John Cornwell (2015) The Dark Box. A Secret History of Confession.

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I was looking for a review I’d written for John Cornwell’s autobiography Seminary Boy, a fabulous book, but it seems I haven’t written it. Nor have I written a review for The Hiding Places of God (Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light). An unsettling book. These are sins of omission. Ah, you may ask, what do you mean by sin? That’s really the crux of this book.

My personal definition of sin is selfishness. Selfishness in thought or deed or word. That may sound vaguely familiar. I’m a Catholic and, in an earlier incarnation, was even an altar boy. I’ve got a whole Cathedral inside my head of rote learning and memes for every eventuality.  Non-Catholics can take a shortcut and watch Jimmy McGovern’s Broken series (I watched the first one). There is a better self, somewhere inside me.   The quote by Aristotle taken up as a mantra by the Jesuits,  ‘give me a boy at seven and I will give you the man’ couldn’t be more apt. Michael Apsted’s  7-UP series was based on that premise and it did show consistently that this was the case. Sin, John Cornwell, tells us is derived of the notion of being ‘wide of the mark’ and the priests in his book, generally, are very wide of the mark. It’s no coincidence that the Irish priests on Craggie Island in Father Ted came in three recognisable stereotypes, old and alcoholic, Father Ted, a bit cynical and not yet alcoholic and then there is bumptious Dougal. Cut off from life and childhood and the outside world is something Cornwell is familiar with, a process Richard Holloway also writes about. It’s unnatural enough to produce a generation of sexual predator priests protected by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. And Cornwell has personal experience of being groomed to be abused. He outlines how it happened in his autobiography and here. The sickness in the Roman Catholic Church is systemic and derives from a hatred of the human body and a plague of priests steeped in hypocrisy and schizophrenic thinking. It wasn’t me that done it but the devil made me. God will forgive me, as long as I confess my sins.  Michael Foucault argues in History and Sexuality,  Confession shaped the modern perception of sexuality.

Take, for example,  Maria Goreti murdered by a lodger, but at least she died a virgin. Rape is a sin against chastity. A far more serious sin is the sin of masturbation. ‘Pullito’.  I, of course, have never masturbated, but I have had a few wanks. Pope Pius XI also warned against the dangers of motion pictures. This was before Dirty Dancing, but of course, any kind of dancing was frowned upon, a breaking of God’s rules. A model priest was someone like the ascetic parish priest of Ars, near Lyon, Jean-Marie Vianney. Born in 1786 Vianney heard tens of thousands of confessions and had preternatural knowledge of who was going to hell. He could tell who the masturbators where before they dared open their mouths or their flies. My favourite story of Vianney was his believe that the best thing to do to stop hungry children stealing apples was cutting down all the apple trees, which he did. Some priests attempt to, or have, cut off their penis.  God likes virgins. So it seems do many priest, based on the premise that you can’t hurt an altar boy because they are the equivalent of Barbie’s Ken.  Adam and Evil in the garden. I’ll let you guess which of the sexes was evil. The Virgin Mary balances that out. Cathars of course thought the Virgin Mary sprang from Jesus’s ear. I’m not sure how that worked. I just hoped it wasn’t a sexual thing.

Cornwell calls for the sacrament of Confession to be brought into the modern world. Children should not make their first Confession when they have no idea what sin is and therefore have as much chance of committing a sin as a banana. Childish innocence should be cherished.   He doesn’t hold out much hope of that happening. And I’m with him on that one.  I also think there is a role for the confessional, but I’m not sure how it would look or how it would work. But I’m willing to be proved wrong. As the agnostic Richard Holloway has consistently argued the most dangerous man is one who refuses to believe he might be wrong. Fundamentalists are Us.

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The carrot and the thick.

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Maslow’s hammer – if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I don’t believe in a market for healthcare. I don’t believe in a market for schools. And I don’t believe in trickledown economics, the belief that giving money to the rich helps the poor.

When I see the innocence of children I can believe in God. As Dr Benjamin Spock wrote for post- Second World War baby-boomers: ‘Each child is retracing the whole history of mankind, physically and spiritually, step by step’.

‘We believe that the person with a stigma is not quite human’, Ervin Goffman.

We can build more schools or more prisons and follow the lines and lies of the American model as we’ve been doing. This isn’t Trump talk but propaganda and ideology in action.

I sometimes watch The Chase on ITV with Bradley Walsh. It’s a quiz programme, general-knowledge quiz on around dinner-time, or tea-time depending on what you call it and whether you are a bit of a nob. Contestants play against a quiz master, the Chaser, someone like Shaun Wallace who is a barrister and has won Mastermind. Amateur again professional is a mis-match, but in the final round there can be a maximum of four amateurs again one professional answering similar quiz questions. The Chaser attempts to knock contestants out in earlier rounds, which are easier multiple-choice questions than the cash-build up. All contestants start with a one point advantage. That means that if they get a question wrong and the Chaser gets it right, they don’t get caught right away. Contestants get a second chance. Most contestants win usually between three and six thousand pounds in an earlier question-and-answer format called the cash-build up. If they want to play against the Chaser for that amount they can get two questions wrong before they can be caught by the Chaser. The Chaser tries to entice the contestant to give up a potential life by offering vastly inflated sums greater than the money they have won. Usually this is a multiple and ranges from £20 000 to £60 000. The maximum number of lives a contestant can opt for is three. That gives them a three point and three question start on the Chaser. In effect they’d need to get three questions wrong out of seven before the Chaser could catch them. But here’s the rub, when a team is doing well, and has for example, £30 000 in the collective pot and two contestants have made it to the final Chase, the Chaser often offers a negative amount.  If the contestant has won, for example, £3000 in the cash-build up, in order to qualify for the three extra lives the Chaser will usually offer a negative amount of, for example, £5000.  If the contestant qualifies the team receives less money than they would where the contestant be put out by the Chaser (£30 000 – £5000 divided by 4 and not 3).

Let’s look at grammar schools. There are around 57 different types of state sponsored schools in England and Wales with shrinking budgets, growing teacher shortages and calls for an additional 750 000 pupil places projected for the next ten years. An increasing gap between expected funds and expected delivery.  Teresa May envisions spending around £50 million a year on grammar schools out of a total educational budget of £80 billion. The pitch is the same one made by the contestant taking money out of the pot, making is smaller (adding a negative amount) that by doing so they make the collective team, our countries, stronger and benefit everyone as we face further tests. Not funding grammar schools puts the nation at risk.

That’s true in the same way that the contestant going for the negative pot in The Chaser is true. It denies money in the public purse with cuts to services such as Sure Start that benefited the poor to help the rich and it denies the majority of children life chances. Sainted Margaret Thatcher as education secretary in the 1979 recognised this and shut more grammar schools than any other minister, Labour or Conservative. But she didn’t need to shut them, just no longer fund them with public money, taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich and out of 315, 139 public schools became comprehensives. Post war the gap between rich and poor had narrowed and not enough parents could afford to send their children to such schools. There is an interesting cameo of how the world was viewed in 1964 in a Granada series 7UP directed by Michael Apsted. The three upper class boys attended a preparatory school, then they said they’d attend Westminster Public School then they’d attend Oxford or Cambridge. The idea of attending any other university was snorted and laughed down (later one of them attended a northern University, but went on to work for the BBC, and was, of course, headhunted by Channel 4). Out of the mouths of babes was a keen understanding of how the world worked. The middle-class banner against comprehensive schools and the mingling of the the poor with the rich wasn’t because the latter were smelly and noisy as the Apsted’s Public school boys loudly intoned to the camera, but because, then as now, standards were seen to be slipping. Only the upper and middle-classes knew how to behave, speak properly and write properly, the first Black Paper was prophetical, ‘The Fight for Education’ in defiance of the Government’s White Paper announcing changes needed to modernise schools. This was a war that poor people and their children lost.

A 2009 OECD report showed that Britain routinely diverted the largest share of education spending, 23%, for any comparable modern nation from poor people to a small group, 7%, of privately educated children with rich parents.  Teresa May’s decision to continue with this trend is a reassurance to her Conservative backbenchers and Select- 22 Committee that nothing has changed. Britain is a good country to be rich.

Margaret Thatcher before donning the garb of Prime Minister and bastardising the words of St Francis of Assisi shared her thoughts with a rapt American audience. She utilised a poppy analogy, ‘we value all individuals…not because they’re all the same, but because they are all different…I say let our children grow tall and let some children grow taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so’.

The message is clear, some children (the 93% majority of poor children) are holding back other children (7% rich children). Coal miners were an industry-sized example of greedy workers that were holding the country back. They were ‘holding the county to ransom’ and getting paid as much as twice as much as the average worker. There’s a moral in that story of what happened to them. Thomas Piketty, Capital, and more recently The London School of Economics’ paper, have shown how money is moved from the poor to the rich. Mark Townsend quotes from a TUC report that shows that the average remuneration of a FTSE 100 boss in Britain is 123 times that of a full time worker. An example of this is advertising executive of WPP, Sir Marin Sorrell whose annual package is worth £70 million. He has grown into a very tall poppy indeed and earns in 45 minutes of his precious time the annual salary of a non-unionised full-time worker that has the same rights as a plastic spoon.

But the story is an old one of Gothic horror and the fear of contagion and contamination with the rich being a different breed of human, with children in particular needing to be kept apart, for their own good. Think tank, Policy Exchange, the Notting Hill sect, prior to Cameron’s election, suggested that city’s outside the rich South were beyond revival, full of Lamarckian chavs, feral and promiscuous youths, bent on destruction and unwilling to work. Stereotypes that proved hugely popular as had the fear of the Irish in Scotland, and the fear of the Jews in London’s East End in the late nineteenth century. Both were seen as threat to our nation’s stock.

The issue was one of control, not education. Theresa May is playing to a gallery, and singing from an old hymn sheet, build more prisons and less local authority schools, less public anything. Talk about weaning ourselves away from the nanny state while filling her friends’ pockets with loot from the nanny state. It’s a great trick when they pull it off.  Poor people deserve what they get, because they are different. Their children are different. They are Goffman’s ‘other’.

David Wilson (2016) Left Field

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I share the same page as Jeremy Corbyn. We supported this crowdfunded book published by Unbound and I’d guess Corbyn shares many of my interests in equality and social justice. Left Field as the name suggests is about the You and non-You as a house master described the apparent differences between houses at Canford school in Dorset, to a pubescent Wilson, at the fag end of the not-so-swinging fifties. David Wilson or Commie Wilson as he was known as teenager, in that oxymoronic term we call public school, had decided on a path that was non-You. Consider, for example, the tweed-suited seven-year olds— Andrew, Charles and John—in Michael Apted’s 7UP series.  A the age of seven they already know the differences between You and Non-You, someone like wee Tony from the East End of London, who are a bit rough and smelly, are decidedly Non-You. They delight in reciting a mantra of how their lives are going to play out and be, preparatory public school, then Westminster public school, then on to Oxford.  And, more or less, so it comes to pass. You always know where he and Non-You is destined to be. I’d never heard of David Wilson, but he didn’t agree. He has some rich friends and some poor friends. Through his involvement in the charity, he began, War Child, he met movers and world shakers such as Luciano Pavarotti and included a walk-on cameo of meeting Nelson Mandela.  The latter asking for his advice and support. You don’t get much bigger than Pavarotti, but Mandela dwarves him. This is an autobiography worth reading not for any of these reasons, but for its humanity.

The structure of the book is quite simple. Dad, mum and family. Towards the end of the book Wilson has one of his Commie moments and rips up convention. ‘Hooptedoodle,’ he tells us was a term used by John Steinbeck in his novel Sweet Thursday, to ‘spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language’. I’d call it padding.

Wilson’s second wife Anne Aylor whom he married in 2009, for example, reproduces an unabridged ‘Behind God’s Back’ about her first trip to Mostar, which the notes tell us was first turned down by David Greenberg, Managing Editor at The New Republic in 1994, with some advice that they might consider publishing a shorter piece on the bakery. It’s interesting and insightful, but doesn’t fit into an autobiography and there is a sense of getting even.  And there’s a hotchpotch and parts of a play that are not so interesting.

Yugoslavia. Remember that place, pre-Tito and post-Tito, a Communist paradise that worked and didn’t work but with sunshine and beaches somehow seemed so much better than the others. Here is where Wilson finds himself and the woman he will marry Renata Kasun from Zagreb.

‘A foxy young woman…wearing a yellow bikini. At the beach-side café I made sure to sit as close to her as I could, but we had a problem communicating because she hardly spoke any English and I didn’t speak a word of Serbo-Croat.’

That didn’t matter. ‘From 1965 until the early 1970s, I’d board the train for Dover, ferry to Belguim and then couchette trip to Cologne, Munich, Salzburg, Ljubljana and Zagreb.’  That must have been some yellow bikini. Makes me tired just thinking about it. But it reminds me of a conversation I once had with a girl that said she’d a boyfriend in Australia and they kept in touch by email, which was a new thing then. But how do you have sex? I asked, which wasn’t such a new thing.

Nada, Renata’s mum said a prayer for them: ‘Holy Mother, please look after my family and may my daughter Renata and David stay together, get married, have healthy happy children and a happy life’.

