Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Janie Dee in A Little Night Music

Some cast of Night Music
To a 1-off semi-staged performance of A Little Night Music starring our dear friend Janie as Desiree with a cast including Anne Reid as the Grandmother, Joanna Riding as the Countess, David Birrell as the lawyer, Anna O'Byrne as his young wife, Fra Fee as his son, Jamie Parker as the Count, Laura Pitt-Pulford as the ladies maid and Biana Gurnet as the grand-daughter. The director was Alastair Knights and the Musical Director who put the whole show on was Alex Parker.

It was completely packed with massive queues and indeed the show had to start late to allow time for people to get in. Sadly the programmes ran out. It was beautifully and very movingly acted and sung (despite being semi staged and of course miked) and there was a terrific ensemble feeling. Janie was of course utterly wonderful: I have never been so moved by Send in the Clowns but her whole acting and singing was heartfelt, truthful, seamlessly integrated and deeply moving. The "chemistry" between the Lawyer and the Count was also brilliant, Joanna Riding was  and young Biana Gurnet was a very convincing grand-daughter - but the whole cast just played off each other beautifully.

Popped backstage to say hi and briefly met Anne Reid and Joanna Riding but had to get back since we had Son staying. We must try to see Janie in 84 Charing Cross Road in Salisbury.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Elizabeth - Renaissance Prince

Finished Lisa Hilton's excellent Elizabeth - Renaissance Prince. I know a fair amount about Elizabeth who is one of my heroes/heroines, but there is a great deal here that was completely new to me.

Her central thesis is that we should not see Elizabeth as first and foremost a Queen but as first and foremost a Prince. She shows that reigning women were not at all new - indeed very common at that time: so much so that John Knox had to backtrack rapidly when his Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women of 1558 which was aimed at Catherine de Medici and Marie de Guise in France and Scotland and Mary Tudor in England was then taken as critical of Elizabeth.

She also argues that in the Renaissance the category/rank of (reigning) "Prince" transcended gender and it was the Enlightenment that made gender differences all consuming. An interesting example: in Viking culture female leaders of these pirate bands, of whom there were surprisingly many, were called Vikings despite its nominally male gender.

There are so many details and insights that I would recommend anyone interested in Elizabeth to read it. Two things that were wholly new to me - though of course well known I'm sure to historians, were:
  • Fascinating details of her dealings with Russia (Ivan the Terrible and his successors) and the great profits she and England made from this - with the aid of the first joint stock companies in England.
  • Similarly her highly profitable though problematic trade with the Ottoman Empire. There is a rather delicious extract of a letter to her from Sultana Safiye, addressing Elizabeth as:
the wisest among women and chosen among those which triumph under the standard of Jesus Christ, the most mighty and rich governor and most rare among womankind in the world... I send Your Majesty so honourable and sweet a salutation of peace that all the flocks of Nightingales with their melody cannot attain to the like.

(did she really speak of "those which triumph under the standard of Jesus Christ" or was that a translator? The letter was written in Turkish and translated into Italian - that's certainly what the Italian says and of course I cannot read Turkish!) 
I was also interested to learn that a certain Robert Beale was Walsingham's brother-in-law and transported the warrant for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. He's not an ancestor (he had no sons, only 2 daughters) and I have no idea whether he is a relation.

Not only is this book a very enjoyable and interesting history, it is really well written as one might expect from an accomplished novelist. Do try it!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Launch of On Rock or Sand - the well-ordered society?

Launch Panel (alas my only shot!)
To the launch of On Rock or Sand at Church House which was very interesting and impressive. John Sentamu gave an excellent speech and then four of the contributors spoke on the panel: Justin Welby, Andrew Sentance, Julia Unwin and Ruth Fox.  The key points they made that I noted down:

Archbishop John:
  • Anyone who suggests that the book is an attack on the government or is party political is completely wrong, and missing the point.
  • The financial collapse happened because people borrowed money they didn't have to buy things they didn't need.
  • The consumer society is a mechanism for creating and distributing unhappiness.
  • We should move away from talking about "benefits" to talking about "social insurance".
  • The focus should be on wellbeing not the "Welfare State"
Andrew Sentance: There are plenty of policy suggestions in the report, it's not just handwaving. He instanced three from his section:
  • Focus on sustainable growth.
  • Shared prosperity. In particular the tax system should be redesigned.
  • Responsible business. Not just regulation but through climate of opinion and investor pressure.
Julia Unwin said that "no one has ever got out of poverty except through their own efforts" (!) and the focus should be on supporting them to do so.

Ruth Fox thought there needed to be more thoughtful engagement with politics. She spoke of "less democracy and more accountability" but I don't think she has taken on board Amartya Sen's point that democracy isn't primarily about voting but about public discussion.

  • began by saying that he had been at a meeting with Jean Vanier the founder of L'Arche who said that "living with the weak transforms the strong and helps them be more human."  By actually helping people who are less fortunate (not just handing them money) we are made better people and society is improved.
  • He called for a People Centred Economy not Economy Centred People.
  • He spoke of the dangers of democracy being subverted by a Vetocracy where powerful versted interests can block change that is not in their narrow interest (thinking particularly of powerful donors in the US but the point is much wider).
I haven't read the whole book yet. But there is one clear mistake. In the foreword Archbishop John says we need to focus on 4 principles:
  1. that all human beings are of equal worth in God's sight.
  2. that both children and adults will flourish only in the context of a well-ordered society, and a society is well-ordered only if it offers all its members ways of flourishing.
  3. that flourishing requires both a measure of security in the face of typical human needs, and a measure of openness to individual creativity and initiative.
  4. that work is not merely a means to secure what we need to consume, but a form of communication with other people which dignifies us as individuals and draws us together in community.
Now 1, 3 and 4 are fine. But 2 seems to me to be profoundly mistaken. By God's grace people can flourish in societies that are very far indeed from being well-ordered (whatever that really means) - no-one could claim the 1st Century Palestine was "well-ordered" in an absolute sense. The idea that we should be working towards some kind of ideal society as a primary goal is, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, fundamentally misconceived.  Of course we should other things being equal try to make society better but it will never be ideal, and it is dangerous to assume that it can be.

So on balance an excellent initiative and a very interesting book, which should be the beginning of a process and not the end.

I also had the great pleasure of meeting Betty Boothroyd - a great lady!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia

Back from a long weekend with the middle grandchildren in Barcelona. The highlight was of course a visit to the astonishing Sagrada Familia. This was started in 1882, was consecrated in 2010 and hopefully will be finished by 2028.

It must be second only to Chartres Cathedral as the most impressive piece of architecture in Europe, and unlike Chartres flows from the genius conception of one man.

In addition to the tour of the church we went up the tower and down so we got views of the outside.  There are apparently about 2.5M visitors annually and it really bears witness to the organic love of God to people all over the world. There is also something rather wonderful about a building which is being built by the money raised from people who are coming to see the building!

15M up there is musicians gallery which runs all around the Church, and has room for 1,000 singers. Just imagine a performance of the 40 Part Motet - with 25 singers to a part!

There is a wonderful line in Psalm 29
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
    and strips the forest bare;
    and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
 And here, below, is the view of the outside with GLORIA proclaimed so effectively!

PS: I must not also forget that we went on board the replica of the Nao Vittoria which was the first ship to sail around the world - the only survivor of Magellan's expedition. The replica also sailed around the world although using a much easier route via the Panama and Suez canals!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

"All is forgiven" - amazing and wonderful

Christ falling on the way to Calvary
by Raphael (Courtesy Wikipedia)
It is amazing and wonderful that Charlie Hebdo can run a cover saying "All is forgiven" showing Mohammed holding a placard saying "Je Suis Charlie"*.

Just in case there can be any doubt Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo magazine who worked on the new issue, said: “We feel that we have to forgive what happened. I think those who have been killed, if they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to ask them why have they done this … We feel at the Charlie Hebdo team that we need to forgive.... The two terrorists who killed our colleagues, we cannot feel any hate … The mobilisation that happened in France after this horrible crime must open the door to forgiveness. Everyone must think about this forgiveness."

They may (or may not) be professed atheists and they are certainly not above drawing highly offensive cartoons about Jesus and Mary. But they display in this action the highest Christian values. Jesus on the cross says "Father forgive" and commands us to forgive our enemies and bless them that persecute you.

The Quran also commends forgiveness:
  • Hold to forgiveness, command what is right, and turn away from the ignorant. (7: 199)
  • "… They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love Allah to forgive you? Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful." (24:22)
  • The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah… (42:40)
  • …. But if you pardon and exonerate and forgive, Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (64: 14)
  • "But if someone is steadfast and forgives, that is the most resolute course to follow." ( 42:43)
  • Believers "control their rage and pardon other people." (3:134)
It is therefore very disappointing that Omer el-Hamdoon, president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said: “My reaction to the cartoon is disgust."

