Tag Archives: London

Integrity.

Our theme for assemblies this term is integrity. For me, it’s one of the most important topics to discuss with young adults; I believe all of the young people I spend every day with have the potential to change the world, but if we want them to be a force for good then we have to equip them to head into that world ready to face life’s challenges with complete integrity.

Probably the best definition of integrity I’ve heard is this – making what’s on the inside, match what’s on the outside. We can put that into practice in lots of different ways, whatever our point of departure. It might be as straightforward as striving to fulfil our potential or, to borrow from my old school motto, it might be about committing to show our faith in the way that we live.

In a former life I was based at a major gallery in London, working mostly with their religious art. In that time, I learnt a lot about the lives of the saints and if we’re thinking about examples of integrity, that seems as good a place as any to begin. Saints are, by and large, ordinary people who do extraordinary things. What they all have in common, is a real sense of integrity.

St Jerome wasn’t born into a Christian family. As he was growing up he was incredibly sceptical of Christianity but when he moved to Rome to study, he was persuaded that it was something worthwhile and he converted. He was a student in Rome, and, not unlike the student life today, that meant a life of excess. As much as he enjoyed it, he was always left feeling guilty. Eventually, he turned his back on that lifestyle. He moved to Chalcis and became a hermit, where he completed his most famous work – translating the Bible into latin. It wasn’t easy, but integrity won out. He gave up everything to live the life he felt called to lead, not the life expected of him.

For Peter Martyr, a similar sort of integrity cost him his life. He was born in Verona into a family and wider community who were starting to break away from the teachings of the church. He dedicated his life to calling out Catholics who professes faith but didn’t act on it. The challenge he laid down made some people uncomfortable, and he was assassinated by Milanese Cathars on his way to preach in Milan. He was prepared to die rather than compromise his integrity.

St. Lawrence felt the same. He was arrested for giving away the riches of corrupt bishops to the poor. He refused to accept he had done anything wrong and was sentenced to death on a gridiron. Even as he was held over the flames they gave him the chance to admit he was wrong. Instead, he allegedly used his last words to say, “Turn me over; that side’s done.” I like St. Lawrence – integrity and a sense of humour.

At risk of veering towards my favourite topic the F word again, female saints are generally saints because they managed to maintain their integrity in the face of men being terrible. St. Catherine was something of a proto-nun. In a time when women didn’t have choice in the matter, she decided she didn’t want to get married, she wanted to dedicate her life to God and convert people to Christianity. One man who she tried unsuccessfully to convert decided that the best way to reign her in would be to marry her and force her to stop being Christian. He didn’t take her refusal very well, and decided to imprison her and torture her into death or submission by breaking wheel. She remained true to herself though, and her faith was apparently so strong that when they strapped her to the wheel it exploded (hence we have the fireworks Catherine Wheels today).

St. Lucy also had man trouble. She was a devout Christian, relentlessly pursued by a committed pagan who also wanted to marry and covert her. She would not compromise her integrity though. Legend has it that a letter telling her how beautiful her eyes were was the final straw; she plucked out her own eyes and sent the messenger back with them, telling him that if he liked them that much he could have them, but never her. Integrity to the extreme, some might say.

Finally, St. Edward. Edward is known as the Confessor because he dedicated his life to confessing his faith, regardless of the personal consequences. In other words, he lived a life of complete integrity. He lived much of his life balancing his devotion to his Christian beliefs with his commitment to seeing his subjects. This is summed up by the story of the ring: Edward had a great devotion to St. John and was dedicating a chapel to him in Essex when a poor man approached him and asked for alms. Edward had no money with him, and no time to get any without missing the service, so, to keep his commitment to both, he gave the man his sapphire ring and went on his way. Legend goes that years later two English Pilgrims stranded in the Holy Land were helped by an old man who claimed to be St. John. He gave the men the ring Edward had given away to the beggar to return to him, which they did. The moral of the story – integrity has its rewards.

The purpose of all of these stories is not because I’m suggesting you need to be a miracle workers or a martyr to show integrity. But just because many of us are lucky enough to live in parts of the world where we are free to live by our beliefs doesn’t mean we should become complacent about it. However big or small that belief might be I think we have a duty to not waste that privilege, to challenge ourselves to make what we show on the outside match what we believe on the inside.

Pope Francis said, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.” As I said at the beginning, saints are just ordinary people who do extraordinary things. If I have one hope for my young people and myself, it is that we can find the courage and integrity to never settle for being ordinary.

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The Gentlemen’s Club.

On the bus back into London today, I spotted a billboard at the side of the road advertising the strip-club Spearmint Rhino. I say “spotted”, but that probably suggests a misleading degree of achievement on my part – the thing was enormous and pretty much unmissable. I suppose there are a few things I might find objectionable about the advert, but I’m not about to launch into a detailed discussion about the morality of strip-clubs or the appropriateness of a scantily-clad, larger than life woman (interpret that as you will…) towering over one of the main roads into London. It was actually the tagline, which describes Spearmint Rhino as a gentlemen’s club, that caused me to double-take. I asked myself the question I’m about to put to you now –  what exactly is “gentlemanly” about paying to watch women you don’t know take off their clothes?

The euphemism is inherited from the tradition of private members’ clubs (plenty of which still exist) which require members to have some particular common interest. For Spearmint Rhino and others of its ilk, that common interest appears to be women in various states of undress. I said that I had no intention to launch into a discussion about the morality of strip-clubs and I stand by that, but I will say that I think the enduring presence of clubs with such a common interest amongst their clientele is symptomatic of a disease which is endemic in our culture – a basic lack of respect and responsibility.

The news this week has been full of the horrific story of the Steubenville rape case. If you’re unfamiliar with the story you can read the BBC account here. More than the incident itself, the way in which it has been reported has caused absolute outrage – CNN in particular has been criticised for focussing upon the impact of prosecution on the rapists rather than the victim. Poppy Harlow was the CNN reporter at court, providing this as her initial response:

I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.

I understand that that might be true, but I struggle to see why the consequences of their freely chosen actions is more tragic than the assault of a young girl. Was her experience in court any less traumatic than theirs? No, it was probably far worse. Descriptors like “incredibly emotional” and “incredibly difficult” might better have preceded an account which talked about the prosecution of two young men who showed no respect for a sixteen year old girl and violated her repeatedly in the most disgusting ways, or the fact that their prosecution finally concluded the public reliving of that experience for the victim. It is sad that their lives have been irreversibly changed but so has hers. The difference is, it was their choice and their responsibility. They showed her no respect, and they showed no self-respect either.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about the Steubenville case, though, is the way in which the evidence for the prosecution was gathered – from texts, from social media, and from photographs.  In a New Statesman article Laurie Penny compares the photographs to the Abu Ghraib photographs. They are evidence of the boys’ crime, but they are evidence of that endemic disease too.

The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’. Only one in which rape and sexual humiliation of women and girls is so normalised that it does not register as a crime in the minds of the assailants…Rape culture. That’s what rape culture is. The cultural acceptance of rape.

The point that I am making here is not that going to a strip-club, or running a strip-club, or even stripping at a strip-club, is the same as rape. Of course it isn’t. What worries me, though, is that they are underpinned by the same core issue. Our culture is part of a much more sinister sort of ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, whose members value their own desires more than they value treating others with respect, who prioritise sexual gratification over their principles, and who will do all they can to deny that they are responsible for the choices they make. I find it baffling and terrifying.

I overheard a boy I know discussing the Steubenville case with absolute horror, wholly agreeing with Laurie Penny’s article. In general, I think he’d probably describe himself as feminist. I wonder what he’d think if he knew I found it ridiculous to hear him talking about making a stand against rape culture when I know that he has, emotionally speaking, treated girls terribly in the past. He’d probably tell me it’s not the same thing at all. He’d be right in a sense – just like the strip-clubs, it’s not at all the same thing – but it’s still symptomatic of the same disease. When I hear him talk about an ex coldly or believe sincerely that it’s not his fault when people get hurt because of selfish choices he makes when he is sad or lonely or drunk, I hear the same lack of respect and responsibility. He’s in the Club too, even if he’s just there for a drink with his mates and isn’t bothered about the stripping bit. You don’t have to be pushing money into underwear to be complicit.

The cruelest irony in all of this metaphor of sickness and Gentlemen’s Clubs is that there’s really nothing gentlemanly about any of it. Worse still, we’re choosing to be sick.

To me, it’s pretty simple. The sort of club that I want to be a part of is a club where people respect themselves and one another, make their choices based on that, and take responsibility for those choices. Incidentally, it’s also the sort of club which you can join regardless of whether you are biologically, economically or otherwise a ‘gentleman’. Life is complicated and people make mistakes, but if we had those principles of respect and responsibility at the core of it, I can’t help but feel that society would function pretty well for everyone involved.

And that’s the sort of club I want to see advertised on billboards.

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Chives.

[They are Italian. He is not. Nobody speaks English by choice. They are the customers. He works at the shop. Everybody is tense.]

The Wife: You show us please where ricotta.

Him: Ricotta?

The Wife: Si, ricotta. Um…

[She turns to The Husband and gesticulates stereotypically. The Husband scrunches the very scrunched scrap of paper in his hand and murmurs in Italian.]

Him: [with relief] Yes! Cheese! Just here!

[It is a very small shop. They are stood in front of the cheese.]

Him: [tentatively] Is there anything else you need from me?

The Wife: Yes! Please also…

[The Wife’s eyes widen in bewilderment. The Wife and The Husband confer earnestly in Italian. The Husband scrunches the paper anxiously, while He looks on.]

The Husband: [optimistically] Um, erba cipollina?

[The Wife glares witheringly at The Husband. The Husband returns to silent paper scrunching.]

Him: …

The Wife: It is an ‘ERB. ‘ERB!

[The husband nods.]

Him: …

[He shrugs fearfully.]

The Wife: [gesticulating wildly] You can chop it!

Him: …

The Wife: Like the grass… It is like the GRASS! But an ‘ERB.

[His relief is palpable. He stands taller and smiles proudly, having solved the puzzle.]

Him: Ah! Spring onions! Follow me…

[They head towards the vegetables, passing the chives on their way.]

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Things I have learned about London.

Five days ago, I moved to London. In five days, I have learned five things:

1. London is full of weirdos.

Genuinely, I have never encountered so many strange human beings before in my life. In these five days alone I have watched a guy in waders stand in the Thames and play electric guitar, been barked at by a jogger and been kissed by a homeless Italian man in Leicester Square. I’m actually quite concerned about what I might have to encounter tomorrow. On the plus side, the sheer volume of people behaving bizarrely meant that nobody batted an eyelid when I laughed out loud to myself so hard that I fell on my backside yesterday afternoon. Pros and cons…

2. I am terrible at being British under pressure.

As a post-grad living in student halls, most of my new contemporaries so far are from abroad. I decided that a good way to make some new friends was to be the useful local who knows things. Spending time with them has taught me quite how little I know of exportable British culture when I’m put on the spot. It turns out that I am not your go-to girl if you are an American looking for good British TV, a German looking for a good British shop to work in, a French girl wanting to know which mobile network to join, or a group of Austrian teenagers in the street who wants to know where the nearest branch of a clothing shop is.* Right now, sat alone in my room, I am full of recommendations and suggestions, but I’m just not used to thinking about these things, let alone having to explain them in casual conversation.

*I have no remorse about the last one. If you honestly think I look like the sort of person who shops at Hollister, let alone knows where the nearest branch is, then you deserve my vague directions towards what I think was probably more likely to be the Old Bailey.

3. The problem with Londoners is London.

As a northerner, I’ve always been baffled by the lack of cheer amongst Londoners; if you talk to anyone you don’t know here people look at you as if you have three heads, which, frankly, is a bit rich from the city which introduced barking joggers and Boris Johnson to my life. But as I sat scowling in city traffic the other day, being humiliatingly overtaken by ambling pensioners, I realised the problem – London. All of the constant busyness, and the traffic, and the tourists and the fumes, and the overly-amorous homeless people must wear them all down; I’d only been there five minutes and I looked like I was chewing a wasp. My London born and bred friend is the only person who has ever visited me at home in Liverpool and felt compelled to sing along with Gerry Marsden as we ferried across the Mersey. At the time I wondered what the hell was wrong with her – now I understand that all Londoners are probably like that away from London.

4. Fumes are an actual, real thing.

I have lived in a city my whole life. For the first 11 years of said existence I lived on a main road. I should not be surprised by fumes, but I have never noticed fumes like London fumes. I cannot go outside without my eyes streaming like they are attempting to compete with the Thames, I am coughing like a chain smoker, and just now I blew my nose and it was a bit black.* I am also really warm all of the time because the smog seems to work like a permanent blanket – a really, really gross blanket. I have spent most of the last five days wandering around looking like a hungover panda, wearing sunglasses to shield my poor, bloodshot eyes and to cover my tear-spread eye makeup.

*I am aware this is disgusting; that’s sort of my point.

5. London is pretty cool.

I didn’t want to move to London. It is big and faceless and people on the tube don’t talk to one another (it’s not that I have a particular penchant for talking to strangers on public transport, it’s more about what the determined silence represents). I might be changing my mind. Everywhere I go there are interesting things to see and do, and I’ve discovered that, if you’re prepared to risk a few funny looks in the process, most people actually quite like it if you smile at them and say a quick hello. And even though two days after I got here they took away the giant astroturf sofas from the South Bank, I’m willing to overlook that massive error in judgement for now. I think the Olympics might have changed London a little bit forever, and I’ve been taken in by the new spirit of optimism that has stuck around in the creases and crevices even though the greatest show on earth has left town. In spite of everything else, I’m beginning to think I’m going to like it here.

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