Cooking our Goose… (recipe included)

Everyone has turkey at Christmas.  The supermarkets are full of it, frozen or fresh, whole bird or crown.  It’s so much the celebration bird that I noticed this year turkeys were being advertised at Easter too.

roast turkey

In my family, since we’ve taken over as the generation with income and houses in which to host, we have started cooking Christmas dinner.
My dad is not a big turkey fan – in fact poultry overall is not really his thing – as a student he had a summer job in a local chicken soup factory which even 40 years on rather puts him off.  On the other hand my grandfather quite looks forward to turkey and on his own has little other opportunity to have it.
My husband and I had a smallish single oven in our last flat which limited the size of bird that would fit in anyway. So as neither of us are particularly fond of it (although we both appreciate its low fat nature), so we started to experiment.

abstract_image-Perfect-Roast-Duck-with-Cranberry-StuffingImage from www.farmfreshduck.co.uk/menu.htmlroast venisonImage from www.bbcgoodfood.co.uk
Four years ago, we cooked a duck with an orange and apricot stuffing and a piece of venison for my parents and in-laws.  This turned out to be a very good alternative to turkey, with a lot more flavour from both dishes and pleasing the craving for variety that seems to form part of a really good christmas dinner.

fourbirdroast2 Image from www.ifelix.net/timetoeat/?p=597

Last year, we went for a three bird roast, or bird-in-bird-in-bird (I think it was partridge and duck in turkey but I can’t quite remember).  It was amazingly good, but quite expensive – so this year we were looking for something different.

We’ve moved out of London, and one of the things that we love about living out here is the availability of good local food (actually we tried to support local food in London too – www.northcoterd.co.uk is the website of Northcote Road in Battersea near Clapham Junction which gets its own chapter in the good food guide to London…).

So this year we’ve gone to a local deli  – the lovely Rachel’s deli at Mersham le Hatch – and ordered a small goose, a jointed turkey with cranberry stuffing, and some pigs in blankets.  I’m so looking froward to this… the goose was apparently in a field in a village four miles away until last week, and the turkey was in a different field five miles in the other direction (I don’t know where the pigs were but they were also within a ten mile radius of our house – that’s the joy of realising that local really means local). 
In case you are wondering – no I don’t intend to be a vegetarian at any point (and yes I’ve eaten foie gras too!) but I think if you are going to eat meat, you should not anonymise it – you need to know where it comes from and that it was treated in a good way when alive (that’s why last year we had faux gras instead…)

re-spicedroast-goose-driedfruit-sauce608Image from www.gourmet.com

StuffedTurkeyBreastImage from blog.cookingwithtraderjoes.com/2009/11/19/roa…

We mentioned this to my grandfather who will be joining us this year.  He said that he’d had goose at Christmas as a child but I rather got the impression that he felt he’d moved on to something better by having turkey, hence why we’ve gone for two meats rather than one.  Oh and buying local means that the price has been very reasonable too – cheaper than we’d expected after the bird-in-bird-in-bird last year.

We’re doing a spice rub on the goose and an apple stuffing.  Here’s the recipe if you are interested… (I’m indebted to Caroline65 of www.allrecipes.co.uk for this one).

Buy one local goose sized to feed 4-6 people. 
Pinch up the skin and stab it all over with a big fork – this will help the fat drain out and make the skin crispy.  Mix together a quarter teaspoon of all spice, half teaspoon of cinnamon and some freshly ground black pepper.  Rub over the goose skin.
In a frying pan, frybatches of apple slices (I’m using a mixture of Bramley cooking and Royal Gala eating apples, about 8 in total I think) to a golden colour, sprinkling with cinnamon and adding up to 6 tablespoons of brandy (can be Calvados but I’m using the same brandy as I’ll be using for brandy butter which is always better homemade).  Once fried, put inside the turkey body cavity and sew up.
Sit goose on a trivet in a big roasting tin – this will help the bird to not spend its time wallowing in fat. 
Cover goose legs in streaky bacon and cover the lot in a tent of turkey foil, making sure to fold the foil double over the legs so they don’t burn or dry out.
Cook at 200 degrees for 15 mins per lb (450g) plus 20 mins, baste every half hour and uncover the breast (but not the legs) 45 minutes from time.  It needs to rest for 20-30 mins outside the oven. Roast potatoes take 30-40 minutes in goose fat if they’ve been parboiled first, so you’ve still got time to cook them as the meat rests.

You should get loads of goose fat – this is fab if fattening for cooking roast potatoes – we’re going to try to remember to put some into jars as it’s selling at 2 quid a can in the supermarkets at the moment!

So hopefully Christmas dinner will run smoothly and it will all be lovely.  And Rachel’s just let me know that I’m getting a free organic veggie box too with my meat order – so I’m very happy and we should have enough food to see us through the next few days!

Happy Christmas to one and all.

Giving Politics the X Factor…

… or why we’ve got to get TV debates right.

 Debate clipartImage from rutlandherald.typepad.com/…/2009/02/index.html

So it sounds like this year we’ll get televised debates between the leaders of the three main political parties.
3 and a half quick thoughts:

1) I’m not clear which production company will be running the debates – we can only hope it’s not the one that makes Question Time – the last thing we need is baying mobs. According to the BBC website

ITV’s Alastair Stewart will host the first, Sky’s Adam Boulton the second and the BBC’s David Dimbleby will host the third debate.

And if it’s Simon Cowell’s company, he has said he wants to run the debates with a “bear pit atmosphere” . Think live audience, phone ins etc. etc.
What we need is sensible considered debate, with actual questioning of the different policies – the baying mob approach will just encourage politicians to play up the tribalist approach rather than subject each others policies to proper scrutiny.

2) We’ve got the wrong electoral system for this… 
We’re not voting for a prime minister, no matter what the focus of the debates, we’re voting for a Member of Parliament to represent us, and the leader of the party that wins the most seats will be invited by the Queen to form a government.
If I watch a debate between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg and I live in to take a place at random, Ashford, Kent, if I want to vote for them I can’t. 
I can vote for Chris Clark for Labour, sitting MP and shadow immigration minister Damian Green or Chris Took for the Lib Dems, plus anyone else who is standing.  They sign up to the same manifesto to stand as an MP for that party, but as I’ve set out before, I find it difficult to think that everyone signing up even as a candidate fully supports every last dot and cross of the manifesto for parties which are usually such a broad church in reality.  What if you want to vote green Tory but your constituency candidate is one of the climate change doubters?
It’s really hard to demonstrate a direct relationship between these leaders debates and the actual vote that you go into the school hall or wherever it may be to cast – here it is in plain numbers.  According to www.makemyvotecount.org.uk:

Over 70% of votes (over 19m) were wasted as they were cast either for a losing candidate or surplus to the winner’s requirements – a slight increase compared with 2001.

3) We’ve got devolution – and the party in government at Westminster is not in government in Scotland.  So should the SNP be involved in the general election debates?  Or Plaid Cymru?  What about Northern Ireland?  What about parties that have been democratically elected in a national vote – that would widen it out to the Greens, UKIP, BNP…? 

3.5) Are we going to be allowed to social media the debate and get answers?  I’d love a Twitter screen – but fear it’d be filled with “you’re all crap” or partisan rubbish rather than actual questions. 

So while I think that public debate of what the parties actually stand for, a chance to find out how, for example, they intend to put their policies into place while slashing the public service that would normally do this, or where third sector would get the capacity and funding to deliver services and how good value for money would be ensured and how exactly EU regulation of the City would be more constraining than what’s on offer at present, or how certain parts of public spending can be ringfenced, or why the we can’t get enough women into science careers because they don’t take science subjects but an international baccalaureat that would stop them accidentally narrowing their options but is not a good enough option to replace A-levels… to take 5 issues at random…
If I want to watch clever lines and shoutings down, I can watch PMQs. 
But televised debates need to actually allow critical examination of each party’s policies by the others on the grounds of what those policies are, and wider implications of the costs (financial and social, as well as the rest of PESTLE analysis actually…) – identifying places of agreement and cooperation.  Oh what’s the point?  We’re going to get the bearpit, aren’t we?

It can’t just be politics: the X Factor.
Surely the expenses scandal and fallout has shown that voters feel they should be shown more respect?
Well, if Rage Against the Machine can get Christmas number one as an act of rebellion against the assumed way of doing things, then those planning the debates should take note and not patronise in the approach.  Relevance might not mean what they think it does…

3 reasons why Copenhagen needs to succeed

I’ve just read that progress at the Climate Change conference talks in Copenhagen are “too slow”. I’ve done some tricky negotiations in my time, but I can only imagine how complex and what interests need to be handled in this sort of event.
It’s not even that there’s a for and against argument – it’s not sceptics versus ecofundamentalists, it’s nations (and blocs such as the EU or G77-China) with a complex pattern of interests and views that need to be taken into account in reaching a conclusion that everyone can sign up to.  

Look, if you want the scientific analysis of climate change, this is not going to be the blog for you. 
I’ve no truck with the denier/ sceptics who always seem to be on the side of business that doesn’t want to change what it has already invested in even if it brings about the end of the world as we know it.
But nor do I feel it’s right that environmentalism has become a belief system. 
We can’t have zero impact on the earth in an industrialised or post-industrialised country – to have no impact, even an agrarian society would be a mistake.  What we can do is to try to minimise the impact that we are having.
But there’s no one right way of doing so.  Attacking Climate Change secretary Ed Milliband for being honest enough to admit that he and his partner use disposable rather than reusable cloth nappies without considering that the reusable ones don’t just spring into existence and there’s a remarkable absence of cotton fields here in the UK – it just shows that a greener-than-thou mentality is alive and well and living in yummy mummy England. Presumably not the same mums driving t5he kids to school in a 4×4 becuase “it’s safer” though…

But Copenhagen needs to succeed.
Here’a a quick top 3 of why…

1) As any parent knows, I don’t care who is responsible for this mess, I just want it cleared up NOW, otherwise no one will be getting any kind of treat at all for the forseeable future… 
Is climate change entirely man-made? A natural phenomenon? A mixture of the two?  
I’m inclined towards the mixture argument because the fact that there have been ice ages in the past indicate that the temperature of the planet does vary over time, but I gather that the vast speed and intensity of change is what appears to be being dictated by our actions and the science backs that.

But the point is that this is a sterile debate. 
It really doesn’t matter whether it was me or mother nature alone that got the environment to this state, someone’s got to sort it out and if we can see that CO2 emissions and our energy guzzling ways are having an impact then we need to sort that out. 
It’s all feeling a bit like those cigarette companies that go there’s no proven link between cigarette smoke and lung cancer while having to pay out compensation to smokers, while all the time seeking out new ways of getting new customers hooked (such as the dispicable practice of selling individual cigarettes for a few pennies to young people in Africa who would not be able to afford the price of a whole packet). 
Or people as fat as me or fatter who pretend its all genetic rather than accepting that appropriate exercise and a better diet with more fruit and veg and less processed food in it would make a difference.

Something is happening (at the very least the weather is getting more extreme) and we can’t just throw up our hands and say will of the gods these days, so we have a responsibility to try to do something about making the lives of the people on this planet easier as it happens.  Think of them as the potential consumers for the goods or services that you produce if you need to have some kind of economic rationale behind it.  Gordon Brown mentioned green technology in his response to a question about whether it was right to give the developing world money to combat climate change in the midst of our own recession – and he was right to do so because if you can’t get people to understand the moral case, show them how their wallets can be aided and you’ll get their attention…  

2) Explaning it to the kids
There’s an old proverb that we don’t own the earth, we’re looking after it for our children.  It may be trite, but there’s a truth behind it.
I’ve blogged at length on recycling (here, here), and also mentioned that greener living is presented as the norm on Cbeebies.

Ed Miliband has a child in nappies.  That means that he is part of the same generation as me. 
That means that at least some of the negotiators at Copenhagen are not wise sages of an older generation – they’re my generation. 
So it’s my generation’s responsibility to get it right, right now. 
We can’t be the generation that saw things happening but dismissed them as not our problem to handle – how on earth would we be able to look future generations in the eye and say:
“well, although we had scientific results that showed that there was a serious problem we were more bothered about leaked emails whether there was collusion to exaggerate the problem becuase that excused us from taking the problem seriously and… what’s that? Email?  That was an electronic communications system which we used on our personal computers.  We used to sit with electric lights on, listening to music on electrical devices all the time not just on wind-up radios, our big flatscrren TVs eating power while we talked with people not just here, or in the same town but right across the world through email, skype, IM, twitter, facebook etc.  Those were the days, eh?  Life without power cuts. Who’d’ve thought it, eh?”
The 21st century is the century wherw we’re learning to live online as well as in the real world.  I wouldn’t want to only be able to cope with the online world, and then only if the power was available.  
My parents’ generation are having a tough enough time explaining to mine how as baby boomers they afford to live in a house with more bedrooms than people, can retire at 60 and expect to live the rest of their lives with their needs taken care of by the working generation, but my generation struggles to afford a mortgage on ex-Council houses, looks set to work well beyond 70 and will need to make pension and health care provisions becuase while the NHS free-at-the-point-of-use is sacrosanct for politicians at present, with more people living longer something’s going to give at some point. 
Now skip to explaining to my child how we see cars to pop around in and aeroplance flights as a right, electronic goods as necessities, meat as something for more than one meal a day… and however selfish the babyboomer generation may seem, we’re just as bad, just differently…
Just occasionally we’ve a chance to not screw it up for them – can we really not take it?    

5) Basically Copenhagen needs to succeed because we all need a bit of a kick up the arse on this stuff…

`In a world of market economics, if there’s enough consumer pressure, the market shall provide.  We’re starting to see this a bit but at the moment it’s still a bit of a niche – still, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk has gone free trade, so may be just may be…  But we’re not there yet and while simpler, cheaper but non-environmentally friendly alternatives persist, there’s little chance that we’ll switch.

We are encouraged to focus on what we CAN do, but while few of us consider the Prius as first car choice at present (price and space for child car seat and boot space for buggy tend to dictate our choice along with fuel economy and emissions rating) we need to be aware that shipping it over to where we are is a source of carbon emissions. 

I mentioned the nightmare of disposable nappies which take thousands of years to rot down – but while society requires working parents, buckets of napisan and constant loads of washing are not appealing, and the (expensive) nappy collection services don’t seem to operate outside London.  Besides my son got appalling nappy rash which is not aided by reusables.     You can get unbleached, biodegradable disposable nappies – they were better, but still not as absorbant as the planet-killers…

We could eat less meat and dairy – cows in particular produce methane and contribute to global warning but if we’re still doing so in the full knowledge that we greatly increase our risk of bowel cancer through ham, sausages and other processed meats I suspect militant vegetarianism to save the planet is on a hiding to nothing.

Even when it’s made easy, we don’t do it – the fuss about changing over to more sustainable lightbulbs shows that even simple changes that can make a big difference still don’t have full public support – although we’ve been using them for years in my house and have got used to the idea of them “warming up”.

As for planning and land use, local councils need to sort out their recycling policy to cover plastics (not good enough to say that its uneconomical to recycle plastics because oil is a finite resource and if we don’t start reusing we’ll run out) and while I know new-build environmental standards are high, rainwater harvesting and solar panels ought to be mandatory just like decent insulation… more on this soon.

So we need Copenhagen to succeed because deep down, most people are inherently small “c” conservative and won’t change unless they’re persuaded that there’s something wrong with what they were doing before that is now unpalatable to them.  Bottom up does sometimes need the support of top down.

Confessions of a partial polyglot political mummy blogger…

untitled

Um, bit embarrassing this.

I’ve been wondering why, in amongst the spam I get from various Russians offering me photos of Miley Cyrus, why I keep getting hits on my blog from www.google.de and in particular from http://maedchenmannschaft.net .  I had a look at the site, but couldn’t see any reason why a site that was apparently called “makeover team” would have any interest in my blog on politics, parenting, women’s issues, faith etc. so I deleted the trackback as a spam thing.  Oops.

I don’t speak German, but there’s a good reason for this, honest. 
When I was at school, languages were still compulsory (nowadays they are introduced in primary school but are optional after age 14 which of course has led to a decline in the number of Brits good at languages).  However, my school had 4-form entry and decreed that two forms would learn French, Latin and Spanish and two French, Latin and German. 
My thirteen year old self thought about this: I was good at French and felt at home in France, and as my Mum grew up in Germany (sort of, it’s a long story) and we’d always had German christmas foods at home – lebkuchen, stollen, that sort of thing (God bless Lidl for giving us an easy source of them this year) so learning German looked like a sensible, logical step. 80 million native speakers, nice climate, not too far from home… so I chose Spanish. 
I looked at the total number of speakers worldwide (452,480,979 apparently), the fact that practically the whole continent of South America speaks it and calculated that if I was going into the world of business I’d be best off learning Spanish.  Besides, Spanish is a romance language, like French, and therefore relatively easy to pick up if you’ve learned one…

At university I got to live in Barcelona to study (in an Erasmus group, which meant that actually I was learning Spanish in a group with French and German students) and was allocated a Spanish student to “buddy” me (she prefered to speak Catalan, of course, this being Barcelona). 
I got to spend a big chunk of time in Basel, Switzerland, because my boyfriend at the time was doing his language placement there, and because he was working I got to pick up some German language (which when I use it now, makes native German speakers laugh becasue apparently I speak a few words not of German but of Schweiz Deutch, which is rather like a German saying they speak a few words of English and coming out with Geordie…) 
I’ve bought two CD-based German courses (intended to use while breastfeeding at night but a DVD would’ve been better).  I’ve been to Germany on more occasions than I’ve been to Spain, but I still can’t really do more than ask my way to the U-bahn station and buy 500g of ham.  Oh and apologise in Swiss German for barely speaking German… 
But despite all this, somehow I’ve just never got around to learning German properly, although I’ve picked up restaurant Italian and Simpsons/ Buffy the Vampire Slayer-subtitle Dutch in the meantime… 

But as the references keep coming from that same website, I did a bit of investigation and played with translating the webpage that apparetnly mentioned me.  Here, coutrsey of Google Translate is why I keep getting links from http://maedchenmannschaft.net/jetzt-vorschlagen-die-bloggerin-des-jahres/:

Jetzt vorschlagen: Die Bloggerin des Jahres von Susanne

bloggermaedchen09Es gibt so viele tolle und wichtige Blogs von Frauen, wir selbst kommen gar nicht hinterher, sie euch alle vorzustellen. Und weil bloggende Frauen noch immer viel zu wenig Aufmerksamkeit bekommen, es aber mehr als genug Perlen in der weiblichen Blogosphäre gibt, wählen wir 2009 zum ersten Mal das Bloggermädchen des Jahres.
Ab sofort und bis zum 31. Dezember 2009, 18:00 Uhr könnt ihr hier in den Kommentaren eure Lieblingsbloggerin vorschlagen (einmal reicht), sehr gern mit einer kurzen Begründung, warum ihr Blog so toll ist. Die Abstimmung über das Bloggermädchen des Jahres 2009 läuft anschließend vom 2. bis zum 31. Januar.
Viel Spaß! Eure Mädchenmannschaft

There are so many great and important blogs by women, we did not even come afterward, introducing you to them all.
And because blogging women still receive far too little attention, however, there are more than enough gems in the female blogosphere, we choose 2009 for the first time Girl blogger of the year.
Effective immediately and until 31 December 2009, 18:00 Clock can suggest it here in the comments your favorite blogger (once is sufficient), very happy with a brief explanation of why her blog is so great. The vote on the Blogger Girls of 2009, then runs of 2 31 January.
Enjoy! Your girls team

And here’s the link to me, courtesy of Euroblogger Julien Frisch:

Julien Frisch sagt:
9. Dezember 2009 um 00:24
Ich weiß nicht, ob ihr auch englischsprachige Blogs akzeptiert, aber ich würde Bit more complicated… vorschlagen.
Die Autorin Jo ist Mutter und bezeichnet sich daher gerne als “Mummy blogger”, schreibt einen tollen Mix aus persönlichen und politischen Beiträgen – und wenn sie twittert mischen sich oft politische Tweets mit Anmerkungen zu ihrem kleinen Kind.
Letzte Woche hat sie erst ihren Sohn in den Schlaf gelesen und dann als eine von wenigen Frauen am ersten Skype-Wave-Twitter Eurobloggertreffen mit Bloggern aus ganz Europa teilgenommen.
Ein tolles Profil! 

Julien Frisch said:
9. December 2009, at 00:24
I do not know if she accepted English-language blogs, but I would suggest bit more complicated ….
The author Jo is a mother and is therefore happy to refer to herself as a “Mummy blogger,” she writes a great mix of personal and political contributions – and if she twitters her tweets often mingle with political comments about her small child.
Last week she read only her son to sleep and then took part as one of the few women on the first Skype-Wave tweet blogger meeting with bloggers from all over Europe.
A great profile!

 Thanks Julien for the nomination!  It’s lovely to read how others read my stuff, and it’s true, I’m more a mummy tweeter than a mummy blogger (partly because I try to guard my son’s privacy a bit which is easier to do in 140 characters than a long blogpost). 
But I want to show that female bloggers, even though motherhood is a massive part of a woman’s life, don’t lose their ability to have interesting thoughts on wider issues too.  Why shouldn’t I combine the two?  My son thinks it’s perfectly normal that Daddy does the shopping on line but Mummy writes, talks to people and can make the compter play his favorite songs from Cbeebies
I desperately wanted to be part of Joe Litobarski’s Euroblogger’s meet up even though it clashed with my son’s bedtime -and let’s face it, if someone like me doesn’t get involved how will the experience I’ve got of work, politics and life and the ideas I want to be able to share and debate get out there?  Life doesn’t stop when you’re a women that’s got kids, it changes and you have as much place and as much right to have views as everyone who doesn’t, or is a man, or has children that sleep…

You may or may not know that the subject of the Eurobloggers discussion was the problem of the fact that we all blog in different languages.  There are various ways of dealing with this, from amchine to manual translation, but I’ve added a tool to the right sidebar (go on, take a look) so you can, if you like read my site in German.  Happy reading!

And finally, this post has taken ages to write because my son refused to settle to sleep so we’ve had stories, two different pairs of pajamas, a baby doll that needed a nappy change and a refill of milk.  That’s why there’s not so many women mummyblogging who get to spend time on other issues… it really is a full-time job and there’s no 39 hour week legislation in force for this job…

Happy Hanukkah, still

 

Facebook Graphics Myspace Fairies Gothic Angels Mermaids

Free Photos Angels Fairies Mermaids Gothic Photos Glitter Graphics : picture from http://free-foto-animation-digital-images.blogspot.com

So, today is the third day of Hanukkah (an eight day festival), the Jewish festival celebrating the (thanks to The New Statesman God Blog for reminding me of that and that Maccabees is not just a book dropped from the protestant version of the bible, nor just a pop group).

