Two days in and three books down.

I haven’t the first idea what an algorithm looks like or what it does or how it does it. It’s something mathematical and that finishes it for me. But Robert Harris‘s The Fear Index takes an interesting look at the sort of thing that went wrong in the financial and banking sectors: hubristic gamblers ceding too much to computers on the grounds that they can do the sums quicker. The moral questions come thick and fast.

Julian Barnes has written a beautiful novella in The Sense of an Ending. Apart from the narrative itself, which kept me intrigued until the final page, the writing is wonderful. The idea of someone having to re-write their history in the light of information that arises later in life about events that happened when younger is a familiar one to anyone with a pulse. But Barnes ruminates on mortality, relationships, loss and regret. And there is a poignancy running through the narrative that captures the common experience of thinking that life should be better than it usually is:

Just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (p.105)

John Bell needs no introduction. For many people his name is synonymous with the Iona Community. HIn addition to his prolific output of music and hymnody, he broadcasts on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He is never boring – he uses words as if each one matters and finds the language to engage as well as inform. Rooted deeply in the language and content of the Bible, he brings to his speaking and writing a prophetic, reasoned passion that demands an equally biblical response. His second volume of ‘thoughts’ and essays is entitled All That Matters and cannot be read without some response.

One taste reflects back onto the questions raised by Harris and touches on Barnes’ sense of mortality:

The prophet is someone who reads into the present state of society and discerns two things: the consequence of present actions in advance of a crisis, and an alternative reality which is worth striving for. (p.55)

A fourth book, which I am reading a bit at a time, is David Crystal‘s wonderfully informative and entertaining The Story of English in 100 Words. Number 7 is ‘Mead’ and in Old English you could call someone who had drunk too much of it ‘medu-werig’ (mead-weary). From Barnes I learned the word ‘lucubrations’ (look it up – I had to!), but I can see I’m going to get far more use out of ‘medu-werig’.

Jade Goody has gone into a hospice for palliative care and it is brilliant that she has done so. Having visited a number of hospices around the country, I can think of no better environment in whcih to consider and approach one’s death.

Hospices provide the best forms of palliative care for people who are dying… and their families. The holistic approach they take – always non-judgemental in terms of faith commitment – to human living and dying is remarkable. The person is taken seriously as someone who is not simply a ‘case’, or categorised by their illness, but is seen as a person with a mental, spiritual, physical and social context and life. The individual’s history is taken seriously and each person is treated with complete dignity.

hospiceEven the buildings are designed with the whole person in mind. Years ago, when I was a curate in Kendal (in the Lake District), our local hospice was 25 miles away in Lancaster. The building was shaped in such a way that if you were lying in a bed, you could see out of a floor to ceiling window and see greenery as well as sky.

Yet, as far as I can work it out, hospices receive very little (and sometimes no) financial support from the NHS. They all rely on donations from the public.

I am about to read Julian Barnes’ new book Nothing to be Frightened of – all about death, dying and arguing with God. I saw it in a bookshop in London yesterday and noted the line on the back that said something like: ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss him’. I don’t know if Barnes is quoting someone else there, but death and its imminence does provoke the questions many of us push to the hinterland of the mind when life is OK and busy.

jade-goodyJade Goody will get fantastic care in and through the hospice. They work in the community and in people’s homes, too. She will find herself cared for with dignity, love and genuine personal attention while the rest of us commend her and her family to God.