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Friday, October 28, 2011

Defined by Fear

“The place to begin is at the bottom of the trough.  How long I had gone through the motions, living days as alike as beads on a konchu wire, I don’t know.”

With these words, Dr. Gregory Benford begins his novel The Stars in Shroud.   Ling works in his apartment, managing machinery via remote control.  Once he was something more, a starship captain.  But the colonists he rescued from Regeln have infected him, his family, and most of Earth’s inhabitants with a mysterious psychological condition.  Like so many, he and his family fear to leave their apartment.  Once each day, Ling and his wife Angela force themselves out of their apartment to walk the hallways.  But they cannot face going outside.

His wife Angela has resigned herself to this unreasoning fear, yet she hopes for a better life for her children.  The government can perform frontal lobe taps.  Through this procedure, Chark and Romana could be programmed to focus upon specific tasks.  This would ensure that they became productive members of society.  But Ling resists putting them through this irreversible procedure.  He hopes that they can all battle through this condition.  If they can, he wants his children to be fully balanced, not drones controlled by government programming.

In “The Cage,” Captain Christopher Pike battles fear, doubt, and guilt.  He even contemplates retirement to free himself of such overwhelming responsibility.  Dr. Phil rebukes him: a man must face his life head-on, not be cowered by his fear or hide from his destiny.  In “Star Trek V,” Spock’s half-brother Sybok offers to cleanse Kirk of his pain.  Kirk’s response: Don’t you dare: I need my pain!  

Fear, insecurities, and regret are part of the human condition.  Like Angela, I sometimes yearn for a frontal lobe tap.  I think: if only all my fears and insecurities could be taken away, I could focus unimpeded upon life’s great tasks.  But then I remember Ling’s refusal to accept the easy fix.  I remember how Pike resisted the Talosians because he cared so much for the Enterprise crew.  I remember Captain Kirk’s great speech, in which he asserts that pain and guilt can’t be taken away; nor should they be.  For our unique fears and insecurities define us.  “If we lose them,” Kirk says, “we lose ourselves.”  (And indeed, most of Sybok’s followers, when cleansed of their pain, resemble the unquestioning drones Ling fears Chark and Romana might become if they undergo these government-sponsored operations).

While I don’t want my pain, Captain Kirk has told me that I need it.  (And I don’t want to get thrown in the brig for insubordination).  Like Ling in The Stars in Shroud, it appears that I must struggle on with my fears, my insecurities, and my regrets.  Perhaps they are just as important to me as my strengths.  Could it be that, lacking my unique fears, insecurities, and regrets, I might not strive so hard to accomplish my goals?  That I might not dare to dream of greatness?

Related Dragon Cache Links

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Avluela’s Sacrifice

In Robert Silverberg’s story “Nightwings,” three travelers walk toward Rome.  They live in a time far distant from our own.  Mankind’s greatest achievements lay in its past.   Cities, nations, even continents have been destroyed.  Even the original name of their destination (which they call Roum) has been forgotten.  To ensure its survival, our species has been segregated into guilds.  Some relate to an individual’s vocation or capabilities.  Others group individuals based upon their genetic makeup.  Yet, despite how they look or what they do, they are all still human.

Avluela is a Flier.  This is not a role that she has chosen.  Her body is lean and fragile, and her wings are as delicate as those of a butterfly.  The Watcher who accompanies her (his guild will not allow him to divulge his name) is a weak, old man.  Four times each day, he must use his instruments to search our solar system for invaders.  Gorman, the third member of the party, is a misfit.  Although he is tall and strong, he is a Changeling; his mutated features disallow him entry to any guild.  

They joined together for mutual protection.  Despite their differences, they have grown fond of each other.  When they arrive in Roum, they find they do not wish to part.  The Watchers' Inn is full: they cannot even house him.  Gorman and Avluela have separate options.  The Flier’s guild inn might agree to house the Watcher, but not a Changeling.  It seems that their party must separate.  Yet Avluela has grown so attached to these men that she cannot bear to part from them.  In desperation she throws herself before the Prince of Roum, and offers up the pleasures of her body to him, if only he will house all of them.

