Doing yoga on church property



For some, yoga and Christianity are incompatible…

It’s just as well that ones of the benefits of yoga is stress relief. Those helping others to discover the discipline are increasingly burdened with searching for new venues for classes – never an easy or inexpensive task – as church councils decide to bar them from their halls.

Yoga as practised by non-Hindus here in the UK is promoted as a form of physical exercise, and only ‘spiritual’ in the sense that it can induce feelings of inner calm, rather as strolling in the woods, fishing or any number of other leisure activities do. Is it right to see it as a spiritual rival to Christianity?

I’ve read an objection on a Catholic website to a yoga mantra which sounds like ‘so-hum’ and means ‘I am He’: this merging of the divine into the human self is a definite no-no in some people’s holy book.

But Christians believe that God is everywhere, and knows everything. And I know this because I’ve looked at the ‘Christian beliefs concerning God’ section of the BBC religions web page. So even if a yoga practitioner does want to start connecting with the divine, can there be any objection to God becoming part of the ‘self’ during a yoga class?

Pantheism – essentially the belief everything is a part of God and that God equals the universe – is a feature of Hinduism, but it’s not unknown to Christianity. No less a theologian than St Augustine, writing in City of God, asked, “In brief, why is God angry at those who do not worship Him, since these offenders are parts of Himself?”

Unless we are going to say that no activities, unless incontrovertibly Anglican, can take place on church property then I reckon the yoga mats should stay put.

After all, who knows in what spiritual directions a watercolour artist’s thoughts bend in the course of a church hall art class?


West meets East: St Paul’s Cathedral, Kolkata


Impressions, facts, and not thinking things through


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Here’s an anniversary for fans of chicken nuggets to celebrate: it’s been 50 years since the first KFC restaurant opened in the UK. For me, it’s merely an excuse to air a point about impressions versus facts.

KFC is not an outlet I notice very much. It doesn’t seem to be as ubiquitous as MacDonald’s or Starbucks. I think I’ve only eaten at a UK branch a couple of times in my life, the last occasion being a decade ago.

Yet when I was in India in 2013 I spotted quite a few, and even had supper in one (and before anyone thinks ‘how could he – with so much tasty Indian food around him?’ – in my defence it was a five week trip, I had proper Indian food for virtually every other meal, and just thought it might be a way of giving my stomach a break from spicy temptations).

So I picked up the impression that India and KFC have a fairly solid relationship, and that branches pop up all over the country..

But the statistic that counts is how many branches there are per head of population. And in a chart recently published in The Economist on the worldwide distribution of fast food chains, the KFC figure for India is just 0.2 per million people, compared to 12.2 per million in the UK.

It just shows that I, and others too, drift through our daily existences, brains on default mode, idly taking in the information we are fed and expending as little mental energy as possible to arrive at a conclusion which is highly misleading, and not backed up by the actual figures.

Now, having implied above that KFC’s reach in the UK is not as extensive as its American burger chain and coffee shop cousins, I’d better check the stats….

Well, my guess was partly wrong, partly right, but mostly wrong. While the 1200 odd branches of McDonald’s do indeed outgun KFC’s 800 or so, there are more of the fried chicken purveyor’s outlets on our streets than Starbucks coffee shops (which number around 640).

It’s not hard to find a reason for my erroneous India presumption, even if it doesn’t excuse it: I spent more time in the more prosperous, city centre areas that are likely to have Western fast food outlets than in those (much more numerous) poorer swathes of urban areas (and indeed rural ones) which are notable more for crowded masses of humanity than for their tourism potential, and are of course bypassed by KFC.

chicken burger

Regional variety adds spice to Mexican life


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Continuing my reflections on the Mexico trip…


When it came to sampling Mexican food, the availability of a range of regional specialities pepped up my spirits in the same way that certain green chiles shook my tastebuds awake.

Some specialities are better described as hyper-local, such as mole de Xico, a thick smoky sauce which I enjoyed with chicken in the small town of that name not far from Xalapa.

A few days later I ordered the better-known mole poblano during my stay in Cholula, just outside the city of Puebla which gives its name to this interesting sauce consisting of fruit, nuts, chocolate and perhaps a range of other flavourings which, like the Coca-Cola recipe, must never be divulged.

Again, I had it with a chicken leg, its usual plate-fellow. In looks and consistency, the sauce was similar to the stuff you might pour over ice cream. It was both runnier and more chocolatey than the barbeque-esque Xico variant, yet by no means sweet, and certainly not overpoweringly so. I could still appreciate the chicken. A generous scattering of sesame seeds added a toasty, nutty contrast in taste and texture.

I was most impressed.

I didn’t take a photo, but if you imagine a roasted chicken leg, and then imagine chocolate sauce or custard, you’ll pretty much get the picture.

Here in Britain, the local food scene has taken quite a battering as we hasten in pursuit of a more mobile, less geographically tied future. What’s available in Devon is generally available in Kent and Buckinghamshire too.

But it seems to be a different matter in at least one country on the other side of the Atlantic. I’ve vowed that if I ever find myself anywhere near Puebla between the months of July and September, I’m going to have my fill of a dish that’s not only regional but seasonal – not in terms of ingredients but suitability for the time of year, like hot cross buns at Easter. I’m talking about chiles en nogada, which incorporates the green, white and red of the Mexican flag and is generally eaten in the couple of months leading up to Independence Day in September.

Taking the shine off the Golden Age of Travel



I saw much to marvel at – modern, not-so-modern, and awesomely ancient – during my travels around Mexico last month.

If I ever began to believe I would be having a deeper and better experience if I was travelling in the 1940s or 50s, in an age of fewer tourists, and long before Mexico joined the globalised world, I would soon be brought to my senses by the realisation that I was lucky, travelling in 2014, to have so many of the comforts of our era.

For the book I took round with me (I’m not yet so modern that I carry a Kindle) was The Lawless Roads, Graham Greene’s account of his 1938 visit to the country to report on the persecution of Catholic priests.

Leaving most of his belongings in Mexico City, he finds himself holed up in the south of the country, struggling with the hot tropical nights in those non A/C times, with his only entertainment Trollope’s Dr Thorne, which he is enjoying but is coming close to finishing. He has to ration himself to twenty pages per day to make it last. At a crucial point in Trollope’s tale, a fault in Greene’s copy of the book means a chunk of pages is missing. And when it’s finished, he has nothing to do but sit in his rocking chair, waiting for the storm clouds to break up and a small plane – his best hope of escape – to arrive.

Greene is no natural traveller in the rugged mould of Wilfred Thesiger. He pines for England, and can finds virtually nothing likeable about Mexico (which seems strange, even if we make allowances for his natural anger against the forces that are driving his adopted religion underground). But in the 1930s remote really meant remote, whereas today if we don’t like a place we can get out of it soon enough, or buy whatever it is we need to make our days more tolerable.

I know that wherever I go in the world, somewhere there’s a way out, and a mobile phone connection to the outside world. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would be prepared to leave the comfort zone of home.

cover of The Lawless Roads

Being regular


A minor detail in Christopher Howse’s Daily Telegraph column has taught me something I think I should have known: that the word ‘regularly’ need mean little more than ‘at uniform intervals’.

If I say that my aunt is a regular churchgoer, you would imagine her turning up at her local House of God most Sundays. But if by regular I mean she consistently joins worshippers on Christmas Day every year, and on no other day – that’s a different proposition entirely. The apparently Christian aunt is transformed into the aunt who makes the effort only for Christmas, probably because she likes hearing carols and feels attendance is suitable atonement for the overindulgence of the season.

I could turn this sort of lexical fastidiousness to my advantage. I shall give up alcohol for the first Saturday and Sunday in February each year, but other than that brief hiatus carry on my gin-and-tonic habit. In a few years’ time I will be able to impress my heavier-drinking acquaintances with talk of my ‘regular’ booze-free weekends.

This talk of Christmas reminds me that this will be my last blog post of the year: I’m off to Mexico very shortly, returning as 2015 dawns. So Merry Christmas to you all.

The internet makes things boringly easy



Is the internet taking the charm and adventure out of life?

A big question. But at least consider this scenario: while staying in a village in France, you stumble upon the ruins of a small church, with not an information board to be seen.

