Growing here…and there

Another postcard from the land of grief

Those of you who have read ‘postcards‘ will know quite how important trees are to my particular story. As a Christian, I believe strongly that those which are felled here go onto grow there.


Seventy-one and counting

Another year of Team NHS

For the past two years, I have published a list of reasons to be thankful for the NHS on the occasion of its birthday. This year, to my great embarrassment, I let the day slip by. That is no reason not to publish another, longer, list though. Here are 71 reasons to be thankful…

1. For every hand held
2. For every restless researcher, in pursuit of an elusive cure
3. For every patient receptionist, calming the anxious arrival
4. For every porter, expert in negotiating emotions as well as corners
5. For every play therapist, busying imaginations whilst bodies rest
6. For every phlebotomist, extracting the stuff of life in order to give it back
7. For every cleaner, fighting a battle with the invisible enemy
8. For every medical student, eager to join the fray
9. For every GP, meeting whatever comes through the door with professionalism
10. For every nurse, working out the meaning of care by delivering it
11. For every anaesthetist, measuring life by breaths.
12. For every surgeon, wounding to heal
13. For every tea poured
14. For every chaplain, speaking volumes, sometimes with words
15. For every physiotherapist, moved by movement
16. For every pharmacist who regards precision as the best medicine
17. For every radiographer, looking hard at what cannot be seen
18. For every occupational therapist, paying extraordinary attention to the ordinary
19. For every paediatrician, with big patience for little patients
20. For every hand washed
21. For every paramedic, always quick, never rushed
22. For every midwife, treating each birth as if it were the only one
23. For every theatre technician, using tools and loving people
24. For every audiologist, savouring the sound of sound
25. For every breath monitored
26. For every oncologist, fighting a battle cell by cell
27. For every medical school lecturer, honing tomorrow’s talent
28. For every manager, balancing competing needs whilst life hangs in the balance
29. For every volunteer greeter, lowering the threshold for those who fear to step over it
30. For every immunologist helping each me to fight back
31. For every nurse practitioner – caring, advocating and communicating
32. For every endocrinologist, whose moans are hormones
33. For every psychologist, whose landscape is the mind
34. For every prosthetist, whose best limbs are not their own
35. For every brow furrowed
36. For every caretaker who takes care that others might deliver it
37. For every secretary who controls a diary to set its owner free
38. For every cardiologist, never missing a beat
39. For every volunteer driver, getting people to places
40. For every chiropodist, healing the heels
41. For every caterer, feeding those too tired to taste
42. For every geriatrician who believes getting old should be getting better
43. For every Community psychiatric nurse whose patch is people
44. For every bed manager who rarely sees their own
45. For every ward clerk who keeps track because they keep up
46. For every ward housekeeper who keeps house like it was home
47. For every opthalmologist who sees what seeing is
48. For every practice nurse jabbing flu in the arm
49. For every speech therapist, who wants all to have a voice.
50. For every dentist, by gum
51. For very heartbeat counted
52. For every dietitian , fed by a desire to help
53. For every staff nurse, professionally compassionate
54. For every ward sister, compassionately professional
55. For every dermatologist, whose care is more than skin deep
56. For every gastroenterologist, sick to the stomach at preventable illness
57. For every medical librarian, who wields information like a scalpel
58. For every first cry
59. For every Orthopaedist, bone tired but mending bones
60. For every neurologist, who minds
61. For every tear shed
62. For every counsellor whose door is open
63. For every pathologist, for whom the worst disease is inaction
64. For every obstetrician for whom every birth is a triumph
65. For every estates manager for whom the building is a medical instrument
66. For every unpaid minute worked
67. For every music therapist, for whom the sweetest notes are not on a patient’s file
68. For every last breath
69. For every day

70. For every audiologist, imagining the silence in order to defeat it.

71. For giving your best for my bravest and best.


Busy doing good…

The reluctant gardener

Saucery in the back garden

Other people know the names of plants. Other people ‘get out there’ whenever they can to pull up a few weeds or check how their latest plant is doing. Other people look upon a trip to the garden centre or nursery as a pleasant excursion, and drive home keen to give their new leafy acquisitions a home. Other people wander outside every morning to see how their garden grows. Other people do all those things – but not me. Until now, that is.