Some might view Avluela as morally deficient.  Others may call her worse.  Such people could claim that her sacrifice was unnecessary: more avenues could be pursued in order to secure separate housing for all three travelers.  Justification can always be found to condemn others.  But those inclined to think ill of her do not understand the loss she has suffered, nor the pain she endures.  Avluela cannot bear to lose the company of those who have proven themselves worthy of her friendship, trust, and love.  So she offers up the only thing she can to the Prince.  And all for the sake of these strangers who have become her family.

It is easy to take others for granted.  Life keeps us so busy, and offers constant distractions.  We often value those who possess good looks or wealth or can boast of great accomplishments over those who have steadfastly remained at our side.  But whether they are related by blood or affection, if they have proven willing to carry your burdens, and remain committed to bringing you joy, they deserve your loyalty.  Amid the pain and loss she suffers, Avluela recognizes this. 

Sadly, when pain and loss afflict us less, such essential truths grow more difficult to perceive.

Related Dragon Cache entries

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Surprising Discovery

The English can be particular about their cheese.  As with all aspects of life, this enthusiasm is reflected in their fiction.  In an episode of the sitcom “Chef!” Gareth Blackstock strives to assemble the perfect meal for another world-famous chef who will be visiting his restaurant.   He feels so strongly about this that he threatens to fire his usual cheese provider unless the man can secure for him some unpasteurized Stilton to serve at the end of the meal.  Gareth ends up leaving lunch preparations to his staff as he drives out to meet with a farmer who still makes this quintessential English cheese that has recently been “banned by the government.”  In an episode of “To The Manor Born,” the retired Brigadier drives to his local train station.  There he waits for the afternoon train, which is bringing him not a friend or family member, but a specially ordered head of Stilton from London.  Sure, he could have purchased a wedge from the local supermarket, but he wants the entire head so that he can pour a bottle of Port into it.  (Even though the government tells him that it’s not good for him!)  And in “A Grand Day Out,” when the cupboards run bare of his beloved Wensleydale, Wallace and Grommit build a rocket ship and travel to the moon.  For, as we all know, the moon is made of cheese, right?

The staff at Neal’s Yard Dairy answered all our questions about the various cheeses we wished to try.  Stilton, Wensleydale, even Cheddar: the government has strict laws governing each.  The cheese must come from farms in a certain region of the country to bear a particular name, they can only be sold so many days or weeks after being made, etc.  With Stilton, the decision has been made that all Stilton must be pasteurized in order to bear the famous name.  But, due to the desire of cheese enthusiasts such as Gareth Blackstock, Neal’s Yard Dairy sells a variety called Stichelton.  They can’t call it unpasteurized Stilton: that would be illegal.  But everyone knows what it is, and those with discerning palates know where to find it.

We scour London for fine, English cheese

When I was a child, I tried Blue Cheese dressing and disliked it.  Perhaps once or twice I was given salad with crumbled Blue Cheese on it, and again, disliked it.  But I steeled myself, sampled the Stilton and the Stichelton, and found that I liked both.  Since I’ve come home, I’ve purchased imported Stilton and found I enjoy it in the morning on toast or an English Muffin.  I’ve bought burgers in restaurants with domestically produced Blue Cheese in them and savored the flavor.  I’ve even tried Blue Cheese dressing and found I no longer dislike it.  It would seem that in the past few decades (and for no particular reason) my tastes have matured to the point where I can enjoy Blue Cheese.  Or could it be that I was so struck by Gareth Blackstock and the Brigadier’s passion for Stilton that I forced myself to thoughtfully reconsider the cheese’s entire flavor, rather than merely reacting its strong, initial bite.  Either way, I’m grateful to Gareth and the Brigadier for inspiring me to give Stilton another try.  Through them, I have made a surprising discovery: I now love Blue Cheese.  

I wonder what else I could learn from these fictional characters, were I only to try.

Internet sites to visit:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Ramble, a Triumph, and a Risky Sacrifice

"Ooh, bookshops!"

After we left St. Martins in the Fields, the next stop on our list was the British Museum.  The one o’clock service had left us feeling rather mellow, so as we walked London’s streets, we wandered inside any stores that interested us, particularly several bookshops, where I searched the shelves for the work of several English authors.  I eventually found a novel I didn’t have by E. F. Benson.  This prolific English novelist wrote in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his work is little remembered in the States.  I had hunted down all six books in his Mapp and Lucia series. Now I had a new novel to enjoy.  In Mrs. Ames, the title character dominates everyone in her small town, but when latest social triumph backfires, her previously obedient husband falls under another woman’s thrall.  In order to reclaim him, she is forced to endure a painful journey of self-discovery.  While it was yet another novel of social manners (I had been hoping for one of his biographies, memoirs, or tales of the supernatural), it was a still a new book to read by an author who has brought me much joy.  I left the store in a triumphant mood.

After awhile, we realized that we had become lost, and consulted the doorman standing outside a boutique hotel.  He directed our footsteps onward, and a few blocks later, we found ourselves outside the British Museum.

We joined the throng, and made our way inside.  The lives of the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Greeks hold great interest for me, and here I was, where I could explore so many relics of these ancient civilizations.  Yet, I suddenly realized that with the afternoon passing so quickly, we could spend the rest of the day here (just an hour or two was left until closing), or we could hurry to see the other places on our list before they closed for the day.  After a quick huddle, we decided that we really needed more time to explore this building’s many treasures.  So reluctantly, we consigned the British Museum to another vacation, and left in search of Covent Garden.

A beautiful woman poses for my camera
It may seem odd for someone to choose a popular shopping area such as Covent Garden over studying such important historical artifacts as the Rosetta Stone, a limestone fragment from the Sphinx, or statues from the Parthenon.  But my primary purpose in traveling to England was to understand how people here lived their daily lives, as well as gain deeper insight into their culture and traditions.  And there was one shop in particular that we wanted to visit, one that epitomized the difference between our two great countries: Neal’s Yard Dairy.  The moment we had seen it in a Rick Steves’ travelogue on PBS, we had decided that we needed to go there. 

Neal’s Yard is a small area located near Covent Garden.  In his book Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, Michael Palin relates that he and Terry Gilliam were once part owners of a film studio there.  I find this ironic, because if you poll any group of Monty Python fans, along with the “Ministry of Silly Walks” and the “Dead Parrot” sketch, another that is sure to be mentioned is “The Cheese Shop.”  Cheese plays an important role in English culture.  In shows as diverse as “Fawlty Towers” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” people are seen concluding their meals with several types of cheese.  And these are not varieties that most Americans would recognize, but those that, if they are offered in our supermarkets, are almost always imported from other countries.  As Stephen Fry (actor, writer, comedian, and poet) states in his book, Stephen Fry in America:

“America doesn’t get cheese.  They put up with the most hideous orange melted gunk, weird vestigial descendants of Munster and Cheddar…Cheese, in the real sense of the word, along with proper bread, can only be found in special places in America, usually cities with a student and artist population.”

We wanted to discover what exactly it was that the English “got” and Americans didn’t.  For this, we had sacrificed seeing the priceless treasures of the British Museum.  We could only hope that we would not later regret our decision.

Related Dragon Cache stories

Related Internet Links

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Our Need For Interdependence

In Dr. Gregory Benford’s novel, The Stars in Shroud, Ling is the captain of a starship.  Like Mattim Abeeb in Mike Moscoe’s novel The First Casualty, his ship has been converted to serve in humanity’s war against the Quarm.  Not much is known about this alien race, except that they have recently begun invading the colony worlds of Earth.  After a recent attack on Regeln, Ling travels there to rescue survivors.

Understandably, his formerly civilian crew is uneasy about heading into a warzone.  In order to foster calm and a sense of unity, Ling summons everyone to a session of Sabal.  In combination with their personal altars, this game not only addresses a spiritual need, but also reminds players of their individual and collective worth.   

When they reach Regeln, Ling takes a ground team down to the planet.   A colony town seems completely deserted, but they find a hole dug in the auditorium floor.  Climbing into it, Ling and his party discover a labyrinth of tunnels, mauled bodies, and individual holes which the city’s inhabitants have dug for themselves.  These people have taken food and water with them, and are living in their own waste.  They grow violent when Ling and his crew try to pull them from their holes.  

