Losing my religion . . .

I’m a contented atheist. And have been since I was nineteen. However, I was baptized a Catholic, but never practiced until my family moved to Leek in 1956.

A little background. My mother’s family were Irish Catholics. My father’s parents were Methodist. My parents were married at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Epsom, Surrey in November 1936. But as I grew up in Congleton (where I was born in 1948), I have only one recollection of ever having stepped inside the Church of St Mary on West Road. I remember my mother once telling me about an incident at the church, maybe when my sister took her First Communion. Apparently, the parish priest told my mother that my father, a Protestant, was not welcome in the church. No ecumenism in those post-war days. So until we moved to Leek in 1956, I can never remember going to Mass.

St Mary’s Church on Compton in the 1950s/60s, from the bottom of St Edward Street where we lived.

Things changed after the move to Leek, and we started to attend Mass at St Mary’s Catholic church. I even trained as an altar boy, alongside Michael Oliver (brother of Kevin, whose father kept a sweet shop on Broad Street). Not infrequently I’d accompany one of the priests to say Mass in Ipstones (at a pub there) or St Edward’s Hospital in Cheddleton. I joined the cub scouts, 5th Leek St Mary’s, run by Mr Kelsall, who we called ‘Sir’ instead of ‘Akela’.

The parish priest was Fr Clavin – liked by many who came in contact with him. Fr Thornton was the curate when we moved to Leek, but he was soon replaced by another younger priest, on the left of the photo below. This photo was taken on the occasion of Fr Clavin’s Jubilee (with a young Gerald Grant on the right).

My elder brother Edgar and I were also enrolled in the local Catholic primary school, St Mary’s, on the corner of Broad Street (the A53) and Cruso Street. Being two years older (and three academic years ahead), Edgar attended St Mary’s for just one year. I, on the other hand, continued my education there until July 1960 when I secured a place to attend the Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent, which entailed a round trip of 28 miles. That became my daily term-time routine for the next seven years.

April 1956. I was 7½.

New town, new friends, new school . . . and NUNS!

I think I must have shed a few tears that first day at school. I was so bewildered. I’d never seen a nun before, and they looked so intimidating in their long black habits, white wimples leaving just their faces exposed, and long black veils typical of the Sisters of Loreto, who came to Leek in 1860 to teach children of the parish. The last nuns left in 1980, and their convent behind the church was sold for development.

Photo courtesy of Liz Sharkey, from Facebook group: The History & Heritage of Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands

St Mary’s Infants School, Selbourne Road in the 1960s

The headmistress, Mother Michael seemed quite pleasant and welcoming, but she left after about a year. In the four years I spent at St Mary’s my teachers were Mother Bernadine, Mother Elizabeth (who became headmistress) and, in my last year, Mr Smith (the first male teacher at the school). Sister (later Mother) Martin and Mother Vincent de Paul were other teachers who I remember.

My wife still uses a woven needle/pin case that I made during my time at St Mary’s (helped by one of the teachers).

So what’s all this about losing my religion? Well, a few days ago, I posted a query on the closed group Facebook page about Leek to which I belong. I was researching some information (and photographs) for a blog post I intend publishing a little later this year. While my query yielded few photos, I was surprised at the number of people who joined the conversation. And for many, their years at St Mary’s were not the happiest.

I always saw the nuns as quite strict. One of them often used the edge of a steel-edged ruler to rap any miscreant on the knuckles. It didn’t take much to be viewed as a miscreant, as the Facebook commentaries from former pupils indicate.

Some were clearly profoundly unhappy at St Mary’s, others not. Some have recounted being caned in front of the whole school, even for attending a wedding at a non-Catholic church! All in all, I was quite horrified at these memories of what seem like gratuitous violence perpetrated on 5-11 year-olds. The situation for several was so dire, apparently, that they were moved by their parents to another non-Catholic school in the town.

I never saw any canings, or at least I don’t remember the cane being administered. Until some of the Facebook group members mentioned this, it didn’t form part of my memory narrative. The ruler I certainly do remember and was the recipient on at least one occasion.

