Saturday, 31 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 30 January 2015 – Moormead

Moormead Park, Twickenham lies to the north of the railway line between North Twickenham and, to the east, St Margarets.

Formed towards the end of the 19th century from waste ground vested in the Parochial Schools, ostensibly to provide space for exercise and recreation and thus for the encouragement of good moral character, it has the pleasant atmosphere of a village green as well as perking up local property values. Each July since 1979 Moormead has been the site of the St Margarets Fair, for which the weather is usually spectacular (although sometimes the heavens open). The River Crane was diverted to form the western boundary of this small park, which accommodates tennis courts and a children's playground at its southern end. One of the local schools use it as a playing field and on Saturdays it is the venue for children's soccer.

My walk every Friday to French conversation class takes me across Moormead. This morning the light was beautiful on my outward journey but I did not have time to try and capture some of its atmosphere with my camera. The shot above as taken on the return journey, when the light was much more bland and less mysterious. I hope to give you more images of Moormead as the year continues.

The title and sub-heading of this blog have changed, prompted by the fact that it has moved on from its original purpose of inviting readers to accompany me on a journey through the experience of a rare lymphoma, Waldenström's macroglobulinaemia, and its treatment. I have been well now for four years, having had two thorough goes of chemotherapy between September 2010 and August 2011. The accounts of all that are still available here and I will continue to refer to medical matters whenever it seems right to do so.

I go back to University College Hospital in Euston every three months for a blood test and my cell counts are currently normal. In the time since I was diagnosed, knowledge of WM has increased substantially, as has understanding of the mechanisms of many cancers. New treatments are being developed that are more precisely targeted and, as a result, more effective and better tolerated than the machine-gun spray of chemo. Just this week the American Food and Drugs Administration (the FDA) has approved one new agent, ibrutinib, for the treatment of WM specifically, the first positive move away from using treatments that are hand-me-downs from the treatment of other blood cancers. The future is exciting, but the new agents are very costly, so there are complications ahead.

Friday, 30 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 29 January 2015 – The Joy of Commuting (2)

Striding purposefully, City workers take the travelator from the Waterloo & City Line platforms up towards the booking halls and the exits at Bank.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 27 January 2015 – Another Monstrous Carbuncle (5)

Here we are again on Eastcheap, this time on the south side of the street, looking north to show just how boorishly 20 Fenchurch Street, aka "The Walkie-Talkie", dominates the more modest buildings around it. The chief fault of its design is that it offends the normal expectation that a building will not be larger at the top than it is at its base. I hear wonderful things about the spectacular views over London to be had from the garden terraces and restaurants that have been laid out at the summit, but these treats exact a terrible cost from the London skyline considered as a whole.

It is of course frightfully clever to maximise space at the top of a building, as the best views bring in the highest rents but, again, this has been achieved by a structure that, when it is seen in its entirety, seems to have very few supporters.

In the foreground is the church of St Margaret Pattens, whose foundation in all likelihood goes back to the 11th century. The present building, which replaced earlier structures destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, was constructed in 1687 and has the only spire designed by Christopher Wren in a mediaeval style. The church has long been associated with The Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers, pattens being wooden-soled overshoes, later soled with iron rings to elevate their wearers above the muck and grime of the streets of several centuries ago. The church has a small but interesting display of these items.

HEALTH WARNING: Though it seemed a good idea at the time, I made the mistake of using a polarising filter on my cameral when taking today's photograph. This has had a strange, blunting, effect on the light and colour in the image. Also the camera I use for most of these daily images is a small item, with a fixed zoom lens that is not very forgiving at wide angles, resulting in a curved "barrel distortion" of the roofline of the buildings in the foreground. We live and learn...

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 26 January 2015 – Gryphon

The gryphon is a mythical beast whose origins lie in the ancient Near East, perhaps over 5,000 years ago. It combines the body, hind legs and tail of a lion with the head, breast and wings of an eagle. At some point in history it acquired pointed ears that seem to be all its own, but could be considered catlike. Among other things, it came, in heraldry, to symbolise courage and boldness.

This example is one of two that perch atop pillars on either side of the gate to Dunster Court on Mincing Lane in the City of London and are "supporters" of the arms of the Worshipful Company of Clothworkers, one of "the Great Twelve" livery companies. I walk through the gate nearly every working day and I love the sight of these fantastical beasts.

Monday, 26 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 25 January 2015 – Grotesque

Grotesques are figures carved to embellish buildings and are typical of Gothic styles of architecture. Like rain-spouts, they often jut straight out from buildings at a high level—on towers, say, or the edges of roofs—but they are, like this one, purely decorative. It is when they also incorporate a channel or pipe to convey rainwater away from a building that they are properly called "gargoyles".

Though only dating from the 1870s and the period of the Gothic Revival in English architecture, the grotesque pictured is heavily weathered by the forces of nature and atmospheric pollution and had to be brought down to earth from the church tower from one of whose corners it projected, before it came down under what was left of its own weight. When the church tower is repaired and restored, its three fellows will also be removed and all four grotesques will be replaced with newly carved versions.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 24 January 2015 – The Shadows Fall

The south-east window of St Paul's Church Hounslow West at lunchtime today. During a short break in the course my wife and are taking, I grabbed a moment to get this shot. The bitter cold also encouraged speed!

Saturday, 24 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 23 January 2015 – Calypso in the Square

I spent the afternoon at a meeting with the Heritage Lottery Fund in Holbein Place, just off Sloane Square. Both are places named after famous former inhabitants of London: the great 16th-century artist Hans Holbein and the distinguished physician, Sir Hans Sloane, who in 1703 conducted the autopsy of that incomparable chronicler of 17th-century life, Samuel Pepys and himself lived on until 1753, his 93rd year.

On returning to the square after the meeting to get on the District Line back to Richmond, I came across the subject of today's photo. Partly because it was extremely cold and I cannot operate my camera easily without gloves and also because I did not want to keep my travelling companion waiting, the shot was hastily taken and my camera was not on the ideal settings. I have done a bit of a rescue job on the resulting image, but the musician's face is not in focus (I took several shots; this one is the best).

He was happy to be photographed and the lively rhythm of his playing brought the sun out. Good on him.

Friday, 23 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 22 January 2015 – In The Wine Bar

Today was the birthday of one of my colleagues and we went to a wine bar to celebrate with red wine and snacks, including excellent chips. As Samuel Pepys might have said:
"…and all very merry".

The Vintry is in Abchurch Yard, a simple paved courtyard on one side of which sits the remarkable St Mary Abchurch. The plain brick exterior of the church—a 17th-century time capsule from the workshop of Christopher Wren—gives no clue as to the architectural and decorative wonders within and you will be hearing more about it.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Year In Pictures – 21 January 2015 – Hurrying Home

City workers walk with steady purpose east and west across Dunster Court to reach Tube stations and bus stops at the end of the day.

On the right is Clothworkers' Hall, the headquarters of one of "The Great Twelve"— the senior livery companies of the City of London. The gilded arms of the Clothworkers' Company form the central point of the gateway into Mincing Lane that marks the western limit of Dunster Court, while atop the gateposts are the twin gryphons from the arms of the City of London itself.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 20 January 2015 – Morning in Eastcheap

A man walks east in the clear winter sunlight, absorbed in his smartphone. Another, seated in the coffee shop, notices my taking a sneaky street shot and smiles.

The "cheap" in the street name is from the Old English word for "market" and Eastcheap was the site of the main meat market of the City of London in mediaeval times, consisting of Great Eastcheap and Little Eastcheap. Great Eastcheap extended west from the area of the Monument, but disappeared with the construction of King William Street in the early 19th century. Only that part formerly known as Little Eastcheap remains, leading east in an elegant curve into Great Tower Street, at whose furthest reach the church of All Hallows by the Tower stands proudly silhouetted against the rising sun.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 19 January 2015 – Another Monstrous Carbuncle (4)

Here is another view of The Walkie-Talkie—proper name: 20 Fenchurch Street—flaunting itself in the clear winter-morning light, high above a wonderful Renaissance revivalist confection on Eastcheap. I am still toying with this building, like a cat with its prey, making it think i don't really mean it serious harm. It is wrong of course, but I am feeling generous, at least for a little while longer.

Monday, 19 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 18 January 2015 – Reaching for the Light

"Come. all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare."

Isaiah 55: 1–2

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 16 January 2015 – A Friendship Across The Generations

One day in 1974 I was looking intently at a completed proposal form for a life policy with the United Kingdom Civil Service Benefit Society, housed at that time in an office on the Sheen Road in Richmond, Surrey (this was before the creation of the London Metropolitan Boroughs, so the old county name is still relevant). Applicants for policies were lower-grade civil servants: clerical officers and assistants, post office workers and a fair few prison officers. Signing people up for policies was the task of local representatives, who were sometimes colleagues of the applicants, and completed forms often arrived at our office in batches.

This was my first-ever employment and it was my job to check the incoming forms and insert relevant details from them on to pro-formas that would be passed to the two women who then had to type the relevant details into a computerised printer so large it needed its own room. The resulting policy documents would be returned to me for further checking before being issued to the applicants, carbon copies being retained at the office. My colleagues in the Policy Processing Department and I sat around a large table, each of us performing complementary tasks. My work did comprise other duties, such as filing, and calculating premiums on an electric calculator the size of a small dog kennel, but proofreading and the checking of details was my main thing.

Completed policies and associated correspondence were filed in large cabinets along one wall, and members of other departments would visit our room to access them and usually stop for a chat. There was much banter and a fair amount of griping and moaning, but the working atmosphere was generally good. The air quality was poor however as two of my colleagues—one as thin as a grass stalk and the other of an ashen complexion—smoked incessantly. The walls and ceilings of offices in those days all bore a yellow-brown patina of nicotine. We knew it was unpleasant but at the same time did not question its acceptability—it was some years before the issues of passive smoking became common currency.

Working at "The UK", as the Society was called, gave me my first introduction to the basic concepts of actuarial risk and the principle that an applicant's state of health and consequent life expectancy would have an impact on the level of premium that would be charged to secure the payout of the desired sum assured on his or her death. The application form contained a section requiring the applicant to provide details of existing medical conditions. A disclosure of any serious medical condition would mean that the application would be sent to The UK's medical adviser, who would specify what further information should be supplied by the application before a decision could be made on accepting risk.

On the day concerned, the medical section of the form I was looking at contained the single handwritten response "LYPHOMA". My mind being stocked with a vocabulary of medical terms gleaned from perusal of my father’s medical journals, I was concerned by the spelling used. If the word had been “LIPOMA”, there would have been no need for further enquiry, as the applicant would have been disclosing nothing more than that he had a benign fatty lump somewhere about his person (the applicant was male, as most indeed were). However the presence of y and h made me think that the applicant was actually referring to a more troubling entity, that is to say lymphoma, meaning that his medical outlook was likely to be more significantly compromised. It was indeed the latter, so an imaginary gold star and a less becoming sense of smugness were my rewards on that occasion. Little did is suspect that, more than a quarter of a century later, I would be sitting in a haematologist’s consulting room further west in the county of Surrey receiving the most unwelcome news that my own bone marrow had turned to the Dark Side and become the enemy within.

I have often found myself since diagnosis recalling that early lesson in the importance of correct spelling and at the same time being thankful that the treatment of many cancers, including lymphomas—there are numerous types—has improved dramatically in the intervening years and even in the time since I first became a habitué of haematology departments.

Since 1964 my permanent residence has remained within what is now The London Borough of Richmond upon Thames (“LBRUT”, whose Council is sometimes known locally and with a certain satirical affection as “El Brute”), but today I was once again in the town of Richmond itself, at a church service to celebrate the life of the man who gave me that first employment and who died shortly before Christmas. He and his wife, who predeceased him some 12 years ago, were good friends of my parents and our families spent much time together from 1968 onwards and well on into the 1970s in particular, my brother and I also getting to know and stay with their wider family in South Wales.

Though our paths have not crossed that much in more recent years, as is so often the way in life, the cords of love and shared memories have remained strong and life-giving. During the church service today and at the reception afterwards, I was not only reminded of the best times anyone could hope to experience, but also handed the golden opportunity that such occasions afford: to reforge links of love, both with members of the family and with the wider circle of friends and acquaintances, some of whom I have also not seen for many years.

My late friend was a remarkable man, as all present today were able to affirm, of strong (but never “earnest" or dull) Christian faith, generosity, fun and not a little mischief. What impressed particularly about him was his willingness and ability to relate to people of all ages, and I am so glad my own children got to experience for themselves his qualities of warmth, kindness and good humour—they declared him to be “a dude”. He was unfailingly kind to me and unstinting with his time and attention to what what was going on in my life, sometimes enquiring directly but nevertheless gently about my spiritual wellbeing.

