ART 'N SOUL (reviews)

PHILOMENA REVIEW Pt 2 - A Lesson In Forgiveness


Philomena is still racing around my mind as a spiritually stimulating movie. In the first part of my review ( read it here...) I looked at the evangelistic work of Philomena on Martin Sixsmith. In this blog I want to look at the end of the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie then I am heading in to a big spoiler so stop reading now… go and watch it… and then come back here after you have enjoyed. If you haven’t seen it and want to continue reading then having been warned a will give a little background. 

Philomena was an unmarried teenager, sent to an Irish Magdalen Laundry where Nuns looked after you in return for your working for a few years in their convent. It wasn’t pretty and many of the children were then sent off to be adopted. Fifty years after her son was born, and almost as many since she had seen him last, Philomena sets her heart on finding her son. Martin Sixsmith who has lost his journalist credibility in a political leak takes on the story. An unlikely partnership they set off on a trail that leads them to a shocking conclusion that the Nuns have lied to not only Philomena but her long lost son. By the time they discover this her son is dead and the hope of reconciliation gone. 

Sixsmith is outraged at this injustice and the behaviour of those who claim to represent a God that he already has trouble believing in. He bursts through the private doors of the Convent and begins an assault one of the old Nuns who he reckons is culpable. As he does so, Philomena appears on the scene, looks the Nun in the eye and tells her that she wants her to know that she forgives her. Sixsmith is even more exasperated and says to Philomena, “Just like that?” to which she answers, “No, not just like that,” expressing the cost of this brave act. When Sixsmith shares his anger Philomena looks at him with some pity and says, “that must be exhausting!”

 It is one of the many many profound scenes in a movie that is lingering with me as days go on. I was immediately thinking of the importance of that idea of forgiveness to the social and political reconciliation in Belfast. Forgiveness needs spoken, and it is not lost on me that it is spoken to the Church in this instance, and there needs to be understanding that when it is falteringly uttered that the words come with a huge cost and deep pain. Yet, it is something that releases the anger and that pain. It is a freeing act. Philomena, not for the first time in this movie, reveals deep truth in the simplest of ways.

read Philomena Review Pt 1 here...

PHILOMENA - REVIEW PT 1 - Faith in God; Simple But Profound


So it took a flight to America for me to get to see Philomena. Janice and I are not big cinema goers. Life in ministry is about people and evenings off are rare. Trying to add an evening out to our schedule is never easy and therefore a rarity. Even the Fitzroy Film Club heads out on nights that we are already booked and so I get to the end of Philomena and realise that I am way behind time in blogging about it now but boy does this movie need to be blogged about. Let me blog it in two parts. The issue of forgiveness that raises its head at the end of the movie is absolutely crucial to the Northern Ireland situation that I skirt around the edge of in my life, ministry and blog. We will get to that…

First, let me look at the issue of God in the movie. I often write about a transformative moment in my life in Cape Town when I touched the shoulder of Cindy as we prayed for her. Cindy was dying of AIDS and as I thought I was helping her I was suddenly infused with an energy from her that was for me redemptive and Divine. I suddenly realised what Jesus was on about when he talked about meeting him as we connected with the poor and marginalised in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25. God meets us in that connecting moment.

That is what happens to Martin Sixsmith when he helps Philomena Lee look for her lost son in an almost selfish means to find work, having lost his vocational credibility in a political scandal. The sophisticated, educated, wealthy and English secularist shows patronising contempt for the simple ordinary Irish Catholic. The film shows a turning of the tables as Philomena confronts Sixsmith with his prejudice and weaknesses. 

A couple of lovely moments to illustrate. As they are driving along Philomena pierces Martin’s cynicism about God by asking straight out, “Do you believe in God, Martin?” You can see Sixsmith ponder that around his mind and he responds with how complex a question that is and how difficult he finds it to give a simple answer. “What about you Philomena?” “Yes!”. It is beautiful. 

As the movie continues that simple “Yes” reveals a confidence and profundity. Sixsmith gets more and more frustrated with how Philomena speaks about it and lives it out. At another point she asks him to stop the car as she wants to go to Confession. By this stage Sixsmith is exasperated at Philomena’s faith in spite of what nuns have done to her in the past and indeed, as the movie progresses, even in the present. As she gets out of the car he gives an anti-God rant that concludes by asking her to ask God what he has to say to him. Philomena leans back in and says, “I think he would say you are a feckin’ eejit!” Utterly brilliant!

What we need to remember in these dialogues is that we are hearing them from Sixsmith’s perspective. Ultimately, through his own awakening to this women’s simple faith, he portrays Philomena’s faith as something that transcends the Church’s shortcomings. The movie is as much a deconstruction of his own arrogant snobbery, intellectually and spiritually, as about Philomena’s strength of faith in God and in other people, even in people who have badly mistreated her. 

Get to see it before your next flight to wherever!


Toner Thomp El Gruer

If you can’t self indulge at your own Festival then when can you. One of my contributions to our 4 Corners Festival 2014 was Saturday night’s Where There Are People There Are Stories, at the brand new Duncairn Cultural Arts Centre, when I got that self indulgent opportunity to chat to two great songwriters and a wonderful poet. I have to say that it was after their first song and poem that I smiled inside and out. I got this combination just perfect. Dave Thompson, El Gruer and Anthony Toner are all doing the same things; taking stories and places and making art that was much more than entertaining, though entertaining it was.  The audience caught on quickly that we actually had three poets in the house. Thompson and Toner sing but they are wordsmiths with  agility of image  and couplet.  Poet El Gruer added another hue and her very effective use of what could almost be seen as the repeated chorus made here sufficiently different but close enough to seamlessly sit alongside the singers.

. her  has the songwriting habit of

That El told us she doesn’t read much poetry gives the clue as to why her work is so original, somewhere between the poetry slammer in the pub and the literary wisdom that could be read off the page in a University cafe. I’m Sorry Japan was stop you dead in your tracks confession of her blasé response to the Japanese tsunami ending with a cry to God and call to prayer. Hoods? Well Hoods should be a hit single. It twists and turns your self-righteous judgements on others and  ends with you looking deep into yourself in hope of finding personhood in everyone. Her travelling and work with a number of different social justice causes gave her a deep reservoir of people to find her stories.  

Thompson brought the 4 Corners landscape to the final event. My City as an opening number set us in Belfast with the mountains and rivers as well as the building and pavement. A new song How Do We Honour took us into the legislation of the Haass Report and the realisation that it is only respecting each other that will help us find a way through our current parades and flags impasse. Falling is a poignant dignity giving to a young man who was buried in full view yet like one of the disappeared. The Falling line is near impossible to get out of you head days later; and I’m not the only one who has said it!

If Thompson is brand new to the songwriting scene Toner is a young veteran. He was in good company tonight but his experience and stage fitness shone and with a deep humility that put up with the self indulgent questioning of yours truly. His artistic and performing maturity also came through in his ability to unpack the songs and the mechanics behind the craft. As he introduced and then sang Sailortown you could see The Clarendon Dock and the teenage protagonists. The unrelated aunty of The Great Escape as well as Sunday afternoon television in the early seventies came vividly alive. After a mention of Jim Reeves the next line “welcome to my world” comes with the timing of a comedian; brilliant! With a voice like a warm cup of the very best coffee I sat inches from him as he sang wondering why he is not a world famous songwriter, much sought after in the scenes of his encore song  Nashville Snowflake.  

If you had an interest in poetry or song then tonight would have been a joy. If you wanted to delve a little deeper into the art then I hope we uncovered some secrets in the chatter. If you came not expecting anything more than a good night out then Toner’s challenge to be alert and open to all the epic stories going on in the places and people around you would have sent you away with a real hint at how to milk the most out of life.

Three superb artists closed the 4 Corners Festival for this year by opening up the potential of our city implicitly and explicitly in songs and poems that were definitely good and good for something!


Narnia Wardrobe

Walking through the coats in a wardrobe, to be handed a lovely piece of Turkish delight, was the best entrance to church as I have had in a long, long time. This is Fitzroy and you can expect the unexpected but this was a particularly imaginative night. Just as well when you are thinking about CS Lewis's Narnia under the title The Gospel According To... The Wardrobe, The Witch and The Lion. This is one in a series that began a few years ago with rock musicians like Leonard Cohen, U2, Van Morrison etc before opening out in the arts to cover Les Miserables and Van Gogh. This evening that was a follow up to the Harry Potter night, just about a year ago, attracted an all age crowd of a couple of hundred and included the involvement of a seven year old who with sweet innocence acted Lucy as she arrived
in Narnia, a gaggle of nine and ten year olds who gave us a quiz on the Narnia series and a couple of teenagers who dramatized Lucy's siblings talking to the Professor (type cast for David Livingstone!) struggling with her far-fetched story about another land at the back of the wardrobe! Two screens, for clips, PowerPoint and scenery change, set the whole thing up in a most professional manner under
the production skills of Dave Thompson.

The change in the order of the three things in the title was very deliberate. The wonder of The Wardrobe set the scene. After young Indie Gilbert had led us through the fur coats to arrive in the presence of Mr. Tumnus, Philip Mateer spoke very personally about how reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a ten year old in a library van had left him with a feeling inside that he longed to
return to. He couldn't find the book a again until his time at Queens
University and a conversation over coffee led him back to the entire series and Lewis's other books on faith. He shared how that feeling or desire that Lewis conjured in him was what Lewis felt was our deep yearning for God. In his earlier introduction, Thompson had already spoken of Lewis's aim to create feelings of spirituality. Mateer's testimony was a witness to his success.

Next up was the Witch when we are all asked to stand for the arrival of her Imperial Majesty, Jadis, Queen of Narnia. Dressed as a frightening White Witch Gillian Fitch had us in the palm of her evil temptress' hands in a monologue that informed us of the foolishness of Aslan, the certainty of her ultimate victory and calling us to give her our allegiance! She seemed to feel we like the young son of Adam, Edmund, we were so weak that for a piece of Turkish delight we were hers! It was an effective portrayal in a Screwtape Letter kind of way but that might be another interesting Fitzroy evening!

So, to The Lion, Aslan! With clips of the movie we watched The Witch kill Aslan and then Aslan being raised to life again. Sarah Patterson then did a magnificent job of unpacking the Christian theology of these events. A reading of Isaiah 53 fitted perfectly. What struck me most about this lovely reflection was not just that Narnia changed and the snow started melting but how Edmund the traitor was
transformed and how Aslan tells the other children to not remember his misdemeanour. Also I was also struck at Aslan telling the children that they would know him with another name in the ‘real’ world.

Thompson had spoken at the outset of how Lewis had started his fantasy hoping to sneak past the dragons at the door. I had always thought that he meant the secular culture when he spoke of who he wanted the fairy tale to sneak past. It seems it might have been the
dull religion of his childhood! If that was the case he did it tonight. Whether being introduced to the Narnia Chronicles for the very first time or a young person who has been gripped by the movies or those of us who have been journeying with it for many years we all went home warm with the wonder of that wardrobe, delighted that the White Witch's deep magic was overthrown by a deeper magic that went back beyond the dawn of time and a picture of Aslan that made him not at all safe but very, very good!

THE 3rd ANNUAL FITZROY BLUES NIGHT - a Review or a Reflection

Preachin The Blues

I introduced Sunday night’s 3rd Annual Fitzroy Blues Night with an apology to anyone who had arrived looking for a Church service. By the end I wasn’t so sure I should have.

The evening was an outstanding musical event. The unique arrangement of the choir’s introit Going To Sit Down On The Banks Of The River was followed by a plethora of superb vocal performances. Norman McKinlay, Dave Thompson, Gary Bradley, Gary Burnett and Caroline Orr all gave the blues their genius. Caroline’s Nobody’ Fault But Mine conjured the spirits of Billie and Janis. Dave’s Moses and The Lamb revealed how he gets stronger as a singer as the days go by. Norman’s Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down gave his voice a
new power. Gary Burnett and Caroline dueting on Shelter Me Lord did Buddy and Julie Miller proud and when Gary Bradley shook his tambourine as he sang Judgement Blues, if you had closed your eyes, you were back at a late sixties Stones gig. With players like Hicks, Mitchell and Auterson on the robust back beat rhythm John Trinder played lead guitar with poise and precision, guest star Martin McVitty astounded in ways that would compete with Gary Moore and Ken Frame’s banjo added texture and variety. That variety went an extra hue with Peter Greer coming off his Hammond organ chair to play some tasty acoustic for Jacqui Lewis, another guest we know very well in Fitzroy, whose vocal on I Want Jesus To Walk With Me was as strong and soulful as I have heard her before.  

This year’s guest Brian Houston is always a ferocious live act and tonight he made his guitar weep and praise and preach and pastor.
His first big hit from twenty years ago Jesus Again brought the pain of the blues into testimony and ending the song with a verse or two from Jesus Loves Me was a artistic and theological trump card. 5$ On Your Dashboard from his brilliant record Shelter benefited from his story driving through Toronto and ending with Gospel Train mixed blues with the Spirituals in a Springsteenesque song of eschatological hope.

Gary Burnett is the creator and curator of this annual event. Currently writing a book on the subject of blues and theology he did an amazing job tonight in giving us an informative, if sweeping, history of the blues, looked into why it might have been lazily lumped as the devil’s music before bringing us to the vast repertoire within the genre that brings us clear as crystal to the Gospel itself. I really can’t wait for the book and am off to seek out Walter Trout and Kelly Joe Phelps!

