Monday, 22 December 2008

Joy to the World

So here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun (apart from those who are having raging family arguments or weeping lonely, bitter tears into their Christmas tipple of choice). And there are plenty of things to celebrate, even if you're not convinced that the Christmas story currently being retold in pulpits all over the planet is strictly accurate in all (or, indeed, any) respects.

Firstly, at these latitudes, the short days and long, dark nights of winter can drag the spirits down, so the old pagans celebrated getting past the shortest day by making December 25th a feast day, the birthday of the unconquered sun. The Christians later appropriated the date as the birthday of the unconquered son of God, but whatever your excuse for the party, I reckon that the start of the long journey towards brighter, sunnier days is worth marking and I'll gladly raise a glass of Christmas ale to that.

Secondly, I'm pleased to witness an improving trend in the quality of the Christmas lights with which local authorities seek to lighten the darkness of our high streets. When I was a kid, I seem to remember the Christmas lights always featuring the every-colour-of the-rainbow collection of bulbs favoured by the Brits, which are presumably intended to be cheery, but always seem to me to just look gaudy and tacky. These days, there seems to be a trend towards a more restrained, continental colour scheme of one or two colours, often including a lot of white lights. I'm all for it - in my opinion this really is a case of less being more, as the effects you can get with a limited palette are far more satisfying than a frantic clash of fairground colours. I remember on a few occasions in recent years actually stopping and being quite moved by the transformational beauty of some displays - I might almost use the word "magical". This year, Olney and St Albans deserve special credit. I'm afraid that here in Newport Pagnell, they're still hanging out strings of multi-coloured stuff which looks about as magical as traffic lights, but I live in hope that the onward march of restraint and taste will reach us before many more Christmases have come and gone.

Thirdly, the TV has an off switch, which is very useful in the UK when we come round to the annual broadcasting event called, I think, "the Queen's Peach", or something of the sort. This seems to consist of some old dear delivering a series of uninspiring platitudes, rather in the style of Radio 4's Thought for the Day. Even if you lose control of the off switch, be thankful that there is probably another room in the house you're in or, failing that, several trillion things you could be daydreaming about which are more interesting than paying attention to the regal drivel on screen. Yes, the human imagination is a wonderful thing.

Fourthly, take a look at the picture at the top of this post. It's 40 years since crew of Apollo 8 became the fist human beings to truly slip the surly bonds of earth and go into orbit round another celestial body. The mission happened over Christmas 1968 (launched December 21st, splashed down December 27th). The crew were also the first humans to see the sight of their home planet, not massively dominating half the sky as it does from low earth orbit, but as a small, bright, far-off bubble in the immense blackness. If you want to feel a sense of wonder at Christmas, try that image for size. Nothing could compare with being there, seeing our home world so far-off and tiny, knowing that you were further from home than anyone had ever been in the whole of history, but through the TV broadcasts and the colour pictures published later, much of the world shared the experience. Millions, perhaps a quarter of the people on Earth, saw Apollo 8's Christmas Eve transmission from lunar orbit - countless more have seen that first astounding colour image of our bright, blue, distant planet. As mission commander Frank Borman said at the end of a definitely-not-boring Christmas broadcast, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, and a Merry Christmas to all of you, all of you on the good Earth".

Speaking of interesting Christmas speeches, the Pope's end-of year address to Church leaders is one of the funniest things I've heard all year - if you're in need of a good laugh, the Daily Mash's version is a masterclass in how to parody a speech so batty it seems to defy satire. Does your heart good.

And finally, one of the most joyous things a human being can do is to just muck around. So I've enjoyed listening to a guy mucking about on a piano and coming up with some favorite Christmas songs played in minor key, or as he calls them Evil Christmas Carols. It's not a strictly accurate description, as they're not all carols, but hey, it's Christmas and it made me smile. So have a merry one, one and all.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


That old tease, Archbishop Rowan Williams, has titillated New Statesman readers with the enticing prospect of thew Church of England finally getting its lardy butt off the gravy train and being disestablished, not before time.

I grew up in a disestablished Church; I spent ten years working in a disestablished Church; and I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the Establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh Synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.

