Friday, September 12, 2014

We all love a freebie...

Well, it was unexpectedly wonderful to receive U2's back to basics new album as a gift from the mighty iTunes. There have been a lot of churlish remarks from reviewers and others about it being an example of outrageous behaviour from a rock behemoth and a corporate empire.

But I say, quit your whining and get with the music. Whatever the ethics of this marketing ploy (and they do seem a touch suspect), the album itself is refreshingly direct. Songs of Innocence (possibly a nod to William Blake suggesting that its partner album will be called songs of experience when it arrives full price in the near future) is a series of reflections of adolescence and U2's early days in Dublin.

It's interesting to see that the lyrics are all by Bono and the Edge, suggesting that these are collective memories. And they are set to a stripped back sound that seems entirely appropriate. There are some great tunes - notably The Troubles, The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) and Raised by Wolves - and not a duff track in sight.

The liner notes with the digital booklet are surprisingly illuminating and moving. So, find it in your iTunes inbox, download it and enjoy it... You know you want to...

Monday, September 08, 2014

Everywhere the gap is widening

This summer we returned to Sri Lanka, spending almost three weeks on the island. For eight days I was teaching at the Lanka Bible College Graduate Studies Centre and visiting a couple of baptist churches around Colombo; and for ten days we were chilling by a pool in a great hotel in Kalutara (about an hour south of Colombo).

The picture illustrates some of the changes Sri Lanka is undergoing. It's a new block that I have watched being built from my room at the Graduate Studies Centre in Dehiwala.It actually obscures my view of the sea! It's been built for the burgeoning number of urban professionals in the city. As well very comfortably appointed apartments, the complex boasts 24 hours concierge, a gym and a western-style supermarket on the ground floor.

It overlooks the station that will whisk its residents into the centre of the city for their daily grind in financial or legal services, tourism, government administration or commerce of a whole variety of types. It also overlooks the fishing community on the other side of tracks, a community that still bears all the marks of the 2004 tsunami. Indeed it's a community that offers no evidence at all of any money being spent helping the residents to rebuild after the devastation wrought on that Boxing Day ten years ago. Now, one reason for that is possibly that the community was offered housing elsewhere, inland and away from the area they know well. Many of the communities that hugged the coastline on the western side of the island were moved as the government refused to invest in communities with two miles (ish) of the sea. But it's a stark contrast with the wealth that now overlooks it.

We often walked across the tracks onto the beach, via the ramshackle dwellings, so that we could stroll in the sunshine, dipping our toes into the Indian Ocean and head up to our new favourite beach-front bar (left) that serves excellent food and afforded great views of the sunset most evenings.

Following the end of the war in 2012, Sri Lanka is undergoing something of a building boom, with construction happening all across Colombo and the along the Galle Road where hotel developers are trying to meet the government's target of building two million rooms by 2020; tourism is seen as the driver of economic prosperity. It is making a few people comparatively very rich and leaving more and more trapped in poverty, barely able to scratch a living at the bottom of the food chain.

Inequality is a feature of life across the globe; it is all the more stark in this beautiful place.

But the churches that we visited were in good heart and I'll blog about that in a follow-up to this one.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Taking to the streets in a cause no one's heard of

I was delighted to receive this morning - slightly earlier than expected - a copy of James Meek's new book Private Island: Why Britain now belongs to someone else (Verso 2014). It's an exploration of the actual consequences of 30 years of privatisation, the selling off of public assets (gas, electricity, water, railways, the post office, etc) to private buyers. Has it created a nation of small shareholders? No, it has handed these assets, via the market, to mainly state-owned foreign enterprises. Was this the intention?

There's a flavour of Meek's powerful argument here. It looks to me that the book is essential reading for anyone interested in what kind of society we want the UK - or after September's vote, England, Wales and Northern Island - to be.

On Saturday, I will be joining a faithful few handing out leaflets and inviting people to sign a petition against TTIP. It's part of a 30 degrees day of action against a treaty few people have heard of. The transatlantic trade and investment partnership is currently being negotiated by the EU and the US - the world's two largest trading blocks. It threatens in its current form to hand huge amounts of power to global corporations and strip democratic assemblies at all levels of any power to decide what is best for their jurisdictions.

