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tmp_2019020318023776334.jpgThe bothy was built of stone, all randomly coursed, with a chimney and a neatly pitched, though slightly sagging slate roof. The door and windows were in good order, the woodwork showing a recent lick of green paint. It stood a little inland, but still within sight and sound of the sea. At its back rose the darkening profile of the mountain, though the precise shape of it was as yet only to be guessed at, it being capped by a lazy smudge of grey clag that wasn’t for budging, not today anyway.

It was the thing they all came here to climb, a multitude of guide books singing its praises, but I was only interested in it as background. Maybe tomorrow I’d get a better view of it.

It had been a few hour’s walk from the road, where I’d left the car, and a lonely stretch of road at that, five miles of single track from the cluster of little houses down by the harbour, this being the only settlement on the island. Then it was a mile of choppy blue in a Calmac ferry to the mainland, and a region of the UK with a population density as near to zero as made no difference.

It had been a shepherd’s hut I think, a neat little place kept going by the estate, a lone splash of succour in an otherwise overwhelming wilderness, a place that, even then, centuries after the clearances, still spoke of an awful emptiness and a weeping. It’s a scene that remains in my mind fresh as ever, and I have to remind myself this was the summer of  ’87, that an entire generation has come and gone since then who have never seen or known such stillness. But time stands still whenever I think of it. I’ve only to close my eyes and I’m there.

It was clean and dry inside, just the one small room, some hooks for wet kit, a shovel for the latrine, a rough shelf of fragile paperbacks. The floor was swept, a little stack of wood and newspapers by the fireplace, a half used sack of coal, and there was a pair of simple bunks, one either side of the fireplace. As bothies went this was small but relatively luxurious.

I lit the fire and settled in. It was late afternoon, June, cold and blowing for rain – typical enough for the western highlands that time of year.

There were only about a hundred bothies in the whole of Britain, all of them in lonely places, and I’d set myself the task of photographing every one. Don’t ask me why. It wasn’t like I was going to write a book, or pitch a feature to the National Geographic or anything. I’d tried all that, and was already waking up to the somewhat sobering conclusion I was irrelevant in what had become an increasingly hedonistic decade. This  wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because all of that was looking set to burst any day now, and many of us were braced for it, wondering what the hell was coming next.

I’d just turned twenty six, and if I’d learned anything of use by then it was this: establishing a purpose in life was everything to a man, whether that purpose seem big or small to him, or to others, it didn’t matter, and we all get to choose, but here’s the thing: the best choices always seem to run counter to the Zeitgeist, and it’s that problem, that paradox and how we deal with it that writes the story of our lives.

Me? I’d chosen this.

I always shot the land in monochrome because I had a notion you saw more in black and white. I used an old  OM10 with a Zuiko prime lens, still do in fact. But the camera was just an excuse really, like a magnifying glass you use to get a closer look at a thing. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly, still don’t really, but I’ve a feeling I was closer to it then than I am now, sitting here in 2019, over thirty years later. Now, I’ve no idea where I am, feel lost in time, actually, and finding it harder every day to convince myself I exist at all.

Anyway, I’d gone out and I was squeezing off some shots of the bothy against a grey sea, just playing with compositions and line for the better weather I’d hoped would be on the morrow. And quite suddenly, was so often the way there, the clouds tore open a hole, loosing from the eternal gold beyond stray javelins of what I’d hoped was a revelatory light, touching down upon the water as if to illuminate the very thing I sought. It was all very dramatic,…

And that’s when I saw her.

 

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It was a cold, rainy morning in town this morning – the sort of day that seems to stall around dawn and gets no lighter. Traffic was jittery, the carparks twitchy with panicky shoppers anxious to get that last space so they could go buy their Christmas tat. I only wanted breakfast, almost fell foul of the season of good-will, but managed to find a slot on the edge of town, then shouldered the rain and headed back in to the greasy spoon.

