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Away again, this time to the land of sun, sand and things that prick you.  Returning round about March 6.  Feel free to help yourself to more port and don’t forget the Stilton over on the sideboard.



For the Dr. Who fan on your list, it’s never too early to be thinking about Christmas presents:

More than 100 props from Doctor Who will be sold at auction today allowing fans to buy an original, if somewhat ramshackle, part of sciencefiction folklore. As well as two full-size Daleks from 1988, which are expected to go for up to £7,000 each, the sale includes modern costumes such as David Tennant’s suit and Billie Piper’s pyjamas from Marks & Spencer.

It is the Heath Robinson monsters that catch the eye, however, made in a hurry from foam latex, fibreglass and electrical components that would not look out of place in a school science experiment. A fearsome red snake encountered by Peter Davison and a young Martin Clunes in a 1983 episode was created mainly from airconditioning tubes.

“The monsters were made from things you could buy in a hardware shop,” said Stephanie Connell, entertainment memorabilia specialist at Bonhams in Central London, who said the use of DIY components allowed the BBC to meet tight schedules.

“Often they would be made on a Tuesday for filming on Friday. It was very creative and on the screen it looks fantastic.”

The Magma Beast, Tractators, and Mandrell, made from foam latex and bits of leather and fake fur “could do with a bit of TLC”, Ms Connell said. Even the Daleks, made from wood, fibreglass and something that looks a bit like an egg whisk, appear in danger of being exterminated by a stiff breeze. But Ms Connell said that it was testament to the creators that so much was still intact. “The makers didn’t know they were going to last this long.”

The oldest of the props is a latex brontosaurus from 1974.

I wonder if one of the  K-9‘s is on the block? They’d be fun for teasing the cats.

(Oh, and Tom Baker rules!)

I skipped the Lenten Supper at RFEC last evening because the same guest-speaker who was there on Sunday stating her belief that the devil will be redeemed in the end was scheduled to give another talk.  As it turns out, she made the same assertion, as I rayther figured she would.  I knew hearing this again would only have upset me.  And since I consider RFEC not to be my sandbox anymore and thus don’t feel I would have had the right to say anything, I’d have had no choice but to take my frustrations home, beating the children and kicking the cat for relief.

Plus, I really detest lasagna.

Probably just as well that I ducked.


Next on my Lenten reading list is C.S. Lewis’ Miracles, which I have not read before.  As the title suggests, the book is a philosophical argument in favor of the proposition that miracles – that is, divine interjections into the natural world – have occured, can occur and should be a source of great comfort and joy, propositions which anyone calling him- or herself an orthodox Christian would necessarily have to accept.

In thinking about this subject, I can’t help remembering an incident from my early legal career.  When first out of school, I joined a small, five-attorney shop that had great hopes of catching and riding the then-booming media and communications market wave.  Well, things did not pan out as hoped, and gradually the partners started peeling away, until all that was left was the managing partner and Self.  The boss was a really decent guy, hard working and a bit on the earnest side.  He called himself an “Evangelical Catholic”, whatever that is, and was not shy about injecting his faith into the business.

One day, the boss called me and the secretary together with important news:  He’d received a Sign.  Our firm happened to have black pens (with the firm name on them) with silver clips.  The boss had been carrying them around with him for some time, of course, but that morning when he reached into his shirt pocket, he discovered that the silver clip on his pen had turned to gold.  In something close to awe, he held the pen out for us to see.  The boss was sure that the transformation had occured while the pen was in his pocket, and that this was a sign from God that we were going to prosper and thus should not give up hope.  I was and am convinced that he meant every word he said.

Well, now.

As I stood there, I found myself overcome with pity and sadness.  As it happened, I’d seen that particular pen with the gold clip in the box in the supply room many times.   It was perfectly evident that the boss had absent-mindedly grabbed it at some point and not noticed the difference until that morning.

Naturally, I didn’t say anything.  Why on earth should I? The fellah was under mountains of stress and I wasn’t about to burst anything that he felt would give him the strength to keep going, especially something as harmless as this.

In the end, the miracle did not pan out: Biznay continued to dwindle, I left for greener pastures a few months later and the firm subsequently folded.  I never found out what happened to the boss after that.

I relate all this just by way of association:  It would be hard to read this book without thinking of that incident, the only one of its sort I can recall in which I had any direct involvement.  I certainly didn’t (and don’t) think I was witnessing a miracle then.  But this doesn’t mean that I don’t believe miracles can and do occur.  I suppose what it does mean is that one must treat these things responsibly, and not go jumping to conclusions.  (In that regard, I understand that HMC requires a pretty rigid series of investigations before she is willing to stamp a reported miracle with the Vatican Seal O’ Approval.)

At any rate, I am looking forward to Lewis’ discussion, which I am sure will be – as always – illuminating and somewhat dizzy-making, and I am sure that I will be the better for it when I emerge on the other end.

