Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Notes: Hope & Glory (The Days That Made Britain) by Stuart Maconie

Over the last few years, genial BBC Radio host, Stuart Maconie has produced a series of books about Britain. These books, (Pies and Prejudice, Adventures on the High Teas, and now Hope and Glory) don't fall easily into any one particular category, but roam through travel, music, autobiography, history, culture, TV etc etc. In fact they roam like the thoughts of an astute radio host, engaging, provoking, and observing.

The latest of these, Hope and Glory is as good as anything in 'Pies' and far better than 'High Teas'. Maconie might be writing in a slightly odd genre that is all his own - but he does it with such style, and warmth that the result is almost perfect holiday reading - in that it is neither vacuous drivel about nothing like the archetypal airport novel, but neither is it academic research and argument requiring great concentration. Rather, Maconie succeeds in taking the reader on a journey around Britain, and through a century of its history, and does so gently, wittily and on occasion rather movingly.

The premise of 'Hope and Glory' is this: To mark ten critical dates from the 20th Century which have come to define Britain, visit the places concerned, and write a observational reflective travelogue on the experience and the history. The choosing of the dates, as well as the content of each foray is directed entirely by Maconie's personal whims. He does not pretend to be an objective historian but comes across as a well-informed friend taking us on a tour of his neighbourhood. So we encounter the first day of the Somme, the '66 cup final, the miners strike, Live Aid, the invention of TV, the Silver Jubilee, Enoch Powell and the Windrush, The 1997 New-Labour victory, and more.

When Maconie tells the stories of whole families of sons wiped out on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, he does so with affecting empathy. He, of course was a journalist before a Radio host, and can write with telling pathos when required. He also visits some of the 'thankful villages', places where no memorial was built because every soldier returned from the trenches. Remarkable stuff, well told.

These are no mere history lessons however, when exploring Alexandra Palace and investigating the origins of TV, BBC and Lord Reith, he uses it as a tangent to explore (vent!) his feelings about where TV has taken us:

"Sometimes the togetherness that the TV community engenders can be comforting: a big football match, occasions of state, the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials of the 70s. But more and more, I find this consensus weird, false and deadeningly stupid. I've lost count of the number of times that I've been told 'everyone watches the X-factor', that it's not meant to be deep, it's just entertainment' and that I'm 'a snob' for not liking it. I, for my part, try and convince these people that I have better things to do. Like nail my own hand to a tree trunk."

Likewise, when assessing the impact of Live Aid, both as a musical event, as a part of the national consciousness and as a major factor in the creation of the modern cult of celebrity with all its wretched vacuousness, Maconie is incisive and persuasive. However, when discussing the famine itself and the terrible suffering of the Ethiopian people, his writing is delicate, sensitive and passionate:

He quotes Michael Buerk's famous report from the Ethiopian refugee camps:

"Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plains outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now in the twentieth century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth".

And comments:

"There've been those who've taken issue with Michael Buerk's famous opening words to his landmark piece. They say that the 'biblical' reference implies that what we see is an act of God, unavoidable and accidental. I think that's being deliberately obtuse. What Beurk means, and what we can see for ourselves as the camera pans across a parched landscape of huddled corpses, weeping children and skeletal animals, across a cracked, hellish vista of smoke and dust, is that this is biblical in scale and imagery. This does not look like something from our modern world of cars and computers and skyscrapers. It looks like Golgotha"

The book isn't all sombre however. There are plenty of lighter moments, of entertaining characters, dryly amusing anecdotes and quirky reminiscences en route. Maconie seems to be unusually adept at turning our attention rapidly through all aspects of Britishness from the scars of warfare on the national psyche to the glories and eccentricities of hillwalking or tea-shops.

In all of this, Maconie's personal opinions are writ large. This means that in the course of his travelogue he will upset or infuriate people such as monarchists, Thatcherites, Nick Clegg, and others. He writes with deep affection about the aspects of Britain he finds heroic, which include punk, multiculturalism, the miners, and football! The only sad note for me was the few scattered withering dismissals of Christianity and the church, which while they reflect his own experiences he has documented elsewhere - radically differ from my own. I don't find the community of the church to be 'the life-denying opposite of a library'; but rather life-informing, life-giving and life-enhancing.

This one disappointment aside, Hope and Glory is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative romp through a hundred years of British history as distilled through the mind of Stuart Maconie. His tone is to chat, rather than lecture, and to engage as much as to educate - to provoke as well as to describe; and he does so with disarming wit, and natural eloquence.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Book Notes: King's Cross by Timothy Keller

Tim Keller's latest book "King's Cross" shares many things in common with his previous works, but differs from them significantly too. The continuities lie in the theology, in which Keller's trademark emphasis on human sin being conquered by unquenchable divine grace in Christ, is everywhere. Likewise, Keller's insightful reading of the human condition and contemporary Western culture makes his diagnoses of our sins, fears and foibles as hard-hitting -as his invitation to trust in Jesus Christ to address them is winsome.

The differences between this and previous books are in content and structure. Previously Keller has written on Christian Apologetics, Idolatry, Grace and Rebellion and Justice - and these have read as 'books', in that they develop a clear line of argument, as they address one specific aspect of Christian faith and life. King's Cross on the other hand reads more like a series of meditations (probably edited sermons) on the life, death and resurrection of Christ. In eighteen short chapters Keller teases out the significance for us of a series of key events in Mark's action-packed gospel.

This is good, helpful, straightforward reading which could be of enormous benefit to anyone who has read the gospel accounts of the life of Christ but who seeks further insight into their contemporary relevance or what sort of response they demand from us.

Of all Keller's books though it is probably the one which has had the least immediate impact on me. I suspect that this is for a number of reasons including the fact that it is the one from which I have learnt the least. Reason for God was a hugely educational read, Prodigal God was glorious in its celebration of the grace of God; Counterfeit Gods was explosive in its unmasking of our idolatries in contrast to the worship of God; and Generous Justice was compelling in the case it made for Christians to pursue social justice as a response to the gospel of Christ. King's Cross functions more as a persuasive and eloquent re-expression of core Christian ideas which many of us have known for a long time. Additionally, the elements of 'surprise' were more muted than in my previous encounters with Keller. His particular genius is in the threeway interplay between text-theology-and-contemporary culture; and he is at his most helpful when he brings the fruit of these interactions to bear upon us; in ways which have often startled me with their re-awakening of over-familiar stories. To be sure there is a steady supply of such gems throughout King's Cross, and his handling of stories such as the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, the transfiguration of Jesus, and his arrest are wonderful. Perhaps this book had fewer such moments for me than previous books was because I had read/heard Keller on a number of these themes before.

While this book doesn't mark an important shift in my understanding or emphasis, it is still a really worthwhile read. Ultimately Keller takes the reader's attention to Jesus and rivets it there. His desire is to allow the reader to enter the same journey of discovery that the disciples experience in Mark's gospel. It begins with a sense of intrigue in the person of Jesus Christ, but during the gradual process of the unveiling of Jesus' true identity during his life; that intrigue turns first to trust, then to worship and then to obedience.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Independence Day: July 4th at Silverton

You haven't seen a real waterfight, until you have seen the firebrigade having one, using fire-engines, and high pressure hoses! In the old mining town of Silverton, high in the San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains, this is exactly how they celebrate American Independence Day.
The competing teams are the fire departments of Silverton and neighbouring Durango. The rules of the contest are pretty straightforward: the firefighters advance towards each other with firehoses on full-blast. The winners are the last ones still standing! The pictures above show Silverton pressing home their advantage.

With several injuries, and many of them sent flying by the water-cannons, amidst much cheering and hilarity - both teams then turn their hoses on the crowds.

Of course, Colorado wasn't involved in the original July 4th Declaration of Independence, but this doesn't stop this unique and jovial patriotic display. All men (sic) are indeed created equal and endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No effigies of George III were burned and the locals seemed very happy to allow a load of us Brits to join in their celebration of getting rid of us.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Through Deserts & Mountains: Tucson to Durango

On the map, the journey from Tucson Arizona, through the edge of Utah and on to Durango in Colorado looked a bit tedious. In order to alleviate the potential nine or ten hours of long desert roads, we organised a detour via Monument Valley. Monument Valley is famous for its amazing scenery, its use as a backdrop for many cowboy movies, and being at the heart of the Navajo reservation. It may have added a couple of hours onto our journey, but the sight of these extraordinary, and massive, rock sculptures in the desert was.. 'awesome' (to seek to rediscover a much misused and maligned word).

Below: A shot of "The Mexican Hat" taken from the car window..

Much of the rest of the day did involve long roads through shimmering deserts.

The long drive proved to be more full of interest and variety than I had anticipated, though. The scenery seemed to decisively change gear every fifty miles or so. The sand and cacti of the road out of Tucson was soon joined by ranges of great mountains with amazing ridges, that looked as if they would make great days walking and climbing at a cooler time of year.