The town is impoverished, has been since the crash, and getting steadily worse – always looks worse at this time of year though, the people poor and mainly elderly, the doorways camped by homeless looking wretched. I don’t suppose it’ll get any better than this now, but on the upside there was a guy in a giraffe suit dancing for charity. It was pouring rain, and he was a big yellow smile, the brightest light by far and a gesture of jolly defiance. What a star!

I bought a 0.7 mm Staedtler propelling pencil for £6.99 to replace the one I keep losing – a good piece of kit. Same price on Ebay so nothing to be gained there, plus it’s good to get out, even on a bad day, look around, even if it’s only to see what the latest storm of economy and season has done to my town. And yes, I know, shopping on Ebay doesn’t help matters. Greenwoods is the latest casualty – there since 1880-something, now abandoned and looking almost derelict. The landlords are crippling these businesses. I wonder where they do their shopping?

The Charity bookshop that inspired my latest novel was also closed – insufficient volunteers to man it on Saturdays now. I was going to put my name forward when I retired – quite fancied it actually, sitting there in tweed jacket and brogues, an ageing hipster, preserving for my town that last flicker of bookish vibe. Looks like I’m too late though. Damn.

And speaking of that novel, brings me to the shameless self promotion bit. Home from town I shut the weather out,  cosied up with coffee and hit the laptop. Saving Grace, as it’s now calling itself, went up on Smashwords and Free Ebooks this afternoon. I’ve enjoyed the ride, like I always do, and this last bit always leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s like putting it in a bottle and tossing it into the sea. You never know where the currents will take it.

I’ve been serialising it on Wattpad for a while now, but it’s not had much of a following. Those of you who have read and commented and queried my errors, (you know who you are) I thank you. Time to take a break from the long form now though while the next one gestates.

In the pecking order of Austerity, otherwise known in older parlance as “class war” I’m still in the fortunate position of relative security and money to spend on fripperies and without killing myself working three jobs. Those this morning though, staring out at a thousand yards of misery from those derelict shop doorways, are still bearing the brunt of it.

They give me pause – that it’s so commonplace even in the smaller market towns these days is telling me there’s worse to come, and no one to do anything about it. And that quid you toss into the begging bowl, or that pasty and a brew you press into shivering, mittened hands might get the poor bastard through until tomorrow. But what then?

And what’s that got to do with Saving Grace you ask? Well, pretty much everything, but you’ll need to read it to find out. Just click the book cover in the margin on the right. Best if you’re reading this on your smartphone – you’ll need an ebook reader app like Aldiko or Moonreader too.

All my stuff is free.

 

 

 

 

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Regarding the EU referendum, I made a number of predictions. The first of these I got wrong.

I had thought the internationalist view would prevail, that my own views on openness and cooperation, on trade and industry, and of fellowship with other member nations were generally shared by the majority of the UK population, and I’d be waking up this morning to find I was still a European man. Instead I find myself a little Englander, wrapped uncomfortably in the union flag, or to be more precise in the banner of Saint George, since the Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain and are thus as disappointed as I am.

I now find myself keeping company with the English Nationalists, the White Supremacists, and all those tiresome ignorants who wag their Daily Mails and blame our ills on these damned foreigners ‘comin over ‘ere. They blame the other guy, the immigrant, the refugee, the black guy escaping persecution in his war-torn homeland, they blame the homesick eastern European seeking a pittance picking strawberries in England’s muddy fields or scraping cockles from our treacherous coastlines.

My other predictions were pretty much on the money, that the P.M. would resign, that the value of Sterling would plummet and we would see 10% wiped off the value of the stock market. All these things have come to pass, and within hours of the result. I take no comfort from this.

Overwhelmingly the young voted to remain, so in this, their elders have betrayed them, denied them a future of free movement and work in one of the biggest combined economies on the planet. I hope they will forgive us for that, though from speaking to my own youngsters, I doubt it. They will have to live within little England’s borders with only the flag of St George to keep them warm and the prospect thrills them not at all.

