Thanks where thanks is due

I think there’s a general feeling of bitterness among the British that, during the last week of November, the Americans get an extra holiday – specifically, an extra food-based holiday. As Jimmy Carr put it on Twitter:
“It’s Thanksgiving today. Long story short it’s where Americans give thanks to the English for inventing them. You’re welcome.”

Before my American friends assault me, yes, I’m being glib. I’m also deliberately avoiding the thorny issue of the fate that awaited the Native Americans who so kindly assisted the first settlers…
Anyway, this year I was very pleased to welcome the holiday (albeit a day late) into my life. On Friday, a community of 40 people gathered in Mile End to celebrate and give thanks – and to eat a vast quantity of food. I am very thankful indeed…
Firstly, I have to be thankful for college giving me permission to skip an evening of #VicarWeekend in order to be there. [All I missed was a Church History lecture on the Middle Ages – nothing happened then, right??] 
I am thankful that a professional chef (and his wife) flew in from Texas to cook for us. [I am less thankful that the Turkey was named Millicent on Twitter prior to eating – my pseudo-vegetarian sensibilities mean that I’m not so keen on eating named animals. But the fact that Millicent, once cooked, had to be transported from Bethnal Green to Mile End in a taxi rather makes up for it. Comedy.] 
The Mash Mountain (& accompaniments) and Millicent, in the oven…

I am thankful for the opportunity to use a fiercely powered blender (and learn some new skills). My black-bean hummus may have looked grim, but it was delicious. If someone could send a blender my way, I’ll be knee-deep in hummus before I know it! [The less said about the fantastically gross activity that was squeezing cloves of roasted garlic, the better…some people have very dirty minds.] 
I wasn’t sure that I’d be particularly thankful for eggnog, but it seems that it is actually the alcoholic beverage of the Gods (at least Shannon’s Step-Dad’s recipe is). Yum. Yum. Yum. 
First ever eggnog, which was closely followed by a second. 
(And then followed by a pint of water.) 
I’m less thankful for the invention of American Football. The ball is a stupid shape, meaning that it doesn’t bounce/travel through the air in the way that one would expect it to. This means that one looks like a total idiot when one tries to kick it in the air, only for it to return to earth narrowly missing one’s head… 
I’m especially thankful for the presence of a 5 day old baby (no name yet) at Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for his safe arrival; his intense adorableness; and the fact that I got to hold him for a few blissful minutes. Honestly, there are few ills in the world that can’t be put right by a cuddle with a newborn. [I actually have a theory that there would be fewer wars if world leaders spent more time holding babies…]

Most of all, I’m thankful for Shannon and the Matroyshka Haus community. For Shannon, who had the idea in the first place; and the community that’s gathered around her – both of which are now very special fixtures in my life. A year ago I barely knew most of the people I spent Friday with; now, I see them most weeks and have just booked my second trip to France with them. 
I believe Thanksgiving is all about family, and I’m really pleased that I got to experience my first one with my London brothers and sisters. 

The dangers of surprises

Surprises are tricky things. Some people just don’t like them – like my Dad (it’s a good job the last surprise I sprang on my parents was aimed more at my mother than him…), and other surprises have to be done in the right way in order for them to be appreciated properly. For example, when surprising me with a weekend in Paris, my Mum & sister sensibly gave me a month’s warning so that I could plan my trip (I love surprises, but I like planning travel itineraries even more). I adore surprises – it’s why I have an Amazon wishlist, so people don’t have to ask what I want as a gift (yet still ensuring that it’s something I actually want). Surprises are definitely something I’d love to have more of in my life.

Birthday surprises are particularly tricky. Make it a total surprise and you run the risk that the recipient will think that everyone’s forgotten them and make most of their special day utterly miserable. A recent addition to the 30 Club was given a surprise of this variety, but luckily they’d twigged that something was up – otherwise I’d have feared for the consequences. This past weekend saw another 30th surprise, but I was worried for a different reason – the birthday girl seemed very keen to ignore the day, what if she resented the sudden appearance of several of her closest friends?

In the end, it was a fabulous day. The plan was well orchestrated by birthday girl’s sister – all we were doing was joining her family on an already planned day out involving the Lord Mayor’s Show and fireworks. (Well done London for putting on such a spectacular event in honour of Jenni’s 30th!) Jenni was suitably shocked and there were squeals and tears – all in all, it had the desired effect.

Should you ever be in London on the second Saturday of November, I highly recommend catching the Lord Mayor’s procession. It’s a eccentric bit of London history (it’s taken place for over 800 years) and involves all the classic bits of English pageantry that tourists assume happens all the time – marching military bands, people in odd clothes, gold carriages, plenty of horses (also in odd clothes), floats carrying scantily clad women, oh, and Stephen Fry…

To quote Gill (whose Dad took this photo): “IT’S STEPHEN FRY”
(He heard, turned round and waved – bless him.) 

We were rather late to the party, passing through the Strand as people began relax after the parade, but passed the Royal Courts just as the Lord Mayor arrived so got a glimpse of the main piece of action. We also caught some of the procession on its return, as we made our way to Pizza Express and phase two of the birthday celebration. On our way to surprise the birthday girl, we also came across a surprising roadblock: 
Did you know the MET have regulation board shorts? 

The other element of the Lord Mayor’s ‘thing’ is a fireworks display over the Thames. Unlike the New Year’s display, you can get an excellent viewing point simply by turning up an hour before it kicks off. We were right in the middle of Waterloo bridge, meaning that we had a totally unobscured view of the fireworks exploding from a barge in front of us. There are a few things you ought to be aware of though:
  • Coffee places near the bridge get very busy immediately prior to the fireworks. Nipping off for hot beverages 45 minutes before the display may sound reasonable – in actual fact it means you’ll get stuck in an abnormally long queue and then get prevented from crossing the bridge due to the crowds that have congregated in your absence.
  • Old ladies can have very sharp elbows and few manners. While trying to preserve space for the beverage-getters, we had to see off a few potential invaders. In most cases the ‘saving space dance’ and loud talk of the returning friends “who were here first, but have gone to buy tea” sufficed, but one particular lady could not be deterred. She pushed, poked and prodded – nearly knocking over Jules in the process – and was generally rather annoying. [We weren’t utterly heartless though. Once it became clear that they weren’t coming back, we let her in – but she could have asked nicely and said thank-you though.] 
  • Standing on a bridge leaves you rather exposed to the elements. It was windy and this meant that not only was it chilly, but the fireworks were blown in our direction – slightly nerve wrecking. 
  • Birthday biscuits are an excellent firework accompaniment. 
  • People will always get carried away with taking photos of the sparkly things, especially if their camera has a firework setting… 

On the left, my firework setting; on the right, Gill’s ‘proper’ photo.

The loss of the beverage-getters had one advantage, it enabled them to purchase something without which no birthday would be complete: champagne. (Ok, so it was cava, sue me…) Of course, for al fresco champagne drinking, one needs appropriate receptacles and what better than some Starbucks red cups? 
It looks like I was a little dubious of the ethics of the situation…
(Or, wondering if anyone would notice that I’d somehow acquired two cups.)

Happy birthday Jenni! 

24 Frames per second, or 5 films in 24 hours

As briefly mentioned yesterday, I spent the weekend (well, Friday night and all day Saturday to be precise) at a film festival. My very first film festival in fact. L’Abri is a retreat centre that holds a special place in the hearts of several of my friends and their annual film festival provided an ideal opportunity for a group of us to experience its wonder. A weekend of good friends and good films – what’s not to like?

I did wonder if I’d take well to the format of watching a film and discussing it immediately afterwards. It usually takes me a while to process things I’ve watched – often I’ll sit in a post-film discussion (as in over drinks, not a formally facilitated one) quietly pondering and only coming up with my own arguments 24 hours later. Highly frustrating. However, the first two discussions were led by someone who understood the ways of the introverts (I suspect because he himself is a performing I) and encouraged discussion in pairs or quiet thought before the floor was opened to general debate.

Watching a film with a large group of people who are thinking carefully about they’re watching was something of a novelty too – there was no need for Wittertainment’s Code of Conduct in Greatham Village Hall (although I did take my boots off at one point…) – people didn’t talk and generally sat enraptured by the screen. [Except for the dear old lady sat in front of me during the first film who exclaimed “For goodness sake!” at some violence done to the hero – I liked her tone and her engrossed-ness.]

Anyway, it would be pointless to talk about the festival without making some comment on the films themselves. Writing about them on the train yesterday proved that it was difficult to be succinct, but I’m going to try. The bottom line is that I think all of them are worth watching if you haven’t seen them already…

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
A prison film starring Paul Newman, highlighting the life of the roadside chain-gang and the misery of a life behind bars. One the first things several people asked me when I mentioned that I was going to a film festival at a Christian retreat centre was how they managed to find enough Christian films to show. Because of course, we all know that Christians only watch Christian films and there can’t possibly be any point in discussing any other kind of film… Though I might jest about resurrection theology in Harry Potter, I’m actually not a fan of the trying hard to find Christian imagery school of theological film watching; thus, I got a little wary when, part way through the first film of the festival, a clear nod to the crucifixion appeared.

The discussion revolved around whether Luke was a Messainic figure – certainly there were lots of Biblical references and faith in God was a key component of the plot, but suggesting Luke was Jesus would be pushing it. Ultimately, there was no redemption through Luke – although his story is propagated as one of hope to a new generation of prisoners at the end of the film, he doesn’t actually achieve what they’re claiming he has. How can this be similar to a belief in a resurrected Christ? [Although, as my deeply cynical friend pointed out on the drive back to the Eco Barn, I believe a story that is seen as being just as untenable to many people.]

The film’s currently a West End play and I’m not sure how well it translates to the stage, so watch the original if you can. (By the way, turns out that Paul Newman in 1967 = hot. Who knew?!)

Of Gods and Men (2010)
Easily the film which clinched my attendance at the festival – the opportunity to have an extended discussion of it was something not to be missed. I’d wanted to see it for ages, but as is usually the case with foreign language films, a bigger screen and a large audience was going to help my motivation. I’d heard nothing but praise for it and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a beautifully moving film telling the real-life story of a monastery in Algeria threatened by Islamic terrorists in the mid-1990s, shot with a speed that seemed to reflect the steady pattern of the monastic lifestyle, and illustrated the stark contrast between beauty of the location and the ugliness of the violence taking place within it.

The main theme of the film is the relationship between the monks and the Islamic community they lived within. It is clear that they had a huge respect for the religion and it’s this understanding and sensitivity that helped save them from death in their first encounter with the terrorists on Christmas Eve. The tension and fear builds and builds as the monks debated whether to stay or go – I couldn’t help but reflect that at a time when the Catholic church and those living in a monastic tradition are judged with much suspicion by society, the film really captures the sense of sacrifice and vocation that the monks believed themselves to have and their passion for the people they were called to live alongside.

The discussion was perhaps a little too facilitated and I took exception to our facilitator’s opinion of the Last Supper scene (he hated it; I adored it) – never have I been so moved by Swan Lake (though it did bring back some unfortunate Black Swan memories). But it did lead me to wondering whether it’s right to try and read so much into films based on true events? Why should we analyse the playing of Tchaikovsky if we know that that’s what the monks chose to play? It’s fact…

Restrepo (2010)
I would never have paid to see this film and I don’t think would even have considered watching it had it not been part of the festival, but on one level I’m kind of glad I did. This is a documentary filmed over a US army’s 15 month deployment to the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan – one of the conflict’s most dangerous areas. I’m a pacifist and I’m not convinced at the validity of the conflict, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s happening and that it’s good to understand as much as we can about it.

Ultimately, this film shows just what a chaotic and pointless war it is. Soon after the film was made, the troops were withdrawn from the region – so all the ‘progress’ made during it was essentially wasted. The style of filming, with handheld and helmet cameras, lends the film a disorientating and upsetting visual – but reflects well what the soldiers were experiencing. I wonder if I would have felt differently about the film had the troops been British, not American. I wonder if the British troops approach their dealings with the local population in a different way? (Would they give out Capri Suns to local elders during their weekly, utterly spurious, meetings?)

War films are a major genre and I’m not averse to them – Band of Brothers and Jarhead rank highly in excellent films depicting real events in which the acting is very moving. However, this was real and the emotions you see are being experienced by real people. In a scene where soldiers discover their sergeant’s been killed, you see the overwhelming grief that encompasses one soldier in particular – there is howling and screaming and it’s painful to watch. I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch an acted war film in quite the same way again.

The Social Network (2010)
I confess, I drank port instead of watching this on Saturday night – but in my defence I had already seen it twice. There’s not much more that needs to be said about the Facebook film, but what intrigued me was the revelation during the discussion that the film’s impact upon the viewer’s opinion of Mark Zuckerberg was divided. When I first watched it, I was surprised at the level of sympathy I felt for Facebook’s co-founder – and I knew that several friends had felt the same way. However, when asked, it turned out that although half the l’Abri audience felt the same as me; the other half felt less enamoured towards Zuckerberg.

Catfish (2010)
If ever you find yourself at the l’Abri festival, make sure you watch at least one of the late night films. Shown at the Manor House and accompanied by hot chocolate and popcorn, the smell as you enter the kitchen is practically orgasmic – in fact I’m seeking to recreate the sweet chocolate and salty popcorn ambience in the flat very soon. Yes, it takes dedication to watch a film that begins at 11pm having spent the previous 24 hours watching films, but it’s worth it…

Undoubtedly, this was the film I enjoyed the most – Of Gods and Men was beautiful and moving, but this was light-hearted (albeit dealing with a truly bizarre and rather weird subject). Although billed as a documentary, there is controversy over whether it really is. My extensive online research has drawn no final conclusions, but I don’t think it really matters.

If you’ve ever wondered if online communication could ever be genuine, this film will give you plenty of ammunition. The subject develops a relationship with someone he thinks is a 19 year old girl, but discovers a whole web of lies and deceptions that he’s unwittingly been drawn into. Honestly, I sat open mouthed as the fiction was uncovered, it was massively weird and hugely concerning. I don’t want to spoil it, so won’t say much more, but seriously – be careful what you get hooked into online!

*******

Apologies, this is very, very long (but it was either this or a week of posts in which I’d have rambled unnecessarily about each of the films in turn). Ultimately, not only was it a good weekend, but it’s inspired the possibility of a regular London gathering in which we can continue the discipline of watching and discussing, which can only be a good thing (especially as I’ve now worked out how to process films in a speedier fashion).

Eco Barns, Bean Bags, Films and an Organathon

There really is nothing like a weekend out of London, with friends, with a purpose, to blow away the autumnal cobwebs. Last weekend, several of those who’d been to France (and an extra) travelled to the depths of Hampshire for the annual l’Abri film festival in Greatham. More will be written of the film watching anon, but the real highlight of the weekend was spending it with fun people in an, erm, interesting location…

For a start, it involved driving from the East End to the middle of nowhere. This is always fun, especially on the first Friday of half-term, on the M25, and with a time limit (i.e. the beginning of the first film). We needn’t have worried though, because we had Radio 2 for company – joyous, especially between 5 and 7pm when it’s Simon Mayo’s All Request Friday. We felt assured of some cheesy tunes and some mindless banter – which we got, and more… It’s been days, but I’m still ridiculously amused by the featuring of a request on behalf of three organists at Winchester Cathedral who were engaging in a 24 hour sponsored organ playing. Or, as the Cathedral billed it, an ‘organathon’. Or, as Simon Mayo emphasised it, an ‘organathon’. Tee hee.

Because we are a caring bunch of people (with little money), we chose to stay in an Eco Barn for the weekend. On paper, this sounded like a good(ish) thing – sustainable living; no unnecessary energy use; beautiful location… However, an unheated barn is not the best place for sleeping in late October (as possibly indicated by the fact that it closes for the season at the end of the week). It was beautiful, but it was flipping cold. So cold that I dared not remove any clothing on Saturday morning, so remained unshowered. So cold that people began talking about returning to London late that night instead of freezing.

See, it’s beautiful, no?

