Thursday, 5 December 2013

in The Catholic Herald, November 28, 2013

Libraries are driving atheists into churches
Notebook, Patrick West

I have started going to churches again – something I never would have expected of myself 10 or 20 years ago. Am I becoming a lapsed atheist?

You see, when you’re in your 20s and politically minded, you’re pretty sure of everything. While I was not quite the angry New Atheist – I always retained my affection for the faith of my upbringing – I was very much a literal-minded atheist. Transubstantiation, miracles, horoscopes, alien abduction and so on: all such phenomena I smugly dropped into the mental categories of unreason.

Yet one of the welcome benefits of approaching 40 is coming to appreciate nuance. The ideologies of libertarianism, atheism or socialism are fine for young ideologists, but encroaching middle age teaches you that life consists of compromise and doubt.
So does learning a second language, where most people discover what the subjunctive and conditional states are: what might be and what could be. 

I like to study languages in public libraries, erstwhile areas of quiet, but for some years now noisy “community centres” full of computers and arguing couples. Harrumph!
So exasperated at this trend, I stormed out of Sandwich Library one day this summer, having admonished its librarians for their incessant chat. I found refuge in St Peter’s, now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It provides a table and chairs for reading and contemplation. I had a productive day in this wonderful edifice, and where Thomas Paine was married under an onion dome built by 17th-century Flemish refugees.

I do most of my work and reading in places of quiet here in East Kent, and increasingly this has involved seeking solace in churches. In Canterbury recently, a visit to the cathedral ended up in accidentally participating in Evensong, and I have since spent a lunch break in the city’s Catholic church of St Thomas.

On one Saturday in Folkestone, after the library shut, I enjoyed a pleasant hour reading Inspector Montalbano in the Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians. This building is not only lovely for its serenity, but for its folkloristic aspect. Here, Fr Stephen told me that it’s one of the few remaining churches in eastern England that retains statues of the saints.

I know many non-Catholics dismiss the cult of saints as borderline polytheism, but saints and heroes do have a fundamental appeal to human nature. We all need someone to inspire us. What else explains today’s cult of Malala Yousafzai or X Factor hero-worship? What Catholic Herald reader didn’t want to know more about St Jude after the recent storm? As for me, I no long scoff at my mother’s exhortation to pray to St Anthony if I’ve lost something important, because, well, it actually works.

This church in Folkestone also has an inspiring Stations of the Cross, which I also used to find funny as a boy – my mum sent me home from Our Lady of Victories, West London in 1983, furious that I kept exclaiming “Choo! Choo!” at every “station”. But the Stations of the Cross, like the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, are reminders that life can be a struggle, and when times are tough, you can forget that everyone else also has problems.

 The Church is getting a good press at the moment under Pope Francis, yet I think it could go one better. We live in an increasingly noisy world, where even libraries no longer afford tranquillity. Wouldn’t it be a great advert for the Church if it opened up more of its buildings and rooms as places of study and contemplation? It would be a wonderful way of connecting with the community at large, with people of no faith, with doubters and with the plain curious.

Patrick West is a columnist for

in The Catholic Herald, November 28, 2013

The Mafia cannot keep its stranglehold on Italy

Popes, judges and shopkeepers are leading resistance to organised crime, says Patrick West

Mafia Republic, by John Dickie, Sceptre, £25

How do you think Italians react when you mention you’re learning their language? With happiness? Interest? Gratitude, perhaps. No. Invariably, it’s something along the lines of: “Why do you want to learn my useless language, or learn about my hopeless country?” Despite our perceptions of the Italians as an amorous, stylish, artistic and sonorous people, when it comes to talking about their country today they’re a profoundly gloomy lot.

It’s not surprising, really. Anyone who follows Italian politics knows how embedded organised crime is in that country, and how for decades an endless stream of politicians, businessmen, architects and doctors have been bought by the mob. Many Italians regard their country almost as a failed state. Even so, Mafia Republic is still a shocking dissection of the rise of Italy’s three main organised crime fraternities: Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta. 

The ’Ndrangheta is now the world’s most powerful mafia, which account for three per cent of Italy’s GDP alone. In Sicily, the mafia even tax petty criminals: burglars have to ask permission from the Cosa Nostra before they break into a house. John Dickie’s book exposes not just the level of corruption and extortion, but the depth of its reach.