No, it doesn’t mean the same thing as “smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.”  Instead, it’s one of those delightful anachronistic expressions – and, indeed, a legal term – still used in the Mother Country and signifies that point in the evening  when it’s getting a bit too dark to see and is time to light the candles or turn on the headlights (one of my favorite times of day).

Technically, it starts half an hour after sunset.  Yes, you could just say “dusk”, but where’s the poetry in that?

Anyhoo, I was reminded of this expression again as I read this story of a plan next month to light up Hadrian’s Wall:

It is forbiddden to climb on Hadrian’s Wall, to remove even a fragment of stone or to make a lasting imprint in the ground around it, but next month more than 1,000 people will set it alight.

The plan, on March 13, is to ignite a chain of 500 points of light along the 84-mile length of the wall to illuminate it in a line of flaming torches and flares.

(You can nip across to the Times via the linky to see a video of the dress rehearsal.)

There doesn’t seem to be much point to the project other than to serve as a publicity stunt to draw attention to the Wall and boost tourism.  Nonetheless, I think it’s a good thing.  When I watched the vid, I kept imagining some poor Roman legionaire standing in a guard tower, ceaselessly glancing up and down the line for signs of Picts and wondering to himself how on earth he wound up here at whatever the Latin equivalent of “the back of beyond” might be.

Kinda gives one the historickal chills.

Another study documenting the chipping away of our common heritage, one name at at time:

Celebrities aren’t the only ones giving their babies unusual names. Compared with decades ago, parents are choosing less common names for kids, which could suggest an emphasis on uniqueness and individualism, according to new research.

Essentially, today’s kids (and later adults) will stand out from classmates. For instance, in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of 30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950), while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boys’ name in 2007.

Refreshingly, and rayther surprisingly, the article goes on to note that the author of the research, San Diego State’s Jean Twenge, thinks this is not necessarily a good thing and may actually promote narcissism.

“The most compelling explanation left is this idea that parents are much more focused on their children standing out,” Twenge told LiveScience. “There’s been this cultural shift toward focusing on the individual, toward standing out and being unique as opposed to fitting in with the group and following the rules.”

The positive side of individualism, Twenge said, is that there is less prejudice and more tolerance for minority groups. But she warns that when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism.

“I think it is an indication of our culture becoming more narcissistic,” Twenge said.

Past research has shown that back in the 1950s parents placed a lot of importance on a child being obedient, which has gone way down. “Parenting has become more permissive and more child-focused and [parents] are much more reluctant to be authority figures,” Twenge said.

As for whether these unusually named kids will have personalities to match is not known.

“It remains to be seen whether having a unique name necessarily leads to narcissism later in life,” Twenge said. “If that unique name is part of a parent’s overall philosophy that their child is special and needs to stand out and that fitting in is a bad thing, then that could lead to those personality traits.”

Somebody once recommended to me that the best rule of thumb for choosing children’s names was to stick to popes and saints.  Feeling that this is still a pretty wide net and that a kid named Innocent, Boniface or Mewrog would be just as likely to get beat up on the playground and to resent their moniker later in life as someone named Moon-Unit, Apple or Fuschia, I have always been much more hide-bound even than that.

For boys, I would never go beyond Robert, John, Charles, James or William.  Perhaps Peter or Richard.

For girls, Katherine, Mary, Elizabeth, Anne, Caroline. Maybe Margaret.

(These are just my particular preferences, so certain persons near and dear to me can just put that rock back down and stop hyperventilating.  Your results may vary, of course, and good luck to ye.)

Of names that have withstood the test of time like these, all I can say is that they’ll never be flashy, but then again they’ll never be obsolete, either.  Nor will they give the child a hyper-inflated sense of Self.

For those two or three of you together who were wondering about yesterday’s “Spot the Quote” entry, the answer is that the line comes from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, somewhere toward the end of Act I:

PIRATE KING:     Although our dark career
Sometimes involves the crime of stealing,
We rather think that we’re
Not altogether void of feeling.
Although we live by strife,
We’re always sorry to begin it,
For what, we ask, is life
Without a touch of Poetry in it?
(all kneel)

ALL:      Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid!
Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, all hail, divine emollient!
(all rise)

So there you are.  With no winner this time, the pot now stands at $15.75 and two boxes of crunchy frogs.

Today is the birthday of American artist Winslow Homer, born this day in 1836.  Among other things, Homer worked as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War, hanging about with the Army of the Potomac.  He later developed what he saw and recorded into a number of paintings, including Prisoners From The Front above.  They are well worth a look if you have the opportunity.

I bring this up because B.B. and I were discussing the movie Gettysburg in comments to my recent post on the shortcomings of the effort to transpose Percy Jackson and the Olympians from print to celluloid.  Contrary to my usual jaded view of movies made from books, I happen to think that Gettysburg was a reasonably decent adaptation of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.  However, as I mentioned to B.B., one of my gripes with the movie was its penchant for pinching images from Homer’s work (and others’ as well).  Prisoners From The Front is perhaps the best example of this.  The movie set up one scene based exactly on the position of the characters in Homer’s painting, as I’m sure many of you will quickly recognize.  Now, you may say that this actually is in tribute to Homer, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the credits about it.  Further, I’d be willing to bet that not one in a thousand viewers recognized the nod.  Some people call that sort of thing plagiarism.

By the way, as long as I’m at it, the Union officer depicted in this painting is not, of course, Lt. Tom Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, but instead is Brigadier General Francis Barlow (who was, in fact, at Gettysburg himself and has his own remarkable story).  The painting is said to depict his capture of a numer of Confederates at Petersburg in 1864.  Homer used the painting as a chance to do a case study on various types of Rebel – proud cavalier officer, apprehensive old man and clueless country bumpkin cannon-fodder.  One of my other minor gripes with Gettysburg was that it was the bumpkin who spoke with Tom Chamberlain, and not the officer.

I’ve long been interested in the studies of Robert Graves (and others) of the various religious ideas of the pre-Christian Mediterranean basin, as spelled out in his The White Goddess and incorporated in historickal fiction like Hercules, My Shipmate.  I don’t have any particular reason to doubt his documentation of the variety of pagan myths and worship practices focused on, for example, the annual sacrifice of a nominal “king” for the benefit of the people, that also appear in Christian theology, but I have always found irksome the reasoning – often either explicit or implied – that this somehow delegitimizes the latter, exploding it as a slap-up derivative or a cheap imitation with no unique legitimacy.

So you can imagine my delight in reading C.S. Lewis’ response to this idea in his essay “Is Theology Poetry?”:

The truth is that the resemblances tell nothing either for or against the truth of Christian Theology.  If you start from the assumption that the Theology is false, the resemblances are quite consistent with that assumption.  One would expect creatures of the same sort, faced with the same universe, to make the same false guess more than once.  But if you start with the assumption that the Theology is true, the resemblance fits equally well.  Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men.  The Divine light, we are told, “lighteneth every man.”  We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth-makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story – the theme of incarnation, death and rebirth.  And the differences between the Pagan Christs (Balder, Osiris, etc.) and the Christ Himself is much what we should expect to find.  The Pagan stories are about someone dying and rising, either every year, or else nobody knows where and nobody knows when.  The Christian story is about a historical personage, whose execution can be dated pretty accurately, under a named Roman magistrate, and with whom the society that He founded is in continuous relation down to the present day.  It is not the difference between falsehood and truth.  It is the difference between a real event on one hand and dim dreams or premonitions of that same event on the other.  It is like watching something come gradually into focus; first it hangs in the cloud of myth and ritual, vast and vague, then it condenses, grows hard and in a sense small, as a historical event in first century Palestine.  This gradual focusing goes on even inside the Christian tradition itself.  The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical – hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becoming more and more historical.  From things like Noah’s Ark and the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David.  Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate.  And “incarnate” is here more than a metaphor.  It is not an accidental resemblance that what, from the point of view of being, is stated in the form “God became Man,” should involve, from the point of view of human knowledge, the statement “Myth became Fact.”  The essential meaning of all things came down from the “heaven” of myth to the “earth” of history.  In so doing, it partly emptied itself of its glory, as Christ emptied Himself of His glory to be Man.  That is the real explanation of the fact that Theology, far from defeating its rivals by a superior poetry, is, in a superficial but quite real sense, less poetical than they.  That is why the New Testament is, in the same sense, less poetical than the Old.  Have you not often felt in Church, if the first lesson is some great passage, that the second lesson is somehow small by comparison – almost, if one might say so, humdrum?  So it is and so it must be.  That is the humiliation of myth into fact, of God into Man; what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid – no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee.  You may say that this, after all, is a still deeper poetry.  I will not contradict you.  The humiliation leads to a greater glory.  But the humiliation of God and the shrinking or condensation of the myth as it becomes fact are also quite real.

Sorry for the extended passage, but I wanted to share:  This is the sort of insight that, when I stumble across it, gives me such a case of the shivers that I have to sit down, lest I start frantically flapping my arms about and shouting, “Oh, my God! Yes! See? Of course!  Yikes!”

I am finding this Lent that my focus is settling very strongly on this relationship between the long view and the short, the immortal and the natural.  You may let out a collective “Well, duuuuh!” if you choose, but this is a big step for me: In years past, I think I have got too caught up in the here and the now, too focused on the immediate and not paid enough attention to the eternal counterpart.  Whether passages such as this one are pushing me in that direction or whether I am paying especial attention to such passages as a result of my own adjusted priorities, I couldn’t say.  Either way, I feel (or at least hope) I am deriving a tremendous benefit.

