Friday, July 25, 2008

The Perils of Kite Flying in London

In Mary Poppins one of the characters, Mr Banks is rather uptight. There are various reasons for this, not least of which is his grey, colourless working existence in which the poor man never approaches job satisfaction. Eventually through a series of unfortunate events, the inhibited Mr Banks learns to go fly a kite with his children, and all is well.

The proposition to go fly a kite is put simply:

With tuppence for paper and strings,
you can have your own set of wings.
With your feet on the ground,
you're a bird in flight!
With your fist holding tight,
to the string of your kite!

Let's go fly a kite
Up to the highest height
Let's go fly a kite
And send it soaring
Up through the atmosphere
Up where the air is clear
Oh, let's go fly a kite!
Written by Robert B. Sherman
It looks so easy. And I guess the obtaining of the kite and flying thereof may be easy. I have no practical knowledge of nor interest in the subject.

But it occurred to me on our recent visit to London that finding the place to fly a kite may be problematic. Can one flit through the grounds of the Houses of Parliament, kite string in hand? No, security would be fairly strict about high spirits in such a formidable place. The park is an obvious place to go.

But going to the park is not as easy as it sounds.

We walked through a fairly small park. Around the size of a block of land (by Australian standards). It was littered with copper looking statues, gorgeous full bodied roses, luscious green grass and shady trees: an idyllic setting in the warm summer sunshine.

At the entrance to this small paradise this set of By-Laws was posted.

I did not shrink the copy. That is how small it reads in real life.

I still don't know whether we did the right thing walking past the sign. I don't know whether we were even allowed in the park. I don't know whether we did anything in the park that was not allowed. I don't know whether we didn't do something in the park that we were obliged to do. I don't know whether I am even allowed to comment on the By-Laws in this manner. I don't know because I can't read them.

It's disconcerting. I am used to striving to be a good citizen, and laws are a good way of knowing whether you are achieving this goal or not.

So you can see how I would be sympathetic to Mr Banks. With all the will in the world, he may wish to fly a kite and discard his inhibitions, but is it allowed? Are there certain conditions under which it is forbidden? How would he ever know? The uncertaintly can't be good for anyone's health and well-being.

Above the By-Laws was posted the opening hours sign. This too is slightly perplexing. You will notice that the Gardens are open daily from 7:30am. All is well. (Unless, of course, you are one of those sprightly bodies who bounce out of bed at 5am; you would then need to wait around for two and a half hours before you could set your kite (and inner child) free to embrace the skies).

But the closing time is more complex. The park closes at a different time depending on what date it is. I am used to some variation in closing outdoor places of activity: usually there is a summer/winter difference.

However, if you look closely at this sign you'll notice that it isn't enough to know what season it is, it isn't even enough to know what month it is. The beginning of August has a different closing time to the end of August. And not only that, for some of the dates you need to know whether British Summer Time has started or not.

On top of that, you will notice that at the bottom of the sign is a statement that the gates can close 'approximately 20 minutes earlier than the time stated'.

One can see a perplexed Mr Banks, having worked out the date, decided whether it is or is not British Summer Time, retrieved the kite, discarded his inhibitions, trying to work out whether he has any time left to fly his kite in the park. Or will he misread the time and be locked in the Park overnight? This is almost certainly committing an offense against which the By-Laws warn, and may result in a fine or prison sentence.

For that matter, is he even allowed to fly a kite in the Park - or have the By-Laws Committee been stacked by the local Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Pigeons and Other Small Birds and specifically outlawed the flying of kites as causing damage to the self-esteem of those birds unable to soar to the heights a kite can reach? These are not questions of slight importance. There are consequences.

It's a complicated business, having fun in London. There are laws not only to be obeyed, but to be deciphered. There are times and dates to be carefully calculated. The matter is not to be undertaken lightly. Care-free kite flying is something that only exists in fairy tales.

It's probably a lot less stressful to work in a bank than fly a kite in London. JMB

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Curveball and a Crossroads

From time to time, we write a post which is more than mere entertainment, because we know there are kindly folk about who pray for us from time to time. This is one of those posts.

Oxford has many good and excellent things to commend it. Mark has arrived home from a lecture or a seminar stimulated and refreshed such that one can almost see his brain ticking. There are many great people here, both at Wycliffe, church and other colleagues Mark has gotten to know, not the least of which is his supervisor.

