Monday, January 30, 2012

God's Digital World - info evening, Wed 8 Feb at 8pm in Rumours Cafe, Elmwood Avenue

Long time readers of this blog will realise that for the last five or six summers I’ve been involved in a teenage Tech Camp run by the Presbyterian Church. [Bookings open for summer 2012!] In fact, this blog was originally set up as an experiment for a few months, to get a bit of experience and bluff my way at explaining how blogs worked at the second camp.

Many of the Tech Campers have gone on to use and refine their technical skills in their local congregations and beyond. Some have even ended up using them in paid employment.

God's Digital World flyer

On Wednesday 8 February at 8pm, a group of mission agencies are running a free information session in Rumours Café in Elmwood Avenue, Belfast. They don’t see technical skills and media manipulation being confined to the local church. At an event they’ve entitled God’s Digital World, they’d like to raise the profile of how IT and media skills can be used as part of God’s mission to his world.

The event’s open to anyone student aged and upwards, particularly those with a key interest and preferably good experience in IT or media work.

I asked John Hamilton from the event’s organising committee (also a blogger) what it was all about ...

AiB: The classical view is that missionaries preach, teach, heal and even sometimes do agriculture training. What’s the relationship between mission and IT?

JH: Today's western world is so far advanced that it seems that in order to be 'in the world but not of it', we should also include the cyber world in that! No matter where you are, IT is important. How many companies have successfully used technology for profit? How much more could technology be used to further the Kingdom of God?

An IT specialist in Africa was attending a meeting of mother-tongue translators who had come from working in an area wracked by war. During their time together, he asked them to list the most difficult challenges they faced. The men compiled a long list of the difficulties and obstacles they faced doing translation work in a war zone. Then, each African translator was asked to vote for his top seven obstacles. When the votes were tallied, the civil war came near the top of the list - but it was the second. The number one hindrance on their joint list was the lack of computer support!

An executive in an international computer company who moved to a role with an international mission agency said something to the effect of: God invented computers for mission, but he lets the rest of the world use them!

AiB: Is this all about overseas service or are there other IT aspects too?

JH: Although there are abundant opportunities to use IT gifts overseas, there are also many opportunities at home too.

  • Mobile SMS response network
  • Remote software support and troubleshooting
  • Writing content for websites
  • Graphics designers can work from anywhere
  • Opportunities for short trips to give both training and IT support

AiB: If people come along to Rumours Café on Elmwood Avenue that Wednesday evening, what will they see and hear?

JH: A variety of short presentations illustrating the variety of applications used in mission presented by members of the organizing agencies… AWM Pioneers, FEBA, Frontiers Media, Interserve, Pamir Productions, Sat 7, Wycliffe Bible Translators, WEC

Examples from people who have gone and dome it / presentations of the needs and opportunities worldwide.

AiB: There are an enormous number of mission organisations operating in Northern Ireland. What kind of groups do MAP represent?

JH: Mission Agencies Partnership (MAP) is a group of about forty five mission agencies who work together to promote the challenge of world mission and the opportunities for people to become involved in the mission mandate to the church.

East Belfast Speaks Out on Thursday evening - doors open at 7pm, Ashfield Boys School

Update - Click through to read coverage of the actual event.
East Belfast Speaks Out, February 2012 poster

Quick reminder to East Belfast readers that they have a chance to put their questions to local representatives as well as the minister of education at Thursday evening's East Belfast Speaks Out event.

The general theme of the evening is still:

How responsive is the Assembly to the real concerns of the electorate?

John O’Dowd MLA (Sinn Féin) will be joined on the panel by Michael Copeland (UUP), Sammy Douglas MLA (DUP), John Kyle (PUP councillor) and Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance). Mark Devenport will be back again to chair the evening.

While welcoming questions on all subjects of concern to the people of East Belfast, with an Executive Minister present, education may be a hot topic.

Ashfield Boys School on the Holywood Road will once again be the venue. Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Newt Gingrich: a space cadet with ideas that are out of this world?

By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American. (Newt Gingrich)

It certainly qualifies as a BHAG - Big Hairy Audacious Goal for anyone lucky enough to be steeped in management speak. An injection of ambition and cash into the state space industry would be a big sweetener to people listening to Newt Gingrich's message at his Florida campaign rally.

We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism and manufacturing, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.

But does the US have that kind of money to spare given the economic conditions and the problems it faces down on Earth? In the Telegraph, Ed West argues that Newt Skywalker's idea is inspired rather than foolish:

Then there is the money; a manned mission to Mars, which would be the next logical step, is estimated to cost in the region of $450 billion, which is quite a lot. But put it in perspective: the total cost for American taxpayers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was recently estimated to be between $3.2 and $4 trillion. And on welfare, one think-tank estimates that Barack Obama’s various programmes will cost a staggering $10.3 trillion over a decade.

However, the return on investment of establishing a moonbase is going to be small ... unless someone opens a tuck shop and alien species queue up to buy coke and fries! Monetising the research discoveries made in space is likely to be slow. And eight years is a short time in which to develop, design and test an enormous range of kit to create a moonbase, never mid transport it up there. As Ed West notes:

... after the retirement of the US space shuttle fleet, NASA can’t even get to the International Space Station alone, let alone 250,000 miles away.

Perhaps Newt's answer to his doubters - which include fellow candidate Mitt Romney - should be to look across the border and enlist the help of two Canadian 17 year olds.

Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad sent a Styrofoam capsule carrying a Lego figure holding a Canadian flag 24km up into space - that's "three times the typical cruising altitude of a commercial aircraft". Lifted by a weather balloon and carrying four cameras (including a GoPro) and a mobile phone that sent out its GPS position when it was within 7km of the ground - particularly critical to help find the device when it returned 97 minutes later! - the home made space vehicle even had a home-made parachute to soften its landing. Check out the article in the Toronto Star for more details.

Maybe a couple of teenage Canadians could inspire the US to the moon ... and beyond?

Cross posted on Slugger O'Toole.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Books ... they don't need charged every few days

A Kindle user since May 2011, I've grown fond of the grey lightweight device in its protective cover. Easy to pick up on the way out the door to fill those moments spent waiting for a swimming lesson to end or while Littl'un is in Brownies for an hour.

And the free 3G and built-in web browser can be used to read your email while avoiding overseas roaming charges in wireless-less locations. (Something missing from the newer wee wifi version.)

Yet, I've read very few books on it. Partly due to the number of 'dead tree' unread books in the house! But also because there's a lack of distinction between different titles. Everything looks the same. Spot a passage you want to return to later: highlighting a page on the Kindle is fiddly; turning over the corner of a page in a book is done in a moment.

And as this cartoon clip suggests, books don't run out of power. Whereas Kindles with wireless left switched on do drain away to become lumps of plastic. [Cartoon from Roaring Book Press - an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group - via BBC's Imagine.]

What the Kindle is fantastic for is reading newspapers. Being able to flick through the table of contents of the Irish Times and pick out the interesting articles by their headlines and the section is the closest thing to flicking through the papers in the bmi gold lounge with the advantage of not getting newsprint on your fingers.

I can't understand why the Newsletter, Irish News and Belfast Telegraph haven't yet brought out Kindle editions?

There's a worldwide diaspora market that currently have very little access to quality news from a (Northern) Irish perspective. Amazon seem to make the process of pushing content into a daily newspaper feed reasonably straightforward. (Surely easier than crafting an iPad version of the Belfast Telegraph.) And Amazon's subscription model generates revenue without going near a single advertiser!

Update - Karen's post on books and the Kindle is worth a read.

Maeve Higgins (Out to Lunch Festival)

Out to Lunch 2012 festival banner

Bloggers get to choose their topics. If I post a review about a gig or a book or a film, it’s generally because I chose to and think it’s a worthwhile investment of time and usually money. Thus the element of self-selection means that more often than not, the blogger is impressed.

Professional reviewers in newspapers don’t have that luxury, and get to survey a much wider range of content, liking some, hating others. Yet as a blogger, it seems unnecessary to be so self-editing that I keep stuum about the disappointing and only praise the positive. Of course, the danger is that the artist(s) involved will read a post … [Hi Maeve!]

Maeve Higgins on stage of Belfast's Black Box as part of Out to Lunch Festival 2012

It’s not that I hated lunchtime’s gig in the Black Box. And it’s not that Maeve Higgins isn’t funny. It’s just that I didn’t laugh.

She got off to a slow start when she came up on stage in the Black Box. The audience learnt a bit about her family. Her mother “collects children” (normally known as fostering) and is the puppet-master behind her shell-of-a-father who shuns An Post and instead conveys parcels between home in Cork and Maeve in Dublin via unsuspecting train passengers.

After fifteen minutes of shtick, Maeve turned to her table of prepared material and picked up what she described as an “essay”. With her head down in the page, she read out a page or so of humorously written material. If felt like the audio book version of a newspaper column (and one of the later pieces about “excessive dairy” was indeed from the Irish Independent).

Maeve specialises in misdirection. Some of her best lines included:

“I adopted a tiger from Sumatra: she’s settling in fine.”


“I’d like to get back to my original weight. 8½ pounds … size zero …”

Many of Maeve’s sentences never … They start to go somewhere and then … Some the audience even fill the gaps with laughter. It’s a style. But for this member of the audience, it wasn’t enthralling.

There’s a whole spiel about having not met Michael Fassbender which led into what Maeve described as her routine’s “lull”. It was difficult to believe that the performance was going to be able to lift off and soar to a conclusion. The end might of the routine may have been brilliant, but I had to slip out ten minutes before the end to get back to work for two o’clock. If you were there, maybe you’ll post a comment and let me know!

I shouldn’t be too harsh. Some folk in the audience were having a great time, and I overheard the gentleman sitting in front of me telling his companion “I think she’s really very good you know”.

Of the six Out to Lunch festival events I bought tickets for this year, this felt like the weakest out of a pretty strong bunch. Comedy’s difficult at lunchtime, and dear knows what a sea of people eating with plastic spoons from polystyrene bowls looks like when you’re up on stage! The essays were good, and I’ll look out for Maeve Higgins’ written columns appearing in Irish newspapers. And Maeve’s comedy series Fancy Vittles for RTE has a good reputation. But on stage, I’ll give her a miss from now on.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Something Beautiful Podcast - recently discussing difficult issues

Something Beautiful podcast logo

Every now and again I dip into the Something Beautiful podcast feed. “Stories worth talking about” is the apt strap line for the audio series.

The two part interview [click on the links to listen] by Jonathan Blundell with US army veteran Luke Harms was fascinating listening during recent late night shopping and while making tonight’s dinner.

He explains the emotional and family impact of a six month tour in Iraq followed by an extended one year tour in Afghanistan, and a voluntary return to cover the same duties for eighteen months as a civilian contractor.

The second part was the most captivating as Luke described the disjoint between religion – and even the message of army chaplains – and his day to day work targeting enemy personnel. While perhaps not surprising, it was still disturbing to realise that he couldn’t match his day job with his faith while on tour with the army. Feeling that you have to turn your back on faith in order to complete your job is a big step.

Mentally it hooked in two other recent trains of though: an article on the BBC News website about a retired US Army sniper who killed in excess of 250 people; and the merciless killings at the centre of Tom Clancy’s novel Dead or Alive.

Luke Harms raises difficult issues which don’t come with trite answers. Thought-provoking listening from the folks at Something Beautiful.

Bernadette Morris (Out to Lunch Festival)

Out to Lunch 2012 festival banner

Another Out to Lunch Festival sell-out today as Tyrone-born Bernadette Morris matured from being a support artist to instead enjoy her first headline gig in Belfast.

Bernadette Morris at CQAF's Out to Lunch Festival 2012 in Belfast's Black Box

Accompanied by Rohan Young on bodhrán and Stephen Rooney on guitar, Bernadette worked through a varied set, including covers of Kate Rusby’s Awkward Annie, John Spillane’s All the Ways You Wander and a even threw in a few reels on her fiddle.

Perched – and sometimes wobbling – on top of enormous heels, it was during the Irish numbers (like Molly na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin) that Bernadette really came to life, with an extra glint in her eye as she energetically performed the songs.

There was a lovely moment near the end when she sang the familiar Will Ye Go Lassie Go, encouraging the Black Box audience to join in. It was like Gareth Malone had arrived and formed an instant community chorus, with the odd harmony ringing out from the enthusiastic crowd.

Bernadette Morris at CQAF's Out to Lunch Festival 2012 in Belfast's Black Box

If you missed today’s lunchtime event, you can find some of the music over on Bernadette Morris’ website, and keep track of upcoming gigs.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

NI Opera's Young Artists (Out to Lunch Festival) - "Some Enchanted Lunchtime"

Out to Lunch 2012 festival banner

A real departure at lunchtime today as the Out to Lunch Festival welcomed Young Artists from NI Opera to the Black Box stage.

With a variety of recognisable works – as well as some not so hummable – the four artists seemed to wow the capacity audience. Sung, acted and introduced confidently and with a nice touch of humour. Not content with the three female singers from NI Opera, the baritone even stepped off stage to serenade some ladies in the audience. What is the operatic term for ‘Jack the lad’?!

NI Opera's Young Artists performing Some Enchanted Evening at the Out to Lunch Festival 2012 in Belfast's Black Box

(NI Opera’s are performing Turn of the Screw in Newtownabbey, Coleraine, Omagh and The Lyric in March.)

While a complete opera might be too long and heavy for a lunchtime, the bitesize chunks NI Opera’s young stars served up were very palatable … much like the pork stew included in the £6 lunchtime ticket price!

There are still another five days of the festival before Sean and the team can stop and relax. While quite a few of the remaining shows are sold out, tickets are still available for a few

Monday, January 23, 2012

John Kyle talking about faith and loyalism

PUP councillor John Kyle

John Kyle – Belfast City councillor, well known East Belfast GP and evangelical Christian – addressed a large crowd at Contemporary Christianity last Tuesday evening. The strapline for his thirty minute address was

“Where Faith and Loyalism Collide”

He explained how he joined the Progressive Unionist Party in 2000 “to support David Ervine”, a man who he found to be “refreshingly honest, progressive, thoughtful and self critical”.

PUP Councillor John Kyle speaking on "Where Faith and Loyalism Collide" at Contemporary Christianity (mp3)

He went on to describe the social and economic disadvantage in “working class unionist” communities who view themselves as being “loyalist”, and gave examples of the pessimism and even fatalism that can characterise many loyalist communities. Commenting on the mental health issues in loyalist areas, he explained:

“Belfast has the unenviable notoriety of having the highest prescription of anti-depressants of any comparable city in Western Europe.”

