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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Monty Python’s Crusade Part Two: “...For You”

In 1975, the ABC Network purchased the rights to Monty Python’s Season Four.  Instead of broadcasting each episode individually and in its entirety, the network chose to combine the six shows into two specials.  During this process, they made so many cuts to nearly every skit that the comedy team felt the American network had robbed their material of all artistic merit.  So in mid-December, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin flew to America to fight for an injunction against ABC’s first scheduled broadcast on the December 26th.

The two were forced to cancel personal commitments, deprive their families of their presence during the holiday season, and give up days that could have been spent on more creative tasks.  After facing weather delays, the two men arrived in New York City, where they suffered the annoyances of jet lag and lost luggage.  They attempted to reach a satisfactory compromise with ABC, but after meeting with executives, realized that an out-of-court settlement was impossible.  So on December 19th, the two Englishmen walked into a New York City courtroom to take on the giant American network.

How does one describe a sketch to a court and make it sound funny?  How do you make the judge understand how ABC’s cuts robbed the material of its creators’ original intent?  And how does an Englishman explain why an aspect of his society that is wholly alien to American culture is not only funny but worth preserving for ABC’s viewers?  These were the dilemmas Michael Palin faced as he struggled to answer the judge’s detailed questions.  Later in the day, a TV was rolled into the courtroom and everyone squeezed in around the judge.  The format for the viewing was this: they would watch an episode from Season Four as it was originally transmitted by the BBC, then follow that with ABC’s highly-edited version. 

After considering the evidence, the judge decided that while Monty Python’s original material was irreparably damaged, he couldn’t issue an injunction.  However, he would consider ordering that a disclaimer from the group be placed at the beginning of each special.  While this wasn’t what the comedy team had sought, at least such a disclaimer would accomplish the group’s intent of making American viewers aware that these specials did not represent their original artistic vision.  So it appeared their efforts had not been wasted: Monty Python had won a compromise, if not out-right victory. 

While the men yearned to return home immediately, weather had delayed or canceled many flights.  All available planes returning to England seemed fully-booked.  Somehow, the men got themselves aboard an Air Iran flight to Tehran via Heathrow.  Back home in England after a difficult flight (and realizing that their luggage was on its way to Tehran), the two made up the time lost with their work and their families.  Then, on the day before Christmas, the bomb fell.  Gilliam and Palin learned that ABC had appealed the judge’s decision, and won.  The network would not be forced to transmit the following disclaimer: “The members of Monty Python wish to disassociate themselves from this program, which is a compilation of their shows edited by ABC without their approval.”  Instead, two days hence, all the network would be required to display before each special was: “Edited for television by ABC.”

So, as Michael Palin so eloquently put it, they had “tilted at windmills and lost.”  Yet this was not the end, but merely the beginning of the group's fight with the giant American network.

This story will conclude in Monty Python’s Crusade Part Three: “...And Forever.”

Research for this blog post was entirely taken from Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, published by St. Martin’s Press.  And yes, to present his views in this abbreviated account, his entries were heavily edited.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Monty Python’s Crusade Part One: “For Us”

The constant demands of life often beg us to cave in on issues that we care about.  After all, victories can be hard-won, and the more-usual compromises that result can leave a bitter taste in our mouths.  Worse are the fights we lose.  They make us wonder what we might have accomplished had we devoted our time, our energies, and our resources to another goal.  But worst of all is what happens when too many of our fights result in unsatisfactory compromises or losses.  Disillusionment saps our willpower, our resolution to continue to create, to be productive, and in the process help make the world a better place for everyone.  But sometimes it is necessary to fight in order to preserve what you have created, because the cost of not doing so can be truly terrible.

Not just for you, but for the entire world. 

In 1975, Monty Python, as a creative entity, was fracturing.  John Cleese had declined to participate in Season Four.  Each member had numerous outside commitments.  The process of combining each person’s talents and ideas was proving increasingly difficult.  And not only had BBC executives cut the normal series run down to six episodes, but they were editing the shows more heavily than in the past.  The group battled through all these issues, and produced six shows they felt reasonably proud of.  But then, in November of that year, an incident occurred which the team found so objectionable that they felt they must fight to preserve not only their reputation, but also the very essence of what they worked so hard to create.

The American ABC Network had bought Season Four, and reorganized the episodes into two specials for a scheduled December 26th broadcast.  The members were appalled by the numerous cuts made to nearly every skit.  To quote Michael Palin, “Any reference to bodily function, anything slightly risqué, anything, as Douglas Adams put it, ‘to do with life,’ was single-mindedly expunged.”  The group vowed to do what they could to let people in America know how thoroughly they disapproved of this emasculated version.

After spending thousands on legal advice, they determined that the best course of action was to seek an injunction.  To have any realistic hope of winning, members of the group would need to argue their case in a New York City courtroom.  So, after numerous weather delays and rescheduled flights, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin flew to America. 

On December 18th, they met with representatives from ABC in a hotel, hoping to resolve the issue outside court.  The network’s position seemed to be that they were worried about offending viewers in more conservative states such as Iowa and Louisiana.  Ironically, PBS had been showing earlier Python episodes in those regions for over a year, and without complaint.  At this meeting, ABC offered the men a revised set of cuts to the group’s material.  Perhaps some artists would have accepted such a compromise, as the number of viewers that ABC could reach was drastically greater than those who watched PBS.  After all, wouldn’t it be better for American viewers to see some of Monty Python’s latest season, rather than nothing at all?  Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam dug in their heels, believing that the cuts the network insisted upon would rob their material of too much of its creators’ original artistic vision.

It is interesting to note that this incident occurs after the group made “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”  Is it possible that such a sustained focus upon the person of King Arthur and upon Knights fighting against perceived injustices bolstered the group’s fighting spirits?  Would Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin have been willing to turn their backs on such a compromise had they not waged battles and stormed castles while making their movie?  While we can never know the answers to such musings, we do know that Gilliam and Palin rejected this compromise.  As unsavory as they found the prospect, these two men would have to battle the all-powerful American network in a New York City courtroom to preserve not only their reputations, but also the artistic merits of the Season Four episodes.

This story will continue in Monty Python’s Crusade Part Two: “...For You”

Research for this blog post was entirely taken from Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, published by St. Martin’s Press.  Ironically, in order to present his views in this abbreviated account, his entries had to be summarized, and yes, heavily edited.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Richard the Lionheart in “The Crusade”

I would have taken little notice of Richard’s statue, had my interest in him not previously been awakened by the Doctor Who story “The Crusade.”  In this four-part serial featuring the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Vicki leave the Tardis to find a group of Saracens attacking Richard and his hunting party.  The heroes prevent a knight of Richard’s from dying, but amid the fight, the Saracens, led by El Akir, kidnap Barbara and carry her to Saladin, the head of the Muslim forces.

At Richard’s compound in Jaffa, Ian longs to ransom Barbara.  At first Richard refuses to allow this, lost in his mourning for those who died in the attack.  But a suggestion of the Doctor’s gives him an idea.  He is weary of the fighting, and wishes for a peaceful resolution that will allow him to end his crusade with dignity.  He sends Ian off with soldiers and a secret offer for peace through the marriage of his sister Joanna to Saladin’s brother, Saphadin.

The Doctor sides with Richard against knights who insist that they must reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims.  These knights tell Joanna of her brother’s secret scheme to marry her off, but point to the Doctor as the informant.  When Richard cools down, he realizes that the Doctor, as a man of peace, would not have betrayed his confidence.  He would like to punish the knights for this outrage, but he cannot.  As Joanna has refused to marry Saphadin, Richard needs their good will, as he must now press on toward Jerusalem. 

Meanwhile, Barbara has made El Akir look foolish before Saladin.  To salve his dignity, El Akir has abducted her from Saladin’s camp, intent upon torturing her.  While Ian races after her, the Doctor and Vicki, warned by Richard of his knights’ plotting against them, flee his fortress, hoping to make it back to the Tardis with their lives.

As in the preceding story, historians have portrayed Richard as a complex man.  They stress that he was a man of god and a fearless warrior; they praise him as a great castle architect and a military leader.  He even forgave the man who shot him, once he realized the arrow-wound was terminal.  Yet in his forty-one years, Richard only lived in England for six months, and spoke no English.  He banned all women and Jews from his coronation at Westminster Abbey.  He flogged the Jewish leaders who insisted upon offering him presents, which prompted a massacre of the Jews living in London.  Richard disliked the city, declaring that it was “cold and always raining,” and decided to leave on a crusade.  In order to raise his army, he raided the country’s coffers, issued a hefty tax, and sold off official positions, rights and land.  He famously declared, “I would have sold London if I could have found a buyer.” 

At first, I was mystified to find Richard so memorialized (above all others) in front of the seat of English government.  But then I remembered King David, who had many similar faults.  Like the Biblical writers, the Victorians who erected this statue chose to memorialize Richard for qualities traditionally attributed to the human heart: in this case, his courage and generosity.  So perhaps I should follow their example and remember this English king and crusader for these key, praise-worthy qualities.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, that’s the best way to remember anyone.

Sadly, many of the early episodes of Doctor Who no longer exist.  Episodes One and Three of this four-part serial have been recovered, and are available, along with other orphaned episodes, on “William Hartnell: Lost in Time.”  This DVD also includes the audio track from episodes two and four. 

