Friday, 28 January 2011

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster and the Poem "High Flight"

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God'."
-- President Ronald Reagan, quoting the famous and moving poem "High Flight," written by an American who died serving in WWII with the Royal Canadian Air Force, John Gillespie Magee Jr. after the Challenger space shuttle disaster, 28 January, 1986
It is strange for me to think that an event 25 years ago, one that I remember very clearly, is now, in a real sense, "history." Television reports and internet twitter feeds recalled the story of the Challenger disaster that enfolded live to a shocked world audience in 1986. The astronauts were remembered, particularly Christa McAuliffe who was drafted into the shuttle crew under the Teacher in Space Project.

[John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s grave, England]

The poem quoted by President Reagan was penned by John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American poet and aviator who had joined the Canadian Air Force to take part in combat in Europe prior to the U.S. joining the war. He perished, age 21, in an air crash just 4 days after the attack on Pearl Harbour brought the U.S. into the war. He penned the moving poem about flight and the pursuit of the air months before his death, sending it back in the U.S. in a letter to his parents. By chance it became circulated, known, and after his death was included in an exhibition at the Library of Congress:

"High Flight"
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Sad Lament for the Incandescent Light Bulb

[Image of (an incandescent) light bulb, from the website "but does it float"]

In British Columbia there has been a recent onslaught of news, and spate of remonstrations, over the government-mandated phasing out of incandescent bulbs in favour of the compact fluorescent (CFL) version. The forced change comes under the guise of energy savings, but there is much concern that such a policy has not been properly considered. Critics, quite rightly, have pointed to factors such as the mercury content of CFL bulbs, the lack of proper recycling facilities and general education about bulb disposal (and other problems inherent even when bulbs are recycled), and the adverse health effects experienced by many who react badly to the light emitted. In addition, even the purported reason for the change -- energy savings -- may be moot in a cold country such as Canada, since the old incandescent bulbs produce heat as well as light, meaning the extra electricity they consume is not entirely "lost."

For these and other reasons many of us are simply not quite willing to let the incandescent bulb go just yet. I coincidentally found this artistic photo spread on the rather fun, artistic, whimsical website "but does it float". The headline for the piece is the scripture: "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" -- words found at the beginning of the Gospel of John. Light speaks to our most primal fears, our desire for safety, comfort, and illumination. Fear of the dark is probably the most remembered childhood terror, with other fears -- monsters under the bed and whatnot -- being indirectly connected to it.

The invention of the light bulb is also associated with childhood; it is children who are instructed in the heroic tale of Thomas Alva Edison, who experimented with thousands of formulations before alighting (pun intended) on the correct filament to provide predictable and long-lasting light. (Yes, he was not the sole "inventor" of the light bulb, having stood on the shoulders of others, including an English inventor who created one of the first bulbs around the year 1800.) The story of Edison is usually retold as a morality play, somehow implying that we too should try and try again, even though many times such a course of action is not exactly desirable -- and could even lead to mental distress. Yet as an anecdote it has seemingly been popularized as long as we have had the incandescent light bulb and will perhaps, sadly, outlast them as well.

Somehow the "eureka" graphic or the happy light-man won't be the same without the incandescent bulb. Our world will also be different without the incandescent bulb. Perhaps they will stage an eleventh-hour comeback and still continue to bathe us in their warm and familiar glow.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Anglophiles and Francophiles: Or, Yes, We Can All Get Along

[Jeeves and Wooster, the epitome of Englishness]

Anglophile or francophile? One can be either, or neither, but not really both. It is one arena in which you must, if you wish, choose a team early and stick with it. Anglophiles tend to be one type of person, and francophiles another. It is rather obvious which team has won the favour of the Idle Historian. I have long pondered the question of how well anglophiles and francophiles can get along with each other. Despite their opposing characteristics, I believe that the answer is: just fine; très bien. Some of my dearest friends, as they say, are francophiles. I just prefer to think of it in the terms that Marge used addressing her son Bart in The Simpsons when he cruelly ridiculed graduate students: "Don't make fun of them... They've just made a terrible life choice." Of course, the opposite camp might state much the same opinion.

[Some wear their francophilia close to the heart]

If the volume and depth of readily searchable material on the internet is any indication (and it may well not be), francophilia is more tangible, easier to define, and has more dignified adherents -- Thomas Jefferson, statesmen of various stripes, and monarchs stretching from Europe through to the Middle East. Being a francophile is associated with high culture, fine cuisine, refined taste, and in the political sphere the ideals of the Enlightenment. The anglophile, on the other hand, brings to mind a rather different character. A quick search yields the names of individuals -- living and deceased -- such as Bill Bryson, Tom Clancy, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, and most importantly, Gwyneth Paltrow. Historically George Frideric Handel serves as the model of a anglicized foreigner who embodied Englishness. It is important to remember that a legion of twentieth-century émigrés from continental Europe enriched British science, art, architecture, and design.

Perhaps anglophilia is so ingrained a concept in the anglo-saxon world that it is actually somewhat difficult to really come to grips with the idea. Does being a real anglophile involve some degree of ostentatious performance, requiring affectations involving tweed, tea, and teddy bears? One may well need to cultivate some eccentricities along the way as well -- puttering in the garden, taking up obscure hobbies, or the like. It is certainly rather more lighthearted than its francophile counterpart. Its cultural touchstones are certainly not lightweight -- Shakespeare, Austen, and the BBC for starters. It also includes the famed comic tradition ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan to P.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python. One certainly could not be considered an anglophile without an affinity for this type of humour. Anglophilia is further complicated by the notion, as stated on the rather scant wikipedia page on the subject, that "The term is not usually associated with citizens of Commonwealth nations (the former British Empire), although these countries share many aspects of culture and history with the UK." Not to mention non-Commonwealth legacies of Empire, from the anglophilia of the entire Maltese nation, to the endurance of many British traditions in nations such as India. British governmental systems, customs, and sports such as cricket continue in wide swaths of the globe.

The urge towards this "-philia" of other nations and cultures has always been with us. Perhaps it is even hardwired into our human genome, and is the impetus that keeps up exploring and incorporating new influences into culture, language, art, and food. There have long been francophiles, anglophiles, russophiles, lovers of America, Africa, and Asia. Famous in late modern Europe was the figure of the "Orientalist" -- in those days indicating anything from Turkey to parts East. I don't believe that this mania for the "Other" need necessarily indicate any lack of appreciation for our own familiar cultures. Instead, love of the Other entails some of the best parts of our nature -- the desire to blend new and old, to import different ways of doing and thinking into the existing order of things, and to share experiences with our fellow human beings.

Anglophile or francophile, we can all surely raise our glass of ale, or of Bordeaux, in praise of the fine pursuit of the Other, and how in doing so we are all the richer.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Getting Religion: Revising (or Not) the Church of England Book of Common Prayer

I was, for various reasons, recently put in mind of the Church of England Book of Common Prayer, and how it has remained unchanged since the 17th century - 1662 in fact, just two years after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne after a period of Puritanical rule under Oliver Cromwell. The notion of a Book of Common Prayer in the Protestant tradition is of its very nature a bit fraught. Adaptation, free-thinking dissension, and individual interpretation are the very raison d'être of Protestantism. Thus, an interesting situation has evolved in which the official Book of Common Prayer coexists with alternative versions including a Common Worship volume from 2000. They provide variations on services, and their presence and widespread use highlight the duality of experience in the Church of England between official form and actual practice.

Because the Church of England (hereafter known as the C of E) is the official state religion, it requires an act of Parliament to officially revise the Book of Common Prayer, and any number of factors militate against this occurring. In the first place, extremely mild and timid changes would not be worth the effort, and any substantial changes risk angering enough MPs and constituents -- in short, it is impossible to please everyone. Consequently, over 300 years later, the 1662 Book is still the official version. The most significant twentieth century movement to make substantial revisions occurred in 1927-28, following two decades of study and church recommendations. The new version, to be used at the discretion of individual clergy, and approved by the Church of England Convocations and the Church Assembly, was twice voted down by Parliament. The notoriously hardline Home Secretary William ('Jix') Joynson-Hicks was one of those who inveighed against the proposed changes, labeling them dangerous papist attempts to restore a more Catholic version of mass and imply assent with the doctrine of transubstantiation. No further formal attempts to alter the Book of Common Prayer were again ventured, with the Church instead proffering the rather less dramatic series of "alternative service" volumes from the 1960s through to 2000. Individual congregations use, adopt, and dispense with, elements of service and prayer forms as they see fit.

This blending of the official and the local, unofficial, and adaptive versions of worship illustrate a characteristic of the C of E, and Protestantism at large, which is ultimately both its strength and its weakness. The toleration for, and even encouragement of, alternative ways of doing things can give the tradition great flexibility, but it may also prove its undoing if the narrative strands pull in too many diverse directions to be relevant or immediate to the majority of its adherents. As Jeremy Paxman explores in his book The English:

I once asked the Bishop of Oxford what you need to believe to be a member of his Church. A look of slight bafflement crossed his face. 'An intriguing question', he answered, as if it had not occurred to him before.
You cannot imagine an orthodox rabbi, or a Roman Catholic priest replying like that. When the bishop went on, he opened with an inevitable English preface, 'Well it rather depends... An evangelical church will say you need to be sincerely converted. A traditional Anglo-Catholic church will teach you a Christian orthodoxy virtually indistinguishable from Roman Catholic teaching... The C of E doesn't believe in laying down rules. It prefers to give people space and freedom. It's enough to make the effort to attend and take communion. That shows you believe.'
This is the sort of woolliness that drives critics of the C of E to distraction...
[Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People, 1998, p. 95]

Possible woolliness aside, it would be difficult to deny that at least some of this sentiment lies at the heart of Protestantism -- once one has protested against any given practice or doctrine to start with, there really is no stopping its evolution and continued iterations as the centuries proceed. It is equally true that, for those inclined, the beauty and tradition inherent in a service following the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 is unmatched. Religion, especially in our times, is often presented in individualistic terms, but it is of course also intertwined with tradition, social belonging, and a sense of continuity with the past. For many, a quiet and contemplative service such as Evensong (unique to the C of E and the Anglican tradition) is as much about connecting with the comfort of an unchanged centuries-old practice as anything rather more doctrinal. The Book of Common Prayer may have remained unchanged due to institutional inertia, but how the official Church proceeds in the way forward ultimately resides within itself.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Thursday, 6 January 2011

On Kings, Character, Acting, and a Bit of Historical License

[George VI giving one of his wartime speeches]

This week I finally took in The King's Speech, a film I had desired to view for some time, and enjoyed it thoroughly as a deft piece of filmmaking -- by turns poignant and lighthearted. It is sure to run off with many Oscars, including, no doubt, one for the fine Colin Firth. One critic quite hilariously deemed it "part monarchical bromance,* part speech impediment Rocky," with a "sports-movie storyline" of triumph over adversity. We may playfully admit that these elements do exist in the film, but are melded in so well with history, the human story of a King, and the glimpse into his fears, insecurities, and foibles as to become one quite remarkable whole.

In the same week I also watched My Boy Jack on PBS (starring Daniel Radcliffe as John Kipling), named after the moving poem Rudyard Kipling wrote after his only son went missing during the Battle of Loos in the First World War -- his death was not confirmed for many years. The film is a startling look into the soul of Kipling, the Bard of Empire, who suddenly discovered that everything he believed in was shattered not only by the seemingly futile sacrifice of his son, and his guilt at having encouraged his son to pursue military glory, but the fact that the old truisms of gentlemanly warfare no longer held true. He was a man for whom the Empire was literally everything, one who truly believed the words he spoke regarding England being like a "mother and father," guiding and protecting its many peoples spanning the globe. The film therefore encompasses two circles of "kinship" -- his immediate family and his "imagined community" of the Imperial family in peril.

[Rudyard and John Kipling]

Among the most interesting moments in this film are Kipling's visits with King George V, which bookend its start and finish. The first visit is lighthearted and fun, with Kipling racing in his car to complete the journey to Windsor Castle in under 3 hours. The last visit is sorrowful, Kipling having lost his son Jack in France, and the sickly youngest son of the monarch, Prince John, having died suddenly at the age of 13. What I found quite striking, watching the two films within 24 hours of each other, was that the portrayal of King George V in both reflected polar opposites. While in My Boy Jack he is the most sympathetic of figures, in The King's Speech he is a distant and dictatorial father who (the implication is) perpetrates the insecurities and stammering of his second son the Duke of York, later George VI.

This discrepancy throws up that most banal and commonplace of questions regarding historical adaptation: what is truth? Regarding the character of George V: possibly something in the portrayal of both films, or something in-between. There is no evidence that he was a tyrant, but no doubt he was a man of his time and may well have treated his children in ways that he considered proper and dutiful, but to us may be cold and unfeeling. In The King's Speech he has one of the most striking lines as he informs his son Bertie that, in the age of radio and mass media, monarchs had become mere "actors." Whereas previous rulers simply had to stand straight and not fall off their horse (George I, for example, was imported to the British throne from Hanover -- hence the Hanoverians -- and did not seem to consider the fact that he spoke no English to be a speech impediment for Kingly duties), twentieth-century royals had many different roles to play. They were, and still are, required to balance a whole host of contradictory elements -- their regal position and identifying with the common man, appearing human but without any fatal weaknesses, confident but not arrogant, useful but not meddling, etc.

It cannot be a particularly easy job, and The King's Speech highlights this tension very well with Bertie's hints of misery and utter inability to escape the pressures of his life. As he tells his speech therapist, Logue, if he were a "normal man," they would never have met. He would be at home with his family, his unfortunate stammer having no more consequence than to himself and his own ego. The film gives a good sense of the slow increase of the political stakes throughout the 1930s, as the rise of Hitler and European Fascism make both the character of George VI (as opposed to the Nazi-friendly Edward VIII), and his ability to communicate with and inspire the nation, of vital importance. All historical films naturally take literary license, or else they would be rather pedestrian and undramatic, as most of real life is. The King's Speech takes one rather major historical license, and that is to interpose Winston Churchill more deeply into the events of the mid-1930s than was actually the case. These were his "wilderness years," during which he was excluded from power and at times even ridiculed by his own party. The scene in which Churchill and Bertie discussed the possible abdication of Edward VIII, with Churchill encouraging the royal to take the name of George (!) almost certainly would never have happened, even if only because Churchill famously "backed the wrong horse" in the Abdication Crisis. He headed up an almost one-man, and ultimately futile, attempt to enable Edward VIII to remain on the throne, with or without Mrs. Simpson, a doomed cause that did nothing to help his popularity at the time.

Churchill, however, is "cast" in these scenes because he is, perhaps, the figurehead we need or want to remember in this particular narrative. Just as in one film George V is required to interact in a jovial way with Rudyard Kipling, and in a completely different way with his intimidated second son in the second film. As an historian it is, of course, not the done thing to endorse any sort of revisionist history, as this can do great harm. Yet, as we can recognize, there is a line between minor and tolerable instances of historical liberties, and egregious ones. Where this line lies, however, is difficult to say. Taking the case of Churchill, for example, is it acceptable to transpose him into scenes in the 1930s for nostalgia's sake, meanwhile forgetting that Churchill was not "rehabilitated" until 1940, and that up until almost the start of war itself support for peace and Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies were widespread? Is it all that innocuous to instead wrap ourselves in a cozy blanket for the sake of the moving and human story of George VI and his tribulations? (This writer thinks it is alright.) The answer is beyond the remit of this already rather lengthy post. I shall leave the question up in the air.

*The "bromance" moniker was taken up by Peter Bradshaw, reviewing the film in The Guardian. It is a fine review -- one choice line: "Set in the 1920s and 30s, it is populated by that sort of well-suited patrician Englishman of yesteryear who drinks spirits in the middle of the day, whose middle and index fingers are rarely to be seen without an elegant cigarette interposed, and who pronounces the word "promise" as "plwomise" (try it)." Begging the question: what is so "yesteryear" about drinking spirits in the middle of the day?

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Happy New Year! -- On New Year's Resolutions

Good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.
--Oscar Wilde

One resolution I have made, and try always to keep, is this: To rise above the little things.
-- John Burroughs

New Year's Resolutions have a long history; promises to reform oneself have been recorded from ancient civilizations. The Romans, who assigned 1 January to be the start of the new year, named the month after Janus -- the two-faced figure who looked simultaneously to the past and to the future. Much of what constitutes our contemporary notion of "resolutions" is certainly attributable to the Victorian era. It was, in most common stereotype, a repressed and moralistic era -- and perhaps where many of the self-improvement and self-discipline notions, that fill many a bookstore wall, are most deeply rooted. But it also was an age of great improvement and reform, with civic-minded individuals taking on questions of social welfare and passionately attempting to re-shape society. Of course it does not necessarily follow that all such activity was praiseworthy or helpful, but the sheer energy of the Victorians is admirable. I am not sure what the average "resolution" of a Victorian individual might have been -- surely "going to the gym" was not one -- but perhaps it would behoove us to think of such resolutions in collective, rather than individual, terms. After all, one's own birthday would be a more natural point at which to make resolutions. Another year older, perhaps prompting us to fulfill the unrealized goals of years past. But on birthdays we do not undertake this self-reflection. Instead we content ourselves with pampering, cake, gifts, and good wishes. The fact that the traditional day of resolutions (whether we make them or not) is common to everyone demonstrates, perhaps, that we are all in this together. A wide-ranging political debate in raging now in the UK regarding the "Big Society," and without implying anything political in the meaning, let me suggest that whether we acknowledge this or not, this is in essence what we are. Perhaps we might resolve to make it a better one as well.

A very happy new year to you all.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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