Over the past six weeks I have found myself pouring more and more time into the back garden which I am fortunate to have. I do it very inexpertly, and with the peculiar combination of ignorance and enthusiasm with which we greet any new hobby. However, I am loving every minute of it. When I tried to explain this to a friend recently, she nodded sagely and acknowledged the value of eco-therapy. I am starting to know what she means.

Nineteen months since the death of my beloved wife, there are many reasons why I find this particular kind of therapy useful. Bereavement can be a messy and overgrown place – where precious memories disappear under the relentless march of the now. It has been therapeutic to reverse that trend as the garden starts to emerge from the weeds. Before1.jpg


Weekends and evenings can be the loneliest times – especially as summer evenings grow longer. Out there, though – with muscles aching and birds singing – it seems to recede a little – like the weeds. As a Christian, I love the fact that I can only do so much too. I can work out there for many hours, preparing the soil and planting new flowers – but when I go out in the morning it is God who has done the magical thing of bringing pink, white, yellow or red flowers from green plants.

As things progress, I have been looking for a way to mark out the newly rediscovered flower beds – which is where the ‘saucery’ comes in. For many years, Fiona collected cups and saucers. Back in the days when we could still make trips out together, we loved nothing more than to potter in antique or junk shops looking for pretty examples to add to the collection. As you can see below – I have decided to scour the local charity shops for odd saucers – which now form my border:


CLICK for more views of ‘Project Garden’


Hunting through the charity shops to look for them, and then kneeling on the ground to push them gently into their new soil home is proving to be a labour of love in every sense. Odd saucers are not easy to come by, as it turns out. However, help is at hand – as I shall describe in another blog post.

For now, I shall enjoy the peace and the colours in my old garden made new, and thank God for both the past and the present which I encounter there.



Postcards get a stamp

A long awaited moment

A few weeks ago, a little boy was colouring in church whilst his parents were busy with various jobs around the place. I stopped to ask him what he was working on, and he explained that this was the cover of a book he was going to write all about endangered species. The book had no content yet – but the cover was full of promise!

In my experience, the cover is often the last piece of the writing puzzle to fall into place.  In the case of ‘Postcards’ I could not be happier that it has been that way round.  Husband and wife team Vivian Hansen and Alejo Porras have taken time to familiarise themselves with the book.  They have accorded me the grace of walking through the landscape of grief in such a way as to understand it from my point of view. It is a curiously vulnerable thing to entrust a manuscript which has cost you so much to someone else to give it a face. I need not have worried – since it was clearly in very safe hands.

The design features a tiny, plucky tree which I encountered in Cornwall, on the last holiday Fiona and I ever took together.  Battered and bashed by the strong winds blowing in from the coast at Port Quinn, it was holding its own.  Twice I stopped to admire it, before getting my camera out on the third occasion. To see it fighting with the wind – and winning, inspired me then and inspires me now.

Postcards front cover

When the book comes out on August 2nd, you will find other illustrations by these talented designers inside.  They will provide you with opportunities to pause and reflect as you walk through the book’s landscape.

Not long to go now – and you can pre-order it here.

If I had one hope for this book – it is that it might become a beloved companion to those who are living in the land of grief, or those who are watching someone they love pass through it. This particular postcard comes ‘with love’.

Like poetry in a telephone directory

A review of ‘shadow doctor: the past awaits’ by Adrian Plass

Just over two years ago, I reviewed the first Shadow Doctor book by Adrian Plass. I admired his deft ability to scratch where Christians hate to admit they itch. I commended the author’s gently provocative language, and I warmed to the book’s subtle theology. At the time, I had only one criticism, which was that the book ‘feels rather like the first two acts of a three act play.’. In The Past Awaits, we have that third act.

The relationship between the book’s two key characters continues to deepen. The flaws in the eponymous doctor are revealed in far more depth. He is more broken and vulnerable than any reader would have suspected on their first encounter. Once again, his language is a banquet for the theological imagination, disguised as nibbles at a buffet table. Consider, for example, the description of coming to faith as ‘signing up to join Jesus behind the counter to help with other customers’.  Alternatively , there is the Shadow Doctor’s description of himself and God as being like two old friends who built a giant catapult on the edge of a cliff: ‘we go back a long way and we know when to let go‘. Finding such gems in the midst of the narrative really is like finding poetry in a telephone directory.

Anyone who wants to hold their faith up to the light and examine the interplay of light and shadow will find something of value here. Those engaged in the tricky and delicate business of pastoral care will especially recognise some of what goes on.

The one thing missing here is the element of surprise. Rather like a winner who comes through the first round of a TV talent show – you know the gag when they come back for the next round. That said, if the performance is good enough then the lack of surprise will not trouble you after the first few seconds. I suspect the the same is true here. Give the Shadow Doctor a second go and you are unlikely to be disappointed.

CLICK for more details


Rock Music

A review of ‘Under the rock’ by Ben Myers, now in paperback

Years ago, on a second holiday in St Cast le Guildo, Brittany, my curiosity got the better of me. I could no longer resist the pull of an information sign which directed me towards the ‘pierres sonnantes’ (‘singing stones) on the river bank. It turns out that this collection of boulders sitting on the river bank failed to live up to their legend. Tapping a stone on their mossy surface produced not the promised song, but a dull and uninteresting ‘clack’.

Benjamin Myers, on the other hand, has made his rock sing. The book’s 350 pages are what could best be described as a lyrical encounter with Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire. In the author’s company we scramble up through bracken and undergrowth, we fall headlong onto yesterday’s rubbish in the tip, and we gaze out at the darkening landscape from a shelf on the rock. The rock is at once brooding presence, cipher, landmark and home. If it is true that the author makes it sing, what is less certain is the genre of the music. Is it the warm jazz of a summer’s evening, the strident violin scratching down a sky of steel, or a half-remembered spiritual? Each reader will have to decide, and each reader will doubtless hear it differently. As a person with an interest in the journey walked, this line will be a recurring refrain for me, I think:

Walking is writing with your feet.

Nature books can be twee. Poetry books can be self-indulgent. Autobiographies of a ‘move to the country’ can shut the reader out at least as much as they let them in. This book defies all those descriptions, and whatever it is called – it made the rock sing.

Ginny the lurcher keen to read...

Ginny the lurcher keen to read…


An Easter story

Struggling a little for a children’s talk for Easter, I came across some people this morning on Twitter who had made an Easter Garden with a biscuit as the stone from the tomb. Inspired by them, and a 3-mile walk with the dog – the following emerged. If you are looking for an idea for tomorrow – please feel free to borrow it! Happy Easter:

When Jesus was born, there was a party on heaven and earth


You might have thought that the King of Kings would spend his time  hobnobbing with the rich people.



In fact, he did not. To the poor people he was a cracker (and with Jacob in his family line too).


When they were hungry after listening to his stories, he gave them tuc to eat.


He turned water into wine (or bourbon, in this case)



The religious people, though, did not like him. The didn’t want him in their club – and got rid of him.


The poor disciples thought he had gone a wafer ever.


They could not have been more wrong – and found a lovely surprise when they came to the garden tomb on that first Easter morning.


In all this, we should not forget that right at the heart of it all – is the love of God.


The cuckoo and the sycamore

A short narrative on a little man

Last week, I preached on the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19, as I have done many times before. On this particular occasion, I decided to introduce people to him through a narrative based around a special tree. Please feel free to take it and use it if it can be helpful in introducing others to this story.


Nobody wanted it there – the Sycamore Fig tree. It never seemed to grow figs anyway, and everyone knew it would just get in the way. That was way back though – when it was just a sapling and someone could have pulled it up if they tried. Now it was old and gnarled and established.Its roots had burrowed under the road and bulged up through the dust – like an unseemly vein pushing up the skin.

The tree was an ugly welt on the surface of the town – just like Zaccheus. Like the roots of the old tree – he had burrowed into their lives, draining all that was good and growing fat in the process. He was rarely seen in public – and hardly ever without a henchman to watch his back.

When he tried to muscle in on the town’s salvation day – nobody wanted him. He was met, instead, by a wall of unyielding backs – like armour plating to keep out an enemy. Every gap closed at his approach – every shoulder pressed to the next as if to deny him even the tiniest glimpse of the good. Even the tree bristled at his approach…but what could it do?

After his undignified climb – he lodged in its branches, like an ugly cuckoo chick in the nest of a dainty songbird. If the tree could have shaken him lose, it would have done so – but it could not. When the maker’s son stood beneath its branches, it dared not move, but stood sentinel-like, a foot soldier at attention before his master. Jesus looked up at Zaccheus (which no one had ever done” and said “I must come to your house today” – and the shame-faced tax collector began to scramble down.

