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Archive for September, 2010

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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