Monday, December 29, 2008

give them what they deserve

In the 1980's, the relationship between the Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Dr Robert Runcie, and the then Conservative government of Great Britain was often strained, yet I do not recall any loud calls for the Church of England to be disestablished form the state, merely rumblings that "the clergy should not interfere in politics". This is, of course, seen as the corollary of one translation of Matthew 22:21, when Jesus is asked whether it's lawful to pay taxes to the Romans, and famously replies, "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God."

We're now facing calls for disestablishment, which would technically mean that Great Britain, despite its many Christians, would no longer be officially a Christian nation, and would move closer to being handed over to radical militants of various political and theological persuasions, and I fear that one of the strategies will be to try to pit the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church against each other. Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams

The latest stage of this situation started with remarks of the present Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, on Prime Minister Gordon Brown's borrowing plans to provide a "fiscal stimulus" which would presumably lead us to liquidise what savings we have so that the freed money would mitigate the financial situation; Williams stated that it was like "the addict returning to the drug...What I'm worried about is anything that pushes us straight back into the kind of spiral we were in before". Ironically, his words encapsulated those of Prime Minister James Callaghan to the Labour Party Conference of September 1976:
We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.
In this curious game of theological tennis, Mr Brown replied that "we should not walk by on the other side when people are facing problems".

The next round is masterfully described by Cranmer in his post "Church of England unites to damCranmern "morally corrupt" Labour. In the Sunday Telegraph of December 28, Jonathan Wynne-Jones reported that the Bishop of Manchester said Labour was "beguiled by money", the Bishop of Hulme added they were "morally suspect", the Bishop of Durham opined that they had reneged on their promises, and the Bishops of Winchester and Carlisle brought up the rear with the charge that ministers had squandered their opportunity to reform society.

The backlash is reported in today's Telegraph, where the intellectual tone was set by John McFall MP with "I don't know if at the bishops' palaces there has been too much mulled wine passed around over the past few days."

There is due to be a CofE synod in February, in which a debate on the financial crisis is expected to be highly critical of the government's handling of it. Look out for much mud-slinging and sleight-of-hand in the run-up.

One area for agitation will be, I believe, the Act of Settlement 1701, which basically ensures that nobody who is a Catholic, or who is married to one, may take the British throne or be in line to it. It is, of course, a deeply discriminatory piece of legislation - but when I worshipped for several decades in the Roman Catholic Church, I don't recall a single occasion when somebody said to me, "you know, the Act of Settlement really bothers me"; in fact, in Scotland, when you heard about it, you knew that the Scottish National Party and the Labour party were fighting over the Catholic vote, especially in parts of the politico-religious quagmire thereabouts where angels fear to tread.

There was much talk of the Act of Settlement when Peter Phillips, the Queen's older grandson, married Autumn Kelly earlier in 2008. Ms Kelly, born a Catholic, converted, and so the need to amend the Act didn't arise.

Not that the Act of Settlement hasn't been amended before - to allow Edward VIII to abEdward and Mrs Simpson - the Duke and Duchess of Windsordicate and marry his Mrs Simpson, and it can be amended again. For example, in the early '70's, when Prince Charles developed a relationship with Lucia Santa Cruz, daughter of the then Chilean Ambassador to London, there was talk among MP's that if the relationship should deepen, the necessary action could be taken to ensure that she could be Charles' queen. (In the event, the ships passed in the night, but not before Ms Cruz introduced her prince to Camilla Shand, now his wife. But that's another story.)

Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister 1979-1990What will be interesting is what the Bishops make of Gordon Brown's remark about "not passing by on the other side". As well as a reference to the Good Samaritan, it's an echo of Margaret Thatcher's concept, first formulated in a 1968 lecture to the Conservative Political Centre, that "even the Good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side".

The thing is, Thatcher, when elected in 1979, had to take care of the mess she inherited - somebody else mugged the man going to Jericho; the wounds of today's unfortunate traveller were inflicted by his rescuer. Brown seems to suffer from a political and financial version of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy: not so much a St Francis of Assissi as a Beverley Allitt - the children's nurse who poisoned babies in order to act the hero when she stepped in, and is consequently serving time for murder.

In a not dissimilar vein to the Archbishop's, the Pope warned that the world is "headed towPope Benedict XVI giving his Christmas addressard ruin if selfishness prevails over solidarity during tough economic times" in his Christmas message, but I doubt Mr Brown is ready to take on the man to whom he gave a copy of his father's sermons when he had an audience - and whose predecessor Margaret Thatcher praised many times in her political memoirs.

I hope we all stick together as far as is possible during what may be testing times. I would ask for your consideration of an alternative translation of Mt:22:21 - "give Caesar what Caesar deserves, and give God what God deserves."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmastime in Cambridge

King's College Chapel as seen from 'the backs' across the river Cam - click to access Chapel website I have a surefire way of getting the Christmas shopping done - leave it all to the last moment and then panic. The method's served me well over many years.

So on the 23rd I went into town, and realised how long it was since I'd had a good old wander round Cambridge. There's a maze of streets between the Marketplace and King's College Chapel with lots of speciality shops, if you take a while to look between the tourist shops and the coffee bars. There was a huge BBC Radio outside broadcast van outside the Chapel, where I guess they were recording "Carols from King's"Stephen Hawking unveils the Time Eater - photo from Ap Photo by Chris Radburn, click for further details sung by the College Chapel's choirboys, a Christmas staple throughout Great Britain. On my way back, I got my first look at the famous "time eater" clock worked by a fantasy grasshopper; it was designed by horologist Dr John Taylor (who invented the thermostat that stops electric kettles from boiling dry) and donated to Corpus Christi, who mounted it outside their college library after it was unveiled by Stephen Hawking.

I visited The Eagle pub for the first time, where Watson and Crick would relax and discuss the ideas they were developing about the structure of DNA, which they would publish a paper on in 1953 with - as Watson would later admit - material from Rosalind Franklin shown to them pre-publication and without her knowledge.
The Eagle: click to read the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) report
What I wanted to see was the Aircraft Bar, where British and American aircraftmen would relax after having spent periods of being at fifteen minutes' notice of scrambling, and where history was burnt into the structure of the pub. It's reckoned that P.E. Turner from Cherry Hinton (now part of Cambridge but then a village in its own right) was the first airman to have burnt his initials into the roof of the Eagle with his lighter, but pretty soon they were all at it, one suitably refreshed Michelangelo drawing a picture of a naked woman with lipstick.

The landlord must have been beside himself, and the ceiling was later plastered over; but after the pub was extended in 1992, it was lovingly restored by former RAF Chief Technician James Chainey, who served from 1943-1969. The ghostly initials have returned, but, alas, the lipstick lady is lost. There are stickers with the insignia of British, American and some German squadrons all round the walls, together with a picture of the original crew of the Mempclick to go to the website of the Memphis Belle Memorial Associationhis Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress based at Bassingbourne whose crew were the first based in Britain to complete their tour of duty of 25 missions over such places as Brest, Bremen and Wilhelmshaven, and which has been lovingly restored by the Memphis Belle Memorial Association. Below this is another picture, of the survivors of the original crew, with the cast of the 1990 picture of the same name.

After doing the Christmas shopping I repaired to another bar, where an old fellow from my homeland introduced himself haltingly and indicated that he'd had a few. (Why can you find drunken Scots in bars worldwide?) He ordered a wine, which the barmaid gave him while leaving him in no doubt that this was his last. He apologised for being over-refreshed, explained that his wife had died so he was going home to an empty house, and started to cry. She called him a cab and held his hand until it arrived.

Christmastime is like that - a time of celebration in the midst of the winter's gloom when we remember those who are dearest to us, when the absence of loved ones who are lost to us for the present is most keenly felt. I don't think it's the actual feast of Christmas, which has visited every month in the calendar at least once: rather, its current siting in midwinter is responsible. Origen and Arnobius didn't see the point of celebrating Christ's birth, the latter comparing it to the "birthdays of the gods" celebrated by the pagans.

Perhaps settling for this period as a home for the feast of Christ's Birth was influenced by early Christians who didn't quite get monotheism and wanted to compare Jesus to Apollo (Greek/Roman sun-god), similar to the way in which the Psalmist calls God the great King above all gods; certainly Tertullian had to clarify that Christians didn't worship the sun as late as the 3rd century. There still seems to be a confusion in some quarters about the nature of Christmas - Father Prospero Bonzani of Genova has unleashed a storm of protest by including a Mosque in his nativity scene. I don't doubt his sincerity in saying a mosque in a depiction of Bethlehem is true to current reality, any more than I doubt that his placing a mosque in a scene representing what happened almost six centuries before Mohammed was born is sincerely wrong, and MEP Mario Borghezio of the Lega del Nord (Italian Northern League) is right to criticize him in the strongest terms.

the time-travelling mosque: photo, by Balostro Marco, scanned from the Telegraph of 24 December 2008
People who think this sort of critique of Fr Bonzani's actions are over-egging the pudding may want to consider what's at stake when Christians try to equate Islam with their own religion, especially during a major feast. Just like last year, the Cambridge News published Christmas messages from three clerics yesterday - the Right Revd. Dr Anthony Russell, Bishop of Ely, Father Rafael Estaban of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge - and Abdal Hakim Murad, Muslim chaplain to the University of Cambridge.

I'm not criticizing Mr Murad's (aka Tim Winters, who aimed polite invective at Pope Benedict XVI post-Regensburg) right to free speech, merely questioning whether his views belong in a piece giving Christmas messages. He is merely stating what he believes when he says that Muslims don't believe in the Incarnation. He adds, correctly, that neither do Jews, but Christianity owes far more to Judaism than it does to Islam. Given that even the left-wing online Huffington Post has the epistolarian Rabbi Michael Lerner outlining similarities between Chanukah and Christmas, couldn't the Nuntii Cantabrigienses ask a Rabbi to contribute, then ask Murad to write a piece for Muslims on a Muslim feast?

Having rendered unto Caesar what is his and to Gordon Brown what isn't, I'm not long back from the sublime Midnight Service of Holy Communion at St Gallicus', where Rector Pellegrina spoke about the shepherds - trusting and meek - and the Wise Men who, through their training in etiquette and need to be noticed, arguably sparked off a wave of infanticide. She quoted the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who said that "in the straw of the stable, the humble and the complicated are able to kneel together". Amen to that - but I still think that the work of the Kingdom advances further through a barmaid holding a broken-hearted widower's hand than by an anachronism in a Nativity scene. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Why We are Waiting: click to go to the Archbishop of Canterbury's Advent and Christmas message

Sunday, December 21, 2008

for one night only

Tom Jones and Myleene KlassWe don't watch much TV these days because of the abuses visited by the BBC upon the viewing and listening public, but last night we watched a classic piece of television based on a format which has passed the test of time - the variety show.

I used to love variety shows, like the BBC's Seaside Special in the 1970's, which featured musical acts such as ABBA, Mireille Mathieu and Lena Zavaroni, and comic turns such as Little and Large, the Goodies and the Wurzels. Bruce Forsyth, now languishing in the controversy-ridden Strictly Come Dancing, fronted some cracking variety shows, including a run as host of Saturday Night at the London Palladium, during which the Musician's Union was on strike, leading Forsyth and Norman Wisdom to carry a show by themselves in a now-legendary performance. There was also some great stuff from across the pond, like The Andy Williams Show, The Donny and Marie Show and the daddy of them all, The Ed Sullivan Show; I've read that crime stopped in New York during the Beatles' performance on this. Every country and region had them - for instance Scotland's Welcome to the Ceilidh and Thingummyjig, an updated version of The White Heather Club.

For One Night Only was apparently commisioned for three shows, and last night we caught the Christmas special, presented jointly by Tom Jones, and classical musician, broadcaster and presenter Mylene Klass.

Guy Freeman, ITV's Controller of Music and Events, remarked of For One Night Only how good it was to be making a variety show again. And what a night it was - like the best variety shows, there was something for everyone. I put it to Maxima that she was staring rather intently at David O' Mer, a burlesque artist who was performing a unique acrobatiDavid O' Merc act in a bathtub, and she went red; but it was her turn to have a go at me for perking up a bit when the all-girl classical quartet eScala played Children; and for all the family Il Divo performed La Fuerza Major, their Spanish translation of The Power of Love, recently covered also by another favourite of mine, EJ Norman.

The comics were ones I haven't seen before, which is part of what variety shows are all about: introducing you to new talent in a fun family atmosphere which is far removed from the amphitheatre of reality shows. The first part of Jimeoin's act concentrated hilariously on his eyebrows, while Will Smith played the wall-faced English snob to a T ("there's been a terrible mix up with bookings; I'm here, and the other Will Smith's giving a talk to the Eton Chess Club").
'24 hours' by Tom Jones - click to go to homepage
Tom Jones is, of course, a legend, and his new album has been crafted by professional songwriters, in an echo of the Brill Building. He bookended the show with songs, the first from 24 Hours (Give a Little Love) and the last Baby it's Cold Outside with Cerys Matthews, and the multi-talented Myleene obviously enjoying herself on the piano. The comfortable dynamism between him and Klass held the whole thing together, it was everything that a variety show should be, and nobody got abusive messages left on their answerphone. BBC - watch and (re)learn! (And give Brucie a show where he can shine instead of minding monkeys, eh?)

Escala - click to go to their website

Thursday, December 18, 2008

a right to both sides of the story?

A Right to Life - and Death?
"Moral Dilemmas" series
Kenneth Boyd
Evans Brothers Limited 1999
First Paperback Editions 2003

As a fan of the great detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Morse I'm always intrigued by a mystery, and as it happens, the other day a mystery was posted through my letterbox.

The above book was sent to me by a worried parent whose son is studying RE (Religious Education) at Key Stage 4, or the first year of an RE GCSE in old money, and was given the book for a project.

The book is divided into six chapters: rights in general, abortion, fertility treatment, transplantation, rationing health care and dying well. I had a few concerns about the book in general, but the book's treatment of abortion is symptomatic of its approach.

The reader is given a worked example, and I hope I can be forgiven for quoting from this at length:

Kate is forty years old and has just discovered she is pregnant. She already has three children, two girls and a boy, aged seventeen, fifteen and and thirteen, respectively. A few years ago she and her husband, John, opened a small restaurant. It does well, but only because they both work very long hours. A month or so ago, rushing to catch the plane for their first weekend abroad for several years, Kate forgot to pack their oral contraceptives. She thought she was unable to conceive because of the time of the month, but when they got back home she was suspicious. She carried out a pregnancy test, and it was positive.

Kate and John discuss what they should do. All of their income goes on family expenses and the children's education. They can't afford to pay someone else to take on Kate's work while she has the baby, and if they are going to have another child, Kate wants to bring it up herself, as they did with the others before she went back to work.

They could give up their business and John could try to find another job. But they would earn a lot less and they would feel this would not be fair to their other children at this stage in their education. So, reluctantly, they decide to go to their doctor to ask if Kate can have an abortion. The doctor thinks that Kate and John have taken a responsible decision, and sends Kate to a hospital specialist who agrees to terminate her pregnancy. After further discussion with the doctors, Kate also has a sterilisation to prevent her having any further children.

Phew - there's so much going on in that extract it's hard to know where to start! For one thing, Kate and her husband went "reluctantly" to their doctor - why didn't the doctor pick up on this reluctance or, if you want, cognitive dissonance, and advise that they think about it?

For another, this dissonance is strengthened when we are told that "if they are going to have another child, Kate wants to bring it up herself", then we learn in the next paragraph that the poor woman has a sterilisation - so what form does the "further discussion with the doctors" take - do they have meaningful dialogue, or does this "discussion" takes place when she is having the procedure, possibly very emotional and vulnerable, with the doctors above her in every sense?

I could pick out many more things, but thirdly and lastly, I'm still concerned about Kate's sterilisation. Given that this is an early abortion, why do the doctors need to perform an invasive procedure going inside Kate's abdomen in order to ensure that the couple have no further children? Not much mystery there - the text says it's to prevent her from having further children. A shame, because it would be much simpler to perform a vasectomy, and any possible after-effects, say infection, would be far further from major organs. Perhaps John has something to tell her about his future procreative aspirations? And has she been given time to reflect that should she and her husband split up she is now infertile? I realise this isn't a post about marital fragility, but why, in our supposedly sexually emancipated society, are women expected to pay the price for their men's behaviour with and in their bodies?

All through the abortion section, there are panels giving opinions that I find one-sided. Please allow me to quote three of them. The first is from "Dr Daniel Callahan, Ethicist" in Abortion: Understanding Differences:
...abortion is a necessary evil, one that must be tolerated and supported until such time as better sex education, more effective contraception, and a more just social order make possible fewer troubled pregnancies. And even then, there will still be some justifiable reasons for abortion: it will never disappear.
The second is shot through with the cold utilitarianism of Mill senior, and comes from "Professor Roger Higgs, General Practitioner" in the 1997 BMJ (British Medical Journal) New Dictionary of Medical Ethics:

In practice, it has been shown that women usually take great thought and pains to identify and minimise the harms, balancing different and competing harms in a nuanced way in considering whether to keep or terminate a new pregnancy. Such down-to-earth examples of compromise might put ethicists, politicians, campaigners, and religious leaders to shame, and convert the general question to the particular: "How much should this possible new life matter, in this situation and at this stage?"
I might comment oPope John Paul II - click to go to 'Veritatis Splendor'n the above, that Pope John Paul II, quoted in a post by Radagast, turns the question of the relationship between the general and the particular on its head to shine a light on Kant's categorical imperative, which states that we should react to each individual situation as if its solution constituted a general law: "the function of [conscience] is to apply the universal Immanuel Kantknowledge of the good in a specific situation and thus to express a judgement about the right conduct to be chosen here and now". (Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth), para 32).

The third and last quote, which we are told comes from "Mother of unborn Down's syndrome son", is shorter:

If women understood that late abortions don't have to cause lasting trauma, fewer would feel obliged to give birth to a handicapped child.
This quote from A Right to Life - and Death? vindicates Matthew Connelly's prophetic reference at the end of Fatal Misconception - the Struggle to Control World Population to people "faithfully reciting a eugenic catechism without the faintest idea of where it came from or where it can lead".

The mystery proper started when I started checking out the background to the book, when I kept getting a page on the Evans Publishing Group website saying "There were no matches for your search in the database. Please try again." Even when I managed to find a mention of the book on the publisher's site, when I clicked the link to the book I got the same screen.

And yet the book is in circulation. The Times Educational Supplement lists it in an article on "citizenship" books; East Lothian Council Library Service's TalisPrism search engine lists it in a mixed bag called the Coping Collection including also Alcohol, AIDS, and All by myself: the toilet training book; and I was initially worried to see that the independent children's books magazine Books for Keeps listed it in an article bemoaning the UK's rate of teenage pregnancies (by any definition abortion doesn't prevent pregnancy), but rather relieved that they included alongside it Cool and Celibate? Sex or no sex? by David Bull.

Further afield, New Zealand's Kids' Catalogue Web lists it as one of three books in a section called "Right to life juvenile literature", the other two being You wouldn't want to be a pyramid builder! and A to Zen: a book of Japanese culture.

The book certainly casts its net wide - in the first section, Rights, Life and Costs, there are pcitures of refugees in Rwanda, a public health scheme in Zaire ("poor countries have limited resources available and also find it difficult to provide services which will reach into the more remote areas of their often very large countries") and a vaccination scheme in India.

So it wasn't a surprise to find that A right to life - and death? is listed by Better World Books, which describes itself thus: "Better World Books collects and sells books online to fund literacy initiatives worldwide". It still froze my blood, though, to see that the project seems to have gotten the book into Botswana, where page 38 (41 in the .pdf linked to) it is listed under "moral education" in a "prescription list" of books for junior and senior secondary published by the country's Ministry of Education.

click to go to the homepage of Concerned Women for AmericaIt may seem that I'm against teaching children of an appropriate age about abortion, contraception, etc. Actually, I'm not. I'm of a mind with Wendy Wright, chair of Concerned Women of America, who says that if teachers are presented with a controversial subject, they should teach both sides of the controversy (she was debating with Richard Dawkins on why she thought evolution should be taught in schools alongside creationism).

So, by all means, in state schools teach children that a woman has a right to choose abortion - as long as the un-negotiable humanity of the unborn baby is taught alongside and with equal value; show the results of studies showing that abortion has no side effects - as long as the many studies showing links to depression, breast cancer, later miscarriage, etc etc etc are presented alongside and with equal value; share the opinion that handicapped babies bring misery for themselves and hardship for their families into the world - as long as the objective value of all human beings from Steven Hawking to the kids in the special school down the road is taught alongside and with equal value.

It sounds a tall order, but anything else isn't education, it's propaganda. In fact, Sherlock Holmes' comment on The Strange Affair of A right to life - and death? might be the same as in The Adventure of the Devil's Foot: "To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces."

But I can't end this post with a quote from a fictional character. Here's the pro-choice autLinda Bird Francke, author of 'The Ambivalence of Abortion'hor Linda Bird Francke in her painfully honest work The Ambivalence of Abortion, talking about her own early abortion in the introduction ("I waited for my husband to burst through the door and yell 'stop', but of course he didn't") and finishing the section by stating what she experiences in quiet moments: "I wave at the baby. 'Of course we have room', I cry to the ghost. 'Of course we do.'"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

more Christmas music

click for details of the Beatles' Christmas albums
It's hard choosing your favourite Christmas songs, because there's so many of them.

One of my favourite bands, the Beatles, used to release Christmas records especially for their fans; but in their public releases had discovered that records released in the run-up to Christmas tended to make a mint, like I want to hold your hand in 1963 (British release - in the US it was released in January), I feel fine in 1964 and Day Tripper in 1965.

There were certainlyJudy Garland Christmas songs before this, like Judy Garland's Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and, of course White Christmas, which was so popular that the plates pressing the 78's wore out and Bing had to re-record it; but in general the Christmas single had to wait until the advent of the '45 to come into its own. Then, of course, since the '70's seasonal singles started to be specifically Christmas-themed, some cynically so.

I've just heard on the radio that Kate Rusby has released an album of Christmas songs from South Yorkshire. I saw her perform in the Cambridge folk festival in 2000, the year before she married Scottish folkie John McKusker, although sadly they're now divorced. Rusby is an artist who refuses to compromise in her music - like Willie Nelson, whose Pretty Paper is standard Christmas listening in our house.

But for me the Christmas song to beat them all this year is EJ Norman's sublime, soulful re-working of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's The Power of Love. It's been released electronically as a thank-you to her fans, and when I linked the computer to the music-centre speakers I was relieved to hear that the song had been lovingly produced with none of the compromises on the top parts or the bottom parts that John Mellencamp has so vocally criticised of late. When I heard EJ performing the song, I thought something that I very rarely think about songs these days: "perfect".

For a free copy, email EJ Norman at

click to go to EJ Norman's homepage

Related post: EJ Norman: retro-techno moves forward

Sunday, December 14, 2008

a moving tale

It used to be so easy.

I remember, as a boy, every time I looked behind me, my Mum was loading the removals van.

Our last move but one, many moons ago, was from England to my home town of Glasgow. A friend of ours is a lorry driver, so we hired a 17-ton truck to go north. We were moving to the top storey of a tenement, which meant that we had to carry a cooker, fridge, washing machine etc up four flights of stairs. My brother-in-law Arietinum and I, it almost seems, ran up with the aforementioned.

Today, I was privileged to be asked by our friends Constanter and his partner Honorata to help them move house from one part of the Draughty Old Fen to another.

We did it, thank heavens, but the passage of time made itself felt, and how. We had some heavy stuff to get upstairs, and we did it; but when I was helping Constanter lift the last piece up, I suddenly felt the muscles of my arms turn to jelly, and had absolutely no idea what contribution I was making to the upwards force. Somehow we got the bit of furniture up there, mostly due to Constanter's strength. Although he is chronologically my senior, he's looked after himself and I suspect that biologically he's far younger than me.

Since stepping on each others' toes carrying boxes of books effectively ended our careers as ballroom dancers, Constanter suggested we set ourselves up as a removals firm. I agreed heartily, and suggested a trading name of Bumpitt and Reckitt, and it went downhill from there.

Before I left, I said that I'd enjoyed the experience, and my friends' jaws hit the floor. I have to admit that I found it difficult to put into words what I meant, and was too tired to extemporise. But it's good to do things with friends, and I am left with the abiding memory of getting the mattress from hell up the stairs, which ended with all of us collapsed and laughing. I think the mattress won.

I said I was privileged to be asked by our friends to help them move, and I meant it. Friendship isn't forged in Facebook, it's made when people help each other with no expectation of return. Like, for example, when Orienta makes us noodles - can we have some more, please, and I'll move your garbage?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Christmas top ten

click to watch Wonderful Christmastime on YoutubeRecently we went to an Advent Fair during which we heard a choir from the local old Fen's primary school singing carols. It was wonderful to hear "Little Drummer Boy" and "Little Donkey", but as always I could feel the hairs on the back of my head when the infants sung "Away in a Manger". The innocent hope in that song, expressed by innocents, has a power to affect that the largest orchestra or the heaviest rock group could only wish for.

That set me thinking about Christmas songs, as opposed to carols or hymns. What would I plump for in a top ten?

Sometimes it's easier to think of what you'd exclude. I wouldn't, for instance, go for Christmas Time (Don't let the Bells End) by the Darkness. I have to admit that I think the song is great, but I can't reconcile their jumping on the Christmas bandwagon (or should that be sleigh?) with the foul language in their first album that ensured I never bought their second.

Then there's Wham's Last Christmas, which cynically ticks the Christmas boxes with the sleighbells and the snow-laden video, but the lyrics are so inane they're even worse than watery porridge:

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart,
The very next day, you gave it away.
This year, to save me from tears,
I'll give it to someone better.
And then there's John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War is Over). It was released in the same year as the atheist international anthem, Imagine, which Lennon described as "virtually the communist manifesto in a sugar coating" - this from the millionaire who wrote Working Class Hero while living in an English mansion.

So, number ten in my list would be Christmas Song by Gilbert O' Sullivan, which was a hit in both 1974 and 1978. It seems rather atheistic, but in the '70's O' Sullivan wrote with a bleak realism that never ceased to hit the nail on the head:

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year
To those of you who live in fear
And let us hope that very soon
The peace you seek will then resume
9 - Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy - I love this tale about a young boy who hasclick to hear Little Drummer Boy on Youtube no gifts to give the Infant in the manger that can compete with those of the Wise Men, so gives what he can: he plays on his drum and, so poignant given that he would be a drummer for an army, he also gives his hopes for peace - a seasonal version of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms. And it was a stroke of genius to pair David Bowie with Bing Crosby. Terry Wogan and Aled Jones have also released this for Children in Need.

8 - Talking of Aled Jones, I have to mention Walking in the Air - in the film it was sung by choirboy Peter Auty, but Jones, then also a choirboy, is associated with the song in the public memory after releasing it as a single in 1985. The song came from Howard Blake's animated film The Snowman, which was intended to be a B-movie (remember them?) accompanying Steven Spielberg's ET, but Spielberg voiced his discomfort at similarities in the two films' themes and The Snowman premiered on TV. It's still magical, I think.

click to hear

7 - Whenever I hear Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee on the radio I know it's coming up to Christmas. I just love the words and the music, it's a perfect all-round pop-song for the season. Wham might have thought twice about inflicting their lugubrious dirge upon us had they listened some more to this.
click to hear Silent Night on Youtube
6 - I know I'm concentrating on songs rather than carols or hymns, but I was knocked backwards when glamsters-turned boy-band Bros released Silent Night in 1988.

5 - After Two Tribes and the egregious Relax, when Frankie goes to Hollywood released The Power of Love in 1984 I was watching the video for the first time with a group of friends, and we didn't breathe a sigh of relief until it ended, and nothing controversial happened. I think this song has definitely passed the test of time, and the explicitly religious content of the video was refreshing.

click to hear I believe in Father Christmas on Youtube4 - Greg Lake's I believe in Father Christmas is the first Christmas song I came to love for it's words rather than its music. It's possibly more atheistic than anything John Lennon did, with it's line about swallowing the materialistic accretions of the season "till I believed in the Israelite", but the last line still echoes through the years: "the Christmas we get we deserve". Working Troika from Prokoviev's Lieutenant Kije Suite through the song was a master-touch.

3 - Paul McCartney's Wonderful Christmastime is an object lesson from the master on how to get a Christmas song right.
click to hear When a Child is Born on Youtube
2 - The slow, thoughtful introduction to Johhny Mathis' When a Child is Born is so much a part of my Christmas now that I can't imagine not hearing it on the radio - although Fred Jay's words about the child to be born (presumably Jesus) are at odds with Jesus' words that he came to bring not peace but a sword; but I guess that anything that focusses people's minds on peace at any time is good.

1 - In this year marking the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I, my number one Christmas song isn't remotely connected with Christmas. It was written at the start of the 20th Century and at one point was a favourite piece of the Scottish performer Sir Harry Lauder. It's a story of war and redemption and is sung by Rolf Harris, with all proceeds going to the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal. Have a look at Two Little Boys:

(NB - all pictures are linked to YouTube videos.)

Related post: more Christmas music

Monday, December 8, 2008

misogyny 101


When I was a student psychiatric nurse, my class was looking at the effecThe Pornography of Representation by Susanne Kappelert of pornography upon how women were perceived by men and by themselves at one point. To research the subject more deeply, I bought The Pornography of Representation by the left-wing feminist Susanne Kappeler. When I brought it out of my rucksack in the house, my mother's gaze fixed on the second word, and she exploded: "What the HELL is that?" Pulling herself up to her full four foot eleven, she continued to thunder: "Let me tell you this, boy, THERE'LL BE NAE FILTH IN THIS HOUSE!!!"

When I explained that it was a critique of pornography by a female author who opposed it, she calmed down - a little bit. On reading the text, I got the impression of somebody who was incensed at the exploitation of women, although there wasn't much about how pornography, in reducing women to one function, also debases men - simply throwaway phrases describing intercourse as "phallic vexation" and a description of modern culture as a "phallocracy".

Where Kappeler lost me was in her struggle to differentiate erotica from pornography; at one point she concludes that the difference is in the reach either has - positing porn as a manifestation of what left-wingers thought symbolised the evils of modern industrial society, the production line - and decides that a Big Mac is thereby pornographic. Thus ended my fling with analyzing androcentric structures of oppression.

In today's Telegraph, Ben Leach reports that Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas, having commissioned a "Top Shelf report", wants to push a Bill through Parliament which would see "lads' mags", newspapers with pornographic content and both papers and mags containing explicit sex-ads carrying age-ratings like films.

Good luck to her. Really. The greatest resistance will come not from the press but from inside her own party. Diane Abbott, taking a rest from plucking pseudo-statistics out of nowhere to justify imposing abortion on Northern Ireland, is ostensibly backing Mrs Curtis-Thomas, but is actually agitating for any code putting publications with pornographic images to remain voluntary: a law which I could demonstrate to her to be honoured more in the breach than in the observation in half a dozen shops that I know of in Cambridge.

Abbott's position seems at first sight to be a strange one for a feminist, but on examination it shows a curious internal consistency: boy sees a girl depicted as meat, boy meets a girl, treats her as meat, girl ends up as meat on an abortion-clinic table.

I write the above sentence advisedly. There's no erotica here in the sense that the Song of Songs can be said to be erotica. According to the Telegraph article linked to, 100% of female students surveyed found images in three of the worst offenders, The Daily Sport, Zoo and Nuts found themselves "angry, offended or upset" by the images therein, and so did 11% of males; but, tellingly, 20% of males "admitted that looking at this material encouraged them to see women as sex objects".

click to the homepage of the Internet Watch FoundationWhen I was having a shower during Wake up to Wogan this morning, the news came on, and I stuck my head out of the curtain when a not unrelated item came on. The Internet Watch Foundation has advised British ISP's to bar access to a Wikipedia discography page on the rock band the Scorpions because it contained a picture of the album cover for Virgin Killer.

