What is it, to be a patriot now?

I grew up conflicted between the social and educational pressures to love my country and believe it was the greatest in the world – we Brits won the War, after all – and Dr Johnson’s adage that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. As soon as I was able to see that we were’nt the greatest country in the world, and not only that but it wasn’t we who won the war either, I leaned more towards the Johnsonian view.

So I was resistant to recording John of Gaunt’s famous speech from King Richard II Act II: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle…” It sounded to me like the extreme of mindless, overblown, and unfounded patriotism. But it’s not, of course. As so often, I had never really heard it through to the end and heard what old Gaunt is really saying.

It’s a lament, that the country he has loved and served all his life has become something to be ashamed of. By their reckless misgovernment its rulers have betrayed their people and everything the nation should be.

If we feel similarly betrayed in our time, perhaps the Psalms can provide a resource. The ‘psalms of lament’ that we find there include powerful prayers that cry out to God, at times when God seems to have abandoned his people. Why have you allowed us to be conquered by the Babylonians? Why have you allowed us to be taken captive by politicians who care more for enriching the wealthy and powerful, than they do for protecting the vulnerable, feeding the poor, healing the sick, providing a decent standard of living for all their people?

We may not like the answers. People who pray like this often hear that what has happened is a judgment for their idolatry and disobedience to God’s way. Or in a democratic society, that we get the Government we choose or deserve. Then our prayer may change to one of determination and hope. That we may return to God’s ways. That we may (quickly!) deserve better than our electoral record shows we do.

And we may take heart from John of Gaunt’s words too. Here they are:

Official Secrets

Everyone should watch the 2019 film Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, and Ralph Fiennes.

It’s the true story of Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was working as a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham. At that time the American NSA were trying to facilitate President George W. Bush’s determination to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with the aim “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” As we soon learned, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and far from the Iraqi people being freed, they were subjected to decades of terror for themselves and the whole region, with the rise of so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the bloody wars that then followed to overthrow it.

The NSA emailed GCHQ requesting them to help with surveillance of the delegates from non-permanent member nations of the UN Security Council , with a view to putting pressure on them to support the 2nd resolution that was necessary to legitimate the invasion of Iraq. Katharine Gun was appalled by this, convinced that it was wrong for our security agencies to be used to support the policies of a foreign government, especially when this meant going to war without just cause. (Remember that millions of people all over the world, even in the UK and USA, were demonstrating against Bush and Blair’s policy.)

After great heart-searching, Gun sent a copy of the email to an activist friend, who in turn sent it to the Observer newspaper. The Observer had until this point supported the war, but when they investigated the email and found it genuine, as well as confirming that evidence of Iraqi WMDs was doubtful, they published it.

GCHQ staff were immediately questioned to identify the source of the leak, on the basis that it contravened the mighty Official Secrets Act. Katharine Gun could not bear her colleagues being subjected to this treatment and quickly confessed. She was immediately arrested and questioned. One of the minor heroes of this film is the (unnamed) young woman duty solicitor at this first questioning, who admits she usually only represents petty criminals on drugs and shoplifting charges, yet recommends that Gun should get in touch with the human rights advocacy group Liberty.

In a cruel twist, it was many months before Gun was formally charged — months in which the authorities left her in suspense about what would happen to her. When she was eventually brought to trial, the question was, How should she plead? She was clearly guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act, yet she opted to plead Not Guilty on the grounds of necessity: that she had acted as she did in order to try to prevent an illegal war.

Here’s a Spoiler Alert, but I can’t resist it and it won’t spoil your enjoyment of the film: When the trial began, the prosecution announced that they would not be bringing any evidence. They gave no reason for this decision, though it’s pretty clear it was because the defence had asked to see the records that the Government had received during the run-up to the war giving legal advice about whether the war was lawful. Since these records would reveal that the Attorney General had originally ruled it unlawful (until he visited Washington DC where he was presumably pressured by the Americans to change his mind), the Government didn’t want this to be revealed. The astonished judge had no alternative but to dismiss the case, and Katharine Gun walked free.

Katharine Gun is a hero whistle-blower, and of course has had to live with and suffer the consequences. Though admired by millions and the recipient of awards, Wikipedia notes

After she was acquitted in 2004, she found it difficult to find a new job. As of 2019 she has lived in Turkey with her husband and daughter for several years.

