Bedside reading snapshot

Every now and again I have to do a cull as the piles of books by my bed topple over and I can’t fit a cup of tea there. (This is partly the reason why I have a couple of bookshelf units in my bedroom as well, as overflow).

 

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DECOLONISING THE ENGLISH FACULTY: AN OPEN LETTER

Enjoyed this excellent open letter: certainly the English Tripos ought to have moved on more from when I studied back in the last century. Sadly I didn’t even take the postcolonial paper, with too many other options in Part Two, and only read a handful of words by Said.

Fly.

SIGN THE OPEN LETTER HERE

The following letter is the result of a meeting that took place amongst students about the need for the faculty to decolonize its reading lists and incorporate postcolonial thought alongside its existing curriculum:

Dear Peter De Bolla,

For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others. Whilst some have argued that this approach has its merits and there have been welcome attempts to address the absence of women writers, there is more that can be done. What we can no longer ignore, however, is the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism. The history of the canon is a history that has wilfully ignored, misrepresented and sidelined authors from the global south. Sadly, the current syllabus is a result of this history; it is…

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Paradise Lost 2: Written in the Heart

Loved this post on Milton; it seems he was not in such a different situation to today. While he himself has complete confidence in his faith, there are many questions around him. When I first read Paradise Lost it made me see the biblical story in a different way and this blogger who I have been following recently is a thought-provoking guide.

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garden at dawn.JPG Front Garden early morning 27 August

Last Sunday I started my online reading of Paradise Lost in honor of Milton’s Cottage celebratory reading aloud  of the whole poem – which they undertook in order to celebrate 350 years since the poem was first published.

Last week in Paradise Lost 1 I set out  my way of reading this poem, and the some of the reasons why  I  read it. I had  started to read the first sentence, thinking about Milton the writer, setting out to do this great thing, knowing it was or should be great, and consciously setting himself across two human cultural traditions, the Classical and Biblical :

OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful…

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My ten best things in all the world No. 6

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Did you know that 25,000 people die every day from hunger and poverty?  Jesus in the gospels said: ‘The poor you will always have with you….”  This is not an excuse not to help them.  I completely identify with the Millennium Development Goals to end poverty – and even when we have done it, there will still be people who are relatively poor compared to us.  We can still help others.  We will always be able to do this.  The writer of ‘The Sceptic’s Guide to Global Poverty’ in his introduction says:

It takes not just money to defeat poverty, it takes moral will and personal sacrifice

According to UNICEF, more than 10 million children die every year from preventable causes, which is more than 30,000 children every day (the link gives you the book I have taken statistics from).    These causes include pneumonia, malaria and AIDS as well as malnutrition, lack of access to clean water, diarrhea and lack of sanitation. Diarrhea caused by dirty water and bad sanitation is the second biggest child killer worldwide.  3,000 children died of diarrhea in 2014 just in Ghana  alone. By the time a child living in extreme poverty is 5, they will have had on average 10 acute attacks of diarrhea.  In particular, diarrhea in the first six months of a child’s life irreparably stunts growth. Personally I have been lucky enough so far to only experience one acute attack, on a mission trip to Ecuador, as an adult – and that was appalling enough with a toilet on hand and proper sanitation.

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Not having access to a decent toilet is bad enough for an able-bodied person, but what about the elderly and disabled – how do they live their life in dignity? Not only that, but girls and women can even be vulnerable to attack. This is not any way for people to live, and yet millions are forced to do this every day, particularly in India and Africa.

If that weren’t enough, there are some 246 million children worldwide who are engaged in child labour, and some 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. Nearly 3 million people a year die from AIDS, and every 30 seconds, a child in Africa dies of malaria. One of the major goals of charity organisations is to reduce the number of deaths of under 5 year-olds worldwide. 1.4 billion people in the world lack access to clean water. This is not one of my best things in all the world.

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Clean water is something I believe every human has a right to have access to. And clean water, and the charity WaterAid (as an example) is my sixth best thing. I first became engaged properly in the importance of water ecologically and for health when I visited the Eden Project, down in Cornwall.  There is a fairly large and very quickly redundant literature on water issues globally, for example Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry reviews three recent books here.

Globally, we have a finite supply of clean water. As humans we do various things to the planet that endanger those supplies, and of course have knock-on effects for others. In developing countries where families are relying on the food that they can grow or sell, water becomes a ticket to life and a better future. There are many countries in Africa where women and children have to walk miles each day simply to get a bucket of clean water – and many use dirty or polluted water because that is their only option. Also, access to decent toilets is a problem in many countries, and this is a major reason why teenage girls will not attend school during their periods. Not only this, but often children spend so much time collecting water (two long trips per day) that they do not get time to attend school, and so miss out on an education which could transform their lives.

WaterAid focuses on changing these dreadful statistics, and is an excellent charity that answers all the typical objections about charities spending money in the wrong places, and not actually helping the people they’re supposed to help. They are one of the most switched-on global charities today working in 36 countries who have made a significant impact since it was founded in 1981.

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The standard measure of poverty is that you live on 2 dollars a day – extreme poverty is less than a dollar a day.  By that measure, I am rich.  While it exists, it is important to keep poverty as a live issue in our daily lives. Probably, most individuals who can hold down a job in the UK (or other countries) could afford to sponsor a child with brilliant charities such as Compassion or World Vision. You then know that you are directly helping one child to focus on their health, education and future. As Mother Teresa said: If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed one person. The knock-on effect on a community of helping just one person to secure their future is massive. Also, it really brings home the plight of people in other parts of the world.

