Saturday, 27 January 2007

Cat gets stuck in a jar

The first pictures have been released of a cat that got its head stuck in a jam jar.
A motorist went to a police station for help after finding the tabby wandering beside a road in Peterborough, with the jar on its head and a mouse trapped inside, millimetres from its nose.A receptionist and three officers pulled and twisted but were unable to release the cat, police said. Eventually the animal freed itself – and the mouse – by smashing the jar on the floor of Thorpe Wood police station."It was like a scene from Tom and Jerry," said a police spokeswoman. "I don't think anyone had ever seen anything like it before. The mouse ran off – it's still running around Thorpe Wood police station somewhere."

(Peterborough Evening Telegraph, Jan 25th)

Oh yes. Hmm, despite being put first in this article the pictures are not really the substance of the story, and are not really that exciting. Only one is actually on display on the Telegraph's website, and it's unfortunately reminiscent of the leaflets handed out by animal rights protesters claiming to show creatures that have been horribly treated in various labs.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

A blanket ban on Holocaust denial would be a serious mistake

 argues Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian (Thursday). Of course he's correct, but it was a shame that he listed Poland, Germany and Lithuania as countries with some of the strongest rightwing xenophobic parties in the EU. As Pippa Norris shows, it's Switzerland, Italy and Norway that have the strongest radical right parties (measured by comparing their share of the vote in the period 2000-2004). The other three have negligible far-right influence.

Yeah, I know, Switzerland and Norway aren't in the EU...

Great minds (not mine, I hasten to add)

Never a dull moment on Peter Leithart's blog.

Turns the po-mo jargon to good use;
sees the supremacy of Christ even in the grotesqueries of His enemies;
pithily hits the nub of the issue over assurance among evangelicals;
and here's someone that is going to produce a lot more mileage. What a fascinating thinker he was...

Friday, 19 January 2007

The Last King of Scotland

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Vanessa Walters does not like this film. That’s her business, of course, but most of her criticisms are spurious and (dare I speculate?) sound very much post facto.

The film-makers… play to some of the worst stereotypes of corrupt, murderous, incompetent and ridiculous black leaders. I think it’s fair to say that Idi Amin was murderous and (horribly) ridiculous. Clearly those that stood by him and enriched themselves during the violence were corrupt (rather a kind word for such people). Since despite all their violence they could not ultimately hold on to power (let alone govern well enough to endear themselves to the people of Uganda), it is hardly ‘playing to a stereotype’ to call them incompetent. Furthermore, of the three black leaders we actually see in action, one, the Health Minister, is none of the above, but a victim of the General’s paranoia.

Most reviewers have failed to clock the fact that the “white man trying to save ethnic man” from himself is a well-worn caricature. This reviewer has failed to clock that that caricature does not actually appear in the film. Garrigan makes precious little efforts to ‘save’ Amin morally – and since he is a medical doctor it is hardly inappropriate that he should be portrayed as ‘saving’ Amin & family from various medical ailments as the film goes on. The other white people in the film are a doctor and his wife working in the countryside (how dare they try to save the ‘ethnic people’!?) and sinister, smarmy British Government officials in Kigale who are not intersted in saving anyone.

Does Walters not wonder why scary men running around Uganda with AK47s are such an easy stereotype? Perhaps it’s because such men with such weapons did indeed run round said country during Amin’s rule… And another stereotype is the plethora of scantily-clad go-go dancers and other exotic, sexually available women to be bedded by Garrigan. Has she not spotted that there are quite a few films in which the male protagonist sleeps with more than one woman? This is not a piece of racist stereotyping – it’s a sad reflection on promiscuity and the hatred of God’s standards in the world at large. And what’s so exotic about these women? Does Walters mean to suggest that they are exotic because they are black? (What does she expect? How many white Ugandan women are there!?) Sounds like a piece of racist stereotyping to me…

Africa is presented as a place of violence and superstition, ruled by fear. Africa is not presented at all: a fictionalised Uganda is. (Never mind the widespread superstition and violence that actually exist in some places in Africa, as elsewhere in the world…)

White Nicholas Garrigan comes off very badly in the film. He is naïve, cocky, irresponsible, and a sexual predator. There is very little catharsis at the end of the film as a result of anything Garrigan does. He just wants to go home to his mummy. The murder of the black doctor who saves Garrigan provides the limited catharsis on offer. The British Government comes off very badly in the film. Mistreating Amin when he was a nobody, bringing him to power and then trying to have him assassinated without actually standing up to him...

Two of the people I want to see the film with didn’t like it either. But at least they were honest about why they didn’t like it: it was graphic and often unpleasant, and offered no easy answers (being more 'art-house' than 'hollywood'). But it was honest, too, not to mention well-made and well-acted by all and sundry. White or black, man is inhuman to his fellow man on a grand scale and on a petty scale. Witnessing this, even at such a remove, throws light on the urgency and the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Allegedly sent by the Inland Revenue

Dear Mr Addison,

I am writing to you to express our thanks for your more than prompt reply to our latest communication, and also to answer some of the points you raise. I will address them, as ever, in order. Firstly, I must take issue with your description of our last as a "begging letter". It might perhaps more properly be referred to as a "tax demand". This is how we, at the Inland Revenue have always, for reasons of accuracy; traditionally referred to such documents.

Secondly, your frustration at our adding to the "endless stream of crapulent whining and panhandling vomited daily through the letterbox on to the doormat" has been noted. However, whilst I have naturally not seen the other letters to which you refer I would cautiously suggest that their being from "pauper councils, Lombardy pirate banking houses and pissant gas-mongerers" might indicate that your decision to "file them next to the toilet in case of emergencies" is at best a little ill-advised. In common with my own organisation, it is unlikely that the senders of these letters do see you as a "lackwit bumpkin" or, come to that, a "sodding charity". More likely they see you as a citizen of Great Britain, with a responsibility to contribute to the upkeep of the nation as a whole.