The texts on which Muslims base their "justification" for the death penalty for blasphemy come from accounts of Mohammed's sayings and actions collected long after his death, and which represent him as justifying a man murdering is wife, and another man murdering a poetess in her bed. Do Muslims really believe that their prophet condoned murderous violence against defenceless women? Are they not at least willing to consider that these stories, which if true show their prophet in an appalling light and directly contradict some of the sayings in the Quaran, might be distortions?

We must continue to pray that God's light, truth, love and forgiveness will shine in the hearts of all men and women, even those who are currently filled with thoughts of murder.

* I am not showing an image because it is copyright. You can click on the link if you want to see it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Evolution beyond neo-Darwinism: another nail in the coffin of the selfish gene nonsense

Fig 1 of Noble 2015 shows the 3 basic mistakes of
Neo-Darwinism and (same colours) the empirical findings
that refute them. We need to move to the new systhesis
Fig 2 sketches a more realistic set of relationships.
Denis Noble has just sent me his review article "Evolution beyond neo-Darwinism: a new conceptual framework" in the Journal of Experimental Biology which "examines the conceptual framework of neo-Darwinism, including the concepts of ‘gene’, ‘selfish’, ‘code’, ‘program’, ‘blueprint’, ‘book of life’, ‘replicator’ and ‘vehicle’." and points out that  "This ...confuses conceptual and empirical matters." or to put it in less polite language it is misleading simplistic nonsense. He gives an alternative conceptual framework "that avoids these problems, and which is more favourable to an integrated systems view of evolution."

In Fig 2 he sketches a more realistic view of what happens in biology - though even here (as Denis would fully agree) this greatly over-simplifies since the Pheonotypes and Environment interact through the ecosystem as indeed does the DNA.

The simplistic nonsense that Dawkins was promulgating back in the 1970s really needs to be laid to rest. It is very badly out of date!  It is not a bad first approximation but not at all the way the world actually works.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The march of solidarity in Paris

 Very inspiring to see images from Paris of world leaders joining the massive march of solidarity. And of course it's great that a Muslim employee of the Jewish supermarket helped hide so many people.

Interesting also that the leader of Hezbollah said that Islamist terrorists had done more harm to Islam than any cartoon or book. Interestingly Shiites celebrate the birthday of Mohammed on Jan 8th - Sunnis do it on the 3rd.

Hopefully the worldwide revulsion from these barbarous attacks will cause Muslim states to reconsider their blasphemy laws. Publishing such cartoons would result in a death sentence on many "Islamic" countries so it's a little difficult for them to be full-throated in their condemnation of such barbarity in Paris.  This not just a matter of justice (vital though that is) but of economic survival. Contra Piketty, wealth in the 21st Century is about ideas and not about physical property or inheritance. Apple, Google and Alibaba are valued at more than all the quoted property companies in the world put together, and this trend is likely to accelerate over the next decades. No country where people can be put to death for blasphemy or apostasy can hope to attract and retain the innovators who make such enterprises possible.
As I understand it there is nothing in the Quran about blasphemy, and the famous saying that there is no compulsion in matters of religion would seem to be a major statement against criminalising blasphemy. But in the "Hadith" there are reported examples of Mohammed calling for people's death for having "really hurt Allah and his apostle" (in this one though the alleged offences in this case include conspiracy to whip up armed attacks rather than blasphemy as such) including a poetess called ʻAṣmāʼ bint Marwān who was murdered in her sleep allegedly with Mohamed's approval - though the authenticity of this hadith appears questionable.

God cannot possibly need "avenging" by armed men - God is omnipotent! If people feel the need to use force to compel belief they are really saying that they don't truly believe in what they are supposedly "defending".

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Betrothed and Pope Francis

Cardinal Federico Borromeo
Just finished reading The Betrothed which I read having devoured Austen Ivereigh's excellent The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. Apparently The Betrothed is Francis' favourite novel and one can understand why.

There are two especially saintly priests, Fra Cristofero a Capuchin and Cardinal Federico Borromeo who was a real historical figure and apart from coming from a very wealthy family and having a cousin who was a saint resembles Francis in many ways. Although it's not stated in the book, Federico Borromeo was also a Jesuit.

The book frames the difficulties of a peasant couple (Renzo and Lucia) who are betrothed in getting married in a narrative of the very turbulent times of Milan around 1630 where there was war, famine, riots and the plague. A minor villain is thwarted by Fra Cristofero but then applies to the super-villain called The Unnamed (a  brilliant touch, which may have inspired JK Rowling).
The unnamed with Cardinal B

However The Unnamed, having kidnapped the heroine, is moved by her pleas to go to see Cardinal B and is converted. It looks as if all will be well but soldiers ravage the area and bring the Plague. There are harrowing scenes as this is described, and a denouement takes place in the Lazaretto ie the hospital outside Milan where all the sick have been made to congregate.

Pope Francis apparently believes that the Church needs to see itself as a Lazaretto ministering to the gravely ill, rather than some kind of club or censorious anti-modern movement.

I cannot resist concluding with a delightfully written extract about a busybody called Donna Prassede who takes Luicia under her wing.
Luckily for  [Lucia], she was not the only one to whom Donna Prassede had to do good... she also had five daughters, none of whom were at home, though they gave her more worry than if they had been. Three were nuns, and two married; hence Donna Prassede naturally found herself with three convents and two households to superintend - a vast and complicated undertaking, and all the more arduous as two husbands, backed by fathers, mothers and brothers, and three abbesses, flanked by other dignitaries and by numerous nuns, were not anxious to accept her superintendence" (Ch 27)
Buon per lei, ch' ella non era la sola a chi donna Prassede avesse a far del bene...aveva anche cinque figlie; nessuna in casa, ma che le davano assai piu de pensare, che se vi fossero state. Ther erano monache, due maritate; di che donna Prassede si trovava naturalmente aver tre monasteri e due case a cui soprintendere: impressa vasta e complicata; e tanto piu ardua, che due mariti, spalleggiati da padri, de madri, da fratelli, due badesse, dinacheggiate de altre dignita e da molte monache, non volevano acettare la sua soprintendenza.
An extreme version of Aunt Agatha!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Well done Miranda - an amazing achievement

Finally Married!
Belated blogging on the wonderful 2-part finale of Miranda. I know this is a show that divides opinion but I was delighted to read India Knight in the Sunday Times saying:
"Miranda Hart is a genius"
One reason she gives is that although in the end Miranda does marry Gary she does so after she had outgrown and disassembled all the wrong reasons (to please her mother, to confirm that she was desirable, to define herself in relation to her man) and then marries for the right reasons.   Fair point. But apart from being the most talented physical comic of her generation, and creating some immortal visual gags, she also has an empathy with her audience that is extraordinary.

"Dearest chums"
I've been to a shooting of Miranda and even then (when she only had 2-3M viewers) the extent to which the audience was rooting for her is extraordinary. When she and Gary finally agree to marry, and when the finally do, the sense of joy is tremendous and real.

the most amazing friends
And there is a genius touch at the end of the last episode which brings tears to my eyes and I think to many others, and which I don't think anyone else could have got away with, and almost no-one else would have thought of. Just at the end she says to Gary: "I've just got to say goodbye to someone" and then walks over and speaks to us with heartfelt emotion:

"Dearest chums. I don't know when, of if, we'll see each other again, but, just thank you for being the most amazing friends. Love you."

It got 7.3M viewers when it was aired and probably will get millions more on i-Player. If you missed it you can watch it here for the next 27 days - though much of the humour and emotional value will be missed if you are not already a Miranda fan.

Well done Miranda - an amazing achievement.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone!

Last night we had dinner with a dear friend and neighbour, then went to a neighbour's drinks party, and at 11:30 came to our parish church St Andrews for a lovely watchnight service. The priest had skilfully adapted the liturgy and it was beautifully and quietly inspiring.

For example "This is the day that the Lord has made" became "This is the year that the Lord will make"
The Collect was:
Eternal Lord God,
We give you thanks for bringing us through the changes of time
to the beginning of another year.
Forgive us the wrong we have done in the year that is past,
and help us to spend the rest of our days
to your honour and glory.
and he adapted an alternative CofE liturgy:
In a world of change and hope,
of fear and adventure;
faithful God
may your name be our security.
In the common life of our society,
in prosperity and need;
faithful God
may your name be our compassion.
As your Church proclaims your goodness in
words and action;
faithful God
may your name be our proclamation.
Among our friends
and in our homes;
faithful God
may your name be our joy.
In our times of joy,
in our days of sorrow;
faithful God
may your name be our strength.
In our strengths and triumphs,
in our weakness and at our death;
faithful God
may your name be our future.
In your saints in glory
and on the day of Christ's coming;
faithful God
may your name be glorified.
(this reminds me of Elder Daughter's friend Glen Skrivener's wonderful song:
My God is so small
So weak and so helpless
There's nothing my God will not do - for you!)
At the end, Auld Lang Syne, party popper and celebration. A great start to the year!