Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas TV Ads

Why Christmas TV ads have suddenly become a 'thing' I will never know. The thought that companies are spending loads of money to persuade us to part with ours seems a bit daft when you think of it. If they didn't pay for expensive ads we could keep our cash and it would save a lot of hassle for everyone.

Anyhoo, I was pleased to see the church trying to respond with some clever ads of their own.

Sadly they won't get the kind of hits the supermarkets will, but at least there's an effort to resist the inevitable march of mammon.

Here are a couple:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trip Report - Edith's Home, Uganda

Trip Report - Edith's Home, Uganda

This summer, I spent ten days in Uganda, visiting Edith's Home in Ngora in the Teso region (Eastern Uganda, about seven hours drive from Kampala). Edith's Home supports children who have lost their parents through disease, poverty or war.

My church has been a strong supporter of the charity for a number of years and I had been thinking for a while about how I might get involved. Each year, a team of young people are recruited to visit the project, giving them an opportunity to show support to one of the poorest communities in Uganda as well as help maintain links with the UK. When I heard about these trips, I was keen to sign up (even though I'm no longer a young person!) and join the team. I thought it would be useful for me to bring some camera equipment so I could do some filming while I was there and put together some promotional videos for the charity to show people back in the UK.

After some intense fundraising (including a string of embarrassing videos I made here) I managed to secure the amount needed that would cover the cost of the trip (in fact, I raised an extra £200 which was great - thanks again to everyone who supported me!), and prepared myself for an experience I knew would be unlike anything I'd ever done before.

I've only been to Africa previously on one occasion and that was to Tunisia on a package resort holiday, which I don't think really counts as an authentic experience of the continent. In terms of a totally different culture, I have been to the Middle East (the more peaceful parts), namely Abu Dhabi and Oman. Because of these experiences I wasn't too phased about visiting Uganda, although I had my concerns and anxieties (most of which, it turned out, were unfounded).

The rest of the team flew out before me – I had my dad's 70th birthday to go to, which I couldn't miss – so I would be on my own at first, which was a little daunting. I left the UK four days later on a 767 bound for Entebbe International Airport and arrived early in the morning. The plan was that I would be collected from the airport and taken to a guest house. The following day I would then be driven the 290 km to meet the rest of the team in Ngora.

After picking up my bags and making my way (very slowly) through passport control, I exited the airport to find … no one waiting for me. Ulp! Looking intensely for a friendly face or name card, I saw neither, just a sea of Ugandans at arrivals staring at a clueless Mzungu (slang for a foreigner or white person). This was not a good start. I had no money and no info on where I was staying. A Taxi driver approached me and offered a lift (several times!), but I assured him I was being picked up. Needless to say, after a few prayers and frantic calls home to the UK I was eventually picked up by one of the guest house staff members. There had been some mix up – it's possible they mistook me for another white person but I never really got to the bottom of what exactly happened. It didn't matter. The main thing was that I had a bed to sleep in!

The next morning after breakfast, I was collected by Pastor John and his driver, David. John is a retired Minister who is the Director of Edith's Home and is a well-known and highly respected member of the community. We set off for Ngora, and I had my first daytime glimpse of Uganda. Heading into Kampala, I was struck by the noise, activity and smells (mostly the aroma of charcoal fires for cooking) coming from the side of the road. Kampala traffic was crazy – a convulsing flow of chaos and car horns. Eventually, we got out of the city and headed East, passing through several towns on the way and crossing the river Nile on the way which was cool.

We arrived in Ngora early in the evening and I met Margaret who owned the guest house I was to stay in for the coming nine days or so. She was very welcoming and friendly, supplying us with copious quantities of food and a few items familiar to Mzungus (e.g. Weetabix and Special K for breakfast!). Our accommodation had low power electricity (not enough to charge a laptop or power a refrigerator, for example) with basic lighting. We had to be frugal with the water – there was a sink with running water but the shower wasn't working so we had to bathe from a bowl. There was a toilet with a cistern but because of the limited water it was designated for 'Number Ones' only. 'Number Twos' were for the outside toilet with a long drop (basically a toilet seat on a plinth with a hole above a deep pit). There was no external lighting – i.e. no street lamps – so when the sky was clear at night we could see the stars in all their un-light-polluted glory, which was pretty special.

Our guesthouse, with a boda-boda motorcycle parked in the front.

My first day involved visiting a couple of child-headed families. Many parents in the region have tragically died from AIDS, Malaria or other diseases. Some were killed in the conflict involving the Lord's Resistance Army several years ago. The orphans left behind are faced with many challenges – the eldest brother or sister must quickly 'grow up' and be the parent. They must see that they and their siblings have food, shelter, clothing and an education. In one of the poorest countries in the world, this is not easy – they are pretty much 'bottom of the pile'. These families – and many others in the region – live in traditional huts constructed from mud, timber and grass. They often have small plots of land where they grow crops which can be maize, potatoes, plantain or fruit (such as mango). A popular crop is Cassava, which is resistant to drought and can be harvested at any time. The edible tuber roots are a good source of carbohydrate and vitamin C, although it must be prepared and cooked properly to remove toxins before eating.

Because these families consist of children, they are unfortunately susceptible to abuse by adults. This can range from theft of property or land to cases of sexual abuse and exploitation. Our guides were the social workers who are employed by Edith's Home to provide on-going support to the orphans. With over seventy families on the 'books', this is no easy task – especially as the families are spread out over a huge area where the roads are mostly uneven, dirt tracks. The workers each have a motorcycle, so at least they can get around easily enough.

The plan was to visit three families. The first family had gone to the nearby market to go begging so we went to the next one. We met J who was sixteen and had three other siblings (who were all at school when we visited). A bit shy, he told us he wanted to be a doctor, which was encouraging to hear – he clearly has hope for the future in spite of his situation. He showed us his hut and cooking area which were very basic. He and his sibling all slept in the one together. We talked about the things he enjoyed, and apart from school he said he loved football. There was a large flat piece of land opposite and we asked if he used it to play, but he explained that he didn't have a football. It's something we don't think about in the UK, but footballs are expensive luxury items in Uganda – they are also prone to wear and tear, deflating after extensive use. This was one of those awkward moments where our Western assumptions and materialism crashed head on with the reality of life in a third-world country.

Afterwards, we went on to see R who was ten years old and has HIV – the first person with HIV I'd ever met and shook hands with. She was quite weak and on medication which she has to pay for herself (she is only able to pay for it when she receives financial assistance from Edith's Home). The rest of the children were at school. She was very shy so it was difficult to talk, but we ended up playing a game of catch between several of us (using fruit from a nearby passion fruit tree) which she enjoyed and was a good way of breaking the ice a bit. We learned about how the mud huts are susceptible to attack from termites which can eventually cause the building to collapse. The ideal thing is for families to build a brick and concrete dwelling, which is unaffected by these pests. Obviously, this is expensive.

Leaving in a sombre mood, we visited the vocational centre. This is the main hub of Edith's Home's work – a large plot of land with an office, kitchen, workshop and three training blocks. Some of the children from child-headed families had been selected to stay for a few days in preparation for the tenth Anniversary celebrations on the Sunday. We spent a bit of time hanging out and playing with the kids before returning to the guest house for tea. Most meals consisted of meat (pork, goat, chicken or beef usually), rice, potato and cabbage. Occasionally we had pasta. The meat is usually quite bony with the skin on, so it can be quite a task to locate the 'meat' part. Sometimes Margaret attempted roast potatoes (potatoes are usually served boiled at mealtimes) which was impressive given the limited cooking facilities.