I last spoke to him about two years ago, when he telephoned me in the depths of my illness, having heard from his daughter that I was unwell. He was by then well into his nineties and until 2013 he sent my family a Christmas card every year, his firm handwriting giving no clue of the advancing frailty he bore without complaint.

May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Duke Street Baptist Church in the centre of Richmond.
Many hours of my teenage years were spent in this very plain building.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 15 January 2015 – A Time Of Planting

For the last few months the churchyard at St Olave Hart Street in the City of London has seen many changes: repaving, lighting, the construction of a two-dimensional granite prayer labyrinth. New seating is on its way, but today a large number of plants were put into position, still for now in their pots.

In March, when the time is right and the weather more suitable, two herb beds will be planted in memory of William Turner (c.1508–1568)—a Northumbrian, the bright son of a tanner in Morpeth—who came south to Cambridge to study for ordination and become a doctor of physic (as medicine was then termed). As it was illegal for clergy to marry in the reign of Henry VIII and Turner went against this edict, he absented himself from England for a while and pursued his medical studies in Northern Italy, later making his way into the German-speaking lands, where he shared his observations of the natural world—plants especially—with like-minded Protestant scholars.

Returning to England, where the Reformation was deepening its hold on the English church  under the reign of the boy king, Edward VI, Turner became personal physician to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Lord Protector of England during the King's minority, Seymour, who was also the boy's uncle, had his residence at Syon House in Brentford and Turner mentions the garden there in his writings. Later Turner became Dean of Wells but was unable to take up his official residence for some years, because the outgoing Dean refused to vacate it. After not a little complaining that his work and studies were being hindered by his having to share cramped living accommodation with his squalling children, William again absented himself from England when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne and began fervently rolling back the religious reforms of her recently deceased half-brother Edward. This was a wise move on Turner's part, since he had written fantastically rude things about Stephen Gardiner, Mary's Bishop of Winchester, and his life would most likely have been in danger.

After several years, once again spent among fellow Protestants on the Continent, Turner came back to England on the death of Mary and was able to settle in Wells again, establishing a garden at his residence that has been revived in recent years.

Turner's magnum opus is his three-volume New Herball, the first work of original scholarship on English plants and their uses, especially in the practice of physic, to be published in English. Turner's declared aim was to promote better medical practice and encourage a movement away from the use of poorly understood and inaccurate Latin texts, typically copied uncritically over several centuries. The illustrations in Turner's herbal are of good quality, as he acquired woodcuts that had appeared in the work of the German Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566).

By the time the final volume of Turner's work was ready for publication he was in poor health and living in the parish of St Olave's in the street known to this day as Crutched Friars (named after the priory in the area, whose monks had crosses stitched on their robes, "crutchèd" being a corruption of "crossed"). Turner died in Crutched Friars the year his last volume appeared, bearing a dedication to Elizabeth I, and he was buried in the south aisle of St Olave's. It was left to his son Peter, also a physician but not ordained, to protect William's reputation by producing corrections to errors made by the publisher.

William's periods of exile and his lack of a secure dwelling in England for a number of years no doubt affected his finances and his widow, Mary, married, soon after his death, Richard Cox, Bishop of Ely and an unpopular clergyman of the sort criticised by Turner for financial rapaciousness. There is some evidence that Mary's own reputation suffered as a result.

The work of later botanists and herbalists, notably John Gerard (1545–1612), has tended to eclipse Turner's contribution, but his significance has nevertheless long been recognised by scholars and Turner studies are currently in a healthy state. In addition to the garden in Wells already mentioned, Turner's birthplace of Morpeth has a memorial garden maintained by the local authority. and now St Olave's, alerted afresh in recent years to its status at the resting place of the great man's mortal remains, is to play more of a part in honouring "the father of English botany" by arranging for its new herb beds to contain plants mentioned in Turner's writings and installing an information panel in the churchyard.

The Turner story continues with Peter, who is also buried in the church, but that is for another day.

A corner of St Olave's, much liked by the poet John Betjeman as a true country churchyard "not done up as a garden of rest".

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 14 January 2015 – Another Monstrous Carbuncle (3)

Damn it, the new kid on the block was actually looking rather fabulous in the crisp winter light this morning as I walked east along Lombard Street.

I am starting to notice the way the building either echoes or contrasts with nearby buildings, such as, here, the little spire of the 17th-century church of St Edmund King and Martyr. I also like the glaucous greens and blues of the Walkie-Talkie's colour scheme. Bother it again!

On the other hand the parvenu is only tolerable if substantial parts of it are concealed. Hardly a recipe for architectural greatness, surely?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 13 January 2015 – A Little Walk Through The Ages

At the southern end of Seething Lane, at the eastern end of the City of London, a man gazes into the window of a bar that is advertising the imminent addition to its offerings of a brand of beer from the town in the Czech Republic perhaps more closely associated with brewing than any other. 

On the hurrying commuter's right and on the left of the picture is another bar, beneath whose foundations lurk the ghostly platforms of one of the lost Tube stations of London, Mark Lane, which are dimly visible to those travelling on the District Line who care to look out of the carriage windows between Monument and Tower Hill. Behind me some yards to the north is St Olave Hart Street, where Samuel Pepys is buried, and I have just walked past the site of The Navy Office, where he lived and worked. Pepys would walk from his house the short distance across Seething Lane to the church, passing into the churchyard through the gateway constructed in 1658 and that stands to this day, still bearing on its classical pediment the sculpted skulls and crossbones that led Charles Dickens to nickname the church "St Ghastly Grim". The Navy Office site is now a public garden, although currently turned a builders' yard to enable the conversion of the early 20th-century Port of London Authority building that overlooks it into a six-star hotel and a set of apartments for people known, rather colourlessly, as "high net worth".

In the centre distance stands the church of All Hallows by the Tower, so called because it is the nearest church to the Tower of London, which comes into view on the left once one turns the corner of the lost Tube station. The church is the one from whose own tower Pepys observed with growing alarm the devastation being wrought by the Great Fire of 1666. The present tower is however of post-war construction, as is much of the church itself, the main exception being the extensive crypt, in which a section of Roman pavement is displayed as well an exquisite 14th-century carved alabaster panel depicting St Hubert.

The flames of the Great Fire spared St Olave's, All Hallows and the old Navy Office, and Pepys carried on living in the area until 1674, his residence having been damaged by a fire of its very own the year before. He moved back to Westminster and eventually died in Clapham in 1703. His body was brought back to be interred in a vault beneath the Communion table alongside that of his wife Elizabeth and his brother John.

The diary Samuel wrote over nine years—during all but the first few months of which he lived in Seething Lane—was written in shorthand, undeciphered and unpublished until 1825. Once his lively and unparalleled eyewitness account of his life, work and adventures outside the marital bed, along with his accounts of the Great Plague and the Great Fire, became known, his fame was assured. That fame draws many visitors to St Olave's each year. 

The first time I tasted lager was in Plzen. Aged 13, I did not care for its strong, bitter taste and its gentler hoppy notes were lost on me. The year was 1968 and just over a week later the forces of the Warsaw Pact crossed the Czechoslovak borders and my first trip outside the UK was cut short. At the time it seemed as if Soviet Communism would last for ever. Not so, even though its unruly ghost rattles its chain and its descendants spoil the party with their belches from time to time. All things are in flux, as a wise man said some millennia ago, and I like lager very (but not too) much. 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A Year In Pictures – 12 January 2015 – Another Monstrous Carbuncle (2)

Here is another view of 20 Fenchurch Street, now commonly known as "The Walkie-Talkie". If I travel into the City by my normal route, namely to Bank from Waterloo on the Waterloo & City Line, I will usually leave the station by Exit 6, which faces east directly along Lombard Street, as you see here. In the distance is The W-T, rendered partly bearable by the fact that a substantial part of it is hidden by intervening buildings.

View east along Lombard Street from Bank Station, Exit 6.
Two churches are visible : immediately on the right is part of the north wall of St Mary Woolnoth, burial place of John Newton (a former Rector and the author of "Amazing Grace") and the only City church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, while further along is the elegant tower and small spire of St Edmund King and Martyr.
One of these days I will learn how to straighten the leaning verticals that are a particular issue with wide-angle lenses. The lean of the Walkie-Talkie's north face on the other hand is part of the architect's, um, conception.

Monday, 12 January 2015

A Life in Pictures – 10 and 11 January 2015 – A Weekend of Riches

My wife and I love being part of St Paul's Church Hounslow West, three miles north-west of where we live and getting near to the point where the Bath Road and the A4 converge as one approaches Heathrow Airport. The planes fly low in this part of West London and it is an area of great cultural diversity and significant social challenge.