He turned to the media portrayal of a loyalist: “muscled, perma-tanned, tattooed, gold-necklaced, numerous ringed, male, with a pit bull terrier and a tight t-shirt”.

“They say that in Long Kesh while the republican prisoners took university courses, the loyalist prisoners went down to the gym. In actual fact, more loyalist prisoners left Long Kesh with university degrees than republican prisoners did.”

Despite his impression that most loyalists have little church involvement, John Kyle gave some examples of how local churches have positively engaged in loyalist communities and found respect.

Later in his short talk, he looked at some of the main problems experienced by loyalist communities – unemployment, educational failure, health and the persistence of paramilitary organisation (and he listed out some of the reasons they endure).

The spirited Q&A session after John’s talk wasn’t recorded.

Interview with PUP councillor John Kyle (mp3)

Talking to John Kyle afterwards I asked him if he described himself as a loyalist?

“I wouldn’t use that terminology. I would view myself as a Christian who is actively involved in politics, I’m in a party that has policies that I want to support and promote and it gives me an opportunity to contribute to the political debate about issues I feel are vitally important to the future of Northern Ireland.”

Having not set out to be a politician, and given the bumpy road of the party, why stay with the PUP?

“I think there is still a job to be done there. I think that the political project that the PUP is not complete yet. I think the conflict transformation is not yet complete. I think that the problems that face working class communities are still there and are as difficult and as prevalent as ever. And I think there is a job to be done to bring about a greater sense of community well-being and community renewal. I still see the PUP as a viable vehicle to try and achieve that and so I am still happy to work with it. I think it is important to be clear about what behaviour you think is acceptable and what behaviour you think is unacceptable, and not to try to justify things that cannot be justified, or to excuse things that are inexcusable. But having said that I think that the political project that is the PUP still has life in it and I want to work with it until we see further gains.”

Could John Kyle see a time when he would step back from the party?

“I suppose politics is an never-ending story. There will always be issues, and difficulties that communities and countries face. While I have opportunity to contribute now at a local government level, I am very keen to do that. I’ve no doubt that at some stage this phase will pass and I’ll move on and do something else. But I think I’ve an opportunity to contribute now and I want to take that opportunity.”

Do you think the main denominations have dropped the ball and let down – or even abandoned – loyalist communities at times?

“I think that there has been a disconnect between the main church institutions and loyalist communities. I think that there are many committed Christians who are making a very important, valuable contribution to loyalist communities. I think there are churches that are there working away effectively and diligently and faithfully. But I think that for many folks in those working class communities, they don’t really see the relevance of the church and they don’t view it as something that has very much to say to them.”

Should the church try harder? Should there be a hundred John Kyles?

“Oh no, God forbid! I think it is clear that there is huge need in the world, and our commission [as Christians] is to preach good news to the poor. I think that it’s important that we should be continually engaged wherever there are issues, wherever there is need, wherever there is injustice, wherever there are problems and people struggling with really significant socioeconomic and personal difficulties. I think the church needs to roll up its sleeves and be involved there.”

I note in passing that the Presbyterian Church’s Good Relations Conference in February is picking up this theme. Describing “peacemaking” as “not so much about ‘ecumenical’ matters as it is an outworking of Christian discipleship in relating to others around us within our diverse society”, they are offering delegates from Presbyterian congregations seminars on building better relationships with Loyalist communities, ethnic minorities, people from different religious backgrounds, and those from other political backgrounds.

Billy Hutchinson took over as PUP leader at their October conference, but was gone quiet since. John Kyle explained what the party was up to:

“The party is very active. We’re restructuring. We’re looking at our policies. We’re debating and discussing what we view are the crucial political issues of the day. And I think we would hope that when the next round of elections comes round we’ll have something constructive and fresh to contribute …

The way that our political institutions are set up, any party which doesn’t have an MLA or an MP doesn’t get funding and therefore when there’s no funding it does mean that life is challenging as a party. We have a significant number of volunteers, but we can’t employ the staff that other political parties can to develop their strategy and do their work.”

At their conference, a presentation on ACT (Action for Community Transformation) explained the UVF’s change process that had so far involved 1,400 members.

“I think that’s a very active programme. The goal is to see UVF members making valuable contributions to their community and I fully support that, and it is work in progress.”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dead or Alive (Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood)

Book cover of Tom Clancy's Dead or Alive

I’m not sure I want to read any more fiction written by Tom Clancy.

I was about 12 when I read Tom Clancy’s first novel The Hunt for Red October. A year or two later the even thicker Red Storm Rising came out with its multi-layered, multi-location third world war narrative.

Since then I’ve dipped in and out of his work, noticing the increasingly acknowledged collaboration with other writers, and following the adventures of Jack Ryan, his friends and family.

Yet, picking up a cheap copy of Dead or Alive in a sale in Waterstone’s Waterstones before Christmas, I found it a thoroughly dissatisfying read. Yes the plot is spelt out in an addictively page-turning manner, but the values and ethics of the world in which the characters live is no longer an appealing place to rest my imagination.

Every hundred or so pages, another group of extremists are clinically shot while they sleep or ‘neutralised’ rather than captured if they’re judged to be of little value to intelligence officers. It is rare for an American operative to die. (They have better odds of living than red-shirted Star Trek characters.) Yet when it happens, the pain for their family and colleagues is investigated and agonised over in a way that is ignored for the bad guys.

After the death of his twin brother in a joint mission, Dominic’s suffers a mini-breakdown, becoming more aggressive than usual while interrogating a terrorist and eventually impulsively killing him with a shot through his eye. Loss leads to increased fervour and zeal. Yet this reaction is never attributed to the people the American teams kill.

I don’t normally overanalyse novels, and certainly don’t expect fiction to be complete and balanced. Terrorists and those tackling terrorism live and die in dark, murky circumstances, with ethics that are all grey and never black and white. But Dead or Alive made Clancy (and his co-author Grant Blackwood) seem like an apologist for the worst extremes of western military gung-ho behaviour. Maybe his characters will urinate on enemy corpses in the next book? I’ll not be reading it to find out.

It’s a little like services on Remembrance Sunday that solely focus on the actions and lives of local soldiers and neglect to pause to consider the deaths and casualties on all sides of conflicts.

Update – just stumbled on another blog’s review which dissects the role of women in Dead or Alive.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Iron Lady

As a portrait of an old woman living with dementia, and as an insight into the driven personality of Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady is a good film. It’s not a political film, and the historic narrative mainly serves to highlight her character: strong and obstinate, rather than ‘iron’. There is only token analysis of the actions behind her rise and fall.

As a cinematic experience the film had a lot going for it: Meryl Streep’s portrayal of ‘MT’, the lack of distraction from the prosthetics, Jim Broadbent’s chipper interventions as Denis, and the well caricatured MPs of the time.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the conflict in the South Atlantic, and more nuanced explorations of the sinking of the Belgrano will hopefully appear around the anniversary on 2 May.

For me, the take home line from the film was:

“One’s life must matter.”

The difficulty looking back at Margaret Thatcher’s life – particularly through the lens of this film – is that emotionally detaching from one’s family and humiliating one’s colleagues seemed to part of achieving what mattered. Not a great role model.

Had lunch in the Blue Chicago grill before going across the road to see the film in Lisburn Omniplex. Impressed with the food – though at the price, they’d need to throw in some fries with the scampi. Canadian (chicken) burger recommended.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

David Browne Murray (Out to Lunch Festival)

Out to Lunch 2012 festival banner

David Browne Murray’s lunchtime performance at the Out to Lunch festival was breath-taking. With just a guitar in his hands he’s like a one man band with no need for cymbals between his knees or a bass drum on his back.

The sheer variety of melody, counter-melody, rhythm and percussion that he extracted from just one guitar was amazing. Strumming, picking, harmonics, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slapping the side of the guitar’s body: sometimes it sounded like there was a backing track … but there wasn’t.

David Browne Murray (guitar) playing along with Charlie Reilly (oboe) at 2012 Out to Lunch Festival in Belfast

David played a beautiful cover of Every Breath You Take, as well as some of his own compositions. For part of the show, Charlie Reilly joined him on stage and accompanied a selection of Beatles tracks on his oboe. Turns out the trick is to tune the guitar to the oboe!

It was an informal gig, with David seemingly making up the set list on the spot. The improvisation between David and Charlie made for some very relaxed playing, with David at one point quipping quietly:

“We’ll do it in a different key for a laugh!”

While David’s patter in-between pieces might be basic, his playing more than explained why he won the 2011 Yamaha Six String Competition. You can pick up a flavour of his style and talent from some videos on YouTube. If I see a gig by David Browne Murray advertised again, I’ll be buying a ticket.

Another great catch by the Out to Lunch festival programmers. And probably the only artist at the festival who’ll turn up on stage with one shoelace red and the other black!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Books alive!

Organising your bookshelves is important. Over on Youtube, crazedadam has uploaded two beautiful films of his bookshelves - and then a whole bookstore - organising themselves.

While I'm posting videos, as an old scholar it would be remiss of me not to note this year's much talked about promotional video from Friends School in Lisburn.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

In conversation with ... John Kyle (17 January) and Colin Neill (21 February)

Contemporary Christianity vertical banner

Contemporary Christianity’s series of In Conversation events are back.

Tuesday 17 January at 7.30pm
In conversation with John Kyle: Where faith and loyalism collide

John Kyle is a General Practitioner in East Belfast. He was an elder in Christian Fellowship Church for several years with responsibility for building bridges with other churches and denominations. Since 2000 he has been a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, serving for a time as interim Leader. He is a Belfast City Councillor representing Pottinger Ward in inner East Belfast.