I hesitate to predict further what will happen now, but some things are a reasonably safe bet. On the up-side, in the shorter term, the money markets will seek to stabilise as best they can and shares will recover, because shares always do, though it might take a decade. And the ruling party, now leaderless, will see the appointment of a pro Brexit champion, and none of those faces have much in common with the working man. In other words we shall see a lurch even further to the right in British politics and that’s not a place to be if you’re already poor.

What remains of the social and welfare state (the health service) will come under a more direct attack now, as the Americanisation of the UK gains pace. I mean Austerity Super-Heavy. This may give some steel to the opposition, but factions within it are already blaming their own leader for not putting up enough of a fight to prevent us leaving the EU in the first place. Though they are my own party, they are a party still very much in disarray, and not yet looking fit to govern. This is disappointing. A general election, even if we go the full term, will see only the consolidation of the Right, who are set to hold power now for close on a decade.

The Scots are reviving the possibility of another referendum on whether they remain in the UK, since they clearly want to remain in the EU, and England doesn’t. The result was close last time we passed that way, but today’s events will galvanise the Scots, and next time the union will be broken for sure.

The North of Ireland too want to remain, and this plays neatly into the politics of reunion with the south. If Ireland unites, the North has a direct route back into Europe. If nothing else the coming years will have plenty for the political pundits to jabber on about, and no one can say British politics is dull any more.

Of course the UK is not going to fall into the sea, but we are pulling away from the shores of Europe, and it will be interesting to look to other non EU countries in Europe for a model of how things might be made to work. But these countries are small, small populations, small economies. They are not like the UK at all. Britain will not be bigger in the world after today – quite the opposite. Indeed I feel we are already a much smaller country than we were before.

On the upside, if you’re not British, it’s a good time to visit, the pound being worth not much more than it’s scrap value at the moment, so any other currency will buy a lot. Don’t be put off. We have some very beautiful scenery, and our young people are by and large remarkably stoical in the face of adversity. They are intelligent, and outward looking. You just have to watch out for the old duffers wagging their Daily Mails, and careening about, flying the flag of Saint George. But for all those still worried tonight, we will get through this. Turnout for the referendum was 75%. That’s very high. Just make sure you vote as enthusiastically in all upcoming elections, big or small. Get involved. Let your Parliamentary representative know what you think. Apathy in the future will not do. This time we really are all in it together.

I may be wrong in having cleaved to the EU all these years. It was far from perfect, but I felt it was an institution worth the fight to change, and too important, to simply walk away from.

It’s not often I involve myself in political comment as it’s a field beset by few facts, much emotion, ignorance, and very little romance, so I apologise for wading into a field for which I am as poorly qualified as most other political pundits, but I felt today warranted an exception.

Normal service resumes shortly.

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rtpI was given this book in 1983, a time when British Socialism was on the wane and Thatcher’s blue revolution had already lit the touch paper to a firework of freemarket capitalism. It was odd then to be given a book of this nature, one that explains how and why Socialism came about, at a time when Socialism seemed to have burnt itself out in a muddle of lunacy.

The story is written in the decade preceding the first world war and concerns a group of painters and decorators in the employ of the unscrupulous firm of Rushton and Company. Day to day, they are at the mercy of the ruthless hire-em and fire-em foreman, Mr Hunter, or Old Misery as he is known behind his back. Jobs were scarce. Then, as now, it was strictly an employer’s market, the only difference being that then to lose one’s job was an infinitely more serious matter with bastards like Old Misery literally holding the power of life and death over you and your family.

Our hero Frank Owen is seemingly alone in his understanding of the causes of the deprivations and humiliations he and his colleagues suffer. His frequent brew-time lectures on the evils of unbridled Capitalism are met with derision. It seems to Owen that his workmates are blind, that even though they grumble and suffer terribly at the hands of their money-corrupted masters, they are at pains to maintain the status quo, to “know their place”, to even vote for the very system that perpetuates their oppression. Thus Tressel labels them the titular philanthropists, making do with rags and starvation, so their masters can thrive and grow fat.

Clearly a political book, Tressell’s work is a classic for all students of the history of British politics, left or right, and for anyone seeking a more visceral understanding of the origins of Socialism and the trades union movement:

A snippet:

Owen saw that in the world a small class of people were possessed of a great abundance and superfluity of the things that are produced by work. He saw also that a very great number – in fact the majority of people – lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave; while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger, or, maddened by privation, killed themselves and their children in order to put a period to their misery. And strangest of all – in his opinion – he saw that people who enjoyed the abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing: and that the others who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked. And seeing this, he thought that it was wrong,…

Re-reading the story now, it’s comforting to know the likes of poor Owen and his crew would be spared many of the indignities and premature deaths they suffered in those days, Socialism now having won the fight for access to free healthcare, welfare, paid holidays, a state pension, and strict health and safety legislation. Such things did not exist at the time of writing. But while much has changed, it’s striking how some things remain the same, such as the ease with which a country’s ills are apt to be blamed by certain factions of the press on all these “damned foreigners”. It’s also interesting to see how the principles of Capitalism, carried to their extremes ensure that a decent job of work never gets done, that it will always be scrimped, and bodged, the cracks papered over in pursuit of maximum profit. Tressel’s book also serves as a sober warning that the gains of Socialism over the last hundred years cannot be taken for granted, that they can be lost, and in this way the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gives us a glimpse of a world to which we risk returning.

Socialism has enjoyed something of a reawakening this summer, and for those perhaps confused by it all, or who are too young to have lived it the first time around, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an enlightening text, one that will explain much of what is going on today, the same as it did a hundred years ago. But this not a dour political treatise. It is a story, engagingly written, with a clear, concise prose and characters both sympathetic and repulsive. Nor is it without its moments of wry humour, all be it usually at the expense of the employers.

We have wonderfully blunt and descriptive names for characters such as Slyme and Crass, also Mr Oyley Sweater, Didlum, Grinder and the monstrous Sir Grabball (Bt). We are left in no doubt where Tressell is coming from, but it’s also sobering that he has no sympathy either for the working man, who, when presented with the means of awakening and doing something about his suffering, makes no effort to do so.

The Church, Private Rent Landlords, the drinks industry, corrupt councils, the tendency among the more affluent classes to dismiss the poor as shirkers and scroungers, all these things come under the microscope as social and cultural vultures which in some way demonise and prey upon the working man, and here too, the book has maintained its relevance today.

Owen is depicted as a bit more of an artisan than his fellow painters. For him are reserved the jobs that require more skill and an artist’s eye, not that these attributes are appreciated by his employers, at least not to Owen’s advantage, who is left as impoverished as his workmates. His employers value him only to the extent his skills can be exploited to undercut the work of other firms. Sickly and possibly even consumptive, Owen’s future looks bleak. What then of his wife? What of his young son? What future for any of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when they are only a twist of old Misery’s bad temper away from being laid off, and no Welfare State between them and starvation? Tressell says we would be better dead than suffering this kind of life, and it’s hard not to disagree with him.

This book still arouses and inflames opinion. Whether you agree with it or not will obviously depend on your politics. If you are to the left you will find nothing here to disagree with, if you lean to the right, you might gain some insight into the reasoning and the suffering that underpins the passions currently arrayed against you. The problems of inequality and economic tyranny in society are not, as has been alleged recently, “yesterday’s problems”. They are cyclical, born of the natural swing of the political pendulum between the parties of the rich and of the poor. It remains to be seen if we are doomed to repeat history of Tressel’s day, or if the forebears of Owen and his crew can redress the imbalance and prevent that pendulum from smashing us all in the face once more.

Get the text here (legally) for free.

