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The Death of Mungo Blackwell February 18, 2020

Posted by Phil Groom in Book Review, Books.
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The Death of Mungo Blackwell

The Death of Mungo Blackwell

Lauren H Brandenburg
ISBN: 9781782642916
Lion Hudson, 2019
Paperback, 304pp, £8.99

The Death of Mungo Blackwell is a gently humorous tale of a wealthy couple, Charlie and Velveteen Price and their young son, Gideon, who lost it all in a financial crisis, then found it all again in another world — the strange and peculiar world of the Blackwell family.

Charlie and Velveteen had it all: with Charlie flying high in a very well paid banking career, they enjoyed every accoutrement of a fashionable lifestyle, a magnificent period townhouse and family home in a respectable neighbourhood—or perhaps I should spell that ‘neighborhood’ for this is an entirely American tale—but bad investment decisions by Charlie brought them and their dreams crashing down to earth. Charlie had to find a new line of work, and Velveteen’s life as a socialite wife, entertaining and being entertained, was over. But what else could Charlie do? How could he salvage their lives, recover from their losses?

Salvage becomes the answer: ‘picking’ and ‘flipping’ secondhand goods. Think the TV shows ‘American Pickers’ or ‘Bargain Hunt’ and you’ll get the picture. But Charlie doesn’t scour the country for his picking: he discovers a town called Coraloo and its Flea Market owned and operated by the Blackwells, then moves in with the family and begins to build his new career around the Blackwells and their market.

Woven in—sequenced between and betwixt the modern day riches-to-(not-quite)-rags story—is the older tale of the Blackwell family’s eccentric and adventurous globetrotting ancestor, Mungo Blackwell, cobbler extraordinaire. Is it history or is it legend? Who can tell? But this tale informs the Blackwell family’s sense of identity and way of life, setting the scene for the modern tale’s development, for a series of comical clashes, crises and misunderstandings between them and their newly moved-in neighbours, the Price family.

Alongside this, a love of books—of Kipling in particular and of a fictional romance, The Heiress of DuMont—keeps the plot simmering along: Charlie loves Kipling and Velveteen imagines herself as Melba DuMont, the heroine of her romantic reading. Can Charlie acquire the collector’s edition of Kipling he longs for? Can Velveteen live up to the ideals she sees in Melba? And where does Granny, the crotchety old matriarch of the Blackwell family, fit into it all?

Eccentricity is the name of the game here—it would be remiss of me not to mention The Rooning, families living in camper vans as their home-schooled children play-act in the marketplace, and a longstanding feud between the Blackwells and another local family, the Tofts—but underlying everything is a deep search for meaning, acceptance and authenticity in a world of uncertainty and chaos.

The future will always be unpredictable, the past will always leave its residues, but the present—the now in which we live—is the moment to cherish, to treasure. Leaving the past behind, living without fear for the future and taking hold of each day as it arrives: that, for me, is the take-home message of this captivating and almost Pythonesque novel. Evermore unlikely twists and turns take the tale to a delightful and highly satisfactory ending: expect the unexpected as you read, enjoy and share.

As for me, I’m already looking forward to the sequel: The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson, due in October 2020.

Note: my thanks to Lion Hudson for providing a complimentary copy of this book for review.

I saw camels dancing on Satan’s grave March 8, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Lent & Easter, Life, Theological Reflection.
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And lo, I looked, and I saw camels dancing on Satan’s grave. And I spoke to the angel standing beside me, and I asked, “Who are these camels and why are they dancing?” And he replied, “When camels dance, the universe roars with laughter: for behold, these camels, they’ve got soul, and Satan, he’s got no soul, therefore these camels dance and the universe rejoices. Blessed shall be the ox who gets the yoke.”

— Recently discovered fragment of an early MSS of the Book of Revelation

Have you ever seen camels dancing? No? Then believe me, my friend, you haven’t lived: dancing camels are an absolute must-see phenomenon — and as this ancient writer discovered, they rock the universe with laughter. Total hilarity. Especially when they’re dancing on Satan’s grave.

Yes, that Satan: the ancient enemy of humanity, the betrayer, the deceiver, the usurper, the Father of Lies, the Whisperer of Dark Thoughts, and any other unpleasant and nefarious title that you can think of. The one who wants you, above all else, to believe that he does not exist — because once he’s won that little battle, he can get away with anything, from murder to rape to theft, even to the point of you taking your own life without you realising that yours wasn’t the hand that took it. Satan sucks, and given his way, he’ll suck you dry, drink your soul and leave you feeling like an empty husk wandering the empty pathways of despair.

Why? Because he exists; because you exist; and because God doesn’t. He hates that, because he wants to be all in all and he can’t be. Oh, there was a time when he was nearly there: top dog amongst the angels; but top dog wasn’t good enough for him: he wanted to be top god. But God — and how I love those two words, But God — put a stop to those satanic ambitions, simply by creating you. Yes, you: the you reading this and wondering what on earth that nutjob Phil Groom is on about this time.

Prepare to be amazed: he’s on about you. Because you, like the dancing camels, have got soul. Which means you can dance too, with or without the camels, and all that damned Satan can do is rot in his grave and fade away. True, he’s a pain in the butt right now: lop off a chicken’s head and it’ll run around flapping and spurting blood and making a right mess for a minute or two before it drops; and Satan’s one big headless chicken who’s gonna be running around for a while yet. But up there in the future, the camels are dancing on his grave: it’s just a question of laughing in the meantime, along with more than a bit of weeping, sure; but God’s promise is that damned devil is done for, finito, for ever.

How? One word: Jesus. In Jesus, God steps out of the realm of the Almighty into what might be and makes all things possible. The non-existent God steps into human space-time and takes on existence: the author writes himself into the story, the artist paints himself into the picture, in a way that Satan simply cannot copy. Oh, Satan and his pathetic bunch of minions can possess, certainly; and as we all know, possession is nine tenths of the law. But as anyone who has ever faced a Compulsory Purchase Order knows only too well, that final tenth has more power than all the other nine put together — and that’s all God needs, all God has ever asked for and all Jesus needs to send Satan packing into that empty no man’s land where the camels dance on his grave.

Proof? You want proof? Simple: God farts and Satan flees. It’s right there in the Bible: Jesus went into the wilderness, where he farted for forty days and nights; and when the forty days were over, Satan fled. Ask Martin Luther: fart and the devil flees. The Christian God is a God who farts, and this — one of the most profound parts of the Christian message — terrifies Satan, because it’s something he can never do: he’s full of wind, but he can never fart. Try to imagine what that must be like: for ever flatulent but unable to fart. The best he can do is fart by proxy when he or one of his minions manage to possess a human being that they’ve sucker-punched into submission; but he can never fart himself. But God can: because God didn’t simply take over someone else’s human body, he grew his own and suffered all the indignities that went with it — alongside all the joys and pleasures. Seriously, you don’t think Jesus turning water not merely into wine but into the best possible wine was a one-off, do you? Practice makes perfect: Jesus knew his wine because he enjoyed the stuff, and if it had been a wedding today you can be sure that at least one of those water jars would have become Guinness, as well as maybe a flagon of champagne. Go ask his mum: she understood.

Our God farts. He also sings, dances, drinks, laughs, weeps, bleeds, parties, loves camels, tells stories, tells the bigots to bog off and makes friends with prostitutes. This is life in all its fullness. This is Jesus, God with us, one of us and loved and hated in equal measure by those who meet him.

He also dies and — the ultimate coup — suckers Satan into doing the dirty work of killing him: God’s biggest ever fart, right in Satan’s face, and Satan doesn’t even realise until it’s just too damned late. Once again, God does what Satan can’t: he dies, and he dies horribly with all the wrath, agony and hatred of humanity poured into his soul, into his very self. Satan, the one who hates humanity, delivers the death blow that finally nails God into the human story with no way out — and nails the lid onto his own coffin, for ever. The deceiver, deceived; the usurper, usurped; and whilst Satan throws a party in his fantasy world where he thinks God is no more, Jesus throws a party in the underworld, kicks down the gates of hell, breaks the chains, heals the wounds and sets every captive free — then returns, reboots his wreck of a body with a brand new Resurrection-OS, and throws a beach party for his confused disciples.

