The British appear to be immune to cold. I suppose this is just as well, as most of the time living in the UK is a bit like inhabiting the bottom of a well…
Sixty years ago, Noel Coward memorably sang to his fellow colonials, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” But he failed to comment on the fact that Englishmen at home are also mad about throwing outdoor parties when the weather is wet, freezing and foul.
Cold Comfort Farm
On a number of occasions, I have been invited to parties by kindly yet insanely optimistic hosts who seem to forget that the British weather is rarely conducive to outdoor merrymaking.
A few months ago, we celebrated a friend’s wedding in Scotland. The party was held in a farmyard with icy rain trickling down our necks. To get a drink, we were forced to wade through mud while the meal was eaten in an open barn, which doubled as a wind tunnel. There weren’t enough chairs, either, come to think about it.
Out of politeness and affection, around seventy of Scotland’s finest chose not to say to our hosts, “It’s good to see you out on day release, when are you being taken back in?” Instead we shivered in our huskies and greatcoats, eating rubbery chicken off plastic plates while pretending we were in the Bahamas – or anywhere else. By the end of the celebration, I was close to hypothermia and it was at least two hours before I could feel my feet again.
Last week, we were guests at an evening birthday party in Reading. We knew we were in for it when the host announced: “What a glorious day it’s been, and what a lovely evening too!”. Although the day had been fairly warm, any fool knows that in the UK, the temperature automatically drops at least six degrees and goes on diving. By eight, guests were shivering trying to keep warm, and I saw one poor soul who had stopped moving altogether.
Of course, the last word must go to Winston Churchill. When he was prime minister, his chief whip brought him the ghastly news that one of his ministers had been caught on a bench in St James’ Park in flagrante delicto with a guardsman.
Noting that that this particular February night had been the coldest of the winter, Churchill jovially announced: “And below freezing too! Makes you proud to be British.”
Master of My Destiny?
Nelson Mandela claimed that the short poem “Invictus” by the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley encouraged him to go on fighting for his life. The poem ends:
“I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
Churchill quoted the poem in the Commons in September 1941, as did “Captain Renault” in the totemic film Casablanca, and Barack Obama at Mandela’s memorial service in 2013. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken of the poem’s influence on her late father, Aung Sang, and then there is the film Invictus too.
The worry I have is that the sentiments don’t quite ring true. Okay, it’s good never to surrender or give up, but we have all been around a bit and we know that what makes God laugh is “people making plans”.
Try quoting this poem to someone who’s just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and hear what they have to say about being master of their destiny. Or what about someone caught up in a messy divorce – not of their own making – or someone involved in a company bankruptcy, when their involvement is limited to being an employee? Or someone who’s lost a child in, say, a hit-and-run accident?
We are all too often leaves blowing in the wind. Of course, as our secular society has removed God from the equation, vanity – or desperation – tries to persuade us that we are in charge.
Death in Teheran
Perhaps this story best makes my point:
A rich and mighty Persian prince once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death who had threatened him. The servant begged his master to give him his fastest horse to enable him to flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The Prince graciously consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the Prince himself met Death in the garden and questioned him.
“Why did you threaten and terrify my servant?” the Prince asked.
“I did not threaten him,” answered Death. “I only showed surprise in still finding him there when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran.”