Googling the cover I realised that I vaguely remembered it, and it is shocking, featuring a rather young naked girl with a crack in the camera-lens positioned strategically; it's so strong that one blogger defending the picture had to post it blurred and in black and white. The title track, according to the band, is about time being the killer of innocence - I looked at the lyrics and was unable to make my mind up either way - google them yourself, if you wish.

The thing is, this image, unsavoury as it is, has been in the public domain, in record shops, on CD's etc, since 1976 - 32 years. Why has the IWF only just decided that it is a "potentially indecent image of a child"? (In my mind the "potentially" is unnecessary.) Has somebody chanced upon their old dictionary and looked up "morality"?

Cambridge is a mid-sized town in a corner of England, yet it seems that every few weeks there's a scandal involving somebody being found to have downloaded pornographic pictures of children to their computer (downloading satisfies the description of "making" a picture), so I imagine there's a lot of it going on throughout the UK, never mind the world. Most of these pictures are coming from the internet. Would identifying and blocking the sites and bringing their perpetrators to justice not be a more worthy goal than one which certainly raises awareness for the IWF, but also sees the Scorpions' and Virgin Killer's profile higher than it has been for decades? (And why pull the page with the cover for the Scorpions album, but let the one with a picture of the cover for Nirvana's Nevermind remain?)

The trouble is, many of society's public figures seem unable to identify where the line Miley Cyrus in a pose many of her fans are more comfortable withbetween acceptable and unacceptable is because much of "society" has been on a 40-year spree of blurring lines and inserting large grey areas into black-and-white issues. For example, Annie Liebovitz' controversial Vanity Fair photograph of Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus might be somewhat tasteful if it were of an adult, but being as it is of a 15-year-old girl it is totally unacceptable - witness the strong points made in the Report of the APA [American Psychiatric Association] Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls. The title of the equivalent Australian report lays bare the reason behind the blurring of said boundaries - Corporate Pedophilia.

So what about the "lads' mags"? Where does the erotic become meretricious; when does a celebration of the human form become a desecration of it? This is something burlesque artiste Dita von Teese has thought about a lot, resulting in an act that, while strong stuff, is at least as cerebral as it is sensual and has won her as many female fans as it has male. But the lads' mags are sheer exploitation - misogyny 101. As one blogger writes: "Think giving lads mags age ratings will silence the anti-lads mags lobby? Will it [expletive deleted]! Cclick to go to Chris Evans' BBC Radio 2 homepageos once they get age ratings and then lads mags put on the top shelf they will as we all know call for lads mags to be banned completly!" Too right, pal.

Earlier this year, DJ Chris Evans was recalling his pre-launch interview with the editor of one of the bigger two lads' mags, either Nuts or Zoo, I forget which. Evans stated the man had presented it as a publication that father and son could read together; the DJ paused for a couple of seconds, then said quietly, "that must be some family".

Saturday, December 6, 2008

playing tig with tags

Maxima currently has a bug, so I've come into XV, the local charity shop, to open up for the knitting group she usually hosts. I'm glad I did, because, being unable to access my computer due to having messed up reloading Windows, I went online here and found that Linda from "Don't poke the baby" has kindly tagged me in a game of tag (we called it "tig" in Scotland, but the pun doesn't work so well) which originated with Kalona from Knocking everywhere.

I tag lots of bloggers though my "blogs I follow" and my blogroll. The tags we list seem to be limited to four or five, so here are my selections:

1 - Pam H - a non-blogging blogger who often gives me the benefit of her faith and wide experience. Hope you start blogging soon, Pam!

2 - Don't Poke the Baby - points of view from a Roman Catholic home-schooling Mum, gardner and photographer. Great stuff, and brilliant photos too.

3 - Witness to Love - a pro-life, pro-Christianity blog specialising on the rights of children from the point of view of Radagast, a senior teacher in a Roman Catholic school.

4 - John Smeaton - SPUC Director - a blog from the head of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, on pro-life matters from Britain and abroad.

5 - Cranmer political and religious news from all over the world and the spectrum of Christianity, seen from an Anglican viewpoint.

Here's my six favourite things:

1 - living in the Fens of East Anglia, where my children have a much better chance of having a childhood than in the sink estate where we used to live in Glasgow, a city which all too often eats its children.

2 - as above, from the point of view of religion, which is far, far less tribalised than in south-west Scotland.

3 - the Christian communities centred on St Gallicus' in the Draughty old Fen.

4 - the blogosphere, where everybody who wants to can have a voice.

5 - memories of sitting at my Mum's knees and hearing her stories of growing up in Glasgow before and during WWII, and of her Dad, a Sergeant in the Argyll and Southern Highlanders.

6 - Waking up to Sarah Kennedy's early-morning show on Radio 2 so that I can catch Terry Wogan's show from the start. A wonderfully irreverent man with a politically incorrect streak running through his surreal humour that gives a voice to the ideologically unbeautiful.

Thanks for wishing me happy St Nicholas' Day, Linda - the same to you and to everybody reading this!

Frugal Dougal
Happy Yellow Dog of the Fens (by appointment)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

memo to parliament: it's Martin or you

In early 1979, I went to a Labour political meeting in Glasgow with my Mum. She would never say how she voted, a discretion perhaps developed as part of growing up with one parent voting Conservative and the other the Independent Labour Party.

She felt the occasion merited attendance, though, because the serving MP, Richard Buchanan, was handing the baton to his successor, Michael Martin. Buchanan had been a well-loved MP, and Martin was to become one, because they understood one key thing: the conservative values that non-Marxist Labour voters of a certain vintage demanded from their politicians as regards, among other things, right and wrong.

I'm sure I don't need to go over the story of how Damian Green, Conservative MP for Ashford and Shadow Minister for Immigration, was arrested a week ago today (November 27) for expressing concerns that Government policy on immigration was out of control, these concerns - voiced in emails between Government figures and civil servants - having been leaked to him by a Home Office civil servant.

MP's are arrested now and again, for various things; but this case is crucially different because Mr Green was arrested for acting in three capacities: as a Member of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, as a Conservative MP and as a Shadow Minister carrying a portfolio on immigration. In other words, for doing his job.

The last attempt to arrest MP's for doing their job was by King Charles I in 1642 (he was rather miffed, they had tried to impeach his Queen over Irish affairs; you might say he lost his head). The then Speaker, William Lenthall, famously replied:
May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.
Martin has not showed the same selflessness. As the Telegraph's Andrew Pierce reports, he seems to have been separated from his sense of right and wrong since his accession to the post of Speaker shortly after his accession to the post in 2000. For instance, in 2001, his diary secretary Charlotte Every departed amid Martin's suspicions (despite his occupying a non-political post) that she was a Conservative; shortly after, Standards Commissioner Elizabeth Filkin departed at the end of a lengthy Labour hate campaign, accusing Martin of downgrading her post; and in a chilling insight into how Labour really plans to manage ID cards, Martin's wife objected to her friends being asked to show security passes in order to enter the Houses of Parliament.

As opposed to the situation in Washington, the Speaker of the House of Commons, in his or her position of "First Commoner", is required to break all party-political links in order to represent the interests of MP's of all parties and see to the good running of the House. Martin has showed nothing but partisanship, which is a disappointing fall from grace for somebody who'd had a reputation as a damn good constituency MP.

Despite predictions - mostly from left-wingers - that this is all going to die down and soon, I suspect that if education recovers from Labour's dumbing-down then schoolchildren will still be reading about the Damian Green affair in a century's time. It wouldn't be so bad if it were only Labour who were damaged by this, but Parliament as a whole has been damaged, and the police don't come out too well either.

The police were considered to have been politicised by Margaret Thatcher to crush the miner's strike (in reality, although many individual miners were striking over pay and conditions, NUM leader Arthur Scargill's intention was to start a conflict that would see the Government overthrown). Unless very senior officers move very quickly to assert the political independence of the force, the police will become very unpopular and even irrelevant among their traditional supporters, especially if they have to enforce measures like carrying ID cards. They may also have to answer to the individual police officers who were ordered to carry out the politically-motivated raids, and who will almost certainly find that their career prospects have been damaged.

Labour has broken the schools, the penal system, the immigration service, and indeed the spine of Merlin's dragon is starting to crack under the strain of the party's desparate mission to prove that every marriage is a untenable, every single mother unable to cope, every child in a religious household a victim. At this make-or-break point for Parliament, I hope that Opposition MP's are able to make common cause with cooler heads in the Labour Party like Harriet Harman and Tony Benn. Because once a critical mass of the people of Great Britain start to think the unthinkable, the Government may not find itself as much in control as it deludes itself to be.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

fens, fares and freedoms

I've finally managed to reload Windows, after a load of false starts that seemed personally tailored to get me as wound-up as possible.

I wouldn't mind, but I was late back, having been out with my brother Asinus and his family at their old fen's Advent fair, which always has an international flavour and shows how a village can touch the world in ways that the cosmopolitan life can only hint at.

For a start, one stall manned by a German lady sold paté made on-site at the Steinhart family farm near Heidelberg with the help of a local Steiner school, while another sold crib-figures made from wood in the Holy Land. Ugandan gifts were on offer from children from the villages set up by the Watoto movement that many churches through the world have reached out to and been enriched by the experience. Closer to home, I wasn't so sure about the chocolate wines, but others seemed to like them, and I picked up a book on birdwatching from XV, the local charity shop.

I wouldn't like you to think I'm seeing things through warm fuzzy glasses, for the old fens certainly have their problems - like parents who take the saying that it takes a village to bring up a child too far and deprive their offspring of parental input; or eejits who buy cheap booze from supermarkets then, out of sight sell them to said feral youths. Or plans to conform to governmental house-building targets by erecting estates on flood-plains, or else land that presently absorbs rainwater to mitigate the effect of precipitation on lower-lying houses in this low-lying area of England which at present needs to have the water pumped out of it.

But there's something valuable about communities, either those which exist in villages, or which still survive in parts of towns and cities. It sometimes seems that the government is determined to urbanise great swathes of the land, having already impoverished many rural communities socially by removing their post-offices and making things hard for communities to come together in, say, pubs.

Case in point: East Cambridgeshire District Council recently banned a poetry-group called Turning Point from hosting a popular reading-night in the Royal Standard Inn in Ely, because it doesn't have a spoken-word licence. Luckily, the reading-night was rescued by the town's Lamb Hotel - but what in the name of Sadie McGlumphur's pony is a "spoken word licence"? In these days when it is apparently an arrestable offence to function as an Opposition MP, do we now need licences to celebrate the glory of the English language, let alone speak out in defence of our communities?

Anyway, it's time for bed, and I've said my piece, so I'm just about grumpy enough to get a sleep now. Night-night.