Archive for Books

Thompson Brings Noir To Belfast

Take Care Gorgeous by Alan Drew Thompson 

TAKE CARE GORGEOUS is the début novelette of Carrickfergus (Co. Antrim) based author Alan Drew Thompson. A fast paced often violent but sometimes sentimental affair that finally brings the noir genre to Belfast.

Set against the tough backdrop of 1950’s Belfast, the book introduces a new kind of local hero Inspector James Forsyth of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A man who will bend the rules of authority in order to do what is morally right.

In the first instalment of a promised trilogy Forsyth finds himself tangled in a complicated web of murder, blackmail and shifting identities.

The story is set around a prominent member of Belfast society who finds himself at the centre of a blackmail plot involving an attempt to get a highly dangerous renegade Irish Republican released from the Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast.

The exciting and unique feature of the story is that for the first time the writing styles of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are set against the violent Belfast backdrop. The customary femme fatale is also on hand, this time a beautiful woman from West Belfast who bears a striking resemblance to 1940’s film noir legend Veronica Lake.

Fast paced, enjoyable with a twist in the tail Take Care Gorgeous left me desperate for more.

Thompson has promised that the sequel entitled Farewell Handsome will be released in the near future.

Reviewed by Lisa Thomas


Click on image to buy Paperback!

by Alan Drew Thompson
ISBN-13: 978-1500285371 is available from priced at £2.75
Also available on KINDLE price £1.53

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The First Stone

First Stone cover

Click on image to buy this book!

It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to envisage the dystopian American society of Elliott Hunter’s debut novel. The First Stone. It’s all too plausible. Set in the not-too-distant future, (or perhaps an alternative present), this America has become an intolerant place dominated by The Council of Elders, a fundamentalist group that has become the real rulers of the new America in the years after Houston had been vaporised by a terrorist nuclear device.

America had lashed out in retaliation of course. Despite protestations of innocence the Iranians had been blamed and Tehran had been razed. Egged on by zealots from hundreds of fundamentalist preachers who provided the willing cannon fodder for a new Great Patriotic Crusade against terror, American soldiers occupied large parts of the Middle East. Thousands of soldiers had died there and many more had come home, seriously wounded, traumatised or damaged by chemicals and radiation. One such former soldier was Felix Strange, a private eye who suffers from a debilitating illness picked up in Iran that has neither a name nor a cure.

Strange doesn’t normally deal with homicide cases, but when the body of America’s most loved preacher, Brother Isaiah, is found strangled to death in his New York hotel room, he is called in to investigate. He’d rather not get involved in this case, but Ezekiel White who leads the morality police, the ‘Committee for Child Protection’ has ways and means of forcing him to comply.

White’s CCP goons, known as the Holy Rollers, are outflanked by Brother Isaiah’s Crusade of Love; an independent body of religious zealots who send their spies into different towns and cities in advance of a visit by the influential preacher. Pretty-boy ‘ex-gay’ activists entrap closet gays. Attractive young ladies do the same for amorous men in positions of authority. The unfortunate victims then find themselves denounced for their perversity by Brother Isaiah at one of his huge evangelistic rallies. Brother Isaiah may have had the US President and the Congress in his pocket, and Jesus on his side, but he had surely annoyed somebody enough to kill him. Strange has a week to find out who killed Brother Isaiah and why, if he lives that long…

This modern noir reflects the grim humour and terse prose of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler for the twenty-first century. All the ingredients are there; a mystery death, a race against time to meet a deadline, people out to stop our protagonist and one of the finest examples of a femme fatale to appear in crime fiction for decades. This is an outstanding book, both in terms of characterisation and sharp dialogue and most notably in its author’s scarily plausible portrayal of a society dominated by an intolerant fundamentalist version of Christianity.

Reviewed by David Kerr

The First Stone (the first in the Strange Trilogy). Elliott Hall


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Harry Ferguson

By Bill Martin.

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Cultra, Ulster.  1984.

THIS is a remarkable booklet.  Although it’s only the size of a large postcard, its 30 pages are crammed full of information, photographs and diagrams.  I really liked the way it was written – everything was direct and straight to the point.  Bill Martin is not a man who uses two words when one will do!  For instance, his introduction tells the story of Harry Ferguson in a single paragraph:

“HHarryFerguson 2 jpgarry Ferguson was born into an age of rapid change.  He contributed to the way in which change was applied.  He was born into a way of life which the industrial revolution had largely bypassed, where the horse reigned supreme, where brawn was more useful than brain and where a farmer could feed himself, his horse and four other people in that order of priority.  When he retired he was able to look at an industry in Britain in which one farmer could produce sufficient food for himself and forty others.  The other measure of his success is that some 80 per cent of tractors produced today the principles which he established.”

Henry George “Harry” Ferguson was born in 1884 at Growell, near Dromore, County Down.  The son of Mary and James was the 4th child of 11 in the family.  In 1902 he became an apprentice in his elder brother Joe’s engineering business, Hamilton and Ferguson – later to become J.B. Ferguson and Co. Automobile Engineers based in Little Donegall Street in Belfast.  The brothers were known for their discipline, efficiency, accuracy and quality.  Great innovators, they used the most up-to-date equipment.  Harry also took part in sporting events to publicise the company.

He was very quick to spot trends.  He first saw aircraft in summer 1909 and by December he had a plane built and undergoing trials in Hillsborough, Co. Down.  This was no mean feat as he was “trying to design an aircraft and learning to fly it at the same time.  There were no reference books to work from only indistinct pictures in magazines.”

After several attempts, he won a prize of £100 for the first official flight in Ireland over a three mile course.  Despite his flying success he split from his brother JB, who could not see how it would benefit the garage business.  They decided to go their separate ways.  The May Street Motor Company (later Harry Ferguson Ltd.) opened for business in 1911 and became agents for Vauxhall, Maxwell and Ford.  He also started to sell Overtime tractors imported from America in 1914 – something that would later ‘make his name.’

Tractors had been introduced in 1894 but there were only 300 in the whole of Ireland by 1917.  The situation was to rapidly change:

“1916-17 was a period of national crisis and the need to increase home food production became paramount if starvation was to be averted.  There was neither spare manpower nor industrial capacity and large numbers of women were already employed in agriculture yet the problem had to be solved and the area under the plough increased immediately and substantially.  The tillage order of 1917 gives some indication of the desperation since it required holders of 10 acres or more to plough 15% more than the previous year and large landowners with 200 acres or more to plough an extra 20 percent.  The Government made two important decisions which were to have far reaching effects on Ferguson.  It arranged to have 6,000 Ford tractors imported from America, which helped to get Ford firmly established in the U.K. tractor market, and it also made arrangements to ensure that farmers were taught how to use them properly.”  

This proved to be a turning point in Ferguson’s life – he was regarded as a ploughing expert because of his previous association with US Overtime tractors.  In March 1919 he (and his employee William Sands) were appointed by the “Irish Board of Agriculture to travel throughout Ireland and by demonstration, instruction and example to improve the quality and efficiency of tractor ploughing.”

It was during these trials that he began to think about faults and problems associated with ploughing and started to construct his own ploughs.  According to Martin: “The plough was built in the May Street premises in Belfast and compared to its contemporaries was about as revolutionary as a plough could be.”  Mounted directly on a Ford Eros tractor it was four times more efficient than other tractors and “set the pace and style for development for the next 20 years.” 

In 1933 Ferguson designed the revolutionary ‘Black Tractor,’ which was both light and powerful.  It was built in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, by David Brown Tractors Limited.  The Ferguson Brown Type A was introduced in 1936.  Sales were slow – but some success was to be found in the Channel Islands and Scandinavia.  Later on (in 1938) Ferguson met Henry Ford and – famously sealing the deal with a handshake – agreed to go into business together.  The equally famous Ford Ferguson Tractor was born and thousands were built (in the Ford factory in Detroit, Michigan) up until 1947.

Relations between Ferguson and Ford were soured when Ford’s grandson took over the company and set up the Dearborn Motor Corporation.  Here he produced tractors based on Ferguson’s designs – but neglected to obtain use of the patent rights.  As Martin notes, this led to one of the most famous industrial law suits ever: “It took four years to settle and eventually Ferguson was awarded over £3m as compensation for patent infringement and loss of business.”      

Ferguson switched production to Coventry in the East Midlands and in 1946 the TE 20 made an appearance.  He later became involved with the Canadian-based Massey Harris (later known as Massey Ferguson) until 1954 when he resigned as chairman of the group.

Whilst his name is – rightly – most commonly associated with tractors, Ferguson had always retained his interest in motor cars.

He was successful in helping to launch the Ulster Grand Prix in 1922 and the Tourist Trophy Races in Ards between 1928 and 1936.  He also became interested in the idea of cars obtaining more power safely using a four-wheel-drive system.  Prototypes were built but there were no takers.  To try to encourage public acceptance of the system, the P99 racing car was built.  (Stirling Moss gave the car its first win, the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1962.)  The system was later used in the Jensen Interceptor FF, a luxury car, but sadly never in a ‘people’s car’ as he wished.  Ferguson sadly died in October 1960.

Reviewed by John Field

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The Road to Canterbury

The Road to Canterbury

Andrew Atherstone. Darton, Longman + Todd. ISBN:978 0 232 52994 4. £7.99

When Rowan Williams announced last year that he was retiring the media was abuzz with speculation over who would succeed him as Archbishop of Canterbury. The eventual choice – Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham – came as a big surprise to most observers, not least because Welby had only been a bishop for four months when Williams announced his intention to step down.

Who is Justin Welby? Where did he come from? What makes him tick? Will he be up to the job of holding the fractious Anglican communion together? Oxford don Andrew Atherstone makes a fine attempt to answer the first three questions. The jury’s out on the last one as he will need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job and a lot more besides to sort out that mess. However, his reconciliation work in Nigeria, his background in business and his ministry in several parishes to date do allow for a certain cautious optimism.

Welby grew up in a family that had been long a part of the Establishment. One of his great uncles had been a leading post-war Tory, R A B Butler. Butler had been Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary in the 1950s and 60s. His mother, Jane Portal, was a secretary to Winston Churchill and in that role typed up the drafts of his six-volume history of the Second World War. His father, Gavin Welby, was a bit of a rake, once competing with Errol Flynn for the attentions of a millionaire heiress. Gavin and Jane eloped to America.

Justin was a honeymoon baby who parents’ marriage soon failed. Justin stayed with his father and was packed off to boarding school at the age of eight. He attended Eton from1969 to 1973 when the school was at a low ebb and headed off to east Africa for a short gap year before beginning his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. In Kenya he spent six mont hs teaching in a secondary school under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society. He had previously shown little interest in spiritual matters, but in Kenya he met and talked with Christians and began to read the Bible and think about questions of faith.

In the months before Welby’s arrival at Cambridge in 1974, there had been a flurry of conversions to Christianity among the students. The local Christian Union was very lively, hosting visits from leading preachers, notably Rev David Watson from St Michael le Belfrey in York who led 12 people to make professions of faith in a single evening. Welby held out for over a year despite the efforts of many of his Christian friends until ‘the penny dropped’ for him and he ‘asked Jesus to be Lord of my life’. Shortly afterwards, he received a real sense of the deep love of God and began to sense a calling to ministry.

As a young Christian, Welby attended the Round Church in Cambridge which plugged him into a network of leading evangelicals in the Anglican church, notably John Stott and David Sheppard. While at home away from university, he began to worship at Holy Trinity Brompton which had become a mainstay of the growing charismatic movement. Here he was introduce to a Cambridge student who was another new Christian, Caroline Eaton, who was to become his wife.

After graduation and marriage Welby took a job with an oil company in Paris. During the holidays he became involved with a Christian group that smuggled Bibles to persecuted Christians in Hungary and East Germany using a campervan with secret compartments underneath a false floor.

The Welbys know the pain and grief of losing a child. On the way back to England, their seven-month-old daughter was fatally injured in a road accident near Amiens.

During his time as group treasurer of the recently privatised Enterprise Oil, Welby honed his management and leadership skills and began to think deeply about the ethics of finance and responsibility in business. He argued that companies are moral agents and are just as prone to sin as individuals. Biblical justice must include a sense of corporate accountability.

Although well settled in a very well paid job which he enjoyed, Welby had a growing sense of call to the ministry. In 1988 he attended three days of interviews at a Derbyshire retreat house. He was asked by a bishop why he wanted to be ordained and replied that he didn’t as he was enjoying the job he was doing. Well, why was he there, then? Because he had been called by God. What would he do if he was turned down for ordination by the C of E? He’d go back to London and take the wife out for the most expensive meal he could afford to celebrate! He was accepted. His annual salary dropped from around £100,000 to less than a tenth of that; £9500 in 1989.

He studied for the ministry in Cranmer College, part of the University of Durham. Here he became open to a wider variety of theology, worshipping and finding placements with churches that were mixed in theology, Anglo-Catholic or Charismatic in outlook.

After ordination at Coventry Cathedral in 1992, his first parish was in a working class suburb of Nuneaton in Warwickshire. Here he launched youth work, children’s holiday clubs and pioneered the use of the Alpha Course, a basic introduction to Christianity that began in Holy Trinity Brompton and went nationwide in 1993 as a way to reach the unchurched. This trend of turning declining congregations around continued in his next charge, Southam, a rural market town in the same diocese. He restored the 700-year-old building, and introduced more modern forms of worship in the morning service in tandem with traditional Book of Common Prayer early morning communion services and evensong services. Part of this church growth strategy was also due to a revival of children’s and youth outreach and rolling Alpha Course programmes for adults.

An interesting insight to Welby’s worldview can be gleaned from his regular ‘thoughts for the month’ published in the Southam Parish Church News. In this Welby expounded the line that, ‘The church is not a home for saints; Christians do not claim to be better than other folk, but they do claim that God has touched their lives and given new meaning to them.’ He had a high view of God’s grace and the necessity of forgiveness and the power of redemption and ‘a fresh start’ in the gospel message. Welby was orthodox in his view of Christ’s resurrection and made it clear that it was the job of the church to speak out on issues of social justice and in opposition to moral relativism.

Welby was in great demand for his expertise in financial matters. He had been involved with the Association of Corporate Treasurers as its personal and ethics advisor and was invited to join the finance ethics group of the Von Hügel Institute. This Cambridge-based Catholic research organisation sought to apply the principles of social justice, human dignity and ideas of the ‘common good’ in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (published in English as The Workers’ Charter) to everyday life. This brought him into contact with Catholic economists and theologians in Europe and give him a higher view of the power of the sacraments than he had hitherto been familiar.

In 2002 he moved to Coventry Cathedral in order to direct the cathedral’s International Centre for Reconciliation. This brought him to conflict zones in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Nigeria and Burundi. Welby focused on reconciliation work in Nigeria which he already knew from his time as an executive with an oil company. At times his life was in real danger from AK47-toting gunmen. Welby argued that the church ought to be ‘the body of reconciled reconcilers’ and Christians should not just receive reconciliation but become sources of ‘rivers of reconciliation’ to places of conflict and trauma.

By 2005, the funding ran out for Coventry’s ICR and it collapsed. The international ministry was drastically cut and a new focus was sought. This was one of the greatest disappointments of Welby’s ministry to date. He began to work out a means of reconciling differences between Christians and conducting arguments and disagreements in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2: 24-25, ‘the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone… correcting opponents with gentleness…'(Welby’s emphasis).

In 2007, Welby was appointed as the Dean of Liverpool Cathedral. Welby’s task was to overcome financial shortfalls and division and disharmony in the cathedral’s Chapter. Sorting this out was a challenge to his background in finance and his ministry of reconciliation. Some of his ideas were controversial but he did raise the cathedral’s profile in the city, reach new people and introduce a variety of forms of worship, m anage to start a theological school and envisage an ecumenical religious community. During this time he acted as an envoy to Kenya in the aftermath of violence during the 2008 election campaign and he became involved with Anglican Communion affairs in an attempt to deal with its own deep divisions and conflict. He became Archbishop Rowan Williams’ special envoy to American Episcopalians, Nigerian Christians facing persecution and murder and he facilitated a meeting of primates in Dublin in order to tackle some of the serious issues threatening to tear worldwide Anglicanism apart most notably the ordination of woman bishops and attitudes to sexuality.

After just three and a half years in Liverpool, Welby was appointed as Bishop of Durham in October 2011. He used his maiden speech in the House of Lords to call for economic regeneration in the north-east of England and for Christians to build alliances with politicians, financiers and businesses in order to bring about justice and community renewal. He made many contributions to the debate on the Financial Services Bill in which he favoured the establishment of credit unions and limits on directors’ pay and bonuses. In July 2012 he was appointed to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where he gained a reputation as a formidable operator who took no obfuscation, waffle nor double-talk from the former ‘masters of the universe’ who ran the banking system like a Las Vegas casino. He wasn’t against banking and bankers as such, however, as he made cleare in a lecture in Zurich last October when he called for the European banking sector to be re-imagined in such a manner as to resurrect it from, ‘the wreckage of a hubris-induced disaster, to retrieving its basic purpose of enabling human society to flourish effectively.’

