Five Years

It's now just over five years since I first arrived in Cardiff , and since I started keeping this blog. That's a big chunk of my life, and over that time I've grown and changed a lot, leaving home and becoming independent of my parents, studying for my degree, starting my working life, and most recently getting married to my wonderful wife.

My sister Hannah has just started as a student in Cardiff, and is even in the same halls as me. It's strange to notice all the different ways that her experience will be different to mine. When I arrived as a student, there was no Facebook, and no Internet access in my halls of residence. But now many of the students arrive having already made contact with their flatmates online, and when they arrive, describe what they're up to on their Facebook statuses, which makes it very different from turning up not knowing anything about the people you'll be living with.

One of the odd little bits of synchronicity is that the house that Bev and I now rent belongs to a friend, and back in my first couple of years as a student, I came round here every week for Navigators Bible studies. Little did I know that I would one day be living here with my wonderful wife!

If there was one piece of advice I could give to myself five years ago, it would be this: pick one or two things to commit to, and do them really well, rather than doing a dozen things half-heartedly. I loved being involved with so many different activities while at university - the student paper, debating, the Christian Union, Navigators, and many other bits and pieces that I dabbled in. But I think I'd have achieved much more, and developed more lasting friendships, if I'd really invested in just a couple of them. But I've only learned the value of "quality over quantity" through being over-busy as a student, so even if I could change my choices, I don't think I would.

I've learned a lot and grown up a lot in that time. I've made up my mind on some issues, and changed my mind on others. Getting married has made me realise what a lot more I've got to learn - getting to grips with things like budgeting, and paying the bills and so on. They're not glamorous, but it is exciting for Bev and I to be in control of our lives together. I believe that God has been at work in me for the better, helping me to grow in knowledge and love of him, and in the pursuit of humility, though I've still got a long way to go!

I wonder what the coming years will bring... Settling more and more into married life, and starting to take more of a part in life at Mack again, for one thing. I aim to become a published novelist, and hope to write scripts for television - I'm off on a course with TAPS in a couple of weeks on Continuing Drama. And looking further into the future, the next big adventure will be starting our own family. Life... it's full of adventure!

Some recent books...

Some of the books I'm reading or have read in the last few months:

  • Boundaries - Cloud & Townsend - generally very helpful, a few reservations
  • Starcross - Philip Reeve - just riproaringly good fun
  • Fever Crumb - Philip Reeve - mostly good, but feels incomplete
  • Perelandra - C S Lewis - brilliant, an all-time favourite
  • According to Plan - Graeme Goldsworthy - useful Biblical theology overview
  • Jango - William Nicholson - very good
  • The Soul Winner - Charles Haddon Spurgeon - clear and challenging
  • Ethics: A Very Short Introduction - Simon Blackburn - patchy; his discussion of the Bible and ethics is just embarrassing
  • The Road to Reality - Roger Penrose - fascinating summary of "how the universe works", requires a lot of concentration
  • Gilead - Marilynne Robinson - a heart-achingly sad and beautiful novel
  • The Complete Calvin & Hobbes - very sharp and funny

Charlie Brooker: Chores and Cosmos

Charlie Brooker, favourite misanthrope of Guardian readers everywhere (after David Simon, of course) yesterday claimed that Contemplating the scale of the universe makes a mockery of household chores. Funnily enough, the relationship between cosmos and chores was one of the topics I mentioned in my wedding speech, but I came to a rather different conclusion:

A Perfectly Clean and Tidy House is one of those ideas that's wonderful in principle, rather like Communism, but in practice leads to wars, revolutions, purges and gulags. But I must be true to the Cause, unless I want to find myself in the marital equivalent of Siberia.

After all, you are fighting the very forces of Entropy, which if certain scientists are to be believed, will one day bring the entire universe to the point of heat death. Heath death will be rather like the cold layer of gunk at the bottom of the sink after everything has drained away, only on a universal scale. This rather puts making sure the bed sheets are on straight into perspective.

