Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Pope on the side of the meek? Now that takes some believing

Among all the differences you might expect between a devout Anglican and an equally devout atheist, one thing my grandmothers were agreed about was Catholicism.
Neither, probably, would have used the word, but to both the Pope was something like what a Catholic might call the Antichrist. And when you consider some of the unpleasant old men who held that office during their lifetimes, you might think they had a point.
There have been concerted attempts in recent years to airbrush his record, but it would take a truly creative rewriting of history to remove all the stains from the record of Pius XII. But then, in his anti-semitism, the man they called Hitler’s Pope was only maintaining a long papal tradition.
You might wonder at the thinking behind his successors John Paul II and Benedict XVI moving him in steps along the pathway towards sainthood. But then, more than 200 years after the rational Enlightenment, and a century after Thomas Hardy optimistically proclaimed “God’s Funeral”, the whole business of making saints might seem a trifle old-fashioned. Anachronistic. Superstitious. At best, quaint.
Unless you’re a Catholic. In which case – and this goes for most, if not all, religions – believing six impossible things before breakfast is a normal part of life.
Now I know I have to tread carefully here. My sister is a Catholic, as is my aunt and about a sixth of the world’s entire population.
But how many of those believers really believe in the whole package?
Like the bit about “papal infallibility”, for example. Or the bits that say abortion, contraception, divorce and gay sex are sinful. That priests must be men – and celibate ones at that.
Turns out now, as it happens, that the new Pope himself isn’t totally committed to all that stuff.
Which brings me to what I really wanted to say. Which is that, from all the evidence of his eight months so far in one of the most powerful jobs in the world (arguably the most powerful), Pope Francis is a Good Thing.
 You might dismiss the recent kissing of a badly disfigured man as a Princess Diana-style publicity stunt.
You might say the same of his being photographed with a group of anti-fracking protesters – though for a Pope to take any stand on such an issue is a welcome departure.
And you can see a certain canniness in a 76-year-old who chooses to convey his messages to the faithful via the medium of Twitter.
But you have to warm to a man who prefers to have his old shoes repaired rather than pull on the bright red Pradas sported by his predecessor in imitation of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. And who eschews the Popemobile motorcade in favour of an old blue Focus.
Those may be symbolic choices, but – like his choice of papal name – they are good symbols.
He echoes Francis of Assisi in his championing of the poor as well as his concern for the environment.
And there is something reminiscent of Christ’s overturning of the moneylenders’ tables in his disgust at a global economic order that worships “an idol called money”.
He has tweeted his unhappiness at “unbridled capitalism” and its “throwaway attitude” to everything from unwanted food to unwanted old people.
His attacks on corruption have included moves to reform a self-serving bureaucracy at the heart of his own church.
He made waves in the summer when he asked: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Questioning his own right to judge anything seems an unlikely papal position. Not very infallible.
As also the decision to seek the opinion of ordinary Catholics, via the internet, on issues of family, marriage and sexuality.
For the autocrat of the world’s largest totalitarian organisation to be giving such a lead in democracy is frankly astonishing.
For the best part of 2,000 years the Catholic church has had a pretty poor record in the matter of helping the meek to inherit the earth. For once it now seems to have a leader intent on doing just that.
Whether his popularity leads to a lasting rise in Catholic fervour is a question for the future.
Whether it’s a good thing if so may depend on your view of religion – and on what kind of man the next Pope, and the next, will be.
But it may be that he is better placed than anyone else to take on the dangerous might of capitalist big business.


The RSPB is the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe and must be one of the biggest voluntary-membership organisations of any kind in Britain. Its glossy mag, formerly known as “Birds”, must also be one of the most widely read magazines in the country – and not only in dentists’ waiting rooms, where its stunning photography is usually the best thing on show.
 The rebranding of the magazine as “Nature’s Home” is just one way the RSPB has chosen to flag up a gradual widening of interest away from its original birdwatching brief.
As a long-time member, I’ve just had my opinion on this change of emphasis sought in an online survey.
A statement on the survey pages says: “Much of what the RSPB does benefits all wildlife... Birds will remain the most visible and tangible focus of much of what we do, but we believe our proven conservation model can help save other habitats and species too. We can – and we should.”
That’s a “Strongly Agree” then.
Among the things the survey asks is whether I’d recommend RSPB membership to someone else. If you’re not among the million-plus members already, consider yourself recommended.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The violent scenes I wish I'd never seen

WARNING: what you are about to read may offend and disgust you. It should. I hope it does. Those of a sensitive nature may wish to look away now.
Never mind “Not safe for work”, it was at work that my attention was drawn, at various times, to three of the most distressing images I have ever seen on the internet. And you could say they aren’t safe for anyone.
All have returned to haunt me in the small hours, leaving me wishing I had never seen them.
All, I would suggest, are potentially damaging to young people who might chance upon them. And to me.
All are images of cruelty. In one case, of man’s inhumanity to man; in another, man’s inhumanity to woman; and in the third, young men’s inhumanity to a fellow creature.
This last is actually a video, shot no doubt on the mobile phone of one of the perpetrators. It shows a group of youths, apparently Spanish, surrounding and overpowering a donkey, and finally throwing it off a high bridge.
The animal appears to have survived its ordeal, as it is last seen swimming frantically in the fast-flowing river far below. It is clear throughout the short film, however, that the whole episode filled it with incomprehension and terror.
My gut reaction on first viewing was to wish all the boys involved might be dangled interminably from the same high parapet.
In some ways worse is the grotesque photograph I saw recently of a young woman being hoisted up by ropes tied around her bare breasts.
Who on earth would do this, and why? Why photograph it, and post the picture online?
The disturbing conclusion is that the image was considered by somebody to be pornographic. That the depiction of extreme pain – and no one seeing it could doubt the agony – was expected to induce sexual arousal.
If the woman herself ever consented to what was happening, that consent was surely withdrawn vociferously by the time the picture was taken.
It is an image of pure sadism. Of savage power inflicted by one individual on another.
And the fact that as viewers we are expected to share in that sadism, to enjoy the brutality, is the most appalling thing about it.
As ghastly as the pain, fear and possible long-term damage to the unnamed woman in the photo is the objectification – the de-humanising – of all women. Not just as sex objects, but as objects of gratuitous violence.
These two examples were, for me, even more upsetting than the other, which shows a man’s newly severed head.
Images of decapitation are of course deliberately shocking, and have – rightly – been the subject lately of some controversy.
Part of what makes the other images of cruelty I have described so horrifying is the fact that there has not been any outcry or controversy about them. As if such inhuman human behaviour were condoned, or expected.
Of course, people – mostly male – have been viciously cruel since long before the internet was there to encourage them.
One thinks of the eye-gouging of whole towns during the anti-Cathar crusade in the early 13th century but that’s almost a random example among thousands possible. From the slave trade to the Nazis, the ancient Assyrians to Syria today, you can supply your own.
But there must be at least a suspicion in all the three instances above that the ability to publish the pictures was part of the point.
Though you cannot always be quite certain what you are seeing.
When I first saw the decapitation picture, more than 10 years ago, it was said to show the victim of a war between Colombian drug gangs. Recently it resurfaced, supposedly revealing the depravity of the present Syrian rebels.
Whatever the real horrors of Syria, the use of this picture was propaganda.
Its purpose, when it was taken, was somewhat different. Part bravado, part perhaps to intimidate others.
And there must be a worry that the proliferation of violent images encourages a proliferation of violence. It’s the only way to make sense of some of what passes for American “culture”.
I never watch horror-porn of the saw, chainsaw, serial slasher variety, but two films I have seen on TV recently – and enjoyed – troubled me.
Both “Ironman” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” ultimately have an anti-violence “message”. But to get there they show a lot of extreme, highly glamorised violence.
With the victims, as ever in movies since the early days of cowboys ’n Injuns, suitably de-humanised.
There is a popular argument that the glamorising of violence on screen, in video games etc, doesn’t promote real violence.
Those who argue that loudest are mostly those who either make or enjoy violent games and films. They have a vested interest in putting that view across.
The makers of the films and games, though, all make their money, or promote their products, through the use of advertising.
If what you see on screen doesn’t affect what you do in life, how exactly is that advertising supposed to work?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Why I won't be sporting a poppy

I NEVER knew my grandfather. Having served in the Royal Navy all through the First World War, he was called up as a 50-year-old reservist in the Second and killed by a bomb that sank his ship off the coast of France.
Both my parents also served in the Second World War, not in the armed forces but in the London fire service. During the Blitz, that involved more danger than was faced by most fighting forces.
The chances are that you too had relatives involved – and perhaps killed – in those wars. There are few people in Europe, Russia, the Middle East or the Far East of whom that’s not true.
It is right that we should remember those catastrophic wars, the death, destruction and mass misery they caused.
Twenty years after the Great War, there were;
·         442,000 men still alive who were so maimed, gassed, nerve-racked or otherwise ruined in health that they could not work;
·         224,000 dependants still suffering through the loss of sons and relatives who were their breadwinners;
·         8,000 men with one or both legs missing;
·         3,600 with one or both arms missing;
·         a further 90,000 with limbs severely damaged.
In the meantime, countless families had lost men to a huge variety of sicknesses and wounds that had blighted their last years. Countless because no one bothered to count – but it was certainly an enormous number.
And all those figures relate only to Britain, which was not invaded and whose casualties – roughly 800,000 men killed – were relatively light. France lost 1.6 million, a fifth of its men of military age. Germany lost 1.8m. The best estimate of Russian casualties is 1.7m dead.
It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. In fact, the botched treaties that followed the Armistice made the resumption of hostilities, 21 years later, almost inevitable.
The scale of devastation wrought by the second outbreak is impossible to grasp, the figures in many areas literally incalculable.
British and French losses were less than in the First war – about one per cent of the total population. The Soviet Union, Poland and Yugoslavia suffered a death rate between ten and 20 times higher than that. In Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Japan and China, between 4pc and 6pc died.
Never in human history had such devastation been caused by human action. Only the plague known as the Black Death in the 14th century ever wiped out a greater proportion of humanity.
Most wars since, and almost all the major conflicts in the world today, can be traced back to those two wars. The division of Korea; the very existence of some countries, including Israel; the addiction of the USA to its military might – all these are direct results of the two great wars.
It seems appropriate that we should occasionally stop and remember all these things. With sorrow. With awe. With determination that it should never happen again.
But though I regret never having met my grandfather, and though I honour his memory, I will not be wearing a poppy. And I will not be attending some pseudo-military service of Remembrance this weekend.
I don’t wish to “thank God for soldiers” – partly because I have no god. And partly for the reason that was put so succinctly by Donovan in his wonderful 1960s protest song Universal Soldier:
He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame…
… without him all this killing can’t go on.
 The issue is perhaps not quite as clear-cut as some – the wearers of white poppies, for example – would have it. But I do worry that the conventional Remembrance Day, once a genuine expression of grief, has become over the years a glorification – even a celebration – of war.
Its Christian nature seems to put Christ’s stamp of approval on war (so much for “Thou shalt not kill”).
And if it is a mourning ritual, it is one from which those who have a different god, or none, are excluded.
To paraphrase the TV historian Dan Snow, how would the average Christian feel about joining in quietly with a religious ceremony held in a mosque, a synagogue or a Hindu temple?
Last Sunday Snow hosted a “Remembrance service for atheists” at London’s Conway Hall.
Like me, he calls himself “godless rather than anti-God”. And he described the service as “a neutral space for those who feel alienated by the religious aspects of the traditional ceremony”.
I don’t feel the need of any such ceremony myself, but I can see his point.
Apparently they sang songs – not hymns. Universal Soldier might have been a good choice. As might the Bob Dylan number from the same era, With God On Our Side:
The words fill my head and drop to the floor,
That if God is on our side he’ll STOP the next war.

Monday, 4 November 2013

'I never liked football. I just liked the fighting'

FOOTBALL is like nostalgia – not what it used to be. With all the wonga swilling about at the top level, all the razzmatazz, and the constant Sky coverage, it’s easy to feel the magic has gone.
Like any fan, I could go on reminiscing about football ad infinitum – or ad nauseam. But not everything was better in the old days.
In an extraordinary new book, ‘NME, From the Bender Squad to the Gremlins’, authors Steve Wraith and Stuart Wheatman uncover a wealth of memories from the squalid underbelly of our national sport.
The pair have interviewed more than 40 self-confessed former football hooligans from that “hotbed of soccer” known as Tyneside. Most chose, perhaps not surprisingly, to remain anonymous. But one unrepentant thug, Mark Mennim, has allowed his name and photo to be used along with his tales of tribal misbehaviour.
It so happens that Mennim and I both started going to watch Newcastle United 42 years ago. In his case, though, the term “supporter” doesn’t quite apply.
“I have never liked football and I never will,” he told Wraith. “I’ve had more fun paying my council tax, but I just loved the fighting.
“I have done two jail sentences, I’ve been to court on numerous occasions, done community work and probation and spent thousands on fines, but it never put me off.
“It was my life. We were all mates together, all comrades fighting together and we have been all over England and Europe.
“I preferred Newcastle to get beat, if I’m honest, because you always seemed to get more fights after a defeat.”
My own recollection of those years is that you were always aware of an aura of violence around football – and I certainly don’t miss that – but that it was generally possible to keep out of the way.
My scariest moments involved games against West Ham.
Walking from Upton Park tube station to the stadium in the mid-1970s was like running a gauntlet of hate. One yob who followed close behind me for part of the way was intercepted by a policeman – who confiscated from him a bike chain laced with razorblades.
He’d been swinging it menacingly, but its real purpose, I was assured by a friendlier fan, was probably for an all-East End bundle later that evening.
On another occasion, during the infamous 1980s era of cages, a West Ham idiot in the next enclosure hurled a Molotov cocktail over the wire into the pen I was in. A milk bottle full of petrol, with a burning rag stuffed in the neck. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
Some years later, I was having a pint in Sunderland before a game I was reporting on when suddenly a dozen or so Middlesbrough fans erupted into the pub. They were gone again, whooping like monkeys, within a minute or less. In that time every window, the mirrors behind the bar, all the optics and most of the glasses in the building had been smashed.
It was over so soon, it was more surreal than frightening. And again, nobody was seriously hurt. Again, one might think, miraculously, considering how much glass had for a few mad moments been flying.
And that’s it. Three incidents and no injuries in four decades of football. Mark Mennim would be sorely disappointed.
At 52, he says he’d still be at it if he hadn’t had two heart attacks. But I doubt it.
Football, at least in this country, really isn’t like that any more. Which is one blessing to count the next time we feel like moaning that things ain’t what they used to be.


WENT over to Cambridge last week to catch a wonderful gig at The Junction by the lovely singer-songwriter Martha Tilston.

One of the most beautiful voices in the business has never sounded fuller or more assured. Her writing, which has become less quirky over the years, has never been better or more direct than on her most recent, and perhaps best, album, ‘Machines of Love and Grace’. Meanwhile she remains the most engagingly direct of performers.

All of which may explain why last year she received not one but three requests to have her music used in TV adverts.

The most persistent of the would-be advertisers was a big American bank, whose cash might have been a life-changer. Not a change, though, that Martha was prepared to make.

As she eloquently puts it in her song about the experience:

“It’s hard these days to keep our tangled hearts clear…

“Harder still to know which happiness is true,

“The advertising slogan or the core of you.”

Almost as much as I enjoy the song, I enjoy imagining the bafflement of the advertising executives as they learned that – despite ever-increasing offers – not quite everyone can be bought.