Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Defining Image of Great Britain

How to sum up this weekend? For anyone reading this post months from now or from some remote corner of the globe, it is the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Republicans have been snorting and chuntering about 'how much of their taxes have paid for the blah blah blah'; old people have been dewy eyed about dear old Liz; Huw Edwards has been up to his usual voice-over trick of stating the bleedin' obvious; and everyone has become an expert on the history of the British Monarchy.

Surely, it is on this weekend that we find the true essence of what it is to be British. Surely there will be one snapshot, one image, one face which can be plastered on billboards in travel agents from Washington to Wollagong to get people to travel to our glorious island nation; to visit our tourist attractions; to take photographs outside our discretely renovated ancient buildings; to buy our unimaginably crappy merchandise and souvenirs, covered in pictures of double-decker London buses and bulldogs. Well actually, there is.

It could be the Queen. An 86 (I think) year old woman stood on her feet in the driving rain for hours on end waving at soaking wet people drift past her on the world's least pleasant river. This after 60 years of life spent shaking hands and pretending to be pleased to see people. 60 years of uncompromising integrity, unfailing dignity, unflinching faith, boundless kindness, generosity, love, care and commitment to her nation and her people. I would dearly love to say that that is the essence of what it is to be British, but I think that would be overly optimistic. I would love to say the behaviour of a Nation and Commonwealth mirrors that of its Monarch. But it doesn't, and that image of her persevering through the wind and rain, literally and figuratively, is not that defining image we're after.

It could be the Duke of Edinburgh. He has 4 years on his wife, and he still stood there waving even more vigorously than her all afternoon. He has chuckled, grumbled, grinned and offended all manner of people for almost all of his married life, having sacrificed a naval career. You might think this thoroughly imperfect, rude, often obnoxious, often hilarious, committed, wholehearted and genuine bloke is perfect for our defining image of Britishness. But, without meaning to be overly pedantic, he is, in fact, Greek. Just saying...

It could be the thousands of people stood in the Mall, waving their Union Flags with 'The Sun' emblazoned across the middle, singing the National Anthem, and not knowing the second verse. Having a ball at the Jubilee concert. But I reckon nobody complained about much, so they are not authentic as our defining image.

No, for our defining image we have to rewind to Sunday morning. We have to zoom in to a soaking wet park in the Fifth Worst City In The World. My Church had long planned a 'Big Jubilee Lunch', with inflatable slides, cage football, climbing tower, face painting, coconut shy. When your budget comes from tithes and council grants, that counts as 'the works'. But then, 'Alex' intervened. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, try http://joshramble.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/maybe-next-year.html. If you can't be bothered, that means the weather took a turn for the worse.) It rained. And rained. And rained. The inflatable slides invoked the evil god of Elf and Safety, and refused to come. The coconut shy, the football, and the face painting gazebo lay derelict. In any other nation on Earth, they would have had a committee meeting, and decided to go home, and do something warm, dry and sensible.
Not here. No, these Britons obeyed every patriotic cliche in the book. They kept calm and carried on; they made do and mended.
Men were sent home to fetch tarpaulin to reinforce wind-battered marquees and gazebos. A man with a Ukulele played 'Here Comes the Sun'. A boy with a trumpet played 'Is This The Way To Amarillo'. Picnics were had under shelters, on tables which should have been filled with activities for the myriad visitors, who had decided to stay home. Terrible jokes were told over a waterlogged microphone, as anorak-clad, trenchfoot-suffering people trudged through the headwind across the saturated field, pretending to be happy and find the jokes funny. One kettle, between about a hundred people, went ten to the dozen for five solid hours, as men, women and children warmed themselves with the tepid fruit of its labour.
This, truly, was the Britain which has, throughout the centuries, looked the odds in the eye and shouted a resounding 'No!'. The Britain which has made a fool of common sense and logic. The Damp, Bankrupt Rock in the North Atlantic which no army, neither Hitler's nor Napoleon's has been able to overcome for 946 years.

So, what of the defining image? The organiser of the lunch was a woman called Julie. For months, Julie had planned and advertised and cajoled and persuaded this event into existence. In about 20 minutes on Sunday morning, it collapsed around her ears. The rain poured, the attractions cancelled, the crowds, after a collective net-curtain twitch, stayed at home, and the minions started grumbling. Whispers of 'cancel, cancel, cancel' rang around the park.

All of a sudden Julie disappeared, and we all thought that final discussions were taking place before she announced that enough had become enough, and it was all over. Instead, she emerged from a tent, and took our breath away. Stood there, with her soaking wet hair plastered to her forehead, a silly Union Jack hat on, a blue translucent waterproof poncho on over the top of a red fleece, and Union Flags protruding from her pockets at all angles, she was the ultimate image of Britishness. She was dripping with defiance, determination, and above all, rain water. With great ceremony and theatre, she looked round at all of us agape volunteers, drew a deep breath, and in as sonorous, booming, and Churchillian a voice as she could manage, announced, 'We are carrying on.'

