Thursday, December 15, 2005

Home Front 16 December 2005

One of the most confusing aspects of the latest “Honey, I killed the kid” case in which a distressed ex-soldier suffocated his disabled son, is the judge’s chain of logic, in particular her definition of what makes a “mitigating circumstance”.

So-called mercy killing is illegal in this country. It always has been. So why did Mrs Justice Rafferty tell the court that Andrew Wragg’s act had not been a mercy killing, but in explaining her reasons for the accused’s suspended sentence add that “you did not do it for her [his wife] or for yourself, but for him”?

If Wragg, as the judge infers, had a “belief that what you did was an act of mercy”, how could this have been a mitigating factor unless mercy killing were in fact legal? Was the judge telling us that mercy killing is, in the minds of judges as well as of confused and stressed parents, really legal after all?

And what about the evidence that Wragg had been drinking heavily before the deed was done? If being drunk is a mitigating circumstance, why can drivers not use it if they knock a pedestrian over? “Sorry, your Honour, but I was drunk.” “Drunk! But my dear fellow that changes everything – you should have told us sooner!”

Lastly we come to the “mitigating circumstance” of the boy’s incurable illness, Hunter’s Syndrome, which kills most children by the time they are 14. I can only dimly guess at the grief the Wraggs must have experienced on learning that Jacob had this condition – and also the grief they must have felt on learning that a previous baby carried it too. That baby was aborted, very late, on medical advice.

If we are to look for mitigating circumstances in this case, surely this is the place to look: the moment when pressure from the medical establishment forced the couple to agree to the death of their unborn child. Was it at this point that Wragg’s personal Rubicon was crossed?

It is a mark of how muddled we all are about death, murder and killing that this unhappy family should have had to endure not one, but two trials. And the judge’s final words were particularly alarming when seen in conjunction with another case three months ago – that of a widow in her sixties who killed her adult Down’s Syndrome son, who was also autistic.

As soon as a judge sent Wendolyn Markcrow home on bail, there was an avalanche of kindly sympathy for her situation. Nothing wrong with sympathy - what worries me is the national confusion between understanding how someone can have committed a crime, and letting them off. Because so many people lack any religious framework for their ethical thinking, the difference between examining why a person committed an evil deed, and deciding that the deed was not evil after all, is becoming completely obscured.

Lynnette Burrows, the doughty Catholic campaigner for parents’ rights, is in trouble for voicing the opinion that to allow a gay male couple to adopt a boy would be to put the child at the same kind of risk as if pair of heterosexual men were allowed to adopt a young girl.

The very next day, a police officer called to inform Lynnette that a “homophobic incident” had been reported. Creepiest of all is the language the police officer used: “She told me it was not a crime, but she had to record these incidents,” said Lynnette later.

I do not agree with Lynnette on many issues, but it strikes me that on this occasion her comments were fair enough. In a home run by a married heterosexual couple, you have a balance of sexual identity. Psychiatrists tell us that as children grow up, cross-generational sexual signals start flying about.

Most of us are hardly aware of them, because in a normal family each parent’s presence acts as a check on the other, and those cross-generational signals just die on the wind. But in a home run by a same-sex couple, that balance does not exist.

Besides, if Lynnette’s comments were homophobic, they must have been heterophobic as well. So why weren’t the editors of Loaded and Nuts on the phone to the police, complaining that Lynnette had impugned the impeachable respectability of their readership?


Saturday, December 03, 2005

amazing discovery by independent school teacher

A former independent school teacher writing under the pseudonym Timothy Hine has written in the Daily Telegraph of his disagreeable six months teaching in a comprehensive.
It came as something of a shock to him to discover that state schools are not at liberty to choose which pupils to teach: so they do get, amazingly, quite a few children who are - shock! horror! - quite tricky to teach! Who even require discipline! Who do not have ambitious parents hovering in the background!
For the first time in his life this man had to put some effort into his teaching. Naturally, he bombed and naturally he blamed the state system for his failure, and not his own teaching; naturally it did not occur to him how absurd is the national sychophancy towards schools that decide every year which pupils they feel like teaching...then smugly scoop the top rewards in the league tables.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The cost of not having babies

Home Front
Catholic Herald
2 December 2005

“Ten great things about having a baby” according to a current pregnancy magazine includes this one: “You can spend lots of money – without feeling guilty!”

This must be true, because last week the Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society, which has made the collecting of gloomy statistics into an art-form, informed us that “the cost of having a child” is now up to an average of £166,000, the value of a medium-sized family home, over a family’s life time.

The rate at which this total rises outstrips rises in prices and wages. Well, you hardly expected it to rise more slowly than prices and wages, did you? And does it mean that if I had not had children, I would now be the proud landlord of a row of medium-sized family homes? Would I get one every time I did not have a baby? Somehow, I think not.

But here’s the chirpy author of the “ten great things about having a baby” again: Reason Four – “Talking shop - it’s great fun planning what to buy for your new arrival”.

The remainder of the “ten great things” raise some doubt regarding exactly who is the baby in this relationship. Check out Thing Number One: “As soon as you announce you’re pregnant you are the centre of attention”.

It’s all “me, me, me”: “Pregnancy is a great excuse for putting your feet up and watching endless episodes of Friends” (Thing Three). “Just think how great it will be being able to act like a kid again” (Thing Seven)

Towards the end, it dawned on the compiler that a mum’s needs might not be entirely fulfilled by shopping so she added: “Having a baby can bring you closer to your own mum” and “You make new friends who will completely understand your hopes and fears”.

As far as I can see, a “Great Thing” is defined as anything which makes you, the pregnant mum, feel cheerful, skittish or adored. Does bringing a new human being into the world not rate as a bigger deal than a shopping opportunity?

The compiler ends, rather vaguely, with: “having your own family is a wonderful feeling” and “nothing can beat having a cuddle with your baby”. I feel she was aware that something in this set of “great things about having a baby” was terribly missing – she just couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Having a baby is regarded as an indulgence like having a weakness for expensive shoes. Those parents who rush out and get themselves these luxury pets just because they want a cuddle have to be warned by the sober aldermen of Liverpool Victoria Friendly society: it’ll cost you! That money could be spent on a medium sized family home!

Demographic changes are spoken of in circuitous and hushed tones. So, in view of the fact that twenty years ago there were ten working people for every retired person and that this has slipped to four, soon to be down to two, I suggest that we rename the whole pensions debate: “Ten Awful Things about Not Having Enough Children.”

I think I have found the answer to juvenile crime. My father in law has just received an unusual gift from his Catholic boarding school – the same one where, he always claims, he suffered anti-redhead prejudice from his very first day when an older boy punched him for being a carrot-top, and a monk dragged them apart with the words, “Ah, Johnson! Fighting already!” – has presented him with a piece of his old desk. The tradition in his day was to allocate a boy with a desk with his name on it when he arrived. As the boy moved up through the school, so did the desk, a chunk of which is now sitting in my father-in-law’s study.
What a wonderful solution to school graffiti. Give the kids their own property and they will look after it.
In fact, by a simple act of loving generosity we could end mobile phone thefts overnight. Why don’t we extend the Stonyhurst Principle and give every 14-year-old in the land his or her very own 3 generation mobile phone?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Your cheating parents

Home Front by Sarah Johnson
Catholic Herald 25 November 2005

I don’t do my children’s homework for them. It’s not for want of trying. The trouble is, most nights I can’t even find it. One of the benefits, if it can be called that, of having given birth to slightly more children than you are entirely competent to handle is that the poor things have to do things for themselves. I keep meaning to do their homework for them but dinner and other events intervene.

It is also quite hard to do one’s teenager’s GCSE coursework when he shouts “Go away, leave me alone” every time I come into the room. The 63% of parents who – says the Schools Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – are over-enthusiastically helping their children with their GCSE coursework make me feel terribly angry, but I am rather in awe of their resourcefulness.

How do these cheating parents find the work at all, among the mass of saved files with near-identical titles that clogs up the hard drive on most family computers? And when they have located it, how do they understand it (especially if it is maths)?

And how do they persuade adolescent boys to regard the words “write no less than 200 words” as anything other than a strict injunction to write absolutely no more than 200 words? How do they persuade adolescent girls that the same instruction does not mean “write a medium length history book”?

And why have the exam boards, not yet hit on the simple method of thwarting cheating parents by insisting that all coursework be hand-written by the student, instead of typed on a computer?

Coursework is the curse of modern youth. It was clearly invented by keen teachers, probably mostly female, who love reading round a subject, and fondly imagined that coursework would automatically transfer this enthusiasm. Coursework favours girls – who happily produce reams of elegant trivia – over boys, who rise more effectively to the adrenaline surge of traditional exams.

Coursework discourages actual learning: no teenager, especially if male, ever allows a fact to clutter up his precious brain space if it is not strictly essential for passing the exam. Any aspect of any curriculum where, to the question “do I have to learn this for the exam, Sir?” the answer is “No”, is literally worthless.

There is no doubt where the top cheaters are: in the private sector. The definition of a “good” school in this country is one which gets good exam results. If good exam results are all that matter, a school firstly will choose whom it teaches.

So an independent school such as St Paul’s Girls’ School, whose pupils are all female, brilliant and from highly ambitious families, is “top school” year after year. I have known many Paulinas in my time and believe me; you barely need to be a teacher to teach these girls. You just turn up and take their names, and they teach themselves. For politicians to attack faith schools for selecting children who go to church when such tremendous selection exists in private schools is ludicrous.

Secondly, to ensure good results, a school will offer all the coursework help it can get away with. Exactly how much is limited not by any scruple, or highfalutin’ belief in education for education’s sake, but only by the financial resources of the school and the parents – the posher the school, the more difficult will it be to detect the “extra” little nudges and pushes given to GCSE students.

Cheating parents never know they are cheating, at the time. Being a parent renders most people blind to their actions. Very sensible, very nice, otherwise totally trustworthy people suddenly become savages when it comes to furthering the interests of their children.