As a second wave is heading their way, there is no possibility of finding, let alone forcibly extracting all the colonists.  They manage to get three thousand back to the ship, but never reach the majority of the world’s inhabitants.  Then they race back toward Earth.  While Tonji, his second-in-command, exults that they have escaped the Quarm, Ling’s concerns are confirmed when members of his crew begin missing meals and locking themselves away in their cabins.

I would like to say that I merely find this story entertaining, but whether I like it or not, this aspect of Dr. Benford’s story resonates with me.  I know what happens to me when Winter approaches and the days shorten.  Like one of Earth’s smaller mammals, I tend to retreat inside my comfortable home.  In the comfort of the central heating, I can read my books and watch my favorite TV shows and movies until Spring arrives.  When the days begin to lengthen, and the temperature rises, only then am I inclined to end my hibernation.

The trouble with this attitude is that, as physically comfortable as I make myself, my thoughts necessarily turn inward.  To combat this similar crisis, Ling orders another Sabal game.  But instead of engendering cooperation and ushering everyone into a sense of Phase, tensions only increase during the game.  Individual fears are augmented, and players pursue strategies that reward themselves at the expense of others.  As the game is designed to simulate the structure of their society, Ling halts the ship until he can discover how to counteract whatever has affected the colonists (and now his crew).  But Tonji manifests this loss of Phase by sending a counter-argument to Earth, whose leaders consequently order Ling to return immediately.  When the ship reaches Earth, this desire for isolation infects nearly the entire population of Earth.

Society often teaches that each individual's goal should be to become independent.  I agree that it is a worthy goal to not feel as if one is dependent upon others (or situations, or things) for one’s happiness and fulfillment.  But I suspect that this desired state is neither an attainable, nor a desirable goal.  Otherwise, how do we explain the tremendous popularity of Facebook and Twitter, as well as the explosion in cell phone usage and texting.  How can we declare that we do not need each other, when our daily activities only emphasize our craving for interdependence?  

In part, this blog represents my own attempt to push back the desire for isolation that strikes me every Winter.  But I recognize that it is not enough to merely connect with others in a virtual manner.  It is all too easy, in seclusion, to focus merely upon my own needs and desires.  When I leave my comfortable home, I am confronted by the needs of those around me.  By focusing upon the latter, by being in community with others, I participate in the reality that a game like Sabal can only simulate.  Through interacting with my fellow humans, not only can I contribute to my individual wellbeing, but that of all around me. 

Related Dragon Cache entries:
More on Mike Moscoe’s novel The First Casualty
The first of several entries on Dr. Benford’s novel Jupiter Project
My first entry on Dr. Benford and Gordon Eklund’s novel If The Stars Are Gods

Related Internet Links:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Faith, Religion, and the English People

When Daleks patrol Trafalgar Square, churchgoers had better beware.  Or at least that seems to be the underlying message behind one shot in the Doctor Who story “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.”  A Dalek rolls forward toward the camera, and in the background can be glimpsed St. Martins in the Fields, one of the more famous non-cathedral churches in London. But no Daleks patrolled the Square today, so we did not worry as we made our leisurely way to the one o’clock worship service.

Unlike Westminster Abbey, the interior is not covered with remembrances of famous personalities who are buried there.  No statues of famous politicians or saints tower above the visitor.  No priests herded us to our seats and warned us to keep our cameras in their cases.  Instead, we were welcomed warmly by a parishioner, found a place in one of the pews, and knelt comfortably to pray.  Outside all might be hustle-and-bustle, the noises of cars and conversations, and myriad distractions that could dilute one’s focus.  Inside St Martins in the Fields, we could compose our minds (and hearts) in silence, and look forward to an hour in which we could focus upon the one who is greater than all of us.  (No, I’m not referring to Lady Gaga).

Normally I’m not big on choral music, particularly not when sung in another language.  But I appreciated the efforts of the organist and the four-person choir, (even if I couldn’t understand the Latin lyrics), as well as the fact that they had given of their time this afternoon.  The pastor’s message--that the Church was a place for anyone, regardless of his or her economic or social status--came as a tonic after the rigid formality of Westminster Abbey.

