Secularist zealotry?

It used to be fairly straightforward. Religious people reckoned they could appeal to a higher authority when it came to mapping out the contours of moral rectitude. Atheists, agnostics and secularists generally pooh-poohed this appeal to the imaginary friends of faith on the basis that these friends were, well, imaginary and that whilst religious citizens were welcome to their private fantasies, they had no business visiting them on anyone else. The most obvious outcome from this was a broad division between the religious with their restrictive moralities, squaring up to the heathen with their free-thinking, anything goes liberalism. In other words the liberal-authoritarian axis led pretty consistently from the secular to the religious. A more liberal individual could be pretty well assumed also to be a less religious one.

If things were ever really that simple, I suspect that they certainly aren’t any more. In his article in the Guardian criticising the Bishops et al over the Equality Bill, Terry Sanderson is assuming some moral rectitude of his own. It’s not a rectitude that I personally take any issue with – I agree that any exemption on religious grounds from equality legislation should indeed be proportional – but it seems to me that Sanderson’s appeal is no less based on a sense of moral absolute than that of any religious zealot. His article appears to be driven not by any sense of morality, but simply by the legal demands of the EU Commission. But somehow I doubt it. Suppose, in a future dystopia, the EU Commission gets taken over by people who, backed by the conservative religious right that Sanderson seems to think are making ground in the UK, propose legislation preventing citizens from shopping on Sundays. Would Sanderson then support it just because it was the will of the Commission? Probably not. Secularists should be more honest about the sources of their moral compasses, and not pretend that moral compasses are only an issue for the religious. The Secular Society oppose the Bishops on the Equality Bill because they believe the Bishops to be morally wrong, and that discrimination against gay employees, for example, is wrong, not just that it happens to be unlawful. I agree. It is wrong. Ironically, despite Sanderson’s implication that I must be a right-wing nut-case, my sense that discrimination against gay people is wrong comes from my faith. Where does Sanderson’s come from? Not from democratic consensus, I hope, or he’ll be backing the return of the death penalty. Not from Darwinian natural selection, I hope, or the outlook for disabled people will be bleak indeed. Not from legislative diktat, I hope, or he’ll be supporting those countries with laws permitting the killing of homosexuals.

At least the morality of people of faith is transparently based elsewhere (even if the other place is imaginary), but ultimately that of secularists seems to be based only in their personal sense of right and wrong. Not on biology, not on consensus, not on law, but in their personal opinions. If you want to criticise or take issue with my moral sources, I can tell you where to look, and it’s not inside my own head. If you’re going to be authoritarian, perhaps it’s secularism and not religion that gives you the most licence.

Monsters or victims? A false dichotomy

The media is full of Cameron’s broken society, for which apparently the evidence is now incontrovertible following the appalling case of the little boys from Doncaster. Much has also been made of the parallel between Cameron’s use of this case, and Blair’s use of the Bulger case from the 1990′s. Both politicians have attempted to extrapolate from one terrible event to lessons about a society trundling headlong in a hell-bound handcart, whose course only their policies can halt. A moment’s thought reveals both the danger and the impossibility of drawing universal conclusions from single incidents, but I think it’s equally facile to bemoan the use of such cases as “political footballs”. What the incidents reveal is not of course a causal link between them and the social problems the politicians decry, still less a link between those problems and the governing party’s policies. Rather they reveal the pre-existing sense of cause and effect that was already in the politician’s head. Blair used the Bulger case to illustrate his thesis that broad social policy creates economic determinants, whilst for Cameron it’s that broad social policy creates moral determinants. If you are generally sympathetic with the “leftist” emphasis on economic and societal causation, you probably didn’t criticise Blair’s reference to the Bulger case as making it into a political football, whereas if your view is more consonant with the “rightist” emphasis on personal moral responsibility you probably did. And vice versa now with Doncaster. It’s much easier to get exercised about politicians’ use of topical incidents than it is to think through where we stand on complex and difficult problems. It’s not the politicisation that’s dangerous; rather it’s the simplification of complexity and its reduction to slogans.

Whenever extreme crimes burst into the media spotlight, especially crimes committed by children, we are always invited to demonise. The Mail can’t quite bring itself to decide between its love of the monster soubriquet and its contempt for “bad parents”, so its headline today screams for the “monsters’ parents to be prosecuted”. Its solution to the dichotomy of this post’s title is simply to replace “or” with “and”. Monsters in their own right, and victims of feckless and incompetent parenting. Two lots of demons for the price of one. That wasn’t quite the resolution to the dichotomy that I had in mind. I don’t want to choose between the categories of monster and victim, nor do I want hedge my bets and embrace both. Rather, I want to reject them both.

There is a spectrum between “monster” at one end and “victim” at the other. At the monster end it’s all about moral turpitude and intrinsic evil in which the perpetrators are seen as simply and wholly responsible for their actions. At the victim end it’s all about a deterministic, mechanistic working out of cause and effect in which individual responsibility is an illogical illusion. Neither is remotely satisfactory as an explication. Saying that both are true as the Mail seems to be doing merely doubles the dissatisfaction. These children are neither monsters nor victims. They are rather battlegrounds in which impulses rage as they do in all of us. An understanding of why in these two particular individuals the mechanisms for dealing with unruly and contrary impulses did not develop, at least not sufficiently, is not something that you or I can acquire since we don’t know enough about them or their personal histories. Substituting for that understanding a false choice between monster and victim gets us nowhere.

Of one thing I’m certain. If it is ever possible for those with access to these two boys to work out what has gone wrong with their development, it will undoubtedly transpire that the causes and the effects are intricately intertwined and impenetrably complex. And they’ll surely include both moral and social elements, but not as facilely presented either by Blair or by Cameron.

Customer service – what’s so hard about that?

As all avid readers (well, readers, anyway) will know, I’ve recently moved to Manchester. Inevitably that has meant that I’ve been exposed much more frequently than usual to the vagaries of a range of customer service experiences, as that ghastly jargon has it. From the lettings agent through to the builder’s site management team via BT, The Post Office, Orange, Eon, the Council tax department and a seemingly unending series of multiple choice telephone calls, I’ve been through the gamut of people called Sean and Amy, who have all assured me that they are my customer service advisor, and that they’re there to help me, my every trivial wish being their command. Sean and Amy have sometimes answered the phone brightly and quickly: sometimes they’ve hidden themselves behind a robotic and infuriating young lady who for a criminal percentage of the time I’ve got left on this earth has repeatedly insisted that the service is experiencing an unusually high number of calls, but that nevertheless my call is of the utmost importance. The remarkable steeplechase that is set between me and actually talking to someone reasonably qualified to deal with my desires is only the very beginning of the strenuous activity required actually to get something done. But there is a very wide divergence between the light workout required by the best and most responsive services, and the full-blown Alpe d’Huez needed, along with suitable performance-enhancing drugs, for tackling the worst. The main object of these latter vast outpourings of nervous energy has simply been that of trying to control my temper.

Let me share the experience of my 24 heures du Man (sorry to mix my French endurance sporting metaphors) in battle with the lettings agent. The flat I have moved into is a new-build property. In other words it is brand new, and no-one before me has soiled its walls and carpets, or fiddled with the knobs of its appliances. Notwithstanding this pristine start, I arrived in temperatures of -9 degrees to discover that there was no hot water. Not to worry, all I needed to do, surely, was to contact the agency that has assured me of its wish to be marked out by the excellence of its customer service “because they know I have a choice”, and to whom I have just paid £1,500 for the privilege of receiving their assiduous ministrations.

“Hi, I’ve just taken a lease on a new property, and I find I have no hot water.”

“Oh, you’ll need to talk to Zoe in maintenance. I’ll put you through.”

Zoe has decided to field the second XI who tell me via an answer-phone message that, since they are either not at their desk, or else possibly that they are actually speaking to someone, I might like to leave them a message, and they will get back to me. I tell the robot about my hot water, or lack thereof. Zoe seems to have a very accurate knowledge of my movements, since I am only about a minute into my motions when she calls back and, finding that I can’t get off the loo in time to answer my phone, I in turn receive a voice-mail message. Zoe tells me that my flat is a new-build one and that therefore I must ring the manufacturer of the water heater, which is under warranty. I immediately ring back, only to find that once more, either because the desk is yet again vacant, or maybe another call has been taken in the 10 seconds it’s taken me to dial, I’m invited to leave another message. I do.

“It may be that my flat is a new-build one, and indeed I’m sure the water heater is under warranty. Neither is any concern of mine. My contract is with you, and it is you to whom I have handed over my £1,500. I shall not therefore be ringing the manufacturer, but you most certainly will. Please do so, and let me know what arrangements you have made to have this matter resolved.”

I hear nothing, and when I have returned to London, I try ringing again. Zoe has still not returned to her desk, or is still talking animatedly to someone else. The status quo has not moved on measurably when I call back 15 minutes later. I leave a short, possibly even a sharp, message:

“It is now 3 days since I told you of the bone-chilling temperature of my water. I am returning to Manchester tomorrow. I should be most grateful if I returned to water that is at least tepid. Thank you.”

When I got back, Manchester was still in the icy grip of the recent weather arranged for us by the Daily Express so that they could run fatuous headlines about the myth of global warming. In turn, my water was still more suitable for topping up a G&T than it was for bathing. I phoned Zoe, who remarkably was still either not at her desk, or perhaps on another call. As indeed she was when I called again 20 minutes later. Suddenly, I had an inspiration. I telephoned, not Zoe’s direct maintenance hot-line (nice that something was hot), but the main office number.

“May I speak to Zoe?”

“Of course, I’ll put you through. Who shall I say is calling?”

I tell her.

“Hi, it’s Zoe here, what seems to be the trouble?”

As if she didn’t know. I tell her through gritted teeth that as a direct result of her indolence people are beginning to move away from me on crowded trams, and that hot water is becoming the key to my future  social success.

“Oh, well I didn’t know it hadn’t been fixed till you told me just now. I’ll call the manufacturer.”

“Please do. I’ll be in until 6pm. Could you ensure that you have called me to tell me what is happening before then?”

“Oh, of course I will!”

At this point, the site manager comes in to introduce himself as Mark, to welcome me to Manchester, and to ask if everything’s all right. I say that Manchester is lovely, with the exception of Zoe from maintenance. Mark is incredulous. He expostulates that this is intolerable. I must leave it with him. He phones me the next day, to say that in my absence he’s let himself in along with the electrician, and that everything is fixed. I almost burst into tears. If I weren’t married, I’d happily enter a civil partnership with Mark, for whom nothing is too much trouble. I also feel as someone would feel who has trained unnecessarily for mountain-top glory, or for the rigours of non-stop motor-racing, only to find out that all that was required was a casual walk down to the shops. Fucking pissed off.

And Zoe never phoned back, by the way.

The ravages of old age

My mum is 90 this year, which is not so newsworthy as it would have been when I was a kid, but an achievement all the same. Or perhaps I should say that I know an old lady who will be 90 this year: the extent to which she is still my mum is what has prompted this post. She’s just spent 2 weeks with us in France, and it’s the longest uninterrupted time I’ve spent with her for several years. The standard “overnighter” doesn’t reveal the same degree of decline, or highlight it with quite such ruthless contours.

She was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 18 months ago, but it’s clear that the disease had been wreaking its particular havoc for a long time before that. There are of course many sufferers much more severely affected than my mum; she still knows who I am, and most other people if she’s known them long enough. But her ability to recall trivial things over more than a few minutes is seriously compromised.

“Now, where am I?”

“In France, mum.”

“France? But how did I get here? I haven’t told anyone I’m going away, you know.”

“Don’t worry, mum, you did! Everything’s OK.”

“Well, I think someone could have told me what was happening!”

“Mum, we did. We’ve been planning this with you for 4 months!”

And so on. Along with going to the loo every half an hour, and every time having to ask where it is. All mixed in with random things that have somehow lodged in her memory, such as the appointment with the dentist that my brother is supposed to have made for her back in England, and which she is forever hoping he’s not forgotten to do.

Although the constant questions about the same things, the repeated panicking that she’s brought no clothes with her, the permanent apology for “being in the way”, which she isn’t, can all become wearing after a while, it’s not that which really matters or concerns. The really dispiriting and emotionally draining aspect is reflecting on what all this confusion must be like for her. It’s hard to imagine how it must feel to be so continually and totally disorientated. If I simply can’t remember the most apposite word for some thing or situation it drives me to distraction until I’ve recalled it, but that is as nothing compared to this. The frustration and terror must be unendurable.

On Monday I arrived with mum at the pre-arranged meeting place where my brother was to collect her and take her back to Lincolnshire. As she goes off with him, she turns to me and says, “Thanks so much for the lovely weekend!” My brother and I look at each other and shrug. What else can we do?

Christmas holiday high and low lights

It’s 11.15am on Saturday 19th December. We’re a mile and a half from Dover docks, and due to check in at 11.45am. What can go wrong? Quite a lot, as it turned out. Snow has closed the port of Calais, and my smugness at having chosen to cross to Boulogne-sur-Mer is as short-lived as it is intense. With Calais closed, the army of 40-ton trucks has nowhere to go except to litter the approach road to the docks. That mile and a half takes us 4 hours. Our ferry is long gone, and the next one’s not until 6pm. It’s late, and we finally leave Dover at 7.45pm. Not exactly the start we’d hoped for! But even in these frustrating circumstances there’s much to be thankful for. My 89-year-old mum whose bladder does not know the meaning of discipline is able to seek relief in the long wait thanks to a wonderful St. John’s Ambulance crew. The booking we’d made for a hotel 200 miles south of Boulogne is cancelled, and I manage to find an alternative just outside the absurdly Christmassy town complete with 6 inches of snow, at which we arrive 2 hours later than I’d told them only 3 hours before. But they welcome us with a warming Calvados, and even warmer bonhomie.

The alert amongst you will have noticed the casual reference to an aged mother, and she’ll shine in a starring role in next week’s post. Thus I’ll not dwell on her particular contributions to the highs and lows account, save to say that her scoring in both goals was prolific. Once we’d arrived at our Limousin house the festive snow had all disappeared to be replaced by enough rain to make a monsoon season feel it was performing as it should. On Christmas Day itself we played host to an old, but now very frail, friend who is notable mostly for having lived in France for 20 years without being contaminated with a single word of the language. On the other hand, we exercised our tenuous grasp on Gallic fluency during a festive meal with our wonderful butcher (in the shop-keeping rather than the serial-killing sense) neighbours on one side, whilst our neighbour on the other side continued his single-handed efforts to lead us into alcoholism with midnight sessions of vin doux naturel cut with Champagne.

The final climax was a superb meal on New Year’s Eve which started at 8.30pm, and found us sipping our digestifs at 1.30am. And then a perfect ending on the way home in the most ridiculously picturesque hotel in a converted Norman water-mill, with frost covered trees and just the right amount of snow, a dog of Disney-esque friendliness and suitably blind in one eye; balanced in the scales with an en-suite shower so small that one could choose to have one’s bum in it, or the door closed, but not both, and a stunningly expensive breakfast with croissants at £4 a throw. France as only France can be – I love it.