And in so doing they are merely following the most mendacious, hypocritical, divided school system in the West. When Labour back-benchers wail that the Government’s Education White Paper will create a “two tier system”, one has to ask – what country do they think they have been living in all these years?


Friday, November 18, 2005

Abigail Witchalls

Homefront Catholic Herald
London 2005-11-15

The fortitude of Abigail Witchalls, the devout young Catholic mother paralysed by stabbing six months ago, has amazed the nation. The media, however, don’t quite know what to make of her.

First of all she let it be known that she forgave her attacker. This stymied the tabloids, who expect to be able to whip the victims of random violence into vengeful frenzies at the drop of a cheque.

Then she astonished her doctors by the speed of her recovery. There is general agreement in the secular press that her positive attitude is helping her as much as the great skill of her carers; the idea that the constant prayers said for her by family and friends might have something to do with it does not, of course, get a mention.

Meanwhile Abigail, now able to speak and feed herself, continues to describe herself as “blessed” – again, language which the average tabloid journalist just can’t figure out at all.

Now she has really knocked them sideways. She has given birth to her second baby. One or two of the papers jumped the gun and reported this birth as being by caesarean section. Presumably the reporters simply could not imagine that Abigail, paralysed from the neck down, could give birth in any other way.

It later became confirmed that Abigail had given birth naturally, “with very little assistance”. He came a bit early, and he’s on the small side, but he’s working on that, because Abigail is breastfeeding as well.

“What a woman,” said a friend of mine in astonishment.

The surprise, however, is misplaced. The oddity is rather that anyone should think a caesarean section would be necessary. Nowadays, most women choose to put themselves into Abigail’s condition during childbirth, by having an epidural. Most of these births end normally (though honest midwives admit that the epidural does increase your chances of going under the knife). By birthing normally, Abigail was simply taking advantage of the only physical benefit her terrible paralysis has to offer her.

The question which is bothering me, though, is this - why do so many women choose this state of paralysis? And what, I can hear the Editor muttering, does this have to do with the rest of us?

OK, I am getting to it.

The doctrine concerning Our Lady’s perpetual virginity which, when I first read about it before I became a Catholic, enraged me beyond words, is the doctrine that she gave birth without pain.

As St Thomas Aquinas put it: “Painlessly, and without change in Mary's virgin body, her Son emerged from the tabernacle of her spotless womb.” This still seems to me to be an insult to the fortitude and patience of women who do suffer pain, and furthermore are willing to suffer it again and again.

However, recently I have been learning about hypnotherapy in childbirth. The main aim of the technique is to eliminate the one emotion which, its practitioners maintain, is the biggest cause of pain: fear. The theory goes like this: if women are taught not to fear, then they will have almost pain-free births. At first I thought this was sheer hokum.

But wait - what was the first thing the angel said to Mary? “Be not afraid.” Perfect freedom from sin means being able to obey God without second thoughts or hindrance. So, if an angel tells Mary not to be afraid, then she is not afraid, and that’s that.

Then I watched some films of women giving birth without so much as a squeak, and not an epidural in sight. These were not cranks, but ordinary women who, not having the grace of perfect freedom from sin, had used hypnosis to free themselves from fear.

With shock, I realised that what I had hitherto only been able to accept as a doctrine in a “symbolic”, Vatican 2 sort of way, rather than one of fact, was actually perfectly believable and obvious.

Now Abigail Witchalls adds a new layer to this mystery by showing that even when your life is riven by a horrible tragedy, there is no reason to be afraid. And what’s more, she, too, has a baby to show for it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Bad for children

Home Front
By Sarah Johnson
10 Nov 2005
Catholic Herald

“Why are you hunting behind the sofa cushions, darling?” I asked the eight year old.
“Blue Peter, of course,” she said in her most crushing you’re-so-stupid voice, emerging with a fistful of lost pennies.
Music to my ears. I am the world’s biggest fan of Blue Peter: this famous children’s magazine shines as a beacon of integrity in the sordid world of children’s programming. Or it would shine, if TV executives allowed it to, instead of merely using the words “Blue Peter” as a spell to ward off accusations of dumbing-down.
“And what are they collecting money for now?”
“Childline.” Immediately, I felt vaguely betrayed. Blue Peter? Raising money for Childline? Blue Peter appeals are usually about helping children in less developed countries (or LEDCs as we say now). It is depressing to find this powerful fund-raising force being mobilised to subsidise Esther Rantzen’s phone-in service, whose most obvious success has been to give children the belief that denouncing one’s parents to complete strangers is a perfectly normal thing to do.
I am being a little too harsh. Childline may have genuinely comforted, even saved some children. But underlying it is the belief that unless they can prove otherwise, parents are essentially bad for children, and must be kept out of the information loop.
On this hypothesis, Sue Axon must be very bad for her children. She is the single mum who is challenging the Department of Health in the High Court this week, by fighting for the right to be informed if her teenage daughter has an abortion.
As Sue says, “If she needs a plaster on her finger at her youth club, one of the youth workers has to phone me for permission – but a doctor can perform an abortion without my knowledge.”
The law is a muddle. You do not need to be a pro-life activist to see that. We have a right to be told if our children are at risk, and only the most fanatic pro-abortionists pretend that abortion is an entirely risk-free procedure: it is not the same as sticking a plaster on a cut finger.
In fact this is not even a particularly pro-life cause. The change in the law which Sue Axon is seeking won’t reduce abortions – at least not at first. For once the prospect of My Little Princess morphing into Someone’s Little Mummy looms, most parents instantly discard any scruples and are driving their daughters off to the abortion clinics with the horn blaring and lights flashing.
But at least we would see some of these parents issued with a much-needed wake-up call concerning their daughter’s sexual activity. I am constantly amazed by the insouciance of pro-abortionists such as Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service at the facts of under-age sex: underage sex is medically risky, emotionally harmful and illegal, needing urgently to be discovered and stopped: yet according to Furedi and her ilk, it “just happens anyway”.
And, chorus the Furedis, what about girls who are being abused? What about Muslim girls who could even be murdered by jealous relatives if their misfortune were discovered?
Well, in the first case, a secret abortion won’t end the abuse. And in the second case, how easy do you think it is anyway, for a girl in a strict Muslim family to conceal the post-operative effects of abortion from her mother?
There should be no difficulty in reframing these mad guidelines so that in special cases doctors could seek permission from the family courts to keep the abortion secret, but would normally be required to inform parents.
But my fear is that the pro-abortion lobby will turn the fact that Sue Axton once had an abortion herself, and regretted it, against her - by accusing her of being a front for the pro-life movement.
Because the pro-life movement has been so successfully (and unscrupulously) discredited in the media (largely thanks to a few idiotic fanatics in the USA), this alone will be enough to influence the minds of the law courts against Sue.
Yet the truth is that this issue is not about abortion. It is about whether we believe parents are essentially good or essentially bad for their children – and in this we have to take a stand.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Family Fun

Home Front
Catholic Herald 04/11/05

Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, we are told by lifestyle gurus. And we do try to! We try to keep a straight face, and think about the positive, but every now and then the negative breaks in, and before we know it we are rolling around on the floor hooting with laughter. For while the positive may be all very well, it’s the negative experiences which, so often, actually bring us closer together.
This was the problem the other day when I sat down round an episcopal conference table with a group of Catholic luminaries, and a vast pot of episcopal coffee, to hammer out ideas for “family friendliness” in churches.
Of course the question immediately reared – what is a family friendly church, anyway? Should not a church be welcoming to people of all shapes and sizes, whether they come in family packages or not?
It’s almost a false question, as there need be no principle of mutual exclusivity at work here. Of course we want to make separated and single parents, childless couples, and single folk welcome. But welcoming one lot of people should never mean ignoring another lot.
There is no other institution which takes the cornerstone of family life, namely the sacrament of marriage, more seriously than the Catholic Church. So if married couples do not feel valued here, they will feel valued almost nowhere.
There is no other institution which accepts the concept of having a large family as passionately as the Catholic Church. So if larger families do not feel welcome here, they feel welcome nowhere.
But back to practicalities. I and my fellow committee members have been asked by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales to look at good ideas for family-friendliness, and spread them about a bit. There are many churches whose priests and parishioners are brilliant at making families feel welcome, and it seems well worth doing a bit of information sharing.
Some ideas which flowed around faster than the episcopal coffee: “Lads and dads” weekends; golden wedding celebrations organised by the parish; welcome packs for new parishioners, pre-Mass meeter-and-greeter rotas – all manner of solid practical ideas which, when combined with warm smiles and a genuine interest in other people, go towards building a whole new universe of human contact and support.
You see, having a meeter-and-greeter rota pinned up in the back of the church won’t necessarily save the world on its own. But it does show parishioners how they can put their natural kindness to work. Kindness is a much under-rated energy source outside the Church. But within the Church, we have an abundance of it, and we have the means to channel it, too.
But as the episcopal coffee pot emptied, the conversation, as conversations do, veered off into the negative. Nearly all of us had funny stories to tell about spectacularly unfriendly churches, and the ghastly experiences we have had there.
There was the priest who barked at a red-faced young mum clutching her howling infant, “It’s either him or me!”
There was the church where a young family were greeted sadly with the doom-laden words, “Oh, you won’t want to come here. People with young children usually go to St Michael’s.”
We joyously toyed with the idea of a hunt for Britain’s Unruliest Catholic Family, Britain’s Most Surly Priest and Britain’s Most Miserable Church until Elizabeth Davies, who is the “marriage and family life project officer” at the bishops’ offices, had to rap the table sharply with her ruler and bring us into line.
“We want people to think of the positive, not the negative,” she said. “Can we appeal for POSITIVE stories about churches where people felt welcomed?”
So here I am, appealing for positive stories about churches, parishes and occasions where you felt genuinely welcome. Now, now, I said positive stories. You are NOT to send your favourite horror stories about hair-raisingly unfriendly churches to Elizabeth (c/o Department for Christian Responsibility & Citizenship, Catholic Bishops' Conference of England & Wales, 39 Eccleston Square, London SW1V 1BX). Positive examples only, please!
But if you slip the odd funny story in, it will at least give us another good laugh at the next meeting.

