Literary England I: Shakespeare & Austen

Thus far, in my review of my trip to England, I’ve focused on history, cathedrals, and C. S. Lewis. Well, I’m not going to leave the history sphere, but let’s stay with it via the literary aspect. Some of the students were taking the course for credit as a literature offering with my colleague who accompanied us. I must also point out that she was the true organizer of the trip; I was merely along to help out (and give Lewis his due).

When one thinks of English literature, there is one name that immediately comes to mind. Here is the presumed home of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I’ve only dipped into certain portions of Shakespeare in my life, rarely reading any of his plays all the way through. My love of film, though, has exposed me to many of those plays. When I was in England twenty years ago, I even attended a performance of Henry V at the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London.

In the museum, I was struck by a plaque that shows just how much we owe to Shakespeare for many of the phrases that fill our vocabulary today. Take a little time to read this:

We also visited Shakespeare’s grave in the local Anglican church. The inscription on it, presumably written by the man himself, is what one might expect of Shakespeare:

Another author’s home on our stop was that of Jane Austen.

When I write, I can sit in my nice, plush recliner with the laptop comfortably in front of me, as I’m doing now. It was a little different for Austen.

Sitting in that chair, which doesn’t strike me as very comfortable, and writing by hand on that tiny table, would have required a serious commitment to writing. She had that commitment.

Although I’ve seen countless adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and films of other Austen books (Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park), I admit I’ve only read one of her novels, Northanger Abbey, and that was in preparation for this trip. Learning about her life—a short one even by nineteenth-century expectations—helped me understand why she chose the subjects she did, and also gave me greater insight into the humor she injected into her critique of upper-crust society in her time.

Upstairs, in her bedroom, there is a framed letter on the wall, sent by Winston Churchill. In it, he notes that when he was ill at one point during the war, Pride and Prejudice was a source of healthy distraction for him. Have a look:

One can find most interesting historical nuggets where least expected.

We also visited the homes of other literary greats. I’ll continue the tour tomorrow.

The Churchill Theme

Winston Churchill’s life and legacy was one centerpiece of the trip I took with students in the past couple of weeks. Yesterday, I highlighted Dover Castle and its prominent role in Britain’s defense during WWII, along with a photo of Churchill emerging from the underground tunnels.

We also made two other Churchillian stops: Blenheim Palace and the Churchill War Rooms.

Churchill was born and raised in this modest home outside Oxford.

I know—my definition of “modest” needs some reworking.

Blenheim Palace befits its name. Can you imagine having your meals in this dining room?

Grand homes such as Blenheim usually included a private chapel, complete with a pulpit from where the little congregation of family and friends could hear sermons and get their spiritual nourishment.

The back yard wasn’t too shabby either:

Although Churchill grew up in luxury externally, sadly, he never got much affection from his parents. Yet he never ceased to try to please them and live up to the family name. His many exploits testify to an inner drive to accomplish great things.

His accomplishments came to a high point, of course, during WWII. In London, his role as prime minister and leader of the nation during the war are chronicled in the Churchill War Rooms.

I visited the War Rooms twenty years ago, but they are more extensive now with the addition of a vast museum, also housed in the underground bunker. I don’t recall having to wait in line back then, but this site now is a main attraction.

The War Rooms have been maintained exactly as they were during the war. The Cabinet Room, as an example, seems poised to conduct a meeting of Churchill’s top government officials:

Even Churchill’s office, which included a bed for overnight stays, stands ready for action:

The Transatlantic Telephone Room allowed Churchill to speak quickly and directly with Franklin Roosevelt.

If you look carefully, you might be able to see Churchill on a call.

The museum was a surprise for me since it didn’t exist the last time I visited. It covers all of Churchill’s life and influence. One could spend a few hours just perusing the surface of all it contains.

As you stand in certain places, Churchill’s voice rings out above you, offering excerpts from his most famous speeches and providing the historical context for each one.