And there, dear friends, we have the defining image of our country. Glorious, eccentric, ridiculous, lovable, defiant, damp, cold, honest, hilarious. Great Britain

Thursday, 3 May 2012

8 Steps

I paced them out twice. Once backwards; once forwards, just to make sure. 8 steps stood between genocide and freedom. 8 steps which 1.3 million men, women, and children longed to take but never could. 8 steps.

Two things hit you about Auschwitz Birkenau. The first is the vast scale of the evil which took place there. I stood at the top of the 8 step wide entrance tower and looked out on history's ultimate killing field. As far as the eye could see were fence posts, watch towers, and chimney stacks which marked where the now rotted wooden barracks had once stood.

This place could hold 90,000 people at any given time, almost all of whom were destined to die in a gas chamber, of exhaustion, starvation, disease, cold, or directly at the hands of an SS officer, before their bodies were burned. 
In this, and other places like it, 6 million Jews were murdered. 6 million is a number which cannot be visualised. I've tried- it's 10% of the population of Great Britain, a third of the pre-war Jewish population of Europe, but it just isn't imaginable. I stood in the only remaining gas chamber, and looked around at the disgusting, dirty room. I had half expected it to be clean, with polished metal; efficient looking, like a professional kitchen perhaps. But no, this bare stone floor, uneven walls and ceiling, with a few holes where the gaseous death entered, was the final thing so many hundreds of thousands of innocent people saw before they were butchered.
Walking along the main train track through Birkenau, I was mesmerised by the sheer size of the fields, filled with chimneys, fences, lights, and, 67 short years ago,  with malnourished, humiliated, desperate, lonely, abused, innocent people, waiting to die or else slowly dying whilst waiting. For the few who weren't gassed the moment they arrived here, the life expectancy was 4 to 6 weeks.

But the strangest thing is that the scale is not the worst thing about the place. No, the second thing about Auschwitz, which hits you 10 times harder is the fierce, unimaginable, sickening intensity of the evil that went on here.
Take those barracks, the ruins of which filled my vision. They look like this on the inside:
They were originally designed for horses to live in. About 50 horses lived in each block like this, but when the Germans used them to store human beings, 400 to 500 hundred were crammed into each one. That's more friends than I have on Facebook living in this hut. On the bunks you can see, each bed is smaller than a single bed, but two slept in each, putting 6 people on a hastily made bunk bed. Someone in my group asked whether they had mattresses, and the tour guide almost laughed. "No." She said, "the lucky ones had straw." Real people, like you and me, sleeping 2 to a bed on straw. The top bunk was the most coveted, because diarrhoea and dysentery were rife in the camp, and toilets were opened twice a day, so in the night there was a real danger of finding yourself sleeping in what the person above you could not control. Could they wash in the morning? There was rarely enough water to drink, never mind wash in.
Real people, like you and me, sleeping 2 to a bed on straw, covered in other people's excrement. It happened.

The next block was the toilet: a wooden hut with 200 small holes for people to sit almost touching each other. No dignity. No privacy. The most appalling thing of all about this hut was that one of the most popular jobs in the camp was being in the Sheissekommando. The shit group. People were desperate for this job because it was indoors, the nature of the work was warm, and no guards hung around to make sure they worked fast enough. Human beings, like me and you, reduced to begging to be allowed to shovel other people's waste.

Outside of the huts, I stood on the unloading ramp, where over a million people had fallen, half dead, out of cattle trucks, having travelled from as far as Greece without food or water. 70% of people were sent straight to the gas chambers; exterminated as soon as they arrived. The same place where I stood, so had so many men who would never see their wives again, brothers who would never see their sisters again, sons and daughters who would never see mothers and fathers again. I imagined my own family. Provided we all survived the journey, my mum would have been sent one way, and the rest of us another. I would never have seen her again. Ever. My youngest brother would have been told he was going for a shower, and never come out. Probably my dad too. Me and my other brother would have been taken, stripped off to check for any injuries which made us unable to work. We would then have had our entire bodies shaved and our clothes replaced by striped pyjamas, before being sent to one of the inhumane barracks, fed the calorific equivalent of a Snickers bar and forced to work 12 hours each day. We had 4 to 6 weeks before we would have died of exhaustion, provided no disease got us first. It could have been us. Born in another time in another place, it would have been.

At least we probably wouldn't have been selected for experimentation for Dr. Mengele. I walked past his block, where women were sent for him to test for efficient ways to sterilise them, often resulting in agonizing death. A doctor. A doctor.

Holocaust survivor Josef Perl said he saw a baby being born as is mother fell of the cattle truck. An officer grabbed the baby, cut the umbilical chord, and threw it aside, before sending the hysterical mother to the gas chambers. I could have been stood at the same spot that newborn life landed. A baby; a life, emotions, feelings, ideas, hopes, fears, memories, friends, a beloved child of the living God, that were never allowed to happen; tossed aside like an empty drinks can. This was a real person.

Back in Auschwitz I, I walked through rooms full of the belongings of prisoners. One room had a section filled with human hair, cut from the dead before their bodies were burned. The same hair which should have been caught by the sun, brushed, pulled, washed, smelled, stroked, kissed, was cut off. To make sofas. It ended up dry and matted, slowly fading in this room, for people like me to look at and feel broken, and cry for these people I never knew, for the things my race inflicted on them. It could have been my hair. It could have been yours.
The next room was shoes, of men and of little children. Shoes which were perfectly  fitted and trodden into the shape of their dead owners. Shoes with their first ever pairs of laces. I imagined little boys trying, with their faces screwed up and tongue out with the concentration of tying them up for the very first time. The joy when they first managed it and the knot didn't fall apart. Those shoes should have ended up in a box somewhere for them to look at years on, and marvel at how small their feet were. Not here.

And all of this evil was divided from freedom by 8 steps. They stood between that little boy and a lifetime of tying his laces in a perfect double knot. They stood between that woman and the baby she gave birth to growing old and happy together. Between her becoming a grandmother, and becoming a statistic. 1 in 6 million dead Jews. 8 steps between liberty and genocide, life and death.

And how dare I take those steps? How can I come here as a tourist to look at this place, put it down in the scrapbook of my life, a box ticked, an experience had? This is a place that no-one should ever see, which should be consigned to history forever. 
But Santayana was right when he said that anyone who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it. And this can never be repeated. Never ever. So the truth is that Auschwitz Birkenau is something that everyone should see. See and learn.

Rabbi Barry Marcus said that humans have conquered every distance conceivable, except for the distance between one man and another.  It's time we started focussing on that one. Jesus said that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. It's time we started listening to Him.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Second Worst Way to Spend A Day. After Watching Tennis

True, all the best things in life are free. Manners, salvation, smiles, whatever. But lots of good things are not. Steak and Cheese subs, clothes, crockery, electronic gizmos and so forth. All of these things require us to pay money, which one would always rather not do, but we consider it worth it in exchange for ownership of these bits and bobs. However, there is always what one might call, a hidden cost which we have to pay; an astronomical, extortionate, vast cost. If we want new stuff, we have to go shopping.

Case in point: Me. Today I became the proud new owner of a T-Shirt. I like it; it's nice. I parted with 5 English pounds (well its 4.99 really, but they're not fooling me!) which I considered to be excellent value.  But let me tell you a bit about the day which unfolded either side of the purchase.

I was woken up despite it being the holidays, so as we could 'beat the rush'. I then spent the best part of an hour in a car driving through a fairly uneventful part of southern England, guided by a Satnav which was completely oblivious to the presence of any satellites in the sky, and behaved like a sulking child all the way from the New Forest to Portsmouth. We arrived at a shopping centre in Portsmouth which will remain unnamed for legal reasons (we shall call it Bunwharf Quays), where gazillions of other people were intent on bumping into us and saying 'Sorry mate'. This is a message to all of those who bumped into me: I am not your mate, and I do not forgive you. Anyway, I then had to walk into very expensive shops, which will also remain unnamed (Superfly and Jock Wills) to look at clothes I couldn't afford.

Having extricated myself from these particular overpriced dens of iniquity, I had to spend hour after hour laden like a Bedouin camel with the purchases of my mother, younger brother, granny, two aunties, cousin, other cousin, along with my solitary T-Shirt. Their justification for treating me like this? I was the only man. Where the heck is feminism when you need it?!

But even having taken this weight away from them, it remains incredible how far women are able to walk when promised that Primark lies just beyond the horizon. I reckon, being conservative here, that we walked for one thousand miles. It occurred to me that maybe when the Proclaimers sang that they would walk 500 miles in order to fall down at her (whoever she is) door, it was because they were carrying her shopping, and falling down would be only thing of which they were capable. Just a thought.

