Monday, September 29, 2014

Amazing Rain

Especially after a dry spell,
I sometimes think that rain 
is a form of grace.

The hazy horizon hosed off.

Raindrops graciously bearing 
dust from air to ground

I love the sound.
The clatter of heavy rain
on car, canvas or roof. 

A heavenly, peaceful sound to me.

So pour out sky-water. 
Fall down life drops.
Nourish, cheer, wash.

Amazing, graceful, gracious rain.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What makes us human?

Hi everyone, now that summer is officially turning to autumn it's time for regular service to be resumed here at Potting Shed HQ.

It's been great to post some different things over the summer, and in case you missed them, there were fascinating interviews with Chris Whyley and Chris Eaton as well as a write ups of the spectacular Just So Festival and my moving time working alongside the charity Ten Thousand Homes in South Africa. I've got some more treats lined up for you in the next few months too, so watch this space!

This week's topic set by my fellow blog buddies is the gigantic question 'what makes us human?' - just a small subject to tackle then! 

Over the summer I've read some interesting books on how our brain works, so I'm going to start to approach our humanity from this angle. The first book is Focus by Daniel Goleman, all about how we use out attention (and the challenges of an information-overloaded society). The second is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, all about how we acquire and retain skill. I'd well recommend both.

Top-down thinking comes from our neocortex
As I was planning this post, I jotted down various things that came to mind that potentially make us different to other living things. But then I thought of other species that could also do these things! For instance, perhaps we're different because we use tools?We certainly use tools in a much more sophisticated way than other creatures on the planet. But apes also use tools, along with some species of crow (in fact, I watched a fascinating documentary with Chris Packham the other month about how the crows in New Caledonia not only passed on tool-making skills within their social groups, but how subsequent generations actually improved and refined the design, something previously only observed in humans - I'd recommend the book Corvus about how clever the crow-family of birds are).

Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply and have a rich emotional life? But then, so do Orcas (if you haven't seen the documentary Blackfish, about Orcas in captivity it's well worth a watch, so long as you realise that it's been produced with a specific agenda in mind). Is it because we form social groups? Well this also seems to be common among many intelligent animals, like elephants, dolphins and certain birds (the corvid family again!).

So what makes us different? What makes us human? In all the examples I mentioned above we are able to do those things with much greater clarity and sophistication than other living things. There are clearly numerous things our brains can do which other creatures' brains can't do. Our human brains seem uniquely configured in a manner that sets us apart from animals. We are able to picture ourselves in situations outside of the situation we find ourselves in. As Daniel Goleman notes in Focus "The capacity to think in ways that are independent of an immediate stimulus - about what's happened and what might happen in all it's possibilities - sets the human mind apart..".

"Perhaps what makes us human is that we feel things deeply.."

Something that Goleman elaborates on in his book is our ability as humans to override our instinctive, perhaps animal, responses to situations through deliberate choice. This is something he refers to as "top-down" thinking overriding "bottom-up" thinking. When we choose to focus our attention on something, this is an example of the left hand "top-down" part of our brain overriding the right-hand "bottom-up" part of the brain. Our brains are complex, and clearly I am not covering this in great detail, but the point is that we have the ability to make conscious choices, taking into account what may or may not happen, that other species aren't able to do.

A musing chimp?
Why have we been able to use tools, communicate and think to a far greater degree than other species? Another process in our brains may hold the answer to this, and it's something that Daniel Coyle chooses to focus on in his excellent Talent Code book.

Our brains reinforce patterns of learning through a remarkable substance called myelin. Crudely, this wraps around the neural connections we fire the most, making them quicker and more efficient. Coyle explores the way in which our brains reinforce learning, and points out that myelin is not present in anywhere near the same degree in our closest ape relatives. So while other species have been able to use tools, feel emotions, communicate.. they simply don't have the bandwidth we humans do to be able to do those things with with the same level of sophistication. Coyle compares this to the difference between sending data through an old copper cable compared to a fibre-optic cable. Maybe it's as big as the difference between communicating through the telegraph system and the satellite system.

So what makes us human? I think it's about choice. We are able to override our instinctive thinking and reactions (our bottom-up brain), with deliberate choices. Our top-down brain, filled with myelin, enables us to make these deliberate choices.

There was a news article this week that caught my eye, suggesting that chimps are naturally violent. Maybe we are too, given the pandemic of war around the world.  But in the midst of this pandemic there are also deliberate actions of love and peace and beauty going on every second around the world. We may be the naked ape, but what makes us different is our ability to choose - perhaps even to choose peace and love over judgement and war. To love our enemies. To choose mercy over justice.