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saltire and the jackSo, we’re now just a week away from that referendum in which the Scots will be asked: should Scotland be an Independent country? If the answer comes back “Yes”, the United Kingdom will be consigned to the history books, as will Britain, to say nothing of “Great Britain”. Surely, never has a nation been known by more names than ours? But after next week, I may no longer be British. I will be merely English. The question is, should I feel diminished by that?

The referendum on Independence for Scotland is a consequence of the establishment of its devolved Parliament in 1998, and has been a long stated aim of the Scottish National Party. There was always going to be this debate but, though it’s been a heated one these past twelve months, I suspect there’s also been a complacency among the Westminster elite, a belief that the majority of Scots would prefer to remain a part of the United Kingdom, because anything else is economically, politically and constitutionally unthinkable. I may have thought so too, but as the date for the referendum draws near, opinion polls are suggesting it’s a close run thing, that the nay-sayer’s appeals to “fiscal common sense” are failing to quench a heart-felt nationalist fervour.

Today the leaders of all three UK political parties, all opposed to independence, left their London enclaves to rally the Scots to the pro-union cause, but their efforts have revealed only the yawing gap between the elected, and the electorate. None of have found much sympathy for their sudden outpourings of heartfelt longing that the Union should not be broken. It is as if the political elite have only just decided to look at the map to see where Scotland is. This is not true of course, but it’s a story the Scots are keen to tell as being indicative of how out of touch Westminster is from the rest of the country, and Scotland in particular.

The break -up of the Union is a distinct possibility.

Speaking as an Englishman, I have always felt Scotland was, at heart, a different country. I’ve found its remoter parts to be utterly breathtaking in their beauty, their scale and their romantic desolation, and about as far away from London, and “London-ism” as is imaginable. The further North and West you travel the less likely you are to see the Union Jack, and the more you will find flying in moody isolation, the lone Saltair, the old flag of Saint Andrew. Mind, body and soul, Scotland is Scotland, as England is England but, as an Englishman, should I be concerned by the notion of Scotland becoming, literally, a “foreign” country?

I don’t imagine I will need a passport in order to go there, post independence; I assume there will be some arrangement, as with the Republic of Ireland, whereby the border between nations comprising the British Isles will remain informally transparent. But there will be currency differences, and an inevitable fragmentation of the armed forces. These are serious questions the “yes” campaign has poured scorn upon, while notably avoiding any detailed answers. They are not insignificant matters, impacting as they do upon the security, both militarily and economically, of both England and Scotland. Indeed the implications are immense, but they are not without precedent and are therefore, I’m sure, not insurmountable.

The break away of the Irish Republic from the Union, following the uprising of 1916, was a far more tumultuous affair, born of a violent insurgency whose repercussions are still felt in the continuing rumblings of Irish Nationalism in the North. But even through the height of the troubles, relations with the Irish Republic remained good. Indeed such has been the influx of Irish immigration to England over the years, about one in five English are in a position to claim Irish citizenship – including me. I have never felt the need to do so however; the foreignness of the Irish Republic may be a fact on paper, but I think many of us, both English and Irish disregard it, because there are other bonds, bonds of ancestry and tradition, that are stronger.

Post Independence, I imagine Scotland will be the same, though sadly I have no Scottish ancestors enabling me to claim triple nationality. There is some Welsh in me, but that’s too far back to present a convincing case to the authorities in Cardiff, should Wales also decide to leave us. But at the moment, through my Britishness, I need no such official rubber stamping. My Britishness raises me above the pettiness of national boundaries. It recognises the regional and cultural differences between the home countries, but transcends the limits of mere citizenship, and I think that’s a good thing.

If the world is moving in the right direction, the boundaries between nations should be dissolving, becoming more transparent. A while ago, I travelled to Paris, departed London’s Saint Pancras station and popped up a few hours later at Gare Du Nord. I did not however feel foreign, because as a European man, I carried a European Union Passport, as did the French, the Belgians and the Germans who also rode that train. We were European people going about our business in the cities of Europe.

