I am reading a number of news articles by people who claim that Britain, hitherto a wonderful country populated by charming and sensitive, cultured, welcoming people has become, almost overnight, a foul land of ‘haters’, racists, thickos, chavs and all-round bounders. I don’t believe them. British culture has many positive aspects but I can’t believe people failed to notice the strong strain of curmudgeonly mistrust, resentment and suspicion that characterises your average Brit. I have been to villages where any stranger in the place was run out of there by the sheer power of surly looks – and one memorable place in which young people threw stones at us when we tried to have a quiet drink in a pub beer garden. London is, on the surface, welcoming in the sense that most folk simply don’t care enough to enquire about your business, unless they’re trying to rob you, ask you for money, or convert you (we are at the epicentre of a Jehovah’s Witnesses mission in my area and very pleasant people they are too). I have been to every continent on the globe apart from Antarctica (saving up) and I lived abroad for a little while in a totally different and often bewildering culture: I have never been anywhere where ‘foreigners’, misfits or the unusual aren’t looked at a little askance. South Africa was fun, fr’instance (and worse: in Ireland, being not known to the lady who ran the grocers’ shop, we were denied ‘the good potatoes’).
But yet. We cling on to the ideal of a civilised society- a good and fair society – and rightly so. Those who attack others, abuse them, attempt to drive them out, degrade all of us. It is a trope that’s rapidly becoming useless through overuse,but we are a country that has kind of cobbled together an uneasy peace among its four nations and between Britain and its former colony, Ireland. We have even – to a great extent and for quite a long time – handled sectarian conflict without bloodshed. We are a country that resisted Fascism and Communism – and we resisted Fascism as an internal force as well as an external threat. We are better than ourselves – or we should be.
So. There are two matters that perturb me slightly more than the usual diet of outrage that clogs up our printed press, our computer screens, our airwaves and my bleeding liberal heart. The first is the spate of renewed attacks on the Ultra-Orthodox community of Hackney in East London. The most shocking thing about this shocking story is that most of the perpetrators are young people. One of the perpetrators of one verbal assault was an adult woman. The abusers are from a range of communities. This is the normal run of things when you meet the darker side of human nature – the sweet temptation to attack the weakest, in one case an eight year old boy. It is loathsome.
I also read, with some sorrow, some of the pronouncements of Catholic brethren on lesbian and gay (and the rest) issues. Yesterday was International Coming Out Day – a harmless enough ‘day’ in a world which has many ‘days’ and in a world in which a regrettable number of countries impose the death penalty on gay people. I will tell you why I feel so strongly about this. I have worked in equalities and human rights and I supported equal human and civil rights for gay people and I was proud to do so. I am not sure about a number of things – for example, while I supported the equalisation of the age of consent, I am now firmly of the opinion that all young people should be locked away for their own good until about the age of thirty. But I remember how it used to be. I remember my good friend at school coming out to me (and only me) when she was sixteen. I remember her telling me years later how her father’s reaction to her was cruel and devastating. I remember being accused of ‘being a weirdo’ because I stood by another girl who was, essentially, dressing like a boy (and later became one). I remember how punishing it was for gay people at a time when they were treated at best as the local joke (another friend once said to me: “We make nice pets”and she was only half-joking). My Church has certain proscriptions on certain actions with regard to chastity. I do not dispute that – the provisions of the Catechism apply to straight people as well as gay people. But, our catechism also enjoins us to act and to speak with charity. The best source I have is Terry Nelson’s blog Abbey Roads. He writes as a gay celibate Catholic struggling with all the matters we all struggle with in this strange and godless world. It is worth reading.
Our Lady of Charity (La Virgen de La Caridad)