New site for my writing.

I started writing regularly on my blog here at the start of lockdown, and posted quite a few reflections on that unique period as my “Diary of an Involuluntary Acolyte. ” I decided to draw that to a close a couple of months ago, and since then my writing has been focussed on exploring “Personal Pleasures”.

I started that here; however this is not really a blog, and so I have decided to move that to my website

I have posted half a dozen chapters there so far and will continue to add to it there.

The chapers can be downloaded as PDFs from there which are probably easier to read. The only drawback is that comments cannot be posted there; however since 90% of the comments I got here were spam this is not a huge problem. If anyone does want to comment on any of my writing please email me.

I will continue to post occasional thoughts on this blog when this seems the appropriate place to do so.

God Bless

Peter D Ton

Personal Pleasures no 3: Sunflowers

I like all flowers, but there is something particularly wonderful about the sunflower. I love to see fields of them in the South of France, rows and rows of yellow faces all lined up with soldiers on parade. I love the way when the sun is the opposite side of the field to you they all turn their backs on you, as if you had said something to offend them.

This year we succeeded in growing a sunflower in our garden. I planted about a dozen seeds from a packet of mixed wild flowers. Three came up, pushing their folded cotylodons through the cold March soil, and then slowly unfolding, getting two proper leaves and starting their long climb upwards. One although healthy has turned out somewhat stunted (or perhaps a different variety) and has only reached 4 feet high, but the two others soared upwards until, when they were about five feet tall, we had an unusually windy day and I found that one I had staked with a 3 foot pole was broken over just below the top of the stake. I was heartbroken, and I added a second bamboo pole to my one remaining successful plant to prevent a repetition of the disaster. Even so things looked uncertain for that when I found it leaning sideways after another gale, but fortunately it was bent but not broken. I put in an even higher and stronger stake – six feet of metal this time – and watched anxiety for signs of wilting. Fortunately none appeared and my survivor continued upwards to over eight feet at which point over a fortnight we watched with fascination as the bud appeared and started to follow the sun round the sky.

It is now in its full glory, the yellow petals flaming out from the dark circle of the centre like the golden rays of a baroque monstrance drawing the eye to the white circle of God with us. And as those rays draw our eyes to the white circle of the sacred host, so the petals draw the insects into the ring of pollen bearing anthers round the edge, reminding me of Dante’s vision of the hosts of heaven:

In forma dunque di candida rosa
mi si mostrava la milizia santa
che nel suo sangue Cristo fece sposa;

ma l’altra, che volando vede e canta
la gloria di colui che la ‘nnamora
e la bontà che la fece cotanta,

sì come schiera d’ape che s’infiora
una fïata e una si ritorna
là dove suo laboro s’insapora,

nel gran fior discendeva che s’addorna
di tante foglie, e quindi risaliva
là dove ‘l süo amor sempre soggiorna.
In fashion then as of a snow-white rose
Displayed itself to me the saintly host,
Whom Christ in his own blood had made his bride,

But the other host, that flying sees and sings
The glory of Him who doth enamored it,
And the goodness that created it so noble,

Even as a swarm of bees, that sinks in flowers
One moment, and the next returns again
To where its labor is to sweetness turned,

Sank into the great flower, that is adorned
with leaves so many, and thence reascended
to where its love abideth evermore.

(Longfellow’s translation)

Like Dante’s great flower our sunflower is adorned with many leave, huge green flat things like serving spoons which collect the light and the rain to nourish the plant and the flower which is its summit and its reason for existing.

Although the flat central disc of that flower is reminiscent of a Sacred Host in a monstrance, in two ways I find it more like our vision of God than that perfect white circle: the ring of pollen bearing dots round the edge is an image of the saints and angels, gathered round God, and the central circle is dark and in shadow for much of the day, like the dark cloud of unknowing which prevents us seeing the glory of God even when hidden in a snow white wafer.

As I sat and drank in its beauty I was reminded of another image I was privileged to see once in my life – the Sun in total eclipse. The golden petals look like the corona, the flames of glowing gas shooting out from the Sun which we can only see during those few minutes when the glory of the Sun is obscured by the round black shadow of the Moon. As the sky darkened and the birds fell silent as the shadow moved over the face of the Sun there was a chill in the air, and when the last crescent of light disappeared and the corona emerged I felt a huge wave of bittersweet emotion wash over me and I wanted to cry.

It is little wonder that in the years before the Roman Empire embraced Christianity people were increasingly drawn to worship the Unconquered Sun, and that we still keep great the feast of that phase of monotheism – although today we call it Christmas, the birthday of that other Unconquered Son.

Personal Pleasures no 2: Being in a Garden

A friend long since deceased used to say that the main point of a garden was to sit in it. In our culture where being busy is seen as a virtue we tend to feel we have to apologise if we are not doing anything; we don’t see just sitting, even in a garden, as an important part of life.

But St Ignatius Loyola said that we were created ” to praise, reverence and serve God and thereby to save our souls“. The order in this is important; doing things – serving God – comes last. The British, so prone to the heresy of our compatriot Pelagius, are particularly likely to reverse that order, and to feel we are justified by being busy. St Ignatius being from the more indolent Mediterranean recognised the importance of music and laughter and good red wine to holiness.

A garden is the ideal place to praise and reverence God. Although Dorothy Frances Gurney’s view that “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth” is theologically unsound and steeped in Victorian sentimentality, it is true that a garden is a place where many of us find it particularly easy to be aware of God.

Firstly there is the silence of the garden. This is not necessarily – indeed not usually – the absence of sound, because even if your garden is remote from human traffic noise and voices there will be birds tweeting, bees buzzing and the wind rustling the leaves. Rather in a garden there is space to hear the silent music of the universe which underlies those sounds. As we sit quietly just being in a garden that silence seeps into us, giving us that peace which passes all understanding. And strangely you can experience that silence even when you can hear the traffic outside the garden.

Then there is really looking at the plants in the garden. We often refer to an ornamental garden as a flower garden, and the variety of colours shapes and textures of flowers is extraordinary, but it takes time to notice this.

Many flowers change subtly as they come out, or even during the day. We have Californian poppies which are a completely different shade of yellow in the evening from early in the day. When we lived in London we had Evening Primroses (not planted but arrived courtesy of the wind or the birds). They made an audible pop when they came out. Also in London I had a young friend who was exceedingly hedonistic, but who showed great spirituality one day when he challenged me for removing the dead heads of flowers. “Why are you doing that? Things are beautiful when they are dying too”. Whilst dead heading some plants can encourage them to flower more, removing flowers or seed pods because they are untidy is to miss out on an important part of the garden experience.

But an ornamental garden isn’t just flowers. Leaves may be just basically food factories, but their variety of shapes, shades of green (and sometimes yellow, white or red) , and their vein patterns is an endless source of wonder. Indeed ferns (with which our garden is replete, my husband having a mania for them) do not flower at all, but the colour and structure of their leaves is magical. A lot of them have fractal patterns (as do many other leaves if you look carefully) One of my favourite plants is the sempervivum, which shows the mathematical basis of the universe in another way – their leaf whorls are arranged in a Fibonacci sequence.

We think of gardens as ours, but of course we share them – with birds, with our neighbour’s cats (not always a successful combination) and most of all with insects and spiders. Butterflies are of course the prima donnas of the garden with their glorious summer costumes, but bees enliven the garden too – the bumble bee is often one of the first signs of spring, and when more flowers come into bloom the honey bees buzz in and out of flowers, like Dante’s angels around the rose of the heavenly host.

When evenings become warm enough to sit out the swifts circle overhead, hoverflies maintain their dynamic equilibrium, and lots of tiny insects which I call gnats, though I have no idea of their actual species, fill the air and reflect the light of the setting sun. After dusk the bats come out and flap past in search of their evening meal whilst we digest ours.

Sitting is a good way to enjoy a garden, but so is moving about. Quiet early morning walks round the garden with a cup of coffee, or an evening wander with an aperitif are good ways to soak up the silence and see the beauty. Often on such ambles I notice something new – a plant I had forgotten about has come into bud or flower, or something has grown new leaves or branches.

Watching a garden change and grow over time is an important aspect of the pleasure of gardens, particularly in the Spring. An English translation of the Easter hymn “salve festa dies” by Venantius Fortunatus says:

Daily the loveliness grows, adorned with the glory of blossom,
Green is the woodland with leaves, bright are the meadows with flowers

You can if you wish A. E Housman go about to see this beauty, but your own garden (or a public one nearby) provides ample space to experience this annual miracle of resurrection.

The garden changes again the Autumn – colchicums appears from a bare patch of earth, then the Virginia creeper does its blazing colour change, the asparagus goes a brilliant yellow they leaves of the dogwood go bronze, falling at the next gale to reveal the blood red stems which will brighten the winter days to come.

Sunny days are the obvious time to enjoy the garden, but the smell and freshness after a day of rain when the drops of rain sparkle on the leaves is not to be missed either. Winter is not an ideal time for the garden, and there is much to be said for emulating the swallow and flying south for the winter, but even in the depths of winter the yellow jasmine cheers us up, and some brave souls – hardy fuchsias, the arbutalon, even the odd rose – defy the winter gloom with the odd flower. Whilst around them green spikes of daffodil, crocus and snowdrop appear out of the brown earth, heralding that radiant dawn of Spring.

Personal Pleasures no 1: Gardening

Aristotle teaches that virtue is both a means to an end (eudaemonia, a worthwhile life), and an end in itself, because being virtuous is one element of eudaemonia. History does not relate whether Aristotle was a gardener, although it is hard to think he could have resisted the temptation to have an allotment whilst he was on Lesbos, if only to find out more about what promoted flourishing in vegetables as a change for studying the problem in human beings. If he were, he would have found that gardening is similarly both a means and an end. The end is of course the products of the garden; fruit and vegetables for the practical gardener, and the beauty of flowers and foliage for the more aesthetically orientated horticulturalist. These are themselves personal pleasures, but here I want to talk about the intrinsic pleasure of gardening itself.

Gardening is of course a form of exercise, and a most satisfactory way to enjoy fresh air in winter or early spring, when being outside is only tolerable if you are active. That can be a real pleasure, although a bit like hitting your head against a brick wall, because the best bit of it is the warm soup or hot chocolate you have in front of the fire or stove when you stop. But though this pleasure is intrinsic to gardening, it is not specific to gardening – a country walk or cycle ride can produce the same effect. The association is as the philosophers put it, contingent rather than necessary.

But gardening has its peculiar pleasures. Probably the greatest one is the opportunity it provides for co-creation – working with God in making the world a better place. Co-creation and its sister doctrine co-redemption are both logical implications of St Paul’s insight that “We are the Body of Christ”. If as St Teresa of Avilla said “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours” then it is through us that the world of creation and redemption of the world goes on. I once heard a sermon on the role of Our Lady as co-redemptrix by a rather dotty and very extreme Anglo-Catholic priest, whom I often thought might have been the model of Fr Chantry-Pigg in Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond”. He drew out from the fact that Mary’s consent was required for the Incarnation, so that she contributed to our redemption, the idea that we all by grace have a small share in redeeming the world. Apart from that I cannot remember hearing anyone preach on the subject – which is a shame, as it might make people take their role in the world more seriously.

But getting back to gardening. Cutting back a buddleia, a dogwood or a clematis so it can bring forth new growth and flowers in due season; pruning a rose with just the right severity and the cuts at the appropriate angle; shaping a shrub, not into an artificially symmetrical shape, but to show off its natural habit to best advantage; like a good hairdresser rather than a cosmetic surgeon; all these are works of co-creation. As is reining in the natural exuberance of more thuggish plants so that they doesn’t intrude on their neighbours (a bit like teaching children good manners).

This pruning is the great pleasure of late winter and early summer but it goes on at a slower pace for the rest of the summer. One must seize the moment to cut back the flowers that bloom in the spring (tra-la) like chaenomeles and choisya when they have put on their show, and give the heather its haircut when at last its winter flowers start to fade; if not then these plants won’t do their duty and brighten the opening months of next year. And of course there are some shrubs so thuggish that they need trimming not once but two or three times in the year, lest they take over the world.

Another early year pleasure is tidying up – removing last year’s dead leaves, fallen twigs etc. Some people do this in the Autumn, but ecologists tell us this is a bad idea, because this dead material provides homes and food for insects over the winter. Doing it in the Autumn also smacks of the “gardening as housekeeping” school of thought – getting the garden neat and tidy for the winter in the same way as you oil the garden furniture and cover it up and put away the croquet set, In contrast doing it in the spring is about getting rid of the old stuff to reveal new life and let it grow and flourish – a very suitable activity for Lent.

A year round pleasure of gardening is weeding – spotting and removing things which ought not to be there. There is a sycamore tree about a hundred metres from our house, and its seeds with their clever little helicopter wings regularly make it to our garden. The price of not living in a sycamore forest is perpetual vigilance. Another particularly satisfying pleasure is rooting out bindweed – its white runners, snaking beneath the earth and popping up in unexpected places to strangle good and worthy plants seems to be the epitome of evil, and finding and removing it gives the same grim pleasure as inquisitors must have got from rooting out heresy.

Weed is of course a functional, not an ontological category. A weed is a plant in the wrong place. Some of the things which arrive through the will of God – borage from the garden of the Archeological Society four doors down the road, the teasels and the thistles which pop up from time to time – these are not weeds but welcome arrivals, a remember that God is a God of Surprises. Conversely some of the things we put there deliberately have a tendency to get above themselves and need to be culled regularly if balance is to be maintained. Crocosmia, bluebells and alpine poppies all fall into this category.

But the greatest of all the pleasures of weeding is that it makes you really look at the garden. Looking for weeds you really have to search the ground and notice the shape and colour of the leaves, just as deciding on how to prune forces you to look at the shrubs properly and notice the branches the leaves as well as the showy flowers. Gardening teaching you to look.

But perhaps this pleasure is really part of the next pleasure – Just Being in a Garden

Personal Pleasures – an Introduction

This series of reflections is inspired by a work by the novelist Rose Macaulay, who published a book under this name in the 1930’s. As is the case with many good interwar novelists, much of her work is now almost forgotten, apart from her last and greatest novel “The Towers of Trebizond”. This is a shame, as she wrote well and her novels give perceptive insights into the human condition. During both her religious phases and her period as an “anglo-agnostic” she never ceased her exploration of how we should live.

Her “Personal Pleasures” muses on a wide variety of experiences in life, and I will try to do something similar. Some of her pleasures – churchgoing, solitude – I share, and will include in my list; others, like hot baths, clothes and bathing, leave me unmoved. Although most of her topics gave her genuine joy, some of them (talking about a new car, following the fashion) she was somewhat ambivalent about. I will start with pleasures I can endorse wholeheartedly, because my real interest in this project, as in The Diary of an Involuntary Anchorite, is the question which fascinated Aristotle – what makes a life worth living?

Aristotle derided a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure as bovine, and our society is still influenced by a strand of post-Reformation Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) which saw life as a vale of tears, and thought that if it wasn’t that already we ought to make it into one. There is a tendency therefore to be suspicious of pleasure of any sort and consciously or unconsciously to feel guilty for enjoying things.

It is true that there are pleasures which appear initially enticing but ultimately fail to satisfy – they are indeed worldy pomp and show. We have created a whole industry of advertising devoted to making us mistake these shadows for the truth, and perhaps we need to think about how we can shut our minds and turn our backs on these chimeras. But solid joys and lasting pleasures are part of the good life, and glorying in these is a lot more necessary to salvation than “thus thinking about the Trinity” can ever be. Hopefully by writing about those which strike me as worthwhile I will be able to find out how I can do this, and perhaps share this insight with others.

Back to Normal?

27th June 2020

The number of new cases and deaths from Covid 19 reported each day has fallen in recent weeks and so things are gradually “returning to normal”. In fact the figures are far from negligible – we still had more than a thousand new cases every day and 186 deaths on 26th June. Our figures are higher than any other European country except Sweden. Nevertheless non-essential shops were allowed to reopen last week, and it looks as if pubs and restaurants may follow suit shortly. Children are gradually returning to school and more people are returning to work.

In most situations this is a rather new normal, quite different from how things were before last February. Our local garden centre has introduced a one way system and a complicated but highly effective way of paying for what you have bought without anyone coming within 2 metres of anyone else. Other big shops seem to have taken similar measures. The bike shop is only open by appointment, made by email or phone; when we rang the vet about our dog’s sticky eye they asked us to email photos of it to them, and when I had a blood test last week I had to wait outside until they were ready to see me. Fine in June but it won’t be such fun in November.

So long as this easing of the lockdown doesn’t lead to the dreaded “second wave” this is generally seen as a good thing. And in some ways it is, although when I heard that “non-essential” shops were to be allowed to re-open I couldn’t help wondering why, if we could do without them for three months, they were open in the first place? Clearly there are some things like clothes (and bicycle tyres) which you can manage without buying for a few months but do need eventually, but I do wonder whether lockdown has revealed how little of what we spend our time and money on really matters. ” Getting and spending we lay waste our powers” as Wordsworth remarked.

The same applies to many other “normal” activities. When I hear airline bosses lamenting at the harm travel restrictions are doing to their business I want to cheer. The disruption to people’s lives when airlines and travel firms fail or cut back is of course sad, but on the whole the world is a better and a cleaner place for us spending less time (and carbon) rushing about it.

I suspect some of this is going to be permanent – businesses will realise that the benefits of sending people half way round the world for meetings rather than sorting things out on Zoom are not worth the bills for hotels and travel, or the time lost hanging about in airports.

The epidemic provides an opportunity for a rethink on how we organise our lives, towards less frenetic activity and more focus on leisure, relationships and contemplation. Pope Francis has spoken about this; he said recently:

Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion.

I see early signs of an economy that is more human. But let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were. This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back.

The great thinker E F Schumacher realised this in the 1970’s and started to think through how it might work in his important books “Small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered” and “Good Work”. Schumacher was no starry-eyed idealist – he had trained as an economist and in the 1950’s he helped run the National Coal Board to fuel Britain’s post-war economy. But he realised that making money is a means to the good life, not an end in itself.

Sadly I rather doubt that our politicians have this vision – certainly not those currently in Government, who seem to be balancing controlling risk against the chance to make money in a way which prioritises the latter. One can only hope that those of us who have enjoyed the quieter streets, the chance to enjoy the birdsong and the trees, the home-made bread and banana cake will be able to hold on to those good things in the coming months.

I am not convinced that this is the end – not even that as Churchill put it the end of the beginning. Having dithered far too long in taking the necessary measures in January, February and March, we now seem to be opening things up when infection rates are still considerably higher than in other countries. And the pattern of behaviour we are seeing does not suggest Lerts are as common as they need to be. Neither the big picture of the crowds on Bournemouth and Margate beaches this week, nor the microcosm of the three young women my diabetic husband found breathing down his neck in our local corner shop which has a clear notice by the door saying ” Only two customers at any one time” gives one confidence. And I’ve noticed on my ventures into the street ( still only for exercise, medical appointments and other necessary reasons, though the definition of necessary has widened slightly to include getting a new bicycle tyre and getting the dog clipped) that about 30% of people seem to be looking at their mobile phone whilst walking along, which no serious Lert would do. Groups are gathering and moving around together to share their viruses and an increasingly circuitous route is needed to keep a minimum of 2 m from another virus shedding human being. So the possibility of a second wave soon increasingly looks more like a certainty.

Nevertheless I have decided that this is a good point at which to end the Diary of an Involuntary Anchorite. Partly because now lockdown has eased I am no longer involuntary – I am staying at home not because I am told to and to a considerable extent not even because I still feel it is prudent to do so, but because I want to. And partly because I think I have run out of things to stay on this subject.

But this is not the end of my blog. Next week I will start a new series, exploring the many pleasures of life which the modern anchorite and everyone else can enjoy, and some of those which do require a more mobile lifestyle. I look forward to sharing with you my “Personal Pleasures”.

Travelling In

Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company”

Not as you might think a quotation from some guru during the recent weeks of lockdown, but words from one of the letters of the political adviser and philosopher Seneca, written in the first century AD.

Generalisations are always false (including this one) but it seems to me that whilst many younger people mostly feel constrained by the lockdown and long for it to end so we can “get back to normal” – (whatever that will be), a lot of older people are thoroughly enjoying it. I can remember when I was young feeling strange if I did not go out all day, even if it were only to the corner shop; now not going out seems normal, and if it were not for the demands of Poppy for the sniffing and poo-ing opportunities the wider world offers (and a slight guilt about becoming a coach potato) I often would not have taken up my daily exercise allowance.

For fifteen years following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe I travelled a lot for work; perhaps twenty trips to Russia, flying to Northern Macedonia every month for early three years, and lots of other teaching visits and a few flights for pleasure. As a consequence when I retired from academic life in 2009 I was sick of travel and particularly sick of airports. Since then I have flown only once, to Rome – and that only because bizarrely there is no other sensible way of getting there from the South of France.

When I was a student equipped with a Eurail pass I travelled overnight from Paris, down the Rhone valley and woke up on the coast where the Alps meet the Mediterranean and Italy meets France and arrived in Rome at tea-time. It took 20 hours and was hot and sticky, but it was possible. Now in the age of the TGV this service no longer exists and the train journey involves three changes which would have been too much for Yvan’s mother, so we flew from Lyon.

Apart from that the only major trips I have made have been by bicycle – Arles to Compostella in 2012 and Cape Wrath to Broadstairs in 2014. That and shuttling between Canterbury and Avignon by train or car has provided all the variety of place I felt in need of.

Lockdown for me has therefore just accelerated a process which was already going on – journeying not around the world but into the rich world which can be reached without moving from home. By this I don’t mean internet substitutes for travel; Zoom conversations or travel documentaries, fun though those can be, but the exploration of the worlds of ideas and activities which can be done without going outside one’s front door.

The phrase “Travelling in” is sometimes used for spiritual exploration, as in Monica Furlong’s book of that name. Teresa of Avilla uses the same idea in her image of exploring the interior castle, whilst from a different branch of the Christian tradition John Bunyan sees life as a journey through time to the Eternal City, whether one moves in space or not.

This may well be part of it, but whilst medieval anchoresses may have been able to spend three quarters of their day in prayer I do not have the spiritual stamina for that. For me the travel of the mind is exploring new areas of the immensity of human knowledge; learning about the history of Rome, Byzantium China and Japan through podcasts; discovering or rediscovering authors like Rose Macaulay and Alexander McCall Smith, whose use of language and exploration of human relationships is a tremendous delight (and perhaps a contribution to spiritual growth in a sense broader than Lady Loretta or Teresa of Avilla might have seen it). Being cut off from libraries and charity book shops, where I have always enjoyed wasting time, I was forced to explore the unread or forgotten riches of my own book collection which has borne great fruits. I have even gradually developed the courage to tackle some of the weightier works of theology and philosophy which reflect the triumph of aspiration over experience which so often motivates our book buying habits.

But travelling in does not have to be intellectual – or even mental, in the sense that reading or listening to PG Wodehouse or Agatha Christie is mental but can hardly be considered intellectual. Practising (in both senses) manual skills is an important element in the mix, both because they are intriguing and satisfying and because variety is important for interior as for exterior travel (as anyone who has endured the endless unchanging landscapes of the American mid-West or Western Australia will understand). I am not a manually skilled person ( I was advised against a future in surgery very early in my career) but I have found knitting,pottery and marquetry and pottery immensely satisfying worlds to explore.

Through marquetry one learns to look seriously at wood, feel its texture, experience its smell and the fine details of its colour and pattern, as well as develop the (harder than it might appear) skill of cutting it precisely where you want it to be cut. Pottery similarly draws one into shapes, substances and manual skills – though it is not practical in lockdown as it can’t really be done at home as you need too much equipment and varied materials.

I recently started to learn to knit. So far I can only do scarves, but have found it very restful and relaxing – somewhat like needlepoint which I had done before, but with more practical products. It makes a very good accompaniment to listening to music – another interior continent to visit, with familiar lovely landscapes as well as huge unexplored forests. My lockdown project is to work through the Bach cantatas – an extraordinary collection of over 200 works, mostly rarely performed and little known but some of them including music just as good as the familiar Passions and Christmas Oratiorio.

So perhaps Seneca is right – lockdown is giving us a chance to order our minds and learn to stay where we are.

An Alert Anchorite?

Instead of “Stay at Home” we are now being asked to “Stay Alert”. No-one seems quite sure what this means, but it feels as if we have been gradually developing our alertness skills since lockdown started.

As I see it, the basic principle of alertness must be to assume that every person you see is furiously shedding coronavirus, and every object outside the house is covered with it.

Whilst 2 metres is the statutory minimum of social distancing, alertness means going further than this whenever you can. I feel like a Talmudic scholar, “putting a fence around the law” when I cross the road to avoid someone coming the way when the distance between us closes to 10 metres. I’ve noticed that when people do this (and we aren’t the only ones who have this policy) then they give a cheery greeting to negate what would formerly have been seen as an offensive snub.

We try not to touch anything we haven’t brought with us when we are outside the house – I’ve developed a neat flick of the wrist to get Poppy’s filled poo-bag into the waste bin without touching the sides. Just before lockdown I saw some white cotton gloves in the chemist and bought two pairs. I think they are intended for people with skin diseases of the hands to stop them scratching and keep oily ointments off everything they touch. They work very well as a protection when one has to handle things from the virus-laden world – although they make me feel a bit like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

A medical education (coupled with a mother who, like Marcel Pagnol’s, was convinced everything is covered with “les microbes”) comes in very useful when living through an epidemic; those years of being shouted at by bossy theatre sisters are at last reaping dividends! So for example it is second nature to peel off my cotton gloves (or the disposable plastic ones which we found in the garden shed, having been bought to protect against creosote rather than Covid) so that they end up inside out. That way they can be disposed with the viruses carefully trapped inside, or in the case of the cotton ones washed in 10% bleach. This has over the weeks turned them a rich cream,, so I look like a White Rabbit whose mother doesn’t use Persil, but since we are told that this mixture kills the virus in one minute that is a small price to pay.

When I have just come in or touched something suspect I find myself walking about with my hands in the air, arms bend upwards at the elbows like a surgeon waiting for the patient to be wheeled in, and opening door with my elbows (unfortunately we don’t have taps that you can do that with).

I’ve developed a no-touch technique for opening letters without touching the envelope, using a paperknife in one hand and holding the envelope in a piece of kitchen roll in the other. Given the speed of the mail I think I can safely assume any viruses on the hand of the person who wrote it will have died – probably years ago.

We have established a decontamination zone just outside the back door, where groceries and other incoming goods can be swabbed in 10% bleach and then rinsed off after a few minutes. Most things which can’t survive this treatment, such as vegetables, or things we don’t need for a while, can go into a quarantine zone we have established in a large plastic box in the former coal-hole.

Doing this takes a certain degree of obsessionality (which is where the Pagnol mother and the surgical education come in handy) but it soon becomes second nature. And it’s probably worthwhile, not only to reduce the risk of actually getting the infection, but to reduce the viral load if we do.

Viral load is an important concept which hasn’t appeared much in Government briefing. Basically how sick you get if you get infected depends partly on you – age, gender, chronic health problems all affect your vulnerability. But so too does how much virus you get when you get it. If you only get a tiny bit – say from touching a contaminated doorhandle or an envelope – the chances of you getting really ill are less than if you get a big dose, being breathed over by someone incubating the virus for a 20 minute tube journey. That may be why people like bus drivers, care workers and hospital staff have died even though they were young and with no vulnerability factor.

Quite early on in the epidemic I saw a Facebook post which said the way to what we now have to call “staying alert” was to pretend you are in Holby City (or Casualty, or whatever your favourite medical soap is). Perhaps we should all watch a few episodes on Youtube as part of our preparation to “Stay Alert”. This looks like having to become a way of life for everyone.

Christian Aid Week Resources

Here are some links to help you do your bit towards Christian Aid Week fundraising:

The Christian Aid website

Lots of information, online activities to support and ideas for your own fundraising activities.

St Stephen’s Just-giving page.

Donate here to make sure we meet our target of raising as much as in a normal year.

St Stephen’s Facebook page

Use this to publicise your activities and to keep up with what others are doing.

Christian Aid pictures and banners for e- envelopes

My e-envelope message – I’m posting this here because it includes the figures I quoted in my sermon which you may want to use in your e-envelope message.

Dear Friends

This is Christian Aid week. Normally we would be collecting house to house, but the Covid-19 epidemic makes this impossible. The epidemic also however makes it even more important that people have access to soap, clean water and sanitary facilities. At least 10% of the world’s population doesnt have access to safe drinking water. One in 4 don’t have a toilet, and 673 million people have to defecate in the open. Not surprisingly this leads to a lot of illness, apart from Covid19. The latest figures from 2017 tell us that more than half a million children in the world under 5 die each year from diarrhoea. That’s more in one month, every month than those of all ages who have died in the UK from coronavirus. The death rate in children under 5 from diarrhoea is 100 times that in developed countries including the UK.

There are three ways in which you can help:

Make a donation yourself:

forward this email to others and encourage them to donate

sponsor me in my “knitathon”. (details below)

A Novice Knitathon

I only learnt to knit last November so I’ll be knitting a scarf (it’s the only thing I can knit!) and asking to be sponsored for every inch I knit during Christian Aid week. To give you some idea what to expect the four foot scarves I’ve knitted for Yvan and for his mother so far have taken me about two months each.

Here is a photo of my casting on so you can see what I plan to knit.

I’ll post a message saying how much I have managed to knit (with photographic evidence) on my blog next Sunday.

You can sponsor me by sending an email, by adding a comment to my Christian Aid blog post or on St Stephn’s Facebook page, or direct to the just-giving page.

When I’ve finished the scarf (probably sometime in the Autumn) it will be given to a charity working with homeless people so it can help keep someone in the UK warm next winter.

Christian Aid Week

Normally this week many of us would be getting ready for our house to house collection of Christian Aid Week. St Stephen’s usually raises around £2000 through this – a significant some for those in poor countries living on a few pounds a week.

This year we cannot do that but instead we have set up a “Just Giving” page so that all of us, whether we normally collect for Christian Aid or not, can both to make a donation and also encourage our friends and neighbours to contribute.

Some people usually raise money through activities – cake sales, coffee mornings etc. Instead of (or as well as) asking people for donations why not be imaginative and create some online fund raising activities people can take part in? There are ideas and more information on

Please help to make sure we don’t let those who rely on Christian Aid down in this year when they too face the problems of Covid-19 but without the NHS and our comfortable houses to help us ride it out. Start planning NOW what you are going to do this week Christian Aid week. Why not post your ideas on the St Stephen’s Facebook page ?