Thursday, 30 December 2010

The definition of resolute

It's that time of year when, of course, people make entirely doomed efforts to change their lifestyle/diet/health/weight, whatever it is, with the poorly-named New Year's resolution. I never, ever make them precisely because, if you were genuinely resolute about making a change to your life, the date is entirely irrelevant. Why should Friday becoming Saturday, as New Year falls this year, make it any more likely that you'll give up smoking than Friday becoming Saturday did on October 8th/9th, for example?

So, while I've never understood why people celebrate New Year quite so vigorously, I hope you all do so unencumbered by these pointless and futile gestures and enjoy it guilt-free.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Goodwill to all men

Because I was feeling pissed off at something else entirely, the dropping through my door of an otherwise innocuous religious leaflet created an exaggerated sense of indignation this evening. I was going to e-mail the man responsible for the leaflet's production and ask him (politely) not to put any further missives through our letterbox, but since he's from the church literally across the road and our little triangle of streets have formed a small, friendly and quite tight community which is rare in London, and in which my girlfriend plays an active part, (though not through the church of course), I thought better of it.

That doesn't stop me taking out my frustrations on you though, dear reader. It seems, from the wording of the leaflet, that I 'need' God to have a fulfilling Christmas, and that I can't find peace at Christmas without Him. Well, excuse me for thinking the love, company and happiness of my friends and family would be enough. It's always been enough to help me struggle through Christmas before, having instead to get my enjoyment of the season from the very real and human interaction with those same people, the exchange of gifts, the odd glass of ginger ale with a dash of lime and a pressie or two.

Now I'm aware of the contradiction inherent in my enjoyment of the gifts in particular, given what the Church would like you to believe are the original reasons for gift giving at Christmas, but what the hell - I still get a kick out of giving presents to people I care about and, yes, receiving them. I get a bigger kick from being surrounded by people I care about deeply and having the opportunity to spend a bit longer in their company than is usually the case. In short, you enjoy Christmas your way, Mr Vicar, and I'll enjoy it mine. The difference being that I don't shove leaflets through your door telling you that the way you do so is hollow and inadequate.

What if I did, though? Some kind of atheist polemic, urging them to forget the Church's definition of Christmas and revel in the more human (possibly pagan in origin, it's all a bit muddled) way of going about things this December, printed up and posted through his letterbox, maybe? Perhaps, if he had kids, one of them may pick up said document and ask him about its contents. It may be that, while respecting my opinion, he wouldn't be too happy to have it pushed through his door. Funny that - if that's how he'd feel, then we'd agree on one thing this year at least.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bonfire of originality

The success of the reintroduction of Doctor Who to our screens in the last few years seems to be in the vanguard of a rash of other programmes being dusted off, re-worked and introduced to a new audience. Or re-introduced to people already very familiar with them.

Just yesterday I saw that Upstairs Downstairs is to return to our screens after an absence of 35 years. A mini-series will evidently pick up some time after the 70s incarnation left off, even containing one of the original cast members, with Jean Marsh, one of the co-originators of the series, reprising her role as Rose. Doubtless, if it proves popular, a full series could follow.

Then this morning I learn that that scourge of the middle classes, William Brown, is also to return in a new version of Just William. Anybody of my age, even if they're unaware of the original books, will certainly remember Violet Elizabeth's threat to 'scrtheam and scrtheam and scrthream until I'm thick...', coming from the perfectly cast then child actress Bonnie Langford. Given that this will be the fourth time this has been made for television, following series in the 60s, 70s and 90s, there will doubtless be those of other generations who recall their own version of William's nemesis just as clearly.

Now don't get me wrong, if they're done well, it'll be great if these new versions introduce what are viewed as classic characters and tales to a new, wider audience. But it could be said that this re-hashing of existing work is a sign of the paucity of quality of original work available or, worse, a reluctance on the part of those mysterious powers that be to make anything written by new writers or containing new ideas.

Wouldn't it be better to spend at least some of the money going into these on some new work? Just a thought. Or, perhaps, given the frequency with which William in particular seems to crop up on our screens, we're merely going through part of an entirely cyclical phase in which TV endlessly recapitulates its content, and it's always been this way.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Parliament, know thyself

I have to watch a lot of live coverage of Parliament in my job. This is not always as dull as it sounds, but one thing it does show is the huge difference between what I suspect is the majority of the public's view of the Commons and what's actually going on there.

Except where there's some important statement and/or debate like this week's tuition fees version, most people's exposure to the workings of the Commons is limited to the chimps' tea party that is PMQs. Commons fills up for this worthless exercise in mud slinging, yelling, paper waving, self-serving questions planted by the Government side, and food throwing, I shouldn't wonder, if they were allowed.

The Speaker, when calling for order, frequently reminds members that the public hate the barracking, cat-calling and general childishness, but it never seems to make any difference. We've had frequent calls for a more grown-up approach, with a less 'yah-boo-sucks' approach to the House, particularly after Labour leader John Smith died, and after the Dunblane massacre, when the best of the House was evident. But it always quickly degenerates when PMQs comes round.

And it's a shame, because if you watch it for any length of time, you'll see that the Commons is a much harder working and more collaborative place than many people think. Any debate which only has around 30 members sitting there will inevitably be conducted in a more dignified manner because those MPs present will be the ones who genuinely care about what's being debated, and often those who sit on Select Committees working with members across the political divide.

Frankly, there's a case for switching the cameras off only during PMQs (I recognise of course that it's been like this since long before the cameras came in, but at least they wouldn't be projecting that to the world then), but it's another example of our sound-bite culture that the few bickering exchanges during PMQs are those best suited to being put into 30 second clips for news bulletins and presented to the viewing public as 'today's events in the Commons'.