No problem with that - it's about time for the church to stand on its own two feet (or kneel on its own two knees, as it tends to do when chatting with the hypothetical Almighty). But then the famously labyrinthine workings of the Beardy One's mind turn the idea over and spoil a simple statement thusly:

At the same time, my unease about going for straight disestablishment is to do with the fact that it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society. I think the motives that would now drive disestablishment from the state side would be mostly to do with . . . trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that's the point where I think I'd be bloody-minded and say, 'Well, not on that basis."

If the pious old twit wants to bloody-mindedly defend the privileged position of of an established church against all comers, then bring it on - I think he'd have maneuvered himself into an indefensible position and would be toast before evensong. Unfortunately, I think he's pontificating in the certain knowledge that politicians have more important things on their minds right now (the economy, stupid) and few currently have the time or stomach for giving the State a long-overdue chuchectomy. So there's no immediate prospect of a stop to that stream of state-supported auld blather about how without "the public presence of faith in society", we'd all be doomed to unreflective lives of empty, swinish materialism. Which is a load of hooey - you don't need to be indoctrinated by unquestioning religious faith to have compassion, curiosity or creativity, to do good, to feel awe or to seek meaning in life. It's about time for a quote from the late Arthur C Clarke again, so here are two:

...the only things in this world that really matter are such imponderables as beauty and wisdom, laughter and love


Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral*
A questioning mind and lack of reflexive piety does not equal shallowness, your Beardiness.

* NB - I really must get those words added to my will - I remember my dad's funeral and the preacher retrospectively asserting that dad certainly had at least some fuzzy sort of religious faith, when for the life of me, I never heard him say anything of the sort. Made a mockery of the whole thing.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


Tuning into the news is still a grim experience, but some things can help to put the current state of the world in perspective. I'm just looking at an old postcard featuring a black and white picture of a ship. The message isn't anything special, viz:

Dear Ronnie,

Hope you will soon be well again. Brian send his love and will write to you again.

Love from auntie

It was sent to my dad, then a boy of eleven, some time in 1941 (the exact date on the postmark is obscured). At the time he was in Lincoln County Hospital, recovering from a burst appendix - a serious condition which could have caused potentially fatal peritonitis. Times are hard, but I imagine it was harder in those days - born into a world in the grip of the great depression, topped off by a world war, then ending up in hospital with a life-threatening condition in the days before the National Health Service. Now that is an insecure world. So maybe I should be a bit more upbeat over a few depressing headlines.

My dad survived, (although I think he missed a lot of schooling due to an extended stay in hospital), and I found myself wondering about the fate of the ship on the postcard, the destroyer, HMS Icarus. The name wasn't a good omen, recalling the boy who flew too close to the sun and fell to earth. A quick Internet search revealed that HMS Icarus didn't suffer a similar fate, but survived service off Norway, in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean to be paid off and broken up for scrap in 1946. During her service career, she served in Atlantic and Russian convoys and the Dunkirk evacuation. She was also responsible for sinking two U-boats and participated in the destruction of two more. So the Icarus story wasn't the tragedy I'd feared, although she was almost on the scene of one of Britain's greatest naval tragedies. In May 1941, the battlecruiser HMS Hood was struck by a shell from the Bismark. One of her magazines exploded and she sank in about three minutes. There were only three survivors from Hood's crew of 1,418 men, picked up by the destroyer HMS Electra. HMS Icarus was on the scene shortly thereafter, but could find no more survivors, just debris.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Kitchen Nightmares

No, it's not a post about Gordon sodding Ramsay, I'm pleased to say, but about a little gem I just found in a magazine devoted to the therapy "Emotional Freedom Technique" (EFT). I'm not sure how EFT is supposed to work, but the magazine describes EFT as "complementary" and carries adverts for an association of people dealing in"meridian energy therapies", so my bullshit detector has already started ringing at a deafening volume.

Still, EFT World Magazine was worth a glance for one little nugget. In the magazine, one Gary Williams, an EFT practitioner describes, how he freed a client from a distressing affliction using EFT techniques and the following affirmation:

Even though I have this overwhelming fear of baby sweet corn inside, I deeply and completely accept the way I feel.

I know it's wrong to find hilarity in other people's problems, but that's the funniest thing I've read all week.