The New Statesman piece points to the building up of Hanukkah in America, perhaps primarily because of its proximity to Christmas, but it is entirely up to a faiths followers to decide the relative importance of that faith’s different festivals to them: as a child Christmas meant a lot more to me than Easter but as an adult Easter Sunday is the more important of the Christian festivals (although I guess if I was of another denomination I might prize Good Friday more?)

The reference in the New Statesman piece to Winterval was amusing – Birmingham City Council coined the word in 1997 to encompass a long period of celebration of different celebrations from Hallowe’en to New Year’s Eve including festivals for different faiths and secular traditions too.  
But the term is used nowadays to describe enforced institutional secularisation – particularly the attempts by over-politically correct organisations to avoid any possible offence being caused to non-Christians. 
The funny thing is, and perhaps I hang out with the more liberal end of the churchgoing Christian spectrum but I’m not sure that I do, I’m not sure I know any of my Christian friends who would not want to see Eid or Diwalhi celebrated or ban yule logs or firstfooting.  That said, we tend to be the sort of people who are saddened by the likes of Dan Brown proclaiming that the Da Vinci Code is grounded in fact but regarded its publication as a useful chance to discuss our faith with others in a context that they rather than we brought up.
And I don’t know anyone that practises another faith who doesn’t try to spend Christmas together with their family and open presents (although I admit I don’t currently know and Jehovah’s witnesses). 
I’ll freely admit to not having read it but I gather that the humanists have got a guide out at the moment with tips for enjoying a God-free Christmas, but using the term Christmas in the title…
So who, exactly, is offended by the term Christmas?

But I digress.

I wish everyone that wishes to be wished it a Happy Hanukkah and I’ll take an early chance to wish you, dear reader, a Merry Christmas.

Sign

Image from http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/icons/data/Sign.gif

Advent thoughts: if it’s good enough for Africa…

Candle-Lanterns-5812_imageImage from http://www.lightalantern.co.za/about-candle-lanterns.asp

While searching the web for something this morning I was really surprised to find this thought-provoking article by Matthew Parris on the importance of faith in liberating Africa (especially surpised as I was looking for a Giles Coren piece on an obesity tax…).  I know it’s a year old and probably done to death in commentaries last year, but reading it I really wanted a chance to talk about it.
Here’s an extract:

But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

In many ways this article is beautiful:  while the activities of aid workers and NGOs are important, only the actions of the missionaries bring a change in the heart, standing tall, liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world, a directness in their dealings with others.  Parris puts this down to:

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

In other words, Christianity as practised by the missionaries (and indeed the non-proselytizing aid workers) gives a sense of self to the believer, enabling and empowering rather than enslaving and cowing.  This is culturally at odds with many of the community actions and tribal religions that are in place and the difference in attitude of new Christians is amazing and, Parris seems to imply, better this way of encouraging self-belief and modernisation than the alternatives that are out there.

This is interesting from two perspectives, which make the article a bit less beautiful…
1) As an atheist, is it patronising for Parris to suggest that Christianity is a good for Africans for getting beyond tribal beliefs in Africa, given that he doesn’t actually think it’s true?
Or is truth only of concern once you are modernised?

2) If Christianity has such amazing uplifting properties that are good for the people of Africa, giving a sense of self-worth built on a direct relationship between God and man, could it not be that those are exactly the things that we are missing and in need of here in the western world too?
Or does it not matter for us because we’ve already modernised and grown beyond such superstitions?

I don’t have any answers.  I suspect only Matthew Parris really knows what he was getting at, and he admits that what he sees is incompatible with or inexplicable by his new world view. 

For me, the idea that Christianity is a helpful stepping stone but not ultimately true is close to the Marx/ Engels “religion is the opiate of the masses” approach to life – an illusory happiness which can be set aside in order that they find “real” happiness. 
According to the rather fabulous Marx exhibition at the Karl Marx Haus in Trier, Marx had an exceptionally unhappy life, had a child with his housekeeper and two of his children commited suicide – so I’d be pretty clear that whatever this alternative source of happiness he was seeking, he didn’t find it. 
I wonder why this element of Marxist thought is not as discredited in the popular mind as the rest of communism?  (Incidentally, I maintain that we’ve not actually seen a real Marxist communist society yet – except perhaps early Christian communities:

“And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. 46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:44-47) )

But there is another perspective.  Perhaps Christianity lifts and inspires because it is true.
 
Christianity is undergoing a real boom in Africa not just because of the sense of self that a direct relationship with Jesus inspires but because what Jesus did, the society that he lived in, these things speak directly to many people in Africa in a way that we in the developed world have forgotten.   
Perhaps the liberation that comes from being an individual known to and knowing God personally is that missing element in life?
When you look at society today, the things that are prized (fame, money, advantage over others, being important, slick argument, “being yourself” in the Big Brother sense of saying exactly what you think without thought of the consequences for others in so doing, having the best of everything, doing exactly what you want to do) are about power and exerting that sense of self. 
Few people that get sucked into this belief system think about the consequences for their self, but the sense that something’s missing (the God-shaped hole) is often there in the statements that the “successful” people give to the press (being a reasonable person I’m compelled to point out this comments thread from the Daylight Atheism website that points out that confident atheists are also happy and that the posters seem to see it as a security-hole based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – but I see it as the Self-actualisation stage of Maslow rather than the Safety stage) .  And as is being seen in Africa, if embraced, that freedom can change worlds.

So how have we got ourselves to a stage where we are rejecting that freedom and regarding it as something that’s ok for others (even for liberating an enire continent) but just not for us?
Stephan Joubert, on the blog at www.echurch.co.za writes: 

One of my favorite quotes is that of Ernst Kaesemann, a well-known German theologian of the previous century. Just listen to what he writes as he’s thinking about Jesus: “People and institutions do not like to be kept continually on the alert, and they have constantly devised screens to protect themselves from too much heat. In fact, they have even managed to reduce Jesus’ red-hot message, which promised to kindle a fire throughout the world, to room temperature.”

If you look at church history through the centuries, that is just what has happened: sects appeared trying to rationalise what had happened (Jesus can’t have been human, he could only have been human, bodily ressurection wasn’t expected and therefore may be only spiritual ressurection took place, secret knowledge or good works required in addition to faith in Jesus in order to be saved… and so on).  Evidence if any were needed that the oldest message of the ressurection was hard to understand even then…
(Another aside – that ressurection was the key focus of faith in Jesus is clear from Paul’s letter here 1 Cor. 15:3-4: “ For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that he was buried and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.”) 
People in the UK tend to think Christianity’s about a bunch of old men in dresses with unworldly eyes or fuzzy beards, debating the morality of homosexuality and, dressed up smartly looking down on or turning away those who need access to that message of unconditional love.  Of course the church is not just its clergy (and in any case many clergy these days are younger, and/ or women) but the people that believe, and we need to be out there, spreading the word and helping people to be spiritually as well as physically whole.

And that’s an aspiration that’s not old fashioned, or unneeded where I am. 
And in looking forward, it’s the perfect thought for advent.

What’s the politics equivalent of CofE?

When the census was published in 2001, the big story was the religion box and the internet rumours about how if enough people put Jedi as their religion it had to be “officially recognised”. Absolute rubbish of course, but nevertheless 390,000 people said that they were Jedi’s leading to this rather fab report title on the ONS website…
37.3 million of the 53 million respondents to the census gave their religion as “Christian”.  Individual denominations were not specified, nor was there any breakdown between practising and non-practising because the census records the label that people choose for themselves.

Just about anyone you ask will tell you that practically no one goes to church on a Sunday (actually it’s more people than go to football matches each week, but no one’s saying that football’s on it’s way out and the stadiums should be converted into bijou residences, are they?) 
And indeed speculation at the time was that many people that had said that had done so out of habit or tradition – that they were not really Christian other than for hatches, matches and dispatches, and that many people would’ve preferred to put “C of E” rather than Christian in any case becuase it conveys a sort of equivocal, half-hearted, keeping the door ajar approach rather than a total immersion.

I suspect that actually there’s something very British about this sort of attitude.  Andrew Marr pointed out in his excellent series “The Making of Modern Britain” that what probably saved the UK from Oswald Mosely’s fascism was the British sense of humour, that we don’t commit too lightly or take things too seriously (look how long Jedward managed to stay in the X Factor if you need a more trivial example). 
CofE means: of all the faiths that I’m not currently practising, this is the one whose service I didn’t go to on Sunday… 
If that’s true, I guess they were the people that would’ve found my last three churches (TBT at Christchurch Mayfair, Holy Trinity Brussels and St Mark’s Battersea) a bit “too much”, not CofE in the sense they mean it. But I digress.

So I’ve just found this excellent post over at Sharpe’s Opinion, which sets out in a short, neat way something I’ve thought a bit about for some time. 

