The curate and the faun

Another post in my occasional series on the Anglican clergy in British fiction: this time, from E.M. Forster. ‘The Curate’s Friend’, a short story, was written in the very early years of the century, and was first published in The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (1911). It was later published in the Collected Short Stories (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1947), which appeared as a Penguin title in 1954.

A Faun (detail), by  Pál Szinyei Merse, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Faun (detail), by Pál Szinyei Merse, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the very few works in which the clergyman is also the narrator. To my knowledge, it also is the only such work of fiction that has an Anglican clergyman meet a faun on a Wiltshire hillside, and its exquisite construction and fantastic character (on first reading) obscure a rather radical message. The unnamed curate is discomfited by a faun during a picnic, shared with the object of his affections and her mother. His extreme reaction to his new friend, who none of the rest of the party can see, causes his companions to flee him. But his horror at his apparent disgrace ‘in the presence of ladies’ is soon overtaken by his new-found perception of the real nature of the natural world around him. The hill itself converses with the faun; the curate suddenly is able to hear ‘the chalk downs singing to each other across the valleys’, and the voice of the streams that never sleep.

And from this point on, the young curate who had hitherto been a fool, ‘facetious without humour and serious without conviction’, found himself happy. The epiphany that Forster presents is not one that causes doubt, or the evaporation of a vocation. Instead, by the end he is able to look down from his pulpit (for now he has a living of his own) on the better and the worse sort, and to try to impart something of the joy he has experienced. But, were he ever to disclose just how he came to know that joy, he should lose his living and the whole of his existence, so ‘profitable and agreeable.’ Forster’s religion of nature can be accommodated within the social structures of faith, but its true nature is available only to those to whom it is revealed.

David Lodge and Billy Graham

Among the ‘Catholic novels’ of David Lodge, his first novel The Picturegoers (1960) is the least well-known, partly due to the neglect into which it fell until it was reissued by Penguin in 1993, with an introduction from the author. Lodge himself thought it, like most first novels, ‘a receptacle for whatever thoughts and phrases the author was nurturing at the time of composition, whether or not they are relevant.’ The novel was substantially complete by the summer of 1957, and one of the many such thoughts that are crammed into its pages is the brief passage about Billy Graham’s visit to the Harringay arena in 1954. It appears towards the end of part two.

Billy Graham at Duisburg, 1954. Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-22 / Lachmann, Hans / CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons

At the Brickley Palladium, the faded south London picture palace around which the novel revolves, there are two cleaning ladies, Dolly and Gertrude. Doll and Gert are salt-of-the-earth working class Cockneys on whom little weight of the plot rests but who provide some relief as the book progresses. And “our Else”, Gert’s married daughter, having gone to Harringay “for a lark”, has “gone and got religious”. There was the organ, the choirs and masses of flowers, and a call to come forward in the meeting and testify that one had been ‘called’. To Gert and Doll, it all sounded “just like the Salvation Army, only posher.” And not only posher. Had Doll seen pictures of this bloke Billy Graham, Gert asks ? “’Andsome ain’t the word. As soon as I saw ‘is picture I knew what ‘ad ‘saved’ Else.” It was “Salvation Army plus sex, if you ask me.” Lodge neatly anticipated later analyses of Graham’s appeal, a glamorous apparition in austerity London.

Lodge also hints at the disruption within families that a conversion at a Graham meeting could provoke. Gert hadn’t taken well to being called a sinner by her own daughter: “If she was younger, I’d ‘ave smacked ‘er arse.” And Else’s husband Sidney has worse to contend with. After reading Graham’s The Secret of Happiness, his wife has decided that his lack of regular bathing is connected to a lack of purity of heart, and refuses to share a bed with him until he washes. That cleanliness was next to godliness was not a message that washed well in Lodge’s Brickley.

Slow scholarship and fast blogging

Recently there has been some debate on whether academic blogging is good for you; part of a wider debate about the speed and pressure of contemporary academic life. (You can get a sense of the debate in the articles here and here.) Some of this is prompted by the widely-circulated Manifesto for Slow Scholarship, which points to the supposedly inevitable superficiality of academic interaction in social media channels. It calls for a return to a more leisurely, measured, considered mode of thinking and writing, that produces writing that is fully baked. (There are some sage comments on the manifesto at large on CelebYouth.org.)

