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March 31, 2004

Support for Lord Carey from the Islamic world....

Support for Lord Carey's lecture in which he criticised Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, comes from a writer in the Pakistan Daily Times. I found this link through An Englishman's Castle, for which much thanks, Tim.

Ironically, the main thrust of the Daily Times article is about the objections to a statue of a wild boar which was removed from a park in Derby during WW2 and which it was recently proposed should go back. Since WW2, of course, the city has seen a huge influx of Muslim folk from the Indian Sub-continent who now feel that this statue would be a "racist insult" to their faith. Sort of bears out exactly what Lord Carey was on about. No progress can be made if such emphasis is going to be constantly placed on matters of no consequence at all.

Taken with the arrest of six young men and confiscation of a large quantity of potentially explosive material, this rather sums up the problem of such fundamentalist interpretation of everything. The six are British by birth, education (if such it can be called), and Muslim. One of their "friends", speaking on early morning news, stated that, "as long as you ignore or refuse to accept the demands of Al Qaeda, you can expect them to continue the struggle." In short, and I hope that Mr Blair and his coterie of luvvies were listening, Al Qaeda intends to bomb the West into submission and impose Islamic fundamentalism upon us by whatever means they can find.

The tragedy is that the vast majority of Muslims in this country do not support this, or the organisation which claims to be fighting a "holy" war on their behalf, and this sort of lunacy is not going to improve relations for anyone. Equally ironic is the fact that many also privately agree with Dr Carey, but feel they cannot openly say so, lest they incur the wrath of their radical bretheren and neighbours.

The debate will no doubt run and run. Let us hope that the sane, intelligent, and honest voices of both sides prevail.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:05 AM | Comments (2)

March 30, 2004

Of course this is a democracy -Isn't it?

So our wonderful, all knowing, all seeing, all powerful Prime Minister, that illuminary of the heights of intelligence and wit, the sainted Tony Blair feels that he doesn't need to consult The British People about a few major changes to our constitution. Considering he has already destroyed most of it by stuffing the Lords with his chums - most of whom couldn't be bothered to turn up for anything other than the social calendar - this should not surprise anyone. But to claim that he has the approval of a "majority" (See my post on Jerome K Jerome's New Utopia!) is a bit much.

Tone the Teeth was elected by 28% of the total electorate. Only 41% of the electorate bothered to vote in the last general election, and his share, although a majority of the total of votes cast, was far from a National majority as he tried to claim.

Something as important as the fundamental change to the constitution that he is talking about in adopting the proposed EU "Treaty" is not something anyone should trust the politicians to do. This is a matter for national consultation - in short, a referendum. What is this cretin afraid of? That we might reject his little gravy train gaurantees? This is what it would appear. The Irish, Danish, Dutch, Italians and even the Belgians will have a referendum - but not, according to Tone and his Cronies, the British.

The simple truth is that we would in all likelihood reject it out of hand - and his government and all their "reforms" would be thrown out with it. If this is a democratic state - and under Mr Blair that is extremely doubtful - then there is no option.

We MUST have a referendum!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:43 PM | Comments (3)

March 29, 2004

Well, it's worth the effort ....

Found this on G'day Mate and gave it a whirl. I guess Oz and I will have plenty of time to catch up on all that's happened while we figure out our next move ...

Are you damned?
Brought to you by Rum and Monkey

Oh well, you can only do your best - and I guess the ultimate goal is worth every minute of it ...

At least I'll probably be among lots of friends!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:41 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The New Utopia

Over the weekend I discovered a wonderful short story by an author I have only rarely read - Jerome K Jerome, who, despite his apparently American sounding style of name, is as British as he can be. Apparently he decided if he had to have a silly sounding name, it might as well be exploited.

Most people who have heard of him will recall his "Three men in a boat", a wonderfully funny story of three friends sharing a boat on an expedition down the Thames. However, that is not the one I discovered for the first time at the weekend. The title, "The New Utopia", is enigmatic, but it is a sharp little tale of a man (presumably the author) who attends a dinner with a group of well heeled acquaintences in a London Gentlemen's Club.

Over a suitably lavish dinner accompanied by expensive wines and even more expensive cigars, these luminaries set about setting out an agenda to bring about a new socialist world order in which everyone will be exactly equal in everything. The superb irony of the setting of this debate is a wonderful little reminder that it is so often the case that those who put forward these agendas never seem to see the point that, if everyone is exactly equal, their particularly leisurely lifestyle - that enables them to dream up these crackpot schemes in the first place - will be a prime casualty. Under discussion at the dinner is the need to redistribute wealth equitably, and to ensure that everyone is equally employed and valued. Some pundit at the dinner actually proposes that "The State" should take charge of everything, all property abolished and a maximum working day imposed of three hours for all.

Suitably enthused and, no doubt, bouyed up by the good food and excellent wines, our hero departs for home and bed. Only to wake up a thousand years later in a glass case in a museum. To his delight - at first - he discovered that the wonderful Utopia he and his friends had been discussing, has come to pass. But delight soon turns to horror as he discovers that everything has been bulldozed to build utilitarian dormitories, utilitarian offices and factories, and so on. Marriage has been abolished, so have personal names, and everyone must dye their hair black - because any other colour or variation would create "difference" and that is not permitted.

Everyone is forced to wear identical clothes and all have numbers on their collars - instead of a name you have a state issued number - and families no longer exist, as these are elitist and focus the attention of individuals on people close to them instead of on "The State". Everything is done in the name of something called "The Majority", which has been accorded the status of God. Just as he begins to contemplate committing suicide - he is woken by his landlady hammering on his door.

His relief at discovering it was all a figment of his imagination is comical to say the least.

Interestingly the clothing described in the New Utopia bares a remarkable resemblence to that worn by Moa Tse Tung and his citizen/subjects. The rest of the story, with the exception of the numbers/names and the abolition of marriage, could be a description of any of the former communist run societies. Alarmingly, it could be a blueprint for the society Mr Blair and his cronies are creating with the emphasis on "political correctness" rather than a balanced and common sense approach to building our society.

When was it written? 1900!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:47 PM | Comments (2)

March 28, 2004

The debate opens up ...

I would have loved to have posted yesterday about the former Archbishop of Canterbury finally saying some truths about those terrorist "muslims" and their deviation from the Quran, but time did not permit. However, there are some other bloggers who have posted very well on the topic such as Andrew at Dodgeblogium, Tim at An Englishman's Castle, and "Tom Paine", from Silent Running, to name but a few.

The row seems likely to continue, and I shall watch with interest to see how the media play it. Already they are suggesting that Lambeth Palace (London home of the Archbishops of Canterbury) is distancing itself from the remarks. That is not the impression I get at all. What the mischief-making media are forgetting is that what the Archbishop may think he may not necessarily say for reasons of state and statecraft. But a retired Archbishop has no such constraints to consider.

The fact is that Dr Carey has made some valid points, and Christians would do well to consider their own part as well, because he has criticised them as well!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:49 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A different version of The Passion

Last night I helped out at the Abbey for a performance of the St John Passion as set by J S Bach. This was sung by the boys and men of the Abbey School Choir, conducted by their Director of music, Benjamin Nicholas, and accompanied by The Southbank Players with Carleton Etherington on the chamber organ continuo and Andrew Skidmore on the Cello continuo. The solo parts were sung by Edward Lyon, James Mustard, Bronwen Mills, Stephen Taylor, Benedict Linton, and Allan Smith, all well known voices with records and top stage performances to their credit. Edward Lyon sang the Evangelist part and James Mustard sang the role of Christ; the others provided “in order of listing) Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass solos singing variously Pilate, Peter, servants, soldiers, and priests.

What can one really say that conveys the glory of the music ringing through the pillars and arches of this great Abbey church. The very stones seemed to be joining in. The music creates the tension, holds the listener on edge as the great and terrible drama unfolds. Edward Lyon threw his heart and his soul into the role of the Evangelist. He kept us all on the edge of our seats as he told us the story. The choir shone as well – filling in their chorus’ and chorales to a very professional standard – with the added edge of being led by people who are practicing members of the church. The soloists surpassed themselves and turned in a performance that left us all uplifted and moved by the story.

This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that this entire performance was sung in the original German. The programme provided a translation for those whose German is non-existent or not well practiced, but it is the difficulty of singing in a language that is not your spoken tongue which makes the boys' performance particularly so outstanding. How do I know? I have sufficient German to have been able to follow it in that tongue – and there were others in the congregation who speak it as a first language. They were of the opinion that the boys must all be fluent in German to have done so well.

Well, I have barely done the performance or the performers justice. It made the dismantling of the staging and the resetting of the nave in preparation for today’s worship a task well worth the effort to have heard such music. Any reader who is visiting this country or lives here could do far worse than make this place a part of your itinerary – and attend one of the musical events held here regularly. I am sure that, like I, you will leave feeling uplifted whatever your faith.

Peace be with you all this Sunday.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:21 AM | Comments (2)

March 27, 2004

A Discworld feature

Terry Pratchett is featured in Samizdata's post under the heading More tax retention. It is a good read and he makes some excellent points about the author's work. Is TP a libertarian? I think he probably is, but like a good wrestler, moves as soon as you try to pin him into any corner.

The comments he has attracted on his post certainly reveal just how popular Terry Pratchett's work is, and I will hold my hand up and admit that I have one eye always on the lookout for his next one. I have even used him in sermon illustrations! Interestingly - the congregational response indicated that they knew what I was referring to - more Pratchett readers!

Wonder what his next will be? The witches haven't had an outing for a while .....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:34 AM | Comments (1)

March 26, 2004

The Queen's Music

I have caved in. I bought myself a DVD. No ordinary DVD, this, it is a specially produced one for the BBC and features the Tallis Scholars singing the music of Elizabeth the First's favourite Master of the Queen’s Musick – William Byrd. Why did I buy it? Well, one reason is that it is a film of the Scholars singing in the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Tewkesbury. Yes, I am biased, but the photography and the atmospheric lighting are absolutely stunning.

As I listen to the fantastic music I am also getting a “history of the reformation”. You see, Byrd, said by many to be the greatest English composer of any age, was a Roman Catholic. Yet he has left a legacy of the most stunning music for the Church of England.

It is an interesting fact that Queen Elizabeth – Gloriana to her poets – was a major influence in watering down the excesses of some of her more zealous reformers. It was she who, while allowing them to strip altars and move them into the 1554 position “in the midst of the quire and placed lengthwise” with the Minister “standing upon the North side”, kept her own chapels in the more traditional style and the altars adorned. It was she, too, that would allow no charge to be brought against Byrd for his refusal to attend “Protestant” worship. This was an age, remember, that had turned loose a bunch of iconoclasts who declared that organ music was an offence to God, that any image in a church encouraged idolatry, that veneration of the Virgin Mary was anathema, and that the wearing of any vestments was Papist and an offence in the eyes of God.

It was these men who destroyed tomb effigies, smashed stained glass windows, and encouraged mobs to attack any they suspected of being secretly Catholic. Yet, despite all their efforts to indict William Byrd, the Queen always frustrated their intentions. Interestingly, she also wrote anthems for worship and asked Byrd to set them to music. In this she was herself playing a dangerous game of state, since popular opinion, ably inflamed by the protestant iconoclasts from various pulpits, equated Catholic with Traitor. This was particularly so after Philip II of Spain’s abortive Armada threat. In fact, he actually sent seven; the Great Armada of 1588 being but the largest assembled and was, in fact, only the fifth.

During Elizabeth’s reign, Byrd flourished and enjoyed her protection, despite being a “Papist” and having to work within some of the strictures of the more zealously protestant clergy. At Lincoln he was forbidden to play the organ – he could use it only to give the choir a note, yet he still managed to write some stunning music for that choir – and, of course, for many more.

The DVD I have bought is available I expect from most good music stores. It’s title is “Playing Elizabeth’s Tune” and you will need something I don’t have – a good DVD player capable of reproducing the stunning surround sound in stereo which can reproduce accurately the fantastic sound due to the incredible acoustics of the great stone choir and nave of our great Abbey Church.

I hope you will forgive me this blatant commercial, but I just had to share this with someone. Even on my laptop and Windows Media Player – the graphics, video, and the singing are fantastic. I will now have to go out and get a proper DVD player.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:22 PM | Comments (1)

March 25, 2004

If God had intended us to fly .... ?

Today we have a very large helicopter clattering away overhead. It is quite distracting as he/she/it is lifting personnel and equipment from one part of the site and then flying low around the site to an exercise area near my office. He then spends about 5 minutes at a time in a hover while winching the men and kit down to the exercise. While he is passing overhead, the building shakes and while he is hovering (about 200 metres from my desk) you have difficulty hearing anything on the telephone. Mind you, he is quieter than the old Sea Kings and Westlands we used to get!

That said, my son is a recently qualified helicopter pilot and is now working up his hours so he can convert to the new JAA Civil Pilot category with the help - thankfully! - of his employers. This is not a cheap occupation and it requires an enormous amount of dedication and concentration to fly one of these brutes. An after dinner speaker and ex-pilot I once heard stated that helicopters flew in defiance of the known laws of physics. To quote: "You pour on massive amounts of power, and against all known laws of physics, this thing lifts off. It should, in obedience to the natural laws of torque and power, screw itself straight into the ground."

My son learned to fly one of these things in a Robinson R 22. The R 22 is not a particularly sophisticated machine - which makes it ideal for learning to fly them in one sense - but its controls are very sensitive, which makes it quite unforgiving. As my son described it - you think about moving the controls and the heli responds to that. He enjoyed flying it, even revelling in being able to fly it well and earning praise from both instructors and examiners for his natural ability (PROUD PARENT plug!), so he was naturally a bit upset to receive the photo below of what remains of his favourite machine.

Nics R22 after Danni!.jpg

A fellow pupil had moved on to become an instructor - and crashed the little machine rather badly with a student on board. Both, we hear, survived with some injuries, a very fortunate state of affairs. As for the small school that owned it, and another like it, it may be an open question as to whether they can survive or not.