On the whole, my memories of just over four years at St Mary’s are neither positive nor negative. As one group member stated overnight, we survived. But was that sufficient?

Things have changed. Take a look at the St Mary’s today; it appears to be a thriving and nurturing community.

Corporal punishment was a daily occurrence at St Joseph’s, especially for pupils younger than sixteen. Punishments were meted out almost every lesson, even for slight misdemeanors.

The school, for boys only, had been founded by Irish Christian Brothers in the 1930s. I guess that when I first attended the Brothers were about a fifth of the teaching staff. Or maybe I exaggerate. Certainly walking around in their long black cassocks and dog collars they were a highly identifiable presence who brooked no dissension.

Today the Christian Brothers are no longer associated with St Joseph’s. It’s also co-educational, and has a thriving Sixth Form that attracts students from the wider community, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

In 1960, the headmaster was Bro. Henry Wilkinson (for a couple of years) and thereafter until I left in 1967, Bro. O’Keefe. Bro. Wilkinson regularly used a tannoy to broadcast to every classroom throughout the school, which was quickly dismantled after O’Keefe took the reins.

Every teacher was permitted to physically punish any pupil, and used a leather strap (apparently manufactured in Ireland), maybe almost 18 inches long, of at least two layers of leather sewed together.

The Brothers had a special pocket in the side of their cassocks to hold the strap. Usually, a boy would hold out one of both hands, palm upwards, and receive maybe a couple of strokes. It hurt! It also depended on which teacher was administering the strap. Some were more ‘effective’ than others. During my first four years at St Joseph’s I received my fair share of strappings, and there was a memorable one during Year 4.

My home class teacher was Mr Joyce (first name unknown or not remembered) who taught French. During Year 3 I had represented the school in an inter-school quiz broadcast to the local hospitals. We lost in the Final to a local girls’ grammar school!

Anyway, one afternoon, Mr Joyce explained that he would hold a quiz to identify promising candidates for the next season’s team. Since I’d already participated, I didn’t take this seriously, and started chatting with the person next to me. We had double desk. Joyce warned me twice to stop talking, but I persisted. On the third warning, he took out his strap, told me to hold out my hand, reached across the desk, and hit me twice across the palm on that fleshy part just below the thumb.

Yes, it hurt but not unduly. However, as I reached for my pen, I suddenly felt dizzy, and the next thing I found myself trying to drag myself off the floor. I’d passed out, and as I fell off my seat, hit my head on the wall to the side. My classmates were shocked. Needless to say, Mr Joyce never touched me again.

We took corporal punishment for granted. Did it have any lasting effect? Probably not for the majority of pupils. But you can never deny that for some of us, it was unduly cruel.

However, it was this flagrant recourse to corporal punishment that lead to me rejecting Catholicism, indeed any formal religion.

When I was in the Upper Sixth (the year immediately prior to heading off to university), Brother Baylor joined the staff (maybe a year earlier). But I’d had no contact with him until then. Anyway, he took us for a formal religion study period once or twice a week. On this particular day, in he came to the classroom and, struggling to peer over his desk (he was a tiny man), told us that we would be doing some Bible studies that day. And, removing his leather strap from its ‘holster’, and lightly tapping it across his hand, told us in a threatening tone, that we would believe else he would strap us.

It was like a light bulb going off in my head. I realized that if a ‘man of God’ had to make threats such as this, there couldn’t be much to sustain the foundation of his beliefs. And from that day I refused to attend Sunday Mass; I went through the motions at school as there were services we had to attend. I’ve not been to Mass since, and never will. The Catholic Church lost one of its flock. I guess I started out as agnostic, but this has become hardened over the years into contented atheism.

As I mentioned earlier, I was quite horrified to read those sad commentaries about St Mary’s. It’s not a situation I recognize since I did not experience it. It’s as though the nuns had Jekyll and Hyde personalities. That does not however diminish the impact of those unhappy years on some members of the St Mary’s community in the 1950s and 60s.

This feedback comes at a time when the Catholic Church is under ever closer scrutiny not only about child sex abuse, but also wider abuse of children for which some of the incidents related on that Facebook page might legitimately be considered. If not abuse as such, it was certainly bordering on abuse in my opinion. ‘Official’ violence against small children would not be tolerated in schools today. Yes, it was another era but that should not, and cannot, excuse such behavior.

I moved on. I’ve had a fruitful career and happy life. But a simple Facebook request has brought so many memories flooding back, not only for me but all those who read it, that I could not pass another day without committing my thoughts in this post.

The emperor has no clothes . . .

I have the Brexit blues.

While I probably can’t add much to the debate, I feel I have to express my frustration, angst even, about the Brexit state of play, and what it portends for this (soon to be impoverished) nation of ours. And hopefully explain to many of my blog followers and readers overseas what Brexit means. I offer no apologies for being decidedly pro-European Union (EU).

Just over a month ago I returned from a five week vacation in the USA. Prior to traveling I had become increasingly depressed about the whole Brexit fiasco and where this incompetent Tory government was leading us. I’d even decreased my exposure to Twitter as the exasperation that I read there only fueled my own anxieties. So, I took a break from the news and Twitter for five weeks. My spirits revived.

Five weeks on and I feel myself sinking into a state of despair once again. We’re still getting the Brexit is Brexit line from the government, and taking back control of our border, laws, and money. Following the publication of the ‘agreed’ but soon unraveling Chequers Plan that Theresa May foisted on her Cabinet, it’s clear that Leavers also  don’t have a plan for what happens following Brexit, be it a Cliff-edge Brexit, a Hard or a Soft one. Ask them to put it down on paper or explain in detail what the future holds under each scenario and they have little to say. Even the future status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic—a key sticking point in the negotiations with the EU—remains unresolved. Government and Parliament is paralyzed. The only solution is to ask the electorate again.

I need someone to square the circle for me and explain why Brexiteers can still claim that leaving the European Union is akin to entering the land of milk and honey. Facing the real risk of a no deal Brexit, HM Government has now started to publish technical notes (two years too late) outlining (and often short on crucial details) what will be the consequences of the UK leaving the EU next March without a withdrawal agreement. The government has even suggested that businesses should consult the Irish government regarding trade across the border post-Brexit. Talk about dereliction of duty.

It feels as though most of my waking hours are pervaded by Brexit news, and the half-truths as well as the outright mendacity of those on the Leave side of the referendum campaign who sold us (illegally, as it turned out) an illusion.

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Even the most optimistic commentators and partners now fear that the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal. That would be disastrous. The Tory Party is at war with itself. Theresa May’s Chequers Plan has been dismissed by Hard Brexiteers on the right of the Tory party like Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (ERG) cronies. The talk is all about trade and how we will be better off striking our own trade deals. No mention of the other benefits of EU membership that we will forfeit at 11 pm on 29 March next year if there is no deal.

Nigel Farage

Two years on, Brexiteers are unable to provide any details or are extremely vague about what a post-Brexit United Kingdom will look like, and what actual benefits we will gain. Arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage (MEP and former leader of UKIP) claims he never said that the UK would be better off outside the EU: I made ONE absolute promise in that campaign … We will be in control … for good or for bad … I never promised it would be a huge success, I never said it would be a failure, I just said we’d be in control. Independent, and with blue passports! Rees-Mogg has unequivocally stated that it might take 50 years for any benefits to accrue. Good grief! This is not the vision that the electorate was sold during the referendum campaign.

Jeremy Corbyn

Even Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn can’t—or won’t—state categorically whether we’d be better off or not outside the EU. What a pathetic politician. But that’s for another post some other time.

With nothing better to say, It’s the same old mantra of taking back control of our border, laws, and money. Well, I thought we always had control of our borders; there’s more immigration from countries outside the EU than from EU countries. In terms of laws, it comes down to alignment with EU frameworks and regulations, and oversight by the European Court of Justice (that’s anathema to Brexiteers). Furthermore, Parliament seems always to be busy, passing sovereign legislation on one thing or another. Even outside the EU we will still be subject to oversight by external bodies, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). That’s what peaceful coexistence means: compliance to agreed rules and standards. And while we make a financial contribution to the EU, we have successfully negotiated favorable rebates, we have our own currency, and many parts of the country (even those that voted overwhelmingly to Leave) have benefited from inward investment from the EU in ways that a UK government wouldn’t or couldn’t make.

It seems to me that we face four options:

  • No Withdrawal Deal, Catastrophic Brexit (it’s not just about trade), increasingly likely
  • Withdrawal Deal, Hard Brexit, beloved by many Brexiteers
  • Withdrawal Deal, Soft Brexit – but for some on the Brexit side, it will be like the curate’s egg, good (or softer) in parts: retaining membership of the Customs Union (CU), or the Single Market (SM), or both (but having no say in how regulation of the CU or SM continue to operate)
  • NO BREXIT – an aspiration that is growing. Having looked at what’s really on offer, not the illusion that was offered on the side of a large red bus during the referendum campaign, the electorate should be given the opportunity to pass judgment in a second referendum. This is only way to break the impasse of Parliament, and for the electorate to confirm its decision to leave the EU if that’s how the majority still feel.

Michael Morpurgo

Democracy is, however, also about changing one’s mind, and there is growing polling data to indicate that many who voted to Leave the EU now regret their decision. The problem is that many Brexiteers claim that the ‘British people’ have spoken, and there can be no reversal of that decision (even though it was taken without the necessary knowledge—or understanding—of what Brexit would entail). However, just a few years ago, even Rees-Mogg favored a second referendum once the terms of a withdrawal deal were known. Here’s a Twitter link that shows Rees-Mogg speaking to that effect in the House of Commons in 2011. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to Radio 4 and heard this Point of View by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo. It lasts almost 10 minutes, but is well worth taking time out to listen to his words of wisdom. He makes a strong case for thinking again.

The Brexit lies continue. Just a few days ago (17 August) I saw an official tweet from the Department for International Trade about the UK’s trading links with the USA. Liam Fox (Secretary of State at the DIT) claimed that the USA was the UK’s single largest trading partner. Lie!

Yes, we have exports of almost £100 billion to the USA, according to the Office for National Statistics (2016 data published in 2017). And from what I can determine the USA is the largest country we trade with in terms of exports. But the DIT/Fox said trading partner, and the UK’s largest trading partner is the European Union (EU), with UK exports valued at £235.8 billion through seamless trading (compared with £284.1 billion with the Rest of the World, mostly conducted through trade agreements negotiated through our membership of the EU).

But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good Brexit lie. Fox’s focus on expanding trade with the USA—some might say obsession—is a major part of his Brexit narrative about seizing opportunities to trade with other nations around the world on our terms, not the EU’s. However, these Brexiteers seem to forget (conveniently so) that negotiations are two-sided, and the completion of any trade agreement will require concessions on both sides. Would the price of an agreement with the USA lead for example to imports of food produced to lower standards than we currently enjoy under the EU, or more US healthcare company involvement in the NHS, for example?

It never ceases to amaze me that Brexiteers seem to imply that it’s only under post-Brexit trade deals that we can increase our exports. Even a recent trade deal with China was touted as an example of what the UK could achieve, notwithstanding it was signed under the trade agreement we already have with China through the EU. Liam Fox is certainly economic with the truth.

Post-Brexit, we will have to develop all the schedules to operate under WTO rules and, in any case, deals could take years to negotiate. Furthermore, I can see no reason why manufacturers are already unable to expand exports under the umbrella of existing trade agreements negotiated by the EU. Maybe increased exporting capacity is non-existent. We are no longer a manufacturing nation.

There’s hardly been mention of financial services, which account for about half of our exports. There are serious implications of leaving the EU without an agreement. Just listen to an experienced trade negotiator on James O’Brien‘s LBC show.

The focus has been/is almost entirely on trade post-Brexit, but there’s so much more to our membership of the EU that is not covered—and never will be—by the WTO. These are all the many frameworks and agreements that have brought 28 nations together (and probably more cost effectively than if they had acted independently) that regulate aviation and safety, nuclear fuels and isotopes, environmental protection, animal welfare, food standards, and employment law, to list just a few. I have yet to hear any of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Iain Duncan-Smith, David Davis, Peter Bone, Bernard Jenkin, not even Theresa May, raise any concerns or offer any perspectives on these issues that are as important—perhaps even more important—than the trade issues.

