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Monday, 22 November 2010

Hurrah for Rebecca Harris MP!

Governments and the officials who advise them make a mess of many things. In the UK, they are clueless when it comes to organising Public Time - the calendar, the clocks, public holidays, opening hours for public services.

So it is not surprising that the well-established case for moving our clocks forward an hour from their current summer and winter settings is currently being advanced in Parliament by a Private Member's Bill, introduced by the Tory MP, Rebecca Harris. Not by the Government. They are in a flap about it. They know it has majority support and they say they aren't going to oppose it. But the idea that they might assume responsibility for handling such an important Quality of Life issue is beyond them.

Our current clock times are beholden to the Farm Lobby or, at least, three farmers in the north of Scotland. Farmers like it to be light in the morning; the rest of the population see the advantage of having light at the end of their working day. Businesses would find it convenient if our clock times were aligned with those on the European mainland - only Ireland and Portugal share our time zone and look where that's got them. Road safety experts reckon the change would reduce accidents.

It seems there is a pretty overwhelming case. If you live south of the Scottish border, there is no doubt about the matter. If you live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, it seems the same is true according to a Sunday Times report. But whether our quality of life will improve currently depends on the skill of a single Tory MP. Good luck to Rebecca Harris MP and shame on the Government for being so pathetic.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

How can you possibly want to belong to this organisation?

How can you possibly want to belong to the Roman Catholic church?

I know that the BBC News website presents the Vatican as some kind of moral authority to which we should all pay heed - it functions as a sort of outreach for the Vatican Press Office - but that's not a good enough excuse.

The Vatican is worldly, calculating, corrupt, backward and evil in the effects it has had over centuries. How can any right-thinking person sign up to this organisation?

The BBC wants us to believe that it is some kind of breakthrough that the Pope has come to the conclusion that in certain cirumstances (like saying lots of Hail Marys before you do it) it might be all right for a gay male prostitute to put on a condom before fucking a client.

Someone at the BBC is undoubtedly out of his (it must be a he) tiny mind. If you are in the real world, these remarks are no breakthrough and no excuse for decades of absurdity. It just piles absurdity onto absurdity. This mindless casuistry ought to be News only because it shows that if you live in the Vatican you have nothing to offer the world.

Suppose Kim Jong Il, our soon to be departed Dear Leader, gets up and says that in certain circumstances it is understandable that people should want to flee North Korea. Should the BBC go gaga and proclaim it as some kind of breakthrough? Of course not. It would do nothing to redeem decades of oppression and starvation, presided over by this absurd dictator. Not for one moment should the Dear Leader be allowed a respite from the world's exasperation and ridicule.

Ditto Ratzinger.

The Naming of Parts: "Contains Sulfites"

This is autobiography

I was brought up on bread and jam, toast and marmalade, and I loved it. Only in recent years have I slacked off. It seems I don't digest bread very well. (Pandas don't digest bamboo shoots very well but they are still hooked on them).

On our 1950s and 1960s table the pots of jam proclaimed "Honestly Made, Honestly Better" but they did not proclaim their ingredients. I began to think about this when East European jams began to appear in the local Co-op in the early 1960s. I was a teenager and doing the shopping for my mother when she was ill. The jars were tall and sloped towards the lid, the glass greenish with air bubbles. The jam was delicious, big halves of apricots swimming in the loosely set jam. It was cheaper, too. My mother was not convinced. It was foreign.

It is one of the achievements of the European Union to have forced the labelling of food products. Honestly made, honestly better turned out to be full of colours and preservatives and not much fruit. Basically, it was junk. The Hungarian jams were fruit and sugar.

Food labelling helps us improve the quality of our life. We can make informed choices. It has forced producers into cutting the crap content of their products. Sometimes, the information now provided seems excessive. But in one case, the labelling remains inadequate.

Thanks to the influence of the wine producing countries, the European Union still does not require the labelling of wine with its contents. We have got only so far as a grudging "Contains Sulfites". Since they all contain it, no producer loses. I would really like to know what my wine contains. Then I might understand why some of it gives me a headache though most doesn't.