There is always the question of whether or not our technology is getting too complicated and therefore compromising our safety after an accident like this. It can be compared to the debate about speed limits for motorists in one sense, as it is always driven by those who insist that if everyone is forced to accept their limits as being for everyone's safety, we would still have a horseman with a red flag preceding every "horseless carriage".

This is the thinking that Flanders and Swann famously lampooned in their show "At the drop of a hat", with the remark that "If God had meant us to fly - He would never have given us the railways!"

The truth is that we all have to find our own limits. My son has done something that I would not be confident enough to attempt - he now flies helicopters. By the same token he has frankly told me that he thinks I am certifiable for fighting fires. He has set his goals, as I have mine. These are different and we each have a different way of approaching our targets, but, it is the challenge, the need to explore our limits that is what drives us. Deprive us of those challenges and the freedom to pursue them and you really would not want to have us around, because the energy we put into that pursuit would then be bottled up in frustration, a very dangerous and destructive force.

Those who seek to tie society up in cotton wool wrapped "safety" cocoons are likely to create a society of frustrated, thrill seeking, and destructive misfits with no way of releasing their energies. Oops, I think I have just described modern Britain!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:02 PM

Some answers to the terrorist question ..

To those who whinge and whine about the abuses of Israel in the Middle East and the action of the US and the UK in Afghanistan and Iraq, may I suggest that you pay a visit to this site where you will find all the answers to why the civilised nations MUST fight Al Qaeda and all other terrorist organisations. Called Ambient Irony, it is the home of Pixy Misa, and her views are well worth noting. A pity a few more people aren't listening to the same sources - or maybe they have, but in typical fashion don't want to let a few hard facts get in the way of their rose tinted view of the world.

Pay the lady a visit - you won't be dissappointed.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:47 AM | Comments (3)

March 24, 2004

Traffic calming - road rage generating

This morning I briefly watched another piece of typical nannying being discussed on the TV news. Two representatives were on GMTV to discuss the fact that one town council has had the good sense to dig up its infernal speed bumps after being sued for damage to cars and causing serious delays to emergency vehicles - and concluding that these infernal devices so beloved of the morons of the Road Safety Association don't work anyway and are more of a hazard than a help.

The RSA rep managed to irritate everybody by her typically condescending attitude and her constant attempts to smear the other participants as "irresponsible" drivers. When will these cretins grasp the fact that the problem is not so much that motorists are travelling too fast, but that the pedestrians are too illdisciplined to be responsible. Children are taught they have the right of way in everything. Tell a modern child not to do something and they will immediately attempt to do it - on the basis that an adult is simply trying to restrict their "freedom".

A lot of children are injured on the roads. But why always blame the motorist? There is not much you can do at even the ludicrously low 20 mph speed limit these idiots want to impose to avoid a child who rushes straight out between parked vehicles into the roadway. Why are the parents not controlling them? Why are they not taught, as I was, that the road is for cars - not morons with a death wish!

This extends to cyclists, as well. From a very early age I cycled to and from school - over eight miles each way. In the nearly ten years I cycled that route, I was only once brushed by a car - fortunately escaping serious injury - and that was largely my own fault - I swerved out without checking behind me! As a kid, I was taught never to cycle abreast of another cyclist, and the traffic police would not hesitate to pull you over if you did. Here, I find myself stuck behind groups of cyclists who cycle three and four abreast completely obstructing traffic.

To add insult to injury, the County Council has now taken out of use a stretch of the A 38 which used to be dual carriage way over its busiest section - to turn one complete lane on each side into cycle paths. No doubt the 20 or so cyclists a day will enjoy this - but the motorists are paying for it!

Why focus on the motorist as the demon when the failure lies in the Road Safety Association and the various Child Protection societies that have taken it upon themselves to destroy parents' control over wayward and headstrong children, allowing them to run wild. This links into another report from today's news - that over a hundred "children" a month are "kicked out" by their parents and end up living rough on the streets. When you look at the reasons why, many are so out of control that the parents have no option. Yes, I accept that there are some bad parents out there who abuse and damage their offspring. Identify them and deal with them - don't criminalise and hamstring perfectly normal and loving parents so that they are unable to bring their children up to be responsible and decent citizens. Children have to be taught to behave decently and some need a bit more reminding than others.

To return to my original point, traffic calming measures such as speed humps are simply the response of a bunch of wet behind the ears do-gooders who cannot think in joined up ways to see a bigger picture. These are the same iodiots who constantly bleat about pollution and exhaust fumes. They simply refuse to see that the slower traffic moves, the more exhaust fumes you get. Modern engines have been engineered to be at their cleanest burning and most efficient at a speed well above 35 mph - my own car's gearing is too high to use 5th gear at 30 mph - and is therefore wasting fuel and dumping exhaust waste into the roadside air. Slow it down even further and it gets worse.

One police force started recording the number of accidents involving speed calming measures in its area and was told to stop when it started to show up the fact that more accidents were happening at these points - rather demolishing the view that they were reducing accidents. They were ordered to stop as soon as this became apparent. Never let facts get in the way of ideology.

Teach the children and other road users to behave responsibly on the roads. This will be far more effective in reducing accidents than alienating and angering the motorist - who, after all, pays for all of this nonsense in ever increasing Road Tax and in exorbitant fuel taxes.

The GMTV telephone poll on this issue showed that 79% felt the "traffic calming" measures should be removed everywhere, only 8% felt they should stay.

Any Councillors, politicians, or road unsafety campaigners out there listening?

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:49 AM

Pass me my strait jacket - quick!

If there were a need to prove that the lunatics are now in charge, this would surely be exhibit A. One of the country's top neuro-surgeons has been suspended from his post - on full pay - leaving his patients in limbo.

Is the suspension due to misconduct or serious malpractice? Perhaps due to serious incompetence? Is he another Harold Shipman murdering his patients?No. It's about an accusation that he failed to pay for an £0.80pence bowl of soup in the hospital canteen. That's right. He's accused of having helped himself to an extra bowl of soup. If it weren't so serious I would be rolling on the floor laughing. The entire disciplinary procedure of the NHS has been invoked because some waiter in the canteen thinks he stole a bowl of soup. And the overpaid Chief Executive and his cronies in the "management" of the hospital think it's serious enough to call for a full investigation and suspend the Surgeon.

This is all the proof I need to demonstrate that the so-called managers of the civil service are totally and utterly incompetent and should not be allowed to manage the petty cash tin.

God preserve us from these cretins!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:15 AM | Comments (5)

March 23, 2004

Fire Fighter memories

The Laughing Wolf has reviewed his cousin's autobiographical work, "Firework". I like the sound of it and shall be looking out for a copy. It sounds as if his journey through this career has some similarity to my own journey through the last thirty plus years. It will make an interesting read.

Fire fighting is not everyone's cup of tea. After all, it takes someone with a really warped sense of self preservation to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out! It requires being able to switch off emotions and sometimes your rage at the evil you are seeing. It provides pathos, bathos and probably the finest team spirit you will ever encounter. Sometimes, as the Weekend Pundit has reminded me, we are called to make that ultimate sacrifice. When one of ours is killed in the line of duty - the entire service mourns, not just in his or her brigade or department, but all fire fighters who hear of it.

Over the years the fire service's role has expanded and the image of fire and smoke represents only one small part of what a firefighter does today. Unfortunately it is the one small part of it all that is the focus all non-firefighters tend to give it. The fire fighter who died in Laconia didn't die in a fire. He died while conducting a trial dive in an icy lake as a member of a diving unit. Diving Unit? Yes - a specialist unit within the fire service and one which is staffed by specialists who are also firefighters.

This is part of the problem for the modern service. A century ago it dealt with fires in structures and the occassional flooded building or basement. Gradually over the first part of the last century that role expanded to include rescue from jammed lifts, accidents involving trains, trams and the occassional motor car. Since the second world war, the spread of new technology and the growth of populations has seen a rise in the number of fires, but it has seen an explosion in the number of other disasters or potential disasters that the fire service is called upon to deal with. Almost everything from the proverbial cat up a tree to an overturned chemical tanker on the motorway is now a case of "call the Fire Service". Fire now probably accounts for less than 50% of the services activities. The list includes saving lives from fire, protecting property from fire, fire prevention, fire safety enforcement and inspection, rescue from motor accidents, dealing with chemical spills, dealing with animals and humans trapped in drains, rivers, mudholes etc., dealing with the aftermath of terrorist incidents, and the assessment of fire risks to the public and to fire fighters. Roughty-toughty water squirters? Think again!

Added to this, in the UK and other industrialised nations, has been the legislation which requires the fire service to police fire safety in most work places. In some countries this includes an enforcement role, in others it is simply an inspection and advisory role to some other enforcement agency. Whichever regime is in use, it is another role which the service must fill professionally. It is also something for which little direct funding is provided! Yet, our politicians and to an extent the media look at the service, and see only an opportunity to provide jobs for their pals - replacing uniformed and experienced professionals with "managers" and directly recruited "specialists" whose only knowledge of fire comes from books and demonstrations.

Equipment is another very sore point sometimes, as the service tries to keep pace with technology. Anyone who has had to explain at great length to a "civilian" "manager" in charge of purchasing why one piece of kit that he/she thinks is the best thing since sliced bread is not able to perform what the service requires will know what real frustration is. Especially when, thinking that the point has been effectively put across, you find that the "manager" goes off and buys what he/she wanted to get in the first place - and you and your team have to live with its shortcomings.

The move in this country is to do away with any rank structure. It is too "militaristic" and "elitist". Selection criteria have been all but thrown out of the window in an attempt to select people on ethnicity and gender rather than ability. One Brigade (worryingly the largest in the UK!) is arguing that simple subtraction should not be part of any selection tests as this might disadvantage someone. These are the people who will, in the future, stand up at funerals and weep their crocodile tears and insist that it is all the fault of the firefighters - for trying to do the impossible with the inadequate management, inadequate and politically correct selection processes, and inadequate equipment and funding that have been mandated for political reasons only.

The real tragedy will be that they will be killed in buildings approved by the "specialist inspectors" recruited to inspect and approve fire safety provisions without understanding fire, and by their "managers" whose inability to understand the service ethos will lead to the sort of thing the armed forces now face in combat zones - wrong ammunition, no body armour, and inadequate supply arrangements.

Britain is justifiably proud of its fire service and of the fact that we lose very few firefighters in the line of duty. We can still weep with those who are killed in the service of their fellows, and we will still do our utmost, despite the interference of politicians, to do that duty, even though it costs us health, and life itself. This is not a "job"; it is a vocation. It demands far more than simply turning up for work and going home again at the end of a shift. It demands commitment, it demands teamwork and, yes, that breeds a little elitism. But, when I go into a burning building, I need to know that the guy with me, the guys outside, on the pump and on the other tasks, know exactly what they are doing and will be there to back me or retrieve me if at all goes wrong.

Once you are a part of a team like that, you can never want for friends, you can never share it with an outsider, either. They simply do not understand it. As I said at the beginning of this post, the fire services of this world transcend national boundaries, they wear a uniform and they are soldiers of a sort, but they are the soldiers of peace. They are the guys who deal with the aftermath when defence forces have failed to stop an enemy attack, they are the people who deal with the consequences of failures in fire precautions, and of personal failures in road traffic accidents and other life threatening situations.

I have worn this uniform for more than thirty years now and will wear it for a few more. I wear it with pride and know that, like the author of the book in my opening paragraph, my faith has been strengthened by my service to my community in my service. In that time I have buried a few friends, seen others broken in spirit or in body, and we have not caste them aside either. Their sacrifice has been the same, and perhaps more so, than if they had died.

I salute all my colleagues and comrades in the fire service - the politicians may not appreciate us; they certainly know how to abuse us and to take credit for our performance. They can never take from us the sense of comradeship and of satisfaction for a job well done.

May all our fallen colleagues rest in peace and rise in glory.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:58 AM

March 22, 2004

The art of the Discworld author

I make no secret of my enjoyment of Terry Pratchett's books, often rereading them. Each time I do I find myself discovering an aspect that I missed on the first/second and sometimes third reading. I have just finished rereading "The Hogfather" and think I have stumbled across a device, which, now I have spotted it, is obvious and very effective.

It is quite a simple little trick. He opens his story among a group of characters who will play an important, but supporting, role. Invariably, they are engaged on some activity which has almost nothing at all to do with the story. It engages the imagination, and it intrigues one as you get further into the book - usually with little vignettes appearing in the midst of the main story from time to time and seemingly having no bearing whatsoever, other than to remind you that these characters are still around and in the story somewhere.

Thus, the Hogfather opens with two such scenes. First, the Unseen University's Faculty is gathered in the Archchancellor's rooms to witness the opening of a boarded up bathroom. Second, the Head of the Assassins Guild, Lord Downey receives a visit from the auditors - but not the kind who add up company accounts! The first is almost a story within the story as it reaches its culmination right at the end of the book, as does the outcome of Lord Downey's visit from the auditor. The first vignette introduces an aspect of the concept of belief - things exist because we believe firmly enough in them - and the second actually introduces the concept of how that can be turned into a weapon of total destruction.

You will have to read it for yourselves - copyright prevents me from reproducing it here anyway - but along the way you will meet, among others, Death (playing the Hogfather!), the Ohgod of Hangovers, a Toothfairy, Susan, assorted werewolves, bogeymen, ghouls, and assassins. Oh, and visit a pub for the undead called "Biers" and run by an Igor. The auditors lose, Death (as ever?) wins, the Discworld survives and the Archchancellor gets to try his newly refurbished bathroom, complete with musical power shower. Pity the shower is coupled to the UU's gigantic pipe organ, pity the organist is of the "all stops out" school of music - but read it yourselves.

I think I've put my back out laughing. Two stories for the price of one - Mr Pratchett gives great value for the money!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:24 PM | Comments (3)

Stonehenge - fantasy and fact

The great circle of stones that make up the ancient monument invoke all sorts of feelings and attract myths like some sort of occult magnet. Which, of course, is what a lot of people think it is - occult! Go there at Midsummer and it's swamped with would be Druids, performing rituals they have made up for themselves, or claim to have "discovered" in some ancient inscription somewhere. The truth is that no one really does know why it was built, although we have some ideas about what it was used for. One thing does seem certain, it wasn't the Druids of the Roman acquaintance that built it. As to what they used it for - we simply don't know, except that it had some religious purpose.