The Government’s narrative is that its Chequers Plan should be accepted, lock, stock and barrel, by the EU. Sorry Theresa, it doesn’t work like that any more. Gun boat diplomacy died with the Empire.

Although there is a groundswell of support for a second referendum, or at least a say on any agreement negotiated with Brussels, there’s no certainty that one will be held. For one thing the practicalities of legislating for a referendum rule out the possibilities before Article 50 becomes a reality next March, crashing, hard or soft.

Nevertheless, there does need to be some sort of People’s Vote. Furthermore, for an issue that has such long-lasting constitutional, economic, and social implications for the future of this country, politicians need to put the welfare of the country ahead of their own party political considerations. The fact that we have a divided and incompetent governing party, and an Opposition that’s equally divided, with a leader who’s inept and misguided in the face of what many Labour supporters are saying, is perhaps unprecedented. Political turmoil is the last thing that’s needed right now.

I’m sure many who voted to Leave did not foresee or expect many of the scenarios that are looming before us. For example, the National Health Service (NHS) will not reap any ‘Brexit Dividend’. Why? There simply is no dividend. Brexit will impact almost every aspect of our lives for years to come.

There. I’ve said it. I’ve expressed my frustrations. I don’t expect to write much more about Brexit. But once 29 March 2019 has come and gone, I expect I’ll have plenty more to say, no doubt.


Relaxing in Minnesota

Following our epic drive in mid-June from Maine to Minnesota (after already having crossed Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and explored parts of western Maine for six days), Steph and I settled into a couple of weeks of relaxation with our elder daughter Hannah and family in St Paul, MN before heading back to the UK on 10 July.

My son-in-law, Michael, is – like me – a beer aficionado, and keeps a well-stocked cellar of many different beers. It’s wonderful to see how the beer culture has blossomed in the USA, no longer just Budweiser or Coors. I had opportunity to enjoy a variety of beers. Those IPAs are so good, if not a little hoppy sometimes. However, my 2018 favorite was a Czech-style pilsener, Dakota Soul from the Summit Brewing Company based in St Paul.

Relaxing in St Paul was also an opportunity catch up with some of my blogging, while Steph spent time in Hannah’s garden making sure everything was coping with the very hot weather. Notwithstanding the regular watering, we did experience a couple of quite spectacular downpours the like of which I haven’t seen for some time.

And our lively grandchildren, Callum (eight just two days ago) and Zoë (6) kept us on our toes. For one of the two weeks we stayed in St Paul, I was their summer camp chauffeur, dropping them off at the bus just after 8 am each day, and picking them up late in the afternoon. We were also ‘babysitters’ over six days and five nights. That’s the first time we’ve taken on this role; it was the first time that Hannah and Michael left the children with grandparents for more than just an overnight stay, while they celebrated their 40th birthdays with a visit to California’s Napa Valley.

Outcome? I think Callum and Zoë survived us – no permanent harm done!

There’s quite a lot of ambiguity associated with looking after someone else’s children – and they know it! Even though it was made clear to both that ‘Grandad and Grandma were in charge’, you’re often faced with situations asking yourself how Mum and Dad would react. Obviously we haven’t looked after small children for more than three decades since Hannah and Philippa were small. Although we had TV in the 1980s, there were no video games, or subscription channels like Netflix offering up a continuous menu of cartoons.

Both Hannah and Philippa had quite a large circle of friends within easy distance of home, some just a few doors away. So whenever the weather was fine – or even if it was not – one or the other would be round a friend’s house, or the friends at ours. It’s a sign of the times but ‘play dates’ have to be arranged for both Hannah’s and Philippa’s children. This is not only a reflection of busy lives for Mums and Dads, but also that no friends live next door.

We had fun with Callum and Zoë, although they might not perhaps reflect well on the occasions when I had to ‘lay down the law’. We went bike riding (they did the riding while we followed on foot), and explored the fascinating glacial potholes at the Interstate State Park 53 miles northeast from St Paul beside the St Croix River at Taylors Fall.