It's actually half an hour of the (visible) worst of our political system, the Commons showing her ugliest face to a disappointed electorate in a bizarrely stubborn, almost proud manner. I can't believe PMQs has ever actually achieved anything. Time for a change.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

There's names, and then there's names

Congratulations to my friends on the recent arrival of their first-born. You know who you are. I'd just like to go on record that Algernon is the greatest middle name of anyone I know, second possibly only to Emile Ivanhoe Heskey. Utterly wonderful.

It even enabled the babe concerned's shortened first name and initials to match. Nice work, C&L. I look forward to meeting him.

Tuition fees debate could define this Government

Most interesting to see the goings-on in Westminster today. With anarchy on our streets, mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together, Cameron sat behind Vince Cable as he delivered his speech, mugging furiously for the cameras as all MPs seem to do nowadays when they're sitting down. The moment, the very moment Cable sat down, he patted him on the shoulder... (Why do they always do that? Even when the Chancellor had to stand up and deliver a bitterly divisive austerity budget, he got congratulated by his front bench like he'd just won an Oxbridge debating competition. They should have been sitting there grim-faced.)

...anyway, he patted him on the shoulder and left the Chamber. He didn't even remain to listen to Cable's Shadow's response. Not only is this faintly discourteous, it also shows a lamentable complacency on his part, I think. With rumours of up to 20 Lib-Dems prepared to vote against the Motion (at least before Cable's latest amendments) and who knows how many abstaining, he could have been walking away from the first defeat the coalition faces since its formation.

I recognise that, as PM, he's probably got one or two other things to be getting on with this afternoon (that laundry won't do itself, and then there's the groceries to be collected...), but this could be a defining (and divisive) debate for the coalition. The debate still goes on as I type, some hours after the initial statement, but would it have killed him to show willing and sit there at least long enough to hear the Shadow's response?

A very, very interesting division bell will be rung this afternoon, I think.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Religion? Shit it.

Forgive me quoting a sweary Stephen Fry as a title, but I saw something on the Beeb last night that made me incandescent with rage at the cruelty of religious dogma. A programme called 'Limbo Babies' related the experiences of a group of Catholic women in Northern Ireland the mid/late 20th century who'd given birth to dead babies. Traumatic, straight away. Worsened, considerably, by the fact that those babies were taken from their mothers literally immediately and buried in a swamp in unconsecrated ground next to their church graveyard. The reason? Unbaptised. Therefore not allowed in a Catholic graveyard.

The suffering of these poor women of losing a child, something unimaginably horrible and traumatic to anybody but those who've experienced it, was made much worse by this insult to their children's memories. The Catholic faith carries with it the concept of Original Sin. We're born with this, and only baptism can eradicate it. If you're not baptised, you can't get into Heaven, and that's it. If you die unbaptised and you've led the life of a saint, or too brief a life to have committed sin in the first place, you go to a place called Limbo. Forever.

Though the Church's position has supposedly softened on this since these outrages, of which more in a moment, at the time this was an absolute position. One woman, clearly still desperately upset about the loss of her child 50 years on, related how, on asking the priest why she couldn't have her baby buried alongside her grandparents, said, "I spoke to the priest, and he said, 'You couldn't have had that anyway, because the baby wasn't baptized. And she'll be in Limbo now, until the end of time.' " A priest, a man supposed to bring the comfort and love of the Church to people, said that to a woman who had, just days before, lost her child.

I don't suppose it helps of course that the Catholic clergy is entirely populated by men, so there's not a single member of it, from the Pope himself to the newest inductee, who could possibly even begin to relate to the suffering of a mother who's lost her child. But this cruelty, this twisting of a knife into a mother's already suffering heart, beggars belief.

Despite their Church telling them otherwise, some of the women displayed a much more thorough understanding of what a faith should, I think, if you're to have one, be all about. A woman, frail and elderly now but still crying for her child of almost 70 years ago, said, "He shouldn't be in that ground. What did the wee baby do? Nothing. Nothing. They're all innocent, and not only mine, like. All of them that was buried there." She clearly understands the reality of sin far better than her Church.

It made me glad, once again, of my atheism. Somehow, despite its supposed role in life, the Church had found a way to make atheism look like the more comforting belief. These women suffered so profoundly already. Losing a child and then wracked by guilt, they genuinely believed that their children were in Limbo. Had they been atheists, at least they'd have been spared that further agony.

I mentioned earlier that the Catholic Church had softened its position somewhat in what should be more enlightened times now. This, for example, from the International Theological Commission in 2007: "We may hope for the salvation of the children who have died without baptism. The reasons for that hope are very great indeed." While better than the absolutist brutalism that the mums were faced with during their youth, this is basically a fudge. They can't back too far away from the basic concept of Original Sin completely because it's too far entrenched in the Catholic belief system, as this very modern quote from a Catholic priest on the same programme demonstrates: "Baptism was necessary because humanity had fallen away from God. There was the fall, we often speak about Original Sin. And everybody was born with Original Sin, baptism corrects that, and baptism then becomes the gateway to everlasting life, and the vision of God."

So all they can basically do is 'hope' that, in the face of that all too human dogma, some leeway is allowed by the man upstairs. I only hope that these poor women eventually find comfort. After a long campaign by some of the mothers, and siblings who never got to meet their brothers or sisters, the ground in which their children were dumped, (literally unceremoniously, having been denied even the sacrament) has been re-consecrated so they can draw some succour from that. But unless the Church changes its position on one of the most fundamental tenets of Catholicism, they'll go to their own graves believing their children are in Limbo.

Like I said. Religion? Shit it.