The great circle of stones that make up the ancient monument invoke all sorts of feelings and attract myths like some sort of occult magnet. Which, of course, is what a lot of people think it is - occult! Go there at Midsummer and it's swamped with would be Druids, performing rituals they have made up for themselves, or claim to have "discovered" in some ancient inscription somewhere. The truth is that no one really does know why it was built, although we have some ideas about what it was used for. One thing does seem certain, it wasn't the Druids of the Roman acquaintance that built it. As to what they used it for - we simply don't know, except that it had some religious purpose.

We do now know that the ditch and the principle stones were re-arranged over a 500 year period between 2,500 and 2,000 BC, with the ditch having been completed some time before that - around 2,950 BC. This predates the Druidic period by a bit! Another enigma is that the circle at Stonehenge seems to have supplanted the older and more elaborate one at Avebury a few miles further North, which incoporates a strange manmade hill called Silbury Hill - a truncated cone of soil and rubble built over an extended period.

From all that I have read on this subject, it would appear that Stonehenge may have been built either to replace the Henge at Avebury or as a rival to it. There may even be a totally different explanation for its existence. One thing is certain - at least in my mind from what I have read - and that is that this one seems to have been the last and the most elaborate. As you travel around Britain you find that there are a large number of these monuments dotted around the islands. Avesbury and Stonehenge (Amesbury) are two very elaborate examples, but others are less magnificent or so ancient that their orginal state is difficult to envisage. There are good examples in the Western Isles off the Scottish coast and others in Ireland and on "mainland" Britain itself.

On Saturday I indulged myself in yet another magazine which featured an article on the riddle of Stonehenge and which I am ploughing through as I write. The article, by Julian Richards, appears in the latest BBC History magazine and is essentially a promotion for the airing of a new documentary on the henge to be shown on Saturday 27th March on BBC 2. The article itself has been a worthwhile read, covering as it does, some of the mythology that has arisen from 18th and 19th Century attempts to interpret the stones - with a somewhat more than somewhat romantic eye to the facts.

It is largely to the 19th Century that we owe the rather more poetic visions of Druidic worship and use, but at least one 18th Century investigator has to take the blame for the vision of gaily dressed "worshippers" replete with banners and marvelously worked "instruments of office" conducting or taking part in worship there. The rather fanciful images of these early interpretations have now been rather more scientifically developed. It now seems that we can attribute the later phases of its construction to a group known as "the beaker" people, so-called because they used highly decorated pottery, and about whom, very little is known.

The author of the latest article is an archeologist who has spent more than 20 years researching and digging at this site. Much of what he has discovered dispels almost everything the 18th and 19th Century examiners postulated (in much the same way the 19th Century interpretation of dinosaur skeletons has been shown to be seriously flawed), one of the most important finds being the grave of a person of high status buried near the so-called "heel stone". The elaborate burial suggests that this was a very important and influential leader, which, in turn, raises the question of whether or not the henge is nothing more than an elaborate monument and tomb. Yet this suggestion too is quickly dispelled by the dating of the remains and the grave goods - which give a date some time after the completion of the monument. It will be interesting to see the documentary and find out what the dig has shown. It may, to some, still hold an attraction, since the neolithic inhabitants of these isles have left us other examples of elaborate burial practices, most notably in the "table" tombs to be found in Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland.

These comprise a series of huge upright megaliths or "sarsens", with a massive rock slab balanced on top of them. Originally they were covered in earth, the burial and grave goods being protected in the hollow central chamber. Wind, water, animals, and grave robbers have, over the 5,000 years or so since their original construction, exposed the stones and destroyed the original graves. Stonehenge, it seems, is very different in both its structure and purpose.

Firstly there is the question of orientation. As is often trumpeted, at midsummer the sun rises on a particular bearing and its light strikes a marker within the stones. Fine, but this works in reverese as well. As Julian Richards points out in his carefully written article, at midwinter, the sun sets through the diametrically opposite arch. So which was more important? Midsummer? Or midwinter?

Perhaps a look at what we do know of the "Beaker" people would be helpful here. Firstly, they loved decorated pottery and appear to have enjoyed a highly artistic culture - possible because they had made the transition between roaming hunter gatherer existence and settled agriculture. Among them developed metal working and a number of other crafts not suitable to a nomadic lifestyle. To such a people, midwinter would be more important than midsummer - precisely because it meant the turning of the corner through the long barren months when the group needed to live off its reserves and could look forward to planting and renewal of food stocks. This, taken with other monuments whose orientation is clearly to the midwinter sunset, may well be a significant clue - indicating that the celebration is not midsummer, but its opposite.

One other curious feature of the archeological discoveries here has been the fact that at least one of the graves discovered near here and dating from the same period, contains the remains of a man from Southern Germany. This suggests a mobility that is at odds with popular concepts for that time. It may also suggest that the community around the henge may well have been wealthy enough to attract traders and skilled craftsmen from outside of their own region.

Even more intriguing is the fact that the site at Carn Menyn in the Preseli Hills in South Wales, from which the great bluestone cross members came, has revealed evidence of a major industry there. Surprisingly no one had thought to examine the area thoroughly until recently and they have been surprised by the quantity of sarsens and megaliths there ready for shipping!

Three questions now remain; why was the Welsh stone used? Who were the builders? And the final and perhaps greatest question posed by Mr Richards is: What happened there in 2004 BC? At that time it was basically complete, we still do not know who its priests were, what gods were appeased here, or what rituals they followed.

Perhaps we will never know until someone comes up with a working time machine. And perhaps then we will regret our curiosity and our presumption. I will be looking forward to watching the programme when it is aired.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 05:44 PM | Comments (1)

March 21, 2004

Sunday's thoughts

Once again I am assisting at lots of services, but not preaching, so what to post for a Sunday "religous" thought. It doesn't have to be of course, but, having started doing it, I like to keep it going.

Today, I thought I'd share a little something on the frequently quoted (and just as frequently misquoted and abused) section of the Old Testament that we call "the Prophets". In fact, in the Jewish canon, these are known as the "Latter" Prophets, and the Joshua - Esther section as the "Former" Prophets. In reading these, it is very important to understand both the context and the history. Yes, they have something to say to us as they had something to say to those who originally heard them and yes, they have something important to say to future generations as well, but not if you want to cherry pick and use literal translations.

I hope this adds somothing to all our understanding of this influential book. I hope too that it will help those whose knowledge of it is limited, and perhaps even help those who want to restrict understanding of it to literal, unthinking and non-interpretive views. Read in the right frame of mind (open) and with the right background knowledge and understanding they are revealing and exciting.

Hope you have a good Sunday and a fruitful week ahead.

A thunder of Prophets

The final section of the Old Testament, the Books of Prophecy and their authors.

As we saw with the “Latter Prophets”, prophecy is very much a mainstay of the Biblical record, indeed, it is still very much a part of our worship and our lives as Children of God. So what do the Prophets say to us in our time? Quite a lot actually, when you look at the people, events and lack of faith which inspired their outbursts and drove their zeal for God.

The next question is, who were the prophets and when did they live and work? Starting with the first part of that question we can identify the names of the books as follows: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. To these sixteen names we must add an unknown author, whose book is simply titled “Lamentations”. Although the Septuagint version of the Old Testament gives the authorship of this to Jeremiah, it is thought that this is unlikely as they are in a completely different style to that used in the Book of Jeremiah. What is certain, is that the author was a witness to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587 BC. Four of the Prophets stand apart and are referred to as the “major” Prophets, they are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, with the others referred to as the “minor” Prophets.

So what is the period of these writings? The earliest, Amos, can be dated to around 795 BC, with Hosea writing from around 760 BC and Isaiah and Micah both active around 745 BC. The last of this line of Prophets, Malachi, wrote around 450 BC, giving us a span of some 350 years and covering the period of rapid decline after the death of Solomon and the division of the Kingdom. The Book of Daniel covers the longest span of events and is contemporaneous with the work of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Obadiah. While the majority of these “men” (I will explain the parenthesis in a moment!) lived and worked in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Amos and Hosea belong to the Northern Kingdom of Israel and Jonah, Ezekiel and Daniel lived and worked in Syria or Babylon. The unknown author of Lamentations may well have worked in Babylon as well, since he seems to have been present in Jerusalem at its fall.

Now a brief explanation of my “” in the foregoing paragraph! Many, if not all of the Prophets were accompanied on their travels by a “school” of disciples, who much as our Lord’s disciples did, carried the word for the Prophet, did the housekeeping and frequently wrote the notes from which the books would have been compiled. When a particularly charismatic prophet died, it is believed that his “school” may well have continued under new leadership, but still in the name of the original “teacher/prophet”. In this way it is possible to account for the differences in style between sections of some of the books and for the extended periods covered by others. A good example of changes of writing style lies in the Book of Isaiah, which shows three clear sections and is believed to have been the work of three different authors. Does this invalidate the content? Not at all, it is simply a demonstration that God is able to continue His work through the agency of His workers, whoever they may be.

The message of the prophets is a relatively simple one. To them God rules through and in history, he calls men and women to learn from the mistakes of the past and to repent of the sins once committed. The prophets take very seriously the role of God as Ruler of History and frequently use the imagery of the Empires of their day as “tools” or “implements” of God. For Habakkuk this created a problem, he was faced with a God apparently prepared to use unholy and corrupt instruments and has to come to terms with the fact that God is acting in His world, as Sovereign in that world, and is therefore able to use even the most unworthy instrument for His purpose.

For the Prophets the primary need for the people is to be right with God, to be on God’s side is far better than to have a web of powerful human allies or defenses, but to be sure that it is what God wants. Check some of the examples to be found in Isaiah 30v1 – 2 and Hosea 5v13. God is constantly working to bring His people back to the right way and this is a strong thread through the prophecies as well. For very good examples see Amos 4v6 – 11.

Morality is seen as a foundation of religion, Jeremiah expressly rejects religion without morality in Chapter 7 verses 1 – 15. In this they are simply underpinning the teaching to be found in Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, for a religion that does not practice morality is nothing less than an abomination. But, we also need to be very careful in defining morality in this sense, the morality comes from God and not from our own prejudices, likes and preferences. This is very much the thrust of our Lord’s ministry, it is He who determines who is acceptable and who not.

We should not think that the Prophets are all doom and gloom either. Their analysis of the times in which they live and the gathering danger around them is instructive, it may even have seemed “negative” to those who listened to the original oration, yet, with hindsight, we can see how the people themselves, by rejecting God and neglecting their God given Nationhood, prepared the way for what was to follow. Yet, in the midst of the gloom, there are sudden beams of revelation and hope. It is this blend of light and dark, hope and despair which makes the prophets quite compelling reading.

Finally, we have contained within this body of writing the Messianic message of a Kingdom which will surpass everything that has gone before. It is seen by the Prophets as the setting up of a new covenant, one which will be free of the previous flaws and bring a perfect relationship with God. Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah all present the reader with images of a “new David”, “branch of David’s line”, or “branch of the Lord” – an image used by Zechariah and Isaiah to stress the divine nature. Isaiah goes further using images including “Immanuel”, “Mighty God occupying David’s throne”, Anointed conqueror of His people’s foes, and perhaps the most amazing image of all, “the Suffering Servant” in Chapter 53. Malachi gives us the image of “The Lord himself coming in the wake of the forerunner”, an image seized on in the Gospels as a reference to John the Baptist, and both Micah and Isaiah foretell that the “new David” will be born in Bethlehem of a virgin.

Isaiah stands at the head of the list for more than simply the chronology. It is Isaiah’s vision of God which inspires many of the New Testament writers and it is almost unequalled until we read St John’s Revelation. His active period spans forty years and includes the first direct assaults on Jerusalem by the Assyrian armies. His entire mission is inspired and coloured by his vision of God in the temple and certainly knew his people and his audience. It is in this book that we find those incredibly moving prophecies of the “suffering servant” so clearly linked by the Gospels to the Messiah. It is not clear how the book came to have its present form, it is likely that some of the work is that of Isaiah himself, but large portions and changes of style suggest that it is the work of more than one scribe. The book itself is important to us today for several reasons, not least because it is quoted by the New Testament writers more than any other Old Testament book. It has a message for us as well, living as we do in a changing and ever more materialistic society, the pursuit of self-interest and the abandoning of God carries with it the harshest of penalties.

Jeremiah came upon the scene about a hundred years after Isaiah and came from a priestly family. His ministry is generally thought to have started around 627 BC and spanned the reigns of the last five King’s of Judah, a period of some forty years. He is thought to have died in exile in Egypt, as we know that towards the end of his life the people fled the wrath of the Babylonian King following the murder of his appointed Governor and took Jeremiah with them. His ministry was very influential and his mixes hope with dire warning, but is very difficult to fit against particular events as it is not chronological. The book itself grew out of the scroll dictated to Baruch, which is described in Chapter 36 and seems to be a collation of several sources. It displays a wide mixture of literary forms, combining prose, poetry, lament and biography.

Ezekiel’s ministry is thought to have begun in 592 BC, five years after the final surrender of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and the taking into exile of the nobility and the Royal household. Ezekiel was aged about 30 at this time and he was himself a priest. His ministry was centred in Babylon among the exiles and unlike the book of Jeremiah is written entirely in the first person with the prophecies meticulously ordered and dated. Many commentators remark that for most Christians this is a “closed book”, with few of us penetrating beyond the descriptions of fantastic creatures with wheels for eyes and flashing lights. This is probably our loss, as it is a book very much in the “apocalyptic” tradition which would later be emulated by St John in Revelations. For those who do penetrate beyond this initial hurdle, there is a book of well developed prose containing a vision of God which I would suggest, could challenge us to think again our approach to life.