** UPDATE – Forgot to add the invitation to spot the quote.  Mr. FLG should appreciate it because it involves pirates.

As is usually the case at the beginning of Lent (no doubt because of the fact that I knock off the gargle and thus throw my sleep patterns out of whack), I have been having a series of quite vivid dreams of late.  They seem to fall into two categories.  In the first, I find myself in a public place in a situation of great personal squalor (which I won’t describe).  The action of the dream involves trying to clean myself up and accepting that I’m going to have to do so while people are watching.   In the second group, I find myself trying to finish a discreet episode – a softball season, say, or a semester of school.  Things have started to come unraveled, but in the dream I attempt to square accounts, as it were, and finish up by doing the right thing, although it seems to me that I really don’t much want to.  (Attempt, that is.  In the softball dream, I had to step in and pitch in order to avoid a forfeit.  I was terrible at it.)

It’s my belief that these dreams have something to do with penitence and prayer – acknowledging and atoning for past weaknesses and resolving to do better going forward.  So although they are sometimes unpleasant, overall I take them as a healthy thing.

Then there was the dream I had the night before last:  I was in a stretch limo on the way to a wedding at the White House.  As we tooled along the highway, storm clouds started gathering all around.  I glanced back and saw a tornado coming up behind us.  Looking forward, I saw a long, low causeway stretching out over a body of water, like in the Florida Keys.  Suddenly, the driver stopped the car and said he refused to go out on the bridge in these conditions.  To which I replied something like, “Well, okay, but brace for impact.”   I could hear the twister getting closer and could feel a drop in air pressure.  Then, just when I though we were about to get hit, I saw hundreds of little gray “fingers” brush and swirl around the tops of the windows.  This lasted just for a split second.  Suddenly, the storm was gone and the sky was clear.  And then (if I may borrow a line from one of my favorite blogs) I woke up.  During the time the storm was coming, I remember distinctly being not afraid, but intrigued.  And frankly, I felt a bit flat when it all fizzled out.

What that one meant I don’t know, unless it was the result of too much spicy Eastern Mediterranian lamb at dinner.

Last evening I sat down to watch a 2003 Showtime remake of The Lion In Winter starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in the lead roles previously owned by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn.

I was intrigued by the idea of Stewart and Close having a whack at this play, both of them being outstanding actors in their own right.  And I was hoping that if they were going to mount such a production, it might prove to be something different from its famous predecessor. (How’s that for broadmindedness, my fellow port-swillers?)

Alas, no such luck.  In fact, the screenplay for this film was exactly the same one used previously.  Many of the shots were virtually identical, not just in their staging but in the action and even the actors’ inflection.   About the only difference was that the sets were generally much lighter and less gritty, giving the whole thing a kind of Medieval Hallmark feel.  (It floated into my mind that this was approximately the same treatment that Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman gave to the 19th Century American frontier.  I half expected the thing to be interrupted by a commercial for feminine hygene products.)

As for the characters, there were times when I could have sworn Close was mimicking Hepburn, right down to the wobbly head and voice.  Only once in a very great while did she seem to find her own style, to be her own Eleanor.  Stewart, on the other hand, seemed to be trying to create his own Henry, but the fact of the matter is that he’s just too slick for the part and doesn’t have enough, well, animal in him.  Striding about in his long, gray hair and beard, he looked more like the Chair of an English Department getting ready to black-ball a tenure application than a 12th Century Norman king deciding his succession.  One couldn’t help imagining that O’Toole’s Henry would have had Stewart’s for breakfast.

As for the supporting cast, none of whom I’d ever heard, there’s not much to say.  Richard looked like a switch-hitter from the get-go.  Geoffrey looked like a young, impossibly clean, Pierce Brosnan and didn’t have the proper oily politico quality.  John was more bumpkin than lout this time around.  Phillip was Gollum with long hair.

Perhaps because of the lack of real personality in the cast, I also found myself becoming somewhat impatient with the play itself:  All the ins and outs, the intrigues, double-crosses and snappy dialogue begin to seem to me to be…..too impressed with its own cleverness.  (I get that same feeling whenever I see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.)  It’s good stuff the first time you see it, especially when served up by the best of the best, but it don’t seem to me to wear very well.

Indeed, I got thinking about writing my own play, to consist of nothing but two characters playing chess while at the same time fighting their own geopolitical battle with words: each move of one character will be blocked by a move of the other made in anticipation of the move the first character was going to make.  The process will keep spiraling backwards, as it were, to some particularly silly conclusion (or beginning?) which I have not yet mapped out.

Bet I could get a few good laughs out of it.

Anyhoo, on the whole, it seems to me that if you’re going to watch The Lion In Winter,  you’ll be much better off sticking with the original.


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February 2010