Archives For England

British Weather

November 13, 2014 — 12 Comments

euro weatherWinter arrived early. The current “arctic outbreak” has brought subzero temperatures to Canada and the United States. It proves once again that the demarcation of seasons is capricious.

“Meteorological winter” reckoning makes much more sense than relying on a solstice, which actually occurs in the midst of the season.

Prior to the arrival of this polar cold front, the shortening of the days had been the only sign of winter’s approach where we live. Our summer in Puget Sound was wonderful, and lasted long into the fall.

Although the United States Air Force preferred to assign me to hot climates, I’m really a temperate (climate) person. I enjoy seeing four separate seasons, and seek the unique joys that arrive with each of them.

I don’t enjoy any of them in excess. The record-setting snowfalls we survived during several years in Minnesota were a bit much. The relentless heat of the Mojave Desert was even worse.

We did enjoy the weather of England, when we spent three wonderful years there. I guess it takes a true Washingtonian to say they genuinely enjoyed the weather in Britain—but we did.

C.S. Lewis recognized the perceived shortcomings of England’s weather. In the eyes of many, of course, the rain that keeps everything lush and green is considered a dreary imposition on their activities. In 1950 he wrote the following to one of his American correspondents.

Here we are enjoying the dubious delights of early English spring, and I often wonder what visiting Americans make of it: for they are already arriving in surprisingly large numbers considering the time of year. I can only suppose that they all come from Northern Alaska, and find our climate a nice change! If you have any friends who think of coming over, tell them that the English summer generally falls in the third week in June.

This delightful paragraph brings to mind the apocryphal Mark Twain comment that, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

The great thing about the pseudo-Twain quote is its versatility. It is easily edited for any locale.

One last thought about winter. We Northern Hemisphereans reveal our hemisphere-centric prejudices when we fail to realize that these colder months don’t represent winter to half of the globe.

And I suspect the folks who live on that side of the world are not subject to “Antarctic outbreaks” of polar cold, due to the oceans . . . but that’s a question to research on another day.

Is More Better?

May 15, 2014 — 15 Comments

everettThat’s a trick question. More of some things certainly is better . . . more peace, more compassion. But more—even of good things—can sometimes become too much.

Case in point: words.

I continue to frustrate one of my critique group friends because I write “like a historian rather than a journalist.” The distinction being:

Journalist – Just the facts, please.
Historian – Lover of descriptions, details, esoterica, and trivia.

Guilty as charged.

C.S. Lewis commends the literary virtue of brevity. The following passage is found in his aptly named essay, “Before We Can Communicate.”

In the very process of eliminating from your matter all that is technical, learned, or allusive, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, the true value of learned language: namely, brevity. It can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred.

Last year marked the 150th Anniversary of one of the world’s most famous speeches. Not only Americans are familiar with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It has become a monument to succinctness and power.

Rereading it recently I began to wonder about the other speech delivered at the event . . . the two hour oration delivered by Edward Everett, one of the era’s most highly regarded public speakers.*

The journalists and audience at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery were extremely impressed by Everett’s presentation, and surprised by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks.

Following the event, both men lauded each other’s message. Lincoln responded to Everett’s note which praised him for the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of his remarks. Everett said, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Your kind note of to-day is received. In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure. Of course I knew Mr. Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages in it which transcended my expectation. The point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose principals are the States, was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for the national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel-ministering to the suffering soldiers, surpasses, in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before.

I tracked down an online copy of Everett’s Gettysburg speech. I’ve skimmed it, and it is rather interesting. With the course of the war still undetermined at the time it was presented, it is easy to see how its stirring words could inspire an already war-weary nation. As he elaborates on the efforts of the Confederates to establish a new nation, he begs for patience. “Pardon me, my friends, for dwelling on these wretched sophistries.” Sophistries indeed.

The speech offers a partisan analysis of the entire course of the war up to that time. International readers of Mere Inkling may find the references to other countries interesting. He describes “civil wars” in England, Germany, Italy and France. Since he spoke during an era when Italy was still disunited, allow me to quote that portion of the speech.

In Italy, on the breaking up of the Roman Empire, society might be said to be resolved into its original elements–into hostile atoms, whose only movement was that of mutual repulsion. Ruthless barbarians had destroyed the old organizations, and covered the land with a merciless feudalism. As the new civilization grew up, under the wing of the Church, the noble families and the walled towns fell madly into conflict with each other; the secular feud of Pope and Emperor scourged the land; province against province, city against city, street against street, waged remorseless war with each other from father to son, till Dante was able to fill his imaginary hell with the real demons of Italian history.

So ferocious had the factions become, that the great poet-exile himself, the glory of his native city and of his native language, was, by a decree of the municipality, condemned to be burned alive if found in the city of Florence. But these deadly feuds and hatreds yielded to political influences, as the hostile cities were grouped into States under stable governments; the lingering traditions of the ancient animosities gradually died away, and now Tuscan and Lombard, Sardinian and Neapolitan, as if to shame the degenerate sons of America, are joining in one cry for a united Italy.

For those who are interested, this paragraph from Everett’s speech is only fifty-five words shorter than the entire Gettysburg Address.

Of course, just as being loquacious does not guarantee irrelevance, neither does brevity ensure quality.

The key is using the right number of words. That will vary from person to person.

In the twenty-first century, though, a good rule of thumb is to follow the example of Lincoln rather than his speechifying colleague.

_____
* Everett had a prolific political career. It included: U.S. House of Representatives, Governor of Massachusetts, U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Senator. Oh, and he was also President of Harvard University, a job that probably included at least as much politics as his previous endeavors.

PENTAX ImageDo you ever talk to inanimate or non-sentient objects? My wife often talks to her computer, and though she is never vulgar, the conversation is rarely pretty.

There is a current advertisement featuring the slightly off Gary Busey, in which he says, “If you’re like me, you like to talk to things.” His gaze drifts to the side, and he adds, “Hello lamp.” Smiling after greeting his tabletop light source, he drops his gaze and gets an expression like someone who has just encountered a long lost friend. “Hello, pants.”

It’s quite bizarre, but rather humorous in an oddly disconcerting way.

My wife and I named the first car we owned. It was an orange Gremlin. Newlyweds, and still in college, we named it Hezekiah in the hopes that it would “live” long.

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, saying, “Now, O Lord, please remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.”

And Hezekiah wept bitterly. And before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Turn back, and say to Hezekiah the leader of my people, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will heal you. On the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord, and I will add fifteen years to your life. (2 Kings 20).

A recent survey in the United States found that nearly a quarter of the population give their rides a name. Younger drivers (18-34) do so more frequently than their parents, with 36 percent giving their cars a personal name. “Hello, car.”

A British poll found that women are more likely than men to attribute personality to their cars, with 60 percent naming their rides compared with 41 percent of men.

The higher likelihood of a British car being named than its American cousin does not surprise me. After all, we learned during our three years in the United Kingdom that they even name their houses. We lived on a family farm near Newbury while stationed at RAF Greenham Common. There were several domiciles on the farm, each with its respective appellation. We resided in “New House,” which was ironically a good thirty years old.

C.S. Lewis’ house in Oxford had a name. “The Kilns” received its distinctive name when it was built on the site of a former brickworks. There is a small lake nearby, which was originally the clay pit which supplied the kilns.

In the United States I suppose it’s possible to find a few places where a home has a name rather than a number. But the norm in our systematized structure is for homes to have sequential numbers. This proves quite practical for reasons such as emergency response by fire fighters, and doubtless many other countries have adopted the practice.

We’ve made the change at some cost though. Houses do have architectural character. Personalities, even. When naming houses, some might choose labels that relate to the profession of the owner. For example:

Clergy: Ascension Manor or Hosanna House

Attorney: Prosecution Place or Litigation Lodge

Physician: Resident’s Residence or Hemorrhoid Hall

If one dispenses with a requirement for alliteration as an arbitrary naming convention—the options would expand exponentially.

Sadly, we don’t get to name our houses today, unless we do so informally like one would with an automobile. We must be content for our streets to possess names while our houses must be content with numbers.

If you are interested in reading more about unusual or entertaining house names, check out this site. (It’s from the United Kingdom, of course.) Names like “Tadpole Cottage,” “Leprechaun’s Leap,” and “The Riddlepit” certainly evoke entertaining images.

Perhaps you’ll also want to consider naming your own home. It just might make your conversations with your residence a little more interesting when they no longer have to begin with “Hello, house . . .”

potterSo much for the effectiveness of “state churches.” The European ones appear to have become abject failures. There is ample evidence that the “establishment” of religions has rarely served either church or state very well.

Here’s the latest proof from the United Kingdom. The BBC recently reported a study that shows three in ten teenaged Brits don’t know the Nativity of Jesus came from the Bible. Similar numbers had never heard about the Crucifixion or Adam and Eve.

I imagine they’ll consider the new Noah film just another work of Hollywood fiction. (Actually, half of them didn’t know that very story comes from the Bible.)

What’s more—their parents are nearly as ignorant.

Many of the teens did, however, think that the plotlines from the Harry Potter series were based on Bible stories.

As a person who was genuinely inspired by England’s magnificent cathedrals while I lived there, it is painful to contemplate the terrible loss. The great-great-grandchildren of saints who suffered and sacrificed for the Gospel have disregarded the good news.

And, lest any readers think I’m pointing fingers as a “self-righteous” American, let me assure you I take no pride in my own nation’s slide into apostasy. The words of Micah’s prophecy seem closer to fulfillment each day. “The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains.”

C.S. Lewis saw this coming. Consider the following from his 1950 essay, “The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version.”

It may be asked whether now, when only a minority of Englishmen regard the Bible as a sacred book, we may anticipate an increase of its literary influence. I think we might if it continued to be widely read. But this is not very likely. Our age has, indeed, coined the expression “the Bible as literature.” It is very generally implied that those who have rejected its theological pretensions nevertheless continue to enjoy it as a treasure house of English prose.

It may be so. There may be people who, not having been forced upon familiarity with it by believing parents, have yet been drawn to it by its literary charms and remained as constant readers. But I never happen to meet them. Perhaps it is because I live in the provinces. But I cannot help suspecting, if I may make an Irish bull, that those who read the Bible as literature do not read the Bible.

Speaking of reading the Bible “as literature,” that’s not a bad thing. It informs so much Western literature, that an ignorance of the Scriptures is tantamount to possessing an inadequate education. An excellent online resource for exploring this truth can be found at the Bible Literacy Project.

The site includes a copy of a comprehensive 2006 study of English professors from America’s top-rated schools, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Texas A&M, UC-Berkeley and others. In the study, not a single professor disagreed with the statement that: “Regardless of a person’s faith, an educated person needs to know the Bible.”

If some people could get past their prejudices against the Bible, they would recognize the truth of this statement. Everyone should be reading the Bible, even if only as a significant literary work.

Perhaps, if this widespread study comes to pass, one day people will be able to recognize the difference between the Scriptures and Harry Potter.

Thanksgiving in London

November 28, 2013 — 4 Comments

thanksgiving ukHappy Thanksgiving. I extend this wish and my goodwill to all readers of Mere Inkling, whatever your nationality.

I recognize that many countries have similar days, during which the population pauses to offer thanks to God for all of their blessings. Whatever its name, a nationwide recognition that we owe gratitude to God’s divine provision is a good thing.

I was thinking today, as I often do, about our years in the United Kingdom, and the hospitality of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Each year they open their doors on Thanksgiving as hosts to a wonderful service for “expatriates.”

Although Thanksgiving is a civil, rather than ecclesial celebration, it revolves around prayer. Simple logic says without Someone to “thank,” there could be no thanksgiving.

However, on the civic or “patriotic” side of the ceremony, we expect to see military honor guards and sing various familiar anthems.

And St. Paul’s offers a gracious welcome. Since Britain is “ahead” of the United States in terms of the clock, I actually saw photographs from today’s service already posted to their website. While online, I also saw something I didn’t recall from my visits there. It’s likely I saw it in the nineties, but I found it inspirational to read about the American Memorial Chapel.

St Paul’s Cathedral has a long-standing connection with the American people. At the east end of the Cathedral behind the High Altar is the American Memorial Chapel.

This part of the building was destroyed during the Blitz of World War II and as part of the post-war restoration it was decided that the people of Britain should commemorate the 28,000 Americans who were killed on their way to, or stationed in, the UK during the Second World War. Their names are recorded in the 500-page roll of honour encased behind the high altar. This was presented by General Eisenhower in 1951 and a page of the book is turned every day.

