The malice of time and the flowers of the field…

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently with a dear friend, Malcolm, who is dying of cancer. In fact, he has already lasted a lot longer than many predicted, despite not having eaten anything for several weeks. He has been an inspiration to me and others, and so have his family. He came home from the hospice a few weeks ago or so, and has been hanging in there. Most striking has been his resilient faith in the face of his inescapable mortality (about which we talk often). Which has inevitably got me reflecting on the subject further. (more…)

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Caught in the crossfire: the Pain of Exile and Friendship in Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land

I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land(more…)

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Brain-blizzards: walking the path of William Styron’s DARKNESS VISIBLE

I am SO grateful to Frankie who suggested I read William Styron‘s piercing and affecting ‘memoir of madness’, Darkness Visible. It was back in July that I ordered it, but only this last Saturday when I read it. It is brief – only 80 pages or so – but gripping. I read it one sitting. It felt like a compulsion – but I know that I will return to it, with greater patience and scrutiny. It was only published in 1990, but is now a classic of its kind. Deservedly. (more…)

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The Humanising Power and Infectious Exuberance of Music

I would imagine that writing a novel that conveys the power of music is as difficult as writing a song about the spectacular beauty of an African sunrise, or painting the throbbing anguish of raw grief. But when one medium succeeds in conveying the reality of another, unexpectedly different experience, one’s admiration for (not to mention understanding of) both is profoundly deepened. So here are a few books which have helped me to marvel afresh at the wonderful, humanising effect of music. They underline the truth that music is one of the greatest gifts of common grace.

In their different ways, they resonate with that wonderful moment in Shawshank Redemption when the prison is stopped in its tracks by the ineffable beauty of Mozart played over the tannoy, not least because of Red’s (Morgan Freeman’s character) delightful description of it. (more…)

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Context is king: the perils of dislocated sentences

Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto – as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family. (more…)

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Living Underground in a Secret State – Jan Karski, Nazi Occupation & The Holocaust

The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. (more…)

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Memento Mori: Matthew Parris, The House of Commons and the 1994 Death of John Smith

John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation lastweek, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. (more…)

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A Grieving Mother in Russia’s Patriotic War, in Grossman’s Life and Fate

If you listen to any BBC radio, it was hard to miss the big splash made a few months back by the Radio 4 serialisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic twentieth century masterpiece Life And Fate. So I endeavoured (rashly) to read it before listening to the programmes (which were issued as podcasts at the time). So I’ve started … and to be frank, it has taken a bit of work to get into – I wasn’t 100% sure I’d make it through the 850+ pages. Set around the time of the bloody battle for Stalingrad (Aug 1942-Feb 1943), (more…)

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Orwell on The Unspeakable Wrongness of Taking a Life.

I get restless if I don’t have something to read on the bus. So I grabbed the closest thing on my desk as I ran out yesterday – which had been a recently thumbed anthology of George Orwell’s Essays. (I’d been looking at it because of the seminal piece Why I Write, recently recommended to me by the Real Grasshopper). I found myself, somewhat incongruously, sitting upstairs in the front row motoring down Park Lane, and reading a short account of an experience Orwell had in the British Imperial Police in Burma – starkly entitled ‘A Hanging‘. (more…)

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The intrusion of musical grace and Steven Galloway’s “The Cellist of Sarajevo”

I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. (more…)

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