Oor Ain Wee Show

It was the rehearsal from Hell. My burning question, ‘Are we to have our photos taken before we don our costumes?’ went without conclusive answer (everyone had an answer but none of them matched) least of all from the photographer who, for – some reason unbeknownst to me and, I suspect, him – was wandering about dressed for the Pirates of Penzance when it’s not part of the Programme. And, like everyone else, lost in learning lines.

In fairness, everyone else who was still learning lines was doing so with chairs in hand (sometimes several) which they were attempting to carry through thresholds – such as the rarely-shut door between Dressingroom A and Dressingroom B, the narrow passage past the toilets, and on and off stage. In several simultaneous directions of travel, including up and down.

My most sane moment before I finally fought my way onstage was halfway up a ladder with the Wardrobe Mistress, comparing medical symptoms of stress, looking for bunnets. Although, having a quiet word with a Pixie (in the middle of a shrieking press of bodies) while I wielded nail scissors to cut the pockets open in my jaikit, unaccountably still sewn shut, was similarly soothing. We may, admittedly, have had two completely distinct conversations but at least I had managed to find a place for my personal props.

Having been told, definitely, that I may or may not be required as the Drunk and the Respectable Gentleman both, and that I perhaps absolutely had no business with a chair, I found myself playing both and carrying one Off. Blocking changed (admittedly, I’d missed the last rehearsal) I discovered that if I entered Centre Left, rather than Up Left, purporting to be searching for a body, it made little sense as it was now right in front of me. At least that body could be seen, as distinct from the one I fell over in the pitch dark during a Quick Change, who was busy arranging chairs. He was very good about it, when I saw him in the light later, and we determined that on future exits I would hug the curtain – rather than him.

Scene over, I made my way into the auditorium and such was my state of mind that it took me halfway through a sketch where things fall apart to realise that it was intentional. I was still recovering from the stress of constantly running after articles of costume that I had momentarily laid down on a chair now being carried off through various thresholds.

Not that things were any calmer onstage. My scene producer had to step lively to avoid an incoming chaise-longue just when she thought it safe to enter, in a lovely dirndl dress. Although that may have been her Panto costume and I was confused, like everyone else. Ignoring the frequent audible stage whispers of ‘Quiet in the Wings!’ I sat through various scenes, and even laughed, then went off to wash the dishes. Cups, unlike my fellow members of the Kirkintilloch Players, tend to stay still and don’t shriek.

We finally got that photo taken and I must admit that it looks okay. And the old theatrical wisdom is that ‘If the Dress is a disaster, it’ll be alright on the night’ (technically it was a Tech but it may still count). I hope so. Just as long as no-one shouts ‘Good luck’ or quotes The Scottish Tragedy. Apparently we’re already sold out. I hope people know that chairs will be supplied!

See the website www.kirkintillochplayers.co.uk for info about the company, upcoming shows and links to other Scottish amateur theatre companies. Even when nerve-wracking and bewildering, ‘Am Dram’ is great fun, the theatre in general rejoices in equality and diversity – and allows us to ponder the unsettling fact that our social roles that we perform and value so highly may, in fact, be rather insubstantial.

vintage-drama-poster

Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her image ‘Vintage Drama Poster’ into the Public Domain.

Writing a Difference

I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.

Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White cisgendered heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.

I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.

When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:

‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’

and

‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.

The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.

I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.

This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.

On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.

Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.

Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.

Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.

And that makes a difference.

colored-pencils

Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.

Wave After Wave: Immigrants Both Sides The Wall

Walking along the Forth & Clyde Canal the other day, I was twice passed by a young man of Levantine appearance happily cycling up and down the towpath. The Canal often follows the line of the Antonine Wall (the Roman Wall built before Hadrian’s) and a small post-industrial town on the outskirts of Glasgow shares the prestige of this piece of World Heritage with other sites of Roman forts. The town’s museum records:

After the wall was built the legionaries returned to their headquarters in the south of Britain. Those left to man the forts were called auxiliary troops. They were soldiers who came from the occupied countries in the Roman Empire such as Syria, Germany, Spain and Gaul (part of France).

(Auld Kirk Museum display)

Having grown up in the vicinity of the Wall, reading the urgent prose of George R.R. Martin (“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildings are dead.” – is the magnificent start of A Game of Thrones) I immediately associate his Wall with ours. Which makes me one of the wildings. I assure you we are not dead but alive and well and living in Kirkintilloch – and all over the globe.

