotation from John of the Cross, I am not sure that either strand of the via negativa would readily count "existence" as one of the attributes of God which might have to be negated.

Do I "long for God", or do I just seek security in the face of the universe? Einstein considered the basic question of faith to be "Is the universe friendly?"; but I don't know that he answered the question.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Walking Backwards

The latest talent exhibited by the Squirmle is walking backwards, which he demonstrated with some glee on the way to the corner shop the other day. He started out with a few sideways steps (just to make sure nothing dreadful happened), and then went into full reverse gear for several yards. Later, he tried it in the house, but discovered that you can't go very far without receiving a clonk on the back of the head from a door or a piece of furniture.

He has also made his first definite step towards literacy. For months he has been playing with square fridge-magnets bearing coloured letters, but this week he suddenly pointed to the letter 'O' and said "O" quite distinctly. Just to show that this was not a fluke, he then found another 'O' and said "O" for that one too.

Of course, much more exciting for him has been the arrival of snow. We have made lots of footprints, and produced a small snowman on the drive (about a foot high). He even pointed at a residue of bubbles in the bath and said " --'now", so keyed up was he to the observation of piles of white stuff. The snow has also had some less helpful side effects: Thursday's Toddler Group was cancelled, and the day nursery closed at lunchtime on Friday, so a morning spent usefully tidying and cleaning things was succeeded by an afternoon of building piles of blocks and watching a "Clangers" DVD. And then I had to go to work on Saturday to make up the time. Woe!

Monday, 12 January 2009


On 26 September I wrote I am therefore going through one of my periodic attempts to see whether a sustainable liberal Christian faith can actually be reconstructed.

Since then, I have had a curious encounter with a book: Ludemann's The Great Deception. This seeks to reanalyse most of the reported sayings of Jesus as doctrinally-loaded interpolations by the early Christian church, which owed its origin chiefly to Paul. I had myself been toying with the idea that one or two sayings of Jesus might have originated in charismatically inspired "words" given to early Christian congregations, which were incorporated into the oral tradition and then "read back" into the Gospels. Despite my openness to the idea, I found Ludemann's arguments poorly and incompletely made; but curiously, the book has nevertheless made an irrational impression. To myself, I have ascribed my tenacity in retaining a grip on Christianity partly to personal loyalty to the figure of Jesus Christ. As that figure becomes historically deconstructed, even by such unsatisfactory arguments as Ludemann's, that loyalty is showing a tendency to dissipate, leaving me with little more than an emotional attachment to certain expressions of spirituality in art, music, poetry, and liturgy.

I now find myself entering the New Year as rather more of an agnostic than before. I have long described myself as a "Christian agnostic", paying lip service to the notion of "religion as human construct", though applying it mainly to the developed doctrines of institutonal Christianity, not to the core assumptions of theism. I have (I now realize) retained a substratum of more or less traditional theistic assumptions. These seem to have departed, at least for the moment, with what feels like rather dramatic suddenness.

It is not the first time that I have, as it were, woken up one morning to discover that I am an atheist. I cannot say that I find it liberating in the least. In the past, I have viewed the "Sea of Faith" approach to Christianity from the mainstream liberal perspective, as an extreme position to which I felt I might ultimately be drawn. I now find myself looking at it from the other side, wondering what it is about the human religious exercise that makes it worth engaging in. Last time I was an atheist, I gently lapsed back into faith as the social and cultural matrix of Christian observance and interest continued to sustain me. This time, under pressure of family life, I don't know where I will find the time or the energy for the effort of spiritual reconstruction.

When, at a talk at Greenbelt 2007, that verse from the Gospel struck a chord with me ("Launch out into the deep" Luke 5:4), I wasn't really expecting the water to be quite as cold and deep as this.