Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

I have just been to Jena, Germany, to do a lecture at the Friedrich Schiller University and preach at a service to open the winter semester. A bit of a trek – there yesterday, back today. But, it was worth it for all the wonderful people I met. (The texts are in German only.)

Not only did Schiller and Goethe meet in Jena, but Napoleon paid a visit in 1813 – and he wasn't doing a spot of tourism. The hall where I did my (faltering) lecture is fronted by a huge painting of the slaughter he brought.

Being somewhere for the first time always impresses upon me the need to 'read' and 'think' theology in the context of the particular place. Thinking and speaking in Jena (German, Reformation, Enlightenment, Nazism, Communism, etc.) shines a different light on which questions matter from some of those elsewhere (England, for example).

But, as I repeated in Jena, being compelled to look through someone else's lens/eyes enables us to look afresh at (and think about) our own situation and preoccupations.

What amused me over the last couple of days, however, was reading Stella Gibbons' wonderfully funny Cold Comfort Farm on the planes. It isn't comfortable laughing aloud at 37,000ft, but there are some wonderful lines:

Never confront an enemy at the end of a journey, unless it happens to be his journey. (p.47)

Adam shook his head. A curious veil, like the withdrawing of intelligence from the eyes of a tortoise, flickered across his face. (p.56)

… there'll be no butter in hell! (p.98)

[They] were so flabbergasted, so knocked clean out of the perpendicular by the bosom-shattering stupendosity of the event,… (p.221)

And did the goat die? (p.223)

You've just got to read it to get it. And I note it here just so I won't lose it.