This month marks the second birthday of this blog (at least in its current form and location). And so it seemed a good time to look back and see whether there is any evidence here of ‘fast scholarship’ which has been too fast. After an elapse of two years, are there posts here that in retrospect I might wish not to have published ? If so, there would be some justice in the charge.

In that two year period, I counted up some 74 individual posts. Some of these were reports of work that was appearing in print, or in other outlets, including extracts. Some were explicitly partial and forward looking, such as this post inviting comment on an abstract for a forthcoming conference. These have a natural shelf life.

Along with these, there are perhaps 45-50 posts which have the character of an essay: thinking that had not previously been published, and which were an expression of a reasonably settled view. How have these fared ?

Some which contained comment on live issues at a point in time have been overtaken by events and changing circumstances, such that they speak to issues that have either been settled, or have transmuted into something different. An example is this post on the Church of England and women bishops, and this, on disestablishment. Also in this category are various posts on the policy environment for Open Access in the humanities, in which policy statements from government and funders have come thick and fast. Others are in the character of reviews of fast-developing web services, such as Google Scholar Updates. That said, I think these remain reasonable and cogent points to have made at that time, and so I don’t intend to remove them.

But what of the others ? There are areas in which my thinking has deepened since the first time I posted about them. But (crucially) that growth in thought has not been away from the initial post, but deeper and wider in the same soil. This is indeed what  one would hope would happen – the act of first essaying something here is the stimulus to further thought.  And so, I don’t think there are any posts here which I now wish were not here, and not in the archived version in the UK Web Archive. From the evidence of this blog, at least, there is no contradiction between slow scholarship and fast blogging.

 

 

The ethics of search filtering and big data: who decides ?

[Reflecting on discussions at the recent UK Internet Policy Forum, this post argues that societies as moral communities need to take a greater share in the decision-making about controversial issues on the web, such as search filtering and the use of open data. It won’t do to expect tech companies and data collectors to settle questions of ethics.]

Last week I was part of the large and engaged audience at the UK Internet Policy Forum meeting, convened by Nominet. The theme was ‘the Open Internet and the Digital Economy’, and the sessions I attended were on filtering and archiving, and on the uses of Big Data. And the two were bound together by a common underlying theme.

That theme was the relative responsibilities of tech providers, end users and government (and regulators, and legislators) to solve difficult issues of principle: of what should (and should not) be available through search; and which data about persons should truly be regarded as personal, and how they should be used.

On search: last autumn there was a wave of public, and then political concern about the risk of child pornography being available via search engine results. Something Should Be Done, it was said. But the issue – child pornography – was so emotive, and legally so clear-cut, that important distinctions were not clearly articulated. The production and distribution of images of this kind would clearly be in contravention of the law, even if no-one were ever to view them. And a recurring theme during the day was that these cases were (relatively) straightforward – if someone shows up with a court order, search engines will remove that content from their results, for all users; so will the British Library remove archived versions of that content from the UK Legal Deposit Web Archive.

Monitor padlock
But there are several classes of other web content about which no court order could be obtained. Content may well directly or indirectly cause harm to those who view it. But because that chain of causation is so dependent on context and so individual, no parliament could legislate in advance to stop the harm occurring, and no algorithm could hope to predict that harm would be caused. I myself am not harmed by a site that provides instructions on how to take one’s own life; but others may well be. There is also another broad category of content which causes no immediate and directly attributable harm, but might in the longer term conduce to a change in behaviour (violent movies, for instance). There is also content which may well cause distress or offence (but not harm); on religious grounds, say. No search provider can be expected to intuit which elements of this content should be removed entirely from search, or suggest to end users as the kind of thing they might not want to see.

These decisions need to be taken at a higher level and in more general terms. It depends on the existence of the kind of moral consensus which was clearly visible at earlier times in British history, but which has become weakened if not entirely destroyed since the ‘permissive’ legislation of the Sixties. The system of theatre censorship was abolished in the UK in 1968 because it had become obvious that there was no public consensus that it was necessary or desirable. A similar story could be told about the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, or the reform of the law on blasphemy in 2008. As Dave Coplin of Microsoft put it, we need to decide collectively what kind of society we want; once we know that, we can legislate for it, and the technology will follow.

The second session revolved around the issue of big data and privacy. Much can be dealt with by getting the nature of informed consent correct, although it is hard to know what ‘informed’ means; difficult to imagine in advance all the possible uses that data might be used, in order both to put and to answer the question ‘Do you consent?’.

But once again, the issues are wider than this, and it isn’t enough to declare that privacy must come first, as if this settled the issue. As Gilad Rosner suggested, the notion of personal data is not stable over time, or consistent between cultures. The terms of use of each of the world’s web archives are different, because different cultures have privileged different types of data as being ‘private’ or ‘personal’ or ‘sensitive’. Some cultures focus more on data about one’s health, or sexuality, or physical location, or travel, or mobile phone usage, or shopping patterns, or trade union membership, or religious affiliation, or postal address, or voting record and political party membership, or disability. None of these categories is self-evidently more or less sensitive than any of the others, and – again – these are decisions that need to be determined by society at large.

Tech companies and data collectors have responsibilities – to be transparent about the data they do have, and to co-operate quickly with law enforcement. They also must be part of the public conversation about where all these lines should be drawn, because public debate will never spontaneously anticipate all the possible use cases which need to be taken into account. In this we need their help. But ultimately, the decisions about what we do and don’t want must rest with us, collectively.

Rescripting religion in the city

Jane Garnett and Alana Harris (eds)
Rescripting Religion in the City. Migration and Religious Identity in the Modern Metropolis
Farnham, Ashgate, 9781409437741, 2013

I have just submitted a review of this very useful volume of essays, for the Journal of Belief and Values. It begins:

‘The city, and in particular the metropolis, has always been key to local, national and international networks: of trade, of communication, of governance. And the briefest acquaintance with the history of London, for instance, shows that the same applies to networks of religious exchange. ….. London has acted as a node in the networks around which money, information, material objects and people have flowed. As this new collection of essays shows, these interactions have only become faster and more complex as empires were dismantled and the former colonial powers gave room to significant immigrant populations who might or might not share the inherited faith of their hosts.’9781409437741 Rescripting Religion in the City

The volume includes contributions from ‘historians, theologians and sociologists, and from scholars of music, social and cultural geography and anthropology… organised in thematic sections, on languages, place and space, gender and generation, and public policy, with editorial introductions to each… In this diversity lies the volume’s strength. There are rich connections to be made between essays that deal with native and migrant Christian experience across several denominations, and those on Jewish, Hindu and Muslim cases. London figures heavily, alongside studies of Paris, Warsaw, and of Australian and North American cases…’

The essays that stand out are those that engage most with historical context: in particular, those by Matthew Grimley, Gil Toffell, Nazneen Ahmed, Michael Keith and Abigail Wood. Thomas Hodgson wins my prize for best article title of the year with ‘”Do what the Qu’ran says and stay away from crack”: Mirpuri Muslims, rap music and the city.’

Other were less successful, not so much for the content as for the style, being:

‘poorly structured and lacking a clear analytical thrust. … Others are heavily larded with some rather rebarbative jargon, and plain bad writing; the sentence that must be read three times to be understood is a bad sentence.’

It is a shame that in a policy environment focussed on ‘impact’ outside the academy, some authors make their readers, even the initiated ones, work so hard.

See the list of contents.

Badalia Herodsfoot and the Curate

Another post in my occasional series on clergy in British fiction; this time from a short story by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The record of Badalia Herodsfoot‘, first published in his Many Inventions in 1893. Both posts in the series so far, from H.G.Wells and George Orwell, have featured clerical characters working in prosperous and settled areas of England. Kipling’s character, by contrast, is an example of a recognisable type in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century: the ‘slum priest’.

The Reverend Eustace Hanna is curate of an unnamed parish in London’s East End (it is always the East End). He works amongst the poor of Gunnison Street, dispensing aid as best he can, both material and spiritual, but mostly material. He works alongside the Little Sisters of the Red Diamond, a house of Anglican religious, as well as Brother Victor, of the (Roman Catholic) Order of Little Ease. He must also stay in the good books of Mrs Jessel, of the Tea Cup Board, who ‘had money to dispense, but hated Rome.’

What this group of do-gooders, partly co-operative, partly competitive, come to recognise is that they need help. While the residents of Gunnison Street need material help, they are considerably less interested in any religious attachment that might go with it; although some are not above feigning a conversion for a bite to eat. Hanna and the others are interlopers; not despised as such, but tolerated at best; separated by an insuperable barrier of class and outlook.

And so Hanna enlists the help of Badalia Herodsfoot, a deserted wife of indeterminate age, childless, who shifts for herself by ‘a mangle, some tending of babies, and an occasional sale of flowers’. Once a week Mrs Jessel subvents a sum of money for the poor, which Badalia dispenses, and records the details in a book which Hanna must sign. Mrs Jessel is concerned about Badalia’s godlessness of speech, but all recognise that her local knowledge is too useful a means that they should question her conduct.

It is important that Hanna is a curate. The rector of the parish is more concerned with altar-cloths and a new brass eagle lectern for the church, and (we are to understand) would rather the curate did not spend his time pauperizing the poor by dispensing charity to them. But Hanna is young, and still tender of heart. And his heart is particularly tender towards Sister Eva, ‘youngest and most impressionable’ of the Little Sisters, alongside whom he works and whom he would rather be able to protect. All of them work themselves hard, with a faintly desperate determination, ‘since time is precious and lives hang in the balance of five minutes.’

Hanna is a more sympathetic character than either Wells’ curate, or Orwell’s rector, but there is still moral complication. It is as a direct result of Badalia’s involvement with Hanna that she is beaten to death by her degenerate husband Tom, returning to her after a desertion of two years. This is partly because she will not hand over the money for him to spend on drink. But Tom is disposed to believe the gossip that Badalia is the subject of more than just the charity of this ‘aristocratic parson’. But Hanna and Brother Victor are able to put aside their differences, and the denominational demarcation of death, to both be at Badalia’s deathbed as she succumbs to her injuries. Kipling’s curate is a good man at work with limited success in an alien environment.

Michael Ramsey – an autistic archbishop ?

[Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury between 1961 and 1974, and possibly one of the greatest holders of the office in modern times, was also widely known for his eccentricity and difficulty in social situations. This post suggests that Ramsey was autistic, in an age before the term had been coined. It goes on to consider whether Ramsey's own spirituality, and expectations of others about it, served as an explanation for his eccentricity to contemporaries who had no other means to understand it.]

Working on my book Archbishop Michael Ramsey, it soon became clear that almost everyone who had encountered him had a ‘Ramsey story'; some account of his eccentricity and extreme social awkwardness. Tales abound of long, sudden embarrassed silences during one-to-one meetings; of fidgeting, waving of arms, clumsiness; of unpredictability in liturgical processions that was the vexation of his staff. Ramsey was ‘odd’, or ‘eccentric';’ ‘shy'; ‘a bit tangential’. This was the man who allowed a group of American soldiers into Durham Cathedral during the war, and forgot to return to let them back out again.

Arthur Michael Ramsey (1961)

Each of the students of Ramsey has his stock of such ‘Ramsey stories’. Some recount them gently and affectionately. One, a former member of Lambeth staff Michael De-la-Noy introduced a note of moral culpability. Ramsey had ‘no small talk’ but was at fault in that ‘he simply will not do anything to cultivate any. He is uncompromising in his relations with people; he will do nothing to get onto your wavelength. Either you get onto his or you never meet.’

I was born the year that Ramsey retired; and was still in school when he died; and so I have no Ramsey stories of my own. The task of any historian wishing to understand the man as well as the archbishop involves marrying the apparently contradictory sides of Ramsey’s life. Why should one so compelling in print and in public speaking, and with such a close interest in pastoral care, also be so inept in certain social interactions ?

But this apparent contradiction might be explained if it could be established that Ramsey had autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). As an historical method, this kind of retrospective diagnostics has its precedents. Several attempts have been made to explain the madness of King George III; and more recently surgical evidence has been put forward to suggest that Benjamin Britten had syphilis. ASD, however, presents no physiological symptoms, but is a behavioural disorder. Since ASD is diagnosed in the living from patterns of behaviour, it is possible to read Ramsey’s autism with some confidence from the accumulated witness evidence of those who met and knew him.