One negative would have to be the administration. Attentive readers would have noticed that we are sometimes even slightly sarcastic regarding the administration.

And this is where the curveball comes in.

Oxford has recently changed the rules regarding its admission into the doctoral studies programme, insisting on a Masters (done at Oxford) with a certain grade to be obtained in each piece of assessment. This in itself is fairly standard practice now in the USA and nothing to get too excited about.

However, as you may recall Oxford releases none of the grades for any piece of assessment until after the next academic year has already commenced. So, if you don't make it into the doctoral programme you don't find out until its too late to apply to another university.

Being pessimists, and having heard stories of, shall we say, unusual criteria used on examinations/essays (a recurring issue everywhere in humanities where marking is less quantifiable than for mathematics), we decided several months ago to apply to a few other universities around the place just in case. As it happened, this was providential as it proved remarkably encouraging during a rather tough time. For example, Oxford told Mark his proposal for doctoral studies was insufficiently original. Three other universities found it sufficiently original and sufficiently interesting that they have made serious efforts to make contact with him. One potential supervisor couldn't take him on because of an existing high supervision load, but actually made the time to meet with Mark and talk about his proposal and his options so he '...didn't fall through the cracks'.

As it happens today we received a formal offer from one of the best places to study early Church history in the UK: Durham university. It has a large group of early Church history lecturers, including some with impressive reputations through to some up and coming young scholars. It looks like an exciting place to study early Church history and theology.

All they want from Mark is for him to finish the Masters he is currently working on.

So, we have to decide what to do. This is where the crossroads comes in.

For those of you who generously pray for us from time to time, please join us in asking God for a wealth of wisdom to make a good and right decision which honours him. And join us in thanking God for answering our prayers to open a way for Mark to do doctoral studies here next year.

Oh, and for those of you who are interested, this hasn't been a wasted year. Mark has had a good chance to be acquainted with much of the literature and one of the key texts in the original language. His dissertation will provide the context for the key theologian he is studying. That is to mention only the things which have direct bearing on the final doctorate, but there have been many other benefits also.

So, we may be off to Durham. Or we may stay here in Oxford.

At least we aren't moving countries this year. JMB

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bus Stop

We had to go to London a few weeks ago to sort out a passport for our little boy. I worked out that the easiest way to get there was to catch a series of buses: three in all. I allowed an extra hour for our trip and we set off with three and half hours to get to our appointment.

The first bus was late. Roadworks in Oxford and peak-hour combined to slow things right down. But only by 10 minutes. So, 50 minutes of my extra hour left. Not too bad.

The second bus was late. Traffic congestion into London was heavy. So, there we lost 20 minutes, which meant that I only had an extra 30 minutes left.

The third bus wove slowly through the treacle-like London traffic. We were within about 500 metres of Trafalgar Square when we noticed that the bus was not moving. It was mid-way through a merge into a different lane and had been that way for some time. We also noticed that none of the other traffic was moving as far in front of us as we could see. The traffic, including our bus had stopped.

We gave up at that point, realising that we would not get to our appointment on time. But we thought we would go to the passport office anyway and try and make another appointment for another day and make it as late in the afternoon as we could. We decided to catch the bus all the way to the stop we wanted, rather than get out and walk (which would certainly be faster) mostly out of curiosity. Would the traffic ever start moving again?

Eventually it did. Slowly the bus jerked into the neighbouring lane and the traffic inched forward. The bus stopped at Trafalgar Square, and the loud speaker announced the stop, people got off and the bus doors shut, as they normally do.

The bus continued on at a painful pace, and suddenly about a metre onwards from the bus stop, the bus doors opened again. "This bus terminates. This bus terminates. Please leave the bus immediately and take all your belongings with you. This bus terminates".

We left the terminating bus in gales of laughter, which was hardly fair. The poor bus was clearly so utterly demoralised that it simply could not go on. Where did it go after it ejected all its passengers? Is there a quiet spot near the Thames where depressed buses go to sob at their perceived failures to deliver passengers to their destination? Do they retire in despair to the country like overworked horses?

Needless to say we arrived at the passport office almost exactly four hours after leaving home. Thankfully they rebooked our interview for that day so if could all be done on the day, and our boy now has a passport.

But we learned a lot about English buses. They are late. They are reasonably comfortable (important given that they are late). They have fragile and delicate egos. They are not victorious over the monster that is London traffic. JMB

Friday, July 4, 2008

Best of British #1: BBC Radio 4

It's brilliant.

If, in Australia, someone had asked me to describe my ideal radio station I would not have described Radio 4. I wouldn't have been able to. My understanding of radio has been completely transformed by the experience of listening to this. There is so much that one can do with radio, which I never knew was possible. I have had the very rare experience of feeling like I am the target audience of a media outlet. The irony of this is unsettling, but that just means it's a truly English experience...

Some highlights include:

The gameshow that is based around literary figures. Contestants have to answer questions about the person and write a parody of their work amongst other things. The first one I heard was on Jonathan Swift and I was amazed and delighted. The second show I heard was on one of my favourite authors - George Eliot - and I was amazed and delighted and excited! Here was a nation where George Eliot was not just known, but read and appreciated. The parody of Dorothea's letter (from Middlemarch) still makes me smile when I think about it. I could never have imagined such a thing could exist!

And it's not stuffy and boring. It's clever and witty and laugh-out-loud funny. Often.

I can't remember laughing at things on the radio in Australia. Mostly I only ever listened to it to either keep myself awake or put myself to sleep (depending on the context and therefore on the station). I enjoy listening to BBC Radio 4!

The second thing they do really well is that they don't Have An Agenda like Australian radio (and other media). Yes, of course they have an agenda, but not so much that they won't let someone get their views across. Radio interviewers seem to be fairer and seem somewhat interested in divergent views. It almost makes me believe that there are some media workers who are interested in truth.

The outcome of this is that listening to debate on radio is interesting. Not the frustrating exercise of quasi-censorship which was my experience in Australia. Here, even where it is clear the reporter has an axe to grind they just grind it instead of using it to create severe structural damage.

(This has certainly not been my experience of the newspapers over here, by the way, but I've only bought about 3 during our entire time here).

The third thing I've enjoyed about BBC Radio 4 is one of the few genuinely positive things about colonialism. In Australia, we've realised that the empire is dead. For some time. Over here, not so much. In fact there are segments of society who seem quite sure that the Empire is alive and well, and they are in charge of it. Still. It's disconcerting. Makes one retrieve the atlas just to double check.

But one of the good things about this attitude is that reporting is far wider than England and far less parochial. I've listened to segments on the development of hip-hop in Beijing, the rise of child evangelists in America, methods of water preservation in Australia and various farming experiments undertaken in Africa. It isn't limited to countries where Britain has had some involvement (though those countries are few and far between!) It's is a better style of investigative journalism as well, which asks many questions and doesn't feel as driven as Australian journalism to get a particular outcome. It feels like the reporters really want to know. I think it's very cool.

Also, reports undertaken referring to ex-colony trouble spots are far more passionately reported than I am used to. It's as though people really care what happens in tyrannical regimes and disasters. Oddly, emotion isn't completely absent (despite the stiff-upper-lip reputation of the English), and the cool professionalism of Australian reporting (which flies in the face of its largely non-objective content) seems unappealing in contrast.

Finally, I love the English interest in curious details of its own history or current life. The story about architecture of nineteenth century factories and how that relates to the breastfeeding policies imposed by many factory employers. The one about the discovery of a large number of artificial hands discovered in the basement of the house and the investigation into why they were there and where they came from. The array of explorations into why some migratory creature does or does not appear in smaller or greater numbers in this or that part of the UK for greater or lesser time than normal and why this might be. And so on.

It is fascinating.

There is something about this which betrays a grand, rich view of life. It is not all boiled down to the pale, bland lowest common demoninator resembling yesterday's cabbage which is often what is served up by the Australian media. With BBC Radio 4, no one listener could possibly be interested in all that is reported. (I confess that I wasn't that interested in the discovery of the artificial hands; I just continued listening in a kind of fascinated horror as the story unfolded). Few would have the background and education required to access all of it.

But that doesn't mean that the story is canned. It goes to air anyway, and those who can or want to, access it. If you can't or aren't interested, you just hang about till something you like comes on. Or, you get interested or try to access it and get your world expanded in the process. (I now know the secret of those hoarded artificial hands and I feel I am a better person for it).

The overall effect is of stimulation and engagement, which I would never have expected to be really possible with radio.

Can't stop the signal, Mal.

And why would you want to stop this signal? There's a world in these radiowaves. JMB.