The doctrine of the happy commuter (by train)

Here’s a quiz for all my commuting readers, to test your theoretical and practical knowledge on the Doctrine of the Happy Commuter. Is this a philosophical school you are familiar with or is it but a distant concept, rather like Salisbury ~ you know it exists, that it may well be a very pleasant place but you haven’t yet found any reason to go there? It’s not a complicated quiz. It’ll take you about five minutes to complete.

Hopefully it will make you think about how you live out your life and make you a better person. If that’s too much to ask for, perhaps it will just make you envy the gurus of the doctrine of the happy commuter and wish you were a better person, like them. Failing that, you it might make you smile a little on your way to work, which can’t be a bad thing, can it?

If you’re thinking, “Yes, it can,” in answer to that question, perhaps this quiz isn’t for you. Perhaps life isn’t for you, or at least not the one you’re living. Please remember this is only a quiz, it’s only a bit of fun. Getting the wrong answers doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of a place squeezed into an overcrowded train aisle and your life is meaningless. Both those things might be true but neither are the fault of this quiz. Nor might they be your fault. Take it easy on yourself and think through your options after a good night’s sleep and a walk in the fresh air well away from any cliffs.

After you’ve completed the quiz, you’ll be taken back to the top of this post. Scroll down and you’ll find your score where this paragraph is.

1) You can catch a train if you run. Which of the following do you do?

2) Which of the following philosophical statements most closely describes your journey to work?

3) Which of the following activities dominates your commute?

4) Which of the following best describes your journey home from work?

5) In the UK, most people commute by which of the following method?

6) A man is shouting into his mobile phone. What is your preferred response?

7) What is the correct amount of eye contact with strangers on the train?

8) Which is your favourite philosopher?

9) Which of the following do you regard your time at work as?

10) Which of the following trains do you take to work?

South Malling Parish Church Sunday service

Scrapper Duncan's photo of South Malling Parish Church (c) February 2015

South Malling Parish Church

Yesterday morning, I attended the service at the church of St Michael the Archangel, in Lewes. This was my third theological fact finding mission. With each, I’ve been keen to report the first impression of an outsider to the service on offer. First impressions are usually a dangerous thing but I don’t want to make the commitment of regular church attendance. First impressions guide many people, so hopefully these reports will educate the churches themselves as to how they appear to strangers.

South Malling got off to a flying start with an easy to navigate and clear website, albeit one which was evidently unfinished. When the Acting Assistant Vicar, the Reverend Jeremy Bamber reads this, here’s a tip: don’t include a page which is obviously going to be completed later on. Just add it in when the job is done. Otherwise it looks half-hearted. No-one could accuse you of being that in your church. I was mightily impressed when you rushed over to welcome me to your congregation of 35 souls, whose smiles, nods of hello and occasional words were similarly welcoming.

After I had introduced the Reverend Bamber outside Southover Church for the Bonfire Remembrance Service in 2014, I felt embarrassed listening to his sermon. No-one could claim that bonfire boyes and belles are an easy crowd to preach too, least of all me. I know all too well how hostile they can become and have the battle scars to prove it. However, his sermon on that occasion was so poor that I nearly emailed him with some tips on how to make a public speech. Yet yesterday morning, on his own turf, I could hardly believe he was the same man. His sermon was crystal clear, constructive and contained much food for thought.

It was all about the difference between being a mere believer and a disciple of Christ. Disciples, we were told over and over, loved Jesus more than anyone else:

“There is a priority order to our allegiance because we have been designed that way.”

We had to deny our own wants in order to love Jesus more and we had to count the cost of that love. Much of then sermon concentrated on the second theme, which concerned how we measured that love. The message was surprisingly simple: it was easier to count it up in cold cash than by any other method. The regulars ~ visitors were specifically excluded ~ were given three weeks to pray for guidance on how much cash they would donate on a day called, “Giving Sunday.” An unnamed preacher was quoted:

“The last part of a Christian to be converted is his wallet”

Alone, I sat at the back and watched ‘the gig’, somewhat mystified about all that talk about loving Jesus and stewardship without any detailed moral guidance at all as to what that actually meant, apart from the bit about donating money to the church.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of South Malling Church (c) February 2015

Quiz: which is older ~ tree or church?

My close knit community in Lewes

Scrapper Duncan's first row of knitted half-stitches in forty years (c) February 2015

Stitched up

Forty years after I last picked up cheap yarns, I have begun to knit again. I was never an expert knitter like my Mum. This morning’s post is about this new thread in my life, with which I’m being woven further into the fabric of Lewes life. Two Southover Bonfire Society members have decided to teach some of us how to knit, so that we can make our own guernseys. The first lesson was on the morning after Valentine’s Day. We all know how depressing the evening of that day is when we are single and without a date but… Believe me, there is nothing that will concentrate a man’s mind so much as knowing he is going to attend a knitting class in the morning.

During a misconceived attempt to learn to play the guitar during childhood, I went along to a Grade II guitar exam. We arrived at a really posh house and were shown into a sitting room to join a collection of Mothers and nervous looking sons. No-one spoke. We all strained to hear the bad strings from the examination room. My Mum got her knitting out. After ten minutes pierced only by the clicking of her needles, another lady leaned over the coffee table and said to my Mum, “You’re Scottish, aren’t you?” My Mum exclaimed, “Yes, how did you know?The lady replied, “Because of the way you knit, with your little finger.” Apparently there are two basic techniques, varied to taste by each individual knitter. One is called The English Technique and the other, used by everyone else in the world, is called The Continental or Scottish Method. Essentially, the English are slower.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of his knitting teacher (c) February 2015

Knit ready for this

We’re learning the English Technique because that’s what our teachers use. This is my esteemed teacher, Serena. She’s wearing a cardigan she knitted herself. After our little class divided into two, Serena took the group including me and Sarah took the other. We fell into such studied silence that Sarah stood up and announced, “I have never known Duncan become so quiet!” I don’t know how her group fared. James McCauley can make his own report. My comrades all seemed to struggle as much as I did with the collection of apparently contradictory microscopic actions that comprise knitting. Within five minutes I had slipped into a catatonic state. My struggle was as nothing compared to my friend Paul, who bravely began to learn a right-handed technique despite being left-handed. My stasis ended only when Serena’s patient explanations eventually made me understand that the stitches must come off the needle as well as go on.

We were suddenly asked to start again so we could learn a proper knit stitch. Everyone except me. I had got stuck because I had accidentally ignored the instructions I thought I was following and had slipped straight into a full stitch, as half a lifetime’s muscle memory had unstretched itself in my clumsy hands.

A swift one in my local church

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of the clock tower on Southover Church, Lewes (c) February 2015

For whom the bell tolls early on a Sunday morning

My second fact finding mission to the churches of Lewes took me to my local. Expecting to find friends in the congregation at Southover Church, I arrived only a couple of minutes before the ten o’clock service kicked off and sat in the back row, so as not to embarrass them.

I had been briefed as to what to expect, with warnings of homophobia. I had been inside the church before, at the funeral of Lewes’s best loved homosexual, Keith Austin. He also told me that he didn’t like the vicar’s sexual prejudices. Some churchmen do like to bang on about gay people and extra-marital sex. But I heard no such talk from the Reverend Steve Daughtery last week.

The vicar himself was as engaging leading his service as he was in person afterwards, when one of his parishioners made a point of introducing him to me. He chatted to me for longer than I deserved, enthusiastically, even when he heard I was an unbeliever, a blogger and intending to write about all the churches in Lewes. He conceded that one of his clergymen’s reference to Genesis got the story wrong without any sense of needing to dress up the mistake in the clothes of an excuse. Though he compounded the error by saying that Adam and Eve, “ran away from the Garden of Eden.” The story is that they were expelled. Not sure what to make of that divergence?!

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of Southover Church graveyard in Lewes, showing dozens of parked tombstones and only one rent paying tenant (c) February 2015

Who paid the rent?

We were treated to live easy listening music, a big screen hanging down with the words of the sermons, prayers and songs. There were comfy chairs. It was a little chilly but that was mainly because the door immediately behind me kept opening and letting the frosty air in, along with more people. Unwittingly, I had attended a ‘family service’, so I guess much of it was aimed at children. From my disadvantaged viewpoint, I could not see how many kids sat on the floor at the front. There were roughly 200 souls gathered. An impressive turnout.

I guess this is what people call a happy clappy church. Though there was no actual clapping, some did wave hands in the air a bit. I was even tempted to sing along to this song, which reminded me of my time in Wales. However, I didn’t enjoy the music. It didn’t move me. But it moved the regulars and the organ did not perform the function of drowning out mumbled singing. They sang along with enthusiasm.

The theme for the morning was not being spiritually hungry and there were constant references to bread. All in all, it was an easy service to understand, I felt very much included and I was impressed with the number of references to Jesus feeding the physically hungry. Yet when I looked at the box for donations to the local food bank, only three tubs of margarine had been given. This is a congregation with plenty money. Perhaps they don’t really understand poverty?

A lowly soul goes to a high church

Scrapper Duncan's photo of St Anne's Church in Lewes (c) January 2015

The oldest church in Lewes

A few weeks ago I went to church. Apart from weddings and funerals, this was my first church attendance this century.  Irregular readers may be confused as to how a man of the cloth, such as myself, can have avoided the communion of Christians on a Sunday morning. The answer lies in the fact that I am a Bishop of Lewes Bonfire. For more information about that, please read my Tourist Guide To Lewes Bonfire. I went to church that morning because a dear friend asked me along and she’d just given me breakfast, so it seemed the decent thing to do.

Thus, I went to St Anne’s Church on Lewes High Street, where I received an incredibly warm welcome. The first thing the Reverend Canon Richard Moatt said to me when we stepped inside was, “I’m sorry about the heating, the thermostat is broken.” Churches have heating nowadays?! When I went along with the Boy Scouts, they were cold, draughty, uninviting places. St Anne’s that morning was so hot that I genuinely thought I might pass out. If you can’t afford to heat your house in Lewes, you can definitely warm up there. What was the temperature up in the rafters? It must have been hotter than the Sahara.

I sat through the service in the spirit of open-minded interest. It comprised of a number of parts, some recognisable, others obscure to me. It began with a welcome to the newcomers. I was the only newcomer but Moatt didn’t address his welcome to me. He looked over to his regulars instead, which I found off-putting. For his sermon, he came down from the alter section and stood amongst his congregation, who were mostly sitting at the back of the building. Away from the ferocious heating. They were small in number. Just two dozen souls gathered.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of the metal graves in St Anne's Church in Lewes (c) January 2015

Shoes the lucky fellows?

It was unlikely I’d be wowed by rhetorical flourishes worthy of the ancient sophists, especially not with so few people in the flock. However, I’m very sorry to report that the sermon was tedious to the point of being embarrassing to listen to. It was little more than a series of glib remarks about gift-making. Afterwards, the congregation donated Christmas gifts to be distributed amongst those fortunate in life than they. Everyone except me gave something. Their generosity moved me considerably.

There was some singing, some praying and a ritual where everyone except me trooped up to the front, knelt down for a bit and did something with Mr Moatt and his assistants. All religions have rituals, even the pagans; I recently attended a pagan ceremony which was equally strange to me.

St Anne was the baby Jesus’s grannie, according to the New Testament Apocrypha. I wonder what she would have made of the proceedings? After the formulaic welcome, the banal speech and the dreadful music, I didn’t feel like going back. Though it was warmer than my home, it felt like a closed group experience.

An undercover clergyman

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of an anonymous church somewhere (c) January 2015

A building surrounded by dead bodies

This weekend I travelled to see some friends who are social media refuseniks. So I can’t tell you anything about my visit because they are strict with information. All I can say is that I was in or around Chipping Norton, the stamping ground of our Prime Minister and his ilk. My hosts informed me that I missed a glimpse of Rebekah Brooks speeding past in her car because I had bent down to photograph a snowdrop.

On Saturday I visited a church which one of my hosts had repaired. Obviously I can’t tell you which church or where it was. I photographed it and was proud of my shot framing but I can’t show the photograph either. So today’s cartoon is my artistic impression of a church which looks a bit like it. Suffice to say that it is a very old church.

My hosts’ child scampered around inside the church looking at the seats and so on. When she got to the stairs to the pulpit, she readily ascended them. A few steps up and she was in the preaching position. “What’s this Mummy?” My friend explained that it was a pulpit, from which a vicar would talk about God. By way of further explanation, she said, “You’ve got one of these, haven’t you Duncan?

Yes,” I replied, “but mine is outdoors and considerably larger.” An elderly couple in the church had wandered close by us at this point. These remarks caught their attention. Later on I noticed them scrutinising me curiously. I don’t suppose they’ve seen so many clergymen looking like me, with an army great coat, shaved head and a generally menacing look about them. Perhaps they went home and looked up outdoors pulpits on the internet. Or perhaps not. Sometimes it is better not to know.

Anyhow, it gave me an idea. I rarely step inside churches. Our Society has surely evolved far beyond the point of Engel’s description of their role as the opium of the masses. Mostly they are irrelevant to our modern concepts of sin, morality, heaven and hell. As my most attentive followers will know, I am shortly about to publish a book on moral philosophy, to put everyone straight.

As they stand, our churches do provide a social service of sorts for a particular sort of person. In many instances it is fairly specific sort of person. All of them wish to recruit from there wider community. I’m part of that community too! So from here on, for the next few weeks, I’m going to visit a different church every Sunday, incognito, and publish my report here.

Despite my reputation as a militant atheist, I will offer up my words of wisdom with the attitude of constructive criticism and, where appropriate, praise. Actually, I’ve already visited one such church, where my welcome was warm. Rather too warm, as it happened. Not what I’d expected from the Church of England. More of that in future weeks. When this Archbishop goes to church!

Is the Green surge meaningful?

Scrapper Duncan's cartoon of Jason Kitcat waving an apocalypse button around in Brighton Town Hall (c) March 2014

Jason Kitcat in his dreams

The big political news last week in the UK was that the Green Party was recruiting more members than any other party, by a country mile. They are said to have overtaken the Liberal Democrats in overall numbers and not be far behind UKIP. If ever there was a sure indicator that British politics is in for a big change, it is the sudden decision of lots of previously non-political people to actually join a political party. UKIP had a similar surge earlier in the year. They’ve been joined by lots of old people previously disinterested in politics. The Greens have been joined by lots of young people who are just entering the political arena for the first time.

I’ve been a Green Party member on and off for the last ten years. (I’m currently not.) My ex-wife talked me in originally. The on-the-ground politics of the party talked me out. I rejoined when Caroline Lucas got elected and left again when ‘her’ local councillors appeared to be unable to consistently endorse progressive political values. Brighton & Hove City Council’s Green leadership lacks a majority on the council but it also lacks moral backbone. Their leader, Jason Kitcat, has privatised part of his local NHS, provoked the classic political disaster ~ a refuse collector’s strike ~ and generally been about as right-wing as a Liberal Democrat. His old party, in fact.

The Greens are using the surge in their membership to argue that they have become a major party and should be included in the national leaders’ debates on telly. Ofcom and the broadcasters decide who is a major party. The test the Greens must pass revolves around the number of votes they can muster, not the number of members they can collect.

When I first joined the Greens I argued that the party should set massive membership growth as one of its key targets. The local activists were mystified as to why. They’re not now. It is well known that there are only a certain number of would be political activists in each generation. If they join one party instead of another, they shift the parameters of the debate towards that party. Double our membership and swing the debate, I said. We don’t think so, they said.

This isn’t about me, it’s about the Greens. We live in a society in which many people regard clicking on a like button or signing a petition as active community involvement. Thatcher’s children are not self-employed business people, they are passive consumers. The question is whether all these new members intend to become political activists or whether they are happy to blindly support what their new found political leaders say, for a while? I hope it is the former. I hope they get stuck into policy decisions, turn up to meetings and express their views. Only then will the Greens’ reactionary members be overcome. Currently they run the roost and Caroline Lucas is little more than a figurehead for change.

Great political cartoons kick the man and the ball

A couple of weeks ago I decided to publish this blog on a Monday only and make it weekly. Then three Frenchmen decided to kill some of my fellow cartoonists, some police guarding them, some associate journalists, a janitor on his first day at work in their office and some random people belonging to a rival religion. So I delayed publication whilst wondering whether I should publish my own cartoon of the prophet Mohammed.

I recalled the days when the South African government banned the publication of pictures of Nelson Mandela or the ludicrous decision by the British Government to ban the Gerry Adams from being broadcast at the same time as his own voice. It occurred to me that the prohibition is aimed at obliterating idolatry and the deranged men with guns aren’t really concerned about representations of all living things, only pictures of their preferred religious leader. So how about pictures of Mohamed’s wife?

So I thought about drawing a cartoon of Mohamed’s wife, in a highly erotic pose, clutching at her groin, looking desperate for attention, inside a tent, with the words of Mr M entering the tent from outside in speech bubbles. The bubbles would be full of proclamations banning this and that. Inside the tent would be a thought bubble from Mrs M, saying, “He’s got a lot to say to his menfolk but nothing to give to his wife.” A cartoon like that kicks the man, not the ball, as our football crazy politicians like to say. The nice shiny shiny brigade who dominate our half-baked democratic system love to say things like that. Because they’ve got no sense of humour.

It really is that simple. The nicest of the nicey-wouldn’t-harm-a-fly politicians are in the Green Party. Their most successful local party (Brighton & Hove) recently banned their members from engaging in communications involving personal attacks. True, at the last moment they added a clause to allow satire, but the mood music is clear. They will refuse membership to all political cartoonists, impressionists, writers, artists etc. They don’t want us involved because we’re not nice. We sometimes kick the ball and the man.

The Greens are no special case. Almost every week Nigel Farage’s UKIP makes some nonsensical complaint to a major social media company, complaining about a parody account. Given half a chance, they would ban satire altogether. Farage’s famous laugh would be the only merriment allowed.

When was the last time you heard a politician crack an ad-lib joke? The answer is not in your lifetime. They are all lovingly prepared in advance and scripted by other people, who are trained at managing politicians. People who understand that anyone who shits, farts, pisses and fucks and can be made to look ridiculous.

So here’s to Charlie Hebdo and everything it stands for. Here’s to provoking people who can’t cope with being provoked. Here’s to lampooning the powerful, mocking the majestic and inking up injustice as art, expressed freely. Je suis Charlie.

‘Tis the season of the shiny bicycle

This is the week of good intentions. Despite the fashion for poo-pooing New Year Resolutions, most British people will be focusing their minds on self-improvement, personal reform and avoiding stuff they love to the point of self-destruction. It may surprise you to learn that it’s no different for us clergy. We too aspire to live better, we just start from a higher place than the rest of you.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of his dirty rear sprockets (c) Jan 2015

It’s not sprocket science

In keeping with hundreds of thousands of British males, yesterday I decided was a really good day for cleaning my bicycle. It was worthy procrastination. If I don’t use the bicycle in the next seven days, it will have been a waste of time. So now I’ve guilt-tripped myself into some form of activity. Although we abandoned Catholicism as a state religion rather a long time ago, we still rely on its therapeutic techniques.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of a bicycle chain cleaning tool (c) January 2015

We live in chains

That’s my bicycle chain cleaning tool. I spent years fiddling about with old toothbrushes, just to find the chain not much cleaner and everything around splattered with tiny particles of road dirt. Then I invested in this contraption. Inside are various wheeled brushes which get right into the chain. The orange liquid in the top compartment is an over-priced degreaser from Halfords. When it runs out, I’ll use washing up liquid instead. With the bike upside down, you push the pedals, hold onto the plastic box and hey presto! After a few revolutions, the drive chain emerges clean and functional. The dirty liquid collects in the bottom and there is no mess!

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of his bicycle's rear sprockets disassembled in the sink (c) January 2015

Just sink about it

The rear sprockets are fiddly to clean on the bicycle. So I removed them. When I replaced my rear wheel last year, I bought the splined system of rear hub, it’s much easier to remove and replace than the old screw thread system. This is the first time it has come off and it was a doddle. Though I had slightly forgotten how to work the chain whip.

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of his bicycle's clean rear sprockets (c) January 2015

Cleanliness is next to godliness

I used to believe that cogs, sprockets and chains could never be returned to their shop bought shininess. As if the filth from car exhausts and God only knows what had some supernatural force. The fact is that everything can be cleaned up, except possibly our atmosphere (it may be too late) and the Tory Party (they were born to be unclean). Political jokes aside, the problem was my lack of belief. Yesterday, I kept the faith and you can see the results above!

Scrapper Duncan's photograph of a Stanley Ley tunic shirt being used to clean a dirty bicycle chain (c) January 2015

Never lose your shirt

Finally, I reassembled the bicycle and dried the chain by dragging it through an old shirt, clenched in my hands. A tunic shirt from a London legal outfitter. Friends of mine are well used to seeing me in these old-fashioned garments. I strongly suggest you do not let your shirts go as threadbare as I do before turning them over to mechanical cleaning, because otherwise the threads can easily get caught up in everything.

My New Year Resolutions

Can’t seem to find last year’s New Year Resolutions. They don’t appear on this blog. Perhaps I didn’t make any? If I did, it seems unlikely that I kept them without any way of checking what they actually were. I have found my resolutions for 2012. Humbly beg to report that, three years later, I have achieved the sixth resolution on that list: I now weigh 12½ stone. And feeling good for it. 2013’s resolutions were largely achieved, though I still lack the six pack that my wife wanted me to get at that time. We’ve separated now so I don’t really have the necessary motivation to do ten thousand sit ups every week.

This year my resolutions are going to be very specific goals. Resolutions are deeply unfashionable in our fickle culture. “I may change my life any day,” is a common sentiment. More often than not from people who make no effort at self-improvement whatsoever. Making resolutions at the turn of the year does not preclude improving yourself later on in the year. Making excuses now is likely to infect your attitude during the rest of the year. If you can’t face down your demons in the darkness, you’re not going to acknowledge them in the light.

Enough with the prefatory remarks! Here’s my resolutions:

  1. Finish 50,000 draft book by 1st March.
  2. Finish editing of said book by 1st April.
  3. Publish the fucker.
  4. Launch business with my old pal Rob as per discussions in 2014.
  5. Move to Lewes.
  6. Become fit enough to cycle 100 miles a day at the drop of a hat.

Dear readers, please hold me to these resolutions by any means necessary! My good friend, Ben Duncan, who knows about my book idea, has already taken to phoning me frequently and shouting down the phone, “How many chapters have you written today?!” If you don’t have my phone number, please tweet your encouragement/harassment. It will be much appreciated at this end.

I’ll be welcoming the New Year in Southover, in Lewes, near to where I’ll soon be moving. I won’t be wishing anyone a Happy New Year until the midnight hour because Scottish tradition teaches that is terribly bad luck. The English may not understand how to celebrate hogmanay but they can be re-educated. One party at a time.

So if you’re in my congregation, many blessings on you this evening. May you spend it with the proper combination of good cheer and constructive contemplation. If you’re not in my congregation, don’t worry, we will probably accept new members again this year. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.