Sunday, March 23, 2008


In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of...snow. Young men love snow.

At least in Oxford.

The coming of Spring heralds momentous changes. Birds enthusiastically twitter. Flowers are in bloom such that you can't avoid the daffodils. Squirrels bound. And magnolia trees hold out branches full of promise and exquisite buds.

Winter with its cold and wet and dark and dank is gone. Now is the time for...well, snow.

At least in Oxford.

Yesterday there was a high wind and the snow was almost horizontal.

This morning it was gentle, silent, magical snow, cascading from the sky.

And we've had it verified: it is actual snow. Not enthusiastic frost. Snow.

We're a bit surprised. They don't do things this way in the colonies. We tend to schedule snow for winter. But it's a nice surprise nonetheless.


Friday, March 21, 2008

In Anticipation of Sunday

"We come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It's so petty, it's so trivial, it's so local, it's so earthy-bound, it's so unworthy of the universe." (Richard Dawkins)

"...Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." (Paul to the Corinthians 1:24-25)

He is risen indeed!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!

The infamous Australian 'war-cry' seems singularly appropriate now that there are three Aussies in Baddelim. We received Jonathan’s citizenship papers yesterday and to mark this important occasion, dressed him in his Australia shirt (kindly given to us by our church at Northmead before we left).

We told Jonathan that he was now Australian, but he seemed strangely unmoved by the turn of events, defaulting to his usual strategy in all situations: looking cute.

Now he won’t be sent to Christmas Island or any other random Pacific island when we return home. Nor will he be unfairly blamed for throwing other children overboard. Or locked up in a detention centre. He’s a legitimate Australian.

Welcome to Oz, kiddo. Youse is a true blue, dinky di, ridgy didge Aussie. Oi! Oi! Oi! JMB

Thursday, March 6, 2008

When Goodies Turn Bad

TV is a window into the soul. Not so much the soul of an individual as of a culture. Watching the occasional excerpt of a Japanese game show or the melodrama of Iron Chef clues me in that the world that the Japanese inhabit has some very different features compared to mine. I can’t even begin to imagine what would give rise to such shows.

We don’t have a TV here. England never took the path Australia did and abandoned the practice of annual TV licenses. So we opted not to buy a TV with annual license (and saved a bucket of money in the process!). We’re more into watching TV shows that we have the DVDs for, reading, and playing games (computer and board). Between what we save on no TV and no license, we can budget to buy a TV season or two. So far that’s worked out really well for us. When Jennie’s feeding Jonathan at 4am an episode of Gilmore Girls is far more useful than whatever random gleanings fall from early morning programming. But one of the bonuses that came from our two trips to York and Cardiff last year was the glimpse into English television.

Overall it suited us very well. There seem to be a lot of the kind of English dramas that we love. Shows like Inspector Morse, Judge Deed, the Inspector Lynley Mysteries and other, less murder-mystery themed dramas are very common. There is much less American programming (and almost no Australian, except for, sigh, Neighbours). When American shows were advertised one got a glimpse into some of the difference between English and American culture.

American shows tend to go for the ‘big sell’, at least based on how they are advertised in Australia. They are glamorous, full of action, and full of people taking themselves very seriously. CSI: New York, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent are probably the worst offenders, but it’s a close field.

The English completely subvert it. The adverts for CSI and Law & Order almost parody the show, the voice over mixing with the actors’ lines to give the impression that it’s a satire. It suggests there’s something there that’s very different between those two English speaking cultures. And it’s a difference where Jennie and I fall more in with the English than the American way of experiencing the world.

However, we also got a glimpse of just how different English culture is at certain points. Like many males my age, I loved The Goodies as I was growing up. The surreal lite humour that also marked the humour of Monty Python and The Goon Show was quite unlike anything else, and quite captivated me. Even now I have quite fond admiration for the three rogues at the heart of the show.

So imagine my dismay to find Bill Oddy heading up a show called Autumn Watch (it has a sister show for another part of the year very cleverly named Spring Watch). The dismay wasn’t that he was heading up a nature watching show. I’d already known that Bill Oddy was a noted animal watcher and conservationist. We’d also gotten the impression in our short time here that the English took animal welfare far more seriously here than tends to happen in Australia.

The multiple opportunity shops around Oxford for animal charities are a bit of a hint. Let’s see, there’s the Blue Cross, the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, and no, I’m not making that one up), Animal Samaritans, Dogs Trust, and the Born Free Foundation (not an exhaustive list by the way…). Also the fact that, in a country that suffers from both foot and mouth disease and mad cow disease, the meat is labelled according to how well the donating animal was treated (and not how likely the meat is to kill you) was also a bit of a clue.

The clincher was handed to me this morning by my dear wife. The Big Issue was carrying an advert for the “Nile Cycle Challenge”—a chance to pay money to cycle along the Nile. That bit I can understand (not really appreciate, but understand). But part of the selling point is “visiting the Brooke’s animal health clinics along the way.” The cycling tour is being put on by Brooke, “healthy working animals for the world’s poorest communities” so I can get why they’d want to expose people to their work. But seeing animal health clinics is mentioned in the same breath as seeing the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings as part of the selling point. That’s a pretty serious view about animal welfare.

“How was the trip to Egypt?”
“Fantastic! I got to see the animal health clinics! Oh yeah, I also saw the pyramids, they’re pretty big you know.”

A nature watching show here doesn’t seem out of place, to put it mildly.

No, the dismay was due to the kind of nature watching show Bill Oddy was heading up. Forget David Attenborough, the Crocodile Hunter, or even Crocodile Dundee (‘nature watching’ is possibly being used with some artistic license in the last case, but arguably no more than the previous two entries). No, imagine someone added a voiceover to Neighbours that explained the plot (again, term used with artistic license) in nauseating detail and maximum melodrama. OK. Got that? Now imagine it was about animals.

And so, we had an instalment on the long running saga of the West End Foxes. Each contributor (i.e. fox) having their own name, their own attributed personality, their own motivations, and their own plot. All of it explained in the kind of anthropomorphic terms that would make even David Attenborough blush. So we had the story of how the old hand in the area who’d worked closely with a new boy in the previous season and shown him the ropes had gotten injured and was now having to watch his back for a possible take over attempt by the young hand.

We also had an apparently very popular segment about a deer with the stirring name of Maximus who last year managed to hold his bit of breeding ground against all comers for a week except against one monster who managed to turf him out in the closing days. We got to see how he went this time, despite the ‘blow to his confidence’ from the late loss. (He was fine, no need to worry there). Here’s a little taste of the trials and tribulations of Maximus from another episode, complete with sports’ style commentary:

But the most head-scratchingly puzzling bit of the show was the story of the wild boars in some part of the country. We had, in instalments, over the course of the show, footage compiled from a full week of shooting that produced a couple of minutes of visuals of a boar family, complete with piglets but sans the alpha male. This lack of the big boar was apparently a bit of an issue, local rumour indicated he was large (well yes, he’s a boar) . And so, throughout the show, we cut to the cameraman sitting out in the bush (quite literally) in the English cold, and watched footage of…well plants and trees moving in the wind in the English cold night air. While this footage was being shown live, the absence of the boar on the screen was discussed in extraordinarily earnest tones, along with a mini nature class on some of his salient features (he’s big, in case you weren’t aware. After all, he’s a boar). Somewhat to everyone’s surprise (although not mine I have to say), after a full week of avoiding the cameras, the boar didn’t make an appearance on live tv during the hour the show was airing. Go figure.

We were, by the end of the show, thoroughly bamboozled. How could animals be turned into a soap opera and treated with such intense seriousness? It was, at times, a level of melodrama that would feel quite at home with Grisham or Dr House. It suggested to us, that there are aspects of the English way of seeing the world that we can’t even remotely grasp.

But here’s the kicker. The English love irony. And part of the effect of irony is that, when it’s done properly, one can never be entirely sure if the earnest straight bat is what it seems to be. Sometimes it can be one sustained joke. It’s hard to imagine AutumnWatch being ironic, they never once ‘break cover’ and do anything even slightly tongue in cheek. But the English treat irony as a sport (and they’re a bit better at it than most actual physical sports). One only has to watch an episode of the Office to get a glimpse of how terrifyingly they can keep a straight face in the middle of sustained, earnest irony. And so we’re left in a quandary. Animals as melodramatic soap opera? Or sustained joke? Either way, it illuminates something of the English culture for which there is no Australian equivalent. But it’d be nice to know if we’re supposed to be laughing at the show, or with the show. Getting that wrong could just be embarrassing… MDB

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Morning Prayer

Wish us good morning when we wake
And light us, Lord, with thy day-break.
Beat from our brains the thicky night
And fill the world up with delight.

Nice to see that even great poets and thinkers are not morning people.

(Gerard Manly Hopkins: translation of St Bernard's Jesu Dulcis Memoria.)