Monday, 15 November 2010

In Praise of a Throwaway Society

How long should a pillow last?

In my family, pillows were things acquired as part of setting up home and, once acquired, were kept for a life time. I don't think they were ever washed. My mother did, however, double wrap them with two pillowcases - something I still do - and pillowcases were washed, maybe once a fortnight.

My (feather) pillows go down the tip after a year or so. I see no point in washing them and they are cheap to replace.

I can't remember the last time I had a pair of shoes repaired. I wear them out and throw them away. I rarely polish them, despite having been brought up to do so. I can recall watching an uncle polishing his leather shoes for work, always with great care, and I am sure those sparkling shoes had seen many years' service. But they cost him ten minutes a day when he could have read his Daily Herald.

No one darns my socks, mends my shirts or sharpens my knives. There is no need. I replace these things. But I remember another uncle who had his own personal wooden-handled knife to eat with, not more than a couple of inches left of it after decades of being sharpened.

There are still people about with a Workhouse philosophy: one set of decent clothes, kept for best and kept for a very long time; other clothes bought cheap and worn and washed until faded and threadbare.

Life can be better than that and throwing things away is part of what makes it better.

The line between reasonable and profligate replacement, of clothes and household goods, has shifted dramatically in a century, at different rates for different goods - a social historian could probably chart it and that would be interesting reading. Think of hairbrushes for women and razors for men.

But should we even see a line between the reasonable and the profligate? If you have the money, surely it is yours to spend as you please? If you want to throw out the sofa after twelve months instead of twelve years, who is to say you shouldn't?

It is "the environment" which may make us pause, but I am not always sure why. Oil is an exhaustible resource but - for example - cotton isn't. You can just keep on growing it. Ah, but what about Waste and its disposal? A throwaway society is a society which creates waste on a vastly greater scale.

Of course, that's true, so the waste has to go somewhere and, of course, we may have to pay for it to go there - though sometimes other people will be happy to pay us to recycle it. That's as true now as in Charles Dickens' time.

The trouble at present is that we are surrounded by ideologically-motivated recycling, the costs and benefits of which are unclear. When I loook at the big, diesel-guzzling lorries which crawl round my city and are slowly and painfully filled with "recyclables" I rather suspect they are part of a Soviet system which does not care about costs or benefits. Some of the time, the "recycling" is simply bogus - the stuff goes to landfill; they just won't admit it. The rest of the time, when all the costs are factored, is it rational to collect all those half-washed empty cans of dog food? Would it not make better environmental sense to ban the dogs?

Friday, 12 November 2010


This is autobiography

Funerals are organised - and sometimes paid for - by the living, who also have to experience them. It is better that the dead do not interfere.

It's possible to dispose of a body without a funeral: you send it to the crematorium and they burn it. No one has to take a day off work.

It seems a bit harsh, though there was a time when it might have attracted me: the teenage time when The Mayor of Casterbridge allowed me to indulge maudlin grief to the full.

Most likely, my children will have to decide whether to give me a funeral and, if so, of what kind. I very much hope they will have my body cremated and I do not want any religious officiation. Otherwise, it's up to them how they use the time they will be allocated.

I haven't attended many funerals and have only taken full responsibility for one, my mother's. My mother believed in God, so I invited a C of E clergyman to officiate, even though for stretches of her life she felt herself too wicked to attend church. She read the Bible privately at home.

I was grateful to the clergyman, who did a sensitive job. I have attended other funerals where you feel sorry for those grieving as you listen to the jobbing cleric make a hash of things, reading from crib notes about someone he never met. Far better to do it yourself.

I spoke at my mother's funeral, addressing the five people in attendance (including the cleric). It is one of the things in my life that I am really glad I did. I am surprised I managed it. Outside the crematorium chapel, I had seen the approaching single and unaccompanied hearse, which I had ordered, and it had been too much for me.