Further into the journey we travelled through vast grassy plains, which evoked quite different moods. These were replaced with strange uniform hummocky shapes which looked like row upon row of eggs in a box, as we got nearer they proved to be massive sand dunes which had been shaped by desert winds, then covered in a fine layer of grasses. Beyond these we entered a barren rocky region where from roadside to hilltop there was no trace of soil, just bare solid rock. One or two bushes managed to cling to life by rooting into fissures in the rock, but they were the only thing which persuaded the eye that we hadn't ended up on the moon. Then we would round a corner, or enter a new valley and be mesmerised by extraordinary rock patterns, contours and colours.

Next, the road we were on would be something built on piers over hundreds of deep, narrow canyons disappearing into the earth below and around us. Then as we climbed towards the San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains, crossing the bright blue river of the same name, we once again crossed grassy plains before the sun left us to complete our trip in dark. Our anticipated ten hours of motoring boredom turned out to be full of surprise, delight and amazement at every turn.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Perth to Tucson

Our friend Stan very kindly drove us to Edinburgh Airport at 5:30am, to allow us to start our travels to the USA. Along with kindness, one of his other great qualities is exuberant ebullience - something which even the ridiculously early hour was unable to diminish. We grunted our bleary-eyed thanks and watched our car disappear Perthwards. Edinburgh check-in was straightforward and we boarded a Bae 146 for Paris.

Flying directly over my hometown was an interesting experience. Cloudy Scotland gave way to a sunny southeast England, and almost perfect visibility. Heathrow Airport caught my eye initially, followed by the distinctive shape of The Queen Mary reservoir, Ashford Manor Golf Course, and Fordbridge Roundabout. These shapes helped me locate Fordbridge Road, Stanwell Road - and the house I lived in for most of my childhood, and all of my teenage years. Fordbridge Park, the scene of countless hours of football was still there, as was the River Ash, presumably still full of stickleback fish awaiting children's nets. Stranger still was the thought that my parents were 30,000ft below us, and that the last glimpse of my childhood home before they sell it will have been from so far above.

They joy of travel was rudely interrupted by The French. I know that invoking national stereotypes is uncultured, rude, ignorant and I make huge efforts to avoid such crass writing. However, in France I can't help sometimes feeling that they are invoking the stereotype themselves and laughing at us. Suffice to say, my experience is that they are as good as cooking as they are bad at organising airports, and that the collective national 'gallic-shrug' as the proposed solution to these shortcomings doesn't diffuse the rising tension all around!

The late flight meant a lost connection it Atlanta, Georgia. Delta Airlines 767s might be a little old, tired, and worn looking, but the staff are really efficient and friendly. They knew we would be late, and had arranged hotel accommodation and food vouchers for us. The security regime at Atlanta was unbelievable. I liked the fact that while US Immigration staff have learnt the art of politeness and smiling since my last visit, they were as thorough as ever. I was dreading having made an error on my ESTA applications for the family, and our holiday ending abruptly and sadly! What I couldn't believe was that at Atlanta you have to go through security to get OUT of the airport! We'd done rigorous security twice in Paris already, then to have to take off the same shoes and belts, and unpack the same laptops and cameras for scanning again, just to get out of the place- seemed bizarre.

Nevertheless, a night's sleep later we were airborne again, in a terrible old 737 with broken toilets. It took us high over the Deep South, over the Mississippi Delta, into the desert. The descent between the mountains of Tuscon was amazing. Jagged ridges and high peaks encircled the city, spread out in typical US grid-pattern below.

On the ground in Tucson I was as pleased to see the ever-affable 'Percy Cowpat' as I was shocked at the intensity of the desert heat which pressed in on the skin the second we stepped out of the air-conditioned terminal. The short drive through the city underlined the truth of the old sarcastic cliche that the UK and the US are 'two cultures divided by a common language'. The differences here are massive, and obvious everywhere in the dry, dry air of Tucson in mid-summer. The dry river-beds which dissect the city, were as alien a sight to us as the architecture designed to deflect as much of the power of the sun as possible. The wide main-streets look so different than ours with their ubiquitous low-rise buildings and high-rise advertising hoardings. I have spent many weeks in the NE USA in places such as Philadelphia. Philly 'felt' like being in a foreign country, either in the high-rise of centre-city, or the projects (social housing) just outside it. Tucson 'feels' like a foreign country again, but apart from the fact that English is understood, its hard to believe that it's the same country as Pennsylvania.

Rest from travel finally came our way at the house of our dear friends. ("so good to see you" "wow, haven't they grown...!). Rest, that was rudely interrupted by my jet-lagged body-clock whose idea of a joke was to wake my weary limbs at 2am insisting that it must be getting-up time by now. I need to sleep, tomorrow we drive 10hrs to the Colorado Rockies.