A new venture for the church as we involve ourselves more in the life of the community around St Paul's has been to start a "language café" to offer help to those for whom lack of English-language skills is a barrier to inclusion in wider society. The café offers a range of creative and fun approaches to language learning and is a project close to our hearts. The City of London is funding training course to equip volunteer facilitators to run such language clubs and we have signed up to attend. Our course is being hosted in the church, which is obviously convenient for us, but some of those attending will be seeking to start clubs in other parts of West London. The course started with a six-hour sessions and will continue over the next four weekends under the guidance of our very enthusiastic facilitator.

There were eight of us, four from St Paul's and four from wider afield, and we had a great time getting to know something about each other from a range of group and paired activities, plain old conversation and written exercises, including gaining more of an understanding of the dos and don'ts, the whys and wherefores of facilitation. Here is a snap of the cover of our course booklet.

"The Toolkit"

Our first exercise, after an icebreaker in which we got to know each other's names, was to prepare and present a poster about ourselves. Here is mine (with apologies for miserable artwork).

The happy fellow in the middle is, ahem, do I have to spell it out?
The symbols on my chest indicate my heritage as: a Londoner by birth (bad blue drawing of Tower Bridge), with British nationality and some Irish ancestry (yes, that green thing IS meant to be a shamrock).
The words on the left are (some of) my main interests and passions (the barrel shaped objects at my feet are conga drums – you spotted that too, didn't you), while the words at bottom right indicate my motivations for being involved in the project.
In the evening we had a wonderful gathering of family, as a costing has come to stay with us for a few days while she is doing some work in London. She works with her daughter, so she came to stay too and my brother and his wife joined us for dinner, so that there were six of us tucking into minced lamb curry with peas on Saturday evening. My sister-in-law brought a wonderful cheesecake and three delicious cheeses, while my cousin supplied the wine.

In addition to the wine, my cousin brought with her a stock of precious old photographs to entrust to me as the compiler of our family tree and we spent quite some time after dinner poring over these wonderful images of our paternal grandparents and other family members from over 100 years ago, when they were roughly the same ages as our children are now. Some of these photos I remember from my grandmother's house, but others I had never seen before. Some gaps in knowledge were filled, while other questions opened up, and I and may return to these images share some here as the year goes on.

On Sunday my wife and I were back in St Paul's, this time for the morning service. My wife was on the rota for children's church, while I was not down to play percussion in the worship this week, so I took some photos instead. Here is one of a couple of my fellow musicians practising before the start of the service.

Welcome to St Paul's!

Friday, 9 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 9 January 2015 – Café, Conversation et Quelques Pensées

For over a year now I have most Fridays been part of a French conversation group, which meets a pleasant 25-minute walk away from my house. The coffee is good, as are the teaching, company and conversation, while the biscuits are very often a particular favourite of mine: the plain chocolate version of Petit écolier by LU, visible in the shot above. LU is short for "Lefèvre-Utile" and the company was founded by Jean-Romain Lefèvre in Nantes in 1846. Although, as is so often the way with enterprises once they achieve a certain level of fame and establish a brand, the company is now owned by a large American corporate (which also manages, among numerous other brands, Toblerone and Cadbury's Dairy Milk),  the quaintly sculpted eponymous little scholar still gazes out from the slab of chocolate on top of each petit beurre.

Each week a member of the group chooses an article on a topic of current world, or very often particularly French, interest, which we read in advance of the meeting and then discuss. This week's article considered a recent test of France's long-established tradition of secularism, known as laïcité. A court had ruled against the display of a Nativity scene in a municipal building on the grounds that, while such a display would be perfectly permissible in a church, it was quite out of order in a town hall, the domain of the secular.

So far, so clair, but what if—as some ingenious commentator pointed out—the figurines of Mary, Joseph and le petit Jésus were not just craft items but examples of a traditional art form? Should they not, in that case, be accorded the protections accorded to such artworks as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a crucifix suspended in a container of the artist's own urine? This and other controversial items (such as a 2010 photograph of a young man wiping his derrière with a French flag) had been permitted for display. Appeal could of course be made to La Ligue des droits de l'homme, the French NGO responsible for the protection of human rights, founded in 1898 to defend Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew and an officer in the French Army falsely accused of treason. The snag is that La Ligue is the very organisation that brought the case against the offending Christmas figurines in the first place.