This is an accurate presentation of a young woman who stood up to protest against one of the most evil decisions taken by British Government during my lifetime. Not only was it illegal and wrong, but it has unleashed violence and suffering on the world which we have yet to see the end of. But it is also an exciting and thought-provoking thriller.

If you haven’t yet watched this (it’s free on Amazon Prime) you should watch it as soon as possible. You really should.

A Testament, a Prayer

When I am gone I would like it to be remembered
that I took pleasure in the common things of life
delighted in the joys of Everyday
waking in the morning to life and breath and sound
and sight and smell, and the taste of bread
and the human voice and touch of those I love.
That everything is Gift — and more than this —
that there’s a Giver to whom one may give thanks.

That Everyday brings news of discoveries
fresh adventures of learning and knowing
words to hear and read and chew on, and minds to meet,
music to charm the ear and people I love
with whom to share the things that I have found
who’ll share with me what they have found also

I’d like it to be remembered —
that I was kind to others and myself
that I would smile at people (not at cameras)
laugh when I caught myself being over serious
that truth and beauty made my spirit soar
that I was wise with the wisdom of my years
yet innocent as the child who still, somewhere,
plays in my soul
that I loved questions more than answers
stories to tell, yet better, to inhabit —
that I dreamed that there could be a better world
yet never hated this one that isn’t so
nor gave up hope of how it all might be.
At day’s end never closed my eyes in sleep
without I blessed the Author of my life.

If this is what I’d like remembered when I’m gone
let it become my habit while I’m still here.

Having a go at Shakespeare

I haven’t recorded a poem for over two months. I’d been asked to read something by Shakespeare and was too afraid to try: how could I dare to do what the greats of acting and speaking have done? But hey – life’s too short to be a coward for long. And I took courage from the remembrance of things past about my classmate Judith, who recited this in our English Verse Speaking.

Little, Big

I’ve been wanting to write this blog post for 35 years. What? You’re telling me blog posts hadn’t even been invented 35 years ago? No, of course not: back then this would have been an article or an essay. But you know what I mean…


In 1984 I was a young curate with a struggling wife and three young children, serving a tiny church in an industrial village in Bedfordshire. I had felt a strong call to take the post, but my ministry there turned out to be not what some might call ‘successful’ in terms of making converts and growing the church. I didn’t see much noticeable fruit of my ministry, and although the people of the church loved us and we had some good friends there, it often felt there was little to support or encourage my wife and me in our own spiritual life.

Then I read a book which I thought at the time, and have often thought since, ‘changed my life’. It wasn’t a book you might have expected to change the life of a minister in that kind of situation.

It was Little, Big by John Crowley.

How can I describe this book, or explain (or perhaps, even, remember) how and why it changed my life? It’s a complex fantasy novel – Ursula K. Le Guin called it ‘a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy’. It’s a love story – or better, a whole collection of love stories. It’s a family saga spanning generations. It’s a nature book, with beautifully written descriptions of field and forest, river and lake, birds and animals. It’s about architecture and literature and ideas – over and over again you want to mark sentences and whole paragraphs you think you must remember and quote. It’s full of mysterious events that you don’t understand the significance of until much later in the Tale – if indeed you ever do. It’s about the nature of Story itself: how stories are told and if they ever can have an ending. It’s a political thriller about the End Of Civilization As We Know It, when the failing democratic republic is taken over by a charismatic populist leader, whom the elite powers of the Establishment, the bankers and the media think they will control for their own purposes – but they are mistaken. (Remembering that this book was published in 1981, you have to ask yourself: How did the author come to be so prescient? What could have greater contemporary relevance for us?)

But above all, it is a fairy story. And the secret of how and why this book changed my life is tied up with this, and the old question we all remember from our days of watching Peter Pan: Do you believe in fairies? As I read this book in 1984, a time of struggling with and trying to make sense of questions of faith, again and again it helped me to learn more about just what faith means.

The Drinkwater family, around whom the whole Tale revolves, are said from the outset to be ‘very religious’. But this is not Christian or any other kind of mainstream religion: it is about knowing and living and walking with ‘them’, the inhabitants of another world, the world of Faerie. Into this family marries a young man who doesn’t share their ‘faith’, who is introduced to us in the very first wonderful paragraph of the book:

On a certain day in June, 19–, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told about but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married: the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed upon his coming there at all.

