Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Papal Visit - Musings of a Protestant Agnostic

I am angry at the prospect of the imminent papal state visit. Many others are too for various reasons which have been so rehearsed in the past few weeks that they need no recap here. I have just been listening to the radio where I heard an interesting discussion between David Starkey and Eamon Duffy – both historians whose work I admire. As I listened I started shouting out my agreement with David Starkey. I even tweeted it. Then I reflected on this and realised that the fundamental reason for my objection is that I am a product of my national inheritance. I may be an agnostic, but I am a Protestant agnostic.

Now, this may be strange. This is, after all, 2010 and there has been a great shift in religious adherence in this country, particularly with the presence of more Eastern Europeans whose religious affiliation, where is exists, is often Roman Catholic.

I have no problem with the pope making a pastoral visit to the UK in order to speak to the faithful. It’s happened before, it can happen again. There are many who will get a lot out of it, and I would not begrudge them that experience. However, this is to be a state visit – one that recognises the office of the pope as having both a secular as well as a spiritual authority.

Hold on, when did this country perform that volte-face? What happened to the Reformation of the English church in the Tudor period, the constitutional crises of the Stuarts which were fundamentally about an Englishman’s fear of the resurgence of the papacy as a temporal power over him? Yes, Britain (well England and Wales at least), which broke from the authority of Rome in 1534, is hosting an official visit of Pope Benedict at the cost of millions of British taxpayers’ money. British taxpayers whose country, strictly speaking, does not officially recognise the pope.

Now this may sound like the nostalgic ramblings of a history-loving, middle-aged woman, brought up in the days before multi-cultural diversity took hold. But there’s more to my point of view than that. It’s all to do with the nature of authority and the independence of the free-thinking mind; concepts that transcend cultural relativism.

I read the other day a piece in the Independent on-line by Johann Hari. He was exhorting British Roman Catholics to boycott the papal visit and cited, among other things, the pope’s lack of action over paedophile priests and his condemnation of the use of condoms in countries where HIV and AIDS are widespread. Though I agreed with much of what he wrote, I felt Hari was missing the point. He was employing an ‘ad hominem’ argument to persuade a group of people whose basic belief is that the Pope, whoever he may be at any point in history, speaks as the head of the church; the spiritual descendent of St. Peter, and not as a fallible man whose moral probity or integrity can be called into question. Such is the nature of authority in the Roman Catholic Church. I am aware that there are many Roman Catholics who want to see change and who do not agree with, and much less put into practice, many of the pope’s ex officio pronouncements. I would say to them that change will never happen in your lifetime while the notion of Papal supremacy and authority continues. It is now 2010 and high time you followed the lead of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and began to question the objective reality of that authority and its power over you. Some of you may well see the use of condoms as a greater evil than the AIDS epidemic. Fine, I suppose, if you’ve arrived at that view as a result of your own questioning but please, not just because you have to give lip-service to a Mediaeval figure-head.

And to think that this visit was, apparently, the brain-child of Gordon Brown, a boy brought up in a Scottish Presbyterian manse! Was he paying no attention when he studied the Reformation as part of his history degree at the University of Edinburgh?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Living Without Music?

I was listening this morning to the religious current affairs programme on Radio 4. I'm not usually up so early on a Sunday but I'd had to drop my son off at the station as he was booked on the 7am train to London. He is going to the 'Wireless' festival in Hyde Park. Music has been an important part of my son's life since he was quite young. So it was with great sadness that I heard a discussion on the subject of Muslim children and music. It would appear that some Muslim parents are withdrawing their children from school music lessons as, in some circles, music itself is seen as un-Islamic and evil.

Just two days ago I was at a concert in Norwich Cathedral. It was the last ever school music concert in which my son would take part. He has just completed his A-levels and will officially leave school next week. Watching him sing in the choir, I could see in that 18 year old face, the traces of the five year old singer at his first school concert. When he played his drum solo, to loud applause, in the wonderful acoustics of the cathedral, my maternal pride was at an all time high - a feeling shared I'm sure by the mother of his friend who played the most sublime sax solo. But most significant of all was the fact that this was the final school concert organised and conducted by a truly inspiring head of music at the school, Mr. Colin Dowdeswell. He is retiring after 27 years in that position. And I wonder whether my son's musical career would ever have started had he not had all the musical opportunities afforded to him at school and inspired by that man and his staff.

It started with school music lessons but has gone beyond that. My son and friends have formed various bands outside school and have played at several venues in the Norwich area. All this began with an interest in music fostered at school. It is for this reason that I feel such sadness that some children will never get the opportunity to explore music. What it must be like to live in a culture which denies humans the right to enjoy such pleasure I simply cannot imagine. For me (in the words of John Miles):
To live without my music
would be impossible to do.
In this world of troubles,
my music pulls me through.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

When is a cold -call really a call to help you stop getting cold calls?

I have just received the most paradoxical of cold 'phone calls. I have been registered with the Telephone Preference Service for the last 8 years (i.e. since I have had my present 'phone number). It used to be a good, free, service but in the last six months or so I have had more unsolicited calls than I had ever received in the previous 8 years. My sister-in-law had noticed a similar increase and we had both intended to contact the TPS to find out what was happening. I never got round to it (don't know if she did).

So, a short while ago, my 'phone rang:

Mr. Man from call-centre in India: Hello. my name is -----, calling on behalf of V---

Me: Hold on, do you know I'm registered with the Telephone Preference Service?

Mr. Man: Oh yes, madam, that is why I am calling, You are still getting unwanted marketing calls despite your registration with Telephone Preference Service, is that not right? Now we at V---- are offering a service that guarantees that you will receive no such calls anymore.
Me: And how much do you charge for this service?

Mr. Man: Only £5 a month, madam.

Me: No thanks, bye!

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Dear (sweet) F.A. I understand there's an upcoming vacancy for the job of England manager

The Quest for Identity and Why I Was Left Scratching My Head

Last weekend I listened to two talks given by Baroness Susan Greenfield. She was here in Norwich as the guest speaker and presenter of prizes at Norwich School. Both speeches were, substantially, the same; the subject matter being based upon her latest book ‘ID: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century’. Not the catchiest of titles, so I shall refer to it as ‘ID’.

Susan Greenfield is not one to shy away from courting controversy, be it rattling the cages of the Royal Institution or questioning the effect on children of too many hours a day spent in front of screens of one sort or another.

Friday evening’s lecture took place under the auspices of the ‘Thomas Browne Society’ – a philosophical group consisting of various teachers and sixth-formers at the school. This was an inaugural meeting to involve a wider participation within the interested community and was open to parents, other schools and the public in general. It was a (not quite) death by Powerpoint presentation and included a 30 second explanation of neuroscience – from genes to consciousness; genes being the necessary but not sufficient conditions for consciousness. On the Saturday afternoon she spoke, without screens, to a much wider audience including a significant number of teenagers. Susan Greenfield has clearly given this talk many times before and is totally fluent. She is a good communicator who is so on top of her subject that the lay-person can only sit back and admire.

Her argument is that each human brain is unique. We start off with what our genes have supplied, but the development of that brain is not determined solely by genetic inheritance. Over time and through external stimuli, the human brain develops as connections are established and all those little root and branch-like parts of neurons multiply, grow and spread. It is in these connections that creativity is generated. This is how a person moves from merely ‘sensory’ to ‘cognitive’ experience. Those connections can, however, be broken. Having once been established with maturity they can be interrupted, temporarily, by the misuse of alcohol or drugs, or permanently through degenerative brain disease and dementia. It is on these latter conditions that Susan Greenfield’s area of research is concentrated. She stresses how important such research will be for coming decades when people will live till a very ripe old age and the proportion of elderly to young will increase significantly. In her talk to pupils (as well as their parents) on the Saturday she emphasised the children’s responsibility for ensuring a good quality of life for their elders. Here’s hoping they were listening.

The 21st century, she argues, brings with it new challenges and opportunities in the form of biotechnology; nanotechnology and information technology. It is with regard to her comments on the last of these that she has had much media coverage and criticism. She questions whether exposing developing brains, and by this she means the brains of anyone under the age of 20 years, to an unmitigated diet of screen related experiences (video games, social media websites etc.) might not be harming the development of those brains. Is it possible that the lack of traditional social interaction and the abandonment of imaginative thought and active physical play in favour of electronic substitutes could be stunting the full development of the brain? True, such activity may enhance IQ levels, but what about creativity and empathy? She has been much maligned (by Ben Goldacre among others) for her promulgation of this view. However, on closer questioning of her, I discovered that she is merely seeking to raise the question. She is making no dogmatic assertion. And maybe the brain development of the future of mankind is important enough for the question to be posed. Anyhow I, for one, will read ‘ID’ to see how she explores these ideas in more detail before deciding how far I go in agreeing with her.

By the way, it is clear that the Baroness does not ‘get’ Twitter and that’s a pity as it can be a great forum in which to begin a discussion of ideas such as this. In fact I spent about an hour, on and off, tweeting on this very subject on Friday evening. Twitter is what you make of it; please don’t dismiss it too readily.

Whilst I was waiting to hear the Saturday talk....

Anyhow, from the higher intellectual musings on Baroness Greenfield’s speech to the far more mundane: I spent much of the prize-giving ceremony wondering just how many head lice the young girl (aged about 7) sitting in front of me was harbouring. She was one of three young children and so presumably must have had an older, fourth, sibling at the school, receiving a prize. Maybe her mother should have decided before so readily popping out quite many children that she should spend just a bit of time and effort checking one child’s head from time to time. If I could see the 30-odd lice crawling around on the top of the head from a (safe) distance of three feet away, then I conclude that the woman must be blind or woefully negligent not to have done something about her child’s infestation sooner. All children get a few head lice from time to time (thanks mainly to having to share classroom space with children of mothers such as this). But this was infestation on a grand scale. And this would not have been some socially deprived family. This was the prize-giving ceremony at an independent school where the fees are around £3,000 per term, for God’s sake! Anyway, what sort of person brings such young children to two hours of speeches which can generate long periods of ennui even in someone as old as yours truly. I suspect that, in this instance, the children’s brains would have received greater stimulation had their mother simply plonked them in front of a TV screen for those two hours, despite what the Baroness might say.