Which brings me to my next point. Whilst there may be some spirit of truth in your assertion that the taxes you pay "go to shore up the canker-blighted, toppling folly that is the Public Services", a moment's rudimentary calculation ought to disabuse you of the notion that the government in any way expects you to "stump up for the whole damned party" yourself. The estimates you provide for the Chancellor's disbursement of the funds levied by taxation, whilst colourful, are, in fairness, a little off the mark. Less than you seem to imagine is spent on "junkets for Bunterish lickspittles" and "dancing whores" whilst far more than you have accounted for is allocated to, for example, "that box-ticking façade of a university system."

A couple of technical points arising from direct queries:
1. The reason we don't simply write "Muggins" on the envelope has to do with the vagaries of the postal system;
2. You can rest assured that "sucking the very marrows of those with nothing else to give" has never been considered as a practice because even if the Personal Allowance didn't render it irrelevant, the sheer medicallogistics involved would make it financially unviable.

I trust this has helped. In the meantime, whilst I would not in any way wish to influence your decision one way or the other, I ought to point out that even if you did choose to "give the whole foul jamboree up and go and live in India" you would still owe us the money.

Please forward it by Friday.

Yours Sincerely,
H J Lee
Customer Relations

how right is she?

Pippa Jones' The Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market (Cambridge, 2005) gives a good overview of some European and Commonwealth right wing parties over the last few decades. Nothing earth-shattering, but the reviewers loved it for its poise, detachment and contribution to the puzzle of the radical right's dramatically varying fortunes in similar nations.

[R]emarkably little evidence supports many... popular myths about the reasons for their success, for example the claim that radical right have advanced strongly in societies with rampant unemployment or strong waves of immigration, or that they appeal most strongly to socially disadvantaged sectors of the electorate. Nor... [do] radical right fortunes depend primarily upon where other mainstream center-right and center-left parties locate themselves across the ideological spectrum, or that charismatic leaders are vital to their success. (5)

This is actually pretty clear once you look at the sweep of countries that Norris painstakingly examines. Sweden has negligible radical right influence despite have much higher levels of immigration than Norway, where the radical right have taken 15% of votes in the last two major elections. Britain and Germany, the two European countries with the most immigrants - and don't forget Germany's unemployment - have very weak radical right parties. The media's interest in the BNP's success in Oldham and Nick Griffin's recent trial is out of all proportion to their influence. Meanwhile, Switzerland's radical right party is the major player in the current coalition government with more than 26% of the electorate behind them, and the Swiss are hardly short of a few bob.

Alongside these harder facts of votes cast in given countries and electoral rules (which in some cases conspire to block smaller parties of whatever persuasion from entering the chamber) she sets comparative social survey data about political and policy opinions, social attitudes and the behaviour of the parties' leadership. All fascinating stuff, if a little dry in places.

What seemed very odd to me was her attempts to force Ross Perot and the Reform Party into the same box as racist and anti-immigrant parties. Perot was a quixotic billionaire who contested the US Presidential elections of 1992 and 1996, doing surprisingly well considering the hold the Democrats and Republicans have over there. As far as I remember the media here in the UK never portrayed him as 'radical right', xenophobic or anything of the sort. And even in Norris' book there only seems to be guilt-by-association. Her rhetoric is plain when she comes to discuss those elections. Having pointed out that Perot could be regarded as more of a "center-right... one-man show" and had little in common she continues,

Nevertheless Perot emphasized many classically populist, antiestablishment, and 'outsider' themes in his campaign, adopting folksy appeals and simplistic slogans designed to attract 'the little man', and focusing mainly upon the need to reduce the size of government and levels of taxation, with the anti-NAFTA theme tapped into fears of 'foreigners' stripping away American jobs and companies. (239)

What is the "nevertheless" doing?! If this is the best evidence against Perot, what is he doing in this study? The closest Norris can come to actually accusing him of anything is in relation to NAFTA - which is not exactly something every US Trades Union is loving, either.

Every now and then (eg. p.246) she throws in some asides about how opposing gay marriage or abortion is a sign of being associated with the radical right. This may be me being over-sensitive, or it may demonstrate that even in the driest of sociological texts the presence and biases of the author are never far away.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Something worth doing

...if you're at all interested in Christian ministry (which should cover just about all Christians) is TEAM, Training for East Anglia Ministry. This superb course kept me occupied in the academic year 2006-2007, was particularly helpful in improving my preaching, and full of delightful people to think with, to chat to and play chess with. (The brochure on the link features pictures of the very people I was on the course with, though none of me... I wonder why...)

Accessible to all adults who want to learn. Truly superb value for money. Something to strengthen you and your church and the church.

[NB, this post was actually posted in January 2008, hence the past tense. Not prophecy people, just a scatty blogger, move along, there's nothing to see...]

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Shogi 5

Last Sunday morning over drawn-out breakfast, when I should have been doing something helpful before church, I managed to pull this off. My favourite game so far, I think. The relative size of the attacking forces in the endgame (which was reached very quickly indeed) shows that it's not all about strength of numbers but about targeted, focused power.

Computer vs. J

1. P76 P84

2. R68 P85

3. B77 P34

4. P66 P64

5. S38 G(6)52

6. P65 Bx77

7. Nx77 Px65

8. B’55 B’44

9. Bx44 Px44

10. B’15 B’42

11. B26 B33

12. S88 P86

13. Px86 Rx86

14. G78 P64

15. Rx64 P45

16. R69 Rx76

17. R65 R66

18. Rx66 Bx66

19. R’86 Bx57+ (a very high-cost strategy to get a horse right in front of the enemy king)

20. Rx81+ R’89

21. N’69 K42

22. B15 N33

23. P’79 +B66

24. Rx71 S32

25. S’98 P’68 (I have to give up the rook, but now Black’s generals are all in the wrong corner…)

26. Sx89 Px69+

27. Kx69 N’57

28. K59 Nx49+

29. Sx49 P14

30. B26 G’39 (a tiny attack, but surprisingly effective)

31. N’66 G(5)51

32. R’72 P’62

33. Rx73+ K31 (‘an early king escape is worth 8 moves’ – shogi proverb)

34. Bx53+ K22

35. P’67 Gx49

36. Kx49 S’48

37. K38 S39+

38. K28 +B48

39. K18 +Bx47

40. G’28 P15 (the humble, heroic pawn decides the game…)

41. P’52 P16

42. Px51+ Gx29

43. +Px41 Gx28

44. Kx28 G’29

45. K18 Px17+

46. +Bx17 Gx19 (even the return of the cavalry cannot save my silicon friend)

47. Kx19 Lx17=

48. P’18 Lx18+

49. Kx18 P’17

50. K28 N’16

51. Kx17 B’39

52. Kx16 +B25 checkmate

Shogi 4

This was an unusually quick victory. Computers usually fight to the bitter end! Needless to say, I am still taking back the odd move when things look dodgy!

Computer vs. J

1. P76 P34

2. G(4)58 K42

3. S48 P44

4. G78 K32

5. P66 G(6)52 (the ‘boat castle’, another experiment)

6. K69 P84

7. P26 P85

8. B77 P76

9. P25 B33

10. P65 S62

11. G(5)67 S73

12. G66 S84

13. B68 R72

14. P56 P45 (my castle is quite vulnerable to a frontal assault, so I need space, fast!)

15. B57 P75

16. Px75 Sx75

17. G(7)67 Sx66

18. Gx66 G’76

19. G55 P54 (inviting some violent tactics)

20. P24 Px24

21. S’44 Px55 (a high-risk sacrifice!)

22. Sx33= Kx33

23. Bx24 K44 (the king sets off on a little adventure…)

24. P46 G67

25. Px45 K53

26. S59 S’27

27. P’73 Rx73

28. B’26 G’35

29. Bx35 Px35

30. Bx35 K42 (draughty but surprisingly safe)

31. B24 N33

32. Bx33+ Kx33

33. G’44 K42

34. N’54 K51

35. R48 B’25


Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam

Every first-year student knows that Mecca at the time of the Prophet was the centre of a far-flung trading empire, which plays a role of some importance in all orthodox accounts of the rise of Islam. Indeed the international trade of the Meccans has achieved such fame that not only first-year students, but also professional Islamicists have come to consider documentation to be quite superfluous. Thus Montgomery Watt, whose well-known interpretation of Muhammed's life centres on the impact of commercial wealth on the social and moral order in Mecca, devotes less than a page of his two-volume work to a discussion of the commerce from which the wealth in question supposedly derived; and with references he dispenses alogether. But what do we actually know about Meccan trade? (1)

Crone goes on to answer this question, drawing on a huge amount of primary source material.

Just looking at a map should give a hint that Meccan trade at the time of Muhammed was not the illustrious spice/silk/incense/ivory that everybody 'knows' - Mecca is in completely the wrong place. It's not a coastal city, and has just one tiny port, not much used. It has no timber, and is nowhere near the customers of any purported overland trade in luxuries. The Islamic tradition is quite unaware that the Meccans are supposed to have handled this of type of goods, and the Greeks to whom they are supposed to have sold them had never even heard of Mecca. Meccan trade there was, if we trust the Islamic tradition. But the trade described in this tradition bears little resemblance to that known from Lammens, Watt, or their various followers. (11)

What the trade of the period boils down to is leather and a few bits and pieces. Commonplaces about the wealth of Mecca can no longer form part of the scholarly explanation for the rise of Islam. So, Crone says, we must look elsewhere.

The risk of this work being a slightly dull debate over economic history is averted by Crone's swashbuckling prose, and her infectious fascination with detail on everything from cinnabar, senna and bdellium to the opacity of the Qur'anic text and the fabrication of the hadith.

On the Qur'an she demonstrates the impossibility of recovering the meaning of Surah Quraysh, which has often been used by historians in backing up their descriptions of Meccan trade. The short Surah reads, "For the ilaf of Quraysh, / their ilaf of the journey in winter and summer. / So worship the lord of this house, who fed them against a hunger / and gave them security from a fear." The reader can gather a few things from the surface of the text, but the classical Muslim exegetes proceeded to find a huge amount in these words, one of which, ilaf, nobody knows the meaning of. Crone examines the work of Ibn al-Kalbi, Ibn Qutayba, Baydawi, Tusi, Tabari, Muqatil, Qummi, Ibn Habib, Baladhuri, Razi, Suyuti and others, and exposes the discord...

In short, the sura refers to the fact that Quraysh used to trade in Syria, or in Syria and the Yeme, or in Syria and Ethiopia, or in all three, and maybe also in Iraq, or else to their habit of spending the summer in Ta'if, or else to ritual visits to Mecca. It celebrates the fact that they began to trade, or that they continuted to do so, or that they stopped; or else it does not refer to trade at all. It alludes to a Meccan need for imported foodstuffs, or to a Meccan famine, or to a Meccan habit of commiting sucide by starvation; it refers to Qurashi agreements with other tribes, or to Qurashi inviolability, or to the inviolability of Mecca or its need for defence, or to its safety after the Ethiopian defeat, or to Qurashi exemption from leprosy, or the Qurashi monopoly on the caliphate; and it does all this using a word that means habit, or clinging to, or mutual love, or divine blessing, or pact and protection. (209)

On the hadith she exposes the contradicitons and elaborations of the various non-Qur'anic sources through external observation...

the contribution of the storyellers to the rise of Islam is manifest [in] the steady growth of the information. It is obvious that if one storyteller should happen to mention a raid, the next storyteller would know the date of this raid, while the third would know everything that an audience might wish to hear about it. This process is graphically illustrated in the sheer contrast of size between the works of Ibn Ishaq (d.767) and Waqidi (d.823), that of Waqidi being much larger for all that it covers only Muhammed's period in Medina But practically any incident narrated by both illustrates the same point. The raid of Kharrar, for example, is told... (223)

...and through heavily-documented internal comparison. Among several examples, we find...

The sources are familiar with a large number of stories, all of which are variations on the theme of "Muhammed's encounter with representatives of non-Islamic religions who recognise him as a future prophet". According to one set of traditions, this encounter took place when Muhammed was a small child still (in practically all versions) in the care of his foster mother. He was seen by Ethiopian Christians who wanted to kill him, or by kabin at Ukaz, or an 'arraf there, or by a kabin or 'arraf at Dhul'l-Majz, or by a kabin in Mecca, all of whom similarly wanted to have him killed, or my a seer at Mecca who wanted to take him away. According to another set of traditions the encounter took place when Muhammed was aged nine or twelve. He was taken to Syria by Abu Talib (or Abd al-Muttalib) and was seen by Jews of Tayma, or by a nameless monk in a nameless place, or by Bahira, a Christian monk at Busra, or by Bahira in an unnamed place, or by Bahira, a Jewish rabbi. In the these version, too, the Jews (or the Greeks) are after him, with the result that he is quickly taken away. Yet another set of traditions hold the encounter to have taken place when he was twenty-five...
That these accounts represent some fifteen different versions of the same event is unlikely to be disputed by anyone. Which of them is true, then? Evidently none. The story itself is of the kind which, as Watt puts it, is "not true in the realistic sense of the secular historian." What the sources offer are fifteen equally fictitious versions of an event that never took place.

Crone also rightly criticises Watt for his 'secular stance' towards the sources - merely subtracting the miraculous elements but taking the historical detail at face value. The nature of the material remains unnoticed. (222) And the nature of the material is not reliably factual. It is essentially exegetical - plausible elaborations on 'truths' coming from a religious direction that needed shoring up. And so the storytellers obliged.

More of this sort of work is needed to unsettle the complacent confidence of Muslims in the historical basis for their beliefs and way of life. Since Islamic polemic insists so stridently on evidence and a quasi-rationalist approach to texts, history, and so on, it falls so much harder when confronted with detailed critical work on its own sources. Like the ludicrous insistence that the Qur'an has never been altered or changed over all these centuries (how many times have I heard that claim at University 'Islamic Awareness' talks, or read it in Islamic apologetic literature?), when confronted with the evidence of textual fluidity, the position collapses through its inherent brittleness.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Left-handed pair

Another couple for the collection! Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, as revealed by their gun-toting antics on the remake of Starsky and Hutch. Pretty similar to Zoolander in its poise and restraint - and in its 'dance off' scene, that recalls the male models' 'walk off' in their earlier endeavour. Silly clothes and silly posturing. Now that's what I'm talking about.

Musical memories

All that thinking about music has reminded me again of a great sadness - the recent death of my last piano teacher, Mark Ray, a truly great bloke. As I read the obituary again, so the tears come back again.

Mark Ray, pianist and teacher; born Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire 17 March 1962; died South Yuba River Highway 49 Crossing, California 21 June 2006.

Although only in his mid-forties, Mark Ray was already at the peak of his profession: as both pianist and teacher heenjoyed the respect of colleagues the world around. Indeed, his holistic approach to teaching, balancing scientific enquiry with a concern for natural musical expression, promised novel insights - particularly in the subjects that had become especial interests, the acquisition of memory skills and the prevention of playing-related injuries.

Another pianist-pedagogue, John Humphreys, serving on the jury of the 2005 Dudley International Piano Competition with Ray, found him

'expert, wise and irreverently funny in equal measure and . . . a pleasure to work with. Taking over the Head of Keyboard Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music at a time of institutional turmoil enabled him to prove his mettle as a sensitive and highly regarded administrator and - and I speak as someone from another institution - creating a keyboard department that was the envy of other colleges.'

But a career that still had decades ahead of it has now been snapped off appallingly early, by a bizarre and tragic accident.

Like most instinctive musicians, Ray felt the call of the muse early, as his father, Eric, recalled:

'Music became part of his life from the age of five when he first started to play the recorder at school and then graduated to the piano a year or so later. The first time he ever touched a piano he looked at the keyboard, found middle C, and played "London's Burning" almost perfectly. At that point his career was decided.'

Horses pulled him away from the piano on occasion - he loved riding and took pleasure in mucking out the stables - but his skills developed rapidly and by 13 he was sitting at the
organ for two services every Sunday at Abbots Ann, near Andover, playing piano for a dance school and, with a group of friends, entertaining in local care homes.

His career evolved with dizzying speed. In 1980 he enrolled on a course jointly run by Manchester University and the Royal Northern College of Music; his teacher was Renna
Kellaway, who had a considerable influence on his development. He took a first class BMus at Manchester in 1983 and the RNCM's highest performance award a year later, when he was also a finalist in the Viotti-Valesia International Piano Competition.

First, he struck out freelance, playing concerts, as both soloist and accompanist, teaching, coaching opera and accompanying dance for four years - during which time (1984-85) he won a Leverhulme Scholarship to study with Hans Leygraf at the Salzburg Mozarteum; he also studied with James Gibb. He made broadcast appearances on Granada TV, BBC1 and BBC2 and for BBC World Service; he played concertos and chamber music and gave recitals across England and continental Europe and Scandinavia.

Ray's institutional appointments began in September 1990, when he was named head of piano for Bromley Schools Music Service, remaining for three years. In January 1994 he began a four-year stint as Head of Music at Cricklade College in Andover, near his childhood stomping grounds.

He now leapt up the ladder at yearly intervals: in September 1998 he became Director of Foundation Studies at Trinity College of Music in London; in September 1999, at the invitation of his former teacher, Renna Kellaway, he renewed his association with the RNCM as a part-time tutor in the School of Keyboard Studies; and in September 2000 was named Assistant Head. After seven months as Acting Head, his appointment was made permanent in February 2003.

By now he was an indispensable part of the RNCM. His teaching was admired for its individualist approach to his students, although retaining absolute faithfulness to the composer's intention and insisting on clarity in form and texture and on quality of sound. He took his pastoral responsibilities seriously, sending out volleys of e-mails and SMS messages to remind students - most of whom thought of him as friend as much as teacher - of deadlines, competitions, auditions and the like. He was especially concerned that his students should learn to cope with tension in the performance of music - a reflection of his concern that his own playing should be free from tension.

He sat on panels, took on personnel issues, coached chamber music, directed festivals. He was a member of a bewildering number of boards and working parties, meeting academic bureaucracy with unquenchable good-humour. Having benefited from a number of master-classes with prominent pianists in his own student days - among them Imogen Cooper, Vlado Perlemuter, Charles Rosen, Peter Donohoe, and Jeremy Menuhin - he now attracted such luminaries as Alexander Melnikov, Nelson Goerner, Stefano Fiuzzi, Jin Ju, Paul Roberts and Pawel Skrzypek to the RNCM to present their own master-classes.

For Murray McLachlan, head of keyboard at nearby Chetham's School of Music, Mark Ray was

'the most energised, organised, charming musician I knew. A marvel, too, as a teacher. He has just had his first year as a teacher at Chetham's, working in particular with an outstanding 13-year-old called Cason Kang from Singapore, who played a Mozart concerto beautifully, under Mark's guidance, with the school orchestra in May.'

He was also busy outside Manchester, becoming increasingly prominent in piano-pedagogy circles, developing a network of contacts around the world and garnering the kind of esteem
which saw him elected as chairman of the European Piano Teachers' Association in 2004-05. He wrote, too, for Piano, International Piano, Music Teacher, Piano Professional and other publications.

His stature ensured a regular flow of invitations to teach abroad, and it was on one of those excursions that he met his awful end. Pawel Skrzypek, whom Ray had called to the RNCM, returned the compliment with an invitation to conduct the master-class at the Gold County Piano Institute in Nevada City on 19 June - an occasion Skrzypek felt was "the most profound and artistic teaching that could be. The main idea of picking a basic issue of interpretation or technique from student's performance of a piece and to project the main lines of the master's approach, understanding and knowledge to the audience was absolutely there. Everybody
was astonished by Mark's artistry, marvellous teaching and great ideas! In the class he taught 13 students, about half an hour each."

Two days earlier, Skrzypek had introduced him to his favourite bathing spot, a pool on the edge of the South Yuba River, much-loved by kayakers and white-water rafters, and Ray so enjoyed it that he asked if they could return. Taking care to avoid the treacherous currents further out from the bank, he slipped on the stones and, though in water no higher than his knees, found himself being sucked into the main current and down towards a deep channel between high boulders, disappearing below the surface. One of the students with him tried to help and was nearly dragged in himself, and a kayaker, soon followed by others, could find no trace of him.

It was 11 hours before a dog from the search team, now over 100 in strength and working in 120-degree heat, found his body, wedged between two rocks some seven feet below the
surface. The only crumb of comfort the sheriff in charge of the operation could offer Ray's shocked colleagues and students was that he probably lost consciousness before he drowned.

Martin Anderson in The Independent (08/07/06)

Musical plans

I have been inspired to look at the music crowding the shelves with a view to 2007's concert schedule. There are plenty of inherited scores there, from several generous sources, so idle searching always turns up something interesting. This evening's find was Dorothy Pilling's Vignettes. Three charming pieces, in a little book signed in 1957 by the composer herself when she gave it as a gift to my Dad's second cousin once removed, the wonderful Auntie Celia, who went to be with the Lord several years ago and is sorely missed by our family.

The Vignettes will slot very nicely in to a recital of British piano music from the last 100 years. This has been brewing for some time... Two pieces by Elgar, some waltzes by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Nocturne by Ivor Gurney and Eric Coates' London Suite will provide the romantic (dare I say cheesy?) crowd-pleasers. Then selections from Howell's Clavicord, the Sonata by my best friend (and best man) Nick Britton and the world premiere of Caroline Bosanquet's Suite (2006) will bring us a little more up-to-date in idiom. But not too avant garde - I don't want to scare the punters, or the pianist for that matter.

Spent a wonderful afternoon last week enjoying chamber music as it was intended to be enjoyed. In a room that could comfortably seat no more than 20 people; piano quintets by Franck, Dvorak and Hahn (sight-reading the latter two, which would have been hair-raising if I had any hair left); in a gathering of music teachers and professional string players. Hopefully that will lead to more of the same, and maybe I can even entice these more mature players onto the concert platform with me!

An Easter project is Ayo Bankole's Sonata No. 2, 'The Passion', paired with his Rhapsody on a Theme from Egun and something else tbc. Christian Heritage at the Round Church are always keen to have me give recitals (I did a history of the piano in 5 lunchtime concerts there in the summer, partly to force myself to practice something!) and the acoustic there is fabulous. Feels quite odd to be slotting in to a liturgical calendar, but we live and learn...

Also on the cards is a second recital with Mike, the expert violinist - Dvorak Sonatina, Brahms Sonata No. 1 and my Fantasy in G minor (a gap year product, shamelessly pseudo-romantic and lots and lots of notes). Trinity College chapel or thereabouts. I must confess to being pretty excited by it all.

Insomniac shogi

For some reason I can't sleep tonight, so I came downstairs to do something useful. Managed several thankyou letters before the power of shogi overtook me. I am experimenting with slightly unusual openings that I know nothing about. It seems to be working OK...

1. P76 P34
2. P75 P44
3. P56 B33
4. P66 S42
5. R78 S43
6. S68 L12
7. S77 R42
8. K48 G(4)52
9. K38 P64
10. S48 S72 (giving me a quick edo castle)
11. P86 S54 (the so-called ‘reclining silver’ formation)
12. S76 P45
13. G(6)58 P35
14. G67 K62 (my castle is quite loose but White must spend time on king safety)
15. S85 S63
16. P74 Px74
17. Sx74 P’73
18. Sx63+ Sx63
19. S’76 K72 (my silver drop was necessary to prevent White dropping one on 87)
20. P85 P46
21. Px46 Rx46
22. S47 R42
23. P’46 K82
24. B77 S54
25. R88 S67 (vacillation…)
26. S75 G(5)62
27. P84 Px84 (it is difficult to see how White can defend against this attack)
28. Sx84 S72
29. P’83 K92
30. G74 S’57 (an attempt at distraction)
31. G75 Sx66=
32. Gx64 P’85 (the bishop cannot be taken on account of the combination P82+… Sx73+ double check)
33. Rx85 G71
34. B86 S57+
35. Gx53 +Sx47
36. Kx47 R22
37. Gx62 Rx62
38. P’64 Bx99+ (I can afford to let the lance and knight go…)
39. S’82 P’45
40. Sx71= Px46
41. K38 P47+
42. Kx47 L’41
43. P’46 G’36 (desperation)
44. Px36 Lx46
45. Kx46 P’45
46. K37 1-0

White has nothing left to chuck at me so mate on 22 follows shortly…

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

scraping the barrel

Herewith the opening paragraph of a short story I was going to write (back in 2001, apparently). Why I thought I was going to write a short story is not clear, given that I have no talent. Two friends at Downing were always writing poems and stories (which were pretty good), so perhaps I was trying to emulate them. Oh dear...


The shoe, or whatever it was, nosed its way into the world of my face. Something hard and hairy was pressed against my left (or was it my right?) cheek, squeezing my mouth like chewing gum between my awkward, unforgiving ranks of teeth.

Can you spot them?

I once made a remark about the hidden books of the Bible. It was a lulu; kept people looking so hard for facts… and for others it was a revelation. Some were in a jam, especially since the names of the books were not capitalised. But the truth finally struck home to numbers of our readers. To others it was a real job. We want it to be a most fascinating few moments for you. Yes, there will be some really easy ones to spot. Others may require expert judges to help them. I will quickly admit it usually takes a minister to find one of them, and there will always be loud lamentations when it is found. A little lady says she brews a cup of tea to help her concentrate better. See how well you can compete. Relax now, for there really are sixteen names of books of the Bible in this paragraph.

(This was also excavated from the old files, in case you were wondering, and I've no idea where it came from.)

Left-handed brigade

In my teenage years I watched films sometimes with one eye on who in them was left-handed (the position of the gun usually gave them away). And, sad as it is, I kept a list of who I spotted, a list that surfaced earlier today. The unverified results of my research can now be published.

Tim Allen, Jerry Doyle, Richard Dreyfuss, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L Jackson, Richard Karn, Roy Kinnear, Ray Liotta, Frank Langella, Rory McGrath, Colin Mochrie, Matthew Modine, Jack Palance, Robert Patrick, Jurgen Prochnow, Robert Redford, Christian Slater, Kristy Swanson, Kenneth Williams, Bruce Willis, Robert Wuhl, Billy Zane.

(plus Bill Clinton and Prince William)

I also speculated about Nicholas Cage, Joe Pesci, Mark Hamil and Angela Lansbury.

Christmas cleaning

Spent a rather odd day today cleaning up the house and the computer. The junk builds up so much faster now that we have more space than we need. Meanwhile, the computer needed some serious filing doing to it and in the process we turned up all sorts of curiosities in files from as far back as 1997. (That was the year in which I announced my disdain at 'the internet' and imperiously told my parents we weren't getting it on the family computer, not that I knew anything about it...)

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Christmas shogi

Thanks to the kindness of a Japanese acquaintance who procured me a CD-ROM from the homeland, I have a decent bit of shogi software on the computer now. No more freeware from the 90s with an interface to match...

I can now beat the machine on 2-kyu. Some of the computer’s moves were a little opaque to me, and its tactical ability meant that I had to take back a coupe of moves in order to win this one, but I feel as though I'm improving.

I think that my less-than standard opening move may have caused it to misplace its king in the centre of the board - but that may just be a strategy I'm not aware of. Reading Tony Hosking's excellent The Art of Shogi and Classic Shogi, I can see there's plenty I'm not aware of!

J. vs Computer
1. R68 P34
2. K48 K52
3. S38 G32
4. K39 S62
5. P76 Bx88+
6. Sx88 G72
7. K28 P84
8. P66 N33
9. P46 P85
10. S77 P74
11. B’56 P35
12. Bx76 S42
13. P96 S73
14. B56 S64
15. B78 S55
16. R48 P24
17. P56 S44
18. G(4)58 P25
19. P16 P14
20. P75 G62
21. G79 R72
22. S76 R82
23. G88 P86
24. Px86 Rx86
25. G87 R84
26. P’85 R82
27. N77 P94
28. B67 G61
29. P74 G72
30. S75 P’73
31. Px73+ Gx73
32. P’74 G83
33. P65 P’73
34. Px73+ Gx73
35. P’74 G72
36. P84 P’73
37. Px73+ Gx73
38. P’74 Gx84
39. Sx84 Rx84
40. G’85 R83
41. P’84 R82
42. R49 P’72
43. R79 P’83
44. Px83+ Rx83
45. P’84 R82
46. R89 S31 (luring me forward?)
47. P95 Px95
48. Lx95 P’94
49. Lx94 P’93
50. Lx93+ Nx93 (he has won a lance, but I have lots of pawns in hand)
51. G94 S’92
52. G76 R81
53. P83+ Sx83
54. Gx83 P’88
55. Rx88 K42 (some nasty bishop forks if I’m not careful…)
56. S’82 R51
57. R89 B’98 (see!)
58. R88 Bx76+
59. Bx76 G’66
60. G67 Gx67
61. Bx67 G’66
62. B94 Gx77
63. R86 N’34 (although I am winning, my left-side attack is very congested)
64. G’47 P26 (...and I need to be very careful about my king’s safety)
65. Gx72 Px27+
66. Sx27 P’85 (looks sneaky, but now the computer has no pawn in hand)
67. R89 G78
68. R87 L’26
69. G62 Lx27+
70. Kx27 R41 (if I had a gold in hand it would be mate on the move…)
71. B61+ Rx61
72. Gx61 S’52 (still not enough pieces in hand to trap my king)
73. G62 B’49
74. B’38 Bx38+
75. Kx38 P15
76. Px15 N26
77. K27 G23
78. Kx26 G24
79. R’21 B’98
80. B’51 K41
81. S73+ Bx87+
82. Gx52 K32 (the gold is immune on account of +S62)
83. Rx24+ R’24
84. +Rx24 Nx24 (no need for me to recapture…)
85. N’24 K22
86. G’32 Sx32
87. Nx32+ Kx32
88. B42+ 1-0

Wedding Sermon (Rev 21:1-7)

With a nod to Peter Leithart, whose writings were a great help as I prepared this sermon, and thanks to Kate, indefatiguable editor! Delivered at Adam and Laura's wedding on December 9th, from a rather frighening medieval pulpit while wearing a suit that had been nibbled by moths in an unfortunate place...

The reading we have just heard is the final page of a story. It comes from the penultimate chapter of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. It’s the end of something called the old order of things.

As well as being the end of that story, it is the beginning of another. Have a look at the passage on your orders of service: the first paragraph tells us about a wedding. As we all know, a wedding is the beginning of something new – lives joined in an amazing partnership, the creation of a new family, with a future. In the case of this passage from the Bible, the future in view is quite astounding.

Look at the end of the first paragraph again – there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. And there is a promise for those who overcome (third paragraph), who will inherit all the new things that the one from the throne talks about.

Something as good as that has got to be worth looking into! Before we take another peek at it, let’s think for a moment about what stories are…

Stories are not just for kids. Stories are not just for the TV or the cinema. Stories are our lives – our lives are stories.

We make sense of every moment we live, every moment NOW, by reference to what has already happened, and what we want to happen and what we know will happen. In other words, you have come from somewhere, you are doing something now, and you hope to be doing something else pretty soon!

Each of the groups we belong to has a story. Our families have a collection of amusing moments from past Christmases, or from what little Johnny did when the neighbours came over. Our family now has the story of how Laura and Adam met: when Kate and I were having a big argument, and the doorbell rang, and Adam, who was staying with us, had to open the door and chat to the unsuspecting caller – who was Laura. And not long after that… well, you know the rest.

Each of the nations we come from has its stories – its official history and its folk tales; its plans, and politicians and academics and ordinary citizens all predicting this for New Zealand in the next few years, or that for the USA, and something else for Canada, or Brazil, or Iran, or Japan.

Some of those stories we have some influence over, and many of them we don’t. But all these overlapping stories are who we are, they are where we are, and they help us to make sense of the world and where we fit in it.

So, naturally, God communicates to us through stories. The Bible contains some laws, and it contains some letters that explain to us about God. But most of the Bible is narrative. There are short narratives and there are long narratives. And the overall narrative is in fact the biggest and most important one there is – it is the story of the universe as told by its Creator.

And just as stories have characters – so does the big story of the Bible. the main character is God, who, as we see in this passage, speaks from a throne – in other words, he’s the King.

The other main character in the Biblical story is the human race. There are plenty of people in the Bible – Joseph and his technicolour dreamcoat, Moses, David and Goliath, Saint Paul, and hundreds of others. And you and me and everyone else also make an appearance.

In our passage from Revelation, we come to the climax of the story: the end of the old order of things, and a wedding. And the two main characters are there.

To summarise the plot so far: God creates a fabulous world and creates people to live in it and look after it. But, people don’t want God to be their King, so they disobey him, and as a result he punishes them by sending them away from his presence, which is ultimately the same as death. Over many years he begins to create and to nurture a nation, Israel, that will fulfil what he originally intended for the human race.

The Bible sometimes uses the picture of a bride for Israel, and the bridegroom is God himself. It’s a rocky relationship, and Israel is unfaithful and fickle. Aren’t we all? God sends various messengers and representatives to warn people, but mostly the people didn’t want to listen.

So finally God comes himself, as a human, in the person of Jesus Christ, whose coming we look forward to in this season of Advent. Jesus brings God to us in a new, exciting way. And he announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand. Most of those around him didn’t want to know, and they felt threatened by his claims – so they killed him. But, by his death he paid the penalty for all the wrong things we have done, and so brings forgiveness and a new relationship with God to anyone who believes in him. And by coming back to life, he demonstrated his victory over death. All the positive, wonderful, eternal things in the passage from Revelation are grounded in that. Jesus’ power over death guarantees that eventually death and mourning and crying and pain will be gone. He is the source of rich, eternal life that flows from him to all that want it – whom this passage calls those who are thirsty. As Jesus himself said elsewhere, I have come that they might have life and life in all its fullness.

Starting with his twelve disciples and the other women, men and children who were around him, he created this kingdom, this new people, this new family we call the church. And Jesus has been nurturing and growing the church across the whole world for two thousand years. The Bible calls the church the bride of Christ. It also calls the church the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. You can see all those names in the passage on the order of service. And at some point Jesus will come back, to perfect his people, and to judge everyone and everything, ready for putting things finally to rights.

And so we come back to today’s reading, to the climax of the story. Let’s briefly consider what the passage says about two things: God, and his plans for his people. Keep one eye on the passage so you can check that I’m not making this up!

First, about God and his plans. It teaches us that God is incredibly generous and incredibly powerful. Despite the mess we have made of the world, he will put things right – a new heaven and a new earth. He will give drink without cost from the water of life.

God tells us about these plans. Four times in the passage we hear that God speaks – which puts an obligation on us to listen.

The speaking also shows that God is personal. More than that, we see that he is tender. As part of the remaking of all things he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And he will be a father to each and every person who trusts him (see the last line of the reading). Best of all he will live with his people and they with him. It’s a closeness expressed not just in the parent-child image, but also in the marriage language. Jesus Christ is the groom of this bride – he is the faithful one, whose love is as strong as death, in the words of our first reading from the Song of Songs. In fact, stronger than death.

Second, this passage teaches us about God’s people.

The people who make up this city are going to be beautifully dressed. Unlike all the smart clothes we’re wearing today, they are beautifully dressed not through their own efforts – but through God’s generosity. This city comes down out of heaven from God. That symbolises that the making and beautifying of this people is not something we can accomplish, but that it is all part of God’s gift. Just as the world around us is.

The people who make up this city are also thirsty. In other words, they know that they need spiritual water, which symbolises life with God, just as much as physical water. We cannot live very long without drinking some of this…
[drink from a glass]
…only a day or two. And we cannot live very long without God – about 80 years is the average, which is not long compared to eternity.

And according to that last paragraph, God’s people are those who overcome. In the book of Revelation this is a phrase that means, keep on trusting in God’s promises even when life is hard, which it often is, even when you are ridiculed – or worse – for that trust.

Laura and Adam already know about this. They know that they need to trust in God for everything. My hope and prayer for them is that as this next part of their stories unfolds that their marriage would be a picture of the marriage between Jesus Christ and the church, between God and his people. So, Laura and Adam, may your marriage display the faithfulness and joy of the bridegroom and bride, and provide a foretaste of what we read today. And may you show the love and generosity of the God we have read about: in demonstrating forgiveness to one another – which you’ll need – in giving water to the thirsty and drawing close to anyone who needs it.

I hope that will be true for everyone here today who is married. And, whether we are married or not the stories of our lives can either be caught up in God’s great story, and reflect his faithfulness and generosity to those who don’t deserve it, or we can try to write our own stories. Which will end in disaster.

God’s big story is playing itself out – and the bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ is calling to each of us to respond to him, to trust him for everything. And then on the day when God makes everything new, and brings the old order of things to an end, if we trust in him, we will be part of that Holy City, that New Jerusalem, whose citizens will live for ever with God and each other in perfect harmony.

Christmas Chess

I think I have taken my eye off the ball in the match I posted on back in November. And the worst of it is that I chickened out of the complications following Glenford's offer of a bishop on move 26 (which is not like me), and then wasted time on move 29. Bf4 was very thoughtless and just enabled Black to close off the kingside; I had to play hxg6 to at least give some play on the h-file - now it's White who is really struggling...

26. dxe5 Bxe5!?
27. f5!? Bxg3+
28. Kxg3 Ne5
29. Bf4!? g5!
30. Be3 h6
31. Rhf1 Ne8
32. Nd4

Monday, 1 January 2007

Christmas film

Munich, Zoolander and Borat. Not particularly distinguished fare, I admit, but surprisingly powerful.

Munich (Christmas Day) was not an enjoyable film. It was very well made, and very moving, but it was not enjoyable. Spielberg steered clear of partisanship in his coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, so we were left only with the hopelessness of the whole situation and the tawdriness of the protagonists. Hopeless without Christ, that is.

Zoolander (Boxing Day) was in some ways the best of the bunch. But why did they need the silly sex scene in the middle to mar what was otherwise a pretty smart movie? More restrained and thus even better than the Dodgeballs and Anchormans of this world.

Like Munich, Borat (28th) was a film that made an impact, but did not cheer the soul, even if it did raise some laughs. However much he exposed the foibles of the 'US and A' and portrayed a crummy fake Central Asian culture that reminded us of the nastiness and silliness of antisemitism, etc, Baren-Cohen slipped back into the muck he mocked.