LE GRAND DÉPART? MAIS OUI!

Tour de France 13I don’t know which is the more depressing: seeing my hilariously captioned photograph getting precisely nowhere at the village produce show or reading the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s answers to the so-called Frequently Asked Questions re the Tour de France. I have worked out, though, which is the scarier. No prizes – where’ve I heard that before? – for guessing.
I do wonder how many people have actually rung up the National Park Authority to ask (once, never mind frequently): “Where can I swot up on my Tour de France knowledge?” or even “How many people will see the national park on TV?”? Nevertheless, the answer to the latter is quite enlightening: “A global tourism audience for a stage of over 40 million is not uncommon,” they write. I think they mean “A global audience of 40 million for one stage of the Tour . . .” but we’ll let that pass. Which brings me to the really scary and depressing bit, the numbers. I had fondly pictured a few determined young men in Lycra whizzing up the Dale on fancy bikes, and I have tried hard to convince myself this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle that I must not miss. It is, after all, an event which has everybody else’s pulse racing faster than a Piranello, so why not mine?
Bainbridge parish council members discuss it endlessly – it’s a massive event for a small village on the route – and at the last meeting somebody quietly remarked: “Let’s not forget we’ll only see the actual cyclists for about 10 minutes. The rest will be vehicles.” What a ridiculous notion. . .
But no: here is FAQ number eight from the fact sheet: “What is the Tour Caravan?” Answer: “This is the long procession of sponsors’ vehicles – normally around 250-strong. It sets off around 2 hours ahead of the riders and makes its way slowly along the route, distributing freebies.” I especially like the “slowly,” like they’re going to have any choice.
And there’s more: “Apart from the riders, there is their support team, sponsors’ vehicles, TV and media vehicles, motorcycle support riders and motorcycle police, not to mention the helicopters flying overhead. In total, about 4,000 people.” As someone else has remarked, a total of perhaps 400 vehicles negotiating our narrow, winding lanes.
I know it was a great coup by Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, to bring this world event to our doorstep. I know cafes and restaurants and B&Bs and hotels and village shops will benefit from this mighty influx of visitors, not just now but in the future, as people worldwide see these beautiful Dales on their big screens and later come to see it for themselves.
But I have an FAQ of my own. I shall ask it frequently of myself every day between now and July, 2014: When they named this section of the race Le Grand Départ, was it really a hint to the locals? I might just act on it. And take my very funny photograph with me.

THANKS BE TO GOD

PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE

One of the reasons I stopped going to church was that, after 30 years of it, the point of intercessory prayer still defeated me. Each week we prayed for Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and other ‘trouble spots’ in which innocent people were being needlessly slaughtered. Nobody escaped our vicarious pleas: people in earthquakes, floods, tsunamis: sick people, well people, people taking exams, people marrying, people going through what was always referred to as “the trauma of divorce,” the intercessor never knowing if it actually was a trauma or a blessed relief for all concerned. We prayed for the poor who had nothing and the rich who had a lot, pleading with God that the latter might share their great bounty. We prayed for soldiers as they went to war, for teachers as they started a new term, and for politicians that they might “have wisdom” and “work together for the good of all.” As far as I could see, people continued to die or get better quite randomly, natural disasters still claimed lives, the streets of Khabul and Baghdad, to name but two ‘trouble spots’ of thousands throughout the world, continued to run with the blood of innocents. Politicians still bawled at each other across the House of Commons or over the airwaves, showing a marked lack of wisdom and tolerance, and a lot less maturity than the average 14-year-old.

Personal prayers fared no better. My children passed or failed exams, were successful or otherwise in relationships, did or didn’t realise ambitions. Childhood traumas had me so frequently on my knees there were burn marks on the carpet. They survived the traumas. Yet my first husband died of cancer despite the prayers of me and entire congregations in various parts of the country. I’ve had friends who were “miraculously” cured of cancer thanks – or so they said – to the fervent prayers of friends, only to die several months or years later when the disease returned with a vengeance. Devout worshippers suffered random catastrophes as often as did atheists who at least were not burdened with the dreaded “why me?” question. Prayer, it seemed, changed nothing. And the odd thing was that I somehow never expected it to. I thanked God when things went right (just in case they started going wrong) but it never occurred to me to blame him when they didn’t. That’s just how things were: it was, we were told, “the mystery of God.” He got the credit for the good stuff, I blamed myself for the bad.

One of the most chilling Roald Dahl stories I ever read was ‘Genesis and Catastrophe,’ based on fact. It tells of Klara, an Austrian peasant woman who has just given birth to a son. She has already lost her first three children in infancy and is terrified the same fate will befall her fourth. “I have prayed so hard that he will live, Alois,” she tells her husband. “Every day for months I have gone to the church and begged on my knees that this one will be allowed to live . . . He must live, Alois, he must, he must. Oh God, be merciful unto him now,” she pleads, through choking sobs. Her prayer is answered, the baby lives. The woman is Mrs Hitler and the baby is Adolf. Thanks be to God . . .

A RESPONSE FROM ANN CHAPMAN, VICAR OF ASKRIGG AND HAWES
For me prayer and our expectations of it depend on your view of God. If God is all powerful then of course God will be responsible for everything and therefore fair game to blame or thank.

If God is love. then wherever love is that is where God is and therefore God is limited by humanity’s ability to let in love and let love do its work. The question is whether God is responsible for all, or does God hope for a relationship with us that is based in love? The picture of Christmas and Easter must tell us something about how God is involved in this world and if it does then that is the beginning of the wisdom of prayer and the understanding of God’s power.

If we see God as you have described then there will always be a time when prayers are not answered, but if we see God in partnership with the world through loving relationship then ‘prayer’ is something else and all the suffering and evil is based in something else. Ann Chapman.

AND FROM MALCOLM STONESTREET. . .
When I was Vicar of Askrigg – a phrase I continually use to preface some profound insight – the lay people were asked to offer the prayers of Intercession. We had distinguished lay people, amongst them Mary Wilson (the Bishop’s widow). Week on week I found them heading up their requests to the Almighty with the problems of Northern Ireland. This led me to pen a note and pin it to the church door. “There will be no more prayers in this Church for Northern Ireland until somebody does something about it.” There was criticism of this notice and of the pretentious style of its presentation.
The newly formed Wensleydale Rotary Club heard of the problem and invited me to arrange a visit to Northern Ireland to meet with young people of Protestant and Catholic tradition and see if we could arrange a holiday at the newly opened Low Mill outdoor centre for 30 young people. At that time visiting homes in downtown Belfast made one uneasy: I felt like praying for myself as well as the situation. When the young people came to Askrigg and visited our homes, farms and churches ( the Catholic priest kindly celebrated Mass in Saint Oswald’s for his half of the flock) I found there was no easy way; prayer was a first and last resort
As I have tried to find the structure and furniture to grasp my relationship with Eternal God I have found silence and suspense is useful but I have also found it helpful to formulate my concerns and place them before Him. What happens, happens; what is, is; what He will do, He will do; but I like to think I have at least mentioned it to Him.
My wife, Judith, and I think Oswald’s Outlook is great and we send love and greetings to you all.
Malcolm Stonestreet

MARITALLY COERCED, THAT’S ME

female symbolLunch is over. “Put the lid on the casserole,” demands Ian, having devoured the delicious fish soup he had forced me to make. “Bacteria will get in if you leave it off.” I obey instantly: we are married, after all. Earlier he made me get up and clean the house in preparation for the potential buyers who were coming to look round. (We are having to sell because he doesn’t want to live here any more). “I’ll take the dogs out,” he announced. When I went into the hall, begging to be allowed to accompany him, he had two dog leads in his hand. I knew what that meant. I had to stay behind. There really was no choice. Maud and Harry, the two border terriers he had forced me to buy when what I really wanted was more children, fixed me with a look of withering contempt. He has turned them against me.
It was  2007 when Ian decided we would get married. I tried to resist, I really did. My independence was important to me and I had my career to think about. “I’m sorry,” he said at the time. “I know you don’t want to do this, but I need somebody to care for me in my old age and you’ll do fine.” He planned the wedding, designed and issued the invitations, booked the photographer, organised the reception, even chose the honeymoon destination – Belgium, via Eurostar, because he likes trains.
Of course I wanted to go somewhere exotic like China or India involving a long-haul flight (I’ve never been on a long-haul flight: Ian won’t let me) but of course I went along with his plans. Why? Because – I’m sorry, but I’m finding this really hard to type; my fingers are trembling on the keyboard – I was scared: although I may look like a strong, independent woman with a mind of my own, deep down I’m just a weak and pathetic little wife. Feminism? Women’s rights? That’s fine for all those bossy women who can stand up for themselves, but not for people like me. We know our place. Must dash. He’s demanding his tea.

SO – HOW MANY OLYMPIC MEDALS DID YOUR GUESTS WIN?

I have a new and delicious question for my rivals in the B&B trade: “How many Olympic medal winners’ families have you entertained this season?”  I ask it casually, and in my best Linda Snell manner, with an air of knowing superiority. (I don’t often get to feel superior, believe me). But I could not resist the temptation to have a very small brag about my latest guests from the USA – Mark and Jennifer Kierstead, and their friends Nick and Dianne Somers. Jennifer  is the proud – to say the least – mum not just of an Olympic gold medal winner, but a double Olympic gold medal winner: daughter Eleanor (Ellie) Logan was in the US rowing team which won gold in London 2012 and also last time round in Beijing.
As a professional writer and a mother Jennifer was asked by Parents magazine to keep a blog of her experiences as she watched Ellie rowing at the Olympic site in Eton –  http://www.parents.com/blogs/goodyblog/2012/07/the-emotions-of-watching-your-child-compete-in-the-olympics/

As a mother whose only memory of her daughters’ sporting achievements has been biting my nails as I worry whether they’re going to come last in the three-legged race, I can hardly begin to imagine the anguish of watching a daughter compete on the world stage and at the highest level. Or the ecstasy when – for the second time in four years – they win gold. Jennifer, with husband, Mark, and Dianne and Nick, stayed with us for two nights after watching Ellie and team mates compete, on their journey around Britain. As we chat, I’m ashamed to recall my reaction seven years ago on hearing London had won the games. “I don’t know what everybody’s getting so excited about – it’s going to be a total disaster. We’ll rue the day, you mark my words,” I’d said to Ian.
It was, I’m sure, a feeling shared by many in Britain. What was the point? Why were we spending all this money? What about the terrorists, the crowds, the riots at Heathrow as so many people tried to get into the country, the gnarled-up transport system, the humiliation as our own athletes fail to gain anything more than a single bronze medal? Well, how wrong can you be. . .
It was a delight to welcome our US guests, to see the pride and joy on all their faces, to play a tiny, tiny part in welcoming visitors to this amazing country. Jennifer emailed me from our guest library during their stay (that’s a first) to say how much they were enjoying themselves, and sent a lovely picture of herself and Ellie (below), taken in their B and B in Reading, where the group were staying during the Games. And I took some more pictures before they left us. We hope they will return, and we’re sure we will keep in touch. Thank you for coming, thank you for sharing your magic, Olympic moment.

Rings of success

Note Dianne’s necklace – gold, silver and bronze rings. A gift from a friend – and a complete coincidence!

Proud mum, Jennifer, with golden daughter, Ellie.

“That’s my girl. . . right there!”

Jennifer with (left to right) Dianne, husband Mark, and Nick

GOOD GUYS, BAD GUYS

Good guys . . .
I buy an English/French dictionary which is so enormous I can’t pick it up. Plus we can’t take it to French class as it might look like we’re showing off. (Qui? Nous?). So I print off the returns form, which says they’ll refund postage of £2.97. Except postage is £7.62. I send an email pointing this out, and within 30 minutes they email back saying just scan in the receipt and email it. An hour later it’s credited to my bank account, as is the total refund for the book. AND I get a credit note.
Bad guys . . .
Hmmm. . . This post has been on the starting block for ages. So many bad guys – Vodafone, Orange, John Lewis. John Lewis? Another broken plate saga, which makes me fel tired just thinking about it. It makes me tired just thinking about all the examples of dismal service and miserable incompetence, so may be another post on another day.

I buy a beautiful blue Denby bowl online. It has a crack in the glaze so I call to tell them. They answer the ‘phone quickly – no music, no button pushing (well, not so you’d notice) – and the person on the other end doesn’t sound like he spends his entire life sticking pins in effigies of customers. They’ll send me a new one immediately. But I’ve ditched the packaging, so can’t send the damaged one back. “Don’t worry. We don’t need it. We trust you.”

Have they been on a customer care course? I doubt it – you can’t fake good service, no matter what the training consultants who charge £10,000 an hour tell you. Within a day of reporting a bad, but not serious, leak outside the gate there’s a man inspecting the damage and marking the area with a bit of blue chalk . And – it’s a Sunday. Next morning the leak’s repaired and the reinstatement team are promised before the end of the week. Neat job, smart uniforms, and smiles all round. Who says public service is dead? All right so it’s a private company, but the ethos survives.

“A HAVEN OF PEACE AND TRANQUILITY. . .”

Two b and b guests expected any time now. Four more tomorrow. All staying for the weekend – plus my stint as safari supper hostess on Saturday night. Colin says the cooker will be working by Friday morning. Tricia says not being quite ready for the supper will be “all part of the fun.” No problem there then . . .

Nearly there . . .