Afterwards we spent time at a splendid children’s playground at Stillwater. We ate out one night, went out for breakfast on the Sunday, and had a BBQ. Here are some more photos of that outing.

Grandma Mary (Michael’s mother) took the children to the Minnesota Zoo one day so Steph and I could enjoy a day at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (here are the 2018 photos), somewhere we have visited a couple of times in the past.

Beautiful echinaceas, a typical species of the prairies

And any visit to St Paul would not be complete without checking out the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park (map).

We’ve been going there since 2006 when it was the venue for Hannah and Michael’s wedding. The floral displays change with the seasons, and we always enjoy seeing what the gardeners have prepared for their many visitors. This summer’s display was much more subdued compared to other years.

May 2006

December 2007

July 2016

June 2017

June 2018

I would certainly recommend a visit to Como Park  if you’re ever in St Paul. There is also a small zoo and fun fair, very popular with the children.

The Mississippi River is just 50 m from Hannah’s front door, but at least 50 m below. There are some lovely walks and parks along the river, Hidden Falls Regional Park, about a mile from Hannah’s, being one of them. But the river was high this year, with flooding closing several of the walks nearby. The St Croix River at Stillwater was the highest we have ever experienced.

Beside the Mississippi at Hidden Falls Regional Park.

The St Croix River at Stillwater. That’s Wisconsin on the far (east) bank.

Finally, this commentary about relaxing in Minnesota would not be complete without mention of Hobbes, a lovely ginger rescue cat who has his moments, going from sweet and docile to full on attack mode at the drop of a feather. But over our time at Hannah and Michael’s he did begin to relax with us and, more often than not, this is how he spent much of his time.

Make that 20,001

I enjoy reading. I enjoy writing. I enjoy how words are used by different authors. I’m always inspired when I pick up a book and find the narrative so easy to follow. Some authors just have the knack. As I mentioned in one blog post I wrote in May 2012, I’ve given up on a book on very few occasions just because I found the text such hard going.

I guess we use the same words day in, day out. And that got me thinking, in light of what happened yesterday. It seems that most English speakers have an active vocabulary (words they use regularly) of about 20-25,000.

Well, mine increased by ONE yesterday!

I’ve just completed an excellent biography of American Civil War General (and 18th POTUS) Ulysses S Grant. And there, on page 501 (of 718) I came across a word I’d never seen before and had no idea of its meaning.

Eleemosynary? Whatever does that refer to? It doesn’t roll off the tongue.

This was the context, describing Grant’s attempts (as President) to reform the Interior Department’s management of Indian relations, by putting Quakers in charge in about half of the western agencies: On these reservations the Indians would govern themselves, albeit with advice and instruction in the ways of white civilization from the Quakers and others of an educational and eleemosynary bent.

I had to reach for the dictionary.

Pretentious? Maybe. I posted a comment on Facebook and one of my friends mentioned that he’d used the adjective in an essay written when he was in high school. And was marked down for doing so!

Words also change in usage over time, or between different ‘branches’ of the English language. For anyone interested in the language I can’t recommend too highly David Crystal’s The Stories of English.

I came across an interesting difference in Brands’s biography of Grant. He was actually quoting from a letter that Grant had written about politicians in the South. He used the word irresponsible.

In the strict sense we use this word adjectivally of a person, attitude, or action not showing a proper sense of responsibility. But in modern British usage it’s perhaps more commonly used to describe a person or action as reckless, rash, careless, thoughtless, incautious, unwise, imprudent, ill-advised, ill-considered, injudicious, misguided, heedless, unheeding, inattentive, hasty, overhasty, precipitate, precipitous, wild, foolhardy, impetuous, impulsive, daredevil, devil-may-care, hot-headed, negligent, delinquent, neglectful, or remiss.

But the late 19th century usage (in the United States) and perhaps still today describes someone not answerable to higher authority (from the Merriam-Webster dictionary).

I doubt I’ll be using eleemosynary any time soon in my writing or conversation; it’s probably not even a party stopper. But, as I approach my 70th birthday, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?