Preparing the rice for lunch

The following day there were more visits. The first family was headed by P who was only seventeen and yet already a fully grown man it seemed – he had had to grow up fast after the death of his parents. His uncle lived next door and seemed quite well off – he had come to greet us when we arrived and was wearing a white shirt with smart shoes. Despite this obvious comparative wealth, we learned that he does nothing to help. This visit was quite hard going – at one point during our 'tour' of his property, P was more or less pleading for us to help him (via one of the social workers who translated for us): he needed to build a more substantial home, set up a micro business so that he could earn from home and find money to pay for a decent education for his brothers. He told us how he wakes up every morning worried about what to do. It was really hard to know what to say. I was acutely aware that between all of us Mzungus standing in that home, we probably had the cash to give P everything he needed (and maybe more).

Of course, P is not the only one facing a dire situation. There are seventy other families with similar problems (just in that tiny part of Uganda) and the challenge for the staff of Edith's Home is how to respond fairly across all of them. We have to be incredibly careful – the Western way of thinking is often to throw money at a need. Sometimes this works, but more often it can be damaging in the long term. Simply giving money creates a dependency on hand-outs. It can also lead to less obvious problems such as jealousy within the local community (why are the Mzungus helping them and not us?), which can lead to individuals and families being ostracized. A better response is to invest in education or a business venture so that the individuals can help themselves – finding their own way out of poverty and hardship. An excellent book on this issue is 'When Helping Hurts' by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, essential reading for anyone doing relief or mission work.

Later on in the evening we discussed this with one of the team members (Rob) who has played a big part in setting Edith's Home up and regularly comes out to Uganda. He pointed out that if we pictured P's life without Edith's Home's support things would be much much different. P was accused of theft by another family member and had been arrested and locked up. Thankfully, Edith's Home was able to intervene and advocate for him. With the support of Edith's Home, he would probably be in jail and his siblings would be in a far worse position. The charity is a lifeline – making a difference, albeit small, helping families inch their way toward a better future.

After this visit, we arrived for lunch at the family home of brother and sister Tom and Rose (Edith's Home staff) – the extended family lived in a compound made up of several huts and brick buildings. Their hospitality was extremely generous and it was a privilege to spend time with them. Charles, Tom the social worker's brother, had travelled from Mbale (I think) and is a secondary school teacher. He gave us an insight into schooling in Uganda – in particular, how class sizes were about 250 students per class (yikes!).

After lunch we walked for a few minutes to another family just as a thunderstorm was breaking. The rain forced us to gather in one of the huts, which was a bit cramped. As we talked, we discovered what it was like to live in a hut that badly needed repairs – there were several small gaps in the roof letting in the rain and most of us were getting dripped on in some way. The cost of repairs is often too expensive for poor families and so they must endure such conditions. Inevitably, the longer these faults are left in a state of disrepair, the worse they get.

In this family, the orphans were being cared for by their aunt which is not an unusual arrangement. In some cases where children have lost their parents, a relative will take them in. Sometimes this relative has had no children of their own, sometimes they already have a family. It can be an enormous strain on the adults – especially if they already have their own children. The aunt is trying to run a brewery business making alcoholic beverage from millet, but told us how she is struggling to make the business work because all her profits were being spent on supporting the children. After talking for a bit and singing a couple of songs we made our way back to Rose's parent's home. We returned to find quite a lot of children hanging around, and I'm not sure if they were family members or from other homes in the community, but later on after lunch we played games (including the old favourite 'duck duck goose'). Charles, the brother of Tom the social worker, gave a long and touching goodbye speech thanking us for visiting and inviting us to all come back again one day.

The following day we visited the Edith's Home vocational centre where we spent time with the children singing songs and playing games (including volleyball – they had just acquired a net so were eager to try it out). I managed to do a bit of filming as well. At the end of the day, I got my first taste of riding on a motorbike (known as boda-bodas), even though I wasn't really covered on my travel insurance. One of the social workers gave me a lift. Because most of the roads are uneven dirt tracks, the wheels seem to slip and slide all over the place – it was a bit hairy, but fun.

We went to a restaurant in Ngora for tea. Run by a lady called Josephine, she was one example of a small business being supported by Edith's Home. She'd had a grant to get started and it seemed to be doing well. A restaurant such as this was not the kind we are used to in the West. There were a few tables and plastic chairs in a small premise off the main street of the town. Lighting was limited to what was coming from the kitchen – the cooker was a simple charcoal stove. Drinks had to be bought from one of the nearby shops. The food was great and it was a real privilege to be in the community supporting an enterprise such as this. For our lift home we all piled into the back of a pick-up truck driven by Tom, which was much safer than on the back of a bike!

The next day we arrived at the vocational centre again. Edith's Home has been going since 2004, and preparations were underway for the 10th anniversary celebration. It took a long time for everyone to arrive and for preparations to be completed but, eventually, the ceremony began which consisted of speeches, blessings, a drama, dancing and singing. It was a real privilege to be part of such an important occasion and very moving at times. In amongst the activity, I managed to shoot an interview with one of the visitors to the celebration. Martin has been supported by Edith's Home since he was young. He was one of the very first orphans to be supported by the charity and has worked through his education to eventually become a doctor. It is amazing to think that he has come from such dire circumstances to having the opportunity to work in such an important role.

Monday was the first day of the retreat with the sponsored students. The students were in the middle of their summer break and so had returned home after being away studying. The purpose of the retreat is to give the students an opportunity to maintain friendships within the group, as well as let off a bit of steam and have some fun. Many of these young people had a hard time growing up and so to play games and do sports gives them that chance to have a bit of their childhood back. I guess another benefit of the retreat is a cross-cultural one to help strengthen ties between the UK and Uganda. One of the most memorable times on the retreat was first thing in the morning when we got started. In the morning, we all met in one of the training rooms and the students burst out singing - it was amazing. Their voices in unison was beautiful and moving. So good, in fact, that we ditched the planned sing song that we were going to do at the start of the session. We just couldn't follow what they did! We then played some relay games outside. The students had a great time – it was lots of silly fun and great to see them laughing and having fun. The local Bishop then came and gave a speech that was basically one message: work hard!

The activities continued on, which were arts and crafts - I filmed another interview with a girl called Dinah and then took some photos. It was then that I had a visitor. Before I came to Uganda I got in touch with a friend of mine who I knew was living in Uganda. Anthony was working for a missionary organisation called YWAM, and we'd spoken on Facebook about the possibility of seeing him. Amazingly he was passing through the region at the time I was in the country and we were able to arrange a meet up. I hadn't seen Anthony for about 16 years and he arrived on the back of a motorcycle having managed to track down the location of Edith's Home without too much trouble. It was a bit surreal walking around the vocational centre and having a catch up with this guy I once shared a house with over a decade ago. Anthony has been in Uganda for 5 years which is incredible (and as a result had picked up a bit of an African accent, which was curious). He told me about life in Uganda and its unique challenges and idiosyncrasies. Over lunch, he nonchalantly told us how he'd caught Malaria twice in Uganda but got over it eventually (with a bit of help from medication of course).

After lunch it was a game of rounders with the students just as a storm was brewing. As the storm hit, we saw some amazing lightning strikes and the rain was torrential for some time. Anthony eventually had to leave and once the rain had eased, he managed to get a lift into Ngora. It was good to see him, and I wondered if we'd meet up again if I ever got the chance to return to Uganda.

Back at the guest house we had tea with some staff and their family as well as Margaret. It was lovely food - cabbage, goat, aubergine, potatoes, rice and barbecued chicken (yum!). For pudding we had cake which was a nice surprise! Cake is not the easiest thing to make in rural Uganda – not sure how they did but it came out amazing. One of the things that I wasn't looking forward to about going to Uganda was the mosquitos. Of course, I had medication in case I caught malaria but the thought of catching a potentially deadly disease from a minute little bug is kind of icky. One night, Gwyn got a bit overenthusiastic with the insect repellant before going to bed so we had to wait outside the room while the fumes dissipated! I brought insect repellant of my own but it turned out I didn't need it. Whilst out in Africa, in the middle of a malaria danger zone, I didn't get one single bite. Not one. After a couple of days I gave up on the insect repellant and carried on regardless. This is odd because I often get bitten back in the UK – maybe African mosquitos don't like my British blood!

It was another early-ish start for the second day of the retreat. A surprise treat for breakfast was more cake! Also, we had toast and fruit (bananas, pineapple and melon). Really hot weather. We started the day with more singing, then games to learn each other's names better. There were loads of them – I had no chance! I did a couple of interviews before lunch and then we had a bit of a siesta for an hour or so in the afternoon because of the heat. We then did some more singing (which helped wake me up) and then got into groups and did a drama about God helping us. We Mzungus did one as a UK contribution about a deaf grandmother who gets healed by God. The students thought it was hilarious.

We then played volleyball until it was time to go to John's for dinner. He lives in a modest settlement with various family members and a couple of orphans. We met his wife briefly (who was a bit shy) and had a big meal (the usual rice, potatoes, cabbage and meat) in a large room illuminated by a solar powered lantern. After we'd all eaten well, including some sodas, John gave a touching speech before releasing us to go back early so we could get packed and ready to leave in the morning. We were quite deep in the bush - it was dark when we left and we could see the stars perfectly clear in the night sky. Breathtaking.

The following morning, we were up at 4.30am to prepare for the arrival of the bus that would take us to Kampala. It finally came about 5.15am. It was sad to leave Margaret's but I was looking forward to going home. Breakfast was tea and digestive biscuits. Our transport was a large coach borrowed from the local high school. I tried to catch up on a bit of lost sleep and managed to do so, albeit uncomfortably, for the first three hours or so. It was a long journey and quite bumpy for a lot of the way. Fascinating to travel through Uganda again and see the hustle and bustle in the villages and towns. We finally arrived in Kampala at about 12pm. The weather in the capital was warm but not as bad as the previous day. We all piled into the national Uganda Museum, which was interesting. There was an outside area where they had examples of every kind of mud hut from the various regions of Uganda. They all had a similar shape – i.e. circular with conical roof – but each was slightly different in terms of design and internal layout.

Me - outside the Uganda Museum

After lunch we said goodbye to the vocational students. Even though we'd only spent a few days with them it was sad to see them go. Our accommodation was a motel with basic (cold water) shower head and toilet with sporadic electricity. Went for a walk to get some food – walked past a large imposing government house with its high walls and security gate. Nighttime Kampala very noisy outside but thankfully I had my earplugs which helped a bit.

The following day it was a light breakfast of bread and boiled eggs, then we had a bit of time before going to the craft market. I managed to film some interviews with the team before we left the hotel, but ran out of space on my memory cards so couldn't film everyone. Even so, I felt I'd gotten enough footage. The craft market was near the national theatre and we had to walk through security to get to it. There were lots of sellers with stalls selling a vast range of items from paintings to wooden benches to necklaces. I was surprised at how quiet it was though – I was imagining a frenetic market where we would have to keep our wits about us. Instead there were a handful of tourists wandering around in the heat, with stallholders trying their best to entice them in to sell them their wares. Most of the sellers were quite pushy and it was hard to bargain with them at times (they almost seemed offended – even though it is an usual practice in Uganda) but I managed to pick up a few things to take back home.

We stayed at the national theatre for lunch and ate chicken and chips with a bit of coleslaw which was nice. My stomach was groaning a bit. It felt like it had had enough of carbs – and I was beginning to look forward to salad and veggies when I returned to Wales. I tried to call home to wish Jake happy birthday but the network I was on was pretty useless – didn't manage to have much of a conversation but I did try! Driving through Kampala to get to the airport was insane. So much congestion and chaos. We had several close calls but also spent long periods crawling along or just standing still. It was dark by the time we'd left Kampala for Entebbe. There were a few stretches where the roads consisted of enormous potholes which the driver had to gingerly navigate.

Once at the airport we said goodbye to Tom and his friend Alex who had been our chaperones for the last two days. It was a long wait for the flight and we were leaving around midnight so in theory we could get some sleep on the plane (which didn't really happen for me – planes are so uncomfortable for sleeping). Arriving in England, I was struck by the contrast between Entebbe and Heathrow Airports. The newly-built Terminal 5 is spacious, clean and shiny with glass, steel and polished masonry everywhere you look. Airport personnel wandering around, sitting at their stations or serving in the eateries are smartly dressed and numerous. It reminded me of the film Elysium and how the haves and have-nots are literally worlds apart.

I think there is still hope for Africa – a hope borne out of the tenacious will to live, to strive and to improve. If there is one good thing that comes out of the huge gulf between the West and developing world (and it is hardly good at all really – I do not believe it is right that such a gulf exists at all) it is that the latter sees and knows what it is missing and desires the same of itself. Perhaps the main barrier is the way the West keeps pushing poorer nations down through debt and poorly managed or implemented aid.

It was very emotional to see my family on my return – it was the longest period I had ever been apart from them – and it took me over a week to re-adjust to life at home. I had come back to a world where such things as electricity and water are just there at the flick of a switch or turn of a tap. An abundance of food is available, for relatively little cost, on every street. Medical assistance is simply a phone call away, without any eye-watering bills to pay. It was sobering to be back in the UK and a part of me desperately wants to hold tight to the things I have experienced in Uganda, for fear that I might easily slip into my comfortable Western ways again almost negating the purpose of the whole trip.

I hope to return to Uganda again one day, as I feel like I have only just begun to get to know this fascinating land and the amazing people of Edith's Home. Perhaps next time I will travel with my son in tow as I seek to share with him the realities of another culture that struggles with crippling poverty but which is also extremely generous, loving and dignified. My prayer is that if and when I do return, I will seen that things have improved – I don't expect dramatic change, but even if it is tiny it is an indication that things are slowly working and that all hope is not lost

To find out more about Edith's Home, how to sponsor a student or how to make a donation, please go to the website here: www.edithshome.com/

Monday, September 15, 2014

Uganda Photo Slideshow

I have put together a short slideshow featuring photos from my trip to Edith's Home in Uganda.

Thank you to those of you that supported me – it is really appreciated!

More info about Edith's Home can be found here: http://www.edithshome.com/

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Back in the UK...