Monday, October 17, 2005

No vaccine for lost souls

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

Catholic Herald 14 October 2005

I suppose the researchers who have devised a vaccine for cervical cancer deserve a pat on the back for all their hard work; but I expect you, like me, find it hard to work up massive enthusiasm for the prospect of all our daughters being offered the new jab, to be called Gardasil, before they have even left primary school.

In fact, I felt so underwhelmed at the news that I felt it was time for an examination of conscience. What could be wrong with a vaccine for a lethal illness?

Let’s think back to the 1980s, when the link between cervical cancer (among other diseases) and sexual activity became known. Family-values pressure groups such as the doughty Family and Youth Concern made much of this link. There you are, they said: told you so! We always said sleeping around was bad for you.

The Government took no notice and, instead of telling kids to stop sleeping around, talked about "safe sex" and dished out condoms. No British government, I hardly need remind you, has made the slightest effort to tackle the effects of promiscuity by restoring the old taboo against it.

Well, it looks like cervical cancer rates have fallen. But according to the NHS's own information this is not because of condoms, which only give "some protection", but because of its cancer screening programmes.

Of course, there's no point trying to discern any kind of governmental logic here. Have we not been waging a successful war on cigarettes, all the way from the earliest 1960s advertising restrictions to the proposed ban on public smoking? So why not try to cut back teenage pregnancy and STDs by the same methods - attacking the root causes, rather than trying to cure the effects?

Well, why not? The abstinence teachers in the recent - and remarkable - BBC2 series Romance Academy succeeded in radically changing the lifestyles of a dozen teenagers not by lecturing them about health risks.

Instead, they homed in on the emotional effects of casual sex: “In the end,” explained one, “nobody is getting loved.” The faces of the youngsters, as it dawned on them how this fitted with their private experiences, were a picture.

The truth is, a lot of us parents have been lazy. We have been using the health risks of free-and-easy sex to frighten our teenagers. This is a short-sighted and cowardly tactic; firstly because the pharmaceutical industry keeps on finding what purport to be solutions to the diseases, and secondly because it avoids being frank about the less easily discussed moral objections.

If a real campaign against casual sex were ever (dream on) to take place, it would have to be centred on the moral, not the health objections. (Banning that ad for beer that reads “Virgin Wool must come from very ugly sheep” would be a good start.)

We have to come clean about why sexual promiscuity offends us. We hate it because we hate seeing people treated as commodities; we hate to see love and sexuality, which God has bound up together, torn apart. Sex without trust, without love is always going to be rotten sex.

A young man who never allows himself to deepen his knowledge of another person, or to walk tall in the knowledge that someone depends on him for his love, will ultimately find only loneliness.

A young woman who gives away her intimacy cheaply in one whoops-what-was-I-thinking one-night-stand after another, is teaching herself to think that she is loveable for nothing else. The next step will be to feel she is not worth loving at all.

And the saddest thing of all is that the effects are slow. When a young person's sense of worth is handed out one little piece at a time, it takes a while before its owner is aware of how bruised, how shy and distrustful her heart has become - by which time it may be too late to love freely, without fear of rejection.

So thanks, you clever cancer researchers. You have forced us to start being frank with our children. For if we fail in this, then the boffins had better start work on a vaccine for lost souls. It could take a very, very long time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Student blues

Home Front
Catholic Herald 30 Sept 2005

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

Are you currently empty-nested? Have you a bedroom in the house that seems unnaturally still and tidy because its normal occupant has packed her iPod, phone and laptop and tripped off to university for the first time?
If so, be warned; at this time of year the freshers’ honeymoon fortnight ends with an abrupt crash to earth. It’s about now that the tearful phone calls home begin - or, even worse, the tight-lipped, wobbly-voiced phone calls in which nothing is said, but everything may be guessed at.
For an awful lot of students, university life means a continual sense of social inadequacy. One half of the student population is cooler, taller, thinner and cleverer than you are…and therefore out of your league; while the other half is duller, podgier and spottier than you, therefore not to be touched with a bargepole.
The trouble with going away from home for the first time is that there is no return. While at college, you long for the comforts of home, but just try going home for a weekend: you find yourself longing for the freedom of having your own space, feeling like an adult. So you schlep back to college, and the loneliness of your institutional little room hits you like a wet fish.
At university you are metaphorically issued with a blank piece of paper headed “what I am“ and given the frightening task of filling it in. You have the freedom to reinvent yourself from scratch.
At the same time, it is deeply tempting to try to live without all the little personal disciplines which parents have been trying to instil for 18 years. Fresh vegetables, alarm clocks, clean clothes, religious observance.
The happiest students are those who most quickly pass through the blank paper stage, and are confidently defining themselves, while also entering the adult world of self-discipline: getting up early to work, visiting the laundrette weekly, even eating the odd carrot.
Many young people, however, stare hopelessly at the blank sheet for months, while subsisting on Pot Noodles and being frankly terrified of the prospect of creating a new identity. If they happen to be Catholic, however, they can trot along to the Catholic chaplaincy and tell themselves they are only there because Mum or Granny asked them to check it out, “just out of curiosity“.
Among the many things I wish I had known before I went to university was this: the university’s Catholic chaplaincy is not necessarily a totally uncool place. At least it does not organise what appear to be impromptu social events which turn out to be carefully planned religious recruiting exercises, leaving freshers feeling distinctly cheated and distrustful of anyone with a religious agenda.
All universities are crawling with religious groups who try to pull in converts under the guise of making friends with freshers. These groups may do good, but they have given university Christians a bad name.
Catholic chaplaincies, by contrast, seem more to exist for the already converted, so do not have quite the scary aspect of proselytising groups. Many young people are terrified of being involved in anything that might turn out to be uncool or simply not to their taste.
Catholic chaplaincies, of course, vary a lot in nature, depending on where you are: at Bradford University, everything centres round something called the Melting Pot Bar, which involves a lot of Guinness, I gather. Exeter University’s catholic chaplaincy lays great stress on Devonshire cream teas and in Sheffield, brisk walks to the Peak District are planned regularly. Bath University’s chaplaincy is proud of its Shrove Tuesday “pancake night”. And of course, many university “CathSocs” organise ceilidhs.
University life is largely a process of putting out feelers, looking for like-minded souls at a time when you aren’t entirely sure what your own mind is like. So now is a good time to suggest to the student in your life that he or she looks in on the Catholic chaplaincy - just out of curiosity , of course.
At the least, your student will have a chance to commiserate with others about the privations of a Catholic upbringing…in between feeling strangely consoled by the familiar rhythm of Mass.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I've got something to tell you

Home Front
Catholic Herald
23 September 2005

“Mum, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you.” Words that strike dread in the heart of parents. What comes next? “I’m gay”? “I’m pregnant”? “I’m appearing on the X-Factor”?
Whatever it is, we can handle it. Today’s liberal, tolerant parents pride themselves on being able to be understanding about any shocking revelations from their offspring. Today’s parents are trained to be open-minded, to keep loving their children, to respect their decisions to choose a different life-style from that of their family. Aren’t they?
Not quite. There is one revelation which your bog-standard liberal parent simply cannot swallow: “I believe in God”.
A young person who reveals to his atheist parents that he or she has become a believer in deity and, worse still, has signed up to a mainstream religion, may be shouted at, argued with, eventually sent to Coventry. Pleasant, charming, educated parents and siblings suddenly turn into the dad in Billy Elliot.
A new play by Mike Leigh at the National Theatre centres on the same situation, within a secular Jewish family. Several years ago, the novelist Hanif Kureishi foretold similar divisions soon to explode in Muslim families, in a story called “My Son the Fanatic”. In general, the religious child of non-religious parents is treated with a lack of sympathy which would be considered completely unacceptable, and psychologically damaging, for anyone else whose path diverged from the family norm.
So it must have been for a Benedictine monk called Tom, whose sister Lucy insouciantly revealed to Guardian readers what he had gone through to become a monk. I’m not quite sure if Lucy intended to come across as an inverted bigot: her thoughts are so focussed on the trauma suffered by her parents and herself in facing up to Tom’s bizarre insistence on religion, that the little matter of how this felt for Tom does not rate her attention.
The discovery that, aged16, he attended a church youth group “threw” the parents; Lucy, three years older, instantly “challenged Tom to justify his belief”, a rather pointless attack, since she admits she “didn’t understand it, didn’t want to, and felt it was all, well, incredibly disloyal”. Tom’s eventual decision to be a monk “shocked”, “embarrassed” and “bewildered” the parents, who actually “wept” while his sister “all but cut him off”.
Had some mischievous computer virus surreptitiously spell-checked Lucy’s article and replaced the word “monk” with “gay prostitute” or “drug addict“, I doubt the Guardian would have printed it. The language would have been intolerable in its intolerance. To stop talking to a sibling because he’s become a bit different? Bigoted! But to stop talking because he’s become a Catholic monk? Dear me (they said at the Guardian), how perfectly dreadful. We can quite understand how the family felt…
Reading between the lines of Ms Ward’s account, the unwillingness of his family even to try to understand him must have been immensely painful for Tom, though this does not seem to occur to his sister. At the age of 16, to have your convictions dismissed by your family; to have your life choice pitied by your sister; to be regarded as an “embarrassment”; hardly the road to self-esteem, is it?

Last Tuesday saw the final episode of an extraordinary TV series that deserved more attention than it got: BBC 2’s “No Sex Please, We’re Teenagers”. What we had thought might be a new low for reality TV turned out to be the uplifting story of twelve teenagers who really did discover self-esteem, by giving up casual sex and embracing abstinence.
“You are doing something that could change the whole of Britain,” said their inspirational and reassuringly good-looking teachers, Dan and Rachel. And indeed they were. I suspect the reason why the series has not attracted more interest is that Dan and Rachel’s “Romance Academy” actually worked: rather than becoming luridly sexually frustrated for the benefit of cameras, the kids learned to become calm, happy, self-believing young people. Very disappointing for the tabloids.
But how to spread the word? Firstly, the BBC should put the series on DVD instantly for showing in secondary schools. Secondly we need more Romance Academies, and Catholic schools are the place to start.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The trendy vice

Home Front 16 September 2005

Passions were running high during the Ashes series, naturally, and no cries of anguish were louder than those which I heard whenever Channel 4, shamefacedly and with many blushing apologies, had to stop broadcasting the cricket and “go over to Doncaster”.

“Racing!” spluttered the 10-year-old, waving his bat menacingly. (It is necessary, I am told, to carry a cricket bat while watching the sport on TV. This must be where I‘ve gone wrong all these years - I‘m not using the right equipment.) “Who on EARTH,” he went on, like an enraged colonel, “cares about blinking, blasted racing?”

We all know the answer. Nobody follows racing because they enjoy watching horses running. If you like horses, you follow eventing. The only thrill in watching one horse get round a track faster than another horse rests in the winning or losing of money on the result. Without gambling, racing is not much of a sport.

Governments have always tried to control the vices of smoking, drinking and gambling. The first, for centuries regarded as an annoying but harmless indulgence, has of course fallen completely from grace, and with smoking’s meteoric tumble we have seen a increased acceptance of the two vices which were once most successfully and thoroughly condemned by religious authorities.

Thus, public drunkenness has reached the point where young people simply have no other idea of what might make an evening enjoyable, and public gambling is now becoming a messianic Government cause.

Of course everyone agrees that the government’s theory of drinking - namely, that if bars are open all day in the “continental” pattern, then Saturday night’s lager louts will suddenly turn into Parisian existential poets - is not going to work. The plan is firmly opposed by around 70% of the whole population.

Incidentally I worry that our debate on binge drinking has not fully recognised the dread and awe - not affection - in which old-fashioned drunks regarded old-fashioned bobbies.

A fellow who got sozzled in Victorian London would most likely end up in a cell, minus his watch. To avoid causing an embarrassing scene, which would alert his employer - and his missus - as to where he’d spent the night, the gentleman would usually discreetly decide against reporting the watch as missing: hence the music-hall hit, “If you want to know the time, ask a p’liceman”.

By contrast, very few of the young men and women who roar and stagger half-naked through our towns actually wake up in a cell next morning. The law exists to put them there. It simply isn’t being used.

And as for the Parisian gendarme - the first thing I was warned of by my parents when travelling to France alone was “remember French policemen are not like ours! They are surly and have absolutely no sense of humour.” Well, after decades of dealing with “continental style” drinkers, is it surprising?

So having turned drunkenness from a vice to a pleasure and then belatedly realising our mistake (and having not a clue what to do about it), we now are rapidly following precisely the same path with gambling, the fastest way to wreck a home and family yet devised.

First step: social acceptability. Poker is a fashionable game, with its sad, solitary online version making millions. Second step: the profiteers push the limits, with internet gambling sites advertised on the Tube, giving children the impression it is a normal, harmless activity like shopping.

Third step: relax the laws in response to “public demand” - the plans for super casinos are still pressing ahead, despite (or because of?) the opposition of every church and religious group.
At least some of these are still holding out.

Birmingham councillors are currently trying to soften up local Muslims with promises of “inner city regeneration” if they will only give up opposing a super-casino in the inner city (instead of out of town in the sprawling NEC complex).

One Conservative councillor, a veritable Mephistopheles of the Midlands, purred warningly: “The communities have to weigh up the benefit of major capital investment against faith issues”.
When Western civilisation utters language like this, so utterly uncomprehending of any concepts of morality, eternity or obedience to one’s God, one begins to see why idealistic young Muslims turn radical.


A good throw-out

Home Front by Sarah Johnson
There is nothing so therapeutic to domestic harmony as a good old throw-out. I say this as I stand and survey three children’s bedrooms with a roll of black bin liners menacingly gripped in one hand.
Now, whenever we come back from holiday I fully expect to find the garden in some disarray, with the self-seeded elderflowers and buddleia happily spreading themselves, regarding all empty space as requiring only to be filled with foliage. These are living things, and they grow.
What I don’t quite understand, on the other hand, is how within 24 hours of our return, the same thing happens inside the house, not with plants but with what I had thought were inanimate objects - largely crayons, clothes, card games, piles and piles of books, quantities of stray elastic hair ties, yet more clothes - in particular socks - which multiply and spread like buddleia.
Much of this stuff is what the transatlantic cruise ships would have designated “not wanted on voyage”: no longer wanted on this particular family voyage through life, at any rate, and must go - as much as possible to the local charity shops, to be found by others who might find them useful on their voyage.
So as I steel myself for one of my periodic throw-outs, to be conducted as soon as the dear darlings are back at school, I am alarmed to read an appeal from Oxfam imploring us to stop donating unsaleable stuff to their shops. It seems that the charity is spending between a half a million and a million pounds (they are rather vague about the true cost) on disposing of items which are too scruffy to be resold. In future, says Oxfam snootily, only quality items will be accepted.
Well, hoity toity! I have always maintained that a browse in the thrift shops of Chelsea or Hampstead is well worth the bus fare: now it seems that even those with less glamorous addresses are too grand to accept any old stuff, so I shall save my bus fare in future. This must be the mark of an affluent society indeed.
I would say “and jolly good too” but for the fact that we have noticed lately that Oxfam shops are not quite the treasure troves for the bargain hunter they used to be. Books and music are marked at ridiculous prices that few really hard up people could afford. And for some years now, neither Oxfam nor any charity shop I know of will accept either electrical goods or children’s equipment of any kind, however lightly used, for “health and safety” reasons.
Thus, thousands of expensive, hardly used coffee makers, vacuum cleaners and car seats have to be thrown away every year because the charity shops will not accept them, citing the possibility that they “could have been damaged in an accident”. Even many toys are turned away, depriving children of another range of items on which they can spend their pocket money.
This is annoying enough when you are trying to get rid of your hardly-used car seat or baby-gym but it is even more hard on anyone in financial straits who is in need of the same item, and who might be willing to make their own personal judgement as to its roadworthiness. As usual, the real losers are the poor.
What can we do for New Orleans? For a start, we can jolly well stop being smug. Let us not forget all those modern housing estates dotted around the UK, built by our greedy developers on ancient water meadows and flood plains.
Mind you, it’s not easy, this not being smug business. For example, I have to fight down the feeling that a nation which enshrines in its laws the right to carry a gun should not be surprised when its youth grow up thinking that firearms must be the only way in which law and order can be maintained.
The gangs who terrorised and looted the devastated city have learned, erroneously, that since guns are regarded as necessary to keep order, then they must be the only necessity. If you discipline children with no sanction but violence, they will learn to respect not love, not pride in helping others, not compassion, but only violence.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Summer holidays (2)

If you experienced a slight delay on the M11 in Essex the other week, it might very well have been because of Tyrone the Tiger.

Tyrone was purchased five years ago in Hamleys, the famously hideous and over-priced toy shop in London’s once-elegant Regent Street. He is made of black and white striped boucle, which makes him more of a zebra than a tiger in my book, but all the same he is - and this is important - very dear to his owner, Amy, who is now ten.

While returning from holiday last week with Amy and her family, Tyrone was inexplicably sucked out of the sun roof of the family car as it travelled down the M11. Now in my experience, objects do not get “sucked out” of sun roofs unless somebody gives them a helping hand, but let us not delve too deeply. The fact remains that Tyrone was blown onto the cruel no-man’s land which is the central reservation of a motorway, and Amy was “devastated”.

To console her, Amy’s adoring parents reported Tyrone’s fate to the Essex police. The officer in charge of that stretch of the M11 decided to take a welcome break from the weary routine of chasing Essex gang leaders up and down it, and sent out a search party for Tyrone. Once the toy was spotted, it was the work of a moment to set up a road block - halting, for several minutes, all the people who happened to be driving to Stansted Airport to catch aeroplanes, among others - then to collect Tyrone and restore him to Amy’s loving arms.

Probably your stomach, like mine, churns at this Disneyishly sentimental tale. But what should Amy’s parents have done?

Let us recall what another parent did in similar circumstances.

In 1925, four year old Michael Tolkien became deeply attached to a tiny china dog. He carried “Rover” everywhere, including to the beach at Filey in Yorkshire, where he dropped it.
Michael‘s father returned to the beach and searched as best he could: but finding a tiny china dog, on a pebbly beach, at dusk, is a job even the Essex police would fail at, never mind a lone Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon.

So to deal with the tears of little Michael, who at four was, I would have thought, far less able to cope with such a loss than a ten year old, what did the child’s father, a devout Catholic, do?
Did he tell the child, as some American psychologists say we should that “stuff happens - deal with it”? No, because he was a kind man.

Did he tell the child that he would get the whole Yorkshire police force out looking for his toy? No, because that would have been (a) a shocking waste of Yorkshire policemen and (b) claiming an omnipotence no parent should pretend to.

Instead, he did something far wiser. He made up a long story for Michael all about the dog’s adventures after being lost on the beach. Rover went to the moon, he met a sand-sorcerer, a dragon and the King of the Sea; in the end he even turned into a real dog.

After years of re-telling, J. R. R. Tolkien had the story published as Roverandom (republished by Harper Collins in 2002). It isn’t the greatest story on earth but it’s a wonderful monument to humane, imaginative parenting.

Parents try to shield their children from distress: but we often go too far, shielding them instead from opportunities for strengthening resilience, for learning to cope with change. You don’t need to be a professor of Anglo-Saxon to think up a cheering tale to help a small child feel better - any parent can play this game. And for an older child, there must surely come a time when the words “Dearest, it is only a toy - not a real animal, you know” need to be gently whispered.

We do our children no favours by trying to turn ourselves into Supermum and Superdad, able to solve every problem. One day our little ones will have to face real sadness on their own: guarding them from every tiny sadness of childhood does not prepare them well.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Summer Holidays (1)

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

Catholic Herald 12 August 2005

The summer is another country: they do things differently there. They do without things. Doing without things, and learning how to get by without the things you regard as essential for the rest of the year, seems to be the main point of summer holidays.

My thirteen year old daughter is currently discovering what it is like to be in a idyllic Mediterranean paradise…and to have run out of English language reading material. The only solution, she is rapidly discovering, is to write a story for herself.

(The rest of us are discovering what it is like to be without the thirteen year old daughter, and are resolving never to let her go away for so long again.)

Boredom, caused either by the withdrawal of habitual pastimes, or by one’s parents’ being too busy to take one out on endless treats, is as great a mother of invention as necessity, I have often found. And boy, can summer holidays be boring. I’ve just discovered an attempt at a holiday diary kept by one of my children some time ago. On the first page it reads, “Day 1. Not terribly good.” The second page: “Day 2. Only did a little.” I can only hope that the blank pages which follow indicate that we subsequently became too busy for the keeping of a diary, rather than that things became so dull as to peter into emptiness.

Last summer my children had to get by without British television OR computers for two whole weeks. They are used to managing without computer games for the odd spell, but doing without these and also having their TV viewing restricted to the Olympic Games as seen through the eyes of Italian TV was a new challenge.

So the eldest one, after lying completely motionless on the loggia for about 48 hours, suddenly leapt to his feet and introduced us to an ingeniously subtle kind of cricket utilising nothing more sophisticated than scraps of paper spread out on a table top.

I won’t tell you the manner of play or the rules in case my son decides to patent the game one day, thereby making himself a fortune, but I have to say it was one of the most brilliantly devised games I’ve ever known.

One of its best aspects was that each player first has to pick their own cricket team. Anyone could be chosen - living, dead, fictional, and not necessarily human. This was enormous fun and we spent an entire day devising our teams. Mr J’s Ethical Philosophy All-Stars turned out to be a particularly strong side, featuring John Paul II (slogger) and Immanuel Kant (steady left-hander).

I think they were bowled out in the end by the seven-year-old’s spinners, Moomintroll and Ricky Gervais, but not before building up an impressive second innings partnership.

At church, too, we have to do without for the summer. We lack our regular choir during the summer holidays, so Family Mass takes a diminuendo turn from its noisy joyousness to a hushed, almost dreamlike feel. Churches are particularly wonderful places to be in the summer, when you step from brightest sunlight outside to the dim coolness within.

When you are travelling with children in a hot country, a church suddenly becomes for them a memorable place of comfort on a weary day. When they are wilting with the heat and you don’t want to go back home yet, suggest slipping into a church to cool off.

After moaning "Oh no, not another church", the children will breathe in the cool air gratefully and dip their fingers a little more deeply than usual in the stoop; the stone floor is blissful to step on and if you can get a child to sit with her eyes closed for a few minutes she can listen to the gentle symphony of footsteps, rustlings and murmurs which is the unmistakeable background music of a church.

If the light is in the right place when she opens her eyes, she will see sunbeams doing that corny Hollywood thing of slanting diagonally across the sanctuary and illuminating the altar as if angels were sliding down into our lives, fixing a perfect little moment into your child’s mind for ever.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Lilies of the field

Home Front

There was a particularly poignant detail in the reports this week of the brutal murder of an 18 year old black youth - by all accounts an adorable, hard-working and sporty lad who was thinking of becoming a lawyer and worked as a church youth leader in his spare time - in Liverpool.

(The murder was singled out by the police for special note because it was apparently motivated by racial hatred, which means we get to hear far more about it than, for example, that of the young man who died last week after stab wounds received because he objected to his girlfriend being pelted with food on a bus…or about any other of the many senseless killings of young men, by young men, which happen all year round.)

It was a detail that will have leapt out of the page for thousands of parents at this time of the year above all others.

Anthony Walker’s life was snatched from him two weeks before he was to receive his A-level results. Of all the torments his family must endure in the years to come, the arrival of those results will be among the most bizarre and cruel. The computer-print out bearing the precious grades will come in the post, presumably, as for every other student in the country, but in the Walker home there will be no nervous boy to tear open the envelope. It does not bear thinking about, does it?

What is it with us parents and exams? We press our young to work hard towards a specific set of very narrowly defined goals, and then when the results come in we blithely declare that there is “more to life than exams“. Any kid in any sixth form can tell you that in no way whatsoever is there “more to life” than exams. For the kind of driven student I remember being, life barely exists outside exams. And if you are good at exams, not everything else seems easy. It comes as a shock to find that life does not come with a list of set books attached.

It is so hard to get it right. Either we soften the blow of poor results by employing the old “Your uncle Kevin failed all his O-levels and it never did him any harm” line or by using newer, more modern versions of the same tactic, such as that suggested recently by teachers that failure be described only as “deferred success”.

Sheer hypocrisy, either way.

Of course exams matter. They matter dreadfully in a world which never takes the trouble to make anything other than a snap judgement about a person. We make our children sit these crucial exams, the foundation of many snap judgements in their future lives, at an age when they still find the idea of deferred gratification a tricky one, How to explain to a 15 year old boy that without an A-C grade at Maths GCSE, about two thirds of the decent-paid jobs in the world will be closed to him, when he can barely imagine himself having a job at all?

As our children progress through life we watch in agony as doors close on them one by one. At the age of three we know that the flat-footed daughter is not going to be a ballet dancer. At six we know the ham-fisted son is not going to be a piano player. Slipping down from top set to third set in Science at thirteen…oops, there goes the medical career.

The lilies of the field toil not, neither do they spin, and neither do they worry about exam results. It is a great blessing that the tragic Anthony Walker, though a diligent student, also filled his life with other joys and achievements besides revision. He was indeed a lily of the field, enjoying his youth properly and helping others rather than burying himself solely in exam results for the sake of far-distant success.

May all families anxiously tearing open envelopes this month think and pray for his family in their grief, and remember that their children, too, are lilies of the field in their own way - even those with a string of deferred successes.

Harry Potter for Christians

I would have thought the then Cardinal Ratzinger had more vital tasks on his plate in 2003 than ploughing through J. K. Rowling’s interminable Harry Potter books. So I wonder if, when His Eminence praised author Gabriele Kuby’s attack on the Potter phenomenon, he was completely [italics]au fait[end italics] with the exploits of the boy wizard.

There are many reasons for not liking the Harry Potter books; off the top of my head I could mention Rowling’s inability to use a verb of speech without a qualifying adverb; the flatness of most of the characters (the good ones boringly stay good and the bad ones stay bad, and that’s as far as it gets); or the timidity of the editorial staff at Bloomsbury, none of whom, apparently, has the courage to edit a story that crawls along inch by inch across thousands of pages of repetitive dialogue.
And I am becoming wearied of Harry himself, at times so infuriately slow on the uptake that I feel some sympathy for Professor Snape, the evil teacher who picks on our hero.

But to say that the books “deeply distort Christianity in the soul”, is missing the point by a mile. On the contrary, the Harry Potter stories have done more to lay down in the souls of unchurched children the foundations of key themes of Christianity than any other children’s story of our time.

If the Cardinal had had time to read the books (and I fancy he has even less time to do so nowadays) then he would learn that when Harry Potter was a helpless infant his life was saved by his mother’s love. The concept of redeeming love gradually emerges throughout the stories as the strongest “magic” of all - and in particular is the magic which will defeat the “Dark Lord” Voldemort.

The power of redeeming love versus the culture of death - and even the Dark Lord’s name is resonant of a despairing death-wish, [italics]volt de mort[end italics]: this surely is a ball any Christian parent can run with.

In the latest book, [italics]Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince[end italics], Harry’s mentor, the wizard Dumbledore, explains to Harry that he “has a power that Voldemort has never had.”

[italics]‘So when the prophecy says that I’ll have “power the Dark Lord knows not”, it just means - love?‘ asked Harry, feeling a little let down. ‘Yes - just love,‘ said Dumbledore.[end italics] Harry can scarecely believe it can be that easy, that ordinary - and thus the story steps briefly into the real world.

Rowling once explained to me that the idea of a parent’s love being the core of her story took hold in her mind after her own mother’s death. There is an echo in Lewis’s Narnia stories, in which Aslan gives his life for that of the “lost sheep”, Edmund…but rises again from the dead because of “the deeper, older magic” which the White Witch, imprisoned in her love-less state, did not know about.

In the Harry Potter books, the magic offers much uproarious and exciting entertainment, but also works as a metaphor for the power of earthly science and knowledge. The wizarding school, Hogwarts, exists to educate magically talented children to use their skills well, and not for evil or ignorant purposes. Great emphasis is laid on the idea that magical ability may occur in people of all backgrounds and races, the school's job being to gather them in and set them on the right road.

For science and knowledge - "magic" - can be perverted to evil ends, Rowling repeatedly stresses. And it becomes clear that this can happen unless they are controlled by the highest magic of all - which, as Harry discovers, is “just love”.

Gabriele Kuby and the American evangelicals who attack Pottermania are concerned that the books encourage an interest in the occult: they overlook the fact that the books more consistently teach that any knowledge, any science, any talent can be misused, once the user has sold out to the cult of death.

Let us see the glass as half-full. Considering the influence she has on our children, we should be deeply grateful Rowling is what she is - a well-read attendee of Church of Scotland services and a loving mother, whose moral outlook is rooted in Christianity. Let the critics, from all churches and of whatever eminence, read the books before passing judgement.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Which quote sticks in your mind from last week’s coverage of the London bombs? I bet you cannot remember a word of the statements made by Tony Blair or Ken Livingstone, even though they were probably laboriously prepared, written down and handed out on press releases to make sure nobody got a word wrong.

If, however, you chanced to switch on your TV and radio and catch an interview with one Nigerian mother standing in Tavistock Square, a mother whose 26 year old son is almost certainly among the unidentified people who met their ends on the No. 30 bus, you probably have a sense of mild culture shock to add to your horror at the atrocities of 7/7.

How horribly accustomed we are to hearing the stumbling platitudes of miserable, bereaved relatives trickling out of our TVs: “you never think it will happen to you, do you…” - the agonising sound of decent, inarticulate people struggling to put feelings they wish they did not have, into a language they do not possess.

Mrs Marie Fatayi-Williams is different. When she opened her mouth at Tavistock Square, clutching a picture of her adored son to her heart, it was as though all the pain and fury of every bereaved mother in the world had crystallised into one angry woman’s heart.

Eloquence? If the very ghost of Charles Dickens had filtered through his blue plaque on the wall of the house near the wrecked bus and into the mouth of this anguished mother, he could not have done better. Newshounds’ jaws dropped to hear the kind of rhetoric we never get from politicians, let alone from those who aren’t paid to make speeches.

“How many tears shall we cry? How many mothers’ hearts must be maimed? My heart is maimed…there has been widespread slaughter…streams of innocent tears…rivers of blood…Death in the morning, death in the noontime on the highways and streets. Which cause has been served? Certainly not the cause of Allah, because God almighty only gives life and is full of mercy.”

Mrs Fatayi-Williams is obviously a highly educated woman - but education does not guarantee the ability to translate passion. She is a marketing director for Elf Oil; but she certainly did not learn her eloquence from the marketing world. According to “Who Moved My Blackberry?” a hilarious new book by my friend Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times, marketing directors normally say things like “we can use the low-hanging fruit to leverage our performance strategy outcomes”. No, I would not look to marketing or commerce to lend words of such terrible beauty as: “I grieve, I am sad, I am distraught, I am destroyed…”

It turns out that Mrs Fatayi-Williams is a Roman Catholic, married to a Muslim; I would dare to suggest that it was a faith-based upbringing which provided her with such reserves of expression, such mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

And she was not the only one. Among the many stories which survivors of those long nightmare minutes in the tunnels brought to the surface were tales of prayer; of the sound of people reciting Hail, Mary in the darkness and confusion. All around London, we were struck with panic - our phones did not work, the school switchboards were jammed, we did not know where to go, or what to do. So the head teacher of my children’s primary school did the only sensible thing: she led the school in prayers, and the reassuring rhythms of the words which the children all know by heart.

The mechanics of everyday life are largely directed towards avoiding death, not towards equipping people for it. However, Christians face death every time they pray to Christ on the Cross. We contemplate death as part of our daily routine; we refer to “the hour of our death” in that prayer which was overheard in the dark and bleeding hell of a bomb-wrecked underground train.

Let us remember this when our children yawn at the idea of learning prayers by heart, when teachers scoff at “rote learning” and when parents complain that references to death in our prayers might frighten the young ones. If we do not equip them with the basic tools for meeting death without fear, then neither are we giving them the tools to live without fear.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Home Front by Sarah Johnson (long version)

The heroine of Live8 - for my money - was a lone African woman; I don’t mean the radiant young lady from Ethiopia whose appearance contrasted inspiringly with the pictures of her as a starving child 20 years ago, and who managed to smile bravely while being yanked about the Hyde Park stage by Madonna.

No. My heroine is the lady who toiled all day keeping the ladies’ loos in the underpass at Marble Arch absolutely spotless.

“Do NOT drop toilet paper on the floor” she barked, brandishing her mop at tattooed teenagers, who completely ignored her. Her cubicles were clinically clean, her basins sparkled, her water was hot, her soap dispensers full. At the end of a day spent standing packed into what amounted to the biggest bus queue in the world, this lady’s little underground queendom seemed a blessed haven of hygiene. God bless her.

Every word you read last weekend about the Live8 rock concert in Hyde Park was written, I guarantee, by someone with privileged access to a comfortable part of the arena with champagne bars and easily reached toilets. Naturally, you have to buy the Catholic Herald to find out what life was like for those of us who had genuinely won tickets by text - only two per person, a sort of One Friend Policy resulting in terrible Sophie’s Choice style decisions.

“And why,” asked my 15 year old son, who did not draw the lucky straw, while his 13 year old sister did, “couldn’t they have had fewer winners but given each one 4 tickets?” - thus proving once and for all Descartes' theory that only by staying in bed all day can the brain produce ideas of true genius.

It was indeed a happy and beautifully behaved crowd, but the jolly arm-linking bands of brethren you saw on cameras were all in the front section near the stage. They had been there all night, bonding.

Most of us had not had time to bond. On TV, you never saw us: a mile or more of couples, best friends, mums and daughters, dads and sons, too far from the stage to see anything at all, crammed elbow to elbow but shyly avoiding eye-contact.

Apart from the singing along and waving of arms, the atmosphere was not unlike a Buckingham Palace Garden party (though with fewer black or Asian people): couples clinging to each other in awe, occasionally plucking up courage to say, “aren’t we lucky to be here?” as we fought to keep our little patches of grass uninvaded. Yes, it was a great atmosphere - but my son is right: if we had had four tickets per winner, it would have been better yet.

And isn’t it odd how the best rock music is always so sad? The melancholy, jangling guitars of Coldplay and Keane simply reek of middle class, British adolescence, socks under the bed, wet summer Sundays and disappointing A-level results. Bob Geldof gave us “I don’t like Mondays”, the only song of his anyone remembers, which unfortunately happens to be about a schoolgirl shooting her classmates, though it could also be about one's children's bad A-level results, too.

And Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” must be quite the saddest song ever written, ostensibly about injecting drugs but also with a strong whiff of yet more bad A-level results, though this time, considering the band's distinguished grey hairs, one's grandchildren's.

It suddenly struck me where Christian rock musicians go so dreadfully wrong. They persist in churning out happy songs. Rock fans don’t want upbeat Cliff Richard stuff; they want pain and suffering.

Now, we Catholics are rather good at pain and suffering. There probably isn’t time before World Youth Day, but I think the Pope should immediately commission a rock Mass: and he should insist that it be mostly deeply gloomy, with hope shining down only at the end: imagine the worst A-level results in the world suddenly lit by a ray of light from heaven. It could be a massive hit, if only someone could write it.

Back to me and my daughter, wedged in among the 200,000 at Hyde Park. “Are you having a good time?” we were asked, and films of starving or disease-ridden children would pop up on the giant screens. The man beside me was in tears, as was the girl who had lost both her boyfriend and her mobile phone.

Every time we cheered up, one of the stars would remind us “why we were here“. We only had water to drink, the loos were impossible to reach through the crowd, the stage was effectively invisible. Whenever we got out our sandwiches, the screens would fill with more images of starvation which turned our food to ashes in our mouths.

By half-time a lot of us, especially the women, had sunk to the ground wearily, dreaming of a cuppa. Bob Geldof reminded us that “not numbers, but real people” are dying of preventable poverty. Then came the announcement: “And now on the Live8 stage - Brad Pitt!”

As one woman, every female scrambled to her feet, squealing with renewed energy and waving camera phones at the tiny dot in the distance. Real people have their place, it seems, but only celebrities can refresh the weary. Celebrities, and the lady with the mop under Marble Arch.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Home Front, Catholic Herald 1 July 2005

As the teenagers in my life get older, it occurs to me that society is extraordinarily prejudiced against provisional licence holders. Why on earth should they have to drive with a full licence holder sitting next to them, for example? How uncool is that?
And what pernickety old fuddy-duddy laid down the arbitrary rule which insists that the qualified driver accompanying the provisional licence holder must be 21 or over? Isn’t this condemning a person, against their will, to actually-like-y’know talk to some sad crumbly, innit?
As for car insurance! The unfair animus against drivers who happen, through absolutely no fault of their own, to have only turned 17 last week, continues to be a major human rights atrocity on the otherwise well-adjusted landscape of loss adjustment.
This glaring prejudice can continue through a person‘s whole life. I mean, just because a person hasn’t got round to passing their driving test by the time they are 45 doesn’t mean they are necessarily a bad driver, does it? They might just be too busy to book a test. Those crypto-fascist dictators in Swansea, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority, are just ripe for a swift dose of statue-toppling if you ask me.
And why not? The Government is now planning to change the law substantially to wipe out any “disadvantages” which remain for couples who live together without being married. The disadvantages include not being able to inherit a share of the partner’s pension, not having full parental rights, no claim to financial support; these are all considered to be out of line with “society’s attitudes”. Society says: why discriminate against a couple just because they never like, y’know, found a free Saturday afternoon to get married?
It is usual to blame the feminist movement for the attacks on marriage; I now read of one of the movement’s leading lights in America having a massive change of heart. Stephanie Coontz, as the founder of the Council on Contemporary families, has spent years trying to push the traditional family out to the side of the picture. But in her latest book, the scholarly Marriage: A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Ms Coontz looks at the past 3,000 years and concludes that marriage is the most powerful way of “building a village” - in other words, of creating a society where people work for each other as much as for themselves.
There may be other ways, she argues, to organise child-rearing, care for the elderly and passing on property: but marriage “is the only way to get in-laws”. The creating of new ties of kinship, she points out, is something marriage does which other social rule systems do not do.
I do not know of a dedicated, longitudinal study of modern Western cohabiting couples which looks at whether they entail strong bonds with networks of in-laws; but the fact that Ms Coontz, who has spent years enthusiastically promoting non-traditional families, now, in 2005, declares that the creation of such bonds is a special virtue of marriage, seems fairly strong evidence to start from.
And, surprisingly for an American feminist, Ms Coontz gives the Catholic Church a little pat on the back for transforming marriage from a materialistic joining-together of property into something more personal. The Church’s doctrine of consent supported the idea of a voluntary bond between two people, not just between two families. And though the consent of young folk was often seen as an expendable luxury at the top of the social scale, by the 15th century the idea of marriage as monogamous and voluntary on both sides was firmly established.
Thanks to the evolution of the ideal of marriage, however, the marriage debate now tends to be so focussed on the couple, that we forget that network of in-laws stretching out into the distance. As Coontz avers, marriage is not a personal pastime: it builds the fabric of our survival.
We do not allow provisional driving licence holders the same privileges as fully qualified drivers, because we can see that lives are at stake. I wonder how long it is going to take for us to re-discover the fact that marriage, too, is an important safeguard for other road users?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Home Front: Catholic Herald 23 June 2005

In one issue of The Independent this week, several pages were devoted to the looming “fertility time bomb” poised to hit the United Kingdom. In ten years one couple in three could be needing fertility treatment to enable them to have the family they believe themselves entitled to have.
The main causes of the collapse of women’s fertility are obesity, chlamydia (a sexually transmitted disease you do not know you have had, until it is too late) and pressures on women to delay having babies until later in life.
Now the wonderful thing about these three causes is that they can all be dealt with, and we all know in our hearts how to deal with them. Obesity is solved, mirabile dictu, by eating less and walking more. Chlamydia would drop if women just slept with fewer men before settling down with the man of their choice. The late-baby issue is a tougher one: but the French are offering tax breaks to younger women if they stop work to start a family, and apparently the policy is working.
All these solutions are staring us all in the face. Our bodies are clearly telling us that constant self-indulgence, whether with food, casual sex or the decision to choose a smarter car over getting pregnant, exacts a cruel price.
I had always understood that modern medicine favours treating causes, rather than merely the symptoms, of disease. Yet all the scientific community can think of is dishing out fertility treatment - which is treating the symptom, not the cause.
In the same edition of the newspaper another report described how brain scans have shown that women don’t fully enjoy sex unless they feel “protected and safe” with their partner. Isn’t that kind of situation another name for marriage?
The women and men who edit The Independent are dinosaurs. They live in a 1970s Peter Sellers farce where sex is only fun if freely available and adulterous. I assume this, because in the same edition of the same newspaper it had been decided to publish an article “explaining” why “alpha males” - a fine example, by the way, of the questionable pop-psychology habit of applying a zoology term to human society - feel compelled to commit adultery: it‘s because they are so successful, you see. Few males, from alpha to omega, reading this article would have missed the subtext: “if you are unfaithful, it proves you are successful”.
And despite all the evidence on pages 1, 2 and 17 showing that promiscuity is neither wise nor worthwhile, the very same paper carries a column by a pert young pundette called “Sleeping Around”.
They just don’t get it, do they?
My heart was in my mouth when the new, turbo-charged Dr Who series ended last Saturday, and not merely because it meant saying goodbye to the piercing, smouldering blue eyes and endearing sticky-out ears of the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston.
No, what was worrying me was that I had urged Catholic Herald readers to watch the series, only to discover - too late - that the final episode would include, of all the un-Dr Who-ish things, a gay kiss.
As things turned out, the gay kiss was dispatched snappily and could have easily been mistaken for something merely a bit Mediterranean. But in the final denouement, the Doctor’s old enemies, the Daleks, suffered what the series’ writer in chief Russell T Davies clearly considers the ultimate degradation - in other words, they had got religion. And what a confused theological soup it was.
“Blasphemy! Blasphemy!” squealed the homicidal pepper-pots, before ordering the Doctor to worship their God, a 20 foot pepper-pot. This was bad. After a lot of very complicated plot and emotion, it turned out that not the pepper-pot, but the Tardis was God, or at least the source of a heavenly glow which made everything come right in the end. This, apparently, was OK.
I don’t mind Russell T Davies, who is a proud atheist, having a go at those who misuse religion or worship false gods - but I think I draw the line at being asked to worship a souped-up 1960s police telephone box. Let's applaud Davies heartily for putting the concept of family entertainment back on TV...but could someone please send him round some G. K. Chesterton?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On Mother Kelly's Doorstep: Catholic Herald 16 June 2005

About half of working mums with young children would rather be at home caring for their own children. About a quarter of the younger teenage boys who come back to an empty home after school every day say they would really prefer a parent to be there to give them a hug and a biscuit, and to nag them to get down to their homework. Both these figures were revealed in recent surveys.
The Government’s response? To make it easier for parents to look after their own children at home, by, for example, allowing them to transfer their personal tax allowance to their working partner?
Nope. Instead, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, announces the 10 hour a day, year round school - the “wraparound” school, providing affordable (cheap) child care for children up to 14 from 8 am to 6pm.
With all its good intentions, the wraparound school looks like a final judgement on the parents of Britain: you’ve failed. Your children are feral, fat, and don’t know what a leek is. Hand them over to the Government: leave them, as the old song says, on Mother Kelly’s doorstep.
On paper it looks exciting: children will be given a wholesome breakfast in the morning and later on kept happy and active with “painting, DVDs, board games, snooker, table tennis”. After a snack, the homework club gets going, with “football, basketball, computing, art, drama, chess, cookery” laid on until 6pm.
If you believe this will be the programme in all schools, think again. Who exactly will be staffing these after school clubs? Will a crowded inner city primary school be able to offer the same pleasant facilities as a country comprehensive? Will there be any help for larger families?
In schools where the average parent cannot afford £5 an hour for the top quality trained play leader, you can forget about the board games, the basketball and the chess, for a start. Many carers, I confidently predict, will do exactly what tired, uninspired parents do - plonk the kids in front of the TV.
How will it feel for the bullied, teased or just mildly unpopular child, after being tormented by Gavin in Year 5 all day, to have to endure his taunts right through until 6pm? For the young girl with period pains who needs to be curled up with a hot water bottle at home? How will larky lads in the summer react to being stuck in a hot city playground when they could be at the local pool or in the park, cooling off?
Enough moaning. Wraparound schooling is not ideal. But as a church, we can make it work for the good of our children by grasping the opportunities it represents.
Ms Kelly has indicated that schools should consult parents. Catholic schools in particular have a duty to involve not just parents, but also local parishes in deciding how to set up after school care. I hope Catholic parents won’t wait to be asked, but will step right up and make their wishes known.
As long as parents and parishes are allowed to influence individual school programmes, after school clubs could become a new location for catechism and faith building, for bringing generations closer together, for encouraging skills and invention.
Why not request that the after school session includes ten minutes of quiet prayer time, perhaps with some peaceful, devotional music playing? Why not offer to come in once a week to say the Rosary? Why not offer first communion and confirmation classes as part of the programme?
Will older, retired members of the local congregation be encouraged to offer themselves as after school carers? Many schools already use retired people as classroom helpers, doing useful and kind things such as listening to younger children reading. An after school club would be an ideal place for a retired person to offer their services passing onto children the skills that they have. Come and teach the kids to scramble an egg, to knit, to sew on a button. And while you do so, tell them about your own childhood, help them to see that you were once like them…and reminisce about the days when children were allowed to go home and watch whatever TV channel they wanted.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Does religion make people cruel to children?

From the Catholic Herald 9 June 2005
Home Front

Why are people cruel to children?

In the case of the three East London adults found guilty last week of horrific cruelty to a little girl in their care, the reason was, on the surface, simple: they believed the child was possessed by evil spirits. The press seems to think that must be an end of it: they are driven to acts of unspeakable cruelty by their religion, and religion makes people do weird things, doesn’t it?

Yet this does not explain how the abusers had reasoned that starving, beating and torturing a child would affect the evil spirits supposedly living within her; or how they could fail to see that on the contrary, their own monstrous actions were driving them deeper and deeper into a pit of evil from which they could not hope to climb.

Nor does it explain why the media persistently describe the organisations which promote such actions as “churches” and casually link them with evangelical Christianity.

We have been here before, and will be here again. Which of us has not shuddered in the past 15 years at revelations of the abuse and cruelty to children by adults entrusted with their care - entrusted by the Catholic Church itself? And how often have we seen it glibly assumed that it is the religious nature of organisations such as the Christian Brothers which made their members behave abominably?

Not a single recorded word uttered by Christ could conceivably be used to justify any cruelty to children. What motivates cruelty to children, in my view, is something inherent in adult behaviour which Christianity is, in fact, ideally placed to defeat.

It is the inability to think outside oneself; the strange inhibition when it comes to recognising and understanding the feelings of others who are different from oneself. A child is so unlike an adult: smaller, weaker physically, therefore unable to fight back; also different mentally, emotionally.

A child is the perfect victim for the type of person whose warped inner self craves the justification that violence promises. An adult who is systematically abusing children may convince himself or herself that there are good reasons, whether “discipline”, demonic possession or the state of the child‘s immortal soul. But whatever the excuse, the inability to see the child as an equal, valid human being remains the same.

Another child cruelty story hit the headlines last week: the murky tale of a five year old allegedly “hanged from a tree” by a gang of older kids. For a few days the tabloids screamed in horror at the idea of these evil children. Then it emerged that it wasn’t at all clear what had really happened, and the story disappeared behind legal restrictions as quickly as it had appeared.

But it left an indelible impression of a public eager to demonise children, a public hungry for the satisfaction of pointing at a child and saying, look, there is the Devil incarnate!

Are the people who devour stories of evil children really so very different, in their imaginations, from the Hackney trio who convinced themselves that their little eight year old niece was a witch and must be drowned? Are the people who believe that the killers of Jamie Bulger should “rot in hell” and so on and so forth so very different in their inability to see the child as an equal human being from those who believed that constant beating was good for a child’s immortal soul?


We are relieved to discover that we should stop nagging the 15 year old to get up and go to bed early at weekends. An American study has shown that puberty affects the body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, making it difficult to go to sleep early. On the other hand, teenagers need 10 hours sleep a day and accumulate “sleep debt” which they NEED to “pay off” by sleeping until lunchtime at weekends.

Well, I have always been glad of the Catholic tradition of flexible Mass times. But I had never dreamed that Saturday vigil and Sunday evening Masses would turn out to be the key to the faith of the next generation.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Seeing the wood for the trees

Home Front - Catholic Herald 27 May 2005

It sometimes feels as though one’s children are surrounded by atheism and dark despair. “Religion is basically just someone talking to their imaginary friend” says the Irish comic Dylan Moran in his stand up show, which the teenagers and I were watching on TV last weekend. We noticed how jokes like this always get a huge laugh from British - and Irish - audiences.
This what my children are destined to come up against many times in their lives, so Catholic parents are onto a hiding to nothing if they try to avoid such discussions or suppress them at home. In fact, it makes an ideal RE essay question: “All religion is equivalent to someone talking to their imaginary friend - Discuss.”
The answer is, of course, staring us in the face. Atheism largely consists of a steady and persistent inability to see the wood for the trees.
My daughter’s comprehensive Catholic school had its annual fund raising auction last week. Now having been brought up in an English village, I have long experience of village hall events which bring together people from right across the community. The fairly ordinary large English commuter village where I grew up in the 1960s had four pubs, a post office and two general stores, one at each end of the village; When I was seven the village also boasted a baker, a butcher’s, a greengrocer‘s, an ironmonger’s, a darling little shop that sold knitting wool and needles and toys, and a blacksmith’s. That is far from being an exhaustive list of the village’s facilities…and it makes me feel amazingly old.
If I were to make up a sound picture of my childhood, its refrain would consist of my mother’s voice saying “Goodbye Olive, or Betty, or Mr Careless” and Olive or Betty or Mr Careless saying “Goodbye Mrs Thompson”. For one of the saddest things about living in London is that I have been seeing the same staff in the post office and the supermarket every week for a decade, and yet nobody ever says as I leave, “Goodbye, Mrs Johnson.” I know their names - they have to wear badges proclaiming them; but they never know, or want to know, mine.
The single place where this changes is at the church and at the school. Here we become individuals again. People know our names, or at least ask our names, which is just as nice. All those people you see every day whose names you don‘t know? Asking “Just remind me, what is your name?” is never, never resented (as long as it‘s clear you are not making a complaint).
At the school auction, the wine and salted peanuts flowed like…well, like wine and salted peanuts, as mums and dads were egged on by bumptious teenage daughters to outbid each other for signed Chelsea strip, restaurant meals and, a little surprisingly, genuine Swedish massages. At private schools, the cash value of items offered for auction is so daunting that anyone who cannot offer a week’s holiday in their Tuscan farmhouse feels inhibited. At a state school none of that nonsense applies. Everyone has something to offer a school auction. The bidding for “6 hours of ironing in your home” was particularly fierce, as was the bidding for the offer of a day‘s tiling in your bathroom. A prominent local novelist has dutifully sent signed sets of his novels to every school auction for years. He’s not a Catholic, but he does his bit.
Mr J had brought along a distinguished American theologian who was so carried away by the atmosphere that he bid furiously for a state-of-the-art hamster cage for quite a spell and I feared for a moment that it would end up being impounded by the American anti-terrorism officers at Kennedy Airport.
This was not people talking to their imaginary friends; rather, we were making real friends and supporting a cause for sound and practical purposes. This was community; and it was community drawn together under the umbrella of our Catholic faith. This what atheists can never see for all the trees in the way: not a wood, but a mighty forest.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Eeek! Doctor! A teachable moment!

Catholic Herald 19 May 2005

The Home Front research team have asked me to express their profound disappointment with the British Board of Film Censorship, who have banned children from purchasing the DVD of the new Dr Who series, because one episode features a Dalek being tortured. Of course, my rowdy and intractable research team will continue to expect me to buy their DVDs for them - but for once I am in agreement and, if I may slip on my anorak for a moment, I feel compelled to proclaim that the new Dr Who series is a jolly good thing.
A habit parents of faith need to acquire early in life is the ability to watch for “teachable moments”. Those moments in life when a spiritual message crystallises into tangible form as the best solution to an episode at school, a problem at home or something seen on TV.
And if the teachable moment comes in the palatable form of Christopher Eccleston in a leather jacket, I am not complaining; even though this Dr Who does put me worryingly in mind of the sort of university lecturer who, at the end of one’s beloved undergraduate daughter’s first college seminar, will lean across and suggest that if she wants to take her subject to its cutting edge, she should come back to his flat. (Besides which, it just isn’t fair: William Hartnell (the first Dr Who) never [italics]smouldered.[end italics] He looked like your great-granddad. We children of the Sixties, we was robbed.)
But I digress. We were promised the return of the Daleks; the totalitarian egg-whisk-toting bullies of our childhood - “and this time they can fly”. What we got was one very sad, lonely Dalek being brutally tormented by a nasty American (of course) billionaire, and having a nervous breakdown. The message my children got was plain: it is very, very wrong to torture any living creature, even a Dalek.
Meanwhile the Doctor was shown giving in to the temptation to crow over his enemies’ impotence - and later regretting his arrogance, recognising that in his hatred he had morally let himself slide.
Message: even the noblest people must examine their consciences, especially when dealing with their worst enemies. The great British public, who have spent the past 40 years happily wishing Daleks to damnation, actually felt sorry for a Dalek.
A fabulous teachable moment for a Christian parent. So, true to form, the BBFC has contrived utterly to miss the point in classifying this teachable moment unsuitable for children.
The latest episode (yes, I am now almost sewn into my anorak) was bursting with teachable moments. The Doctor’s new girlfriend - sorry, “assistant”, the lovely Rose, went back to 1987 to save her father from the car accident that had killed him when she was a baby…and by thus slightly altering history, unleashed winged dragon-monsters that ate everyone up.
Because, explained the Doctor (smoulderingly), the existence or non-existence of a single ordinary human being changes the world; even a feckless, failed nobody like her dad makes a difference.
“But we aren’t important,” quavered a frightened bridal couple, caught up in the mayhem on the threshold of their wedding. “How did this begin?” asked the Doctor, sternly (but still smoulderingly). “We met because I was looking for a taxi at 2 am,” said the bride, with nostalgia. The Doctor sighed: “I can never have a life like that.”
For a moment it looked as though he was about to launch into a one man version of the Monty Python “Three Yorkshiremen” sketch: “Where I coom from, we ‘ad to get oop the previous century and walk fifty billion light years in our bare feet to t’factory” etc.
Instead, the Doctor wisely turned down the smouldering to a low simmer and told the nation’s watching children that nobody, however ordinary, is insignificant and any human life (he gestured to the bride’s pregnant bump) is infinitely valuable. For a Catholic parent, a teachable moment par excellence; the icing on the cake was the Doctor‘s warning that the dragon things could break into the church where his party was hiding because it “wasn‘t all that old“.
But a suggestion: save your teachings until after the final credits. Or you will find your audience is still hiding behind the sofa…

Friday, May 13, 2005

Teenager trouble again

From the Catholic Herald
Home Front, 12 May 2005

Teenagers, teenagers, teenagers. What’s to be done about them, eh? Two horrible stories this week burst in on the family consciousness, making us feel uneasy and threatened. In one, an Anglican vicar has been forced to move his services to his home because of gangs of teenagers who throw bricks and eggs at his congregation.
In another, two young girls are said to have suffered hours of torture at a seedy hotel in Reading, ending with one being hospitalised and the other, most horrifically of all, stabbed to death. A young life cut off by the action of others not much older, it would seem, than herself, enacting a nightmarish “Lord of the Flies” scenario.
But the feral children in William Golding’s novel were prep school boys, all under thirteen, much, much younger than the alleged suspects in the Reading case.
What are we to do about teenagers?
Maybe the first thing we should do is turn the question on its head. What can teenagers do for us?
What a shame that the Gospels do not reveal the ages of the disciples as Jesus gathered them around him. Being the eclectic bunch they were, several of them must surely have been “teenagers” when they heard the call. But the idea of a teenager did not exist: the idea of a youth, yes; the idea of a young man, making mistakes and making war, yes.
The idea of a teenager is different. A teenager is a child caught in an adult’s body. A “teenager” is - we seem to believe - condemned to live in a sealed world that does not bisect the adult world but exists in parallel - a world of gang language, bad clothes, “respect” and sex.
How did we come to saddle young people with that ugly, down-grading word, “teenager“? As a child I was struck by how my favourite fairy tales seemed to be about very young people just turned adults - and they were princesses, princes, woodcutter’s, miller’s sons…never “teenagers”, though in age terms that is no doubt what they were. Romeo and Juliet were tragic young lovers on whose heads the future of their families depended - they were not “teenagers”.
Let us think of great teenagers of the church. St Agatha, St John Bosco, St Teresa, just to pick out a few names at random. How incongruous the word “teenager” becomes when applied to a martyr or a holy soul. How shallow a word it is - summing up an entire generation with one silly made-up noun based on the suffix of numbers between 13 and 19.
The word, which binds together people of widely varying attitudes by virtue of their age, seems to have crept into the language after the second world war, whose ending 60 years ago has just been celebrated, wanly in the UK, with pomp and magnificence in Moscow. From my own mother’s tales of being a radar operator, I have always been grimly aware of how much that war, indeed most wars, ended up being teenagers’ work: sitting in her dark room twiddling her dial, she was fifteen; many of the pilots she guided were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old.
A kids’ war in which kids made the sharp-end decisions. Robbed of their youth, yes, but also bequeathed great responsibility.
Responsibility does not come easily to today’s teenagers; firstly because they are always being told they aren’t old enough. For even though their souls crave it, the world seems such a complex and slickly put together place that it must be very hard for any bumbling adolescent to imagine himself or herself having responsibility for any part of it.
For the Church, all attempts to “reach out” to young people are doomed to fail, as long as they perpetuate the false notion that the Church is so separated from young people that it has to reach outside itself to touch them at all. We should surely be thinking instead of how our teenagers, our young people, those already within the church, can reach out to those outside the church. In other words, we should be thinking, not “what can we do about teenagers?”, but “what task can we entrust to our teenagers?”