I cannot state that any particular story brought me to St. Martins in the Fields.  Nor is it a secret that churches in England are less well attended than those in the States.  What I can say (regardless of the varying ways in which Church and Religion are presented) is that such elements of corporate and individual faith keep cropping up in the British TV shows I enjoy.  “Lovejoy” may not be a churchgoer, but in many of his mysteries, he ends up visiting one, talking with a priest, or even attempting to acquire a rare Bible.  The Reverend Dennis of “Waiting For God” has lost his faith, and consequently his mind.  (He accidently christens one child “ugly little bastard Jones”).  In “All Creatures Great and Small,” James Herriot may not attend services regularly, but his wife and children do.  The kindly old Rector in “To The Manor Born” might have been hen-pecked by Audrey during his career, but he remains devout, collects alms for good causes, is involved in his community, and takes nearly everything in stride.   Sergeant Hathaway in “Lewis” attended seminary before he opted for a career in law enforcement.  And then there is “The Vicar of Dibley,” where Geraldine is sent to a rural village filled with the wackiest parishioners imaginable.  Although they had expected a male priest, she soon wins them over.  Their bizarre weaknesses highlight her own foibles, and no matter how irreverent the situation becomes, she always yanks everyone back into line by relating a scriptural story that underpins a spiritual truth.  Clearly many differing views on Christianity and Faith exist in England.  That nearly every series I have watched touches upon such matters reveals how deeply embedded they are in English culture and everyday life.

I cannot say that I found anything about St. Martin’s in the Fields to be remarkable, spectacular, or mind-blowing.  (Believe me, you haven’t had your mind-blown, until it’s been blown in…oh, never mind).  But it was a comfortable and calming place to spend an hour after our continent-and-ocean-spanning journey, our short night of sleep, and our nonstop sightseeing.  We left refreshed, recharged, and ready for more adventures.

Some Related Dragon Cache links

Some Links to the (Big, Bad) Worldwide Web

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Controlled By Chaos

Occasionally, we all feel like pawns on the chessboard of life.  Those who constrain our options and actions may do so by exerting emotional, physical, or legal power over us.  Alternatively, we may find ourselves in the grip of situations from which, whatever we try, we cannot break free.  That which limits us may even reside inside our very beings.  Either way, we tell ourselves that if we just soldier on, eventually we will push through whatever bars us from accomplishing our goals.

So why do we often fail so miserably?

Two books that exemplify this constant battle are Downbelow Station and The First Casualty.   In C. J. Cherryh’s story, the inhabitants of the Pell Space Station find themselves caught up in a battle between the Earth Company that once dominated the stars, and the rebel Union intent upon driving their former masters back to humanity’s home planet.  In Mike Moscoe’s novel, asteroid miners find themselves drafted into military service by the Society of Humanity, while on the opposing Unity side, Ray Longknife sees his new society’s glorious ideals being twisted by a repressive dictator.  Both books feature great characters: Cherryh’s Signy Mallory and Moscoe’s Mattim Abeeb are both capable star ship captains who have earned the respect of their crews and fight for the causes they believe in.  In each story, characters cannot avoid the conflict, and soon find themselves so overwhelmed that most of us, were we in their shoes, might concede the fight and accept defeat.  Yet these people find the strength and the determination to soldier on.

Both novels are exciting and entertaining.  Both provided the essential basis for later stories by their authors.  Both were purchased by business-savvy editors, and published by major publishing houses.  Yet Downbelow Station went on to win numerous awards, as well as critical and commercial success, while The First Casualty failed to catch fire with critics or readers, and has since gone out of print. 

Thankfully, Ace Books and Mike Moscoe decided to soldier on together.  Although he had to change his pen name to Mike Shepherd, he has gone on to achieve success with his Kris Longknife series.  As of this writing, Ace Books has published nine novels (based on the characters, situations, and universe created in The First Casualty), with a tenth due out next year. 

Whatever enabled C. J. Cherryh’s success, and whatever cost Mike Moscoe the ability to sell books under his name, both authors soldiered on.  Because of their perseverance and their determination, both have found a lasting place in the hearts of their readerships.

While my life often seems controlled by external chaos and constrained by internal forces beyond my conscious control, I gain inspiration not only from the structured-reality great Fiction provides, but also from the stories of authors who created the stories I cherish.  Either way, these models help me battle on.  I offer them to you in the hope that they will likewise inspire you.  

Other recent Dragon Cache stories about Authors worth discovering

Websites Worth Perusing
C. J. Cherryh
Mike (Shepherd) Moscoe

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dining Outside is for the Bird (and the People)

One memorable image about eating in England comes from Lovejoy.  Many times on this popular TV show (based on the novels of Jonathan Gash), the itinerant, bohemian Lovejoy must eat “on the hop,” as the English say.  Perhaps he is trying to secure a particular antique for a client who is leaving the country in a few hours.  Or maybe a woman has been kidnapped, and he must make several quick sales to meet the ransom demand.  Whatever the case, in order to meet his particular deadline, he will not stop for a meal, but merely duck into a shop for a sandwich or fish and chips, and then eat his food on the way to his car or to the next shop he must visit.

Life in London seems to rush past.  More than the occasional antiques dealer can be seen eating “on the hop.”  While people fill the local eateries, many opt for quicker, easier, and cheaper alternatives.  After touring the National Gallery, we set out to find something quick and affordable for lunch.  Not only did we learn it costs more to eat your meal inside a restaurant (than to take your food “to go”), but the restaurants were crowded.  Conversation bounced off the walls, and the capacity crowds made the air still and warm.  Eventually we ducked into a small convenience store.  Through using simple words, and repeating our questions until the Indian manager understood us (and we understood him), we managed to secure some hot food and cold drinks.  Now, where to enjoy our meal?

"Where should we eat?"

We finally opted for what was available: a bench on the street in front of a crowded restaurant, where we could eat with a small measure of comfort while watching the normal pace of life rush past.  Pedestrians hustled by, off to their next appointment or scheduled event.  Drivers honked or gunned their engines: vehicles parked to offload passengers, then darted out once more, slotting into any conceivable space on London’s crowded streets.  And birds swooped past, on the prowl for whatever crumbs that outside diners such as us might leave on the ground for their nourishment.

We realized that London’s streets make up the biggest dining room of them all.  Executives in tailored suits sat next to teenage girls in sweatshirts and jeans as they ate their lunch, talked on their phones, listened to their MP3 players, or chatted with their friends.  Benches, steps, retaining walls: any flat surface was sufficient.  No one seemed to miss sitting down at a table to enjoy a civilized meal in a quiet dining room.  No one seemed to mind the tourists’ laughter and loud joviality as each recounted the morning’s adventures with their friends.  Amid the hustle and bustle, everyone was at peace.

In my adolescence, I remember sitting around a concrete table with my parents and eating our food at McDonalds (because then the chain then offered no inside seating).  I remember my father pulling the car into an A & W Root Beer and having waitresses bring our food out to the car.  Nowadays, whenever I go out for a “cheap and cheerful” meal (as the English would say), I expect a dining room with comfortable seats, a quiet ambient noise level, and sufficient ventilation to keep the air at a comfortable temperature and humidity level.  Have I become too soft? Were I to live in London, might I change my expectations in regards to the acceptable conditions under which I choose to enjoy my food?  Perhaps.  As for this day, I found I could enjoy my halves of the warm calzone and the chicken pizza-roll that my wife and I shared.  I could smile as one of the tourists picked up her bottle and exploded into laughter when the soda (which had apparently been dropped) sprayed all over her and her friends.  I could throw the occasional crumb to the pigeon that looked up at us and waited so patiently.  After all, he needed to eat too.

"Patience: for the birds it is time to eat as well!"

Some related Dragon Cache links:

Some related web links:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Audrey, Richard, and the Unknown Constable

While a Doctor Who story might have drawn me to Trafalgar Square, another British TV show was foremost in my mind as I stepped inside Britain’s National Gallery.