Welby’s time at Durham was too brief for him to have made his mark as a newly-minted bishop. He seems to have a realistic view of the parlous state of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, ‘We are divided, often savagely. We are battered. We are weak… The church is not a rest home for saints, it is a lifeboat for sinners. And when you stick loads of sinners together, perhaps especially Anglican sinners, you don’t get a saintly church…’ He was quite impressed by the American Episcopal Church after attending its July 2012 gathering of its House of Bishops. He thought that they managed disagreement better and were closer to his own motto of ‘diversity without enmity’.

The thorny issues that plagued his predecessor haven’t gone away. Welby might be able to sort things out. He might not. Time will tell whether or not Welby will be a reconciling Archbishop of Canterbury or the man who presides over the final fracturing and schism of worldwide Anglicanism.


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Review: Notes from the Borderland – Issue 10

NOTES-FROM-THE-BORDERLAND_10NOTES From The Borderland, (NFB), is a long-established journal published and edited by the researcher Larry O’Hara and styles itself ‘The Parapolitical magazine’. On its website, it gives a brief definition of the term “parapolitical”, including others’ variations on it, but for the purposes of this review of issue number ten, which was published during 2012, we will confine ourselves to theirs: “For us, parapolitics refers to the social reality of conflicting forces and their-oft hidden agendas. It is by analysing these conflicts and tracking their trajectory/outcomes that parapolitical research advances”. Thus we have the ethos underpinning the magazine.

The lead article by Larry O’Hara is Gareth Williams: Murdered Twice. Most of us no doubt remember the strange, and to this day, unexplained death of Gareth Williams in August 2010. He was found inside a locked holdall after what may have been some kind of sex-game gone wrong, or was it murder? That the deceased worked for GCHQ and had been living in London on secondment to MI6 at the time of his death was not surprisingly seized upon by not only the tabloid press but other more respectable papers and subject to much speculation, much of which was lurid insinuations about his private life.

O’Hara does a fine job in going beyond the sensationalism surrounding Williams’s death and looks at various factors including what exactly did Gareth Williams do? Was his death linked to his work? If it was, has there been a deliberate campaign of dis-information to obscure any such connection? What is actually known about Williams’s private life and activities outside of work as opposed to what the media might care to infer/speculate? The roles of the media, the police and the security services in this case are meticulously examined in this article and it includes a very helpful timeline of events. Critically examined is one of the more far-out theories linking Williams’s death to the most likely accidental one of an Oxford lecturer that occurred the same month. It serves as an object lesson of how speculation and debate on unexplained events can descend into the realms of fantastic conspiracy theory.

Pandora’s Pox: How Far Right Labour Hijacked The Hope Not Hate Campaign by Larry O’Hara and Heidi Svenson charts the internecine squabbles between self-styled “anti-fascist” journal Searchlight and its former ally, the Hope Not Hate campaign group. O’Hara has been a keen observer of the Searchlight scene for over twenty years now so he is uniquely qualified to comment on this tale which is almost reminiscent of what happened with Dr Frankenstein and his monster! On the one side, we have what might be termed the traditional Searchlight group headed up by the husband and wife team of Gerry and Sonia Gable, and on the other, the Hope Not Hate team which while it contains the former Searchlight editor and long-time employee Nick Lowles, is largely comprised of relative newcomers to the Searchlight scene.

The backgrounds of these newcomers are quite interesting and could easily fit into the pages of a thriller. They include a merchant banker, a person named in Wikileaks as a source to be protected by the US Embassy and a former ‘far-right’ activist who moved to Australia for a bit after changing sides and then returned to the UK to work for the Searchlight group. Now it is open to the judgement of the individual reader whether or not O’Hara and Svenson make a convincing case for the cause of the split being an attempt by failed New Labour, (or should that be Neo-New Labour!), types to re-launch their careers by adding a bit of street cred to their CV’s through their involvement with Hope Not Hate, not a totally unrealistic proposition given the group’s cosy relationship with various elements of the establishment. Other factors to take into account include the dispute over whether or not the septuagenarian Gable actually set a date for his retirement, (both sides dispute what was said on this and NFB provides excerpts from e-mails and letters on the issue), and whether the less noble motivation of competition over the various sizeable grants available from both local and central government for work in local communities to tackle “extremism” played a part in causing the rift. Strange dealings such as the removal of the Searchlight archives, some twenty filing cabinets’ worth, are also covered.

On a more general note, O’Hara and Svenson look at the work undertaken by Hope Not Hate and highlight the modern phenomenon of “clicktivism”. This comprises various activities undertaken in the virtual world such as online petitions and their conclusion is that such work does not achieve much. Perhaps there is a lesson there for groups across the political spectrum? The article also looks at the various projects undertaken by Hope Not Hate in the real world and gives a serious and in-depth analysis of it. Again, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not this work has been effective, but it is hard not to conclude that a lot of money has been spent with not a lot in the way of results in return.

There are a number of shorter, but nonetheless very informative articles in this issue, of which we will mention but one. In Not Over Till It’s Over: The BNP and the 2012 Local Elections, Larry O’Hara gives his rather perceptive analysis of the BNP’s electoral performance in that poll. His debunking of the conventional left mantra that the BNP is finished, bust, etc. can, in light of more recent developments, be seen as somewhat prescient and places him above the less sophisticated analysis of those writers on the left who based their predictions of oblivion for the BNP more on wishful thinking than actual facts.