And in the opposite direction, as well as being English, I am also, regionally, a Lancastrian – and if you want to push the roots of identity to their limit, my accent betrays my birth in the little mining village of Coppull. It is an accent that once had a perfect stranger coming up to me in deepest Wales and claiming kinship. And truly for the ten minutes we conversed, we were brothers, bound by the names of places that were intimately and fondly shared. But we were also British and we were also European. Identity is a flexible thing, expanding and collapsing to suit the moment. To firm up a boundary seems a retrograde step, for in defining the limits of nationality, it narrows also the scope of one’s identity.

When asked their opinion on the matter of Scottish Independence, I think most English will politely demur and say it is a matter for the Scots. Those of us of a romantic bent, aware of the occasionally bad history between us, might even sympathise with the roots of Nationalist fervour. The closer we live to the border – i.e. the further we live from London, the more likely are we to express such sentiments. We don’t teach Anglo-Scottish history in English schools. Consequently my own kids would be hard pressed to know what the battle of Culloden heralded in terms of Scottish identity. Conversely few Scots would struggle for an opinion on it.

As for the official debate aired on the National news, experience tells me the Scots should view it in the same way as all such noisy political debates, believing neither the milk and honey promises of the one side, nor the swivel eyed scare stories of the other. These are merely the ballistic missiles aimed in the short term at influencing opinion, prior to the vote, and mostly they will turn out to be duds after it. My own feeling is, if there is independence it will be a terrible muddle, and it may take a generation to get it ticking along smoothly, but the Irish Republic did not fall into the sea when it broke from the Union, and neither will Scotland.

I think I will feel diminished, post independence, and if I had a vote I’d be minded to vote “no”. But if the Scots say “yes”, I trust the Welsh will stick with us a while longer, and we are, after all, still a nation of some fifty odd million souls, which is no insignificant number. So I will not feel too diminished, nor for too long. The carve up of power and money will be for the politicians and the transnational institutions to squabble over into the small hours of many a coming post independence morn, while for the rest of us, I imagine, life will go on pretty much the same as usual.

 

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CLAPHAM CHURCHScanning the news items over this Easter holiday I was interested to note the Media headlining the PM’s assertion that the United Kingdom is a “Christian country”, and they’ve contrasted this with a cautionary letter, signed by an impressive cast-list of writers, broadcasters and intellectuals who say it’s not. The letter suggests that the repeated assertion by politicians that the UK is a “Christian country” is merely pandering to right-wing conservatism, that it is divisive and a retrograde step for any progressive, multicultural society. But rather than running for cover, the government came out fighting this morning, the PM’s comments being backed up by a couple of party big-guns, reminding us that the foundations of British social and constitutional history are indeed quite demonstrably “Christian”.

I feel the waters have been rather muddied with all this stamping about, but I agree that, since the narrative of my own past is at least nominally Christian, this is likely also to be true for many British people, and certainly those who are of middle age today. It is also more likely to be true the further one goes back through the generations. But regardless of whether we call ourselves Christians, surveys do indicate the majority of us now actually practice no faith at all. So, while the political view is that the UK is, or should be, morally and constitutionally “Christian”, intellectually, culturally and socially, it isn’t – at least it isn’t any more. Only when extrapolating the data backwards do we see a more religious, Christian, faith-based society; extrapolating the trend forwards, we see it declining still further.

The narrative of the UK, like much of the western world, is secular. Its public face is business-like and pragmatic. Only in private do its citizens express their religious views, if they have any. That a politician, a business leader, or indeed anyone else, attends church every Sunday and holds fast to traditional Christian beliefs is a matter for them, part of their private, rather than their public life, in the same way as their sexuality and their ethnicity should not be seen as having any bearing on their ability to do the day-job.