Tuesday 21 February at 7.30pm
In conversation with Colin Neill – Imaging a united Ireland: the novelist’s opportunity

Last year, I posted a review of Colin’s first novel turas – a story of strangers in a strange land in which he imagines a world in which many Ulster protestants feel uncomfortable.

It’s 2020 and the Irish unification that unionists and loyalists confidently predicted would never happen has become a reality. President Adams is ensconced in Phoenix Park. A group of men from a Lurgan church meet regularly for Bible study. The societal events around them are shaking their faith and challenging their identity. Irish for ‘journey’, Turas explores these men’s spiritual journey as they adapt to new norms.

This is a story of seven Christians and their spiritual journey together into the unknown. It is also a response to living in an often religious but always divided society, which asks a series of challenging questions, and offers direction as to where answers may be found.

Both events are free and will be held up on the third floor at 21 Ormeau Avenue. Everyone welcome.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Biddy O'Loughlin - The Girl Who Thought She Was Irish (Out to Lunch Festival)

Out to Lunch 2012 festival banner

The programme described lunchtime’s performance as “a charmingly dark debut show from Biddy O’Loughlin. It’s the story of Biddy growing up as a pasty skinned, Catholic in the Australian dessert (Alice Springs) convinced she was Irish, before coming to Ireland to experience the craic.

Biddy O'Loughlin at Out To Lunch Festival 2012

Petite, elegant, and with a real look of vulnerability, Biddy opened the show standing beside a bar stool that was propping up her guitar. Within the first ten minutes, she had launched into an unrepeatable tirade of jokes and commentary about her alcoholic mother (“I use the term loosely. Mother I mean.”), suicide, Australia, Aborigines, dingos, Catholics and lesbian wielding knives.

Even as an Australian, she’s hung around Trinity College as an exchange student for long enough to pick up a bit of the blarney. In previous festivals, laughs at lunchtime have sometimes been hard earned.

Interspersed between the laughs, she breaks into poetry and sings.

But the performance keeps coming back to casually making the Belfast audience laugh at subjects that would have been well over the normal line of decency and taste if she hadn't managed to link them all back to herself. And yet, in amongst the material about rape – probably the section of the show that got the biggest sharp intake of breath across the crowded lunchtime Black Box – she correctly contrasts that her ancestors were “free settlers” who saved up and bought their passage to Australia (rather than being convicts), while today, people who arrive by boat are called “illegal immigrants”.

Throughout the fifty minute show, the theme of belonging and acceptance is explored. Biddy’s on stage persona is delightfully shocking, even when her little nervous giggle appears and laughs along with some of her own jokes.

BBC NI ran an interview with Biddy on their website today. It covers all the lovely stuff, but like most of the Edinburgh Fringe reviews, omits to mention the depth of dark material. If you’re not easily offended, Biddy’s worth hearing. Just don’t bring your mother … or your priest.

Finally for anyone who was at the show, you may be intrigued to read an Australian article describing a letter Biddy O’Loughlin sent to the Northern Territory News to defend her mother who’s also a comedian. Maybe not the dragon she was made out to be on stage in Biddy’s routine.

Great stew today at the lunchtime show. The food’s been good at this year’s Out to Lunch Festival! If you go to any of the events, switch off your mobile. The coverage inside the Black Box has improved! And the chirping of ring tones has been obvious at both events I’ve attended this week.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Minute after Midday (Out to Lunch Festival)

Minute after Midday promotional image

Three chairs sat in a line across the small stage in the Black Box. Three actors walked out and sat down. A spotlight illuminated each as each took a turn to speak.

Elizabeth Cosgrove was shopping for vintage denim jacket for her birthday. She remembers the quiet, the weight lying on top of her, and the confusion of trying to piece together what had just happened.

“When I realised that everyone wasn’t just lying down … I stopped screaming then because I started to understand.”

Conor McKeating plays one of the two fictional brothers caught up in the bombing. There’s a feeling of tension in the audience as his character’s back story unfolds.

His next door neighbour, Mari Jennings, was waiting for her husband to return home. It was their 33rd wedding anniversary. Having checked that her friends were ok, she still couldn’t get through to her husband. Watching the pictures on the news, she sees his car.

Minute after Midday - Out to Lunch 2012

As the three interwoven monologues developed, the lunchtime audience learned about the lead up to the afternoon of 15 August 1998 and its aftermath.

Ross Dungan’s play Minute after Midday is a dramatisation of the Omagh bombing. It borrows much from the real story of that day, but changes timings, characters, shops. Most of the fiction rings true.

It’s hard not to shed a tear at points in the play.

Not too late to buy a ticket for tonight’s performance at 8pm.

