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June 2019

THE KILLERS AT GLASTONBURY - THEIR DEFINITIVE CONCERT!

Killers GB

It was at least ten years ago that I suggested that the stadium artists might be gone. The industry shifted. Album sales plummeted. I wondered who would have a career big enough or long enough to be able to full stadiums. “The Killers,” I said. 

As if to prove me right they showed their contemporaries and those who have gone before them how to do a Glastonbury headline show on Saturday night. I had already chastised myself for not going to see them in Belfast and then they mesmerised me with a machine gun fire of memorable songs on the biggest rock stage of all.

It is one thing to write good songs. To write good songs that can fill a stadium or in the case of Glastonbury a vast farm is another thing. The Killers have songs that reach. Somebody Told Me, The Man, Smile Like You Mean It, Reasons Unknown… The strongest of sets left the absolute stonkers to the end. All These Things That I’ve Done and When You Were Young to end the official set and then Human and Mr Brightside in the encores. 

I loved the sneaky piano version of Human during the main set which must have thrown the crowd that it wouldn’t get its full band version. That was not the best surprise though. It was the surprises that made this gig special.

In Belfast last week they took note of their surroundings and did covers of Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl and The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. In Cardiff it was The Alarm’s Rain In The Summertime. What would they do in England?

Well at Glastonbury, The Killers gave us the Pet Shop Boys collaborating on their 1987 number 1 Always On My Mind and then covered The Smith’s 1984 single This Charming Man with Johnny Marr on guitar. He remained for Mr Brightside. 

Now, we could leave it at as interesting guests… but we miss something! Brandon Flowers has spoken since the beginning of being most influenced by the British music of the 80s. What The Killers gave us for the 90 minutes before was a sound that sits perfectly between the glitz pop of The Pet Shop Boys and the indie rock of The Smiths.

These were not causal choices of Glastonbury guests. These were guests to make the definitive story of The Killers on the biggest stage that they will ever play. Surely, it was up there with the all time great Glastonbury headliners. 


STORMZY TAKES GLASTONBURY TO CHURCH

Stormzy Glasto

Stormzy’s Glastonbury headliner has been the talk of the weekend and in places that do not usually talk about grime artists or rappers. 

Stormzy on Mainstage made history. He was the first black solo British artist to headline the Pyramid Stage. He took the opportunity. A Banksy designed Union Jack stab vest highlighted the crisis of knife crime in London and racism was challenged throughout. There was some controversy as he used an expletive towards Boris Johnston. Political and beautiful have been words used in the same sentence of reviews all weekend.

It was also personal. Stormzy was celebrating his own success. This was his story set in his communities with his issues for being a black man. Before that theme takes on a self obsessiveness Stormzy concluded by telling Glastonbury that he was going to take them to Church.

Watching on television my soul smirked at the idea of a vast majority white secular English crowd, that see God as a joke, being taken to Church. It is probably not what they thought they were doing when forked out £250 for a ticket.

My smirk turned to a smile and my soul lit up as Stormzy and a gang of Gospel singers started into Blinded By Your Grace a song that would fit into any Sunday Church Service. It is a song of testimony and on the Pyramid Stage it was Stormzy telling us all who he was most grateful to for this pinnacle of his success - God!

 

“Lord, I've been broken

Although I'm not worthy

You fixed me, now I'm blinded

By your grace

You came and saved me”

 

Preach it Stormzy! Then into the rap:

 

“This is God's plan, they can never stop this

Like wait right there, could you stop my verse?

You saved this kid and I'm not your first

It's not by blood and it's not by birth

But oh my God what a God I serve”

 

I’m no fan of Grime but this boy reaches across the genres and grabs my attention with the political, the personal, the spiritual. Oh Stormzy stormed Glasto! 

In the wake there was much debate. How could someone God saved, who claims to serve God be so seemingly keen on the F word?

I am no fan of the F word but the too sensitive obsessiveness of over pious Christians bemuses me. I saw one thread where someone was quoting James 3 about the restless evil and poison of the tongue with Stormzy.

God isn’t so much interested in the words. They are sounds from a human mouth. James is talking about something so much more dangerous! If we think cleaning up our swear words has tamed our tongue we are missing the point and the power of the tongue that James refers to.

God is more interested in what these sounds are saying. Are they building up or knocking down? Are they edifying or divisive? I imagine James had the 9th Commandment in his head. Bearing false witness against your neighbour. Now that is cursing and sadly too prevalent in Christian communities no matter how “clean” our language is! Let us not chew gnats and swallow camels over words and cursing. 

In Stormzy’s heart on that Glastonbury stage was justice for those who are growing up like he did and the personal journey that God has him on. We can critique the rhymes. We can disagree with some of his views. We can have our opinion on his use of the F word but let us not bear false witness… Let us not lose the wonder of Glasto going to Church! 


CURSED AND BLESSED BY FACEBOOK - IN 5 DAYS!

Stocki in the dark

There is a lot of debate about the pros and cons of social media. Soul Surmise readers will know that I am a big fan. This past week, however, I experienced, in a very personal way, the good and the bad.

First, the bad! 

Last Sunday afternoon someone put a few photographs up on Facebook and tagged me in the post. The photos were of a Baptism/Thanksgiving event that I shared with Fr Martin Magill. They were innocent pictures of a lovely family and friends’ day, celebrating a baby’s rite of passage.

Within a short time of going up, however, they had opened a Facebook thread of serious debate, argument and pontification. The discussion at times became heated and in places bigoted almost sectarian. 

The event itself was a sensitive private ceremony that Fr Martin and I had taken a lot of time over. Having spoken to a couple who were keen to bring a Christian faith dimension into their child’s life, we were aware of two parents and family circles who came from different Christian traditions. Having spent time with the couple, we created a ceremony of baptism and thanksgiving that neither compromised our denominations practice nor our own personal convictions.

What Facebook did was to make that sensitively thought through ceremony into a public debate. People who knew nothing about myself or Fr Martin, nothing about the families involved, nothing about what happened at the event and nothing about what the thinking was behind our imaginative approach, suddenly started preaching and proclaiming.

The worst of Facebook! People who don’t know anything about the subjective making “authoritative statements”. Fake news. Fake opinions. Fake truth. It left me angry and frustrated but thankfully a 57 year old sense helped me keep my calm, in the debris of lies and judgements that this status left in its wake.

Then, the good!

In the early hours of this morning my father was taken by ambulance to A & E. My father has had dementia for a good few years and is in a Residential home. For about a year I have worried about such a situation. My dad doesn’t sit still and a hospital ward was not going to be easy. 

It wasn’t! Arriving before 4am I sat beside his bed, held his hand and kept him down every time he got up to try and get out of the bed. That was every few minutes. Every time he got over to sleep, which was not often, and I got to relax they moved him and he woke up again. It was five hours of policing with no sleep and I was wilting.

Then I put up a Facebook status up… and it was like a prayer chain. Within seconds the Facebook community had lifted my spirits with a sense that I was not alone. It is incredible what a a like or sad faced emoji can do when you are low. 

I remember getting caught up in a military coup in the Philippines in 1990 and having to make our escape across the mountains in a 14 hour jeepney ride. At one point I looked at my watch and realised that the First Antrim prayer group were meeting at that moment. I got a new lease of spiritual energy! It was like that this morning.

Thank you to everyone who left a message or reacted to my post. I needed you at that point. Never tell me that people looking at their phones are isolate for disconnected. This morning, you were all the absolute opposite to me. That phone was connection and transformative community.

Never underestimate the power of social media for the good. Never be hesitant about pressing like or another reaction. Please understand the power of a short comment. You can reach minds and hearts and souls that our floundering and in need. Be a friend. Be pastoral!

The curse and blessing of social media, all in 5 days. Use it but don’t abuse it. Be wise and it can be life affirming. Use it thoughtlessly and it can be abusive. Lord make us wise as serpents… 


TOMORROW IN FITZROY - 30.6.19

Fitzroy Board

Tomorrow morning in Fitzroy (11am) we will be asking who those people are that we think are so wrong that God should zap them with some righteous anger!!! Go on… think! I usually find that it doesn’t take long. James and John wanted a bit of thunderous judgement going through Samaria… BUT Jesus rebuked them. So he still rebukes my inverted bigotries!

