The Martian (Andy Weir)

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The other day I borrowed (with permission) this book from a cafe, because having started it I was hooked. It’s a 2011 science fiction novel written by Andy Weir, adapted into a 2015 film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon.

It appealed to my inner geek, as well as my interest in science and space exploration, but what completely sold it to me was an endorsement by a real-life astronaut Chris Hadfield: A book I just couldn’t put down! It has the very rare combination of a good, original story, interestingly real characters and fascinating technical accuracy.

If I had the time I would have probably read it in one sitting, but I’m currently half-way through it. It’s fast-paced, in fairly short chapters, with brief sections, and this all makes for an easy read. I’ve known about the book and film since they came out, so I’m a little late to the party, but better late than never! I look forward to finishing the book and catching up with the film sometime.

Update: I finished the book (a really gripping read) and Naomi bought me the DVD, so we snuggled on the sofa to watch it. All in all, a great book and film.

Slaying Imaginary Dragons

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It seems to me there’s an element in the English psyche that needs an enemy to fight, a dragon for St George (a foreigner by the way) to slay; an element that harks back to the Second World War and an imagined golden age. In the absence of a current aggressor, that role has been taken for many years by the European Union, which the United Kingdom voted to leave in 2016 by a narrow majority in a divisive referendum.

The benefits of EU membership have never really been promoted, and often lies about the EU have been perpetuated that have established themselves in our national identity. For decades politicians have also been content to blame their failures on the EU because it’s been politically expedient for them to do so.

We dubiously lift ourselves up by putting others down, insulting the Germans (for example), and hating others rather than working together for the common good, even if we hurt ourselves in the process. The latter is especially so in the possible no-deal Brexit scenario, as this would have catastrophic consequences for the UK.

For some who voted Brexit, the ‘enemy’ is now those who voted to remain in the EU, often referred to as ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. This attitude is unhelpful and dangerous as it opens the way for far-right extremists to gain influence and power, history reminding us this never ends well.

Somehow, our nation needs to unite and find the best way forward, but I’m not sure how this can happen, and I’m concerned about the country I love.

Burns Night 2019

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Even though I’m English I do like to have haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night each year. Sadly, I feel I’m letting my Scottish friends down today by not having this traditional meal. I’ll have to make up for it in the coming days; although my wife Naomi doesn’t like haggis, she’ll have to have Scottish mince, pie or something else. Liking haggis as I do, I’m fortunate that my local fish and chip shop does haggis in batter, so I can always get her an alternative.

To make up to my Scottish friends for now, here’s a famous poem by Robert Burns, which I dedicate to Naomi (although I’m not leaving her as the poem suggests).

My love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June :
My love is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my love,
Thou’ it were ten thousand mile.

Happy Burns Night to all my Scottish friends!

Note: the photo is from a previous year.

Vacant Earth

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Fragile Earth by Mixtaped Monk (also known as Arka Sengupta) is one of my favourite independent albums of 2018; I loved it the minute I first heard it.

I’ll let him describe it: Imagine waking up one day and discovering that there are no human beings present around you. You have all the essential supplies of the world at your disposal. But you are left to fend for yourself. What would you feel? How would you react? What would you do with your time? How would you lead the rest of your life? Will you accept your fate? Or would you ceaselessly search for others like you?

Inspired by a dream a dear friend of mine had once, “Vacant Earth” tries to answer the questions mentioned above. Through sounds (and their associated emotions) the album tries to relate the story I imagined, with me as the protagonist, when my friend had first told me about her dream. Sonically, the album borders around post-rock, neo-classical and ambient music.

Note: You can see all my favourite albums in 2018 here.

I, Daniel Blake

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Although I’d seen it before, I watched I, Daniel Blake with Naomi (watching for the first time) last night. Like the first time, it made me sad and angry in equal measure, as well as bringing tears to my eyes.

Daniel is unable to work because of his health situation, and he has to battle a welfare system that should work for him, but which in reality works against him. There is one lady (within the system) who tries to treat him with dignity and help him, a little like a flower growing through a crack in hard concrete; sadly, the weight of the system comes down on her, like a heavy boot.

He makes profound statements of his humanity in two very powerful scenes; one depicted above, the other in the final scene (which I’ll leave for those who haven’t seen it). This is a must-see movie (directed by Ken Loach) if you have a heart for the vulnerable within our society and our common humanity.

Bowie at Glastonbury 2000

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There’s not much that hasn’t already been said about David Bowie, who was taken from us three years ago and who would have been 72 years old today; but I didn’t want the milestone to go unmentioned.

I’ve always been fascinated by his music, his creativity, changes of style, his collaborations, and his determination to set trends rather than follow them. An example of the latter is that while punk was happening, he was at the Hansa Studio in Berlin crafting a totally new sound for what became the Low album.

While working in the office at home today, I enjoyed listening to David Bowie’s Glastonbury appearance in 2000 on Spotify. There’s a great selection of his songs, some of which (for example, Hallo Spaceboy) I prefer to hear live. I well remember watching his set at the time on television, one of the truly great Glastonbury performances.

Note: This might possibly have been my favourite live album of 2018 had I heard it during the year, as it happens another Bowie live album to that accolade. See here.

Epiphany Chalk Inscription

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In our worship meeting on Epiphany Sunday, I asked the congregation (from North Shields, Shiremoor and Wallsend Corps) how observant they were. This was because I had chalked something outside the entrance. But what does it mean?

Well, it’s an ancient custom in the Christian Church, especially amongst the Eastern Traditions. Chalk is blessed for everyone in the parish, and this is then taken home, and used to make this inscription on or around the entrance to your house. This is a sign of the Christian faith being lived in that home, and a sign of God’s blessing. 20+C+M+B+19.

You might have guessed that 20 & 19 refers to the year, but what about the C+M+B? The three letters have two meanings: they are the traditional names of the three Wise Men; Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. They also abbreviate the Latin words, Christus Mansionem Benedicat, ‘May Christ bless this house’.

It’s a way of witnessing to the world that in all our comings and goings in 2019, we will always be in search of the truth found in Jesus, the Word made Flesh, who the Wise Men search for by the light of the star.