Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Northumberland - Status and Mystery. Part 1

During a holiday in Northumberland the wife and I visited three of its impressive and famous castles: Alnwick, Lindisfarne and Bamburgh. We also visited one of those ever mysterious Stone circles, the Stone circle at Duddo and also what may be its Christian equivalent, the Church at Old Bewick  near where we stayed;  but more about those two sacred places in part 2.

Of the three castles we visited Alnwick castle is the only one that remains in the hands of a hereditary aristocracy which, in fact, is still in occupation; Ralph Percy and his wife Jane, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Some might complain about unmerited privilege, but given just how status-driven human nature is, it is likely that the questions surrounding the badges of wealth and power will always be with us. There is, however, an upside to the UK aristocracy; they are evidence of a country whose paradoxical mix of stability and adaptability has allowed unbroken traditions tracing back to the middle ages; moreover, those aristocrats have  themselves been willing to adapt to changed conditions. Revolutions and Civil Wars are horrible bloody affairs. Human intractability sometimes makes them necessary, but if reform and adaptation is possible, let's go with that!

The interior decor of Alnwick's state rooms is extravagantly opulent to say the least. Filigree is piled on filigree making it clear that the owners are at the extreme end of the wealth spectrum (guess which end). This was all very similar to the over the top baroque message I saw when I visited Versailles. Not that I'm any judge of art, but I've always much preferred the clean and rational elegance of palladian and neo-classical decor myself.

The next day we visited Lindisfarne castle, a castle whose decor is the very opposite of Alnwick. Publishing Magnate Edward Hudson purchased the fortification in 1901 and had Lutyens refurbish it in the  arts and crafts style. The result is an austere feel to the interior. Lutyens, as was the intention of Arts and Crafts architecture, succeeded in creating the atmosphere of the unpretentious life of more primitive times, times when building materials were far less processed, more recognizably having their origins in the natural world and from the hands of the craftsman rather than the machine. Although the interior ambiance is stony and spartan Lutyens genius was such that he was able to give his work, nonetheless,  a very homely and comfortable feel once the furnishings were in and a bright fire was in the grate. As I walked round the castle it felt like a sparsely furnished holiday home and that was in fact what Hudson intended it for. The castle is  now in the hands of the National Trust; from what  I know of the NT you couldn't ask for more caring owners!

Bamburgh was the third castle on our list. Like Lindisfarne this castle passed from the aristocracy to the rich middle class. It was purchased by the Victorian industrialist and inventor William Armstrong and it is still in the family. Like Lindisfarne, high up on its outcrop of igneous rock, Bamburgh provides a very impressive and dominating aspect. The interior is well furnished  and decorated, but it is no where near as pretentious as Alnwick; its decor and furnishings don't overwhelm the senses with too much busy-ness. People like Armstrong, who had ascended to their position by merit, had succeeded in an up and coming industrial society and had drawn level, if not overhauled, the aristocracy. So perhaps he felt he had nothing left to prove and so sensible understated decor was all he needed!

The acquisition of these castles by the bourgeoisie constituted the ultimate status symbols to prove they had arrived at the pinnacle of Earthly power and wealth. As I have said before material wealth and the power it bestows has less to do with its own intrinsic worth to the individuals who possess  it than it does as a status marker. Material wealth does bring along with it intrinsic creature comforts and other artistic consolations, but it actually plays what is probably a far more important role bound up with the social matrix.  A test I have long used in order to assist self-refection about what really motivates humanity is something I refer to as the tropical island test. Viz: Let's say you lived in a huge well appointed castle with all the material treasures, technological mod cons and luxuries you could imagine.  But the catch is that you had all this on an Island all to yourself with no one else around by which the comparisons of status could be made. In such a situation what then is left of the pleasures of riches?

By contemplating this imaginary scenario we can  perhaps resolve out the components underlying human motivations toward vast wealth and power. Yes, there may well be motivational components revolving round the intrinsic artistic appreciation of material wealth, But let us ask this question: What motivational expressions are lost in the island scenario, expressions which might lead us to regret the absence of a societal context in which we could possess overt wealth? How much is that regret due to us having lost the manifest glory of status and power? And how much is that regret a result of us being unable to use our wealth and power for the good of others?

Obviously the island scenario is an armchair thought experiment where for the sake of the test we have to imagine a wholly unrealistic situation. Clearly conditions of high wealth could not be contrived and maintained without a societal. context.,  But the purpose of the test is to bring an analytical spotlight on own humanity by attempting to isolate an important human trait - namely the human hankerings after status and position, aspirations which only make sense relative to a societal context. The consequent questions arising bring our moral metal into the light for examination. And in my opinion this should lead us to the repentance of our moral failure.

Norwich Central Baptist Church has a monthly prayer card. On the 29th of some month whose record I have lost I read the following item for prayer.

"Temptation comes in many guises - materialism, selfish ambition, greed, pride, envy, self image, success, indifference to the Spirit's prompting. To defeat the devil's wiles - pray and obey! We have victory through Jesus Christ! Mat 4:10-11, 1 John 1:8-9"

I don't think the devil's wiles need have much to do with it: he can sit back and watch us fail! Look at those first eight motivational items; materialism, selfish ambition, greed, pride, envy, self image, success. I would hazard that each of them has at its root a common motivating factor and that is the human status drive. I'm not saying that the pleasure we derive from status is all wrong; it's like the reward of satiation of appetite when we at food which ultimately needed to nourish the human frame: we all need status for our own worth's sake and we also need people of high status in society. However, it is possible, and it certainly has happened countless times in human society, that status becomes an overriding drive to the detriment of others and society in general; status seeking then becomes a sin, "sin" the word with the "I" in the middle,

Though status and its pleasures are no more wrong than sexual drives, short term self-denial in favour of long term goals is at the heart of Christianity.  I must quote my oft quoted favorite Biblical passage once again: Philippians 2: 3-11:

Let nothing be done out of strife or conceit, but in humility let each esteem the other better than himself. 4 Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Let this mind be in you all, which was also in Christ Jesus,
6 who, being in the form of God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.
7 But He emptied Himself,
    taking upon Himself the form of a servant,
    and was made in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in the form of a man,
    He humbled Himself
    and became obedient to death,
        even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God highly exalted Him
    and gave Him the name which is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Contrast that with the temptations of Christ (Mat 4:1-11) that culminated in the offer of a promise of Earthly glory:

8 Again, the devil took Him up on a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur, 9 and said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me. ”

The above is at the very heart of the Gospel; it stands stark against general human mismanagement of otherwise acceptable well managed motivations. This mismanagement has brought so much suffering with it. But just as the competitive search for status has been the problem, so in Christ it has also been the solution.

If life ultimately has meaning then we find that meaning in the questions which surround societal living and the right handling of status; for status is another word for human relations. If life has meaning its about getting right our perspective on status through Christ. I'm amazed by the universality of the core Christian message: We might even be atheists and yet find the above core values appealing and needed for societal solutions; good atheists will align their goals accordingly.

But there is one thing that is worse than mismanagement of our status motivations and that is mismanagement of our religious motivations.  I might deal with this question in next part as I probe the depths and mysteries of religion.

Duddo Stone Circle, Northumberland

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Time Travel with Babbage and Watt Technology

With a hint of Faraday thrown in!

The time machine & time travelling sequences were the best part of this film.

The above video shows the time travel scenes from the 2002 film "The Time Machine". I downloaded the film from iTunes and watched it about a year or two ago. I thought the effects and sets were good and in particular I was impressed by the steam punk time machine. But on the whole I didn't really enjoy the story. In comparison with H G Wells' book of the same name the film sacrifices the disturbing cutting edge of the book for the feel good factor; but I suppose the feel good factor is what most people want of an escapist film.  The film, needless to say, takes evolution for granted, but doesn't follow Wells into the potentially nihilistic territory of a profane version of evolution.  In comparison Wells was entirely frank about the logic of a world where the only imperative is the survival "ethic" and just where that "ethic" might take us as a race.  In contrast the 2002 film smothers the Riddle of the Sphinx with schmaltz and kitsch. 

Wells' "The Time Machine" cuts two ways: It either reinforces postmodernism's thoroughgoing (and ultimately inconsistent) scepticism or it provokes a determination that the future need not be like Wells' depiction. But then, if there is no personal God to turn to who or what is going to guarantee that our efforts will prosper?  Profanity so easily succumbs to the depression of a nihilistic malaise. As I once reported an evangelical atheist saying: "The Universe doesn't care about us!".  The sense of ultimate hopelessness and futility which such expressions may engender is tantamount to being pulled down into darkness by the clutching hands of the demonic Morlocks. 

