Friday, 26 January 2007


Yesterday morning we woke up to find snow everywhere. It was probably the most snow we'd seen in London since January three years ago, but maybe I just think that because the snow in February 2005 didn't seem that impressive just after I'd returned from Lausanne. Anyway, as someone who hadn't been in snow until coming here, I noticed again that snow is:

Cold: sort of obvious, but somehow it still always surprises me!

Fragile: it disappears when you touch it, and is great when it crunches underfoot.

Fun: I saw some kids scooping snow of the cars and carrying huges balls down the street, not to mention all the snowfights.

Transforming: somehow, it almost seems like a new world when everything is covered in a blanket of snow, even to some extent on the warm roads where the snow didn't settle.

Troublesome: as well as requiring more care when walking, the roads and trains don't cope too well, but even then, Amy managed to get a delayed train to work that was earlier than her normal one!

Temporary: in colder climates it is different, but it was amazing to see the snow receding through the morning, until at midday we were back in the old world again.

White: very, very white! There are a lot of things that we call white, but snow is white. This is probably the thing that kept striking me the most, and made me think of and understand the picture of Psalm 51:7, being washed whiter than the snow.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Wet and windy whingeing

We all like to whinge too much, and in London one of the common topics for whinging about is one of the Englishmen's favourite conversation topic: the weather. Those of us not used to the British weather are probably the worst offenders, and based on their experiences of Aussies and other foreigners, the locals could be forgiven for wondering how they managed to earn the epithet "whingeing Poms".

The owner of the shop beneath our flat is originally from the Indian subcontinent. Just about every conversation I have with him includes the phrase "bloody English weather". It's hard to be enthusiastic about the 16 hours of darkness, let alone the grey skies and drizzle, and so it's usually tempting to agree that "In my country, your country, it's better than this." If his change of heart just after new year ("We need to the rain to live. It is a good gift.") was a new year's resolution, it didn't last very long, but it was a very good point to keep in mind at any time, and especially during this drought.

The summer and autumn were both quite dry, but the winter so far has had above average rainfall. Of course, this led to more low level whingeing about the hosepipe bans that were still in place, this time from some natives who are having trouble coming to terms with a metered water supply and summer water restrictions, let alone restrictions in the winter.

It's not helpful to always focus on the negatives, however, and last October, it was reported that Met Office and tv forecasters were being told to "talk up" the weather. The idea that weather reports could put a positive spin on all the atmospheric conditions this island is famous for produced a fair bit of humour, but on closer inspection it turned out that one of the main points of the new guidelines was simply to focus on the weather experienced by most of the population, rather than starting with extreme conditions in northern Scotland simply for dramatic effect.

Another aspect of the guidelines was slightly more interesting, at least to me. Very generally speaking, it suggested substituting phrases like "mostly fine" for "isolated showers". This was applauded by advocates of "Plain English", who thought the new terms would be more widely understood. This is probably true, but I wonder whether the change of emphasis may be at the expense of usefulness or even accuracy for those who do understand the forecasts with a bit of care. When I did a small high school study of the weather forecasts in Sydney 10 years ago, I saw the point in only saying "fine" when they were quite confident in such a forecast, and "chance of showers" whenever there was such a chance. Read this way, the forecasts were quite accurate, and a chance of rain often requires more attention than a chance of a dry day.

Either way, the forecasting guidelines didn't seem to have much effect on the radio forecast this morning. It was something along the lines of "It's very very windy. Rain in the south and snow in the north. Every way you look at it, it's pretty terrible." The tv presenters stuck to the Met Office's "damaging winds", a concept which would be very hard to talk up. It really was quite a wild day, with reasonable amounts of rain an very strong gusty winds. At the college, we had our usual "Severe weather warning" email, advising us to secure windows and things on roofs. Thankfully, I didn't need to walk through the usual wind tunnels at the worst parts of the day, but I did notice that some of them had been closed off, presumably due to the wind. Nationwide, there were irritations like delays to train services and more serious problems as trees fell causing damage and eight deaths.