Taking my cue from the work of Uta Frith, one of the clusters of behavioural traits associated with autism is inflexible and/or repetitive physical movements. These are often linked to hyper- or hypo-sensitivity in one or more of the senses, and are seen as a form of self-stimulation; a means of obtaining additional sensory input that is often experienced as calming. Particularly common is vigorous and apparently purposeless waving of the hands, which features in several accounts of Ramsey. When struck with a solution to a theological problem, his hand-waving in a Lincoln cafe was such that the waiting staff would not serve the tea.

There were more such behaviours than hand-waving. As a child, Ramsey would leave the dining table and rush around the garden, or run up and down his bedroom at night, striking the wall at each end. Colleagues and students at Lincoln Theological College were often distracted in the college chapel by Ramsey’s ripping of handkerchieves, or convulsive fidgets, or rubbing his face.

Also very common in people on the autistic spectrum are difficulties with speech. Another mark of Ramsey was his repetitive use of certain words, which would now be classed as ‘echolalia’, or echo speech. Some took to counting the number of ‘yeses’ that might be heard in one of his sentences; it even formed the basis of a cartoon. Ramsey would often fasten onto particular words of which he liked the sound. One car journey through Hertfordshire found him repeating at length the name Baldock, spotted on a road sign.

Autism is also associated with an inability to respond to the social approaches of others, or to their likely emotional state. Uta Frith has written of the ‘absent Theory of Mind'; an inability to imagine the existence of minds other than one’s own. This commonly manifests itself in difficulties in initiating or sustaining conversations; and these silences are one of the most common themes in the various ‘Ramsey stories’. One job interview lasted 45 minutes, and included some 15 minutes of total silence. Ramsey had ‘no idea what to say’, the candidate recalled; the whole thing was ‘farcical.’

But if Ramsey was interested in a topic, and it was one about which he knew something, then he could hold his audience spellbound. As a student, Ramsey was made president of the Cambridge Union, the university’s principal debating society; and his performance from a political platform as a student made Herbert Asquith think him a potential leader of the Liberal party. The apparent paradox is however not a genuine one, since Ramsey’s impairment was not to do with eloquence, but about the social element of unstructured conversation. Given a cue from someone else, often his wife Joan, Ramsey could then speak at length, and then stop as he ran out of information to impart. This was always cogent, often eloquent; but it was not conversation.

The absent Theory of Mind also manifested itself in a more general insensitivity to others. Some of it looked like rudeness, as with Ramsey’s tendency to walk off in the middle of a conversation. De-la-Noy thought him insensitive to the financial needs of others, and unable to express more than the most perfunctory condolence if someone had been bereaved. He was also bad at remembering to thank his staff; a gap often filled by Joan. ‘I could be swinging from the bannister one morning’ his chaplain said ‘and the Archbishop would never notice.’

Such anecdotal evidence, taken together, suggests very strongly that Ramsey did indeed have autistic spectrum disorder. How did Ramsey, despite these difficulties, reach the very pinnacle of his profession, in an age that could not name the condition ? Here the historian treads on uncertain counterfactual ground. The support of his wife must be counted as crucial, in that Joan had particular strengths in the areas of social interaction in which Ramsey had weaknesses.

It is also likely that, as is the case in most professional situations, the more senior someone becomes, the more their colleagues must work around their particular eccentricities. But his rise must at least be equally due to exceptional talent, without which the Church of England knew from early on that it could not do. His potential was spotted as a student, long before any seniority could shield him, and more than a decade before he met his wife.

There was also a subtle but crucially important connection between the expectations of others about the likely characteristics of a particular type of Christian. His Be still and know was a penetrating investigation of Christian prayer and of the depths to which the contemplative and meditative practices of the Christian mystics could reach. This and other works speak of his strong personal grasp of the reality of spiritual communion with God through prayer, and the importance at times to the Christian life of withdrawal into God.

Other bishops were of course concerned with prayer. But Ramsey was particularly known as a man of prayer, indeed even as a mystic; the word ‘other-worldly’ is used a great deal about him. Expectations of how a mystic should behave with other people served to distract attention from a neurological disorder. I would not wish to posit any connection between autism and a particular type of spirituality; but to Ramsey’s contemporaries they seemed to look the same. To be ‘other-worldly’ was for many to be expected.