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Laurie Penny: Proud to say nope to the Pope

Those planning to protest the Pope's visit are not instinctively anti-Catholic. But justice demands that we challenge religious oppression.

What is the Protest the Pope movement really about? Ask ten different activists why they object to Mr Joseph Ratzinger's state visit to Britain and they'll give you ten different answers. My own mother, a lapsed Catholic who is not normally the sort of lady to spoil her shoes on noisy demonstrations, looked me in the eye when I inquired about her reasons for attending the protest and said, very quietly, "it's personal".

For many of the millions who are dismayed at the prospect of the papal visit, it is indeed personal, and it is also political. Deep-rooted resentment drawn from first or second-hand experience of the institutional brutalities of Britain's largest "minority" faith - there are nine million Catholics in this country- forms the basis of legitimate liberal indignation.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what offends most about Ratzinger's visit: it his attempts to rehabilitate child-rape within the church, or his intolerant stance on safe sex and abortion? Is it his relentless persecution of homosexuals, or the fact that public funds are being spent on driving this horrible old man around the country in his shiny white popemobile? It is all of these things, and none.

It is about religion. It is about what organised religion does to human societies. It is about the British and our unique distaste for being told what to do by celibates in silly cassocks. It is about modernity, and the limits of what modernity will tolerate.

Anarchist journalist Angelo Quattrocchi wrote in his recently-released polemic "The Pope is Not Gay!" that Ratzinger's backward-looking moral crusade is "spitting into the wind" - expectorating intolerant bile that can only cause unnecessary suffering as a tremendous tsunami of modern tolerance surges forward to swamp the rotten structures of family, patriarchy, superstition and sexual prudery. The Protest the Pope movement is, in fact, so terribly modern that it can sometimes come across as a little smug.

This week's Southbank launch of Quattrochi's book, replete with heartfelt performance poetry and expensive box-wine, was a restrained orgy of liberal self-congratulation. But why on earth shouldn't we congratulate ourselves? We are one of the most tolerant cultures on the planet, taking a stand, in the midst of domestic turmoil, against global religious oppression. Can't we feel just a little bit proud?

Most of those planning to 'Protest the Pope' this weekend are not instinctively anti-Catholic; we have no issue with belief itself. The notion of taking special exception to one religion over and above any other dodgy cult cobbled together by deranged desert patriarchs should be abhorrent to any secularist who believes in freedom of thought. When Elizabeth I granted private amnesty to English Catholics, she declared that she had no desire to "make windows into men's souls", and nor do today's Pope Protestors. We simply wish to register our displeasure when the same believers dash around smashing in the animistic vitrines of their fellow citizens with big bricks made of bigotry and intolerance.

A few short weeks ago, senior priest Edmund Adamus condemned Britain in general and London in particular as a "hedonistic wasteland" - the "geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death' - because of our dirty little fetish for protecting homosexuals from discrimination, supporting single parents and preserving limited access to abortion services.

If believing in a woman's right to choose is anti-Catholic, then I am an anti-Catholic. If believing that homosexuals deserve absolute legal and social equality with heterosexuals is anti-Catholic, then Britain is full of anti-Catholics.

If it is anti-Catholic to believe that child-rape ought to be eliminated, that stopping the spread of AIDs in Africa trumps religious squeamishness about condom use, and that human happiness is more important than dogmatic adherence to cobweb-crusted notions of purity and morality, then I for one am proud to be part of the geopolitical culture of death.

On Saturday, I'll be marching through my home city beside thousands of others to tell bigots and dogmatists everywhere that if they try to push back at the raw edge of modernity, they're going to get cut. If that conviction makes me anti-Catholic, then just give me a pen and show me where to sign.

Read Laurie Penny's column every week in the New Statesman.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters.

With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry. Yet as migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.