Religion, Faith Schools, and ‘The Great Pumpkin’

Another from the “never posted” series. Again, I don’t know why I didn’t post it. It seems pretty finished. It’s also wildly out of date, stemming is it does from 2006. 2006! That’s eight years ago now! Where the hell does the time go?

Anyway, the original piece follows.

Religion is much in discussion at the moment, it seems, and atheism even more so.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that

the ideal of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen — no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils — is a politically dangerous one

But no-one has been trying to do that. True, there have recently been two cases in which employers have restricted what their staff can wear, with regard to items related to religions. Now, whether employers should be able to insist on such restrictions is one question, and a valid one to be asked; but it’s not something new, nor unique to religious clothes.

And it’s not as if anyone other than British Airways has done anything to restrict the display of Christian symbols. The woman in question there was in a uniformed occupation, and the cross violated the uniform code. Case closed. Do you think it would have been any different for a police officer or ambulance driver? If you want to get the uniform rules in your job changed, speak to your employer, go through your union, or whatever: but keep the courts out of it. Similarly if you are in a non-uniformed job with a dress code.

All of which is different from — almost orthogonal to — the case of Jack Straw asking Muslim women to remove their veils during a conversation (note: asking, not insisting; during a conversation, not forever).

I got the impression from the radio news this morning that the ArchieCant was trying to play the “persecuted Christian” card, railing against the overwhelming forces of our secular society. But having scanned his actual article, I see that that is not quite so. Rather, he is warning of the dangers of a society which only allows state-sanctioned religions to exist. Fair point, but again, not something that anyone is suggesting in Britain.

There’s no excuse for a Christian leader to complain about his (and it is always “his”) religion’s place in modern Britain (or, even more so, America). The various Christian churches, and the church of England in particular, hold a remarkably privileged position in British public life, from the head of state being also the head of the church, through the tax-free status of religions, right up to the exclusively-religious nature of Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ (and that’s not even mentioning the ‘Daily Worship’ or the complete takeover from 8 on Sunday mornings).

Then the Education Minister Alan Johnson has changed the former intent of the government regarding allowing non-believers (or different-believers) into new “faith” schools. Now don’t get me wrong: I am utterly opposed to “faith” schools: one great thing that America gets right, in my opinion, is it’s implementation of the separation of church and state that bans states from enforcing religious observation in schools, and I would happily see it removed from schools here. But we are where we are, and if there are going to be new, state-funded schools that base part of their teaching on a religion, then I think that the worst thing possible would be for them to be exclusively pupilled by kids from families who are followers of that religion.

And remember I went exclusively to state Catholic schools in Scotland.

The State of Me, by Nasim Marie Jafry (Books 2014, 4)

Well this is an interesting one. Nasim is an old friend. Or it might be more accurate to say she was the big sister of an old friend. She lived two doors down the road when I was growing up. Her younger brothers were both close friends of mine. A few weeks ago I came across some old email, and it made me think of them. I knew that Nasim had had a story or two published, so I googled her. Found her blog, discovered she’d had a novel published, ordered it from Amazon, and here we are.

In doing all this I got back in touch with her and with her brother, Yusuf, who I haven’t see in I don’t know how many years. So it’s all good.

But what about the book, I hear you ask?

Well, it’s not the kind of thing I’d normally choose to read — or not without a serious recommendation from a friend, for example. But it’s really, really good.

It’s a fictionalised autobiography, in that the protagonist goes through the same experience with contracting ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy) that Nasim herself did. And it’s set partly in Balloch, where we grew up.

Far more importantly, though, it’s a really good book. The characters are believable, especially the protagonist, Helen. That might be just as you’d expect, as they’re drawn from life; but I strongly suspect that it’s no easier to write a convincing character based on a real person — even yourself — than to write one who is completely imaginary.1 We are drawn in to her inner life, her loves and her problems, and we are glad to be.

When she is laid low by the hateful condition, we feel her every twinge and ache. When she falls in love we fall right with her. And that’s an important point: this isn’t a misery memoir; it’s by no means all about the illness, or even about Helen’s responses to the illness. ME affects and influences everything in her life, but she still manages to have a life, and Nasim makes it an interesting one, one we’re happy to share for a while.

Yet at the same time she manages to educate us about ME, through Helen’s own learning about it. It is still a little-understood condition, with underfunded research and mistaken guidelines from NICE.

All in all, it’s a fine debut, and I look forward to reading more from Nasim.

  1. And of course, consciously or not, writers always draw on the real people they’ve met when constructing their characters. What else is there, after all? []

Secret Diaries

Sad to hear of the death of Sue Townsend. I didn’t keep up with the Adrian Mole books after the first couple, but I was always happy to see her byline in the paper or hear her on the radio. And I did enjoy those early books and the TV series.

Interesting to learn from this Guardian piece that the first one was published at around the same time as The Smiths’ first gig. Adrian would probably have approved.

Why Devilgate?

I always expect people to ask me about my use of the handle devilgate, but they almost never do. But an old friend did recently, and I wrote him the answer, and I think it belongs here.

So sit back and relax, and I’ll fill you in on the whole story.

You’re familiar with the origin story of the comics character Daredevil, I assume? Well it’s almost exactly like that, except with less radioactive material/eye interaction, blindness and skintight costumes. But with added rock ‘n’ roll.

So, back around the time I was in primary 4 or 5 (age 9-10), Suzi Quatro, as I’m sure you know, had a song called ‘Devilgate Drive’ (or so I thought for decades; I was telling a colleague at work this story a few years back and we looked for it on Spotify, and couldn’t find it; until we split it into two words: ‘Devil Gate Drive’; somehow much less satisfying). I didn’t actually know the song back then, but some of my classmates did, and started calling me ‘Devilgate’, precisely because I was decidedly non-devilish (or so I assume). I was seen as a bit of a goody-goody, because a) my Mum was a teacher, and b) I was a bit of a goody-goody.

As nicknames go, it was a lot better than it could have been. I remember once another kid asking me what it meant, and I said, “Devilgate: the gate full of the devil.” Which is kind of embarrassing, but considering how goody-goody I actually was (altar boy, and all that), it’s surprising that I wasn’t more bothered by the diabolical nature. Perhaps further evidence that all children are naturally without belief, until and unless they’re indoctrinated into having some: I probably didn’t really believe in the devil.

Anyway, spin forward a few years and I got online and was looking for a handle somewhere — Slashdot might have been where I first used it, and I was just trying to find out whether you can find the creation date of your Slashdot user ID, but it seems you can’t. I have a vague feeling, actually, that I used it somewhere else first, but I can’t imagine where that might be.

Anyway, having established it, it became my go-to handle. Wherever there’s a web service, if there’s a devilgate (or Devilgate: I see that I capitalised it back in the Slashdot days), it’ll almost certainly be me. Except for eBay, where I’m devilgate_real, because some bampot had nicked my name by the time I got there.

And so when I finally got round to registering my own domain, it was obvious what I’d choose.

The First Three Books of the Year

The first three books of 2014 were:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s fantasy inspired by his own childhood experiences is fun. It is short, however, and strangely unmemorable after just a couple of months.

It by Stephen King

I read some King when I was younger, but hadn’t in several years apart from On Writing, until a couple of years ago when my beloved gave me 11.22.63, his time-travel fantasy about going back to save JFK. I throughly enjoyed that, and was reminded that he had a vast back-catalogue that I could catch up on.

A significant portion of that catalogue is contained in the single volume of It. It is a monolith, a vast behemoth of a book, at around 1300 pages.

It’s good, though, and I shouldn’t fixate on its size. King uses the space to let his characters breathe and grow. They have the strange limitation as adults that they have almost totally forgotten their childhoods, as a direct result of their encounter with the titular creature. Though not, as you might suppose, because they were traumatised. Rather it seems to be a feature of interacting with the supernatural entity that haunts the town of Derry, Maine, in the primary guise of a scary clown, that, if you face it and live (few do) you forget the encounter.

I had met Derry before: in 11.22.63 the protagonist spends some time in this strange town, and the effect in the book was so jarring — it felt obvious that here was a place with a history — that I looked it up. Turns out he’s used the fictional town as the setting for several stories (and presumably couldn’t resist routing his time-traveller through it).

Anyway, getting back to the book at hand: I spent weeks embroiled in King’s small-town America, its characters and its horrors. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, but am in no hurry to go back there soon.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Wow. Just wow. This is an awesome book. Atkinson manages to tell the same woman’s life story again and again and keep it interesting and gripping every time (well, there’s a slight longueur during a German period in one iteration, but the undercurrent of terror — she is living in the Führer’s holiday home — keeps it from being a problem).

As you probably know, it’s the tale of a woman who was born in 1910 and died — at various times, and in various ways. We are told the story of her life as she repeats it, again and again — or through multiple parallel timestreams. As the iterations go on, she starts to have some awareness of her past lives. She doesn’t understand what they are at first, of course, especially as a child. At first she’ll just have a sense of dread as she nears an event that killed her before. Later they are clearer memories of the future.

It is utterly fascinating and a joy. And not SF, though if had read it soon enough I’d have nominated it for the BSFA Award.

I read Kate Atkinson’s first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, years ago, and likened it to Iain Banks’s The Crow Road (hard to to think of higher praise). I read one other, but wasn’t so impressed, and rather lost track of her, apart from watching the TV adaptations of her detective stories. I think maybe I need to go back and catch up on her work.

Some People Left for Heaven Without Warning…

Too many people died in 2013. So many, it seems, that when Philip Chevron of The Pogues died, I didn’t get round to finishing my post. Here’s what I wrote in October:

… Except there ain’t no fucking heaven, and too damn many people have left for it this year. I hate 2013.

If there’s one slightly positive thing about Philip Chevron dying two days ago for me, it’s that I was reminded that the box set Just Look Them Straight In The Eye And Say… Pogue Mahone! exists; and also that it is now available in an inexpensive format for about £14. I ordered it on Tuesday night, and it arrived today.

I’ve been listening to it all afternoon. It’s a combination of outtakes, demos, live tracks and radio sessions, and it’s very good.

One thing that stands out at the moment, though, is that their music is steeped in the imagery of death. “Some people left for heaven without warning” is a line from “Sally Maclennane”, of course.

Weirdest Customer Request?

This is one of those unpublished posts I told you about. I don’t know why it wasn’t published (well, except that I hadn’t written the last couple of sentences).

A while back I heard the strangest ever request from a customer.

As you might know, I work for a software house.1 We write financial software for banks. As a thing to talk about it tends to be boring, but it can have interesting challenges.

Anyway, one of our product’s problems, as a web-based app, is that it was written to specifically target the Internet Explorer browser.

I know that seems at best charmingly retro, and at worst appallingly non-standards-compliant, but there are a couple of good-ish reasons. Principally the fact that the original version of the web app was written by contractors who both only knew IE, and were told that our clients only cared about IE. The latter was probably true at the time, and as for the former, well: let’s just say that sometimes people in companies make some stupid decisions, and leave it at that.

Inevitably, and especially as the browser landscape has matured and Apple and Google have come to rule the world, there have been calls to fix things. But there have always been higher-priorities. Getting new features done takes priority over making things work better, sadly.

One of these years we’ll fix it — personally I don’t think it’ll be as difficult as people always think (that fear is another reason why we have resisted doing it).

But what it would really take to force us to sort it out would be if a client demanded it.

If it were going to make or break a sale, we’d be all hands on deck.

So it’s interesting that we got a query a while back wherein a client was concerned about the fact that the app doesn’t work properly in Firefox. This was causing some of their users distress, as FF is their chosen browser. Was this it? Was this the opportunity, at last, driven by customer demand, to bring our app into the late twentieth century?


No, the client had a better idea. They wanted us to to change our app such that it would detect that the user was running something other than IE…

… and prompt them to use IE instead.

Oh dear.

(We didn’t agree to their request.)

  1. Incidentally, why “house”, I wonder? By association with “publishing house”, obviously, but why are those “houses”? I’m reminded of a discussion I had on a software mailing list in the nineties regarding the American tendency (then, if not now) for referring to a “shop”, meaning a programming entity, including an old-school IT department within a company. []

Another Lost Month, and Unpublished Posts

OK, so not content with the last post celebrating the fact that I missed a whole month, I then went on and missed February, too. These months just go by so fast.

Anyway, a couple of things. I noticed that I have a few posts sitting in draft form but that are more-or-less complete, so you may shortly see some slightly-non-timely things.

And I’m thinking I might have another go at blogging about the books I read. I appear not to have done that regularly since 2009 (these years go by so fast…) I might not give every book its own post, but put a few into a summary. As I’ve only read three so far this year (one of them was Stephen King’s 1300-page behemoth It, so I don’t feel too bad about the count) I’ll start with those.

This might just encourage me to post regularly, if not frequently.

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of Arthur’s Seat to keep things visual.

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Warning: contains language from the outset