The fourth of the “Big Four”, Daniel is, like Ezekiel, an exile. He was in the first batch of exiles and arrived in Babylon as a boy. His family was certainly noble and possibly Royal, and he was a Statesman rather than a Prophet, but the book belongs firmly in the prophetic canon. As a book it contains a number of possible problems for us, as it covers a span of some 70 years and is written in two languages, with Chapters 2 to 7 in Aramaic, the then international language of the region, and the rest in Hebrew. It also contains a number of historical inaccuracies. One explanation is that the book as we have it was written by a 2nd Century BC author (who would have had to dupe the scholars of his day in order to get it accepted – which it was!) using the name of the 6th Century Prophet. The heart of the debate is the prophecies relating to events in the 3rd and 2nd Centuries, which one has either to accept as genuine prediction or reject in their entirety as a 2nd Century “revision”. The debate is likely to continue for a very long time. Most readers simply accept the book as it is presented.

Space does not permit me to go into great detail on the remaining twelve prophets in our collection. Each has a message both for his time and for ours, and there are rewards in reading them, particularly if your take the trouble to read up on the background history. Prophetic activity did not cease with Malachi, it continued right up to the period of the Gospels and continues to this day. As always, we need to keep an open mind and to study widely to appreciate all that these books contain, and I can again commend to you the Lion Handbooks, the recently republished Tynedale commentaries and “A History of Warfare” by Montgomery of Alamein. There are several good books available on the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and their conquest campaigns which will also provide some insights to the period.

Once again, enjoy the reading and allow yourselves to be surprised by God. Who knows, there may be a prophet among us even now.

Peace be with you.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:53 AM

March 20, 2004

Saturday this and that

Found another interesting blog today, with some help from MommaBear at On the third hand. This one is called Sketches of Strain and is the home page of David - who also reads Tarot cards. His brother has just started out as a DJ and his story of the "maiden" evening is fun.

Ozguru at G'day Mate has a wonderful list of things we'd like to say at work - but daren't. If only I could afford to walk away from my pension - there are several I would like to say to the present management.

Cynical Cyn has posted one of those facts that make you go - Eh? - and like her, I wonder who thinks these up! No I won't spoil it - go read it where its at!

As a Last Post, Tim at An Englishman's Castle highlights an important dilemma for all liberal minded and libertarian people. What do you do about children whose parents are so careless of their welfare that they bring them into the world addicted to heroin? I think I am less forgiving then Tim is, so will leave the comment to him.

Well, that's it for tonight folks. Watch for something tomorrow if you've a mind too.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:19 PM

The Passion of Christ

The most objective and sensitive posting I have yet seen on the Mel Gibson film is to be found at G'day mate. The author being a relative notwithstanding, I have yet to see such a well presented critique. It is worth reading for yourself, so pay him a visit and see what I mean.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:22 PM | Comments (1)

March 19, 2004

The modern myth of Christian aggression.

There is a seriously biased view of the conflict between Christianity and Islam now being peddled by the media and those elements of academia and politics who choose to reinterpret history to promote their own vision of an "if only" future. This bias is, in part, what is also likely to lead to an increase in attacks on Western (Christian (?)) culture, and no amount of breast beating, finger pointing, or posturing by those who are behind this is likely to change the attitude and the politics now embedded in the minds of those in the "Islam is superior but victimised" camp.

It's worth just taking a moment to look at the history of the spread of Islam from the moment the Prophet kicked it off. Firstly, during the lifetime of Mohammed, many Christian Churches (More properly Basilicas [Should that be Basilicii?]) actually made provision for those of the Islamic faith to have a side room or chapel for their worship. Islam was recognised by the Christian leaders of the day as a new manifestation of the heretical Docetism vision of the Gospel. Mohammed himself actually described the Christians and Jews as "people of the Book" and urged that they were to be left to follow their own faiths. This began to change toward the end of his life as his more militant followers began, effectively, a conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and the lower fringes (Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and modern Turkey) of the Byzantine Empire - in the name of Allah. At first they followed Mohammed's stricture regarding Christians and Jews, but then things began to change.

Christians became the target of forced conversions. Churches were forcibly taken over and converted to mosques, or simply destroyed, and congregations who refused to convert were killed. The situation became even worse in 632 AD when Mohammed died, never having set foot in Jerusalem. Seven years later Jerusalem had been taken from the Christian Byzantines and the Al Aqsa mosque was being constructed on the site of the Temple. At first, at least in Jerusalem, an uneasy truce was preserved, partly, possibly, because the Islamic army was still busy "liberating" and converting the provinces North of there. A Caliphate was established, and the first Caliph was a moderate, but he was replaced by a near lunatic who surrounded himself with fanatics. Less than fifty years after the death of Mohammed, the Christians were driven out of Jerusalem, killed, forced to convert, and their shrines destroyed. The great church of the Holy Sepulchre was the first to be destroyed, and it is thought that the tomb survived only because it remained buried in the rubble.

In North Africa, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Libya, Algeria, Morrocco were all overwhelmed in quick succession, and again Christians forced to convert, their churches plundered and seized, and their children sold as slaves or forced to serve in the various armies. This led them into Spain and Portugal, the invasion of Europe stopped in the Pyrenees by a last ditch defence by a handfull of French and Spanish knights. Such is the background to the spread of Islam, a religion spread by fire and the sword far more zealously than the Christian leaders had ever contemplated. It was this assault that led to the Crusades, and to the 700 years of bitter fighting in Spain to clear the "Moors" from Spanish and Portugese territory. Those who think it was all done in a bloodless campaign of love and persuasion are deluding themselves and seriously perverting reality.

The Christian response was unco-ordinated and fairly weak at first. The Western Branch of Christianity did not see the threat to the Eastern Church as affecting them until pilgrims to the Holy Land began to be murdered, robbed, seized as slaves, and generally abused. Then came a series of military campaigns we now call the Crusades. Like most such military ventures the motives were not as pure and holy as the leaders of the Church would have liked to suppose. Many were no more than brigand mobs and some turned pirate as soon as they saw opportunity. That said, Jerusalem was recaptured in 1099, and a shortlived Kingdom was established.

To the shame of all who took part in it, Jew and Muslim were attacked and massacred when Jerusalem fell to the Christian army. It is easy to sit here now and point a finger, but we lose sight of the fact that this campaign was a response to the ongoing murder and abuse of Christians, the destruction of Christian churches and shrines, and the denial of access to any non-Muslim. Passions must, after almost three hundred years, have been runnning pretty high, and would have been made worse by the sight of Chrsitian pilgrims who had been starved and beaten and imprisoned or enslaved as they stormed into the city.

After this inauspicious start we should not be surprised that the Crusaders were themselves ejected again within three hundred years, with the Knights of Malta being the last to leave in around 1529.

It is a fact that across the Middle East there are still very large numbers of Christians, significantly in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and the Lebanon. Egypt and North Africa also have significant Christian communities, but in almost all of them, Christians are barred from public office, barred from proselytising for converts, and allowed to worship only in their churches on sufferance. Much is made of the dwindling numbers of Christians resident in Palestine (Israel and the West Bank) but the truth of that is again they have been driven out by militant Islam. In the Sudan, the Christian South lives in poverty while the Muslim North takes all the oil revenues and plows nothing back to the Southern Region where it is drilled. Worse still, women and children from the South are seized and sold into slavery in the North.

One of the problems in trying to balance the events of history and to see what lessons can be learned from them is that since the Mongol invasions of the Indian Sub-continent, the Russian steppes, Eastern Europe, and the Middle and near East between 1250 and 1500, the heart of Islam has gone from being a flowering of art and science to an inward looking fundamentalism, while Christianity and Christian Europe experienced, possibly as a result of the destruction of so many institutions of church and state, a renaissance which has created the world we live in today.

Those who insist on seeing only the failures of fundamentalist Christianity are failing to see the whole picture which is very different from that they prefer to depict. Fundamentalism in any religous context is a dangerous force, fundamentalism in the politics of religion, and world conquest is an altogether lethal animal, one which must be stopped in its tracks immediately before it engulfs us all in anarchy and the collapse of civilisation.

I rarely agree with anything Mr Blair says, but I have to agree with him on the point that Al Qaeda will not be satisfied with anything less than the total destruction of Western Society. This is not a threat to any one nation, it is a threat to every nation, Muslim and Christian.

Ask yourself this question, why is it that Muslims are allowed the freedom of worship, access to organs of state, and all the rights and freedoms of the democracies of this world when their brother Christians are denied this in their "model" and "Godly" world?

I am a great believer in respect for another man's cultural activities, beliefs and "freedoms", but I insist that he shows the same respect for mine. I am perfectly content to live in a multicultural society, but it cannot be a state of "No Culture" or even of "Plural" culture; there will always be a bias towards one dominant culture. The fundamentalists of Islam and Al Qaeda will accept nothing less than their own vision of a world dominated by their version of Islam.

Would the Prophet approve? I doubt it very much indeed.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:38 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 18, 2004

Lord of the Rings

I still have not seen the final part of this trilogy. Partly this is because I hate going to movies on my own, and partly because, when I did have an opportunity, it was booked solid!

It was interesting therefore to read the appraisal of the whole at "On Byzantium's Shores" and to have smile as the lady identifies some of the small inconsistencies and changes between versions. Return of the King certainly seems to have rounded it all off nicely. I will get to see it soon, but may have to make do with the video or the DVD.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:45 PM | Comments (1)

Updating the Bayeux Tapestry?

My good friend and brother in law in chief, Ozguru, on G'day Mate, has posted a section of the Bayeux Tapestry on his website. Appropriately on St Patrick's Day. I knew I'd seen him somewhere before when I met him for the first time. Now I know!

Those who want to add their own bits to the tapestry and rewrite history, should visit A E Brain. You need a Flash Plugin, which evidently I haven't got - must be something to do with AO Hell!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:23 PM | Comments (2)

March 17, 2004

May the Saint be with you ...

May the blessed Saint Patrick be the guide and the companion as you all walk with Christ through this life and into the next.

O God, the light of the faithful, and shepherd of souls, who didst set blessed Patrick to be a Bishop and teacher in the Church, that he might feed thy sheep by his word and guide them by his example: Grant us, we pray thee, to keep the faith which he taught, and to follow in his footsteps; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

On this day when we remember Patrick, slave, evangelist, Bishop and founder of the Celtic Church tradition, let us also remember the Celtic blessing: -

May the sun shine always on your face,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the rain fall gently on your fields,
May the road rise up to meet your feet,
May your journey be always in the Lord,
May the Devil be always too late to find you,
And until we meet again,
May the Lord hold you in the palm of His hand
and keep you safe.

Enjoy the feast in honour of a truly remarkable man, whose footprints are writ large on the history of the Church. Not a learned man, but a steadfast and a faithful one.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:05 AM

March 16, 2004

A Spanish response

I am not surprised that the Spanish people have reacted the way they have, their links with the ideals and ambitions of the US and her allies have always been somewhat strained. It is a pity though, that they think that sticking up signs saying "we're neutral!" will get them off the al Qaeda list of targets.

Now that they have proved themselves receptive to the coercion exerted by strategic bombing at elections, we can expect it to happen again, this time, probably somewhere like France. This has always been the tactic, pick them off one by one, and of course the appeasers keep on whinging and bleating that it really isn't them. Adrian Warnock has a few very pertinent things to say on this score and its worth visiting his post.

This highlights the problem with media influence and the twisted slant that can occur. I would suggest that most people now believe that the risk of attack by al Qaeda is now higher in Britain than before Iraq, yet is this really the case? I sat through a bit of abyssmal blather while eating supper and watching the Channel 4 news last night in which some self righteous twit blathered on about "international law" and "illegal" action - his qualification? He makes movies. During his entirely self gratifying little rant he managed to say at intervals of about every third sentence that "a majority" were opposed to the war in Iraq. Pardon me? Who ever actually asked them? Did we vote on this? I must have missed it.

I do know that it is the dangerous idiocy of people like this who think that if I don't carry a big stick, you won't, if I don't offer to defend myself, you won't attack me, that leads to the sort of horror that sparked the second World War. Invasion of the Rhineland, invasion of Czechoslovakia, invasion of Poland, Denmark, Norway, and so on. The appeasers let Japan massacre and murder its way through Manchuria and into China - and then were surprised when it fell on the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Terrorism is not something you can appease. Ask the Republic of Ireland, whose Provisional IRA is behind almost all the drug rackets and the organised crime. Terrorism is something all the civilised nations must be prepared to tackle head on and defeat utterly, or surrender supinely to the demands that these men of evil will unleash upon us. The choice is quite straight forward, defend yourself, don't give way and be prepared to deal with them as harshly as their crimes demand.

I don't know who the twerp was on the News last night, I do know that he won't be there to face the music when his buddies in al Qaeda and its linked organisations have to be tackled face to face - he'll be one of those hiding under the table and bleating about the inability of the armed services to defend him.

As for the new Spanish Government, well, I wish them luck, they'll need it in the longer run of things. Pulling out and slagging off their allies certainly won't get them off al Qaeda's hit list and it won't encourage the rest of us to go to their aid either.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:32 PM | TrackBack

Another Gloucestershire lad ...

Everyone knows the story of Dick Whittington and his cat. The story of a "poor" young man given a cat as a companion and sent off to earn his fortune in the big city of London. All sorts of legends have grown up around him and quite a bit of fantasy as well. There's even a pantomime which puts the cat in the role of hero who advises him and eventually makes his fortune for him.

It may surprise many to know that Dick (or more correctly Richard) Whittington, was a real person. He was indeed three times the Lord Mayor of London, spanning the reigns of four Kings of England and his name appears complete with dates in the West Window of the Guild Hall in the City of London along with all the other Lord Mayors. (Ken Livingstone's will, thankfully, never appear there as he is NOT the Lord Mayor of the City!) But who or what was he, and what gave rise to the legend?

Dick Whittington came from Gloucestershire, where his father and family had land and business. This was the heyday of the Cotswold wool trade and Whittington senior was a Mercer, a trader in wool who also had land and sheep to supply it. He operated out of Gloucester Docks and traded round the South Coast to Europe and particularly to Flanders. At some point he evidently decided it would be a good idea to have a "factory" in London, and who better to head this up than his son. So far, so good, but where does the "cat" fit in all of this?

"Cat" boats were a class of ship, used for coastal trading. They ranged in size from 50 to 500 tuns burden (The earlier measurement of a ship's carrying capacity was the number of "tuns" of wine she could carry) and are distinguished by the sailing rig. The foremast in a catboat is stepped right at the stempost, with a mainmast about amidships or slightly further aft. This gave a large uncluttered hold and made for easy working out of baled goods from the hold. So, the "cat" our Dick took to London, was ship loaded with merchandise - to whit - wool.

Visitors to London who want to confirm this should look for the Guildhall and study the West Window between Gog and Magog, mythical guardians of the City and the legendary founders who escaped from Troy. I did say legendary - the story is a medieval invention. You should also look for the Church of St Michael, Paternoster Royal, in College Hill, near to St Paul's and close to Cannon Street Station. Next to the Church you will find a building with a blue ceramic plaque which records that this was the site of Dick Whittington's "factory" and the Church is a Wren creation which replaced the one in which he was buried.

St Michael's is now the headquarters of the Mission to Seafarers and inside you will find a window which shows a young Dick Whittington with ship's in the background and a cat at his feet. Legend dies hard, even in his burial place.

One last point, the story of his "turning back" from Highgate Hill, probably has a foundation in fact. It was from here in medieval times that lookouts could espy a returning trader entering the lower reaches of the Thames. Today, of course, it is no longer possible because of the buildings around it, but it enabled the Merchant's to have advanced knowledge that their ventures were safely returned - important if your entire capital had gone out with the ship and you were dependent onits return!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 03:18 PM

Is it a bird, is it a 'plane ... Nope, it's probably a planet!

As our ability to see further and further into space improves, so also objects closer to "home" become much easier to spot. So it is with the newly discovered planet beyond Pluto. It was photographed in 1982 - but not recognised until quite recently.

If ever there was an argument for keeping Hubble going - indeed for enhancing it or launching an improved version - this must surely be it. As the BBC website says ...

"Quaoar, as it has been dubbed, is about 1,280 kilometres across (800 miles) and is the biggest find in the Solar System since Pluto itself 72 years ago.

The object is about one-tenth the diameter of Earth and circles the Sun every 288 years."

Given too that Hubble has located and photographed planets in distant star systems, given us images of nebula where stars are being born and no doubt planets forming, surely this must be a call to invest in the exploration of our Solar system and explore the options for the human race out among the stars.

This new "planet" is about one third the size of the Moon, and half the size of Pluto - but a third again as big as Charon pluto's moon, so it hardly rates as a place which could be a future habitation of humanity. Apart from anything else its far to cold - but each discovery of this nature pushes the boundaries of what we know, what we may deduce but must still confirm and what we have still to discover.

Scientists speculate that there may be other bodies similar to this one lurking out there in the Kuiper Belt, that vast cloud of primordial debris left over from the formation of our Solar system. The new "planet" has an orbital period of 288 years, which means that by the time it is next at this point in its orbit, man may be travelling between the planets. I certainly hope so, because, if not, it will mean that the forces of terrorism, bureaucratic inertia and anti-science have succeeded in dragging us all back into a Dark Age of ignorance and superstition.

These and other discoveries made since the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment should not frighten believers in any faith since they actually confirm that the God we worship is far more magnificent and creative than we could ever have imagined. The more we learn, the more we can appreciate the wonder of creation.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 02:54 PM | Comments (3)

March 15, 2004

St Patrick is a Gloucestershire lad ....

An Irish researcher has recently published a very well researched book which is today being publicised on the local radio stations - it may have some connection with the fact that the Cheltenham Festival and Gold Cup horse racing is on and the place is overrun by the Irish horse racing fraternity - which suggests that the great Celtic Saint was from the Severn Vale. I doubt that we will see a massive influx of pilgrims from this news - if indeed it becomes widely accepted. The fact is that there have been several claimants to the origins of this remarkable saint, including Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria. Even the Strathclyde region has made some noises on this.

Personal prejudice for my region aside, I do believe that the Severn Vale and what is today Gloucestershire is probably the strongest claimant. My main reason for this is that it was a thriving centre of Romano-British culture until well beyond the collapse of Roman control in the East, and is littered with the remains of Roman "Villas". Almost everywhere you go in the County, you find traces of Roman occupation and almost all the "great church" foundations go back to Roman times in terms of siting if not in actual occupation. Thus, Gloucester Cathedral is built over the remains of the Roman Bassilica and there is evidence of Christian activity from that period. At Bourton on the Water, the Church there - of 19th Century reconstruction now - occupies a site that once held a pagan shrine, but was Christian from around the date that Patrick was born. This was lost and then regained as successive invaders moved in between 600 and 1000 AD. Certainly the other "great" church site, Tewkesbury, has been used for religious purposes from Roman times and certainly Christian from around 700 AD.

Patrick lived between around 400 and 461 AD, a time when Romano-British culture was certainly at its height and just beginning the decline triggered by the collapse of Roman government in Gaul and Western Europe. He is reported - from his own "Confessio" ( an autobiographical work, believed to be authentic as it discusses events and details only he would have been familiar with in reality) and his familiarity with the politics of the region (he wrote a letter to "King" Caracticus who was a Romano-British governor based in South Wales) - to have been born into a Christian family, his Grandfather a priest and his father a Deacon, and raised in this tradition until captured by Irish raiders and sold into slavery around the age of 14.

Putting aside the legends and reading his own works reveals a fascinating man, of deep conviction, as different from his legends as chalk from cheese. A man of faith, who heard a call and answered it, founding in the process a church which not only survived but flourished in the isolated and dangerous world of the Viking raids and stormy politics of the age. His example has given us a clutch of truly remarkable men, including Aidan, Cuthbert, Brendan and many more. He was an inspiration in his own age to many - hence his success - and this is what has fueled the legends. He is still an inspiration, if one is prepared to get to know the real man behind the legend.

His feast day is this Wednesday and there will be many parades, parties and other festivals to mark it around the world. He would probably have been astonished by it all, and probably somewhat disturbed because he was above all a very modest man, modest in his faith, modest in his behaviour and modest about his own accomplishments. He was also a very determined man, once he had decided on a course of action.

I will be marking his feast, probably modestly, but in real admiration for what this truly "quiet" but determined man achieved from such an inauspicious beginning.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:43 AM | TrackBack

March 14, 2004

Sunday sermon substitute

Tonight I am the Officiant for the Office of Evensong, so had better practice my lines and my singing. As we have a visiting preacher, I have posted a study I wrote on the Old Testament books from Joshua to Chronicles. Given that a number of posts I have seen recently draw upon a variety of "interpretations" of sections of the Bible, I venture to post this as a guide and a warning to those who take the various English versions so literally.

The Former Prophets
A look at the “Historical” Books of the Old Testament.

The period covered by this group of books is roughly from around 1250 BC to 400 BC, quite an impressive span. They chart the rise and fall of the Nation of Israel as it reaches its apogee under Solomon and then divides into “Israel” in the North and “Judah” in the South, before falling to the Assyrians and then the Babylonians. Finally we see the return from exile under Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon and restoration of Jerusalem. You may well wonder why I have put the “*” around the word historical. It is purely to indicate that, although most of the books in this group are at least based on historical fact or events, there are questions surrounding the books of Ruth and Esther. Both of these appear to be “instructive” rather than “historical” and draw upon the lives of real people (Ruth is David’s forebear), to make a moral point.

The title I have given this ramble through the Old Testament may also puzzle, yet it is the title often given to this group of books by the Jews themselves, as a means to distinguish these books from the Latter Prophets – Jeremiah, Isaiah and so on. It also reflects the belief that the books form a “prophetic” history, that is, a historical account in which the hand of God and the folly of the people who fail to follow His holy law, is revealed. It also refers to the division used by Jewish scholars who divide this group into two sections – the Prophets; Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and the Writings; 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and, loosely, Ruth and Esther. Of these last, Esther is unique in that it alone of all the books of both Old and New Testaments, it does not mention God at all. Indeed it includes a story of dire revenge, but it is this book which is read in its entirety by Jews to this day on the Feast of Purim. Ruth, by contrast, is a short story of a Moabite woman, a convert to the Jewish faith, who exercises great faith to support her widowed mother in law among her adopted people.

Sources for these books are quite diverse, drawing upon now lost court records, including the Acts of Solomon, the Book of Jashar (thought to be an ancient national song book!), and the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (completely different to the books we have as 1 and 2 Chronicles). There is some evidence that the court records of David are also part of the reference material and there are suggestions of many other sources as well. This serves well to illustrate the amount of written material that had been produced during the period covered and its availability to the authors of the books we now possess. The primary difference between the original sources and the writings contained within our canon, is the interpretive aspect in which the prophetic confirmation is drawn against the events described.

There is some argument about the start date of the narrative, some scholars preferring 1240 BC but others arguing for an earlier date around 1400 BC based on 1 Kings 6:1. This latter date is based on dating backwards from the presumed date of the “fourth year” of Solomon’s reign a period of 480 years. This period of years is itself interesting because it is also the period of the conjunction cycle of Venus and Mercury, which when they are in conjunction show briefly as a very bright star just before the dawn. The “star” is reputedly bright enough to cast shadows and is even mentioned in the Bible in several places. The conjunction also coincides with several significant events including the dedication of the Temple by Solomon, the Exodus and Abraham’s departure from Ur. The cycle is amazingly predictable and the conjunction last occurred in 1913.

So what do the books themselves cover? The first is of course Joshua, variants of the name, which is still revered; include Yeshua, Joseph and Jesus. The book itself is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Exodus: Part 2”, which is partly true. It tells the story of Moses’ successor, a warrior leader of some skill, who led the invasion and conquest of the Promised Land. While the book covers the conquest and the battles, the writers include the renewal of the Covenant and builds on how this united the tribes. The first city to fall to the Israelites is of course the key city of Jericho, and it is swiftly followed by others, including that of Megiddo - a place known to readers of the Revelations in the New Testament as Armageddon.

Very few of the cities captured are destroyed, with the exception of Jericho which as the first fruit of the campaign, is seen as a thank offering to God. The other exception is Hazor in the North, but the reason for that is less clear. There is method in all of this, a desolated land of destroyed cities and towns would hardly support the invaders and their families, and therefore they are preserved as far as possible. The conquest is, however, far from complete by the time Joshua dies in his old age.

Judges draws its title from the title of the Elders who led the people from the death of Joshua until the appointment of Saul as King. Throughout the book the reader is reminded that the settlement or conquest is far from complete as various tribes suffer from insurrection or invasions by the former occupants. The historical element is relatively small throughout this book as it deals with moral issues and it closes with two rather unusual events. The first is the establishment of a sanctuary for the tribe of Dan to replace one destroyed by raiders (See Judges 17 – 18) and the second is the punishment of Benjamin for an outrage committed by the inhabitants of Gibeah (See Judges 19 – 21!). It almost seems to sum it all up in the very last verse of the book – “In those days Israel had no King, everyone did as they saw fit.”

The story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz is, on the surface, a very lightweight tale of self sacrifice and self preservation, but it has a much deeper significance. In fact it was written much later than its position in the canon implies. It is contemporaneous with the book of Nehemiah and was written to counter the view in favour at the time of the restoration of Jerusalem, that the Jewish people had to purify themselves by expelling all those who where not “pure” Jew (See Ezra 9 – 10!). By reminding the people that their greatest Kings had been part Moabite, the writer neatly challenges that doctrine and shows it to be false (See Ruth 4: 13 – 22).

1 and 2 Samuel mark the transition from the tribal “Judges” to the period of greatness under the Kings. Where at the opening of 1 Samuel the Judge Prophet Samuel is the undisputed leader, he gradually fades into the background as first Saul and then David rise to prominence as leaders. It is probable that the division between these two books is artificial since the narrative is almost uninterrupted the death of Saul ends the first book and is in the opening, as a past event, of the second. Some scholars argue that the length of a scroll is the probable reason for this division into two books, rather than any significant “boundary” event. While 1 Samuel deals with the work and role of Samuel, the selection of Saul and the war against David, the second book deals primarily with the Kingship of David. Again the historical events are recorded with an “interpretive” commentary on the morality (or lack!) of people and events and the “prophetic” underpinning of good and bad events. The writers of these books are again interested in ensuring that the reader sees the hand of God at work in the events described, hence, David is “unfit” to build the temple, but is instructed to build an altar on the future site of the temple. Traditionally David’s reign is taken as 1011 BC (the death of Saul) to 971 BC, which makes him a fairly long reigning monarch in any tradition.

With the coming of Solomon to the crown of Israel, the golden age begins. The writers of 1 and 2 Kings are concerned with the kingship and the nature of matters related to the governing of the Kingdom, but they are also putting forward the word of God. A third interest here is the Temple itself and the worship of the nation, particularly in relation to the Temple. Through 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings we are also shown how the Ark of the Covenant moves according to the fortunes of the people themselves. With the establishment of Jerusalem as capital, that journeying ends and the Temple is finally built to house it for all time. It is also in these pages that we encounter Elijah and several other prophets who rail against the Kings who followed Solomon for their impiety, pride and one feels, their stupidity.

1 and 2 Chronicles was originally one book which formed the second part of the nations history. The author is frequently referred to as “the Chronicler” and the content overlaps parts of Samuel and Kings. It is for that reason that it was not originally included in full in the Hebrew version of the Septuagint, which is also why in that version, Ezra – Nehemiah precede 1 and 2 Chronicles. At some later date, in order to make their unity more obvious, the opening verses of Ezra were inserted at the end of 2 Chronicles. The Chronicler is less interested in the role of the Kings than he is in the part played by the Priests and Levites and he emphasizes their importance regularly. Of particular note is the leprosy suffered by Uzziah for unauthorized offering of incense in the temple and the role of the priests in dethroning Athaliah. There is also the thread of prophecy running strongly through the narrative.

