I felt a slight shock to learn that a model electric chair is now on sale in America as a children's toy

Last week we had a visitor. He has been before but has never stayed so long. I hesitate to mention the matter lest a gang of red-coated thugs bring their horses down Green Lanes in pursuit.

Our fox paid us a garden visit. Over the fence in one leap, he wandered around, scratched himself, peed on our compost bin, found something to eat in a flower-bed and confronted a local cat. No drama. They just looked at each other. The children opposite say that they have seen the vixen and pups in another garden. My nearest neighbour is delighted and puts out scraps from her cafe.

Fox has become the centre of conversation on our street. If you want to build up urban community spirit then first get yourself a fox. We used to have a hedgehog, but I fear that s/he ended up as a brown bristly pancake on the road to the park.

The Kurdish issue is not far away from London N4. Just behind Harringay station stands the Kurdish welfare centre. "Stands" is just about accurate. The main hall and education centre were fire-bombed not long ago and remain a shell. I went several times last week to show concern for the hunger-strikers. It is difficult to speak to people lying on mattresses looking very wan indeed. Anyway, I wouldn't know what to say even if they could understand me. It is impossible to explain why we can threaten to bomb the Serbs if they don't give some kind of autonomy to the people of Kosovo, but sell weapons to the Turks who have no intention whatever of giving any kind of autonomy to the Kurds.

To my surprise and pleasure I was invited last week to take part in a National Health Service management conference. They must be desperate for advice. Once more, however, I realise how life is passing me by. Mine is the age of the quill, jelly pad, ink pot and crystal set. There were three other speakers. Each in their turn gave admirable presentations but their words were not all. Behind them rained down quotations, diagrams, graphs and pictures in lovely colour on a great screen. Each was perfectly timed to fit phrases and paragraphs. As I fingered my miserable notes I realised that the days of speakers like me are over.

I do have an old slide projector in the basement, with which I used to entertain the First Communion class. If I got that out and dusted it off I might at least make a start. Even Cicero couldn't compete with modern technology.

I have been doing some reading in preparation for next May's global citizens' centenary conference on the "delegitimisation of war" - to use Professor Rotblat's phrase. It will be held in the Hague, exactly 100 years after the first Hague conference, convened by governments. Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower described that first conference in detail.

It would all be comic-book stuff were it not that the almost complete failure of that conference led inexorably towards the 1914 war and its 1933 postscript. The actual proposal for a disarmament conference came from Tsar Nicholas II. His minister of war gave him public support. Privately, he made it clear that he wanted breathing space so that Russia could catch up in the arms race. King Edward VII called the whole idea "the greatest nonsense and rubbish". When the one hope of a positive outcome - a court of arbitration - was in danger, the Kaiser was then forced into a corner: "I consented to all this nonsense only in order that the Tsar should not lose face before Europe. In practice, however, I shall rely on God and my sharp sword and I shit on their decisions." This was to taken to be His Majesty's gracious consent to a court of arbitration.

The American delegate alone voted against the banning of poison gas. He said that the United States was averse to restricting "the inventive genius of its citizens in providing weapons of war". Such inventive genius, and not only American, has wreaked enough havoc since then.

Perhaps a thousand citizens' organisations, headed by 15 Nobel prizewinners, can do better in 1999 than governments did in 1899.

Sunday afternoons now centre on the BBC's Children of the New Forest, blatant propaganda for the aristocracy, the monarchy and the church. No attempt whatever at political balance. Cromwell's lot, villains all. Still, it's great entertainment.

Christmas is a time to wallow in justifiable nostalgia. I am once more a small boy taken in the middle of the night down past the crematorium, the Jewish cemetery, and the Express Dairy stables, to our Golders Green church, packed with people and glowing with candles.

Midnight Mass has a special pull for Catholics - even those far out on the fringe. Jesus would have nothing but affectionate understanding for the drunks staggering at the back, however noisy, and the plastic-bag lady who used to take the opportunity of a late-night warm-up on the cathedral heating grills.

Christmas, meanwhile, has got about as far away from Christianity as is possible. I thought I was beyond being surprised but I still felt a slight shock when I learnt that a working model electric chair is now on the market in America as a children's toy. Some toy.

Nonetheless I will be there in my parish somewhere towards the back, bellowing "Adeste Fideles" with the best of them when midnight strikes on 24 December. "The rich shall be sent away empty and the hungry filled with good things." The Magnificat beats the Labour Party manifesto hands down.

Bruce Kent is a peace activist and long-time campaigner for CND. More details about his "Scrap Trident Tour" can be found here.


This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition