October 2008

Can somebody’s achievements ever be separated from who they are a person?  Does the single minded ruthlessness needed to become the best in the world necessarily mean a callous disregard for other people?   Is that the price to pay for success or the singular lack of empathy associated with self obsession?         


Sir Vidia Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, will go down in the canons of western literature as the writer who forced the novel to adapt to the late twentieth century, a blend of fiction and non-fiction that was, in the words of Hilary Spurling (April 13th 2008),  ‘exhilarating, alien and unforgiving, at once phenomenally accurate but unsoftened by consolations of familiarity’.  But will he also be remembered for the appalling way he exploited, degraded and ultimately rejected not just his wife but also the mistress that he had kept for 24 years? 


Vidia Naipaul married Patricia Hale when they were both students at Oxford.  She gave up everything – her family, her ambitions, her self confidence – to marry an Indian boy with no money, contacts or prospects at a time when racial prejudice was pervasive throughout English society.  She devoted herself to him, supported him by becoming a teacher, corrected his manuscripts, looked after his home, cooked his meals and welcomed his guests.   She regarded him as ‘the genius’, who must be nurtured.  And she was the mother.  In return he manipulated, exploited nd undermined her.       


It seems that Vidia feared and resented his dependence on Pat and set out to destroy it.  He criticised her appearance, derided her opinions, scorned her devotion and shattered her self confidence. She tolerated his open affair with the much more lively Margaret,  though his public disclosure that in the early years of his marriage he was a great prostitute man, seemed to quicken the cancer that would kill her.


Why did Pat put up with it all.  Why did Pat suppress her own ambition to support her husband?   Why did she tolerate his blatent infidelity?  Was she so lacking in self esteem that she ignored her own considerable intellectual abilities and accepted her husbands conclusion that she was dull?  Are some women so encultured to the role of supporting their mate that they will suppress any personal ambition?   Do they attach themselves so completely to their man that their life has no meaning without them?  Does the cycles of abuse and reparation generate a type of addiction – as  Saul Bellow memorably expressed it, ‘like the knife and the wound aching for each other’. Although awful to live with, the excitement can be so good that it takes an enormous effort of will to let it go.  Naipaul would demand the unconditional devotion of a mother who can absorb all the pain he could inflict on her and still be there.  


But in a strange, almost perverse way, he was devoted to Pat. Their marriage lasted 41 years.  She was the only person he could really trust.  Even four days before her death, he was still giving her manuscripts to read.  And although in a haste that smacked of a terror of loneliness, he took another wife within weeks after Pat’s death dismissing Margaret overnight with a lump sum, when he and his new wife went to scatter Pat’s ashes in the woods, Vidia was inconsolable.


Oh, knock hard enough at the door of many, seemingly respectable middle class families and you may get a similar story.  The way people treat the people they love the most can be dreadful. You always kill the one you love ….. Oscar Wilde wrote in De Profundis.  Naipaul was different inasmuch as he felt it his mission as a writer to expose everything, warts and all.  He gave his biographer, Patrick French, access to all his letters, twenty searching interviews and complete freedom to write as he found.  


So what made Naipaul behave so badly?  French, who was talking about his new biography,  ‘The way it is’, at this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, suggested that he his self obsession with being a literary genius justified the ruthless exploitation of people.  But such self obsession always protects an enormous fragility..VS undoubtedly needed people, but his behaviour suggests that he was scared of getting too close to them.  Attempts at familiarity by others would could be fended off.      


French relates the story of him descending in a lift with Margaret Drabble, Auberon Waugh and John Betjman.   Waugh said, ‘Everyone calls you V.S. But what is your name?’  ‘Vidia’ was the reply.  ‘May I call you Vidia?’  ‘No,as we’ve only just met, I would prefer you to call me Mr Naipaul.’  It took ages before the lift doors opened. 


The travel writer, Paul Theroux, considered himself a close friend but never quite got over the callous, seemingly inexplicable manner of his rejection, an experience he described in his book, ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’.  Naipaul reportedly reduced his long term agent to tears when he dismissed him. He seemed to be constantly in dispute  with people.  ‘Friendship has not been important to me,’  he told French grandly.   

But the curious thing was that when he fell out with somebody he always felt that he was the one who was hard done by. 


VS Naipaul just couldn’t belong.  He shunned the company of the Caribbean Authors.  He was disgusted by the living standards of the Indians; he hated their superstition.  He ridiculed the ‘expat community’.  He wanted to be recognised as a great international author without being tied to any nationality. 


The impression is that unless people were prepared to worship him or could be of use to him, he had no time for them. French tells the story of an Irish journalist who travelled to his house in Wiltshire to interview him, taking an early morning flight from Dublin, a bus from the airport and finally walking the last three miles.  Tired, she unwisely admitted she hadn’t finished his book.  He was so incensed that he screamed at her to get out of his house and she had to walk all the way back without the interview.. 


Naipaul’s behaviour is a textbook description of how fragile, narcissistic people relate.  Narcissism is a reaction formation that is created out of distrust; fear that others will take them over and reject them.  So it’s a case of  exploit or be exploited.  Never let anybody get too close.  Being a literary celebrity gave him the power to do just that, but at a cost of the most profound loneliness.  That was his tragedy.    


Although Naipaul behaved as if every relationship was expendable, it is clear that he yearned to be loved on a grand scale.  Why else would he want to be a ‘great’ writer, the best in the world.  And he had the will and the talent to realise his fantasies.  He felt he had deserved the right to be treated as a very special person. The fact that he wanted his biographer to tell it as it really was, warts and all,  demonstrates the depth of his need to be known, to be forgiven, to be given the kind of unconditional love that only a mother would give him.   


This raises the question of what his relationship with his own mother was like.  Curiously we get few clues about this from French’s biography.  We know she was burningly ambitious for her children and scathing about the Moslems, the negroes and the white masters.  When love is expressed as ambition instead of acceptance and nurturing, it creates an ambivalence that characterises the way a child relates throughout their life. For V.S.Naipaul, this was inscribed in block capitals.  



The history of arrogance teaches us that overweaning self regard is born out of abject emotional and often physical deprivation. Vidia Seepersad Naipaul was born into a community of indentured labourers on Trinidad’s sugar plantations.  They were no better than slaves.  They just didn’t belong.  Vidia grew up with the terrible ingrained response of an acutely sensitive child to the insecurity, shame and humiliation of the poor and dispossessed of the colonial setting from which he came. ‘Contempt, quick deep, inclusive, became part of his nature,’  Naipaul wrote in his semi-autobiographical, ‘A House for Mr Biswas’.   


He was determined to leave his background. By sheer will, he won a scholarship to Oxford.   But when he arrived in England, he found that he didn’t belong there either.  There were just 25,000 Caribbean immigrants living in England in the 1950’s.  He  couldn’t get a job after leaving Oxford.  His writing was ignored.  Deprivation creates iron in the soul.  He knew he was the best.  They would accept him and he would despise them for it.   


But although V.S. Naipaul desperately wanted to be successful, it would never be enough.  He would have found what all those with a conviction of the importance of  their own destiny find,  that success breeds a pale simalcrum of love, that consists of   admiration, sycophancy, envy and fear. He would never really get the unconditional love he so desired from his work.  Instead, his success would be devalued into a means of controlling people while shielding himself from dependency.  No wonder his writing was so harsh and uncompromising.  It dazzled with its brilliance yet fended off.  He would have despised his achievements as an expression of himself and he would have hated those who were taken in by it.  And without the struggle to rediscover himself again and again, he would not exist.   He could never accept himself or be accepted for who he is, only for what he does.  His writing is empowered by the devastating self disgust;  it’s his way of projecting the hatred.  


Naipaul would have to devalue himself, if not as a writer, as a man. If he ever believed he was really good, there would be no purpose in his life.  His script had been written many years ago.  He embodies the grudge of the poor incomer, he had to establish his credentials, again and again and again.  In a way, the Nobel Prize, the Booker Prize and  the knighthood, the manor house in the country represent a kind of death.  What more is there to achieve?  Why bother?  There’s only the memory of how exciting it was before he made it, the publicity he could court by being outrageous, the purpose he would acquire and fomenting conflict with others.  In a way he would want to provoke other people to let him down.  That would provide the justification to relieve the burden of his own self denigration.  But Naipaul has hidden his fragility behind these defences for so long that as French so cleverly expresses it, he has become the mask that eats into the face.    . 



My guess is that at 76,  Sir Vidia Naipaul, for all his accolades, is a deeply lonely and fearful man, for whom writing has become an increasingly desperate means of connecting with people.  He is like a man lost in the wilderness, frantically sending out messages on a mobile phone and the battery is running out.  



Have you looked at the way clouds swirl, changing shape and tone, grey against grey?  Have you gazed out from the top of a cliff and seen how a shadow alters the tone and texture?  How you examined flames as they constantly vary in shape and intensity?   Have you observed the way wisps of cloud break free and slowly evaporate against the impenetrable blue?   Have you watched smoke rise and layer on a late autumn evening?   Have you seen how blood falls, swirls and spreads when it drops into water?  Have you studied field of wheat, riffled by the wind?   Have you experienced how love, losing fear and suspicion, spreads and deepens?  Have you noticed that melancholy constantly changes meaning, dark against dark?  Mark Rothko has. 


His paintings seem to capture the evanescent, complex nuances in mood and emotion,  how anger boils and simmers and goes cold,  how a smile blends pleasure with fear, how insincerity plays around the eyes.   But did he think of that when he is sat in his green deck chair, smoke curling from the cigarette held between the yellow stained fingers of his left hand, contemplating the possibilities of the canvas in front of him.  I doubt it.  I suspect that it is instinctive with Rothko.  The painting emerges from him.  He has a sense of the effect that he is searching for, but if he knew what that was, his cognition would instantly wreck it.  It’s up to others to provide the meaning. 


Rothko’s canvases are big.  They draw you in.  You feel you could walk through them.  And yet, the large blocks of colour are not without meaning.  The ever so subtle differences in texture and tone, the way one colour bleeds or rather smokes into another, the misty overlay, creates an enigmatic field – like a Rorschach ink blot -, upon which the observer projects his own meaning.     


Rothko’s paintings seem alive, organic, like body parts.  They beat, they throb, they grow, they spread.  The margins are indistinct, they blend and develop out of each other. To look at a Rothko painting is like listening to music; it captures the mind.  Little wonder that he always painted to the accompaniment of music.    



Mark Rothko was born Markus Roscovicz.  His parents were orthodox Russian jews who fled to America from the Cossacks.  As a child he was full of himself, he never stopped talking.  As an adult he wanted to change the world with his art.  His early figurative works were not very good; his surrealism a pale imitation of Dali, but then he found his style – some have called it abstract expressionism.  Don’t labels rob things of their soul?  Painting the murals for the exclusive dining room on the ground floor of  The Seagram Building in New York was a massive opportunity, but he was always ambivalent about it.  When he accepted the commission, he said that he hoped the lurid blocks of maroon and reds and black would make the rich diners feel sick.  In the end, he reneged and gave the paintings to the Tate. 


Centred on the Rothko donation, the exhibition at The Tate Modern covers the most interesting period of Rothko’s career, from 1958 until his suicide in 1970.  The paintings for the Seagram commission occupy the large central space of the exhibition.  The large blocks of colour, dimly lit as in a cathedral,  have a spiritual intensity; they inspire a sense of awe.  All you need for a fully overwhelming emotional experience is the accompaniment of serious music; Taberner, Arvo Part, Bach or the Beethoven string quartets. 


In the surrounding rooms are darker works, black on black,  brown-grey on black – fascinating tonal paintings rich in meaning,  paintings that lead the eye to the horizon the vanishing point place where sea and sky lose their identity.


Many have said that these dark paintings are indicative of his depression, but I found hope and comfort in the swirls of dark on dark, the impression of lights on the horizon.  But Rothko was ever an enigma.  He would not explain.  I like to think he didn’t know.  ‘The sense of the tragic is always with me,’ he would say.  Films of him reveal a reflective though talkative man, though there was a cynicism in him, a sense of cruelty.  The reason for his suicide at 57 is not explained. 


Perhaps for him, his art lost his purpose.  Perhaps, despite giving up the Seagram commission, he has become commercial.  His mind was no longer his own.  


‘Painting thrives through companionship,’ he once wrote.  It’s a risky act to send it out into the world.      



 I hadn’t seen James for a year.  When our therapy had finished, his daughter was moving out into a flat of her own and he was going off with his girl friend to tour Indonesia.  I had felt pleased with his progress.  But recently he had suffered a dip. 


‘I’ve just got this awful emptiness inside’, he announced as he sipped his coffee.  ‘Since I retired, I don’t know who I am or what I’m meant to be doing.  Life just seems meaningless.’


It wasn’t the first time James had said that to me, but why had this cropped up now.  I know how much he had struggled with retirement, but he seemed to live such an active life and he and his girl friend had just got engaged.  But James’s difficulties had been there since childhood.  His mother had struggled by herself to bring up her three children under very deprived circumstances.  It was as much as she could do to keep enough food on the table let alone cater for their emotional needs.   



In a paper entitled, ‘On being empty of oneself’, the psychoanalyst, Enid Balint,  explained how children depend on feedback from their parents in order to manage their  their feelings.  So when her little boy falls over and grazes his knee, a mother accepts the pain and the fear and returns it in a more acceptable form.  ‘Oh dear, that’s a bad hurt, but we’ll just wash it, put a plaster on and it will feel a lot better.’   And in a few days it will go.’  Managed in this way, the child can acknowledge the experience and learn from it. 


Children are constantly running to their parents to enlist their help in making sense of the world.  Wilfred Bion, another psychoanalyst, saw this in terms of quantum mechanics.  Children emit alpha particles (of experience), which their mothers take in, transform and returns in the form of more manageable beta particles.  So children learn about their  individual world by a process of projection and introjection.  Through constant reiteration of this process involving more and more complex notions and an increasing range of resources (parents, friends, teachers, lectures, mentors, therapists, books, reference sources) they develop a robust sense of identity.  To put it another way, our identity is shaped by our experience and way in which we learn, through the agency of other people, to understand and manage it. 


Imagine what might happen if that feedback didn’t take place or was insufficient; if parents were absent or, as Susan Greenfield deplored in her latest book on Identity,  if  children spent too much time playing computer games instead of exploring and learning. They would grow up not quite knowing who they were.  They would experience a internal void, a lack of identity and purpose that would need constant replenishment from external sources.. 


Patients with extreme obesity frequently report a great emptiness inside them –  a void that they fill up with food, the hunger that is never satisfied.  The image of a fat child sitting in front of a computer screen or television has become a cultural stereotype of enormous concern, since they may be condemning themselves to a limited lifespan of debility, infertility and illness.  But dieting (or even exercise) is probably not the solution.  What they really need is the robust sense of their own identity that can only be gained by active engagement with other people.  The Fat Camps, organised by Leeds psychologist, Paul Gately, work, not just because the kids are made to exercise more, but because,   feeling accepted and belonging, they have less need for food.   


But people can replenish their inner emptiness in expressions of need or forms of addition other than food. Many drink too much, some take drugs, some become addicted to sex or romance, some fill their diaries with new experiences, new encounters.  Such external satisfaction is brief and the experience soon needs to be repeated. 


Children with an empty space inside themselves can become adults who cannot bear to be left alone.  They live in what Sandor Ferenzi termed, a world of thinking without feeling and feeling without thinking – in other words, a world with no meaning.    


Some try to compensated by seeking involvement in an interest so all consuming that it takes them over and defines them.  These are our artists, our novelists, playwrights, composers, scientists, politicians,  individuals who dedicate their lives to an idea.   


And some seek out the one true love that will give them that unique feedback they lost in childhood, a quest that is often doomed to disappointment as yet another person they  believed was their prince, the one who would always be there for them,  turns out to be another frog after all. 


But what if they do meet their soul mate, their true love, the one they have been looking for all of their lives?  In her book, ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth’,  Francis Wilson compares the relationship between Dorothy and William Wordsworth to that between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, who were also raised as brother and sister in the same family and evolved from childhood inseparability into a ‘hybrid of self consumption’.  In falling in love with their ‘sibling’, they found  the one person who really understood them and could help replenish what was missing in each other.   When Dorothy felt melancholic and ill, William could restore her to health and vice versa.  This would explain why they seemed to exchange illnesses and why the disappearance of William resulted in Dorothy’s non-existence. 


Frances Wilson argues that  sexual desire is unnecessary in such relationships since they are about a mutual satisfaction of each other’s spiritual needs as if together they were the same person.  ‘I am Heathcliffe’, Catherine explains.  ‘He’s more myself than I am’.   Such relationships are, according to Wilson,  depersonalising, dematerialising and unsexing, not at all conducive to carnal desire, which is more about difference and possession of what one admires in the other.  What Frances Wilson is describing in an enmeshed sibling relationship is similar to that found in some married couples who ‘grow together’. 


Held together by the inability to have any meaningful existence without each other, such relationships allow little scope for personal freedom and development, which might incur  insecurity.  The fear of engulfment which comes from such extreme spiritual intimacy oscillates with the terror of separation and little changes. 


People suffering from emptiness need external validation to ‘live’,  but if that validation comes from somebody with similar experience and requirements, it stifles personal development and smothers the relationship since the couple turn into the same organism.           



The sense of emptiness in Western society is now so prevalent that it might be considered the norm.  We are becoming a narcissistic society, preoccupied with our ‘image’ and our own desperate needs for excitement, material possession, romance and sex.  We consume more food than in healthy for us, drink excessive amounts of alcohol and take drugs to relieve the boredom.  Loneliness and depression are the commonest illnesses in our culture.  Overconsumption is eroding life’s quality and expectancy. 


In order to rectify our social isolation and need, we need to understand the conditions that have generated it; busy parents, paid childminders, nuclear families, single parent families, children given toys instead of attention,  television and computer games instead of ‘play’.  How can anybody develop a strong sense of their own identity if there is so little engagement and play – so little opportunity to learn and try things out?


That should tell us that medicines are unlikely to be useful in treating cultural ailments.  What we need is social solutions to help relieve isolation and build a sense of teamwork and community.   If all the money spent on antidepressants could be reinvested in innovative community projects, it might arrest the current trend and create a more healthy and contented society.  Surely it’s worth a try.      


When the Cherokee Indians were taken out of their homelands in the east and forced to march to their reservations in the prairies of Kansas, they described it like being taken out of their mind.  Over a quarter of them died and those that survived became demoralised.  Many of them turned to alcoholism.     


The rural English poet, John Clare knew what that was like.  He could see his world from the tower of Helpstone Church, near Peterborough. ‘Everything you see is yourself.  It’s the extent of yourself – the bounds of your understanding’.  But between 1809 and 1820, when he was still a young man, it all changed.  


Clare was writing at the time of the English diaspora when the parliamentary enclosures dispossessed most of the population of the common land where they kept their stock and grew their own food.  This disconnected them, not only from their birthright but also from their culture and traditions.  They were, at a stroke of the parliamentary axe, deracinated.  There are stories of ancient footpaths being closed, no trespassing signs erected, holy wells, around which festivals would be held, being fenced in. With no source of food and no work, most of the population was uprooted and forced to migrate and seek employment in the new industrial towns.  Over the course the last two hundred years the same thing has happened throughout the world. 


I have written of our identity as an amalgam of the beliefs by which we  lead our lives; our core values and the people, the connections that embody those ideas.  Place is very important because it contains those beliefs and those people. Environment and society were more bound up than perhaps they are today.  In the past, the physical space, the locale in which a person lived, was a landscape of personal meaning.  John Clare knew intimately every field, every hill, every wood.  He knew the birds and animals that inhabited that space.  The landscape was his identity.  It conditioned his thinking.  It was his thinking.  Taking him away from it caused him to lose his mind.   


I can connect with that.  No, I’ve not gone mad.  At least, nobody’s suggested that I have,  but Last year my father died.  He had lived in his house on the Blackdown escarpment in Somerset for nearly fifty years.  My brother and I grew up there.  The woods that lined the escarpment, the flinty fields above them and the reservoirs beneath, the owls, buzzards, roe deer and badgers became part of who I was.  His death not only represented the absence of a key figure in my life, but also the loss of that part of me that was connected with Blagdon Hill.  The loss is enormous.  I cannot yet bring myself to go back. 


Change can challenges people’s perceptions of themselves.  It can make people ill.  It can  make them mad.  John Clare found it difficult to adapt to the changes occurring around him.  He became depressed and so disturbed that his wife, Martha, felt it necessary to enlist Dr Fermix Scrimshire’s assistance to get him committed to a mental asylum in Epping Forest. 


I’m not necessarily suggesting that the enclosure of the parish of Helpstone was the only reason Clare went ‘mad’.  His relationship with Martha was always a stormy one, not least because he remained in love with his childhood sweetheart Mary.   


The psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, recently said that as good a definition of madness as any is when a person’s family cannot cope with them.  But if we agree with that, we would need to accept that Alexander Solzenitzyn  and the other intellectual dissidents incarcerated on the Gulag Archipelago were truly, whereas it was the state that was paranoid.   


But if John Clare was crazy before he left Helpstone,  he became doubly crazy afterwards.  It was after his forced eviction to Essex that his poetry became a little bizarre and he began to imagine that he was Lord Byron and he was indeed married to both Martha and Mary.   


Mary was his muse.  It was while he was in the asylum in Essex that he heard a rumour that Mary had died.  He escaped and walked up the Great North Road, eating grass, begging bread and water whenever he could.  You can imagine his distress when he indeed discovered that Mary, who had never married, had died in a house fire.


He spent the rest of his life in an asylum in Northamptonshire.    

How can otherwise intelligent, informed people, people who demand to know why they should take a certain treatment, choose a specific kind of investment or buy a particular car – believe in God.  Can  ninety percent of the population of the United States be gullible?  Don’t answer that!  But the whole story beggars belief, does it not?   


The world was created by God in seven days.  He later impregnated a virgin though the intercession of a flying man.  She gave birth to a son, who was his own father.  He then fed 5000 people with just five loaves and two fishes.  He made blind men see, cripples walk again, healed those afflicted with leprosy and resuscitated the dead.  He died a barbaric death, but three days later as if by magic came alive again.  And He’s still alive now though we can’t actually see Him.  But – and here’s the clincher – if we can bring ourselves to at least pay lip service to this kind of dogma and be reasonably good, maybe we can go to some parallel universe called heaven and live in bliss forever.    


I do apologise if some people find this offensive, but from any critical, scientific, rational and logical perspective, it’s errant nonsense, isn’t it?  But perhaps that really doesn’t matter. 


Jamie Whyte (The Times, September 16th , 2008)  claims that the believers don’t’ really believe because otherwise they would do something about it.  They would mount a campaign to ban abortion.  They would make sure that their life fulfilled the admission criteria for heaven. The fact is they don’t.  So, Whyte argues, they’re not really believers as such, but people who are comforted by a religious fantasy.     


But if we dismiss the idea of God as a comforting illusion, then we have to dismiss our belief in love or beauty or truth or great art or healing therapies. The point is that the existence we inhabit is not a solid tangible world of immutable facts, but is a fluid, transient, swirling nebula of feeling, meaning and belief.  What we call our identity – our spirit if you will – is but an amalgam of our beliefs.  And it is those beliefs – how we interpret the evidence or lack of it – that sustain us – or not.      


We live in an unstable world, where the security of our institutions are under threat.   The financial system is collapsing.  The democracies of the west are waging war on terror.  The climate is  changing.  There are new diseases we can’t cure.  In this cataclysmic environment, the fantasy that is religion offers a reassuring sense of certainty.  The formula is simple and compelling.  If we believe in God, everything will be allright.  If only that were true, but as many healers – complementary therapists, psychotherapists and doctors – know only too well, faith can diminish anxiety and heal illness.  It can even help us deal with death.     


Last night at the Ilkley Literature Festival,  I chaired a lecture by Dr Dorothy Rowe on the topic of her new book, What should I believe? 


‘Religions should not be regarded as statements of fact, but expressions of hope. If we didn’t have worries about dying’, she told us, ‘there would be no religions, because all religions promise to defeat death.  They tell us that although our body might die, our soul – who we are, lives on as a kind of nimbus. And this belief alters the way we live our lives.  So if we are convinced there is some kind of spiritual life after death, they we would do our utmost to be ‘good’ in this life, even if we martyred ourselves and made ourselves miserable in the process.  But if we believe that death was really the end, then surely we would try to be happy.’ 


Dorothy explained how a decision to choose religion and the fantasy of life everlasting might comfort some people but could make others very miserable.  Religions can inspire great love but they can also instil great fear and cause people to  become ill. Those who believe in a strict (pure) interpretation of Christianity or for that matter Islam, can condemn themselves to a lifetime of guilt.  Believing that you are a miserable sinner and never good enough to enter God’s Kingdom at the dreadful day of judgement is hardly good for your self confidence.  When things go wrong, what else can you do but blame yourself.  Not much hope there, then.    


But it can go the other way.  Some people believe that through worship, they become one of God’s chosen.  Their belief is a tremendous source of pride. It makes them feel  so much better, more virtuous than other people. But if they are threatened in their  convictions by what they perceive as the contagion and sin of the disbelievers, they may be persuaded to attack them and even kill them.  The effects of this and the revenge such acts encourages can be quite dreadful, as recent events have so clearly demonstrated.      


Religion also teaches people that they live in a just world.  If you’re good then good things will happen to you,  but if you’re behave badly, then you’re going to suffer.  The problem is that life is not like that.  Misfortune is just that; a matter of luck.  Terrible things can happen to the most virtuous of people, while wicked people can often seem to get away Scot free.  The injustice of this challenges religious beliefs more than anything else, inducing a deep sense of grievance.  How could God let this happen?  Shaken from their moorings by the blows of circumstance, erstwhile believers can feel cast adrift in a dark and turbulent sea.’   


What most of us in the west know as religion belief, the Judaeo-Christian and Moslem traditions – embodies a doctrine that fundamentally rules through fear and encourages separation between peoples. These religions were a political expedient to provide a sense of identity to threatened and embattled peoples.  Suspicion and hostility still exist in Northern Ireland while Bush and Blair’s War on Terror has seemed to resemble a crusade against the Moslem. 


But human beings cannot live without meaning and belief.  We are story makers and story tellers. It is inherent in our psyche.  We have to make sense of our existence. But  we require a meaningful and compassionate story that encourages people to live at peace with themselves and with others, a story that accepts uncertainty, that can encompass change and development and acknowledges that we all see things differently.  For that we could do much worse than seek our template further east.    

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.’ 


But some do mean to.  They do it because they believe it’s best for you, though they would be loathe to admit they’ve done you any harm.   


Philip Larkin’s poem is the theme of this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, which has occurred at the same time that Julian Jarrold’s new film of Brideshead Revisited has been released. And if there was ever a novel about having your head messed up by a parent, this would feature prominently. 


You remember the story.  Charles goes up to Oxford and is pulled into the orbit of Sebastian, a foppish, though fragile aristocrat.  They become friends, perhaps lovers.  Charles is invited to the family estate, Brideshead (or for the sake of the film, Castle Howard).  He is quite overwhelmed by the architecture and situation and is charmed by Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, played with evil intent by Emma Thompson, and Julia, his sister, but slowly comes to realise the pernicious hold Lady Marchmain has over her children.       


Lady Marchmain is a Roman Catholic and insists that her children are brought up according to catholic principles.  She does not believe in joy in this life; she is more concerned with being good to merit peace in the life hereafter.  Her children attempt to rebel against their mother’s rigid regime, but with their father having fled to live with his mistress in Italy, they don’t have a chance.  Sebastian lives a wild, gay life in Oxford, but after discovering Charles kissing his sister, he seeks oblivion in drink and escapes to Morocco, where he spends his last days being looked after in a monastery.  Alarmed by the attraction between Julia and Charles, Lady Marchmain gets Julia married off quickly to Rex, whom she believes is a catholic and therefore a suitable mate.  In fact, Rex, a sharp American businessman, has only converted to Catholicism in order to get his hands on the family pile.  Charles meets Julia some years later, when he has become an artist of some renown. They plan to run away together, but although her mother has died by that time, she reaches out from the grave.  Julia cannot bring herself to live in sin with Charles.  The shame would be too much.  ‘I hope your heart breaks,’  Charles flings at Julia as he leaves.  


So the lives of Sebastian and Julia have been imprisoned by the beliefs that their mother has instilled into them throughout their childhood and adolescence.  Her power is so strong that when their father returns to the family home to die, they pray for him to receive absolution and be redeemed to them.  Charles, a self-confessed atheist, is appalled.           



It is difficult enough for children to be brought up by single parents, but if those parents are so fearful of life that they impose the control they have to exert on themselves on their children, it can be impossible.  The children have no chance. 


Children need to see their parents as fallible.  They need to learn that the one who loves them most in all the world, can also get angry, can behave badly, but most important can make reparation.  It is this knowledge that enables them to have sufficient flexibility to adapt to the vicissitudes of life and survive mentally and spiritually intact.  


Children with a monolithic and flawless code of ethics imposed by a single dominant parent may be fine as long as life does not challenge them, but when it does, as it inevitably will, they do not have the adaptability to manage and they can feel their world is disintegrating.  And if that code of ethics is reinforced by a severe God, what hope have they got. 


So, having escaped his mother’s iron grip and disillusioned by the loss of Charles’s devotion, Sebastian’s body fails him.  Julia, on the other hand, pulls herself back from the abyss and turns into her mother.  So Sebastian dies, Julia’s heart breaks and Cordelia?  She shows every sign of joining a nunnery.  They are fucked!     


Their father might have saved them, had he been strong enough to stand up to his wife’s authoritarian rule.  Children need at least two parental figures.  They need an alternative viewpoint.  They need parents they can talk to, who will listen to them.  They need parents, who are good enough to help them, but who are human, who make mistakes, get angry at times but who can say sorry.  They need parents whom they can trust to be there for them no matter what they do. 


A rigid parent rules by fear, holding up the awful threat of abandonment if their children fail to obey. 


Two thirds of marriages end in divorce.  Most of these occur while the children are still living in the family home.  Few divorces end amicably.  Parents need to justify their actions.  Often one parent is the good one – usually the mother; while the other, usually the father, is the bad one.  The children grow up with a separation in their mind; a schism of the soul.  If parents cannot reconcile their differences and accept joint responsibility for the collapse of their relationship,  what hope have their children to heal the dichotomy – the good side which is represented by their mother and the bad side as represented by their father.  And what hope have they got, particularly the girls,  to achieve satisfactory relationships themselves.  Will they ever be able to trust their partners?  Won’t they need to demand impossible devotion and honour. 


Perhaps with time, the errant father will achieve redemption – perhaps on his deathbed as in Brideshead, but heaven will never help him if he proves himself to be less than perfect. 


As Dorothy Rowe so clearly expressed it in her new book, ‘What Should I Believe’, a person’s identity is the sum total of their beliefs, garnered from their experience of life.  If they lack the stable background to be curious, to explore, to learn flexibility, they will cling to a rigid code of ethics, as a drowning man clings to a life raft.  This seriously restricts their personality.  They cannot dare to question their beliefs for fear of rejection and distintegration.  It is better to cling to a false god than to have no god at all.   Thus their beliefs become their prison that restricts opportunities and consumes all the joy, that risk can bring.     


Philip Larkin may have been fucked up by his parents, but this need not apply to our children.  So the message for parents is, dare to be human, if you want your children to love you and be free – and not fear you and be over-dependant.  The greatest gift any of us can ever give our children is the ability to take us for granted for all our faults so that they can let us go and lead their own lives. 



And the message for children, emerge from your prison, learn to forgive your parents for being too human, because some day your humanity will need to be understood too.    

It’s Saturday afternoon in Ilkley, West Yorkshire and the church was full of people- but they were not there to worship God.  That doesn’t pack them in any more except at Christmas and Harvest Festival and the local pet’s service, of course.  No, Sir Roy Strong, one time curator of the V&A, was in town to talk about the decline of country churches and the need for change.   


Warming to his task, the good knight waved his arms and in juicy vowels like a summer fruit pudding, declared,  ‘I would get rid of all the pews.  They would make jolly good firewood and it would free up all this wonderful space.’


‘Then you could use it for what the church always was, a centre of the community.  You could hold meetings here, whist drives, hog roasts, farmer’s markets.  These old buildings are wonderful, but they must not be just be preserved as part of our heritage.  They must be used.  They must change.  Otherwise they will fall into ruin.’ 


‘There are 10,000 rural churches in this country and only 5,000 are used. They are a memorial to a bygone age when 80% of the population lived in scattered small communities in the country.  That figure was reversed in the 19th century when people moved into the big cities to find work in the factories and mills.  And then in the latter half of the twentieth century, less and less people attended church, and the local vicars probably had about 7 churches to service with half a dozen ageing congregation in each.’


 ‘We have to alter our thinking.  We have to do something now, otherwise the buildings will be boarded up and fall into ruin.’


He’s right.  The buildings are wonderful, but they shouldn’t be wrapped in ecclesiastical wool in homage to Nicolas Pevsner or John Betjeman.  The space should be freed up. 


But for what?  A meeting hall?  Certainly.  A conference centre.  Why not?  A space  for concerts, plays, films, dance?  Of course. Many churches are being used as such.  And you could charge for admission and use the money to maintain and develop the building.  But would you want to serve alcohol in a church.  Sir Roy was positively enthusiastic?  ‘I love drinking!’, he exclaimed. 


But where would he draw the line?  I wanted to ask him what he thought of churches becoming banks, nightclubs, gyms, private houses, restaurants, or mosques?   The buildings are far too useful not to be used but would he feel saddened by functions that did not respect the sanctity of the church in some way?  His views seemed surprisingly liberal through he did seem to suggest that pole dancing might be a step too far. 


Rural churches have a symbolic significance for many of us. They are the spiritual centre of a community.  The buildings offer creative space for reflection and contemplation.  It would seem a pity not to be able to utilise the traditional, symbolism of the church.  So could they, for example, became centres for enlightenment and healing.


Our institutionalised religions seem to have lost their way.  The gospel they preach seems so out of touch with the difficulties, the dilemmas that most people are facing in the 21st century.  Television and the internet do not offer much spiritual guidance in understanding the meaning of our lives and how to feel  good about ourselves.  50% of people suffer from depression or unexplained physical illnesses related to depression.  Doctors surgeries have become the new chapels, dispensing tablets and medicines instead of wafers and cheap wine.   But institutionalised medicine, like religion, does not work. 

Could churches have a community health role, hosting lectures, seminars and courses in helping people live healthy and happy lives. Could they offer space for healers, alternative therapists and psychotherapists to practice?  Could we at last recognise that mind, body and spirit (meaning) cannot be separated and recover the original role of the church as custodian of the health of the community? 

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