A brief history of my thoughts about history

Recently I saw a video about how they do education in Finland. It’s impressive. So much so that, at the time, I promised myself I’d read more about it (or watch more videos). To date I’ve failed to keep that promise, but that’s not the point.

The point is that the Finns put a lot of emphasis on kids discovering: how to learn; what they want to learn; what makes them happy; what they might be good at. They still cover the full spectrum of arts and sciences (in fact, they seem to manage to cover subjects we’ve dropped from our own schools because there’s not enough time or it’s not deemed “relevant” enough). Anyhow, it made me think back to my own schooldays. (And, yes, this is where the history bit comes in, and not just because my schooldays are now quite a long way back in history…)

I was what would typically be called “academic” or “bright”. I did well in tests and exams. I worked hard. I handed my homework in on time. I got my O levels, my A levels and then a degree and later on another degree. And all that education opened doors of employment for me, as it’s supposed to do. I’m grateful for that. My employment, and my home life, have been “strong and stable”, to coin a current phrase.

But.

My schooldays were good but not your classic “happiest days of your life”.

I worked hard. Once I got to 14 or so I would get home from school and work till 9 p.m. most nights. I did the homework because that’s what needed to be done. I did have friends but, as I watched that Finland video, I began to wonder if I’d missed out on friendship or doing other activities because of the time I spent studying.

And two other things struck me as I looked back. First, I never had a clue what I liked or wanted to do. I knew I could understand maths and physics and was good at homework or passing exams – but that’s not what I’m talking about. Through several decades in work, I’ve never really been sure what I wanted to do.

Second, I asked myself what my gut reaction was to the question, “What subject did you most enjoy at school?”. Answer: History. (Told you we’d get to it.)

history-funI did history to O level. My teacher (Chris Rowe) was disappointed because I only scored a grade B, and I didn’t want to do it at A level. And yet it’s what came to mind 39 years later when I asked myself what I’d enjoyed most. Why? Well, words like “interesting” and “fascinating” spring to mind, but if I dig a little deeper, it has something to do with a concept of my connection to those historical events – “a sense of history”, if you will.

Our curriculum covered “modern” British and European history, starting with the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and ending with World War Two. (Nowadays, my schooldays period – the seventies – would have to be in that curriculum too!) I liked finding out what happened and why, and seeing how one thing led to another. I didn’t like writing essays about it – but I did it, naturally. Today I still like that finding out (or, more accurately, being told – normally by a presenter on a TV documentary). But I find it especially fascinating (there I go again) when I can make a link to my own history or my life today.

Take World War One, for instance. Although further in the past than WW2, I feel a stronger link to it because both my grandfather and my Great Uncle Ernest fought in it. Although Uncle Ernest was killed, my grandfather survived and went on to have my dad. (Of course, if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be reading this and we’d all end up in a space-time paradox.) That knowledge does something to me. And I still remember Chris Rowe teaching us how the Versailles Treaty at the end of WW1 sowed the seeds for WW2, a conflict that ended a mere 17 years before yours truly appeared on the scene.

Back to Finland, then. Does any of this mean I should have been a historian? I doubt it – but, then again, I’m approaching the time of life where I may have the chance to do different things, so who knows? I do know that I’m a habitual diary writer and like to look back, muse on what’s gone before in The Life Of Me, and even (sometimes) learn stuff from doing so. Chris Rowe started our 4th form history lessons by defining history as something like:

The art of looking at the past in the light of the present to learn lessons for the future.

So maybe I am a historian after all! I’m going to try to contact Chris Rowe to let him know.

 

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Idolatry of the Heart

This is an old (2006) post from a blogger I’ve not seen before but speaks absolutely about the place I’m in as a Christian, even after 32 years. To the extent that I seek fulfilment through anything but God, my life is a waste. To the extent that I want Jesus to forgive my sins but not to be Lord of my life, my life is a waste. I can’t make myself godly; I can’t make myself into someone who puts others first; but I can surrender unconditionally, somewhat apprehensively I’ll admit, and let God begin a new work in me.