I have finally returned from Uganda, an incredible trip full of challenges, surprises, mysteries and lovely lovely people. It is great to be back with my wonderful wife and kids who have had to put up with my absence for ten days, but I have lots to think about now I am back in the UK. I am currently processing this amazing experience, and will write up my thoughts sometime soon.

In the meantime, here are a few photos:


Monday, June 2, 2014

Uganda fundraising video #4!

I've finally managed to shoot fundraising video number four – no challenges this time, but I'm hoping to organise the next one soon!

Please donate!


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Uganda fundraising video #3!

I've been a bit poorly of late, and work's been pretty full on, so haven't had a chance to do much Uganda fundraising yet. BUT - here's my third fundraising video in case you haven't seen it.

Number 4 should be up soon....!

Please donate!


Friday, May 9, 2014

My Uganda fundraising videos

Here are my latest fundraising videos. It's going to be a long hard slog, but I'm confident I'll get there!

Please donate via Just Giving here: www.justgiving.com/justinchaloner

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Just Giving page for Edith's Home

I'm afraid I'm going to be banging on about this until I've at least reached my target!

I've now set up a Just Giving page, so you can donate to my fundraising efforts quickly and securely. Here's the link: http://www.justgiving.com/justinchaloner

I'm in the process of filming some fundraising diary updates, so watch this space.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Further Additional Extra Adventures in Baking

I feel slightly guilty that Easter involved eating far too much (including copious amounts of chocolate). Aside from taking the focus away from the actual meaning behind the Christian festival it has dented my efforts to try and lose a bit of weight and eat healthily. Darn!

But – I'm not going to get too down about it. The Easter hols gave me an opportunity to get back into some good old-fashioned baking and was quite pleased with the results.

Here are some pics of my efforts:

Mini Cadbury Creme Egg Brownies (recipe from BBC Good Food website)
This was devilishly decadent. The brownie recipe on its own was enough to make a heart surgeon break out into a sweat, but then I went and added a little bit of Easter magic (ie mini Creme Eggs) and it went up to 11. Needless to say, these brownies are goooooonnnne!

Chocolate Orange Hot Cross Bun Bread and Butter Pudding (recipe from Tesco)
It's funny how the thought of chocolate orange anything makes people drool. Look on the internet and you'll find endless recipes for chocolate orange cheesecake, chocolate orange ice cream, chocolate orange cookies, chocolate orange cupcakes etc. etc. It's as if chocolate orange is the magic silver bullet that will transform your food from mediocre to levels of unicorn-riding-a-mechanical-shark awesome. Well, this chocolate orange hot cross bun bread and butter pudding sounds better than it tastes. Sure, it's still a nice pudding, but the chocolate orange aspect feels a little gimmicky (I mean, it's gimmicky to start with so add gimmicky on top of gimmicky and you're heading into ridiculous territory). I'm not rejecting it, but then again I'm not going to rush into making it again. Must try harder, Tesco!

Home made olive bread - made mainly from yeast packet instructions!
Ahh, bread. My old friend. I haven't made bread for ages (probably about a year), so I decided to play it safe and make my usual olive bread. Yes, I kneaded by hand and didn't cheat using a newfangled machine to make the dough. Funnily enough, following the instructions on the yeast packet yielded a far better loaf than when I previously followed a big old book on how to cook almost anything.

It's good to bake, it really is.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

I'm going to Uganda! ... and I need some money ;-)

I have some exciting news – I'm planning to visit Uganda this summer and need your help to get me there!

Edith's Home is a charity supporting HIV/AIDS orphans in the community of Ngora a small town in the Teso region of Uganda.

Because of very limited resources, these children are put to the "bottom of the pile" in an already strained family situation. Edith's Home provide sponsorship of school fees and vocational training for orphans to support them psychologically and spiritually. More recently the work has extended to supporting orphans with no family support (child headed families). Edith's Home is helping them to gain independence by setting up micro enterprise initiatives to help sustain the project: food storage, farming, business loan schemes and office services.

I will be part of a team going out to run a summer camp for the sponsored students as well as support the ongoing work of the charity. I am also planning to take a camera along to film some interviews and make a short promotional video for Edith's Home.

These trips, of course, have their costs and I need to raise a minimum of £1500 to pay for flights, accommodation etc. so if you can spare a donation (big or small) to help me it would be really appreciated.

I've set up a Just Giving page so it's easy, secure and convenient to donate online:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alpha course - how went it?

A while back I mentioned that we were running an Alpha course. The course has now finished and I thought I'd reflect on how it went.

We only had three 'punters' attend the course run by a team of five, but in some ways that was perfect. We'd never run Alpha before and were a bit daunted by the prospect of being grilled by non-Christians about our faith. The small group size was easily manageable and helped to maintain an intimate and informal atmosphere. The course proved to be an excellent training ground for all of us and we came away feeling confident that we could run another later in the year (albeit with a few tweaks).

In case you didn't know, Alpha is designed to give people an opportunity to explore the Christian faith in an informal, relaxed setting where they can ask any question they like. Each session begins with a meal, then a short DVD presentation followed by a group discussion afterward.

We were actually using the Student Alpha resources because we felt the DVD presentations on the standard course were too long to fit into our evening schedule (because of putting kids to bed etc. we couldn't start until at least 7.30pm).

So how did it go?

Each of the three individuals who came on the course were coming from a very different place in relation to their understanding and perception of God and the Christian faith. This was good because it gave us an insight into the different perspectives people have about Christianity. Interestingly, it also led to energetic debates among the three of them.

The DVD presentations proved to be a useful springboard for discussion, and we had some great chats. There were times when we had to challenge common misconceptions about Christianity and there were times where we shared personal stories of struggle, pain and hope which helped to bring us together as a little community.

One thing that proved useful was the book 'God's Not Dead' by Rice Broocks, a well-written apologetics book that tackles the common arguments used today by atheists to attack Christianity. It makes a compelling case for the logic and reason behind faith in God and gave us helpful insights and information about science, nature and philosophy. Our pastor, David, was unsurprisingly adept at answering the trickier questions and we were grateful for his input.

Some of the video sessions felt a little bit out of place and weren't quite what we'd expected. It actually felt as if, as the course progressed, it become more aimed at people who already believed in a God or had a faith of some kind, and were embarking on a 'how to be a Christian' course. A lot of assumptions seemed to be made, and overall the resources didn't quite match a course that we'd promoted as 'find out more about Christianity - no expectations, no pressure'. The good thing is that we were able to adapt the course according to the participants.

The attendees enjoyed the sessions, with really positive feedback at the end – plus we all got along really well. We even had a couple of opportunities to pray for them, and it was a real privilege. One always secretly hopes for a 'zapping' from God on those occasions but we didn't really get that. God had other ideas, (which is fine, of course!).

One key part of the course is a day retreat and we went to an amazing place near Chepstow, nestled in a small valley (actually a 'Cwm'), run by a former pastor and his wife. They open up their home for Christian meetings, retreats and other gatherings and have an amazing gift of hospitality. The food was incredible and the surroundings were idyllic. It was the perfect place to reflect on God's character.

Now that the course has ended, we have left things open for the attendees to explore things further – they have been invited to join our homegroup which meets every Thursday and seem quite keen to remain part of something. Whilst their journeys with God are only just beginning we are hopeful that one day they will take a full step forward into faith.