But the quest for a well-ordered house is not in fact a gesture of cosmic futility. As Dave mentioned in his address, neither scientists or entropy will have the last word. The Bible tells us that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay. Jesus' resurrection is the proof that death is not the end; death will itself one day die. God isn't just saving our souls, but all of creation.
I have just recently reread Perelandra by C S Lewis, which everyone should do regularly, if you ask me, since Perelandra is possibly my favourite novel by Lewis. The hero Ransom, while fighting the Unman on Venus, is haunted by what Lewis calls "the Empirical Bogey", and its to this that Brooker has fallen prey:
...the great myth of our century with its gases and galaxies, its light years and evolutions, its nightmare perspectives of simple arithmetic in which everything that can possibly hold significance for the mind becomes the mere by-product of essential disorder. Always till now he had belittled it, had treated with a certain disdain its flat superlatives, its clownish amazement that different things should be of different sizes, its glib munificence of ciphers...

Part of him still knew that the size of a thing is the least important characteristic, that the material universe derived from the comparing and mythopoeic power within him that very majesty before which he was now asked to abase himself, and that mere numbers could not overawe us unless we lent them, from our own resources, that awfulness which they themselves could no more supply than a banker's ledge. But this knowledge remained an abstraction. Mere bigness and loneliness overbore him.
In the last chapter of the book, we are given a dazzling description of the Great Dance of the cosmos, a joyful affirmation of the significance of the universe as it merrily unfolds before the great Maleldil. It is brilliantly written, verging on poetry, and a great answer to those who "add years to year, or miles to miles and galaxies to galaxies, in lumpish aggregation".

Does television destroy imagination?

Film and television are sometimes criticised as requiring less imagination than reading. If we can already see exactly what the characters look like, if the actors and designers and directors have already captured so much detail on screen, what's left for us to imagine?

On the other hand, there are people who see this as a good thing. Some people like being able to watch television because it appears completely real - and so they get very angry if a set wobbles, or some make-up or special effect is less than entirely convincing. If anything is left to the imagination, the makers haven't finished their job properly.

But people who can't see past unrealistic sets or not-quite-convincing effects to enjoy a story is that they've forgotten that all art is representational. It's like complaining that actors who die on stage get up alive at the end of the scene and walk offstage. It's missing the point - all art is symbolic. Style and beauty are sometimes more important than realism.

In some ways, the ability to make ever-more realistic special effects distracts us from the representational nature of art. Going back further, the photographic revolution, the ability to create photorealistic images, both still and moving, has helped create the illusion that we can achieve full realisation, and given us the delusion that film and television should aim for this. The obsession with visual realism is to the detriment of our imaginations.

But to come back to the original question, I'd argue that books and television sometimes leave different things to the imagination, but that doesn't mean that one or other requires more imagination than the other.

To be compelling, all forms of storytelling need us to participate, to fill things in with our imaginations, to place ourselves in those situations and events, in order for us to really experience and enjoy them. All art is a collaboration between artist and audience. That goes for television just as much as a novel or theatrical production - it's just that different media leave different parts of the experience to our imagination.

For example, a novel leaves the visual to our imagination. There might be a picture on the cover, or some accompanying illustrations, but we have to turn the blobs of ink on the page into images in our head using our imaginations. Television, on the other hand, is very visual, and so we don't need to imagine what things look like most of the time, unless deliberately kept unseen for effect. Often the scariest monsters onscreen are those we see least of, because that leaves the most room for our imaginations to work.

But while television shows us the visual, there are lots of things it can't show, and must be left to the imagination. It can't show us directly what someone is thinking, what is going on inside someone's head, whereas a novel can do this very easily. We have to work out the characters' interior thoughts and emotions and so on from what we can see and hear looking on as observers.

This depends on the writer, actors, director and so on, leaving enough clues for our imagination to work on. What's left implicit is as important as what's made explicit, because it's the implicit that sets our imaginations alight. A well-written book can engage than imagination deeply, whereas a badly written book might leave very little that stimulates the imagination, and the same with television. Any medium can be used well or used badly, used to inspire the imagination or flatten it.