Smoky is aware of and respects the beliefs of his bride and her family, but he cannot share them. He never sees or hears or speaks to ‘them’: so he simply cannot believe in them. Yet out of courtesy he keeps quiet about his lack of faith, never speaks of it, seems almost to pretend that he does share it. Suspects, sometimes, that many of the other members of the family are also ‘pretending’ because they also are too reticent to speak of it. One of the most moving moments in the book describes the conversation, many years later, between Smoky and his grown-up son Auberon, when Auberon finally asks him, “Do you believe in fairies?” And it transpires that each of them has thought that the other knew Something all along that remained a Mystery to him. What is the difference between believing, and pretending we believe, because we think that all the people around us believe something we cannot, and yet they expect us to share their faith, and imagine that we do?

In the end (SPOILER ALERT! – or maybe not?) They all withdraw into the smaller world within their one, which turns out to be far far bigger, while all the characters in our world journey into that inner world that They have vacated, and take Their places. (I think.) All of them except Smoky who cannot make that journey. But it doesn’t matter, because

how could he desire another world than this one?

and

He couldn’t go where all of them were going, but it didn’t matter, for he’d been there all along.

His life, and all their lives and the things that have happened to them, are part of the Tale. Which is now ended; and yet it’s a Tale that never ends.

I have always been most fully convinced of things not by reasons or proofs, but by imagination. It’s why the moment I came to believe was when I read the Gospels and realised that this was a Story that I could, and wanted to, inhabit. It’s why the stories of C. S. Lewis, Narnia and the were so helpful on my spiritual journey.

And Little, Big helped me too, because it taught me to imagine the truth that “There is another world, but it is in this one.”1 Some of the most important discoveries of my own spiritual journey have been deepening insights into this truth. The ‘other world’ that we believe or aspire to believe in is ‘in’ this world, or touches it at every point, or is separated from it by only the thinnest of veils. And we come to know that ‘other world’ most fully as we learn to love and know this world. If we hate this life, we will never enjoy the life of Heaven. Or whatever.

You may not like Little, Big at all, it may leave you completely cold. But I hope that, if you do read it, you catch a glimpse of the same mysterious, wonderful truths that so captivated me and continue to do so.


  1. Variously attributed to W. B. Yeats, Paul Eluard, and even Rilke ↩︎

Papua Merdeka

A cause dear to our hearts is the West Papuan freedom movement. West Papua was illegally occupied by Indonesia after it became independent from the Netherlands, and since that time has been exploited and oppressed, its people subjected to a long catalogue of persecutions and human rights abuses.

You can read about their cry for independence on their website.

Our West Papuan friends in Marston have just released their first single which you can watch here on Youtube:

Vocals by Koteka and her mother Maria; spoken words by Benny Wenda, the leader of the Free West Papua Movement; backing features the legendary drummer Tony Allen. If you like it, they ask “Please listen, buy and share.” And support them with your prayers, your protests and however else you can.

Papua Merdeka!

The Day of Shoulda Beens

Sometimes the cancellation of events because of the Covid-19 pandemic has the very slightest of upsides. It would have been so tough to decide what I would have done today, with two events both of which I really wanted to go to.

First: the Haddenham Beer Festival. Over the years this has been taking place, always on the first Saturday in July, it’s become far more than just (just?) an opportunity to enjoy a huge choice of real ales and craft beers. It’s become a real family fun day, with music, bouncy castles and other activities for the children, and a range of street food from fish and chips to burgers to Scotch eggs to South African bunny chow. There’s cider or gin, prosecco or Pymms for them as wants it. But chiefly there are the 130 or so varieties of beer from real ale breweries far and wide.

We’ve been going for several years with as many of the family as have been able to be with us. A growing number as the children have more children of their own; a declining number as some of the children decide it’s too far or too difficult for them to travel in a day, with the numbers or age of their children, and the ‘decisions’ about who’s going to be the designated driver. We don’t have that problem: we can get there and back by bus.

But then there is also the School Reunion. This year it’s 60 years since I started at secondary school, aged 11. It’s not an occasion I go to every year, but 5 years and 10 years ago it seemed important, and today would have been just as important to meet up with my cohort of the 1960 intake. It’s an opportunity to meet old friends and classmates we may hardly have spoken to for years, to wonder “What am I doing here with all these old people?!”, to look at what’s changed and what hasn’t changed in the buildings, to ask “Do you know what happened to so-and-so?” (Increasingly with the sub-text, Is he/she still alive?) And we get to gather in the Great Hall and sing the deeply loved and loathed School Song.

This was filmed in 2015, when I didn’t know anyone was filming. If you look carefully, at about 0:31, you might spot me. It seems there are always some of the younger old boys or girls who mocked the venerable ode instead of respecting its true dignity…

This year, of course, both have been cancelled. I’m not aware of any plans for a virtual beer festival. Even if I could drink my can or bottle of beer while looking at other people drinking theirs, it wouldn’t be the same as a half a pint of Tiffield Thunderbolt or Bad Kitty or Bishop Nick’s 1555. Today the pubs are re-opening after over three months; but I don’t want to be part of whatever unsafe excess I’m afraid may ensue when their doors open.

There is, however, a virtual class reunion of Latymer 1960, being set up by one of the old classmates. I’m planning to ‘be there’, and I may even take a sip from my can of Brew Dog — with a tear in my eye? — while I do so. We’re told there won’t be any singing of the School Song. Shame.

Five years ago I met up with these two lovely ladies, Chris Humphries and Christine Budd, who were actually part of the 1961 intake. (As an August-born I was closer in age to many of that year group than my own.) I worked with both of them at the local library where the three of us had weekday evening and Saturday jobs. As a 17-year old I loved Christine B. from afar. She grew up to be a Maths teacher. Very much like the even lovelier lady I actually married. (What is it about maths teachers?)

Being tested for Covid-19

Ever since the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, we’ve been reporting daily to the Covid Symptom Tracker. There are now nearly 4 million people who have signed up to the app, and it’s been producing enormously valuable data in understanding the virus and the pandemic. For example, they were the first people who were really able to test and confirm that loss of taste and smell were symptoms of the illness. If you are not using the app, please do download it and use it. It only takes a minute a day to report if you’ve been tested for Covid-19, and if you’re feeling well or have any symptoms. If you do report symptoms, there are a few extra questions to answer.

Last week, Alison was feeling unwell with something that felt like migraine attacks, from which she’s never (hardly ever) suffered. So she reported this, and got an email in reply asking her to arrange for herself and all members of her household (that’s me, folks) to be tested for Covid-19. I don’t know if they’ve had any other evidence that migraine-like symptoms might also occur with Covid-19, but this is presumably what they might be wanting to look for.

Our nearest testing site is at Thornhill Park and Ride, where half the large car park has been converted for this purpose. Before you go there there you have to fill in an online form for the NHS, with details of name, date of birth, NHS number, and they send a QR code to your phone which is your passport to the testing area.

A Covid-19 testing site. Somewhere in England.

There are signs everywhere to keep your car windows closed until they say to open them. So you’re stopped at the entrance where a guy reads your QR codes, shouts through your window to ask if you want to administer the test yourself (which will be fairly quick i.e. take quite a while) or have someone else administer it (which will take even longer because they’re very busy and there’s a 15 minute wait. Probably.) We opt to do it ourselves, and are directed to the left to drive round the site to the self-administration area.

Here a guy holds up a piece of paper on which is written ‘Please phone this number 07* ****.’ We dialled the number, so that we can hear the instructions without him having to shout at us. This would be very helpful, except that our particular guy is Polish (?) so we have a few accent difficulties with the instructions. Use alcohol hand gel. Open the rear passenger window — just an inch — so they can post the kits through. Drive on and reverse park on the left. Now open the kits.

The first thing we see is the instruction leaflet: ‘Please read this carefully before using the test kit.’ But we’re not allowed to, because he is going to talk us through the procedure. Place the card and the plastic envelope on your dashboard. Open the envelope with the swab, holding it carefully at the end away from the swab itself. Take two samples: one from the back of the mouth (around the tonsils), one from a nostril. Open the plastic phial of testing liquid and place the swab inside, then break off the end of the stick and screw on the top. Place the phial inside the bag, squeezing out as much air as possible, then squeeze the air out of the envelope and seal it up.

That done, we are to drive on to the collection point where there is another number to phone to speak to the collector guy. Did we have any problems doing the test? Have we done everything we were supposed to do? When we’re ready, open your window — just an inch — and post the envelopes through into the box that is being held up to catch them. And that’s it. Hold on to the card with this QR code and they will email you the results within the next day or so.

In fact we get the emails within 24 hours, it’s in our Inbox when we get up the following morning. We’ve tested negative so we can go back to work (What?!) We never really thought we had it.

But at least we’ve got something different to tell the Tracker app today.