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Thursday, September 29, 2011

In Search of Greatness

On a cool, cloudy day in July, we set out for a full day of exploration in London.  First on our list of important sites was Buckingham Palace.  While the Queen can call numerous residences her home, Buckingham Palace constitutes her primary residence.  Buckingham Palace possesses many noteworthy features: it holds seven hundred and seventy-five rooms, a few of which are open to the public during the August and September; the Queen’s Gallery offers visitors notable artwork with regularly-changing exhibits year-round; and the grand house’s backyard constitutes the largest garden in the city of London, which is not open to the public without an invitation.  (Mine seems to have gotten lost in the mail).  But by far, the largest draw for ordinary people like you and me is the daily Changing of the Guard.

We arrived in midmorning, roughly an hour before this ceremony was to take place. Already, every inch of space lining the fence was filled with tourists.  What was so important about this ceremony that so many vacationers would devote their entire mornings to a half-hour ceremony in which one set of guards clock-out as another group reports for work?

Doubtless, the reason this ceremony draws so many here is the role of the monarch.  I speak not of the present monarch, but of the fact that England has a queen or king to rule her.  All of us know how imperfect we are: we wish we were better looking, always knew the right thing to say, and could always conduct ourselves in a manner that would engender the respect of all we meet and interact with.  So we model ourselves on others who seem to possess those skills and traits we lack.  Whether they be priests or politicians, magnates or musicians, actors or (yes, even) authors, we elevate these persons upon pillars in our minds, and pray that they never disappoint us.  (Sadly, if we spend enough time with them, they will.  They are only human, after all).  

Nevertheless, this is the reason I attend science fiction conventions and book signings: to meet the authors whose story-telling abilities I admire so much.  Oh, I know they are imperfect, but they tell such entertaining stories: surely I can learn something from them?  Usually I’m disappointed, but occasionally I meet someone who really does seem to measure up, in every way, to the ideal author whom I desire to become.  

So I cannot fault all these tourists for showing up so early in order to see these elaborately attired soldiers performing their daily ritual.  They seek to witness an event that celebrates someone greater than themselves: someone infinitely noble, powerful, and wise.  I hope that in observing this simple ceremony, the void inside them that always yearns for self-improvement is filled, at least for today.  As for me, I know why I came here: to visit the landscape of some of the great fiction I love.  I feel no need to elbow my way through those who arrived before me so that I can get a good view of the guards arriving and departing (were I the kind of uncouth lout prone to such actions).  I feel no need to see such elaborate, state ceremonies.  My time in London is so short, and my options for meaningful visits so many.

Besides, I can appreciate the artistry of the Victoria memorial.  I can wander through Saint James Park.  I can…say, what is that I hear?  Could it be the clip-clop of horses?  Oh yes: the Horse Guards are coming my way!  Hurry, hurry, I must follow them!  I must take a photo before they pass!   

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Secrets We Agree to Keep

Politicians hide facts from their citizens.  Executives rarely reveal plans for lay-offs before it becomes necessary.  Trustworthy individuals never relate a friend’s confidences to anyone else.  Ordinary people like you and me end up keeping all manner of secrets in our daily lives.  Without secrets lubricating the engines that drive human society, civilization might well grind to a halt.  Yet there is a price to be paid for every secret we keep, not only by ourselves, but also by those with whom we interact.  

In Jane Lindskold’s novel Thirteen Orphans, her characters are charged with keeping certain facts, knowledge, and skills secret.  Albert Yu is a well-known gourmet Chocolatier, yet few know that he is the descendant of a king from the Lands Born of Smoke and Sacrifice.  Gaheris Morris works as a successful entrepreneur.  While his daughter Brenda admires his salesmanship, she does not know that his grandfather was the Exile Rat, one of the original twelve advisors who were banished to our world along with Albert Yu’s ancestor.  And then there is Charles Adolphus, better known as Riprap, who works as a bouncer at a Denver nightclub.  While his father died in combat, he left a letter for his son, informing him that he would inherit the powers of the Dog.  Yet, until he meets Gaheris and Brenda, he does not understand all that his unique role involves. 

Lindskold’s characters soon learn the importance of keeping their true identities hidden.  As the novel opens, Albert is attacked while casting auguries with his mah-jong set; it seems that someone has learned his true identity.   When Gaheris discovers how Albert has somehow been stripped of his unique identity, he realizes that he can no longer wait to tell Brenda that she will inherit his powers: she must help him warn and mobilize the other Orphans against this new threat.  But before he and Brenda can explain everything to Riprap, Gaheris is attacked and stripped of all that made him the Rat (including his memory of the Orphans and the Lands Born of Smoke and Sacrifice).  Needless to say, Riprap realizes that he must not tell those with whom he works the true reason why he must move out of town, leave his job, and abandon the sports teams he coaches.  For if their pursuer accomplishes his aims, not only will they lose a special part of themselves, but no one will ever be able to return and free their homeland from the usurpers who killed the king and cast out his advisors (along with, unknowingly, an heir to the throne).

So while it is vital they keep secret their true natures, presence, and plans, Brenda and Riprap must pay a price for keeping such secrets.  While Brenda may not possess the Rat’s powers, she shows some aptitude for training in the magical arts, and agrees to work to protect the remaining Orphans as best she can.  Yet she must repeatedly lie to her parents about the duties involved in her “summer internship,” which adds emotional distance to the miles that will separate her from Gaheris and her mother.  As for Riprap, he may not mind leaving his hometown and his job, but he worries about the at-risk kids on the sports teams he coaches.  Abandoned by such a concerned mentor, might they drop out of school, engage in drug use, or join the neighborhood gangs?

Just like the characters in Thirteen Orphans, all of us must keep certain facts hidden from others.  Personal finances, business plans, the feelings and concerns that friends share so we can understand what we are going through: the list is infinite.  But perhaps, periodically, we should question the nature of the secrets that we agree to safeguard.  For while secrets may bind us closer to those for whom we agree to keep them, Jane Lindskold has shown us how they can also drive a wedge between ourselves and those who matter to us.  

Jane Lindskold's novel Thirteen Orphans, along with its sequels Nine Gates and Five Odd Honors, are available from Tor Books.  Learn more about her at 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Link Between Assumption and Cowardice

In a second-series episode of the British TV show “As Time Goes By,” Lionel is awakened from a Sunday afternoon nap by the front doorbell.  His caller is his publisher Alistair, who wants to give him a pamphlet regarding the upcoming launch of Lionel’s book My Life in Kenya.  Lionel is surprised by the visit, in part because Alistair had told him that he would be out of town this weekend.  When Lionel asks if Jean’s daughter Judith was disappointed that business disrupted his plans, he explains to a mystified Alistair that Judith also made plans for a weekend away, and Jean had assumed that the two were together.  After revealing that his weekend plans never involved Judith, Alistair, a hip mover-and-shaker, who is always looking for a new catch phrase, comes up with this: “Assumption doth make cowards of us all.”  Lionel recognizes this for what it is, a twist on Shakespeare’s “Conscience doth make cowards of us all,” from Hamlet’s great “To be or not to be” speech.  He bats down Alistair’s new catch phrase with, “That’s misquoted and doesn’t make sense.”  Alistair then asks if he’s going over to Jean’s tonight: he, like everyone else (except Lionel) assumes that, with Judith out of Jean’s hair, Lionel will trot over to her house with romance on his mind.

What Judith and Alistair fail to understand is this: while Jean and Lionel were once in love, that was thirty-eight years ago, before Lionel went off to fight in Korea.  The two have begun building a new friendship together, but neither is ready to resume their original romance.  Lionel tells Alistair of how Jean has been acting flighty ever since Judith announced that she would be leaving town, and how she told him that she would be unable to see him all weekend because she had work to catch up on.  Alistair suggests that she is merely suffering from “big match nerves.”  

Disgusted, Lionel visits Jean.  He confronts her as to why she assumed that, with Judith away, he might “lose control” and press her to take their relationship to a level neither yet feels ready for.  She is chagrined to admit that yes, she didn’t really trust him with that opportunity.  However, she also admits that, with the house to themselves, she had feared that she might get carried away, and do something that both would regret later.

Ironically, Alistair’s spur-of-the-moment catch phrase applies not only to Lionel and Jean’s current situation, but also to how the couple originally lost touch.  When Lionel arrived in Korea, he sent her a letter, letting her know how much he missed her, and how she could get in contact with him.  She never received that letter, and consequently assumed that he had not written.  Likewise, when he received no reply, he assumed that their whirlwind romance had been too good to be true, and did not pursue the matter with a second letter.  Neither possessed sufficient belief in their own worthiness.  Instead, each assumed that, once they had been separated, the other had realized how ill-suited they were, and thus decided to break off the relationship.  Consequently, Lionel went off to grow coffee in Kenya after his stint in Korea, and there, plagued by loneliness, eventually married a woman he did not love just to have someone to talk to.  (Predictably, their marriage failed).  While Jean eventually fell in love again, married, and gave birth to Judith, she endured many years of loneliness after the death of her husband.

As the series focuses primarily upon Lionel and Jean, we tend to identify with them when, ironically, we should be identifying with Alistair and Judith.  After all, while Jean has made a success of her secretarial agency, the way life has repeatedly taken from her the men she loved has caused her to give up trying to meet another who might banish her loneliness.  Likewise, Lionel has always grasped what easily came to hand.  Now, after a change of law in Kenya, he is back in London with nothing to show for all his years of farming, and afraid of risking another relationship with Jean.  The book deal with Alistair fell into his lap, so he took it.

In contrast with Lionel and Jean's caution and reluctance to risk, Alistair lives life at a frenetic pace.  A cauldron constantly bubbling-over with ideas, he never worries about looking silly, and is always willing to chance his hand at any opportunity life throws his way.  It is he who risks publishing Lionel’s book; it is he who finagles it into a lecture tour for Lionel; it is he who will eventually secure a mini-series (based on Lionel and Jean’s initial love affair) for network TV in America.  As a result of his willingness to constantly risk his reputation and resources, Alistair has a long list of contacts that can aid him in any situation that comes his way, and needless to say, has millions in the bank.  And while Judith lacks Jean's work ethic and Alister's success, she likewise looks to the future for hope.  With two divorces behind her, she still looks for another with whom she can share her hopes and dreams.  She is not disillusioned by failure and loss; she stands ready to clutch onto any opportunity that passes her way.

