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.