This is Christianity at its best, at its most basic and its most glorious: completely down to earth with the God who undermines every rule of religious propriety, turns every dogma and social norm on its head, tears down the walls and raises the dead. God with us, God incarnate, God one of us; and it doesn’t stop there: once God has written himself into the story, the story itself is rewritten with the promise of the same Resurrection-OS reboot for the entire universe. Quantum theology: time and space explode, ripping the old order apart as the Jesus Event reverberates backwards, forwards and every which way in time, rewriting history and writing an even better future. New creation, new beginning, new everything. The old dividing line between spiritual and physical, between heaven and earth, becomes nothing but a line in the sand, washed away by the tide: everything becomes sacred, gender distinctions are wiped away, the first become last, the last become first and in God’s new creation there is neither slave nor free, rich nor poor. Jesus becomes the point at which creation begins and the anchor holding it in place.

Following Jesus is not about some airy fairy pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die afterlife where we’ll all be floating around on clouds playing harps or cellos or whatever musical instrument takes your fancy with occasional breaks to laugh at the torments of the damned. Following Jesus is about life on earth now, in a world where Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christianity is firmly rooted in reality and reality is rooted in Jesus who makes all things possible; and the future hope Jesus holds out to his disciples is reality rebooted.

Earlier I said you’ve got soul; I was wrong: you are soul. Be careful how you say that, but don’t be fooled by anyone who tries to tell you you’ve got an immortal soul that’s going to heaven or hell or some place in between; you haven’t. You are soul, body/spirit/mind synched together in imperfect harmony, but in God’s reboot the imperfections get the boot, your hard drive gets defragged and you get the upgrade that Apple, Microsoft and all the other computer geeks out there can’t even dream of, even in their wildest flights of imagination. Doesn’t matter if the original hardware’s rotted away, been incinerated or recycled because Jesus saves and he backs up too. Which means there will be cats and dogs in heaven because heaven will be here on earth; and for those with eyes to see, it’s already arrived.

God farts, Satan flees, camels dance, heaven, earth and humanity are rebooted and in the words of the hymn writer, Jesus sets our souls ablaze: be careful how you sing that; and I don’t know what was in those mushrooms I ate last night, but the shop assistant told me they were a special purchase from Patmos: blessed shall be the ox who gets the yoke.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

Revelation 21:1-4

Acknowledgements: Post inspired by my good friend @narky, who apparently believes there won’t be cats and dogs in heaven; and I owe the ox who gets the yoke gag to Kruppe, a character in Steven Erikson’s ‘Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen’ … everything else, apart from the bits I made up, is true.

Weekend Knockabout: Sing a New Song: I am a malcontent, I am an aggressor October 1, 2011

Posted by Phil Groom in Knockabout.
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I DEDICATE THIS SONG to all my friends in the Christian retail trade. If you, gentle reader, don’t understand it, don’t worry about it: it’s an inside joke and it really is terribly unfair of me to make a song out of it — just be grateful I’m not making a dance out of it too, given the recent relaunch of Strictly. Visit my Christian Bookshops blog if curiosity gets the better of you. Otherwise, just make up a tune, singalong, and enjoy, oh yeah.

Oh, but one more thing, the question every Christian songwriter must ask themselves: is it Spirit inspired? All I know for sure is that I dreamt it up whilst I was putting the laundry out; and being a washed-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb, hung-out-to-dry-in-the-wind-of-the-spirit kinda guy, what more can I say? Now let’s rock, baby!!

I am a malcontent,
I am an aggressor,
Come on and clap your hands,
Come on and sing with me:
I’m in the WC*
Bad books, bad books, oh yeah!

How can I be silent
When there’s a fire in my bones?
When I see injustice
And Christian hearts like stones?**

I see my former colleagues struggling
to make their budgets work,
I see a big established company
rejoice for all they’re worth,
I think that things could be done better
and wear my heart upon my shirt.

So I dared to ask a question,
what their RRPs are for,
but their boss said that was naughty,
I really shouldn’t ask the score.***

I am a malcontent,
I am an aggressor,
Come on and clap your hands,
Come on and sing with me:
I’m in the WC*
Bad books, bad books, oh yeah!

I am a malcontent,
I am an aggressor,
I just love finding fault
If I can find a flaw…
(repeat to fade…)

*WC = Worship Central. Seriously: go there.
**They’re not really, it’s just one guy throwing a temper tantrum.
***OK, OK: what he really said was I should’ve asked him personally rather than post an opinion piece on my blog. But I’m a blogger, y’know? I prefer conversations out in the open.

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