"So what makes us human? I think it's about choice."
In this light, the Biblical assertion that we're made in the image of God makes sense to me. Made in the image, the likeness, of a sacrificially loving creator god. A God whose plan allowed "mercy to triumph over judgement" (James 2:13).

In the end, we're not just defined by what goes on in our brains, but by our choices and actions. And maybe this week, wherever we find ourselves, we can choose a top-down not bottom-up path of peace, love and mercy. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ten Thousand Homes

I recently spent two weeks in South Africa working alongside the organisation Ten Thousand Homes, along with a group from my church. Since I've returned I've been trying to untangle the jumble of thoughts, emotions, experiences and memories I came back with, so here's my first attempt.

TTH driveway
The team at Ten Thousand Homes (TTH) describe themselves as "a movement of ordinary people building hope and creating homes for Africa's orphaned and vulnerable children". They're based in White River, South Africa, beneath the watchful eye of the distant Drakensberg mountains and surrounded by fast-growing eucalyptus plantations. Day and night coal trucks rumble past on the nearby arterial roads en route to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, adding to the soundtrack of birds, insects and other fauna which accompanies their extraordinary work in the local communities. Our trip coincided with the end of the dry season, and the land bore the charred scars of recent bushfires which had reached ominously close to the TTH base. 

The charity was deservedly included in a recent Huffington Post article with a list of 100 charities doing good around the world. It's been running for over a decade, and started in response to the orphan crisis as a result of the HIV-Aids epidemic. Initially building actual houses for child-headed households, TTH has also sought to create "home" in a variety of ways which now include numerous after school programmes and other activities. Whilst still a major issue, the orphan crisis picture has changed over time, with many of these orphans now grown up and with children of their own, something TTH have also adapted to by purchasing land in 2008 to create a "university village" providing training in vocational and other life skills. What's their model? Well, as team member Jeremy Price told me "Our model is that we have no model.. it's relational" - and for me, this is one of the things that sets the work of this group of ordinary people apart.

If you're anything like me, you may have an overwhelming desire to fix things that are broken. This may just be a man thing (men being from Mars after all), but I've observed this attitude at every level right up to Government in our modern Western democracies. The challenge I set myself as I embarked on this trip was to put aside my need to fix things and instead allow myself to learn from the experience and assist the broader work of TTH in any small way I could. If I'm honest I wasn't sure what this might look like or what my contributions might be, although I hoped that this might include some building work and anticipated that we would help with some of the after school programmes.

Spacing the roof trusses in my dungarees!
I was delighted that we were able to contribute to building a roof for a community pavilion, erecting the trusses, purlins, bracing etc in preparation for the corrugated metal roof sheets. I'd even brought out my workshop dungarees in anticipation of doing something with my hands, so when we had the opportunity to assist the building team on our first day I was straight in the back of the bakkie and up the ladder to help. Although the corrugated sheeting wasn't available until after we left due to the lingering effects of a metalworkers' strike earlier in the year, we left having completed the full roof frame - alongside the TTH team which included chaps from the local community. From the top of the roof the views are stunning of the surrounding hills and distant mountains, but one TTH team member shared with me a conversation they'd had on this topic with those living in the community, who had said "we don't see the scenery, we just see the poverty". Interesting the differences in what we see - what do we miss in the scenery of our own lives?

Much of the work we were able to contribute to was in various after school programmes in three nearby communities. These generally involved a meal for the children (usually something like offal with pap - the local maize staple - and some orange), playing with them and giving them a safe environment just to be children. We sang fun action songs with them, told stories with simple visual effects - even throwing in some handkerchief and rope sleight of hand which left the interpreters momentarily speechless! A highlight was putting on a "Day of Royalty" in which some 450 local kids were bussed onto the TTH campus for a day of being treated like princes and princesses - cue epic craft stations, dressing up, singing songs in an empty swimming pool (good acoustics), bouncy castles (bounce houses in the local lingo), treasure hunts, and a giant picnic. Truly a day to remember all round, and whilst exhausting, a lavish expression of God's love for each and every child that came.
Being puppet-man on the Day of Royalty..

Probably what I found hardest of all were the two trips I took to the children's ward at the local hospital - not because of the standard of care or quality of facilities, as these turned out to be very good - but instead due to the feelings of powelessness it evoked in me. On the day I visited there were around 30 children in the ward, with very little to play with and all missing their parents - visiting hours being very restricted. Many of the injuries, burns and missing digits were as a result of car accidents, symptomatic of a broader traffic safety issue and and indication that things are rarely as simple as we think.

In these moments of helplessness I was reminded of a quote by Mother Theresa: "Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love". For me, the small things included playing rock, paper, scissors, or double-double this-this, or simply keeping them company - not life-changing actions in themselves, but things which brought smiles to little faces and which at least hopefully brightened up or changed their day. Clearly our presence wasn't the same as having their parents or loved ones there, but as a parent myself, I'd be grateful to anyone who tried to brighten up my child's day in hospital, in however small a way.

A house in a day
Towards the end of our time we had the opportunity to assist in what turned out to be a profound and remarkable act of love. A couple who had been the recipients of a new home built by TTH had identified a lady in dire need of a safe place to live, with a simply heartbreaking backstory, whose baby had died suddenly. The wonderful thing was that in gratitude for the blessing of a home they'd received, they wanted to build a temporary home for this lady on their own plot - a place of refuge and safety. Kacy tells this story eloquently on her blog. So while the craziness of the Day of Royalty was going on, the TTH team set the wheels in motion so that a few days later, alongside the local community, we had the privilege of building a simple house. Simple for us, life changing for her, and her son. All brought about through the relationship this movement of ordinary people have built with the communities around them. 

As I've reflected on our brief time with Ten Thousand Homes, one of the things I've most appreciated about their attitude is the desire to help the communities to develop from within. Calling out the best in them - and don't we all need people around us to call us and challenge us to be the best expression of who God's made us to be? TTH are into organic growth, not imposed models. Like the story of the temporary home, this is change from within - initiated by the communities that TTH are serving.

On our short visit we were only able to do small things. But if you can repeatedly change a person's day enough times you can end up changing their life. TTH have a motto plastered on their office building "To Change a Nation, Love the Children".. they continue to invest in the children and young people of the area, day in day out. An investment in the future of South Africa. And like any good investment, slow and steady accumulation is the most effective means.

We left the communities on the Friday to travel home. By the Monday they'd erupted into violent protests and rioting over problems with the Government-supplied water deliveries. Testament to the fragility of these community ecosystems and the need for holistic systems-thinking as a means to change rather than lurching from crisis fix  to crisis fix. Jen Price, another TTH member wrote a moving piece on this situation earlier this week. 

The TTH office building on their campus
It's too easy to impose "western" eyes on to world situations, but I think we serve ourselves better when we instead allow ourselves to be challenged about what authentic Christian expression looks like where we are. In this respect it's helpful to be out of our own context for a while to give us fresh eyes to see our own scenery again, and recognise  our own cultural quirks and idiosyncrasies."To change a nation love the children". We couldn't change such a rich and complex situation in two weeks, nor did we intend to. However, I'm proud of the numerous and wonderful small things we contributed to and carried out with great love. Big enough things to change someone's day. 

Change enough days and you impact the course of a life. 
Change enough lives and you change a community. 
Change enough communities and you change a nation. 

This is the extraordinary work being done by the ordinary people at TTH, and I'm proud to have played a small part in this. But they are a formidable force for good - the change may not be occurring as quickly or as visibly as in the surrounding eucalyptus plantations, but it's growing strongly and steadily, just watch and see.

Sunset on the base

Friday, August 29, 2014

Off to South Africa..

Hi everyone, on Monday 1st September I’m travelling to South Africa with a team of fifteen from our church to work alongside the charity Ten Thousand Homes for two weeks. So, for regular readers, just to say that I won’t be in touch for a fortnight.

I’m a novice when it comes to charity work like this, and it’s fair to say I’m a little nervous – although my nerves are mixed with excitement. I’m trying not to have too many preconceptions about the communities and kids we’ll be working with, and hope to keep an open mind to the situations we encounter there – rather than just seeing everything through “western” eyes. I’m looking forward to new experiences! 

So I promise to do a write up when I get back, and in the meantime would value your thoughts and prayers for the team and for my wonderful family back home.

Better get packing!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Musings on.. the Just So Festival

In our risk-averse, logical and statistic obsessed culture it's easy to become so cynical and rational that we miss the simple, childlike wonder of the world around us. 

The Just So Festival is a family arts festival in the grounds of Rode Hall in Cheshire, and in many ways it's the perfect family antidote to school targets and staid normality!  It’s also a completely bonkers mix of dressing up, making things, dancing, music, and the entire creative spectrum in between – if only our schools and workplaces could capture the festival's energy and enthusiasm!

Branch tunnels in the Spellbound Forest
This year's festival was a fine vintage and a perfect celebration of the event’s fifth birthday! For us it was our second visit, and it proved even more of a whirlwind rollercoaster (or whirlycoaster?) than our previous experience (in a good way!). The programme is bursting with stimulation for all your senses: encouraging thinking, doing and learning in all ways, shapes and forms. There really is something for everyone, and it's an event to savour together - the perfect place to create treasured family memories.

Together with our four year old daughter and two year old son, this year we squeezed about as much as we possibly could out of the festival.. and we STILL didn't do everything there was to do. It runs from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, and rather than list our meandering itinerary I'm going to try and sum it up in themed sections. 


Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra
This year the festival organisers sent out a Just So soundtrack CD with the tickets, which we loved (and danced around to in our lounge), so we tried to see some of the acts whose songs had particularly captured our attention.

We loved the energy and smooth jazzy vocals of the Fresh Dixie Project. Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra brought an old fashioned 1930s vibe with their own North-Eastern twist, whilst the three-piece exquisitely named Goat Roper Rodeo Band provided rich harmonies and graciously allowed themselves to be interviewed afterwards by my daughter for her Arts Award (more later on that). Perhaps Contraption's version of the Oompa Loompa song is gloriously quirky, and we love their unorthdox brass playing (and giant sousaphone).

Gabby Young and Other Animals provided a perfect soundtrack for dancing the evening away, especially our favourite song of theirs "I've Improved". The last band we saw, bringing the whole festival to a close, was Rusty Shackle - their cover of Dizzy Rascal summing up our whole philosophy "Some people think I'm bonkers, I just think I'm free!". Great music to spin a four year old round to!


It seemed that at any given moment throughout the festival there was a show or performance going on. Some of the mobile performances came to you, and acts roaming the site included the bizarre but hilarious 18th Century Lady (who's theatre was her giant dress) a musical Insect Procession and the Tea Club - a pair of dancing tea ladies! 

Shows which stayed still that we caught included the colonial capers and rare-animal hunting of the Imaginary Menagerie by Les Enfants Terribles,  a whimsical and delightful production of childrens' favourite Arthur’s Dreamboat by Long Nose Puppets (I'm still singing "tippity tappity tip", and there were some great cameos from various sea creature puppets), an engaging musical interpretation of Stanley's Stick by the Northern Chamber Orchestra, and a Hunger Games inspired production by Cheshire Dance - with the opportunity to join in at the end (my daughter was off like a rocket!). 

Part of the Shadowplay installation

Over at the High Seas area, we chuckled all the way through the Zooted's Edwardian Bathing Jugglers' routine, whilst a pair of real mermaids entranced children and dads alike! Not to mention passing encounters around the site with the Gruffalo and a Blue bear (both available for hugs and high fives with small people). 

As night fell, the curious campfire was lit in the Spellbound Forest for singsongs, stories and ad-hoc marshmallow toasting (bring your own bags), whilst back at the High Seas the mesmerising steampunk Shadowplay installation (by Walk the Plank) came to life, which was well worth a visit.


Aside from music and performance, there was a plethora of hands on activities and play spaces to keep the whole family engaged for hours. You might need to bring an extra bag to keep everything you make in though! Our kids loved the mirror maze in the spellbound forest, the epic branch tunnels and the musical sheet fort, and when the heavens occasionally opened we were grateful for the numerous Field Candy tents scattered around the site which we could dive in to. These were equipped with cushions and story books, so always a good opportunity to catch our breath, open the thermos and read a story together. 

On the Friday and Saturday you could participate in making giant lanterns, in advance of the magical twilight lantern parade around the site and through the woods in the evening. 

In the build up to the festival, and at the event itself, everyone was encouraged to join an animal tribe and dress accordingly (last year we were lions, this year we chose to be frogs). Each tribal leader animal roamed the festival passing out golden stones to members of their tribe - these gave the tribe points for the tribal tournament. 

The culmination of the weekend was the tribal parade - an energetic and primal celebration of the festival - this year the fox tribe narrowly beat the owls.. in our party there was much disappointment at this news, and various little frogs and lions had tear-streaked face paint by the end. This was as much to do with the fact that the festival was over for another year (and general overtiredness) than actually not being part of the winning tribe.

There were plenty of facilitated workshops to participate in. So we stomped our feet to some good-time country tunes in the Flat Footing Workshop, attempted juggling, plate spinning and diablos in the Circus House's circus tent (more than once actually - we loved this, although it was less trippy doing it outside, as the light in the tent was very red!!). The Cardboard Harp workshop with Mary Dunsford was extremely popular (in fact everything was well attended - better that way round I think). We also enjoyed using stamps and ink pads to make our own circus style posters.

In the forest we made elaborate fern headresses, learnt about bees from the Loop magazine and Barnes and Webb (I bet you don't know how long a queen bee lives for?), you could make clay faces for trees and mushroom bird feeders with Barefoot Ceramics. In the High Seas we drew Treasure Maps and had tattoos with Sunsense, made boats for the bath with the lovely people from Marvellous, made dastardly disguises and did dressing up at Fat Sam's Caravan.

There was plenty to do in Games Tent, which also played host to the Arts Council. The festival was an opportunity to participate in the Discover Arts Award, and my daughter enjoyed filling in her special log book throughout the weekend, documenting in word and picture the different activities she'd participated in. One aspect involved finding out more about a particular artist, and on the spur of the moment we decided to interview the Goat Roper Rodeo Band after their performance. Full credit to them for being willing to be interviewed by a four year old, and I'm proud of my daughter for being so brave to do it! 

On the Lazy Days lawn you could often hear the capoeira drummers providing a rhythm to move to. The Institute of Physics were undertaking practical experiments, and there were numerous other activities including making wooden necklaces with the RSPB (a popular choice for earthy young girls and mums). In the Peekaboo area you could play with clay with Eastnor Pottery in their Clay Babies tent and much more - although we didn't spend loads of time there this year as our kids are now a bit older, and this area is perfect for festival babies.


Worthy of special mention were Bear Cereals, who I think single handedly supplied everyone camping at the festival with free nutritious and delicious cereal and fruit based snacks - certainly our family and the other families in our party took maximum advantage of this! They'd also cunningly hidden animal paws around the site to find for a prize - we found three locations quickly but it took us until late on the final day to find the last one!! 

The food and drink offering was, as usual, exceptional, with the distinctive Hoban and Sons mobile bar and a disproportionate amount of ancient Citroen Vans serving tea, toast, coffee, ice cream and just about everything else you might want to eat. Chatting to the various stalls I think they all pretty much sold out by the end, so I guess everyone must have appreciated the menu as much as us!

A final mention goes to the Naty sponsored nappy tent, providing changing space and and endless supply of free eco nappies throughout the weekend. Although our kids are/have been in cloth nappies most of the time, the nappy tent was really convenient and we were grateful it was there. My son thought it was hilarious that the change mats were directly on the grass!

So there you have it - a somewhat epic account of the amazing Just So Festival! I hope you've enjoyed reading it, and perhaps if you were also at the festival why not share your experiences too? Look forward to hearing from you!

Chillin' and thinking about next year..

(If you want to read even more, why not read the review of the festival at Festival Kidz)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Interview with Chris Eaton

Continuing my summer series of interviews, earlier this month I spent some time with Chris Eaton, an award winning songwriter well known for songs such as Saviour's Day and Breath of Heaven -  songs which have reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic. We talked for some time around a wide range of things, and I've drawn out some highlights to share with you all. Enjoy!

So Chris, people may know you for some of the songs you've written, but how would you describe yourself and what you do?

I think first of all I'm one of the most blessed people on the planet in one sense because I do something for a living that I love with a passion. I know so many musicians, such as yourself actually, who are really talented and who don’t do it for a living and I just think "what happened to me along the way?" that made it easier for me to pursue my passion and give up the day job to do it. 

I've always had music coming through me, and I think it was playing by ear at an early age, probably 12 or 13 when I started to form my own juicy chords, and playing piano I was searching for chords that made me feel good. Music always played a massive part in my life. I would say that I'm from a pretty steady middle class-ish background. My dad was also a quality musician, played the piano and sang, but he was a building society manager, my brother was a bank manager!

You're asking "who are you musically, who would you say you are"  - I'm a singer songwriter, but  I'm just someone who's honest. I try and put the honesty of my life and the way I see other people's situations into my songs. I try and interpret them with a vulnerable edge, so that when people hear my music hopefully they're moved by it in a positive way, and they understand that's why I put a lot of hope into songs, although not always answers!

As a Christian I really do believe that music's a gift, first and foremost. No one deserves it. But it's something that if we choose to ignore, we're missing out on so much joy and so much fun.  Whether you're in the bath or when you're washing up, you can be listening to music that you love and it can change your day completely. 

For me in the early days when I wrote songs I would come here and escape from the rest of my life, whether it was at school or work, if things were stressing me out I would come to the piano as a way of therapy with myself, and just play. 

Have there been significant decisions then you've had to make to step into that? You said that your family were perhaps quite traditional in their thinking - what risks did you have to take, or are there things that you remember that are key events that set your path more determinedly?

Oh definitely, I think that I was a yes man, a yes kid. when people asked me to do things I'd never say no. I'd be like "yeah great, let's do it" even it was people I didn't know of someone wanted me to sing a song at a church I'd never been to, or a coffee bar or something, I'd just do it.

I also had parents who were very supportive, so they let me play for hours on end, and often I'd bang away on the piano and  the next morning I'd say "I've written a song" and they couldn't believe it was a song! But I'd go through bits of the song for a long time to get the feel right. I'm a very rhythmical player, so I was very blessed that they didn't poo-poo my commitment, "as long as you get a proper job". Don't give up your day job sort of thing! 