And... if you had ears to hear... or have read between the lines of this review you will see why I questioned my introductory remarks.
For sure it wasn’t traditional Church in the strictest sense of the word.
However, it missed nothing of what happens in Church. Scripture Readings were there, most obviously in Moses and The Lamb and John The Revelator. Hymns were there in Going To Sit Down By The Banks Of The River, Jesus Loves Me and I Want Jesus To Walk With Me. Confession was there in Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Shelter
Me Lord was prayer made song. There were sermonettes too, particularly in Judgement Day Blues, Brother’s Keeper, $5 Dollars on Your Dashboard and You Gotta Move. Indeed conversations since have suggested that people got the sermons loud and clear and are carrying their 5$ equivalent but also hoping that they have more than dollars or pence to give as a contribution to God “saving the poor beggar from going to hell.”

When I ended the night with a quick reprise, “So go and be your brother’s keeper, keep 5 dollars on your dashboard and when the Lord says “Move” you better move” it was only scratching the surface of much more than a great musical blues night. Sometimes Church is so contrived it fails to be Church and other times Church leaps up in places where it is less expected and meets us, ministers to us and missionally sends us... guitar solo... amen!  


(this is my review of my good friend Eric Angus Whyte's new record. Eric was kind enough to invite me to write the sleeve notes. The album is launched tomorrow in Canada and we hope to have the European launch in Belfast in late January.)


There something about Canada and Ireland. They both live in the shadow of more powerful nations but secretly know that they are deeper and more fragrant of soul! The proof is in the songs. Canada and Ireland still love it live, raw and organic. They still love the craft, the story and what’s real. Eric Angus Whyte lives in both countries (though technically Belfast is in the UK, it is very definitely Ireland too!) and the record you are holding is a product of both; the instrumental So It Begins could actually be the soundtrack of the voyage between the two that Whyte’s ancestors took so many years ago. 

Whyte builds his art on deftly finger fretboard dances and at times on this album gets to waltzes with fellow Canadian guitar hero Stephen Fearing whose production does perfectly all that needs to be done and no more. On top of the musical dexterity Whyte then weaves songs of love, loss and history, songs of tenderness, justice and hope, songs of life and faith and family. Story songs like Irish Wave Goodbye, Luddite Sons and Wallis Simpson takes moments of the past and makes comment that is profound in the present.  In the subjectivity of Landscapes and Mercy’s Porch, personal songs of aging and fatherhood, Whyte gently lays some objective truth on and between the lines. Love Gone Wrong, the gentle blues of Shed These Clothes and the elegiac splendour of  She’s Like The Swallow are melancholy songs of loss with glimmers of light sneaking through the cracks as his fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen pointed out how it is.

Beyond all this Whyte plays a mean hammer dulcimer and Beggars and Buskers of Belfast might reek of his hero Rich Mullins’ influence but adds another sparkling hue to the piece. Eric Angus Whyte songs are great companions for those who seek songs that do more than tickle the ears; open the door of your soul and be alert to what slips through.


I was asked to share my albums of the year and usually do take some time to reflect on such things. The fascinating thing I find is that this was the year I stopped trying to stay contemporary. When I was doing my radio show from 1996 to 2006 I was always looking for the new songs for next week’s show. When the show stopped I got a chance to just listen for listening’s sake. Still working with students I was always being nudged towards new stuff but leaving student work late 2009 might just have seen a seismic shift in Stockman’s listening habits. As I look back at this year I see phases where I re-discovered The Moody Blues, Leon Russell, Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes and Linda Ronstadt as well as grasping for the first time Joe Cocker and Delaney and Bonnie.

There were a few reasons for these discoveries. Firstly, I don’t get paid as much as I did in Chaplaincy and I now buy most of my CDs in Oxfam or other charity shops. Picking up Joe Cocker’s classic live album Mad Dogs and Englishmen in such a charity shop raid sent me back to my live vinyl triple album gem Leon Live which in turn got me listening to Delaney and Bonnie with Harrison and Clapton joining Leon Russell in behind. It was about a week later that I discovered that Leon was about to release an album with Elton John produced by T-Bone Burnett; serendipity or something! Cocker’s voice and re-working of Dylan, Cohen, The Beatles and Van Morrison among others is intoxicating stuff and that charity shop had loads at ridiculous prices.