I'm looking forward to running our second course in the autumn. It will be a bit different as we implement the learning from the first time, but will still be very much an Alpha course. Unfortunately, our pastor will be retiring soon so we won't have his support next time round, but that's the way it is with these things – you'll never be fully prepared, you've just got to get on and do it.

If you live in Cardiff and would like to attend the next course, why not drop me a line in the comments below and I can let you know the details when I have them.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich

When I saw these for sale in Tesco, there was no question that they should be hurriedly purchased and consumed with wild abandon. Two of my favourite items joined together in an unholy alliance of snack food and dessert? YES PLEASE!

As a funny yet interesting aside, when Wifey saw these after they arrived from Tesco Delivery she assumed they were normal Oreos, so just put them in the cupboard. Eek! It was only when I was looking for these beauties to consume a few hours later that I'd discovered their fate. Desperately, I quickly shoved them into the innermost depths of our freezer and whacked on the 'fast freeze' function in the hope that these circular delicacies were not ruined.

Needless to say, the copious amounts of sugar, fats, preservatives and I'd-really-not-rather-know-ingredients were sufficient to sustain these particular Oreos whilst out of their natural environment. Sure, they were a little droopy - but when did any food product ever look like the picture on the box??

So, what did they taste like? Had Oreo overstepped the mark? Was I ever able to buy Oreos again with confidence?


Sometimes, when I try something new I am either disappointed or surprised. The item in question either tastes horribly bland or totally different to what I expect (but in a nice way).

The Oreo Ice Cream Sandwich TASTES EXACTLY HOW I EXPECTED. There were no surprises here. Just yummy Oreo ice cream goodness that did the job.

My only complaint is that they should really be a bit bigger in size, but that's just greedy (and one can always eat two, of course.)

VERDICT:10/10 (wars will one day be fought over these delicious food snacks, I promise you)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Films I've Seen Of Late - March 2014

Here are five movies I've had the fortune to watch at the local cinema or on my telly at home recently. It's my blog, so it's my opinion. Spoilers may be ahead - ye have been warned!

Monuments Men (2014) - Cineworld, Newport
I don't know why this film has received so much stick. It's not that bad, honestly. Some have complained that the filmmakers have veered too far away from the facts and that it's too pro-American blah blah blah. Get a grip, people. It's a movie, not a documentary. The most important thing is that this film highlights an aspect of WW2 that most people had never heard about – namely, there was a bunch of people working hard to preserve and rescue Europe's culture, while bombs were falling from the sky and troops were advancing across the continent to stomp out the Nazis. Sure, it's not perfect. The performances are okay and there are some weird scenes that don't seem to fit in very well with the rest of the story – but, it still works as a story and has an important message: if your culture (in the form of paintings, sculpture etc.) goes up in smoke, what are you really fighting for?
(6 out of 10)

Elysium (2013) - DVD on the telly
Neill Blomkamp's violent futuristic thriller is a story that speaks to contemporary events, pitting the haves against the have-nots. Matt Damon is one of the billions of have-nots who finds himself on a mission to leave overcrowded and decaying Los Angeles for the 'Elysium' space-station habitat of the mega-rich. Damon is not, however, a freedom fighter or political activist – his motives are, initially, far more selfish – which makes this movie feel a bit too shallow. Of course, its commentary on poverty and freedom is there, but is not as explicit as it could have been. Whilst the visuals are impressive and convincing, the portrayal of our civilisation 150 years from now is one that is too close to 2014 than it should be. Niggles aside, this is a compelling film that is engaging and enthralling (if a little too gory at times).
(8 out of 10).

The Lego Movie (2014) - Odeon, Cardiff
I had high hopes for this one after hearing positive buzz about it and I wasn't disappointed. Full of amazing scenes involving millions of Lego pieces, it manages to get the comedy just right (for both adults and kids) as well as successfully shoehorning in a message about individuality, conformity and teamwork. Whilst this is simply one long advert for Lego, you can't help overlooking the fact because it's such a good film. I went with JKY and a few of his mates for a kid's birthday party and they loved it. I was amazed to learn that the entire film (apart from the end sequence) was made entirely with CGI. The animation is as good as the real thing and I'd just assumed they'd used stop-motion. Of course, to achieve what they did in stop-motion would have taken years. Understandably, a sequel is already in the works – but I can't quite see where the story will go after the first movie. Let's just hope they can maintain the quality for the second film.
(9 out of 10)

Lincoln (2012) - DVD on the telly
Gosh, this was looooong. But not that long – just about bearable, actually. Daniel Day-Lewis played Lincoln without pandering too much to the usual portrayals of the former president. Focusing on the struggle to emancipate the slaves, rather than the whole of Lincoln's life, the story is just about tight enough without feeling too meandering. As with most films that are centred around American politics, you have to concentrate hard to keep up with what's going on as the complexities of the US Political system race past you, but it's no different that watching an episode of The West Wing. If you can endure the length, this film offers an intriguing insight into one of the most tumultuous periods of American history.
(7 out of 10)

Watchmen (2009) - DVD on the telly
A group of costumed crimefighters, known as the Watchmen, have been outlawed and so now try to live normal lives trying to ignore their past. One of their members, however, is assassinated and it is up to those left to figure out who's behind the murder. Throw in a plot about an imminent nuclear war between the US and Russia and that's the basic premise (of course, there's a bit more to it than that). I have a bit of a problem with Zack Snyder, and was a bit wary of watching the Watchmen (heh!) after seeing a few of his previous and most recent films. I think his vision is epic and worthy but he does seem to fall foul over certain things. In 300 it was the obsession with slow-mo (if all the scenes in the film were played at normal speed, it would have finished 30 minutes earlier). Man of Steel was a disregard for plot in lieu of big set-piece battles. I felt Watchmen, however, was faithful and true to the source material as much as any film could be. I've had a copy of the graphic novel for some time and found it hard to follow so never got round to finishing it, but since watching the movie I can actually make sense of the comic (which is quite something I think). If you can handle the extremely dark undertones and visceral violence, this is a compelling story thankfully re-imagined for the cinema with the respect and care it deserves.
(8.5 out of 10)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A terrifiying vision of Britain

Watch this video if you haven't already, then keep reading.

When I saw this for the first time, I was almost driven to tears and made a donation to Save The Children straight after. Such was a impact it had on me. You may feel differently, of course, which is fine, but it struck a chord with me and has haunted me for days after.

Here's why: what is portrayed in this video is not that far fetched and could very much happen in a 21st century Britain. Conflict continues across the world, which shows that we still haven't learned from the last century, the most violent in all of mankind's history. Why would we be immune on our tiny little island? I cannot help but think of my own children when I see this video, and wonder how they would feel if their comfortable and predictable lives were torn apart by conflict or disaster.

Arguably, Britain is unlikely to experience the kind of disintegration that countries like Syria, Ukraine or Lybia have. Our nation has endured countless wars, attempted invasions and internal strife but ever since the English Civil War way back in the mid-seventeenth century, life in Britain has never been quite as precarious (in my humble, non-historian non-politically-minded opinion).

Saying that, one can never assume that things will always stay the same. In fact, things never do. Change is always round the corner, it just depends how much and how quickly it arrives. Given the evident oppression of the poor and less-well-off by the establishment in this country, I wonder how long things can hold together. All it takes is a large enough groups to cry "Enough is enough!"

I pray that those nations across the world experiencing upheaval would soon know peace and stability, and that the children of those nations would soon return living to a normal childhood: one which is free from danger or distress – where they can play, have fun and enjoy life to the fullest.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Someone's Putin their face about at the Oscars!

What did everyone's favourite warmongering president get up to during the Oscars?

Yes, it's rubbish Photoshopping I know, but I haven't got all the time in the world....

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Outnumbered Post

The latest series of 'Outnumbered' on BBC1 has been immensely enjoyable, and is probably the best series so far in my opinion. This is quite unusual for a TV show – most get worse as time goes on: writers run out of ideas, actors move on and the audience expects more of the same (but still expect things to be fresh and different, if you know what I mean).

For me, I've found the previous couple of series and one-off specials to be a bit mediocre but now the show seems to have found its groove again and is on great form. What, I think, has helped the Brockman family is the fact that the children have now firmly entered the teenage years. Admitedly, the eldest, Jake, has been a teen for a few years but now all three of the Brockman offspring are in that age bracket it seems to have provided the much-needed spark to re-ignite the show.

Outnumbered's Brockman family – before the teenage years
Before, when the kids were pre-teen, it felt like they were saying stuff kids that age would probably never say (they were talking a bit too much like smart-alec grown-ups). Now, as they are growing up, they seem to be behaving more like actual teenagers (who are usually adept at catching out their bewildered parents over all sorts of things). Thankfully, the writers have steered clear of perhaps the darker elements of growing up at such an age – I mean, it is a comedy after all.

Whilst I do find it funny and entertaining, the life of the Brockmans does succeed in terrifying me about what lies ahead for me as a parent. I've always had a bit of a wistful notion that once the kids had passed the eight or nine mark, being a parent wouldn't be quite so befuddling and exhausting.

Watching Outnumbered just goes to show that, no matter how old your kids are, it's always befuddling and exhausting – just in different ways...

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Happy Birthday to Me...

I've just had my birthday, and even though I was expecting the day to revolve around a personal crisis of self (as I get ever closer to 40), it was thankfully lacking any moments of emotional breakdown.

I attended a registration for a TV & Film extras casting agency in the morning (part of my new grand plan for working life) and then headed into town to Mission Burrito for a rather awesome lunch. I got home to do a bit of work and watch a bit of telly before picking up the kids from the childminder. In the evening we had the next session of our Alpha course (couldn't really bow out of that one, seeing as we've been hosting and everything) but a terrific meal was cooked for me along with a sublime white chocolate mousse cake. Mmmm!

Not the most exciting of birthdays, but pleasant all the same.

Here are my top 5 birthday cards (based on comedy value, mainly – it's not like I didn't appreciate the others). You may have to click on them to see them more clearly:

Cute ... made by my friend's youngest son ... awww

IT - the scourge of modern life

Lady Gaga is presumably always good material for jokes

The most dangerous animal on earth? Maybe ... maybe not

Bring on the cake - yes, lets

A bit of retro fun

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chocolate, Cider, Science and God. My faith journey part 2

This is a continuation of a series of articles about my faith. You can read my earlier post here.

So I left Uni with a faith that was still bruised and dented, but mostly intact. I'd had further girl trouble (all my own doing, I might add) which didn't help but for some reason I blindly carried on, thankfully.

I chose to take a 'year out' which was the done thing those days (and still is, I suppose). With most year outs, you typically had to raise funds to pay your way (to cover the cost of travel or accommodation), and most Christians who did this were usually sponsored by their home church (or people from their home church) or worked three to six months to secure the cash. It may seem odd that such organisations do this, but I can understand why they do. These outfits don't have much money and they want people who are committed to work for them. By paying their own way, I guess it makes the volunteers much better workers because they've actually made a personal investment in their time there.

Me, I had no home church and didn't think about actually raising the money myself, so opted for the charity that didn't charge volunteers to come and work for them. Everything was provided: food, accommodation and travel. Result!

What's more, I'd badgered my friend who I previously sponsored £50 – to go on a mission trip to South Africa – to give me the money back.

[I'm astounded at how selfish I was and what an unserving attitude I had back then. Hmm ... I hope I've changed since then....]

Anyway, I headed off to rain-soaked Cardiff with my pet rat (yep, that's right) and complete lack of understanding about what I was about to commit my year to. Seriously, I don't think I actually had an idea about any of it. I suppose I had this notion that it was something noble, 'working with kids'.

What is turned out to be, was, well, something far more complicated. Yes, it involved working with kids, but that was just one aspect. Me and five other unwitting volunteers were to live in a house together on Cardiff's Llanedeyrn estate 'in community'. I just thought that meant, well, living in a house with other people, but it turned out that the 'community' thing was a lot more.

'Community' turned out to be, ironically, the source or both great happiness and supreme frustration for me and my colleagues. Two guys and four girls sharing a house and working together means you get to know each other pretty quick. It meant learning to be honest with one another, getting to know people on a pretty deep level. There were intense moments of frustration, but also great moments of camaraderie and friendship.

What was interesting was that people outside of the community remarked on the bond that we had as a group – they noticed how we almost knew how each other thought. We served each other through simple things like making sandwiches for lunch or giving them a hand with club prep. Crucially though, we were not just existing together, we were also serving God together and I think that's what was different about our household.

There were some really bumpy moments during that year, but I look fondly back on that time as one when my faith seemed to grow from strength to strength – not just because I was learning it, but because I was actually doing it. I chose to stay on for another year, assuming that I would experience something similar the second time round.

Unfortunately, my expectations were very wrong. I don't really know why my second year was such a mess, but it could have had something to do with my fellow housemates – perhaps we were the wrong mix or something. It could also have had something to do with the people in charge (I wrote an article about that whole thing here), which is my preferred theory. For me, things seemed to spiral out of control as my quality of work suffered along with my sanity.

When the following summer came round I was raw and bewildered, yet again confused about why God would allow such crap to land on my lap. I had let people down and done stupid things, not just out of my own incompetence, but also because of poor management. I don't think my faith suffered per se, but my trust in those who professed the faith was severely affected.

Amazingly, I chose to stay for a third year.

Looking back on that decision, I really wish I'd cut and run. I was effectively blackmailed into staying on, mainly because I had nowhere else to go but in reality I could have gone back to my parents and they would have helped me out. One of the big factors, however, was that I had met Wifey in the midst of all this. We had become an item (she wasn't my 'Wifey' back then, of course), and she had become a trustee of the charity. It almost felt like I had to choose: either stick around and keep the girl, or leave and find yourself on your own.

Given my previous relationship disasters, I didn't want to give up on a good thing (a really good thing, actually), so I stayed.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

The problem with Noah's Ark

Having read two articles relating to Noah's Ark, I felt I had to write some kind of response (which, unfortunately has taken me longer to do than I'd anticipated).

The first article (from wired.com) is about animal welfare at a proposed Noah's Ark theme park in the US. The second from the Guardian relates to a zoo close to where I live that is run by Christians and is founded on Christian beliefs.

My main reaction has been one of frustration and anger, not toward the writers of the articles but those people running these attractions. As a Christian, I am often perplexed and frustrated by fellow believers who have allowed the reasoning and logic part of their brains to be lobotomised, thinking that this is OK because they believe in a higher power.

Let's look at the Noah's Ark theme park. The intention is to presumably give Christians something fun to attend that's fully wholesome and biblical (unlike, say, Disneyworld which is clearly evil and steeped in sin*), but is also a vaguely evangelistic endeavour to show non-believers that the Ark was not a mythical vessel and could quite easily have existed. Unfortunately, this approach I believe distracts from the central truths and core message of the Christian faith – humanity's redemption through Jesus and God's desire to be in relationship with us.

There is an argument that elements of the book of Genesis from which the Ark story originates can be regarded as allegorical stories rather than factual ones. As with most matters of faith, there are strong proponents with different views, but my personal view is that certain accounts in the Bible are not to be taken literally but to be regarded at moralistic stories or messages that indicate a greater truth. I don't have a strong view about the Ark particularly, but when it comes to creation and the first few chapters of Genesis, I'm inclined to believe creation was not a 6-day event as many interpret from the Old Testament. Given that there is a huge amount of scientific evidence pointing to an 'old universe' of billions of years, a 6,000-year-old Earth simply doesn't make sense. Then there's the notion that God is not constrained by the limitations of time and space like us mere mortals, so several billion years of universe-building could well seem like a week to the Almighty (y'know, time flies when you're having fun). Finally, given that the books in the Old Testament were written thousands of years ago it's unfair to assume the writers understood as much about such things as geology, radioactive decay and astro-physics as we do now.

A rainbow. Yesterday.
There are many questions raised by the possible existence of the Ark, mainly centred around the sheer practicality of looking after a vast number of animals in a contained space for five weeks during a raging storm, which the article in Wired highlights. Fundies would perhaps argue that God's spirit rested upon the vessel giving supernatural support to Noah and his family as they cared for the rescued wildlife. This could have happened, but we don't know. The Bible doesn't say, so we are left to make up our own minds.

All this leads me to conclude that there's a possibility Noah and his Ark didn't actually exist (at least not in the way portrayed in scripture), but this doesn't automatically result in the Christian faith crashing to the ground or God disappearing in a puff of logic. The Ark story can be seen as a moral tale if anything – God punishes the whole of humanity (bar Noah's family) for being thoroughly horrible and downright evil by sending a flood to cleanse the surface of the world and start over. There is a simple message here: don't be plonkers to each other or you'll pay for it. Countless stories (not just religious ones) have carried this moral throughout history so it isn't out of place in the holy scriptures.

There's more I could say on this, but I don't want to waffle on. I guess my point is that there are more important issues of faith to debate over than the Ark, and to create an entire 'experience' around this minor (but not insignificant, admittedly) story seems misguided. Exploring and learning from the life of Jesus (a real, historical figure) seems to me a much more productive exercise.

Then there's Noah's Ark in Bristol, which I've visited several times. I quite like the zoo, and I've always found the staff incredibly helpful and friendly. It's clean and well organised with lots of stuff for kids to do. The animals all seemed pretty happy and content when I saw them (well, as happy as they will ever be trapped behind cages – of course, they would all be better of in their own natural habitat but that's another topic of debate).

NOT Noah's Ark. It's just a regular ship.
I had noticed the creationist posters on the walls but didn't really pay attention to them, but I can understand the alarm they caused to people of a scientific or atheistic point of view. If it's true that these posters push the 'young earth' point of view then I'm disappointed (even though it sounds likes they're actually giving all theories about creation an equal footing). I'm also disappointed if, as the writer of the Guardian piece claims, they also occasionally slip into bad science. This is indicative of the seemingly ignorant attitude to scientific reasoning and balance that can sometimes prevail among Christians, and particularly those with a public face and/or regular public interactions.

I'm not a 6,000-year-old-earth creationist but people have the right to believe whatever they want of course – I personally think intelligent design is a far more sensible way of reconciling the concept of an all powerful creator with the scientific evidence that's available.

For me, science is about observing the universe in which we exist and trying to understand how it happens the way it does in order to better ourselves as a species. Science doesn't 'belong' to anybody, be they an Atheist, Buddist, Christian or Klingon.  

Faith is far too slippery, messy and intangible to put down onto a spreadsheet or distil in a test tube.

Which, I think, is a good thing...

*relax, I'm being sarcastic...

Monday, January 20, 2014

Movie Review - Star Trek: Into Darkness

Wifey had book club Friday night with girlfriends so it was an ideal opportunity for me to get out one of my Christmas presents (Star Trek Into Darkness on DVD), crack open a beer and have some quality 'me' time.

I know it's a bit of an oldie, but I am about a year behind everyone else when it comes to films because of having kids blah blah blah, so anyway here's my review...

NB Here be spoilers!

Ben asked room service for a table and chairs
so he could sit down and eat his Pot Noodle.

The first Star Trek reboot in 2009 was pretty much a huge relief all round (I wrote something about Trek way back in 2010). With pacey direction by JJ Abrams and strong performances from some new young blood whippersnappers, the franchise was re-energised (excuse the pun) with a style and gusto good enough to rival anything Star Wars could come up with. The franchise was given a new lease of life and left audiences wanting more.

While STID (unfortunate acronym that – looks a bit like STD...) had a lot to live up to, it thankfully manages to move the characters and concept forward without falling foul of the usual sequel issues.

The plot centres around Khan (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a genetically-altered 'superhuman' spy-turned-terrorist who threatens to bring the Federation to its knees in revenge for the ill-treatment of his fellow ubermensch. After Khan attempts to assassinate the Federation's top brass, the crew of the USS Enterprise dash off to go and get the bad guy, only to embroil themselves in a more sinister scheme that is potentially just as devastating as Khan's.

It was good to see the Enterprise crew together again, now a more solid team after having been on numerous adventures together in the interim.

The Khan story seemed a bit 'safe' to me, indicating that there is still something of a nervousness about messing about too much with the Trek universe (they even have to wheel out Leonard Nimoy again to remind everyone that this movie is, like, legit y'know). In addition, I was surprised at the casting of Cumberbatch in the villain's role. When Ricardo Montalban portrayed Khan back in the 60s, it was daring enough to have a latino actor command so much screen time, but by 2013 you'd think the media had moved on from such petty racial-political sensitivities and had the balls to enlist an actor of Asian origin (after all, Khan Noonien Singh's character has always been a Sikh from the northern regions of India). Instead they hire an English white man. Baffling.

Saying that, Cumberbatch is unsurprisingly excellent as the uber-intelligent baddie (in some respects, there was no need for him to be Khan – why not just create a new character and adjust the story accordingly?), playing a slightly darker and humourless version of his Sherlock persona. It was also an interesting idea to have the baddie put aside his differences temporarily and work alongside Kirk and his crew against another threat (Admiral Marcus, intent on starting a war against the Klingon empire). I also found it odd that Khan was portrayed as a terrorist, rather than just a straight-up bad guy. It seems in this post-9/11 world, if you want a really really bad guy they have to blow up places with suicide bombers (or the equivalent), just to emphasise to the audience that they are really terrible inhuman monsters. It's a lazy and predictable way of doing things, but I guess it is to be expected.

I wish Simon Pegg had tried a bit harder with his accent. Once or twice he would slightly slip into his English tones, which is distracting and would probably have exasperated the original Scotty, James Doohan.

Oh yeah, and someone should sack the futurist who works on these movies. Seriously, this is in the 23rd Century. Star ships and phasers are to be expected, but why are people having fisticuffs aboard mobile garbage containers? Surely we would have figured out how to deal with waste by then. Also, what idiot designed the warp core? All it needed was a few metal supports keeping the prong thingy straight during space battles and Kirk wouldn't have had to sacrifice his life fixing it.

