Connected but not joined up?


I have every reason to be very grateful indeed for the twenty-first century’s enhanced connectivity: with two children on the other side of the world, regular contact is through WhatsApp and Skype calls and although I have some regrets that there will not be bundles of letters for our descendants to discover and cherish, I am realistic enough to know that with the frenetic pace of life today, regular letter writing is, sadly, a thing of the past and it is necessary to be content with occasional postcards as the only evidence of hand-written communication.

But it is not just in the maintaining of all-important family and other relationships that our interconnectedness brings benefits. It is now difficult to recall just how much of the day-to-day stuff of life used to happen at such a leisurely pace: bills received by post and paid by writing out cheques and returning them by post; official enquiries sent off through the post and replies still awaited some weeks later – not knowing when or whether the original requests had made it to their destinations; exchanges between colleagues, even within the same building, that were sent on paper and carried by clerical messengers whose task was largely to run hither and thither in lieu of face-to-face meetings. How much more straightforward and quicker all these things, and many more, have become with the use of the internet, email, mobile phones and instant messaging. I have reconnected via facebook with old friends from childhood and from university days and have marvelled at the discovery of ‘friends of friends’ who are themselves linked via social media – people whom I would never have expected to be connected turn out to be so, either directly or only at one remove from each other. I have also managed to trace missing distant relatives using online searches and have amassed a huge database of my children’s ancestry – begun by trawling through the records of local studies libraries but greatly enhanced by internet-based genealogical tools, with new data now added month by month and most of it without leaving home. So I would be devastated to lose this new connectivity, but has it come at a price and do we assume that because we are now all part of a worldwide web of linkages, what happens around us is similarly joined up?

The more I hear about national and global circumstances, the more convinced I am that many problems result from a lack of joined-up thinking and processes, and I find it frustrating that those in positions of power and who have the potential to bring about change do not seem to recognise that failures of communication – in an age of unprecedented mass communication – are often significant contributors to large problems. If, as has been claimed, we cannot have meaningful relationships with more than a maximum of 100 to 150 other individuals, how can it be either efficient or cost-effective to construct ever larger national and global organisations in which the right hand loses touch with what the left hand is doing? We may be better connected than ever but are we actually communicating much less effectively at many levels – don’t we need to concentrate more on something else derived from the same root word, and to nurture community, whether that is by creating smaller and effective networks within large organisations, by devolving decision-making to the places where those decisions are to be implemented or by setting up local initiatives to tackle what have been identified as national problems? With increased connectivity there has arisen a parallel phenomenon: increased isolation and loneliness. But when we look at the local picture rather than trying to start with the global or national, there are opportunities for effective action for everyone, beginning right where we all are. Just because a group has as its primary function the sharing of a common interest in history, singing, art or food doesn’t mean that it cannot also function effectively as a way of including the isolated, feeding the need for human contact and lifting the depression of the lonely – perhaps it just needs some more joined-up thinking?



The Joy of Books

The Joy of Books

Encouraged by a friend who is a much speedier and more voracious reader than I am, but who nevertheless seems able to retain the essence of the many books she reads each year, I decided towards the end of 2016 to record all of my ‘leisure’ reading by posting a short review of each completed book on my facebook timeline. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this and have kept it going after completing a first year of books. Not only did it encourage me to read more widely – and to make a greater effort to get through the titles lying in wait in my ‘yet to be read’ basket, it also reminded me just how much I love the feel, the appearance and the variety of physical books. It was therefore a real delight – although not without expense and hard work – that during the latter part of my first year of book-reviewing, we had some adjustable library-style shelving installed in both our living rooms, effectively converting one of them into a library-cum-sitting room and allowing all our many volumes to be much better organised by subject and genre. So, as I am now into a new year of reading, and of writing about reading, here is a quick look back at what 2017 contained, both in books and in sorting books: firstly, the twenty-six books I read:

2017 collage

… and then the major project and the many, many hundreds of books that I moved, and in some cases moved again – and again.


Family Room 2 [June 2017]  Family Room 1 [June 2017]


2017.10.27  2017.10.27[4]

2017.10.29  2017.10.29[4]

The lovely dividers that the carpenters made for us!


And after:

2017.11.16[3] 2017.11.16

What a privilege and a joy to be able to be surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge, colour, imagination, beauty, poetry, humour and wisdom – in the shape of books.

With my head in the sink!

I have been a Christian for over 40 years but have never found it easy to talk to those outside the church about my faith or about what I believe – and I suspect I am not alone in that. However, the other day I ended up having an unexpected and quite astonishing conversation with a relative stranger.

I was at the hairdresser’s and the young man who has only been there for a few months was washing my hair. Stereotypically chatty for a salon employee, he asked if I had a busy weekend coming up and I mentioned that I would be in London on Saturday for a conference. ‘Oh, what’s that about?’ he asked, so I took a deep breath and told him it was about encouraging the churches to be more involved in creation care. What followed almost took my breath away. This lad was clearly not a churchgoer but the one thing he knew about Christians was ‘Love your neighbour’ and he was absolutely adamant that if a church was not fully on board with looking after the environment then it was failing and was hypocritical. I slightly hesitantly tried to suggest that Christians in such congregations were not necessarily ‘lying’ (his assessment) but that they had failed to make the necessary connections between the teachings of the Christian faith and the threats posed by climate change. He may just have followed this up in order to make conversation, but it did seem that his interest was aroused by the subject and he went on to quiz me about which church I attended, how I had become a Christian and which of the local churches he should attend if he wanted to give one a try. It was a God-given opportunity, and I was able to respond out of my own experience and without any hesitation – not something that I had expected to be doing as part of a cut and blow dry!

This encounter lasted only a matter of minutes, but was very striking none the less and I was left with the overwhelming impression that if he were in any way typical of the younger generation then many of them are really concerned about the environment – about their future and the problems they will inherit from us – and if they do not see this concern reflected by the church then the church will not attract them. The obvious flip side to that is that if they can see churches engaging with these issues, taking relevant action and speaking out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable – and future generations – who are going to be so badly affected if we cannot begin to stem the tide of climate change, then the church gains credibility and is seen to be demonstrating the love it talks about. Then, we may make new disciples.

What were you thinking?

I have the silent ‘No!’ of a total stranger ringing in my head this morning and I am surprised to find that it is dominating my thoughts after this year’s Good Friday Walk of Witness.

I was unprepared for what happened yesterday when, to my surprise, I was invited to again help carry the heavy cross through the streets of Tring. There had been no specific request for ladies to help this year but Revd Jane was there, ready at the back and looking out for other volunteers, so I joined in. It may be simply the passage of time but it didn’t seem quite so hard this year, perhaps because there were more, and taller, men in front taking even more of the weight. So, once our strides were in step and we were into the long straight section of our journey, I occasionally looked up from the ground and observed some of the reaction to this annual local event. Most people out and about on Good Friday, seeing that the traffic has been halted and catching the sound of the approaching drum with its sombre single beat, repeated like a heavy footfall, stop and watch in respectful silence as we pass by – a crowd of witnesses following after a large heavy cross. But this time there was a bus, halted in its journey by the yellow-clad marshals. There were only a few passengers but one caught my eye as he sat there, stony-faced and shaking his head repeatedly from side to side, almost as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

What were you thinking? Perhaps you were simply annoyed at the delay to your journey, but it seemed to be more than that – the ‘No’ much more than a dismissive denial. What were you thinking? Were you surprised to see women helping to carry the cross? Or were you disapproving of my failing to be dressed in the appropriately funereal dark clothing of the others who together took the part of that first, perhaps less-willing ‘volunteer’,  Simon of Cyrene, who was compelled by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross towards Calvary? Did you even perhaps think – seeing the concentration on our faces, misconstrued as anguish – that this was some sort of church discipline being enacted along our high street: a group of ‘sinners’ being publicly humiliated in some way as a punishment? That shaking head has made me look at what we do each year through the eyes of a stranger, and to wonder what it might look like to someone less familiar with the story of Easter week. What were you thinking? Were you perhaps reflecting, as we had been doing just an hour earlier in church, on the thoughts and feelings of Jesus as he hung on the cross in agony on that first Good Friday? Were you thinking about yourself and what was done for you on that day so long ago – or were you simply annoyed at the delay to your bus? What were you thinking – and will your ‘No’ become a joyful, hopeful, celebratory ‘Yes!’ when tomorrow dawns?

On the loss of parents

(Originally written some years ago but reworked for our local churches magazine as part of a series on life’s challenges.)

The loss of a family member is always very sad but it is a part of the natural course of events that when we get older we are faced with the death of our parents. Nevertheless, the circumstances can make a very great difference for all concerned.

The 13 November 2003 was a dry, late-autumn day and my father spent the morning raking leaves in the garden, came indoors and ate lunch with his wife, then sat down in their living room for coffee – and died. He was four and a half months short of his eightieth birthday. A post-mortem revealed that hugely elevated blood pressure had been undiagnosed and untreated. My mother was absolutely devastated but she said a number of times that it was exactly the sort of death my father would have wanted – no illness, no doctors, no hospitals; he had not suffered. Amid our shock and grief at this sudden and unexpected loss, we all recognised the truth of this and took some comfort from it, but over the next few years my mother suffered a great deal.

Following my father’s funeral, my mother seemed to cope fairly well at first. Friends did all they could and my sister and I visited regularly. But it very soon became apparent that my parents had done so much together in the almost 30 years since his early retirement from the RAF that my mother scarcely knew how to function without him. It seemed that for many years she had hardly ever left the house alone; to do anything or visit the shops entailed a car journey and she never went on her own. She had not driven a car in the UK for years, only sharing the driving on their thrice-yearly trips to their holiday home in France. However, she could not stay in her home in an isolated Wiltshire hamlet without driving, so in early 2004 she bought a smaller car, had some refresher lessons and gradually ventured out. But during that year it was increasingly obvious that she was becoming withdrawn and not eating properly. She began to say that she didn’t want to go on living and eventually my sister and I took her, despite great reluctance on her part, to see her doctor. Anti-depressants were prescribed and, after much persuasion, she also agreed to try bereavement counselling. However, before the second session could be booked, she was taken into hospital. She had lost so much weight that she had begun to collapse and it was no longer possible for her to stay at home.

After some weeks in hospital and numerous tests to eliminate any physical cause for the weight loss, she was transferred to the elderly psychiatric assessment unit of the local hospital. We all found this a distressing situation but were desperate for her health to improve and were reassured by the environment and the staff. She had her own room in  bright and spotless surroundings, with excellent care, but many of the other patients were suffering from dementia and some were noisy, which made her anxious; she had been used to privacy and her own space and she just wanted to go home. She refused to eat properly, displaying many of the signs of anorexia nervosa, and despite frequent visits from close friends and family she seemed determined to starve herself to death while nevertheless denying that this was her intention. Nothing that anyone could say or do made any difference. She wanted to die and said so, but she also said that to kill herself would be ‘wicked’. To make no effort to live was apparently a different matter.

The medical staff tried everything to alleviate the severe depression: different anti-depressants were tried and when all this failed electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) was recommended. This was frightening for my mother and, despite sedation, sometimes painful – and after a number of courses it was clear that it wasn’t helping. So, after eight months in the unit the doctors reluctantly admitted defeat and she moved into an elderly care home nearby. After a couple of months there – when it became clear that the longed-for improvement just wasn’t going to happen – my parents’ house was put on the market and my mother moved to a smaller and more personal care home in Wendover, nearer to me and her only grandchildren. But all she wanted was to be with my father again; as far as she was concerned she had lost the whole reason for her existence, the most stable feature of her life. During 2006 her physical health declined and in early autumn she was taken into hospital with a chest infection, given antibiotics and after a few days was back in the home. But weeks later there was another infection and by now the medical staff from the local practice knew her circumstances – and her wishes – better. The GP who came out told us that she had developed pneumonia. It could be treated, but he knew that wasn’t what she wanted. If nothing radical was done she could be kept comfortable but wouldn’t live more than a few days. What did we think? That was very hard indeed, and my sister and I talked about it at length. The last two years had been hard on us all but awful for our mother. There seemed to be no hope that she would ever lift out of the depths of grief she was in and so we agreed that she should stay where she was. We stayed with her and in the early hours of 29 October 2006 she died in her sleep, aged 78. In the final three years of her life she had suffered a great deal, affected by the massive changes in her life circumstances and, even more, by the loss of her frame of reference.

Neither of my parents had been churchgoers – their attendance limited largely to weddings and funerals – and they had found my ‘conversion’ as a student rather alienating. As far as my father was concerned, he lived in a Christian country, was nominally C of E and that made him a Christian. He seemed to find talk of God embarrassing, certainly never spoke about death or what he believed about a life beyond death, and apparently regarded religion as a crutch for other people. My mother was slightly more open to the idea of God, and both my sister and I had been encouraged to say ‘bedtime prayers’ as young children, but for both of my parents Christianity seemed to be rooted in the Bible stories of their schooldays – something that perhaps they had left behind in the years of the Second World War. Nevertheless, they lived by a moral code drawn from the teaching of the Bible, they respected the faith of sincere believers and they regarded the Church as part of the fabric of British society. The Christian faith impacted on my parents only through the lives of other people and I have no way of knowing whether, had my mother been a committed Christian, things might have been different for her final years. The fact that her grief became a depressive illness suggests not.

My parents’ deaths inevitably raised questions for me about their relationship with God, but I had never really believed that if you hadn’t been ‘born again’, or had a definable conversion experience, you were destined for an eternal hell; my understanding of a loving, just and righteous God makes me more of a ‘universalist’ than that. On the night of my father’s death my mother had asked me if she would see him again and I had told her that I believed she would. It was what she needed desperately to hear at that point and I also believed it.

A few days after her death I had to visit the doctors’ surgery in Wendover for some paperwork and, hearing me mention my mother’s name, a nurse from the practice approached me. She explained that she had got to know my mother in her last few months of life, only ever seeing her as a frail, elderly woman who wanted to die. She was a Christian and she went on to tell me how she had woken her husband in the early hours of 29 October to tell him that she thought Ricky (my mother) might have died. She had dreamed of her as a younger woman, upright, lively and, above all, smiling. She wasn’t suffering any more. This encounter was one of those rare occasions when I really felt that I had heard God speak to me personally – and I cannot read or write about it, even now, without tears. It was all the reassurance that I needed to move forward on my own life’s journey, in the knowledge that somehow, in some way that I will never understand in this life, and do not need to, my parents are now at peace and are held safely in the hands of God.Ricky & Don

These are a few of my favourite things …

A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute to a local church magazine feature on ‘favourites’ – specifically a favourite hymn, book and place. I left it rather late and ended up responding with a hasty list that was very much a case of ‘the first thing that popped into my head’. Although I did wonder, soon afterwards, whether my choices might have been different if I had taken more time to think about it, there is probably something to be said for the instinctive response: perhaps these choices did represent my deepest-seated feelings.

I started with my favourite hymn and while it was tempting to go for one of today’s popular choruses I couldn’t shake the attachment I feel towards ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’, largely because I relate to the reference to letting our ‘ordered lives’ speak about the beauty of God’s peace. However, I later discovered that the original poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker writer, had 11 other verses before the section that went on to become the hymn, and that they are very unlike anything that we would be used to singing in church. The long poem, The Brewing of Soma, is about Vedic priests brewing and drinking a ritual potion, the soma, in an attempt to experience divinity and the writer goes on to contrast this with the true method of finding contact with the divine, through sober lives, seeking silence and practising selflessness – the Quaker way. Apparently the hymn was the second most popular in the UK according to a 2005 BBC Songs of Praise poll.

When it came to selecting a favourite book, it was extremely difficult. I am not the sort of reader who has firm favourites, returned to year after year and read so often that passages can be quoted; in fact, I don’t think there is any book – apart from the ones favoured by my children as bedtime stories when they were very young – that I have ever read more than once. In the end, and in part because I knew that others had already chosen titles by one of my favourite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, I went for a much less well-known volume that was given to me as a gift a couple of years ago. Common People by Alison Light is a book I would like to have written myself and when I am absorbed in family history research and find out something fascinating about an ancestor I do occasionally fantasise about having a go myself one day and producing my own family’s version of Common People.


Finally, in choosing a favourite place, I could very easily have opted for one of the places I have been fortunate enough to visit on holidays or other trips over the years. Most recently, I had been to Slovenia and spent a day at Lake Bled, reckoned by many to be one of the most picturesque spots in Europe. It was indeed beautiful but in the end I conceded that my real favourite place is home. I have lived in Tring for over 34 years and have no desire to move. However, when it comes to visiting I love going back to Oxford. It is a beautiful city and after a somewhat nomadic childhood I spent four years there as a student and it was the first place that I look back on and think of as ‘home’, even though I had just left my family home behind. I always look forward to going back to Oxford and realise that there are many parts of it that I have yet to discover. Like all cities it is continually changing and evolving but the oldest parts have a great feeling of continuity and permanence. Oxford is where I met my husband and many of the friends who remain an important part of my life many decades later; it is also where I became a Christian almost 44 years ago, and where that ongoing life journey began.


Having reflected on these three ‘favourites’, I have decided to expand the remit somewhat. So, what are my other favourite things? My favourite foods are good bread, cheese, banana and chocolate, home-grown young peas straight from the pod – and there is probably no sort of cake that I don’t enjoy! When it comes to drink, there is nothing to beat a good cup of tea.

My pastimes of choice are researching my family’s history, reading, watching television crime or historical drama and knitting. The latter two I usually prefer to combine, largely because it does make watching television seem slightly less time-wasting; however, this can become untenable if the best thing to watch is a Scandinavian series with English subtitles. It is very easy to miss a crucial piece of dialogue when it coincides with having to read a knitting pattern or carry out a tricky manoeuvre with a cable needle!

Among other favourite things are family Christmases, with all the family gathered around the table to enjoy a special meal after opening gifts together; being in front of a crackling fire when the wind is whistling and the rain is lashing at the windows; walking barefoot on a warm beach; receiving unexpected postcards or letters from friends or family members; catching up with friends over tea and cake somewhere nice; and holding babies until they fall asleep.


After all those lovely things, perhaps it is only fair to balance the picture a bit with some pet hates. Waste – in all its various forms – probably comes top of my list, with litter and gratuitous use of foul language close behind. In that everlasting conundrum, I am also hypocritically intolerant of intolerance! I am a word pedant who is saddened by misplaced apostrophes or semi-colons used where there should be colons (sad, I know). I really dislike raw onion popping up in restaurant food, crisp green salads that have been rendered soggy and greasy by overdressing and – in a hangover from a life-scarring childhood experience – custard with lumps is a real no-no. I have also decided that rice cakes cannot be redeemed, no matter what you put on top of them – and I have tried, I really have. I haven’t ever tried eating a polystyrene tile but I can imagine that it would be just like a rice cake; they will never make it near my favourites list.

Why I am not quite a convert to veganism

vegetables-1403062_960_720I am totally convinced by the argument that we should all eat less meat – indeed, this was a big part of my own rationale for becoming a vegetarian in my teenage years. The whole idea that we grow fields full of edible foodstuffs in order to feed animals, often under inhumane conditions, in order to produce meat, when so many millions are starving for want of the staple crops that the animals are eating, made no sense to me and in large part prompted my two-year study of Human Nutrition back in the late 1970s. Fast forward four decades – and add to this justice issue the greenhouse gas emissions of intensive agricultural practices and the health risks posed by a high-meat diet – and the whole idea of meat-based meals daily (or even weekly) is now under much greater scrutiny.

However, it is increasingly common for people to go beyond vegetarianism and adopt vegan diets – two of my four children have done so and have found that their health and wellbeing is improved as a result. George Monbiot (‘I’ve converted to veganism to reduce my impact on the living world’, Guardian, 9 August 2016)[1] has similarly benefited from this dietary change. But those who only read the headline and subhead to his opinion piece (‘Nothing hits the planet as hard as rearing animals. Caring for it means cutting out meat, dairy and eggs’) may be left feeling that his reasons were all to do with climate change. While I would be the last person to argue against anything likely to help in the global fight against rising average temperatures caused by emissions of greenhouse gases, it would be wrong to think that this is his only argument. Indeed, reading his article I am struck by the fact that the real issue for him was essentially the complicity of the Government’s Environment Agency in the pollution of waterways by farming and it is indeed an appalling reflection on those charged with protecting the environment that this could have been allowed to continue despite Monbiot’s best journalistic efforts to expose what was happening.

There is also much more to what he writes on veganism and he admits, for example, that he will not be ‘religious’ about being a vegan, adapting – nevertheless in good Pauline fashion – to the sensibilities of friends or hosts, eating the occasional egg – or a fish that he has caught – and also indulging in other meat on special occasions. Not only that, he admits to consuming roadkill and also animals that have been killed for purposes other than meat consumption, such as pigeons, deer, rabbits and squirrels. In this I absolutely applaud him because he is adjusting his diet to minimise the wasting of edible food. But does this make him less of a vegan in the eyes of those who are stricter adherents? It shouldn’t, at least according to Wikipedia, which defines a vegan as someone who follows either the diet (abstaining from eating animal products) or the philosophy (rejecting the commodity status of animals). On the latter definition I would certainly also count myself a vegan, even though I am no longer even a vegetarian, eating meat relatively infrequently but trying to ensure that it is free-range and/or organic.

Distinguishing further between dietary vegans, as above, ethical vegans (those who oppose the use of animal products for any purpose and who would therefore neither eat animal products nor wear leather shoes etc) and environmental vegans (who avoid animal products on the basis that industrial farming is environmentally damaging and unsustainable), seems to me to be a bit of a complication although it does reflect the underlying motivations of people who have adopted a vegan diet. Clearly, for those whose primary reason for being dietary vegans is that they experience relief from symptoms associated with a mixed omnivorous diet, occasionally eating roadkill or other meat is not an option but environmental vegans could well follow his example.

Monbiot’s article has stirred up some strong feelings, judging by the number of online comments that have had to be removed as ‘not abiding by community standards’ but I am left hoping that there is more to come from him on this issue, in particular in relation to two questions that were not touched on in his article. Firstly, is there good scientific research being done to look at why so many people are finding that modern mixed diets are giving rise to dietary intolerances (gluten, milk etc)? Is this because we are eating more processed rather than primary foodstuffs? Is it a result of farming practices and modifications to the strains of cereals or the feeding regimes of animals? And, if so, how can farmers and growers be given incentives to reverse these trends and grow wholesome, good food that we can all enjoy without risk to health?

Secondly, what are the environmental impacts of following a vegan diet in our modern society, bearing in mind that many people do not have access to local, fresh, organic or free-range products and shop largely from supermarket chains, who seem to be cashing in on this trend? Some very unscientific observations on this latter question suggest that they could actually be significant where the total environmental impact of a particular food is not fully taken into consideration – when milk (especially where delivered to the doorstep in a glass recyclable bottle) is replaced, for example, by almond milk produced in drought-ridden California, processed, packaged into plasticised cartons and shipped across the Atlantic to enter a UK supermarket? Or when imported rice, avocados and sweet potatoes become key foods and coconut or olive oil replaces butter.

A vegan diet can undoubtedly be tasty and satisfying, and it is an excellent development – and only very recent – that those who have adopted such a diet for whatever reason now have access to a wide variety of foods and also to eating out in the growing number of venues offering menu choices appropriate for them. But I think I would still argue that in its ‘purest’ form – rather than the pragmatic Monbiot version! – it is not necessarily the only way of eating that is consistent with a concern for the planet and for animal welfare. Whether vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous – and whatever the underlying motivation for our dietary choices – we should all be eating with the environment very much in mind. Without a healthy and sustainable planet we risk losing the luxury of making such choices.