Looking forward, looking back
The words sound familiar. Looking forward, looking back was an enormous hit for the Australian country singer Slim Dusty a couple of decades ago. People queue up on the internet to say that “this was Pop’s favourite record, and we played it at his funeral”. [I’m not sure that Canon John Wilkinson would approve.] We sang it occasionally at the mixed ability choir Lost and Found, but that group like many things has been a casualty of the COVID lock-down. The song sounds the right note at the end of one year and the start of another. But I am well aware that I can find it easier to look back rather than forwards. Because there is more of it to look back on ?
I have been reading the annual collection of Christmas letters. [Clergy, and retired clergy in particular, are addicted to sending them. There’s nothing wrong with that. I find it exasperating to open a Christmas card that says ‘Best wishes, Sue’ and nothing else. Especially since I know at least five people called Sue.] The consensus among our Christmas correspondents is that 2020 was a bad year. COViD 19 has killed a huge number of people, as governments which might have done better were very slow to respond. As well as the 75,000 or so COVID-related deaths in the UK, the figure is announced on our tv every evening, too many people have lost their jobs, children’s education has been badly affected, and there is an alarming rise in mental health issues.
Politically it has been a gloomy year. It is increasingly obvious that Blustering Boris presides over a cabinet who are simply not up to the job. Hapless Hancock is clearly out of his depth; he looks like a church treasurer who has been caught stealing from the discretionary fund. Not-so-Priti Patel is the worst kind of former immigrant turned shrill patriot. With the basic mind-set ‘I’m all right, Jack’. “It affronts and offends me that someone like her can be a senior politician... “, a former Conservative minister is quoted as saying in a New Statesman profile, “She’s jolly, but fundamentally dim, mediocre, insecure and out of her depth in any of the roles she occupies.”
Dominic Raab “hadn’t quite understood” [his words] that a lot of trade and traffic went through Dover-Calais. Chris Grayling signed cross-channel transport contracts with a company that hadn’t any boats. Gavin Williamson looks and sounds like a middle-ranking salesman of kitchen equipment who has been accused of sexually harassing his junior colleagues. Robert Jenrick invariably manages to make Michael Gove seem straightforward and honest. Which is quite an achievement ! The saddest story of Christmas was the interview with the small boy who was saving up his pocket money to give to the Tories so that Boris would put him in the House of Lords.
Domestically we have had a very fortunate and healthy year. I took two funerals early in the year, and attended two more, but we do not know anyone who has died of COVID, and only a very small number who have contracted the virus. We had to cancel a return trip to St Marc’s, Grenoble, planned for Easter, and a family holiday in Normandy, planned for the summer half-term. But we are fortunate to have a comfortable house and an attractive garden in what is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I am working slowly through an accumulation of unread books. And I walk round Arthur’s Seat most days; a walk that has been made more exciting by the arrival of a young otter who has taken up residence in Dunsapie Loch.
But I would like to walk further afield,preferably along the John Muir Way in East Lothian. Or possibly on the Fife Coastal Path. We also managed a week away earlier in the year; going north to Sutherland and the Flow Country, and home via Gairloch. We miss seeing children and grand-children, but speak to them every week or so on Zoom. Which we had not heard of a year ago. And which now enables us to speak to my brothers regularly, and to join in Sunday worship in a variety of services around Europe.
Looking ahead is more speculative. It is a preaching cliché to say that, if you want to amuse God, tell him your plans for the coming year. There were some hopeful signs late in the year just ended. This month should see the removal from the White House of the most narcissistic, the most ignorant, and almost certainly the most corrupt President of modern times. Closer to home a thin BREXIT deal on Christmas Eve must be better than no deal. It seems ironic that Boris, who wouldn’t know a haddock from a halibut, should make such a fuss about fish. Particularly when the BREXIT agreement appears to offer little reassurance for the enormously more valuable financial services sector. There will be months ahead for people to pore over the small print of the agreement. It will be a kick in the teeth for Scottish exporters of seed potatoes. Personally I am sorry to see the end of the Erasmus scheme. The ending of a scheme that enabled university students to spend a term or more in a foreign country, exposed to another language and culture, seems to me to be a cause for regret. And/but I want to believe that now that the BREXIT clock has stopped ticking we may be able to engage in a friendlier and more constructive dialogue with our European neighbours. Too often in recent years English politicians abroad have come across as boorish and ignorant. And wrapped in the Daily Mail. [Think Nigel Farage.] No more welcome than English football supporters, with whom they have much in common.
