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August 2022

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!


HARRY BENSON - PAUL

Paul

I am not a massive photographic book kinda guy. I really should have Graham Nash's A Life in Focus but I haven't yet. Not enough words! 

Which tells me that I need to spend more time in images than in words, more time in the mood than the information. 

Anyway, It was Paul McCartney's 80th birthday and I thought he played a blinder at Glastonbury. There were no books of information. Even if there had been I would probably have already read it all. There was though this photographic book. I wouldn't normally but hey I want some McCartney!

It is very good and is a faster read than a Mark Lewisohn tome, not that I don't like huge dollops of Lewisohn

The photos are from a few events in McCartney's six decades at the top of rock music. The  first and only Beatles section is the 1964 concerts in Paris where Benson meets McCartney for the first time.

Then it is a few different phases post Beatles - a phase living in California in 1975, the launch party for the Venus and Mars album on the Queen Mary yacht also in 1975, the Wings Over America Tour in 1976 and then an idyllic 1992 session on the McCartney farm in East Sussex.

There are a few things that caught my eye. How close Benson had gotten to McCartney is obvious from the intimate backstage snaps. John and Paul writing together in the George V Hotel. Having watched the Get Back film these shots are more powerful. What are they writing I ask myself and how many songs in those three years did they write like this? 

I am a big fan of the classic Wings line up of 75-78 so I love the Wings shots. Again the back stage close ups are a marvel but that launch in the Queen Mary is amazing. Bob and Sara Dylan as well as George and Olivia Harrison are there but maybe my favourite photo in the entire book is Linda's daughter Heather dancing with Michael Jackson

I often wonder how Heather dealt with and still deals with the life that was thrown at her when her mum hooked up with a Beatle and she had to join the circus. I wonder what she thinks of that photo now. I'd love to read her memoir but of course her story is no business of mine.

And then seeing Paul and Linda up close is always a romantic treat. What a couple. What love. The 1992 shots are particularly poignant knowing now what lay ahead. Linda on her horse and Paul by her side. That was what they loved most and it is a privilege that Harry Benson gives us those shots as well as others throughout the book.

If you are a McCartney fan this is probably a necessity for Santa's list if you haven't a birthday first. It is not the quality of the photograph but what the photographer captures. The good ones get the rare shots that no one else sees or is pointing at at the time and Harry Benson is good!


MICHELLE GALLEN - FACTORY GIRLS

Factory Girls

Vacation Time is too fast running out but I hope there is time to read a couple more novels BUT I imagine I can declare right now that Michelle Gallen’s Factory Girls is my book of the summer.

What is it with Northern Irish writers. Female ones particularly. Every time two or three impress me I find I have missed another. Somehow I missed Gallen’s debut Big Girl Small Town. Having bought this second novel in my stock-up-for-summer binge day at No Alibis book shop I had it down my summer list. 

Then a Tweet thread between No Alibis’ proprietor and general guru in all thing local novel David Torrens and maybe Jan Carson had me pushing it up the priority list. I am so glad they advised.

Factory Girls? Where do I start? What is it? Comedy? Troubles Literature? Social commentary? Political? The truth is that it is everything and more.

Three girls await their A Levels in the extraordinary summer of 1994 in the least extraordinary of places - small town County Tyrone. Through music, sporting and political events Gallen reminds us all of a time before peace, when peace was supposedly coming but no quite believed that things were gonna get better. 

Maeve, Caroline and middle class Aoife get summer jobs as they await their A Level results and their hopes of escape. They and we find themselves and ourselves caught up in factory politics, paramilitary bullying, a strict apartheid society and omnipresent misogyny. The bigger fear is that if it is all fixed, the town loses the factory, all of their jobs and any kind of hope at all.

Our three buddies, led by the potty mouthed but shrewd Maeve Murray, who could be straight outta Derry Girls, get entangled in, try to untangle out and all the time their dreams of University hang like yet another shadow. 

Their innocence and experience sit cheek by jowl in just two months as they watch factory manager Andy Strawbridge tease and torment them with things that they might want, all the time knowing deep down that they really don’t. The more that they discover the more they need to stand for something but will they?

Michelle Gallen is an extraordinary writer. She weaves hilarious comedy with the darkest of social commentary. She develops characters quickly, not just the main ones but them all. She has one liners that are filled with insightful cultural diagnosis and leads you towards hopefulness in the bleakest of places… and laugh out loud. You laugh a lot.

Depth charges abound too. My favourite is: "Blair looked like the sort of toothy creature you'd see in a. Free Presbyterian Church, a man who believed way too hard on the wrong thing". You don't need to be Free Presbyterian to let that missile search you deep.

All of this with a plot that twists and turns, holding you in its grip, and never quite allowing you to conclude an ending. Factory Girls takes us back to another very particular time to see the horror of how we lived and then asks us how far we’ve moved on. 


RICKY ROSS, MARTYN JOSEPH in FITZROY

Martyn Fitz

Like buses Fitzroy gigs don't happen for a few years and then two of the best ones happen in two glorious nights in November. 

We are so delighted that Fitzroy will be the venue for Martyn Joseph and Ricky Ross, just 24 hours apart.

MARTYN JOSEPH

FITZROY

November 24, 2022

Tickets available soon

 

RICKY ROSS

FITZROY

November 25, 2022

Tickets: rickyross.lnk.to/belfast

 

These are two of my very favourite songwriters, singing of faith and life and home.

I have described Martyn before:

"Martyn Joseph is as gripping a solo live performer as you are ever likely to see. He is passionate, provocative, at times tender and humorous, always humble but never afraid to be honest to God real. I have sat at his gigs and felt soothed at times of hurt, undone at times of self righteousness, provoked in times of comfort and always made passionate to change the world."

Ricky In Fitz

photo:bernie Brown

And then there is Ricky Ross. Deacon Blue have been one of my favourite bands since 1987

I kid you not but this is one of the most exciting opportunities of my life. I have been a Ricky Ross fan since I picked up the 12” of Deacon Blue’s first single Dignity in 1987. Whether with the band, solo or his album with his wife under the name MacIntosh Ross I have always resonated with his everyday lyrics, so skilfully rhymed. Ross has always had that sense of place, making the ordinary transcendent, for him Glasgow, like Van Morrison’s Belfast. Rosshas also had a sense of social justice and hopefulness that we could make this old world better than it is. There is a realism to his lyrics but always a sense of belief.


MY FANTASY LEAGUE ANGST ON PREMIERSHIP EVE...

Fantasy

Premiership-eve. The day we have waited for since mid May. It is a big and stressful evening for millions of us. Teams need picked for the opening day of a new season of Fantasy League.

For weeks I have been working out how to maximise my £100 million budget. 

How many big players can we afford. What are the cheap players that are going to come through? Over the past few years the big scorers have become defenders when at the genesis of Fantasy League you always needed goal scorers. 

So where do I invest? Will new signings fit in quickly? What about players from promoted teams? 

Of course it is a marathon not a sprint and my Fantasy League Team will bear little resemblance even in October to the team I will begin with tomorrow evening. 

However, a good start is better than a bad one though it is amazing how quickly the team at the top of your particular League this Sunday night might drop away within a few weeks.

I am a believer in starting solid. I will choose players who have proved themselves in the past couple of years. I will have to risk with my cheaper purchases but as little as possible. 

Of course, there is some luck in this game. One of the biggest factors is choosing the right captain every week as their points double. It might be luck that my player scores a hat trick and yours doesn’t score at all. That might happen week after week!

BUT let me say that as I have followed this game for some 15 years and been involved in a Fitzroy League for 10 that the final standings will have little to do with luck.

As I look at our league I know that reigning champion Jonny Fitch, Jude Holohan and John McMullen, who blew us away last season, will be the big 3 to beat. Isaac Orr, who I baptised about 12 years ago will be setting his sights on the top 3 too. Like cream the same names always come to the top season after season and David Hall is lurking!

Last season was a good one for me and a good start was vital to that. The biggest questions are how many £11.5 players you want to try to sneak in. My questions are about whether Haaland will hit the Premiership running? Will Salah be as great as ever? Are De Bruyne and Son as good for a million pound less? Oh and there are other questions about Eriksen, Diaz, Grealish, Foden and Maddison?

Then it is what formation? Five defenders? Three Strikers? Who to make captain? 

I took a rush of blood last night and changed 5 or 6 players before thinking better of it. This is the night to double doubt. “Solid Steve". You said “Solid”. 

Cannot wait to see your team tomorrow night! 

Bring it on!


DARDEN SMITH -WESTERN SKIES

Western Skies

Around the very week that I fell in love with my wife Janice I bought an album by one of my favourite writers of the time. It was 1989. It was Deacon Blue, Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, Martin Stephenson & The Daintees, Prefab Sprout and The Bible!. The writer was Boo Hewerdine from The Bible! who had an exclamation mark to start.

What was interesting was that this was not a Bible! project but with some guy called Darden Smith. I knew nothing about Smith but soon I was leaving my beloved to her work in Wimbledon before catching the train into Waterloo and on to the second hand record shops, like Steve’s Sounds near Leicester Square and Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho. It was indeed in the latter that I picked up that very Hewerdine and Smith record Evidence.

I’d sit on that train, a small town boy loving his first time exploring the big city, and press play on my walkman. I have vivid memories of the utter joy of new love and big adventure every time that Out Of The World came on - “Out of this world she sends me out of this world”.

Over half of my life later and I am listening to Darden Smith’s new record Western Skies and thinking that that man is soundtracking my life again.

Now he really shouldn’t be. Western Skies is Texas-centric and I have never felt a great affinity with that particular state. Here I am in Belfast, half a planet away. 

Western Skies is more than the songs on a new record. They come with a coffee table sized book of photographs, essays, poems and the lyrics of the songs. All are inspired and researched din the landscapes of that big huge state that rarely votes as I’d like. 

It seems that Smith found a Polaroid Camera in his garage in the midst of the pandemic. He’d venture out in his car and take snap shots of the landscape that formed him. It not being a digital camera he had to decide whether the shot he was about to click was worth the price of a coffee. 

All of this swirled around and suddenly we had a book and a record. It is a veritable bombardment of stimuli for eyes and ears and heads and hearts and souls. 

There’s a song on the record that might be a centre of the soul’s mapping in the project. Running Out Of Time puts it well:

 

If these days are really numbered

If there´s and end to the line

Then I´m gonna love you

Like I´m running, like I´m running out of time

 

If I am finding a conclusion in Smith’s deep dive into his Texas roots. It is about living the now to its fullest potential. An essay in the book called The Comet And The Train concludes thus:

“We make such a big deal of the present. Lost in our assumptions and wrong headed constructs that what is occupying our vision is a static, forever thing, when really there is always a grander motion. We’re surrounded by stars, a comet hangs in the sky, and we instead let ourselves be overwhelmed by the train.”

It sounds like a Psalm, more modern in format than Nick Cave’s Seven (Psalms). 

Of the album, it is such a solid body of craft. A fine mature wine of Americana. Loose arrangements with a precision of melody and Smith’s warm voice wrapping itself around that wisdom that this review suggests already. 

Most immediate of all is a meditation on Jesus wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount:

 

‘Cause it don’t make you taller to bring somebody down

Make me think of Jesus with his thorny crown

Talking about loving one another as you love yourself

Just keep reaching down to help the meek

Show a little mercy and forgiveness

In what you and what you say

And turn the other cheek”

 

Western Skies is wonderful stuff.