Tag Archives: religion

Is the poppy our most sacred symbol?

Reading about previous year arrests for acts that seemed to denigrate the emblem, I am wondering if the same would be true of a key religious symbol, or a national flag. I know that Christians have had various attacks – such as Francis Bacon’s crucifix in a pot of piss, or an episode of Jonathan Creek, or even you could say, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Did they spark off arrests and complaints in the way that teenager from Canterbury experienced last year, or a Muslim the year before?

The end of the first story seems to be that the Kentish offender was let off as he agreed to meet war veterans to apologise. It seems a resocialisation went on – is that what restorative justice is? It recalled an episode in prison drama Bad Girls where a character who had accidently killed through an angry practical joke was made to face her victim’s family. Is a poppy burning photo on social media with an alleged crude comment on a par with that act of irresponsible manslaughter?

It felt like this young man had to also face his elders (and betters) and be turned into the kind of citizen that’s appropriate, or desired. Orwell had another word for that.

Whether offence can be an offence is interesting to debate and a hard line to draw, but for any of us with a faith or who support for anything that’s unfashionable and unpalatable to those around, we might feel it unfair that our deeply held beliefs are not a police matter, and yet ones that are a political tool are. It reminds of what I wrote in the summer about the homophobic comments of a pastor about the local Rainbow Pride parade – horrid, hurtful (I’d argue more than poppy burning as some gay people carry an almost suicidal guilt burden and fear of persecution, but our soldiers are venerated) – but rightly a police affair?

Along with the Holocaust, the poppy is a matter to tread carefully on. I note that it’s an offense to trivialise or deny the Holocaust in Germany now. Yet I feel the reasons behind this German rule are different to our poppy ones; one is a kind of rehabilitation programme, a keen (in the sharply felt sense) appropriation of past guilt in an attempt to atone, but it’s also the reverse of whitewashing or glorifying the horrors of war. The Poppy is something else…

I’ve read several online comments about the poppy as well as attended services yesterday.
I agree with the well penned words of Harry Leslie Smith in the Guardian, a man who was born shortly after the first world war and fought in the second. He explains why this is the last year he’ll go to the cenotaph and wear a poppy, although he will continue to remember the war and his friends and colleagues privately. I was surprised by how many younger people disagreed with him and will continue to wear the red flower, using phrases like “gave their lives” and “honour”, saying the Poppy shouldn’t be commandeered by the politicians as a tool to steer our thinking about today’s wars and ourselves as a nation, or shunned because of it; its meaning and the donation go to better things.

But I looked at the British Legion website and I find it hard for anyone to claim that they aren’t part of the jingoism, that the political meaning of a poppy is nothing to do with an organisation who has changed its strapline to “Shoulder to Shoulder with those who Serve”. The people chosen to say “Why I wear a poppy” all had loved ones in wars, describing in emotive language the loss, bravery and sacrifice, and the use of debt and respect for their part in freedom preserving battles.

Reading the White poppy people (Peace Pledge Union) website is quite a different experience. The fact I recall most is that their annual budget is the same as the chief of British Legion’s salary. The white poppy, as its centre says, is about peace and ending wars. The red poppy isn’t now the encapsulation of 60s protest song “Where have all the flowers gone”: it’s more Rupert Brooke than Siegfried Sassoon.

I suppose the Christian cross is a symbol that can mean many things, as can the St George’s Cross. The stars and stripes might mean the worst or best of what America stands for. But if the exclusive people who made my national flag had a particular slant and my donation to buy one went to them, I might think about whether I wanted to adopt that symbol, whatever its genesis. I’ve heard feminists reclaim the cross, but they don’t pay a patent to wear one round their neck. If all cross necklaces came from a specific denomination with a particular mission, expressed in particular words…

I reluctantly agree that as Big Brother Watch says, freedom of expression means the right to offend and do crass and unkind things. BBW fought against the arrest of the Canterbury young man, though I am also not saying what he did was a good thing. But I note I would be afraid to say so if I did, and that is wrong. There are no holy wars or crusades. Much of war is coercion, money making and power wielding (or returning power) and it is an exercise in encouraging one’s citizens to overlook other issues by telling us there is a greater enemy than our own establishment, and that we must unite and be obedient, even unto death, and to speak against it becomes not just offence, but civic and secular blasphemy.

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Fallen In Love

A review of a new production on ‘Anne Boleyn’s secret heart’

I was very excited to see this new play by Ipswich based theatre company Red Rose Chain, who say they had people crossing the Atlantic to see it and reviewers from all the national papers. They quote historical biographer Alison Weir’s positive comments, although she is thanked in the acknowledgements as being a key part of the research.

I have been passionate about Anne for several years and she formed a major part of my research degree. I was interested in how popular contemporary sources portray her, and how things have entered the canon of knowledge -ie what is seen to be true at any one time.

The canon regarding Anne has changed since the 1980s. Her enemies’ vilification programme was successful for 4 centuries, until several independent researchers of different backgrounds realised that there was another Anne than the Jezebel-esque ruthless upstart. Film has been slower to catch up, still portraying her broadly this way, and Philippa Gregory’s novel and now movie have tipped popular perception for the initiated back towards negative.

This summer, I’ll see two new plays on Anne, hoping that they might offer more of the fresh perspective that sees her as a heroine as Jean Plaidy, Vercors, Joanna Denny and Eric Ives have done.

Fallen in Love was disappointing for its portrayal and its execution – and no, not the one at the end of the play.

It wasn’t that I could detect historical inaccuracy, but that the portrayal fitted the conventional old style view – Anne as perhaps complicated, perhaps with a sympathetic motive, but not even as Prof Ives said – someone one admires but not likes. Naive Anne suddenly becomes hard, and we miss that trajectory out due to a major shift in time. The naiveté is shown through silly voices and exaggerated running about and frivolity.

I confess that I have never warmed to George Boleyn, and it is a shame that he is such a part of this play. Writer and director Joanna Carrick gives him the best lines – making out that it is he (not Anne) who is the religious reformer, the one who hates corruption but can also see genuine faith in some of the monks who are being so horribly butchered. She even lets George say the wonderful alleged final speech that Anne wrote to Henry about being raised from Commoner in stages to the highest honour of all – martyr.

A story about Anne that does not feature Henry feels odd. Small casts are tricky, and this duo didn’t hold the necessary interest for me. I didn’t know that it would just be Anne and her brother, and when this became apparent, my enthusiasm sagged. I also didn’t like the casting of Anne – again, a personal matter, but she didn’t act in a way that made you understand why the most powerful monarch of the western world was so smitten with her that he took such great steps to be with her. And – why this woman was deemed so dangerous that she was killed swiftly and then demonised.

That last part is something I have never found to be satisfactorily explained.

Fallen in Love is not the strongest title, suggesting a chick lit appraisal of one of Europe’s great moments of history. I had expected, therefore, a love story – and presumed this would be one of the few that would show Anne in love with Henry: often the affair is portrayed as onesided. I believe one intended interpretation of the play’s title is, as Gregory and Warnicke alone suggest, that Anne’s incest charge was actually accurate, with which I and most other scholars vehemently disagree.

I have particular tastes in theatre, leaning towards physical theatre and cross media as ways to best use the stage as a way of telling a story powerfully. This was a very traditional talk continuously play with too little room to act physically; the set is designed round a bed which also holds up the tee pee. The epic story doesn’t work in a small tent with not much of set. The post death scene with feathers and dancing was the best -for theatricality and innovation, and a welcome break from over egged young thespian voices.

Practically, there were also problems. Passing trains and football in the park didn’t help the authenticity. The tickets are expensive for what they are – £15 to sit an a marquee on uncomfy chairs with poor toilets, and a simple kiosk for refreshments. They have 2 evening shows back to back, meaning you can’t get in the carpark until the previous show has gone. This contradicted the ticket’s advice of arriving at least 15 minutes early. It wasn’t clear from the crude map that the Hall is not accessible from Gypeswick park, although it seems logical to assume it is. Retracing steps, having found the prohibitive high fence, wastes several minutes.

There was a free short aftershow by a community theatre. As much as I wish to encourage people to find their artistic feet, I have to say that this was a painful experience. What jarred most was not poor acting quality, but the incessant swearing. Dramatically, to swear constantly means you have played your trump card until it has no meaning. There are no more organ stops to pull out when the tension rises. The director warned it may offend ‘sensitive’ people, but sensitivity and a dislike of foul language are not connected. The action and dialogue were lost under the cursing. Group penned Guiltless Ghost is a play about transposing Henry, Anne, George and Jane Parker to a group of four friends on a modern housing estate, all on mobile phones and in chav gear. It forgets the high born grandeur, religion and politics at the heart of the Tudor story, and that Anne Boleyn does not lend herself to a kind of Gavin and Stacey directed by Shane Meadows or Peter Mullan. The bit that made me scoff into my hands was the closing voiceover quote that gave the piece its name. Halting, with a very Ips-witch rising accent, it made what might have been an interesting idea into a farce.

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Strange Moon Rises

The title partly comes from a distortion of the debut album by The Smoke Fairies, Sussex born makers of ethereal folky music. I recalled the phrase when reading The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s third memoir. Recounting the period in the 1960s where she lodged with Oxford academics Jenifer and Hebert Hart, Karen often had reason to print the words ‘Moon Rises.’ Her charge, Jacob, greeted her with the phrase each morning. He read the newspapers over breakfast and quoted the day’s headlines and mooncycles to her.

This is the second time I have read The Spiral Staircase, and both times I have felt an affinity with the writer and presenter who left a nunnery after a breakdown to ‘begin the world’ as her second memoir was almost titled. Her next essay of 2004 is a mature overview over sixty years, from novice to scholar, teacher, broadcaster and is now well known for her books on mainly the monotheistic religions. I take courage from the time it took for Karen to find her place in the world, for opportunities and careers to abort before embracing her path on a solitary spiral stair, a secular sacred assent that has recently culminated in her worthy compassion charter.

Perhaps the episodes with the Hart family stand out most for me. It was here that Karen was prepared to deal with and accept her own epilepsy, though sadly looking after Jenifer’s son Jacob did not precipitate a diagnosis for her or keep her away from useless psychiatrists who refused to take her frightful visions and black outs seriously.

Although I have a reaction to the faith she lost, denigrated and kind of returned to, my strongest response is to that era where Karen struggled with her health and believed herself to be a few steps from a mental hospital’s inpatients. Since leaving her religious order, Karen seemed to have been surrounded by so called rationalists. I say ‘so called’ as a dogged belief in only what science approves of and a derisory ridicule of anything beyond that is not rational to me. It is the reverse. And many people have entered mental institutions for disagreeing.

Hasn’t proclaiming someone mad long been the easiest way to silence and undermine? Whether you’re Christine from Changeling, questioning the authorities, or the spurned lover of Mussolini, it’s just another set of cells with actually worse treatments and control than a prison. It sweeps away dissenters and challengers; people who might embarrass – not through their behaviour but often by exposing other’s shortcomings. Last week, I posted on the television series Afterlife. The fictional medium Alison Mundy spent much of her past in mental institutions because of her gift. In the first series, she bravely returns to help a young man who claims he has an alter ego that harms him and others. What’s frightening about re-entering that hospital is not the other inmates but the staff. Any dissent and you are hauled off and then given treatments. The staff are inhumane, talking in that patronising unreal way. All of this is designed to destroy souls that the system often doesn’t believe in.

In Afterlife, Alison says that the drugs actually feed the spirits and do not make anything go away. Karen’s experience of drugs were that they were also ineffectual.

I am interested in Karen’s relief at being diagnosed with epilepsy and her willingness to take drugs for it. As mentioned, she was mostly around people who believe in science and the mind. She had rejected religion, believing Christianity to be academically insupportable. She has not returned to experiential faith and her ecstasy now is from art and study – her definition of ecstasy not being one of transported rapture but an etymological leaving oneself behind. She sometimes felt that her ability to feel had been lost and her ability to think originally was submerged for some years, first under her nun training and then in academia. All this perhaps explains why a medical response was welcomed rather than the ideas that Alison of Afterlife or anything that Louise L Hay or a famous medium might tell you.

For them, spirituality and health are connected. Karen never speaks of a higher self, a spirit world or a personal God, but for other writers these are essential philosophies. Understanding symptoms of epilepsy for them would not be about drugs to control electric jumps in the brain. What is really going on is something that can’t be measured, just as our full humanity cannot be.

I am loathe to even mention the idea of fits and demons being linked. Liberal Christians read Jesus’ exorcisms as in fact dealing with epilepsy. Looking at it that way round, it’s a relief: it takes away the terror of potential possession, relegating the fits and any visions to things that can be cured by a dosage, and which has much less fear and stigma attached (there should be none). Perhaps I will no more than hint of the reverse interpretation except to say that such diagnoses can be harmful emotionally as much as the often poorly handled attempts to release sufferers.

But could spirituality and mental and physical health be more entwined than many practitioners are willing to believe? As The Verve sang, the drugs don’t work.They are a wicked form of control, as much as padded cells and restraints. As Alison in Afterlife points out, some previous mental health candidates would have been seen as witches and burned. We are really not very good at fair treatment and empathy with those that are different, including those who manifest behaviours or powers that perhaps frighten us.

I was relieved to think that Mother Julian’s devil visitations might be explained in the same way of Karen’s ghastly visions. Karen’s doctor said she has temporal lobe epilepsy which affects the sight and smell areas of the brain, which explains her eyeless old man and the malodorous sulphur. Something similar was experienced by Julian, though those in the room with her did not. When I first read of Julian’s fiends, it frightened me that a devout woman should be allowed such visions – why didn’t God step in and rescue one of his own from this attack? Two years ago, I decided her visions were because she had explicitly asked for it, and influenced by cosmic ordering, believed God had given her simply what she had chosen. Now I am less comfortable with that.

I have said this before but it is a point worth repeating: we believe what is palatable. There are some things I don’t want to be true – whether it be the existence of a scary cryptological specimen or demonic interventions. And I will work to discredit them. However, there are some things I am happy to embrace and draw comfort from. Evangelical Christians say that those who deny God do so because if he and the miraculous side of the Bible are true, it calls them to face up to things they don’t want to that requires action. Perhaps that principle is true of rationalism in general – that if something is not denouncable, choices are called for and uncomfortable transitions must be made. I often wonder why the existence of a spiritual realm, especially God, is so unfavourable to many people and why the miraculous elements of the Bible are so hard to absorb. I have a very liberal, non mainstream faith but my attitude to all of the science worshippers’ objections has always been: why not? God, flood, miracles… resurrection… what an unimaginative, narrow world where such wondrous aberrations cannot take place.

You will soon gather that I too have a spiralling mind, a theme and title which have significance in my creative writing. So we circle round the staircase to again find our strange moon, and the family that gave this piece its title. I really warm to Jacob Hart and would like to know more of him. I think he sounds witty and interesting. I have been intrigued and impressed by what I have found out about his parents and how their unconventional lodgings were an oddly nurturing time for Karen. I love how Jenifer rescued Karen from the mental hospital and had stolen second hand sweets to comfort her with. I am shocked when Jacob’s appearance and behaviours are called hereditary – by looking at his father. I don’t claim to know what epilepsy and other illnesses are – even if ‘illness’ is the right word. But I question hereditary theories and, and especially the use of drugs and other treatments from inside hospitals. Karen lists some shocking ways of dealing with epilepsy from the past, but we have not moved on very far, especially not in the general world of mental health; and drugs are tied into pharmaceutical company profits – there is more to their prescription (both senses) than supposed greater success of control. Drugs do not even pretend to cure epilepsy. I am sure that other kinds of healers have a far more healthy and holistic way of assisting. One healer wrote of a client who wouldn’t release his epilepsy because it made him feel special. I can understand why that man hung onto it; like why some people on wheelchairs at a Charismatic healing rally say – it’s OK: I can live like this. I don’t need curing. I am whole as I am. And like Alison Mundy – it is part of me and I’d be lost without it.

This is a staircase I like to tread on and may well return to. For now, I shall watch out for moons and think of not only excellent gigs but of a wonderfully eccentric, radical household and celebrate those whose ideas give them ideas to change the world; and of misunderstood people with gifts and traits that should be celebrated and explored, not quashed and scolded, and heaven help us all: treated.

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