Finishing with an update section on stories carried in previous issues and at a total of eighty-seven pages, issue ten of Notes From The Borderland is a considerable read. Whilst the writers do not make any secret of their own political leanings, they manage in the main to avoid being tendentious and thus make the journal readable to a wider audience that does not necessarily share their views. This reviewer would recommend picking-up a copy by mail  or ordering online.

Reviewed by Andrew Hunter


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UNAPOLOGETIC: Why, despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense

by Francis Spufford

Faber and Faber £12.99 ISBN 978-0-571-22521-7

Book cover of Unapologetic

Click on image to buy this book!

The author of Unapologetic isn’t a bit sorry for offering this entertaining polemic. He makes an impassioned case for Christianity making emotional sense, ‘despite everything’. He is withering in his criticism of vapid nonsense like John Lennon’s Imagine – ‘the My Little Pony of philosophical statements’ – and similar offerings that assume that peace and harmony would be the spontaneously arising natural order of things between all human beings if there was no such thing as religion. As the author opines; ‘Yeah, Right!’

Don’t expect to read one of those Josh McDowell-type Evidence that Requires a Verdict tomes that try to defend traditional Christian teachings in the face of modern criticism. Curious outsiders wondering what makes believers tick are much more likely to find an answer here than in a whole stack of theological books and strident critiques from Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling. Those readers who are stumbling along the pilgrim path are very likely to find a mirror into their souls, (or maybe that’s just me).

Spufford was inspired to write Unapologetic when he realised that his six-year-old daughter is soon going to discover that her parents are weird. Every Sunday morning the go out to church. As she grows up she will hear that Christians are a pretty bizarre bunch. According to those who care enough to object, these churchgoers are weird followers of some imaginary sky fairy, but for most people in Britain, church goers are just embarrassing. We’re ‘not weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable.’

In their eyes, ‘Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too…’ We just can’t allow things to be what they are; ‘They always have to be translated, moralised – given an unnecessary and rather sentimental extra meaning.’  We just can’t tell the difference between stuff that exists and stuff that is made up; ‘Our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world’.

Yet, in fact; ‘It’s belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires, continual, fluffy pretending.’ In examining this, he turns to the famous atheist bus slogan that raised a lot of controversy recently, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Does the implication stand that enjoyment would be the natural state of anyone who wasn’t being ‘worried by believers and their preaching’? ‘Take away the malignant threat of God talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? It buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing’ – the world of advertising and beautiful Gold Blend coffee-sipping people with good looks and plenty of cash – who can get all they want by going shopping.

Spufford argues persuasively that peace is not the norm, ‘the default state of human beings’, but that it is rare. So the atheist bus slogan might be fine for such improbable people but it is totally inappropriate for those many folk who don’t fit that definition. If the slogan is true then you’re on your own if for some reason you’re not enjoying yourself. ‘What the atheist bus slogan says is: There’s no help coming.’ There’s no hope, no consolation in this ‘cruel optimism’.

To Spufford, the notion is false that the emotions involved in religious belief must be different from all other kinds of imagining, hoping and dreaming that we do; they are ‘deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.’  Spufford seeks in this work to decode the technical jargon and theological in-talk into plain (and often profane) basic English. Sin, for example is not a list of prohibited actions you can avoid or self-indulgence in sexual conduct or doing vaguely ‘wrong’ things like eating too much chocolate. To Spufford it’s simply the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up – the HPtFtU.

This distils in a short phrase the root of the problem with people; a problem ignored by humanists, atheists and sadly, many religious liberals too who have too rosy a view of human nature. Bad things don’t just happen to guaranteed 100% bad people. Christianity recognises the real truth; human beings are neither perfect nor perfectable, we’re all prone to fuck things up. We’re all bad people who need mercy. Spufford argues that this is a much more realistic starting points for us than awe at the stars and sunsets. You can’t live in a constant State of Awe. Recognition of the HPtFtU is the start of the way back, an admission of self-discovery that you really are guilty and in need of Grace and Mercy. Everyone fails. Nobody only means well. Nobody means well all the time.

For this reason, Spufford argues, the Church is not a cosy club of really good, holy people, or weird followers of a mythical sky-pixie but a ‘league of the guilty’. The International League of the Guilty has littered the landscape with useful buildings where people can find help to strip away self-delusion and comforting illusions; we call them churches.

This book gets off to a roaring start, so it’s slightly disappointing that it loses a bit of steam towards the last couple of chapters. Still, it really picks up again near the finish. That said, it’s still a cracking good read with a great message of hope from our ‘awkward sky fairy’ who says, ‘Don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid, for more can be mended that you can know.’ If you only read one ‘religious’ book this year, make it this one.

Reviewed By David Kerr

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Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?


Smile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the WorldSmile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

I HAVE often wondered what it is about dictators that cause them to misread their situation so completely.  The late Romanian dictator Nicholai Ceaucescu and the Libyan leader Colonel Qathafi were both surprised at the hatred they inspired in a large number of their people.  The answer seems to be that they had both become isolated in their own little bubbles and had become ‘Masters of the Universe’ in their own eyes.  They thought that they could reshape reality by the force of their own will.

This delusion was reinforced by a coterie of fawning hangers-on who either would not or could not tell them unwelcome truths.  In such societies optimism was compulsory; to point out otherwise was considered unpatriotic, defeatist or counter-revolutionary. Naturally people told their leaders what they thought they wanted to hear.  We hear similar rhetoric from the coalition government; when those posh boys David Cameron and George Osborne – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – insist that their austerity policies are doing us good, really and that we should all knuckle down, get with the programme and like it.

This delusional thinking, though, is not restricted to dictators and out-of-touch prime ministers and chancellors of the exchequer. A glossy best-selling book, The Secret, has convinced many people that getting the things you want is primarily a question of ‘the law of attraction’, visualising what it will be like when they are yours, whether it’s a new partner, that dream job, a fancy car or a lovely necklace or handbag. You will ‘draw’ these things to you. Just ‘name it and claim it’.

In Smile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich examines the roots and the effects of the cult of blind optimism known as ‘Positive Thinking’.  This notion has gained a large foothold in American popular, religious and corporate culture.  Positive Thinking sounds attractive for a number of obvious reasons; nobody likes to be a misery or to be thought of as a misery. People are generally happier to be around individuals who light up a room by their presence than those who are constantly moaning, complaining and cursing their rotten lot in life. That’s fair enough. So far, so good.

However, basic cheery natural optimism is not what Ehrenreich is targeting in her wittily written polemic. ‘Positive Thinking’ the ideology is much more pernicious. It’s positively delusional.  The reckless optimistic bias involved undermines preparedness and invites disaster.  Its deep penetration of American popular culture, especially in the corporate world, may well have helped to precipitate the financial disaster that began to hit the world in 2007.  After all, why would you bother about debts and ruinous exposure to defaults when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to visualise success and to expect it?

The truth is, things don’t get better by wishing them so. Positive Thinking of The Secret kind encourages its practitioners to treat other people as if they don’t matter, mere ciphers and bit players in their own ever so important life, rather that independent, thinking, breathing beings with a will, hopes and fears of their own.

Barbara Ehrenreich exposes the cynicism, delusion and greed of those who sell this stuff at society’s most vulnerable sections, some of whom are seriously ill with cancer, or who have lost their jobs owing to corporate ‘downsizing’.

Ehrenreich opens with a frank account of her own diagnosis with breast cancer, and her dismay at being almost buried in an avalanche of pink ribbons, pink teddy bears and sugar-coated therapy sessions in which there was no room for anger or sadness. Although it’s a popular theory, there is no scientific link between having a ‘positive’ outlook in the face of illness and rates of cancer survival.  As she says, ‘We really should question whether it is valuable to encourage optimism if it results in the patient concealing his or her distress in the mistaken belief that this will afford survival benefits.’

The undercurrent of always having to look on the bright side, so that your recovery may be undermined by your own poor ‘negative’ attitude if you don’t do so, is pernicious. It is disturbing to discover that some American cancer survivor groups have hounded out those whose cancer recurs in case any association with this ‘negativity’ might prove contagious. Such groups can properly help people come to terms with the consequences of their illness.  This may offer the patient social and emotional benefits but it will do nothing to overcome cancer or extend his or her life.

Ehrenreich traces the origins of positive thinking to reaction against traditional Calvinist doctrine in the nineteenth century.  She analyses the development of Positive Thinking through early self-help books to the slicker, more persuasive motivational speakers and their books and DVDs around today. She exposes the dangers to business of reckless optimism as all too often anyone who doesn’t fully sign up to the mantra is dismissed as ‘negative’ or having a bad attitude when they may just be more realistic. This notion also conveniently shifts the burden of responsibility for illness and unemployment on to the individual.

The author cites one self-help classic Who Moved My Cheese? when a worker wakes up to find that his “cheese”, or job, has disappeared, he should immediately “paint a picture . . . in great realistic detail, [of] sitting in the middle of a pile of all his favourite cheeses – from Cheddar to Brie”. And magically, a delicious new employment opportunity will arise. Don’t blame the system. Don’t’ blame the bosses. It’s your own fault if you don’t land another job. It’s no wonder that American corporations are buying this book in bulk and handing it out to the workers they are paying off.

Ehrenreich’s alternative to Positive Thinking’s bastardised mixture of personal insecurity, narcissistic self-absorption and blind acceptance of the status quo isn’t that we all become curmudgeonly Victor Meldrews; grumpy old men or women. All she suggests is that we look at how things really are, not how we would wish them to be and that we use a little critical thinking. To put it another way, don’t moan, organise to put things right. That’s true positivity for you.

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Putting Away Childish Things

Putting Away Childish Things

Putting Away Childish Things: a tale of modern faith

Marcus J Borg

Marcus J Borg; author of Reading the Bible for the First Time, Again and Meeting Jesus for the First Time, Again and a host of other works of popular theology has turned his hand to writing fiction.  This isn’t any old fiction, either; it is didactic fiction; a thinly-veiled attempt on the author’s part to promote his own theological perspective.

Not that there’s anything underhand or sleekit about this literary form.  The author is completely upfront and transparent about this.  He even provides suggestions for reading groups in an appendix which offers questions for readers to discuss among themselves.  That impressed me greatly, as the author has deftly managed to smuggle a lot of deep stuff into this compelling novel.

Professor Kate Riley is a popular religion teacher in a college somewhere in the American Midwest.  Her students love her classes. She loves her work, she is happy with both her personal and her spiritual life and she has had some success with a couple of her books; a scholarly look at the Epistle of James and a new one examining the differences between the two Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.

It’s just in the middle of Advent that things start to go off the rails for Kate.  Her publisher has set up a number of interviews with radio stations up and around the country in order to promote her book.  These question and answer sessions introduce the reader to Kate’s liberal Christian perspective, but she falls foul of a husband and wife tag team on a Christian talk radio show, Rise and Shine, who accuse her of seeking to ‘debunk the truth about Jesus’.

Before long, she is named as Number One Un-American of the Week by an inflammatory pundit on a conservative network for ‘a secular humanist apology of a book’ that trashes ‘one of the most sacred parts of our country’s Christian heritage… at Christmas, of all times.’

