Wednesday, 12 September 2012

How do I sound?

It seems to me that "how I sound" is made up of the following three elements:

The timbre of my voice.  This is its pitch, tone and "colour".  Of all three this must be the most difficult to alter, dependent as it is on my gender, the length of my vocal chords, and countless genetically inherited physical factors (I'm often struck by how different my father, my brother and I look, but how similar we sound).

My accent.  This is of course another matter.  It is the product of the geographical locus of my early years, my upbringing, education and other influences.  I can alter my accent if I want to: I remember a boy who used to talk dead ordinary when we were at school in north-east London but who, when I met him again in our 20s, sounded as if he'd been to Eton.

My speech patterns and vocabulary.  While these, too, were formed by my familial, social and educational background, they have developed and changed over the years, shaped by my occupation, my reading, those with whom I share my life and spend my time, and countless other subtle influences.

I speak (and sing) in public a lot - mainly in church.  I am used to projecting my voice, and am conscious that this sometimes makes the volume of my non-public speech a touch higher than it needs to be.  My colleague and I often say to each other in ordinary conversation: "You don't need to shout - I'm standing right next to you".  This may be an occupational hazard.  But when I hear myself on voicemail, I am dismayed.  In my head, my accent is Received Pronunciation ("the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England" - OED) but in reality what I think is my "unaccented" southern pronunciation is corrupted by flat Estuary vowels and glottal stops.  The timbre of my voice seems mealy-mouthed and slack: its "colour" a sort of light brown.  Awful.

I was drawn to consideration of this by a recent experience in an airport departure lounge.  I was sitting in one of those rows of seats which has an identical row behind it facing the other way - so that someone sitting immediately behind you is as close as someone sitting next to you.  Because the person sitting behind you can't see you, he or she feels no need to lower the volume of their conversation - which you cannot easily ignore.  The person behind me on this occasion was an youngish-sounding American woman; and were it not for the fact that I was also mesmerised by it, I was so irritated by her voice that I would have pointed my wheeled cabin-bag to the other end of the lounge and removed it and myself thereto pretty sharpish.

The timbre of her voice was unattractive but unexceptional - no worse than mine - and she sounded reasonably educated.  It was the verbal tics she employed that did for me.  In conversation with her neighbour, she must have used the word "like" - both in the now-familiar sense of reporting conversation ("I'm like - you can't be serious!") and for general emphasis ("She was, like, so not listening to me") about 1000 times in the space of 20 minutes. Secondly, she made liberal use of Questioning Intonation - that habit of going up at the end of a statement so that it sounds like a question?  And thirdly, she employed what is called vocal fry - a way of pitching the voice below its normal register so that it becomes hoarse, rasping and possibly, supposedly, sexy.

I know what it is about departure lounges.  Once you're airside, you're formally in no-man's-land; you are in a notional interstice between countries and their jurisdictions; your bearings have been removed and you are sort of weightless.  The sense of disorientation this generates is exacerbated by windows of tinted glass which lend an unreality to the outside world (a strange, unpeopled place called Greater Airport) and depressingly pointless shops selling things that you could have bought for half the price outside.  They are not places where I generally feel buoyant.  Otherwise, I might not have taken against this (probably charming) lady as I did.  But it made me realise the extent to which I dislike these aberrations of speech, and resent their insidious spread.

They, and perhaps others, may have originated in the affluent young female population of the San Fernando Valley - essentially a sprawling suburb of Los Angeles - and disseminated via the powerful media industries of that vast city.  These "Valley Girls" with their "Valleyspeak" are, when you come to think of it, an extraordinary phenomenon - their "likes" and rising inflections now as much part of ordinary speech in Burford as in Burbank.  I do not have children - and if I had, they would probably be grown up by now - but I remember how strict our father was about unacceptable speech patterns my brother and I brought home from school, and wonder how I would prevent their modern equivalents taking root in my own offspring.  Maybe make them listen to themselves on voicemail.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Under African Skies

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s when South Africa was never out of the news.  Bulletins featured black heroes and martyrs called Tutu, Mandela and Biko, snarling right-wing white politicians with Dutch names and off-putting accents, apartheid (which term our geography teacher, in a tone heavy with meaning, explained was pronounced apart-hate), sanctions, and things called townships where black people lived in shacks.  We - the UN, the civilised world - were unequivocally, righteously hostile in our view of the regime: we signed petitions, demonstrated, and refused to play cricket with them or buy their oranges.  If you went there (which you were not encouraged to do for fear of "legitimising" it by your visit) it took hours longer than it needed to because of overflying restrictions.

The issue was, emphatically, race - the anti-apartheid struggle perhaps the biggest race-based conflict since the American Civil War - and Britain in those years was a country coming to terms with its own recently acquired multi-racial character. Collectively, we were not at all sure of where we stood on this highly ethical, super-sensitive, profoundly human subject; and South Africa was at once an awful warning and a beacon of hope.  In our uncertainty, we relocated our anger and fear, our doubts and hopes, to the far south - partly, I suspect, so that we did not have to look at ourselves too closely.  This led to some extraordinary expressions of bigotry and self-righteousness, and also some of true heroism and towering humility.  For a good 25 years, it was impossible for the ordinary Briton not to have a view about South Africa - and there was really only one respectable view.  With strong competition from the Vietnam war, it became the political cause célèbre for a whole generation of young Westerners.

This, and what has happened there since those dark years, has inevitably coloured my view of this huge, complicated country.  I have recently returned from a 10-day holiday in the Western Cape - which some will tell you is not the "real" South Africa (let alone the "real" Africa) at all.  Its Mediterranean climate and its Western social attitudes - not to mention its extraordinary beauty - provide a highly sympathetic point of entry for the urban liberal. And if you can contrive not to take in the glimpses of the townships that rise along the motorway from the airport into Cape Town, if you restrict your subsequent range to your ocean-view apartment, city-centre restaurants and beauty spots, you can pretty much avoid contemplation of recent history and its legacy.  You can eat very well and very cheaply.  You can (if you're the type) surf and paraglide in idyllic surroundings.  You can visit pristine vineyards, admire their contemporary art installations, and taste the very fine and varied wines of Constantia and Stellenbosch.  You can wander the exquisite Kirstenbosch botanical gardens which nestle into the side of Table Mountain.  You can bathe in the warmth of these smiling, hospitable people - who will switch without missing a beat to English from their native isiXhosa or Afrikaans to welcome or help you.  You can go to church - this is still a very religious country - in large, often racially and linguistically mixed Anglican congregations, and feel entirely at home.  If you want, you can ignore the other stuff.

Except you can't, really.  You can't ignore a train platform populated entirely by black people (out-of-town whites commute by car).  You can't ignore people toiling along hard shoulders miles from anywhere, hitching lifts if they can (I am mildly haunted by the sight of young men lying impassively on piles of timber or furniture in the back of pick-up trucks); you can't ignore the vast, dense, tumbling shanty settlements of the Cape Flats, with their dodgy-looking electricity poles and kids playing football on waste ground.  You can't ignore the men who appear from nowhere to help you park your car in the hope of small "donation".  Most of all, you can't ignore people standing, sitting, eating, even sleeping, at every crossroads and motorway junction, waiting for God knows what or whom.  And, on the flipside, you can't ignore the gated security, and the bars at every window of the smart houses of the leafy, silent white suburbs, patrolled in police fashion by ubiquitous ADT vans.

It's too easy to slip into a bleeding-heart guilt-trip about all this - especially on the basis of a short visit to what is probably one of the most affluent corners of the entire African continent.  But it is salutary (and perhaps simply human) to be aware of the inequalities, and of how little income disparity has changed since the abolition of apartheid (in fact it has increased).  And it's clear that the poor are generally black and the rich are generally white. That's not unique to South Africa, of course; but it is certainly more graphically obvious there than it is in the UK.  As far as I could judge, nobody much expects this to change in a hurry: there is much cynicism about the present ANC government, which many - of all races - believe to be riven with corruption and nepotism; and the economy of this country - fertile, resource-rich, and bursting with potential - is flatlining. But the visiting, well-wishing foreigner finds it hard not to be hopeful.  It's simply a lovely place, and its people so damned nice that it's hard to regard it as anything but blessed.

Post script.  On the day I got back, the BBC ran a TV programme documenting the hot water that American singer-songwriter Paul Simon had got into over his landmark album Graceland.  Simon had rather stumbled into the South African controversy in 1986 when he went there to record songs for the album, breaking the "cultural boycott" of South Africa which was by then in place.  He collaborated with the then exiled and since deceased black South African singer Miriam Makeba ("Mama Africa") but, most famously and controversially, with the indigenous male-voice group Ladyship Black Mambazo.

I vaguely remember the fuss at the time; and I also remember largely ignoring it.  This was partly because, by the mid-80s, boycotting South Africa had become reduced to a sort of background noise; but mainly because I regarded (and still regard) Simon as a poetic genius and Graceland as a work of musical art.  Its fusion of African tribal rhythms and harmonies with Simon's lonely urban mysticism is a - possibly timeless - triumph and, as far as I know, a truly unique undertaking.

So I had not realised how badly affected Simon - an apparently liberal and humane man - had been by the criticism which he had attracted by his unwitting "legitimisation" of the Pretoria regime. The programme suggested that, 26 years on, his album caused offence that has only just been forgiven by some former anti-apartheid activists.  This made me smile: in the Cape Town department stores, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and airport lounges in which I had found myself days before, I could not escape the strains of Paul Simon's poignant celebration of Africa, and of human memory:

Joseph's face was as black as night;
the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes.
His path was marked 
by the stars of the southern hemisphere
and he walked his days under African skies.

This is the story of how we begin to remember.
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein.
After the dream of falling and calling your name out,
these are the roots of rhythm
and the roots of rhythm remain.

Listen here:

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A very British idol

The Olympics opening ceremony, says its creator Danny Boyle, was designed to “represent us and feel truthful”.  Actually, I think it succeeded in that.  The British are rather good at being truthful about themselves, sometimes perhaps too good.  Some have wondered whether the spectacle of our green and pleasant land being torn up and disfigured by the greedy ravages of the Industrial Revolution was a bit more truthful than the image we want to project to the world.  Perhaps.  But it is what actually happened, and is a crucial factor in the subsequent development not just of Britain, but of the entire planet.  Britain exported industry to its empire: factories and railway lines became as much a part of the local landscape in Bombay as in Birmingham.  This changed, profoundly and irrevocably, the way in which millions of us live; and for all its dirt and squalor and destruction, it was a revolution that spun us into what we think of as the modern world.  You can argue about how “good” this was; you can’t argue about how formational.  And it started here.  It is right that it should be included in a tableau of who we are in the world.

And then there was the NHS.  A headline in Monday’s London Evening Standard above a still of that child jumping above a hospital bed asked: “Is this the scene that won Labour the next election?”  Maybe.  But probably not.  I didn’t see it as having much in the way of political impact.  As part of a representation of who we are, the creation of the NHS is undoubtedly up there.  It’s easy to forget that, when it was implemented, the welfare state was itself truly revolutionary, unique in the non-communist world.  It changed people’s lives – including those of my parents and grandparents – immeasurably, and unquestionably for the better. Others have admired and been inspired by it.  And we did it – and did it, moreover at a time of acute national austerity. Of course we should celebrate it - even if so fulsome a tribute to something as apparently mundane as a healthcare service seems slightly mystifying to non-British audiences.

But there’s a clue here.  Because the reason we celebrate the NHS, of course, is not just because of its ground-breaking nature.  It’s also because we believe in it.  I’ve blogged before about it as a “national religion” and about why it’s not the one I profess.  But there’s an awful truth in Chesterton’s aphorism: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything”.  For, while I accept that there are plenty of us who believe in both God and the NHS, I suspect the British people have largely stopped consciously believing in the former, and that the latter is as good an “anything” as you could suggest.

That it is not good for them to be Godless, I have no doubt.  But that is it not good for the NHS to be elevated to take His place, I am also quite sure.  It is a system for delivering health care, nothing more.  It was revolutionary; it was altruistic; it was courageous.  But the world, and Britain, has moved on.  What promised a sort of salvation 60 years ago now has an uncanny knack of making people frustrated and angry.  A more-than trebling of its funding over the last 15 years has revealed that the NHS’s real shortcomings are too deeply seated for money to reach.  Yet if a government so much as proposes to tinker with it, it is showered with abuse and risks political suicide.  The NHS does not need reforming; it needs rebuilding.  And for something new to be built, the pre-existing structure has to be demolished.  But who will dare to break the idol?

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The History Boy

I really wish I had done history O-level. 

When I reached the age at which you had to choose your subjects, it had become clear I was the arty type.  Not that I was any good at what we called “art” at school.  My middling academic strengths were clearly going to lie in what were then called Modern Languages; and indeed I went on to do French and German (alongside English) at A-level and subsequently at university.  Already at the age of 14 it was plain that I had a fairly astringent aversion to mathematics and science; and my aim was to avoid them as far as possible for the rest of my education – and ideally the rest of my life.  I couldn’t avoid doing maths O-level, because like English Language, it was compulsory.  But I could avoid physics and opt for history instead.  But this was an age when most of us still did pretty much what our parents thought best for us; and my Dad was concerned that I should retain a breadth in my education that he thought would serve me well in later life.  So he made me do physics.

I continue to believe this was a mistake, and not just because I got an ‘H’ in the physics O-level.  I seem to have spent a good part of my adult life wishing I had a better grasp of the history of my own country and planet; and doing a fair bit of later-life learning about it.  But knowledge acquired in middle age doesn’t stick as well as that inculcated in childhood and adolescence.  I can still manage in French and German (I’m writing this in France) and although my once decent command of both languages is now laughably hesitant, I know that the linguistic structures are deeply embedded somewhere inside my head, and would creak back into life if I found myself in a French or German speaking context for any length of time.

But with history, I have to check basic facts over and over again.  While I have developed a kind of mind-map of English history, watching the current BBC Shakespeare history productions The Hollow Crown and reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies sends me back time after time to historical sources on the Wars of the Roses and the English Reformation.  The point of this, for me, is that the events of both periods were formational in terms of where – and who – we are now.  And they are of course not the only such periods - there’s the subsequent multiple tsunami of the Civil War, Commonwealth, Restoration and Glorious Revolution - 60 years that changed not just Britain, but the world.  Understanding our route thus far can help with seeing current events and pre-occupations as part of a continuing journey.  Patterns emerge; underlying tendencies are revealed - and modern controversies come to look like major weather events taking place inside items of domestic crockery.

It’s the corresponding lack of historical perspective that allows the Church, idiotically, to describe the prospect of gay marriage as “one of the worst threats it has faced in 500 years”.  No, my dears; among the worst threats during that time have been the Commonwealth suppression (during which Anglicanism was effectively abolished); the Non-Jurors scandal (in which 7 bishops and hundreds of clergy split the Church by refusing to swear allegiance to William & Mary); oh, and just possibly (if that’s all a bit too 17th century for you) the Church’s steep loss of public support, respect and influence over the last 50 years.  Of actual “threats” to the Church since the Elizabethan Settlement, gay marriage is probably about 89th out of 100 on the seriousness scale.

