Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Devil Rides In

A long time ago in a land far far away, I lived as one who was deeply religious. On Sunday mornings I went to the C of E Church. In the afternoon I went to a Gospel meeting. In the evening I went to the Free Church service. After that, I went to the prayer meeting. That was only the Sunday! During the week, I went to a different Bible study or prayer meeting just about every night apart from Saturdays; there were no meetings on Saturdays. I would read the Bible on the beach and in bed. I read it on the loo - you can’t beat a good holy shit! I read it from cover to cover and committed much of it to memory. I have very interesting conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses!

In addition to all this, I listened to preaching tapes featuring people like Willie Mullen who was an Irish fire and brimstone preacher who hated Roman Catholicism because it was of the Devil. He wanted to dance on the grave of the Roman Catholic Church. I particularly liked listening to David Pawson who preached in a much more reasoned and controlled sort of way. As far as I am aware, he is still around and I’ve seen him on television over the past year or so. I actually got to meet him about three years ago when I saw him preach at the local Community Church. It felt weird to actually shake his hand, as he was to me a bit of an enigmatic figure who I kind of worshipped from afar a long time ago. But not any more. I don’t believe a word of it now; it was all a fantasy - I just didn’t realise it at the time, and I hadn’t thought it through in a logical, rational, reasoned, objective way. This was during my time in Cyprus. It was against this background and state of mind that I had a friend called Sid who came to stay with my wife and I for a few days one summer.

To say Sid was a convinced and enthusiastic Born-Again Christian is an understatement. He believed it all - hook, line and sinker! He was in the army, in the Royal Green Jackets. I believe they were called “Green Jackets” because they wore green jackets, as against red, blue or even yellow! Anyway, Sid was keen on the “Gifts of the Spirit”. These are “supernatural” gifts bestowed upon believers by the Holy Spirit which include such items as prophesy, knowledge, healing etc. St Paul writes about them in his letters to the Corinthians. If you are a Biblical illiterate, these letters are found in the New Testament. The “gift” Sid displayed in abundance at prayer meetings and Bible Studies was “Speaking in Tongues” which is speaking in a divinely bestowed language unknown and not understood to the speaker. It was insisted by some that one should not speak in tongues at a meeting unless there was another person present who had the gift of translation to inform everyone present of what had been said. This is interesting in itself, because I went to many meetings where various “gifted” people spoke in tongues, but no one ever asked beforehand if anyone present had the gift of translation! Even so, invariably there always seemed to be someone amongst us so gifted (not me, it was all Double Dutch as far as I was concerned) who would offer an English version of what had been said. I suspect that in actual fact, no one actually did know what had been said, and that when a translation was offered it was done so on the basis of gut feeling rather than knowledge. Very often, someone would speak in “tongues” and only say one or two “words”, often repeated over and over again. The trouble was, that when the translation came, it was more often than not longer and more detailed than the original “tongues” would have suggested it should be. Also, the message tended to be so general, that anyone could take it in pretty much whichever way they wanted. Never once did any translation come up with the winner of the next day’s 4.30 race at York or Cheltenham - or any other race or sporting event for that matter. Oh well, they do say God moves in mysterious ways! Anyway, Sid was of this ilk.

Unfortunately, being a Christian didn’t seem to make Sid very joyful. He always seemed to be sensing and seeing evil everywhere around him . Wherever we went, he was appalled by the “worldliness” of everyone around; everything was dark and bound for Hell and destruction. The Devil lurked on every corner, waiting to jump out and ensnare you. The spiritual world is a very dangerous place! Sid even saw evil in our personal possessions, and offered to rid me and my wife of most of our record collection. Obviously, Chris Barbour and Acker Bilk were satanically inspired and should be consigned to the fires of Hell before they dragged us down with them. Mind you, I’m not sure what The Seekers had done to deserve such a fate! Was “Morning Town Ride” really so evil? You see, evil is insidious - it gets everywhere, and is everywhere. Be careful that the next Mars Bar you eat doesn’t cause you to stumble - you don’t want to get thrown into Hell for the sin of gluttony! I’m not sure if “obesity” is a sin, though we are entreated in the Bible that the body is “the temple of the Holy Spirit”, so I suppose anything which you do to pollute or harm it must be sinful. All joy and purpose was to be found in the Bible. Forget hobbies, holidays, ambition etc - these are all worldly and sinful and the Devil takes delight in all who fall to their enchantments!