Jewish tradition holds that Ezra was the Chronicler which is not impossible. The book attributed to this writer shows that he was a man of deep piety, probably on the temple staff during the 4th and early 5th Centuries BC. It is also in Ezra that we find the debate about mixed marriages and the “loss of Jewishness” that the writer feels arises from this practice.

Finally, Nehemiah. It is this man that led the people back from exile in Babylon, although it seems likely that at least some of the people had remained throughout in Judah/Israel. It is Nehemiah’s vision that sees the rebuilding of the city walls and the Temple completed and the priesthood restored. It is a story of determination and of faith, a story of opposition overcome and a nation renewed by the restoration of its roots and its covenant with God.

To get the most of the reading of these books you will need to read some good background histories on the Empires that swept back and forth across this area during the period. It will help to read the relevant chapters of Montgomery’s “A History of Warfare” as well as the history of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires that finally subjugated the divided Kingdoms. As with the Pentateuch, these books offer a wealth of information and enjoyment to anyone willing to give them more than a passing read through. Enjoy their content and the lessons for our own society.

The Peace of the Lord be with you always.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 04:04 PM

March 13, 2004

The power of advertising ...

A new posting on The Postulate is worth a visit and your consideration. It asks an important question for us all - is the media too powerful.

Read her post and decide for yourself.

For my money I have long believed that the media are completely out of control. Opinions expressed are ofetn not the view of the people they purport to represent, facts are often wrong and scaremongering is the tactic which sells news. When you throw in advertsiing you have a recipe for a slew of misinformation like a runaway train.

Let's hope someone somewhere, knows where the brakes are and can introduce responsibility to the otherwise irresponsible media that we have all come to be influenced by.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:21 PM | TrackBack

The tug it was that sank ....

This photo was taken in East London (South Africa) harbour in 1960 after the tug F Schermbrucker had been holed while maneuvering the Ellerman liner City of Port Elizabeth through the harbour entrance in a tricky wind and sea state. There were two tugs involved – precisely because of the weather – and the wind and a rogue sea combined to push the three onto the Western breakwater. The Schermbrucker, on the liner’s Port side, took the brunt of it, but the City of Port Elizabeth did not escape entirely undamaged either – she got a chunk taken out of her hull plating by one of Schermbrucker’s screws as the tugs fought to extricate themselves.

Schermbrucker 5.JPG

The tug F Schermbrucker settles to the bottom after being holed during harbour operations rto bring in the Ellerman liner City of Port Elizabeth in 1960.

While the second tug, John X Merriman, on the liner’s Starboard side, took the errant liner under control, Schermbrucker caste herself loose and took off up the river for the graving dock at full power, settling slowly by the stern. She had been holed next to the watertight bulkhead between her engine room and the after coal bunkers and was flooding faster than even her big Merryweather fire pump in salvage mode could cope with. She made a spectacular passage up the river towing a huge wash and displaying a cockscomb wake, but, alas, the dock could not be flooded and opened in time to receive her. The noise as she passed up the river, venting steam, and sounding her steam sirens in warning was indescribable.

She made it to the repair berth, and settled gracefully to the bottom. Her Master and his Mate stepped from the bridge wing to the quay, while the engineers swam out of the engine room skylights and the stokers escaped up the funnel after drawing the fires and venting the steam from the boilers. The entrance cut to the dock can be seen to the right of the picture, and the Pilot Cutter is berthed against one of the dock entrance shoulders. Another tug, the E S Steytler, was actually in the dock under maintenance and with some of her plating open – she would also have been sunk had they flooded down before she could be made watertight!

The City of Port Elizabeth was docked and patched the next day; the Schermbrucker was raised and repaired six months later after a very interesting and innovative salvage operation. She finally went to the breakers in 1981.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 06:27 PM

More on Madrid

As the death toll continues to rise in Madrid, we all need to reflect on the actions of these evil men (and women!) and the reason that they do this. Firstly, the accomplish a great deal just by the threat they pose. We are all kept on edge by the possibility of their bombing the train, aircraft or shopping mall we use. They disrupt trade, they impoverish our lives. And their weapons include much more than bombs, guns and bio weaponry - it includes SPAM and computer virus generation.

I have, in the course of my career, had to deal with the aftermath of several bombings, they all strike me as evil for the same reason - the target is invariably the innocent. The first I attended was a queue outside a job centre. A bomb had been placed in the industrial wheelie bin outside the building and the queue had formed next to and around this. The bomb went off at 0730 in the morning, it killed 15, maimed around 50. Not big numbers by any standards, but they were all people the vile scum who planted it, claimed to be fighting to liberate. And so it continued through my career. I can only recall one where the device actually hit some (a very few) of the supposed "enemy". It took out even more of the supposed "victims of oppression".

In Spain we have seen the latest of a long line of atrocities committed to force the world to change to match the "vision" of the evil men and women who perpetrate them. As a believer in the salvation offered by God through Jesus Christ, I find myself hoping that the bombers find their way to a special hell somewhere in God's creation. But, I also know that God is a loving and forgiving God, and must acknowledge that his words to Jonah, angry that Ninevah had repented and been let off the hook, hold equally true here. Who am I to second guess God? Who am I to say that God should condemn these maniacs to everlasting damnation? Perhaps He has another way of dealing with them - a more Godly way, that is not for our knowledge or eyes.

In the meantime, please let us all pray for the victims of terror, wherever they are, and whoever the terrorists are. Pray too for those who must deal with the devastation to lives, property and psyches of our nations, pray especially for an end to violence and to the distress it causes. Let us pray that true justice can be found for all those affected by this and other acts of mindless, satanic terror.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:41 AM | Comments (2)

March 12, 2004

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

Many of the blogs I have read today express their horror or their loss far more eloquently than I can here. At "All agitprop;all the time", Paul tells of a friend who may well be caught up in the aftermath, others express views on the matter in other ways. I find my Christian "imperative" to forgive, being severely tried at times like this, and have to remind myself that it is not for me to decide or deal with. Yet, in a sense this is of the making of our politicians. It is they who have encouraged this sort of action by their constant waivering between the terminology of "Freedom fighter" and "terrorist".

The atrocity in Madrid highlights once again the liberal dilemma over terrorism. This atrocity is rightly described as the action of despicable terrorists, and as the death toll mounts our political leaders do ever more handwringing and posturing as they declare that no stone will be left unturned in an effort to track down the perpetrators.

Yet, should these spawn of the deepest pits of Hell be caught here in Britain, the entire "Human Rights" lobby would swing into action to prevent their extradition on the grounds that they might not receive a fair trial - or, horror of horrors, be subjected to a lengthy prison sentence in a horrid Spanish jail. Terrorism will never be beaten until these muddle headed wets are thrust aside and the methods that beat piracy in the 18th Century are adopted without exception.

We catch you, we hang you. Publically and - in the terminology of the CIA according to Hollywood - with maximum prejudice. And the remains cremated and scattered where they can never be recovered or turned into a shrine.

The full horror of this atrocity will not penetrate to those who have never dealt with this sort of incident. Nor will it really affect those who have not known someone killed or maimed in such a blast. At times like this the television and the newspapers walk a delicate line - on the one hand they are giving the terrorists the publicity they desire and on the other they have to report the facts of the incident. Here also lies the beginnings of a problem, for to one side or the other this will be presented as a triumph or as an atrocity. No doubt there are those who - lurking in their cowards lairs - will be rejoicing at this "triumph" in the name of whatever "cause" they claim to represent. No doubt too there will be those who support them, hide them, feed them, give them "humanitarian aid" and generally encourage them in one way or another.

Ironic, is it not, that for years honest citizens of the US have supported the murder and violence in Northern Ireland by their gifts to Noraid, gifts which went straight into supporting the armaments and bomb-making of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Yet this organisation has been linked to major crime rackets, to other terrorist groups and to the drug cartels in South America. Freedom Fighters? Depends on whose spin you read doesn't it? Mr Blair and his cronies have the same problem, they supported Mugabe and other "Freedom Fighters" to the hilt back in the 60's, 70's and 80's, always declaring it was "humanitarian" and ignioring the links with the IRA and other terrorist organisations because it didn't suit their ideology at the time. Now we reap the whirlwind, and it may be too late to put a stop to it.

As for the victims of the Madrid atrocity, all we can do is pray for them. Pray for them, for the survivors and for the bereaved who must deal with the aftermath. And be vigilant. It is really time to stop pussyfooting about this. Terrorism, "freedom fighting" amounts to the same thing. Indiscriminate murder for ANY cause is NEVER justified.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 08:18 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Welcome to the Postulate

A new blog has arrived - and I am proud to announce that the Monk has a companion - his daughter. Please do pay her a visit at The Postulate.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:48 PM

The Passion of Christ

I want to identify myself with the remarks contained in a newly discovered blog called “One hand clapping”, the work of one Donald Sensing, which goes to the core of the concerns expressed by the Jewish communities around the world on the subject of Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. This item is well worth reproducing, at least in part, here, but I will instead urge you to go to the website and read it there.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:45 PM

March 11, 2004

Another signal ...

Signal from C-in-C Force H to C-in-C Mediterranean after the transfer of HMS Valiant to the Mediteranean Fleet from Force H in exchange for the aging and unmodernised HMS Malaya.

"Thank you for this (three corrupt code groups) I understand she has trouble with her tubes."

The Queen Elizabeth Class of 15 inch gun Battleships had originally consisted of five ships, Queen Elizabeth, Valiant, Warspite, Barham and Malaya. The last was paid for by the Colony of Malaya and always flew the Malayan "Jack" when going into battle. The Class was laid down in 1913 and completed by 1915, fighting as the 5th Battle Squadron at Jutland and performing extremely well.

As a class they were "modernised" in 1925 - 28 with the after 6 inch broadside battery being suppressed and anti-torpedo "bulges" built out from the hull. They were given eight 4 inch high angle mountings and I have already commented on the position of the magazines for these! Their original boilers were also replaced with lighter and more efficient units which gave a slight increase in performance speed, and their original twin funnels were trunked togethr into a single rather ugly and prominent funnel, by ducting the forward uptakes aft to join the after funnel.

Between 1934 and 1940 Warspite, then Queen Elizabeth and finally Valiant were all given a complete modernisation which saw, in the latter pair, the complete suppression of the 6 inch broadside batteries (retained in Warspite because the 5.25 inch twin mountings weren't available in time) by HA/LA twin 5.25 inch turrets. Barham and Malaya were not modernised. This had tragic consequences for Barham and Malaya was plagued throughout the war by condensers that were suffering from age and "condenseritis" and boilers that had, quite simply, worn out. Thus, effectively, Admiral Somerville's Force H was being reduced by the addition of a ship that was no longer able to keep her place in the line of battle with any reliability.

His reference to her with three corrupt code groups was perhaps a little unfair, she did her best to serve a nation that was paying in blood for the folly of constant cheese pairing of budgets in the inter-war years by a Civil Service who know the cost of every paper clip, but the value of absolutely nothing.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:38 AM | Comments (2)

March 10, 2004

Farewell to this house?

It may be too early to start celebrating, or even to start packing, as there is a great deal of potential for things to go wrong in this deal. But, the Domus is sold (subject to contract). A fair offer has been made and accepted, and the Monk has (probably to his own detriment) agreed to give vacant possession by a certain date. He has also agreed to refuse further offers and viewings.

Some may say that this is crazy, that perhaps I could have taken a higher bidder’s offer if I had left the door open. That is one opinion. However, I am old fashioned enough to be of the mind that my word is most definitely my bond. I have accepted an offer, it is now for the buyers to honour their part and I will honour mine.

Of course, this means that I have now to find an alternative domus – and pretty damned quick too! The alternative is a homeless Monk sleeping on the floor in a freezing Abbey!

Watch this space for more riveting news on the Monk’s search for a new abode!

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:52 PM | Comments (4)

March 09, 2004

Tourist Information

A friend in South Africa sent me these amusing questions posted on a Tourism Website in SA. The answers were posted by the website operator. It is not known whether this improved tourist take up ....

Q: Does it ever get windy in South Africa? I have never seen it rain on TV, so how do the plants grow? (UK)
A: We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around watching them die.

Q: Will I be able to see elephants in the street? (USA)
A: Depends how much you've been drinking.

Q: I want to walk from Durban to Cape Town - can I follow the railroad tracks? (Sweden)
A: Sure, it's only two thousand kilometers, take lots of water...

Q: Is it safe to run around in the bushes in South Africa? (Sweden)
A: So it's true what they say about Swedes...?

Q: Are there any ATMs (cash machines) in South Africa? Can you send me a list of them in JHB, Cape Town, Knysna and Jeffrey's Bay? (UK)
A: ....and what did your last slave die of?

Q: Can you give me some information about Koala Bear racing in South Africa? (USA)
A: Aus-tra-lia is that big island in the middle of the pacific. A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe which does not... oh forget it. Sure, the Koala Bear racing is every Tuesday night in Hillbrow. Come naked.

Q: Which direction is north in South Africa? (USA)
A: Face south and then turn 90 degrees. Contact us when you get here and we'll send the rest of the directions.

Q: Can I bring cutlery into South Africa? (UK)
A: Why? Just use your fingers like we do.

Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys' Choir schedule? (USA)
A: Aus-tri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is... oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Hillbrow, straight after the Koala Bear races. Come naked.

Q: Do you have perfume in South Africa? (France)
A: No, WE don't stink.

Q: I have developed a new product that is the fountain of youth. Can you tell me where I can sell it in South Africa? (USA)
A: Anywhere significant numbers of Americans gather.

Q: Can you tell me the regions in South Africa where the female population is smaller than the male population? (Italy)
A: Yes, gay nightclubs.

Q: Do you celebrate Christmas in South Africa? (France)
A: Only at Christmas.

Q: Are there killer bees in South Africa? (Germany)
A: Not yet, but for you, we'll import them.

Q: Are there supermarkets in Cape Town and is milk available all year round? (Germany)
A: No, we are a peaceful civilisation of vegan hunter-gatherers. Milk is illegal.

Q: Please send a list of all doctors in South Africa who can dispense rattlesnake serum. (USA)
A: Rattlesnakes live in A-me-ri-ca, which is where YOU come from. All South African snakes are perfectly harmless, can be safely handled and make good pets.

Q: I was in South Africa in 1969, and I want to contact the girl I dated while I was staying in Hillbrow. Can you help? (USA)
A: Yes, and you will still have to pay her by the hour.

Q: Will I be able to speek English most places I go? (USA)
A: Yes, but you'll have to learn it first.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:19 PM

March 08, 2004

The art of humour....

My quote of the week comes from Terry Pratchett and appears in the opening pages of "Feet of Clay"

You know you're in for an amusing read when it contains a statement like this ....

"People look down on stuff like geography and meteorology, not only because they're standing on the one and being soaked by the other. They don't look quite like real science (That is to say, the sort you can use to give something three extra legs and then blow it up.). But geography is only physics slowed down and with a few trees stuck on it, and meteorology is full of excitingly fashionable chaos and complexity."

That about sums up the trouble with Pratchett. Once you have read any of his books nothing is ever quite the same again - ever! As a result I find myself constantly seeing things and recognising a Pratchett inspired metamorphosis into something from the Disc World. Very little escapes this treatment, thus I have difficulty with suitcases on wheels, gargoyles on buildings, mime artists and even pipe organs - especially the bigger ones! I find myself looking to see if the builder was a certain B S Johnson.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:46 AM | Comments (6)

A Past forgotten?

Delta II.jpg
The LFB/LCC Fireboat Delta II in her prime.

Fire boats seem to have become an endangered species in many parts of the world. This is partly because they are hugely expensive to build, to run and to maintain, but it is also to do with the fact that the ship's they were built to protect have changed out of all recognition. Very few Brigades can afford them now and most contract with someone else, such as a tug company, to have available the services of a suitably equipped tug.

So, going through some old photos I thought I might share one or two pictures of some of the old boats with you. They are of an age now long gone, of smaller "tramp steamers" of busy coasters and dockside warehouses crammed with the goods of the world. They would not be much use today against a fire in a 4,000 TEU Container ship, or even to deal with some of the chemical tankers now in use, and which were not even concepts when they were launched. For one thing, they are too small today and for another, the shipping no longer operates from the ports they protected.

Sadly very few of these boats survive in any shape or form. Pyronaut is preserved in Bristol, Massey Shaw in London, Firebrace was last seen laid up in Exeter, Aplha II, Beta II and Beta III, Gamma II and Delta II, Fireflair, Fire Swift, Cleveland Endevour and Cissy Brock are all now mere memories.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:44 AM

March 07, 2004

Sunday's sermon

I am down to be Sub Deacon and preacher at the 1100 am Sung Eucharist today, and as this is the "traditional" service we are using the readings set in The Book of Common Prayer. In Lent, the service starts with the Litany sung in procession to a plainsong chant which starts behind the High Altar and finishes in front of it.

The drawback to using the BCP reading is that I was also the preacher last year for this Sunday! So I had to think long and hard to find a way to say something new and meaningful to these for this year.

I hope that my efforts will be of use to some of those who visit this blog as well.

“He, therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us His Holy Spirit.”

One of the difficulties of having the same set of readings year on year for this service, is that, if you were the preacher last year – what are you going to do with them this time round? Well, fear not, I haven’t recycled last year’s sermon!

Today’s readings do present us with something of a challenge, but the epistle we have heard today, is in fact the concluding remarks of a much more important message. Paul is exhorting his readers to Christian living; something which requires much more than simply living by sets of rules. This is about faith rather than belief, about living by values rather than by rules and about showing in one’s life, the things one professes in faith.

Thessalonica was, in Paul’s day, the capital of Macedonia, a vibrant, multi-racial and multi-cultural society typical of such an important Provincial capital. Not unnaturally, this also meant that the fledgling church he and Barnabas had founded there was subjected to enormous pressures from all sides, Jew and pagan. Many of its new adherents were complete strangers to a religion that demanded a different approach. Demanded, in fact, that you lived according to the teachings of the God you worshipped, rather than simply tried to keep him off your back. For that is the striking difference between the worship of the temple and that of the Christian Church as it has grown from these early beginnings.

Christians met to celebrate their redemption and their God’s sacrifice for them, whereas those who visited the temples of Venus, Zeus, Vesta and others did so in order to appease a God whose only interest in humanity was to use them for amusement. It must have come as something of a shock to many gentile converts, that this God that they now embraced, actually loved them, cared about them and didn’t see them as some sort of plaything. It would have taken them some time to realise that because this God was so different, that the purpose of worship was not to appease him, but to genuinely worship in thanksgiving, praise and teaching so that they could fully appreciate his grace.

Small wonder then that Paul, Peter, John and the others got so worked up whenever some false apostle tried to lead their carefully nurtured flocks astray.

The seeds of faith planted with such care by the apostles and nurtured by their acolytes were fragile and it does not take a great deal of imagination to see that every new argument by those that sought to change the gospel message to one of mysticism, or to draw it back into a web of rules and rituals, could so easily destroy everything. Faith requires constancy, it requires love and it requires a degree of labour to reach fulfillment. That is the underlying message of the story of the gentile woman who asks for healing for her daughter. It is her persistence, her determined faith in the face of insult and refusal that finds confirmation in Christ’s final response.

“Great is thy faith, Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”

Faith sets us apart. It is by faith that we are saved, not by adherence to rituals, to attempts to appease God by observance or even by attempts to buy our way in by means of “good works”.

“For I say unto thee, unless thou become as one of these, thou shalt not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

We are nothing less than children in the eyes of God, and unless, like children we can set aside our pride and accept the sacrifice of our saviour Jesus Christ as the gift it is – unearned, undeserved, but given in love – we cannot be truly saved. As our collect for this morning says
“Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls.”
Surely this encapsulates the essence of our faith, we have no power to help ourselves in the life hereafter, this is the gift of God alone.

No sacrifice to any of the manmade Gods of our forebears could help us in this, for surely they reflected our natures, projected larger than life and all the more ugly because of it. Worship of these idols certainly didn’t constrain the worshipper to live according to a set of values between visits to the temples, but Christianity does, and that is the building block which builds our faith. You cannot live by the Gospel values without discovering a vast well of faith within yourself. No matter how difficult and troubled life may be, if you have discovered that wellspring within yourself you can endure the most incredible hardships.

On this the second Sunday of our Lenten journey of preparation, we should consider carefully the call from today’s readings to seek to build our faith so that it too can become as strong as the woman’s was. This is the faith for which there is no mystery, there is certainty, for which there are no barriers, merely steps to be negotiated.

In Paul’s day the Jewish congregations with which the early Christians met and shared the synagogues gradually came to view the newcomers with something like contempt. They despised the new Christian’s for their non-adherence to the laws requiring circumcision, the shunning of certain foods and the host of other “rules” by which the devotion of any Jew was measured. Paul says to us, as much as to them, we cannot despise what God has given and still call ourselves faithful.

The lesson for the Thessalonians was that there was a new game in town, a new way to do things, which required commitment more than observance, faith more than belief. For those witnessing the miracle of the gentile’s daughter, it was the same, sacrifices and observance did not heal the girl – her mother’s unswerving faith made it possible for Christ to reach out to her.

The lesson for us is there for us as well. It is not our observances that will distinguish us in the eyes of God, it is our faith. We cannot despise someone and still claim to be “in faith”, because faith is to love God. If we show that faith in our lives, day-by-day and week-by-week, we too will receive the acclamation,
“Great is thy faith, Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”


Posted by The Gray Monk at 09:40 AM | Comments (2)

March 05, 2004

P*O*E*T*S Day again

Push off early tomorrow's Saturday, day has arrived and almost gone again. The laundry at Domus Ecclesia Gray Monk is hanging up to dry, supper cooked, sermon drafted and now I can catch up with some of life's small pleasures, before retiring to bed. Tomorrow I must again face the prospect of visitors to view the Domus - hopefully to buy it so I can move on and find my own place to settle. Ce sera, sera. What will be, will be!

Doing a little skipping round the blogs, I found this post about blogging research on Squippers page Dusting my Brain. And I have taken care to attribute it!

Tim at An Englishman's Castle has an interesting test link to follow. Unfortunately it requires you to install the latest Flash Player which, I am unwilling to do - the last time I tried to install this it messed up something else which I needed more than Flash Player! That said, it looks like a fun test.

The news earlier this week that Mars once had water and may still have some hidden somewhere gets a mention on The Laughing Wolf who has a link to another site. His comments on the subject are worth the visit.

MommaBear at On The Third Hand, has been recognised, courtesy of the Quizilla test on What weird Latin phrase are you, as the Master of the Universe. The Monk took this test earlier and the result can be seen below! There are loads of fun "tests" or "quizes at Quizilla - very abusing too!

Someone else whose glad its Friday is Cyn at Cynical Cyn. I thought I had a corner on this market, but I'm happy to share it.

Susie on Practical Penumbra has two amusing posts, one on livestock in the house ( asix foot snake in her case) and the other on the classification of a dead horse.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:33 PM

Now this is a turn up for the books ...

If you only knew the power of the dark side.
Postatem obscuri lateris nescitis.
"You do not know the power of the Dark
Side." There are two possibilities: you
are a Star Wars geek, or you are unreasoningly

Which Weird Latin Phrase Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

The problem is that I think I do know the power of the dark side, I just choose to go a different way. Basically, I'm scared of the dark I guess .....

Posted by The Gray Monk at 07:32 PM

March 04, 2004

Bits and pieces ....

Work has kept me from the ways of the blog tonight, and I have not the time to do much more than post this short collection of signals from my light reading – the ubiquitous “Make a Signal”.

From Destroyer Flotilla Leader to following destroyer who is much too close astern –

“Would you care to join me for a glass of port?”

And on an equally sarcastic note….

Destroyer A to Leader –
“Please send your technical expert to look at my foremost gun.”

Reply –
“My technical expert can see your foremost gun from here.”

And on a Biblical note, the message sent to a departing cruiser whose Captain’s name was Wright.

“Proverbs 6 v 8”

(Better is a little righteousness than great revenues without right.)

or the signal from C in C Mediterranean to C in C Eastern Fleet on transferring HMS Phoebe from the Med to the Far East.

“Romans Chapter 16 verses 1 and 2”
(I commend unto you Phebe our sister .. that you receive her in the Lord, as becometh Saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you; for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.)

And finally …

Two Frigates approaching Portland Harbour in a Channel gale, visibility nil, navigational aids useless …

1st Frigate
“When do you expect to sight Portland breakwater”

2nd Frigate
“Fifteen minutes ago. Estimate my position 4th fairway, Came Golf Course.”

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:59 PM

March 03, 2004

Science and religion - a guest post

This is the proud father giving way to his pride. My eldest daughter went back into education last year as a mature student studying Physics. Now I take my hat off to her for two reasons - one, physics is one of those subjects that I never mananged to get a handle on, and second, she is putting a lot of effort into earning her degree.

Under the title of "What cannot be explained by science today, will be explained by the science of tomorrow", she has put together a lucid and well reasoned case. I am posting it here with her permission, as I believe it has something to say to all of us.

I hope it at least will give you something to ponder.

“What cannot be explained by the science of today will be explained by the science of tomorrow.”

When viewed in an historical context, this statement seems quite reasonable. Since the conception of science, humanity has, (barring a few hiccups), managed to understand more with every few generations. In recent centuries in particular, scientific advances have occurred at a hectic pace, opening up hundreds of new and more specialised areas of research.

Every new discovery or theory presents a new set of questions to scientific minds, which, after a wait of anything from a few years to several centuries, are matched up to answers. There are many examples of this, one of which is the movement from Ptolemaic astronomy to Copernican astronomy.

Ptolemaic astronomy assumed that the Earth was the centre of the universe, and took the romantic view that, if Earth was a place of disease, decay and death, the heavens must be pristine and perfectly predictable. Ptolemy devised a system where the planets and stars revolved neatly around the Earth in circular orbits, while distant stars, which appeared not to move when viewed with the naked eye, were a sort of fixed spherical backdrop. Astronomers spent centuries working with Ptolemy’s model of the heavens, which was very much the accepted explanation for movements of the stars, particularly because he had founded his ideas on Aristotle’s work. Despite the fact that some awkward planets didn’t play along with the geocentric view of Ptolemaic astronomy, astronomers persevered with his model. (Mars is still being awkward today.) They even updated it to the point that what had started out as a diagram showing a series of concentric circles, (see previous page), which represented the orbits of the main observable heavenly bodies, ended up with a huge number of smaller circles, each with their focus on yet another circle (see figure to the left for simplified example).

Copernicus was taught the same theory as a student several centuries later, as part of his training for life in the Church. Astronomy and mathematics, among other things, were considered vital for holy men at the time, because calculating the dates of holy days relied on understanding how the calendar had been derived from the motion of the heavens. Fortunately he became a keen observer of the stars and from careful observation and a bit of lateral thinking, came to the conclusion that the irregular orbits everyone had observed were due to the fact that the Earth and all of its sister planets were actually orbiting around the Sun. The resulting theory answered questions that had been waiting for an answer for 1,400 years… and landed the next generation of astronomers, Galileo and Giordano Bruno, in a lot of trouble with the Church.

So, humanity may take a while to get there, but with persistence, new ideas and subsequently more knowledge does arrive on the scene sooner or later. Perhaps we should examine the origins of science in order to find out where humanity’s expectations of “more knowledge tomorrow” come from.

The first “scientists” wouldn’t be called such today. When humanity was made up of small tribes of people, mostly hunting, gathering and later farming, the world seemed to them to be filled with unpredictability and mystery. There were warm seasons and cold seasons, migration patterns to follow and water to find. Even at this primitive stage of development, humanity had some use for science.