One day, perhaps one day,  some one is going to make a film that does justice to Wells' original ideas and the riddles they raise. With today's special effects a really good job of it could no doubt be done. However, unless the makers of this future film think they can do better they might like to retain the 2002 hardware reconstruction of the Time Machine itself! 

The  2002 Time Machine's  console  is reminiscent of Babbage's difference engine

Steam powered time travel! An eclectic mix of nineteenth century precision technology. But according to Wells the fancied human genius behind this project would likely  count for nothing in the cosmic context.
For comparison: the console of a real steam truck, although it lacks the Time Machine's "trip computer"! I took this photo myself at the Thursford Collection

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Holiday in Southern Ireland

The wife and I recently had a holiday in Southern Ireland, county Wicklow in fact.  Here are some of the places we visited:

Wicklow Gaol: This was our first visit of the week. Wicklow Goal is now museum. I anticipated before we went in that it would likely be a monument to British oppression of the Irish people. (Unfortunately for Ireland much of its history is covered by the history of British rule). I was right about this but I was glad to see that the story was told without any bitterness on the part of the Irish; one came out feeling the Irish still want to be friends with their somewhat larger neighbour. And a good thing too; we need friends like that! As an aside: We neither felt nor saw any of the many ghosts that are supposed to inhabit this building!

Glendalough: This is the ruins of a once busy monastic town. It is actually located in a glacial valley and as I looked around me I could see the high walls of the U-shaped profile of glacial action. The inhabitants of that town would no doubt have unconsciously viewed the landscape around them as ancillary and incidental to the cutting edge of creation; namely Man’s dealings with God.  Today, however, we find such a vision much more difficult to take for granted.  Changes in our perspective of time and space tempts us to view humanity as the ancillary objects, almost like inconsequential insects crawling around in the corners of the huge vista of a cosmic stage. When one understands something of geological history the setting of Glendalough, it only reinforces this tempting thought: This epic landscape with its huge space-time dimensions dwarfs human activity. It is easy to appreciate why Christian fundamentalists fail to come to terms with the cosmic perspective and can only cope with it by shrinking the cosmic backdrop to pre-scientific time scales and sometimes even returning to geocentric and flat earth cosmologies.

The central tower of Glendalough is its most notable feature: In the heyday of the monastic town it is thought to have served as a bell tower dividing up the day into its devotional segments; it was in fact the sacred equivalent of the city clock towers necessary for the marking out of secular time with a clock and bell before cheap mass produced time pieces were available to all.

Glendalough is now a town of the dead; It is still regarded as sacred and much of it covered by a grave yard that is in use today. I find some of the funerary paraphernalia that goes together with death full of pathos, a cathartic and apparently futile gesture in the face of the inevitability of termination. (See also here)

Aughrim: On the last day we walked round the small town of Aughrim not far from where we were staying. We had lunch by the gently chattering stream that passes through Aughrim. I reflected on the fact that this beautiful country with its neat well-kept shire-like feel is nothing short of a rural idyll. And yet southern Ireland is remarkably under-populated. There is in fact a very large Irish diaspora which dwarfs the 4.6 million inhabitants of Ireland. Sometimes an idyll can seem like heaven, a place where one wants to be for eternity.  But in this world it is difficult to tame the ambitious human spirit even with a mock paradise, a spirit that so often is looking for more. Sitting by a gently chattering stream is a solace and balm, but if you are ambitious you eventually get bored and have to move on. Many Irish people have done just that to the benefit of the world as a whole I would have thought!

Aughrim's quiet waters, but the allure of pastures new is always there.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Jurrassic Landscapes

Znedek Burian's Jurrasic landscape: When I first saw this picture I could hear the wind in those trees and the cracking of falling dried wood. What did it mean? 

I have in my possession a book called "Prehistoric Reptiles and Birds" which I received as a school prize at the age of 11. It was written by paleontologist Josef Augusta and illustrated by Zdenek Burian. The text was perhaps a little dry for an 11 year old, but the illustrations by Burian fired my imagination. Burian is justifiably well known for his pictures depicting prehistoric animals. To my eye Burian's pictures are wonderfully impressionistic; although not meticulously detailed they convey a sense of life, animation, realism and above all prehistoric atmosphere. Somehow Burian's pictures take me back in time. One might expect that a boy of 11 was inspired by the pictures of prehistoric birds - and I was - but surprisingly it was Burian's Jurassic landscapes that had an even greater effect on me.
Burian: landscapes with a sense of depth

These landscape pictures made me feel as though I was actually looking through a window in  time at the actual thing.  The light, the atmosphere, the mood and the sense of a wilderness absent of the management of man became very real when I looked at Burian's pictures. Those landscapes receded into a misty background blur that I knew spoke of huge wild unmanaged spaces beyond. Those spaces were inhabited by monstrous roaming beasts uncontrolled by human interference and organisation. This was a very alien world that left me with nagging questions that I never shook off: What did it all mean? Why were there huge tracts of time absent of human presence? 

Ironically this was a spiritual experience: Unlike some for whom the questions of meaning eventually abate to be replaced by nihilistic resignation, for me the quest for meaning would incessantly nag. It was as if I was being shown a landscape and a still small voice whispered: "Look at this; what do you think it means?". In an effort to get closer to that question, if not to answer it, seven years later I attempted my own pencil depiction of a Jurassic landscape (See below). Not of Burian standard, of course, but it got the need to express something off my chest. In fact today I'm reminded of those scenes in Close Encounters of alien contactees who obsessively groped for meaning in the enigmatic picture of Devil's mountain that had been impressed on their minds.

And the obsession continues: If I ever come across a landscape that reminds me of Burian's pictures I photograph it. In fact here is an example I snapped in the early spring of this year: 

A modern Jurassic looking landscape.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Hemlock Stone

The Hemlock Stone

I recently visited this interesting place: The Hemlock Stone just outside Nottingham. It is a peculiar and singular formation, which like an old decayed tooth stands proud of the otherwise toothless gums of the eroded Triassic sandstone hills of Nottingham.  There is nothing else in the vicinity like it and one wonders why it too hasn't long since been eroded. According to the geological blurb the sandstone at this spot is more strongly cemented than the surroundings and hence its resilience to erosion; however there is apparently some disagreement as to whether human quarrying activity might also have been involved. The Hemlock stone therefore presents similar doubts about its origins that the Cheesewring on Bodmin moor might once have done. For my blog post on the Cheesewring see here: 

According to Geologists the 400 metre thick pebbly sandstone layer around Nottingham was deposited in Triassic times by monsoonal rains eroding an ancient mountain range to the south of Nottingham. Nottingham was a dessert region landlocked in the huge mono-continent of Pangaea. In some places water rounded pebbles are seen half embedded in the sandstone floor and can be removed with a bit of effort. I  took one as a souvenir.

The Pebbly Sandstone of Nottingham

The likely depth of time occupied by the sequence of events  needed to generate this Nottinghamshire landscape is, as is so often the case with geological sequences, breath taking: Those ancient mountains may well have started their life as ancient rock layers themselves. They were then uplifted and eroded by rains and rivers which deposited them as silicate grains and pebbles.  As Pangaea broke up advancing and retreating seas deposited further layers of rock hundreds of metres thick on top of the sandstone. Over long periods of time all these layers were uplifted, folded and in turn eroded down to the basement sandstone  rock, eventually producing the the landscape we see today.

Like the Cheesewring the Hemlock Stone's singularity probably attracted the attention of man's sense of the numinous and it has therefore been the place of religious ritual. Not surprisingly its conspicuous form strikes a sense of awe even in those whose reaction is not necessarily spiritual:

Thou petrified enigma.....what tempest sculptured thee?   (Henry S Sutton, 1848)

Similar awe has been expressed by antiquarians about the Cheesewring:

If a man dreamt of a great pile of stones he would dream such a pile as the Cheesewring

...this wonderful pile of stones...but whether the work of nature or not I know not.

The Cheesewring. Bodmin Moor: Granite, not sandstaone

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Modernism and Christianity

This is a picture I drew circa 1971. In those days, aged 19, I still carried with me the modernist optimism that had attracted me in my school days of the 60s. During that decade I marveled at the high shiny steel and glass concrete structures that were being thrown up even in Norwich with its awkward medieval lanes and street lines. It made me feel that the future had arrived. To quote (once again) H. G. Wells' The Time Machine:

I saw  great and splendid architecture  rising about me , more massive than any buildings of our own time....

So, the above was my attempt to raise up a piece of architecture of my own; on paper at least! The idea was to create an impression of height, and a rising up into the clouds; notice the unfinished look of the upper most cylinder - yet more units could be added (As it stands the building is about 70-80 stories high). The twisting cross shaped units created a perspective problem that I solved using freehand rather than technically correct vanishing points - the upshot is that a careful check reveals the perspective to be rather awry!

I think I'm still a modernist, but perhaps a little less optimistic. To finish Wells' quote:

.....and yet as it seemed built of glimmer and mist.

Not long after I drew my picture I took an excursion into Christian evangelicalism. Mine was always a fairly moderate version of evangelicalism, but even that did not fit well with me; I always felt uncomfortable with it, a square peg in a round hole. Over the years I've moved away from straight evangelicalism, but retained what I consider to be the real essence of Christianity, the Open Gospel (See link below). Also, my modernist tendencies don't sit well with the stuffy conservatism sometimes found in evangelicalism..... and neither do some of my personality traits which wouldn't be out of place on an Asperger syndrome check list.  But far worse than all this, I found that evangelicalism is just too close to fundamentalism: For the fundamentalist high buildings and high achievement signify the rebellion of Babel and thoughts of man. And yet in spite of high spiritual pretensions fundamentalism itself has characteristics that are so transparently part of a very human complex of conceits, self-deceits and run of the mill failings common to all (wo)mankind. 

The over optimistic humanism of some modernism, when set against the dowdy oppressive observant based religion of fundamentalism, reminds me of that episode in Red Dwarf when Lister's ego is reified into two characters; a flamboyant optimist and a recessive critical pessimist. A balance needs to be kept between optimism and pessimism.Modernist Christianity may be the balance needed in these days of extremist polarisation. As it is with my imaginary architecture so it is with my Christianity.... the cross is central, twists to face in many directions, rises up to a great height and above all, is unfinished.

Some relevant links:

Friday, 26 September 2014

Dan Dare in The Pillars of Creation Mystery!

The above is a picture of the so called "Pillars of Creation" taken by the Hubble space telescope. According to Wiki

"Pillars of Creation" is a photograph taken by the Hubble Telescope of elephant trunks of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, some 7,000 light years from Earth.[1] They are so named because the gas and dust are in the process of creating new stars, while also being eroded by the light from nearby stars that have recently formed.[2] Taken April 1, 1995, it was named one of the top ten photographs from the Hubble by[3]

That's very interesting especially if you now take a look at the following picture of deep space; It comes not from the Eagle Nebula but the Eagle Boys Comic of 1957 which was running a Dan Dare story called "The Reign of the Robots".

Is it just me or does that dark space cloud in the Dan Dare story have more than a passing resemblance to the Pillars of Creation? My best guess is that the artists of this particular story* may have seen some of the nebulae pictures returned by the powerful telescopes of the day, such as the Hale Telescope.  See for example this photo of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Mount Palomar Hale Telescope in 1965: 

If you look carefully at this photo you can see the Pillars of Creation. Did the Eagle artists deliberately choose images from the Eagle Nebula?  If so that bright "double" star in the Palomar photo may also have crept into the artist's picture! The Palomar Skies blog spot says this about the photo:

The photo was taken in 1965 with the 200-inch Hale Telescope. M16 is an emission nebula and associated open star cluster located about 7,000 light years distant in the direction of the constellation of Serpent

Perhaps I might be pushing the resemblances a bit too far in noting that the Mekon's satellite which appears in The Eagle's front page deep space picture does look a little bit like the dome of a telescope!

The Hale Telescope

All very intriguing, but I'm not quite sure what it all adds up to! I suppose the artist's work could have been subliminal and dream-like rather than a self aware aping of the telescope images. Dreams can and do patch together linked symbolic images in this haphazard way.

* The artists were Frank Hampson and Harold Johns: See here: