Urban Fathers' Liberation Front

Confused dads working out the city

Today, I’ve been thinking about Anne Widdecombe

It was a long night last night, with my wife out on a mission to pick up her eBay purchases from far flung parts of south west London, and my son – one on Monday – determined to make me weary by crying inconsolably at 3.45 am.  It also contained, towards the end on the evening, a programme on BBC1 exploring the relationship between Christianity and comedy.

The programme presented, for want of a better word, by Anne Widdecombe, has had me drifting back to the topic of the programme for most of the day.  Essentially, Anne was asking whether Christianity was an appropriate target for comics and comedy, looking at how Christianity had been increasingly attacked by comics and at how severe this had become in the current day.  She had a simplistic and naive approach to the subject; one might call it an extreme view and it’s probably a minority view but, like all good programmes, it raised many questions, was reasonably balanced and challenged one’s own beliefs and principles.

I was raised in the north of England in a non-religious household where I was encouraged to attend church once a month only as part of my role in the local cub scout group.  We didn’t go to church as a family and, to be honest, what I did see and hear of it didn’t appeal to me a great deal.  My schooling wasn’t heavy on religious teaching, though we sang hymns and had assemblies and these – certainly at primary school – we delivered within a Christian context.  By 16, my religious studies lessons were very broad – more of a social responsibility/citizenship lesson – and I ultimately failed my O-level which, as far as I can remember, was a test of moral teachings rather than religious ones.  I don’t really know what that says about me.

Fast forward to now, I consider myself an atheist.  Jesus could have been a real person, but I don’t believe in a god, nor do I believe in his creation of the world and his judgemental omnipresence.  I do believe that this is, in it’s heritage, a Christian country and that Christian teachings can guide our behaviour and are valuable to children, but these can be taught without the baggage that having a religion brings.  As some of the people close to me do have a faith, I absolutely believe in their right to have those beliefs and I would stand by the right of anyone to hold any belief they like, but a line has to be drawn when those beliefs are imposed on me or anyone else.

The joy in last night’s programme was that it did get me thinking.  But the revelation was Anne Widdecombe.  Her position seemed clear – her faith is sacred and is not to be challenged, or made fun of, and she was jolly matronly about it for much of the show.  She found comedy that attacked Christianity hurtful.  She nodded profusely whenever anyone agreed with her devout views, and she argued almost without reason when the right to challenge and question Christianity, and organised religion as a whole, was put forward as a reasonable and justifiable course of action.

During one particularly pivotal section of the programme, Anne made the point that Communion is so important to her that any mockery of it felt like a wound within her; perhaps whilst some mocking of her faith could be tolerated, a line was drawn at the mocking of  Communion.  The gloves were off.

However, in my view, nothing can be held up as so untouchable that it cannot be challenged or questioned. There is no more likely route to conflict than intransigence.  Anne has to recognise that many people do not feel the same as her – she can’t impose her view about Communion on everyone else.  In actually being challenged about the importance of Communion, she made a wonderful case to atheist comedian Marcus Brigstocke about why it was so sacred – he saw her point, and her argument moved him.  Only by being challenged was she able to explain what made it important to her.  Only by challenging was Marcus brought to account.

I’m not convinced that by the end of the programme Anne was any more comfortable with comedy attacking Christianity, though it will no doubt continue. However, the act of mocking, challenging and questioning religion through comedy not only widens the debate, opens out the questions and offers the chance to respond, it also encourages understanding.  Anne’s defence of her Communion to Marcus was memorable television, and demonstrated – totally against Anne’s argument – that it’s absolutely essential to question even the most sensitive of subjects to broaden our tolerance and understanding.  Comedy is just one universal method of opening that debate.

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Build houses, stupid!

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I have been glued to the BBC documentary, ‘The Planners‘ over the past eight weeks.  As a planner myself, I’ve found the programme to be well balanced, and reflective of the life in planning I’ve experienced.  Fiona Edwards is something of a poster-girl for me right now.

During Episode 6, a group of residents from a relatively new housing estate in Tarporley, Cheshire were seeking to object to a proposal for new housing on greenfield land adjacent to their houses.  The full policy background and circumstances can, of course, only be skimmed over during the programme, but it seemed as though the housing proposal was based on fairly strong grounds and stood a good chance of being approved.  The residents argued that, for the sake of the wider village and the people living in it, the housing should not go ahead.  They assumed that the development would only cause problems and would be badly delivered.  They thought that the planners hadn’t seen ‘the bigger picture’ of the effects that such development would have on their lives (and their view of cows in the field).

The residents didn’t consider themselves nimbies but, like no-one ever confesses to having poor taste or bad manners, they never do.  My bet is that they wouldn’t have been quite so engaged had the housing been proposed on the other side of the village.  Their reasoning could also be challenged.  They themselves live in new housing that would have once been green fields, in a development which some would say is rather poorly designed (low density, mock Tudor, anyone?). Theirs is also ‘the smaller picture’, often focused on their particular problems.  The planners are looking at the big picture – the effect on the land, the alternatives available, the economy, the need for housing and the need to support the village in its growth.  It could be argued that building houses will help the village and it’s residents as much as not building them, in providing trade for the local shops and services, housing for those who need it locally (kids leaving home, couples splitting up etc) and local jobs.

This small example demonstrates the difficulty we have in the country at the moment.  On the one hand we have a recognition of issues – the need for jobs to be created, houses to be built, money to be spent – but on the other, the resistance to change and the protection of lives built up through the good times.  Any initiative to set the balance right again, or to let those who do not have accumulated wealth, will be resisted because it challenges the comfy life those have established for themselves.  So, no houses here because we like looking over the fields, but they’re fine over there on that contaminated, derelict site no-one wants to build on, thanks very much.

To my very simple way of thinking, building lots of houses is a significant part of resolving many of our troubles, but that this is the solution demonstrates just how long-standing and embedded our problems are.  Two significant contributory factors to the lack of available housing now – the right-to-buy and a Council’s ability to build it’s own housing – date back to the early Thatcher years.  However, we are where we are, and enabling a house building bonanza will have a number of positive effects.  It will:

  • create jobs in construction (not to mention the indirect benefits to professions such as planning and architecture);
  • provide a greater choice, selection and number of houses on the market, bringing prices down and enabling more people to afford mortgages and rent;
  • by reducing the amount of money needed for rents and mortgages, allow more money to be freed up to spend on other things;
  • in enabling reduced prices, make housing at the bottom more affordable, meaning we reduce the problems Council’s face in housing those who are or become homeless;
  • by building more housing generally, deliver more ‘affordable’ housing for those at the very bottom (i.e. subsidised housing), even if the proportion delivered is the same.

The Chancellors budget, delivered yesterday, ignores this.  Instead of addressing the hope value in land and houses, the high rents, the disproportionate cost of housing against most peoples wages, the stagnant construction industry and the contradiction of localism against the country’s strategic needs, he’s chosen (at least as part of his Budget) to underwrite the cost of mortgages in an inflated market using taxpayers money.  And he’s not even clear on how this will work, not yet clarifying whether this relates to higher earners and second homes.  Rather than seek to address our decades of overspending and under delivery on housing, he’d rather protect material wealth, built on credit and borrowing, by underpinning the high cost of housing with taxpayers money.

What we really need is more houses, and fast.  We need landowners to accept that land is worth less than they think; we need the means to act when landowners refuse to move on planning consents for housing (often increasing the value of their asset overnight); we need to accept that housebuilders need to make a profit; we need a faster way of dealing with planning applications, particularly where concerns are not planning based and we need an effective way of ensuring that housing developments deliver quality and not just quantity – that sustainability is built into our considerations.

Sadly, if we keep protecting our ill-gotten gains during the boom years, and we don’t find a way to actually pay for them, this recession is going to be with us a very long time.

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Music Review: Sigur Ros, Brixton Academy, March 7 2013

I am lucky enough to have known a chap for over twenty years who has a relatively limited but still remarkably choice musical taste, and in recent years I’ve accompanied him to a number of mind-blowing live shows around London – Sufjan Stevens and Grandaddy in the last two years.  Last night, it was Sigur Ros.

I’m no expert of Icelandic ambient rock, but I’m aware of Sigur Ros from their extensive use in film and tv, not least the ubiquitous Hoppipolla, which have been used, well, everywhere.  My expectations were muted; my companion was concerned about their being sufficient audience respect to allow the music to live and I was concerned that I just wouldn’t get it.  Neither of us need have worried.

Brixton Academy – surely one of London’s most atmospheric and evocative venues – was packed and expectant.  Sigur Ros emerged on stage and launched into new track, Yfirboro, behind a sheer curtain onto which were projected an array of swirling and meandering light patterns that echoed the haunting and enchanting music.  The audience remained silent and respectful during the delivery, but were rapturous at the beginning and end of each song.  My expectation of the gig was for lots of twinkling melodies and a dream like atmosphere, but I was surprised to see that Sigur Ros can also be threatening and thumping, dark and menacing, and songs seem to meander between these emotions even within themselves.

Added to the bewitching soundscapes, which include Jonsi Birgisson’s extraordinary falsetto delivery in a made-up language (as if Icelandic wouldn’t have been cryptic enough), a cacophony of light and images pulsed, burst, brimmed and charged from the stage like they were themselves were made alive by the noise and responded to it in kind.  Always mesmerising it was, at times, astonishing, particularly during  Brenninstein and Festival, and the projected swirling flames, underwater swimmers, gnarled rocks and child-like faces added immensely to the intense experience.  And this was an experience, not simply a band on the stage knocking out tracks for the latest record.  There were goosebumps.  Hoppipolla itself brought gorgeous calm to proceedings, before the second half of the main set ramped up the noise, light and emotion to the closing Kveikur.

Not that Sigur Ros were finished.  The intensity was continued through the two-song, twenty minute encore, with the closing Popplagio from () perhaps the most sensory, arresting and uplifting encore I’ve ever witnessed; like an Icelandic Muse on steroids with an alien on lead vocals throwing a million lights out into the night.  Indescribably epic.

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