We will be asking how to hold faith confidently but how to hold it gently.

We will be seeing how holiness is supposed to feed the world and NOT our own self righteousness.

We will be trying to make sure the plank in our eye doesn't blind us to some good self critique.

Guitar edged worship too…

We have no more evening events until September.

 


RELENTLESSNESS - CRITIQUING HOME FROM FAR AWAY

BBC Script

This was my Pause For Thought on the Vanessa Show on BBC Radio 2 on June 28.6.19. The theme was "Leaving Home"...

 

We leave home on Monday 8th for what has become an annual trip to Uganda. We will fly over night… 24 hours from Belfast door to Kampala door, then after a good sleep we will take an 11 or 12 hour bus journey to Arua, on the north west edge of Uganda. 

It is not only a long way from home geographically, it is a long way culturally and economically. We will be in Arua for around 10 days with a team of 18 from our Church. We funded the building of a school and we will have an amazing time playing games and doing crafts as well as teaching sexual health and doing some painting among other things.

We will also take in a different culture where choice of food is not as varied, where leisure time is not in such abundance and where just getting by needs resilience and ingenuity.

And we learn about home. There is nothing like being in the middle of Africa to force you to critique your decadence, materialism and self obsession. For me there is always a thought that my wealth carries with it all kinds of bad traits.

One year, on a University team, in another part of Africa, I asked my students what they were least looking forward to, going home. One student said simply, The Relentlessness. Being in Africa where the pressure of fashion, looks, achievement and accumulation were absent she had found some sort of calm. She didn’t want to go back.

Jesus spoke a lot about the dangers and delusion of relentlessness and advised that we should worry about tomorrow but like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field should trust a simpler way of doing life. All the stuff of earth he suggested was flimsy and meaningless. Not worth the relentlessness of acquiring. 

I have never forgotten my student’s word. It lingers with me. It took us to leave home to look back and learn. I look forward to more lessons when I finally reach Arua on July 10th… 


STOCKI'S NORAH JONES RARITIES PLAYLIST

Norah Jones

I THINK IT’S GOING TO RAIN TODAY

(from Higher Ground; Live at The Frederick P Rose Hall)

 

HEART OF MINE

(from New York City by The Peter Malick Group)

 

BEHIND THE LOCKED DOOR

(from George Fest; A Night To Celebrate The Music of George Harrison)

 

JESUS, ETC (Live)

(from The Bridge School Collection Vol 4)

 

I WALK THE LINE - Norah Jones and Joel Harrison

(from Club Jazz)

 

CHANGE IS GONNA COME

(from Wretches and Jabberers Soundtrack)

 

MORE THAN THIS - Charlie Hunter & Norah Jones

(from Jazz Inspiration: Blue Note Sings - Great Pop Songs)

 

TALK TO ME OF MENDOCINO

(from Sing me The Songs - Celebrating The Works Of Katie McGarrigle)

 

COURT AND THE SPARK - Herbie Hancock feat. Norah Jones

(from The River Letters)

 

CRY ME A RIVER - Jim Campilongo Electric Trip & Norah Jones

(from Heaven Is Creepy)

 

CRY, CRY, CRY (Live at The Living Room)

(from The Fall (Deluxe Version)

 

I’LL BE YOUR BABY TONIGHT

(from Feeling The Same Way single)

 

SOMETHING 

(from George Fest; A Night To Celebrate The Music of George Harrison)

 

IN THE DARK - Jools Holland & Norah Jones

(from Jools Holland - Best Of Friends)

 

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU BROKEN MY HEART

(from The Lost Note Books Of Hank Williams)

 

IF THE LAW DON’T WANT YOU

(from KIN; Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell)

 

TENNESSEE WALTZ (radio edit)

(from Magic Voices II)

 

MAN OF THE HOUR

(from BBC Radio 2; The Piano Room 2019)

 

DAY IS DONE - Charlie Hunter & Norah Jones

(Blue Note Trip 2: Sunrise/Sunset)

 

SAY GOODBYE SAY GOODBYE

(from Live From The Artists Den: 2012)


INVITED INTO A DREAM... HOW ARE UGANDAN PROJECT BEGAN...

Stocki and Bishop Isaac

Bishop Isaac was a leader. He was a Church leader; Elim. He was a community leader. I don’t mean leader in the sense of he has a position of leadership. I mean he led. This man took his people from where they were to somewhere else. 

In August 2015, I sat with this man, small in stature, huge in faith, frail in body but robust in soul, under a tree in Arua, West Nile, Uganda and basked in the rays of his spiritual maturity and missional vision. 

He told me that me that in 2008 he had been speaking to the children in Church. As he was sharing with them he asked God, “What can I do for them?” Onialuku is a poor part of Arua, up on the north west fringes of Uganda, feeling cut off. There were few resources to come up with any pie in the sky dreams.

Bishop Isaac sensed God answered him by telling him to start a school. Now that was a dream. In Uganda you don’t just put your name down for a school place when your child reaches their third or fourth birthdays. As parents or community leaders you need to actively start a school, close enough for your young children to get to. 

So with some parents Bishop Isaac did just that. They started a class in the Church. Then they built a make shift school beside the Church building. 

By 2015, when I got to the chair under the tree, Bishop Isaac’s dream had been hit out of the park of Arua dreams. With the school developing and growing Bishop Isaac had connected with Fields Of Life and Fields Of Life had connected them with Fitzroy. 

As Bishop Isaac and I looked up after he shared the story of his dream, we were gazing right into the bricks and mortar of a dream come true. Right there in front of us was a brand new school just a few feet away. 

Now the children of this community had a place to grow and learn and be equipped to take their place in the development of their nation. It was one of those very thin places between how earth is and what heaven is and how the two can merge. If we dream. If we dream in God.  Bishop Isaac taught me that… and more.

Bishop Isaac sadly passed away just six months after our time under the tree. I miss him very much, especially when I am sitting under our tree. I thank Bishop Isaac for inviting us into his dream and I thank God for miraculously connecting a tiny community in a marginalised place in Africa with a Church in South Belfast. 

Bishop… I miss you very much. Thank you for inviting us into your dream. We will continue to care for it!

 

You had a dream

And it wasn't about you

It was about the children

Who couldn't dare to dream

You dreamed for them

For their future and the nation’s

And now the children grow in a field of dreams.

 

You had a dream

You got to see it through

We weep at your death

But smile at your dream

For the dream lives after you

God’s dream built on earth

Onialeku as it is in heaven.

 

You had a dream

And you invited us in

We sat under a tree

You envisioned and inspired

And I felt the dreams 

They flew and floated and fell

I was soaked by their blessing.

 

You had a dream

You were dreaming in God

And you carried it into being

And now you leave it down

So we will lift it up

We will cradle it and care

This dream will go on… and on…

 


THE KILLERS - HUMAN

The Killers Human

When The Killers released Human, the lead off single of their third studio record Day and Age, it caused, more discussion about a pop song lyric than for many a long year. “Are we human or are we dancer” was so grammatically askew that it drew some to conclude that for “dancer” it actually should read “denser.” That most believed it to be “dancer” led to discussion list damnation. It seems ironic that perhaps the most provocative and deep lyric to have stuttered from a rock singer in years should be so maligned. In the debate about the grammar, it could be argued that poetic licence is all about such convenient shifts from plural to singular.

Anyone who knew anything about this thoughtful Las Vegas band from their previous albums, that have catapulted them onto the coat-tails of U2 and into the stratosphere of stadium-rock-with-meaning, should have known that if there was something out of kilter in singer and songwriter Brandon Flowers chorus it should be pondered a little longer; this serious young man with a Mormon world view must have had some reasoning going on.

"It's taken from a quote by [author Hunter S.] Thompson. ... 'We're raising a generation of dancers,' and I took it and ran,” Flowers would explain, “I guess it bothers people that it's not grammatically correct, but I think I'm allowed to do whatever I want. 'Denser'? I hadn't heard that one. I don't like 'denser.' " The obvious follow up question was whether Flowers agreed with Thompson’s assessment?

"I think that I do, and I don't want to be too much of a preacher," he said. "I say that it's a mild social statement, and that's all I'm gonna say. We're still trying to write the best pop songs we can write." It seems to be a similar strategy to the one Jesus took when he dropped spiritual explosives into the hearts as well as ears of his hearers. The explosive does not need spelling out; that might diminish its potency. “Those with ears to hear...”

No doubt Thompson meant a lot of things when he described a generation of dancers. What Flowers does is bring it back to one overriding need; to restore our humanity. The world has a long history of de-humanising. One of the most powerful means of healing is to re-humanise. To give people back their dignity; whether nations or individuals.

That Flowers declares that he is on his knees looking for an answer is sure to indicate that for him the answer to his question is in the human soul and its connection with the Divine. Racism, war, materialism, image and sadly many times religion has de-humanising effects. The Killers Human is a song of prophetic stimulus because it is attempting to re-humanise, those whose humanity has been stolen by a culture that de-humanizes.


AN INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA BILLINGSLEA ABOUT HER SORROWFUL REJOICING EXHIBITION

Rebecca Art

Rebecca Billingslea is from Colorado and has recently moved Belfast to work with Fitzroy, 4 Corners Festival and Duncairn Arts Centre For Arts and Culture. 

She has her first art exhibition opening on July 4th at Duncairn Centre For Arts and Culture. A study in her own personal grief it might help us all in Northern Ireland as we continue to give post Troubles. 

It was actually the recent grieving of a friend that caused Rebecca to reach for a brush and un-tap an artistic vocation that she didn’t know was there.  

I asked Rebecca a few questions about that process, about how she discovered the therapy of art what she might want us to find from her exhibition. 

 

When you appeared last year in Fitzroy you never told me you were a painter?

My knee jerk response is, “I wasn’t at the time!”  But I’m learning we are all artists.  We are carry the Divine mark of “creator.” Whether that’s in food, music, dance, painting, design, words, fabric, or whatever our medium of choice may be.  But in all reality, I haven’t ever painted seriously until this year.  

 

When did you first start doing art?

In high school and college I was much more invested in creative writing, poetry, and spoken word.  Maybe 2 years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a style of abstract art.  I always thought of Picasso when I thought of abstract art, so this new style was something I’d never seen before. I remember Simon Kenny and Cody Hooper’s art bringing tears to my eyes at one point.  Abstract art was something I felt more that I critiqued or analyzed.  Which is funny, because I’ve always seen people, memories, emotions, and music in colors.  I meet someone and they are mint green.  I look back on a memory from my childhood and it is lavender with flakes of silver.  I hear “Happy” by Brandi Carlile and it’s soft pinks and rose golds.  My mind has always done abstract art, I think… long before my brush hit the canvas. 

 

Have you ever done it seriously? 

I haven’t.  When you grow up in the wild, wild West of America, there isn’t a lot of art happening.  There’s a lot of bow hunting, fly fishing, shotgun shooting, rock climbing, kayaking, hiking…. Not a lot of art flowing out of the town I’m from.  It just doesn’t have a high value for the people who live there, I don’t think.  You live in Colorado to ski and rock climb.  You live in New York to dance and paint.  

 

Can I ask you then the process?  When did you start using the art to deal with the loss of your friend?  When did you think it was good enough to exhibit?

My friend Carly passed away on January 15, 2019.  I had been seeing a counsellor when I first moved out here because I have a bit of a predisposition to anxiety and depression. And by a bit I mean more than a bit. I decided to be proactive and see a counsellor here just to stay on top of my mental health and I’m so glad that God went before me in that.  

I honestly had no idea this was coming, but I already had an established relationship with my counsellor.  My counsellor and I started working through some grieving techniques.  She knew I was a bit of a creative brain to begin with, so she gave me a few blogs about grief to read and encouraged me to think of creative ways to work through my emotions.  

Because no one knew Carly here, I felt like I was completely alone in my grief. No one else around me was sad about it, no one knew her here, and no one even knew I was grieving and I didn’t know how to tell all of these strangers I had only met 6 months ago that I was coming off the rails every single day. This emotional loneliness put me in a very dark place. 

I felt like I was actually losing my mind.  I knew I needed to do something but I had no idea what.  I began reading a lot of poetry from my favourite insane person…. Edgar Allan Poe. I read from him one day, “I do not suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.” 

I decided to try and shift my posture from fighting the feelings of insanity and instead, leaning into it.  So I started creating a playlist of songs that was making me feel “The Big Sad” (my joking and loving term of endearment for when my crippling depression hits).  

I was listening to Foy Vance’s “Joy of Nothing” and the music and emotions and memories of Carly were all a swirl of colours for me.  Greys, blacks, and hints of red… so I ordered canvases that day to see if I could transfer what was in my head and heart to the canvas and maybe just maybe, people could join me in this and I wouldn’t be on this island of grief alone anymore.  I wondered if my art could be the boat that brought me back to humanity and back to sanity.  

In a lot of ways I still don’t feel like it is good enough to exhibit, but the longer I’ve been in Belfast, the more I realise this is a grieving city.  The longer I’m here, the more I realise everyone around me is grieving a loss in some way. I felt the concept was something worth exhibiting, even if my art wasn’t.  

 

I know art is a mystery but can you attempt to articulate how grief comes from your soul, through your imagination and then through your hands onto the canvas?

When I was explaining my grief to my counsellor, I used the analogy of feeling like I had this massive wound I needed to lance and drain in order for it to heal.  I needed to get the infection out even if it was gross and messy.  That has been my process in a lot of ways.  

I am still amazed at how often I’ve cried while I’ve been painting this series.  It has been magical, cathartic, dark, painful, and healing all at once.  Leaning into the grief and insanity instead of fighting it is what sparks my creativity and imagination.  Once I quit fighting it is when I started seeing the finished product of my pieces and felt proud of what was on the canvas.

 

What has the process taught you about grief?  About yourself? 

For me, this process has illuminated how complex grief can be.  There are no rules when it comes to grief.  No timelines. No prescriptions. No formulas. I never realised how essential remembering is when it comes to grief.  

Someone asked me about two weeks after Carly had passed away what some of my favourite memories were of her.  Such a risky question. I think grief scares people.  They don’t want to send the person grieving into a tailspin, so often they don’t ask questions like that.  

I needed questions like that.  I needed to remember her. I needed to talk about her.  I cry even now as I write that because I never want her memory to grow faint in my mind.  I never want her laugh to slip through the fingers of my soul. I never want her light to set behind the clouds of years gone by.  

I learned so much about myself in this process.  The main one was that I had to forgive myself.  I didn’t realise how much resentment I had towards myself.  The 4 Corners Festival was just about to kick off when Carly passed.  The theme was “Scandalous Forgiveness” and I think God knew I needed that to be the theme that echoed in my soul those first few weeks of grief.  

I should have written Carly her more when I moved away. I should have told her I loved her more.  I should have tried harder to see her at Thanksgiving when I was home.  I could have tried to help her more.  I could have… I should have… 

My counsellor and I began to work through self forgiveness.  I decided to paint a piece entitled “I Forgive You.”  People may think that is me forgiving Carly, but it was easy for me to forgive her.  This piece was about the struggle of learning to forgive myself.  Each abstract I’ve painted in this series, there is a song that correlates to that piece that helped me get out what I needed to in the creative process.  

So I flipped on, “Come Away With Me” by Jason Polley and the paint flowed so easily onto the canvas.  His lyrics, “And turning from your past mistakes ain’t as easy as it seems. When you won’t accept forgiveness, You’re left to your own schemes” helped birth this abstract.  You’ll notice how soft and gentle the colours are in this piece.  I have learned how gentle we sometimes need to be with our own hearts, our own mess, and our own grief.  

 

Are you going to do more art?

I am doing more art, yes.  I have a concept in place for my next series and the Duncairn and I are chatting about hopefully showing it in March 2020.  I’ll also be showing more of my work at Fitzroy hopefully in the Fall when I return from visiting the states.  It is so special for me that Carly took me by the hand and helped me unlock this undiscovered chamber in my heart of abstract art.  I’ll do more art for her and for myself.  

 

What do you hope people get from your exhibit? 

I hope people feel something.  That’s all I want.  Whether they feel their own grief, remember their own loss, or stare at a canvas and feel despair, joy, freedom, distance, frustration, hope, curiosity… anything.  I also am hopeful that people will feel a sense of unity through this exhibit.  Perhaps someone feels like I did.  Insane.  Alone.  Lonely.  

Maybe this exhibit will show them that they aren’t alone in those feelings and it truly is what unites us all and makes us human and in desperate need of one another.

 

Sorrowful Rejoicing; An Abstract Art Grief Series opens on July 4th. Rebecca will be speaking at 6.30. The exhibit will then run until July 10th.


THE ATLAS OF FORGOTTEN PLACES - JENNY D WILLIAMS

Atlas

The Atlas Of Forgotten Places is perhaps the most satisfying novel that I have ever read. It is also the best literary companion I have ever had.

Jenny D Williams is a writer of beautiful poetic prose. She has published poetry and you can tell. She has a genius for a descriptive phrase and her detail is meticulous, whether a room or a landscape or a character. She creates characters that you soon feel have come friends. The are authentic and warm, complex and alive. You grow to like them, to know them, to believe in them.

The plot in this, her very first novel, is clever and utterly gripping. From the first page you want to follow, to turn the next page, to actually read the last page but you never do because you know that you are into a book that will tantalise and tease and sneak up and surprise.

You can tell that I loved it.

Now, let me get subjective. On no account let the subjective side of my review cause you to think that this is a book is only for Stockman. I cannot recommend The Atlas Of Forgotten Places enough.

The novel is set in north Uganda, the place where I actually read it. It starts in Kitgum but to my delight Arua, where I have spent time every summer for the last few years, gets a mention on page 22. Later the story actually stops off in Arua, in a hotel I know well, though too up market for a man like me to stay in anymore. I love reading about the country I am in. That Williams’ book is set in Uganda would have been enough... BUT in my town!

The Atlas… actually became a friend on my sabbatical. The Stockmans were spending six weeks in Africa and adjusting to Ugandan life had its challenges. I was able to relate to Jenny’s characters of Sabine and Christoph and they gave me some strange strength for living outside my comfort zone. I was able to imagine them in my room, on the roads, walking around me.

Williams sets her story at the end of 2008. Kitgum has been traumatised by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Liberation Army for decades but by then the LRA were exiled in the forests of Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Rose, one of the main characters, was abducted as a young girl and lost her arm before escaping from the LRA and finding her way home. It was not an easy re-integration.

In 2008 Ugandan, DR Congolese and Southern Sudanese forces launched Operation Lightning Thunder against Kony and the LRA in Garamba. Williams skilfully takes us right into the heart of this real political situation and the violence of it but, amazingly, focuses us on individuals, humanising them in the centre of a violent vortex of history.

In the end the book is not about politics or war. This is a book about the forgotten places within us all. It is a book about finding your loved one who has gone missing, as Sabine and Rose are attempting to do, but it is also about finding yourself while you are doing that. It is the blessing of yourself being transformed as you try to change the world. The whole purpose of my sabbatical in Uganda!

It throws up fascinating questions about belief and making a difference, about forgiveness and redemption. It asks about the white man’s place in the transformation of an African nation that needs transformed. It asked me what I was doing here and who I was finding in the forgotten places of myself as I attempted to help others find their way in this big vast and complex world.

I am so sorry that it is finished. It is like my companions have gone home and left me... but left me stronger for the time together!