The American Chapel was designed by Stephen Dykes Bower and constructed by Godfrey Allen, Surveyor to the Fabric 1931-1956. The images that adorn its wood, metalwork and stained glass include depictions of the flora and fauna of North America and references to historical events. The three chapel windows date from 1960. They feature themes of service and sacrifice, while the insignia around the edges represent the American states and the US armed forces. The limewood panelling incorporates a rocket—a tribute to America’s achievements in space.

In a 1952 letter Lewis illustrates a post-war British opinion about Americans. Many Europeans—Lewis included—had been extremely grateful to the United States for massive amounts of aid sent there to assist with rebuilding. Most American’s are shocked to learn that in many parts of Europe, rationing continued long after the war. (It ceased in 1946 in American, and 1954 in the United Kingdom.)

As you say, we shall no doubt have large numbers of Americans in England for the Coronation, and some of them may not be a good advertisement for your country; but it is an odd thing that I have noticed, that since the war, the type of American visitor we have had is much nicer on the whole than that which came to us between the wars.

I suppose it is that, owing to the drop in sterling, we are now getting the Americans of modest means. And it has been my experience that the rich of any country are usually the least attractive specimens of the nation.

Curiously, Lewis had second thoughts about how his words might be read, and he added his own footnote to the paragraph.

There are very important exceptions. Also, on further thought, I don’t believe much in “French, American, or English people.” There are only individuals really.

In a world that often seems increasingly hostile, it’s encouraging to see the goodwill shared by some members of the international community.

And that is one treasure for which I am very thankful today.

_____

The photograph above features the bald eagle above the American Memorial Chapel altar in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Nature’s Hazards

June 24, 2013 — 12 Comments

tumbleweedsNo matter where in the world you live, you are vulnerable to dangers uniquely associated with that locale. Some of us have moved around and weathered a variety of these threats.

My own family has survived earthquakes in our home state of Washington, ice storms in Oklahoma, nearby tornadoes in Texas, record-setting freezes in Minnesota, both droughts and failed levees in two different California cities along with a Super Typhoon in Guam. (Sometimes we’ve even been assailed by disasters that had no place occurring where they did, like a hurricane that knocked out our power for a full month in England, of all places!)

It’s quite possible that you too have experienced near misses when it comes to suffering Nature’s wrath. (I’d much rather attribute these things to fallen Nature than refer to them as “acts of God.”)

C.S. Lewis offers a wonderful description of Nature in Miracles.

You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see . . . this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought that this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself.

Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, play-fellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.

But, until that glorious day when Nature has been reborn in the culmination of the event that took place on Calvary . . . until that day, Nature remains a capricious neighbor. It’s best to know what she is likely to throw at you based on where you reside—and be prepared. Disaster preparedness is something that the wise will concern themselves before catastrophe strikes.

There are some dangers, however, for which one cannot adequately prepare. The prospects of mega-tsunamis terrify me (and I don’t even live by the sea). Then there are zombie outbreaks, which are apparently taking place on a frequent basis, if the plethora of media on that ghoulish subject is any indication.

The photograph at the top of this page reveals a grim threat to life on the American plains. There may be a few other places where these merciless creatures wreak havoc (the arid portions of Australia, perhaps), but I hope most of those reading this have been spared the visage of plagues of tumbleweeds racing across the horizon in search of victims to overrun, scar, and bury. As the picture shows, sometimes it is not even safe to shelter in a home during a particularly virulent attack.

I’ve seen many a wayward tumbleweed, while I’ve driven across barren desert terrains. Occasionally you’ll see them alone, scouting ahead of the mass for weak prey. If you see an entire horde, well . . . it’s probably already to late to flee.

This picture makes me shiver. It’s one reason I’m so happy to have moved home to Puget Sound, where the incessant rain* keeps everything green. I can put up with an occasional tectonic jiggle, if it means I don’t have to worry about being buried alive beneath a mountain of desiccated thorns.

_____

* The rainfall in western Washington is highly exaggerated. It’s true that for half of the year it receives more rain than the national average, but the other six months it receives less than average of the rest of the nation.

Also, I don’t believe it is an accident that one of the most commonly encountered tumbleweeds in the United States is Salsola tragus, an utterly humorless thistle that invaded from Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. Despite occasional eruptions, it seems to be lying in wait, for the most part, growing in strength for the final conflagration between humanity and noxious weeds and their allies, the triffids.