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?”

Monday, May 09, 2005

Moan, Moan, Moan

Catholic Herald 5 May 2005
Home Front by Sarah Johnson

“Are we a ‘hard-working’ family?” I asked Mr J one day before the General Election.
“I hope we are because both the major political parties say that this election is all about ‘hard-working families’”.
Mr J says we are, because he has been working seven days a week for the past six weeks without stopping.
I say we are not, because I don’t count as a full-time working mother. Instead of being in an office all afternoon drinking lattes, I collect my children from school, feed them and supervise their homework…so, with only one income and a bit, rather than the requisite two incomes, I fear that Mr Blair, Mr Brown, Mr Howard and Mr Kennedy would all agree that we are idle good-for-nothings and not the ideal “hard-working family” at all.
Reading the words of Labour MP Joe Benton urging us to vote Labour in last week’s Catholic Herald, I am struck by the Labour Party’s definition of “supporting marriage and the family”. Words like “guaranteed income of £258 a week for those parents with children and in full-time work” stick out a mile. What is really meant is: “NO guaranteed income for parents who want to take care of their own children rather than farm them out to someone else”.
The Conservative Party, too, seems quite oblivious of the existence of parents who look after their own children. For years now voices have been raised in their ranks, putting forward the sensible and simple idea that a parent who is staying at home to look after children (or other needy relatives) should be able to transfer their personal tax allowance to the breadwinner.
My plea is simple: Stop using the tax system to force parents to hand their beloved children over to strangers who may be very kind, and very professional, but, in the end, do not love the children as their parents do.
The Government’s attitude to stay at home mums and dads, in short, amounts to a tax on love. No opposition party has been bold enough, or cares enough to challenge the tax on love: it has become accepted as the norm.
The novelist Allison Pearson is working on a new book following her successful fable of working mum-hood, “I don’t know how she does it” by publishing a lengthy questionnaire online ( which she would like both “working and stay-at-home mothers” to fill in.
Needless to say, the questionnaire, while thoughtful and thought-provoking, is far more interested in “working” mothers than in those who are not earning. Ms Pearson, by dint of her profession, is more familiar with those trying to “do it all” than with mums who care for the children they gave birth to.
I implore all Catholic Herald readers who are, or have ever been, proudly non-earning mothers to fill in Allison’s questionnaire and give her our side of the story.
So far, the women who set the “women’s agenda” are of a generation and type who have been conditioned to despise the non-earning housewife. These women still seem to think that home-making is essentially a leisure activity.
Look at the way writers such as Pearson habitually describe themselves: “Frantically busy”…”juggling home and work”…”work-life balance”…Moan, moan, moan. These are the highly paid women who have persuaded every political party that the main issue for families is, essentially, our old friend from the 1930s, “the servant problem” - or “childcare” as we call it now.
Women who choose to take care of their own children, bringing up the next generation themselves instead of farming the job out to language students and sunless basement day-care centres, have no voice, no economic presence and, it would appear, no vote. Not a vote which seems worth winning, at any rate.
Which is odd, really, since on the day of the General Election we tend to be the hardest working mothers in the country.
You see, our children’s schools have a tendency to close themselves down in order to be used as polling stations, so we find ourselves having the children of the “working” mums over for breakfast…and lunch…and tea, because the “working” mums can’t take a day off from the office. Ironic or what?

Frugal Fun...from The Times, 3 May 2005

In praise of thrift: enjoy money, don't spend it

Repossessions are on the rise again and we are in debt as never before. Reformed spendthrift Sarah Johnson explains how she learnt the art of "elegant economy"

"Borrow as much as you can," everyone said when I bought my first flat. "Your income can only go up and the value of your home will rise."
That was in 1985, and it is quaint to think how we all believed it. In real life, people get sacked, sick or pregnant and debt doesn’t get smaller just by switching to a different card. Of late, average incomes haven’t been rising, but falling.
Yet so desperate are the middle classes to keep up appearances and "play the part" of the big spender, that a typical working woman blithely dribbles away £100 a month on gloopy coffees - just for the sake of the twice-daily walk to Starbucks. All the while paying the same amount in interest on one of her clutch of credit cards.
It is a bling mentality. Money that isn’t really yours feels so much more personal if dangling round your neck or off your wrist, or slipping down your throat…so we spend money we don’t have very readily.
Luckily for me, I married a man who lived for six months in a deserted mill in the Lake District with nothing but lentils and a bicycle, and for a year in Berlin on little more than a Mars Bar a day. A man whose idea of shopping therapy is to emerge from an hour’s browsing in a second hand bookshop, clutching one very small volume of German philosophy in a brown paper bag. A man who utters a sharp intake of breath if his single monthly credit card statement is in three figures. A man who can go into Waitrose - yes, Waitrose! - and come out with nothing but Special Offers and BOGOFs.
Daniel is untouched by life envy. He struggles to understand how months of thrift can be blown in five minutes incautious browsing and clicking on the Boden Sale website. He does not recognise car makes, or own any sports equipment. He just can’t see what is wrong with inheriting carpets from the house’s previous owners; they seemed nice clean people, after all, and the carpet doesn’t actually have holes in it.
Where he pores over a bill check, I plonk my credit card on top without looking. He says, "I might like one," I say, "I need three". I read the words "you may spend up to £4,500" and take them seriously, whereas Daniel knows they are a joke. Daniel says the bath is fine because it doesn’t leak; I say it has to go because it is 30 years old and avocado.
As a result Daniel always has money, and I was until not long ago usually overdrawn. It finally hit me that the art of living within one’s means is just that - an art. It is all about enjoying not spending money.
Like the ladies in Elizabeth Gaskell’s marvellous 1853 comic novel, Cranford, I have learned "elegant economy". Those ladies would walk home because, they claimed, the night air was refreshing, rather than because they could not afford a carriage. Cotton was nicer than silk, they assured each other, because it washed better, not because they could no longer afford silk. Ever the observer of social economics, Gaskell saw sharply how daughters of good family living on dividends were at the mercy of Victorian City wide boys who played fast and loose with the old dears’ savings. Plus ca change…We, however, are even more at the mercy of the 0% interest credit card and its empty promises. Here’s my twelve step Frugal Fun plan for plastic surgery - for mutating from bling-bling to elegant economy.
1. Write down everything you spend. I use a tiny, day-per-page pocket diary. It works straight away: just as writing down what you eat makes you eat a bit less, writing down what you spend makes you spend a bit less.
2. Get angry and start minding very much about small, pointless expenditure. The parking ticket you got because you were lingering in a shop…or because you didn’t have the right change for the machine. Cigarettes. The online subscription to a website you don’t use. The latte which you bought only because you needed to use the loo in the café. Get annoyed when you see needless items cluttering your little blue book.
3. Use your anger to change your attitude to consumer goods. Stop reading fashion and style magazines which whip you into a frenzy of discontent, and press "mute" for the TV ads - suddenly they look wonderfully absurd. This car, that cooker can make you feel happier - when you know that the purchase is just driving you deeper into debt? Do you really believe that the rest of us can tell whether you are wearing Grand Duchess Ripoff’s lip-liner or not? Do you seriously believe anyone notices what shampoo you use, so long as your hair is clean? Consider the lilies of the field: they reap not, neither do they spin, but neither do they call spending cash they don’t have "therapy". Shopping, therapy? For the shop, yes.
On the other hand, don’t flaunt your thrift rashly. "Lulu Guinness?" asked someone at a very grand party once, pointing to my handbag. "Shepherd’s Bush market, two quid," I answered without thinking and all of a sudden, it looked it.
4. Become Jamie Oliver trying to feed 800 kids on 37p a day. Many middle class people have no idea what they spend on food. You think you despise convenience foods: but a long hard look at your trolley may tell another story. Buy loose, buy big and buy late in the day. Keep the larder well stocked with ingredients for things you know you can cook from scratch when you come home late, hungry and a bit pissed. Build up a repertoire of cheap recipes that everyone loves.
5. Now, and only now, you are ready to set your budget. (I’ve gone off the rails countless times by setting budgets that were hopelessly unrealistic). Earmark a lump of monthly income for real debt reduction (not just paying off interest). Work out your monthly fixed expenses and include set-asides for annual or predictable expenses - car services, holidays. Divide what’s left by 31 to see how much you have to spend each day.
6. Forget about juggling credit cards. It’s not big and it’s not clever to give yourself a false sense of financial prudence, when in fact you are sliding deeper into debt. Instead, play the sniper: pick your cards off, one by one. Your target: one bank account and one credit card for emergencies that does not live in your wallet, but in the freezer.
7. Steer clear of temptation and danger zones. Motorway services, garages, cinema foyers. Only £800 million of Britain’s £2 billion cinema industry’s takings are in box-office sales - the rest is spent on £5 tubs of air, wrapped in popcorn. Thames Water charge me £400 a year for water; I’m darned if I’m paying for extra bottles of it at the supermarket. Mail order catalogues go straight into the recycling bag, unopened. If you must walk past Jigsaw and Karen Millen, walk fast.
8. Be prepared. Take snacks and bottles of tap water everywhere for the children. Have change ready for parking meters, spare tights in your bag. Never again buy something because you left your other one at home. And, speaking of children, what’s wrong with "no" for an answer?
9: Rather than yearn for stuff you don’t have, look at what you have already. If you don’t like it, take it to Oxfam or put it on Ebay if it might sell.
10. Don’t become enamoured of "moneysaving" wheezes that take up more time and trouble than they are worth. I’ve tried all the duds: the home sewing, the bargain hunters‘ newsletters, the Sodastream. And be cautious of sale items: a bargain saves even more money if you don’t buy it at all.
11: Aim to have a few no-spend days a month. After a while, it becomes a game: how can I run my life today without writing anything down in my little blue book? How ingenious can I be? Put off replacing broken things for a little bit longer.
12: You cannot afford to be Lady Bountiful - for the time being - but where you can be generous, be generous - with time, with support, with friendship; with a spare bed for children’s friends, with a lift for an elderly neighbour, with tomatoes from your garden. Thrift can so easily morph unpleasantly into meanness.
As you claw your way out of debt, you may notice a strange thing. Money which you actually possess feels completely different from money you owe. When contemplating spending money that is sitting solidly in your account, as opposed to spending putative money whose miraculous elasticity is there only to encourage you to pay interest, the prospect of splashing it on a pair of shoes almost identical to two pairs you already possess strangely seems to pall.
So you drive a harder bargain. You become a tougher customer. In short, you begin to behave like someone who is genuinely rich - not like someone just playing the part.

Sarah Johnson 2005

Topless Teens Embarrassed?

Catholic Herald 28 April 2005
Home Front by Sarah Johnson
Do you ever have moments when you hear something on the radio or the TV, and are so astonished at the gulf between what you have just heard, and what one might call basic Judaeo-Christian common sense, that you can only stand open mouthed, while the white sauce you were stirring burns, the cat you were grooming slips away and hides triumphantly under the sofa, or the bath you were running overflows, un-noticed by all except the people in the flat downstairs?
Well, I had one of those moments last week. It seems a couple of 14 year old minxes have got into trouble with the anti-paedophile authorities because they posted topless pictures of themselves on the Internet. So far so teenage. What would you do? Ground them for a week, stop their pocket money and give them a talking-to about self-respect versus behaving like cheap strumpets? Me too.
As I groomed the cat, stirred the sauce and ran a bath, two experts in child pornography, a man and a woman, gravely told Woman’s Hour’s Jenni Murray that the two girls were “naïve”, they “didn’t fully understand” the implications of their action; this was “what teenagers do” and warned that they should not be “criminalized” by being treated as child sex offenders. He thought the girls suffered from a “lack of understanding as to what child pornography is” and that more “education” was needed in this respect.
His fellow expert seemed to agree with him though it was hard to pick it out amid her obfuscatory jargon: “We need to unpick this, upscaling and empowering children with an understanding of what they are doing: creating a permanent digital record, a pornographic image, disseminating it in a publicly accessible forum, and they are thus creating illegal material.”
She added that “pornography is a principal source of information about sex for young people” (I think it was then I lost the cat) and that there should be “treatment programmes for adolescent sex offenders to help them negotiate and deal with these issues”. (Burnt sauce.)
The discussion winded up with the need to “shift the embarrassment factor” for teenagers as regards sex (Oops, there goes the bathroom carpet).
In what way, please, could it be said that these two girls were suffering from embarrassment? Their main problem seems to have been a complete lack of it. Nor is “naïve” quite the right word for most 14 year old girls. Inexperienced, yes: unable to foresee the consequences of their actions…hmm, yes and no. A 14 year old girl is very good at foreseeing getting hold of a 16 year old boy, but she isn‘t so smart at seeing past that ambition. Why else would a 14 year old girl put a photo of herself naked on the internet?
Embarrassed? If only. Give a 14 year old girl an inch and she’ll take a mile, most of it off her own hemline, with Mum’s pinking shears and some Copydex. The only thing stopping her is the ridicule or disapproval of her more sensible friends. But girls are now growing up bombarded with semi-nude fashions, a casual attitude to sexual display - plus they are expected to be as sexually aggressive as boys. It is a complicated picture. It is a dangerous picture.
Charity workers who rescue East European teenagers who have been sold into prostitution often observe that the girls, buying clothes for themselves, still choose crop-tops and minis because they don’t know any other way to dress. This is brutalised behaviour exhibited by girls who have been treated as slaves. Yet the gap between it and the behaviour of ordinary Western teenagers, snapping themselves topless “for a laugh” is surely too narrow for comfort. It is getting harder to tell the difference between the brutalised, abused children and their “sexually inappropriate behaviour” and the indulged, net-savvy teens for whom, we are told pornography is a “principal source of information”.
The simplest, easiest and most natural weapon girls have, not just the predatory world outside but also against their own powerful hormones, is modesty - embarrassment‘s more graceful sister virtue. Modesty can save a girl from more stupid and tragic behaviour than hours of “treatment programmes” - but who is teaching modesty now?