And you don’t even have to read history to learn about it.  The likes of Schama, Starkey and McCulloch offer it digestibly and engagingly on TV.  Even The Hollow Crown offers a version of the English history of the late 14th and early 15th centuries whose consequences we live with to this day.

The history of my country and my Church is one of high drama, appalling conflict and true heroism in the face of seismic shifts in human perception, loyalty and conviction.  Gay marriage?  Women bishops?  Do me a favour.

History on my doorstep: the Talbot Memorial in Castillon, SW France, marking the spot at which the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, and England finally lost Aquitaine to the French

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Between Two Seas

We are Entre Deux Mers. The "seas" in question are in fact mighty rivers: the stately Dordogne which rises 500 km to the east in the Auvergne, and her sleek southern sister the Garonne which flows even further, down from the Pyrenees. They merge to form the vast Gironde estuary by which both torrents meet the Atlantic above Bordeaux. The land upstream of their confluence is green, fertile country; undramatic and undemanding. Were it not for the hectare after endless serried hectare of it laid to vines, you could be in any of half a dozen lowland English counties. Perhaps, subconsciously, that's half the reason the English clung on to this region of Aquitaine for 300 years. That, and the wine.

Just over the ridge from here is the terre sainte of Saint Emilion, the town named for the peripatetic confessor and hermit who settled here in the 8th century and whose successors started the production of wine which has been described as "the Belgravia of clarets". Its hallowed and fiercely regimented vineyards, Romanesque churches and expensive-looking shops are now a UNESCO world heritage site. But the area boasts wine of all colours and qualities, including the light, garnet-coloured clairet (from which is derived the English name for all Bordeaux reds) made from skimming red wine to reduce its alcohol content. Deliciously refreshing chilled; and even - with a lack of snobbery all the more welcome for being unexpected - with ice. 

It's odd how la France profonde can remind you of l’Angleterre ancienne of your imagination. Sloping down from the front elevation of our chateau, a lawn gives way to a tree-shaded wildflower margin and then to a wheatfield: the ripening yellow ears dancing at your knees and the farther green fields and copses undulating to the horizon. Your step through the mown allees crushes carpets of wild thyme, its scent ascending from your feet as from the aisle of St Mary's Bourne Street during the procession on a high feast-day. Around you in the grass are sky-blue chicory, scabious and viper's bugloss. From the green depths of the elms and poplars in the middle distance comes the brief but repeated, low, liquid call of a golden oriole. High above, a black kite wheels noiselessly on a warm updraft.

The nearest neighbours are at least half a kilometer away as the crow flies. Every morning we are visited by their dog: an old, butter-soft, rheumy-eyed retriever, his blond fur wet from the dewy fields and vineyards he has crossed to reach us. He waits patiently on the threshold for a biscuit - and as much of a tummy-rub as you care to provide. He is utterly without fear or suspicion of these strangers; and is apparently bilingual. We speculate on his name: entirely inappropriately, I want to call him Talbot, after the fearless English general who finally lost Aquitaine to the French in 1453 at the battle of nearby Castillon, effectively ending the Hundred Years War. So revered was "Old" Talbot by the victorious French that they raised a monument to him on the battlefield - to which the modern visitor is directed by tasteful brown tourist signs. 

Our ancestors fought hard to retain this province; and now we seem to be occupying it again. Anglophone people of all conditions have made their home here. British voices are routinely heard in the markets, and the indigenous French are more than tolerant of their presence. The roads are still empty enough to accommodate the influx of Landcruisers with their big, tell-tale UK number-plates, each of them a promising sign of potential investment and spending-power in this depopulated corner of Europe. President Hollande is threatening a tax on second homes to help finance his counter-intuitive, non Anglo-Saxon economic recovery; but even the leader of this proudly commerce-averse nation will not want to risk discouraging this generally well-heeled British diaspora, with its helpfully endless demand for builders, gardeners, pisciniers - and all the sea-lampreys the brown, tidal Dordogne can yield.

Ironically, under the jeu sans frontieres that is the EU, if the French continue to move out while the English continue to move in, the latter may end up effectively getting Aquitaine back. I can't decide what Old Talbot would make of their bloodless revenge.

Friday, 15 June 2012

On the Danger of Feeling Quite Strongly

"Marmite: you either love it or hate it."  Oh dear!  You see, I don't mind Marmite - which is to say, I don't buy it and it would not be the first thing I would think of to put on a slice of toast, but I can eat it.  You could say that, re Marmite, I'm pretty neutral.  A silly example, not least because the now famous strapline is a mere (if very clever) marketing ploy; but one which neatly encapsulates the - I think, increasing - tendency to push us to one end or other of a spectrum of opinion.

In my own context, the vexed question of women's ordination (to the episcopate, currently) comes to mind.  I know a lot of people who are passionately in favour of it, and some who are firmly opposed.  But there must be people - potentially quite a lot of people - who don't feel strongly about it one way or the other.  Perhaps there are even some who (I know this is outrageous) really don't care.  People like this will be categorised by default as "pro" women bishops since, if you don't specifically object to them, you must be in favour of them.  But, in the eyes of their more committed brethren, their neutrality or indifference is reprehensible, and shows a want of proper awareness of the issues.  I have a lot of sympathy with them, however; and hitherto much inclined to defend the integrity of Not Feeling Strongly.