It’s a long article but if, like me, you’re a Christian who knows their life isn’t really that distinctive, or falls prey to pursuing security & fulfillment apart from God, please read it 🙂

Possessing the Treasure

The following piece is an excerpt from my book Walking the Walk by Faith. I decided to post the chapter titled “Idolatry of the Heart” today because of some very uncomfortable blogosphere discussions I have been involved in over the last few weeks. There seems to be a great deal of confusion rooted in pride in many well-intentioned Christians who are passionately doing battle to defend their “beliefs” who end up after a many skirmishes feeling somewhat ashamed of themselves. They end up asking for forgiveness from the very people they have been battling. Of course that “shame” is coming from the conviction of the Holy Spirit into their consciences. When I wrote this chapter over a year and a half ago I was trying to explain the greatest obstacle Christians have in becoming Spirit-led. That obstacle is pride which builds idols in our hearts with the biggest most…

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That Community Moment when your neighbour asks you to pick up a Sunday paper

It's been a beautiful sunny winter day so far. (Aside for the grammar aficionados: according to this site, the names of seasons are only written with a capital letter when the season has been in some way personified, as in I was captivated by Winter's stark beauty / Summer's shimmering heat / Spring's unfolding beauty (dang it, already used “beauty”; never mind) / Autumn's something-or-other-something: you get the idea. Sorry, rather a long aside so soon in the story.) That being so, and being still in holiday mode, and, what's more, being in need of a replenished stock of old newspapers for various purposes domestic, I decided, unusually, to stroll down to the village shop for a Sunday paper. (For anyone confused by the “old newspaper” allusion, I should explain that the said domestic purposes range from shoe polishing (not that I polish shoes with newspaper; rather, the newspaper acts as a base on which to conduct the polishing and to collect the inevitable bits of polish, mud and other detritus) to mopping up water that accidentally leaks through the back door when not properly closed. It is a fundamental necessity of domestic life that one must have a stock of old newspapers to call on. One cannot, by definition, have old newspapers if one never acquires, at some point, new newspapers. And since we do not, as a matter of course, read a newspaper then our stock, last supplemented in about 2011, inexorably shrank until the point of disappearance. Sorry. Another long aside.)

Let me add that I genuinely wished to read the paper; the domestic stock replenishment would be merely a happy side-effect.

Anyhoooo, as I walked the few hundred yards to the shop, be-hatted, be-scarved and be-gloved (grammar aficionados make of those constructs what you will), I passed our friend's house. Theirs being an old property that sits right on the pavement, I easily spotted my friend in the kitchen and she waved. They are the neighbours we know best and have quite a close friendship with. Days before, she had called round and left us a fabulous Christmas gift (pictured), so I seized the opportunity to trot across the road to thank her for the gift.

Our Christmas gift

I explained the mission I was on and she asked me if I could do her a favour and buy her a copy of The Sunday Times, should one be available. As it turned out, there were none (I too had intended to buy a copy of TST but settled for The Independent on Sunday), so I duly returned her cash.

As I made my way home in the sunshine, I was struck in some admittedly vague, fuzzy way by the uplifting combination of the weather, the wave across the road, the request to buy the paper, the friendship we have with our neighbours, and the fact that she bought us the picture (which is full of Bible truths) although not (yet) believing herself.

So what's my point? Nothing profound – just a tiny occasion, a confluence of circumstances that I wanted to remember and thank God for. And to ask Him to bring about more of these Community Moments at home, at work and in church.

 

Ziggy Stardust and the appeal of questioning reality

I'm of an age where documentaries about musicians and groups from the 70's are appealing, regardless of whether I am, or was, a fan. In the case of Pink Floyd and the making of Wish You Were Here, for example, I am most definitely a fan. Mott the Hoople, on the other hand, not so much. I knew some of their songs (All the Young Dudes probably being the best-known) but never owned any records (unless you count the presence of the said Dudes on a compilation album obtained by dutifully collecting coupons from Sounds magazine over several weeks; I think it was the original Sounds Like a Good Album to Us but can't find any track listings on the Web – only for SLAGATU Vol. II, which I also collected for, and had forgotten the tracks until researching for this post. I can't play it any more since discarding the turntable. This is a bit of a loss and a matter of some regret. And also a way-too-long diversion. Oops.)

To avoid further diversions on the way to the point, I'll say nothing of the Simon & Garfunkel documentary about the making of Bridge OverTroubled Water, which in any case was shown on BBC1 not BBC4 so doesn't count anyway. Anyhoo, the most recent one was the story of David Bowie and his temporary alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. We were told how Bowie struggled for success until he came up with the bright idea of inventing a rock star. Who happened to be an alien.

It seems his first plan was to get someone else to play the part and mime to his singing. Eventually he decided to adopt the persona himself and the rest is history: hit album (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars), sell-out tours and the like. If I've seen the iconic clip of Bowie draping his arm round Mick Ronson's shoulder while they played Starman on Top of the Pops once, I've seen it a thousand times. Well, more than five anyway.

The pretence went further. When Bowie went to the States to perform as Ziggy he was relatively unknown. His manager nevertheless adopted the tactic of demanding that the record company (RCA) cough up for all the trappings of celebrity – top-class hotels, limos and not one but two bodyguards. So now not only were they inviting the audiences to come see someone acting the part of a rock star, but they were also making out that the guy pretending to be a rock star on stage was himself a rock star off stage when in fact he wasn't. Or not yet. Or at least he was becoming one. Or…confused? Whatever. It seemingly worked.

At the time of writing you can still get the programme on BBC iPlayer. But if you don't get to see it I'm sure Google can send you to many a Web page telling the story.

I am still not a Bowie fan as such. I like some tracks but find others deadly dull. But I can appreciate the man's talent and ability to do the whole reinventing your image thing long before we'd heard of Madonna. What really struck me, though, was the sheer audacity of just deciding to pretend to be something he wasn't – yet – knowing that everyone knew it was a pretence. Nobody honestly believed that Ziggy and the band came from Mars. (OK, OK, no doubt some did, given the drug culture he was mingling with – and which sucked him into addiction until the late 70's.) It was an agreement to be deceived.

Bowie doesn't have the monopoly in on-stage personas, of course. One only has to think of that nice Mr Alice Cooper, for example. Now there's a guy who's been playing the same character on stage for 40-odd years. People say that in real life he's as nice as pie. In fact, he's a Bible-believing Christian and clearly has no problem squaring that with a show based around horror and violence – albeit one he dubs “Vaudeville”. The point is, the audience clearly buys in to the pretence, the fantasy.

Reality beyond reality

My mind wanders to films like The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor and, more recently, Inception. All built on the premise that there's more to reality than we thought; that there's reality (or realities) within, or beyond, what we experience day to day. These stories, like stage fantasies, must appeal to something universal in us. Or, at least, in me.

Two things come to mind.

The first is that, actually, there is indeed a reality beyond what we see day to day. This world isn't all there is. This life isn't all there is. There are forces beyond the visible. Forces for good and forces for evil. Forces that control us, one way or another. But this is no Hollywood script or a conspiracy theory. It's the spiritual reality of life as revealed in the Bible. That's why me and Alice Cooper believe we owe our lives to Jesus Christ. Unlike Alice I have failed to become a rock star (thus far), but then again God hasn't enabled Alice to be an IT manager. Get over it, Alice.

The second thing is that I'm considering “doing a Ziggy”. Not, regretfully, on stage, though. (I don't quite share Mr Bowie's taste in clothes – although I am thinking about spiky red hair.) No, it's more in the arena of words on the page. On, in fact, this blog.

To date, I have not scored notable success with the microphone or guitar. But my wordy things seem to work quite well, sometimes. I still want to write about faith, truth, teapots, Paddington Bear and the like. But, as they say, maybe I should stretch myself artistically, try a new wordsmithing direction – writing stuff that isn't actually true. Adopting, if you will, a persona.

Cue fanfare. And watch out for Ziggy.

 

Grasshopper Reader: Quit just reading the titles!

Grasshopper

Beware the Grasshopper Reader!

I blame the Internet. In the days when the only time you heard the word “online” was when Scotty informed Captain Kirk that the warp drive wouldn't be back online for another twenty minutes (only to be told that he had no more than ten, to which he calmly replied that he'd see what he could do but that he canna change the laws of physics, but you knew, just knew, he'd have those crystals humming again in a little over nine minutes…erm, sorry, carried away…), my reading was mostly front to back. Books – start at page 1 (or maybe page “i” if it had those odd pre-pages before the actual pages) and read to the end. Magazines – such as Railway Modeller, Record Mirror or (its much cooler, hardcore successor) Sounds – generally front to back. Even newspapers – be it the Wigan Observer or the mostly tedious Methodist Recorder – generally got the “serial access” treatment, i.e. one page / story after another, even if I did skip over the reports from the WI and the latest scores from the village cricket team.

Scotty

Today if the bookshelf and magazine rack holds no allure we're spoilt with literally endless reading options on the Web. (Well, maybe not literally endless. Not even Google could index an infinite Web.) I currently have two favourite sources, neither of which, I'm ashamed to say, is the BBC News site, although I do drop in there occasionally. No. For me it's Twitter and, of course, WordPress.

 

There's good stuff on other people's blogs. I have a “Reader” which presents me with updates from blogs I've followed and the editors' suggestions of others worth a look. Twitter similarly offers links to stuff worth reading, or viewing, or mulling on, or just laughing at.

One is obliged, of course, to be selective. I am not wracked with guilt at the fact that I don't read everything dangled in front of my digital nose. What I have realised, however, is a very postmodern tendency for me to skim, and skim…and skim…and hardly ever click through and read what will, in all likelihood, be a relatively short piece anyway. Rather, I hear myself thinking, “That might be interesting but I'll scroll a bit more in case there's something more interesting further down.” Then I do the same thing at the next title and synopsis. And again. And again.

You'll have heard, no doubt, of the grasshopper mind – one that can't stay focused for any length of time. I, it seems, am in danger of becoming a Grasshopper Reader – always skimming, scrolling, checking out what's on offer – but missing out on most of it for fear of missing the really great article that might be just a click (or swipe of the finger) away on the next screen.

So, I confess. And I repent.

I need to change my mind and change my habit. Better to read, enjoy and interact with some of the universe of online reading than none of it. Ditch the postmodern fear of choosing in case something better comes along. Click. And read. As I hope you'll do when next you see links to my posts. After all, if we were all Gasshopper Readers nobody would ever read anything.

 

I Could Have Been Scott Adams…

P373

…if only I could draw. Which I can’t. And no, that’s not false humility. It’s realism. I am the world’s worst drawer – probably. I loathe Pictionary. I hate being asked to express my worship of God by drawing something. And I admire people who can draw – like Scott Adams.

In case you’re in the dark, Scott Adams draws the Dilbert cartoons, beloved of office workers and IT geeks like me, and syndicated all over the print and digital media. I have three of Scott Adams’ books, and last year I had a Dilbert Daily Calendar on the desk at work.

The scenarios and sentiments in the Dilbert cartoons make me laugh frequently. And in large part, like much successful comedy, it’s because they’re so true to life. Scott Adams can write (and draw) about this stuff because he actually did the jobs and worked in the offices and encountered the ridiculous management strategies. So for many years he’s made his living making people laugh by drawing. And for that, I both salute and envy him.

I work in IT, in an office. I can write a bit and sometimes make people laugh. But not enough, I realise, to write books about it. And then there’s my complete lack of drawing talent. That’s why I’m not Scott Adams and he is. I guess there’s only room for one Dilbert cartoonist in the world and Scott beat me to it.

So I shall be content with chortling at his incisive comments on project management, marketing and Dilbert’s struggle to find happiness. I shall pass over the credibility gap created by the talking dog, cat and dinosaur characters. And I shall thank the Lord for not making me Scott Adams because otherwise who would have been me?

At this point I would very much like to have included a Dilbert graphic but suspect I would have been so far over the breach of copyright line that it would have been a mere dot in the distance. So go take a look for yourself, and enjoy.