Ludgate Circus

The Tate Britain has, as you probably know, a permanent ‘Walk Through British Art’ exhibition, which occupies a large number of rooms divided over periods, often by individual decade. The last time I visited I spent most of my time in the 1900-themed room.

What intrigued me most and caught my imagination was that these works were all done in an era when British imperial power was reaching its apex (all those pink countries on the map), and yet just a few years before the world would come to know devastation and change on an unprecedented scale: the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II and the advent of the atomic age, to name but a few significant events.

The artists knew nothing of what was to come.  The paintings and sculptures of those early years of the 1900’s largely exude an air of bright confidence and optimism.  The tender and powerful Ecstasy by Eric Gill, Furse’s Diana of the Uplands in silky white dress and flowered hat walking her dogs, the Mountains of Moab by John Singer Sargent casting a golden glow about the far reaches of empire.  Why, even Albert Rutherston’s Laundry Girls somehow maintain a ruddy-cheeked contentment as they go about their tedium (the models were actually vegetable sellers from a local market stall).

But it was a London painting that held my attention the longest.  Ludgate Circus by Jacques-Emile Blanche, painted circa 1910, to my mind perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the times.

Ludgate Circus: Entrance to the City (November, Midday), c. 1910, Jacques-Emile Blanche

See the lively city bathed in autumn sunshine.  The men in their top-hats and jackets, the women in bright flowing gowns.  See the few remaining horses and carriages jostling for space with bright red, new-fangled, motorised buses.  A steam-powered train – one of the enduring icons of British ingenuity and industry – crosses Ludgate Hill railway bridge (only in recent times demolished to make way for Thameslink).  And in the distance, presiding serenely over the hubbub of the streets, St. Paul’s, rising again from the billows of London’s smoke, already a phoenix-like emblem of the city’s resilience long before any Nazi bomb was to worry the heads of its proud congregants.

They never saw it coming.

That within 10 years 18 million people would die and 23 million would be wounded in the Great War; that a hopeful Roaring 20’s rebound would be immediately quashed by years of economic uncertainty and suffering, followed again by the most catastrophic warfare and genocide the world has ever seen, where an astounding 60 million people would die.  A young person stepping forward into adulthood on that sunny midday in November of 1910 could never have imagined that the greater part of their most vital, productive years would be given over to so much collective pain and destruction.  The bright amiability of Blanche’s painting seems hauntingly shallow and naive looking back with the hindsight of today.

Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t now on the cusp of the same kind of human tragedy, an era where everything changes comprehensively.  When we witness even the early manifestations of global climate change – the fires, the hurricanes, the droughts,  when we read of the mass extinction of mammal and plant species across the globe, when even the insect population – those creatures that account for two-thirds of all life on earth – now appears to have dropped unprecedentedly in the past 30 years; when we take all this into account can we disagree with those who say the earth is entering a new epoch in its history, the Anthropocene Epoch, whose hallmarks are largely determined not by geology or the elements but more directly by human behaviour?  A topic for another time, perhaps; but I am quite sure that the world my grand-children are being born into is already vastly different than the one I knew as a child.

Shall we touch on the Scriptures?  We probably should.  They contain much of the wisdom of human experience, for all the ages.

The people of Asia Minor, with Ephesus particularly in focus, were faced with a completely unexpected paradigm shift.  The Romans and the Greek-speaking populations had long ascribed spiritual power and well-being to a pantheon of (mostly) helpful gods and goddesses.  The Jews living among them held to the rituals of the Law of Moses and service to a single, Almighty God.  And there was plenty of folk religion too, people turning to all sorts of self-declared holy men and women, relying as they did on incantations and dark arts to tap the power of the unseen world.

And along comes a man named Paul, in Acts chapter 19, teaching that the Almighty God of the Jews has recently been revealed in human form by a common but extraordinary man named Jesus, and that this man – having been executed and rising again in glory – now reigns in unity with God, sharing greater authority than every other claimant to spiritual allegiance.  Not only that, but Paul puts good to his claims with a string of remarkable demonstrations of curative powers, exorcising evil spirits and healing the sick in the name of Jesus, and generally threatening the livelihoods of the local holy men and women, who were accustomed to charging good money for their efforts.

In essence, a new age had dawned, significant life change had arrived, and the people of Ephesus were faced with a decision about how to respond.

What did they do?  They reacted as humankind has always done: with a variety of approaches.  Some couldn’t even contemplate the new thing: they were happy enough to dis Paul and his nascent religion, boot him out of their sphere and get back to what they knew.  Others believed they might combine a new allegiance with the old: they tried to co-opt Paul’s teaching, picking and choosing the bits they liked (the parts they could make a living from) and grafting the new onto the old.  Still others saw the new thing as an existential threat; the best thing to do was to rip it out, root and all: let’s kill Paul and his followers and be done with it.

And finally, some accepted Paul’s message for what it was, a new way of understanding the movement of God, finding it to be Good News, and embracing the new paradigm of Christ.


“If we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.”


No matter what you believe is factual in this story, it does beg the question: What is our response when God unexpectedly breaks into our life in a new way?  What do we do when we are confronted with a message that might well threaten our long-held allegiances and ways of thinking but also holds out the promise of new vitality and purpose?

Nowhere do the scriptures indicate that when God finished the work of creating the earth, God was done with creation.  Time marches on, history changes things, God is never done with God’s work.

And if we are truly made in the image of God then to have gained a greater understanding of the character and purposes of the divine means that we will have gained a greater understanding of ourselves.

What will we do?  Cling to the old?  Or move with God and our fresh perspective into the new day, whatever that day may bring.

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For people of all faiths…and those of none.

Anyone who takes the time to survey the world of airport chaplaincy with anything more than a passing interest will soon discover that there are as many different varieties of chaplaincy as there are airports. Every airport has a unique set of characteristics: its physical location, size, the nature of local businesses, passenger & cargo ratios, management structure, national significance, and on and on. All of these factors play into the response formulated by local faith communities when meeting the need for a presence at the airport.

And of course, the most fundamental questions to be addressed are all about people. Who works at the airport? Who travels through it? What is the faith experience – if any – of these individuals? What kind of spiritual and emotional support might they value when they are at work or traveling? What can the chaplaincy bring that enhances the atmosphere for both passengers and personnel?

In a place like London Heathrow Airport, the response to these questions must surely include a Multi Faith dimension. Each and every chaplain and volunteer is there for the benefit of people of all faiths, and those of none. In an hour of need we cannot discriminate by creed or colour, or by any other category of humanity. Insofar as we are able, and the individual will allow, each chaplain will do their utmost to be of some meaningful assistance. It goes almost without saying that Heathrow, one of the world’s most prominent international airports, located within the boundaries of a hugely diverse and multi-cultural city, should rightly have a chaplaincy corps which reflects the broad strokes of that diversity.

Chaplains are not Lone Rangers, or shouldn’t be. They are not self-appointed and self-sponsored do-gooders, hobbyists and clerical aviation-geeks merely indulging a personal interest. No, they are properly vetted representatives of local faith communities or societies for non-religious world-views, giving hands and feet and heart to express the collective interest in promoting the common good. Chaplains are an extension of our broader society and thus a mirror of its diversity.

Does this mean we lose our distinctiveness or that we gloss over our differences? No, we cannot afford to be either naïve or sentimental; we embrace instead a more mature and measured dialogue than is, sadly, often witnessed between members of our faith groups in other forums. Whilst maintaining our own identity we must choose to focus on those things that unite us rather than those that divide us.

And there is plenty that unites us. All people, no matter their creed, know something about the importance of compassion and care in time of need. All major faiths and philosophies espouse doing good to one’s neighbour. And holy scriptures throughout history have drawn on the lessons of pilgrimage, of the importance of the journey, a theme that resonates deeply in the setting of an international airport.

Multi-faith airport chaplaincy is not about the promotion of religion; it is about the simple recognition that people everywhere take their faith with them when they travel or go to work. The chaplain is present as a resource to encourage them in finding value and meaning as they make their own life journey.

Jude

The year I spent in Texas was pretty much the worst year of my life.

Reed Junior High School had an Eighth Grade class of over 500 students – the school I moved away from had 20 – and I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of it, confused as well by a Texas culture that made no sense to me and upset that my parents would willfully uproot our family and bring us to this outlandish place.

We settled in Duncanville, a sprawling southern suburb of Dallas, in a rancher on Peach Street, part of a 1960s development with small but pleasant enough houses, rentals mostly.  The walk to school took about twenty minutes and brought me up to Vinyard Road at the edge of the neighbourhood – yes, Vinyard, not Vineyard – a street with a mystery to its name and characterized by larger lots and older, not always well-maintained, properties.

I don’t recall the first time I met Jude; it was his dogs who befriended me.

As I passed his run-down house early one September morning, the dogs, resting on the front porch, raised their old greying heads to eyeball me, then got their stiff legs under them enough to come padding slowly down the overgrown lawn, huffing and wagging their friendly greeting.  They were mongrels, of course, old and rotund, looking as if they might have some Lab and German Shepherd in their lineage.  They licked my hands, happily grunting and smiling, circling around until, as if by some secret signal or pre-determined agreement, in unison they abruptly ended the ceremony and headed back to the porch, throwing themselves down in their respective places and nodding off again, tired already from the social exertion.

Their names, as I learned later from Jude, were Obesitas and Katastrophe.

“Obi! Kati!” Jude would yell, himself barely visible in the darkened room behind the screen door, “Saviour Christ Almighty, git y’r asses back up here on the porch and leave that poor kid alone!”  Then the door would fly open and out he would come, maneuvering his wheelchair across the porch with remarkable speed and agility.

Jude’s legs were amputated above the knee.  He wore faded denim vests over white T-shirts, wire-rimmed glasses, and had long grey hair which he pulled back in a pony-tail. He was almost always surrounded by a sweet, grassy fragrance, something I only later in life came to recognize as weed.  It was impossible for me to tell his age, the wrinkles of his face being contradicted by his lean, strong arms.

It wasn’t long before the pattern of my homeward afternoon treks became punctuated with stops at Jude’s house, sitting on the top step of the porch with Obesitas and Katastrophe, Jude – having learned my preferences – fetching me a can of Mountain Dew from his fridge, pairing it with a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as he educated me in all things Texas.  Many times, though, the house was quiet when I passed by, and occasionally there was a bright red pick-up truck parked out front.  From the front room came the deep, resonant voice of an unknown man in conversation with Jude.

The red pick-up was there again when, on a crisp February day, pulling the collar of my leather fleece jacket closer to my neck, I turned the corner and saw the flashing lights of paramedics parked outside Jude’s house.  I crossed the street to stand on the far side, not wanting to be in the way, not wanting to be too close to what was happening, appreciating that no-one else knew Jude was my friend.

There was a dark sedan there too, and another pick-up parked alongside, a white one with a canopy and meshed wire doors at the back.  Through the lattice, watching me in sad silence, I saw the long faces of Obi and Kati.  The whole scene was eerily quiet: four vehicles cluttered at the edge of the lawn, one with flashing white lights, and not a living soul to be seen, except the two dogs, heads bowed in dreadful, knowing expectation as they took it all in.

Presently the front door creaked open and a paramedic emerged pulling a stretcher, helped by a colleague on the other end, and carrying what must have been Jude’s remains, covered by a light blanket.  They expertly loaded the gurney into the ambulance, slammed the doors shut and drove away silently, the flashing lights switching off half-way down the block.

Another man emerged, this one wearing a tan khaki shirt and dark jacket with a City of Duncanville badge embroidered on the front.  Just as silently, he got in the white pick-up and drove away in the opposite direction.  I watched until he reached the intersection and the dogs disappeared from sight.

I wasn’t sure what to do now.  I wanted to go home, felt I should, but at the same time knew that doing so would somehow be a betrayal of the budding friendship I had with Jude.

Before long the two remaining men made their way outside, the older one pausing to lock the door behind them before they stood together for a moment taking their leave, the younger man in dress clothes finally initiating a handshake, then marching to the dark sedan and speeding off.  What remained was the shiny red pick-up truck and an older man.  He looked as big and strong as a bear.

He saw me across the street and stopped, considering.  Then, his mind made up, he came to me, exuding an air of authority that made it impossible for me to move.

“Hi, son,” he said, “you’re the young man who’s been stopping in to see Jude, am I right?”  Yes, it was that deep voice I had heard before, coming from Jude’s front room.

He knew he was right, but I confirmed it anyway: “Yessir,” I replied, adding eagerly, “I didn’t mean to pry, I just…wondered what was happening.”

“Rex,” he said, extending a baseball mitt sized hand.  I shook it, feeling even smaller than my 13 years, and told him my name.

“Well, son, it’s a sorry business, but I suspect you’ve figured it out by now.  Comes a day when we all have to meet our maker.  Did you know Jude well?”

“He was nice,” I said, not knowing how to answer. “The nicest person in the neighbourhood, if you ask me.”

Rex looked down at me; I could see he was deliberating about what should come next.

“That’s good of you to say,” he said, lowering his voice.  “I thought so too, though I reckon there are mighty few folk around here who would agree with you.”

“How do you mean?” I countered.  I couldn’t imagine anyone having anything bad to say about Jude and his two friendly dogs.

“Son, why don’t you hop in my truck for a bit, get out of the cold, and I’ll tell you all about our man Jude; probably best if you know the rest of the story.”

Jude, it seems, had in his early years been a particularly successful Dallas businessman.  He had it all, as they say – a high-powered job, a glamorous wife, a mansion of a house and a fleet of fast cars.  Then his wife became ill with a mysterious ailment, the doctors were at a loss, and ultimately she was left paralyzed below the waist.  She became depressed and weary of life, losing her sparkling personality and gaining much weight.  Jude couldn’t handle it; he despised who she had become.  He divorced her, the settlement making provision for her to be cared for in a home.

“And about six months later Jude and I met for the first time,” said Rex.  “Not really ideal circumstances, you could say.  You see, son, I’m the former Fire Chief of this city – retired now – and one day a call came in for a Corvette that had crashed and flipped out on Highway 67, threatening to burst into flames.  It was Jude.  Drunk and going way too fast.  Both his legs were caught when the engine block got pushed back into the footwell and in the end there was just no saving them.  Double amputation, the very next day.”

Obesitas and Katastrophe.  I kept my thoughts to myself.

“Anyway,” Rex sighed, “I fell into visiting Jude in the hospital, kind of felt sorry for him in spite of his shortcomings, and the visits never stopped. Well, until now, I guess.”  He went silent, staring out the windshield.

“What about the dogs?” I whispered, more to myself than to him.

Rex stirred.  “They’ll be put down,” he said, as gently as he could.  “Hell, they were in the pound waiting to be put down when Jude rescued them in the first place.  He loved them back to life and happiness, gave ’em a few extra years they couldn’t rightly expect to have, but there ain’t nobody gonna want two old hounds like that, ‘specially with such odd-ball names.  There comes a time when a stream has run its course, when the story comes to its proper end.  But I’m pretty sure, now everything is said and done, they will all finally rest in peace.”

 

Random II

Uxbridge bus station exchange: Three women animatedly speaking Polish. A young man has had enough and approaches them: “Speak f*cking English!” he says loudly. The women stop, quietly sizing him up together. Then they turn back to each other and one says to the others, but loud enough for all to hear: “F*cking English.” They have a laugh and continue on their merry Polish way.  I guess he asked for it.

***

Last week a young couple checked themselves out of their flight and called the ambulance services. The concern? On changing the diaper of their baby boy they discovered his ‘crown jewels’ to be smaller than normal. The ambulance crew, eyes rolling, pointed out that the weather was considerably cooler than it has been till now and their little bundle of joy wasn’t quite dressed warmly enough. Flight missed; parenting skills improved. Another day at the airport.

***

After clearing my head with a walk out to Terminal 2B, having a cup of coffee and a think, I headed back toward the main terminal and my desk at the Chapel office. Taking a staff elevator, pressing my ID pass against the keypad, I descended from Departures to Arrivals, and turned the corner into the long underground corridor leading toward Immigration and Baggage Reclaim. And then I remembered: as I was finishing my coffee I had seen an Egyptair 777 pulling up to its stand.

The corridor was packed with Middle Eastern travellers, many clad, appropriately, in various forms of robes, kaftans, and long loose dresses. Pilgrims perhaps, heading home after the festivities. I joined the throng, choosing to walk on the tile floor rather than be carried along on the “travelator”, the motorized walkway beside. Soon I was caught up behind a slower moving elderly woman. I slowed my pace, in no real hurry to get back.

Following along behind her, my eye caught sight of a man farther ahead, also elderly and in white robes, walking slowly on the travelator: now and then he would turn to check the progress of the woman in front of me, his weathered face bright with an enthusiastic grin. At one point he gave her a reassuring wave and a toothy smile, careful not to lose his balance as he turned.

I understood: No doubt when the option of automated Walkway or No Walkway had presented itself to this elderly couple, Abu had enthusiastically embraced the motorized opportunity, whereas Um had steered decidedly clear of the innovative contraption.

Never mind; as I looked ahead again, the man had reached the end of the first walkway and paused in the space before the next one, waiting for the woman to catch up. Eventually we caught up, him smiling, her shaking her head, smiling inwardly at his boyish enthusiasm.

And then ever so discreetly and fleetingly, as they turned to walk on, he reached out to hold her hand, for just a few steps, and let go again. As we approached the beginning of the next section, he veritably skipped onto the travelator, smiling broadly, glancing behind him again as he sped ahead and as she continued to gently shake her head.

Love, tenderness, companionship, enjoyment of one’s partner: the same in every land.

Of Brexit, Trump and Kings of Old

Were they kings, the men who followed the star from the East to honour the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?  Or were they merely a rabble of starry-eyed astrologers?  The Gospel of Matthew marks them down as ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’; obscure, yes, but with status or exotic qualities enough to win them temporary fame in all Jerusalem and an audience with the king.

This Gospel story comes to us from the synagogue period of Christian history when followers of ‘the Way’ of Jesus were, in the provinces of Palestine at least, primarily Jews.  These Jewish Christians, still members of their local non-Christian congregations, began to see the scriptures with new eyes, discerning in them a presumed meta-narrative, one that transcended the multiple authors, genres, and eras of the various manuscripts, a plot line which tied the canon of scripture together as one.  Hidden in the texts they found hints and fleeting glimpses of a figure whom they recognized as having been personified in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the story of the Magi they heard echoes of the prophecies of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…the wealth of the nations shall come to you…They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60.1-6).  Solomon too had predicted, “The kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts; all kings shall fall down before him , all nations shall do him service.  For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, the needy and those who have no helper.  He shall have pity on the weak and the poor” (Psalm 72.10-13).

The meta-narrative, the over arching story that bound together their heritage and their new-found faith in Christ continued its development in the later writings of the new testament, most especially in the visions of Paul and John and, as they understood it, went something like this: From one man, Adam, God created a family of diverse peoples among whom a Chosen People – a nation primus inter pares – whose history and society was meant to reveal the character and purposes of God; now – in a new age – through one man, Jesus Christ, God was gathering the complex identities of humanity together into a new society, a community of peoples whose diversity was fitted together like a multi-faceted jewel, the individual shape and angle of each facet adding to the brilliance of the whole.  On offer was an attractive alternative, an opposing vision to the Pax Romana, the world as they knew it, united by the blunt instruments of military conquest and unrelenting suppression.

And so, the Twelve Days of Christmas find their conclusion at the Feast of the Epiphany when the Church remembers the journey of the Three Kings and celebrates the manifestation, in baby Jesus, of the Christ, the long-awaited saviour for a world rent by division and lost in despair.  In the Christ child we look for the fulfillment of the ancient oracles.  We may quibble about whether the accounts of Jesus’ birth and early life are historically accurate or rather, on the other hand, the Gospels contain not only the parables of Jesus but also parables about him, but either way his central role in the story remains.

St Paul writes to the churches: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the non-Jewish peoples (Gentiles) have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise…so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known…” (Ephesians 3.9-10). And in the very last pages of our scriptures we find St. John’s vision of the heavenly city, of which he says, “The nations (lit. ‘ethnicities’) will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it…The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” (Revelation 21.24,26).

So here we are, two thousand years removed from the proclamation of the new age of Christ.  Our forebears, those who have gone before us in the faith, have not always succeeded in making this glorious vision a reality.  The Way of Jesus became Christianity and soon enough Christendom; what began as a counter-cultural movement of inclusion quickly morphed into the mainstream and gathered to itself both the selectivity and accoutrements of political power.  Converts, if one can call them that, came at times by the threat of the sword, entire peoples subjugated or colonized under the banner of Christian dominion, forced to give up the gifts their people had to bring to our new community, cultures lost forever on account of the false supposition that “to make disciples” meant to form them in our own image, not necessarily that of Christ.

Maria Pascua, an aboriginal of the Makah people who inhabit the furthest reaches of the northwestern United States writes: “I am a Christian; I am not sorry the missionaries came.  But I wish they had known how to let their news change peoples’ lives from the inside, without imposing their culture over our ways.  We have lost so much.”  (Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491; National Geographic Magazine, October 1991).

Not in all places, but in many, we find that the vision was lost of a Church composed of the beautiful diversity of humanity.

Which brings us to Anno Domini 2016; to Brexit, Trump and the year gone by.

Much has been made of the “protest vote” aspect of these surprising poll results.  Whether we can rightly attribute them to protest or not, the result is that many of the liberalizing policies of the last few decennia have suddenly and broadly been called to a halt.  Roger Cohen, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times concludes: “It is time to listen to the people who voted for change, be humble and think again. That, of course, does not mean succumbing to the hatemongers and racists among them: They must be fought every inch of the way. Nor does it mean succumbing to a post-truth society: Facts are the linchpins of progress. But so brutal a comeuppance [as delivered by Brexit and the US elections] cannot be met by more of the same.”

Thankfully the path of Christ allows for great liberty in the way we order our lives, both individually and in society; a genuine Christian faith can be lived at most points across the political spectrum.  What it does not allow is for us to abandon humility, compassion and sacrificial love for our neighbours, no matter what the colour of their skin or the language they speak at home. To be proud of our own people, to seek to protect our livelihoods and cultural heritage, insofar as these things bring honour to God, is good and right; the uniqueness of our people too is a blessing from God’s hand.  But to raise our own interests so high as to exclude those of others, to make love of nation the sole guiding light for our actions, ignoring the yet purer light of the Gospel – which is to love God first and to love our neighbours as ourselves – this is not the Way of Christ.

We, and all peoples, are equally invited to bring our gifts – the glory and honour of all nations – and bow our knee in worship before the Christ.

 

When the Commies Came to Play

The year, I’m guessing, was 1973.  And it must have been late in the year because I remember the threat of rain throughout the day; Brasilia’s dry season had come and gone.

At the Summer Olympics the year before, the USA men’s basketball team had suffered a controversial and ignominious defeat at the hands of the USSR during the final match in Munich.  The Soviet players went home with gold medals and the Americans went home with…nothing: they refused to attend the medal ceremony or even accept their silver medals which, nearly 45 years later, are still being held by the International Olympic Committee, awaiting a change of heart by Team USA.

But the early 1970s was also the height of détente, the slow thawing of Cold War relationships, chief among them those nations which held nuclear arsenals.  Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and US President Richard Nixon met in Washington in June 1973, one of the high-water marks of the process.

In that spirit, with the Americans still bruised and sulking about a basketball game, and yet both nations looking for opportunities for gestures of good will, someone at the US Embassy in Brasilia came up with the idea of challenging the Soviet Embassy to a friendly basketball game.  A rematch.  Our embassy staff against yours.

Surprisingly, the offer was engaged.

The capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, was largely built in the 1960s, and among its planned oddities – a city of half a million people laid out in the pattern of a giant airplane and having no traffic lights? – was the fact that the embassies were allocated space based on the perceived importance of each nation to the people of Brazil.  So the closest embassy to the centre of government is that of the Vatican.  The second closest is Portugal, the mother country.  Third and fourth are toss-ups:  the USA and USSR.  It would have been easy enough for the one group of diplomats to walk to the other embassy after work – the embassies are literally just across the street from each other – but of course that would mean playing the game on partisan soil.  What was needed was a neutral venue that came with a decent basketball court.

And so it was that the compound of SIL – the Summer Institute of Linguistics, where my father had his print shop and where we lived – came to host the USSR v USA Basketball Rematch, Diplomats Edition.

The Americans arrived first, mid-afternoon, filling up the parking lot with their Chevy Suburbans and spilling onto the lawns around the basketball court.  Their team was far from the pencil-pushers we had generally expected; instead, it seemed populated almost entirely with young US Marines, no doubt the security detachment at the embassy, led by a particularly tough and foul-mouthed officer.  They warmed-up with the regimental discipline so typical of American sports teams, doing exercises and drills in unison, looking for all the world like winners.

Time ticked on.  The USSR didn’t show, and the Americans grew both impatient and undiplomatic.  “Those Ruskies, they ain’t nothing but no-good, lying chickens; make a gesture of good will with them and see where it gets you….”  (These are only the more polite of the many comments which were vented.)

In the end the Commies did come.  Late in the afternoon, I and some of the other neighbourhood boys acting as scouts as we stood with our feet on the bottom strand of the wire fence at the edge of the compound, spied a single ZiL limousine stopped on the street below.  Soon a long line of similar ZiLs eased slowly up the street, pulling in behind the first car, and parking where they stood.  Up the pathway came the Soviet team and their supporters, and what was immediately obvious to all was that their security detachment had been left at home; to a man, these men really were middle-aged pencil-pushing diplomats.

The game was a farce. In no time the young American team was winning by double digits, running circles around their Soviet opponents.  But even in winning the Americans could not help but let the unsettled score of the Olympics goad them on to bad behaviour, the brash Marine officer repeatedly picking fights for no apparent reason, glad to have an excuse to let loose another stream of expletives.  One by one, red-faced, huffing and puffing, the Soviet diplomats allowed themselves to be substituted by the SIL men who stood watching from the sidelines, my father – an American – included.

The teams shook hands at the end, the Americans exulting in their victory, high-fiving each other enthusiastically as they threw their gear into the Suburbans, driving off with horns honking in triumph.  The Soviets waited until the Americans were gone, thanked their hosts, and withdrew to their ZiLs, going as they came, disappearing around the corner in a long, dark uniform rank.

Travel Notes

When the wind blows from the North we can hear the train.

Not the thump-a-thump, thump-a-thump we heard as the carriages crossed the viaduct at the end of the street in the Czar Peter neighbourhood of Amsterdam, when the bedroom windows stood futilely open on hot summer nights; nor even the vague and distant rumble of the Canadian Pacific, now in Abbotsford, British Columbia, when the traffic at the corner had finally gone to bed, leaving the throb of massive diesel engines and myriad steel wheels to roll up to us from the Matsqui prairie, mixing gently with our dreams.  No, here the Chiltern Railways up Ruislip way sounds more akin to someone sliding a dinner plate across a stainless steel counter, a long metallic swoosh drawing ever away, disappearing into silence.

What did travel first sound like to me?

Perhaps it was the comforting two-stoke knock of the Recreio, the reliable Amazonian riverboat that would fetch us from the mission station in the pre-dawn darkness, tying up briefly at the flutuante, the mantels of the Coleman lanterns casting white-hot light across the dock as the assorted luggage and goods of the locals – homemade hammocks, pods of Brazil nuts, large smoky balls of real rubber – were quickly loaded aboard, headed upriver to the markets at Manaus and onward to the world beyond.

Later, as a teenager in Brasilia, bed-time coincided with the last flight from BSB, a VASP Boeing 727 whose Pratt & Whitney engines emitted an almighty scream as it climbed for the clouds, headed north over the planalto. I would pull the sheet up over my head in a vain attempt to fend off the mosquitos, and dream of far-away places.

The other day, descending the stairs of a London double-decker, pitching this way and that as the bus drew up to the stop, I pushed my way through the crowd of fellow commuters and stepped out into the roar of the airport. The smell of kerosene filled the air.  Looking East toward the rising sun I could see the ascending lights of five aircraft stacked up in their final approach; “Five times two”, I told myself, “ten miles of traffic I can see with the naked eye; and probably about a thousand passengers, all told.”

I never get over it.  How modern transport has so completely changed the world, how it has become so easy to move across the globe.  Ninety years ago, in 1927, my grandfather took his bride from Chicago to Seattle in a Ford Model T; upon arrival, my big-city grandmother didn’t like the look of the frontier town one bit, so they turned around and went home again.  The trip took three months.

Three of our daughters will be gathering in Edmonton, Alberta for Christmas this year, but we’ll be staying home in London.  Before the New Year we need to be in Amsterdam, where our fourth daughter is expecting a baby.  Oh well, I suspect we’ll all meet up again sometime next summer.

Where, I’m not yet sure; but really, does it matter?  Wherever it is, it’s less than a day away.