I recall it’s not the first time the PM has spoken out on religious matters. Recently, he was urging Christians to be more confident in expressing their faith. I think we need to return here to the distinction between those who actually practice Christianity, and those who merely accept the label for want of any other. Those practising Christians of my acquaintance certainly lack no confidence in matters of faith, so it’s unclear to whom the PM is addressing these remarks. Meanwhile, of the overwhelming majority of “nominal” Christians among my friends and family, I’m sure none could care less about religious matters, so long as the vicar can still be persuaded to marry them in church.

A decent country needs decent, energetic, intelligent and competent people in charge, but such qualities do not come with a religious, sexual or ethnic label. I have known practising religious “Christian” people who, outside of the church, were very cruel and stupid, and it makes me pause when I contemplate what possible political motive there might be in trying to render the “C” word once more synonymous with positions of power and influence. Whilst as a spiritual philosophy Christianity, or indeed any other faith, holds a profound spiritual wisdom for those in search of it, as a social authority, or an instrument for control or influence of large populations, “Religion” in general is very much a tainted brand, and politicians should be careful how they handle it.

When I filled out my census forms in 2001, I probably entered Christian in the “faith” box, as I had always done previously, but this was purely out of convention rather than conviction. As a child, I went regularly to the Anglican church because my nearest school was faith based, and it was therefore “expected”. This has coloured my view of religion somewhat, and rendered me sensitive to carrying out any action merely for the appearance of things. Throughout those attendances as a child I was not really a Christian, because it takes much more to be a proper Christian than an hour a week. But in the mill-villages of the North of England, certainly in the sixties and early seventies, there was still a stigma attached to unfastening that label. When a people are defined by the badges they wear, there is something rather daunting about openly admitting one has no badge, no belonging. It’s like saying you are nothing, that to be faithless is also to be tribe-less; it is to risk being cast out into the wilderness, without protection.

I have not attended church services regularly since 1971, when I left the faith based education system to enter the bosom of a shaggy haired secular comprehensive. There, God was irrelevant in the day to day, and was presented to us in religious education classes more as a private matter, than with any evangelical zeal. There I found myself with half remembered bible stories and a wad of certificates for Sunday school attendance, while seriously lacking proficiency in basic mathematics – a handicap that took me many years to catch up. Still, it was not until the 2011 census and, in the absence of anything more descriptive, I finally entered “none” in the faith box.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to leave the bosom of the communion by so simple an act as ticking a box, but then my parents were fond of telling the story of my christening being bundled through by a vicar who, in a hurry to go picking blackberries, got my name the wrong way round, so the State has me down as one thing and God quite another. Thus it was with casual indifference on the part of God’s representative, and helplessness on my own, I was accepted into the faith in the first place, so perhaps I should have fewer qualms about the reciprocal casualness with which I have subsequently cancelled my membership, some fifty years later.

Such at least is the experience of one middle aged UK citizen in his nominally Christian country.

This is not to say I have abandoned the spiritual quest, nor do I suggest that it is in any way unimportant. Indeed, paradoxically, spiritual thinking is now more than ever central to my approach to life, though hardly in a way that anyone could describe as religious – it’s just that there’s no box that will define it on the census forms. The secular world is remarkably dynamic and productive, but without a moral compass it can easily founder. Religion alone can do nothing to address such shortcomings, and when it does get involved it usually ends up making things worse. It is the human spirit in its most sincere manifestation, and in whatever language it is expressed, that will move the mountains and clear the path to a better world, and it is from the human spirit, unfettered by dogma and ritual, we derive the moral compass that is universal to all cultures.

Regrettably, in all this Media fascination with religion and politics, in the sound bites, the muckraking, mudslinging, feather-preening and tub-thumping, I note that matters of the spirit are entirely absent. Whether the UK is a Christian country or not is, I believe, entirely irrelevant in addressing the challenges we face as we go forward into the twenty first century. For myself, the thought of a half-century time-slip back to the Christian conservatism, and the back-stabbing religious hypocrisy of a sixties mill-village, is not one that I particularly relish.

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