Our discussion, which was heartfelt and earnest, of course took place against the background, unforeseen when the article was originally chosen some weeks ago, of the double terrorist incidents in Paris and its environs over the last couple of days. The days ahead, it seems inevitable, will be taken up by much further debate, increasing political unrest, heated religious controversy and—oh God, may it not be so—physical danger. Reports are now appearing on the internet that Serrano's controversial image has been removed from the publicly available archive of Associated Press.

I seek to follow Christ. I do not like Serrano's work and yesterday I saw a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the Holy Trinity that tested my tolerance, but when I stop to examine such images, I can accept them as a spur to engagement and debate. Although I do not abandon my instinct that there are fundamental ideas that should be grasped and defended, I surrender my right to take offence because clinging jealously to it would lead me on a much darker path. 

A Year in Pictures – 8 January 2015 – The Holidays Are Over

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 7 January 2015 – The Light That Shines In The Darkness

Today I have been able to think of nothing much besides the horrible events in Paris and have wondered what to photograph that might in any way be fitting. I offer an image of my place of work, St Olave Hart Street in the City of London.

The churchyard has over the last few months been undergoing extensive refurbishment, with new paving and the construction in contrasting shades of granite of a prayer labyrinth. There will be new bench seating and, over the next few months new planting, including special herb beds to commemorate William Turner—not the painter but the 16th-century clergyman and doctor of physic who published the first original herbal in the English language. There is also new lighting.

On this day—one of the gloomiest in terms of weather so far this winter and blighted by yet more politico-religious violence—it was the new lights that invited me to produce a photographic response. The word "photography" of course means "drawing with light" and, even over the first few days of this new year, I have sensed a growing fascination with the presence of light in the world. Looking ahead to the moment when the final image of this 365-day project will appear, I hope that by the end of 2015 my obsession with light will remain undimmed and my skill at harnessing even a small portion of its wonders will have grown.

Light illuminates and it also, as it falls on an object, enables us to discern form and so interpret what it is we are looking at. Without the light of wisdom we blunder around in the darkness of our own passions, whether or not we choose to justify their dominance over us by appeal to dogmas of hatred and destruction. Walk towards the light.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God at the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it."
The Gospel of John, Chapter 1, verses 1 to 5

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 6 January 2015 – A Great British Institution

I see this wonderful old pub every working day as it is in the same street as my place of work. This was where my colleagues and I had our working lunch yesterday—in the first-floor room, just below whose windows the sign is swinging in the strong numbing winds that chap ungloved hands in minutes. In the sixteenth century a notable merchant's house—known as "Whittington's Palace, but not having anything to do with the pantomime Lord Mayor or his cat—stood on this spot. It was ornately decorated with carvings of animals and foliage and its courtyard was open to the street, but it was demolished in 1801. What I wouldn't do to bring it back, although the more modest building you see above—with its painted embellishments, cosy interior, refreshing beer and heartening food—is far from being an unworthy successor, making a valiant stand against the relative drabness of the surrounding office blocks. Now, who's for steak and chips and a cool draught of something yeasty?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 5 January 2015 – Another Monstrous Carbuncle

Bit off more than I could chew with this photo, and no mistake.

The church office where I work in the City of London reopened today after the Christmas and New Year break. There were many good points, including a very productive working lunch with my colleagues (fish and chips in the neighbouring pub, since you ask).

The walk between Bank and my place of work generally takes me past the brand new 20 Fenchurch Street, which is generally now referred to as "the Walkie-Talkie". There is much wrong with this building on architectural and town planning grounds and many hope that "lessons will be learned" from its overweening intrusion on the skyline and streetscape of the Square Mile. Time is not on my side to go into greater detail in this post, but there is a cogent and witty critique by Rowan Moore that has recently appeared in The Guardian that gives a good summary of just what is upsetting most (it seems) who are acquainted with the building.

The jolly thing is of course here to stay for the next few years and cannot be ignored, so it will probably make a few appearances in this blog over the coming months. Today I offer an attempt at conveying the one aspect of the W-T that I find in any way pleasing, but I should first offer the following caveat (or even mea culpa). Architectural photography has many pitfalls, particularly if you are shooting with a small camera, as I will be most days. Also, during the hours of darkness, all sorts of blotches, lighting flares and image noise can frolic and sport more freely in the digital playground. Add to this my getting to grips with the complexities of imaging software, and you have a recipe for bleary eyes, the burning of midnight oil and results that will have me laughed out of serious photographic circles.

Drum roll...

The north and west sides of 20 Fenchurch Street viewed from pavement level. The building, especially the restaurant garden area accommodated in its bulging summit, may be wonderful for its occupants and offer stunning views over London, but it bullies its surroundings in an outrageous fashion.  

Monday, 5 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 4 January 2015

Today we went to church in Hounslow, where we have been worshipping for the last two years or so. After the service the Christmas tree was stripped of its lights and baubles. The rest of the decorations will follow.

At home after lunch, my wife and I restored our house to its pre-festive plainness. Back to work tomorrow—actually later today—I'd better get some sleep.

The baubles must go! Not my best-ever photograph, but you get the idea.

A Year in Pictures – 3 January 2015

The cat had to go to the vet today, but my wife and I thought we would do the decent thing and accompany her.

She had a skin problem and haematuria (you can look that one up). The vet, who had previous experience of our rather highly-strung cat, armed himself with a towel to shield himself from possible birds and scratches. As far as the scabbing of the skin was concerned, he diagnosed an allergy to flea saliva and recommended a better monthly treatment than we had been using to kill the critters. He said that the new treatment would itself became less effective in time as fleas developed resistance, but was confident that something new would be developed in due course. Let us hope he is right.

As for the symptom described by long Greek word used above, the culprit seemed to be exclusive use of dry cat food that left the linings of the bladder (yes, the bladder) under nourished and vulnerable to infection. So, wet food is now the order of the day (although we will give dry food sometimes as it is good for the teeth), for the next few days sprinkled with an anti-inflammatory to ease pain and discomfort and another drug containing agents to, um, build up the bladder as well as ease feline stress (goodness knows, our little cat could use some help with her general anxiety quite apart from the instant nuisance of cystitis).

The bill was not as bad as we expected and the wet food is being consumed with greater relish that the dry stuff ever has been. Perhaps our little companion will be even more of a delight to have around than she has ever been?

Smudge, now eight years old, and seen here after the ordeal of examination and an injection of the first dose of anti-inflammatory. Pretty brave of my wife to have her hand so close in the circumstances!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

A Year in Pictures – 2 January 2015

This day saw the funeral of my youngest cousin, who died suddenly a few weeks before Christmas.

My wife and I drove to the south coast with my brother and his wife for the services of committal and remembrance, followed by a reception for family and friends in a boating club that had been a special place for my cousin. A number of more distant relatives had travelled some distance to be there and, although it was good to see one another and even catch up on researches into our shared family history, we all wished fervently that the circumstances had been different. There was laughter as well as tears and solemnity mingled naturally with humour to dispel the clouds of despair that could so easily have gathered around such an untimely event.

Rest in peace, dear cousin.

2015 – A Year in Pictures – 1 January

What a lazy writer I have become, the only excuse being that my health since treatment in 2011 has been good and that normal life has therefore been able to nudge, cajole and insinuate itself back into my available mental spaces. The motivation to keep writing has never gone away though and in the last year or so I have—as a two-fingered gesture to illness—been recovering my interest in photography, which was very near the top of the list of life's passions that I thought were lost to me in the initial moments after the shock of diagnosis in September 2010.

The daily round has been trying the nudging and cajoling routine with photography as well, but I have resolved not to let it, but—in the hope that assimilation will be the best form of conquest—to make photography itself an integral part of my ordinary life. Yes, I know what the proverbial paving material of the road to hell is, but I have resolved to produce at least one photograph for every day of the coming year and to post a selected daily image here. For reasons beyond my control (and that is just the foreseeable obstacles) some of the shots will not appear on the day they are taken, but I will do my best.

I hope that by the end of the year not only will the quality of what you see have improved, but that the walk through the gallery will have been an interesting and purposeful journey for us all.

Here is the first picture.

We dined with friends in Highbury, London, on New Year's Eve and stayed overnight. In the morning more friends joined us and our hosts for breakfast and afterwards we all went for a walk in the nearby streets. The goose that we had for our final meal of 2014 came from this shop. A few seconds after this was taken a young man walked into shot, which would have made it a better street photograph, but I deleted the resulting image as he did not look like he wished to be included.

Happy New Year!