Back at your humble accommodation that evening, you dream up an enterprising scheme. You will make it your mission tomorrow to seek out a curate or the most linguistically advanced local in the village tavern to see what they know about the church, when it was built, and so on. It’s about more than the church: your fired-up curiosity will be your excuse to interact with locals who will be won over by your interest and almost unfeasibly happy to help.

Except, of course, you don’t do any of that. Your humble accommodation has an internet connection, so you google the village and find that someone, somewhere has written about the church and its history.

Question solved. But where’s the fun?

In fact, a time will come when wifi wafts across every rural expanse of Europe, and old buildings will have QR codes plastered on them. One swipe with your smartphone, and every detail you could possibly wish to know (unless you’re after postgrad doctorate-level info) will flash up on screen.

You won’t have to go to the trouble of doing any traditional research. Except, research is often fun – the fun being in the chase, rather than what you end up with. It gets you talking to experts, librarians or blokes on barstools.

With the internet, information about every explored spot on earth is there for your perusal. Even if you’ve done real old-fashioned graft to learn about a place, some upstart will hear you mention it, tap on their tablet and summon up facts, figures and what-not, many of which might trump yours.

Suppose that long ago you enjoyed a holiday in one of the planet’s lesser-known crannies, to which you want someday to return, and in the meantime you have a couple of fraying photos to fondly remind you of it? But unless you resist the temptation to look at the internet images of the sights, when you eventually make it back there it’ll almost be too familiar. The internet has stripped away the mystique.


Distillery in Calvados, Normandy

Don’t Kill the FM Radio Star


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Ed Vaizey, our Culture Minister, likes the radio station Classic FM because it’s so ‘accessible and informal’. He never listens to BBC Radio 3, though that hasn’t stopped him offering an opinion on its future, which he suggests should be digital-only.

While Ed’s been listening to Mozart’s greatest hits over breakfast, enlivened with a sprinkling of insurance company adverts, he will not have noticed that Radio 3’s morning show has itself become more accessible in the last few years – some even say too much so. It’s all part and parcel of a modernising spruce-up which took place a couple of years ago and changed the feel of the presentation style (and schedule) of this gem in the public service radio crown, a piece of our cultural heritage which commercial radio can never truly rival.

If he only tries it, Ed will find nothing to scare him on Radio 3 between 6.30am and 9am on a weekday morning. I’ll wager that he’ll enjoy it. Every piece played, which might be a whole small-scale work or a movement taken from a concerto or symphony or chamber sonata, is fairly short. Much of the output will be familiar, and he can even tweet comments to the studio for Petroc Trelawny or whoever is hosting that morning to read out on air.

Of course, Ed can groove to whatever breakfast show he chooses. But I do have this plea to make: don’t maroon Radio 3 in digital land. There have been times when I’ve taken a little FM radio outside to listen to ‘Private Passions’ (a Sunday variant on Desert Island Discs) while painting a shed.

small radio - Magnovox

Strange new world


The internet and strange people…

‘… if the internet era has taught us anything, it’s that a remarkable number of people out there are completely bonkers’ (Michael Deacon, The Sunday Telegraph, 5th October 2014).

As Michael Deacon goes on to point out, before the internet came along the completely bonkers had no outlet. Apart from writing letters to newspaper editors: mad scrawls which staff would wince at and then bin. Maybe that explains the hack’s traditionally cynical view of life.

But if there are so many bonkers people out there, bursting with conspiracy theories and pet hates, maybe they aren’t so bonkers after all. Because being bonkers suggests having views that are far beyond the realms of the ‘sane’ majority. Bonkers mindsets become normal mindsets if enough people have them.

The quickest way to see bonkersness in action is to look down the comments thread of a website discussing any topic one could possibly regard as ‘controversial’. Making highly personal or abusive remarks, ranting off-subject, swearing – these are some of the common ways in which bonkers behaviour manifests itself. ‘Trolling’ is a suitably nasty word for the nastiest form.

As you may have garnered, the way I interpret it, bonkers is bad. Not to be confused with eccentricity, which is quite good so long as it’s unselfconscious.

Call this an odd, even bonkers, idea if you like, but could the internet force us to stop dividing the world up into nation-states and instead recognise just two groups: the rational and the bonkers?