The other thing that charity shops do is have you flicking back through vinyl. In one shop, you can tell I work off Botanic Avenue, I came upon the three Linda Ronstadt records I missed in the seventies. Having gotten the Greatest Hits Volumes 1 and 2 I never purchased Hasten Down The Wind, Prisoner In Disguise and Simple Dreams. Coming back the next day I discovered that Hasten Down the Wind was £15! Vinyl has gone up in price in recent years BUT £15; it’s alot of money for a Ballymena man! It did send me off to Ebay to see if I could get it cheaper. So for 1p plus p&p I acquired it and that sent me off in vinyl mode. A few other Linda Ronstadt followed; that stunning voice, great choice of covers, brilliant players!

That somehow though led me back to my Moody Blues vinyl. Already owning a few Moody albums from way back in the seventies I sought out a few that I had had and sold back to the second hand shops – forgive me. Quickly picking up Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and In Search of The Lost Chord I pursued John Lodge’s solo album Natural Avenue and then Ray Thomas’s two seventies solo records too. By year end I was Moody Blues obsessed, picking up all the so called core seven albums released between 1967 and 1972.  

Those Moody Blues records really are outstanding and it is hard to understand why they don’t hold a higher place when the history of that prolific era is trawled out in monthly journals like Mojo and Uncut. From the first experiment of orchestra meets rock on Days Of Future Past through the development of the mellotron, mixing psychedelia with a little prog. rock but never overdosing, if that’s not some kind of contradiction! Add to that lyrics about signs of the times and stretching spiritual searching and make the songs radio accessible and you find a treasure trove of records!

By Christmas Day Santa had added more early seventies sounds by delivering some Apple Remasters. At last, after all these years, the non Beatles’ records on The Beatles’ Apple Label got a really good release. I have had the idea for a novel based around a songwriter who was signed to Apple and have for years wanted to hear the records and indulge in some research. Here it all is! What I didn’t expect was that Billy Preston and Doris Troy’s albums would confirm my love of the year – where Gospel and soul met George Harrison’s rock guitar. That took me back to where this article comes in as that sound encompassed Leon Russell and Delaney and Bonnie.

Harrison was always my favourite Beatle; the underdog with a religious bent! What I have discovered this year is how prolific he was as The Beatles disintegrated. He was everywhere playing with everybody and in the Apple Label he was the most hands on of The Beatles being very involved with not only Troy and Preston but also Jackie Lomax and Badfinger. Without question his liberation from his oldest friends had helped him find a muse that would eventually conjure one of my favourite albums of all time – All Things Must Pass. What I found as I listened to Preston and Troy was how their Gospel, with some help from Delaney and Bonnie and Leon Russell was laying the foundations of Harrison taking the Christian hymnody and adding his eastern mysticism. Preston had no bones about being all about sharing his Christian faith; Harrison’s musical gurus were not of the same theology as his Maharishi!

Anyway, that is a big part of my musical story of 2010. Yes, I discovered new things but I revelled in a time between the White Album and Glam Rock and it was that Glam Rock that held the charts when I started buying records.

A CELTIC PASSION - Clonard Monastry, March 26, 2010

(wrote this for my weekly pastoral email and thought some of you might like a read)

It was a musical and spiritual revelation to be at the Celtic Passion in Clonard Monastry when we were led through Good Friday and Easter Sunday with 12 hymns led by the world famous Irish Traditional band The McPeakes. Concocted by John Kelly and Clonard’s own Fr. Clem this was a poignant and profound night that at many times reached a searing beauty of music that I honestly don’t think I have ever experienced. The idea was to use the two hymnal traditions of Protestant and Catholic traditions to lead us through the Easter weekend. It was a potent revelation of how the objective words of our Christian story and theology could be made subjective in order to come alive and stir up our emotions and cut deep to the soul. Clem’s voice was remarkable and one of my criticisms was that we didn’t hear it enough. I was also struck by the beauty of the Irish language in song. Fitzroy member Philip Mateer did his Mark’s Gospel recital (he does the whole Gospel) of the cross and resurrection with the soundtrack of pipes and whistles giving the Scriptures drama and mood. There was an instrumental suite that led us from the hymns Friday to Sunday and when the music switched from dirge to celebration I have to say that I was so moved by it that I whispered, “Lord, may this last forever.” By the time we got to Amazing Grace I was thinking that this is our music, whether you are Protestant or Catholic, if you are Irish then what these McPeakes were playing is our groove, our muse, our soul. I even joked with myself that if an African American from Memphis was in the congregation that they would have been saying, “Darn tootin’ I wish I was white” because the spirit and the confident belief of the song was to Belfast what those negro spirituals are to the southern States of America. My only regret on the night was not forcing more people to come but hopefully this might become an annual event or we can pay the £70 plus when it tours the world and comes to the Waterfront Hall!