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Inside the Vatican archives, I discover the secret to the Catholic Church's confidence

My week, from bending Shakespeare’s genders to visiting the Vatican and Labour’s long slide into oblivion.

The National Theatre’s splendid and spectacular production of Twelfth Night has four bravura performances. Three of them are of characters created by Shakespeare: Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Feste. The fourth – Tamsin Greig as Malvolia – is the cross-gender product of the director’s imagination. This is now a theatrical fashion. In the past year, I have seen it happen to the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the eponymous tyrant in Cymbeline. I missed Glenda Jackson as King Lear. But that was different: Shakespeare’s text remained inviolate and the characters exhibited the attributes that he gave them. Cymbeline was so changed that the Royal Shakespeare Company felt entitled to compare its production with what it crassly called the playwright’s “version” of the play.

I have no objection to women playing men’s parts if the object is to illustrate their virtuosity or to compensate for the shortage of good female roles. Yet I suspect that the reason for changing genders is the belief that Shakespeare needs a modern dimension to
make him more “accessible”. That is patronising nonsense. The under-thirties watching Twelfth Night at the National would have whooped just as loudly for Richard Briers’s Malvolio, who was by turns bombastic and pathetic but unequivocally male.

The idea of “freshening up” Shakespeare is as absurd as it is offensive. “Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale/His infinite variety”. Those lines – here desecrated with gender-swapped pronouns – appear in a play that will, no doubt, soon be produced under the title Antonia and Cleopatra.

 

Hail to the chief

There is so much to hate, despise and fear about Donald Trump that complaining about his lack of grace seems almost self-indulgent, but I admit that I was profoundly embarrassed by his inauguration. The open coat and knee-length tie were risible. The address – with its limited vocabulary and raucous delivery – confirmed that the president of the United States is a lout.

Almost 60 years ago, many of us were influenced by another inaugural address. “Let the word go forth from this time and place . . . that the torch has been passed to a new generation . . .” We thought that the tired old men who ran the world had been put on notice. John F Kennedy’s Washington was not a second Camelot and the high hopes of the promise to “bear any burden . . . oppose any foe” turned into the tragedy of Vietnam. But for a brief, shining moment, politics seemed a noble calling.

 

Cardinal virtues

Had Cardinal Vincent Nichols commissioned a history of the Catholic Church in Britain, it is unlikely that he would have chosen an atheist son of a defrocked priest to be its author. But when I wrote to him to ask for help with my book The Catholics, he offered his unconditional support and I was able to spend days in the Vatican archives. Letters to parish priests and cathedral deans – which began with the words “With the approval of . . .” – received swift attention.

At first, I attributed the cardinal’s kindness to a generosity of spirit and faith in human nature. Now I realise that this was only part of the explanation. Four years spent examining the history of the Catholic Church taught me that Rome’s secret weapon is the certainty of its ultimate victory. Cardinal Nichols’s confidence in the Church, which had withstood five centuries of persecution and prejudice, convinced him that it could survive a brief exposure to popular history.

 

Leadership material

The discovery that Emily Thornberry is being touted as Jeremy Corbyn’s successor convinced me that Tom Watson was right to warn of the perils of a fresh Labour leadership election. However, Watson must realise that as long as Corbyn is leader, the party cannot win a general election. I am told that half of those in the shadow cabinet believe that defeat is inevitable and see no point in risking the wrath of Momentum with another coup. If Labour had a credible leader, victory – although unlikely – would not be impossible. Even then, the party leadership has a duty to minimise the size of the defeat. The result in 2020 will influence the result in 2025. It is not Peter Mandelson, trying to push Labour back to the mainstream, who is betraying the party. It is the Corbynites who are complicit in its slide into oblivion.

The frustration of those of us who want a change is compounded by the knowledge that there is plenty of leadership material in the Parliamentary Labour Party. A couple of weeks ago, I identified 11 credible candidates – ten on the back benches and one in the shadow cabinet. Now I have increased the total to 12. The new recruit is Stella Creasy, whose explanation on television of why parliament should be given the opportunity to examine the outcome of the Brexit negotiations was lucid, relaxed and authoritative. She also offers the opportunity to fight the election on a compelling slogan: “Straighten things out with Creasy”.

 

Man’s best friend

Age creeps up on me slowly. I still take Jakie, my white bull terrier, on a walk every morning and evening and we brave the Peak District weather for as long as we did when I first got him from the rescue centre seven years ago. But we only walk a quarter of the distance. And it is increasingly difficult to complete one of the tasks that all responsible dog owners must perform. I can “pick up” easily enough if there is a wall or tree on which to lean, but if he defecates on open ground, to bend double without support is to risk falling flat on my face. I console myself with the thought that better men have faced the same danger. I assume that it was while he was exercising Elizabeth’s dog, Flush, that Robert Browning discovered that a man’s reach must exceed his grasp.

Roy Hattersley’s “The Catholics: the Church and Its People in Britain and Ireland” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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