If, after enjoying what remains of “The Crusade,” you find yourself hungry for more, you may wish to check out the telesnap reconstruction of this story, in which the audio track from Episodes Two and Four has been married with existing still photographs from the production.  Also included are interviews with Julian Glover, the actor who portrayed Richard.  In these he shares his memories of working on “The Crusade,” and reminisces about playing refers to his roles in two of George Lucas’ famous franchises: as General Veers in “The Empire Strikes Back,” and as Walter Donovan in the ironically-named “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”  You can find this worthy effort at

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Richard the Lionheart: Car Park Attendant

My feet wish to continue on with my exploration of London, but my eyes, overwhelmed by so much splendor, beg me to linger.  The Palace of Westminster displays more arches than the New York Marathon.  Steeples shoot up along its sides and adorn its roof-line, clustered together more tightly than the teeth on a lawn rake.  Intriguing details, such as the heads of kings, shields (or royal family crests), and lions and unicorns, adorn its outer walls, reminding me of the depth of riches within Westminster Abbey.  And this enormous structure is protected not just by gargoyles and police, but by a king. 

Richard the First, better known as Richard the Lionheart, sits atop his war-horse, his sword raised toward the heavens.  While the building he guards was (and is still known as) a palace, it no longer houses royalty, but elected politicians.  I find a certain irony here.  Richard was the third legitimate-born son of King Henry the Second, and as such should never have been crowned.  But such as his ambition for the throne that he led his soldiers into battle against those of his brothers, and later defeated his father’s forces as well.  So now his statue guards the meeting place of those who have, over the centuries, have continually taken more of the monarch’s powers for themselves, and in the process relegated their royalty to little more than figureheads.  And from what illustrious vantage point does this brave king guard the palace from?  Why, the middle of the car park (or parking lot), of course.

This is another aspect of London that takes some getting used to.  There’s more history packed into one square yard here than there is in one square block back in San Diego (if not in one square mile), and it’s all crammed together like the members of a football team (American or European) trying to squeeze themselves into a Mini Cooper.  According to the Palace website, architects Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Pugin obsessed over every aspect of the building, and neither lived to see its completion.  (Sadly, Pugin was briefly admitted to an insane asylum shortly before his death). Nevertheless, it’s a stunning building that has found a permanent home in our imaginations.  It appears in so many movies, including those of two of the world’s most popular franchises: Harry Potter and James Bond.  And after agents Steed and Peel destroy August de Wynter’s weather-control machine beneath the Thames in the 1998 movie “The Avengers”, the transparent globe in which they escape surfaces in front of the Palace of Westminster.  They have saved the Houses of Parliament, and in so doing, they have saved civilization.

One fact is certain: the Palace of Westminster stands as a beautiful testament to the glories of Gothic architecture.  Or Neo-Classical, depending upon which source you read.  Or, for that matter, Gothic Revival, Neo-Gothic, Perpendicular Gothic, or even Neo-Perpendicular Gothic.  (I’m glad we established that unassailable fact).  I just find myself growing a little sad for poor Richard.  You would think, for so beloved a historic figure, that he deserves better than to end up guarding the car park.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Turned Away From the Palace of Westminster

Either my camera's too small, or the Palace too big!
In our hotel lobby, a TV had shown proceedings from the House of Commons.  A scandal had exploded upon Britain, and the Members of Parliament in the House of Commons were busy castigating the accused perpetrators and discussing how to resolve the crisis.  While the country’s conservative Tory party currently holds power, a consensus with the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties is necessary to resolve any issue.  But it seemed that partisan politics would not stymie action today, as all the people’s elected representatives seemed intent upon resolving this “phone-hacking” scandal.

The House of Commons (situated within the Palace of Westminster), with its wooden benches upholstered in the green leather, was familiar to me.  Not only had I occasionally watched cable TV coverage of Prime Minister’s Question Time (a weekly event in which, theoretically, any MP, or Member of Parliament, may be allowed to ask the Prime Minister a specific question), but I had received a DVD set of “The New Statesman” as a Christmas present.  This dark comedy, set in the late 80s and early 90s, follows the exploits of Alan B’Stard, a conservative MP who embodied all the hallmarks which those who opposed Margaret Thatcher’s policies accused her regime of.  B’Stard made his fortune through callousness and cruelty.  His marriage to Sarah is one of convenience: she desires only his money, and her father controls the local Tory party.  Whenever he speaks in the House of Commons, or works in his office in Whitehall, one could be certain that his actions were motivated by greed, and not to aid the people he is there to represent.