In conclusion, I don't know whether the new style of forecasts is good thing, and has helped to improve a nation's mood, but I do think it would be better to drop the whingeing and reserve the negativity for times when there are real problems. Even on days like today, there are some positives - the rain has had an effect, and now only two of the water companies are still imposing water restrictions.

[Rainy days are often fun, anyway, even if the mist does block out the intended background of my photo! (taken by Amy)]

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Performing cricketers

This morning (London time) there was a cricket game on in Sydney. The Twenty20 format seems to be more about drawing crowds and puttnig on a show than a serious contest, but that Australian captain Ricky Ponting's dislike of it didn't seem to stop him and his team recording an emphatic victory over the demoralised English.

There are some other competitions that are definitely about putting on a show. Amy is quite keen on the celebrity/professional performance competitions that have been on TV lately, such as Strictly Come Dancing. The 2005 edition of this dancing event was won by fast bowler Darren Gough, and the next year Mark Ramprakash was invited to compete. Apparently his reply was
"Look, mate, I'm really sorry but it's not my thing. If you can get me on the football show on Sky I'll happily do that'."

but at some point he must have changed his mind, since in the final on 23 December, he came out top. So, when Mark Butcher appeared on Just the Two of Us singing duets with Sarah Brightman and generally sounding better than all the other duos, I started to wonder whether English cricketers were winnning everything except the cricket. As it turned out, they weren't quite popular enough with the voting public, and were the first of the three finalists to be eliminated, but it still leaves me wondering just what is it with these English cricketers?

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Beginning of the year, end of careers

Having grown up in Sydney, one of the things I associate with New Year is cricket. Given the fact that ten of the twelve nights of Christmas were scheduled to have Ashes cricket going from 11:30pm to 06:30am London time, it would have been a perfect opportunity to go nocturnal and celebrate new Year in the way I mentioned yesterday. As it turned out, I didn't, but I did spend quite a bit of time listening to the Test Match Special coverage at strange hours of the morning.

Although the Sydney Test was the first Test of the year, it was the last Test for opening batsman Justin Langer, spin king Shane Warne and probably one of the best bowlers of the last decade, Glenn McGrath. Due to the relatively recently implemented structure of the Australian cricket season, with Test matches proceeding the ODI tournament, it will probably be quite normal for cricketers to end their Test careers in Sydney at the beginning of the year, but the departure of these three is quite significant. While Langer has an impressive record, Warne and McGrath stand out even more. While Warne's accuracy and huge spin and McGrath's metronomic precision niggardly combined with tricks uncannily deployed make them both outstanding bowlers in their own right, their partnership of 1001 Test wickets has been synergetic.

Glenn McGrathShane Warne
Other Matches20769.417517523.3561.57412010.3523219526.8361.86

The two bowlers were probably the biggest difference between Australia and the other teams during Australia's period of dominance. While the period has seen Australia boasting a remarkable depth of batting talent, the batsmen have generally been facing bowling attacks of significantly less quality. The surprisingly low number of Tests Australia has drawn in in recent years has been attributed to the attacking, quickly-scoring batting, but the ability to take 20 wickets quickly is at least as much to "blame". While too much shouldn't be read into these figures, it is interesting to see a breakdown of Australia's results since McGrath and Warne first played together in Perth in 1993/4.

W/D/L (%won)With WarneWithout WarneTotal
With McGrath71/17/16 (68%)14/3/3 (70%)85/20/19 (69%)
Without McGrath13/5/6 (54%)5/2/2 (56%)18/7/8 (55%)
Total84/22/22 (66%)19/5/5 (66%)103/27/27 (66%)

While it is hard to imagine another pair of bowlers doing quite so well, it seems possible that the hole they will leave won't be too big. Stuart MacGill has been ready to play in Warne's absence for quite a while and we will never know what he could have achieved if he had had Warne's opportunities. Perhaps more significantly, this Ashes series has shown that Stuart Clark is capable of the type of McGrath-esque accurate bowling that takes wickets at both ends. However, as nice as it would have been to say that the new year marked not only the end of three great careers, but the beginning of a new-look Australian Test team, we won't see them in action again until November!

Saturday, 6 January 2007


Being very interested in calendars and the measuring of time, I used to like being in a new year, even though I knew it wasn't particularly significant, but somehow it seems hard to ignore it's insignificance this year. I'm not sure why. It's probably relevant that the new calendar year isn't as significant here in England as it is in Sydney. The academic year started back in September. For Christmas and New Year, the schools tend to have two weeks off, while the undergraduate students had three before coming back for Semester B.

Being in London has also made it more obvious just how arbitrary the timing of "New Year" is. There are many calendars out there, including some with perhaps less arbitrary definitions of the start of the year, such as the Persian spring equinox. (Then again, the new year here does seem to vaguely coincide with when I start to notice that the days really are getting longer again!) But even ignoring other calendars, and thinking about so many people all celebrating on 1 January, I notice that either we decide the year starts at a set time in an arbitrary place (Greenwich?), or we end up we me in 2006 talking to someone in 2007, as I mentioned yesterday.

The only thing special about New Year's Day is that it is one year after the previous New Year's Day. Time and life keep going on, however our minds choose to file things. I suspect that most of us take a while to get used to the new "file" - I found myself thinking of things from August and September as "2005", because I'd somehow realised that they were now last year, without ticking my mental clock over to 2007. Some of us might enjoy noticing the first of the year. I once had a thought that rather than staying up on NYE, it might be nice to get up to welcome the year in at midnight, then stay up for the first sunrise. Some of us might feel that it is an opportunity for a fresh start, even making all sorts of resolutions. Maybe it's easier for us to focus on things like that when the year starts, and it's definitely not a worse time than any other to seek a new beginning, but don't be fooled into thinking that habits naturally have a tendency to get thrown out with the old calendars.

Apart from a bit of fun, I don't think the new year by itself brings anything other than a chance to think of things on a yearly scale. The thoughts this year brings to my mind are how little I managed to do in 2006, and have left to do now; several friends planning to get married this year; a fourth wedding anniversary; four-yearly events like the cricket World Cup; and not knowing what we'll be up to at the end of the year. New things, and old things continued, but in all of them trusting the God who makes all things new. There isn't anything special about New Year following Christmas, but new life does follow from receiving God's ultimate Christmas gift.

Friday, 5 January 2007 its setting

So the sun has set on 2006. I had some thoughts on Christmas that I might have posted if I'd spent more time online and/or been able to express them in a way that didn't say something I didn't mean. Now, though, I think they can wait until next December. After all, the end of the year follows hard on the heels of Christmas, and next Christmas is already this year!

After a great Christmas Day and a strange week when many things were on holiday, we reached New Year's Eve. My first conversation of the new year was that afternoon, when I happened to be online and talking to someone who was in Sydney, and so had already passed midnight. Pointing out that "it's still 2006 here" is just that little bit stranger than telling people it's still Sunday evening for us, or something like that.

Then, to see the new year in, we went to an event at church together with the Russian-speaking congregation. After some food, there was a quiz, which featured two rounds of biblical questions from Yuriy, including his usual riddles, and two science rounds from Dan. One of the latter was quite easy for anyone remembering their high school science lessons (probably quite difficult if you didn't like them!), but the other was a complete joke, with all questions relating to aerodynamical engineering! I'm not sure everyone saw the humour, and I think our team were the only ones to even guess the two answer questions, getting one of these right and guessing another where the answer was zero.

After that we had a fast and furious game of relay-Pictionary. We managed to win this as well as the quiz, and enjoyed the box of chocolates we received as a prize. After this, similar quiz a few weeks ago (Amy and I were on the winning team then, too), I'm starting to think maybe Australians do have a tendency to take anything competitive just a little bit too seriously!

While this was happening, around us there were more cross-year conversations from China and then Germany, and then at 11:30, we had a service and time of prayer. It was good to pray together and direct our thoughts from Philippians 4, but I particularly appreciated Winston's solo. He sang a song which appropriately talked of the end of a day, and the sunset moving from continent to continent. It reminded us of those who sunset had already left behind and those who were yet to finish their day or year worshipping God, while he faithful whatever the time or place. As Psalm 113 says, "From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised."