No aliens here

“US officials can’t explain UFOs, but aliens not ruled out,” the RTE headline caught the eye. Such a story with have caught the imagination in teenage years when our neighbouring county of Wiltshire was said to be the UFO capital of England. Now the report that is to be released to the United States Congress seems likely to generate more heat than light, particularly as part of it is to remain classified.

The most famous story of an encounter with supposed extra-terrestrial life was more than  seventy years ago at Roswell in New Mexico. The United States Air Force reported that a weather balloon had crashed, a story that was accepted for thirty years, until the 1970s when a multitude of theories began to emerge.

Stories now abound concerning what is supposed to have happened – a spacecraft with alien life forms is said to have crashed. There has never been evidence presented to suggest that the original story about the weather balloon was not true, but efforts to dispel speculation simply add to the conspiracy theories.

In a time of “fake news,” and a distrust of any authority or source that is associated with the “Establishment,” it has become impossible to argue with those who believe that the remains of an alien spacecraft are concealed at the air force base. There are  those who are convinced that their theories, however fanciful, have as much validity as assertions based on empirical research and rigorous evidence. To appeal to scientific or academic writers is to be accused of being in thrall to “experts.”

If research and evidence are not convincing, perhaps appeal to people’s own powers of logic can prompt thought.

UFOs are now described as “unidentified aerial phenomena.” If these phenomena are believed to be alien visitors, then there must be consideration of the reality of the space through which those craft must have travelled. If these craft have come through space to reach Earth, then logic should tell those who believe this has happened that the technological expertise of those travelling in them is infinitely greater than the technology possessed by those those of us here on Earth. Such is their technology that if such alien life forms should be inclined to communicate with us, they would already have done so, in an unambiguous way. If the putative aliens have not communicated, either they are not there, or they do not wish to talk.

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Big Brother’s birthday

It was on this day, 8th June 1949, that George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Terminally ill, he died seven months later, an Orwell who lived into a ripe old age might have felt there was a depressing familiarity in the unfolding of history, that the trends in society were those that he anticipated in the post-war years.

It was with extraordinary prescience that Orwell wrote of the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of minds.” Big Brother was not worried how promiscuous they might be, and, through the activity of the Ministry of Truth’s Pornosec, provided pornography which many young men bought, believing themselves to be engaged in illicit behaviour.

Orwell anticipated a time when the majority of people would believe that being allowed to have sex with whomsoever they wished and having access to pornography would mean that they had freedom: Big Brother was not interested in curtailing such freedom.

The national security agencies charged with watching over ordinary citizens are hardly more interested in the activities of the overwhelming majority of us than Big Brother was interested in the activity of the proles. Authorities might paraphrase the words of Saint Paul in the Letter to the Romans in which Paul argued that rulers held no terror for those who did right.

Surveillance in its various forms, it would be argued, is overwhelmingly no more a curtailment of freedom than a lifeguard on a beach is a curtailment of the freedom of sunbathers. Perhaps it is more the case that provided we are no more dangerous than the proles, no-one will disturb us.

The significant question to be asked is not whether surveillance takes place (and anyone who uses any of the social media or search engines like Google, will know from the advertisements that their content is being monitored), but what constitutes a threat to national security and who makes that judgement. Tales of scary men in the shadows watching every social post, text, email and web search do nothing to protect our freedom (Orwell would probably have suggested that such stories assist the development of Big Brother, diverting attention down sensationalist channels).

Individual freedom must include having the capacity to decide what it means to be free, and not having that decision made for us by agencies which are subject to neither open debate nor  scrutiny. Otherwise Orwell’s vision will be completely fulfilled.

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A hint of harvest

Perhaps it had been wishful thinking, but there seemed a hint of a lighter colour in the field of winter barley, maybe not signs of gold, but certainly something paler than deep green. A search of the web revealed that winter barley is harvested in July, and that in 2018, some of it had been fully cut by the end of June, so the suspicion that the field was beginning to ripen was not unfounded.

The winter barley harvest probably passes unnoticed by most people; most harvests seem to pass unnoticed by most people. The movement of combine harvesters and tractors pulling trailers of grain and straw might cause annoyance to motorists, but otherwise the work in the fields is generally not regarded as connected with the daily lives of those who drive by.

Food security is assumed in our country. We might panic buy some items, as happened at the beginning of the first Covid lockdown, but no-one will face the prospect of hunger if the summer brings a bad harvest.

Life was not always so secure. The opening words of Ellis Peters’ An Excellent Mystery capture a sense of the quiet happiness brought by a harvest in time for Lammas Day, 1st August:

August came in, that summer of 1141, tawny as a lion and somnolent and purring as a hearthside cat. After the plenteous rains of the spring the weather had settled into angelic calm and sunlight for the feast of Saint Winifred, and preserved the same benign countenance throughout the corn harvest. Lammas came for once strict to its day, the wheat-fields were already gleaned and white, ready for the flocks and herds that would be turned into them to make use of what aftermath the season brought.  The loaf-Mass had been celebrated with great contentment, and the early plums in the orchard along the riverside were darkening into ripeness. The abbey barns were full, the well-dried straw bound and stacked, and if there was still no rain to bring on fresh green fodder in the reaped fields for the sheep, there were heavy morning dews.  When this golden weather broke at last, it might well break in violent storms, but as yet the skies remained bleached and clear, the palest imaginable blue.

A failed harvest in such times would mean a long and hungry winter, it would mean, if not starvation, then poor health through malnutrition and a lack of strength to contend with illnesses. Someone passing a field nine centuries ago and seeing the grain starting to ripen would have seen it as a significant moment.



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Archie’s Day

Seventy-seven years ago, my friend Archie set foot on a beach in northern France.

Archie was 21 years old at the time. He was from Newtownards in Co Down, the town where I knew him in my days as a curate. Archie had volunteered to join the Royal Air Force three years previously, in 1941, when he was 18. There was no conscription in Northern Ireland, Archie chose to join up.

Archie trained as a radio operator, imagining that this would lead him to becoming the member of a bomber crew. However, the Canadian army were short of radio operators and Archie was transferred to serve with the First Canadian Army. Thus it was on 6th June 1944 that he found himself leaping into the water from an allied landing craft with a radio pack on his back and running onto the beach at Saint Aubin sur Mer. The beach had the code name “Juno.”

Archie avoided commemorations, he took the view that they didn’t capture the horror of the events. Archie never attended Remembrance Sunday parades where priests and politicians uttered inanities and returned to their comfortable lives. He believed that many of those who spoke would not have been at the parades if they had seen the things he had seen.

When books were published to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, there seemed to be many veterans who shared Archie’s opinion. Martin Bowman collected a series of reminiscences in his book Remembering D-Day: Personal Histories of Everyday Heroes. Bowman quoted from Donald Burgett, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who was nineteen years old when he landed in Normandy. Burgett said,

It was dirty and dehumanising and disgusting . . . I just hope that when they make their fine speeches on the beachheads they remember what happened. I do. Every night of the year. The images of the dead always wake me up.

Archie never talked about the fighting, he never talked about the advance across Europe. Archie’s stories were about trivia, about how .303 rifles were useless for shooting rabbits, as the bullet went straight through and the rabbit ran on. Or his stories were about sadness, like the moment of finding three soldiers dead after a V2 rocket site had been captured and the three men had drunk alcoholic rocket fuel and died from poisoning. The horrors, he saved to himself.

I remember Archie this day every year. We walked many miles of the roads of Ulster together. He was a true hero.

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Closing church doors

The church door was locked. Church doors seem locked most of the time now. Perhaps it is some restriction related to the virus, or perhaps the person who once opened and closed the church each day has had, through age or ill health, to give up their faithful duty.

In Ireland, I had a churchwarden who was said to pass down the lane which ended at his house at 9.20 am, an hour and forty minutes before the 11 o’clock service. After turning out of the lane, the journey to the church would have taken him around ten minutes, allowing him to arrive by 9.30. The early arrival was considered a piece of gentle eccentricity among other worshippers; what preparation for the morning service could there be that could take an hour and a half, a period of time twice that of the morning service, which generally lasted forty-five minutes? No-one would question him, though, the church building was an important part of his life; its internal and external well-being were treated with an importance that was equivalent to that with which he would treat his own personal health.

Here in England, the diligent care of a country church would be regarded as anachronistic by the evangelical leaders who now hold sway in the church. Voices from the urban centres would talk of the need to close such buildings, of how many more resources there would be for “mission” (generally employing people like themselves), if money was not spent on the upkeep of such places, of how much better everything would be if everyone gathered in a single church (under their style of leadership). Perhaps they are right, though empirical evidence shows that when such paths are pursued, many of those whose families have attended the church for generations simply disappear. They want nothing of the electric guitars, drums and media projectors.

However, there is a much deeper value in such rural places that is missed by those who perceive them as buildings to be measured in terms of fabric and funds. To men like that churchwarden, heading to church 9.20 am, the church to which he devoted so many hours was a place of holiness.

The places seen as a burden by the church strategists and administrators are places of holiness to people in the communities in which they stand. Even if people never attend, it matters to many of them that the building is there. If the Church of England is going to insist on being the established church, it must take seriously that duty to be present.


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