"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Marlene's contemporary nativity: a salutary tale for Christmas.





Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type.  You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')


She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings.  Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones…… in Dewsbury.  Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows).  So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity, although some concern was expressed: Marlene was the sort of person who had causes. We feared her analysis of Santa’s carbon footprint and her concern that the elves should have a living wage.


The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Chappell Allerton. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present.  We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.


 Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin, Trevor ... and Brenda … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.


Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin.  “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on. 


Her neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.


“But she's ethnic.  Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.


“Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open copy of a book by Walter Bruggerman on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”


“Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin.


The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel.  "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be?  Answer me that?" observed Brenda.  Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation insisted that he performed in his uniform.


“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.


“Actually, Marlene, point of order.  The Philistines were a very cultured people”


 “Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the  donkey."


Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper.  (Fortunately the ASBO he had been given for streaking through the synagogue as a bet had just lapsed.) A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines- “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price”.


Now Brenda likes to think of herself as worldly-wise, but she flummoxed us all with her references to Cameron’s musical animal impersonations. Eventually she explained: “Cameron’s hung like a stallion, Sigourney told me.  So, what does that sound like then?  How do you sing like a stallion?”


Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.


"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."


"Joseph was older than Mary you know.  Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."


Rehearsals came and went.


"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"


"Piss off Trevor.  You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-crap and you’ll be the back end of the donkey.


"Len, please!  How often have I told you?  Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."


"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . . .' I may run screaming from the building"


"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."


"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas.  I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced?  I see .... well, we shan't need to see that on stage thank you very much"


“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”


“…or possibly both ends of the donkey, Trevor! Terry.   Drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working-"


And so the evening arrived --- and Marlene was proved right.  It was a triumph- dramatic, moving and powerful.  The stable became a bus shelter in front of an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck.  Drug paraphernalia littered the floor.  Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set.  Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed. 


It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year.  It's going to be different this year though.  After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session.  Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.


So we're back to the traditional again- shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos.  The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.


And the meaning of Christmas in all this?


The Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special repeat, 8.00 pm, BBC2, Boxing Day, of course.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Advent, exams and the Apocopalypse

I put my Christmas decorations up in the classroom today. The kids in my form were less than impressed.

“We break up tomorrow Sir. What’s the point?”

I’m making a gesture, a concession.

“But it’s Christmas.”

No. It’s Advent.

As ever, no one gets it. Or as my colleague Matthew noted, “Nobody cares.”

I do.

We do little enough to celebrate the post-Advent season at the Knowledge College as it is. My year group are taking mock exams this week.

A week of exams kids: Happy Christmas. (Happy Christmas too, to all our colleagues – enjoy the marking. In my case 180 scripts.)

Today it rained just to add to the joy of my lot taking their Religious Studies exam this morning. The girls, as ever, organised and sensible all have retractable umbrellas in their bags and scuttle around with a sense of urgency. The boys, on the other hand, refuse to acknowledge the need for any sort of urgency. They slummock about through the rain like snails, arriving with their hair plastered to their heads and their clothes steaming. The room soon smells like hormonal dog.

“Run? Me Sir? I’m not a paramedic.”

This whole exam business is fraught. In the past very few have bothered to take mock exams seriously or to revise but I sense a change in the general culture. Some have admitted to considerable preparation.

I take the register and look at my lot. They aren’t stupid by any means – not all of them anyway – but my fear is that they will approach their exams like they approach the inter-form quiz: by putting down the first thing that comes into their heads without thought or consideration.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, what did my true-love give to me? I had asked.

“A turkey.”


Name three of Snow White’s seven dwarves.

“Sleazy, gropy and horny.”

Hmmmmm. There may be a chance we’ve not been watching the same version of the film.

“Sir, Sir. Is the world going to end?”

Of course.

“Really? Tomorrow?”

I sense we are in a different conversation.

Do you mean the Mayan Apocalypse?


Well, they didn’t see the Spanish coming so I doubt they’ll be reliable about the end of the world. Anyway, my cousin Steve is in New Zealand where it’s already tomorrow and he’s just posted on Facebook. He didn’t say anything about Armageddon. I think he may have noticed.

Talking about the apocalypse I saw a day by day weather summary yesterday. Yesterday and today were to be dull and rainy with a high of 4 degrees. Tomorrow, though, we can expect a change to fire and brimstone with a top temperature of 4000 degrees. I wondered whether it had been sponsored by Harold Camping.

Nice and warm for Christmas though.

There are also suggestions that a significant proportion of men are delaying buying Christmas presents on the basis that the end of the world will render the need to do such shopping pointless.

Ah well. Every cloud ….

I escort my form to the exam venue.

“Is this a calculator exam Sir?

Oh Deus Meus!

By coincidence, today is the mad Physicist’s birthday. I slip a card into his pigeonhole.

“In dog years you’re dead.”

I felt it said everything that needed saying.

On arriving back at my classroom I discover my Yr. 8 class has arrived. They are both a delight and as high as kites. Ten minutes into the lesson (arguments for the existence of God – religious experience) a little like a flash mob, they burst into a spontaneous rendition of Jingle Bells followed by Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I am charmed. I love these younger kids for their total unselfconsciousness.

At break my NBF Wesley from Maths comes into the office and puts the kettle on. Wes loves the R.S. Department but spends virtually no time in the Maths Department unless there is a meeting. Today there was a meeting.

“We had Secret Santa in our meeting this morning.”

What did you get?

“I got called Scrooge.”

I am not teaching as my kids come out of their exam so I go over to the refectory to canvass opinion. The general consensus is cautiously positive. A little later I scan some of their answers.

Budist don’t eet meet. Thay are vegtables.

My heart sinks until I realise that this is Martin’s offering. Martin is a lovely lad cursed with complex learning difficulties. I feel better but decide not to read any more just yet. It’s not good form to be seen running, weeping from the building. Even so, I can’t help but notice that Jordon has drawn me a yacht. It looks like the work of a five year old.

“I asked him if he was having trouble answering the questions.” The invigilator looks flustered. “He said he knew the answers but preferred to draw.”

Tomorrow is the last day of term.

I can hardly wait!