Monday, November 15, 2010

Men are expendable

During the recent BBC TV series, Escape in Time, where two families compete to complete tasks involving skills that were familiar to Victorian farming families, presenter Ben Fogle commented on the gender divide, observing that the men did all the heavy and dangerous work. The social historian he was with said that this was normal, because "men were expendable". Women did the domestic tasks, raised the family and the young animals, fed the poultry and so on, while men did jobs that needed physical strength, often involving working with dangerous machinery or animals. This was because women had to be protected, said the historian; they were required to care for the family; it was more important that they survived than the men. I'm not sure how this worked when they were widowed and lost their homes and means of support, but I guess that many widows either remarried or coped on their own.

It reminded me of the social history I've managed to absorb about marriage, and that a significant proportion of the population didn't marry in the 19th century because they weren't considered marriageable - they didn't have any skills or assets to bring to a union. The rich married to seal family contracts and so on, while the poor looked for partners who were useful because they had skills and strengths. The weak and feeble were a poor prospect. An old nursery rhyme illustrates this:
Sukey, you shall be my wife
      And I shall tell you why:
I have got a little pig,
      And you have got a sty;
I have got a dun cow
      And you can make good cheese;
Sukey, will you marry me?
      Say Yes, if you please.
I've quoted this at school marriage conferences quite often.

It would be a mistake to assume that women had an easy time of it, because they weren't expected to do dangerous work. Childbearing was dangerous enough, and they did physical work for long hours. Men may have been expendable, but some were just useless. I found this when I went to work on a Shropshire dairy farm in the 1960s. My boss sacked a labourer when he hired me (because I was cheaper, at £4 a week plus my keep), but the man in question was a lazy so-and-so. His wife complained that he drank most of his wages and didn't believe in exerting himself if he could avoid it. Still, I should have been paid the same as him, but this was before the Equal Pay Act.

Before health and safety regulations, farm workers had to be extra careful but if they did get hurt they generally didn't make a fuss. I conducted a funeral for a retired farm labourer once. He'd accidentally sliced off a toe while working in the fields - the weather was so cold at the time, he didn't even notice at first. He picked it up and put it in his pocket, and carried on working for another ten minutes, before he was persuaded to get help. That story reminded me of the French and Saunders sketch about the two countrywomen, where one accidentally chops of a finger, then throws it to the dog.

I suppose you could say that 21st century life is much easier than 19th century life for wimps and weaklings, and those who can't make cheese.

Photo: Men with early corn harvesting machine, Suffolk, from 'The Farm and the Village' by George Ewart Evans.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Family values

In last week's NSS Newsline, the question "What would be your advice?" was asked about a query in Coleen Nolan's advice column in The Mirror. The questioner began,
I'm furious after discovering recently that my mum's been taking my five-year-old son to church behind my back when he stays with her at the weekend.
Some of the answers in this week's Newsline made me wonder about the respondents' abilities to relate to their own families, so I've belatedly joined in the debate by writing to Newsline.
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The responses to the Catholic grandmother who took an atheist’s child to church story in last week’s Newsline were interesting, but two in particular made me laugh. One wrote that “Anyone who abuses her own mother by using her as a free baby-sitter deserves all she gets!” Abuse? For taking advantage of a grandparent’s willingness to babysit? Give me strength! That’s how families work, surely? Then another wrote, “I would tell the old bag that if she persisted I would find another babysitter and she would not have any further contact with me or her grandson again and remind her that her actions were and should have been obvious to her were contrary to the way I intend to bring up my son.” Oh dear. Old bag? He doesn’t know the woman, yet he calls her an “old bag”? These two would make appalling agony aunts/uncles!

Over the last week or so I’ve been treated to some vitriol dished out by an Islamophobe in response to a story on the Suffolk Humanist group’s website. Among other things, this ignoramus claims that exposing children to religion, Islam in particular, is “child abuse”. I get the impression that there are quite a few readers of Newsline who share this view. I’ve found that people who’ve expressed such opinions haven’t known any Muslims or few (if any) followers of other religions. Instead, they parrot the caricatures they’ve read on the most reactionary websites or in the tabloid press. This is ignorant and lazy. They don’t see religious people as just people; they see them as representing the worst aspects of the fundamentalist versions of their religions, regardless of their culture, ethnicity or, most importantly, their behaviour. It’s indistinguishable from the sort of ignorance we’re treated to when the Pope makes ill-informed comments about atheism, lumping us all together with Nazis, or whatever.

Anyone who’s confident enough in his or her own values to tolerate other people’s irrational opinions or behaviour will convey, by example, a relaxed attitude to his or her children, who may learn to understand that people, in general, don’t necessarily think clearly or act sensibly. As long as you do, what have you to worry about? A clergyman I know was caught in the act of kissing an atheist (me) in the local crematorium vestry. A member of staff, in mock horror, said to him, “You kissed an atheist!” “That’s all right,” said my friend, “it’s not catching.” That’s my attitude to religion. There’s a world of difference between organised indoctrination, when children are never exposed to other beliefs or religions that might contradict what they’re being taught, and being exposed to beliefs or religions that are different from their parents’ beliefs. This is why I’ve come to believe that withdrawing children from RE lessons in school is not a good idea; in some Muslim communities, the right of withdrawal is being used to keep children in ignorance.

The Catholic grandmother in the newspaper advice column was clearly unable to comprehend her daughter and son-in-law’s position, and was possibly determined that her grandchild wouldn’t end up in hell for lack of the necessary instruction. Or it may just be that she wasn’t going to allow her baby-sitting to interfere with her church-going. Whatever the reason, this family should be talking to one another, not writing letters to Coleen Nolan. Most of what goes on in a Catholic church service would go over a five-year-old’s head and when he’s a bit older he’s likely to find it all rather boring, if he doesn’t already. If he’s included in sensible discussions about what various members of the family believe at home, as long as they’re appropriate for his age, and if he’s taught about various religions in school, it will become clear to him that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in religious teachings. He should also be encouraged to question his parents’ beliefs and values, without anyone getting upset. The most important thing for him to realise is that no questions are off limits, and that we can still love people in spite of our differences. His grandmother may give up her attempts to turn him into a good little Catholic when he bombards her with questions she can’t answer.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Comedy Christians and Pagan hedonists

There are Christians with a sense of humour (I've met some) but the plonkers who've been whingeing that the BBC gave more attention to a bunch of Druids than to them over last weekend clearly don't have one, or they'd realise just how silly they were. The Telegraph reported,
Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, said: “I understand the BBC might choose to concentrate on something for one day, but I consider it to be symptomatic of a much bigger problem across the BBC ... They down-play Christianity and up-play paganism which is unreflective of British society. It does create an atmosphere where it’s OK to marginalise Christians.” 
Marginalise? If only!

Hallowe'en (October 31st) is All Souls Eve, the night before All Saints Day in the Christian calendar, when they're supposed to pray for "the departed faithful". The departed unfaithful can go to hell, presumably. What few people realise is that it's another example of the church claiming a much older festival, Samhain, when pagans have always celebrated the coming of winter. The old festivals celebrated around the Northern hemisphere make much more sense than Christian ones, even to those of us who aren't religious, because they mark solar and seasonal events, which had real significance for our forebears. When you were dependent on the sun's warmth and the weather for your survival, pre-modern conveniences, it was natural to mark the special days in the solar calendar with festivals.

The main solar festivals were the midsummer and midwinter solstices (the longest and the shortest days) and the spring and autumn equinoxes, when night and day are of equal length. The Christians, realising that they couldn't stamp out the old ways, simply made up stories to fit them. So the midwinter solstice, which is on 21st December, became Christmas. The early Christians didn't celebrate it at all for the first four centuries, and the Puritans under Cromwell banned it, but people would insist on enjoying themselves in midwinter anyway.

Then there's Easter. Some say that the name comes from a pagan goddess, Eostre or Ostara, but apparently she was invented by Grimm. The egg is a symbol of fertility, and people have been celebrating the arrival of Spring and new life, when crops started growing again and animals started breeding, since long before the Christians decided it was when Jesus was crucified. Christians and pagans each had their own myths and I really couldn't care less, but I'd rather celebrate the arrival of Spring than a death.

So far, the Christians haven't managed to spoil the midsummer solstice with their silliness, and they don't seem very interested in the autumn equinox, but give them time...

The midwinter solstice festival is much older than Christianity. It's been celebrated in the Northern hemisphere as the festival of the death and rebirth of the sun, when people drank and ate to excess, masters and servants swapped places, and so on - feasts and parties! I bet the BBC won't mention that though, for fear of upsetting those Christians who insist on carping on about "the real meaning of Christmas". Killjoys!

Photo (c) M Nelson - Midwinter sunset.

Postscript: This post was edited after I was criticised for a creative explanation of Easter. Regardless of my casual disregard for the history of the Easter goddess myth, my point was that the Christians have no exclusive claim to any of these festivals, which have been celebrated in different ways at different times. The 21st century versions seem to be more commercial than anything else, which is extremely irritating.