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Archive for September, 2010

Some glorious images in this exhibition of aerial photographs of Britain now showing in Bath.

This isn't from the exhibition!

I haven’t been able to see it myself, but you can just spend five minutes watching this beautiful slideshow with commentary from the BBC website.

From glacier-carved mountain valleys to jagged saw-toothed coastlines, the UK’s diverse physical and human geography – as seen from above – is being celebrated in a new street exhibition in Bath. More than 100 colourful aerial images – showing Britain’s natural and human landscapes – are being showcased in Bath city centre. Take a look here with the Director of The Royal Geographical Society, Dr Rita Gardner.

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Back in May I posted about the 100 greatest inventions of all time. I’ve just read an article by Alice Rawsthorn about an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany with the title “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things”.

The focus here is not just on inventiveness or novelty, but the way a simple idea, when combined with a good design, can become a central part of ordinary life that we couldn’t imagine living without.

We don’t reflect enough on the genius of these objects: the corkscrew, paper clip, clothes pin, rubber band, egg carton, shipping container; together with the thirty other useful and familiar objects contained in this exhibition. It’s only when something as mundane as a paper clip is put in a display cabinet in a museum that you appreciate it’s value and beauty.

“They’re the sort of products that every designer dreams of making — very simple, very ingenious items that we use on a daily basis,” said Jochen Eisenbrand, who curated the exhibition. “They’ve continued to exist for decades without changing very much, because they haven’t needed to.”

Some of the objects in the show were devised by amateur inventors like the hapless Mr. Henshall. One is the glass preserving jar, a forerunner of the tin can, which was dreamed up in 1809 by a Paris chef, Nicolas Appert, as the winning entry of a competition launched by Napoleon Bonaparte to improve the French Army’s food. Another is the clothes hanger, which dates back to 1903 when Albert J. Parkhouse arrived for work at a lampshade frame factory in Jackson, Michigan, only to find that all of the coat hooks were taken. He made something to hang his coat on by bending a piece of wire into an elongated triangle and twisting the ends into a hook.

Other “Hidden Heroes” stemmed from sudden flashes of inspiration. The German pharmacist Maximilian Negwer hit upon his 1907 idea of cushioning wax ear plugs with cotton wool when reading Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Untangling burrs from his dog’s fur after an Alpine hunting trip prompted the Swiss engineer George de Mestral to develop Velcro fabric fastener in the 1940s and 1950s.

Air bubble film, or bubble wrap, was conceived in the 1950s after a Swiss inventor, Marc Chavannes, noticed how the clouds seemed to cushion an airplane as it descended, and realized that a similar effect could be achieved in packaging by sealing air inside plastic film. An American scientist, Art Fry, dreamed up the Post-it note in the late 1970s when singing in a church choir. He couldn’t find the right page in his hymn book because the paper bookmark kept slipping out.

The modesty of the “Hidden Heroes” is particularly appealing at a time when we’ve become bored by the brashness of what’s been called “Design-with-a-capital-D.” (Remember the lamp mounted on an 18-karat-gold-plated Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle by the French designer, Philippe Starck? That was the peak/nadir of “Design.”) Designers, the thoughtful ones, at least, are increasingly absorbed by the ontology of objects, or the abstract qualities that define them, rather than aesthetics.

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Nothing to do with the Papal visit: I just came across this article about how attendance at Christian services in Britain has not been declining over the last five years or so, and in one or two areas has actually been increasing.

The ‘not declining’ tag might seem rather negative and un-newsworthy, but it is quite a powerful news story when you set it against the common journalistic assumption that Christianity is on the back foot and is unlikely to exist as a significant part of British life a generation from now.

Benita Hewitt from Christian Research gives some of the figures here:

It’s time to believe that the church in this country is no longer in decline. The latest statistics coming from various denominations are clearly showing stability in church attendance and even signs of growth. This news may come as a surprise to many people who believe that the church is a dying institution.

But the news is no surprise to us at Christian Research. We’ve been watching the church adapt and change over recent years, and have been collecting statistics for some time which suggest that the church in this country is in reasonably good health. There is now enough combined evidence to state confidently that the decline is over.

The long term decline in weekly Mass attendance in the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales ended in 2005 and the figures have been broadly stable since. In 2008 there were 918,844 attending Mass, an increase from 915,556 the year before.

The Church of England has seen fairly steady attendance over the last ten years, with 1.67m attending services each month in 2008, compared with 1.71m in 2001. An important point to note is that the statistics over the past decade include all worship during the week, and not just Sunday morning services. One of the most significant changes we have been monitoring in the church is the growth in mid-week worship, which is an indication of how the church has been adapting and changing over recent years.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain has seen attendance rise from 148,835 a week in 2002 to 153,714 in 2008, with particular growth in the contact with young people aged 13 to 18 – up from 34,095 in 2002 to 41,392 in 2008.

In July of this year Christian Research conducted 1000 interviews in the streets of 44 locations in England and Wales with a representative sample of the population. 63% think of themselves as Christian, 14% said they attended church at least once a month and 29% at least once a year. Those are significant proportions of the population. The research also shows that 41% of adults agree “The Bible is an influence for good in society”. Just last week there was also research published which showed that two in three adults agree “British Society should retain its Christian culture”.

All of this paints a picture of the church as living movement rather than a dying institution. And it is a living movement which is generally recognised as a good influence in society, one which many people do not wish to see decline and die. It is time to stop talking about the decline of church and start facing up to the fact that it is here to stay.

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Every now and then you experience something completely new, a window into another world that you hadn’t anticipated, but one that may well become ordinary in a year or two. I’ve just been watching The Wilderness Downtown, an interactive and personalised ‘video’ that takes you back to the place you were born.

thewildernessdowntown.com

You type in your address or postcode and it weaves together music, film, animation and graphics with video images of your childhood home. It’s fantastic. (You need Google Chrome as a browser – it won’t work with Internet Explorer. Chrome is pretty good – I’ve been using it for a few months on my laptop; and it’s very easy to download.)

Still from Arcade Fire's viral video The Wilderness Downtown

Jemima Kiss explains:

It keeps crashing on me, but I’ve had enough of a blast to be inspired – it’s the heavenly Arcade Fire video built in collaboration with Google and director Chris Milk.

The Wilderness Downtown combines Arcade Fire’s We Used To Wait with some beautiful animation and footage – courtesy of Street View – of your childhood home – made all the more poignant for me because it was bulldozed a few years ago.

Thomas Gayno from Google’s Creative Labs described it on the Chrome Blog: “It features a mash-up of Google Maps and Google Street View withHTML5 canvas, HTML5 audio and video, an interactive drawing tool, and choreographed windows that dance around the screen. These modern web technologies have helped us craft an experience that is personalised and unique for each viewer, as you virtually run through the streets where you grew up.”

The Chrome Experiments blog explains each technique, including the flock of birds that respond to the music and mouse movements, created with the HTML5 Canvas 3D engine, film clips played in windows at custom sizes, thanks to HTML5, and various colour correction, drawing and animation techniques.

I’ve watched thousands of videos thanks to the curse of the viral video chart and nothing has come close to this for originality, imagination and for that inspired piece of personalised storytelling.

There’s plenty more inspiration on the Chrome Experiments blog; Bomomo is pretty slick, and Canopy is hypnotic.

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Sometimes, especially when I am tired, I can become paralysed in front of the Pret a Manger sandwich displays; utterly incapable of deciding whether my life will be marginally more fulfilled by eating a healthy-looking falafel and humous on seeded-bread or a dolphin-friendly tuna and cucumber baguette or a good old-fashioned cheese and pickle – and that’s without getting even more confused by the sushi and the soup; and the only thing that snaps me out of it is not hunger or the need to get anywhere soon, but the sudden realisation that I have been standing like an Antony Gormley sculpture for what seems like six hours in a public space where it is socially unacceptable to pause for longer than six seconds – a mixture of self-consciousness, shame at this psychological dysfunction, and fear that the police or medics or anti-terrorist squad will be arriving at any moment to carry me away.



In these very limited circumstances (Pret a manger, tiredness, etc. –  now I am feeling defensive and trying to backtrack…) I am what they call an indecider. A recent report from the University of Bristol called ‘Confused Nation’, cleverly sponsored by Confused.com, reveals that many of us feel more confused than we did ten years ago, and 42% of the UK population lie awake at night trying to make decisions.

The report also shows that nearly half of all Brits (47%) confessed even little decisions can be hard to make, largely caused by an overwhelming amount of choices hindering the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently.

The extensive research has also identified a term for this state, dubbed the ‘Indeciders’ – collectively described as “a group of individuals suffering high levels of confusion whilst displaying an inability to be decisive, leading in some cases to depression.”

Professor Harriet Bradley from the University of Bristol comments: “With a constant stream of new media, daily technological advancements and aggressive multimedia advertising, it’s no wonder that over half of Britain thinks life is more confusing for them than it is for their parents. We really are becoming a nation of ‘indeciders’.

It is not only the ‘big’ areas of life that are causing confusion. Although politics is the area people find most confusing, with 65% of the UK reporting confusion over the policies of major political parties, the survey also found 69% of the country failed to understand bankers’ bonuses and interest rates. What to wear at certain occasions, predictive text and flat pack furniture were also identified as key areas of confusion.

The report also revealed:

Women are more prone to confusion than men, with 84% admitting to experiencing confusion, compared with 72% of men;

Those from Northern Ireland are the least confused in the UK, compared with Wales, which is the most confused region;

The most confused person in Britain is likely to be a 17 year old girl living in Cardiff, whereas the least confused person is likely to be a 60 year old man living in Edinburgh.

Let’s hope they don’t have any Pret a Manger outlets in Cardiff.

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They are tracking you – if you are a toddler being cared for at a certain Parisian crèche. This centre is planning to monitor the movements of the children placed in its care by placing a tracking chip inside their clothing. It’s the first time this technology has been used in Europe.

What’s your gut reaction to hearing this? Horror? Indifference? Relief? Is it any different from tying a rope round your toddler’s wrist? Is it any more intrusive than the tracking that’s already taking place through your Oyster card or your mobile phone? If you could surgically implant a tiny tracking chip into your child for just a few pounds – would you do it?

Lizzy Davies interviews some of those involved, and gets some reactions:

“The experiment … aims to prove the effectiveness of the system from the perspective of child safety,” said Patrick Givanovitch of Lyberta, a Toulouse-based technology company. “Thanks to the chip carried by each child, it will be possible to know immediately if one of them has left the crèche. The management of the crèche, and the parents, will be alerted straight away by text messages on their mobile phones.”

The plan by the crèche, which is privately run, has provoked criticism from the French childcare industry, with experts warning the measure is both pointless and potentially damaging.

“Shutting children inside a virtual cage will create feelings of futile suspicion and anxiety because of a non-existent danger,” Dominique Ratia-Armengol, chairman of the association of young children’s psychologists, told Le Parisien. She said the introduction of the chips could also loosen ties between the children and the adults “trained to educate and build a relationship of trust with them.”

Some critics say it is more about cost-cutting than child-safety; others that it’s simply unnecessary – given the fact that the closed environments of these childcare centres are nearly always safe and secure.

The most extreme critics accused the Lyberta scheme of starting France on the slippery slope towards a generalised surveillance society. “Chips in crèches take us a step closer to this hellish world where Big Brother reigns,” commented a blogger by the name of Victorayoli on the Mediapart website.

Givanovitch, however, dismisses these accusations as wholly disproportionate. “In this way, we know the child is inside the school or we also know he could be outside the school. It stops there,” he told French radio, referring to the use of chips on older children. “We do not track, we do not follow, we do not pinpoint children. We are just there to say, ‘he is in a safe area or he is not in a safe area’.”

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After spending the whole of yesterday at Westminster, seeing the Popemobile drive past the excited crowds, and later on managing to see him emerge from Westminster Abbey, it’s hard not to blog about the Papal Visit.

The speeches of the last two days have been really powerful. (You can read them all here.) All the headlines have been about how the Pope has been attacking the ‘aggressive secularism’ that is sweeping through Britain. But this misses the main point, which is how Pope Benedict’s first thought has been to praise British history and British values. It’s not flattery; it’s genuine, heartfelt appreciation – for the values and the people who (amongst many other great achievements) created modern democracy, ended the slave trade, and fought valiantly against the Nazis. Britain has emerged as:

a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.

Then come the questions: How are you going to hold onto these values? What has been their foundation in the past? What will serve to secure and sustain these noble values for the future? How will you do this without some sense of an objective moral order, a transcendent meaning, a loving creator, and an ultimate purpose? The hard questions that he does ask, the challenges to ‘aggressive secularism’, only arise because he actually cares for this British culture and worries that it is in danger of undoing itself.

Here are some of my favourite passages from today. The first, about sanctity and the search for happiness, from his address to children this morning at the ‘Big Assembly':

I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.

Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before. Perhaps some of you think being a saint is not for you. Let me explain what I mean. When we are young, we can usually think of people that we look up to, people we admire, people we want to be like. It could be someone we meet in our daily lives that we hold in great esteem. Or it could be someone famous. We live in a celebrity culture, and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment. My question for you is this: what are the qualities you see in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What kind of person would you really like to be?

When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.

Not only does God love us with a depth and an intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he invites us to respond to that love. You all know what it is like when you meet someone interesting and attractive, and you want to be that person’s friend. You always hope they will find you interesting and attractive, and want to be your friend. God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.

The second passages are from his speech at Westminster Hall:

Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.

As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

And finally, for a bit of fun, for those of you have made it to the bottom of the post, here is me inspecting the Popemobile for CNN.

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Pope Benedict arrives today. There will be thousands of stories and reports in the press; and the BBC, ITV and Sky – to their credit – have given a huge commitment of airtime to the visit.

It’s worth looking at the official site, where there is also a live webcast of every event in case you can’t find anything on the TV.

Here are few paragraphs to set the scene, politically and historically. First, Eamon Duffy:

The Pope will speak in Westminster Hall from the spot on which St Thomas More was condemned to death for his refusal to renounce the papacy and recognise Henry VIII as head of a purely English national church. The resonances of that heroic defiance are overwhelming, as is the mere fact of the Pope’s presence at the symbolic heart of a nation whose identity for centuries focussed itself round the vigorous repudiation of papal authority. The invitation to speak in Westminster Hall suggests that, five centuries after the Reformation, the Pope is perceived as having something worth hearing to say about the values that shape and bind British civil society.

But many within that society, including many Catholics, are conscious that Benedict’s church has been compromised in the eyes of many by its recent history. Neither Church nor Pope can address society now from some imagined moral high ground. The Pope will need to recognise that fact, both in what he says and how he says it.

On his last day in Britain, Pope Benedict will beatify the great Victorian Catholic writer and thinker, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Like the Pope, Newman believed that the society of his day was cutting itself adrift from the religious values which had given the nation its distinctive moral and religious character. But he also believed that mere denunciation did no good. If Christian values were to survive, they had to commend themselves by their intrinsic attraction, “not by refutation so much as by an antagonist truth”. The young Ratzinger was deeply influenced by the writings of this very English saint: as Pope he could do worse than follow his master’s advice, and make the positive presentation of that “antagonist truth” the keynote of his visit.

And these words from Charles Moore:

I do not know exactly why first Tony Blair, and then Gordon Brown, encouraged the Pope to come here, or why David Cameron, sorting out the ragged fin de regime handling of the visit by the last government, is supporting it so whole-heartedly. I do not know the precise motivations of the Queen in being so warm about this visit and in breaking convention so that, for the first time in her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh himself, rather than a lower representative, will greet the state visitor at the airport. But it might have something to do with a sane recognition that this country should be able to welcome the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a proud island, but we are also part of a wider European civilisation. It is worth having a public conversation about the state of that civilisation with someone who has devoted his life to advancing it.

In short, before answering the Thatcher question, “What does one say to a Pope?”, how about waiting to hear what the Pope will say to us?

Although I am a Catholic by conversion, it was never the papal aspect of things that attracted me. I feel quite Protestant about Pope-mania. But, even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger struck me as a man who was thinking deeply about the cultural problem of modern times. He welcomed the growth of freedom, but he noticed a danger that tended to go with it – a rejection of the very idea of truth. He counselled against the “deadly boredom” of relativism and egotism. His ideal was a man – and he noted such men particularly in England, singling out both More and Newman – “who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognised… is above approval and acceptance.” Benedict thinks constantly about what we now call “the big society” and how it can achieve the common good. “Without truth,” he says in one of his encyclicals, “charity degenerates into sentimentality.” His idea of truth is not hidden: he wants to reason with modern society about it.

It was Newman who famously encapsulated his loyalty both to his faith and to conscience: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first and the Pope afterwards.” Next week, the Pope, as is the custom, will not be attending the state banquet given in his honour. But if he did, he would happily drink that toast. So should this nation.

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Following on from the last post, here is the section of the interview I gave recently that dealt with questions of faith and religion in a city as multi-cultural as London.

LLO: As a catholic priest and philosopher, how important would you say religion is in people’s lives in London today compared to when you started out in your career?
SW:
There are various crosscurrents: some people are much more secular, hardened in their secularism, and dismissive of religion. Yet many more people seem interested in religion who are not believers — as if they are more open to spiritual and transcendent questions, more open to the idea of spirituality and prayer. And religion is a bigger cultural and political reality than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Plus the new immigrants tend to be people of faith (indeed anyone coming to London from outside Western Europe tends to be a person of faith!)

LLO: You recently contributed to a BBC Online article about celibacy, sharing your own experiences. The post on your blog includes tags “happiness” and “loneliness”. Is this commitment one you ever regret or are you content in your decision?
SW:
I don’t regret the decision I have made at all. The whole life of being a priest, including celibacy, has brought me enormous happiness. And the celibacy itself has given me a real freedom, a freedom of heart – to be present with other people in all sorts of wonderful ways; and to pray in a way that would be difficult if I had the responsibilities of family life. I couldn’t live this way without the love of friends and extended family and the communities I have lived in over this time.

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us should know about.
SW:
One secular and unknown: The Clockmakers’ Museum at Guildhall, a single room containing the whole history of clocks and watches, including John Harrison’s 5th marine timekeeper made famous by the book Longitude. One religious and very well known, but I’m still amazed by how many Londoners have never been in it: Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey), an oasis of calm and devotion near Victoria Station, full of amazing art and architecture.

LLO: With Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others living side by side in London, what sort of atmosphere is created when people of every religion mingle in this melting pot city?
SW:
The whole world is here in London, and probably every language and religion. It’s good that we can live side by side, and in peace. Perhaps people don’t talk enough: We occupy the same social space, but often stay within our own mental worlds – unless there is something like a school or sports club or whatever to bring people together. London Citizens is a wonderful grassroots example of people of all faiths and none coming together for justice issues and forming real bonds through that common work. When I get back from Lourdes I want to start talking to strangers in London, but very soon I realize I am becoming one of those crazy people that Londoners fear…

LLO: What do you say to people who are suspicious of religion as being manipulative or deceptive?
SW:
It’s true that religion can sometimes be manipulative and deceptive – we have to admit that and watch out for it very carefully. And as a Catholic priest I wouldn’t push the abstract idea of ‘religion’ for its own sake. But religions can also be sources of spirituality, community, liberation and healing for many people. That’s something to be open to and not afraid of.

LLO: What’s your favourite part about living in your postcode?
SW:
Being near the river; living close to three cinemas; the number 19 bus.

[The clock pictured above is not from the Clockmakers' Museum, but (I think) from the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. This is the tag that comes with the photo: "Peter Clare, a local clockmaker, made this clock for Manchester Corporation. From 1848, this was the official clock for Manchester, showing the current time as measured at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. At first, astronomy was used to regulate the clock to Greenwich Time. After 1852, the Royal Observatory transmitted the time hourly by telegraph. The clock stood in the Town Hall on King Street where people could use it to set the time on their own watches and clocks. Greenwich Mean Time was not adopted as the national standard time until 1880. The clock was moved to the City Art Gallery in 1912. It was moved here in 1998 when the Art Gallery closed for major building work."]

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Stephanie Sadler runs a lovely blog called Little London Observationist. Her tag-line is a quote from Robert Brault: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

She has a series of posts called ‘Listen to a Londoner’, and I was honoured to be the subject of her interview yesterday. Some readers might be interested, although I mustn’t assume everyone is as London-centric as I am. It’s too long to paste in one go. The first half of the interview was about general London living – so let me copy it here. And then I’ll put up the reflections on religion which came at the end.

LLO: As a born and raised Londoner, what are the most noticeable ways the city has evolved in your lifetime?
SW:
 It’s bigger and busier. I remember a study recently about how our walking speed has increased (they secretly time you crossing bridges etc). It’s more culturally and ethnically diverse. Immigration has enriched London immensely. Random landmarks that didn’t exist when I was born in 1966: the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Oyster Cards, sculptures on the fourth plinth, Boris Bikes, Tate Modern, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. Tragic losses: the Routemaster bus.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background and your blog, Bridges and Tangents.
SW:
 I was born in University College Hospital just off Tottenham Court Road, when my parents were living in Chiswick. I grew up in Harpenden, near St Albans. I’m a Catholic priest and I work in the seminary in Chelsea, where we prepare men for the priesthood. I never imagined I’d start a blog. It happened quite quickly. I was thinking of writing a book, and a friend pointed out that if I really wanted to communicate and share ideas, then a blog would be more immediate and reach far more people. The penny dropped.

LLO: Freedom is your most used tag on your blog. In a recent post, you wrote “Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.” Are there other London moments that give you a perfect sense of freedom?
SW:
The fact that London is a city for walking around gives me the greatest sense of freedom. Other random moments of exhilaration, freedom and space include: sitting at the front on the top deck of a double-decker bus; looking at the cityscape from the middle of any of London’s beautiful bridges; jaywalking with abandon — in the knowledge that this would be illegal in some countries; walking through the parks; and along the river at South Bank.

LLO: Can you recommend a few places in London to go for a sense of spirituality without stepping foot in a church/temple/mosque, etc?
SW:
 Whenever the next Kieslowski retrospective runs at the British Film Institute; standing over the Greenwich Prime Meridian line, knowing that you are at the still point of the cartographic world; walking round the Serpentine; the Jubilee Line station at Canary Wharf.

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I’ve just come across George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are not really his – he took them from a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595, which were then translated into English the following century.

I know, it's the bridge and not the president, but I was searching for 'George Washington', and this is so beautiful...

I wouldn’t follow them all, but there are some beautiful admonitions, and some lovely Capitalisation:

1. Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

22. Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

49. Use no Reproachful Language against any one; neither Curse nor Revile.

50. Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.

65. Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest; Scoff at none although they give Occasion.

79. Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof…

89. Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.

Reminds me of one of my favourite scripture quotations:

Do not use harmful words in talking. Use only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. And do not make God’s Holy Spirit sad; for the Spirit is God’s mark of ownership on you, a guarantee that the Day will come when God will set you free. Get rid of all bitterness, passion, and anger. No more shouting or insults. No more hateful feelings of any sort. Instead, be kind and tenderhearted to one another, and forgive one another, as God has forgiven you in Christ. (Eph 4:29-32)

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Alcohol consumption has fallen again – the figures for 2009 are just out. It’s part of a long term trend: we Brits consume 13% less than we did in 2004.

This prompts Mary Kenny to reflect on her own unhappy experiences with drink (now twenty years in the past), and to wonder why anti-drinking campaigns prefer to stress the dangers of alcohol rather than the joys of sobriety.

Many of the campaigns against alcohol focus on the damage that it can do – that it harms your liver, can be a factor in throat and bladder cancers, and wrecks your personal and professional life. All this is true, but it’s emphasising the negative: what about stressing the joy of sobriety?

I once thought that life couldn’t be fully experienced without alcohol: but the truth is the opposite – life can be more fully experienced without alcohol. Drunkenness deadens experience: it renders delight oblivious and pleasure dull. Although I get anguished flashbacks from my drinking years, I have also forgotten huge tranches of my life. Regrets are pointless, but it is sad that I lost so much of the prime of my life in that haze of alcoholic amnesia.

And then, sobriety turned out to be the true champagne – bringing everything into focus in clear colour and full recall. One of the strangest things that happened to me after I started getting sober was that I had this intense sensation of colour all around me. The colours of life became so heightened.

We seem to be so nagged at and scolded about so many health and safety issues that I am not sure if gloomy warnings about the health dangers of alcohol are all that effective. Two things clearly help: increase the price of dirt-cheap supermarket alcohol, and emphasise the pleasures of sobriety.

Justin Webb wrote recently about an experience he had in America – which appalled him – when he went to a smart Washington party, only to find that the “punch” being served was cherryade. I thought, “Bravo for the hosts”. American culture, for all its faults, does not have this general idea that you have to be plastered to have fun. Honestly – you can have a great time on cherryade. Well, preferably, elderflower spritzer.

Searching for a birthday card, recently, for a young relation who was turning 21, I was hard put to find any greetings card aimed at young men which didn’t emphasise the glory of getting pissed. But getting pissed isn’t glorious: it’s shaming. It is life, fully savoured, fully aware, that is the glorious intoxicant.

There is a more general question here. Why is it that we often want to scare people away from what is harmful rather than attracting them to what is good?

PS – I’m not against alcohol! In moderation…

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I’ve finally been to see the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library. (Note: British Library not British Museum). It runs until 19th September, so there are still a few days for you to catch it. And it’s free.

They are absolutely beautiful objects, beautiful works of art in themselves. What came across to me very strongly was a philosophical idea that I pondered a lot when I was writing my Aquinas and Sartre book: As human beings, we don’t just see the world, we see our own seeing, and then we are able to look back at the world and compare this new mental/physical representation with what stands before us.

This feedback process doesn’t just affect the representation itself (which is obvious), it also affects the way we see this ‘objective’ reality we are facing. There is no such thing, in other words, as a neutral vision of what the world is like. It is always affected by our thoughts, our preconceptions, our culture – and in this case by our maps. It doesn’t mean there is no such thing as truth or objectivity. It means that we will only ever reach that truth through the medium of our own understanding and language.

Every map in this exhibition was created for a purpose – that’s what comes across so clearly. It shows your power (the boundaries of your land are clearly marked), your patriotism (other countries are seen in relation to your own), your military intention (you want to see what the hedges and ditches really look like, so you will recognise them on the battlefield), your faith (Jerusalem is placed at the very centre of the world in many of the medieval maps).

I took particular personal delight in examining a map of Rome by Leonardo Bufalini, a woodcut from 1551. It’s the first large-scale map of the city to have been been created since 200AD. Peering around the bottom half of the map, almost mid-way between the Vatican and Circus Maximus, just above the ‘VIA IVLIA’, I found the plan of a building marked ‘S. TOMAS’, which is the seminary where I trained to be a priest from 1992-97 – the Venerable English College. Fantastic to think that all those centuries ago this particular building, one of thousands in Rome, was caught in the gaze of Bufalini, and sits there now in the British Library. But this was just a few years before it became a seminary for English priests.

Here are some thoughts by Rachel Campbell Johnston about the exhibition:

The art of map-making is an ancient one. It’s hardly surprising: over the centuries, as cartographers crept their slow way across the surface of the planet, the pictures that they created helped people to fit the myriad scattered fragments of a sprawling geographical puzzle into place. But, as the face of the world has grown ever more familiar, have we come to think of the map merely as a literal translation? Accurate, objective and useful it may be but where, many may wonder as they anticipate the British Library’s latest exhibition, is the creative flare that can turn a dry topographical record into a fertile territory for imaginative exploration?

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is a show to overturn such expectations. It leads the visitor — a bit like some erstwhile explorer — on a creative adventure around the back of that flat piece of paper we think of as the world. Drawing on the finest collection of maps on this planet — the British Library has more than four million to choose from, the vast majority of which are only very rarely, if ever, put on public display — the exhibition sets out to make clear that these pictures are about far more than mere physical description. They are a series of subjective images, each shaped by the beliefs and desires, the ambitions and prejudices, the passions and anxieties of its period.

The spectator looks at the world from myriad perspectives. “Which is more important — the Last Judgment or the correct placement of Birmingham?” asks the curator Peter Barber who, even in the 30 years that he has worked at the library, has probably managed to examine barely a third of its collection. What tells you more about a country: a picture of a dog-headed cannibal or a description of its coastline? The visitor is invited to wander through a world before it was charted, into lands where the unknown is as vivid as the observable fact. [...]

Their artistry serves a purpose. Far from objective, scientifically created records, these images have an imaginative agenda. Together they tell a story of power, plunder and possession. They are made to keep watch over spreading dominions, to assert forceful ownership or project a sense of civic pride. Maps — from the medieval visions of a king as a godlike power to the blatant posters of the Bolsheviks — serve as propaganda. The more ornate, the more striking, the more pleasing they look, the more persuasive and easily swallowed their message becomes.

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We’ve gone from the 24 hour news cycle to the 24 second news cycle. Which means that as soon as you do something amusing, clever, original, annoying, embarrassing, or just plain stupid, then everyone knows about it.

 

Businesses know this, which is why they try to infiltrate the social media and generate good noise for their products. It’s also why clever businesses have their people scanning the same media to see when a bad story is spreading and to respond to it as soon as possible.

Stephanie Marcus has a very helpful analysis of how three companies reacted to viral negativity in the social media. One mistake is all it takes for the crowd to turn against you. The important question is how quickly and how well you react.

When director Kevin Smith was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for being too large for a single seat, he tweeted his indignation. He happened to have 1.6 million followers on Twitter, which was not good for Southwest.

What amazed me, however, is that Southwest responded with their own tweet offering an apology only 16 minutes later. They noticed it, realised its significance, had some kind of crisis management meeting, made a decision to act, wrote the apology, and tweeted it – all within 16 minutes. Fantastic! They still got a lot of flack, but many people proved to be sympathetic because they had reacted quickly, honestly, and generously:

@ThatKevinSmith hey Kevin! I’m so sorry for your experience tonight! Hopefully we can make things right, please follow so we may DM!

Marcus analyses the Pretzel Crisp/anorexia controversy. And here is a straightforward but very instructive example of how one company responded to customer complaints:

This past July, LOFT, a brand owned by Ann Taylor Inc., posted photos on its Facebook page of a tall, blonde model wearing LOFT’s new silk cargo pants, with a click-to-buy link in the captions.

What happened next is a perfect example of how social media can suddenly turn on you, even when you’ve done nothing “wrong,” or seemingly out of the ordinary. Fans of the brand complained that while the pants looked good on the model, they weren’t so flattering on anyone who wasn’t 5’10 and stick thin.

Fans requested that LOFT prove their pants could look good on “real women.” And they did. The following day, the company posted photos to Facebook again, this time with their own staff posing in the pants. The “real women” came from different company departments and ranged from a size 2 to size 12, and in height from 5’3″ to 5’10”.

This is a perfect example of how to turn a possible threat via social media into an opportunity. Ann Taylor had the good sense to stop the attack before it escalated. Here customers had a direct and valid complaint about a product and how it was featured. The company did the best thing possible, they stayed calm and listened to the comments. They took the comments into consideration and came up with a constructive resolution.

By responding to Fan requests to post photos of women of different sizes wearing the pants, the company proved that they really do listen and care about their customer concerns, and they were able to back up the product. It’s a double win for Ann Taylor as they actually gained customer support, while avoiding a potential disaster.

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St Hilda of Whitby, Abbess

I’ve just written a piece about women and the priesthood, in response to this week’s bus campaign promoting women’s ordination. It was posted on Independent Catholic News, and then used as the basis for an article on CNN’s Belief Blog, which has so far received a staggering 1087 comments! Not all of them very edifying…

Anyway, the copyright is mine, so I can paste the original article here for anyone who is interested:

Last year the religious slogans on London’s buses were hesitant, and ended with gentle exhortations: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Now they end with a shout: “Pope Benedict – Ordain Women Now!”

The latest posters, timed to coincide with the Papal visit, are funded by the campaigning group Catholic Women’s Ordination. It’s unlikely that Pope Benedict will be using his Oystercard, but the hope must be that if his Popemobile gets stuck in traffic, one of these buses will glide by and catch his attention.

The Catholic insistence that only men can be ordained as priests is incomprehensible to many people, and the cause of much personal anger and ecumenical heartache. Pope John Paul II seemed to close the door to any revision when he wrote in 1994 that this teaching “is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”.

He took a surprising approach. He didn’t stamp his feet and shout: I won’t! Instead he said: I simply can’t. I don’t have the authority to change something that has been such a fundamental part of Christian identity from the very beginning. The argument is not about holding onto the past for its own sake, but trying to be faithful to what Jesus wanted for his Church.

In the New Testament, Jesus chose twelve men to represent him as his first priests, as the Twelve Apostles. Every generation of Catholics (and Orthodox) since then has understood this to have been a choice that was deliberate and significant, not just for that first period of history, but for every age.

Some argue that Jesus couldn’t have done otherwise in the Jewish society of his time. This doesn’t stand up, as he was quite willing to involve women in other aspects of his mission and ministry, in ways that would have seemed revolutionary.

Others say that women’s ordination, even if Jesus had wanted it, simply wasn’t conceivable in the pre-feminist religious cultures of the last 2000 years. But this ignores the staggering diversity of cultures in which Christianity has been embedded.

Even in societies that have been broadly matriarchal (with rich Roman matrons running the early Christian house churches, or powerful medieval abbesses ruling ‘double’ monasteries of men and women); even when women ‘priestesses’ were an established part of the surrounding religious milieu – Christians still took for granted the idea of the male priesthood.

This is why Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict, are saying that this is much more than a time-bound cultural norm that needs updating. It’s something deeper that touches on the very meaning of priesthood.

This teaching is not at all a judgment on women’s abilities or dignity or rights. It says something about the specific role of the priest in Catholic understanding – which is to represent Jesus, to stand in his place. The Church is saying something quite radical. On the one hand, there is a fundamental equality between all human beings, between men and women. On the other hand, this does not mean that our sexual identity as men and women is interchangeable. Gender is not just an accident.

People sense this. If I announced that I was making a film about Jesus or King Arthur or Wayne Rooney, no-one would be surprised if I said I wanted a male actor to play the lead. It’s a weak analogy, but it shows how the notion of ‘representation’ can only be stretched so far. A woman, as much as a man, can reflect the love of Jesus, and help others to know his presence through her faith and witness. But it shouldn’t surprise us if we expect a man to stand ‘in the person of Christ’ as a priest, to represent Jesus in his humanity – a humanity that is not sexually neutral.

Where does this leave women in the Catholic Church? In the same position as the majority of men (that is, all those who are not priests). It leaves them to live their faith passionately in the service of others, to use their many gifts to the full, and to realise that ordination is not the measure of an individual’s worth in the Church.

The young Catholic women I know, especially those with a strong sense of vocation in the Church, are channelling their energies into all sorts of creative projects and life choices. Some of these choices are very humble and hidden; others involve more public responsibilities – in politics, education, social work, Christian mission, the media, etc. Most are working ‘in the world’, but some have very significant roles within the Church itself.

These young women seem less interested in internal debates about ordination, and more concerned with rolling their sleeves up and putting their faith into practice. They are Christian feminists, whether they like the title or not. But it is a feminism that is untroubled by this Catholic understanding of the male priesthood.

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