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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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear