FREDERICK BUECHNER (1926 - 2022) - A TRIBUTE

F Buechner

I was saddened when the news appeared on Twitter that Frederick Buechner, writer and minister, had passed away today.

I discovered Buechner at the beginning of the 90s and for over 10 years his writings helped to shape and hone my faith. Indeed they still do, if I perhaps haven’t read as much of his work in the last twenty years.

I am not sure that I have quoted anybody more than I have Buechner. I could wax lyrical about Buechner's work across his broad catalogue; memoirs, novels, Bible reflection or my favourite book of all, a collection of sermons and articles, The Clown in The Belfry. All of them opened my faith, gave me a wider and deeper faith as well a bigger God and a more pragmatic way to live out my discipleship.

However, Buechner’s Twitter page asked us to Tweet our favourite quotations and for those I need to go to one of his three A-Z books. The first book I read was Wishful Thinking; A Seeker’s ABC and I want to highlight the three quotes that most sank in and that I use the most in my life and work. I think they give us a flavour of his humour, his pastoral insight and theological pragmatism.

The first is a mantra I have used thousands of times:

Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need.”

When I came to this quotation I was working with young people and then students. It was perfect. In sermons and over coffee I would throw it out. I have discovered over decades that it is not just for those setting out. It is a quotation to ponder and pray every morning as we decide how we want to spend the day ahead.

Another quote, to throw in some humour though I am not really laughing. Christian Northern Irish views on alcohol and faith has thankfully found some balance and sense over the thirty years since I first read this BUT a communion service does not end without me being acutely aware that neither are many of us using what Jesus asked us to use as a symbol of his blood or how bleak is the symbol we use in its place:

Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale. It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual antiseptic, thimble-sized glasses. 

Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one. 

Finally, one that is deep and goes deep. I have always been concerned that sin has become a little bit too much like a tick box of how we have broken laws on a template of stone. Sin has implications in the hurt in the heart of God and in the friction and fracture in all of our relationships:

Sin as centrifugal… “It tends to push everything out towards the periphery.…Other people and God or the World, Society, Nature – whatever you call the greater which you’re part - sin is whatever you do, or fail to do, that pushes them away, that widens the gap between you and them and also the gaps within yourself.”

Thank you Frederick Buechner. You gave us so much. I would not be the same follower of Jesus without your honesty and work. You met my deepest need. I hope it was your deepest gladness!


RICKY ROSS - WALKING BACK HOME

Walking Back Home RR

Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross set out out his career stall on his very first single, that I picked up by seeming chance in the Corn Market Caroline Music, March 1987. In the middle of one of the best rock songs you are ever likely to hear, about a ship called Dignity, Ross sings ”And I'm thinking about home/And I'm thinking about faith/And I'm thinking about work…”

Ricky’s memoir Walking Back Home is basically a book where the rock star, songwriter, broadcaster and now writer ruminates on home, faith and work.

Deacon Blue fans will no doubt buy it to read about the band. If they want a chronological history then Paul English’s To Be Here Someday published late last year will be a more informative read. What we have here is a look before, behind and around the corner of the band’s main lyric writer.

Not that there are not some wonderful Deacon Blue moments captured. It is his work after all. Highlights for me were Ricky’s early years which through other friends I knew something about but never knew that Tom Morton had covered Surprised By Joy.  

There is a kairos moment when the first classic Deacon Blue finally comes together after a whole lot of previous group efforts.

There are other kairos moments too. A spiritual moment when Ricky’s realises at a solo concert in Dublin that this his songs had potency whatever the audience - he calls the moment spiritual. 

A wonderful moment at Glastonbury in 2011 when, having been scheduled in a tent at the same time that Coldplay were playing Mainstage, the expected no one to bother with them… and then the crowds arrived for what Ricky calls “the true second coming of Deacon Blue”.

Best of all Ricky shares a beautiful scenario before a Hogmanay gig at George Square, Glasgow when a council worker requests Dignity at a soundcheck. The song had come full circle. Sweet sweet moment.

Faith is maybe the strongest piece of yarn threading through the weave of the book. Ricky grew up strict Brethren and has ended up Roman Catholic. That’s not a dramatic story in the book but his stories of faith journey to there, not a ripping of traditions as much as a blend, on a path of discovering God particularly in joy and hope.

Before we get to home, I should mention that there is much travel too. Whether that is while touring with Deacon Blue, spending time in Nashville through his songwriting years or his work with SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund) to Zimbabwe and latterly along with Lorraine to Democratic Republic of Congo. Again the stories are at times funny, meeting Bruce Springsteen, swimming with Bono and Edge or incredibly poignant in meeting Claudette who told her of horrors violated upon her as she sat beside Claud who did some of the attacking.

Home? Home is Dundee and Glasgow, Scotland and family. He loves his home town and adopted city. His early youth work in Dundee and teaching in Glasgow are fondly described. The most fascinating, heart warming and inspiring stories in the book are of Grandads and Grannies and particularly his mum and dad. The poignant stories with them often seem happen in cars but they are the tale of a man who didn’t follow the vocation that his Brethren parents would have chosen or been comfortable with but how love held them strongly together so graciously.  . 

There’s a car journey late in his mother’s life where his mother talks about a broken engagement and it gets linked to Ricky’s failed first marriage. It’s a powerful familial moment. This conversation says a lot about his mother’s coming to terms with her son’s life. I cannot help thinking that her grace is alive and well in the Ricky Ross that I have been privileged to spend some time with over recent years. I have admired his longing to bring different voices together, to listen with respect of the other. I reckon that is his parents living on right there. 

There’s another culmination of events, I need to highlight. Deacon Blue’s last ever concert, or so it then seemed, was May 20th 1994. The day after Ricky and his dad’s beloved Dundee United are playing in the Scottish Cup Final. Ricky and his dad had already attended six such occasions and lost every one. This time they win and Ricky almost gets arrested on the pitch celebrating. Sadly, Ricky’s dad had died quite suddenly in hospital five weeks earlier, actually on the evening of the semi final replay. As they drove home celebrating they passed the hospital.

If you are looking for rock n roll gossip and stories of sex and drugs and rock n roll buy some other book. If you want to know what Real Gone Kid is really about, then check out other places. If you want a wonderfully well written memoir of a life that found his God given niche and touched so many of our lives then this is a beaut. 

As I was writing this review I got to hear Ricky reading some of the book at the Féile an Phobail in Belfast. With that accent and voice, that we have heard for 35 years, the book came even more literary and alive. I’ll be adding the audio edition to the hard back for sure. 


PAULO NUTINI - LAST NIGHT IN THE BITTERSWEET

LNATBS Nutini

So, I never took Paulo Nutini seriously. Oh I liked the catchy novelty of Pencil Full of Lead but I never considered him as a serious writer.

Last Night In The Bittersweet however has all my attention. I stuck Children Of The Stars and Shine A Light on a family travel playlist and was mesmerised by them particularly Shine A Light that has this late 60s psychedelic blues groove that I cannot get enough of.

The entire album indeed sounds like Nuntini’s Exile On Main Street sprawling to 16 songs of across genre and vibe. There’s that soul voice on the yearning Through The Echoes, there’s a nod to Irish contemporaries Fontaines DC on the spoken word Lose It. There’s 70’s New York new wave energies of Petrified In Love. Still in New York, there is the hypnotic near Velvet Underground heavy groove of Everywhere. Then there is Julianne, the beautiful piano ballad.

Nutini seems a thoughtful young man. He’s not claiming to have  any answers but he seems to be keen to go deep in the questions. He declares himself in the final track, Writer, as some conduit to all our surmising. On these 16 tracks he does it so well.