After Scotland’s referendum: the view from here


The Scottish referendum was a curious species of news story, different even to pre-General Election fever. Normally, acres of newspaper coverage means something has happened, and journalists are running around trying to find out just what did happen and to comment on it. But this time, the story was all about what might happen (if the Scots voted ‘Yes’). And in the end, of course, they didn’t vote ‘Yes’. True, the ‘No’ vote will still have its ramifications: but now the story is one of Devo Max and UK constitutional reform. London political journalists, who can be every bit as insular as Scottish Nationalists at times, would not have paid a great deal of attention to the issue of further Scottish devolution if it hadn’t popped up as a sidekick of the bigger Scottish independence question.

With luck, the ‘faultlines’ that commentators say have been opened up by the hard-fought campaigning will be bridged by fair-minded folk from both the Yes and No sides. I want Scotland to do well: I have plenty of Scottish blood in my veins and lived there for two years a decade ago. Remaining part of the UK is, I feel, in everyone’s best interests. I also found the nastiness of some of the nationalists a real turn-off. A chippiness a few Scots carry with them, normally compensated by humour and other celtic qualities, is less pleasant when stoked up into anti-Englishness. The parochial mindset of some sections of the community, ironic considering the contribution made by Scots to the wider planet in the last 250 years, morphs into a wish to see an invisible but still very real barrier replacing the crumbling Hadrian’s Wall.

Meanwhile, nationalism – especially for more recent bandwagon-jumpers – has less to do with affirming Scottish identity via independence than with delivering a left-wing agenda for disgruntled ‘old Labour’ heartlands.

And talking of agendas, especially tactical and cynical ones: letting 16 and 17 year-olds vote at elections as well as a one-off independence referendum? It suits the Scottish National Party, but not those of us who think a little bit of maturity and life experience are necessary when considering the political and social angles of the day.

Hadrian's Wall, England

Hadrian’s Wall (photo: Harry Wood)

Let’s be open with each other


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The trend for open plan life

“And now the News at Ten, with Huw Edwards…” The camera pans across the studio, looking down on ranks of backroom newsgatherers at their office cubicles. We focus on a figure at a very large, empty desk. Huw (for it is he) is sitting in front of an expanse of semi-clear glass. As the bulletin gets underway, behind Huw’s back we notice figures stirring at their desks, walking around, getting up to go home, and even – according to viewers’ complaints last year – playing ‘lightsabres’ with umbrellas.

It’s only when you see footage of old-style newsreading that you realise how much has changed.

Long gone are the days when a chap sat in front of an austerely blank wall embellished only with a photo in the corner to illustrate the news item.

To help me work out what this open plan, reveal-all TV news trend means in broader cultural terms, I’ve looked to the restaurant world for some context.

In most establishments, you only glimpse the steamy kitchens when waiting staff come in and out of the swing doors bearing food. But in recent years it’s been hard to completely miss the trend for a more open kind of set-up. You can look up from your artfully arranged salad to see the chef and his underlings sweating over fiery pans.

The NoMI Kitchen at Park Hyatt in Chicago calls itself ‘A Relaxed Open Kitchen Restaurant’, which suggests that observing the chef in the heat of battle somewhat counter-intuitively makes us feel more chilled. For supporting evidence that the management equates informality with happiness, just look at the website blurb about the ‘comfortable, approachable’ dining room.

It’s a given, of course, that there’s been a shift towards the ‘informal’ in all areas of life, whether it’s work attire (chinos replacing suits) or fine dining (chucking out the starched white tablecloths). So it seems the open plan environment is a means of removing barriers between roles, statuses and job functions, and dissolving some of the mystery that surrounds the end results – the neat pile of spaghetti carbonara, or the polished newscasting.

The NoMI Kitchen also offers ‘interactive culinary workshops’ among its events. The NoMI guys like the idea of forming a deeper connection with customers than is possible by simply plonking food in front of them. Likewise, the BBC News team don’t just want to enter our living rooms via our plasma screens: they also want to invite us into their studio and show us what’s going on, and perhaps to remind us, in case we’re sceptical about licence fee value-for-money, that it takes a lot of people to bring us a news programme.

BBC headquarters


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