Fortunately, we were destined to be saved and in quite a pleasing, warm and fuzzy (literally) way. One of the group had stayed in Chichester on Friday and brought her host with her to Saturday morning’s film. On hearing of our predicament, she offered her flat (she was going away) and thus, unexpectedly, we awoke in Chichester, not the Eco Barn, on Sunday morning. This was definitely a good thing – I’d had 10 minutes in Chi last year and now finally, I got to explore it. [I did, however, end up sleeping on a giant bean-bag – which was both crunchy and slightly difficult to roll over on.]

There’s shopping of a type similar to that found in Cheltenham, Bath and Windsor; lots of interesting, quirky shops; and a cathedral…

But the best thing about not being near Guildford, was that we were near the beach. Hello West Wittering!

Country pubs and Sunday lunches aren’t to be sniffed at either. It’s perhaps more indicative of a banging headache that had afflicted me all weekend (and the streaming cold it developed into) that I found the following exchange funny, but seriously, could you keep a straight face and ask the following?
“Can I have half a badger please?”
“Can I try a bit of the badger please?”
God bless British real ale…

Two firsts

As if this week wasn’t big enough – what with the job leaving and house moving – Sunday saw me give my first ever proper sermon at church. I may have spoken in churches before, usually for work in a “we’d like a talk about world mission” context, but this was my first time in my church and the first time I’d had to prepare something on a specific passage.

Preparation went fairly smoothly (it certainly helps when you get told 3 months ahead of time) and I managed to get a fairly comprehensive draft done before I went to France. Well, I kind of needed to, given as I was getting home less than 24 hours before the service was due to begin. I got a bit of extra work done thanks to an unnerving habit I have of waking up early on holiday, so got half an hour to myself several mornings in a row. Sat outside in the beautiful countryside with just me for company was blissful – if only we’d had a kettle with which to make tea… (Do you know how hard group holidays are for introverts? Especially an introvert rooming with two extroverts who talked non-stop?!)

My night-before-sermon preparation was slightly hampered by post-holiday blues, the distraction of photo editing, and minorly traumatic phone calls with friends, but by the time I got to church super early, all was serene. In fact, I was so serene that even a minor technical difficulty meaning a YouTube video I’d chosen couldn’t be shown didn’t floor me. Plus, there were bacon sandwiches. How I love my church and their pre-morning service bacon sarnies…

Preaching on a passage that ends with the line: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” was an interesting one. Anyone preached much on vomit before? Actually, I decided to go with a theme of calling, which is apt both for Jonah and my life – and hopefully relevant to the few people who actually turn up at church on a Sunday morning in mid-August.

The talk itself seemed to go ok. In fact, I was just getting into my stride when a couple walked into the church and sat down near the front. Soon after this, I could hear murmurings and mumblings. Initially, I thought it was someone from my student small group being funny, then figured that even they wouldn’t be that childish. I’m not sure if I connected the noises with the latecomers until one of the pair got up when I was around two paragraphs from the end.

He didn’t stand up and leave quietly – this was no parent going to rescue a screaming child from crèche – he stood, yelled something along the lines of “this is all bollocks” and walked out noisily. It was my first sermon and someone had just walked out swearing – I’m not sure that’s a great start to a glittering career in the priesthood! But, I carried on regardless, barely batting an eyelid and completely ignoring the disruption. The only effect it had upon me was causing me to completely forget how I’d intended to finish off the talk – as in my final sentence – but, given the circumstances, I think that’s ok.

It’s not the first time there’s been heckling at church, but it is very rare. The last time it happened was over two years ago and was so notable that I blogged about it. On that occasion, the speaker paused and interacted with the heckler because he was being so disruptive – I’m just glad mine decided to leave. But what is the right thing to do? Ignore them? Engage with them? Tough call.

I think I made the right decision and, on the plus side, it gives me an excellent story for a subsequent sermon. But honestly, what are the chances of one’s first sermon being interrupted by a heckler? What do I do to deserve such things? One friend announced on Sunday afternoon that I was clearly destined for a glittering preaching career if someone had tried so hard to disrupt my first ever talk…I kind of like that way of thinking!

Oh, and if you’re at all interested, you can listen to the talk here.