Peter Rollins and Getting the Joke of Christianity

Peter Rollins, January 2012

Introduced both as "unhinged" and "a prophet in his own land", Peter Rollins was back in Belfast last night speaking in the Black Box. A crowd of fifty or more squeezed into the front café/bar to hear him talk about “Getting the Joke of Christianity”.

The Joke of Christianity by @peterrollins (part 1 of his Belfast talk) (mp3)

You can listen to Pete’s talk: it’s in two parts, followed by a brief question and answer session.

The Joke of Christianity by @peterrollins (part 2 of his Belfast talk) (mp3)The Joke of Christianity by @peterrollins (part 3, Q&A after his Belfast talk) (mp3)

It’s difficult to summarise Pete’s talk.

Therein lies a problem. No matter how good his critique of the repeating plot structure of Laurel and Hardy is (near the end of part 1 audio clip) and no matter how many broad generalisations are thrown in (“we find a way to domesticate any voice that offends us”, “my thesis is that deep down most of us know that most of it [conventional Christian belief] is a bit rubbish”, “when you love someone you experience them as a universe yet to explore”), I can’t follow the thread of his argument from one end of the talk to the other (nor from one end of a book to the other).

[The honourable exception to this rule is Pete’s book of parables – The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales – which are simple and superb.]

To Pete, my inability to comprehend may be failure.* To me, it’s not. Part of my problem is that single lines float out from Pete’s narrative that make my mind scuttle off to think, losing track of what he goes on to argue in the process. (*Unless he just puts it down to my stupidity.)

FUD. Fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Not much fear in the land of Rollins. But lots of uncertainty and doubt. It is liberating to be in an environment that encourages – nay celebrates – not having the whole story sewn up. And while Pete wrongly suggests that church leaders don’t express their private doubts in front of their flocks, he certainly does articulate the grey more than many clerics are yet comfortable sermonising to their congregations.

A year or so back, William Crawley spent an evening in the same Black Box venue interviewing Pete about whether he believed in God. It was a long and tortuous conversation, in which Pete perched on the arm of the sofa and looked like he might fall off, bump his head and never get to the final part of his argument!

So it was quite a surprise when Pete quite casually threw in that he still felt part of the church, still felt a Christian. Now those terms – church, Christian – need to be defined and redefined. But it’s encouraging … I think.

Pete’s own understanding of crucifixion (representing an experience of loss and separation from the idols of the world for the first time, as well as being a place where we are outside religious and tribal structures and identities) brings him to a point of unknowing where “nothing can blow my world apart any longer” and where religious structures are “drained of power”. He also talks about love bringing meaning to the world.

Strangely, there’s little talk about encountering Jesus. Other than the cross, Jesus life and example doesn’t get much of a mention.

But there are lines that sparkle and jump out. Pete’s characterisation of conflict within churches and denominations (“the war is internal to the tribe, not between tribes”) isn’t totally made up. Nor are his statements about how tightly and unhelpfully Christians hold on to their practices and rituals.

Pete’s latest book Insurrection: To Believe is Human; to Doubt, Divine has a great statement as part of its promotional material:

It is only as we submit our spiritual practices, religious rituals, and dogmatic affirmations to the flames of fearless interrogation that we come into contact with the reality that Christianity is in the business of transforming our world rather than offering a way of interpreting or escaping it. Belief in the Resurrection means but one thing: participation in an Insurrection.

Doesn’t that sound quite like Paul?

I’m not much closer to understanding the full detail of the joke that Pete Rollins sees in Christianity, However, whether it’s faith, politics, or technology, it’s worth listening to people who don’t think the same way as you. The process helps me refine what I believe, and define what I don’t yet understand. Conversion is a process. A transformational journey, not a single moment. Encounters like last night, or the challenges that Ikon events throw up, should be thoughtful rather than destructive.

If you decide to give Pete’s talk a listen, you may want to play Rollins’ Bingo , then make sure your card includes some of the following words and phrases: Nietzsche, crucifixion, hell, shit, idol, tinfoil hats, David Brent, false narrative, Wikileaks, myth and TARDIS.

Update - Gladys Ganiel has written a great post asking Do you Understand Peter Rollins? in which she examines the accessibility of his work.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

East Belfast Speaks Out on Thursday 2 February 2012

East Belfast Speaks Out, February 2012 poster

The motto of East Belfast Speaks Out must be “If at first you don’t succeed, try again”. Having been thwarted in November by the public sector strikes, a new date has been scheduled.

Thursday 2 February 2012 at 7.30pm in Ashfield Boys’ School.

The general theme of the evening is still:

“How responsive is the Assembly to the real concerns of the electorate?”

Due to availability and travel plans, there has been some shuffling of the panel.

Minister of Education John O'Dowd MLA (Sinn Féin) will be joined by Michael Copeland (UUP), Sammy Douglas MLA (DUP), John Kyle (PUP councillor) and Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance). Mark Devenport will be back again to chair the evening.

Continuing to welcome questions on all subjects of concern to the people of East Belfast, with an Executive Minister present on the panel, education may be a hot topic.

Last year, organisers pulled together a panel that included the First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as well as the Secretary of State Owen Paterson Minister of State Hugo Swire as well as Dawn Purvis and journalist Liam Clarke. Topics covered included the size of local political institutions, Historical Enquiries Team, CSI, the future of NI, corporation tax and the Azores ruling, why Owen Paterson was missing for the second year in a row, university fees, capital cuts and public sector job cuts.

Will Jim Wilson manage to ask the same opening question from the floor as he has in the previous two events? It’s probably still relevant! “Do the panel think the Historical Enquiries Team is the best way to move our society forward?”

Ashfield Boys School on the Holywood Road will once again be the venue. Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Out to Lunch 2012 - 4th to 29th January

Out to Lunch 2012 festival banner

If you’re feeling those New Year blues, then the annual Out To Lunch festival in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter may be just the tonic you need.

Running from 4 January (today) right through to 29 January, there’s music, spoken word, drama, comedy, film and nearly all the events are based in the Black Box in Hill Street.

While there’s a big increase in the number of evening events (maybe next year’s festival will be Out to All-Day Brunch?), tickets for the weekday 1pm lunchtime shows are mostly priced at £6 including your lunch.

What could you look forward to over the next few weeks?

SOLD OUT Fri 6 Jan at 1pm & 8pmRoy Walker.

Sat 7 Jan at 2pmWill Kaufman “highlights the blending of music and radical politics that marks Woody Guthrie’s most powerful work”.

Sun 8 Jan at 3pm – Jazz veteran, Derry alto saxophonist and clarinettist Gay McIntyre and the Linley Hamilton Quartet.

Minute after Midday play

Tue 10 Jan at 1pm & 8pmMinute after Midday is a play written by Ross Duggan that tells the interwoven story of three people standing in Lower Market Street on Saturday 15 August just after noon in the town centre of Omagh, seconds before the explosion. (reviewed)

Wed 11 Jan at 1pm & 8pmPerforming Piaf is Christine Bovill’s “heartfelt and loving homage to the legendary singer” through stories and song.

Biddy O’Loughlin - The Girl Who Thought She Was Irish

Thu 12 Jan at 1pmBiddy O’Loughlin’s debut show The Girl Who Thought She Was Irish telling and singing “the story of a girl who grew up in the middle of the Australian desert thinking she was Irish and then set out to discover Ireland for herself”. (reviewed)

Fri 13 Jan at 1pmGuy Pratt’s Wake Up Call recounts his life as a touring musician waking up in strange rooms at strange hours.

SOLD OUT Sun 15 Jan at 3pmLuka Bloom, songwriter, singer, guitarist.

SOLD OUT Sun 15 Jan at 8pmAn Evening with Jon Ronson, documentary film maker and writer, whose book Them: Adventures with Extremists (available on the Kindle for a mere £1) is a must-read (and includes his time spent with Dr Ian Paisley before be became First Minister and Lord Bannside).

Sarah Savoy and the Francadians

Wed 18 Jan at 1pm & 8pmSarah Savoy and the Francadians are “a group of hard-working and hard-living Cajun musicians based in Paris”. Raised in Louisiana, Sara “sings in celebration of the modern woman” strong, independent, and fun-loving, rather than only lamenting the traditional position of the abandoned woman”.

Thu 19 Jan at 1pm – Classical and steel sting acoustic guitar player David Browne Murray along with Charlie Reilly on oboe. (reviewed)

SOLD OUT Fri 20 Jan at 1pmSwingabella are a close-harmony vocal trio “bringing back the sassy sound of the 30s and 40s” with their intimate and intricate harmonies.

Sun 22 Jan at 2pmCheap Date is a afternoon showcasing the best new local music the festival organisers have come across in the last six months: Morgan McIntyre, Best Boy Grip and Rainy Boy Sleep.

Tue 24 Jan at 1pmOpera for Lunch with NI Opera’s Young Artists’ Programme performing classic arias from Mozart to Rossini, Verdi to Puccini. Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro … (reviewed)

Wed 25 Jan at 1pmBernadette Morris with her blend of “sultry folk/Irish sound with bluesy undertones” – recommended for fans of Kate Busby, Karine Polwart and Cara Dillon. (reviewed)

Thu 26 Jan at 1pmMaeve Higgins studied photography and worked in a clothes shop before discovering her vocation as a stand-up comedian. (reviewed)

Ruth Moody

Sat 28 Jan at 3pmRuth Moody, Juno Award winning songwriter and founding member of The Wailin’ Jennys trio, “ethereal songwriter” and player of guitar, banjo, accordion, piano and bodhrán.

Sun 29 Jan at 2pm – For a mere £3, watch the film Sound It Out, “a documentary portrait of the very last surviving vinyl record shop in Teeside”.

If you had an endless supply of six pound notes – and had booked on time – every lunchtime in January could be a delightful one!