That was before the issue of same-sex marriage came to the fore, and I learned the danger of Feeling Quite Strongly.  This can manifest itself in various ways, but becoming a Twitter Bore is one of the most obvious.  I happen to feel quite strongly about the issue, for exactly the reason set out here by Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans:
"I was very struck by David Cameron's statement that he is in favour of same-sex marriage, not in spite of being a conservative but because of being a conservative.  I am not a political animal, but I want to say something very similar as a priest.  I am in favour of same-sex marriage not because I am a wild liberal but because I am instinctively a traditional Anglo-Catholic.  I believe in the sacrament of marriage; I believe we all need a disciplined framework for faith and love; and I believe we all need God's grace and blessing to live by it."
All those who are interested in knowing what I think about this now know.  I realise I have tweeted about it more than any other single issue since I started tweeting. This was brought to a head by the publication earlier this week of what the Church Times calls the Church of England's "tendentious and poorly argued" response to the Government's consultation on the issue.  I was surprisingly upset by both the tone and the content of the response, and expressed my dismay in a tweet which was - slightly alarmingly - retweeted more times than any other I have tweeted.  (This incidentally provoked some interesting replies - not all of them about the theological aspects, if you understand me.)

I've since pretty much stopped, mainly out of respect to those who are kind enough to follow and read me (and who may not agree with me), but also because I suspected I was heading towards Twitter Bore territory.  When the next stage in the saga breaks, I'm sure I will not be able to resist; but for the time being...

But it's been salutary.  It's taught me that I'm probably a poor candidate to stand for the Not Feeling Strongly party. And that, perhaps, on reflection, I do actually hate Marmite.

PS  Please note that I have not included at the head of this post a photographic cliche showing two clasped male hands bearing wedding rings.  You see how I think of you?

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

No bigots here, are there?

A revealing little anecdote on the gay marriage debate.

A couple of weeks ago, I was a guest at a wedding in London.  At the reception, I fell into conversation with another guest whom I had sat next to at the ceremony.  We chatted amiably about this and that, and enquired politely about one another in the way that you do.  I told her I was an Anglican priest; she said she was a Roman Catholic, active in her parish, and what did I think about gay marriage?  I said I was in favour of it.

She said (as I already knew) that Catholics have been asked by their Church hierarchy to lobby against the proposed change, in the context of the Government's consultation on the subject.  In pursuance of this, her parish priest had recently commended to his flock a petition which was available in church for signature after each mass.  "However", he said, "I only want you to sign it if you're not a bigot". The lady to whom I was speaking, not being a bigot, therefore felt able to sign it, and did.  And seemed to feel some satisfaction for having done so.

Now, nobody thinks they are a bigot, do they? Even if they are. This cunning little ruse enabled almost every member of the congregation to to sign as requested, while feeling inwardly and showing outwardly their lack of bigotry in fulfilling the Church's request.

You have to hand it to them.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Reflections from a spring funeral

Last week I said goodbye to an old friend.  

We had met nearly 25 years ago while in working in the same organisation, and had both become - largely through the irrepressible social zeal of the woman who subsequently became his wife - part of an extended and infinitely extendable grouping of colleagues, friends and partners who shared boozy nights, long weekends, idyllic Umbrian holidays and Wednesdays at the Chelsea Flower Show.  Cast to the four winds as we eventually and inevitably were, the ties that bound us were, and remain, real.  Despite our differences, we were for each other known quantities, and there is a necessary comfort in that.

Those differences included matters of religion.  My friend was a convinced atheist.  He was a rationalist to his fingertips: any proposition that did not conform to principles of human reason, that could not be shown to be true, was by definition superstition and to be resisted.  He believed that religion was, in the main, a force for ill.  He thought the Church, at best, rather ridiculous. Yet he was by no means intolerant of those - including me - who saw things differently.  He was highly intelligent and humane; and as I underwent ministerial formation and ordination, he maintained a genuine interest in my progress and my life as a deacon and then a priest.

For my part, I see atheism as a logical and entirely respectable position to hold.  If you regard human reason as the ultimate arbiter of what may or may not be true; if you can conceive of the existence of nothing above or beyond it; and if you are not disposed to accept a reality that you cannot personally discern, then atheism is where you are likely to end up.  All perfectly reasonable as far as I can see. My own belief is that this form of humanism elevates us to the status of little gods, and that that really is the root of all evil.  But he and I shared, I think, an understanding of humanity's fallibility: that, however firmly held, however well thought-through, however cherished my convictions about anything - I might just be mistaken.  And we live in a post-modern, philosophically anti-realist age, in which no individual's opinion is of inherently greater value than another's.  He and I knew we differed in this matter, and it was never a source of conflict between us.

He died young, of cancer.  His funeral was to be led by a (secular) humanist minister - styled, slightly ironically it seemed to me, "celebrant" - and I was asked to speak.  I knew that my words would need to be carefully judged: this was an emphatically non-religious service, and as a matter of courtesy to him, his wife and family, there was no question of my saying anything of the kind that I would say at a Christian funeral.  I was not unduly disturbed by this: I could see that, under the circumstances, something overtly religious would have jarred, and everybody would be feeling jarred enough.