Why do I laugh when he insults another MP, steals his colleague’s speech, or takes money from a woman to print an anti-pornography pamphlet, only to then use the money to publish the very materials she is protesting?  Why do I enjoy following his misadventures when, for example, after a fist-fight with a cabby ends with B’Stard believing the cabby has died, he drives the vehicle into the countryside, seeking a secluded area in which to burn the cab and thus conceal his murder?  Does this point to a perverse aspect of my personality?  Or is it because I recognize that he is playing a stereotype in order to illuminate an essential truth: that not all politicians’ actions are devoted solely to themselves, and even those who get “found out” probably sought to effect something positive for their constituents?

Those Who Guard the Politicians
Whatever the reason, it would appear that I am not alone.  Although the show only lasted four seasons, its popularity continues in Britain.  “The New Statesman” parlayed its popularity into a stage show.  Columns appear regularly in British newspapers and magazines in which B’Stard boasts of his behind-the-scenes role in key governmental events and decisions.  And earlier this year, Alan B’Stard, portrayed by the original series actor, succeeded in helping marshal opposition to a ballot initiative.

As Britain’s Members of Parliament do not represent me, there is no logical reason why I should wait in line to watch them conduct business.  Yet that wood-paneled room with its green-upholstered benches holds a certain power for me.  This is a country that has three major political parties.  Instead of a Congress of two houses filled with representatives elected by the people, it has a Parliament, separated into two houses, and only for which its members are elected.  (The members of the other house, the House of Lords, are appointed, or serve by hereditary right).  Instead of having a President chosen by the people (or electoral ballots), the government is ruled by a Prime minister selected from whichever party holds the most seats in the House of Commons.  The Queen even drops in occasionally (to keep an eye on them).  While we may speak the same language (well, almost!), all this reminds me how very different England is from the United States.  Thus, I yearn to enter this former palace, and watch the British government at work.

"Sorry, but there's no more room in the inn."
We approach the attendants, only to be told that we could not be admitted at this time.  Although the line outside wasn’t long, the police had determined that the number of visitors inside was excessive.  “Why don’t you grab dinner and come back in an hour?” one of the uniformed women suggested.  The idea had merit: it was six o’clock in the evening, after all.  But not only were our heads out-of-sorts from a lack of sleep: our stomachs also out-of-sorts from the eight-hour time-zone change.  So we lingered to ask them a few general questions about Parliament and the Palace, and then we wandered on.  Would we get caught up in our explorations and return only to find that the members of Parliament had decided to retire for the evening?  Time would tell....

Related Dragon Cache entries
Where Church and State are One: Part 3 
Walking Whitehall
The Sausage That Brings Isolation Part 1

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Power of Big Ben

Clocks order our days.  They dictate where we need to be, remind us if we fall behind in our duties, and periodically demand that we reassess our priorities.  In return for how they help us organize our lives, we craft them into diverse shapes and sizes, using an infinite variety of materials.  Clocks tick upon our mantles.  Intricate fretwork clocks guard our shelves.  Noisy cuckoo clocks and cat-clocks with roving eyes and swaying tails hang upon our walls.  Grandfather clocks dominate our entryways and rooms.  Cities build monumental clocks in which life-size figures move and dance and interact with each other.  But all of these, regardless of size or quality of workmanship, are banished from our minds in the presence of Big Ben.

This indomitable clock rises from the north end of the Palace of Westminster.  It towers above government officials, busy Londoners, and tourists.  It has become as recognizable a symbol of London and England as the Statue of Liberty is representative of New York City and the United States.  But Big Ben does not belong solely to just one city or nation or people.  In a strange way, it exerts its power and dominion over all of us.  And in return, we adore it.

Visual storytellers recognize its hold over the viewer.  Peter Pan lands atop Big Ben before heading off to Neverland.  Events in “The Great Mouse Detective” and “Shanghai Nights” climax with a fight in the clock’s workings or out on its faces.  In the movie based on the British TV show “The Avengers,” when Sir August de Wynter attempts to hold the world to ransom with his weather-control machinery, he demonstrates his weapon's effectiveness by using lightning to destroy Big Ben.  In the science fiction comedy “Mars Attacks!” and the Doctor Who episode “Aliens of London,” invading aliens cannot resist destroying this famous landmark.  And when Big Ben appears in the opening of the TV sitcoms “The New Statesman” or “Yes Minister,” we know that we are about to watch a show about the British government at work.

As I wrestle with my camera to cram as much of Big Ben as I can into frame, I feel the tight knots inside me begin to loosen.  Before, as I walked past buildings displaying London’s diverse variety of architectural styles, I could have been in any city enriched by centuries of human habitation.  Westminster Abbey’s treasures inspired a sense of awe, but I have visited many beautiful churches.  For varying reasons, both experiences reminded me that I was a foreigner.  Now, in Big Ben’s presence, I know where I am. 