We chose to sponsor a little girl in Haiti with Compassion after an appeal that I heard at a festival last year.  Haiti was on my mind because of the Haiti earthquake back in 2010 which killed 160,000 people, and also because I knew a couple who have adopted here in England some orphans from that earthquake.  But shortly after we began supporting her, Hurricane Matthew hit that country. As you can imagine, it gave a real focus to our prayers as reports came in on the news of many having lost their homes. Hundreds died.  We were relieved to discover that our sponsored child was okay, but this doesn’t make it easier for those who had been affected.  When you actively know people in poverty, it becomes your problem, rather than someone else’s.   There is more that we want to do for our sponsored child – we have written to her, but it would be my dream to visit her in Haiti and see first-hand how she is doing, perhaps when she is a little older. Compassion sponsors children in 25 different countries and argue that they focus on individual children, rather than the circumstances (like WaterAid) because:

We’ve discovered that changed circumstances rarely change people’s lives, while changed people inevitably change their circumstances.

To see these Millennium Development Goals achieved that the United Nations has targeted by 2030, it needs more than simply individuals giving small amounts that they can afford. It is quite possible to criticise large organisations such as WaterAid, for the amount they pay their chief executives, for their marketing (which I think is some of the best I have seen). But what is brilliant about a charity such as WaterAid, apart from targeting right where it will make the biggest difference, is that no one can argue with the aims of their charity (check out their website) and they attract many companies’ support. They run a project called ‘Voices on the Ground’ where they film the impact that the clean water is making in different places, and one worker from this project says: “When I explain to people that WaterAid raises funds from thousands of individual supporters and companies who are concerned about their welfare it almost confuses them to know that people from so far away care about others they have never met or seen.”

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Let’s have a few more people living in extreme poverty confused that they have been helped. Every time I remember the shocking statistics on world poverty I realise that I could be doing a little more to help. I am delighted that our church is regularly supporting WaterAid.

 

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The ten best things in the world No. 5

I have included this next topic as ‘inessential’, as wacky or non-serious. It could go down as either. Take friendship too seriously, and it disappears in its own intensity. Friendship is about connections that last – chance encounters that lead to long-standing relationships. In a way, we cannot do too much about our friendships. Yet a light touch with them goes a long way.

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We all like to be needed. We love it when someone else wants our company. Who cares why – let’s just meet up. It can be the shared topics of conversation; it can be the chance to air a view that you know is going to be accepted. It can be that critical update on a life decision. There are friends I see from time to time, and life marches on in between. I don’t sit down to list what has happened since I last saw them, but life always does things to us. It is both fun and sometimes shocking to discover what has taken place for someone else.

Friendship is a treasured idea in literature and popular culture. I remember reading a novel Light a Penny Candle, by Maeve Binchy, in my teens that was about the friendship between two women that outlasted the twists and turns of romantic relationships. The metaphor of the title was that the romantic relationships were the penny candle, as opposed to the steady burning light of their friendship. For my wife, a very happy moment on our wedding day was when a friend appeared after the service, as we were being photographed, and it made her cry – they had been estranged for some time, but since then their friendship has been renewed and it’s been a source of strength for her.

While we have to work, we have to eat, we have to keep certain obligations, friendship is a choice. That’s partly why I’ve made it a ‘wacky’ thing. I suppose we could get by without it. But I sure as anything would not want to. There are a few suggestions I would make in no particular order:

1. Friendship with older people is so rewarding

2. Encouragement is the basis of friendship

3. Be loyal to your friends

4. Speak highly of and honour your friends

5. Be sparing in criticism – don’t judge them. Words cannot be taken back.

6. Join clubs or groups and you will make friends

7. Highly value friendships that emerge at work

8. Treat everyone as a friend in acts of kindness

9. Acts of kindness will create new friendships

10. We often feel friendship connections with people we have just met, but that will require nurture and attention if that is to become a real friendship

Friendship disappears when it is looked at too closely. But a good friendship is not static – it develops. Friendship is about caring for someone else, but it needs to take place in a context. Shared interests are so important. If you want to develop a friendship with someone, work on things that you both like. Ask yourself whether what you are getting into (I don’t know, papier-mache, parkour, joyriding) is stretching you and growing you as a person, or if it’s better to call time on that relationship.

We think we know it all and we say to younger people (our children) “I don’t want you spending time with that boy”. But do we evaluate our relationships? If we spend time with those who are too much like us, our personal views will simply be reinforced. If we push the boat out, and build on time with people who are different, we will be more challenged. Once we trust that person that they like us enough, we can spend more time with them.

I don’t worry too much about friendships. I try to pray for my friends as God leads me to. When I feel that a friendship is a bit lacking, I pray that we will get to spend more time together. And if my friend has clear needs, I pray for them. Sometimes I worry that my friends don’t tell me the things they worry most about – and then I pray that God will sort those things, or show me if I need to be helping them.

Friends aren’t there to help each other out. They are there to be the froth, the fun, the space, the difference – the backdrop to our lives. Yes, we love to help our friends out when we can. There is an obligation to help family – but friends, it is a joy. But if you are cultivating friendships so that you can make use of a person; this is unhealthy.