To start with, science only consisted of knowing how many full moons there are in a year and how many moons you had left until the cold weather arrived or the herds departed, yet we should not be dismissive of this; recognising patterns is a skill that has got us to where we are today. Those who were careful in observing the world around them and good at telling the rest of the group when to prepare for various events were a valuable asset to their social group, so there was an evolutionary advantage to becoming a curious observer. The social sciences tell us that the need to understand the world around us prompted our first attempts to explain phenomena through metaphor, which became the basis of many early religions, and observation, which is the basis of science.

So, our first flirting with science was born of a need to know what was going to happen tomorrow. Eventually, what was going to happen from year to year became common knowledge – in terms of planting, harvest and migration at least. Yet for some reason we still sought to know more.

Why? Humans must have an overriding need to not only ask questions, but to persist in asking them until they are answered. (Anyone who remembers being a small child, or who has been in the company of one for any length of time will have experienced this sort of curiosity at close hand.) Perhaps the constant straining to see over the horizon, in the physical and metaphorical sense, is the cause of our ever-looking forward mentality?

Curiosity seems to be a critical part of what makes humans human, therefore we can expect our curiosity to continue to propel our scientific development until evolution throws a spanner into the works. It’s unlikely that there’s a single “curiosity gene”. It’s more likely to be a trait which several genes work on, which suggests favourable odds of survival for our favourite trait.

Another argument in favour of this statement being true is that our past experience tells us that there will always be better means of measuring the world tomorrow. The first common means of measuring the length of something was to use parts of the human body, like a cubit, which is helpfully defined by google.co.uk: “1 cubit = 45.72 centimetres”. The original meaning was the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger, which varies substantially from person to person.
We have come a long way since then, with vernier callipers, micrometers, electron microscopes and even telescopes in space, so why shouldn’t we get even better at measuring everything to an even higher standard of accuracy?

We have overcome several obstacles that stood in our way to achieving greater accuracy in measurements. Discovering a means by which items could be mass produced with minimal variation in quality was unthinkable to many of the civilizations that preceded us, even though some of them gave us the framework that we’ve built modern science on. No wonder then that so many believe that the future holds all the answers.

There are barriers to further development in some areas of science at the moment, for instance the problem of how to miniaturise all of the components in computers. We have managed to miniaturise the main components, like the silicon chip and circuit boards, so that what started out the size of a room can now be squeezed into a laptop. The next barrier for computers is finding a replacement for wires that is cheap and increases data transmission speeds between components within computers, since speed is the main quality that is constantly in need of improvement as far as consumers are concerned.

Some are pessimistic about the possibility of overcoming this barrier and economists are already anxious that a failure to find a solution may tip the world into another recession. The answer may not come in time to prevent a dip in technology-orientated economies, but there’s good reason to believe that science will eventually answer this question too.

So why am I now going to tell you why science will not always have the answer? From the point of view of scientists, the assumption that tomorrow’s science will explain today’s mysteries holds true, purely because the explanations they require are for questions that current research has raised.

There is also the problem that sometimes science gets it wrong; as with astronomy in Ptolemy’s day. His ideas seemed perfectly reasonable to all of his peers and predecessors, because the scientists of the day had no reason to suspect that the universe was as gigantic as it is. No observations that they had been able to make at the time could have prepared their imaginations for the idea that the Sun was the centre of just one of millions of solar systems. One could argue that observations from Earth should have hinted that we are not the centre of the universe, but we’re talking about people who were not only as flawed as ourselves, but did not have the tools or knowledge that we do. So here we have, not only an example of how science can leap ahead and provide answers to long-standing questions, but also how science can get it badly wrong.

There is no guarantee that everything we regard as fact today won’t be blown out of the water at some date in the future, which would mean that today’s science was no better than yesterday’s. The centrifugal force versus centripetal force debate proves that much-loved theories can be discredited quickly, as does the case of Galen’s anatomical research, which was adopted, accepted as absolute irrefutable fact and defended by the Church for so long, only to be proved wrong by Andreas Vesalius’ more detailed work.

And finally, there is the matter of whether science really has the capacity to explain everything that is outside our ken today. Religion contains many ideas that may never be proved, even though some have tried. Interpreting the results of such experiments is made difficult by controversy, regardless whether the experimenter claims to have found a positive or negative result.

For example, the emotional and spiritual side of humanity wants to believe that near death experiences are proof of the afterlife. Studies have been attempted on this topic, but nothing conclusive has ever been found. When one rules out the fact that we may never manufacture instruments that are capable of detecting a soul, (if one exists of course), there is a second problem with this kind of research. Any findings, no matter how respected the scientist is, how precise the instruments are or how certain the result is, will be bitterly resented.

A negative result would probably result in a lynching carried out by religious groups, while a positive would produce millions of sceptics who would wade through the results trying to refute the claim. Both outcomes would probably spontaneously create groups who would be happy to blacken the name of that scientist .

I also think that humanity is too afraid of what the answers to some questions might be. Religious figureheads would probably welcome conclusive scientific proof of the existence of God, but that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to pursue that proof. It may not be a coincidence that most religions call for followers not to seek proof, which one can either interpret as a fear that the religion won’t stand up to scrutiny, or a very wise observation on human nature.

Going back to near death experiences, which I think are a good example of what makes the experience of being a human being a strange and wonderful thing. If someone experiences something as vivid as a near death experience, how can they look at graphs of their brain activity, reports on their physical death and believe the stack of bland papers over their own senses? As human beings, we rely heavily on the same five senses that we are born with. In the future we may have eye transplants, hand transplants, even olfactory cell transplants, but until then this idea at least holds true. We have to trust our senses, because they are our windows to the world, so when someone lives through something as intense as near death visions, how can we expect them not to trust their senses? Does it matter if no one else saw what they saw? Does it make that experience less important to them if we tell them that souls don’t exist and it was just a dying gasp of chemical activity in their brain that produced what they saw? To quote Neal Grossman in issue 61 of the IONS review:

“When researchers ask the question, “How can the near-death experience be explained?” they tend to make the usual assumption that an acceptable explanation will be in terms of concepts—biological, neurological, psychological—with which they are already familiar… To my knowledge, no one who has had an NDE feels any need for an explanation in the reductionist sense that researchers are seeking… (Patients feel)… the NDE does not need to be explained because it is exactly what it purports to be, which is…the direct experience of consciousness—or minds, or selves, or personal identity—existing independently of the physical body. It is only with respect to our deeply entrenched materialist paradigm that the NDE needs to be explained, or more accurately, explained away.”

I find it hard to believe that science will ever truly be able to describe what being a human being is like and why it is the experience it is. We could map our DNA, give precise descriptions of our cell structure, digestive system, bone structure, brain structure, maps of electrical activity that occurs in the brain for every emotion human beings ever experience, create artificial intelligence and program it to behave and follow the same thought patterns as humans, but would any of it be meaningful? Would it alter the way we understand ourselves that significantly? Would it change our beliefs and instincts?

I loved Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which describes a post-Earth space-travelling humanity. One mathematician develops a statistical method of predicting what humanity will do next, called psychohistory and decides to use it to protect humanity from itself. Asimov’s observation of how humans are resistant to mathematical and therefore scientific prediction is at once reassuring and distressing: reassuring in the sense that our fate is not written in the stars or in a neat formula, distressing in the sense that philanthropic mathematicians will not find it easy to save us. In the same way that individuals often threw Asimov’s characters’ lives into disarray, individuals often surprise us in real life. Did anyone really think the World Trade Center would be destroyed by a handful of fanatics? Do we really know what their motives were? Would we be any wiser if science had perfected a method of scanning brainwaves and using them to interpret thoughts? And how would we know that someone is genuinely thinking of committing an atrocity, rather than just wishing their office would blow up during their lunch break? Some of us have much more vivid imaginations than others.

In conclusion, there are some questions for which science will always be the equivalent of a chocolate teapot. Like the mathematical formulae that turn up from time to time in the popular press, which claim to describe the perfect beach, the perfect method to parallel park etc, science cannot explain the way we are, or what we like, or how we do things. A mathematician might be able to prove that one particular beach is the closest to perfection in the world, but I will still prefer the beach where I used to play when I was five years old. There are some things that are just devalued when science is applied to them, like religion, which is a major source of hope to many people and art, which is as far away from being understood by maths as possible, but obviously entertains us, otherwise we wouldn’t have so many galleries. A formula for the perfect picture would be meaningless, because it’s the imperfections that prove art is a human endeavour. Science is just one of many human inventions and is worth no more, or less, than any of the other many activities that we carry out in the pursuit of being humans.


http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=94403786 (Excerpts from “A History of Science, Technology and Philosophy in the 16th & 17th Centuries”, a
book by Friedrich Dannemann, A. Wolf; Macmillan, 1935)

http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Ptolemy.html (A brief biography of Ptolemy and discussion of his work, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland website)

http://es.rice.edu/ES/humsoc/Galileo/Things/ptolemaic_system.html (More in depth description of the Ptolemaic system. Images on pages one and two are from this site, by Albert van Helden)

http://muse.tau.ac.il/museum/galileo/geocentric.html (Brief definition of Ptolemaic system, no author named)

http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/Science/Copernicus.htm (A brief biography of Copernicus)

http://www.arasite.org/sglitrvw.html (A review of papers on the subject of mythology, mostly claiming that myths were used to understand the world via metaphor, by Sean Gillen)

http://www.chiariglione.org/ride/craft_intellect_and_art.htm (A discussion of how primitive societies worked, no author named)

http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=What+is+a+cubit%3F&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&hl=en&btnG=Google+Search&meta= (Cubit definition)

http://homepages.vub.ac.be/~pcara/hobbies/egypres.pdf (Lecture on Egyptian mathematics by Phillipe Cara)

http://www.channel4.com/science/microsites/A/anatomists/art1.html (Very brief overview of early anatomists)

http://www.near-death.com/experiences/skeptic01.html (Forum for discussion on scientific evidence for near death experiences)

Issue #61 of the Institute of Noetic Sciences Review, “Who’s afraid of life after death?” By Neal Grossman
The entire Foundation series, by Isaac Asimov

Posted by The Gray Monk at 12:57 AM | Comments (5)

March 02, 2004

Socialism - the acceptable face of communism?

A couple of days ago I posted a diatribe about the socialist agenda being run in most Western Democracies. Today I rediscovered an article sent me by a friend from the NYYR, a newspaper in the US. The author is one C J Maloney and what he has to say is both thought provoking and well put together.

This link should take you directly to his article. Be a devil and pay it a visit.

Anyone who has taken the trouble to read the Manifesto by Karl Marx, may well be excused for wondering what our current intellectuals and their poodles in politics are playing at. Marx is quite plain about what he wants for the rest of the world, but the current crop seem to think that it can be introduced in a "moderate" way to the benefit of that amorphous mass they call "the people" or, if showing their true colours, "the masses".

You might want to read or reread Orwell's "1984" and that other classic "Animal Farm". Both offer shocking glimpses of the world we now live in - yes, even in the democracies - in which our language is being twisted and corrupted in the interests of "inclusivity" and other weazel descriptions which hide the fact that Political Correctness is the "newspeak" name for Orwell's "Thought Police".

Welcome to the 21st Century. Don't eat the food, don't drink the water, don't aspire to an improved life style (particularly under Blair and his corrupt cronies), don't breathe the air, and above all else, don't dare to speak out in criticism of government policy, Tone the Crony-maker or any of the PC "truths".

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:46 PM

A little early warning ....

My appreciation tonight definitely goes to the Rev Mike (courtesy of MommaBear who pointed me at this) for this wonderful posting. The latest "must have" for the Christian who can't hold to being constant and doesn't want to miss out on the "Rapture" so many seem to expect.

Somehow, I think even the early warning would be not sufficient for some.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 11:27 PM

March 01, 2004

The Bells, the Bells ...

I have several friends who are bell ringers and it is a fascinating art - one which most of us hear, but rarely actually see in action.

One of my closest friends is a member of the Fire Service Guild of Bell Ringers and they regularly tour towers and try to ring different combinations on the different sounding bells. It is something that is peculiarly British (There are 5278 sets or "rings" of bells in England, 16 in Scotland, 166 in Wales, 35 in Ireland and 102 in all the rest of the world that are hung to be rung on wheel and rope.) I find, as many countries have bells, but they are not hung this way or rung this way. If you want to hear a "heavy" ring being rung, try this link for a look at a heavy "ring" of bells and then follow the site links for sound.

There is a lot of skill involved and there more bells you add to the ring, the more skill required.

Bell ringers ring "Changes" and a "peal" is when 5,000 changes are rung. To do this you need a minimum of five bells ringing which gives a possible combination of 120 "changes", but each of these allows further combinations so you can ring a peal. With 8 bells ringing you can achieve 40,320 changes - something which has been done - once - and it took 17 hours and 58 minutes without a stop or a change of ringers.

A ring is arranged so that the lightest is called the Treble bell and then down the range to the heaviest, which is called the Tenor. When mounted on the swinging frame all the bells are arranged so that no two are swinging in the same direction at the same time. This prevents them from setting up a sympathetic swing in the tower structure which would damage it. The various combinations can be done either in single changes or progressions called "rounds" or as paired bells switching their order "bobs" or "singles". Other terms indicate the number of bells in use and include "Minimus" (4 bells), Doubles (5 bells), Minor (6 bells), Triples (7 bells), Major (8 bells), Caters (9 bells), Royal (10), Cinques (11) and Maximus (12).

Tewkesbury Abbey has a full set of twelve bells, and the ringers stand in a ringing chamber beneath the bells to ring. The chamber has some sound proofing and no one is permitted in the actual bell chamber while ringing is in progress. Quite apart from the hazard presented by several tons of metal swinging about, the noise is overwhelming and can do serious damage.

Just for interest, the heaviest ringing bell in England is hung in St Paul's in London and weighs in at 334 cwts, but this one, like Big Peter in York, is not rung by wheel. That honour goes to Liverpool's Emmanuel at 82 cwt.

As I said, it is a fascinating art and worth exploring if you can.

Posted by The Gray Monk at 10:37 PM | Comments (2)