But then I got a message from his a member of his family, the burden of which was that they would prefer it if I did not wear a clerical collar at the funeral. I confess my back went up at this: not only was I not to say anything "religious" (and in fact had not planned to), I was not even to look as if I might.  They could not be expected to understand that, for a clergyperson of my tradition, a clerical collar is not a statement of my convictions, even less my occupation: it is an expression of who I am.  And so I imagine they would not have realised that they were saying that it was I, personally, who was not acceptable to them.

I did briefly and indignantly wonder if they would have said the same to a rabbi or an imam should any such have been expected to speak, then decided to - as the current argot has it - get over myself.  I wore a black suit and tie, and ended up looking like one of the undertakers.

I said my piece, which included this - which no more than hints at the possibility of a non-physical world.  I was struck afterwards by the number of mourners who asked me about it, apparently wanting me to go further.  Almost none of these were religious people in the conventional sense; but they seemed to need the assurance of a supernatural reality.  I suspect this is hard-wired in us (see this); and that to be "religious" is simply to be human.

What is being rejected by many is perhaps not religion per se, but rather dogma and revealed truth.  The challenge for the Church, I now see more clearly, is how it engages with that.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

I'm a Londoner - make me smile

Dwellers of that vorticular, self-referential, glorious city-state that is London may be unaware that there are local elections in other parts of the country this week.  These latter elections will be won or lost on matters of policy, of party popularity, and what politicians like to call "the things that matter to ordinary people". They will not, generally, be fought on the basis of the charisma of the electoral candidates, who will be happy solemnly to proclaim at the slightest provocation that "it's policies not personality that matters" (matters, that is, to the aforementioned ordinary people, obviously).  The point about the London mayoral election is that precisely the reverse is the case.

When New Labour won in 1997, an early if second-level, priority was the creation of a new city-wide government for London.  This was to address a perceived strategic deficit created by the abolition of the GLC in 1986.  London, it was argued, was a "world city": the largest, most populous metropolitan area in the EU, the most important financial centre on the planet, and the engine of the UK economy.  It was ridiculous that no single figure or body was in charge of it.  The 33 separate local authorities which comprise Greater London could not between them hope to provide the necessary leadership, even if they could agree on how to exercise it.  A big, important city needed a big, important leader.  A mayor along the lines of New York or Paris seemed just the job.

But Tony Blair was sensitive to claims that he was creating a new "tier" of local government.  He was also very keen not to (re)create something which could establish itself as a troublesome, opposing political force, as the GLC, under Ken Livingstone, had done in the early 80s.  The Government was also alive to the prospect, even early on, that Livingstone wanted - even expected - to be the Labour leader of any new authority, having been spitefully deprived of his former power-base by the Tories.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) was to be a modern, administratively slimline, US-style setup - a mayor, monitored by a small assembly - both to be separately elected by proportional representation, and housed in a purpose-built, energy-efficient glass bubble near Tower Bridge - way downstream from Westminster.  Its focus was to be strategic - in other words, it was to take the big, city-wide view of the world, and leave the day-to-day management of Londoners' lives to the borough councils.

The London Assembly has no real powers of its own.  It calls the Mayor to account, and can, if so minded, reject the Mayoral budget.  Its members - usually those who are opposed to the Mayor politically - appear from time to time on BBC London TV news (or "Children's Television" as it's known to Londoners) but are generally below the radar.

The Mayor, by contrast, does have a few powers.  He or she is in overall charge of the Underground and the buses (although not of most of London's extensive overhead rail network).  He has responsibility for co-ordinating land-use planning and can override boroughs' planning decisions; and has partial - but crucially non-operational - responsibility for the Metropolitan Police. He oversees collection of the congestion charge, one of Britain's very few hypothecated taxes (the other most important one is the BBC licence fee), the proceeds of which he has by law to spend on transport.  That's about it.  He has no responsibility for health, education, housing or social services.  He does not empty your bins or clean your street.  He can raise or lower tube and bus fares, and invest accordingly.  Otherwise, he does - and I sincerely wish it were otherwise - relatively little that you would notice.

The reality is that, outside transport, the Mayor's executive responsibilities are few.  That, as envisaged by the Blair government, is the whole point.  He is not there as a provider or manager of services; but as a figurehead, a champion, an ambassador.  He is to sell London, to plead its cause at home and abroad, to commend it to visitors and investors, to make the voice of the vast, impossibly diverse, organically uncontrollable, rapidly growing*, counter-culturally religious, thrillingly alive entity that is London heard in the world.

This is beyond party politics.  More than that, it's actually about personality over policy.  It's about which of the candidates most clearly says about London what Londoners want to be said about their city.  Archbishop Cranmer told us last year** that the choice for Londoners is whether they want their city's voice to be one that says "piffle" or one that says "shit". I would put it differently - perhaps because I am an ordinary priest and jobbing chaplain who is not allowed to say "piffle".  I think it might actually be about which candidate most makes you smile.

* Projected population: 9 million by 2020, 10 million by 2030 (Office for National Statistics)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Born at the Right Time

I am childless.  As a member of that social group so elegantly referred to by Richard Coles as "nature's bachelors", that's not going to be a huge surprise. (Although there are and always have been plenty of childless men who are not bachelors and vice versa.)  But my point here is that my childlessness is perhaps related to my possession of a very decent number of godchildren - and all of a very decent quality.  My eldest (if I may so term him) is properly grown up: he is clever, mature, independent-minded and enlightened. He has a very good job at which he works hard and for which, at the age of 24, he is paid more than I was at the high-point of my (admittedly undistinguished) career. He is also good company and likes a drink. What's not to like?

My youngest is a three year-old, golden-haired cherub. She goes to a nursery near to where I live and from which I sometimes go with her dad to collect her at the end of the day, and where she and her little friends cluster round me and pull at my clerical collar.  When she first sees me, there is that momentary quizzical, processing face which dissolves into a smile of unalloyed pleasure. Her parents are kind, intelligent and sociable people, both in good jobs, and she is their only child. She seems, to their eyes as well as mine, to be the happiest child in the entire world. Was she, pace Paul Simon, simply born at the right time?

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time.
Listen here: Paul Simon - Born at the Right Time

Yet the timing of her birth, indeed the fact of it, was a matter of anxiety. She was conceived by IVF only after her mum had undergone what seemed like endless courses of intrusive investigation and treatment, and after a number of unsuccessful attempts.  Even when conceived and returned to the womb, there were many weeks of uncertainty before it was clear that a child would indeed be born.  When she arrived, she felt like both a miraculous gift and a reward to her parents for the months of stress and pain they had undergone.

And yet they are preparing to go through it all again. In their situation, I'm not at all sure I would have the strength.  They've made the journey before and they know the road that lies ahead. They know it could be hard and may end in disappointment.  Yet such is their desire, their need, for another child that they've already taken the first steps.

I'm not one of those who believes that having children is a human right.  I've always understood that they are a gift from God which comes to some and not to others.  I find myself wanting to say to tearful couples who cannot have children that this state is not the end of the world: because of their childlessness, other possibilites will present themselves, and other gifts will be given.  I feel this to have been true in my own life.   I would like to have had children - very much, actually - but I haven't; and God has found other uses for my time, energies and affections.

But I'm also aware that the desire to reproduce is primal and extremely powerful.  I reflect that, like the sex-drive itself, it is not something that humanity has invented for itself: it, too, has been given to us, installed and instilled within us, and most of us cannot be deaf to its call.  For that reason, I can understand those who go through so much to have children who do not arrive in the natural course of events.  They are, to some extent, just responding to their programming.  And that's profoundly human.

Paul Simon lyrics courtesy of Universal Music Publishing Group
Photo courtesy of Paul McRae (Delta Niner)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Empire Day

In the course of the 20th century, Britain underwent two world wars which decimated its young manhood, devastated its cities and bankrupted its economy.  It lost the most extensive empire the world has ever known, and almost the entire manufacturing base on which its wealth and expansionist zeal was predicated.  Despite this (and its diminutive size) it is still the world’s seventh largest economy by GDP. Extraordinary, when you think about it.  And even more extraordinary that this loss of power and relative wealth was a largely post-war phenomenon: in a few brief decades, the work of two or three centuries was undone; and Britons found themselves being invited to atone for their former global destiny and to get used to being just another country.

Against this background, any attempt to re-appraise the legacy of the British Empire is a risky enterprise.  Children of my mother’s, inter-war, generation were raised to see the Empire as a Jolly Good and Necessary Thing, and the British as a sort of chosen race, destined to bring civilisation, Sung Evensong, and a proper cup of tea to the earth.  While my father (whom she would not meet until 1948) was growing up in 1930s British India, she was at school in east London where, on Empire Day (24 May) they waved union jacks and sang:

Red, white and blue
What does it mean to you?
Surely you're proud
Shout it aloud
Britons awake!
The Empire too
We can depend on you.
Freedom remains
These are the chains
Nothing can break.

Well, they may not have broken, but clearly they do not bind in the same way. This is the theme of Jeremy Paxman's BBC TV series, Empire.  In it, Paxo visits various Commonwealth countries - apparently wearing the same powder-blue linen shirt throughout - in an attempt to re-assess the British Empire's legacy.  The tone and content is one designed to avoid any charge of revisionism on the one hand, and mindless 1970s-style repudiation on the other.  It doesn't quite achieve objectivity, perhaps because that is not really possible, and the series is in any case billed as a personal account.  But there is evidence of an honest determination to get at the facts, combined with Paxman's celebrated "come off it" inquisitorial style designed to get people to spit out what they actually think.

He is, for instance, able to ask an east African man of Asian race (whose forbears were effectively transplanted by the British) if he is not grateful to the British for building the trans-Africa railway which he so admires; and also to ask an Indian if she does not hate the British for their cruelty and snobbery.  The answers are typically nuanced, and can be summarised as "yeah but no but". The conclusion that the viewer is invited to draw is that the British Empire was in some senses a very good thing, and in other senses a rather horrible one.  Not very exciting or ground-breaking; but perhaps in need of being said.

The late, great Bernard Levin coined the term "The Fallacy of the Altered Standpoint", to describe the difficulty of judging something - particularly a historical event or circumstance - free of the insidious prejudices imparted by subsequent events and subtle changes in social mores.  This applies rather sharply to post-war attitudes concerning the British Empire, which have been conditioned by Britain's radically (and, in historical terms, rapidly) changed status.  Perhaps the relatively balanced take espoused by Empire is a small sign that we are beginning to shake off our post-war, post-imperial shroud of self-denigration, and to view our historical selves both more kindly and objectively.

History is neither good not bad. It just is.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The NHS and Me

There is a poster in the window of the office of the attendants (they would be called concierges in more westerly postal districts) who look after me and the other residents of my City apartment block: "SAVE OUR NHS" it screams in a huge cerise font.

Now, I am a very child of the NHS: born in 1953, I was delivered by said service in east London (I could almost have been a Call the Midwife baby) and enveloped by it from both my and its earliest days.  It tended to my childhood ailments (often involving a GP's home visit), routinely tested my ears and eyes, inspected my feet and drilled my teeth.  It inoculated me against various diseases, the names of some of which - probably partly because of its existence - are rarely heard these days. It gave my mother concentrated orange juice for me to drink and - less welcome - cod-liver oil to swallow.  It even gave me my very own number which - though long since superseded by one with 10 digits - I remember to this day: MMQS 439.  And, notwithstanding the occasional recourse to private treatment, eg for slipped discs (believe me the physiotherapy's no less painful because you're paying for it), it is the NHS on which I continue to rely - quite heavily - to keep me healthy.  I am 58, not rich, and have had lifelong access to free basic healthcare.  My personal experience of a widish variety of hospital and specialist care has been variable but, on balance, positive.  I am, if you like, almost a walking testimonial for the comprehensive, free-at-the-point-of-use, cradle-to-grave care provided by the NHS.  I have as much reason to be sentimental about it as anyone.

And yet sentimental about it I am not. Someone has said that the NHS is the nearest thing we have to a national religion and, depressing as that is, it does perhaps help to explain the reaction to the Health Bill currently going through Parliament.  Some of this borders on the hysterical, and can be readily disregarded. Some is fairly crude political opportunism, and can be received accordingly.  Other criticism is more measured and/or more independent; and it makes sense to heed the reservations of those who actually work in the NHS, and on whom people like me depend for our care.  But there's no doubting the emotion involved.  I wonder if the proposed dismantling of the Church of England (which is our actual national religion) would provoke such passion?

I use the word "dismantling" because that is the word used repeatedly by its critics to summarise the present Government's intention with regard to the NHS; and it is that fear which is undoubtedly exciting much of the reaction.  I do not claim to have more than a layman's insight into it, but it seems to me that nothing like "dismantling" is actually on the cards.  Of the two main provisions, one (the extension of competition) is not on the face of it very controversial.  Competition within the NHS was introduced under Thatcherism and significantly extended under New Labour.  Some are and have been, perfectly rationally, opposed to it all along; but it is now, in one form or another, a reality of at least some aspects of almost of all public services. It's reasonable to question the extent of its influence, but a bit anachronistic to recoil in horror from the very idea.

The second of the two main provisions - the concentration of power and money in the hands of GPs - is a big change.  Who knows - it may well not work.  But does it constitute the dismantling of the entire structure?  I doubt it.  In fact the more you look at the Bill, the less radical it all seems; and I'm beginning to wonder if that's the real issue.

You see, if you treat the NHS less like a religion and more like any other taxpayer-funded service; if you can appreciate its strengths but admit its shortcomings; if you can be honest about your experience within it it while being realistic about what it can deliver in its present form, you may begin to think that nobody is being radical enough.  In the last 15 years, overall spending on the NHS has more than trebled - and even now, is continuing to rise slightly.  It's true that the rate of increase is now falling well behind increasing costs (which is why "net" cuts are necessary). But I cannot be the only NHS user on whom it has dawned that the recent massive increase in spending has still not given us the health service we want (ie one free of horror stories of the kind that pre-occupy the early evening news bulletins).  I cannot be the only NHS user who has observed that, satisfactory though my overall health care is, there are some things badly amiss with the NHS that do not seem to be susceptible to increased funding. Have you ever spent a night in an A&E unit? Have you ever been with a loved one during a serious health emergency and extended hospital stay? Have you tried to co-ordinate post-operative care when the hospital and the community health service don't appear able to talk to one another, and you are exhausted?  And, if so, are you still of the opinion that what is needed is simply increased funding?

I don't pretend to know what the answer is.  But I have a growing conviction that what is wrong is with the NHS is embedded in its very culture, which no amount of mere reform (or money) can hope to change.  This culture is one which bears little resemblance to that which existed when I was a child, and which instinct leads me to associate with the gradual disappearance of a certain sort of health professional driven primarily by vocation - this itself perhaps the result of wider social change.  I don't think the re-introduction of Hattie Jacques-style matrons - which some prescribe - would work.  Such people, and those whom they managed and mothered, simply do not exist any more.

This leads me to suspect that what we need is a completely new health service for a new society.  This means actually dismantling the NHS and replacing it with something else - perhaps something closer to the universally admired French system.  Now that would take political courage.