Ironically at the same time Kate is beset with another problem.  One of her colleagues on the college faculty is a bit sniffy about her latest book. It’s too popular and too Christian.  He is one of those illiberal ‘liberals’ we all know; the kind who don’t want to see others doing things of which they disapprove.  This man notes that she attends church regularly and claims that this could be interfering with her teaching of religion in the college. She is condemned, not for what she actually does, but what she could do.  The reader gets to sit in on Kate’s classes and her one-to-one sessions with individual students, so we know that it ain’t so.

In the midst of all this, Kate receives an invitation to teach in a seminary as a visiting professor of New Testament Studies for a year. Conflicted and confused by the reaction of her colleagues and an organised campaign by some parent to deny her tenure at the college, Kate finds her faith coming under pressure as she wrestles with the possibilities in front of her.

As the story develops, we get to meet some other characters; Geoff,  her gay colleague on the faculty and her soulmate and confidant (every girl should have one); Frederika her minister; Martin, a professor at the seminary in question, her mentor and one-time lover (a long time ago) and Erin, a student who is a member of a conservative evangelical group on campus.

I rather suspect that any reader of this book will come with their own personal baggage, or to mix the metaphor, may read it through lenses tinted by the events and understandings of their own lives, I really identified with Erin in this story as she struggled with her faith when what she had been taught to believe came into conflict with the real world of flesh and blood human beings.

This is stirring stuff. Borg is didactic but it’s anything but preachy. I hope there’ll be a sequel. Borg introduces readers to some wonderful stuff too, as Kate goes through her daily devotions and her lectures. Not only are we treated to Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach but to a moving poem by Denise Levertov called The Avowal.  This is so powerful that it reduced me to tears.  Here it is…

As swimmers dare

To lie face to the sky

And water bears them,

As hawks rest upon air

And air sustains them;

So I would learn to attain

Freefall, and float

Into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,

Knowing no effort earns

That all-surrounding grace.

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Book Review: Is there Life After Death? The Extraordinary Science of What Happens When we die

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Is there Life After Death?

The Extraordinary Science of What Happens When we die

By Anthony Peake

Review: Tim Bragg

(Part of Body, Mind, Spirit & Time)

Am I treading the same road that I have trod so many times? Am I alone on my wanderings – have I walked this way before so often that I am in an inescapable rut – or – is there a guide, placing signposts for me to veer onto new lanes? A guide that has intimate knowledge of my many intended or worn trails…

What a curious mesmerizing book this is! Gripping, thought provoking and unsettling. Great – my cup of tea! With ideas fashioned around the theories of Many Worlds; Multi-Universes; Quantum Theory…Time itself (and the nature of its and our subjective perceptions); shared consciousness; neurology; psychiatry and more – the reader is guaranteed a stimulating read. A book that provokes thought and a thoughtful response.

For some time now (well this is my subjective perception!) I have had this rather clichéd and simple notion that “Time is the Answer”. And yet this notion has deepened and become deeper and been given more credence through reading Peake’s book. Time – subjective – bending to the occasion…speeding up and slowing down…and fragmenting? Time stretching so that at death we cease to be ‘time-full’ but enter a new relationship with it. Does time cease or are we catapulted back to its (our) beginning? What is the relationship between Time, Matter and our Consciousness?  Has our universe and human consciousness sprung from a time-less and matter-less place? Although Peake doesn’t answer this last question he does give his coherent idea of what happens to (our) time as death approaches…

Is there life after death? Existence after death – a continued existence…if you’re looking for reassurance about conscious existence after ‘death’ then you’ll be both excited and – perhaps disappointed by this book. Excited because through its pages we learn about Quantum Theory – about how we bring into existence external reality through our sensory perceptions – that we are subjective beings in a subjectively made reality. There may not be an identifiable, objective reality – at least to us subjective beings. But more than this – we might not even be alone. And when I use the word ‘we’ I don’t just mean the consciousness reading these words  – there is also a ‘we’ that is ‘us’ – a dual consciousness within that we all seem to share. The brain divided and mirrored – holding two different ‘mind-beings’.

I am not going to use Peake’s scientific or esoteric words in this review – this is my review (and accordingly may only exist in ‘my’ reality – and in your reality I may not actually exist!) – but respond simply as a reader who has been affected by and has given considerable thought to the ideas. I am also aware that I don’t want to spoil the unfolding of the book’s ideas by giving too much away – because you need to be taken on its journey (as was I). Also, I am not without criticism or further questioning of ideas within it and, ultimately, not without a sinking feeling that what Peake’s research and originality offers is no more comforting than the traditional idea of reincarnation.

In Western societies the concept ofre-incarnation can sometimes be used to make sense of our existence and offer the hope of rebirth and re-existence rather than a one off life followed by annihilation…and yet, I, the ego am not aware of this pre-existence except through unusual “flash backs” to a supposed previous life. Thus the ‘I’ – the ‘me’ that I am fully aware of – will face obliteration. Now, without giving too much away (I hope) Peake argues for (and there is always enough scientific corroboration to make his points) that each human has indeed dual consciousness – that there is a Higher and Lower self…and that these entities exist in a form of communion, but that the Higher Self is only manifest (seemingly) at certain times – including in dream states and during hypnotism. This Higher Self also plays its ultimate significant part at the approach of death. This is where the possibility of “life after death” comes – though technically there is no death – only the perception of one’s death by other folk!

All sounding a bit much? Well you will discover the strange world of quantum particles and their unresolved existence until brought into ‘focus’ by sentient life…you will glimpse into the world of the schizophrenic which might be the world of your other consciousness (Higher Self) – an unfiltered world that our lower self finds overbearing; a world where ALL is perceived…why do we perceive all? You will have insight into those who experience Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and the idea that life is experienced between epileptic fits at birth and death…And how our mind has (perhaps) evolved to cope with the dying experience.

Sometimes we are treated to great rabbit-holes of fun and imagination that ultimately lead nowhere. We rush off after the White Rabbit – constantly eyeing his watch – “I’m late, I’m late!” – but find that though this pursuit is fascinating we are left somewhat perplexed and unfulfilled. This might result from my own intellectual failing. I have to state again: I LOVE this book. I love how it takes me into my own mind and for my mind to question itself and its very reality – but the ending felt a touch like bathos with questions seemingly left unanswered: what is the point of the eternal return (if any); is this reliving simply a product of a peculiar universe and mortal existence or is there some higher hand at work; can we escape this reliving – and if so how? …Perhaps there’s another ending waiting to be written – it felt a little unbalanced. I appreciate Peake’s desire to fuse science with areas of enquiry normally dealt with by religion or philosophy – but there’s so much more to delve into surely? I prefer to fuse science with spirituality – looking to science to answer WHY as well as HOW (however beguiling that HOW is!). It is in that WHY – that questioning that the spiritual element will be found – if we are the way we are and we are programmed to an eternal return – then WHY? Why does that mechanism exist?

The brain and the mind (co-dependent?!) are fascinating – figures given in the book reveal the brain’s amazing complexity. It’s a wonder people can manage to be so ‘un’ conscious having such a tool! Can consciousness exist apart from the brain – and if so – how? What can/could sustain it? Are “out of body experiences” proof of the ability of consciousness to exist independently? I have had an OBE – but was it within the capacity of my mind to PROJECT such a reality at an extreme type of stress…thus I wasn’t “out” of anywhere – just experiencing a different perspective?

Perhaps, as Peake suggests, we all eventually “fall out of time” – perhaps we stretch time into a kind of infinity…perhaps we re-tread this life over and over and over again. But if there is an escape to this mundane repetition it is an escape denied to ‘us’ (the ‘us’ that is connecting with these words) because the escape itself will exist in another universe, in another reality. Trillions of versions of us – like a mirror reflecting upon itself – like an infinite number of mirrors reflecting infinitely! And even the word ‘infinite’ is useless here because it suggests Time! And the BIG question – what for? Is there any profound reason behind all this? Becoming Perfect?  – How close to perfection would we need to come to escape this Eternal Return? Has anyone ever achieved perfection? Jesus gave into anger, was he forced to return and, if so, why didn’t he become Greater Than Jesus – or did he – yes you’ve got it – manifest in a different reality/world/universe? Not so much a Second Coming but a long time coming.

 Déjà vu, that notion of being here before, of experiencing the same feelings and senses before, is perhaps the key to unlock our sense of return…but – for “us” who have but an inkling of a re-run – so what? And even those in Peake’s book that seem to re-live their lives – and be aware of such – there is no comfort or satisfaction. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of justice in getting things right simply for a version of ourselves to exist in another Quantum Leap. And if ALL has happened to ALL then any sense of meaningful independent reality is lost! The subtlety of difference between ‘this’ and ‘that’ choice would be diluted in a vat so large that any such choice would be rendered meaningless! And given that people seem to go on making the same mistakes, are some ‘souls’ bound to re-live nightmare lives that are short and brutal over and over again!?

There certainly is more to Heaven and Earth than meets the eye, it seems. Quantum physics shows us a micro existence without common sense. But can we extrapolate into the world of Here and Now? Are there realms of the brain we can lose ourselves in? When we dream are we dreaming a reality? Perhaps this is evidence for survival of death – when I dream I certainly am in a ‘reality’ and though it is me – this ‘me’ is unconnected to the me that wakes into my apparent ‘normal’ reality (but only made ‘normal’ by the act of waking and of a sense of repetition). There is a connection at times (lucid dreaming fuses these two realities) but normally ‘I’ can live in two very different experiential worlds that have similarities – each seemingly with its own integrity and continuity – but that are DIFFERENT! And passing from one state to the other is unconscious – I am unaware of slipping through that ‘twilight’ world between wake and sleep.

Finally, though I can see and understand Peake’s idea of consciousness and its perception of time as one’s death looms, I wonder about those folk who have lost contact and consciousness with this world…did they see their mental death approaching – was any mechanism in place for them? If there is a ‘breather’ between returns – in which existence is it to be found? Again I apologise for being a tad cryptic – but you need to work through this book – take in the various speculations and new scientific research it provides and explores, and get led down Peake’s rabbit-hole world. As he says – he may not even exist in our world – well, my world – well, your world. Just as I might not exist in the world of whomever is reading these words. So in which case – who wrote them?

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On the Trail of William Wallace

Book coverOn the Trail of William Wallace

by David R. Ross.

WHETHER you are just starting out on your quest for knowledge about arguably Scotland’s greatest hero or are an old campaigner looking to gleam something extra, this is a must have book for your library.

It is written in an easy-going natural style that will hold you there until you have read through from cover to cover. The known chronological facts about Wallace are documented and others debated, but what really makes this book special is that unlike any other book on the subject, it takes you on a visit to the sites where Wallace walked and fought and died.

There are maps and detailed descriptions of sites from the past and present and sadly some no longer with us. There are also many beautiful line drawings of monuments, plagues and buildings connected to our hero.

The story of William Wallace has continued to inspire patriots even over 700 years after his cruel end. This book will help his legend grow as more folk follow on the trail of William Wallace and feel his indomitable spirit touch them at each stop along the way.

Printed with acknowledgements to Scotland First

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