Although I may have some ancestors among the aboriginal Picts north of the Wall (who themselves migrated here in the wake of our Neolithic ancestors) most of my paternal and maternal ancestors can be traced back to the Scots who at that time were across the Irish Sea and so more of a threat as occasional raiders than as native people resisting foreign occupation.

Which means that, in all probability, there were Syrians in Caer Pen Tulloch (the fort on the hill in Brythonic Celtic – yes the ‘Welsh’ were here before we were) before there were Scots. The name change, from ‘fort’ to ‘church’ on the hill, did not occur with the centuries’ later migration of the (Irish) Scots, who spoke Goidelic Celtic – or Gaelic – but with the migration of the Angles from the south centuries still later. ‘Kirk’, and its variants, means ‘church’ in many branches of Germanic language, including Scots.

Take out the dragons, suspend disbelief on the magic, and the bloody and beautiful world that Martin describes reads remarkably like ours. An anachronistic mixture of High Middle Ages and Renaissance to be sure, but still more like than not. Refreshingly free of Tolkein’s tendency to treat all women as embodiments of the Eternal Feminine, Martin depicts a spectrum of agency for good and ill irrespective of gender. He also shows up the tragic irony of wave after wave of incomers claiming sovereignty and aboriginal rights.

There were Syrians in Kirkintilloch before there were Scots. There were Syrians and other Levantine, European and North African people living south of the Antonine Wall all the way to the Channel, before there were English people here.

20 centuries later, the English and the Scots, and those colonised by our descendents, brought the doom of modern dragonfire to the cradle of civilisation in the Near and Middle East, for oil.

Syrians have returned to Kirkintilloch and may be seen cycling happily along the canal following the path of the Wall their ancestors built and manned so many centuries ago.

Fàilte gu Alba a-rithist: welcome back.

hadrians-wall

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing “Hadrian’s Wall” into the Public Domain.

 

What do the Iona Community do?

“What do the Iona Community do?” asked a friend, who should know better. I didn’t know, then. Now I’d say that this dispersed community does a lot of good in a lot of places but though the good they do is always embodied, it’s not always corporate. Am I just playing with words? Is the work and worship – at the Abbey and the MacLeod Centres on Iona, in the Community central office in Glasgow and in all the various locations in the UK and around the globe where members, associates, friends and staff live – just words?

Words are very important. Over Christmas someone pointed out that “In the beginning…” is better translated as “When…” – Genesis is not a chronicle; it’s a narrative. Standing back from media soundbites and ‘human interest’ servings of infotainment about the plight of refugees, over that week guests at Iona Abbey reflected on refuge: what it means to people as individuals, in scripture, in our households and places of worship. So that, by the time there was the opportunity to commit to one particular strategy of sustainable provision of refuge, people were not simply reacting to an agenda set by party politics and politicised multinational interests but deeply aware that refuge has always been central to the traditions started by Abraham – inspired to wander but never lost.

This is the rooted awareness that leads to engagement. I see Iona as a holding place. A place where people, embraced by and participating in community life, can finally face those things that are most challenging. Looking at the 2016 brochure, the themed weeks focus on particular aspects of the core values of the Iona Community: working for justice, healing and peace in our localities and the whole of creation; the gathering spaces (formerly ‘open weeks’) focus on the experience of community itself, permeated by these values.

So if you find yourself praying in the laundry room on the evening of 25th March, learning about the Quakers in Kenya from 9th-15th April, finding out that having your fabulous 50th birthday is just the start, with counsellor Susan Dale, or participating in one of the livelier sessions from the Wild Goose Resources Group (yes they really did bring a king-sized bed with red satin sheets into the sanctuary to celebrate the Song of Songs), with Greenbelt on Iona, Those Dangerous Women or environmentalist Bob in July, the Youth Festival or being rejuvenated by Playing for Change in September, at the core of all the fun and oddness and hurly-burly is a deep commitment to (in order) face our fears; be peacemakers; live abundantly and confront ageism; celebrate the diversity of sexuality; worship exuberantly; rage against and heal the hatred unleashed against women and nature; question authority joyfully; and be wise enough to be foolish enough to let go of our inner censors to creativity.

There are many words at the Abbey and MacLeod Centre, just words, words of justice; there is also silence and stillness, movement and music. People come with all the cares of the world and leave re-energised, reconnected. The blear of shouting media voices turned down (there’s no radio, no TV, no WiFi) there is the opportunity to be more attentive to the small still voice hidden in the thundercloud. Encountering fellow travellers from all the walks and tracks and songlines of our planet, marriages are made, partnerships struck, friendships sealed and conflicts healed. That’s what they, we, you, do.

Iona Community

wild goose image from www.welcometoiona.com

Both Sides, Now: Scotland and England

Reading Pádraig Ó Tuama’s In the Shelter: finding a home in the world, about telling stories in the shelter of the Corrymeela community, in the place he problematises in a poem’s title as ‘[the] north[ern] [of] ireland’, I think of an undergraduate essay I wrote for a course of Practical Theology, in St Andrews University in the late 1980s (a decade or so before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998). In it, I identified the phenomenon of what is now commonly known in critical theory (and may have been then, but not to me) as ‘multiple selves’.

I wrote of categories of identity, of Us and Them, which were problematic because historically, culturally, linguistically and/ or ecclesiastically, they included the identity of the Other they attempted to exclude:

‘Protestant’ being rooted in the Pre-Reformation Church, which ‘(Roman) Catholic’ claims also to be in unbroken continuity with and which also, at Vatican II, accepted much of the protest of Martin Luther, 400 years on; ‘Scot’ coming from and returning to ‘Ulster’, territory which does (not) include Donegal and which is (not) ‘Irish’ and is also (not) ‘British’ – another humdinger of a category that can designate anything from ‘Brythonic Celt’, through a successful ‘Welsh’ (Tudor) exercise in propaganda, to ‘English’ and ‘Commonwealth’ and ‘United Kingdom’.

Each phrase that I have written in the above paragraph is so problematic that it would be quite reasonable to argue that it is a downright lie. And yet it tells a truth. I have not attempted to draw out all instances of contradiction and connection, overlap and oversight that are possibilities among all these categories of identity.

My point in the essay was that the only way to peace is to accept the reality of this blurring of identities and to tell our stories. Argument of the ‘you’re wrong so I’m right’ variety can’t do that. Mostly because it depends on asserting and maintaining rigid categories of ‘you’ and ‘I’, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. (Of course I’m thinking of David Hare’s wonderful play, Us and Them, and if you haven’t in your life yet seen a youth theatre group perform it then do so.)

The pain of the Referendum on Scottish Independence this year, before, during and after, was one which is not supposed to exist. We don’t have a word for that which, ‘over there’, (another quote from Hare) has been called Trioblóid/ Troubles, which Ó Tuama explains means ‘Bereavements’. Of course it really has meant that in both languages.

We don’t have a word in English, or in Scots, or in Scots Gaelic, or in any of the other indigenous languages of these islands for the Troubles between ‘English’ and ‘Scot’. We have had no way to express this pain – and because we can’t express it, the pain has nowhere to go. The attempts of ‘No’ voters to come to reconciliation have met with inchoate rage from those who are ‘Still Yes’, a rage that cannot find adequate words to express itself as there is no common ground to argue over; the decision to vote ‘Yes’ in the first place was met with some of the same feeling, mostly on the internet and over the border, but here in Scotland this decision, when not shared, was met with much sorrow, with hurt and with incomprehension.

A good friend of mine, a good friend and a good man, said to me, in a pub on Great Western Road, in Glasgow, at the height of it all, when I was full of the disenfranchised of Maryhill waving banners and having the hope of making a difference, and frustrated with him for not getting it: ‘it really pains me when you talk about Scottishness as a club, of which I am not a member’.

I was simultaneously ashamed, and annoyed with him for being awkward. He’s like Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, Big Mary of the Song, who was banned by her dour minister from singing inside the house and outside the house. Màiri Mhòr stood in the doorway of her house and sang. My friend is like that, awkward, and I want to trace his genealogy and add up the years he’s spent ‘here’ or ‘there’ and come to a decision: is he or is he not Scottish? But then I’d have to do that for myself, and that would be unnerving.

During the year I spent in California 1990-1991, while not marching with banners proclaiming NO BLOOD FOR OIL! (if the protestors kept them, they’ll have been well used since) I participated in groupwork on prejudice and liberation. Focussing especially on the negative media portrayal of Islamic/ Middle Eastern men (watch Sex in the City 2 for an instance) I discovered my deepest racial prejudice. I was anti-English. Which was awkward, since my mother grew up (when not evacuated to her mother’s people in the West Highlands) in a village that Miss Marple would have felt at home in, my grandfather was born within sound of Bow Bells and – though his father came from Germany and, perhaps, generation upon generation, from Israel – his mother was from East Anglia and her surname means ‘home’.

We need to listen to each other, both sides, now, in Scotland. Not rush to hug each other in a false reconciliation which only continues to ignore the pain which is unspoken since officially it doesn’t exist.

‘(Still) Yes’ voters need to hear how it feels to have the door of this exclusive club called ‘Scottish’ shut in your face, the shock and hurt of your dearest friends and neighbours and indeed family wanting you and yours politically over the border like Jock O’Hazeldean and the lady that was(n’t) his. Sometimes very aggressively. Sometimes violently. Sometimes thoughtlessly. I was shocked, then ashamed, when an old friend from Barbados was chipping in with his hopes and fears (for ‘No’) over the internet. ‘What’s it got to do with you?’ I asked him. He told me. I’m middle-aged, with more degrees than sense, and had ignored the fact (fiction) that Barbados is ‘British’.

‘No’ voters need to hear how it feels to constantly correct not just ‘foreigners’ but our southern neighbours, even living amongst us, when they conflate ‘England’ and ‘Britain’, again and again and again. Still. How it feels to be tongue-tied in yer ain tongue, which no teacher, correcting you, again, ever told you contained words footnoted in Shakespeare (for monoglot English speakers) incomprehensible in Oxford but instantly recognisable from Friesland to Scandinavia. How our myth of oppressed national identity that draws a clear line from the Clearances by anglicised lairds to the closure of the steelworks at Ravenscraig in the wake of the Thatcher years is so problematic that it would be quite reasonable to argue that it is a downright lie. And yet it tells a truth.

In Hare’s play, it gradually becomes reasonable to draw a line of separation, to mark it with a string, a fence, ever higher, finally, of course, with a wall. In Ó Tuama’s book, he quotes the Irish saying: Ar scáth a cheile a mhaireas na daoine/ It is in the shelter (shadow) of each other that the people live. He draws out the ambiguities of scáth among which, in English, are the idea of living in someone’s shadow, and of the shadow self. Embracing, accepting and celebrating my Englishness, overlapping and intermingling with my Scottishness, has been a great joy, a great challenge and a great liberation. I feel more whole, I also feel far more confident in asserting the Scots language. One does not preclude the other. I don’t assert the English language as there’s been too much of that already.

If we are to heal, if we are to live together in 2016 and beyond, in harmony, in whatever political constellation we democratically decide on, we need to come out from under each other’s shadow, and enter into our own. We need to shelter each other’s stories because even if they contain lies they tell truths. We need to stop arguing, stop denying our troubles and start sharing our heartfelt pain through telling our stories. Both sides, now.  uk-splat-flag

Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her image ‘UK Splat Flag’ into the Public Domain.

 

 

Categorical mistakes

Coming across an RC priest-bashing piece of journalism the other day (while reading something worth reading from the same source – not from the same writer) I was struck by how much we still haven’t learned the main lesson of Aristotle: things tend to fall into different categories. In this piece of lazy reportage, one adult makes multiple attempts to invite another adult out socially. Apparently the newsworthiness stems from their gender (both male), their age gap (50 and 29), and the vow of celibacy of one of them. The writer in his profile describes himself as pan-sexual, so readers would not expect the presumed homosexuality of the presumed romantic intent of the invitations to be considered deviant and therefore newsworthy. We have the word of the recipient that he’s been textually ‘bombarded’ and a quoted text, which the writer and recipient apparently take as the depths of depravity: “don’t be shy”. I’m already bored.

So why was this unnewsworthy reportage written? Is it, for all the professed liberalism of the writer, playing on the presumed homophobia and ageism of the reader? The 29 year old (who has previously accepted social invitations from the 50 year old) describes the older man as “creepy”. Would this 29 year old male describe unwanted (presumed) romantic attention from either a female (of any age) or from his own generation (of any gender) with this term? The writer does not challenge this judgment.

Although ageism is growing in popularity among young White men and is especially endemic to the gay White male milieu, the end of the piece presents the real hook: clerical child abuse. Now that’s newsworthy! It’s just not relevant and necessitates the mention of some other Scottish RC priest entirely unconnected to this non-story. What’s the attempt at connection? That the priest, in his first and successful attempt at inviting the younger guy out, said he remembered him as an altar boy. No, it’s not the best line but he was maybe out of practice. Does the 29 year old say that, when he was a boy, the priest bombarded him with social invitations or in any other way harassed him? No. Is the writer therefore covertly collating adult (presumed) homosexuality and paedophilia? Yes.

What the writer is practicing is covertly homophobic, ageist and sectarian. What he professes to be practicing is moral panic over child protection; when the media-savvy ‘victim’ is 29.

This instance of a lazy categorical mistake (that conflates homosexuality and paedophilia, or an adult age gap with paedophilia, or multiple unwanted social invitations with sexual harassment – I admit it may be considered harassment) has repercussions. A middle-aged man, struggling with his vows, is publically embarrassed and his livelihood endangered. Do such journalists care? Riding on the wave of the moral panic over the O’Brien scandal some years ago (which did not concern children, yet child abuse was always mentioned) the Herald ran a similar story (there were a few cosy dinners before and after the adult male layman felt harassed by the priest in that particular story) and accused a priest of hypocrisy – without checking their facts. Held in high esteem by his parishioners, his RC parish church is one of the few in Scotland in which homosexuality is not condemned from the pulpit and remarried couples find a warm welcome.

This week in the news we’ve seen the categorical confusion of a bright boy with a terrorist – because of White Christian prejudice over his religion and the colour of his skin.

A few years ago categorical confusion led to the chilling murder of a man on the London Underground, because police couldn’t tell the difference between someone coming from a hot country and a suicide bomber.

It is an evil thing that we do when we confuse categories and choose to believe the thing worst possible about someone. This is not what the presumption of innocence is about, it forms no part of the social contract, it’s cheap thrill journalism and it has nothing to do with true religion.

For a reminder of what good we can do, when we refuse to confuse categories, read this account of what happened when a young, bearded, Arabic man in a scarf and khaki camouflage clothes, walked into a liberal Christian church, wearing a backpack, a few days after the terrorist attack at Glasgow Airport.

clock-1373644964Hyl

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Clock” into the Public Domain

The Other Refugees

On Saturday I attended the “Refugees Welcome” rally in George Square, in my native Glasgow, with my mother who was herself a refugee in time of war when for five years she forsook the banks of the Thames for the shores of the Irish Sea. My father’s people had crossed that sea three generations before and while my mother’s mother was from the West Highlands, her father’s father crossed the English Channel from Germany and his Hebrew surname dates back to an old story about an enslaved people fleeing for their lives across the Red Sea.

This isn’t the usual ‘everyone comes from somewhere else’ memo, true as that reminder is. This is about another group of refugees. Their cause cannot be proved to be as urgent as that of the millions who now face religious death squads, famine, disease, and the torturous labyrinth of the asylum process, should they be fortunate enough to even be admitted into it. Their cause is not, now, so urgent, not now, not at the moment but it has been so before and many of them fear that it may be so again. Not urgent, but important, and not just for them.

I, still, call myself a Roman Catholic, yet no-one blames me for the deaths of slaves and Christians in the Roman amphitheatres. No-one blames me for the blind spot the present pope has (for all his humility, simplicity and courage) about sexual ethics. No-one, at least no-one who knows my continued criticism of them, even blames me for the continued pastoral stupidity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Scotland or for the vile outpourings of blatant prejudice of its clergy-fawning press. In short, the people of my country do not hold me accountable for the evils of the rulers, past and present, of the political State most closely associated with my religion and not even for the continuing evils of some of my coreligionists.

Why are some Scots not using the same common sense with the Jews?

I know racist people and I know those who hate Islam because they hate religion (usually because of vile prejudice that stems from the influence of White, Christian missionaries). Such people do not convince anyone of goodwill or who has any grasp at all of European history. I am not going to argue against racism or against Islamophobia because there is no need: they are indefensible.

Apparently some Scots don’t feel the same way about anti-Semitism.

‘I am Jewish’ and ‘I am Israeli’ are not identical statements; neither are ‘I am Israeli’ and ‘I support the policy of the Israeli government’. I do not ignore the atrocities carried out by Israeli soldiers; neither do I ignore those carried out by British or American soldiers. I do not ignore the deadly game of chess that the colonial powers, notably Britain and France, played in 1948 in the Near East (no, the Levant is not the Middle East) nor the atrocities carried out by the Christian hordes of the Middle Ages (on Muslims, on Jews, on women) nor those carried being out today by Daesh. All this must continue to provide a context for the fear (is it paranoia?) of being ‘swept into the sea’ while the surrounding powers-that-be do what they have always done for the protection of the Jews: nothing.

My Roman Catholic coreligionists who display such culpable and malevolent stupidity are stuck in the past. When the four Scottish banks wouldn’t employ a Catholic. When you had to change your school name on your CV. When you had to be guarded with your surname. This clannish fortress mentality sees the compassion and common sense that caused a country to declare that ‘it’s time’ for equal marriage as a personal attack on all they hold dear. As if G_d were not Merciful and Compassionate!

But no-one blames me for that.

Can we please stop blaming the Jews?

Do I have to mention the cultural impoverishment that happens (not ‘would happen’ yes, disgracefully, we Europeans have experience of this) when the Jews are no longer here? Do I have to recall the eminent Jewish men and women who with clear-sighted intellect have graced our progress as a civilisation? The empresarios? The entertainers? The artists, novelists? Our friends, lovers and family?

Can we, together, as Scots, realise that knowing someone’s ancestral religion gives no clue as to their current political position in regard to the ideology of another country? If anyone wants to know my position as regards Ulster/ Ireland/ Eire/ The Six Counties they had better be prepared for an intensive course in history and cultural studies, if they have the temerity to ask me, or worse to presume to know what my position is without asking. Will it surprise anyone to know that my basic view is: it’s complicated?

What isn’t complicated is to stop making assumptions. A good friend this evening told me that he is thinking of leaving this country. My country. His country. He’s thinking of becoming a refugee. No, he’s not poor, he’s healthy and he has a UK passport. He won’t starve and he won’t be homeless. But if he goes, to Manchester, to London, to the USA, to Canada, to Israel, he will be a refugee. He will be fleeing from our refusal of Scottish hospitality, from our lack of canny commonsense, from our ignorance of kinship. My father fought and suffered years of imprisonment in a war waged by those who tried to wipe out the Jews and eradicate them from Europe. I cannot but take up his cause. Times have changed since the crossing of the Red Sea. These people are our people. These people are my people. Don’t let my people go!

The Jewish Cemetery

Thanks to Carlos Sardá for releasing his photo “The Jewish Cemetery” into the Public Domain.

Lily and Steve

A light-hearted look back at the hierarchical hysteria over equal marriage in Scotland while we wait for the result of Celtic cousins over the water making up their minds.

“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” is a late 70s ‘Moral Majority’ gloss on Genesis 2–4 popularised by US evangelist Jerry Falwell (Sr). It’s funny, in the campy way that just about everything from the US popular media in the late 70s is (just think of cardigans and Starksy and Hutch) and is much better known than feminist thealogian Mary Daly’s queer midrash on Lilith and Eve. It’s also, if one pauses for thought, not true.

If (in line with more recent RC Magisterial biblical exegesis) we accept the compatibility of creation and evolution, and are informed about the ubiquity of homosexuality in the animal kingdom, then the fact of homosexual behaviour among early homo sapiens sapiens is incontrovertible. God made Adam. God made Eve. And God also made Steve. We’ll come back to Lily. As the gloss both includes and excludes, leaving Steve to haunt the text as ‘the other man’, Adam becomes bi, Steve gay and Eve either bi or betrayed or abandoned or (as is the lot of many lesbians in patriarchal literature) invisible. Except in feminist midrash, where she and her helpmeet leap over the wall and have other ideas.

All this marriage of fact and fancy about pre-lapsarian, pre-fraticidal, pre-civic, ante-diluvian (or even just prehistoric) partnering may seem a far cry from the hysteria going on in Scotland just now where Catholic bishops have been trumpeting the virtues of supporting exclusively heterosexual marriage (as both a civic duty and a human right) in the national press and on 100,000 pre-printed campy parish postcards. The Scottish hierarchy ignores both the repeated assurances of the Scottish Government in the Civil Partnership and Same-Sex Marriage Consultation Document that this change in civil law will not interfere with the regulations of religious bodies (‘weasel words’ says Archbishop Conti in The Herald) and the fact that even the Rev. Falwell (Sr) supported LGBT civil rights, including marriage.

The creation story that supposedly promotes exclusively heterosexual marriage doesn’t only leave out Steve (and Lily) but also the wife of Cain (Mabel?). In order for the inventor of homicide (and politics, as he founded a polis) not to marry his mum, even an American televangelist would write her into the script. And the wives of Enoch (Enid?), Irad (Iris?), Mehujael (Jael?), Methushael (Martha?) and also Seth (Beth?). With Lamech, wives finally get a mention: Adah and Zillah. The Voices Off are silent, cut out of the script. With all the glosses and biblical exegesis written since whatever committee comprising Moses (all of them unknown) first set reed to papyrus, one would expect a bit more about the unfeasibly small cast of Genesis 2–4 than the wee gloss: “…not Adam and Steve”. One would feel that Mabel and Beth (daughters-in-law to the ‘mother of all who live’) deserve more mention. And then there’s Lilith, who does get into patriarchal midrash (Daly wasn’t her creator) but only to get bad press: objecting to the missionary position she is demonised. So let’s rename her Lily.

The hierarchical hysteria in The Herald ignores the awareness of the people of Scotland that church pressure on matters of civil law is highly selective and self-interested. The Scottish RC hierarchy actively promoted ‘Section 28’ and said nothing about the recent UN decision to include homosexuality in their exceptions to a blanket ban of death penalty legislation of member states. Change on sexuality involves change on gender and that terrifies a celibate male hierarchy by threatening the status quo. Their entrenched opposition to homosexuality, despite the years of compassionate and liberating biblical and ethical investigation to the contrary, must be seen in the light of their entrenched opposition to the possibility of generalised clergy marriage and inclusive ordination.

Genesis 2–4 can only be read in the context of Genesis 1, where the Word of God repeatedly states that the original creation is good. And that means Adam and Eve and Lily and Steve.

Only Say The Word CA

From Alba to Albion, with Love

My mother often reminds me that the word ‘wake’ is misapplied to the reception after the funeral. The time and place for eulogy, for stories and songs and for the affirmation of kinship in the face of loss. The ‘wake’ itself is more properly the vigil, anxious or resigned, the mourning for, or rage against, the dying of the light. A ‘wake’ is also the divided churn of waters following the passage of a ship. All these meanings may be applied to the wake of the UK General Election of 2015.

Like a drifting spar from broken rigging for drowning souls to cling to, a hashtag has sprung up on Twitter: #takeuswithyouscotland

It’s a situation that no Scot should take pleasure in and though that great ship of state has sailed, there may be other forms of first aid: do we not have lifeboats? So many of our kith and kin, friends and acquaintances, south of Hadrian’s Wall and east of Offa’s Dyke, have lamented being unable to vote SNP, led so ably by our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon (excepting the huge error that is the Named Person policy – see @no2NPcampaign for details).

Given that this canny lady has emphasised not independence but ‘Devo Max’ over the course of this electoral campaign, it seems obvious that people want more say in local, regional and national affairs, when offered the chance. Although I wish for future self-determination for my country, I do not accept the view that this present result gives a clear mandate for ‘independence nothing less’. There is a great deal more, in terms of options.

Instead of attempting to shift the border south, I put forward an easier conceptual adjustment. What if the SNP fields candidates, for local council and by-elections, in England? In a town like Corby, where kids grow up with Scottish accents from the legacy of their steelworker parents who emigrated en masse, this would cause no great alarm. London is already (apparently) run by Scots and many other places may welcome a clear anti-austerity stance articulated in accents of workers’ solidarity.

What this move must not be is any form of (even reverse) colonialism. SNP Councillors and MPs for seats furth of Scotland would only make sense for two reasons: their clear allegiance to their party’s economic policy; and their commitment to valuing the concerns and the culture of their constituents. Though my father’s folk were all Scots and Irish, and my maternal grandmother Highland, my roots from my Cockney grandfather’s mother are East Anglian, that line is as deep as England. His father was German and probably Jewish, we have a great cultural richness to celebrate in this proud land.

England, as a dear and departed Jamaican English friend would tell me, is not only a place for City gents in bowler hats. It is the land of the Diggers and the Levellers, the Todpuddle Martyrs, Merrie England and Blake’s Albion. It is also the land of the aspirations of the Windrush generation, of all the South Asian medics and merchants, of the Chinese who fled communism but retained their deep commitment to community, of students from Palestine to Pittsburgh, of teachers from Buenos Aires to the Bering Straits, of the various nationalities who were captured during WW2 and decided to stay.

People in England voting Tory have said that their reasons were:

1) the moral bankruptcy of the other options [I know but at least a Tory is what it says on the tin!]

2) the candidate’s acquaintance with and concern for local people

So, when not campaigning against cuts and against military aggression, an SNP candidate in England might not find himself or herself organising Highland Games and Burn’s Nights but rather appreciating the jingle of Morris bells and the soft thud of leather on willow, spending time aboard canal boats, steam trains, at festivals and small markets and affirming these lively and lovely forms of rural life that are a gift, a valuable legacy also to the kind of inner-city kids I’ve witnessed unable to tell a sheep from a cow and wondering vociferously why someone hasn’t picked up the cow pats from ‘the floor’.

Besides Mebyon Kernow, there are already various political parties in England who agitate for self-determination for their county or region. The SNP in England would provide the know-how of an already established form of devolution and would be the party leading the way in pushing for a devolved English parliament, perhaps in historic York. Coventry is apparently nearer the geographical centre of England but Cornwall has a Celtic not Anglo-Saxon identity and if England starts east of the Tamar then the centre may be north of the Wash. So Sheffield is another possibility, Royal Leicester being probably too far south and in danger of gravitational attraction from the metropolis.

More astute political minds may decide that the time is ripe for a party to put the words ‘English’ and ‘national’ together. If this combination can really evoke a progressive, multicultural party respectful of all good faiths and philosophies, then let it be so. However other, less inclusive, images may come to mind.

Counter-intuitive though it may be, SNP candidates in England may make sense in these interesting political times. People who have claims on us, claims of blood and long-standing affection, are drowning in these troubled waters, in the wake of the UK General Election of 2015.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

england-flag-against-blue-sky

‘England Flag Against Blue Sky’ by Kelly Martin, in Public Domain: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=85401&picture=england-flag-against-blue-sky

Cross Words and the (Roman) Catholic Press

I’ve won the crossword competition of a certain Scottish Catholic newspaper twice. I started doing crosswords when I returned from years teaching around the Northern Mediterranean and in Latin America, observing that my English spelling and grammar were getting distinctly dodgy. In the Ratzinger years (I never experienced him as the blessing his papal name pretended to be) the crossword was the only thing I liked about that publication. I dislike personality cults and their ubiquity amongst the Scottish RC clergy is not lessened by the constant reference to ‘how much the laity love their priests’ by the staff writers who appear to update their photographs only as frequently as their ecclesiology. My favourite of the bylines is: ‘Celtic supporter and married father of two’. Answers on a postcard.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to pick faults with a periodical cherished by people of the third age who lived through times when sectarianism, i.e. anti-Irish racism and anti-(Roman) Catholicism, was indeed Scotland’s shame. It’s not now. Yes we still have The Walk which reformed Christians fail year after year to denounce but the boot’s on the other foot in terms of shame now. New Ways Ministry report that RC is synonymous with prejudice in the USA amongst the majority of young people and even the RC press in Scotland notes that out of 113 RC parishes around Edinburgh only 30 are not threatened with closure for want of attendance.

The Revd Jim Wallis wrote a book in 2005 subtitled, “Why the American Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It”. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions but it reveals the roots of the secular struggle for liberation in the Biblical prophetic tradition – a tradition that the Church is using all its might to quash. So the RC press sees no irony in calling for African clergy to ‘re-evangelise Europe’. Slavery was definitively opposed by the RC Magisterium only in 1965 (so those expecting a change on women/married priests or equal/second marriage can expect to wait a bit longer) and even now the idea that enforcing European culture globally is wrong is only voiced in the RC press by colonised clergy and bishops – and only in reference to ‘militant secularism’. Scan any example of the RC press and the majority of images of Jesus are White, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Scan again for instances of inclusive (non-sexist) language. It’s not just that they get it wrong, they just don’t get it.

When the Revd Dr Martin Luther King opposed racism he was opposing the ‘moral majority’ of his day. It’s all there in chapter 9 of Genesis. The Church, the State, Tradition, the Bible. All agreed. All but a small still voice that became a hurricane. The frustration, the hurt, the passivity I observe amongst my co-religionists is rooted in a co-dependent mentality that has rendered us as yet unable to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. We are house dogs rejoicing that a crumb of comfort has dropped from the table – from which we are officially banned.

Turn to the promise in Isaiah 51:12 “I am the one who comforts you. How can you be afraid?” Turn to the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12) and read those assurances to you. The Church is ein fest Burg that can withstand militant secularism but the people of God are pilgrims and, often, only in desert places can we hear the call, the Spirit of the ekklesia.

Cross and Altar   ( Small Cross and Altar by Petr Kratochvil: Public Domain )