Catholic Herald 21 April 2005
Home Front by Sarah Johnson
Kept captive in a cellar for 80 days, subjected to hideous physical and mental torture - and all at the age of 12. The whole of Europe is in awe of Sabine Dardenne, one of the victims of Belgian murderer and rapist Marc Dutroux.
Now 21, Sabine has just published her story - “I choose to Live” - a great title, because she does just that: she chooses to live. Everyone is astonished by her refusal to embrace “victimhood“ or to fall into the modern image of a permanently damaged person.
After her rescue from the filthy cubby-hole in which Dutroux kept her for three months - sick, bleeding as a result of repeated rape and close to starvation - Sabine was naturally sent to a psychiatrist:
“This woman showed me splotches of ink, asked me what they were. I said, splotches of ink. She showed me a picture of a little girl with flowers, asked me what it was. I said, a little girl with flowers. She said is that all? I said, of course it is! That’s the day I understood that if I wasn’t careful I really would go mad - not with what had happened, but with all the whys and wherefores afterwards.”
She wrote her book to express her desire to live a normal life, to have a boyfriend and smoke too much like any other Euroteen. Inevitably, we feel we must label her as “brave little Sabine”, because she doesn’t mind walking down the street where she was abducted by Dutroux: “I’d have to be really unlucky, wouldn’t I, to be snatched twice in the same way?“ she snaps back with down to earth and unassailable logic
Sabine does not believe in God. She thinks that “it’s not for God to save us, it’s for us to save ourselves” and concludes from this that God does not exist. Her mother died recently: “If there is a God and He’s meant to be looking after us, then why have I lost my mother?” she blurted out, almost in tears, to one interviewer.
Yet, during her incarceration, she christened the room, which Dutroux used for his worst attacks, the “Calvary” room. It was from the religion she now rejects that she drew the language she needed to deal with this horror; it was from the Catholic mysteries and stories that she unearthed the discourse of suffering that has helped her become the tough, resilient lassie she now is.
I don’t know what kind of religious teaching Sabine had, but I would imagine it was on similar lines to that which most Christian children receive nowadays: lots of emphasis on self-esteem, “Thank You Lord for Making Me Me! Me! Me!” The RE advisors, who warned teachers in Norfolk recently that speaking of the “Holy Ghost” and referring too boldly to the body and blood of Christ might “frighten” children, were only doing their job: we now try to make religion as nice and jolly as possible.
In her hour of need, Sabine, with the clear-sightedness which anyone within five miles of an intelligent 12 year old will instantly recognise, turned to those aspects of her taught religion which her teachers had - I’m guessing, but I’ll bet it’s a good guess - been at pains to play down. The suffering, the sorrow and - yes - the horror.
In the end, the “If I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear, I’d thank you Lord, for giving me hair” - or whatever it is that Belgian children sing instead - let Sabine down badly, and gave her no succour. Instead, it was the hidden, mystical part of her religion - the knowledge, however deeply buried, that once upon a time Christ shared her suffering and was sharing it still - which helped this remarkable young woman to pull through.
I am always interested in the nearly-there holy people, the ones who skirt round God and then charge off in the opposite direction; we can learn so much from their reasons for not believing. It would be impertinent of me to suggest that Sabine Dardenne will one day believe in God. Yet God clearly believes very much in Sabine Dardenne, and, much as it would annoy her for anyone to say so, He is waiting for her still.
Catholic Herald 14 April 2005

Home Front by Sarah Johnson

The Archbishop of Canterbury says parents need to grow up: has he been reading this column? If so, I feel I should warn him of the hazards. I have been told off by a reader for being too ready to criticise other parents.
You have to be very careful when you criticise parents. Human beings, on the whole, do not take kindly to having people point out what they are doing wrong, which may be largely why very religious people are so unpopular nowadays. And when human beings do not take kindly to a piece of advice, they stop listening - and then you have lost them.
A large part of newspaper journalism - the column-writing, why-oh-why part of newspaper journalism, is taken up by people creating elaborate moral arguments which justify their own comfortable life choices, choices, they calculate, which are shared by their readers - why it is necessary to get divorced, to send your children to boarding school, to have Botox, to have an abortion, to let a loved ones‘ feeding tube be removed... Column after column devoted to the inner fumblings of anxious Oxbridge graduates desperately trying to convince themselves, and us, that the choices they wanted to make for pure convenience were also the right ones morally. And they call us Catholics Jesuitical!
Criticism of one’s parenting style hurts. I speak as one who still smarts at the memory of one mum who stopped letting her little boy - younger of two - come to play with my 3 year old daughter - middle of three - when she found that Sesame Street on channel 4 was an immoveable feature of our post-prandial routine.
She (who had wall to wall nannies) was of course absolutely right, and I (who had a small baby as well) was being lazy - I suppose, logically, I should have got up an hour earlier every day to do the work and chores which I got done during that blessed hour when I could guarantee that no small fingers would be poking into any places they shouldn’t be poking into, then I would have been free to supervise real-time finger-painting and model-making instead of plonking my daughter in front of the TV. Listen to this anxious Oxbridge graduate desperately trying to justify herself. Ten years on, the dig still rankles and I squirm with fury.
“Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do,“ said Dr Spock, the American child psychologist who set the tone of parenting for the 1970s. Unfortunately, Spock’s advice has been taken to mean that parents have nothing to learn. That you can simply please yourself, do what feels most comfortable and that will be just fine. It hasn’t really worked, has it?
I sense a new mood in the air for parents. The Archbishop has stepped through a window of opportunity during which parents seem unusually open to constructive criticism. Perhaps we have learned from Jamie Oliver, the school dinners hero, that changing the way you do something is not necessarily a complete indictment of everything you have done in the past.
This new mood offers a great new opportunity for the Church to supply young Catholic parents with the education they need - at parish and school level. Never so much have Catholic parents needed the solidarity and support that a Church community supplies. Grandparents laugh at the idea of parenting workshops, structured teaching; but the post Spock years have surely taught us that none of it comes naturally.
It won’t make me vote for them, but I am grateful to Charles and Sarah Kennedy for allowing their son Donald to be born when he was ready, and not a minute before. It would have been very tempting for the Liberal Democrat leader’s wife to book herself in for an elective caesarean to fit in with her husband’s election campaign - celebrity mums have done the same for less pressing reasons. The Sun newspaper has even been lately perpetuating an outrageous falsehood - that a caesarean means a “faster recovery”. Faster than what? A double hip replacement, perhaps.
But the Kennedys didn’t take the safe, technology route - they left nature to take its course, and in so doing learned the first important lesson of parenthood: humility in the face of God’s mysterious ways.