My mother died within a few weeks of being taken seriously ill. It was an unpleasant death (Carcinoma pancreas), only relieved by moments of morphine-induced animation. I sought desperately to focus her on happy and redeeming moments of a very unhappy life and when I spoke at the funeral it was also to foreground a few things of which she had been proud.

A few months beforehand, she had her final nervous breakdown - on New Year's Day 1978, depressed and suicidal, she ordered a taxi and presented herself at the gates of an old-fashioned asylum (Bexley Mental Hospital). They telephoned me. I was 31. She was 70.

Fourteen years had passed since her last major breakdown, which rendered her unable to walk or speak. You could call it catatonic depression or, simply, melancholia. On Boxing Day 1964, it was me who telephoned for an ambulance and who sat in the back with her as it took her to Bexley. She stayed there for months and for ECT. In 1978, they refrained from the ECT.

Nowadays, parents often live to an age when their children have resolved the difficulties they have created for them and where they can feel that the parents have had their life and it is right that they should die.

But when you talk to people who have lost a parent or a partner, it is clear that the expectation of someone's death is always not quite real. Death is not meant to happen this week, when you are not quite ready.

A funeral is one of the ways we deal with the fact of not having been quite ready for a death.


Added 24 July 2018: Material fro this Blog post is revised and expanded in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016) and in my memoir of childhood I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018) both freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Monday, 8 November 2010

Hubert Wolf - Pope and Devil

The future is like the past. And the past is like the future.

This is a fascinating book by an academic church historian, using the Vatican archives to show how it responded to the rise of Nazism and the reality of the Third Reich. It provides - perhaps unwittingly - insight into how the central bureaucracy of a totalitarian organisation functioned in the 1920s and 1930s and - no doubt - still functions today. There are obvious parallels between the way in which the Vatican has handled its recent sex abuse scandals and the way in which it handled its relations with Nazi Germany, in both cases always deciding in favour of institutional self-interest.

At first, I thought the author must be writing tongue in cheek, ironically, in taking us through the handling of matters about which priests in rather expensive black gowns get excited - female gymnastics in the case of the future Pope Pius XII. But by the end, I suspect not.

The Vatican as we know it was Mussolini's creation. He acceded to the Church's demand to remove itself from the jurisdiction of national civil and criminal law by granting it recognition as a state, able to send ambassadors all over the world, issue passports and postage stamps, but above all, able to claim immunity when threatened with action for the crimes of its leaders.

But its bogus claim to statehood is only one of the sources which nurtures the Vatican's irresponsibiliy. The other source is its unaccountability for the use to which it puts the funds furnished by the faithful. Hubert Wolf describes in detail what Vatican bureaucrats do with their time. So many bureaucrats, so much time on their hands. If God hadn't invented committees for them, they would have surely done so themselves.

It is in this area that I locate Wolf's lack of wider vision. As a church historian, he is above discussing the Vatican as an organisation where money, power and influence operate as in any organisation, only - because of its totalitarian character - more so.

Nor is it his job to moralise. I am free to do that. For me, the central question is this: Is the Vatican, as an organisation, a force for Good or Evil? (I am not a relativist and I am happy to use those terms).

I answer that it is a force for Evil, always ready to persecute, even excommunicate , those of its members who show too much humanity - as long as they have no worldly power. Always ready to accommodate to the powerful, to bow down to worldly power. Hitler was never excommunicated - a topic Wolf throws away lightly in his closing pages.

Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican. Only this year, all our politicians grovelled to Pope Benedict on a state visit got up by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Standing up to the Vatican begins with withdrawing diplomatic recognition. No more Papal Nuncios scurrying around organising the bishops to fight the British version of Modernism. Wolf gives a detailed and fascinating account of what Nuncios - among whom the future Pius XII - got up to in the 1920s. I don't believe anything will have much changed. Read this book, and you won't want a Nuncio in your own back yard.

Postscript: "Nowadays, no one stands up to the Vatican". I forgot the recent action of the Belgain authorities who raided the Catholic bishops and archbishops, laptops and all, daring to treat them as subject to Belgian law. The indignation in the Vatican was intense: that our priests sexually abuse children is no business of the police!