I also had to visit the epicentre of universal evil. Rarely have I felt such contempt for a place as Cith Kadston (more legal proceedings there). It is the epitome of all it is to be a middle class, middle aged woman, or her daughter. Along with badly driven people carriers, fruit tea, and sporadic recycling obsessions, it is the ultimate hallmark of Middle England, and the ultimate folly of class mobility. Whoever this woman is, she has  gained enormous quantities of money by taking an everyday household object, such as tea towels or teapots, and adorned them with nauseating combinations of spots and flowers, and sold them to her adoring ladies-that-do-lunch for wildly inflated prices, who are in the process of busily constructing a life which looks like this:


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tendulkar: The Run Machine, with a dash of humanity

Very seldom will this blog be given over to eulogising about one individual, besides Jesus of course. But today, a feat has been accomplished of such magnificence that I hardly thought I could leave it. Today, one man finally put the icing on the cake of a career which has so perfectly illustrated the beauty of sport; the way in which it can unite and divide people, the way agony and ecstasy can dwell alongside each other in complete harmony, and the capacity it has to create heroes.
That man is Sachin Tendulkar. That feat is scoring his hundredth international hundred.

For those uneducated in such things, cricket has a curious way of valuing milestones and statistical achievements. Scoring 100 runs is seen as immeasurably more valuable than scoring 99 runs, even though it makes only 1 run's difference to the situation of the game. There are batsmen who will score 30, 40, 50 game in, game out, who exasperate us hugely. Then we get a batsmen who will score a hundred every 6 or 7 games, and naff all else. Who is the great player of the two? You guessed it: the second one.

But Tendulkar was not like the second one. He simply scored hundred after hundred after hundred, with some 60s and 70s sprinkled inbetween. There have been more flamboyant batsmen, there have been more flamboyant characters, but never has a cricketer exhibited such astonishing productivity.

For 22 years of international cricket, Tendulkar has produced the most alarmingly high number of runs of any batsman in history. But part of the genius is that he did it carrying the hopes and dreams of 1 billion Indians on his shoulders every single day, and he never cracked, he never stepped back to 'manage his workload', he never went off the rails and was found drunk next to an upside down pedalo in blue Caribbean Seas. No, Tendulkar did the only thing he knows how to do; he scored runs.
This ability to handle pressure was never illustrated better than the world cup quarter final of 1996. India played Pakistan, and Tendulkar was batting with the young Virender Sehwag (to whom I will later return), in front of an adoring Indian crowd. He carried not only the hopes of every Indian in the world, but of every Hindu too. Bowling at him was the best fast bowling partnership in the world, along with the fastest bowler ever recorded. 150 balls later, Tendulkar had compiled an innings of measured, controlled, brutality. Without the expression on his face changing one iota, the Pakistani bowlers had been made to look foolish, and Tendulkar had not shown even the smallest hint of mortality.

And that has more or less been the pattern since. He has smashed record after record, including the magisterial way he became the first man to score 200 in a One Day International against the might of South Africa and Dale Steyn. That record has since been eclipsed by Sehwag, which seemed a travesty to me. It was like replacing the Ferrari F40 with the F50; the greatest car in the history of ever with one not even worthy of comparison, except that it is a bit more muscly.

Sure, there have been wobbles every now and then, and none more so than the year long gap between his 99th international hundred and his 100th international hundred. The stage was set in the 2011 world cup final. Tendulkar back in his home town of Mumbai, against an aging Sri-Lankan attack, and backed by 1 billion Indians, baying for blood. He had missed out on a hundred by 15 runs in the previous game against Pakistan, and this man rarely misses out twice. He made 18 serene, untroubled runs, before a full delivery from Malinga the Slinga bowled a full delivery, which found the edge of Tendulkar's flashing blade. For the split second between the faint nick, and the sound of ball thudding into wicket keeper Sangakkara's gloves, the entire cricketing world held its breath. Surely they can't do this to him. He must drop it; this is wrong. He did not. For what felt like the first time in years, Sachin Tendulkar blew it.

What followed was the Indian Juggernaut thrashing Sri Lanka to lift the world cup, and the great man was spared blushes. But it just didn't feel right. It was the beginning of the worst year of his career; scrabbling around desperate for those magical three figures. Balls he would have smashed for 4 in hears gone by were getting him out, LBW decisions were going against him, stunning catches were being taken whenever he hit a ball slightly off the ground. I remember seeing him smash dreadful balls from some mediocre West Indian spinner directly into fielders' hands. For once, he looked like the rest of us. Sometimes unlucky, sometimes drawing brilliance from opponents, sometimes a little bit rubbish. The little master was no longer a god to Indian supporters, no longer a machine to the rest of us; he became a human being, and a desperate one at that.

When it came, it came against Bangladesh- the whipping boys of test cricket. I expected it to feel wrong, like it shouldn't really count. That a man who had put Akram, Younis, Akhtar, Warne, McGrath, Lee, Pollock, Steyn, Walsh, Ambrose, Bond, Vettori, Muralitharan, Vaas and Flintoff to the sword, would collect his crowning run against a lowly Bangladeshi left armer seemed like it would be a travesty. But it didn't. It felt like it was simply another string to Tendulkar's considerable bow: that he could not only operate as the greatest batsman in the world, whom everyone expected to score runs without even thinking about it, but that he could also cope with disappointment, failure, struggles, desperation, and come out the other side of it by (what else?) scoring a hundred.

He completed that historical single, lifted of his helmet, and the sweat on his brow seemed all the more genuine. He did not charge round the ground, Brian Lara style, milking the adulation, he simply looked heavenwards, smiled meekly, put his helmet back on, and carried on batting. The final frontier, that of his own weakness and fallibility, has been conquered.

So what now for Sachin Tendulkar? It's obvious isn't it?
He'll put his helmet back on, carry on batting, and score some more hundreds!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Stairs: The Eternal Conundrum

Before you start reading this post, may I offer a small defence. I have not blogged for a while, this one is the by product of me getting back in the saddle. Consequently, it's not my best work, but if you want a small titter, it should suffice. Otherwise, read Oh, there's a bird perched on the shower curtain rail, Maybe next year, or Funny Thing, Infinity. They're much better.


Necessary, functional, ergonomic, simple. But hopelessly flawed. Theoretically, they are fine, I have no problem with them whatsoever. One platform is raised slightly higher and further on than the previous, allowing the user to gain height and distance with every step. Fine.

And yet stairs cause me greater anxiety than any other structure I use (except for mug trees. Mug trees are just silly). The reason for this is simple: steps are never ever ever the right distance apart. Think about it, you know what I'm talking about. They're either too close together, or too far apart, either in terms of height difference or the distance forwards, (which I have decided we shall call progressional distance).

Very often, it is the former. I was at school today, and there is one such staircase. So one finds oneself caught in a quandary. One can either take the conventional method, and go one step at a time. The problem with this is twofold; the next step up is always a bit lower than you expect, and your foot hovers briefly above the step, before plunging down to the level of the actual step, as gravity seizes control of your horribly un-positioned leg. This results in a painful jarring of the knee and spine, and potentially whiplash. Be careful, citizen! (Elf and safety advice; it's a service I provide). The other ill effect is that your ascent is painfully slow using this method. I opted for it earlier today, and found a small child going past me (taking two at a time, of course), releasing an almost undetectable sigh of impatience at me for having held him up. This bruised my pride, given my superior status, but there was nothing I could do. I was in the wrong. I had opted for the wrong stair cllimbing technique, and this was my punishment.

'Well why didn't you just take two at a time?', I hear you cry. And I take your point, I really do. But the reasons why I did not are as follows:
1) A matter of principle. Whoever built and designed this staircase did so in such a way for me to take 1 step at a time. Stair building is not all that well paid, so I should at least pay him the courtesy of climbing them as he intended.
2) It can be difficult to tell whether the stairs are sufficiently close together to opt for the '2 at a time method'. If they are too far apart, you end up having to take enormous steps to cope with the distance. This means your trousers end up half way up your shins, great exertion is required, with you driving fiercely onwards with your thighs, and you end up leaning forwards, doughtily ploughing on like an under-dressed Ranulph Fiennes. It's a risk.
3) You would not take 2 steps at a time when going down so it seems unfair doing it on the way up.

So you see, there really is no way to deal with stairs efficiently, unless the stairs in question are the perfect distance apart. But these stairs, I have come to conclude, can exist only in the garden of Eden, and our fallen humanity makes them impossible.
So until we reach Heaven, the Good Lord has given us one small solace to keep us going.
Stana Stairlifts. The future.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Maybe next year

It has come to pass that there are readers of this blog from across the globe. Greetings to you! Particularly those in Russia and Japan, it is jolly exciting that you are remotely interested in what I have to say. Today, I would like to tell you about a very curious English tradition. It's something we do every year, without fail. It is something that we love, and love to hate. It is something that happens in every single nation on Earth, but nowhere else reacts to it quite like good old blighty. This tradition, ritual, phenomenon is commonly known as 'Winter'.

Allow me to explain. Every winter, this island nation either buzzes with excitement, or sighs as one, with collective disappointment and cries of 'things ain't what they used to be!'. Why? Because some lovely weather man, with a nice smile but reassuringly aged face, and just a touch of grey in his otherwise jet black hair, or weather woman with her crisp grey suit, annoying bob haircut and excessively friendly disposition, tells us our chances of snow this year. In recent years, we have had a bumper crop of snow, and the excitement starts well before the first BBC forecast. It starts off as a murmur. Someone will whisper in your ear that they have 'heard there's snow on its way,' never saying it too loud lest the secret police overhear and throw them into the tower of London for their seditious rumours. Next, the social networks pick up the news, and then it really gets going. Then the disagreements come, as to the exact details of the impending snowfall.
'It's going to come next Monday at 6.30 in the evening, lasting until 9.24'
'No no no my friend, we won't see any till Wednesday afternoon. You mark my words.'
'Are you joking?! I cross referenced 74 different websites, and they all appear to indicate we might be waiting till the week after.'

Then our minds are laid to rest by the Beeb. We get to the end of the 6 o'clock news; a story about child poverty in Sierra Leone just finishes, and the newsreader has to replace his sincere face with his gleefully excited one. 'The moment we've all been waiting for,' he starts, like he's about to announce the X Factor results, 'time for the weather forecast with Alex.' At this point, 'Alex' becomes the most powerful man in the world. Prior to today, 'Alex' has not featured at all in anybody's life bar his mother's, who is ever so proud of him, and has eagerly tuned in for this defining moment in his otherwise nondescript life. Usually, 'Alex' looks a little dishevelled and miffed, at always playing second fiddle in the weather department to Carole and Shefali. But today, he looks magnificent; not a hair out of place; eyebrows perfectly shapen; creases in his trousers sharp enough to give you a paper cut; practically bursting with excitement and desperately trying to retain his professionalism. He looks like he might cry with joy when he confirms we will see some 'Wintry showers' (ridiculous euphamism), and ends his report by advising us to wrap up warm. Seriously pal, are you a weather man or Trinny and Susannah? Anyway we pan back to the newsreader who is grinning as if to say 'I told you it was exciting!'

There are 2 possible situations now. Either it snows or it doesn't. If it doesn't, 'Alex' will become an object of national hatred for getting our hopes up, only for him to personally dash them at the last. It is his fault if it does not snow. But assuming it does, the ridiculousness continues. The forecasted day arrives. It is overcast. Now, it is important to realise that, with snow, everybody is an expert. People look up at the clouds and pronounce that 'there's snow in 'em'. Others say there's no chance. Regular chaps look heavenwards and analyse the colour, the altitude, the heaviness, the wind direction and speed, the humidity, and make detailed calculations, giving answers such as 'Nah.' Gritting lorries whizz around at 100mph, causing more accidents than they hope to prevent.

Then it starts. Across Britain, 60 million people run over to the nearest window and gaze, utterly mesmerised. For 10 minutes, everyone is delighted. Then the chaos begins. Traffic is brought to a standstill, children have their noses broken and backsides tanned by over-zealous snowball throwing, teachers are constantly on edge, the entire working population loses its motivation, and wants to go play! Half the elderly claim they have never known it this bad since Churchill were in power, whilst the other half claim that when they were young, they knew winters where the snow was 29 feet deep, and the entire county of Lincolnshire was completely buried, and wasn't seen again till mid March. The smart arses who go on skiing holidays either whip out their skis, 'just to ski down the lane' (because all the sort of middle class people who go on such holidays live on lanes. Everyone else refers to their road either as a road or a street. Lanes are for top earners), or go round telling anyone who will listen that this snow is nothing compared compared to the last time Daddy took them to Val D'isere.

That evening, some poor reporter will have been sent to some isolated spot in the Lake District or North Ayreshire to report from the side of the road on the treacherous conditions, whilst gradually turning into a snappily dressed snowman with a microphone. There appears to be no reason for this, as the people who live in North Ayreshire know very well that there is lots of snow, and everyone else is too busy with their own snow to give a monkey's about what things are like in North Ayreshire. Just tradition I suppose...
We will then be told how schools are closed, and that children, such as Jack and Jill from Somerset, have been out enjoying the snow with friends. This strikes me as rather silly, given that the previous reporter has just been urging everyone to stay indoors, lest they end up looking as ridiculous as him, only for his colleague to show us how much fun it is outside.
We will then be told that old people might die. Forgive my insensitivity, but doesn't that happen regardless of the atmospheric conditions? Just saying...

When it all starts to dissipate, we are all gripped by gloom and depression; that our sole source of joy for he last week is quite literally going down the drain, and that catching up will need to be done at school and all sorts. We never seem to mentally prepare for the inevitable, when it comes to snow.

And if it never does snow? We get to the day 'Alex' has told us about, and it feels all wrong. We feel empty, let down, disgusted. Those who said it would never happen are easily recognisable by their smug faces, and those who said it would blame it all on 'Alex'. He is never seen again on British television, and the rumour is that he has fled to be weather forecaster in Alaska. Word on the street is that it's an easier job there.
As for the rest of us, we pick ourselves up from this let down, dust ourselves off. We are absorbed back into our usual routine, but always holding onto the eternal promise that comes with being British.

Maybe next year.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The day I nearly died

Today will always be remembered as the day on which I nearly died. Very nearly.
Oh I covered it up pretty well, lived as if nothing in the world were troubling me; devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky. All of that stuff.
But in fact, the day started with a brush with death more terrifying than anything I have ever experienced. I nearly never made it out of the house this morning. In fact, I nearly never made it out of the bathroom.
Yes, our story starts, once more in the bathroom (This is the other time a visit to the bathroom went pear shaped: Oh, there's a bird perched on the shower curtain rail.)
I had breakfasted on peanut butter, lavishly spread across a slice of Kingsmill medium white. Doesn't sound particularly civilised or refined, but you really can't beat it, especially when washed down by a cup of tea with milk and one sugar. So far so good.
Breakfast done with, I went to go and remove its taste and smell from my mouth by brushing my teeth. Now I try to be diligent with my mental, I mean dental, health, lest the evil orthodontist man (See http://joshramble.blogspot.com/2011/07/mouthful-of-abuse.html) shout at me again for not brushing properly. Git. Anyway, his telling off of me worked, because I brushed with standard brush, then with the little one, then I went for mouthwash. This is where the problem started.
Before I actually reveal my folly, I will explain a little more. I was tired! I had stayed up quite late reading the Bible, and that is the actual truth, I'm not just trying to Christian myself out of the blame, and this lack of sleep was taking its toll the morning after the night before. I wasn't fully awake, and was operating on auto-pilot somewhat. Auto-pilot, like any modern technology is fantastic when it works, as it had done for my breakfast and brushing. Where auto-pilot falls down is when it fails.
Auto-pilot says when you have a piece of toast, you spread peanut butter on it. Well, mine does anyway.
Auto-pilot says when you have a boiled kettle, you pour its contents into the same mug as your tea bag, milk, and one sugar.
Auto-pilot says when you have a toothbrush with toothpaste, you rub it across your teeth.
Auto-pilot says when your pour a liquid into your mouth, you then swallow it.
Great with tea. Bad with mouthwash.
Hopefully you can see where this is going. If not, I'll spell it out. I swallowed my mouthwash.
As I did it, I was looking in the mirror at my out-of-focus face. I watched as it drank the mouthwash, and for a split second, looked like everything was fine. I watched its throat gulp. I saw as its eyes widened a moment later, and all of my face's features panicked. Only then did my mind register what was going on, and it panicked.
I snatched up the bottle, without really knowing why. I hoped it might calm my fears somehow, perhaps by showing me some chemical ingredient that comforted me. 'Oh phew, it's made of C7HO9PRx! That positively masaaaages the throat!'. That didn't happen. Instead, the bottle screamed 'DO NOT SWALLOW' in capitals and everything!
It was about this moment that my throat started to burn. I put my hands to my larynx and started choking, and collapsing to my knees, before I realised that it wasn't actually that bad. I got up, feeling like an idiot, and that was when the belching started. I don't like to be too vulgar or anatomical, this is a family blog after all, but honestly, these were real bone-shakers, right from the diaphragm. (What a ridiculous word.)
These subsided eventually, and I did survive, and have since gone on to live a normal, healthy life, but it does raise serious questions about society. Somehow.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Funny thing, Infinity

I sit here with my laptop. The very same machine on which I have typed up every post on this blog. I haven't had it long, but long enough for my backspace key to feel a bit tired, and my space bar do sound more like a typewriter. And I think about what I might get next time I come to buy a laptop, and when that might be. The point is, this thing around which a large part of my life is based will be here for the blinking of an eye, and then it will be gone, and forgotten.

Let's zoom out to my life. 10 years after I die, will I be remembered? How about 50 years, or 100, or 1000? The answer is, probably not. And in the context of the whole world, it is fair to say that I am nothing more than a vapour, a tiny little blip on the radar of everything.

We zoom out a bit further. Jess has, on her wall, an old map of the world. It has the USSR on it, the Belgian Congo, Rhodesia and so on. These would have felt like mighty, massive states at the time, particularly to the people who lived there; like they were built to last, something to be relied on. History has said otherwise. They are gone. And one day, they will be forgotten.

Even the beautiful image that is the surface of the Earth hasn't always looked like this, and won't always do. They say it used to look like this:
And will one day look like this:

The Bible tells us that one day, the whole thing will cease to exist, and God will build a new one. 

So my question is, why put your trust in something that is here today, gone tomorrow? My laptop, qualifications, a good job, money, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, your country, your ideology, empty religion, mankind.
You can build your life around any of these things quite easily, but the life you build will come crashing down when they do. 

And after they are gone? One Thing remains. The kingdom of God. The only thing that can stand up to the test of infinity, and the only thing designed to have lives built around it.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The biggest, greatest, most villainous brain teaser ever!

Here's one for you. This afternoon, I was sat dining with Jess (that's my girlfriend, on the off chance I have any readers who are not close personal friends wishing to humour me, who don't know). It was some sort of pasta tomatoey concoction. Nothing out of this world, but nourishing and enjoyable nonetheless.
 Then came the good news; her mother stands up and announces that there is a small amount of Ben and Jerry's ice cream remaining. Now, this blog has never been, and most probably will not be given to product placement (oooohhh look, my brother just walked past drinking a delicious, refreshing looking bottle of Coca Cola, generously priced at £1.20 in the co-op. See their website for details and promotional offers. Don't visit the one Bernice works in though), but the fact is that whomsoever Ben and Jerry happen to be, they make Ice Cream from an entirely different league to any other ice cream manufacturer before or since. If you disagree, you may post me samples of alternatives.
Anyroad, I was very excited by the prospect of this tasty-and-surprisingly-good-value dessert, and it was brought forth from the freezer. The lid was peeled back to reveal a pot of brown mush. OK, it wasn't all that bad, but I would not describe it as 'freezing'. My preferred adjective might be 'a bit parky'. (That means quite cold, if you're foreign or stupid.)

We were a little alarmed by this, and Jess observed that a few things had come out of that freezer not quite frozen.
'Perhaps the freezer needs to be turned up a bit' Suggests her mother. And then it hit me. The brain teasing conundrum of this fledgling century:

When you make a freezer colder, are you turning it up, or down?

No, don't turn your computer off! Read it again! Because there is a good case for both sides.
In order to make the freezer colder, the power must presumably be turned up.
But in the very act of turning the power up, you are turning the temperature down!
And if you wanted to increase the temperature, you would turn the power down, in order to turn the temperature up!

Well, as you might imagine, this has blown my mind completely. Of those whom I have asked to provide me with some sort of answer, 99% don't care, 0.5% abstained, and each side earned 0.25% of the vote. So I am asking you my readers (who either like this blog, and may care, or otherwise have stumbled across it and don't. If you're in the second category, leave this page now, go on with your daily life, preserve your sanity, pretend this never happened) to decide! Answers on a postcard or a comment, I get very few of either.

Sorry for the recent glut of posts by the way. They're like buses you know...
(I mean you wait ages for one then 2 come along at once, in case you were in any doubt. If you were, you're a dipstick.)

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Gravity of Jesus

I'm reading a book at the moment, and right now it's discussing the various responses we saw to Jesus at Christmas, and the responses we still see every day.
At Christmas, there is a beautiful contrast between the visitors of Jesus when he was born. The wise men or Magi were astrologer priests from what was the Persian Empire at the time, and could not have been more different from the shepherds. The shepherds were Jewish and the Magi were gentiles. The shepherds were poor, uneducated, simple people, who survived only by their love and understanding of animals. The Magi were scholars, and rich ones at that, judging by their gifts.
Imagine Stephen Fry, Noam Chomsky and Stephen Hawking arriving at the same time as a bunch of Somali pirates. This really was the ultimate mix of social haves and have-nots.

But this shows us something about the Christian faith. It shows us the unrivalled breadth of its appeal, the nature of its God as the ultimate Welcomer, the absolute certainty of the truth in Romans 2v11, that God does not show favouritism.
And we see the fruits of this all over the world today. It becomes increasingly clear that almost all religions are more or less ethnic. You would be more surprised to see a white Australian Sikh, perhaps, or a West Indian Hindu than an Indian Christian. Christianity is the only religion I am aware of which bucks this trend; it is absolutely not a white man's religion. In fact, about 80% of the world's Christians are non-white and non-Western. That amounts, according to my hasty calculations, to 1.76 billion people who are non-white, non-Western Christians. In fact, the country with the most Christians in the world is the USA, followed by Brazil, Mexico, Russia, the Phillipines, Nigeria, DR Congo, China (the fastest growing Church in the world), Italy, Ethiopia, Germany and Britain.

Why is this? Coincidence? It'd be a big one. Or is it the universal appeal of Jesus? The gravitational pull of a God who transcends all, yet chooses for the sake of love, for the sake of us, to enter our world as helpless and leave it triumphant? The same pull that brought the shepherds from their fields and the Magi from the East? The same pull that draws in people of all cultures every single day, providing one of the most convincing evidence that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world?
I rather think the latter.