As his feet touched the ground at the foot of the tree, the world went still – as if someone had sucked all the air out of it. Caught in the dappled shadows from the tree – his face was pallid and afraid – like a night creature held up by a hunter in the unaccustomed sunlight. His heart raced at the thought of the teacher coming to his home – and sank at the memory of how he had paid for the food in his larder.  Bullying and intimidation were his bread and butter – and right now he felt like he might choke on them.

Clearing his throat – and looking the crowd in the eye (which he never did) he announced that here and now he would give half of his possessions away. Not only that, he said – but to all those he had cheated he would pay back four times what he had taken. The crowd recoiled in shock, a freak breeze blew the branches to one side and his face caught the full sun. Something changed in Jericho that day – and no-one ever felt the tree was in the way again.


The Fiona Littledale Award

Inaugural presentation

Yesterday the first Fiona LIttledale Award was presented at the annual Patient Experience Network Awards. This is how it was introduced.


My wife, Fiona Littledale, after whom this award is named, spent all her working life as an information manager.  The last ten years were as the Faculty Liaison Librarian to the Medical School of St George’s.  She loved her job, and often got a real boost when she later found herself under the care of one of her students whilst undergoing treatment.  She loved her job so much that she kept working all through 24 rounds of chemo, whenever her strength would allow. It is a measure of how much she loved it that one of the hardest days during the last year of her life was the one on which she had to leave it because she was simply too ill to go on.

For Fiona, the jewel in that job which she loved so much was to invest time in those who were already working, but who wanted to improve their skill set and deliver still better care to their patients.  She would go out of her way, often at great cost to herself, to help them pursue those studies by accessing relevant, up-to-date, peer-reviewed information.  To see one of them fly, equipped and motivated to do so – gave a lift in a life which was increasingly weighed down by cancer.

When you lose the person you love, there are many ways to remember them – and I have run the gamut of most of them. However, we really wanted to remember Fiona with an ongoing legacy which would encourage the pursuit of excellence which she held so dear.  Each year, the Fiona Littledale Award will recognise outstanding excellence in oncology nursing in a way which she would have loved.  She will forever be my bravest and best, and would be glad to have her name associated with the best in this field.


The last book I needed

A review of ‘Everybody died so I got a dog’ by Emily Dean

As a man whose wife and best friend died 16 months ago, and who adopted a dog 13 months ago, you might feel this is the last book I ought to read.  Not only that, but ever since Fiona died, reading itself has turned on me. Those companionable moments of reading together side by side, and those lonely vigil moments of reading to the hum of the oxygen machine as she slept fitfully have conspired to put me off it. Losing myself in a book, plunging down its overgrown paths and striding across its new landscapes is a pleasure which I thought had been lost – until this one. I read this book over a period of 48 hours, captivated in a way which I thought the printed page would never do for me again. Thank you, Emily.

Having said that, I almost fell at the first hurdle. The life described here is one of such a Bohemian nature that many would struggle to identify with it. How quickly, though, that becomes irrelevant. This is an honest, warm, engaging account of what it means to love the people you did not choose – your family. Of course, the price of love is the depth of loss – and you should brace yourself to feel it here. Emily tells it with a disarming frankness and a rawness which I found impossible to resist. There was a point where I had to leave the book for a few hours, but only because the words had stirred up some very poignant memories:

I kissed her forehead. She belonged to another world now, not mine. It was almost my sister, but not quite.

After the loss, and the loss, and the loss again comes something new and rather wonderful. I will leave Emily to introduce you to Raymond, though – as she can do it far better than I.

I started reading this book because I bumped into Emily at an event where I was trying to encourage people to talk about bereavement and loss. Our inability to do so as a nation is making some lonely people lonelier still. There will be many ways to change that, but one of them will be when authors introduce us to what loss feels like, whilst still proving that there is a life beyond it. This is a book about death which is a celebration of life. In language which you will come to recognise in the book itself, it is all a bit ‘chilled hands round steaming mug of tea’ – stings a bit at first but then warms you up so much you don’t want to put it down.

My adopted companion, Ginny, minding Emily's book

My adopted companion, Ginny, minding Emily’s book