In the comedy “To The Manor Born,” Audrey has lost her beloved estate to Richard, the founder of a successful grocery chain.  In one episode, he asks her to pose as his wife to fend off the amorous advances of a beautiful French businesswoman with whom he is attempting to finalize a contract.  Unknown to him, Audrey arrives early to redecorate the manor according to her tastes, using many of the furnishings she was forced to sell, along with the manor, after her husband’s death.  When Richard escorts his guest into a sitting room, she inquires if the painting over the fireplace is a Turner.  He chuckles and replies, “No, it’s a Hockney.”  Then he looks, and sees not his modern painting (what appears to have been from the artist’s famous series on Los Angeles’ swimming pools) but a traditional seascape, and must correct himself.  “No, it’s a Turner.”  (Thanks a lot, Audrey!)

I’m not like Thomas Crown (played by Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair”).  I may enjoy rereading my favorite books and stories, or re-watching my favorite TV shows and movies, but to stand or sit for extended periods to study famous paintings is not my normal practice.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy touring (parts of) the National Gallery.  I sought out the work of Joseph Turner, and agreed with Audrey that his famous seascapes and landscapes would better suit the architecture of an English country gentleman’s home.  I noticed that much of the art depicted people and events drawn from the Bible or early Church history.  I sympathized with Rick Steves: much of the great art that mankind has enjoyed for centuries would now be considered “too fleshy” by Americans to be shown in one of his travelogues (even on PBS stations).  And I happened upon the work of one artist whose work I found strangely compelling: the landscapes of John Constable.  My only disappointment was that I didn’t have enough time to explore the museum’s many halls, or listen to the various talks on offer, or simply to gaze in appreciation at so many attempts, on the parts on their creators, to transfer the imagery they saw in their minds into something that could bring joy and inspiration to everyone else.  

That is the power of all art, is it not?  Whether the subjects covered include a Saint, an animal that symbolizes a country, or the individual travel machines of an alien race that invades other planets, all artwork can enrich our lives, often in unforeseen ways.  I’m sure I never thought about visiting London’s National Gallery when I first started watching British TV shows.  But these stories awakened an interest in visiting the country in which they are set.  Seeing “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” drew me to Trafalgar Square.  Once here, “To The Manor Born” drew me into the National Gallery.  Now I have a new artist to learn about in John Constable, and a place to devote more time to on a subsequent vacation.  

One familiar refrain from all who worked on early Doctor Who is their amazement that this show has endured, and continued to entertain and inspire, while many of the other productions they contributed to (either on stage, TV, or film) have been forgotten.  That is the way of life, is it not?  We can never know the ultimate effects of what we do for others.  Out best-intended efforts may be misunderstood or unappreciated.  Some of the work we feel most proud of will be forgotten.  We can only hope that some of what we do will benefit others in the future.  I find that sufficient reason to give of my best to all that I undertake.

Dragon Cache Links:

Links to the World Wide Web:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lions and Daleks and Wizards, Oh My!

Trafalgar Square seems a popular place to linger with one’s friends.  Perhaps it always has been.  When the Doctor Who production team filmed “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” here in 1964 (nearly fifty years ago!), they arrived just after sunrise, and still had to beg hippies and late-night partiers to go elsewhere.  Thus, as Barbara, Jenny, and Dortman flee the city, they come upon an empty square, where they hide behind plinths until the Daleks roll past.  

In addition to the statues of famous people, and Admiral Nelson atop his tall column, four lions look outward in all directions to guard the square from invaders, much as the females would guard their male (and the rest of their pride) from unexpected attack.  The lions, a symbol of England since Richard the Lionheart first placed them on his royal crest, are a familiar sight in London.  But these lions are special, for the plinths they rest upon once bore special identifying marks in the Dalek language.  If memory serves, an irate policeman made the designer stay behind after filming ended until he had personally scrubbed the plinths clean.   (Bad Designer!  That’s what you get for defacing public property!)

