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