One night it happened. What happened???? - I hear you asking. Well IT happened, the big IT!!!! The Devil came to our bungalow. It happened like this:
During the time that Sid was staying with us, we were all (the three of us) sat round having breakfast one morning. We preferred breakfast in the morning, it seemed more appropriate than in the evening or the afternoon! However, on this occasion, there was a bit of a strange atmosphere surrounding Sid. He wasn’t smiling much. He wasn’t saying much either. He looked serious. Very serious.
“This looks serious” I thought to myself. I could sense it was serious.
Presently, Sid spoke in a serious tone.
“Did you hear anything last night?”
“No Sid, why - what happened?” I replied in words to that effect.
“The Devil was in the room with me, and I was doing battle with him.” He then proceeded to tell us how the Devil had been accusing him of all sorts of evil transgressions, trying to make him doubt his faith - amongst other no doubt infernal accusations. I can only assume the Devil was standing at the end of his bed. Maybe Sid had eaten one too many Mars Bars and had a case to answer!
“But I didn’t let him get to me”, continued Sid, “I hit him back with Scripture.”
Now, I don’t think this means that he was throwing Bibles at him, but rather quoting Bible verses at him. He went on to relate to us how the Devil could not withstand this onslaught from the Word of God, and had to flee, no doubt taking all his legions of demons with him!

So there we were, my wife and I peacefully asleep in our love nest, completely unaware that the forces of Satan and God were lined up and ranged against each other in our spare room! The forces of Heaven and Hell had honed in on our dwelling. It’s a wonder flashes of lightning weren’t crashing around the house with giant bats flapping around the garden! Maybe, this was what happened, but we were not meant to witness any of it. We had been kept asleep by divine intervention!

Anyway, there is a serious point here. Sid was a member of the British armed forces; a soldier, trained to kill people. But, he lived in this religious fantasy world which affected his judgement on everything. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to suggest that he was dangerous in any physical sort of way - but he could have been. Having people of like-minded beliefs in such pivotal places does little to help one’s confidence. Given that he and millions - yes millions like him believe everything in the Bible, literally and at face value, this can only spell trouble for our society and the world. People who see demons and devils everywhere, and think they have a direct line to God are dangerous. They are not in touch with reality and never stop to think in a reasoned or rational fashion. People like this are more rife than you might realise, and we just want to hope that one of them doesn’t get into government or come to lead our armed forces. It wouldn’t have taken much for Sid to have been tipped over the edge. His irrational zeal controlled his mind and his judgement. Common sense gave way to fantastical dogma and blind faith. We cannot afford to have such people in positions of responsibility where they affect the lives of others. Religion is dangerous - it has passed its sell-by date. Consider what the outcome might be if our Prime Minister or the President of the United States was a Bible believing Christian, longed for the Second Coming, and nursed the apocalyptic belief that this would only happen at the onset of World War Three. Would you really want that person’s finger on the nuclear trigger?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Walking the West Highland Way - Episode 2: A fateful day.

I had a really good night's sleep at the Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha. This is more than can be said for my son who, sharing the room with me, had to endure my snoring. Being a bit of an early bird, and as we decided we wouldn't be taking breakfast until about 9.30, I got up at around 8.00 and went for a walk looking for some good things to photograph. This had the benefit of allowing my son an extra hour of un-snore interrupted sleep.

I photographed chickens. I also photographed the view across the Loch - but mainly chickens. There were lots of chickens scratching and clucking around the waterfront, and as I have never had such a good opportunity to add chickens to my photo library, I dived in with abandon. That is - dived in to taking photographs - not the Loch - anyway the camera would have got wet! I managed to get some real close eye-ball to eye-ball type shots. It occurred to me that when you look close up at a chicken's head, it really is a sight of supreme ugliness. Mind you, they probably feel the same about us. The last time I got this close to a chicken was when I was a child and my Dad kept chickens, as many people did in the 1950's - people were more self-reliant then. I had a love-hate relationship with my Dad's chickens. I used to pull their heads though the wire mesh. Their relationship with me was one of hate. One day I opened up the hatch to their coop and forgot to close it again. The chickens got out, and all the neighbours were co-opted into hunting them down along the road and in their gardens. We had one chicken called "Baldie" because the others used to attack it and peck the feathers off the poor thing's head. Even so, despite the baldness, it still tasted just as good when we ate it!

We set out from the Inn at around 10.20. On the face of it, the walk should have been fairly easy because according to the map we were simply walking north beside the loch until we got to Inversnaid. What we hadn't bargained for were all the very narrow woodland paths, going steeply up and down, some of it right on the edge of steep drops straight into the Loch or rocks or whatever horrors lay below. Although I was feeling good - I had no blisters - my companions were suffering, mainly with blisters. I guess with me being a runner, my feet are that bit tougher and I wore old well fitting foot attire which fitted my feet like gloves. Even so, at the end of each day, one of the chief pleasures was being able to relax and take off my footwear and let the air get to my feet. An irony of this section of the walk was that the "Way" itself was very close to the smooth tarmacked main road which would have been much faster and easier for us to walk on. However, we were determined not to cheat, so we stuck with the "Way" path come what may.

One of the really good things about the West Highland Way is that it is so well way-signed that it is quite possible to walk the entire length of it without referring to a map, although common sense suggests this is not recommended. After walking about five miles, we came to a touristy parking and refreshment area where we took a rest. We got a bit confused as to where the trail continued and asked a local who, pointing us in the direction, commented that you have to work really hard to lose your bearings on the West Highland Way. Obviously, we were working really hard.

Presently, we made our way into the darkest depths of the Rowardennan Forest. I had a feeling that some evil lay ahead, but I could not be sure what it was. It was like some unspoken fear that grips the back of the mind. Things had been going too well for me. I wasn't suffering enough. Suddenly, we came upon a way-post with an evil death-skull on top of it complete with the horns of Satan. This had to be the sign. I knew from this point on, something awful was bound to befall me. I was cursed. It wasn't long before the evil revealed itself……..

We came upon a wayside Inn and took the opportunity to relax and refresh ourselves. We sat outside in the sunshine. As my feet were starting to feel like they were about to fall off it seemed a good idea to remove my boots and socks and let the air bathe my feet. This was a very bad move. As my feet relaxed in the sunshine, the curse manifested itself. I didn't spot it, but a horsefly landed on my left ankle and bit me. I was completely unaware of this, as well as the pain and suffering which I would experience over the rest of the walk as a result. Shortly after we set out up the road, I began to feel a sharp pain at the bottom of my left shin, just above the joint of my foot. The pain got worse. The pain got a lot worse. When we finished that day's walking and I inspected my foot, my whole ankle was swollen up something awful. As well as the pain of walking on it, the swollen area irritated like hell, felt very sore, and hot. This was to remain the case for the rest of the walk, and it took the best part of two weeks and a course of antibiotics before my ankle was anything like normal again.

Eventually, after what seemed an eternity of walking beside the loch which hardly seemed to change its scenic views at all giving rise to a stilted sense of numbing madness, fatigue and exhaustion, we came upon the Inversnaid Hotel. At first we mistook this for the bunkhouse where we were booked into for the night. We quickly realised this was not the case - it was far too grand, and we had about another mile to walk. My brother who was suffering from some pretty horrendous blisters, asked one of a group of residents who were sat outside if there was a chemist around the vicinity where he could get something to treat them. The arrogant old git he spoke to seemed to harbour a contempt for walkers such as ourselves, and appeared to take pleasure in telling him that there were no chemists around and he should have come prepared for such eventualities anyway. As we walked on up the hill, I was comforted by the belief that the old git and his companions would probably all be dead before me! Looking at the Inversnaid Hotel, I got the impression that they didn't welcome walkers anyway. There was a separate entrance for walkers, around the back. No doubt, the hotel still charged the same exorbitant fees despite treating walkers as second class residents!

The hill up to the bunkhouse seemed steep, long and interminable. The only good thing was that it was on good quality road, so there was no uncomfortable rocky track underfoot. Eventually we came to the bunkhouse. It turned out to be a converted church. It was difficult to see where the worshippers would have come from in it's former life, as apart from the hotel and the church itself, there was virtually nothing else around. At least the building was now serving a useful purpose of genuine benefit to people! We were welcomed by an exrtremely attractive long haired blonde Australian girl from Adelaide who was running things, and looked after us for the evening. After we had settled into our rooms, we went into the communal area which was very spacious and comfortable, serving food, hot drinks, soft drinks and alcoholic drinks. I partook of most of this! My son, being a bit of a computer geek, got playing on the computer, and before long was giving our Australian hostess a lesson in the finer, nerdier, aspects of computing. She seemed really interested and continued to bring us food and drink as needed. This whole bunkhouse experience, was like arriving in walker-heaven. I slept well that night - again.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Happy Birthday to me

The other day, I celebrated my birthday for the umpteenth time. My wife gave me some nice presents and also took me out for a meal in the evening. I was so stuffed afterwards I could barely walk home. I didn't bother with breakfast the next morning as it seemed ridiculous to go eating after all the stuff I'd consumed the night before. As I'd also had about three quarters of a bottle of wine (white), I woke up convinced a rat had crawled into my mouth in the night and died! Thankfully, I had the perfect antidote which is plenty of large mugs of of hot sweet tea - lovely!

I suppose when you reach another year mile-stone on life's arduous journey its probably a good moment to look back over the past year, take stock, see what you have achieved (if anything) and try and reinforce or regain (if you've lost it) a sense of direction for the coming year. So - what have I achieved over the past year??? Not a lot really - it would be easier to list what I haven't achieved! Even so, I think I did pretty well to start this blog and actually keep it going for as long as I have. It's become quite a significant part of my life over the past few months, and I enjoy writing it as well as reading other people's blogs. I think I've got a bit wiser at work as every day is pretty much a learning experience. I've taken a lot of photographs over the past year and added several hundred to my photo library. I've managed to lose just over half a stone off my weight and am determined not to put it back on again. I've been to Rhodes - somewhere I'd never been before and I've been able to donate more to charity - although I'm very pickie about who I give money to! I've also walked the West Highland Way.

Of course, being a year older also means you have that much less to live - not a very pleasant thought, but true nonetheless. I fight against the aging process by watching my diet and keeping myself fit. I also don't smoke, and apart from the odd exception like the other night, drink very little. Of course, I know that time and entropy will have its way eventually and I will have no choice but to succumb to the inevitable. Given this perspective, it makes it all the more important to live your life to the full, as none of us know how many birthdays we will have. Every one could, and one day will, be your last! Such a cheerful soul aren't I?? So what would I like to achieve in the coming years? Well, thinking boldly, I think I would like to go into space. When Richard Branson finally gets Spaceship Two off the runway, I would like to think that I might find the money for a flight. It would be nice to be able to do it without selling the house, or selling my wife into slavery, there's always the premium bonds - but then an awful lot of things would be nice! Another thing I would like to do - and this is a lot more affordable - is a bungee jump. I used to leap out of aeroplanes, and I still crave the occasional adrenaline rush, and this fits the bill very nicely. Also, I would like to travel as much of the world as possible. I love travelling, and it is the perfect activity for one such as myself who takes photographs and (now) writes about his exploits. Of course, travelling a lot is not really terribly politically correct because of global warming. I will now digress for a moment. Sir Patrick Moore, the astronomer, a hero of mine, believes that global warming is not caused by us at all - but by the sun, and only the sun! Apparently, there is global warming occurring on Mars, but there's nobody there creating a "carbon footprint"! I suppose the sun must go through phases and cycles and vary its heat output over time, so maybe he has a point.

One aspect of this last birthday which gave me a warm feeling were the wonderful sentiments I received from my family members. I got a card from my eldest son which said "Happy birthday you old bastard" and my brother emailed me a birthday greeting which said "Happy birthday git". Well, that's it for another year, I'll get back to just growing older.....

Sunday, August 05, 2007

For the Love of Mother

I took my mother for a ride today. I took my mother who carried me in her womb, brought me into the world, cared for me, and looked after me until I was allegedly able to look after myself.

I took my mother for a ride today in her wheelchair. I took my mother who loved and cared so much that she suddenly appeared to me one day on King's Cross Station just in time to hand to me the pair of RAF shoes I had forgotten to pack in my bag before finishing a spell of home leave and returning to camp when I was an airman.

I took my mother for a ride today in her wheelchair in the sunshine who took me regularly to the Co-op on Wood Green High Street to kit me out with new school kit at the beginning of each new school year, and then took me for refreshment afterwards in Lyon's Restaurant which is stuck in my psyche as being staffed mainly by fat, black women.

I took my mother for a ride today in her wheelchair in the sunshine in the park who bought me a comic to read every weekday to look forward to when I came home from school. On Monday she bought me the Topper. On Tuesday she bought me the Beezer. On Wednesday she bought me the Dandy. On Thursday she bought me the Beano. On Friday she bought me the Victor in which I read about Matt Braddock VC and Alf Tupper who was the Tough of the track (or was it the Tuff)? On Saturdays I bought myself the Eagle. Shame about the Eagle. If it was on sale today, I would still buy it.

I took my mother for a ride today in her wheelchair in the sunshine in the park so she could enjoy the sights and sounds of ducks on the pond, the soft warm breeze in her face, the children playing, the young men fishing, the people lying on the sun drenched grass and others conversing happily as they walked in the sunshine.

My mother could not walk in the sunshine. Her legs are far too swollen and painful. Her lungs are unable to oxygenate her body sufficiently to walk a few steps without getting more out of breath than I do after I have completed a six mile run. If she so much as taps her delicate skin against any hard object she bruises like I might bruise if a boxer had punched me hard and ungloved. Her body is in a state of rapid decline and I can only watch, while trying to do small kindnesses to ease her pain and bring some happiness and comfort into the very late Autumn of her life.

I think back over the years to the time when I was a small child. That was well over fifty years ago and the memories are still fresh, like only yesterday. On Sundays she would slave in the kitchen preparing Sunday Lunch - always a full roast, while I would go for a long walk with my father, often to Brookman's Park, and always with Buster the dog. During the week, she would always make sure I was up in time and had a proper breakfast before school. She never had a career. She had a series of smaller jobs which meant she was always home for me when I arrived home. There was no chance I would ever be a latch-key child.

Now the years have flown and the lie of the land has changed beyond recognition. My Dad died in 1999, and since then my brother and I have taken it in turns to visit our mother. In the years since 1999, time has cruelly killed off all her remaining friends except one. Despite her painful infirmities she continues to care about her family as if we were still small children. Her brain is good and sharp. She says what she thinks, and because she has nothing to lose she can laugh at the ironies and injustice's which plague her. She has a keen sense of humour.

We all change. A work colleague remarked to me a few weeks ago that if you grow old, then it is a privilege as many are snuffed out in their youth, let alone their prime. We all think we are immortal. I know I still think and feel as a young man - and then I look in the mirror! Nothing stays the same, and everything gets taken away - eventually. I try to look after what I have got. I fight the ravages of aging by frequent exercise and attention to diet. I see in my mother the root of my own flesh and blood. I revere her spirit and kindly nature. I continue, like my brother, to visit her as long as I have the privilege to experience her living presence. Then, I will weep.....................

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Your Witness

A few days ago as I was going about my morning chores, feeding the dog, feeding the cat, re-roofing the house, writing my latest blockbuster novel, advising J K Rowling on her next book (as you do), my flow was interrupted by the door chimes.

"Who could be knockething at my door" thought I - mistakenly - they were ringing the bell not knocking. Actually, nobody ever knocks at my door; they always ring the bell. Whenever this happens a feeling of trepidation and creeping dread comes over me as very often I open the door to find some itinerant painter and decorator telling me how crap the outside of my house looks and how I should take out a new mortgage to allow him to mess it up even more for me. Or else its some home improvements salesman who "just happens to be in your area" and wants to book an appointment to take up a whole evening trying to sell me a load of wobbly windows I don't want, need and can't afford at a price which is "only available tonight". Yeah right! Actually, I used to be a double-glazing salesman going from door to door. I stuck it four days before returning all the samples and forms etc to the office having sold precisely nothing. It was either that, or die a slow death from slitting my wrists!

I furtively opened the door. A large grinning white man was stood there accompanied by a not so large, but also grinning black woman. They both continued to grin. I stood looking blankly waiting for something to happen. The man held up in front of me a copy of "Awake" magazine, continuing to grin as he did so. The woman grinned in unison. The grinning man asked me if the magazine meant anything to me.

"Yes", I said, "It's a Jehovah's Witness publication".

"That's right" he said and continued to grin at me.

I smiled.

"What about it?" I said.

"What do you think?" he said grinning.

I continued to smile and said, "Well you are talking to an arch-atheist, and seeing as there is no god, you are wasting your time"!

I continued to smile. He continued to grin, but not as much. The woman had a flash moment of consternation, but encouraged by the man's propensity to grin come what may, resumed the grinning posture.

"Well", said the grinning man, "I'll leave you alone then", and started to turn to walk away. I was gob smacked by his tough response to my challenge. As he continued on his way with the grinning black woman in tow, he beckoned back to me saying - with a grin - "Its good to see you can still smile".

"Yes", I said, "and I'll be smiling for a long time to come". Continuing to smile, I closed the door.

Later that morning, I drove down the street with my wife on our way to the garden centre. There on the pavement by the side of the road was a large huddle of Jehovah's Witnesses. I recognised the people who had come to my door. There were several similarly sized black women, and a couple of white men. I might have imagined it, but they all appeared to be grinning!

Just to finish, many years ago, a neighbour of mine had a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses come to her door. "Blood transfusions", she shouted, and then slammed the door.