For example, the UK government will not be able to favour public provision in the health service; all branches of health care will have to be open to any bidder. The EU will not be able to continue its ban on genetically modified organisms in the food chain. It would almost certainly prevent the UK government from introducing a minimum price for alcohol or the sale of cigarettes in plain packs. The latter has happened in Australia but using a similar treaty, Philip Morris looks like being awarded vast amounts of compensation for lost sales (see here)

The key thing about TTIP is that I don't remember any political party asking me about it or putting it in their manifesto; the government has not informed parliament about the progress of negotiations in a way that allows our representatives to represent our interests in those negotiations; it was barely mentioned in the May European elections. Indeed the EU commissioner leading Europe in these negotiations has, apparently, complained that  his mailbag and inbox has been clogged up with submissions from concerned parties writing in response to a consultation he initiated. He has not complained, however, about the huge number of corporate lobbyists that visit and email to make their submissions as to why the treaty should offer companies a blank cheque.

So the thing about TTIP is the thing about democracy: do we value it? Do we want our voice to be heard? Are we prepared to stand up for it when it is under attack? At the moment the jury is out but I fear it will return with a shrug and a 'whatever' and we will kiss treasured freedoms and gains for ordinary people, hard-fought over the past two hundred years, a fond farewell

Friday, August 22, 2014

Soundtracking the revolution

Just a footnote to the last two posts.

My current favourite track on Bill Mallonee's new album soundtracks my response to the Bank America story. Casting his eye over the ruins, looking to see what face the devil is currently wearing Mallonee sings:

could be the new corporate terror
seducing the government
could be the war machine
could be the one per cent

That about nails it!

But it's also a call to arms to be the difference we need to see in the world, a soundtrack of the revolution:

time for banishing darkness
time to do what's right
time for loving the planet
time for stepping into the light

The song opens with Bill singing that it's 'time for closing the wounds up/time for opening hearts' because 'the whole nation is bleeding/how much longer can it last/goodwill and trust/are a thing of the past.'  

We have been left battered and bruised but we have the resources to turn things around. If we open our hearts to the light and start doing what's right, who know what will happen on our streets...

And still no one has gone to prison...

So Bank of America is to pay $16.65bn to avoid justice. Another financial institution uses petty cash to get itself out of jail.

Apparently, law enforcement in the US is saying that no institution is big or powerful enough to escape its clutches. I assume by that they mean that none of the long list of financial powerhouses that drove the world economy to its knees are unable to buy a deal with the supine regulators.

$7bn of the fine is going to help those who have been financial difficulties because they'd been sold one of the bank's junk mortgages back in the day. That's good.

But still no one has gone to prison. A while back the head of Standard Chartered was whining about how unfair people were being to bankers, about how new regulations were stifling risk taking. But still none of his peers have been brought to book, sent down for what their risk-taking dumped on the world.

The coverage points out that the payment is in settlement between the bank and regulators. The bank sold flawed mortgage securities that contributed to the near bankrupting of the world economy but the regulators have agreed a settlement. And the size of that settlement is tiny against the asset base of the bank.

As John Coffee (great name), a law professor at Columbia, pointed out 'there is another shoe that needs to drop before we can assess this settlement. This is the largest fine but yet again we have seen an ability, or a reluctance, to name and go after the individuals responsible.'

These dodgy mortgages didn't create and sell themselves. People created them, bundled them up and sold them on. And they they either knew what they were doing or they shouldn't been in the lucrative positions they held.

There was outrage this morning at the news that shop lifters stealing a little fresh food in the North East of England were not being prosecuted. The full weight of the law should be meted out against them to discourage this outrageous behaviour. I'll agree with that when the first banker responsible for stealing the livelihoods of many of these affected northeasterners goes to prison for a long stretch.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

More trenchant observations from an old beat up Ford

Well, it's been an age since I blogged. No excuses - except that I've been having a really good time, far too busy to write about it!

I've been in Sri Lanka - three weeks of heat and humidity with some of the loveliest people on the planet. I will reflect on that visit later as there's still quite a lot to process from it.

I've also been at Spring Harvest in France (way back in June) and had a really enjoyable time with a small group of people reflecting on how we are all God's works-in-progress. I was working with the lovely Pete James.

And I have been listening lots of new (and old) music. I was surprised that the new David Gray album (Mutineers) turned out to be really good. But I am not surprised that the new Bill Mallonee record, Winnowing, turns out to be a cracker.

He's called his backing band for this one 'the darkling planes' which suggest the mood of the album. On the liner notes he describes it as autumnal. Mallonee's genius has always been to write melancholy songs of faith and hope. Here the faith and hope seem fainter but are still present as Bill wrestles with the darkening landscape and seeks to find the pin-pricks of light in it.

The darkling planes turn out to be him and his wife (Muriah Rose). Between them they provide a lush and sombre backdrop for his reflections; lots of jangly guitars and flourishes of piano. At times - especially on got some explainin to do - he sounds like he's channelling Neil Young. But he is a unique voice in contemporary Americana and one that ought to be more widely heard.

Winnowing is the third album in as many years that reveal Mallonee to be a writer and performer at the top of his game. They are probably the best three records of his 50+ album career. He has hit a rich vein of lyrical and musical clarity and is producing some of the most of the most affecting music I've heard on a long time. Check the album out here - you'll be so glad you did

Friday, June 13, 2014

Catching up with life

Well, it's been a long time since my last post. Life has been very full and busy - and for the most part, pretty good.

We have a new minister at Bromley - a colleague I've been looking forward to arriving for quite a few months - and I've finished my marking at the end of this academic year (always a moment of joy!). And then last weekend we had a great Pentecost festival, celebrating God's creativity in a variety of ways.

Our festival featured Gareth Davies-Jones, Graham Fish and Rose Hilton, lots of conversations on the High Street and a great mini-music festival in the sun on Sunday afternoon.

Tomorrow we're off to France. I'm speaking at Spring Harvest's site in the Vendee, a new experience for me which I am greatly looking forward to. Tomorrow evening I hope we'll be sitting at one of favourite river-side restaurants in Amiens, our first stop on way south west.

Later in the summer we're off to Sri Lanka again to spend a week with post-graduate students exploring the social history of earliest Christianity at the Graduate Studies Centre in Dehiwalla. This will be followed by ten days in the sun in the hotel we stayed at briefly on our last visit. We're looking forward to catching up with old friends and making new ones.

The summer is shaping up to be a time of transition for us and for the church; bring it on - exciting times.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

creating a stadium-full of community

We went to see Elbow on Wednesday evening. Unexpectedly, we were offered really good tickets to see them at the O2. I have been listening to their latest album since it came out and trying to decide whether it's wonderful or just more of the same high class slightly melancholy songs.

Seeing them perform most of it live made me realise that it's possibly their best work to date - better than Seldom seen kid and rivalling Leaders of the Free world.

Elbow consists of four superb musicians with a frontman who is able to create a community in a stadium full of people. He works the crowd like all good singers do but the songs have already suggested that here is someone who gets the fact that we hurt and that we need others to share our hurt with.

So on Real Life (Angel), he sings to a friend in pain

you with the eyes of the met not forgotten
you with the eyes for the lonely whoever
you with the laugh that could bring down a tenement
talking your way to the heart of the citadel
up on the tables, or shoulders of strangers, or
under my arms we add to the waterfall
my little sister with brothers in common
you'll never need fear a thing in this world
while i have a breath in me; blood in my veins
you'll never need fear thing in this world
while i have a breath in me; blood in my veins
you never need fear a thing in this blue world

It speaks volumes to me about being community, being church. I think it's why Garvey is able to turn a stadium gig into an intimate encounter of a few mates around the piano.

Elsewhere in the song he tells her

go straight to the place where you first lost your balance
and find your feet with the people that you love

before assuring her that she'll pull through this time, stronger and wiser:

and on that hallelujah morning
in the arms of new love, the peace that you feel's real life 

Of course, as a Christian pastor, I can't help take those lines and put them into the mouth of the angel who greets us at the empty tomb of Jesus (as I'll be doing in the morning). I know Garvey has no thought of that in this lyric. Indeed, this album ends with the intensely moving The Blanket of Night where, in a song that seems to be slightly influenced by In the Night Garden on Cbeebies, he fears that he and his daughter might sink under the weight of life's events and especially the parting of ways between her mum and him:

paper cup of a boat
heaving chest of the sea
carry both of us
carry her, carry me

from the place we were born
to the land of the free
carry both of us
carry her, carry me

the ocean that bears us from our home
could sail us or take us for its own
the danger that life should lead us here
my angel could i have steered us clear?

gone, the light from her eyes
with the lives that we made
just the two of us
in the night on the waves

moving silent her lips
by the moon's only light
sowing silver prayers
in the blanket of night

the ocean that bears us from our home
could sail us or take us for its own
the danger that life should lead us here
my angel could i have steered us clear?

paper cup of the boat
heaving chest of the sea
carry both of us
or, swallow her, swallow me