I may have traveled halfway around the world, but strangely, I now feel more at ease in this immense and bustling city.

Related Dragon Cache entries

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Roger Zelazny is in my Head

In his story “The Great Slow Kings”, Roger Zelazny tells of Drax and Dran who rule the planet Glan.  One day, after long debate, these two kings send their sole remaining subject, the robot Zindrome, off in the only functioning spaceship of a once-mighty fleet.  The robot’s mission: to find new subjects for the kings to rule.  In due course, Zindrome returns with two warm-blooded beings.  Although the creatures are sedated, the kings see them as blurs.  When the aliens awaken, they vanish from the kings’ sight.

Zindrome is sent off to retrieve more subjects, and he returns before Drax and Dran have decided upon how they will rule their future kingdom.  It appears that Zindrome returned to the creatures’ world only to find its inhabitants had progressed to the nuclear era, and in a terrible war, annihilated their species.  However, many years have passed on Glan in Zindrome’s absence, and due to geological shifts, the palace is buried under layers of rock.  The warm-blooded subjects released earlier have multiplied and spread all over Glan, but their descendants are unaware of the kings’ existence.  The kings listen with outrage as Zindrome reports that these creatures have learned to forge weapons and are killing each other.  So the kings decide to issue a proclamation that will both alert their subjects to their presence and end all future violence.  Unfortunately, before Drax and Dran can determine the proper structure and wording of this document, their subjects also develop nuclear weapons and destroy themselves.

In regards to this blog, two competing forces battle inside my head.  One is called Production, the other, Perfection.  One argues for daily output, the other, for original ideas, optimum structure, and precise wording.  One wants to publish new material every day, the other argues that what I post should be substantive.  Eventual entries represent a compromise forced upon these adversaries.  While I feel reasonably proud of most of what I’ve published, I yearn to become more prolific.

Thus Zelazny’s Drax and Dran don’t only live on Glan, they reside in my head, and fight for dominance in each of yours.  They may argue over different issues for each individual, but one will always represent action, the other, inaction.  Listen too closely to one, and you can produce much of little consequence; give undue credence to the other, and you only delay action on the issues that matter the most to you.  Likewise, Drax and Dran battle on in our community structures: in our churches, clubs, and committees, and yes, even in our government.  How we learn to compromise those competing voices at all levels determine not only whether we accomplish our personal goals, but the nature of the world that we will deliver to the next generation. 

Leave it to Roger Zelazny to pry open my skull and understand what he sees there.

“The Great Slow Kings,” along with poetry and other short stories from his early writing career, can be found in The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume One: Threshold.  The book is available from Nesfa Press.

Related Dragon Cache entries
Deliberations and Decisions
A Defining Moment
Controlled By Chaos

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Where Church and State are One: Part 3

Growing up as a Protestant in America, I saw churches as mere buildings, places where believers (the true church) gathered to worship.  After spending several years in Anglican-style churches, I can now appreciate how some believers make their “gathering-places” into sacred spaces by filling them with artwork that both instructs and inspires.  But visiting a church that is the “official church of the state” is still a new experience for me.

Westminster Abbey as a fish might see it.

Nor did I appreciate, at first, how unique Westminster Abbey is.  Unlike other churches and cathedrals, it is classified as a royal peculiar and therefore under the direct oversight of the Sovereign rather than a church leader such as a bishop.  How this affects its daily operation, and whether priests there are more constrained in what they can preach, I do not know.  But one thing is certain.  Without a doubt, it is the most secular church I have ever visited.

As I mentioned earlier, statues of national leaders tower above worshipers in at least one area, and statesmen, military leaders, and people of science are buried there.  The latter category even includes Charles Darwin, whose teachings many believers regard as anathema.  Nor is official remembrance limited to those who contributed to the state in a pragmatic, quantifiable manner: literary giants such as Charles Dickens, John Milton, and Jane Austen are memorialized in the Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

Most Church of England cathedrals and churches either charge admission, or have signs and docents stressing their desperate financial need.  Whether Westminster Abbey is cash-poor, or a rich source of income for the crown, I cannot say.  I was surprised to discover that key scenes from movies that inspired me to visit her, such as “Johnny English” and “The King’s Speech,” were filmed elsewhere.  But having seen what a popular destination this is, I can understand why the Queen would not wish to turn away tourists who traveled across borders, time zones, or oceans to visit this uniquely secular-and-sacred place.

Having glimpsed some of her delights, I yearn to explore Westminster Abbey further.  While it might prove difficult to enjoy any area of it in solitude or undisturbed reflection, I can imagine spending hours happily delving into the wealth of history on offer.  But at the equivalent of twenty-five dollars for admission (more for a guided tour), with so many other must-visit sites and lower-cost museums in London, and with my time in this bustling city so terribly, terribly short, I fear that such a pleasure will have to wait for another visit.

My Unworthy Tribute to Westminster Abbey

Guarded by priests, and
Ruled by a queen;
Adorned in splendor, yet
“No photography, please!”

Peculiar and religious,
Expensive yet free;
Everyone should visit,
Westminster Abbey.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Where Church and State are One: Part 2

So I did my best to give in to this spirit of invitation, and tried to allow the following readings and musical numbers to carry me along.  I joined the handful who knelt during the prayers, grasping the back of the occupied chair before me, and holding the front of my own chair so it did not skid into the legs of the worshiper seated behind me.  I watched as the first reader, a priest, was led up to the lectern by one of his younger colleagues who had so effectively directed the laity earlier.  This young man carried a baton or scepter, which he used now to wordlessly direct his older comrade toward the lectern, then waited behind to direct the older priest back when his reading was completed.  The second reader, directed up after more songs and prayers, was not a priest, but the Honorary Consul for Kiribati, a nation made up of atolls and an island straddling the equator in the Pacific Ocean.  While the priest had read from Proverbs, the diplomat read from Romans, where the apostle Paul speaks of enduring despite the thorn in the flesh which constantly threatens to curtain his ministry.  Of the two, the latter had a softer, more pleasing voice that could easily lull one into sleep (or compliance?) if one were not careful.  And for one existing on but an hour of sleep at this point, I found myself grateful that his scripture reading did not extend into a sermon.

All too soon the service drew to a conclusion, and the last responsive reading came from Philippians, a favorite passage of mine in which Paul exhorts us to rejoice always, to cast off all worry and allow God to handle our cares.  If we do this, Paul promises us that God will fill us with a peace that we can never fully understand, but is greater than any state of calmness that we on our own (or with the aid of a pharmaceutical firm) could ever manufacture.  It is a wonderful promise, and my tired mind welcomed it as the perfect way to end a service amid such earthly grandeur and distraction.

During the service, we sat on the Queen’s side, and faced toward a side door, the walkway to which was lined with imposing statues.  As the crowd followed the priests’ instructions, and was herded toward this exit, I was able to study these marble statues more closely.  From reading the inscriptions carved into the pillars upon which these larger-than-life figures stood, I realized that these were edifices to politicians, not to priests.  Lay people who had led England through turbulent times, not to saints beloved for their charitable works, the miracles they performed, nor revered for their holiness.  The most recognizable among them was Winston Churchill, who shepherded the people of this island nation through the terrors of The Blitz and World War II, a historic personage renowned in all corners of the world for his vision and strength of will.  But still a secular hero, not a man of the cloth who has dedicated himself to a life of austerity, holiness, and leading others toward God.  This state church, necessarily a fusion of the present world with the eternal kingdom, is wholly different from that which I am used to.  It serves as a fitting reminder that the purpose of my visit to England is to understand how the people here live in comparison to that of my own, and thus stamped a fitting coda upon my first visit to the many sites London has to offer.

Where Church and State are One will conclude with the next post

Monday, August 8, 2011

Where State and Church Are One: Part 1

It seems unconscionable that one should begin exploring a world-famous destination like London in a state of exhaustion.  Yet, due to the nine-hour time-change, and the dearth of sleep on our first intercontinental flight (with chairs that could not recline!), my wife and I arrived in Heathrow Airport, navigated Customs and the London Underground (also known as The Tube), and arrived at our hotel in mid-afternoon.  After dropping our luggage, we fell onto our bed for an hour of shut-eye.  Thus somewhat refreshed, and with a will to explore, we embarked upon our first “day” in London.

Our first site of interest was Westminster Abbey.  While it has become known as the wedding-site of choice for British royals, it also serves as the place where British kings and queens are crowned.  In the finale of one of my favorite movies, the spy-spoof Johnny English, the title character attempts to prevent the Archbishop of Canterbury from bestowing kingship upon a French businessman intent upon turning the whole of England into one vast prison.  Johnny does this in a rather (shall we say?) unorthodox manner which causes the Archbishop no end of embarrassment, and in the process, he ends up being crowned instead.  But I had journeyed here neither to embarrass the clergy nor to become the next sovereign of the United Kingdom.  I simply wished to worship there, and take in a sense of the place. 

We joined the throng, and were herded in by the priests, who directed the laity onward past statues, wall plaques, impressive architecture, and a myriad of other distractions, with shouts of “Hurry up!  Keep moving!  This way please!”  Those who carried their cameras and cell phones, so eager to retain a lasting memory of this centuries-old site received more specific instructions.  “Put those away!  No photographs!”  And, in one case, “We’ve had this conversation before sir, haven’t we?  You’ll need to delete those photos.  Now.”  The priests repeatedly reminded us we had gotten in without paying admission because we were attending a religious service, and stressed that the service would last an entire hour.  But they performed their traffic-management roles efficiently: eventually all the laity was settled in comfortable chairs arranged in narrowly-spaced rows, and the service was able to begin. 

While it is difficult to still one’s mind and compose one’s soul for worship under such circumstances, the introductory musical number, sung by the visiting Abbey Gale College Chamber Choir from Chester, fell like a gentle flurry of snowfalls upon my weary brow.  Their voices floated toward the ceiling five stories above before cascading down upon us.  I imagined myself standing in the country lane of a rural English village, bundled up in a thick, woolly jacket, while snow drifted down around me, each flake small and dry, individual and unique, whirling and gliding upon unseen air currents.  This sonic resonance swept me along, suggesting that if I would just let down my walls of reserve, then perhaps I could really relax, and then my soul might be able to truly worship. 

Where Church and State are One will continue with the next post

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Quiet Man in the Star Wars Universe

Growing up on his parents’ moisture farm, Cliegg Lars dreamed of a better life.  Tattooine might be a poor world located in the Outer Rim, but it lay along several busy hyperspace routes.  Somehow, he scraped together enough money to buy passage aboard a starship and traveled to the Core world of Ator, where he made a new life for himself and fell in love with a woman called Aika.  In time, she gave him a son, Owen. 

Worlds such as Ator, located in the galactic core, are centers of industry, finance, and culture.  There are opportunities for those who can adapt to the fast pace of life there, who can contribute to society’s constant demand for invention and innovation.  The winners in such a society enjoy a lifestyle vastly superior to that available on a poor colony world.  But every day, starships arrive in each major city, unloading immigrants eager to demonstrate their capabilities.  Their eyes are focused upon society’s biggest prizes.  Inevitably, some will never find better than menial employment, and thus be forced into the ever-growing slums. 

How long Cliegg lived on Ator, and how high he rose in that society, we do not know.  Sadly, his wife died, and in Aika’s absence, his heart called him back to Tattooine.  He returned to make peace with his parents, aid them in working the farm, and instill in his son his work ethic and a renewed belief in the importance of family. 

Perhaps it was her smile, or a simple act of kindness, that first attracted him.  Or perhaps it was something more.  Shmi Skywalker also suffered the deep pain inflicted by a loved one’s absence.  Years ago, her son had been taken away by a Jedi master, and she had not seen him since.  Whatever drew him to care for her, he realized he could no longer keep her as his slave.  He had dug into his meager profits to secure her services: he needed her help in working the farm.  Yet when he freed her, she agreed to not only share his workload, but also his hopes and dreams. 

Moisture farmers are not alone in their constant struggle for life on this arid world.  Humans and aliens ply their trades in the planet’s dust-ridden towns, or aid the Hutts in their export of minerals and illegal goods.  Jawas scavenge among the dunes for scrap, and sell what they can repair or cobble together. And a primitive tribal peoples, the dreaded Tuskin Raiders, prey on the weak.  One day, Cliegg returned home to learn that his wife had been taken in an unprovoked attack. 

He and his neighbors rode out every day to fight the Tuskin Raiders and to win back the abducted.  But of the thirty who rode out, only four returned, and of them, Cliegg was gravely wounded.  He could no longer hope to free his wife.  With the loss of one leg, he found himself confined to a power chair.

The sudden appearance of her son Anakin gave Cliegg reason to hope.  But despite his Jedi skills, Shmi died in the Tuskin Raider camp.  At her funeral, Cliegg could only stare at her grave and proclaim her the most loving companion a man could ever have.  Denied of the advanced medical treatments and prosthetics available on Core worlds such as Ator, Cliegg died shortly thereafter, apparently from his injuries, but also, one suspects, from a broken heart.

With the increasing pace of life, and the demands it consequently places upon us, it is easy to focus upon those who live lives of excitement and glamour.  Yet there are so many like Cliegg Lars, people who might once have pursued dreams of greatness, but now spend each day working to secure a better future for their families. They are not acclaimed for bringing happiness and meaning to an otherwise empty life.  They are not heralded for instilling their family values and personal ethics in their children. 

Perhaps they are the ones truly worthy of being remembered. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Journey into English Fiction: Part 2

Why I listened to her sweet whisperings I still do not know, but something in me found English Fiction desirable, and made me yearn for more.  Initially, this occurred through the imported programs shown on public television stations, and what episodes in other areas friends and relatives could share with me via videotapes.  There was something distinctly different and unique about British entertainment that I found at least as entertaining as its American counterparts.  I might have enjoyed comedies like "Family Ties" and "Home Improvement," but I also came to love "The Good Life" (or "Good Neighbors") and "To The Manor Born."  For all the flash, action, and great characters of shows like "Magnum P.I." and "Miami Vice," I also found the style and clue-detection of Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot to my liking.  And then there was Doctor Who, that timelord who could travel anywhere in space or time, and even bring himself back to life (albeit with a new face and personality) when his old body died.  How could a starship captain, even ones so great as James T. Kirk or Jean Luc Picard, compete with that?

Gradually, a love of such entertainment made me yearn to visit the country in which it was made, in order to learn what everyday life was like there.  I yearned to immerse myself in the culture that had given birth such enthralling characters, vivid settings, and world-threatening (even universe-threatening) situations.  But international travel is expensive, and the preparations for it much more laborious than that for destinations closer to home.  So for many years, I contented myself with the movies and TV programs I could watch, and the novels of English authors whom I admired.

Time has a knack of preparing the individual in ways which, on a daily basis, are not immediately apparent.  And so, one day I awakened to the realization that not only was I able to visit England, but that delay would only bring lessened capability to cope with the many differences I would find there.  The time to go was now: delay made little sense, and would only remove me further from that which had initially attracted me to visit this foreign country.  And so here I am, my bags stowed above my head and between my feet, writing these words in a small, black journal atop a wobbly plastic tray, and watching white, puffy clouds pass below the wing of an airplane.  Into my little notebook I plan to record some of what I learn and see and do, and plan to share some of those experiences with you when I return home, interspersing those blog entries with other topics I hope you will find interesting and enjoyable. 

But for now, I travel East, not only to connect with the land of my ancestors, not just to visit historic and interesting sites, but to better understand the places and the outlook of those who created such memorable characters such as Alec and Zoe Calender from the TV show "May to December," the Inspectors Morse and Lewis and Sergeant Hathaway inspired by the novels of Colin Dexter, and of course, those great rivals Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs. Emmeline Lucas, immortalized in the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson.

My arrival in Heathrow is but a few hours away, yet seems so unreal.  Despite all the preparations, my stomach is twisted in knots.  What will I find in England, and will it be to my liking?  Fear clings to anticipation; dread is mixed with yearning.  But the time for turning back has passed.  The path ahead is uncertain, unknown.  I find a measure of strength in the dogged determination of Captain Christopher Pike, and his willingness to still venture to alien worlds, even after the deaths of his crew on Rigel 7 and his imprisonment on Talos 4.  For one thing is certain.  Whether I am ready or not....

England, here I come!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Journey into English Fiction: Part 1

As an American, I grew up hating England.  All right, perhaps that is an overstatement.  After all, I have never been especially motivated by hatred, and to be sure, for a long time I didn’t understand England.  But certainly much of what I learned about England, while I was growing up, was negative. 

My history textbooks told me that many of the Britons who had settled America did so because they were persecuted back home.  So they fled, braving the many perils of a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to settle here.  They could bring little with them, and consequently their lives were hard: many of the settlers died of illnesses, exposure, or exhaustion.  Once the survivors built homes for themselves and cities in which they could finally make their lives a little easier, redcoats arrived demanding that the poor settlers pay onerous taxes to England or face imprisonment, even death.  This oppression grew so terrible that eventually the settlers were forced to band together and make war against their former homeland, all so they could live out their lives to preserve the liberties that are every person’s due.

Nor did the fiction of my youth inspire much love for England.  The TV channels played little in the way of enjoyable British shows, and of the books I remember reading, while some may have been written by British authors, none inspired me with a love for their country.  I remember Dickens’ miserly scrooge, stories of orphans and poor families eking out an existence in a cold and harsh London, and novels about European countries constantly torn apart by the ravages of war.  Movies portrayed kings who beheaded their wives, who fought against the Church, and who continually conspired against their neighboring kings in order to increase their own power. 

With High School and College, increased knowledge brought greater understanding.  I came to understand that the various wrongs committed throughout time, regardless of the country in which they occurred, are driven by the foibles of human nature.  There are no superior races or countries, only ordinary individuals who may strive to achieve greatness by significantly benefiting the lives of those around them.  But still, I possessed no idea of what England was like, nor why I should visit it to find out.  And why should I have?  America is a vast nation, comprised of more states and cities and regions of extraordinary natural beauty than most of its citizens can hope to visit in a lifetime.  What could England possibly offer me that could compete with the greatness of America?

It wasn’t until after college and marriage, and immersing myself in creating the future pattern of my existence, that English Fiction began to seduce me. 

To read the remainder of this blog entry, check out tomorrow’s post: A Journey into English Fiction: Part 2.