Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Divine grace, Brideshead Revisited, Stephen Fry and Berlusconi’s cathedral-borne injuries…

I was unexplainably apprehensive about reading Brideshead Revisited, the classic novel by Evelyn Waugh. Although the TV adaptation was a firm family favourite, albeit one I had never watched, delving into the weighty hard-back gathering dust on the bookshelf seemed an unappealing prospect. In fact, my misgivings seemed justified when I read Waugh’s description of its theme: “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”.

However, from the opening sentence my reservations dissolved and I became absorbed in the meandering tale of the protagonist, Charles Ryder. Throughout, I felt as if Charles himself was softly relating his tale to me over a cup of tea. I was gradually immersed into his ambling account of idle college lunches, hedonistic weekend jaunts and carefree merriments.

As well as being an indulgent foray into a world tinged with luxury bordering on gluttony, it also delves into the murky swathes of Catholicism and atheism. Despite obediently reciting my Hail Mary’s at a Catholic school for five years, I had never thought much about the hazy debates surrounding Catholicism until I became engrossed in this book - each character’s actions are defined by their attitude to religion.

One evening, midway through my Brideshead adventures, I was surprised to find myself hooked on a televised debate about Catholicism, where the mighty Stephen Fry, paired with razor-sharp journalist Christopher Hitchens, argued a motion that the Catholic Church was not a force for good in the world.

The bumbling ramblings of Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, and conservative MP Ann Widdecombe were no match for articulate Fry and bulldog debater Hitchens, and the duo mercilessly lambasted the church. Fry’s final punch, which centred on the notion that celibacy is fundamentally unnatural and leads to a distorted perception of one of the body’s most instinctive instincts, reverberated with the conclusion that the Catholic Church is paradoxically obsessed with sex.

Following this verbal onslaught I read Brideshead with sharpened interest, closely following each character’s inner turmoil and their sensitivity to religion. Some surrendered to devout, unquestioning piety whereas others were ensnared in a paradoxical moral debate, trying to rebel from stifling moral expectation but remaining tied by embedded Catholic loyalties.

Post-Brideshead I have taken more interest in the debates swirling around Catholicism that feature in the media, which have most recently been awakened by the peace-threatening passions of staunch Catholic MP Iris Robertson for a 19-year-old. Other occasions when the church has appeared in the unflattering light of the media, aside from tragic cases of child abuse, range from the bizarre (Berlusconi’s unfortunate encounter with a model cathedral) to the demoralising (the attack on the pope on Christmas day).

Overall, glimpses of Catholicism in a positive light seem far and few between - whether that is the flaw of a pessimistic press or a reflection of the church is anyone’s guess. Either way, such a sparse smattering of praise for such a powerful religion is not particularly encouraging.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Suite 101

When I started this blog, I pledged to avoid didactic preaching, fact-filled essays and ranting diatribes, and to stick to a more light-hearted tone. However, in an ambitious bid to improve my writing, I recently applied to write for Canadian website Suite 101. The site requires a fairly demanding ten articles every three months, and I am slightly unsure so far as to whether my commitment to them is over-optimistic. However, I have at least managed to get my first article published: 'The Case for Green Change'. I admit the title is less than inspiring (I was under strict “use key words for clicks” instructions) but please click away if you’re interested - hopefully you will find the article a bit more colourful than the title!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Tramp-Stamp on a Muffin-Top

“Tramp-stamp on a muffin-top on a chav”: the expression supposedly emblematic of the decade. The phrase, used to refer to tattoos on the lower back, has a certain ring to it - particularly coming from the well-spoken lips of Andrew Marr. Marr was speaking on BBC1’s ‘History of the Noughties’, an engaging, though slightly premature, analysis of 21st century society.

The programme is hardly uplifting: charting the rise of ‘chavocracy’ and ‘celebrity-itus’ it creates a denigrating picture of modern society: a world where award-winning actors share the limelight with shameless, self-promoters, Cowell-manufactured singers monopolise the charts and the Prime Minister spends his time making official comments on Britain’s Got Talent and Big Brother.

Unfortunately it seems to be a fairly accurate portrait. When musing over the opinion that the society of the noughties had recklessly and extravagantly spent itself into oblivion, I happened to overhear an ambitious teen pronouncing: “when I get married I’m going to tell my husband to buy me two Ranger Rovers: one black and one white - to match my outfit.”

While on the subject of blind extravagance, it seems fitting to mention Dubai’s colossal, man-made, floating, palm-leaf island, featured on the programme as a sun-spot gradually being colonised by the super-rich. The epitome of opulence, it features a restaurant accessible only by submarine and a water slide through a shark-filled lagoon.

Another symptom of the decade discussed was globalisation: from the meteoric rise of low-cost airlines exporting drunk Brits to an unsuspecting Riga, to the relocation of call centre staff. One particularly funny scene shows staff at relocated call centres being made to analyse episodes of Eastenders, take elocution classes and study British weather reports in an optimistic attempt to fool British callers that the centres were based in Brixton and not Bangladesh.

Amidst all these trends the nub of the noughties seems to have been that, although many had a bloody good time, they were an era of “delusion and folly” - none too reassuring when this decade is meant to predicate where the 21st century is heading.

For me, such reflections have prompted the paradoxical conclusion that the recession can only be a good thing for humankind. By no means am I revelling in still having to work wage-free six months after graduating, but maybe a generous dollop of reality is just what everyone needs.