Finally (yes, this is a short post!) without a doubt, friendship is one of the best things in all the world – I am always proud to call someone a friend, and I hesitate more and more to claim someone as a friend, as connections get ever more tenuous and fleeting in these days of virtual reality. Someone said that you can’t really have more than five good friends. There are many connections I have that could blossom into close friendships – I’m not sure I’ve got as many as five, but I’m so grateful for the ones I have.

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My Ten Best Things in all the world No. 4

During the school holidays (I’m a teacher, okay?) I have a daily quandary – do I grind some beans and make myself my second hot drink of the day, the first being always a decaf tea, OR do I pop across the road where we happen to have a self-service Costa? Today I went for grinding beans, saving a couple of pounds, because of the topic of this post (that’s obviously not my hand in the photo!).

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Christians Against Poverty, otherwise known as CAP. This is my fourth best thing in all the world, and it’s fairly serious!  They are a national UK charity who help thousands of people every year to get out of debt free of charge.  Another way of putting it would be, that I think ‘solvency’ is one of the best things in the world. Thank you, by the way, for those of you who have liked my post on YouTube so far – keeps me going. If any of you want to recommend any of your ‘best things’ do let me know in a comment.

There is a well known saying, actually it comes from the Bible, saying ‘If you think you’re standing firm, take heed lest you fall’. This applies well to money and solvency. For maybe two years now my wife and I have kept a monthly budget. When we have worked out the direct debit outgoings for the month, and the current bank balance, we come up with a total for disposable income, and then divide it up between the essential areas of spending. We have areas such as Groceries, Fuel, Medical, Cat Costs, Books, my leisure, my wife’s leisure, eating out…. We have fun each month negotiating how much money I should have for leisure and how much my wife! I like to associate money discussions in our marriage with a glass of wine, as that helps to lower the blood pressure (not that we always drink when talking money, that would be unwise methinks).  We regularly give to our church, and also sponsor a child in Haiti, and allow an option each month to give to a different charity.  We also give a small amount to CAP, which is a direct debit.

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Lots of people don’t use a monthly budget. For whatever reason. My wife and I both completed A-Levels, both did university degrees, and still it’s taken us to the last couple of years to do a budget. I marvel at our early years of marriage where we were both DINKY and what on earth we did with all our money! If only we’d budgeted, how much we would have saved.  To see more on budgeting try The Frugal Cottage which is very accessible and straightforward.

CAP tells us that whereas ten years ago, around the time of the crash in 2007, those who came to them in debt had the majority of their debt in secondary spending, such as ‘leisure’, TV and installment payment on larger items, there is now much more of an increase in debt in priority debts, such as utilities and rent. I had a very enlightening conversation recently with the CEO of a local homeless charity who expressed a fear that there will be many more homeless young people on the streets, as a recent government decision means that until you are 21 you will not be eligible for housing benefit.  On government websites I think this rule is under the restriction of ‘being a full-time student. There are so many areas of need in our society. Homelessness is a very visible and real blight. But before it happens, there need to be people who can rescue families and individuals from sliding down into that pit of hopelessness. CAP are such people.

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I’m proud to say that my sister is actually a CAP Manager and fulfils various roles for the charity. It is an award-winning debt-counselling organisation set up by an inspirational figure called John Kirkby who in his autobiography Nevertheless tells the gripping story of how he got into debt himself, managed to get out of it, and then wanted to help those in a similar experience.

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John Kirkby

Being in debt seems to be one of those situations that brings such a private torture and stress that it really does need someone else to lift you out of it. Once you are regularly getting bills through the door, and receiving bullying phonecalls; when you simply don’t have the money to pay your creditors, and you can’t buy food for your children, and you have no work, then depression, alcoholism, divorce, stress, misery ensue very quickly. It is true that most households in this country have no debt buffer.  In 2015 four out of ten adults had no more than a few hundred pounds in savings.  It is good advice to have three months’ income in savings at any one time (Martin Lewis suggests six months savings (delve into the article to find this) and others do too, so that should you lose a job without warning, you have enough money to pay your bills for three months while you find a new job. This is as a minimum. It is more essential for those renting properties, as on a mortgage one can take a payment holiday if previously you have been consistent in your payments, and perhaps on one income, to have this three months’ buffer. Perhaps some would rely on family in a case like this; but it is so quick to slide into debt. Not everyone has solvent family members who can help you out, and this can easily become a source of contention and bitterness. Many homeless people became homeless very quickly through job loss and the ensuing debt. For me and my wife, we will be taking steps to create that three month buffer ourselves, now my awareness has increased of this, and as we will both be working part-time now.

What do CAP do? They send a discreet, caring person to come round and ‘look at’ all the growing pile of correspondence, debt, etc. Then they pick up all the debt envelopes and take them off the client. If they have no food in their cupboards, they take them to the supermarket and buy them a good load of shopping. They will explain to the client that CAP is a Christian organisation and they will pray with them. It will usually be a meeting in which the client is very emotional, crying, vulnerable – but at the same time grateful as they know they have found someone who is going to help them.

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CAP have a well-organised system centrally that supports the handling of personal debt. They will open up a fresh bank account for the client, and get in touch with all the client’s creditors, and negotiate payment with them over a period of time. They will ensure that the client’s income is being prioritised to pay off the debt, but a small, manageable piece at a time. When creditors know that a debt service with the track record of CAP is on the case, they are very happy to negotiate smaller repayments over a few years. The moment that the client is finally ‘debt-free’ is celebrated! CAP not only gives someone in debt a lifeline but also gives them a network of friends. Many CAP clients join churches (although they are not obliged to, I hasten to add!) and find a huge amount of social support there. Let me give you Neville’s story below:

We had a low income. Three kids at home. The money we had we had to give to them to pay for the bus. The amount of stuff we got out of a catalogue, the payments went too high and we couldn’t keep up. I had a really bad breakdown. If I couldn’t get anybody to help me with my debts, which were in my name, I thought if I wasn’t here, then no one could touch the family.

We did go on to CAP and pick up that phone. We got a nice call off a lady, Sally, who told me the ins and outs of what CAP can do, and they take over for you. And once they take over, you don’t have to worry about letters coming to your door or phonecalls, CAP are in charge. That’s it. I am totally debt-free and it’s all over with. But I’ll never forget what they’ve done for me. I’m getting on better with my family, there’s no more thoughts of self-harm and I’m very happy indeed. God bless CAP. I love ya – you’re brilliant.

I am a Life Changer. I’m not bigheaded about that! It means that officially I make a small monthly contribution to CAP. I could give more. I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I watch documentaries on the TV about poverty in Britain (is it just me or are there more of them at the moment) it’s rare to see someone properly helped. Every time I read a story from a CAP magazine, or their website, I’m hearing about people who have come out the other side of their distress, and are now solvent, grateful to God and to CAP, and even in a position to help others. Children who were unhappy and distressed, now able to express in simple terms how much better their lives are. To hear these personal stories provides me with a ‘shot of happiness’. We need these!

I do get torn sometimes. I know that there is dreadful poverty overseas. Unacceptable poverty. I have never forgotten a comment that a Russian revolutionary made (not in my hearing) that the only problem that thinking people should be dealing with is that of naked and starving people. I will devote two more of the ‘best things in the world’ to worldwide poverty issues and things that are being done about them.

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BUT CAP is a great example, a great inspiration, of a company that is brilliant to work for, great to support, excellent to promote. They don’t just lift people out of debt. They also help to find people employment (Job Clubs), and provide training in budgeting (Money Course).  Just this last year over 1,000 people have found work through the Job Clubs.  You will see on their website that David Cameron and Martin Lewis as well as Prince Charles commend the charity.  I have heard the current CEO of CAP talk first hand of his involvement on the ground in a CAP Centre, which shows that those employed by the charity are genuinely committed to it. All of us have a little to give, whether it’s volunteer time, a little extra cash to support it, or even if we are inclined some prayer. If you’ve never heard of them, take a look at their website. Tell someone else about them. If you’re reading this in a different country, perhaps you could start up something similar.

Let’s give a shout out for CAP.

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Ten best things about the world No. 3….

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Have you ever prepared for a presentation, or a lesson, or a research project, and just as you have printed your piece or sent it off, done and dusted, you come across a startling YouTube video that says it all better than you could ever have done?  In a fresh and vibrant way that mocks your efforts? Yes, me too.

So my third best thing about the world after parkrun and family is YouTube, with a nod to podcasts and the whole internet world of free media (not, notice, pirated).

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Why, I hear you shriek?  What’s good about YouTube?  Isn’t it a source of annoyance and trouble for copyrights, adverts and self-promoters the world over?

Well yes, but also it represents much that is best about the internet.  I have deliberately not included reddit or Facebook, but I feel that YouTube can be a gateway into new worlds, and this surely is what learning and also the internet is all about.  For me, YouTube is a chest that somehow has been filled with all sorts of odd material, but you just know that if you keep rummaging for long enough you will find something valuable.  It’s the thrill of the chase at times, but if you find it too time-consuming, perhaps this post will reinvigorate your YouTube experience.  Have you ever watched any YouTube videos about Tiny Houses? You’re missing a treat it you haven’t.  What about life hacks?  Again, these can be surprisingly addictive (Well, perhaps not the one I put up, but try this one!

A little personal history.  For me, my elation with YouTube began when as a professional teacher, our school network finally unblocked it, and allowed us to use it in the classroom.  There are pitfalls with YouTube (in particular the fact the Minecraft videos my sons watched on my channel always flashed up on the board), but up till then, you were really expected to download film clips FROM YouTube, which seemed very technical to someone like me.  Now, as a teacher, I can curate playlists of YouTube videos on whatever topic I choose.

Teachers are inveterate creators of YouTube content, and during the recent changes at English GCSE, it means that at the click of a button myself, and my students, can access creative content free of charge from any number of excellent practitioners.  And the good videos increase in likes, and the poor ones disappear from sight.  All hail Mr Bruff, Mr Salles and many others who produce reputable content and all with the students’ best interest at heart, rather than making money!

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But we’re not all teachers.  And we don’t all use YouTube for professional reasons.  Can I make it clear that I am not writing this as an expert in using YouTube. I have a huge amount to learn.  I spend quite a lot of time at the moment asking people who they follow on YouTube, and what channels they enjoy.  I was disappointed that my Dad couldn’t give me any…  One of the reasons YouTube is so good is that unlike TV, you have so much more choice on what you pay attention to.  I was delighted to chance across some wonderful videos on cathedral architecture, for example.  I’ve never seen programmes quite like this on TV.  Also, let’s not forget that for anyone who ever wants to know how to do anything, YouTube HAS to be your first port of call – let’s please give it credit for that.  Only the other day, my mother-in-law (who is not the most technological of women, by her own admission) proudly declared that she had used YouTube to create some quite charming icing flowers on a cake for her sister’s 80th birthday.

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My wife has used similar videos when using clippers to cut my and our son’s hair.  We can all be professionals now.  Whatever you want to learn, be it guitar, calligraphy, Spanish or gardening, YouTube shows you the experts, the learners and the no-hopers all giving it a go.  You can quickly work out who knows what they’re doing from how they talk, and the number of views they have.

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I think there are some obvious tricks that a YouTube newbie would be well-advised to follow in order to get best use from YouTube.  The first would be to create your own account.  In doing this, you can upload your own videos, should you wish, and you can create lists of videos under different headings, for example ‘cats’, ‘chocolate’, ‘Stephen King’, or whatever takes your fancy.  Personally, being a cheapskate, I listen to a lot of music on YouTube, and I like to keep lists of songs in the version I prefer, especially worship music.  With any music, if you type the genre of music into the search box, it will give you a playlist of songs, so ‘rock ballads’ or ‘gentle worship music’ or ‘music to do housework’.  Once you’ve hit play, it will give you continuous music, interspersed with ads.  When you get a great playlist, it’s worth liking it or saving it.

Another tip is not to just watch the videos that YouTube pop up on their homepage, but once you have found some good channels who consistently release videos that you enjoy, subscribe to those channels, and work through that feed.  ‘Subscribe’ does not mean that you are paying anything.  All this content is free.  Youtubers who make money make it because viewers have to sit through adverts.   I have a friend who tells me that he reserves his daily YouTube fix for just before sleep, and chills out to the latest videos from his favourite feeds.

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I spoke to another friend who told me he has now kicked his YouTube habit – he was accustomed to watching up to five hours of YouTube a day, and those he subscribed to such as Jacksepticeye and the Yogscast ‘family’ who were creating content he felt he just HAD to watch – just google these names to find them.  Have you come across FOMO (fear of missing out?).  It’s one of the deceptive, addictive things about surfing the internet that is NOT the same as taking advantage of the really good content out there.  There are many vloggers who have used YouTube to promote their own lives and have become quite watchable – this is not what I am suggesting you do!  Family vlogging is highly popular now, but it becomes a substitute for your own life.

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Technical Tips

There are some nice little tricks that will improve your YouTube experience if you are technically minded – I may try some of these.

But from my point of view as very simple minded, and older than the average YouTube enthusiast, I find it very helpful to keep lists of videos that I want to keep track of.  What a lot of people fear is never being able to find the video again.  Rather than relying on the search function, if you have a channel, you can add a video to a relevant channel by pressing the ‘add’ button as the video is playing, and you can put it under ‘Watch Later’, or put it on another list.  Alternatively, make it a ‘liked’ video and then go to your Liked Videos list; if you’re signed into your channel it’s URL is http://youtube.com/my_liked_videos (or youtube.com/playlist?list={your user ID}).

However, that becomes a very long list, and you’re better off creating lists under headings that make sense to you.  There is theoretically no limit to the number that you can have.  If you want to know more about how to set up a YouTube channel, why not watch this?!  One consideration with YouTube is that you can watch it on your phone (I only do this when using my home broadband), or on TV, or on the computer.  It makes sense to be signed in, rather than on open YouTube, for example on TV, otherwise you can’t quickly access all your ‘bookmarked’ videos.  To quickly show someone a video you’re watching on your phone, just ‘cast’ it to your TV.  As long as your TV has registered your device, it will start playing the video from your phone, and your phone becomes a remote control.  It quickly becomes much more attractive than watching regular TV.

On a perhaps not technical note, YouTube is quite a personal viewing experience.  If you’re controlling what you’re watching, your friends or family may quickly get bored.

Just some great videos!

So I’ve spent way too much time now researching YouTube content for this post, and while I still believe that YouTube is an excellent resource, and represents the best of the internet, it does remain frustratingly difficult to find the best content, and it is a reminder that YouTube is essentially an entertainment channel that will brighten your day.  The most watched videos on YouTube are all music videos promoted by Vevo, with a few videos that toddlers watch (because they watch them again and again!).  Don’t waste time dreaming of going viral because it probably won’t happen, but if you for some reason missed youtube in 2016 here are the virals.

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Addicted to YouTube

Are you?  Then you have probably already checked out how to quit, but in case you haven’t the Art of Manliness is here to help.  Take it off your phone, take the favourite off your computer, go and find something else to do.  Get a life.  Remind yourself that you have to pay some bills.  Talk to your neighbour.  Stroke the cat.  All these things should help you to get off YouTube.

Finally, I said I would give a nod to podcasts.  These are great, and where you don’t find someone’s content on youtube, you may well find it on a podcast somewhere.  Recently I have found myself waiting to pick my son up on a regular basis with ten minutes to kill, and just stood listening to them on my phone.  I’ve taken this opportunity to check out some that may be a little quirky or current, and if it suits your lifestyle why not learn something more tailored to your interests than radio, or music? While YouTube is great for sermons and lectures, podcasts are a bit more consistent and the audio version of the ‘vlogger’, on more of a weekly basis – there is a ‘reasonable’  list of Christian podcasts here.

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YouTube – it’s quick, it’s rough and ready, but it’s like a friend at your elbow.  Just don’t let it get too annoying.  For me, I would check into my subscriptions weekly rather than daily, and I reckon that’s enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Ten Best Things about the World: No. 2…

So the logic with this series of posts is to go ‘slightly wacky’, then, ‘serious’.  This is the serious one after parkrun.  And it doesn’t get much more serious than this.  Now that I have a little more leisure, I am hoping to complete this series within a week or so, so watch this space!

Most of life I could do without. I could do without work, perhaps do without food, do without networking, without the rain (right now!), do without decaffeinated coffee, do without mobile phones.  Okay, I admit, it’s a rainy afternoon and I am in that kind of mood.  BUT I just cannot do without this ‘best thing in the world’.  It’s family.  I will do parents, the family unit, then life partner!

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Let’s start with the ‘accursed progenitors’, as Beckett called them in his dark play ‘Endgame’.  Parents are inescapable.  We cannot separate ourselves from their influence on our lives if we want to, and when we try, we often define ourselves by being different.  When I became a parent, I noticed that many of the things I say to my children were said to me before.  ‘Little birds in their nests agree, or they fall out.’  ‘It takes two to make a quarrel.’  I’ve often pondered on how these observations lead to no action, particularly, except perhaps ominous threats.  I loved reading to my son the other day the poem ‘Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion and noticed how he started sitting up and listening when it described in detail first his toes, then his heels, are ‘slowly eaten, bit by bit.’  Why do parents love scaring their children?  Why do children love being scared by their parents?  Perhaps because they know that they are safe, and that they can cuddle in Daddy’s arms.

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Thank you parents, for all the cultural capital you passed on.  For the support blanket that you were in all my trembly and lost moments.  No one can pity another, and screw up everything in their heart and give it to another, like a parent can to their child.  I know that both ways now, and it’s both the most wonderful thing, and the most fearful.  Just the thought of harm to one of my children is a dangerous thought, I know that now.  Thank you too for the launchpad that you were, for the identity you gave me.  Thank you that in a way you are behind me, and yet you reach out in front of me.  That even when you are gone, you will still be with me, in the memories, in my thoughts, in your actions, in your prescience and wisdom.  What an unspeakable privilege to have had wise and godly parents.  Also, to have lived so long and still be able to share with them.  Long may it continue.

Larkin said there was something ‘so sad‘ about home.  Our family home was sold and gone now – but every time I see something that came from my childhood, it stirs something up in me. The copy of a book I knew, a piece of furniture.  Things become part of family, don’t they.  We can get caught off guard if we’re not careful.  I have grieved my childhood a hundred times.  It gives me an odd feeling of pleasure, slightly guilty, to grieve my childhood, that it’s gone.  Did I really live it?  Did I just dream it away?  Who knows now…

There are so many great things about family.  They can be so kind to you when you are down.  Also, a whole family REALLY looking forward to something, e.g. a day out, family holiday, and the excitement just building and building.  Equally good, a spontaneous day that just turns out perfect (as opposed to all those days where you’ve dragged the family somewhere and they didn’t want to go, and everyone’s tired, or sick, or cross); also the way a family cheers one family member on when they are doing something exceptional – the way a family cheers its members on MAKES whatever they are doing exceptional – and it’s actually the encouragement that matters.  The achievement itself is forgotten in the euphoria of knowing that your kid or your wife is so pleased for you.

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None of this is unique to family – but family is like a built-in guarantee of these things, and these things more often in your life, than perhaps anyone deserves to have – certainly me.  Even a taster of it from a distance; joining in someone else’s family’s waterfight – being at someone’s birthday party, sharing in a family’s joy, brother’s family, sister’s family, is also a wonderful thing.  Being part of a REALLY BIG family unit, and knowing there is SO MUCH life in it, and so much future and promise – something that will carry on, that HAS to carry on, even after you’re gone.  This is a reminder that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  This is good.

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I have just finished reading an unusual book for me, a chatty, popular biography of Phil Collins, Not Dead Yet.  What runs through the whole book is the bitter regret that in the pursuit of his career, he was not able to give his family the time and love that he should have, with dramatic and painful results.  Even so, his family (including his children) were there to help him through his darkest days, and kept him going.  Coming back from that narrative, where Collins picks up and puts down family so often along with telling the story of the next album and the next tour and who he’s worked with; and being able to help my young son get dressed, or spend time on holiday with my own wife and children, makes me so glad to be normal and not pursuing a glittering career.

So my wife.  Marriage.  The bedrock of family is a strong relationship with your other half.  This has to be good.  I remember when I was perhaps 17 or 18, sitting at a wedding breakfast after my cousin had got married, and he said: ‘I can recommend it!’ with a wink in his eye.  I can as well.  To have someone who knows you in your weakest moments, but also loves you in your best.  Who forgives and overlooks your faults, but at the same time does not give up on you overcoming those faults.  For me, when I get down on my knees and pray (which is not as often as I’d like) the first thing I hear the Father saying to me is: Love your wife!  Cherish her!  It talks in Ephesians 5 about laying your life down for your wife, as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.  It also says: For no one hates his own flesh but loves and cherishes it.  Part of being ready for marriage is being ready to accept yourself.  No one is going to sort you out if you’re not able to know that you are good enough, somehow, in a rough kind of way, at least!