Churchill crafted each speech with the utmost care. Each word and phrase was finely tuned for the greatest effect. That wordsmithing carried over to some of his most well-known quips as well. As I wandered through the museum, I found a number of quotes that I loved. As a historian myself, I particularly enjoyed this one:

Sometimes, students come to my office and look at the books in my bookcases and ask me if I have read them all. I respond that I have read most of them, but that a good number are for reference. I wonder what those students would think if they could then see the five additional bookcases in my small study at home.

Churchill understood this love for books, and he apparently also understood how limited our time is to be able to absorb them all. That’s why this quote also stood out to me:

I’ll offer this one final Churchill quip:

I sincerely hope he was indeed ready to meet his Maker. Otherwise, all the accomplishments in the world will never make up for an eternity separated from the One for whom we should be doing everything.

Another theme on this trip was how cathedrals sought to reveal the glory of God. That will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Dover Castle & a Historic Moment

I’ve just returned from two weeks in the UK—only England, specifically (except for one short dash into Scotland for supper)—helping lead a study abroad trip with SEU students. This was only my second time in England, the previous excursion being twenty years ago. So I was looking forward to this, of course, and my expectations were met.

I drove a Jaguar (yes, you read that correctly) all over the land, from Dover by the White Cliffs on the southern coast to Hadrian’s Wall in the far north. By the mercy of God, we all survived those one-lane country roads where you never knew if a car was coming from the other direction just around the next bend.

Sorry, but I forgot to take a photo with my Jaguar.

Our first stop was Dover, a medieval castle with underground tunnels that were used extensively during WWII to ensure that a Nazi invasion wouldn’t take place.

Winston Churchill, as prime minister at that time, visited Dover as he shored up Britain’s defenses. One iconic photo has him emerging from the underground tunnels, showing his usual firm, confident visage:

We were able to explore those tunnels and learn how significant they were to the war effort.

The entrance is the exact spot pictured above, so I did my best to be Churchillian as we awaited our tour.

No photographs were allowed inside the tunnels, so I can’t show you exactly what we viewed, but the key moment for this strategic spot occurred from May to June 1940, as the trapped British forces in Dunkirk, France, had to be evacuated while under heavy fire from the Nazis.

At the time, pessimism reigned, with British authorities figuring that if they could save even a small portion of the army, they would have to be satisfied with that.

That’s when the miracle at Dunkirk, as many termed it, happened. Small boats from all over England undertook numerous and hazardous cross-channel trips to rescue the trapped soldiers. Far exceeding all expectations, more than 330,000 troops were evacuated and able to continue resistance against Nazi Germany.

We also were able to tour the castle and put ourselves back into the medieval world it represented. Observe this banquet room, for instance:

Or how about this throne with a rather imposing figure reigning temporarily?

We concluded our Dover experience with a visit to the White Cliffs, where I stayed conveniently back from the edge.

The Dover visit was accomplished on almost no sleep on the flight over, followed by driving there from Gatwick Airport in London. Yet it was a great start to a fulfilling tour of the island that provides America with a lot of its lineage, both politically and culturally.

I’ll continue to offer highlights from this trip in the coming days: cathedrals, historic sites, and a visit to C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns, in Oxford.

Will We Learn From History?

As a historian, I have this faith that people might actually learn something from history. What a quaint notion.

The first requisite, of course, is that people know some history. Those kinds of people are becoming a rare commodity.

Please excuse the seeming air of resignation in this post. It’s just that some lessons from history are so easy to find that it boggles the mind that mankind continues to repeat all the old errors.

Take socialism/communism, for instance. It’s never worked anywhere, yet it continues to beguile and beckon with its siren song of equality, fairness, and brotherhood.

You know, like in the Soviet Union where, under Stalin, everyone was so friendly.

It was such a wonderful success that they continued to promote those Five-Year Plans for 70 years. Don’t ask if they ever worked. Well, you could ask all those nations that adopted socialist economies; I’m sure they have a story to tell. Come along with me to one such country.

Britain went all agog for socialism after WWII. Rationing continued for years after the war, ensuring “equality.” Here’s how Winston Churchill described what he witnessed:

Yet the current generation is being wooed once again by this false philosophy. Take Bernie Sanders and his minions, openly advocating the policy. In fact, most Democrats are on this bandwagon; they just are more discreet by not calling it what it is. They couch it in the language of “caring.” And voters lap it up because they are rather ignorant:

Someone needs to write this book:

But would anyone read it who actually needs to read it?

G. K. Chesterton nailed it:

Forgive my cynicism today. If not for my steadfast faith that this world ultimately is not my home, cynicism would prevail. However, I can see past the blindness; I know where Truth resides. I want to live in that Truth today and continue to do what God has called me to do. I will be faithful and leave results up to Him.

An Honest Appraisal of the First Weekend

On Friday, I pledged to be an honest appraiser of the new president and his actions, praising good ones and offering a critique for others not so good. Over his first weekend in office, President Trump gave me the opportunity to do both today.

Let’s begin with praise.

First, just seeing a photo of the Oval Office without its previous occupant is a relief for many of us. Second, Trump’s action in this photo is the beginning of fulfilling a promise: dismantling Obamacare. He issued an executive order that lessens the stranglehold Obamacare put on the federal bureaucracy—an initial step that prepares the way for a full repeal by Congress.

To those who may say this is no different than Obama’s use of executive orders, I say that it’s a world of difference. Obama used them to impose his will unconstitutionally; Trump’s simply eased the burden Obama imposed. That’s called reining in the government, not extending its overreach.

What may be perhaps a small token of the attitude of this new administration is also welcome: the return of the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office. One of Obama’s first slaps in the face to our allies was his jettisoning of that bust.

Welcome back, Mr. Churchill.

There is another bust present in the Oval Office, that of Martin Luther King. Some in the media reported that it had been removed. That turned out to be utterly false; it was merely blocked out in a photo due to the angle of the picture with someone standing in front of it. That’s an indication of what the typical media will try to do. Shall we call that one fake news? Sounds right to me.

If only Trump had allowed his Obamacare executive order to be the focus. Instead, he had his new press secretary, Sean Spicer, come out in a press conference and trump up (sorry, I’ll do my best not to overuse that phrase in the next four years) an accusation that the media was falsely reporting on the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

To be fair, the media does do that on a rather consistent basis. Every year, at the March for Life (which will occur again next weekend), the media either ignores the March completely or does its best to downplay the turnout. So, yes, I know that happens. For a comparison of the inauguration crowds, this picture was used as evidence:

One can always question the use of such pictures. At what point was the picture of the Trump crowd taken? Was it at the height of the ceremony or before? I don’t know.

But why make such a big deal about it and push it to the top of the news cycle within 24 hours of taking office? Was it a smaller crowd than at Obama’s inaugural? I have no problem believing that for a number of reasons: concern for security may have kept some people away, especially in light of the predictions of violence at the ceremony; conservatives not being as motivated to go to D.C, seeing it as an essentially liberal place; the fact that most conservatives have jobs on weekdays.

One commentator, I believe, captured the real problem here:

Trump, being a reality TV star, puts a lot of stock in popularity and TV ratings. . . .

It was a lot of attention paid to what is a non-issue.

Whether it was a million people or five people who showed for the inauguration, Trump is still president and there’s still a lot of serious work he needs to be addressing. This is a non-issue.

Spicer (and Trump later) alluded to the TV audience being larger. Well, here are the facts about that, according to the Nielsen ratings as reported by Bloomberg:

Trump’s nearly 31 million television audience came 7 million short of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and had almost 11 million fewer viewers than when Reagan was sworn into office in 1981.

According to Bloomberg, Trump did attract a larger audience than former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Those are the facts with respect to the TV audience, and it would be dishonest for Trump or anyone else in his administration to say otherwise.

As an aside, I remarked to my wife while watching some of the inaugural parade, that the stands set up for viewers, at least at one place along the parade route, were conspiculously empty. I was surprised by that. Was I seeing the only empty portion of the stands or was that indicative of the entire route? Again, I don’t know.

But what does crowd size really matter? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

What matters is whether President Trump does his job, and does it well. Let’s focus on that, shall we, and leave ego about crowd size behind us.

