So, should we ban books?

BBC News – Why are parents banning school books?. US parents have been waging war on books they don’t want their teenage children to read, it emerges. This is partly a difference in the way the US operates — in a nation where even police chiefs are elected, it’s no surprise that a parental petition can put a book on the banned list — and partly in what US parents expect. Although we would deny it for ever, there is much more of a culture here of ‘school knows’ best, and much more a culture there of ‘parents know best’. If you’re inclined to deny this (and, seriously, who would want to admit it?) look at the proportions of home-schooled children in the two countries. Or, if you don’t have time to check the figures, just say the words “home schooled kids” and “home schooled children”. Which rolls off the tongue more easily? The American version.

I relocated a copy of Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children on Amazon the other day, and I’ve just been rereading it. I have to say that I do agree with a lot of what she says, particularly the difference between books for children, and books about children. During my teenage years I was introduced to a number of books at school which are considered by teachers to be ‘classics’ and — according to my conversations with teenagers since then — seem to be pretty much de rigeur for a proper education. Stan Barstow’s Joby, Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and Oliver Twist are all books which I hope I will never have to read again. They are all books about children, but not really for children. The really depressing thing is that I loved reading William Golding at university. The Spire, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin (which I think I’ve referred to elsewhere as Prester John — I’ll have to track that down and correct it, since Prester John is a book by John Buchan), and Darkness Visible are all dark but hugely enjoyable. I just don’t want to read Lord of the Flies again. Nothing about Joby, which, in the hindsight of a more educated adulthood appears to be a kind of Sons and Lovers for teenagers, would ever persuade me to read another Stan Barstow book. Ditto The Catcher in the Rye. Dickens I love, but would read almost anything by him in preference to Oliver Twist which is forever spoiled for me by having read it at school. I am fortunate that I was only exposed to passages from Great Expectations, and so was able to enjoy the entire book (which wasn’t at all what I thought it was going to be like) when I was old enough to make sense of it.

On the other hand, The 39 Steps, Twelfth Night, the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and most of the other books written for adults which I read at school before I was sixteen have stayed with me. I knew I was entering an adult world when I read them, and was happy to read about adults doing adult things. Reading about children catapulted into a tawdry and unpleasant adult world — in other worlds, books about children deprived of their childhood — merely left me miserable.

This is all to the point because The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are both on the top ten list of books which American parents have tried to ban. As with most of these things, I feel the arguments for and against (at least the ones in the BBC article referenced above) rather miss the point. It’s not the sexual explicitness of The Catcher in the Rye which makes me never want to read it again, but rather the general miserableness.

According to Joan Aiken (op cit), children will typically read 600 books in childhood. Her salutary warning to any budding children’s author is that all 600 have probably already been written, so you need to have a pretty good reason for bringing another one into the world.

I don’t propose the banning of anything that isn’t actually illegal, and I wouldn’t support it if someone else proposed it. I was privy to some extraordinarily unsuitable books as a child, and I don’t think they particularly did me any harm. But books which are on the curriculum are quite different from books which are in the school library. On the curriculum, every child in the class has to struggle through it. I’ve read some appallingly negative Amazon reviews of A Wizard of Earthsea, one of my favourite books, by children who were forced to read it. I love that book, but I can see why being made to work through it would suck the life out of it for anyone.

If I were called in to give a view, I would suggest keeping two kinds of books off the curriculum. First, I would (along with American parents) exclude books which made extensive use of ‘bad language’. I accept the argument that children know all the words already. If they’re reading The Catcher in the Rye they may be surprised at the quaint terms of  ‘goddam’ etc, which no-one says now. But putting them in a book on the school curriculum robs them of their counter-culture value, and it also normalises and formalises the use of abusive language. I’m not suggesting that children shouldn’t read The Catcher in the Rye. But any thrill they might get out of reading a ‘rude’ book will be destroyed by reading it in class. It isn’t the book I object to (though I’m still not going to read it again) but the making official.

Secondly, I would pull all the books off the curriculum which are essentially about childhood being taken away from children, especially the ones written to improve humanity in some unspecified way. I know I sound like a Daily Telegraph reader in putting this, but those books made me miserable, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone else. Do I really need to know about the abuse poured out on Oliver Twist or David Copperfield? As literature, as a novel written for adults and read by adults, fine. The Catcher in the Rye rose to popularity not because of its teenage audience, but because of adults who loved its counter-culture evocation of teenage rebellion, and decided that teenagers ought to read it.

Children’s books from the very earliest age are filled with the world of moral choices. The broken promise, the lie that comes back to haunt, the misguided attempt to test someone’s loyalty are all tropes that every child comes to recognise from children’s television if not from books. The books I didn’t like removed any sense of moral choice, replacing it, if with anything, only with a sense of shame or confusion.

The pre-eminent example of this tendency is Lord of the Flies. Lord of the Flies, of course, is William Golding’s answer to the Victorian classic The Coral Island. In The Coral Island, the shipwrecked boys organise their own lives on Victorian principles, navigate by dead reckoning, and minister to dying pirates. Golding — as he explains in his book of essays The Hot Gates — reasoned that this is not really what would have happened. What would really have happened is, without the civilising effect of a social contract mediated by adults, teenage boys would immediately revert to a neo-pagan barbarism, brutalising the weak and establishing a tribal hierarchy where the chief holds the power of life or death over his enemies.

But is this really what would have happened? Thanks to twenty-four hour worldwide news, we now have many reports of children who have become isolated and had to fend for themselves. There are communities of street children in many cities, and there are places where the average age of population is around 15. I can’t claim to have made any kind of a study of the many articles I’ve read over the last ten years which relate in some way to groups of children forced — for a while, or longer — to fend for themselves, but I’ve never read an account of children reverting to savagery, whereas I have seen quite a few which are touching or even heroic.

I recommended to my nephew that he read The Coral Island to prepare for writing about Lord of the Flies. The funny thing is, he enjoyed The Coral Island much more. Lord of the Flies was perhaps important in the development of modernist thought, and it reflected the ideas of its age. But it does not reflect the ideas of our age, nor of anything which might objectively be described as ‘true’. And it suffers as a story from having a beginning and a middle, but more of a stop than an end. Running from the hunters, Ralph ends up on the beach where he encounters a naval officer from a rescuing ship. Suddenly the story is over. There is no reckoning up, no settling of scores, no resolution of tensions. Lord of the Flies may well be a great book (I would argue that it is — for adults), but it isn’t especially a well-constructed story.

Now that we have firmly left modernism behind, it is perhaps time to revalue the modernist canon of which books teenagers should be reading.

So that’ll be Harry Potter all round…

Government should help church out of unholy hole

A couple in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire, have been forced to sell their farm to pay off a quarter of a million in legal bills and a £230,000 repair bill for a property not even theirs. Link to story. Anyone who has bought a house recently will have received a cryptic warning from their lawyers that they might be liable for church repairs — but that there is no register of all the liabilities, and so no way of knowing whether you are or not. What’s more, the previous owners may well not know either, since they will only have found out if they have been landed with a similar bill at some point.

Richard Dawkins’s followers will no doubt be quick to claim this is another example of the heinous effect of ‘the God delusion’. But they would be wrong. Under charity law, the Church of England has to diligently pursue all of its debtors, and, coupled with the laws on ‘chancel repair liability’ which date back to Valor Ecclesiasticus in 1535, they have no choice.

At the same time, there can’t be anyone in the entire world who believes it’s right for Andrew and Gail Wallbank to be forced to sell their house to pay for repairs to a public building. And they are not the only ones. There is a long list of people who have been stung this way over the years, and the list is going to get longer by 2013.

For more information, see Chancel.Org.UK, which explains how a change in the law will mean that the Church of England has until 2013 to register its interest in properties with Chancel liability. To see the campaign site of the Wallbanks, look here. The official line is available here.

What lunatic changed the law in that way?

(You know the answer to this one, but, in case you don’t, the legislation is the Land Registration Act 2002.)

Since the Church of England is powerless to extricate itself from a situation which bankrupts ordinary people and brings the church, and thus the entire Christian faith, into disrepute, the government ought to have intervened to simply cancel chancel liability. This would free the Church of England to pursue grants and even Lottery money. This is in fact what the Law Commission and the Church of England Synod recommended in the 1980s.

Parliament long ago abolished tithing laws. Blasphemy laws have largely been set aside. But the Chancel Repair Act itself was updated as recently as 1932.

In 2008, the Prime Minister responded to a petition against it as follows:
“Chancel Repair Liability has existed for several centuries and the Government has no plans to abolish it or to introduce a scheme for its redemption. The Government has, however, acted to make the existence of the liability much simpler to discover. From October 2013, chancel repair liability will only bind buyers of registered land if it is referred to on the land register. By that time, virtually all freehold land in England and Wales will be registered. The Government believes that this approach strikes a fair balance between the landowners subject to the liability and its owners who are, in England, generally Parochial Church Councils and, in Wales, the Representative Body of the Church in Wales.
“The Government acknowledges that the existence of a liability for chancel repair will, like any other legal obligation, affect the value of the property in question, but in many cases this effect can be mitigated by relatively inexpensive insurance. It is for the parties involved in a transaction to decide whether or not to take out insurance.”

As far as the Wallbanks are concerned, whatever action is taken is now almost certainly too late.

Parliamentary Questions should have been asked. But it seems that they were not.

We are therefore left with the entirely unsatisfactory statement made by Mr David Lammy, Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, in 2002: “The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): On 14 September 2003 a Transitional Provisions Order relating to the status of chancel repair liability was made under the Land Registration Act 2002. The making of the order follows the reversal by the House of Lords in June 2003 of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Wallbank v Parochial Church Council of the Parish of Aston Cantlow and Wilmcote with Billesley, Warwickshire. The order provides that, for a period of 10 years from the coming into force of the Act on 13 October 2003, chancel repair liability will remain an interest that binds successive owners of land even though it is not protected by an entry in a register kept by the Land Registry. As no land registration fee is payable for applications to protect similar ancient property rights, such as payments in lieu of tithe, Crown rents and manorial rights, the Land Registry intends to waive the fee for applications to protect chancel repair liability for the 10 year period.

This is pure madness. The government ought to have abolished chancel repair liability outright and filled the short-fall from the public purse — remember, that, at the time, the public purse was overflowing, long before we bailed out the banks and put the nation into debt.

The government can still act. In its dying days, it can set aside a historic injustice: rather like the rhetoric Gordon Brown used in his speech today to drum up a faint pulse among the faithful. While it is certain that Labour can move no major new legislation between now and its forthcoming electoral defeat, it should be able to sort out this mess. Nobody will oppose it, nobody will try to talk it out in committee.

Personal Update

Personal Update

Martin Turner at his home in Marlcliff, Warwickshire.

Martin Turner at his home in Marlcliff, Warwickshire.

A lot of people have been contacting me for a personal update. So here it is. We’re now living in Marlcliff, a tiny, beautiful village just over the river from Bidford on Avon in Warwickshire. I’m also now working for my day job for the NHS in Warwickshire. The easiest way to keep up with personal details is to find me on Facebook. If you don’ do Facebook, or just want an update, read on.

I’m still chairman of Warwickshire County Fencing Union, and West Midlands Fencing Captain, but, sadly, I’ve had to miss the start of the fencing competition series in the run up to the General Election, which will mean that my ranking will plummet as the year goes by. For those who are interested, my best ever ranking was UK 39th in Men’s Foil, and I held on to a spot in the top fifty for a full competition season in that year.

Politically, I will be fighting for the Stratford on Avon seat at the General Election, God willing, which is expected to be May or the very beginning of June. Liberal Democrats have come a long way over the last two years: we won the biggest swing against the Tories anywhere in the UK in May 2008, and the second biggest in the County Council elections in June this year, also coming 34th out of all districts for the Liberal Democrats in the European elections which were held on the same day.

We’ve started attending Bidford on Avon Baptist Church which, if you live in the area, meets in the Crawford Memorial Hall on Sundays at 10.30 am. It’s a warm, welcoming group of people, and a good place to visit if you are wondering about God.

We are also straight into the thick of things, as Tory councillors on Warwickshire County Council have decided to axe our local Fire Station, along with several others in the constituency. Quite simply, they must be stopped.

So, should Christians vote for Christian parties? Here’s why not…

Former vicar in Hyndburn MP bid — Lancashire Evening Post
Two Christian parties stood on the same ticket at the recent Euro elections, and now a former Vicar is planning to stand on a Christian ticket in Hyndburn, Lancashire. In these times of national distrust of politicians (more so even than usual), doesn’t the existence of Christian parties offer hope and an alternative to traditional politics? And, as a protest vote, it is surely better than voting BNP? Here’s why I think not.

1 Christian parties do not stay Christian for long
We don’t have a history of Christian parties in Britain, but they have lots of them in mainland Europe. The problem is, that it’s fairly hard to identify what the ‘Christian’ component of the Christian Democrats is. This is a problem which has particularly taxed the Dutch, whose own struggles with ‘Christian’ parties that were no longer Christian enough, resulted in a baffling 23 distinct Christian parties during the last hundred or so years. A fascinating timeline of their mergers, splits and acquisitions is presented in this Wikipedia article. Christianity grew up as a counter-culture within the Roman state, and flourished despite intense persecution for around 300 years. It was Constantine, the only emperor to be proclaimed in Britain, who proclaimed toleration for Christians in 313 AD, followed later by the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire. We can argue backwards and forwards about the real impact of this, but, certainly, by the fall of the Roman empire, a great many practices, symbols and philosophies from the pagan world had been adopted into Christianity, and the track record of supposedly Christian emperors was, to say the least, patchy, when it came to implementing the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Clearly, in the modern world, no Christian party is going to advocate persecution of non-Christian minorities, or crusades to recover lost ‘Christian’ lands, but the history of a too-close union between Christianity and political power is that the, quite soon, Christian regimes and Christian parties lose the Christian distinctive, and become just like other regimes and other parties. For Christians — such as myself — this creates huge problems. Get into any argument with atheists about the existence of God, and they are certain to bring up the Crusades and the Inquisition as examples of the malign impact of religion on the world. The solution to this problem is to challenge them to identify exactly how the philosophy and practices of the Crusades and the Inquisition were derived from the teachings of Jesus. In fact, they derived almost exclusively from the philosophy and practices of the Roman empire. But, at this point, we, as Christians, need to step away, and accept that applying the label ‘Christian’ to really any brand of politics creates enormous risks for the faith itself.

Over the last years, we have seen the spectacle of American presidential candidates scrabbling to present how ‘Christian’ they are. But, with the exception of Jimmy Carter (and, we hope, Obama), their actions once inside the White House have shown no particular Christian influence. If the only purpose of having ‘Christian’ parties is to bring out a captive vote, which can then be treated in a cavalier fashion, just as Tony Blair was able to treat the left-wing vote, then we would be better off without such parties.

2 Christians are called to be involved in mainstream society
Jesus called his followers to be salt and light in society. Through the pages of the New Testament, we see the early Christians engaged in all manner of ordinary, secular jobs. One of them was a city administrator. At no point do any of the New Testament writers suggest that Christians should distance themselves from secular politics. Going a little further back, the book of Daniel presents a clear picture of godly action by a civil servant and later prime minister in a thoroughly pagan regime.
The moment that we create Christian parties, we put a dilemma before Christian voters: should we vote for the best candidate, or should we vote for the Christian party. In some cases we may even be faced with the challenge of voting for the best candidate who is a Christian in a mainstream party, or the Christian party candidate.
Great Christian politicians such as Gladstone and Wilberforce were Christians active in ordinary mainstream parties. Their influence was much greater because they were involved in regular politics.
At the European elections, which traditionally favour minor parties, less than a quarter of a million people voted for the Christian parties, and their average vote was just 1.64%. But even if all regular church-goers had voted for them, they would not have attracted more than 10% of the vote. Of course, with a low turn-out, as we saw for the last election, 10% of the total electorate, if every church-goer voted, would be 20% of the actual vote — enough to put a Christian MEP into every region, but nowhere near enough to make those MEPs any more than an irritation, in the way of UKIP or the BNP.
For Christian politicians to have an impact on the society in which they live, they need to work with non-Christians. Which, of course, is exactly the way of things in business, the public sector, and most of the voluntary sector. And that means being in parties made up of many kinds of people.

3 Protest votes of any kind do not work
And that brings me to my third point. Everyone likes to make a protest, and the protest vote has a long tradition in British democracy. But not a very healthy tradition. Labour voters protested in their droves at the Euro election by simply not bothering to vote. The result? Two BNP MEPs were elected. And, rather worse for Christians, these BNP MEPs actually claim to speak for Christians. As I have pointed out in a previous article, they have no credentials for doing so, and they have no track record which would support it. However, the result of all the protest voting that took place is that the BNP got seats, whereas the Christian parties got none. I struggle to believe that all the people who voted for non-mainstream parties were happy to see the BNP elected. Nonetheless, the English Democrats, the Christian parties, and Socialist Labour were each worth an average of around one and a half percent, with the others all together probably worth another couple of percent between them. Even if these votes had been evenly distributed across the three mainstream parties, it would have been enough to keep the BNP out.

I am, personally, a committed Christian, and I joined a mainstream political party because I believe that faith does matter in politics. I certainly wouldn’t agree with anyone who suggests that you should keep religion out of politics. This is a frankly baffling and illogical perspective: why should we arbitrarily reject one part of our society from having a role in our common life. We might as well suggest that scientists should keep out of politics, or musicians, or dog-owners, or people who drive particular kinds of motor-cars, or people who do not drive at all. But, just as I would advise against a ‘Science party’, or a ‘Musicians’ party’, or any other kind of single-issue or special-interest party, I would advise Christians who want to have an impact through the democratic process against Christian parties. No party can possibly have a monopoly on Christians, nor can any party guarantee its future to the extent that it can be sure it will always behave in a scrupulously Christian way. History — and mainland European politics — is littered with too many examples of people who believed passionately in what they were doing, but were also entirely wrong.

Back to Top