 

I am your writer who bleeds indecision

Your lover, your waiter, your saddest addition

Your fighter, your taker, your old patience breaker

Your mover, your shaker

The one who can make you feel like a giant in the morning

And so little by noon

For sure drowning in the sunrise and you froze on the moon 


BRIAN McGILLOWAY - THE EMPTY ROOM

The Empty Room

I picked up Brian McGilloway by chance. He’s a crime writer who doubles as teacher in Strabane. Does that suggest world class? Yet, I had money left on the governments £100 voucher to get the lockdown economy kicking and wanted to give it to my favourite bookshop No Alibis on Botanic Avenue. McGilloway's last novel Blood Ties was looking up at me and was signed. Against the odds, I don’t read thrillers, I gave it a lash.

Forgive me Strabane. How glad I am. Blood Ties was a revelation. The north west is a sea of writers, mainly out of Derry,  and here was an ordinary family man and teacher writing page turning stuff. The Awards and nominations for awards I now fully understood.

So, I started The Empty Room with more anticipation. A stand alone novel, Blood Ties was from his Inspector Devlin series, I wondered early on if it would work as well.

In the end it does. The Empty Room is a tough read. When Dora wakes up to find her daughter missing her world falls apart and we enter the world of a woman who is understandably heart broken and angry in ways that we will never understand. McGilloway tries to unravel her pyche.

He does more. He takes us on how Dora responds and we are on another page turning thriller with constant twists and turns that change the direction without ever feeling jarring or contrived. It is another riveting read. 

What I love about McGilloway is that we are reading more than a thriller. He is turning up all kinds of thoughts that need thought. This one for me was written right into the heart of the Northern Irish Legacy issue, though interestingly, maybe for effect, we are not given a geographical centre for this novel.

How do those heartbroken and angry feel any kind of justice or healing? How do victims of bloody violence ever find themselves again? Is there a danger that in trying everything in your broken heart to get back to yourself you leave yourself even further away?

These thought and many others will linger for days as I ponder for a long time Dora, short for Pandora, opening the Pandora’s box as she sought to find her beloved Ellie and herself in the most harrowing assault life can throw at a parent.


MATT MCGINN - TIME WELL SPENT

McGinn

I have tried time after time to fall in love with Matt McGinn. A Nordie Irish songwriter who always seems to be hanging with Anthony Toner and Ken Haddock. Somehow it never happened. With my interest in peace and social justice issues I was sure his last album Lessons In War would be the one. But no…

Then the more personal Time Well Spent, an ambitious beaut of a record in its musical breadth and lyrical depth, lands and I am a fan. Oh I am a fan. This is wonderful stuff,

McGinn is a traditional folk songwriter. To put a paper weight such a thought, Aoife Scott daughter of Frances of the Irish Black dynasty duets the title track and Eliza Carthy daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson King and Queen of the England folk scene plays the most delicious viola on the title track. 

With Matt McGinn, you think you should be hearing him with a peat fire lit behind him and big black creamy stouts in the tables around about.  Yet, do not confine McGinn’s pigeon hole. 

Oh there are pipes and boxes and fiddles stern across but this is a varied array of styles. Yes, Killahalla is pure Mourne Mountain folk, sitting with emigrant songs like Luka Bloom’s Chicago and Paul Brady’s version of Hills Of Donegal. I hear Declan O’Rourke’s sublime Stars Over Kinvara in there too.

Before we know it, the next track has us in romantic happy waltzing France, Le Ciel Eat Bleu. Elsewhere Something drives along, fiddle fuelled and Lighthouse Joe after it. Keep Your Hands Off My Summer could be Anthony Toner attempting a cross between The Sawdoctors and Paul Brady. Woman echoes the sound  of north Antrim’s Bob Speers and rightfully declares the importance of the woman in all of our lives. Annie (Many Moons Ago) is a fascinating and very original love story about a mother leaving husband and daughter and all that followed. 

Best of all is that title track. The sound is like that 90s sound of Mary Black covering another Jimmy McCarthy classic. But it is not a McCarthy song but McGinn’s very own. The most beautiful of simple love songs, perfectly executed. It’ll be the soundtrack of tonights walk on my holiday beach:

 

Like you and me at the water’s edge... waiting... watching...

The sun go down as the world relents 

Time with you is time well spent

As the sun goes down and the world relents 

Time with you is time well spent

 

Matt McGinn - I am a fan!