“To be, or not to be,” is the question that “As Time Goes By” poses.  Will we remain content with what we have, or will we throw caution to the winds?  Will we remain like Lionel and Jean, or will we try to graft a little of Alistair and Judith onto ourselves?  I know who I have been.  I know who I would love to become.  The only question remains how hard I am willing to work, and how much I am willing to risk, in order to become that which I wish to be.

In addition to series’ writer Bob Larbey, I must also credit a comment by SFWA Grand Master Robert Silverberg as the inspiration for this entry.  “As Time Goes By” was a British comedy that lasted for nine series and spawned two reunion specials.  The series is available on DVD (and well worth seeking out).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The English-Indian Love Affair

As frequent travelers to England will no doubt know, the English are in love with Indian cuisine.  In a recent survey of the United Kingdom, Chicken Tikka Masala was revealed to be the country’s favorite dish.  According to one manager interviewed by Samantha Brown on her series “Passport to Europe,” there are as many as eleven thousand Indian restaurants in London alone!  All this, I suppose, made it inevitable that we would visit one during our vacation.  Nevertheless, it was not our intention to visit one on our first night in London.

As we walked back to our hotel, our stomachs began to signal their hunger.  As this was our first day in England, the exchange rate was very much on our minds.  Accordingly, we perused the menus of many establishments, passing on all until we came to an Indian restaurant where the prices, when converted into American dollars, seemed palatable.  We walked inside, and a nice gentleman welcomed us and walked us to an empty table.  After handing us menus and bringing us our requested glasses of tap water, he left us to peruse their offerings.

Along with more traditional English fare such as scones, Wensleydale cheese, and Yorkshire pudding, Indian food features prominently in the English fiction we have come to love.  The first British TV show we ever watched, “Good Neighbors,” featured an executive named Jerry and his domineering wife Margo.  In the episode “The Pagan Rite,” Jerry returns home with his Indian take-away, as tonight is Margo’s weekly evening to rehearse with the local choral society.  She notices the bag in his hand, and orders him to eat in the kitchen with the exhaust fan on full blast.  She claims that the last time he ate in the living room, “the upholstery reeked of vindaloo for a week.”  After she leaves, Jerry’s rebellious nature rises.  He grabs a plate and utensils from the kitchen, and places them on the coffee table.  Then, peeling the lid off the container, he blows on his dinner and wafts his hand away as he slowly turns to ensure that the odors of hot curry pervade the entire room.  What he does not realize is that while he was in the kitchen, his neighbor Tom Good has entered and is hiding behind the sofa.  When Tom spies Jerry’s little act of rebellion, he calls out in a very Margo-like voice, “Jerry!”  Needless to say, Jerry’s heart nearly stops.

While references to England’s love affair with Indian food pervade their comedies and dramas, it features regularly on “Red Dwarf”, a sci-fi comedy.  Its central character, Dave Lister, is a slob who loves curry and beer.  His best shirt is the one with the fewest curry stains on it.  Amid their adventures, he and his crew (a hologram of his dead roommate, a man who has evolved from a cat, and an android who has broken his programming) salvage abandoned spaceships in order to restock on such necessities as Indian food and beer.  

In the episode “DNA,” the crew discovers an alien craft in which a machine can change the genetic makeup of anything organic.  An experiment transforms Lister’s vindaloo into a rampaging curry monster.  The crew hurl their best weapons at the monster to no avail.  Lister finally grabs the nearest object at hand, a can of beer, and throws it.  When the beast dies in spectacular fashion, he realizes, “Of course!  Lager, the only thing that can kill a vindaloo!”

In our case, the beast we faced was not a curry monster, but hunger.  These pangs grew increasingly strong as we ordered our food and waited.  And waited.  And waited!  One thing I did notice was that, unlike in most American restaurants, no one here seemed in a hurry.  So we sat back, discussed all we had seen today, and enjoyed our drinks.  

The food, when it arrived, was presented with great ceremony.  Our dishes of Chicken Curry (mild, not vindaloo) and Lamb Pasanda were placed before us, along with our rice and naan bread.  We were brought a pitcher of water, as after our long walk, we were quite thirsty.  Then, for the most part, we were left alone to enjoy our meal.  

Both dishes were unlike anything we had ever sampled back home.  The curry had more tomato content than we were used to, and the green sauce of the Lamb Pasanda was nutty and creamy.  Both entrees were delicious.  The only shame was that, lacking a refrigerator and microwave in our tiny hotel room, we could not take any leftovers to enjoy later.   What made the evening all the more special was that the servers exhibited no urgency to “turn the tables.”  As far as we could tell, the table was ours for the evening, if we wished to stay there until they closed.

After we finished our meal and they took our plates away, we waited for quite a while until, finally, we requested our check.  With it came the host, who presented us with hot, damp towels.    After we wiped our hands, we were brought two chocolate mints on a small plate.  Then, as a final note upon which to end our evening, the host presented my wife with a long stem red rose.  

As we walked London’s dark streets back to our hotel, our stomachs no longer signaling hunger but satisfaction, we realized why Jerry, Lister, and the entire United Kingdom had fallen in love with Indian cuisine.  The food was so rich and flavorful!  We were also struck by the deferential manner of the staff.  Not only did they treat us with respect and courtesy, but it seemed as though they viewed the preparation of the dishes, and the service of the meal, as a ceremony in which they were honored to participate.  

Needless to say, we resolved that when we returned home, we would make more of an effort to see how Indian restaurants in San Diego compared with tonight’s wonderful meal.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Sausage that Brings Isolation: Part 2

As I walked back to our hotel room, the policeman’s explanation for the current security measures of 10 Downing Street ringing in my ears, I felt as though Fiction had let me down.  I knew that was wrong, as Fiction that portrays a current status must be revised for the time, but still!  This was just another result of how unsuccessful I am.  Had I achieved more in my professional career, had I earned more money, had I succeeded in my life-long ambition to become a published novelist…well, okay.  Perhaps I still would have been barred from getting closer to the door of 10 Downing Street.  But at least I would have felt less concerned about the exchange rate between the dollar and the pound.  Thus, we wouldn’t be walking back to a tiny hotel room (nearly the cheapest we could find), but felt more free to take public transportation to plusher digs.  We wouldn’t have had to worry about where we could afford to eat dinner.  We might have felt more inclined to pay the admission charges of either Westminster Abbey or buy a ticket for the London Eye.  If only I had become Someone Important! I railed silently.

After awhile though, I turned my thoughts in a more profitable direction.  Just as rooms will be redecorated and building facades updated, I should have foreseen that the security procedures for 10 Downing Street would evolve with time.  But what truths did “Yes, Prime Minister” teach me that were of more lasting quality?  Certainly the relationship between the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister would remain the same.  As the head of the Civil Service, the primary goal of Sir Gus O’Donnell (the person holding Sir Humphrey’s job) would still be to maintain the stability of government.  Conversely, I imagine that the major concern of David Cameron (the current Prime Minister) would be to keep voters happy with his and his party’s actions, even if he had to completely overturn existing government policy and structure to do so.  But was there a greater truth that “Yes, Prime Minister,” could have taught me before now, if only I had been willing to listen?

In “The Grand Design,” the first episode of this sequel series, Jim Hacker walks into his living room in Number 10 at lunchtime, only to find that his wife is leaving to do her charity work.  With whom is he to dine?  He cannot eat in the Cabinet Mess: that is reserved for Civil Servants.  Nor can he eat with those in his party without an official reason, as this would both suggest and invite favoritism.  Lunching with journalists or representatives of other governments would pose similar dangers.  But having to dine alone is not the only limitation imposed on him.

Before his wife Annie leaves for her meeting, she complains about having to live in this “goldfish bowl.”  Every time she steps outside, she must face gawking tourists and journalists eager to question her.  She has been forced to keep the windows closed all morning, or music from the rehearsing Horse Guard (in their adjacent parade grounds) would have deafened her.  While she is complaining to him of how she feels like a prisoner in this house she is “forced to live in,” guards enter the room to perform a security check, and a functionary brings in government correspondence for him to read.  

What must it be like, to have to live under such stringent constraints?  While we all wish for additional money and power, do we think about the liberties and the anonymity that we would consequently lose?  When I achieve my goal of becoming a successful novelist, will I still be able to enjoy a quiet and peaceful evening walk through St. James Park?  I’m sure that Jim Hacker (or David Cameron, for that matter) would not regret his decision to be Prime Minister any more than I see more money and importance (even at the cost of my anonymity) as a justification to stop pursuing my personal goal, but still….

Suddenly, I find myself less bothered by the high prices that stop me from such activities as touring Westminster Abbey or riding the London Eye.  My hotel room doesn’t seem so small.  I am just another person visiting this famous, if expensive city.  Hence, at least for this trip, I do not have to eat “The Sausage that brings Isolation.”

Not another gawking tourist!

“The Grand Design” is included in “Yes, Prime Minister.”  The series is available on DVD from the BBC.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sausage that Brings Isolation: Part 1

From movies and TV, we all know where the Prime Minister of Britain lives: in 10 Downing Street.  When a crisis arises (such as in the episode “Aliens of London” in “Doctor Who”), political and military leaders converge on this seemingly nondescript building in Whitehall.   When a new political party takes control of the House of Commons (as in the film “Love Actually”), a limousine rolls up outside the building, and out walks the new Prime Minister (in this case, played by Hugh Grant).   Or, as portrayed in the first “Yes, Minister” episode, when James Hacker gets a call from the Prime Minister, we next see him outside Number 10, and learn that he has just become Minister of the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs (DAA).  

I had chosen to tour Whitehall this evening, not only because the DAA would have been located there, but also because I wanted to see this famous building (and residence).  I didn’t expect to see the Prime Minster standing outside, or to be ushered into the Cabinet Room to speak with him (an honor accorded the staff of Grace Brothers department store in an episode of “Are You Being Served”), but I had hoped to see the 10 Downing Street that I was familiar with from the episode “The Key” in Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s sequel series “Yes, Prime Minister.

In “Party Games,” the last episode of “Yes, Minister,” Sir Humphrey Appleby is promoted to the role of Cabinet Secretary, the highest Civil Service position in Britain.  Then the Prime Minister announces he will retire before the next election, and DAA Minister James Hacker ends up succeeding him through party machinations and the furor he arouses over the so-called “English Sausage.”  In “The Key,” Sir Humphrey is trying too hard to control Hacker, so the new Prime Minister changes the lock to the hallway that has, until now, allowed Sir Humphrey to burst in on any meeting he is conducting.  With his way through the intervening corridor blocked, Sir Humphrey walks outside, past a typical English policeman or “bobby,” and the people standing outside waist-high metal fencing.  He is only prevented from visiting entering Number 10 by another “bobby” who tells him his name is not on the daily list, so he cannot be admitted.  Had I done my homework, I would have read of the IRA bombing in 1991, several years after “The Key” was filmed.  Thus, I would not have been flabbergasted to see this.

Not your typical English "bobbies"

Clearly, my beloved Fiction had let me down.

This story will conclude in my next post: The Sausage that Brings Isolation: Part 2

“Aliens of London” is included in Doctor Who Series 1, which features the exploits of the Ninth Doctor (portrayed by Christopher Eccleston).  “Party Games” and “The Key” are included in “Yes, Prime Minister.”  Both series, as with "Are You Being Served?" and the movie "Love Actually" are available on DVD (and well worth watching).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

When All Hope Seems Lost

In Robert Silverberg’s classic short story “Road to Nightfall,” Paul Katterson has just learned that today’s food dole will be his last.  New York City is devastated, and escape from the city is impossible.  A decades-long world war has reduced the city to rubble, and the United States has been partitioned into a dozen strips of land.  Each area is isolated from the rest by radioactive wastelands.  Boats patrol the waters surrounding Manhattan, killing all who attempt to flee the city.  Yet Paul refuses to give up on humanity.

When a man tries to enlist him in his hunting parties, Paul rejects the offer, knowing what type of “meat” the man’s people actually hunt.  But he and his girlfriend are hungry.  She sees the employment offer as necessary: don’t they want to survive, to start a family?  Paul wonders at her irresponsibility: how can she desire to bring children into this world?  When she gives in to the only type of food available, he runs away from her.  But what are his options?  Everyone has given up: now there are only the hunters and the hunted.

We all have principles we care about, and goals we would like to achieve.  We are moral beings, and fight for causes we believe in.  What happens when those around us stop believing that the goals we desire are achievable, and become obstacles to the causes we feel so strongly about?  No person is an island; we cannot define as “evil” that which all of society has redefined as “good.”  Without support of any kind, we must bend to the public will, abandon everything we have fought for, and become what everyone else would have us be. 

Or must we?  Can you look yourself in the mirror every day for the rest of your life if you cave in on what you care about?  Is life worth living if you abandon your principles and goals?  Is a meaningless existence really better than living according to your beliefs, even if everyone else seems to have rejected them (and in the process, rejected you)? 

Ironically, “Road to Nightfall” continued to be rejected by publishers long after Robert Silverberg became a published author.  But he held onto the story, and two years later, mentioned to his friend Harlan Ellison that he still had one story he had failed to sell.  Ellison read the story, loved it, and with his passionate support, “Road to Nightfall” was finally published, four years after he first began submitting it.

So where is your Harlan Ellison?  Perhaps he is out there now, and you just have to wait for life to bring him your way.  Please, for the sake of all you hold dear, hold on until someone comes along who will aid you in your fight.  For the world needs people who refuse to abandon their principles and will never give up on transforming their goals into a better reality for all of us.

Robert Silverberg’s story “Road to Nightfall” is included in Phases of the Moon: Six Decades of Masterpieces by the SFWA Grand Master.  The collection is available from the publisher ibooks, and can be found at

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walking Whitehall

Imagine you are an MP (a Member of Britain’s Parliament), and unlike Alan B’Stard in the TV series “The New Statesman”, you actually care about the party, your country, and the people you represent.  When you aren’t visiting your constituency, or debating in the House of Commons, you might find yourself at work in your office located in a district of London near the Palace of Westminster known as Whitehall.  In fact, many key scenes in the first two seasons of “The New Statesman” take place in B’Stard’s office, as he fashions his latest scheme to enrich himself and carefully nudges it into motion.  

Suppose you have proven your ability to wield popular support with both the public and your party.  If your party’s leaders find you capable (and your party holds the majority in parliament), you might find yourself, like James Hacker in the TV series “Yes, Minister” being requested by the Prime Minister to run a government department.  In that case, you would move from your office in Whitehall…to an office in another area of Whitehall.

Whitehall is an unassuming place of power.  As I walked its streets in the relative quiet of an evening when the politicians were engaged in the House of Commons, I saw people entering and exiting buildings, a few parties of caterers and other service staff, and the occasional policeman.  Not wanting the latter to question me as to why I should be interested in photographing nondescript government buildings, for the most part I contented myself with studying architectural details and taking in the area’s vibe.   But I had to wonder: if Hacker’s Department of Administrative Affairs were not fictitious, where might it be housed among other real-world departments such as the Admiralty, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

Old buildings jostle for preeminence in Whitehall.

While numerous scenes depict B’Stard in the House of Commons, none are set there in “Yes, Minister.”  Following its creators’ belief that actual government is conducted behind closed doors, the shows are almost entirely set in government offices and private clubs.  Once, as I passed a cafĂ© with outdoor seating and the sign “Civil Service Club,” I had to smile, thinking of Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Wooley, the two members of the Civil Service with whom James Hacker worked most closely.  I wondered: were tonight’s patrons discussing the weather, their families, and their hobbies with their coworkers?  Or were they scheming as to how they could block their Minister’s latest reforms?

For the most part, “Yes, Minister” does not concern itself with the personal lives of its protagonists.  Instead, each episode concerns a different aspect of how the business of England is conducted.  MPs, Ministers, and even the Prime Minister are politicians; the Civil Service is its government.  Employed by the Crown, Civil Servants are protected from becoming the mere tools of any political party.  A politician serves as Minister of a particular government department for, at best, a few years.  While in power, he or she, as well as his party, will pursue agendas that they believe best represent the public’s desires.  When parliament changes hands, or a new minister takes over, the political agenda may change.  Meanwhile, Civil Servants work to preserve their department’s stability by pushing ahead with procedures and legislation that will ensure Britain’s long-term development.  Politicians crusade for causes; they fight so that good (as they see it) will win out in the public arena.  Civil Servants view government’s role as less of a struggle between good and evil and more in terms of order versus chaos.  Politicians concern themselves with garnering and maintaining voter approval; Civil Servants believe that unpopular policies are often the most necessary.

While the government of the United States is organized differently, I want to believe that it functions along similar lines.  Those working at all levels, regardless of whether they have been elected, appointed, or hired, may have a little of Alan B’Stard in them.  But most are probably people just like you and me, concerned about fulfilling their duties in a responsible fashion, and hoping that their efforts contribute positively to the lives of their fellow Americans.

That’s why I’d like to visit my own nation’s capital someday.  That’s why I’m walking through Whitehall now, instead of visiting a park, a restaurant, or relaxing in my hotel room.  That’s why, even though there’s really very little for a tourist to see, I find myself smiling. 

And unable to stop. 

“Yes, Minister” was written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, and is available on DVD.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Purple Cow of London

When my wife and I married, we opted to live in a smaller, less-expensive, more inland community.  At the time, this town had only a few stoplights, and possessed a peaceful, backwoods ambiance.  As time went by, new housing was added, Wal-Mart arrived, and a nearby military base changed its flight paths as well as the types of aircraft it serviced.  But as more cars filled the roads, as the night sky was rent with the churning of helicopters blades, and as family-run businesses gave way to franchises, the horse paths remained.  If one drove along the town’s back-roads, one could still find cows grazing in backyards.

Country life gave way to country pursuits, and this spurred an interest in decorative painting.  The first project my instructor gave me was to paint three cows on a milk jug-shaped piece of wood.  As the years went by, the number of projects included more folksy depictions of cows, and friends and families saw this trend and contributed with other cow-shaped items, until every room in our house exhibited a strong bovine presence.

For a time, we cradled a romantic dream of retirement in which we would live in a backwoods area and own a few farm animals, including a cow.  This was not an idle fancy: we investigated communities, read real-life stories of those who owned a few farm animals, even read up a little on the practicalities of such an existence.  After awhile, we found reruns of “All Creatures Great and Small” on TV, and started watching the show.  These adaptations of James Herriot’s novels were based on his own, real-life experiences as a country vet.   These stories did not sugarcoat the difficulties that farmers faced as they operated their farms and cared for their animals.  Over time, they burst our notions of how idyllic, peaceful, and easy-going our envisioned retirement would be. 

We had originally opted to live in this backcountry area because we could not afford a home in the coastal community in which we desired to live.  When our economic situation allowed, we swapped our more out-of-the-way country town for a smaller house in this urban setting.  In subsequent years, our house gradually lost much of its once cow-intensive flavor, and I eventually abandoned tole painting for other pursuits. 

It is interesting how folk art filled us with unrealistic notions, and even the nonfiction it inspired us to read did not dispel them.  On the other hand, watching as Siegfried, James, and Tristan fight to save ailing farm animals, and seeing farmers struggle to care for their cows, horses, sheep and pigs in rural England cured us of our misconceptions.   This is merely one example of how Fiction has often triumphed over mere fact, and in the process, steered my life onto a smarter course.

In busy, urban London, with its frantic pace, its high-prices, and its impressive architecture, the last thing I expected to see along the South Bank of the Thames was an upside-down cow.  This air-blown bovine was dubbed the Udderbelly, and served as a temporary facility for a series of concerts, comedians, and other entertainment acts.  Nestled within its confines we found stalls where one could purchase all sorts of food, from curry to cotton candy to beer to ice cream.  We happened upon it when no acts were on stage, and as it was dinnertime for the locals, found the many kiosks crowded with customers.

It is heartening to see that sophisticated Londoners are not immune to the silliness that once influenced me.  (And perhaps still does).


Friday, September 9, 2011

Keeping an Eye on the River Thames

As I leave Westminster Bridge behind and head down the steps toward the London Eye, I am reminded of the Doctor Who episode “Rose.”  When Doctor Who returned to TV screens in 2005, we found the ninth doctor battling some familiar foes.  It seems that this time, the Nestene Consciousness (who first threatened Earth in the third Doctor story “Spearhead From Space”) has taken up residence beneath this world-famous Ferris wheel.  Formally opened by Prime Minister Tony Blair on December 31, 1999, this engineering marvel then represented the tallest example of its kind in the world.  Rising over four hundred feet in height, one can easily imagine this alien entity using such a large, circular device to beam its controlling influence to the Autons it is using to take over London. 

Walking under it now, I find myself dwarfed by its sheer size.  While I cannot say that I have ever had a special affinity for Ferris wheels (How can you get excited about a ride that merely transports you up, down, and around at a snail's pace?), I understand why so many opt to ride this ultimate expression of an amusement park staple.  Taking thirty minutes to complete a revolution, the passenger is afforded enviable views of the London skyline.  Of course, for the price of a ticket, one could nearly afford a day at Disneyland (or a non-worship visit to Westminster Abbey), so the ride should be spectacular.

Originally planned for a five-year-run to celebrate the Millennium, many objected to how the giant wheel altered the area’s aesthetics.  Its detractors, who dubbed it the London Eyesore, no doubt cheered in “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” when the movie’s namesake foe created a crater in the Thames riverbed that nearly destroyed the structure.  But as it has become one of England’s most popular attractions, the London Eye’s continued presence on the South Bank seems assured.

London Eye, or Eyesore?
To me it represents the juxtapositions this city continually hurls in one’s face.  The horde encamped next to the Palace of Westminster to protest the government’s foreign policy.  The free museums one can lose entire days in versus the churches that charge steep admission prices.  The architectural styles, from Gothic to Post-Modern (and everything in between), that highlight how very long London has played host to humanity. 

With my wallet ensconced in my back pocket, I smile at this example of audacity, excess, and engineering excellence, and continue my exploration of London.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Monty Python on Westminster Bridge

In the sketch “Nationwide”, a self-described “rather wet” TV news program sends its reporter John Dull out to Westminster Bridge.  While all the other news shows are covering World War Three, the producers of this program have instead decided to test out the latest theory: that sitting down regularly in a comfortable chair can prove relaxing.  At first, the reporter finds himself greatly relaxed in his Queen Anne chair as the traffic and pedestrians stream past.  Then a policeman approaches and accuses him of stealing the chair.  It seems that this chair belongs to a Mrs. Edgeworth of Pinner (a suburb of London), who is holding a matching chair across the street.

We never learn the exact reason why World War Three broke out this morning, but the policeman’s actions suggest the underlying cause behind all such conflicts.  On the mistaken example that Mr. Dull does not believe he is actually a policeman, the English bobby points to the official Metropolitan Identity Code on his helmet, then crosses the street to knock down Mrs. Edgeworth and return with her other chair.  He never notices when another officer mugs the woman he has just wronged.  Instead, with Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster in the background, he steals a notepad and a pen from passing businessmen, a box of sandwiches from two young women, and breaks into a store for two beers.  Ignoring Mrs. Edgeworth’s continual struggles across the bridge, the policeman sketches out a comparison of his helmet to that of the historic Czar’s secret police.  While he expounds on the prerogatives of his office, the two men enjoy their ill-gotten lunch.

John Dull sat here in his "stolen" chair, 
long before the arrival of the London Eye.

How quickly some of our leaders forget that they hold positions of authority in order to better serve our individual needs!  While some never forget who they are and why they hold office, others orchestrate programs that will supposedly serve the needs of specific classes or groups of citizens, and develop sweeping rules which make general categories of actions criminal.  In the process, these leaders ignore or dismiss cases of genuine injustice if an individual’s situation falls between the areas covered by their broad definitions.  Believing their efforts have proven worthwhile, they happily partake of the material rewards their positions entitle them to. 

By regularly enjoying prerogatives most citizens cannot afford, members of this latter group distance themselves from their populace.  So-called accomplishments swell their chests with pride; they view themselves as the divinely-appointed embodiment of the citizenry they represent.  Competitive instincts awaken.  Local and regional officials squabble for national resources, and if national leaders decide another country has more resources than their own...well, there is always an answer for that!

Aggression never rights wrongs: violence only creates successive injustices that compound the inequity they were intended to correct.  State-sponsored acts of aggression disrupt the natural order, and the resultant “lesser” injustices (in this case, stealing a chair and other items from citizens, or mugging a woman for her purse) get overlooked in attempts to “uphold law and order.”  Amid this chaos, whether we witness violence in the streets or watch the TV news endlessly reporting on it, the tendency is to get overwhelmed.  Collapsing into paralysis, we grasp hold of what comes easily, whether it be sitting in our Queen Anne chair, watching TV, or ignoring the injustice occurring before us.  I must find comfort where I can in such uncertain crimes, we tell ourselves. 

No one--not the businessmen, the women, or the shopkeeper--rushes to aid Mrs. Edgeworth when the policeman tries to steal her purse.  (John Dull does not even report on this flagrant violation to the cameraman!)  While it does not negate one’s moral obligation, it can seem difficult for an onlooker to know whether or not he should intervene in a struggle between others he does not know, perhaps over an issue he does not fully understand.  But the dilemma is an illusion: in order to preserve justice for all, individuals must rise to aid those whose rights are trampled on, especially by an authority figure. 

In fighting for what she believes is hers, Mrs. Edgeworth shows us the way forward.  All too often we settle for being John Dull.  If only more of us could be more like Mrs. Edgeworth.

“Nationwide” can be seen in the Monty Python fourth-season episode “Hamlet.” 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Westminster Bridge in Color, and in Black & White

Having left behind the statue of the rather complex man Richard the Lionheart, the Palace of Westminster so rich in design and ornamentation, and its famous clock tower known as Big Ben (such an icon for movie-makers and TV directors), it came as a shock to find myself suddenly approaching Westminster Bridge.  Just one of many that span the River Thames, the bridge welcomes one with its elegant simplicity.  Like its sister, Lambeth Bridge, one of its original purposes might have been to provide the monarch a direct route between Lambeth Palace and the Palace of Westminster, but the colors the two are painted (green for Westminster, red for Lambeth) suggest that the modern politicians’ Houses of Commons (upholstered in green) and that of the Lords (upholstered in red) now wield the most influence over this island nation. 

I feel a strong sense of belonging as I walk across it, watching the boats cruise beneath me in the Thames, and enjoying the busyness of the cars and the double-decker buses that transport London’s eight million citizens and countless visitors to their destinations.  I try not to impede my fellow pedestrians, who stream around and past me, surging along the wide sidewalk at this city’s usual frantic pace.  I pause for long moments to capture the perfect view of this bridge in my camera, or to photograph other nearby landmarks.  I make way for those standing in line to buy a sausage or roasted peanuts from a man working off a barbecue grill fashioned from half of a metal drum.  But along with what I see, other images rush to my mind, visions that enrich my sense of presence, of the history of this stretch of metal and concrete upon which I stand.

In “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” the Doctor and his companions have become seperated.  Barbara throws in her lot with the resistance in London, led by an injured scientist named Dortmun.  She joins an attack on the Dalek spaceport, using new bombs created by Dortmun.  But the bombs fail to injure their enemies, and their attack becomes a rout.  With the resistance in tatters, Daleks scour the city, no longer taking captives, but killing any humans they find.  Barbara and her friend Jenny must get the wheelchair-bound Dortmun out of the city.  But in order to leave London, first they must cross the River Thames.

On a bright, clear morning, Barbara and Jenny push Dortmun along the walkway which hugs the Thames.  They help Dortmun climb from his wheelchair and up the stairs to the top of the bridge.  They look in every direction for the Dalek patrols.  Then, each woman places both her hands on one of the wheelchair handles, digs her feet into the pavement, and together, they propel the injured scientist across the bridge, toward the Palace of Westminster and beyond.

Although “Doctor Who” has transported us to so many places in time and space, for me, this moment stands out.  Filmed in Black & White, and accompanied by a sparse, martial beat, the camera carries us along on the group’s desperate flight.  The group races past notable landmarks, barely avoiding Dalek patrols.  For the most part, the camera focuses upon Barbara, Jenny, and Dortmun, upon the wheelchair’s spinning wheels and the women’s racing feet.  Sometimes, all we see is the shadow the group casts as they travel a bridge and roads devoid of all other human activity.  It is one of those moments that vividly captures the group’s desperation, their hope, and their valor.  Like a red-hot branding iron, that film sequence has burned it way into my memory.  Now I find their desperate flight superimposed upon the normal activity of contemporary London life.

I know it is just another bridge, one of many that transports pedestrians, cars, and tour buses across the River Thames.  I understand that it is just another place that has served as a location shoot for a TV show or a movie.  It is just a span of metal and concrete, not worth mentioning when compared with the city’s other sights and attractions.  And yet, because of that singular moment in Doctor Who, Westminster Bridge has become so very much more.

Flooded with images both past and present, reality merges seamlessly with the fiction I hold so dear.  I am complete.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Monty Python’s Crusade Part Three: “...And For Eternity”

In 1975, the giant ABC network purchased the group's Season Four episodes for broadcast to American viewers.  This represented the first real opportunity for everyone in the United States to witness the wonder that was Monty Python.  But instead of broadcasting the six shows individually and uncut, the network chose to edit nearly every skit and combine the resultant material into two specials.  Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin flew to America in the hopes of achieving a satisfactory compromise, but after meeting with executives, realized that preserving the artistic merits of their material outside of court was impossible.  So the following day, the two men went into a New York City court room to take on the giant American network.

They lost.

After fighting so hard, and being robbed of even a compromise settlement, Monty Python decided to fight on, believing that not only their reputation in America, but also the artistic merits of their material, had been significantly harmed by ABC.  This legal process continued throughout 1976, until on December 16th, nearly one year after Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin had battled the American giant and lost, a settlement was reached.  In addition to paying Monty Python’s legal costs, ABC agreed not to transmit any more shows unless the group approved any cuts made to their material.  More important, as neither the BBC nor ABC seemed to care about the artistic merits of their material, the group would receive their original tapes back after five years, and Monty Python would hold all rights associated with them.

Because Gilliam and Palin traveled to America to fight on behalf of their group, and because the members continued to crusade for their rights, not only did Monty Python emerge victorious from this battle, but the entire world benefited.  In the 1960s and 70s, TV was still a relatively new art form.  Not able to foresee the proliferation of cable television channels and the home video market, studios and production companies often failed to properly preserve their creations.  TV episodes that had broadcast in their home countries and sold abroad were often junked.  Some shows, such as Doctor Who, and even big budget movies from the past have thus been lost forever, or exist only in edited form.  (Even an episode of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s hilarious “Faulty Towers” is missing footage cut for a later rebroadcast).  And, as incomprehensible as it seems, before releasing them on home video, studios today continue this practice of editing these priceless artifacts of entertainment history to conform to today’s politically-correct tastes. 

You never know what others will find of value, either today, or in the years to come.  If this story teaches us anything, it is that you cannot count upon others to treasure your work.  So if you believe what you have created has value, you must fight to preserve it, or risk losing it.  For yourself.  For everyone.  And forever.

In fighting to secure all rights to their material, Monty Python ensured that later generations would be able to enjoy these timeless shows so rich in truth, hilarity, and as (to adapt what their friend) Douglas Adams said, everything “to do with life.”  So thank you Monty Python, and especially Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, you real-life crusaders, you!

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.