Israel’s Churchill

Benjamin Netanyahu's VictoryIt wasn’t even close. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party stunned the prognosticators, coming back from polls showing them behind to actually gaining more seats in the Knesset than they currently hold. Not only the pre-election polls were wrong, but the exit polls were also, as they indicated a too-close-to-call result. I love it when polls are off; it means individual decisions still matter.

No matter what public face the Obama administration attempts to put on Israel’s election results, it has to sting internally. They are probably furious, and trying to figure out how to undermine Netanyahu’s honesty about the Iranian threat.

What has to be particularly galling to them is the utter defeat of the “Chicago Machine” that was behind the effort to oust the prime minister. All the funding of the opposition and even sending over a key Obama campaign operative to engineer Netanyahu’s defeat were all in vain.

It’s no secret, no matter what you may hear today from the White House or the State Department, that they were hoping to overthrow the current Israeli government. And no matter how gracious Netanyahu will be in public toward Obama, he is no fool; he knows Obama has no love for him or the nation he leads.

Winston ChurchillMe? I obviously rejoice over this turn of events. The only down side is that I had this really nice comparison I was going to use in today’s blog, placing Netanyahu beside a picture of Winston Churchill, another great leader who was turned out of office. What a travesty that was—inspiring a nation to overcome during WWII, then losing to the Labour Party even before the war ended. Ingratitude is a common human trait when the opposition promises to provide all one’s needs, as the Labour Party did. All Britain got in return for placing them in power was years of rationing and austerity caused by government policy.

So, I can’t make the comparison I was going to make. But that’s fine with me. I can still compare their courage in the face of a threat that seeks to destroy their civilization. May Benjamin Netanyahu meet this challenge and go down in history as another Churchill.

Netanyahu’s Historic Warning

Yesterday, while watching Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress, I felt as if I were a participant in a historic event of the same stature as Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and “Tear Down This Wall” speeches. Even as Reagan confronted the evil of totalitarian communism, Netanyahu forcefully focused our attention on the current totalitarian evil of radical Islamism.

Reagan succeeded in toppling the Evil Empire and the Wall came down. Will Netanyahu’s speech lead us to a similar success against Islamism?

Netanyahu Speech

Netanyahu was very politic in praising Obama and John Kerry—he had to be—but he made it quite clear that not only Israel, but America as well, was facing a firestorm should Iran get nuclear capability.

The speech was filled with poignant quotes.

“The greatest danger facing our world is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons.”

“When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

“Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, anymore than the Nazi regime was merely a Jewish problem.”

Commentator Stephen Hayes summed up the message well: “This is the clearest description of the threat from Iran presented to the American people in the last decade. Long overdue.”

Congress, on both sides of the political divide, applauded his words continually. There’s hope. However, there remains the one greatest hurdle:

Israel's Concerns

In effect, rhetoric notwithstanding, President Obama has conceded the inevitability of Iran’s nuclear desires. The only problem, of course, is that Iran has publicly stated it wants to wipe Israel off the map, and that it seeks to develop ICBMs that can be used to direct nuclear bombs at faraway targets, i.e., the United States. Yet we are supposed to believe his assurances that this will never happen? What is there in his history of his pronouncements that would give us such assurance?

No Consequences

He’s not exactly a tough negotiator:

Obama Negotiations

He pushes for a deal with Iran that is clearly not sufficient, yet he tells us to accept it. Again, his ideological blindness takes over. Unfortunately, the rest of us suffer for it:

Good Nuclear Deal

Frankly, I agree with another comment I heard—Obama probably wouldn’t shed one tear if Israel no longer existed. In his view, that nation is the main agitator in the Middle East, even as he sees his own country as the primary abettor of everything he considers evil in the world.

If only we had a Netanyahu in charge of our nation at this perilous time. Before he spoke, House Speaker Boehner presented Netanyahu with a bust of Winston Churchill. I think that is most fitting. He is the new Churchill, warning the world of the coming holocaust.

Does anyone recall that one of the first actions Obama took as president was to return a bust of Churchill to Britain? That was fitting as well. It was only a sign of things to come.