I left school, was going to go to university, but my dad offered me a job with a friend of his at Eagle Star insurance company, which I took because  I was doing so many gigs at that point, at weekends with a band, that it made sense for me to have a mid-week job, get some money in my pocket, and then play weekends. So that's what I did and chose not to go to uni. 

Two years after that I'd been working with a guy named Dave Pope who was well known as a gospel artist in this area, and he knew Cliff Richard. Through playing with Dave I actually got to meet Cliff. And it was through that connection that it all suddenly turned around for me, I suddenly got hit with this opportunity and it was after that that everything changed. 

Cliff got really excited about this one particular song I'd written for Dave Pope called Sail Away, and he came up to me and said "You wrote that song, I absolutely love it, and I would love to hear more of what you've done". That alone was amazing because Cliff was huge at the time, really on top of his game, and I said "I've got loads Cliff, I've written 200 plus songs" and he said, "Well, could you just send me a demo of your best 5 songs? I'd really like to hear that". 

I had no way of recording other than a reel to reel but the following week, on tour with Dave we did a concert at St David's hall in Cardiff, and the guy who put the concert on, Rob Andrews, owned a 24 track recording studio. It was just incredible when I look back that not only did I meet Cliff but within a week I'd met this guy who said "I love what you're doing, I love that song Sail Away, I've heard some of the songs that you've done, I heard you've met Cliff, and I want to help you, I want you to come down to my 24 track studio and we'll record 3 or 4 songs in a weekend. And I'll put the band together, and I'll take care of it". Just amazing. That was an incredible thing, and what happened was all of these opportunities came to me. I made this demo and was thrilled with it: 5 songs, it sounded great, and sent it off to Cliff. I got a message from his secretary saying "Thanks for the tape I’ll pass it on to Cliff, we’ll let you know". And that was it. 

I heard nothing for a week, two weeks, a month – at which point I’m starting to get a bit frustrated because it’s like everything was coming together and I was so excited and passionate about it and nothing was happening. Six months went by, the end of my tour arrived and I didn’t have a job at the end of it so I ended up driving a beer truck locally for Holden’s brewery and working in a fruit shop and as a taxi driver for six months. 

And all of that I enjoyed but underneath it all I was like "What is going on?". I was a Christian at the time and I couldn’t believe how it seemed like God had ordained this path for me, it had all worked out brilliantly, and then nothing had happened!

One Sunday night I was at my local church and I felt that God was talking to me directly, and the message very clearly to me was “If you love me, trust me, let me deal with your future, don’t try to work it out for yourself”. I went home that night and I remember praying a prayer very genuinely, I was upset, and I said “If you want me to be a window cleaner, then I’ll do it – whatever you want me to do” Nothing against window cleaners, but if this isn’t meant to be, just put me in your will, let me be doing what you need me to be doing. I didn’t get an answer, I just fell asleep and I remember sleeping peacefully  - a weight taken off me. 

Three days later I got a letter from cliff’s secretary saying that Cliff was going to record four of the five songs on the tape, which blew me away. Two of them went on to Wired for Sound, which to date is one of Cliff’s biggest albums ever, one track was called Summer Rain and one was called Lost in a Lonely World, and they were the two of my songs that were first seriously recorded.

Cliff contacted me, we became friends and I signed a three year publishing deal to write exclusively for him, so he owned my publishing. He basically paid my wage. I believe the pivotal moment for all of this to happen was me giving it up. I don’t want to be so fatalistic to say that it would never have happened - but you just don’t know. 

And I’ve tried to learn that lesson a million times since that first thing happened. And it’s been difficult because there are other pressures you feel when you’re older. I’m still writing 80-100 songs a year and I might only get ten cut, and I love all eighty! You can go stir crazy if you expect the same accolade for each song, and even though they’re your babies, you’ve got to let them go - if they’re meant to land on an artist or land with someone they will. I’ve become very philosophical about that over the years.

1990 was probably my biggest moment when Saviours Day got to number one. People would say to me "Do you think Saviours Day changed anything for you? "And honestly it didn’t change what happened within me at all, but it did change what happened around me, people’s view of me changed, “oh that guy’s written a number 1” so my opportunities were greater.

In terms of writing a great song or trying to craft a great song, I’ve tried to learn over the years what it is, trying to put my finger on aspects of writing a great song, what makes it special. Can you analyse something enough to be able to reproduce it and say I’ve got the blueprint here? And I think all you can do is work on a general template, because really its like painting by numbers with no paint! Because the paint is the Holy Spirit, the passion and the thing which makes you communicate the simple truth but it comes out blazing red or blazing orange.

