Thursday, April 30, 2009

Coping with un-imagined complexity

Another meeting straight after the lunchtime Eucharist in Cardiff Castle central tower. The Countdown 2009 Transport, Way-finding and Public Realm combined Focus Groups, still trying to resolve outstanding issues on all three fronts. To be honest, we've not moved beyond transport yet, as there are so many sticking points. Today we heard that there'd been a recent meeting of taxi owners with police and others. A very useful practical report was presented, spelling out the problems and how they need to be managed.

I didn't attend that meeting, but Sister Wendy did. I was able to tip her off about it on Good Friday, and with her first hand experience of taxi problems on the clubbing scene, I felt sure she'd be able to make a worthwhile contribution.

We also had a valuable presentation on city traffic management and the policy challenges this has to embrace. Again, this is one of those issues which all city travellers have an opinion about, yet rarely do end-users have any breadth of perspective on the complexity of factors which contribute to making transport flow. It's bad now, scheduled to get worse, according to current predictive models. However environmental crisis pressures are likely to take a new form in coming decades. The cost of car ownership may well become prohibitive due to the cost of fuel, carbon taxes and congestion charges, and that will increase demands for public transport. Will the city's systems to up to the challenge?

Down to County Hall this evening for a meeting of the Street Carers' Forum Representative Group. Our task, to thrash out the final form of the training evening for volunteers, planned for the end of May. Group members expressed their concerns about the impact of the collapse of the MAST social housing scheme for vulnerable people. This crisis is a result of a change in government policy towards the reception of housing benefit. It could precipitate a hundred or more people on to the streets, and that will have an added impact on those providing voluntary care.

Having been privileged to hear the other side of the story, I was able to share with the group my understanding of just how much hassle this is causing those charged with statutory duties of care, working within the Council. An exercise in prudent financial stewardship in Whitehall in the wake of the recession leads to a demand that local government review local practise. The outcome topples
a local service providor who used his initiative in response to the needs of the homeless. What happens in the voluntary sector mirrors what happens also in industry, even though the mechanisms are very different.

In the next round of economic development, stability and sustainability of initiative will play a different role altogether - providing everyone learns from the mistakes of the past decade.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Half empty or half full?

This afternoon's Vision Forum meeting was held in Cardiff University's Senate building oak panelled Council Chamber, a room breathing seriousness of purpose, embedded in the history of learning in Wales, as well as the City.

As I entered this prestigious building I tried to recall if I had ever entered these hallowed portals before, either during my two year sojourn at St Michael's Llandaff when I attended some University lectures, or at any other time. It was all unfamiliar to me. I had to ask my way at the porter's lodge.

It was a good setting for this periodic meeting of executive leaders in public service bodies and governmental agencies, which strives to keep in view all the major developments and projects that will have consequences for the way our city works, affecting everyone who has to give an organisational lead. My role is simply to observe and feed back relevant information to Archbishop Barry.

The key input of this meeting was a report from Paul Orders, head of economic policy, on how the current recession is affecting various aspects of life in the City, seen from the perspective of its administration. Someone expressed concern about the detrimental effect on the city economy of both retail redevelopment and the lengthy process of pedestrianising St Mary Street. This seemed to me to be based more on what the local newspapers have said, as opposed to real data. But lacking the facts, there was nothing I could say until Paul mentioned the upturn in visitor numbers to Cardiff in the first quarter of 2009.

From City Centre Retail Partnership data, month after month, the economic downturn, whilst worrying, has been far less worrying than it might have been. Numbers of visitors have dipped, as might be expected during a recession, but by no means as severely as feared. Some feisty campaign advertising has kept people curious about what's going on in Cardiff City Centre. Many shoppers as well as visitors have braved ever-changing conditions to come in and shop, rather than stay at home or go elsewhere. Admittedly facts are fragile, but certainly not helped by Media pessimism.

Following on from this, I chaired another meeting of the Countdown 2009 Faith Focus Group in Southgate House. It was, for the most part, a matter of keeping up to speed with steps in the completion of the redevelopment. There are dates now. John Lewis Store is due to open in the last week of of September and the re-development shopping centre, branded no longer as SD2 but as St Davids' Centre, according to this week's press releases, due to open in the last week of October.

Apparently, all the building and fitting-out work is on schedule, and the openings should be delivered as promised. This will, in itself, be a huge feat of consistency, born of disciplined planning and work within one huge perimeter fence. Although so much smaller, getting St Mary Street pedestrianisation right will prove to be a lot more difficult because even more factors of complexity are involved, things nobody even thought of when the idea was first envisaged.

Sadly, few people will thank City engineers for the eventual product of their labours on one street, though many will stand in awe of what Bovis Lend Lease has achieved to bring off this mightily ambitious plan to transform the heart of a city centre.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Laid low

Since returning from Bilbao I have developed a cold. It hasn't made the return to routine all that easy. Instead of feeling well rested after ten days leave, I feel sapped of energy as my body fights off the invasion. The daily news is full of concern about Mexican swine 'flu, so naturally jokes about my miserable condition reflect that anxiety. Airline flight magazines tell us that on-board air conditioning filtration systems reduce the concentration of viruses in cabin air compared with that breathed on the ground. It's little comfort when one has to spend so much time waiting, queuing, and maybe eating and drinking in public places often at close quarters before arriving in such a cleaner environment. I'm annoyed to have caught something on holiday, rather than in the course of work that brings me into close contact with the public. There's so much it's impossible to control in life.

Sunday was hard going as a result, of feeling poorly, especially with the Parish AGM to chair after Evensong. It was a good meeting at the end of a big year of achievement in work done on the church. Now we are challenged with adjusting our sights in the light of the recession, looking at and planning carefully future expenditure on running costs. It comes as a surprise to discover just how much it costs to open the door to lots of events from public voluntary bodies. We think we are welcoming and generous, and they think they too are being generous in return, with donations and charges in place. But inflating costs take their toll over a period, and this is capable of undermining the church's economy, rather than helping sustain it, unless we keep a very careful check, and share our concerns with outside users well in advance.

Having said that, it's interesting to list the church's different sources of income. I quickly listed eight, and there may be more. Such diversity assists long term economic stability, even if there are times when we never seem to have enough money to do properly what we'd like to do. It's so different from commercial enterprises which may focus narrowly on particular strands of supply and demand, profitably, so long as demand persists, but when it doesn't disaster strikes.

Times On-Line currently has an essay by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the significance of traditional Sabbath keeping. It touches on the danger of basing an economy on artificially stimulated desires for products, and reliance on credit for satisfaction - taking the 'waiting out of wanting', as the Access Credit card of the 1970s used to proclaim, to my annoyance. You can read it here. It's well worth pondering.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bilbao (4)

We had a couple of hours to spare before taking the airport bus, so I made a solo excursion, leaving June to pack (I take a bag and rarely unpack more than a minimum on short trips). I took a brisk walk down the length of the Grand Via to cross the river and take a look at the fine 19th century Ajuntamente, the town hall building, with a famous abstract iron sculpture in front of it - there are many such sculptures in the city. There's an installation piece made of piles of iron ore pellets. My favourite is by Dalvador Dali, called the Spirit of the Muse - at least it's wrought iron, and doesn't resemble a few girders just twisted into an odd shape.

The piece in front of the Ajuntamente is by Basque sculptor Jorje Otieza is called 'The Ovoid Variation of the De-occupation of the Sphere', representing, as the guide-book says, 'the artist's concern with emptiness'. That's a sphere made up of girders. On the opposite side of the river on the promenade, I found a wrought iron semi-abstract sculpture of a discus thrower, elegant and poised in action. It made for good photography in the morning light.

It struck me that the city seemed to have plenty of birds singing in the trees, but few pigeons, and no seagulls whatsoever. I found this as surprising as seeing a river empty of boat traffic. It seems as if the policy of scrupulously clean street (no cleaning machines, only people) and well organised waste and re-cycling management has paid off, leaving scavengers nothing to live off in the public realm. Added to that is the social habit of eating together, browsing food convivially - which is how tapas consumption strikes me - people just don't wander the streets feeding their faces, and te environment is so much better for it as a result.

I took the tram back to the hotel to collect my sister and our bags for the short walk to the bus terminus, where we were able to use up the last euros on our Creditrans cards for our airport journey. e gave ourselves plenty of time, not only for check-in, but also to take a proper look at Calatrava's airport, before setting off an another two stage flight, returning to Heathrow. No long walk to the connecting flight this time, as the flight was Iberia, not BA, but lots of confusion at the gate, where there was a border police passport control as well as airline passport checks with boarding cards - two airline checks were needed to weed out passengers confused by the succession of flights for London leaving from adjacent gates, late afternoon, making a total of three passport checks in twenty paces, before boarding.

We landed at terminal three and had a long walk to terminal one to find a taxi home for June and a bus to Cardiff for me. The end of another fascinating journey into another city's life at a point of social and cultural adaptation to the new knowledge based global economy, art and leisure to the fore-front. Where next I wonder?

Photos, hundreds of them, can be found here

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Visit to Bilbao (3)

Like neighbouring Newport, Bilbao boasts a transporter bridge - puente colgante - dating from 1893. Well, it says so at the top left hand corner of the city centre map. It is, in fact a fifteen minute metro ride out of town, eight kilometres away, down-river, near the mouth of the commercial port at a place called Getxo. (NB x=ch as in chuff).

We took the ride to the Portugaleta metro station after breakfast, and emerged disoriented by the district we landed in, up a hillside surrounded by modern low rise apartments, obscuring the landscape so that we had to guess which way to walk to find the river. Not even the town maps were much help.

Nevertheless, we chose the right direction. We walked a couple of hundred metres downhill and turned a corner before the upper bridge structure became visible ahead of us, above the rooftop of a yellow ochre painted former convent turned into a cultural centre. Here the street becomes quite steep, and has a mechanical pavement installed in 2007, like the airports use, to ensure the return journey was not heart-breaking. Not good for keeping fit however.

The bridge may be an industrial monument, but it's also in constant use by vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and proudly maintained. There's an elegant late 19th century hotel, and some public buildings forming a small square shaded by pollarded plane trees next to it ,also a promenade along the waterfront. All spotlessly clean and tidy, with little sign in this area of the maritime commerce which provided the wealth for such a transport innovation. Just docked in the mouth of the port was a giant cruise liner which towered out of the water, higher than the low rise apartments in the adjacent posh suburb. Tourism rather than shipping is what brings money into the city of today.

We returned to the city centre for a tapas lunch and then turned our attention to the museums. First the Guggenheim, with its unique mix of modern art, videos, paintings, installations. Most of what we saw infurated my sister, who is far from ignorant or contemptuous of modern art. Much of it intends to challenge the way we see, contributing to the perennial debate - what is art? The work of two Japanese artists either annoyed or disturbed me, while the installations of a Chinese artist caused me to stand and contemplate for quite a while. All seem driven by the head rather than the heart, and reflect post-modernist ideas which invite you to observe and draw your own conclusions, as there is really no story to be told, no unique superior message to be delivered.

The idea is that reality is always changing, and is constantly capable of being re-formatted and becoming something else but has no ultimate substance to it is hardly new. What is new is the notion that nothing is worthy of worship, therefore worship of the Other is a meaningless activity. This is so far from the familiar ban on idolatry, of worshipping no thing. It leaves us only with ourselves and relationships between us to make sense of in whatever way we find meaningful, yet with no real criteria by which to evaluate anything. A world of wonders and wondering maybe, but wondering in the face of ultimate emptiness and absence.

We were both glad to escape into first the sunshine and thence Bilbao's Fine Art collection a short walk away. Balm for the soul, after the desert. And we needed it. After so much mental stimulus, we took a brief sunset walk again to overlook the Maritime Museum's dry dock as we had on our first night.
On the far side of the river, a giant circus tent. The Canadian 'Cirque du Soleil' was in town for the week. Pity we couldn't have stayed longer to gone to a show. It came to the Millennuim Centre in its first season. Unforgettably beautful and innovative.

On the river below, two boats came into sight in quick succession, the only ones we saw during our stay. These were big canoes for want of a better word, deeper than English rowing skiffs, propelled by five pairs of rowers with a cox and steersman, a typical coastal seagoing craft of the Basque region called 'traineras'. Racing them off-shore is a passionately followed local team sport along the coast. What a surprise.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Visit to Bilbao (2)

Immediately after breakfast I slipped out of the hotel and visited the nearest Metro station to investigate the purchase of a Creditrans pre-pay travel card, as recommended by Manu working at reception. For 5 euros you can obtain about seven zone one city centre journeys, using bus, metro or tram. All journeys vary slightly in price from a euro down to 55 cents depending on mode of transport, but with a card all are discounted. Go outside the zone and more credit is taken, but you can top up from the machines at tram stops. Ingenious and effective.

We took ourselves on the bright green Euskotram to the old town to wander the streets, find the Cathedral of San Sebastian, and the huge covered market on the riverside, with its own steps down to water's edge for uploading fresh fish and maybe other food produce, presumably in times past. I say presumably because there was no evidence along the walled embankments of any current active moorings, and no sign of any water traffic, either leisure, or commercial. Since industry died and rail tracks were removed, the river banks have been cleaned up and well furnished with paving, trees, seats sculptures, even an eye-catchingly beautiful new bridge by Calatrava. The water, however appears empty and lifeless, albeit still subject to tidal ebb and flow. I hope I'm wrong about this, but it seems as if the river has not been socially regenerated in the same way the land has.

We returned to the same place and took lunch from the 'Menu del dia' in the Comodor behind the bar area. June was shocked to see how tapas diners littered the floor with wrappings and cigarette detritus - people eat drink and smoke as well as talk animatedly while they take lunch. All the bar surfaces tend to be laden with ready prepared tapas dishes, leaving scant room for plates, glasses, or rubbish. By contrast, the Comedor only slightly more expensive for the same food, was immaculate, and we were served with a bottle of wine and a bottle of water to accompany our 13 euro three course meal.

Not wanting to waste time with a siesta, even though we were tired, we walked off the lunch heading towards the Guggenheim, taking in the bright new recently opened shopping mall, en route. It has four levels of retail and a glass roof, and only when we saw the notice in Spanish offering 2 hours free parking to shoppers when you spend more than 15 euros (so you could just park and lunch), was its geographical location evident. We could have been just about anywhere on earth that uses the Latin alphabet. Bilbao is a city with a strong sense of place because of its distinctive Basque language (placed above the Spanish in all street signage), its fabulous food and its traditional building syle. There were only hints of localisation in the mall's decor. Let's hope we can do better in Cardiff.

We wen't ready to inspect the museum content only to look at them in context, walk around and take photographs, with so much to absorb along the broad tree-lined river bank promenade. The Frank Geary'designed titanium plated oddly shaped giant of a building showcasing Guggenheim's collection of installation sculpture and video is so utterly different from any other building in the city, that its' a shock to the eye. It's located with a high level bridge immediately behind it. This brings the main road in from the airport down a steep incline through a giant portal with bright cerise coloured surfaces, like a child's toy building block. At first sight it's an astonishing clash - garish portal and shiny titanium rounded surfaces of the Guggenheim. You might always hate it, as it seems to defy any aesthetic model of environmental harmony. However, the eye gets accustomed to it. In time it blends in, becomes a distinctive reference point in the townscape.

Half a kilometre up-river, Calatrava's distinctive bridge links the north bank with low rise tenement buildings of six storeys, to new apartments on old industrial sites. Twin glazed towers rise twenty storeys high, adding another distinctive feature to the skyline, capping the rooves of buildings on higher ground behind. Up to the tenth floor, the towers are clad in handsome gray stone, giving the impression that the glass rises up out of the stone. From a courtyard area at the foot of the bridge rise several flights of steps in the same gray stone going up 20 metres to street level in the 19th century quarter like a processional way. At the riverside, new buildings preserve the facade of 19th century predecessors, (as with Alto Lusso on Bute Terrace) conveying a sense of the new rising from the old. The ensemble of bridge and buildings is powerful, impressive.

With so much to see, and so much walking, we tired ourselves out, and bought some food on the way back to the hotel, so that we didn't have to got out again. We needed an early night to soothe the aches. Thankfully the room was quiet, high up on the tenth floor, with a view of the setting sun shining on the skin on the Guggenheim a mile away across the rooftops.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Visit to Bilbao (1)

With a nine o'clock flight from Gatwick, June insisted we book into an airport hotel in order to get a night's sleep before rising early to negotiate our way with some degree of freshness through the check-in, security and shopping to the departure lounge. Famous last words.... We reminisced about younger days when we'd sleep on a bench at the airport to catch an early flight.

Our seventh floor room at the Sofitel, two minutes walk from check-in, was soundproofed and air-conditioned, but once our noisy air conditioning was switched off, we became aware of a persistent hum emanating from electrical equipment in a neighbouring room, maybe its air conditioning, or a pump emitting a loud mains frequency hum. This turned our hundred quid a night room into a luxury Guantanamo cell with its own sleep deprivation torture.

Somewhat bleary eyed, we checked in, then dozed our way to Madrid. The Richard Rogers Partnership which produced Cardiff's own Senedd Building also produced Madrid airport. His slatted wooden roof design feature is highly visible here, most impressive, except that this Euro-hub airport with a capacity for 35 million passengers a year has two buildings, each a kilometre long and a kilometre apart, joined by a subway shuttle whose vehicle is almost identical to that familiar to Brits at Gatwick.

Our internet booking was uninformative on making the transit between flights. We landed at Madrid, found scant information about our connection, until someone explained that the departure lounge in question was at the other terminal. We had to walk the length of the terminal, then endure a passport and full security check to board the shuttle to enter the other terminal and walk most of its length to find our departure gate. Signage was adequate, but not designed with disoriented foreigners in mind. It included, without explanation, timings in minutes from one designated area to another. Useful if you knew why, worrying if you didn't know there was a shuttle, a security check etc etc. In-flight magazines contain airport maps and detailed information to decode the mystery, of course - but if you're dropping off before the 'plane starts to taxi, and awaken on landing, one can miss out.

As we rushed along our 'adventure trail' from one terminal to another, we kept running into other English passengers hunting for 'baggage reclaim' and an exit to the airport, not realising that they had been delivered with little explanation to the virtual 'extension' of the main terminal where 'native' flights (i.e. BA, carring Iberia booked passengers) have to land because they are 'non-Schengen Treaty' entrants to the EU. This a consequence of being 'Fortress Britain'. We put them through the hoops when they arrive here, they put us through the hoops when we arrive there, unless we can get on one of their 'planes and get delivered closer to our flight connection gate without a 55 minute panic stricken hunt for our next departure destination.

Well, we made it, with sufficient time, but the experience was unworthy of this great piece of social architecture. I even managed to take a dozen photos en route! After all, they could hardly leave without us, as they had our luggage in transit as well. The ethically indecent part of our journey was having to cover the same piece of sky in reverse, flying north 45 minutes on the same route to get to Bilbao. With few direct flights a day, the alternative was the Plymouth to Santander ferry, but that would have robbed us of the experience of Santiago de Calatrava's airport, to revive flagging spirits. It has his signature element - mastery of making curved concrete beams fly elegantly to create space that light can inhabit. Buildings like sculptures in the landscape.

Most of the airport building is under one giant roof, shaped like a cross between a dove with outspread wings and a clamshell - homage to the location of Bilbao on the route to Compostella. From the airport bus we had a good distant view of the building nestling in the hillside at the edge of the plain occupied by the runways. Brilliant white set in green grass, looking like a giant bird settling - pure visual poetry.

I wish Cardiff had a Calatrava building, preferably with a bridge thrown in. Perhaps I should start a campaign for the proposed Convention Centre?

After we'd found our hotel and settled in, we ate at an excellent tapas bar and then strolled out to watch the sunset over the Maritime Museum (a dry dock with some interesting local shipping laid up in it) at the side of the river Nervion, which runs through the centre of the city and is the axis for the regeneration project (Ria 2000) which has been transforming the heart of city now for almost twenty years now.

Bilbao is not Clydeside, or Barrow or Newcastle, yet it shares with them a history of shipbuilding and ironworking concentrated in a river valley ten miles or so inland from the estuary port opening up into the Bay of Biscay - key to its long maritime history, like Liverpool. Next to the Maritime Museum is the Euskalduna Concert Hall and Convention Centre, a huge building the colour of rusted iron, giving weight to its vocation as a talk shop for the 21st century, an ideas foundry. Everywhere around, both in historical artifacts and modern installations, there are reminders of the iron industry which was for several centuries the muscle of this region.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

No so Low Sunday

It's rather disappointing self fulfilling prophecy that Low Sunday, the Octave of Easter, is traditionally presumed to be a low key affair in every sense, with a lower overall attendance as well. So it was with us, with half the number of people attending worship. However, this year there was an un-typical occasion that made the day a non-routine Sunday.

Martin Sheldon, Tredegarville Baptist Church's representative on the City Centre Churches Together committee, is a member of the Welsh Lib-Dems. A couple of months ago he asked if I would be willing to organise a short Sunday service for members of the Christian Lib-Dem group attending the annual Wales conference, this year being held in Cardiff.

The best time for this would be after breakfast, and before the first session of the morning. I thought it would be possible to fit in between the eight and ten o'clock Eucharists, and more likely to succeed in attracting worshippers than if they had to trek out of their conference venue (the Angel Hotel) and around to the church. I was right on that account, because the attendance of fifteen was the best they'd managed in the several years they've been organising a service.

I devised an ecumenical Service of the Word with suitably 'prophetic' scripture readings. These were delivered with both passion and understanding by the three people who'd volunteered to read. I got the impression that my brief homily on the potential of scripture to stimulate and challenge us to just and compassionate action was appreciated.

It's not an easy thing for people of faith in the secular world of politics to own up to these days, because of the fear of fundamentalism and literalism that distorts the perception and judgement of hearers. Yet, it's a point needing to be heard as an encouragement by those whose hearts are touched by remembered words and precepts received from within the tradition of faith. I was glad to be there for them, and honoured to be asked.

We had a splendid non-routine family lunch, due to a post-Easter birthday visit from Rhiannon and her parents, plus Uncle Owain. I received a belated birthday present from Kath and Anto, bought while they were in Spain - the latest album by 'Ojos de Brujo'. There was just enough time to download it on to my mp3 player to take with me on the bus to London, to meet up with my sister June for another excursion, this time to Bilbao in Spain, catching up on missed post-Christmas leave.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Arthur's stone

Yesterday we drove up on to the common land behind Oxwich Bay and walked the length of Cefn Bryn, the high rocky outcrop that crosses South Gower. There's a megalithic tomb on the north edge of the common, overlooking the estuary, as old as the pyramids of Egypt. a single rock weighing several tonnes is perched on haf a dozen stones protruding from rocky ground. You have to wonder at how it was put there. When you walk around it, the edifice looks different from every angle, as it is so irregular, and at every viewpoint there is a different landscape backdrop - a small marvel of its own. Why it's named after Arthur is anyone's guess. He's figured big in everyone's imagination at some time or another over a dozen centuries.

Funnily enough we watched a modern film about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, set in the time of the withdrawal of the Roman Empire from Britain in the fifth century. It was an altogether odd concoction of ideas and bad acting thrown together into an action packed costume drama spectacle, lacking in depth - a bit like a comic strip version of the past, realistically drawn, good to look at, but not adding up to much in the final analysis. I suppose film, unless it's truly great film is rarely equal to the power of story telling, which gives so much more room for the listener's imagination to work. Film attempts to represent things with degrees of authenticity or not, depending on what the producer sets out to achieve, but in the end it's the director's choice of what's to be divided between his imagination shown on film, and yours, that can constrain the spirit.

I can see that occasionally selected film extracts might be a useful resource to add into an act or worship or meditation, but they would be so much harder to choose than a passage of poetry or prose, because of their ability to constrain imagination rather than release it. I can view a score of images of the crucifixion, realistically depicted from costume drama, theatre or church ritual, and end up bemused, feeling I am poised on the verge of the ludicrous, (like in the final execrable scene of the 'Life of Brian') rather than moved by Christ's agony.

Yet one painting, or a statue can unlock deep inner feelings, even if it is quite abstract, because it creates room for imagination to work. Likewise a photograph of a real life tragedy capturing the archetypal sorrow and suffering of the passion. What we don't say can be more powerful a trigger than what we state obviously. Which is perhaps why a few bare stones on a mountain top today still have power to conjure up connections with millennia long past.

Today, it's back home to Cardiff in the rain, no more walking possible, the weekend to prepare for and then for me, another outing to Spain for a few days with my sister June. Monday night in Bilbao, if all goes according to plan.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A break in the holiday

Monday we walked from Oxwich to Three Cliffs Bay. It was a trifle chilly but the weather was otherwise good for walking, and everywhere was alive with the colour of spring flowers. Tuesday we walked in the other direction, across to Port Eynon, where we holidayed eleven years ago. Again perfect walking weather, spring flowers and birdsong. Gower really has kept its rich bio-diversity as well as its extraordinary beauty, perhaps because its woodlands and hedgerows are much the same way they have been for the past couple of centuries.

Today I had to drive back to Cardiff to conduct a wedding, celebrate the midday Eucharist, and attend a meeting making preparations for the Religious Diversity and Anti-Discrimination training workshop being held in Cardiff in mid-May. This promises to be most interesting, and I'm glad to be involved in it. Thankfully, the drive home only took eighty minutes. It's amazing how much post and how many emails can arrive when you're away only for a couple of days. That's the problem of having a 'home office'.

I arrived back in Oxwich in time for supper, and the Archers, having managed to figure out how to obtain BBC Radio Four on the Sky network supplying the cottage with digital signals. I'd have preferred a broadband connection for convenience of programming and keeping up with then news in my own time, but pay-as-you go mobile broadband isn't worth additional expenditure just for holidays, especially when you can't always be sure of a stable mobile phone signal in delightful corners of the world that are safe and quiet enough to eschew street lighting. Not a bad thing really, to give the rest of the world a miss for a few days.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The feast of feasts

Just eight of us met as the sun set last night, to light the Paschal Candle and announce the resurrection. In addition to the four regulars and myself at eight o'clock this morning, there were another fifteen people in church, a bit like last Easter Sunday, when an american teacher turned up with a party of high school students to join us and make their Easter Communion. This time it was mainly delegates attending the annual NUT conference, this year being staged in St David's Hall. One of them was Nina from Bristol, a woman I prepared for confirmation twenty eight years ago when she was a young secondary teacher living in the St Paul's area. What a surprise. We haven't met in all those years since I left there.

At the main Eucharist there were ninety people in church, visitors from all over the world, but also once more, delegates from the NUT conference, from all over Britain. There was a vibrant and joyful atmosphere, and it really felt like Easter Day. Clare said she felt like dancing out in the choir procession to the paschal melody Philip was playing on the organ. After lunch, I took Communion to the three people currently receiving at home, then to round off the day of worship, at Evensong instead of there being a dozen, there were forty people in church. Some were making their second visit of the day.

With ninety seven communicants and a total of 150 worshipping with us today, that's the best Easter attendance in St John's in my time, possibly in a decade. And let's face it, that's thanks to the NUT national conference being on the doorstep, and the inspiring fact that so many teachers, including many willing to take a lead and exercise responsibility, are practising Christians. They give themselves to imparting new life to society through their special ministry to young people.

After Evensong, Clare and I drove down to the Gower, to Oxwich, where we've hired a holiday cottage for the inside of the week, in a delightful village, within earshot of the sea. It was dark by the time we arrived, but the skies were clear, and in this place without street-lighting, the glory of the heavens was thrilling to behold. We walked to the beach in the dark, and stood for a while looking and listening, savouring the peace enfolding us at the end of a very busy week and weekend. I'm tired. Nevertheless, He is risen indeed. That's all that matters.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Two celebrations

Sixty four today - another Easter birthday in bright spring sunshine. I woke up after a good night's sleep, refreshed and not at all exhausted after yesterday's marathon. Card, presents, leisurely breakfast, shopping, lunch in the garden with Owain and Clare, family phone calls, contentment.

This evening, just eight of us in church to announce the resurrection and renew our baptismal vows. City centre pubs were alive and buzzing as the sun went down, Cardiff Blues had just beaten visitors from Toulouse, and there were lots of glum French supporters out and about.

We do the service very simply, and it only lasts about twenty minutes. That's enough after a long week with an energetic celebration to come tomorrow morning. Singing the Paschal proclamation is something I love to do, plus reading the Gospel of the empty tomb. 'Night most blessed, when heaven is wedded to earth and all creation reconciled to God.' What a birthday present!

Good Friday - mission

An early start yesterday morning, leaving home by car at five to seven for St David's in Pembrokeshire to preach the Three Hours at the Cathedral, with the sounds of Taviner's 'Lament for Jerusalem' accompanying me for the first hour of the drive - mostly in rain. The west of Carmarthen, the cloud broke and the weather perked up, and the second hour was accompanied by the sound of my dear departed friend Patrick singing his songs of romance and good cheer. I was there in bright sunshine by tend past nine, and had plenty of time to relax, pray, take photos in and around the Cathedral before my midday start.

The sun streamed in as I preached, and people came and went, as they ever do. A audience of completed strangers, apart from the Dean designate and, to my great delight my old friends Bob and Elaine Morgan. They have been living locally since his retirement from Ely, now some fifteen years ago. Bob, along with David Lee, was a mentor and role model of radical priesthood when I was in training and new to ministry, so to have him sitting there listening, when he's heard it all so many times before made me wonder what he'd make of my offering. He was very kind afterwards, as were several others, who asked if I'd published any of my material. I gave them the church's FutureFaith blog site address, resolving to go home and upload the addresses there straight away. Well, why not, if people show a genuine interest?

I was home again by half past five, enjoying home made hot cross buns again - I'd had some last night after the Maundy Thursday evening liturgy, and again for breakfast. An annual treat. Then it was out again from eight until half past eleven for the other Good Friday Vigil at St John's this year. Sister Wendy, Pub Church Leader James Karran and Lorraine Cavanagh the University Chaplain arranged an audio visual prayer experience under the title 'Why Call this Friday Good?' geared to attract night time clubbers and revellers. They had a team of volunteers leafletting passers-by, offering hot drinks and biscuits and trying to persuade them to come in. They worked hard and enthusiastically, but only a couple of dozen came in during the three hours.

There were half a dozen tables arrange with images, lights and texts for reflective meditation. They opted for low lighting, but unfortunately this made it difficult to read the texts, all of which were printed for reading in ordinary light - you live and learn, I guess. There was a huge screen in the chancel displaying images from a digital projector of crucifixion scenes, and a couple of other projectors giving a light show to go with loud disco music being pumped out a PA system, to bring the ambience of the disco into church. The sound was rather taxing for me, so I hung around outside for much of the time, and strolled the streets, where, over the time, I got into useful conversation with several people.

These included a young couple out on their second date, curious at me attempting to take a night shot of the Hayes arcade under construction, one young Irish girl, much enthused by her brief experience of entering the church, another who was having what I'd call a life threatening panic attack, so overwhelmed by painful memories that she wanted to kill herself that day. I took her for a walk to somewhere quieter, and by the time we parted, I'd heard about her terrible suffering, the faith in God that kept her alive, and we'd talked about prayer. He was on her way home with a smile and brighter eyes, by the time we concluded.

I bumped into a couple of the street pastor team, and as we were chatting, a couple of policemen showed up and asked if they had a pair of flip-flops to give out - they carry packs of flip flops to aid women who have broken a heel, lost a shoe or found their latest accessory unwearable after an hour on the dance floor - but on this occasion the flip-flops were for a shame-faced feller who had lost a shoe in a pub, and just couldn't find it, despite a search. We all enjoyed that one.

By the time I got back to church, the final act of worship was drawing to a close, with mostly members of the outreach team present, plus four of our church members, who'd come along out of interest - all of them having also been present for the Vigil during the afternoon - brave souls as they are. It was a good thing to experiment with something like this in the heart of clubland. There's a lot to learn that can only be learned by doing. I'll be interested to hear what the team have learned, that they might be able to apply on another occasion.

I was delighted to hear that Ben, David and Will had done a great job together conducting the Three Hour Vigil at the Cross during the afternoon. I spent much of Tuesday reading and commenting on their seven addresses, sent to me by email. I know how much hard work they put in, to match their enthusiasm for the challenge, and that evidently came across from the appreciative feedback I received.

Having found it impossible to find a single experienced preacher for the Three Hours, once I'd decided to accept the invitation to preach in St Davids, I wondered if working with theological students would be possible, given their term-time work-load. Peter Sedgewick, Principal of St Michael's College was supportive when I ran the idea past him, and I was pleased that Ben was keen to do it himself, and willing to enlist others. It worked. It gave them a taste of preaching to a 'non-captive' audience - quite rare nowadays, when you think of the faithful band of regulars who turn up in Parish churches week in week out. They showed everyone who listened that the church isn't just old guys like me, but that the Gospel still captures young hearts and fires up young minds to take and break the Word of Life for God's people.

That's something achieved I feel really satisfied with - along with the rest of a mighty good day.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Race hate crime in Cardiff

Yesterday morning, I attended the launch of a new research report entitled 'Race Hate Crimes in Cardiff', at the Greyfriars HQ of Race Equality First, Cardiff. The report was described as only a snapshot of the situation, based on enquiries of under 200 people, but it was indicative of cause for concern on several levels.

About three quarters of those interviewed said they had experienced an incident of racist abuse or assault, but not reported it - either because they didn't know how, or to whom a report should be made, or because they didn't think it would lead to any action. Police response to complaints was worryingly mixed, from terrible to satisfactory. About a third of those surveyed said their abuse related to the fact that they were wearing some form of religious dress among women or distinctive beard among men. You can read the Western Mail's report

The city centre came out as an area of the city with three times higher a rate of abuse incidents than other. This is understandable. It's an area where people can be anonymous, behave in ways they wouldn't, if they were being watched by their neighbours. Also excessive drinking, results in behaviour less inhibited, more prone to aggression. Cardiff is more diverse in the character of its population now, both ethnically and religiously, than it ever has been, right across the city, not just down the Bay.

Nobody should forget that 'Tiger Bay' was one of the first places to experience 'race riots' back at the turn of the twentieth century, linked to unemployment and the fears arising from it. Islamophobia has been stoked up by sterotyping and sensationalist reportage in the populist media since 9/11 and 7/7. Cardiff 's population is more diverse than ever, but some who live in or frequent the city are either anxious or resentful of this.

Cardiff is my home city, yet I have endured more incidences of verbal abuse when out in public in my 'religious dress' in seven years, than in the previous thirty three years of and ministry put together. These days, clergy get attacked on their own doorsteps, and police officers out on the streets.

Contempt for authority, disrespect towards those who are visible as members of a faith community is increasingly common. Secularism is proving itself to be no guarantee of neutrality or indifference towards a person's faith or their standing the community. Ignorance and contempt of the contribution of faith communities to society has helped breed an attitude of disrespect and intolerance towards people who openly express their faith. Like it or not, this leads to vulnerable people being victimised. Nowhere is this negative attitude better illustrated than in today's ill informed attack by the national secular society on the part played by hospital chaplains in the work of the NHS.

A long time ago I had to learn to put up with people taking the mickey out of me when I walked the streets of a miners' housing estate, or went into a pub, and bat back with good humour - 'tease and be teased' was the name of the game. It was a testing start to making relationships and gaining an entry into a close knit community. I chose to accept this as part of being a religious professional.

Nobody, for any reason whatsover should have to put up with insults or threats because they cover their heads or their bodies, as a matter of belief or self-respect. It is outrageous, unacceptable. It is also linked to policy that has made our city centre a free-for-all place where anything goes. Police and ambulance services have to pick up the pieces. The rest of us pay the bill, one way or another.

I'd like to believe that the tide is turning at last, on the basis of another report today on fresh efforts to improve the reputation of Mill Lane, as an open air restaurant area. Let's hope that better social controls on binge drinking, AND a concerted effort to gain support for exposure and sanctioning of those who display racist attitudes and abuse people for showing their religious identity.

There's a tendency to think that attitude changes can all be achieved by better schooling, long term. This disregards that fact that much of what gets learned in school is forgotten or discarded. Peer group pressure, and the right kind of public opinion formation to back the enforcement of anti-discrimination and race hate legislation is what's most needed.

You can download the Report here

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Holy Week begins

Another bright chilly spring morning for our Palm Sunday Eucharist, and a good crowd of people in attendance, fifty in all, including my Norwegian friends Sven and Susan, who are staying in a hotel nearby. It was lovely to be able to welcome them and chat after the service. Sven was pleasantly distracted every now and then during our conversation by the sound of the choir rehearsing for this evening's service. So nice to share the pleasure of the place and its people with a good friend with whom I've shared worship in previous times and places. As a cleric that can be quite a rare thing, as we tend to move from job to job, and don't always get opportunities to revisit or renew acquaintances forged by work, once we get stuck into a new situation.

After lunch I started revising my material for Good Friday, and ended up writing something for Evensong on torture and the wounds of Christ. Reading the Guantanamo Diary book is still raw and fresh in my mind, and I felt the need to share my reflections on it. Having not preached this morning, to allow the reading of the Passion to have its full weight, a sermon at Evensong didn't seem un-necessary. The choir sang four extra pieces, and we were still finished in less than an hour. A satisfactory start to the best week of the year.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Consecration day

Despite the chill air and big clouds the rain held off today, which was something of a comfort to the family and friends of the two couple who got married at St John's this afternoon. Just before I set off for church to prepare, I had a phone call from Sven Oppegaard, a Norwegian Lutheran Pastor who worked at the World Vouncil of Churches in Geneva during my time there. He was down at St John's, hoping to see me and say hello before going to the Cathedral for the afternoon consecration ceremony of Gregory Cameron as Bishop of St Asaph and David Willbourne as Assistant Bishop of Llandaff. He's here representing the Norwegian Luthernan Church, from Oslo, where he now works as a national Ecumenical officer. We were able to have half an hour together sitting outside in the sunny churchyard, sheltered from the wind, hastily catching up on the past seven years.

After the weddings I made my way up to the Cathedral and slipped in at the back during Archbishop Rowan's sermon. The Cathedral was full with church dignatories and well wishers from far and wide. There were about three dozen Bishops there, active or retired, sharing in the ceremony, and a huge scrum outside for the photo opportunity plus meet and greet session following. How fortunate it still hadn't rained. I slipped out during the final hymn to be ready to take a few photographs, and the sounds of Wesley's 'And can it be that I should gain an interest in my saviours blood" poured out into precint outside, where a local blackbird was holding forth, equally loudly in praise - an exquisite moment on a special day. The Church in Wales Bench of Bishops is now up to full strength again, after a year of comings and goings, with plenty of new blood leadership to stimulate the faithful, and who knows?, maybe take us a few places we didn't quite expect to go. You'll find some photos of the event here

Friday, April 03, 2009

Christ re-crucified - many times

The day the new library opened, Clare, browsing while waiting for me to finish posting my review of the internet facilities, picked up and started to read a book, which she then brought home and read snatches to me in the days that followed. Needless to say, I ended up reading it too, and have jsut finsihed. 'My Guantanamo Diary' by Mavish Rukhsana Khan is an account of an Afghan American woman who, whilst studying law became a paralegal volunteer interpreter for habeus corpus lawyers working pro bono with detainees.

She tells the story of the Afhgans she met, and of her struggles with the military and their political overlords to retain access to prisoners over the five years she was involved in visiting the camp in Cuba. She also visited prisoners' families in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to obtain evidence which could be used in the hearings which were used to determine their status, or should I say to confirm their status as 'enemy combatants', and keep them outside all standard legal procedures. Most shocking was her revelation that a high proportion of detainees were in every sense innocent civilians sold into captivity, routine degradation, and torture by people lured by $25,000 bounties offered for the capture of terrorist suspects by the Bush administration. This amount of money was more than some would hope to earn in a lifetime. Political rivalries came into it, old scores were settled by the simple expedient of turning over someone to the security services - Pakistani ISS figure frequently in these tales -

Perhaps not enough has yet been written or discussed about the appalling violation of human rights and travesties of justice that went on under the Bush administration. The author did not doubt there were some dangerous terrorists incarcerated there, but maintains that even criminals have a right to fair trials, and more basically to know exactly what they are charged with and why they are detained. She met and was able to research and verify the stories of many innocent detainees, classed as hostile combatants. Accounts of their privations and torture, are appalling, outrageous.

The absence of an transparent juridical procedure open to public scrutiny all in the name of 'state security' is so contrary to American constitutional practise that it's no wonder that hundreds of American and international lawyers threw their considerable resources into the provision of free legal aid for Guantanamo inmates. While the book was being prepared for publication last year, some of the detainees were released, and since then, many more. Now under Obama there are signs of hope that this shameful chapter in American history will come to a close. But will those involved in the secret services and intelligence 'community' ever be held to account for evils to fellow human beings as appalling and unjust as those perpetrated by the nazis?

Yes, the book made me angry, but also much more than that.

Firstly a portrayal of traditional Afghan culture, which is nothing like the usual caricatures one reads in popular media about tribal society. Secondly, the depth of faith expressed by detainees, that enabled them to retain a sense of their own humanity, even when abused, violated, shamed, and subjected to the defilement of their religion and their bodies by indecent and contemptuous acts. All were allowed a copy of the Qur'an. It could be taken away from them as punishment of course. Some witnessed their holy book desecrated - thrown in the toilet bowl, torn up and used for polishing shoes in front of them. Some resisted the slide into insanity by learning the Qur'an off by heart, a prodigious feat, normally the reserve of the very devout. That was something nobody could take away from them. Their God and their religion became their refuge, the one assertion of freedom which could not be stripped of. Even if they were shackled in such a way that they could not perform prayers in the normal way, thy could still recite suras from memory.

One can only admire their spiritual courage. But more than that. A number of them would still express no hatred for their captors, and refused to tar all Americans with the same brush. It was amazing to hear how one man had constantly spoken of his faith in Allah to his guards, and in the course of several years, had won two converts. One from 'Christianity', one from atheism. No doubt many of those soldiers would regard themselves as Christian and maybe even religious, and not all the guards were evil to their prisoners. But the fact that so much inhumanity was meted out, both by individuals and by the system shows that faith in violence is so much stronger in the hearts and minds of many than faith in God.

The stories of those innocent men and their sufferings - a paediatrician, a currency market trader, a police chief, a goat-herd among them - reminded me of Jesus in his passion. Reading this was a good preparation for Holy Week. A reminder that without real faith in God, humanity is quickly lost. Preaching faith in God remains one of the most important projects for saving our world from its shadow self.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Changing local travel habits and other knotty problems

After the Eucharist this lunchtime, I had to leave in haste to arrive at the Castle just in time for the second meeting of the Transport, Public Realm and Wayfinding sub-group of the Countdown 2009 process. I had managed to fulfil my small task from the last meeting, and report on the various Sunday start times of the various worshipping groups in the City centre. Many people coming into town use cars because they feel they can't rely on public transport to get them there in time.

Sunday transport services are not the same as the other days of the week, despite Sunday now being a trading day. We changed the time of our main service from 9.30 to 10.00am, and have seen a sustained increase in attendance because a few more people have found they can now use buses. The increase of buses is geared up to the later shop opening hours. Fine.

Long term City policy is to encourage short term useage of city centre parking, by pricing and time regulation, to suit shoppers, not workers. Sunday workers will tend to use their cars to come in and stay all day, unless public transport and/or Park & Ride allows them to arrive ahead of opening hours to prepare for the day, and is more cost effective than parking in town.

Those who come in for worship may not stay as long as the average shopper. Many of them would prefer to travel in by public transport, as many are bus pass holders - if only buses delivered people consistently and early enough where they want to be ahead of the start of services. The City wants to reduce congestion around the centre, and reducing the need to use the car with timely transport 7/7 not 6/7 has to be part of the answer. The 'no demand at present' responders worry over costs, and don't look at how to influence essential future developments to benefit everyone.

I made my little report and attempted to say that earlier services wasn't just a Faith Group issue, but concerned all who needed to get in early, whose habits of transport were determined by need not being met. Getting lots of people to make the switch, even if there are better services, will not be easy because old habits die hard, but efforts must be made in promotion and incentives to make changes of habit possible.

Questions about cleansing in relation to public transport came up as well. It seems to me that everyone who should make proper provision, whether on the streets or in bus and train stations and on vehicles makes the effort, but the outcome is still far from satisfactory. Like running in front of an avalanche - of rubbish. I just had to pitch in and say that were were failing because there were no curbs on producers of rubbish, the careless consumers on the one hand, and those who supply them - fast food joints and convenience stores - on the other.

More bins, more sweepers - these are not preventative measures. Yet everyone goes quiet and looks down if you start talking about sanctions or enforcement - except the people not at the meeting, who labour daily with the problem of the credibility gap generated between the messages the city gives out and the mess that never quite goes away.

I was surprised to learn that 1900 vehicles are licensed for private hire i.e. taxis, across the city, yet there are only 70 (was it really only 70?) spaces for them to occupy legally while waiting for fares throughout the centre. There are so many problems, because not all taxi drivers will accept passengers going too short, or too long a distance. They aren't supposed to pick and choose, but they do, and often won't take a short distance ride, because they don't want to lose their taxi rank place and have to queue again for a more lucrative job. Now that's a headache for someone to sort out. There's a big meeting of all interested parties, hosted at Central Police station tomorrow. I'd love to be there but can't.

I also learned Cardiff in-town vehicle performance at traffic lights is slower than the national average, and this contributes to congestion. It could be linked, so it was said, to signage being poor or badly placed, leading to slower responses as people work out how to get where they want to go, even if they aren't first time visitors with lie-ing sat-navs.

After the meeting I had time on my hands before a wedding rehearsal, so I spent some time clearing rubbish from the various locked churchyard gardens - first find the right keys, then a bag, then get to work, picking up, and fighting back anger at the evidence of six-packs demolished on the street outside and tossed over the fence, when even leaving them on the pavement would get them swept away within hours. Some of that stuff has been there since before Lent. I'm glad I got aorund to it at last.

Sister Wendy showed up to talk with Philip about the vigil event she is planning for Good Friday evening at St John's, just as my wedding rehearsal was starting. This was a stroke of good fortune, as I was able to tell her about the taxi meeting tomorrow, knowing she has a keen interest in 'taxi justice' because of her experience among clubbers.