Thursday, 25 April 2013
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
Come on, you saints
Patrick West on why so many priests love the beautiful game
One of the great comic devices of the television comedy Father Ted was
having Ardal O'Hanlon's Fr Dougal wear a Republic of Ireland football shirt
in bed. Good comedy is often based on incongruity - a horse walks into a
bar: "why the long face?" - and whereas there's a common perception that
priests are responsible, kindly and serious types, football conversely
brings to mind stereotypes that are more aggressive or frivolous. To connect
things that belong in opposing mental categories is funny in both senses.
Putting priests and football together makes us smile. Hence the graffiti
legend: "Jesus Saves but Keegan scores on the rebound."
This was why much of the media thought it a wheeze to report that Pope
Francis is a card-carrying fan of the Argentinian football club San Lorenzo.
The Sun certainly did so with a gallery of photographs of him holding aloft
a replica shirt and club flag. That newspaper also had a striking headline
after Pope Francis's election: "The New Hand of God", a reference to
Maradona's fist, which put England out of the 1986 World Cup. And it's the
reason why one of the most celebrated Father Ted episodes is the one about a
When you think about it, football and faith is not really an unlikely
association. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Buenos Aires priest
named Lorenzo Massa, who was concerned about children playing football near
tram tracks, told the boys that they could instead play in the church's
backyard - as long as they went to Mass on Sundays. A football club was
eventually established in 1908, and although he initially refused the
honour, Lorenzo finally accepted the proposal to name it after him.
San Lorenzo team's nickname, "the Saints", is the same as Southampton FC's.
The English clubwas founded by members of the St Mary's Church of England
Young Men's Association a reminder of how sport and muscular Christianity
were intertwined in Britain. The Northampton Saints rugby union team was
established in 1880 by a vicar for this reason, and in Ireland the clergy
were at the forefront in the creation of the Gaelic Athletic Association. So
while it might appear odd to many atheists when American Football players
kneel to praise God, or southern European footballers cross themselves
before games (by my logic, asking God to make the other team lose), it's
only superficially irrational.
In 2009, a priest in Manchester who reads the scores after the Saturday
evening Mass was quoted saying he asked worshippers to pray for Manchester
United victories. But Fr Paddy McMahon, of St John's in Chorlton, hastened
to add: "...and Manchester City, but then they really need it! It's a bit of
fun." (His prayers came true: City won the league last season). You'd have
to be rather dim to take his exhortations literally, and Fr McMahon
explained that "talking about football at the end of Mass means people leave
with a smile on their faces". The spectacle of a group of people seen
leaving a church smiling: what a fantastic advert for the Church.
Indeed, some have used football deliberately this way. In 2006 Fr David Cain
of St Barnabas, Nottingham, established a "World Cup chapel" to coincide
with a poster recruitment campaign for the priesthood. Fr Cain was also
asked about partisanship and its potentially divisive nature. "Although,
understandably many people will be fiercely cheering on their own nation,"
he said, "sport generally, and football in particular, can provide a great
bridge in promoting harmony between nations despite differences that exist
in race, religion or politics."
Like religion, football teaches you life lessons. It instills discipline,
hard work, self-control and self-respect. It makes you value leadership and
the virtues of co-operation, and to realise that there are some situations
you can't change and some you can. This is why Christians of the 19th
century were so keen on football. It's true that money has ruined the game
in recent years, but that's because footballers have become spoilt. The
sport remains inherently a good thing.
These are some of the reasons why in 2007 the Vatican established its own
domestic competition, the Clericus Cup. It was the creation of Cardinal
Tarcisio Bertone, a fervent Juventus fan and a football commentator in a
country beset by corruption in politics and sport itself. It was devised
consciously as a way of setting a good example.
The relationship between football and the Church in Italy has always been a
close one. As an expert on Italy, Paddy Agnew puts it: "Ninety-six percent
of Italians are nominal Catholics, but the same 96 per cent are committed
football fans." Most children play their first game at church-run youth
clubs, and a lot of priests remain players. For them, the Clericus Cup can
serve as a reminder in humility. Players must do community service if they
are issued a yellow or red card. A player given a blue card is sent to a
"sin bin" for five minutes of contemplation perhaps even to ask for
As the captain of the British team, Tony Preston, reflected after losing to
a team of Croatian priests in the 2008 semi-finals: "The whole idea, not to
get too heavy, is the idea of sport bringing the finer qualities out of
humanity, like humility in victory and gracious in defeat we've got a bit
of experience in that." Sport and religion can be an ideal combination. As
in life, football teaches you that you win some, you lose some. Apparently,
however, football has no agreed patron saint. A fine choice would naturally
be St Mirren.
Patrick West is author of Beating Them at Their Own Game: How The Irish
Conquered English Soccer (Liberties Press, 2006)
Sunday, 14 April 2013
The Anglo-Saxon bishop who fought slave masters
Time's Anvil, by Richard Norris, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £25
by Patrick West
As every schoolboy knows, St Patrick became apostle of Ireland after having been kidnapped by pirates. What they don’t teach you in school is that the Irish had a fearsome reputation for piracy in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages – and most slaves in Europe in those times were Romano-British or Anglo-Saxon.
The tale of Pope Gregory being stirred to send a mission to England, after seeing English boys for sale in a Roman market, is probably legend. But in 595 Gregory did write to his agent in Gaul asking that income from papal estates be used to purchase Anglo-Saxon boys, then to be placed in monasteries. Still five centuries later, the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Worcester, Wulfstan (1062-95), confronted shipmasters at Bristol to protest against the export of English boys and girls to Ireland.
So, to invert that silly phrase from The Commitments, it was the English who were once “the blacks of Europe”, exploited by the Irish. I don’t expect the Taoiseach to apologise to the English people for this “deeply traumatic” episode, but being half-Irish I have already apologised to myself profusely.
The truth is that most cultures have practised slavery. In Wulfstan’s time it wasn’t considered immoral, which made his stance against slave merchants particularly brave. Like the new Pope, Wulfstan was a robust figure who spoke up for the poor and washed their feet in public. Such was his authority that he was the only Anglo-Saxon bishop not removed after the Norman Conquest. If Pope Francis is a first, Wulfstan was the last of his kind.
History is a messy affair. Later it was the English who, after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, transported hundreds of Scottish prisoners to Virginia and sold them as slaves. Yet, under one flag, the English and the Scots together became among the first European powers to abolish the slave trade. And it was Britain that later let Ireland starve in the 1840s. History has no good guys and bad guys.
If all of this doesn’t sound much to do with archaeology, that’s because Time’s Anvil’s subtitle, England, Archaeology and The Imagination, is deceptive, as the work is part-history, part-archeology, part-autobiography. Morris is avowedly multi-disciplinary, in that he believes the classification of the past into different areas, and indeed the past into separate epochs, has been to the detriment of all. This approach is this book’s strength and its failing.
Although most well-read Catholics will have heard of the Lollards, many don’t believe that England in the Middle Ages was inherently destined to become Protestant. England was renowned as a Marian country, and the Province of Maryland was later established as a haven for Catholics. Yet we read here that in the spring of 1303, the Bishop of London reprimanded the people of Barking for dancing, wrestling and holding athletic contests in the church’s courtyard, and in the parish and abbey churches. It seems a Protestant mindset was already in place. Up until the late Middle Ages, it was common to have in churches devotional dramas on biblical subjects, the lives of saints and miracles of the Virgin. Dancing in circles conducted by one person in the centre – from where we get the word “ring-leader” – was also popular. Prohibitions on all these activities well predated the Reformation.
Protestants disapproved of athletics in sacred areas because of its association with gambling. It didn’t help that such activities reflected the popular cult of saints. As such, gaming often took place on public holy days. Thus, Morris writes, “by cutting the link between games and God, the Reformation outlawed things which had previously been at the heart of the community ... religion and recreation, the spiritual and the carnal, life and death, things which nowadays are normally considered separately or as opposites were until the Reformation aspects of each other”.
Morris suggests that separating things into categories is lamentable in all aspects of life. I’m not so sure. Parts of Time’s Anvil are certainly fascinating. The Neanderthals arrived in Eurasia 500,000 years ago and settled in a space of land from the Atlantic to modern-day Uzbekistan.
Homo Sapiens followed into Europe only in around 43,000 BC, and as soon as 30,000BC the Neanderthals had disappeared. The fate of the Neanderthals remains a tale of “fascination tinged by alarm, a pang of horror, even pity”.
Elsewhere, we learn that cathedrals were only built over centuries when there was political disruption or irregular funding. They weren’t inherently badly designed, as popular myth has it. The cathedral begun in Canterbury by Archbishop Lanfranc in 1070 took only seven years from start to finish – faster than the planning decision for Heathrow Terminal 5. By 1875 Birmingham was making over 10 thousand billion nails a year.
While all of this is intriguing, one is left with the nagging impression: what is this meandering book actually about? “The hankering after framework is fairly recent.” No, it isn’t. Like music and language, placing things into categories is a universal human instinct. A totem pole, a ying-yang symbol and a layout of a supermarket are manifestations of this. Most people are also aware of the fluidity of categories. History students don’t think the Industrial Revolution was launched on January 1, 1760 and was completed on the last day of 1840. Yet thanks to the belief that teaching history by era is “dogmatic”, many school children today think Shakespeare and Dickens were contemporaries. History is indeed messy and fascinating, and so is this book.
Saturday, 6 April 2013
Tuesday, 19 March 2013
Friday, 8 March 2013
Hitler and the Tsar's loss
was Britain's gain
edited by Peter Unwin
review by Patrick West
When it recently emerged that Polish had become England’s second language, owing to immigration in the past 10 years, the Times published an article on famous Poles who had achieved success outside their homeland. They included, among others, Roman Polanski, Paul Newman and Karol Wojtyła. Surprisingly, as a letter in the newspaper consequently pointed out, the piece failed to mention a Pole called Conrad Korzeniowski, who after coming to England became Joseph Conrad.
The omission of the author, who found acclaim – remarkably – by writing in a third language, was also striking in that Conrad features in a collection of Times obituaries of notable immigrants to Britain. From Lady Randolph Churchill to Freddy Mercury to Basil D'Oliveira, Newcomers’ Lives: The Story of Immigrants as Told In Obituaries from The Times reminds us that this island has long been a land of opportunity, a safe harbour, and that immigration to Britain, not least from other parts of Europe, has a long pedigree.
Those of us who attended schools with a heavy proportion of Irish, Polish and Spanish pupils are aware of this story; indeed, most of us are part of it. And somewhat paradoxically, second-generation immigrants can be the most hostile to those who want to follow in their parents footsteps. An extensive Searchlight Educational Trust survey of 2011 showed that 39 per cent of Asian Britons wanted all immigration into Britain stopped permanently, compared to 34 per cent of white Britons and 21 per cent of black Britons. Many are today anxious about a potential influx of Romanians and Bulgarians, while the perceived Islamification of some inner-city areas is a worry to nearly everybody. Britain has never experienced such a radical demographic transition, but, immigration remains intrinsic to our island story.
Newcomers’ Lives opens with the death of Prince Albert, a Bavarian. As a genre, the newspaper obituary was in its infancy in 1861, and the Times’s death notice tells us little about his life, and concentrates, in morbid detail typical of the period, on the Consort’s last painful hours: “He continued slowly to sink, so slowly that the wrists were pulseless long before the last moment had arrived, when at a few minutes before eleven he ceased to breathe, and all was over. An hour after and the solemn tones of the great bell of St Paul’s – a bell of evil omen – told all the citizens how irreparable has been the loss their beloved Queen, how great the loss to the country.”
By contrast, the obituary of Karl Marx, “Prophet of the collapse of capitalism”, runs to only four paragraphs. Marx’s influence had yet to be realised fully in 1883, but it was often the case that Times obituaries in the Victorian era were either brief or incredibly long.
Such stylistic quirks can be telling. We read from 1988 that Alec Issigonis, the Greco-German creator of the Mini Cooper, “remained a bachelor all of his life”. According to a biographer, Jonathan Wood, Issigonis was a “non-practising homosexual”, yet one rarely reads today “bachelor” or “remained unmarried” as euphemisms for “gay”. “He is survived by his partner, John” has become the norm, much in the way “cancer” has supplanted “died after a long illness”. But in areas in which stigma remains, “convivial” is still code for a drunk, while a deceased who “didn’t suffer fools gladly” was intolerable.
The death notices thus reveal much of the era in which they were written. In 1951 it is stated: “We are still too close to Wittgenstein to form a just estimate of his work.” This was during an era less given to journalistic hyperbole in high-brow newspapers, and when writers believed that sufficient time needed to elapse before posterity could be achieved.
Wittgenstein was but one of many bright minds to come to Britain from central Europe, including his cousin, Friedrich von Hayek. They met each other on the Italian front when both were serving in the Austrian army. The obituary of the famous monetarist is a highlight of the fascinating collection. Like Marx, Hayek was hopeless with his personal finances and he never made a penny in royalties from The Road to Serfdom. It is also heartening to read that, despite their differences, Hayek and Keynes enjoyed a good personal relationship, so much so that Keynes ensured his opposite was given rooms at King’s when the LSE was evacuated to Cambridge in the Second World War.
Another brainy Austrian was Karl Popper, who, like so many to feature here, hailed from a Jewish background. Others of that faith include Sam Wanamaker, Isaiah Berlin, Yehudi Menuhin, the broadcaster Hugo Gryn, the philanthropist Paul Hamyln and those notoriously competitive Freud brothers, Clement and Lucian. This may or may not reinforce the old stereotype, favoured by philo-Semites and anti-Semites alike, of the innate intelligence of the Jewish people, but it certainly indicates that Tsarist Russia’s and Nazi’s Germany’s loss was our gain.
Moreover, the compendium reminds us that the story of European immigration to Britain hasn’t solely concerned plumbers and decorators.
Wednesday, 6 March 2013
African forest elephants in decline
Facing extinction in the next decade
The population decline of the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is not abating. A new Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) study shows these animals are now on the verge of extinction, which could happen within the next decade. In the last ten years, the population of African forest elephants has collapsed by 72 per cent in the centre of the Continent. The figure confirms the need to act immediately to safeguard this species, whose survival is dramatically in peril.
The American study was published in the review Plose One, and involved the participation of more than sixty authors, led by Fiona Maisels, scientist at WCS and of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Stirling. "Although we were expecting to see these results, we were horrified that the decline over the period of a mere decade was over 60 per cent", explained Maisels. The researchers studied the numbers of elephants in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic. The results reveal that human activity and buildings have reduced the number of elephants, and that numbers have even declined in areas previously noted as safe-havens for the most abundant groups of this species. The principle cause of the rapid decline in African forest elephants is poaching, in order to seize their precious ivory.
From 'La Zampa', March 6, 2013. Translated by PW 6-3-13