Political party membership is falling in the UK, and I think that part of the problem is that to join a political party, you need to feel that you subscribe to all of a diverse range of policies (and pay for the privelege of saying that you do so).
Actually I remember my politics teacher at school saying exactly that- that she had never signed up to a political party because she could not support the whole message of any of them. And she was one of the cleverest people I knew (Miss Pickles, you were a legend!  But as she was a sit-up-and-beg-bicycling, bun-wearing non-TV watcher I’m not honestly expecting to be able to find anything online from her to hyperlink to other than this link to the school…)

So you might be someone that thinks marriage is the best thing for encouraging families to stay together and that there should be tax breaks to encourage this, but pro-European. 
Or you might favour positive action in recruitment for women, disabled people and minority groups, but strongly in favour of grammar schools as the best way to help bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds be socially mobile. 
Or you might be in favour of local income tax but own a house worth over £2 million.
(Just to clarify this is not me we’re talking about in these examples – I don’t even own a house!). 
In each case, your two interests would conflict with two of the few clear policies espoused by a major political party.

So – assuming that there’s no one policy area on which you are intending to be a single issue activist – how would you be able to “commit” enough to actually “do” something in politics to make the world a better place?
  
It’s not that easy at the moment.
If – as it seems from my paddling in the UK and EU political blogospheres- one of the main ways of getting your voice hear is through the team/ brand loyalty of a political party.  This guarantees you a pool of potential readers who will click onto or link to your blog just because you’ve got a little bird or tree or rose emblem just like theirs (or indeed a different one to theirs).  There will be lists that you can get onto, bringing more readers to debate with in the comments section and share ideas and build your knowledge. 
But these of course are the hardcore supporters, and while bloggers like Iain Dale are clear that they are not official party mouthpieces, they do tend to take a my-party-right-or-no-actually-we’re-always-right type of attitude (unless on an issue where they’re personally affected in which case they try to justify both views).
And what happens if, like Charlotte Gore, you fall out of love with your party over bits of what they stand for? 
It’s a bit like a religion isn’t it?  But while exegesis or midrash are “allowed” in some religious circles, and small group discussion is thought to help you understand and deepen your faith, there will always be some people who are happy with the simple faith version, looking for an easy label and willing to say “C of E” and get back to mowing the lawn without trying to go into what it means and why.  And indeed there will always be some people within the faith that don’t want you to do more than parrot back received wisdom – could that be said to be the case for political parties too, as in “we have clever people to do the thinking and they’ve come up with this, take it or leave it?”

So can anything be done to make this better?
Not clear.  Experiments like Jury Team tried to overcome the political party system, but the polling at the 2009 European elections for their independent candidates was hardly spectacular. 
Esther Rantzen might be trying to use her celebrity in a Martin Bell-like manner to stand against a politician whose morals she disagrees with, but she’s not exactly standing on a platform of anything that people can sign up to positively, merely that she’s been known in the past as a consumer champion and is not the sitting candidate.
I suspect that actually a different electoral system allowing for coalition politics might be part of the solution. 
Then, I don’t know, pro-European Tories could be free to praise the benefits of the EU to the rooftops, Labour supporters that think that an insurance-based healthcare system might actually be better than the current NHS, and Lib Dems who think that students should pay tuition fees would all be free to say what they think without fear of losing the whip or never getting on in their party and therefore never making it to the front benches/ government. 
Maybe the way to avoid groupthink and to really stimulate new ideas is to have lots of different groups suggesting them.  And while I guess there’s a Pythonesque risk of ending up with the Judean People’s Front/ People’s Front of Judea, at least it would be debate out in the open rather than manifestos out the front but little black books and the like behind the scenes.

Of course which ever party forms a government via which ever political system, I’m sure they’ll do their best to be a good govenment.  But as the old saying goes, it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in. 
I guess there might be a lot of people out there wondering which is the “C of E” option on the ballot papers…

Eurobloggers United…

Well, it actually happened and I was there.

What was this momentous event?

It was the first get together of eurobloggers.  At Joe Litobarski’s instigation we met online – initally via twitter, Google wave, IM etc. but actually in the end via Skype’s IM system after a conference call for more than 20 proved unwieldy (and my microphone wouldn’t turn off, meaning everyone could hear my toddler enjoying the Sarah Jane Adventures).

We discussed overcoming language issues in EU blogging – en anglais English, evidemment (something that makes me as a native English speaker both grateful and a bit guilty) – and the solution to better linking up and boosting the readership of EU blogs and conversations between bloggers is likely to be a bit linguistic, a bit techie, and reliant on the willingness and goodwill of all those involved.
I couldn’t stay for it all – evening events tend to end up clashing with toddler bed time although he did very well and his fathe’s arrival home meant I wasn’t too neglectful, but eventually bedtime had to come.

Congratulations, Joe, on a great initiative.  And it was lovely to meet everyone.
Now let’s see where we can go from here!

A mother of a big issue…

MOTHER clipart

Interesting, thought provoking Comment is Free piece in the Guardian today, on early years parenting. 
Why is it increasingly contraversial to suggest that the best people to raise children, especially when they are very young, might actually be their parents?