I've learnt how to join the dots, but I still realise that all I'm learning is that its the initial nugget of truth that's in a song that dictates where it should go. I've always wanted to write stuff that's going to last. I've always wanted to have a nugget of truth in a song. I hear a song sometimes and think "I wish I'd written that!". For me as a writer, I'd say to any writer, whether you're a faith writer or not, whether you're a human being, you write from your heart, you write honestly, you apply creative knowledge, you apply a desire to learn from chord changes and from where melodies can lift, and go down. And the atmosphere of a song is massive to me. You create an atmosphere first out of which a song comes. If you don't have an atmosphere how can you write a song? If I'm writing a Christmas song, for instance, I have to immerse myself in the feeling of Christmas.

And if I want it to be a spiritual one - if somebody asks me to write another Breath of Heaven - I mean I can't just write you another Breath of Heaven, it's impossible! But what I can do is I can look back to the things that were the catalyst to that song, and they weren't a melody particularly, they were spiritual principles. The original song I wrote here when I was going through my most painful time, and the verse was just making statements of what God was to me - it's like these are truths that I cannot feel right now but they're truths. "you are harvest, you are golden sun, you are cool rain, you are all in one, and in all my deepest thoughts, and in all my battles fought, you are within. You are crimson, you are midnight blue, you have called me to discover you". And in the song, within that moment, God broke through into me and gave me the chorus, and I knew that the feel of the verse was syncopated, that the chorus had to be like the footprints, like God's footprints on the sand, not mine, he was carrying me, and it was almost like his heartbeat, where I was in his arms, I could feel the heartbeat of God, and it was just the breath of heaven that was coming in to hold me together, be forever near me.. it was just this thing that was easy to sing and easy to feel and it was like you were being caressed by the holy spirit.

And the only two people that I knew who could maybe understand it were Cliff Richard and Amy Grant, and I immediately dismissed cliff because I thought he's more pop, and this has been so deep for me and someone who understands that depth is Amy, and I told her the story of how it was written, sent it to her. The next week she rang me up and said “I’m completely in love with this song, I have to record it”, and the rest is history – it’s just amazing.

Would you say that one of the harder things about your craft is holding it in an open hand?

In one sense no, I think the harder thing for me is writing on my own, it being quite a lonely affair writing songs. It’s quite introspective at the time, you enjoy it, but then it’s this weird thing getting it out to the general public. 

The minute you write a song, it’s perfect, the baby’s been born and nothing's happened to it. But the minute you do a recording of it, it can change for the worse. You’ve got a picture of how you want it to sound and suddenly the drums are on it and they’re wrong, or the vocal isn’t passionate enough, or the piano part’s wrong, and it’s very difficult – production is a whole different thing and these days the producer is as important, if not more important, than the writer of the song. 

These days people won’t even listen to it if it’s not a master, it has to sound like it’s going to on the radio. It’s not so much that they’ve got no desire to figure out what it could be like, it’s more that the old-school publisher who hears a hit in a rough piece of work, they’ve sort of died off, and the new school is more about practical about money – there’s not a lot of money in it anymore, so they want a cut. So you have to do what they call 360 degree deals now where you do the production, you do the writing, you’re the artist if possible, or you work with an artist. So there’s a lot of politics now involved in terms of share, because the apple that we share is so much smaller than it used to be. 

For people looking for a way to step into who they’ve been made to be, and perhaps to turn dreams and ideas into reality, what would your advice be?

I would say that we’re in a different sort of era than I was in - there’s a lot more reward these days for sheer hard work, because of red tape and qualification. People will say to me "I want to become a sound engineer, should I go to college?" and I’ll say yes – whereas 20 years ago I would have said no. That’s the way the world has changed, not just in music but in everything.

For me it’s a combination of working hard and getting your craft better, whatever you’re doing, whether you’re a writer or a singer – you can sing better, you can have voice lessons, you can learn to increase your range, understand your voice more, there are a lot of practical things you can do. Play your instrument – guitar, piano, whatever it is – get better at it. Listen to music and analyse it. Take bits of your favourite music that you love and think “what is it I love about that?” Is it that funny chord created by all those weird sounds, what are those sounds, how did they do that, or is it when that song lifts to that point? Apply that to your writing, or to your thing that you’re doing and think "How can I take the level up?".

Strive for excellence in whatever you do because I really believe that God will honour that. But you cannot be excellent at something you're not even doing. A door will open if you’re meant to be doing something. If you’re trying to bang a door down, no matter how hard you try, if it ain’t meant to be then that door won’t open and all you’ll do is get frustrated.

In something less creative there’s no substitute for work – work hard and you can be great at it. If you want to be a rocket scientist, and you’ve got the intelligence to understand it then work hard, get your degree, get your doctorate, do what you need to do and you’ll get close to doing what you want to do and you can do it. It’s amazing what things can happen once you get really good at something - you will get more opportunities the better you are at it.

I would encourage people to do whatever they do authentically, don’t copy somebody else, don’t do it because somebody else is doing it, do it because you’re passionate about it. If you want be an Olympic swimmer there’s no way around it, you’re going to have to swim every morning at 5am before you go to school – that’s life! It’s the way it’s going to have to be, and again after all. Having seen the Commonwealth games, these guys, all of them, have only achieved what they believed they could achieve through incredible hard work, hours and hours and hours and hours.

There’s something about being positive, that somehow things happen when you really believe in them. If you really believe something, doesn’t matter what it is, if you’re into it, it happens. And at other times you’re like "Why doesn’t this happen? Why doesn’t it ever happen to me?" And it never happens to you because you’re always thinking it never happens to you! I think there’s something in that, something about staying positive even when things are really hard and the easiest thing in the world is just to give up and say “I’ve had it”.

I know that people could listen to my story and say "Well it’s easy for you Chris, you had early opportunities you’ve had a blessed life" – well I could tell you a million ways when I haven’t had a blessed life, when things have gone wrong – it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your career, if your private life is falling apart then it’s a complete nightmare.

Even in the music, when you feel like you’re constantly writing stuff you believe in but everybody’s ignoring it, and you’re doing it for a living, there are times when you want to give up. And just when I’m at my edge of giving up I get a letter from someone, or an email from somebody who goes "Don’t give up, whatever you do, don’t give up! You are changing people’s lives even now with the songs you have written", with something that you’ve done that you don’t even know about, and God is doing it - so don’t let God down by closing off that avenue purely because you’re not seeing the results right now. So it’s a thought.

I think when you get older as a Christian you realise that God’s dream for all of us is actually that we love him the way he loves us. That’s his biggest dream, because that’s how he made us, and it’s a work in progress getting to that point. And trying to keep that perspective when you're at your worst: at your most desperate don’t give up, but give it to God.

Chris, thanks so much for your time, we appreciate you sharing with us, and you've left us with plenty to think about!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Just So Festival.. ten top tips

It’s festival season, and once again we’re off as a family to the amazing Just So festival – a creative family arts festival based at Rode Hall in Cheshire. We went for the first time last year, and enjoyed ourselves so much that we’re back for more this year!
In case you’re not sure what to expect, I wanted to share our top ten tips, so here goes:
  1.  Dress up – the Just So festival is the one place where if you’re *not* dressed up you’re the odd one out. Last year my favourite outfit was my cowboy one (I should dress up as a cowboy more often), and I was amazed by some of the other amazing outfits around. Preferably have multiple costumes!
  2. Pick a tribe before you go, then accessorise accordingly. Last year our whole family was lions, so we made sure we had some lion outfits or accessories for the Tribal Tournament. This year, which tribe to be has been a discussion point with our kids for months and we’ve ended up deciding to be frogs instead. Our frog outfits have gradually taken shape – mine thanks to some excellent car boot purchases – and we can’t wait to transform into frogs when we get there (you never know, it might be an appropriate tribe to be in if it rains, heaven forbid!).
  3. Plan the big things – this year and last year we got our programme in advance and picked out the big things we wanted to do as a family, and then worked out our schedule accordingly.. there’s so much to do.. but at the same time..
  4.  .. enjoy the unplanned things – as much as it’s great to plan lots of stuff in advance, we also found that it was some of the unplanned, unexpected activities that we did which became some of the strongest memories – making knot dolls for instance..
  5. Do the lantern parade through the woods – it’s magical. Last year you could make lanterns there, but just in case you don’t manage to, it might be worth bringing your own lanterns and poles to join in..
  6. Wear your kids. Our kids are still small enough to need carrying.. and although there are great paths around the place, we found it was much more versatile and convenient to wear our kids in carriers.. so perhaps plan without your pushchair.
  7. Let your kids stay up – there’s loads to do in the evenings, and the site gets even more magical after dark. Perhaps enjoy the stories around the fire in the woods..
  8. Dance – there’s loads of great music to enjoy as a family, and we had great times dancing to pirate bands, vegetable-related bands, ukulele bands.. let your hair down and spin your kids..
  9. Eat the lovely food – there’s loads of great food available, so grab something yummy to eat as you go round..
  10.  And finally.. book early for next year!

Hope that’s helpful, and looking forward to seeing some of you there this weekend..