Why is having a life partner one of the best things in the world?  Don’t get me wrong, you can get by without it.  And sometimes if you’re not prepared to work on the relationship, or if your partner isn’t, then perhaps it’s wiser to steer clear.  We can do each other a lot of good in family life, but we can also inflict pain on others.  Sometimes the sensible question is: what’s the least damage I can do?  We hype ourselves up in our most egotistic moments, hoping to be able to leave a lot of good behind us; but I think that as we mature and get older, our prayers become more humble: help me not to hurt others too much; limit the emotional and physical pain that I cause other people.

Pehurt peoplerhaps as we realise, a few years down the line, that the painful comment that a family member said to us still hurts us, still restricts us rather than helps us trust that we are loved; perhaps we bite back that hurtful comment a bit more often than before.  Perhaps we think about saying the considered, but meaningful thing a little bit more.  Not the hollow: You’re just great!  But rather, ‘You were really thoughtful for making breakfast for me in bed.  I appreciate the little things you do for me.’  We don’t need to throw out our grateful comments on social media, but we do need to say them to our family face to face, so they know we mean it.

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St. Paul knew what he was talking about in 1 Corinthians 13 when he talked on love.  Love keeps no record of wrongs.  This is so important in family.  Without forgiveness, family becomes bitter and a well of discouragement and pain in our lives.  It also says that love ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things’.  A little more of this childlike expectation about those we love would fill our lives with more joy.  Can you seriously ‘bear all things’ about your spouse?  Can you ‘believe all things’?  Do you expect that because they have failed in that area before, they will always fail?  Do your words put them down?  I will leave the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians here to read as the end of my post (in the Message to keep it fresh), but let me just say, three cheers for family.  Who’d want to live without ’em?

And looking at 1 Corinthians 13 has reminded me: the very best thing about family is that it gives you a reason to get up in the mornings.  A reason to keep going when you don’t really want to.  Because you care enough about your children, about your wife, about your parents or siblings, to go out of your way to help them.  The best human instinct is not selfish, but is actually to help others.  This has to be extended beyond family, but it needs to start with family.  If I can’t get it right with those closest to me, I won’t get it right with strangers.  The apostle John puts it well in his short letter 1 John; if I don’t love my brother whom I have seen, how can I love God whom I have not seen?  Love begins with the person nearest to us.

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So for those of you a bit short on family at the moment, don’t be scared to find commitment with other families and with friends.  Because families all need others to come in, and friends are an extra special ‘best thing about the world’ that deserve a post of their own.  By the way – what would be YOUR ten best things about the world?  Any suggestions?  Eight more to come – the next one will be ‘wacky’.

The Way of Love

13 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up.

Love cares more for others than for self.

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.

Love doesn’t strut,

Doesn’t have a swelled head,

Doesn’t force itself on others,

Isn’t always “me first,”

Doesn’t fly off the handle,

Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,

Doesn’t revel when others grovel,

Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,

Puts up with anything,

Trusts God always,

Always looks for the best,

Never looks back,

But keeps going to the end.

8-10 Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.

11 When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.

12 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!

13 But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

 

 

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My 10 best things about the world: 1. Parkrun

Parkrun

So those who know me well at the moment will not be surprised that I am enthusiastic about parkrun, which is the largest running event on the planet.  There are many who can write more articulately and more informatively than me on this topic, but it is definitely one of the highlights of my week.  Why?

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It launches me into my tree-shrouded, spacious local park, which is a soul-refreshing place to visit; just like any natural space, there are subtle and gorgeous changes on a daily basis.  9am every Saturday morning, brightly coloured, expensive-trainer-shod runners converge from varying directions to complete one short and three long laps of the Park, 5k, to be precise.  The ambitious and seasoned canter round and notch up impressive times (last week we had James Baker, a regular parkrunner who happened to break the Bognor record by one second at 16:11 seconds, read Run Number 160); others walk round in clusters, chatting to others and coming in under an hour.  All are welcome.  All are encouraged!  And it’s totally free.  Free forever.  It is not a race, it is a run.

What else is good about it?

 It mobilizes one of the largest numbers of volunteers of any community activity.  People come and marshal for the event, act as the Tail Walker, as a barcode scanner, Timekeeper, and more; every event has a Run Director who does an opening welcome, informs about any particular details, celebrates first timers, volunteers and milestones, and gets everyone going.  There is a marshal at our local run who sadly broke his hip last weekend and we missed him today: his bellows of encouragement as we run down the alleyway give you that extra push.  A number of the marshals greet and encourage you by name as you keep on running.

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Later on that Saturday, when you have even forgotten that you began the day in such spectacular style, you receive an email confirming your time, and giving you the list of all the runners and the times they came in at.  The level of data that parkrun generates is truly astounding.  Just for Bognor alone over three years 443 people have volunteered, to allow 4,180 participants to complete a combined total of 26,695 parkruns.  This covers a total distance of 133,475km, more than 3 circumnavigations of the planet.  Just over a third of the distance to the moon. Our local parkrun has grown over the last eighteen months from perhaps 60-100 runners a week, to 300 most weeks now.  It is ridiculously and at times ‘unsafely’ popular!  And you collect ongoing statistics on your performance, all totally free.  If you volunteer 25 times, and when you have completed 50 runs, you even get free T-shirts as well.

But you think that’s mad?   What about the whole of the UK?  According to the latest parkrun news email, last week there were 114,082 people who finished a 5k parkrun somewhere in this country, there were 12,266 people who volunteered to make it happen, there were 7,831 individuals who ran a parkrun for the first time, and there were 22,847 runners who got new Personal Bests.  Not only that but globally, 18,817 people who are registered with parkrun joined a running club this year, stepping up into a fuller running commitment.

Recently Bognor marked its three year anniversary with a beach-themed run, and the run report commented that “the most impressive thing for me is another thing that is free; friendly and inspiring attitudes. Here, it is never more than an inch away. Every corner of the park non-stop encouragement is evident from all to all others; volunteers, on lookers and those taking part.”

bognor parkrun

But I’m not a runner!

I hear you say.  What can I get from parkrun?  Why are you ludicrously claiming that parkrun is THE best thing in the world today?  Let me cut to the chase (or perhaps the ‘run’).

Parkrun happens and parkrun works.  Knowing this means that lots of other things (not just running-related) can also happen and work.  It shows the strength of local community wherever a parkrun has got off the ground.  It prioritises kindness, thoughtfulness for others and getting out more.  It shows that if there is the real attention to detail for a regular event, with a clear and straightforward demand on your time and many obvious wins, your volunteer base is more secure and you can make something astonishing sustainable for the long-term.

For those wanting to exercise more and in different ways, it is a fine ‘way in’ where you will find more hardcore runners and sportspeople who can get you an introduction or break the ice to encourage you to sign up to another challenge (a 10k run, for example or to join a local running club).  I know, you’re still not into running.  But whatever you’re into, what is the ‘parkrun’ for that?  If there isn’t one, you could set it up!  Parkrun is so much more than just a run in the park.

Parkrun makes you healthier.  It gets you out of the house.  It means you meet lots of other people and can have an easy opening to a conversation with them, about their running.  Running (or lack of it) becomes a common factor.  There are so many lonely people out there.  Apart from work, or a small number of family, they don’t get the encouragement to have those extra conversations.  Every time I go on parkrun I speak to people I have never spoken to before.  Just an observation about the temperature, or a smile and a word of encouragement, and lots of people will happily engage in a little running-related discussion.   And I meet and re-meet people that I know from lots of different contexts.

While I know that at the most basic I am going to get some physical exercise, and be motivated to finish the run (which I may not be on my own!) I also know that there will be an open opportunity for befriending, being befriended, and encouraging others in their daily lives, even if it’s only with a smile as I run past.  Why does this matter?  The best moments for me at work can sometimes be the spaces that I mentioned in my last post, the brief opening I get to have a conversation with someone I’ve not talked to before.  It’s new – it’s fresh.  It affects the course of my day.  Parkrun is like that moment a thousand times distilled.  The feel as everyone starts running together, carefully, not wanting to knock anyone over, past the onlookers, the cameras, the spectators.  The thrill as you come into the funnel at the end, pushing those few seconds off your time.

I could spend an hour on Facebook, and no one would really know I was there, not really. I could be watching Netflix. I could be throwing more hours at that toad ‘work’.  (A reference to a Philip Larkin poem).

But parkrun points out beyond me and mine to you and yours, reminds me of common humanity and the hope for a better future.  A new T-shirt slogan that I saw on parkrun this morning said: ‘I’m better than I was yesterday, but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.’  I’m on that.  Parkrun is the first of my Ten Best Things about the World.

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About Time

It’s about time I came back to the blogosphere.  I reflected yesterday, early in the morning, that I had the opportunity over the next three months or so to work on my writing more.

Even that opening paragraph shows this.  What does my work amount to?  Have I stretched my writing muscles?  Have I exercised my working vocabulary?  Could I put a candle to any of the writers that I admire?

I am reasonably proud of some of the posts on this blog.  Having said that, the ones I produced that have been more widely read were composed some time ago.

There is a certain sameness to news articles, to opinion pieces, to how-to and go-to pieces.  One does not, after all, write until one has something to say.

Part of the justification, then, for deciding to come back to writing, is the conviction that I do after all have something to say.  And that it is different to a lot of the things that I stumble across on my Google notifications, on Facebook from time to time, in books that happen to get recommended to me, or that come my way.  For in the current global information swamp, I cannot hope to be chancing across the best that is written and thought at the moment.  And I some time ago, I believe, stopped getting anxious about that, and decided that I would make do with what comes my way.

So here is my pennyworth for today.  What I haven’t read anywhere else, but I feel I can express.  No one out there is going to write something that I need more than me.  It’s not about the art of eloquence, or original thought.  What I need, specifically, is what has been worked through in my experience, applied to me, and then moved forward into tomorrow.  What do I mean by that?  We have to take our lives a day at a time.  I don’t think I can cope with much more than that BUT there has to be space in our lives for more than JUST the routine.  There has to be the tiny spaces where the unthinkable can happen, the surprising, the serendipitous.  I live for those spaces.  We share those spaces.  We may not share the same work, the same worries, the same trials.  But we all share the tiny spaces.  More on these next time!

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