Fountains take up much of the square, and they are beautiful to look at.  But more overwhelming was the large screen that had been erected in the square, along with loudspeakers.  The latter’s presence was due to Trafalgar Square’s first ever movie premier, which had been held the week before.  The film: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2,” the final installment of the series (based upon the novels of J. K. Rowling).  The idea of holding a movie premier in Trafalgar Square struck me as somewhat ironic, as one reason for the fountains’ presence was break up this large, flat area in order to prevent large groups from assembling here.

Certainly many had gathered here this morning, most of whom I took to be associated with school field trips or tour groups.  Kids, teens, and camera-laden adults chatted and ate and drank, enjoying each other’s company on this concrete expanse, when they could have played or strolled through the serene natural beauty of nearby St. James Park.  Speaking for myself, it was nice to visit a place that I had seen so many times on TV (mostly because “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories).  But I realized I had no real reason to linger outside, because just few steps away awaited the work of so many masters of the canvas.  Artists whose work had inspired people not just for the last few decades, but for centuries.

So, I walked along the flat concrete courtyard where Daleks had once patrolled, bid the lions adieu, and climbed the steps toward the National Gallery.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Great Anachronism

As the Horse Guard passed me by, I wondered why I was photographing it.  As I took a video, I wondered why I was recording the scene.  As I followed the horses, the impacts of their hooves rising above the revving of the motorcycle and automobile engines, I wondered why I was hurrying along the outskirts of St. James Park, instead of relishing its scenic beauty.  Finally, when I reached the parade grounds, I wondered why I was bothering to raise my camera above my fellow tourists to record what was occurring.  As at Buckingham Palace, why did so many, from all around our little (or big) world, feel this was an important event to witness?

On the face of it, the entire ceremony seems absurd, unnecessary, a relic of the past that serves no useful purpose.  For crowd control, and to satisfy modern security concerns, police (on foot and on motorcycle) are mobilized to protect the Horse Guard from harm.  Isn’t it time to abandon this old tradition in order to make way for an activity or event more relevant to our lives today?

Ultimately, the only way I can understand the Horse Guard is through “Are You Being Served?”  In this British sitcom, poor sales on their separate floors lead to the Women’s clothing department being moved in with the Men’s.  Mr. Granger, the crotchety, old head of the Men’s department, views this as an invasion.  While he may resign himself to sharing the floor, he never comes to value the ladies’ presence.  Worse, as Mr. Lucas, the Men’s Junior frequently points out, he is “past it.”  He falls asleep in meetings (or during working hours), he grumps and complains, and he never willingly accepts a new idea.

While the death of the actor who played Mr. Granger (Arthur Brough) did not mean the end of the series, it did leave an absence that was never filled.  In succeeding seasons, others would arrive to take over as head of Men’s Apparel.  Yet none embodied the danger that Mr. Granger posed.  The Junior Salesman, Mr. Lucas, never feared Mr. Tebbs or Mr. Goldberg.  When the new head salesman used an unwanted complication to justify expelling the Women’s department from their floor, his argument never carried the same weight.  Nor did his replacements charm the viewer like Mr. Granger.  Charm?  Yes!  For while Mr. Granger frequently served as an obstacle to other characters’ plans, he also had a way of endearing himself with the viewer.  The BBC produced another five series of the show after Mr. Granger departed Grace Brothers, but eventually those in charge stopped trying to replace him.  The show remained funny, but was, nonetheless, diminished by his absence.

Looking back on my life, I can see numerous times in which I wished that a particular person would simply “go away.”  Whether that situation involved school, family, church, my work, a committee, or some other group or organization, I saw that person as a drain on my time, an obstacle to my plans, and a ripple in my otherwise placid pond.  Yet, when that person eventually left (they always do), I found the particular group diminished.  For each of these people, in their strange way, somehow mattered.  Yes, they offered a danger to be surmounted; they frequently forced a compromise; and yet, inexplicably, I always came to mourn their absence.  (And, after facing less resistance, my victories tasted less sweet).  

Just as it’s always tempting to push someone to the side, it’s never difficult to come up with reasons why a tradition is irrelevant for today.  But be careful when removing a particular brick from your life.  For while its absence might not cause a collapse, in all probability, you will one day rue its loss.

So, while I may not understand the meaning behind your ceremony, or what relevant purpose you serve, rock on, Horse Guard!

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