From A Resident Alien [letter 6]

Old letter

Letter 6 – aka 'The Inevitable Olympic Post'

Being away from home at this particular moment in history is unlucky.  When the Olympics was last held in Britain, my Dad was 3. It's entirely possible that I will not live to see another one. I'm missing out, and it's given me some thoughts which I'm now going to impose on you.

Firstly, I'll point out that I never really had any affection for my country until I moved away from it; I had to live in NZ to be glad to be British, & I had to live in Scotland to be at peace about being English. But now that I'm quite fond of it, I'm not there.

My thoughts stem from the Opening Ceremony. Danny Boyle told the story of modern Britain (albeit with a strong London slant) in a revolutionary new way: with honesty. The ceremony was messy, because we are quite messy; self-deprecating, because we are self-deprecating; and good, because actually, underneath it all, we're alright. It didn't pretend or make grand claims, it didn't lie or present a photoshopped image, and (most interestingly) it did it all from the perspective of regular people, such as those who live in East London.

Forging the olympic ring
But I was watching from afar. I think its fair to say that if America was to tell its story, the instinct would probably be to hop from one war to the next, by way of the Constitution, the Emancipation Declaration, and maybe the Moon landings.

But who America (or any country) really is can't feasibly be expressed from the perspective of politicians and institutions. It's the narrative of normal life – families, friends, jobs, pastimes, religions, social movements – that brings us closer to where identity lies.

So when Danny Boyle showed the rustic idyll industrialized, with large-scale destruction of traditional community and culture through urbanization, it made me think about the Native Americans and the emigration of the nations to the New World. When he showed Pankhurst and the suffragettes, I thought of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

I started to see social history parallels everywhere:

– the Children's Literature section = Disney & Hollywood
– the Youth Culture bit = rock & roll to hip-hop; Chuck Berry to Chuck D
– the 7/7 memorial section = 9/11 etc.

We share a lot of parallel social flux, highs and lows.  Just as watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony hopefully helped Americans see that Britain is not just Big Ben, Stonehenge, and Royal Weddings, it helped me to think in more human-sized terms about this big ole lump called America.

It also made me a bit sad, because when most people in the world (including Americans) think of the States, they tend to focus on BIG things like politics, corporations, and conflicts; while forgetting native culture, nervous emigrants, toiling farmers, creative artists, fishermen, truck-drivers, house-wives, and kids playing in the street.

But as in Danny Boyle's Britain, the real story is often elsewhere.


From A Resident Alien [letter 5]

WorthybooksLetter 5

I often dream that, one day, people will want to quote me.  But to provide a break from (and, possibly, a contrast with) my own opinions, this communiqué will consist of the words of others.

So sit back and wallow through these quotations.  Some I agree with, some I don't; some funny, some 'worthy'; all hopefully expressive of the funny little country in which I now live.  Next week we shall return to my own cutting insights.

America, thou half-brother of the world; with something good and bad of every land.

In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs forever and ever.

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves
not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price,
safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.

America is the most grandiose experiment the world has seen
but, I am afraid, it is not going to be a success…
Yes, America is gigantic, but a gigantic mistake.

Food, one assumes, provides nourishment,
but Americans eat fully aware that small amounts of poison have been added
to improve its appearance and delay its putrefaction.

It's the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented.
They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it,
and how to look how you feel about it.

Old Hollywood Vanity - Annex - Harlow, Jean (Dinner at Eight)_03

In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world.

Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that,
despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years,
many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.

The chief business of the American people is business.


Too many of us look upon Americans as dollar chasers.
This is a cruel libel, even if it is reiterated thoughtlessly by the Americans themselves.

Lisa, if you don't like your job you don't strike.
You just go in every day, and do it really half-assed. That's the American way.

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they've tried everything else.

America is a large, friendly dog in a very small room.
Every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair.

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before.
An American is a person who does things because they haven't been done before.

I've come to think of Europe as a hardcover book, America as the paperback version.

Americans have a taste for…rocking-chairs.
A flippant critic might suggest that they select rocking-chairs so that,
even when they are sitting down,
they need not be sitting still.


Britain: The Multi-Ethnic

Like all people of class, style, and virtue, I've been watching the Tour de France from a young age – 1986 was my first, when I was 5, and 1987 (when Stephen Roche won) had me absolutely glued.  So it's no surprise that this year's event, with it's first British winner and seven stage wins, has been at the forefront of my mind.

Four members of the GB Olympic team won stages – Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, David Millar, and Mark Cavendish – and, in the words of Millar, "We're British, we're clean, and we're dominating the Tour de France!"

Yay the British.  But there's something I've been noticing about these Brits – read these details.

Bradley Wiggins
Born: Ghent, Belgium
Parentage: Australian & British
Passport: UK

Chris Froome
Born: Nairobi, Kenya
[and educated in South Africa]
Parentage: South African & British
Passport: UK

David Millar
Born: Mtarfa, Malta
[and brought up in Hong Kong]
Parentage: British
Passport: UK

Mark Cavendish
Born: Douglas, Isle of Man
Parentage: Manx and British
Passport: UK

I think this is interesting: very representative of Britain as a country, and of British sport in particular.  We are a nation that, in its bones, is international – in my family alone, there is Irish, Cornish, Norman, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and German (if not more) – and can make no claims to any kind of ethnic or nationalistic 'purity'.  We are a mongrel people: a country of countries; a people of peoples.

And, amidst all the hoo-harr about 'Plastic Brits' representing us at the Olympics, I think it's important to remember that it's always been like this.  For a long time, when most of the skin was white and the surnames didn't sound alien, no one noticed, but now that you have names like Luol Deng (Sudanese-born), Mo Farah (Somali), Yamile Aldama (Cuban), people are taking more note.  Well let them.  It might help us recognise who we are.

From A Resident Alien [letter 4]

LetterwritingLetter 4

It's always the best of times and the worst of times.  Always.

Even when we are at our lowest, the poetics of melancholy are with us and the seeds of future joy are being sown; and when we are on top of the world, the world is seeking and discovering new ways to be on top of us.  Sun is the bringer of death and drought, as well as fruitfulness and fun.  Etc.etc.

A little story:

When I was little – four or five – I had a jumper that I loved.  I wanted to wear it every day, and got upset when it needed washing.  It was the best thing ever.

Then, one day, I found that it had a hole in it.  I was mortified, horrified.  But my wonderful Mum stepped up to the sewing plate to mend the rend, and hugged me in the meantime.  So I had my jumper back, and all was well.

And then another hole, then another.  The truth: my jumper was getting too small for me.  I couldn't wear it anymore.

But I kept it.  I couldn't just throw it away, could I?  So I held on to it.

Why I'm telling you this:

The process of getting orientated to a new place (new friends, new currency, new culture, new priorities, new vocabulary, new paper-size, new climatic conditions, new systems, new radio stations, new wildlife, new food, new political climate, new geography) is uncomfortable.  It's a new piece of clothing, replacing something closer to my taste, style, preference.

The tempting thing is to cling on to what I've left behind.

I did this when I left Hertfordshire, where I grew up.  I remember sitting in the middle of the Bush in Zimbabwe, with only antelope and savannah for company, LONGING to be back in a commuter town in England in midwinter.  I also did it when I left Sheffield after Uni, when I left New Zealand in 2006, and when we left Edinburgh in 2009, as well as on every occasion when I have been torn apart from my friends of The Factory.

And now I'm doing it after leaving my beloved homeland.

So while, in many ways, these are the best of times – really good things happening with great new people, and foundations possibly being laid for the next decades of life – they are also the worst of times.

Like a new pair of shoes that are giving me blisters.


[To read previous letters, go here, here, and here.]

Following the Followers

You may know this already and all, but one of the better parts of being on Twitter is the number of feeds dedicated to passing on the wisdom of the ages.  For example, I follow @philo_quotes, through which I have become (more) familiar with Nietszche, Aquinas, Cicero, Augustine, and a tonne of others.

I also subscribe to tweeted quotations from Henri Nouen, Charles Spurgeon, GK Chesterton, Brother Lawrence, CS Lewis and so on, while doing my bit by sharing proverbs original to Middle Earth @TolkienProverbs.

But today I wanted to mention a grumpy German monk: Thomas a Kempis.

I won't talk a lot about him, or offer theories or commentaries, but I'm going to list a few things that have reached me this week via @TomKempis, which are a blessing in the travails of a pilgrim in a foreign land.

When the grace of God comes to a man he can do all things,
but when it leaves he becomes poor and weak, abandoned, as it were, to affliction.

Calmly bear what befalls you in praise of Jesus Christ,
for after winter comes summer; after night, day;
and after the storm, a great calm.

If consolation is taken away, do not at once despair but wait humbly and patiently,
since God can restore to you more abundant solace.

I have never met a man so religious and devout
that he has not experienced at some time a withdrawal of grace and felt a lessening of fervor.

 "To him that overcometh," says Christ, "I will give to eat of the Tree of Life."



From A Resident Alien [letter 3]

Letter 3

Greetings from a land where 90°F is a cool day and English gentlemen like me are forced to wear shorts.  Every day.  Highly inappropriate, but these are the trials I face.

NEWS: I have a job!  A small one, but a job.

St Michael's Church have asked me to contribute to/take over responsibility for the music in their contemporary service.  So I wanted to tell you about St Michael's.

The above picture is from 1865, of a downtown Charleston that had been gutted by Civil War artillary and by fire.  By that time, St Michael's had already been there for over a century, and has provided an unchanging constant ever since.

Any tourist or historic guide to the city will mention St Michael's in the first five pages; it's a fixed point in a changing world.  Today, it serves an incredibly wealthy parish, but has managed to keep itself from being either a museum or just a nice place for nice people to be seen.  If you're into your ecclesiastics, you'd probably class it as a liturgical charismatic evangelical church, with four functioning congregations (I went to them all on Sunday).

Now, America is not overly in love with old stuff – things are not generally built to last here.  You can tell this when looking for somewhere to live (as we are), since the fact that when a house was built over 20 years ago it is automatically a risky prospect.  Buildings are knocked down and redeveloped here as a matter of course, and 'old' is generally a negative adjective.

But downtown Charleston is an exception to that, with its meticulously preserved 18th Century housing, its mule-and-buggy carriages, and its old-time interbellum feel.  And St Michael's.  Maybe it is primarily for tourism purposes, but the contrast to the knock-it-down-and-start-again ethic of so many American cities means that it offers something different.  Old is valuable here.

As part of preparing to move to the States, I listened to a bunch of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon monologues: stories of traditional life in a traditional backwater small-town; reminiscences of a bygone age, a bit like reading Tom Sawyer.  And then, on Saturday, I turned on the radio and there it was again: the news from Lake Wobegon.  Still going, still 'traditional', 'backward', 'out-of-date', but very lovely, very American, and definitely happening NOW.

And that is something I feel this country is dealing with at the moment: the tension between being a forward-looking, energetic young country of immigrants, and the fact that it is built on the bedrock of 18th Century social philosophy, conservative faith, and pre-industrial liberalism.  It's a wrestle between the old and the new, and St Michael's is almost an image of that wrestle to me.

And that's what I've been thinking about this week 🙂

From A Resident Alien [letter 2]

Antique letterLetter 2

The vast majority of Americans are here because, somewhere in their family story, somebody took a risk.  As a result, this country is peopled by the dynamic go-getters of the nations; those who were dissatisfied with their lot and willing to do something about it, by leaving their communities, their cultures, their land, their heritage, and heading out across the sea.*

Accordingly, the DNA of the States is overwhelmingly of a self-reliant, entrepreneurial, independent, work-hard-and-you'll-get-there kind.  It tends to look forward rather than backward, it sets goals and goes all out to achieve them, and admires people who do these things.  Plus, many Americans BELIEVE in America, in a way that is very hard to comprehend for us cynical Old Worlders who got left behind.

But I didn't come to America because of religious persecution, famine, war, or boredom.  So far I've lived, with varying degrees of happiness, in Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, Zimbabwe, Yorkshire (again), Bay of Plenty, Auckland, Edinburgh, Devon, and Cornwall, so moving here is more in the line of one-more-step-along-the-path than some big existential leap.  I came because of family, arrived with no job to go to, and am one of the least achievement-oriented people I know.

America is not my Messiah, nor my Promised Land.

I'm a bit alien, really.  

What do I do with that?  Do I assimilate, taking on the habits, views, and objectives of my host nation?  Do I intentionally go the opposite direction, seeking to be a (prophetic) voice, intent on praising and criticizing whatever I see, whenever I see it?  Or do I go hybrid, picking and choosing (like the postmodern whatsit that I am), setting up the State of David, and asserting full states' rights?

These are some of my questions this week.

Read Letter 1 here.

*The obvious and noteable exceptions to this generalization are the Native Americans and the descendents of slaves.  I'll get onto them, but maybe not today.

Psalm 20:7-8 [Much Amplified Version]

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, 
But we trust in the name of the Lord our God. 
They are brought to their knees and fall, 
But we rise up and stand firm.
Psalm 20:7-8 

Egyptian chariot and horses
I used to write a lot of songs and poems while in church services – partly because I have been blessed with a short attention span, and therefore have a mind wandering in several directions almost constantly – but not for a good few years.

Apropos of nothing, it started up again last Sunday, and I wrote the below Psalm extension the day before yesterday at St Peter's, Mt Pleasant.

Some trust in horses and in chariots
But I will trust in You
Some trust in careers and in salaries
But I will trust in You
Some trust in sex or in relationships
But I will trust in You

Some trust in governments and in laws
But I will trust in You
Some trust in ideologies and philosophies
But I will trust in You
Some trust in ethics and in religion
But I will trust in You 

And there are some who trust in nobody but themselves
And I don't want to be one of them either;
I will trust in You