How did this happen to one of Europe’s greatest countries? The author dismisses the theory, favoured by some northern types, that lawlessness is inherent to the southern Italian character. Rather, he attributes organised crime to the youth of the Italian state (united in 1861, a democracy since 1946), and the fact that it remains regionally disparate – culturally, politically and linguistically. Young democracies of this type are always unstable. Dickie challenges the belief that Mussolini crushed the mafia. Rather, Il Duce banned all mention of it in the media, in the hope it would quietly go away. 

The state continued to wish away the mafia after the war, with lamentable consequences, leaving the three main mafias to fester in parallel with the booming economy. The ’Ndragheta were only officially recognised in 1955 and, most shockingly, a witness protection scheme wasn’t initiated until 1992.

When the state did act, it often worsened matters. Mafia activity increased on the mainland as a direct consequence of imprisoning Cosa Nostra convicts on it. “God bless these prisons!” exclaimed the Camorra member Gaspare Mutolo in 1976, after his arrest for heroin trafficking. The Camorra had previously been an association of petty thieves and smugglers, but having been introduced to Sicilian gangsters to jails in Naples and Campania, their members moved on to more ambitious criminal activities.

Unlike France or the United States, Italy didn’t join in the war on drugs, and consequently it was Mutolo’s Camorra that re-routed the “French connection”. Naples became the new Marseilles, massively enriching the prestige, power and influence of the mafia bosses, and simultaneously spreading misery. 

By 1980, Italy had more heroin addicts per head of population than the United States. By the turn of the millennium the mafias had power bases not only in the north of the country, but also in Germany, Australia, Argentina and beyond. The illegal construction of houses is still rampant, as well as of massive towns without schools or hospitals, with potentially fatal consequences. (In July this year, 39 people were killed after a bus careered off a shoddily built viaduct.) One statistic sticks out: during the 1980s an estimated 10,000 people were killed in southern Italy’s mafia wars. That’s more than three times the number killed in 30 years of Troubles in Northern Ireland. Strangely, one of the most alarming constants of this book is not its gory narrative, but the degree to which the now defunct Christian Democracy party was involved in organised crime at an individual level. No wonder the country’s youth were drawn towards the Red Brigades in the 1970s and that many didn’t appear to muster much sympathy during the kidnapping and murder of former Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978. Italian youth then drew little distinction between politicians and gangsters. 

But it’s not all gloom. Dickie believes that the mafia’s days are now numbered. Following the mayhem of the 1980s, a new resolve emerged, one epitomised by the fearless campaigns of two judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. By 1992, both knew that they were walking corpses. Falcone was killed by a bomb placed underneath a motorway on May 23 that year. Borsellino waited 56 days, frequently going out alone to buy cigarettes in the hope he would be shot dead alone, before a bomb killed him and six others. Both judges were Sicilians. Both were ready to die for their homeland.

Suddenly, it wasn’t only the Communists speaking out. In 1990, John Paul II told an audience at a football stadium in Sicily not to be seduced by the mafia’s “culture of death”. He said: “Convert! Because one day that judgment of God will come!” By now, writes the author: “The Vatican had abandoned its traditional misgivings about the anti-mafia cause. Cosa Nostra, finally, was anathema.”
Shopkeepers formed an organisation called Addiopizzo (“Goodbye Extortion”). They signed a public pledge not to pay protection money; and consumers signed a pledge to patronise businesses that did not pay. This surprisingly simple idea worked: mafiosi couldn’t be bothered with those who made the pledge. The mafia is now quite literally going underground. In Campania and Calabria the powerful bosses have taken to building underground bunkers as mafia hunters have become ever more expert and determined.

Although written in slightly breathless prose, Mafia Republic is an excellent achievement. It may be an indictment of Italy’s rulers, but it offers much hope. My generation grew up assuming mayhem and murder in Northern Ireland was the norm. Let’s hope tomorrow’s Italians will one day think of kidnappings and assassinations as things that happened in the bad old days.

in Spiked, November 20, 2013


Libraries: a plea from a silence seeker

Saturday, 9 November 2013

in Spiked, November 14, 2013

Horoscopes: smarter than you might think

The often practical wisdom of horoscopes is preferable to woe-is-me narcissism.



Monday, 28 October 2013

Book review, October 2013

William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily a New Hope
By Ian Doescher
174pp. Quirk Books. $14.95. 978 1 59474 637 6

Review by Patrick West

Last year Ian Doescher read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, watched the Star Wars trilogy “for the millionth time” and saw an adaptation by Alison Carey of The Merry Wives of Windsor set in contemporary Iowa. He then woke up one day with the idea of retelling Star Wars in iambic pentameter in the style of the Bard.

Shakespeare and Star Wars actually have quite a lot in common, if you consider them in the light of The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) by the Jungian anthropologist Joseph Campbell. There Campbell explores the unifying themes found in all legends – among them good and evil, hubris and nemesis, fate and redemption. Campbell focused on Shakespeare when composing his study, and George Lucas in turn consciously drew from Campbell when creating his first Star Wars film of 1977. The difficult parent–child relationship represented between Darth Vadar and Luke Skywalker – and the mentor–learner relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker – echo themes in the First and Second Parts of King Henry the Fourth, The Tempest and Hamlet. In a different galaxy, Darth Vader would have been Iago from Othello or Edmund from King Lear. Obi-Wan is a wise Prospero in life and a haunting King Hamlet in ghost form. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the everyman commentators, re-emerge as C-3PO and R2-D2.

But, unsurprisingly, it’s the textual marriage of the two storytellers that makes this such an appealing project. Doescher went about his task by systematically applying Shakespearean locutions, references and literary devices to Star Wars dialoguem and the more familiar you are with each of them the more amused you will be.

Consider the Rebel attack on the Death Star, as valiant pilots perish:
"RED SIX Disaster at me strikes
BIGGS - Eject, forsooth!
RED SIX I yet may set it right.
BIGGS -Anon, pull up!
RED SIX Nay, nay, I’ll warrant that all shall be well-
                                          [Explosion. Red Six dies."

Soon after, the Chorus reappears.
“ 'Luke’s ship comes closer to the little port/
While Vader and his crew draw all too near.
Young Luke to his computer doth resort/
Until he hears the voice speak in his ear'

There are lighter passages. Han Solo becomes a loveable rogue worthy of a Comedy, concluding that impasse in the cantina with the bounty hunter thus: “HAN Aye, true, I’ll warrant thou has wish’d this day. [They shoot, Greedo dies.] [To innkeeper:] Pray, goodly Sir, forgive me for the mess. [Aside:] And whether I shot first, I’ll ne’er confess!”

Elsewhere, R2-D2’s inner dialogue is a delight:
“OBI-WAN [To R2-D2:] Well met, my little one. R2-D2 [aside:] – Almost I could My metal tongue release and speak to him. This man doth show sure signs of wisdom and Experience. [To Obi-Wan:] Beep, beep, meep, beep, meep, squeak.”
Had he been born in the 20th century, Shakespeare could have written Star Wars Episode IV instead of Henry The Fifth.

It is flawed. The “band of brothers” oration should really have been paraphrased before the attack on the Death Star, not by Luke during it, with an Imperial Starfighter on his tail. Some sections seem shoe-horned in: “Is this an ast’roid field I see before me”, “Friends, rebels, starfighters, lend me your ears”. But these are only minor distractions in a funny, delightful and occasionally moving work.


A version of this review was commissioned but went unpublished

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

in spiked, September 26, 2013

A ‘Little Englander’ and proud

Ignore the jibes of the pro-intervention crew: it's the Little Englanders and ‘isolationists’ who are the true internationalists.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

in The Catholic Herald, September 13, 2012

Cheap Thrills

Despite some great set-pieces this novel of the 16th century has no heart, says Patrick West

VERSO, £16.99

Wu Ming is not a real person, and the title of this historical novel is irrelevant (“altai” is a type of falcon, but like Trainspotting or Reservoir Dogs, it tells you nothing of the plot). With this in mind, the reader might expect a self-consciously postmodern book, it being the creation of a four-man collective of Italian anarchists. As it happens, Altai turns out to be a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure story set in the late 16th century, the backdrop being a war between the Ottoman Empire and forces loyal to the papacy.

When a fire breaks out in the Arsenal of Venice in 1569, everyone blames the arch-enemy of the Republic, the dastardly Giuseppe Nasi (“The Sultan’s favourite Jew” – a kind of Bin Laden bogeyman). But it is the city’s chief spymaster and torturer, Emmanuele De Zante, who is framed for the blaze, and accused of being a spy himself.

Having escaped jail, De Zante flees to the Balkans, rediscovers his own Jewish roots, heads on through Salonika to Constantinople, and ends up working with Nasi himself. With the patronage of Selim II, Nasi seeks ultimately to build a new Zion in Cyprus. A great religious war ensues when the Turks invade the island, reaching its terrible conclusion at the Battle of Lepanto.

Altai is the follow-up to the collective’s novel Q. Like its predecessor, it’s been a best-seller in Italy. It’s not hard to see why: Altai is gory, epic and sensual, constant with themes of love and betrayal. It’s written in the first person, present tense, in a staccato style that gives it irresistible momentum. At times it has the feel of a detective novel, with each terse chapter ending with a cliff-hanger worthy of Philip Marlowe or a 1970s cop show. (For example: “She left without a sound, leaving me prey to my obsessions, my eyes lost in the night.”)

Wu Ming’s underlying motive, of course, is political: to channel and echo the sentiments of Europe’s disillusioned youth, to the discontents and malcontents who feel betrayed by their elders and rulers. 

Corruption and deception are pervasive in Altai. Venice is a sordid state riddled with anti-semitism. The papacy is rapacious and cynical. The Ottoman Empire, while superficially tolerant and multicultural, is as scheming as its main foe: the Sultan fabricates a pretext for invading Cyprus – a nod, again, to real-life geopolitics.

Like a Sergio Leone film, there are no good guys or bad guys, and no redemption – only the inevitability and thrill of violence: “We fought for ages, acrid smoke and the smell of death filling our lungs … The clash dragged on in a hideous balance of death, attacking, retreating, gaining a few feet of ground, with shouts, curses prayers, insults, music, hissing arrows, roaring arquebuses, the smell of combusted bodies, of burnt wood”.
Throughout, De Zante agonises over his maternal religion, embracing then rejecting his Judaism in turn, seemingly condemned to be the wandering and wondering Jew. He is a man utterly self-absorbed with his identity, a veritable embodiment of Generation Me.

The success of this novel is a depressing sign of the times. Altai, in a perverse way, is a marvellous work, with its stirring pace, attention to historical detail and linguistic wordplay. (If you speak a Romance language you will understand the lingua franca spoken by its seamen: “Kon una barba blanka ke lo faze pareser un profeta.”) But it’s cheap thrills all the same. This book has neither heart nor feeling. It solicits no sympathy. In the end, I didn’t care what happened to the protagonists. There was no one I wanted to live and no one I wanted to die. How strange that such an immense piece of work can feel so hollow. 

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

in the Catholic Herald, July 19, 2013

Mice and men

Science is breaking down distinctions between humans and animals, argues Patrick West

Chimera's Children - Ethical, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives on Human-Nonhuman Experimentation
Edited by Calum MacKellar and David Albert Jones
Continuum, £18.99

One of the central beliefs of Christianity, and indeed of Humanism, is that human beings and animals are different in kind and type. Man has a soul and free will, while animals - slaves to nature - have neither. We hold dear the boundary between us and them, and the thought that it could rupture fills us with horror: consider the fables contained in Animal Farm, Planet of the Apes or The Fly. Even today, when humans are often referred to as "highly-evolved apes", there persists a revulsion towards bestiality, which some speculate arose out of a fear of creating a human-animal cross-breed.

This fear - a natural impossibility - was unfounded until the 20th century, when scientific advances tempted many to break this sacred border. In the 1920s, Stalin ordered Russia's top animal-breeding scientist, Professor Ilya Ivanov, to turn his skills to the quest for an ultimate soldier by crossing human beings with apes. Stalin had told him: "I want a new invincible human being, insensitive to pain, resistant and indifferent about the quality of food they eat". Ivanov went to French West Africa, where he inseminated female chimpanzees with human sperm. Having failed with this technique, he asked the French authorities if he could have a native female patient unwittingly inseminated with sperm from a dead chimpanzee. He was refused. Such attempts to fuse man with beast - not least with such racist and sexist overtones - only reinforced a strong taboo.

In recent history, most of us only came to realise that human-nonhuman experimentation had achieved respectability when in 1997 a photograph was released of a mouse with an apparent human ear protruding from its back (the cartilage had been grown by seeding cow cartilage cells and then implanted under the mouse's skin), but paradoxically most Catholics were less taken-aback. Those concerned with the sanctity of life had long been following scientific developments in this field.

As Chimera's Children explains, the first successful example of transgenic animals producing human products was as far back as 1982, when a human growth hormone was produced in the serum of transgenic mice. Two years later researchers in Australia introduced human eggs and sperm into the fallopian tube of a sheep. Since then, this technique has been used successfully to produce a variety of human therapeutic proteins from "non-human animals". Scientists have also created organ-donar pigs with human genes and mice with human immune-system cells - the mice can pass on the human genes to subsequent generations.

Chimera's Children chiefly outlines the current developments in the creation of human-nonhuman combinations, the legal positions currently adopted throughout the world, and summarizes different religious or cultural perspectives on this research. While ostensibly neutral and non-prescriptive, the editors do take a line common with many biologists: that there isn't really such thing as an individual. Scientifically-speaking, this is true. A lichen, for instance, can be considered a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a green alga. More than 500 different species of "alien" bacteria exist in the human body, making up 100 trillion cells. We are not all ourselves. So stem cells derived from certain types of hybrid embryos that are 99.9 per cent human and 0.1 per cent animal, in the editors' view, shouldn't alarm us. This is because "species differences are a matter of drawing an arbitrary line, and are to some degree illusory and unreal, a matter of quantitative not qualitative differences."

Mainstream Christians and Humanists would disagree. There are, however, those such as the physician and Christian ethicist John Wyatt. He accommodates such scientific developments by talking of human beings as "flawed masterpieces", and that Christians have a duty to correct flaws in the masterpiece, to restore it as much as possible to God's intention. This, however, does raise the spectre of eugenics.

Chimera's Children is patchy and inconclusive. But it is a necessary work, not least because the furore over BSE and GM foods "created an atmosphere of distrust of science and scientists in some quarters of society". Whether we like it or not, the gap between human and animals is collapsing. The establishment of an ethical framework is thus imperative, say the editors: "If this is not done the danger is that ethical principles will no provide sufficient guidance and the gap will be filled by prejudice or commercial interest". But how this will be done is anyone's guess.

in spiked, September 4, 2013

It's true, Brits now love ze Germans

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

In the Catholic Herald, June 14, 2013

It's going to take 30 years to heal Northern Ireland

That's the claim of an optimistic new book about life after the Troubles, says Patrick West

Northern Ireland, The Reluctant Peace
By Feargal Cochrane
Yale, £25

"At least the IRA gave warnings!" So yelled a Dubliner at anti-American demonstrators who were marching against the invasion of Iraq. This was on Grafton Street ten years ago, but I still remember the outburst for two reasons. First of all, the man used the past tense when referring to the IRA. Secondly, he echoed a sentiment - not uncommon in Britain - that at least the IRA had a coherent aim and could be reasoned with, and that they sought primarily the destruction of property, not people. Suicidal nihilists they were not.

I got a similar, perverse sense of nostalgia upon seeing a new book about "The Troubles". Publications such as this were a constant feature of the 1980s and 1990s. This was the age when people looked out for suspicious-looking packages, not suspicious-looking people, when we were alert to evacuation procedures, not maniacs with machetes. This was an era when the British government was secretly negotiating with the terrorists - an unthinkable act today.

Northern Ireland, The Reluctant Peace is, however, a stark reminder that there was little, if anything, noble about the "war" waged by republican and loyalist terrorists over a forty year period, or the sometimes appalling behaviour of the Crown forces. 

We are reminded of this in often harrowing detail. Consider the firebombing of the La Mon Hotel in 1978, in which sugar was deliberately added to the device so that the ensuing fireball would stick to anything with which it came into contact. The victims were literally burned alive, and the heat was so intense that it caused some bodies to shrivel to the degree that adults were initially mistaken for children. Before this was "Bloody Friday" on July 21, 1972, when the Provisional IRA exploded nineteen bombs throughout Belfast. Seldom-aired television footage shows firemen literally shovelling charred body parts into plastic bags. 

That atrocity was revenge for Bloody Sunday, when thirteen demonstrators were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment on January 30, 1972. Long before Guantanamo Bay, it's worth recalling British torture techniques: hooding, sleep and food deprivation, repetitive questioning, subjugation to white noise. These incidents were symptomatic of British indifference, even callousness, towards a nominal part of the UK. This attitude was encapsulated by Reginald Maudling, who visited the province for the first time in 1970 as Home Secretary. His parting words were: "what a bloody awful country."

Re-reading these events can be distressing (there are many passages too shocking for a family newspaper), but that's the strength of Northern Ireland, A Reluctant Peace. It makes you feel the anguish and anger of those involved. And sometimes there's a role for empathy in history. Consider the episode of a British soldier maliciously smashing a statuette of the Virgin Mary in someone's West Belfast home. Who's to say that in that position, or witnessing your elderly father beaten up and humiliated by a British soldier, you wouldn't have joined the IRA?

So how come, after all this, we can now talk of the Troubles in the past tense? There are several factors. First of all, we can thank two somewhat forgotten figures: John Major and David Trimble. The former was unusual in that British Prime Ministers aren't normally interested in Ireland, and the latter helped to make moderate Unionism acceptable. Both devoted much energy and took great risks to bring about the Good Friday Agreement. Secondly the emergence of Islamism caused many Irish-Americans to re-assess terrorism, a set of people who now have "intellectual difficulty in supporting the 'good terrorism' of the IRA, yet condemning the 'bad terrorism' of Al Qaeda." For the IRA, American cash and political good-will both evaporated after 9/11.

Most of all, however, the IRA was defeated. It was defeated by British infiltration and Loyalist terrorism. It's a hideous truth to acknowledge, but Loyalist campaigns of random sectarian murder in the late-1980s and early-1990s proved too much for Catholics to bear, which is why the IRA ceasefire of 1994 was welcomed with such joyous relief in the Falls Road, Ardoyne and Anderstown. This is why Loyalist organisations have since descended into gangsterism rather than resumed murdering Catholics. They feel they have won. This is also why it's business as usual for Republican dissidents: they feel that Sinn Fein has become a Partitionist organisation. Which it has.

Despite the fifteen years of relative peace, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. The 2001 census showed that two-thirds of Catholics and three-quarters of Protestants live in areas 90 per cent of the same religion. Cochrane recognises the persistence of sectarianism, but he contends that the healing process just needs more time. "The violent conflict raged for at least thirty years, and it is going to take that long (as a minimum) for a post-conflict society to emerge". He's optimistic, citing a 2007 survey which asked people whether the Northern Ireland assembly should focus on "constitutional" or "policy" issues. Only 12 per cent opted for the former, while 65 per cent of people said that the latter should have a priority. More interestingly, when people were asked whether they regarded themselves as "unionist", "nationalist" or "neither" the responses were 26 per cent, 24 per cent and 40 per cent, with the "neither" option being chosen by nearly half of those under the age of 45.

Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace is an accomplished work, although I don't share its optimism. People fib on surveys, and the book doesn't mention the greatest, unintended threat to Northern Ireland: Scottish nationalism. It's often remarked that Loyalists have an identity crisis, but only with Scotland's secession from the UK will Ulster Unionism face its final downfall. With no Britain, what then for the only people in these islands who use "British" as a label of ethnicity? A new and strange sort of "troubles" await.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Italian translation 6: May 30, 2013

Turkey, The crusade against alcohol
The risk of a drift towards authoritarianism

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed in record time to approve a law in the Ankara parliament that severely restricts the sale of alcohol. In practice, it will now be forbidden to drink alcohol near mosques or schools, bottles will be hidden in films and soap operas, alcohol advertising will disappear, and its sale will be forbidden in shops from 10pm to 6am. Furthermore, products will come with explicit health warnings and shop owners will be forced to remove incriminating drinks from shop windows.

The consumption of alcohol, in sum, will become almost impossible, considering that in Turkey there are at least 93,000 mosques, of which 3,000 are in Istanbul alone. Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has defended this move, saying that the provision owed not to religious motivation but to the desire to set a good example to young people. "We don't want a generation that drinks all day and night", he said. And yet, the country isn't noted for its alcohol problem, and it consumes far less than the West.

For those that have always warned that AKP has sought Islamification of the secular Turkey as sought by Ataturk, this law on alcohol is the smoking gun. Yesterday, the opposition left the parliament room in protest. But there's more: in the face of this move towards authoritarianism, even secular liberal intellectuals, who had hailed the rise of Erdogan as a force for democracy in the face of the all-too-powerful military, are having a re-think. Yesterday, Mehves Evin, a well-known secularist in newspaper circles in the country and leader-writer for the newspaper Milliyet, called this law "despotic", comparable to the McCarthyism as seen in the United States in the 1940s. "I always thought Erdogan was a pragmatic man," he stated, "and that he never would have worked to implement such oppressive measures. But I was wrong". He's not the only one thinking that.

Monica Ricci Sargentini
Corriere della Sera, 25 March 2013
Translated by Patrick West 30 March 2013

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

in The Catholic Herald, April 19, 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

in The Catholic Herald, April 12, 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.