But – I'm still saying I enjoyed the film. There were some nice little touches that referenced Trek well – Tribbles making an appearance was fun, and it was good to finally see the face of the Klingons (albeit very briefly) as they exist in this new timeline. It was also nice to see Noel Clarke in such a high profile production – even though he has very little screentime, his character was quite memorable.

Whilst far from perfect, Into Darkness is an enjoyable space romp that keeps the Trek-ness alive and has helped the rebooted franchise make a lasting mark – I just hope that Abrams' departure for the rival Star Wars universe won't have too much of a negative impact on the direction of the Enterprise crew.

No doubt there are plenty of good directors out there more than willing to take the helm.

Verdict: 8 out of 10

Monday, January 6, 2014

We're hosting an Alpha course!

For all you Cardiffians out there (and those not far from the capital), this is just a short post to publicise the Alpha course which my church is running (starting next Thursday, 16th Jan 2014).

Alpha is a course designed for people who just want to find out a bit more about the Christian faith, set in an informal atmosphere that includes lovely food to eat (!).

We will be hosting it at our house every week for seven sessions and finishing it off with a Saturday away day.

There is a launch evening at the tremendous 'Katiwok' restaurant on Crwys Rd starting 7.30pm, but if you can't make it you can still come along to Alpha.

Interested? Know someone who might want to come along? Send me a message or contact the church direct to register or find out more.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Looking back at 2013 (The Good, the Bad and the Weird)

I'm reluctant to classify 2013 as either a 'good' or a 'bad' year, because things are always more complex than that. As always, it has been a mixture but I think overall I have a lot to be thankful for.

The Good Stuff

Holiday in France
Top of my list is our Eurocamp trip to the Vendee region in France. I love France and was yearning for a return trip after our mass family holiday a few years back. The weather was good, the food was great and the kids were relatively easygoing despite long journeys and unfamiliar surroundings. One major highlight was JKY learning to ride a bike which was a stark reminder that he's growing up fast...

Ed turning 1
Related to that last point, number 2 child passed the 12 month mark and it really made me think about the previous year and how life has moved so quickly. Still weary from life with two kids, as I looked back through the fog of exhaustion and tiredness I kept telling myself that things would eventually get easier.

People's Book Prize
A bittersweet one this (my entry in the 'weird stuff' will hopefully make this obvious). One of our authors from work won the prestigious 'People's Book Prize' which was a big deal for such a tiny publishing house coming from Cardiff. It's not quite the Man Booker Prize, but it's a start. Her books are still selling and even though she's pushing ninety, she's still working hard to publicise her titles.

JKY on Channel 5
In December, JKY appeared on Channel 5 with some other school children thanks to his dad working for a company that was making TV sponsorship ads (i.e. me). We were hired to do our first piece of TV work (albeit very small) for one of our clients at short notice, which was a bit nerve racking but quite exciting. Hopefully it will lead us to do more of the same in the coming year.

The Bad Stuff

Lack of sleep
For the first part of 2013, we rarely got more than four hours sleep at a time thanks to Ed and his inability to sleep for extended periods. Summer, however, was a bit of a breakthrough when he finally started to settle better and sleep through the night. Having endured over a year of broken sleep it came as a welcome development. Ed has wavered on a number of occasions (thanks mainly to illness), but generally he's better at sleeping through than he ever was. 

Unfortunately, just as it felt like we'd turned a corner with Ed's sleep, new neighbours moved in to the upper flat next door and created a whole new sleep-related problem. With no appreciation of the fact that their living room shares a very thin wall with our bedroom (despite repeated attempts to explain this to them), they regularly stay up into the small hours keeping us awake. They don't have wild parties or play loud music as such, they just talk very loudly and laugh randomly at stuff. This makes it particularly difficult because was can't just ask the council to stop them hanging out in their front lounge. If they were having parties until three in the morning, it would be a different story. Even so, we've taken advice and have something of a plan (which, unfortunately, involves spending £1000 on soundproofing - erk!).

Ongoing battles with (mild) depression
I've found myself at my lowest ever point emotionally this year, which surprises me because I've usually always been quite a chilled out kind of person (at least, that's what I thought). I could pick out a number of possible reasons: lack of sleep, my work situation and the fact that I'm getting closer to the big four-oh. I've concluded that sleep really does affect my mood, and if I'm not getting enough I become incredibly irritable and miserable. Work has been stressful in different ways and even though I've made decisions that will change the situation it doesn't mean the stress will go away completely. Finally, as I've written before, I am fast approaching forty and I think two things are nagging at me: I feel like I haven't achieved much in my life so far, and I'm anxious about the implications of getting older (i.e. my chances of remaining in good health are slowly diminishing as I get older). Depressing stuff, eh?

Of course, I'm not actually depressed in the clinical sense. I appreciate that feeling down and suffering from depression are two different things. I can function normally pretty much all of the time and don't harbour suicidal thoughts or anything, so at the very worst I'm experiencing a very mild depression (for want of a more appropriate label). I just hope I can shake it off and get a bit more joy into my life over the coming year...

The weird stuff

Deciding to move on
I've been co-Director of a company for almost four years but have become increasingly unhappy about my involvement for various reasons. In the summer I came to the conclusion that enough was enough: I made the difficult decision to move on to new things and work for myself once again. This had been brewing in me for some time and was excruciating to implement – mainly because of the impact it had on those I worked with – but I didn't have much of a choice. What I was doing, and more importantly the way I was doing it, was having an extremely negative affect on my mental state. Slowly going crazy and frustrated at everything, I wasn't much fun to be around (just ask my family).

You don't just walk away from a company Directorship, however, and so I'm sticking it out for another eight or nine months, depending on how things go, so that it's more straightforward for me to step down. There's still work to do and I don't want to leave anyone in the lurch. I admit that had I made a different decision back in the past, maybe things wouldn't have ended up this way, but there's no point living in regret. I really believe that this is the right way forward for me and ultimately will benefit both myself and my colleagues in the long term.

Doing up the house
We've done loads to the house, even though we'd never really planned to at the start of the year. First of all, we had to have the entire kitchen ceiling replaced thanks to a leaking pipe. Then we had to completely redo the whole bathroom because of another leak. Lastly (and we haven't actually started work on this yet), we lost some roof tiles in the recent storms so have to get those repaired. Apart from the emergency stuff, we had some decorating in the two front rooms, and had an epic time ripping out the fence in our back yard so that we could add a new trellis all around the top of the wall. So it's been quite a lot compared to previous years, but there's still plenty more to do. Eventually, one day, we may actually get to finish the house (!).

Summing Up
So, it's not been the greatest twelve months in my life. Admittedly, it's been great to see the kids grow and develop and I think that's been one of the things which has kept me going. Also, Wifey has been a terrific support and I feel our marriage remains steady and strong.  I hope, however, that I haven't written a post that sounds like I'm whingeing about all the bad stuff that's happened to me – there are plenty of people out there who have had far worse 2013s than me. Knowing this certainly keeps my experiences in perspective.

At the moment I feel optimistic about the year to come and I'm looking forward to a number of things in 2014.

Who knows what the year will bring? Let's find out ....