The answer to that would be no, yes, no and yes and who knows but God?  Yugoslavia imploded into internecine strife, genocide and mass killings. David Wilson has done a very great thing. He has given daily bread to the Bosniacs, fed tens of thousands in Mostar, bread to the poor, the cut off and the suffering. He has given the children music.  Left Field it may be, but with the right heart he has made the world a better place.

Born on the same day, More4, 14th June, 9pm

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/born-on-the-same-day

7th March 1944, three babies are born in different parts of the Second World War is just finishing and there’s a population boom as the soldiers come back from the front. The format is familiar. Granada broadcast the original 7UP documentary series in what was meant to be a one off, World in Action programme, in 1964, directed by Michael Apsted. 7UP was meant to tell us something about class. And it followed the same cohort every seven years until we’ve now got 56UP. Michael Apsted shows how easy it was in those days; he went on to direct Coronation Street and the latest James Bond. It’s difficult to deal with that kind of longevity and glamour. Born on the same day is some snapshots of lives and its aim is to tell us something about our society.

The hook for the viewer here is the well-known figure of Ranulph Fiennes, distantly related to royalty and as we know a man that’s been on every pole with the exception of an ice-cream pole. His dad was killed in action at the end of the war. A commander of The Royal Scot Greys. We see a photo of him. Ranulph is determined to be on par with his dad and also command the Royal Scot Greys. The Eton connection is, as 7UP shows, a good place to start if you want to command a television station, an army company or the economy, but Ranulph has the drawback of being rather dim. Even though he serves with honour and distinction in the army, in the Royal Scot Greys (I doubt the regiment still exists) they’re not keen to keep him. By this time he’s married Ginny. She’s a good old girl that persuades him what he needs is a challenge. That’s what God made Englishmen and the Poles for. Ranulph loses a few fingers to frost bite and Ginny to cancer. None of these things are really his fault. Stiff upper lip. Memories such as ‘Antarctica, decided just to go for it’ are par for the course.  Conquers Everest and fathers another child at 62. No doubt that child will too conquer Eton and Everest.

Frances Kelly was born on the same day as Ranulph. Mum and Dad were shopkeepers in Leeds, with their home upstairs. Three years after the NHS had been set up Frances was a child patient. Her parents were sleeping upstairs and she strayed too near the open fire. Almost twenty years later the same thing happened to my brother. In his case he was playing with matches and it set his pyjamas on fire. Frances nightdress burst into flames. Third-degree burns. Both she and my wee brother’s faces were saved because the flames reached only to their chin before being smothered. But for Frances a policy of strict segregation in the NHS meant that children as patients could only see their parents once a month. That day had already passed, so it was two months before she saw her mum or day. She felt she would never see them again and felt abandoned. This marked her life as much as her stay in the burns unit. She didn’t feel anyone would want to marry her. But she does get married and have two children. She is the real hero of the programme, fostering 97 other children and adopting two of them, Andrew at twenty-one months and Helen at three. Helen has a hole in the heart and Frances is told by the paediatrician, ‘there’s nothing we can do’, she’ll not live long, make the best of it for her. In hospital Helen didn’t believe Frances would be back for her. Mirroring her own experience, Helen gave the little girl a bag and told her to keep a hold of it, ‘don’t lose it’, as she’d be back for it. That gave Helen belief.  She came back for the bag and the girl, making her one of her family, until Helen died, 1993, a beautiful summer’s day, at home with her –new- mum and dad.

There’s mirroring of a different kind following Ewart, a naturalised British citizen born in Jamaica. Mum and dad and their nine children swapping the sunny climate for the smog of Birmingham. Newsreel footage shows the reception they got, ‘niggers go home’ was the message to the camera, much the same message as today’s refugees from our right-wing, Brexitt supporting, white friends. They take all our jobs – don’t they? Yeh, yeh, yeh, it’s a familiar tune. There are familiar staging posts for each individual. 7th March 1962. Ewart is 18 and gets his first full-time job in a steel company. £2.12 shillings a week. The gaffer asks Ewart to come in on Saturday, unpaid, to wash his car. Because that’s what black people do. Ewart doesn’t. He gets paid off. The only way he can get steady work is to join the ground crew of the RAF. But he leads a double life. He’s also lead singer in a soul band, hoping to make it big. He doesn’t, but meets his wife and mother of his children through his nocturnal activities.    After the RAF he finds work as a salesman. He’s a natural, but he doesn’t find the promotions he’d hoped for. He switches to another company, less racist. He thrives and admits he’s had a good life.  An interesting programme, but not a patch on 7UP – to 56UP, the prototype and still the best, something we can be proud of.

Postscipt: I begged my mum not to bring my wee brother back from hospital, but she didn’t listen.