There is a general consensus that the church has done well during the lock-down. Here on the south side of Edinburgh the local church has worked hard at maintaining some sense of community. And at countering social isolation. Church services on line are a mixed bunch. People miss singing. And not all clergy have understood that sermons over ten minutes are too long. Personally I think that church leaders might have done more to sound a public note of Christian hope. In recent weeks there was much media talk of lock-down policies ‘cancelling Christmas’. But the notion of Christmas that came across was more cultural than religious; the great mid-winter festival of excess and of consumption. I would like to have heard church leaders say that the original Nativity was a fragile story about a young mother and her baby, about life under harsh Roman occupation, and about light in the surrounding darkness. More about blood and mud than M&S vouchers and mince pies. I think I look forward to services being back in church. Simon Jenkins has asked what will happen to the Church of England’s architectural heritage if services stay on line.
On a personal note I look forward to being able to travel a bit. We did locum jobs in Grenoble and in Ankara at the end of 2019, but that was already a year ago. I hope there might be further opportunities for such work when the pandemic recedes. [If any hard-pressed archdeacons are reading this, please take note]. And I would very much like to be able to stay in a hotel by the sea. Something we haven’t done very often. The last time was at Jem and Anna’s wedding at Angelholm in southern Sweden in 2008. When we stayed in the reception hotel overlooking the beach. [And before that at Tréboul, outside Douarnenez. And, many years ago at Cefalu.]
As a gesture of good faith [think of Jeremiah buying Hanamet’s field at Anathoth], I have booked four days in Scarborough at the end of February. It won’t be like Paris, which was the alternative destination. And whether we can go or not depends on when we might get vaccinated. But if we do go the room apparently overlooks the North Bay.
And I’d like to go somewhere [anywhere] we haven’t been before. Two years ago I got a yen to visit Bukhara and Samarkand, which have fascinated me since I first saw the black and white photos in Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches. But I think the moment has passed. Last year I had a great urge to visit Erzurum [shades of Greenmantle]. But I think it is because we were in Ankara at the time, from where it is a mere 27 hour train journey. But from Edinburgh it seems like a very long way. More realistically I think we might look at doing a short tour of the cities of the Baltic, taking in Tallinn and Riga and Helsinki. Once again it depends on our getting vaccinated.
Back at home I still have a few books to read. For some time I’ve been meaning to read a book on the Anarchists by James Joll. And possibly his book on The Second International. And I will get round to reading Max Hastings’s Vietnam. His books get longer. But do they get any better ? And for a long time I’ve been meaning to read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. I bought it when there was thought of our going to Croatia. But the paperback that I have is dauntingly thick.
In a lighter vein I bought four slim books by Gillian Galbraith. She is Scottish, a former lawyer and journalist, the author of a series of books about an Edinburgh [lady] detective called Alice Rice. Hailed as the new Ian Rankin. [I think the Rebus books are greatly over-rated. But I dare not tell my son-in-law, who is an enthusiast and a Fifer.] There are very few new books that I am aware of that I want to read. Apart from Giles Tremlett’s new book The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, which came out in October. But I think I’ll wait for the paperback edition. I already have seven books on the International Brigades on my shelves, and really must look at more of them first. I guess I’ll have to get my International Brigades tee-shirt out and put it on if I want to read them.
This is a terribly self-centred piece at the start of a new year. Come, Lord Jesus was a frequent prayer of the past twelve months. I hope we shall continue to pray regularly in the coming months; first of all giving thanks for God’s many blessings. And continuing to pray for an uncertain world; for people and countries struggling with the pandemic; for doctors and nurses and the National Health Service; for wisdom and vision for church leaders and for politicians. That the decisions they take and the things they say may make things better and not worse. And to pray too for the many countries, Syria and South Sudan come to mind, whose suffering has been largely ignored in the British media as they focus on problems closer to home.