Back from France

By , 30 July 2008 8:36 am

Dear readers, you have probably noticed that posting of comments, etc., has been a bit delayed the last couple of weeks. The reason was, as I partly hinted, that we were actually on holiday in France. And of course, where a little bit of detective work will reveal where you actually live, you have to be an utter nincompoop to announce to the world that you will be vacating your premises for a few weeks! On the other topic I mentioned, our daughter-in-law is still pregnant but the due date is coming up early next week.

Anyway we had a great time. For us holidays are not so much a time of doing nothing as a time of being stimulated by seeing new and different things. I have just been glancing at some of the 800 or so photographs I took and they include a vast numbers of chateaux, mediaeval towns, rocks, flowers, dragonflies, battlefields and landscapes: all that sort of thing. It keeps the brain working and makes you realise that actually the rest of the world operates on a different basis. Which is no bad thing.

Last year we went to Ireland and it was pretty cold and wet and the rest of the summer in Wales was much the same. So this year it was very pleasant to be able to say again things we haven’t really been able to say for two years (when we were last in France). Some of the things we enjoyed saying were:

‘I seem to have run out of short-sleeved shirts.’
‘I think I’ve caught the sun.’
‘The tarmac is melting.’
‘Can we park the car in the shade?’
‘Look at the lizards.’
‘Have we brought enough water?’
‘I really ought to get some prescription sunglasses.’

Anyway, I will write more about books and writing soon.

Reflections on history

By , 19 July 2008 12:30 pm

I was a small boy by the end of the 50s and a somewhat bigger boy in the 60s. In those dimly remembered days, the Second World War loomed large, not just as a great event, but as a recent one. At my first school we had big earth air raid shelters in the grounds that were frustratingly (but sensibly) sealed off from our attentions. When we played soldiers it was always as British and Germans. My father worked in the aerospace industry and many of his colleagues had been in the war: one had flown in Lancaster bombers; another, a Pole with an impossible surname, had flown with the Polish Air Force element of the RAF. It is possible that the proximity of the war was heightened by the fact that in Britain rationing did not end until something like 1953. Well into the 60s no one ever wasted food.

All this came to mind because in our church there is a small bronze plaque to the memory of Lieutenant Fred G. Beeny, East Lancashire Regiment, killed at Caen, France, 29th July 1944. As we will be passing through Caen later this summer I thought I would find where the grave was and make a visit. So I have been doing some very basic research on the lieutenant. Apart from the wonderfully efficient Commonwealth War Graves Commission website which pinpointed the grave within seconds, I have largely drawn a blank. If I had a spare day I could trawl through the microfiche records of the local paper and probably come up with more information but I don’t have that luxury. The trouble is, as you are probably aware (or ought to be), the D-Day casualty figures were so horrendous that they seem to have overwhelmed the system. For example, The London Gazette (which is in digital format and hence easy to search) only records Fred’s death in November 1944. However the local library has archives that include the minutes of our church, so I may unearth something there.

What was interesting was asking even the oldest members of our church and finding that none of them knew anything about Fred or his family. Part of the reason is that most of our very old members joined the church after the war. But another element is simply this; what was once so close to me has now been removed into the far distance by time’s remorseless march. The lieutenant himself was 25 and so would have been born in 1919. In other words, any of his contemporaries will now be thinking about their 90th birthday celebrations next year. It will not be long before we hear someone described as being the ‘last surviving combatant’ of this or that Second World War battle.

I suppose at this point I should shift to discussing how vital it is that God is eternal. Well that’s true. But I am more struck, I think, by the other side of the coin: the sheer brevity of human life. Not just this one life cut short at the quarter century, but the fact that an epic struggle will soon have passed from the realm where it is discussed by living witnesses, to that faraway state testified to only by cold, flat, written records. History is like a leisurely treadmill whose pace is so slow that you do not think it moves at all. Events like this remind you that time does pass and all too soon the greatest of events slips over the horizon of knowledge into mists of history.

Paraphrasing Psalm 90 Isaac Watts wrote:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op’ning day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie with’ring ere ’tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Just so.


Soli Deo Gloria

By , 12 July 2008 12:30 pm

When I finished writing the final sentence of The Infinite Day I signed off with three letters SDG. Since then one or two people have asked me what it means and I am left wondering if it was a bit of an affectation. I think I thought its meaning could easily be found through Google: but having tried it that is not as easy as I had thought. So here you are.

SDG stands for Soli Deo Gloria: the Latin for ‘Glory to God alone’. The background to it is that during the Protestant Reformation the theology of the Reformers came to be summarised in the five solas. These are:

  • Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
  • Solus Christus – Christ Alone
  • Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
  • Sola Fide – Faith Alone
  • Soli Deo Gloria – The Glory of God Alone

The ‘alone’ bit refers to the fact that the Reformers felt that the church of their time had added to these truths and so it was important to ‘get back to basics’. I would have thought the meaning of all five were reasonably obvious but there are a number of websites that will give you text and verse on all of them. The last of the five – Soli Deo Gloria – was I suppose a bit of a dig against the medieval church’s glorying in ceremonies, the priesthood and the Pope. (Lest I be accused of anti-Catholicism here, let me point out that since the time of the Reformation a number of Protestants have managed to very successfully swing the spotlight off the glory of God and onto themselves. But I name no names; I don’t want to be preached against on the God Channel.)

Anyway it’s a rich phrase. In fact, my younger son so likes it he has it tattooed on his arm. (It’s his body not mine.)

I have a soft spot for it because the great Johann Sebastian Bach signed off almost all his own works with the same three letter motif.

So I am in good company. Of course, by adding SDG, not simply as a motto but as something that is meant, I was of course asking that God be praised, not me. That’s a bit tricky as I am no different from anybody else and actually rather like praise. But I suppose it was also, in a sense, a commending of the whole artistic enterprise into the divine hands. In effect, over to you Lord. Amen.

Have a good week.

Software I use

By , 4 July 2008 6:42 pm

Just occasionally I get asked various things about the technicalities of writing and what software I use. Unsurprisingly, I do the final editing of anything in Word, which seems to have become the universal format for documents. But for what it’s worth – and it isn’t a lot – let me tell you about a couple of favourites for writing.

The first of these is the flawed-but-when-it-works-absolutely-wonderful Dragon Naturally Speaking speech recognition program by Nuance software. Once you have trained the software, you put on the microphone and click the little icon on the desktop and then speak away. And after an initial pause your words start to appear on the screen with the barest minimum of delay. I’d say the accuracy is around 95%, maybe 98%. Or at least for me. I have a fairly deep voice and speak standard English: for higher frequency voices and people with pronounced accents I don’t know what the rate would be. But it gives me the ability to input text as fast as the best typist and allows me to keep going for several hours if I need to.

It is not perfect: for some obscure reason it really doesn’t like the word ‘because’; it is resource intensive and for me only works well with 3 Gb of RAM and even here I try to close down most other background programs. But it’s the only way I can manage to do a blog at the end of a long and wearying week. One curiosity is that unlike dictating to a human, the most satisfactory results are to be had by speaking in a slow, deliberate, monotone. So if you are writing something thrilling you have to not reveal the excitement in your voice or the computer will get confused. Weird! Anyway I recommend it, but I’m hoping that the next version will be better.

A second software package is probably less well-known and one that I have only just acquired. It is a program called PageFour by the splendidly named Bad Wolf Software. Let me simply repeat how it describes itself: “PageFour is a tabbed word processor and outliner for creative writers. Where other word processors were designed with the business user in mind, PageFour aims to meet the needs of a different class of writer. It does not improve your prose or make you a better writer – only you can do that, but PageFour does make your job just that little bit easier.”

That’s pretty much it. It’s a fairly basic and pared down word processor coupled with a fine outlining/card file element. So if I’m writing a book and I want to access information on a place or a person I shift the mouse over a mini-directory in the corner and call up the relevant note. This database type of thing is of course something that Word manifestly fails to do. The PageFour program is not terribly expensive and if you’re thinking about writing a novel you could do far worse. There is a programme for the Mac called Scrivener which does pretty much the same thing, but in a slightly more stylish fashion. The problem is, these wonderful tools notwithstanding, at the end of the day you still have to get down and write.

Now a word of warning. Our elder son and his dear wife are due to have their first baby very soon. When the event happens we will head on up to see them, and as a result, dear reader, this blog may hang fire for several days. We have also got some holiday occurring at some point and – trusting soul that I am – I am not going to announce the dates on the blog. So over the next six weeks or so this blog may be slightly interrupted and posting your comments may be delayed. Never mind: all being well I will be back.

Have a good week.

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