Friday, June 27, 2008

Your Mission, if you accept it: find this book

click to go to
pp 396
Patrick Tilley
Sphere 1982

I've just finished a book that does not quite tally with what I believe, but I find I must recommend it on the basis of its tight plot, characters so real you think they're in the room with you, continual sucker-punching of the reader, and a dénouement that I defy anybody to anticipate. The central character is a successful yet streetwise New York lawyer called Leo Resnick, who through no fault of his own finds his comfortable life knocked out of kilter by the sudden appearance of Jesus Christ.

The Man - as Resnick, telling the story in first person, refers to the quondam corpse which is brought to Manhattan General Hospital having been badly beaten and pierced in the hands and feet - turns Resnick's life upside down in episodes that are by turn comic, jaw-dropping and heart-breaking. Jesus, I must admit, tends to do that.

Consider this passage - the Man persuades Resnick to give him the full tour of New York, and they pass through the red-light area, Resnick seeing the cover-girls in a way he never had before:
How many trees, I wondered, had been killed to provide the paper to print this junk? How did little girls who skipped to school, stared wide-eyed at their first snowflake, posed prettily in pigtails and their first party dress, had known the joy of a kitten, the magic of fairy tales and Santa Claus...What was the process of dissolution? The answer had to be more than just one hundred bucks an hour.
Resnick is Jewish, which, one would think, gives Tilley licence to tell the tale while making the minimum of controversial points about Christianity. But like his main character, Tilley chooses not to do anything the easy way. (As a Scot I respect that - Billy Connolly swears we went north from the US to Canada because there was snow there, it was inhospitable, and the resulting cultural isolation and tuberculosis would preserve our distinctive accent for generations to come.)

Tilley goes off the Gospel page by stating Jesus travelled widely through Europe and Asia with Mary Magdalen but thankfully, unlike The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and its novelised version The Da Vinci Code, stops there.

There is a lot of Jewish mysticism to take in, primarily relating to the Kabbalah, which might have had the potential to stump novices in this area, had Tilley not made the going relatively easy. There are also Kabbalistic references in The Holy Blood and Da Vinci, but, having studied the subject, I'd say the difference is that Tilley knows what he's talking about.

I don't know what religion Patrick Tilley is, but it's good to see, in fiction at least, Jews reclaiming Jesus as one of their own. Every so often there are polls on influential Jewish figures; while his mother Mary regularly makes the top 5, Jesus is far further down, because of the actions of his followers upon his people. It's all too common to see a Christian group - often Roman Catholic, I hate to say - averring that "Salvation comes from the Jews" then in the next breath deconstructing the Jews' status as God's chosen people. As far as I'm aware God doesn't work on a sale-or-return basis, which is recognised in the prayer "For the Jewish People" in the modern Roman Catholic liturgy for Good Friday:
Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.
Whereas the former prayer, which was restored to the Tridentine Rite by Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio, runs:

Let us pray also for the Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord.

In Mission, Leo Resnick is taken closer and closer to his Jewish roots as each successive veil is removed from his heart. As is only right: while Judaism stands on its own as a religion, Christianity without Judaism - besides being a heresy - is at best unrealistic, and at worst a lie.

I recommend Mission as a spiritual thesis that you'll find yourself thinking about long after you've finished it, an intriguing mystery, and as unputdownable a book there ever was since Ronald Reagan minted the term for The Hunt for Red October. And if nothing else, as an intelligent, pacy and unpredictable religious thriller it shows The Da Vinci Code up to be the derivative airport trash that it really is.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

multiculturalism in schools needs homework

Minora asked me for some help for a homework-question she'd been set in her Religious Education class - "should schools be multicultural?"
click for ofsted homepage
After giving her my opinion, I decided to do some of my own research. In doing so, I came across a 2005 Ofsted document containing two words which struck dread into me. See if you can guess what they are:

In a Year 3 religious education lesson on learning about different festivals, a notable feature was the use of a Melting Pot. Pupils had already completed work on celebrations. Part way through this lesson the teacher introduced a big jar termed a Melting Pot. It contained artefacts and props collected by the teacher during the course of six weeks which related to Islam, Judaism and Christianity as well as secular celebrations and events the pupils had been involved in, such as Arts Week.

The specific term was introduced by Israel Zangwill's 1908 play The Melting Pot, in which David Quiclick for Bishop Jackson's biographyxano accepts the dissolution of his Jewish identity into the substrate of American identity contained by the aforementioned metaphorical vessel. It was a controversial suggestion then, and I don't think it is any less so now, as Townhall's Harry R Jackson asserts. Frighteningly, he uses the example of multiculturalism in Great Britain in general, and London in particular, to devastating effect. More frighteningly, he hits the nail on the head.

I'm not saying that all different religions don't have a value, just that that value is different depending on whether one is thinking of a Christian, Jewish or Muslim child, or indeed a child of atheist parents.

Year 3 is Primary 4 in old money, containing children between 7-9 years old, with an average age of 8. At this time in life, I think it's a good idea to teach children that all human beings are equal regardless of their religion (or indeed lack of it), but this is a much more subtle idea than that which avers that all religions are the same. The latter concept is more a blunt instrument than a broad brushstroke, and is the mark of an atheistic outlook. As ex-PM Tony Blair's advisor Alistair Cambell famously pointed out to him, "We don't do religion". The comment was made when Blair was asked on his spiritual life by a journalist, but it could just as well have been a summary on governmental policy on religious education.

What is important in our lives does tend to be prioritised, even though other things are important to other people's lives. For example, Hannukah will start on December 22 this year, so if I am invited to a Jewish friend's house during it, I will have to see if the invitation clashes with a service in St Gallicus and work around that. The Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate (on the relation of the Church to non-christian religions) states hopefully:

[The Church] regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men[sic].

The elephant in the room, of course, is that the melting pot doesn't exist, even as a metaphorical click for storyconstruct. The objects of our multiculturalism (multiculturalees?) are not always multiculturalists themselves. At a time when a senior official in the Church of England is saying that more mosques need not be built because enough exist for Great Britain's (at present) 4 million Muslims - and being compared to a BNP activist by a member of the Muslim Council of Britain for her troubles - a thug has walked free from court after assaulting a vicar on the grounds that “This should not be a church. This should be a mosque.

My own opinion, which I gave to Minora, is that state schools should give prominence to the Christian culture of Great Britain, then teach respect for other cultures, while outlining those cultures containing sizeable sectors with a mixture of hatred and acquisitiveness towards our own society.

She looked at me somewhat suspiciously - she seems to have gotten an idea from somewhere that British patriotism is not too far removed from the outlook of "far-right parties like the BNP". I nearly invited her to consider that study of the BNP's policies reveal it to be a left-wing party, but decided that was one for another day.

With Ofsted going on about melting-pots, what chance is there for children to learn the value of their own culture at school at a time in their lives when they doubt the validity of any statement from their parents more complicated than "dinner's ready"? Multiculturalists, I think, should do their homework.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ireland's no says yes to patriotism

be careful what you wish for...
One of the first people I met in Cambridgeshire was an Irishman called Pat. He'd come over during the Second World War and got a job at the newly-opened Marshall's Aerodrome in Cambridge. As an aviation engineer his job, after test-pilots had put Spitfires through their paces by flying them as closely to the limits as possible, was to take the engines apart to find what widgets had come out of alignment and fix them.

Pat was a fiercely independant man, even in his last years, and I think he'd be proud of his countrymen for voting "no" in the recent referendum on the EU's Lisbon Treaty.

The Lisbon Treaty is the latest version of the EU Constitution, which was widely criticised for legislating for an EU national (supra-national?) anthem based on Schiller's Ode to Joy as arranged by Beethoven in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. To add insult to injury, although Article I-41(1) stated that "[only] those Member States which together establish multinational forces may also make them available to the common security and defence policy", in the soporific depths of page 371 (372 in the .pdf document linked to above), refers to Member States' defence capabilities moving forward "in accordance with the principle of a single set of forces".

Towards the end of last year, the Constitution having been thrown out and a "Reform Treaty" having been written, German politicians moved to have the flag, anthem, motto and single currency enshrined in the Treaty. I believe that these politicians, and those in other countries who feel compelled to obviate their national identity, will keep trying.

Gordon Brown, who was praised by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for "forcing the treaty bill through Parliament without a referendum", was said recently to be involved in a "plot" to force the Irish into holding a second referendum (even as Lord Justice Richards invites the British Government to delay ratifying the Treaty as a petition for a referendum is in front of him in the High Court). Italy, Spain, Croatia and Poland are concerned, with Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos saying, in a manner which seems both patronising and ominous, "of course we respect the wishes of the Irish people, but I am convinced that the European Union will find a solution as it has on other occasions in the past".

EU President José Mauel Barroso states that the Irish vote against the Lisbon Treaty changes nothing, and its ratification will proceed unhindered. I am reminded of Robert Mugabe's statement that he will not be "overthrown by a cross on a piece of paper". Now it becomes clear why the West has so far been reluctant to act in Zimbabwe - Mugabe is not defying the principles of democracy as they are practiced in Europe; he is copying them.

The European Coal and Steel Community was a visionary concept, founded by visionaries, with the remit of stopping a fourth franco-teutonic conflagration in the chain of infernos stretching from the Franco-Prussian War to World War II. It has been vandalised by mission-drift of a degree that would make Sophocles weep.

I hope that tCeade Míle Fáiltehe Irish will remain staunch in their opposition to the latest version of the EU Treaty and any further incarnations of it, and that their example will serve as a reminder to the rest of the peoples of Europe that they still have a national voice, regardless of what Brussels functionaries would have them think. In saving Ireland, they may have saved us all.

Meanwhile I'm sure that Pat, on his cloud, is still enjoying a celebratory pint of the black stuff.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Israel moves for peace as New Scientist attacks again

As I was looking through some back copies of New Scientist prior to giving them to Professor Calculus, some news came through on the radio saying that Israel had agreed a truce on Hamas, which is due to start on Thursday 19 June.

At the same time, I spotted an item in the 31 May issue of NS that I'd somehow missed.
Israel Finkelstein, University of Tel Aviv
The article was about Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. I should advise you at this point that New Scientist only lets you see all of an article if you have a subscription to it - unlike, say, Scientific American. But if you neither subscribe nor have any friends who do (or if you're a top-level anorak and don't have any friends), some higher institutes might let you browse their magazines for free or for a small charge.

I mention this matter of only printing the first couple of hundred words of an article because what the website shows you is misleading, in that it gives the impression that the interview is somewhat reasonable. But have a look at what comes in the paper interview, shortly after the electronic copy ends:

"The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt never happened, and Joshua never attacked Jericho...David and Solomon were not great kings who ruled over the ancient land of Canaan in the 10th century BC from a palace in Jerusalem, as the Bible portrays; at best they were chieftains of some small-time tribe in that area."
Charlton Heston as Moses in the Ten Commandments (story of the Exodus)It seems, upon first examination, that NS is having a rest from its usual habit of Christian-baiting, and having a go at the Jews. It is certainly doing the latter, but think on as well: if there were no Exodus, then the Passover ritual is built on a myth, therefore the Last Supper was rootless. Joshua, who led his people into the promised land, was also the name of another Prophet which was to be rendered in Latin as Jesus. His genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 might not be unproblematic, but the great kings David and Solomon feature in both as claims of Jesus' kingship. As an archaelogist in the Holy Land who specialises in Biblical sites, I think Professor Finkelstein knows what he is doing by attempting to deconstruct the pertinence of the parts played by the Exodus, Joshua, David and Solomon to the religious lives of Jews and Christians alike.

I'm not criticising Finkelstein for being a non-believer who states he celebrates the festivals and keeps kosher at home. Religion forms our identities as well as our beliefs. Minora once asked an Irish friend of mine "Are you a Catholic?" Although an atheist, he replied "Yes, culturally I'm Catholic."

Another secular Jew is David Berlinski. The subtitle of his latest book, "The Devil's Delusion", is "Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions". Although the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium states that "believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism", Berlinski is dealing with that sort of radical militant atheism that seeks not just to push religion out of educational and scientific establishments, but to supplant it altogether. His main thesis is that science finds proof of the bankruptcy of religion for no other reason than those of its practitioners who are fêted by the media have set its parameters specifically to find this proof.

So with Finkelstein, who tells NS that "My family arrived in the mid 19th century from Grodno [in what is now Belarus] to Hebron. I don't need any more legitimacy than that, not does the state of Israel need the Bible to justify its right to exist."

By these criteria, my family's Irish heritage justifies my presenting myself for Holy Communion without need of reference to Christianity, but conceivably my Parish Priest might disagree. Similarly, the second paragraph of Israel's Declaration of Independence refers to Biblical happenings:

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
The same Constitution calls on the Arab occupants of Israel to join the Jews in "full and equal citizenship". In the same way that all religions in Israel have an interest in peace, all religions worldwide have an interest in fighting the sort of radical militant atheism which seeks to uproot the lot of them, for which New Scientist is a poster-boy, and for which inter-religious strife is one of the most useful tools in the armoury. I hope that the truce bears fruit, and that its progress is reported even-handedly.

PS - question: do you notice something about the two pictures associated with the BBC story linked to at the start of this post? Clue - have a look at the captions.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

underage smoking is more stupid than criminal

people should know the risks of smoking just as they know the risks of climbing Ben Nevis in winter
I'm not sure when Maxima first became suspicious that Minora was smoking, but as is the general rule, she guessed long before I had a clue. This sums up the difference between men and women: forget about Venus and Mars, men escape into articles by Jeremy Clarkson while women are slogging it out in the real world.

I am told I have a disciplinarian streak, but I believe I am far more disciplinarian in my children's minds than in real life. This is probably why Minora had turned several shades paler when I called her into the kitchen. She was, therefore, rather surprised when I produced a pack of ten cigarettes from my top pocket.

Maxima was out at the time, which made things easier. She'd given Minora a lecture on how Granny had smoked and had died of cancer. I had to interject to say that while this was true, my mother had started smoking during the Second World War and had died in 1999. And such was the pain of the rheumatoid arthritis that had tortured the spirit out of her for a decade and a half, death had come as a friend.

Mum had started smoking furtively like Minora, stepping outside, or smoking in the toilet and then imitating a fan, not totally successfully, with her hands. Her father, who saw action in Gallipoli and France in the first war and was now a sergeant in a prison barracks, sat her down and said: "Look, don't sneak away from me. If you're going to smoke, do it in front of me. Here's some woodbines - these are the last cigarettes I'll ever buy you."

He could do so with a clean conscience - although effects upon health of smoking were first raised in the Lancet in 1858, a link between smoking and cancer wasn't established until 1950. So far, so fair. However, the use of, for example, a knife by one human being upon another also has deleterious effects upon health, but the Government only appears to have woken up to this recently, and in its rush to remedy the situation appears not to have noticed that, in Great Britain, carrying a weapon without permission has been illegal for a couple of centuries.

However, I digress. I'm not particularly in favour of smoking - but neither am I particularly against it. It happens. So does death. If Minora doesn't smoke, what's going to happen - will she never die?

Maureen Hamilton RIP
I am not trying to minimise the sufferings and the message of, say, Maureen Hamilton (above), the one-time glamorous jet-setter who allowed pictures of her dying days to be published in order to persuade young people not to start smoking. In fact, I am more anxious than ever for Minora to read Ms Hamilton's message and see the pictures. But I think it's noteworthy that in a key interview she didn't say "smoking should be banned", but rather "lighting up should be made to look uncool." She was skeptical about the age for buying tobacco being raised from 16 to 18, saying that the problem wasn't 16-year-olds starting to smoke, it was 13-year-olds taking up the habit. I heartily concur. You don't stop problematic behaviour by passing another law, merely for the reason that people who are behaving problematically, in this case adolescent smokers, tend not to read Hansard.

So, I admit it. I'm not into breaking the law, but I have done so by buying cigarettes for a minor. I am sure that the British Government has the ability to work out who I am from my posts. I will wait for them to come for me. While we live in a society where a paedophile gets a community sentence, a rapist is jailed "reluctantly" and an immigrant can kill a policewoman and then flee to a country he could not be deported to because it is deemed to be unsafe for the poor flower, I am sure that the full weight of the law will fall upon me because in engaging with real life I have done something you just don't talk about at dinner parties attended by the ideologically beautiful. I am here, and I am ready. I just hope they have the Express in prison.

Maxima came home to a fait accompli - Minora was sitting with a cigarette in her hand and an ashtray in her lap, looking rather uncool, very uncomfortable and thoroughly guilty. The rebellion value was, I would say, zero.

Clever chap, my Grandad.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

time to normalise strawberry fair

This Saturdaygone - 7 June - I went to Midsomer Common in the morning, where sound-stages, exhibitions and stalls were being set up for Strawberry Fair.
click to go to Freedom-1215
I met with Richard Normington (right) of Freedom-1215: the number refers to the date the Magna Carta was signed, ensuring key freedoms such as protection from the then Crown's omnipotence, judicial rights, and a full pint of beer.

As we went round the ground looking for some friends, I was struck by the number of stalls advertising legal herbal highs and/or cannabis-taking paraphernalia such as bongs, which are used to provide a concentrated cannabis-smoking experience without having to mess about with cigarette papers or tobacco. I remarked that anecdotal evidence showed that as little as one gram of skunk was enough to maintain a psychopathological state such as depression or paranoia, something which is increasingly recognised.

After Richard left, as we hadn't found my friends, I noticed a hunt saboteurs' tent. I had to supress a smile - this is a cause close to Minora's heart, she who has never seen a fox in her life. I, on the other hand, have seen plenty: the city of Glasgow has the highest concentration of foxes in Great Britain. If I thought for one moment they gave a fig about the damn fox I would have went over; so I walked on.

It gave me heart, however, to see a stall run by NO2ID. I said to the lady minding it, I used to be vaguely in favour of ID cards in the context of national security - then all this information started to go missing. There was a time when, for example, Soviet spies would have to work hard to get hold of such a wealth of statistics. Now, the Government can't even be bothered to expend the energy involved in giving it away - it just loses the stuff. I liked the flier (bottom) - a mock ID card with a picture of George Orwell, in the name of Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell's dystopic political thriller 1984.

Strawberry Fairthanks to The Spectator - click to read more's organisers had mounted a campaign to clean up the fair's image. In the end, unfortunately, the antisocial element won out, and now local residents are asking for a "gap year", largely due to drug-related antisocial behaviour.

I had a pint before going home, and heard some folk complaining that pubs which admitted under-18's could no longer host cigarette-machines. It appears that Westminister may be following Scotland's plan to "denormalise" - a word it has borrowed, ironically, from database management - smoking.

Perhaps its priority should be to "denormalise" consumption of illegal drugs in city-centre festivals, starting with forcing the sale of paraphernalia back into head-shops which could then be monitored.

But what can you say about governmental efforts to change our behaviour by altering our language...double-plus ungood?

click to find out more

Thursday, June 5, 2008

car-taxes fuel the madness of the guilty rich

My friend Barbacana's selling his car.

He doesn't plan to make any money from the sale, profit would be a bonus: all he wants to do, being retired, is to avoid having to shell out approximately £500 in tax, insurance and MOT fees. And that's before he puts petrol in the damn thing.

I have a confession to make here, in that I have something in common with the Prime Minister other than being Scottish. I don't drive. But you don't need to be a driver to see that the rising cost of fuel, doubtless a measure to get money out of savings accounts and into Government coffers, is making the pips squeak all over the place. For instance, food prices. As if the criminaChuck Colson, with thanks to townhall.coml practice, described by Townhall's Chuck Colson (right) of driving up the prices of badly-needed grain by turning not a little of it into biofuels wasn't bad enough, the cost of getting food to shops is rising because it's dearer to drive the lorries (which carry 82% of UK freight). Bicycle-parts, crime novels, red roses and all the rest are rising in price because it costs more to get them to outlets.

Up north in the mid-'90's, I took some driving lessons, but didn't finish them, as I didn't enjoy Chelsea tractor - uk slang for 4x4the experience of driving; so I never bought the Yugo a workmate was trying to flog me. I remarked to my instructor that there were a lot of Chelsea tractors about. He replied with something I hadn't thought about - as well as their growing reputation as a status symbol for people who'd never drive off-road, there was also a rising demand for them among people, predominantly women, who'd been in a car accident or seen the results of one. Gives a new meaning to their popularity on the school run...

In the Budget this March, Darling Brown (right) informed the nation that there would be Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darlingchanges to vehicle excise duty. Among other things, a new £200 charge on high-emission vehicles - like Chelsea tractors - is to be applied retrospectively to cars bought since 2001. I would have thought that if you bought something legally and in good faith seven years ago, and finished paying for it but still drove it in order to pay fuel tax, then your duty to the Treasury was discharged with honour.

It appears not. Unsatisfied with controlling our lives with targets and tickboxes that are dislocated from everyday existence, Darling Brown is using taxation not only as a brake on our aspirations, but to punish the hubris of those who'd thought that the point of working hard was to spend what you'd earned. Even as the climate-change pantheon plunges from the heavens he replies to the misgivings of his own people: "don't you know these reforms are going to save 1.3 million tons of CO2 and increase the numbers of clean cars?"

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a saloon or a hatchback (or even my bike), but people who sweat for a modest wage shouldn't have obstacle after obstacle thrown in their paths when they try to go for something a bit better, should they wish to do so. To tax law-abiding workers to distraction is merely to accentuate the earnings of the true guilty rich - drug-importers, people-traffickers and eco-socialists so far up their ivory towers you wonder if they remember how to tie their laces.

Meanwhile Barbacana, who's had a car for decades, tried my bike, and found he was a bit wobbly. So he's resolved to start taking the bus. I don't know how to tell him that the fares are going up.