Monday 19 March 2007

Screwtape on Humanae Vitae

Some years ago, (on the 25th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae) 'Catholic Family,' a paper in the UK, carried a series of letters about it, copying C S Lewis' device of letters from a senior to a junior devil. The name Hogwort was coined before J K Rowling used something similar in the Harry Potter books. Here's the first letter (re-published, with permission):

My dear Hogwort

It seems funny to be writing letters again after all this time. Since the deplorable demise of Wormwood, I have not had anyone to supervise in the same way. Wormwood, let me remind you, would still be with us - possibly as a great tempter - had he only had the guts to follow my advice.

It still makes me furious when I remember how he let that simpering little human slip through his hands by a series of blunders that...

Enough. You ask for my advice and help in pursuing your studies, and of course I give it freely: which you would do well to remember when I ask for your help on any little matter.

Remember, however, that degrees and diplomas are of no use at all unless you apply the learning in practice for the conquest of human souls. That was one of the many errors that Wormwood made.

I would also point out that it is entirely inappropriate for a junior tempter like you to have, let alone express, any opinion on someone as senior as Slubgob. If you have heard rumours that he and I have had our differences, you are quite misled. He is the principal of your college, and you owe him respect and allegiance.

As for your specific complaint, that he is too interested in sex, I think that merely shows your own lack of experience. Of course sex is boring to us, and indeed, when used as the Enemy intended, wholly hateful. However, the potential for enslaving humans with it, and for causing division in the family, the Church, and the civic society with it are almost boundless. And the delight is that all this is accomplished by using sex, which was designed as a gift and a pleasure to take the creatures ever closer to the Enemy.

Slubgob is quite right to make you all study our sustained campaign against Humanae Vitae: When you come to have the responsibility for tempting souls, you will need to have all the weaponry possible at your disposal in this very rich area.

Over the course of my next few letters, I hope to give you something of an old campaigner's view of this particular battle: by the time I've finished with you, you certainly won't find sex boring: frightening in its awesome design by the Enemy, certainly; intriguing in its endless possibilities for corruption, definitely; but boring, never! For now, to whet your appetite and demonstrate the importance of this topic, I'd ask you to consider the fruits of our campaign against Humanae Vitae:

1 Widespread ignorance and confusion within the Church, from both laity and clerics

2 Disobedience, leading to the abandonment of vocations, lapsing of practice and loss of Faith

3 A 'pick and mix' approach to the Church's teaching, both of Faith and Morals

4 A total distortion of the role of conscience

5 Pleasure and desires seen to be all-important

6 A host of side effects, such as weakness in the Church's fight against abortion, etc.

If you are daring to think that none of these are explicitly linked to the use of contraceptives, forget it. I shall make the links clear over the next few letters, and give you some real examples - or case studies as you like to call them.

If you still doubt the importance of our attack on Humanae Vitae, just look at the other side of the coin, at those disgusting humans who still hold out against us and live by it, or attempt to. They tend to exhibit many, if not all, of these virtues that make our work so damnedly difficult:

1 Self control

2 Habit of governing their actions by their beliefs

3 Regular practice at standing up to the ridicule of the world

4 Discipline and obedience

5 Humility

6 Regular confession

7 Mutual respect and love

It makes me seethe when I consider them.

I hope by now that you will begin to see why the attack on Humanae Vitae is not merely central to your studies, but to the whole diabolic strategy for the present era of the war.

Your affectionate mentor,


Decisions, decisions

Bernie has to tell the school today which subjects she wishes to study at GCSE. This is quite a complex choice, with a lot of options and implications for the rest of her studies from here on - and she’s only 13. We’ve been trying to support her by helping her think through the different possibilities without letting our own prejudices get in the way.

One way we’ve done that is to let her know what we think, but make it clear that it is really up to her. In order for that to be helpful, we’ve let her see that Anna and I have slightly different views on some things, and no fixed views on others - and we’ve got her big sister involved in the discussion too.

It’s a hard balance to strike: offering some guidance so she isn’t left feeling it’s all on her shoulders, whilst also giving her the right and responsibility to make the final decision.

Sunday 18 March 2007

Tell the parents?

The Guardian online carries an interesting article (,,2032752,00.html). It is about an MP's attempt to give parents the right to know if their under-age children are being given contraceptives or abortions.

Currently of course, we have no such rights in British law. When you pause to think about that it is quite shocking: people can be raping out children (as it is rape if they are under the legal age of consent) and GPs, school nurses and others may not only know, but also facilitate that, and claim patient confidentiality as a reason to keep us in ignorance.

Making time for the family

One of the issues in being a counter cultural father is making time for the family. I won’t go on about how much time I save by not watching TV (though it is considerable), but rather offer some reflections I’ve gleaned along the way in my reading and in going on a couple of time management courses at work over the years, and applying them to being a father.

On one of the courses, were asked to write down the four most important things in our lives and then prioritise them. Naturally, my wife and children featured... We were then challenged to consider whether the way we spent our time reflected those priorities... That lesson has stayed with me.

So one of the things I try to do is make time each week to plan the week ahead: not just in terms of work activities and other commitments, but also thinking about Annna and the kids and considering what I most need to do to be a good husband and father over the coming week. Sometimes it is very mundane stuff: listening to their music practice, making time to help with homework; at other times it is more nebulous: making sure I find some time simply to talk with and listen to one of them if I feel we’ve not really connected in the previous week; and sometimes it is very specific: having a conversation that needs to be had.

I have a theory, based on observing some of the problems that friends have had with their teenagers, that spending time with them when they want to spend time with you is very important. If you fail to do so, there comes a time when you want to be with them and they don’t want to be with you; when you want to put them right about something and they see you as the last person in the world whose views are worth considering.

So making time for them regularly, especially for the little things and the things that are important to them, is a high priority. And so far, my teenagers are still talking to me...

Mothering Sunday

Today, we started by going to a traditional Latin Mass, as a treat. It’s a long drive from where we live, but it’s always worth it. The air of quiet reverence and holiness, the space and silence in which to pray, and the sheer beauty of prayers that go back centuries and are hallowed by usage - not least by countless saints - make it a wonderful experience. Very different from our normal parish Mass - but as it was Laetare Sunday, we felt we would treat ourselves. Interestingly, the kids really like the Latin Mass; in fact the three eldest all prefer it to the New Rite.

The kids had all made lovely cards for their mother - and also for her mother, who was taking us all out to lunch for a treat. Home made cards are very much a part of our family tradition, and the kids are always very creative - each in his or her own unique style.

They had also baked and decorated a cake for tea, and written and rehearsed a song (using the Flanders & Swann tune for ‘Mud, Mud, glorious Mud’, but with words re-written about Mum, Mum, glorious Mum.) They did this together, with Ant on clarinet, Bernie on flute, and Charlie and Dominique on piano. Although not the most polished performance, it was delivered with great enthusiasm and affection and was duly appreciated.

Monday 12 March 2007

What are we reading?

In this sad family where we have no TV to fill our idle hours, we have to resort to reading. In fact we read a huge number of books.

At present, I (in my habitual fashion) am reading several: To Know Christ Jesus (a superb book by Frank Sheed which I re-read every few years, along with his Theology and Sanity); A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby for lighter reading; Syd Field’s Definitive Guide to Screenwriting; Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King, and Writing a Children’s Book by Pamela Cleaver, as well as St John’s Gospel. I’ve also just finished The Heresy of Formlessness by Martin Mosebach, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone interested in the impact of the Liturgical changes of the 1960s on the Catholic Church.

Anna is reading My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, St Frances de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, and Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare (which is extravagant by her standards - she’s more inclined to read one at a time (always excluding cookery books).

Ant is away at camp with the Adventure Scouts at present, but when here is reading Benedict XVl’s A Lenten Journey and Scorpio by Anthony Horowitz. I think she may also be starting The Seventh Raven (by Peter Dickinson) and Out of the Silent Planet, bu CS Lewis, as they are on her desk - but she’s not here to ask.

Bernie is deep in Sabriel by Garth Nix - she’s very much a one book at a time girl.

Charlie is reading The Lord of the Rings, The Rotten Romans, Belloc’s Cautionary Verses and Sophie’s Tom (Dick King-Smith) and any cartoon books that come his way. He’s a bit like me - a book in progress in every room of the house - including the bathroom...

Dom has just finished Escape From Blood Castle and is wondering what to read next. No - she’s decided: it’s How to Train your Dragon

Charlie and Dom are also having the Voyage of the Dawn Treader read to them as a bedtime story.

I don’t need (I hope) to extol the benefits of reading. We find that by making sure there are plenty of good and exciting books around, and by reading to them a lot when young, they all get the reading bug in various degrees.

It's probably worth saying that we all re-read a large number of books (I work through my P G Wodehouse collection once every few years, for example...). I believe a book worth reading is normally worth re-reading - or to put it the other way round, a book only worth reading once is probably not worth reading at all. So much of our culture is instantly disposable, but literature really shouldn't be. So perhaps that's another aspect of being counter cultural - not always seeking the new pleasure, thrill or sensation, but being enriched by re-visiting old friends in the world of literature.

If you’re not interested in books, this will have been a very boring post - but then if you’re not interested in books you are probably a very boring person....

Thursday 8 March 2007

treehouses and dens

One of the ways the kids entertain themselves is to play outside a lot. And one of their facvourite activities is building treehouses and dens.

These are great projects both for the teenagers and the little ones. They are labour-intensive so fill a lot of time, they require imagination and physical effort, and a lot of teamwork. The treehouses also need some supervision and occasional help from me - but the kids very much own the projects and can spend hours in creating them and then playing in them.

Why watch adventures on TV when they can have their own imaginary and sometimes real ones: it is not unknown for them to hurt themselves, and occasionally each other, in the construction of these. I see that as no bad thing: it teaches them about fortitude etc.

Here are some pictures of past projects: in order they are a treehouse (this one is actually designed to look like a nest, though that's hard to see here); a ground level den (with Goldie) and a wigwam den.

Counter Cultural at Church, too

Our poor parish priest. In one way, we look a bit like the kind of family he wants (and there are precious few of them at our parish): we go to Mass every week, sometimes one of us is at weekday Mass, our teenagers are happy to come to Mass, we go to confession regularly, turn up at Benediction, BUT...

We’re just the sort of family he doesn’t want: I kneel to receive communion, and the others all genuflect first; Ant covers her head in Church; we only receive under one kind, and never from extraordinary ministers; we won’t let our girls serve Mass, and set conditions around Charlie serving that means he’s not welcome either (eg not being required to do anything that would have been unacceptable before the liturgical changes of the 1960s, such as touching the sacred vessels); Dom and Charlie never go to the ‘children’s liturgy’, but sit through the Mass with us; we’re in the Life group rather than the Justice and Peace group; I’m organising a plainchant choir not a parish choir to sing banal songs unworthy of Church let alone an hour’s practice every week...

My contention is that there is a connection between our traditional approach to our Faith and the fact our kids are still keen on it when they get to be teenagers. They respond to the demands and challenges of a robust faith far better than to the ‘warm and cuddly all-inclusive, don’t believe anything that might upset anyone’ version...

Fun and games

Charlie and Dom have been having a lot of fun recently. Firstly, they made their own set of Top Trumps cards (Top Trumps are all the rage here: they are sets of cards containing data about a specific category, which could be from Racing Cars to characters form The Lord of the Rings, and to play you choose a category which you think is strong on the card you are about to play and announce it (eg Top speed 126 miles per hour) and if it is higher than anyone else’s, you win and collect the others cards and so on).. So Dom and Charlie made their own set, featuring members of the family and friends (and pets).

The categories they used were age, friendliness, chubbiness, eating speed (quite an issue in this house on occasion!) and craziness. They also included a brief description and where possible a photo. The results are hilarious.

They have now moved on to constructing a game of Cluedo, using our house as the template fro the board, and the family for suspects. I await with interest to see what domestic items they choose as murder weapons!

The things they resort to for entertainment, being deprived of their natural right to a TV...

Monday 5 March 2007

Watch less TV and be happy!

More reasons to cut back on TV. According to the BBC www site (, the happiness experiment in Slough has found that reducing TV viewing by 50% makes people happier. (That’s difficult for us of course as we don’t watch at all - does that mean we’ll never be happy?)

Sunday 4 March 2007


This is quite an interesting area for me. As a teenager I was teased mercilessly for wearing straight trousers when flares were in, or for having my hair cut at home rather than by an expensive stylist, and so on. Partly as a result of this, I have always had a strong prejudice against fashion. It seems to me simply a way of persuading people to throw away perfectly serviceable things and persuade them to buy new things they do not need - and also to provide excuses for the fashionable (and particularly those with the money to buy new stuff all the time) to despise and tease the rest.

Anna however has a different view. She explained to me that people wearing colours that clash or clothes that don’t work together is as painful to her, aesthetically, as listening to discordant music is to me. Merely because I have no visual sensitivity, I shouldn’t rubbish it. What she is after is developing a sense of style, and she sees fashion as a fun manifestation of that exploration.

So she is keen to encourage the kids to find and establish their own styles.

She has mixed success. Ant only cares about what she wears for climbing, walking or sailing: it has to be good kit, but not the sort worn by those who kit themselves out expensively for everything and then do it only once. So ideally it should be well worn (though she was delighted with the new climbing harness Anna bought her for her 16th birthday a while back).

Bernie is quite stylish, to her mother’s delight. Charlie is more like me - a walking mess, and Dom likes to look pretty, but is happy to accept her mother’s view on what that means.

The bottom line for me is that as long as they keep it in proportion and don’t wear things that make them look like tarts, I’m fairly relaxed about this.

The tart thing does worry me, though. When I see kids at primary school age dressed to look like street walkers, it raises real questions about what their parents think they are up to. Girls may not realise the effect sexy clothes might have on boys or men, but their mums surely ought to.

Counter Cultural Weekend

So how does a counter cultural family spend a weekend? Here’s what we got up to this weekend.

On Saturday morning, after homework and music practice was done, we went for a walk with Goldie, our Golden Retriever puppy (only just a puppy still - she’s two in April, when I think we count her as grown up) It was a lovely morning, and the kids were full of life, though I was a bit grumpy, being full of cold.

After lunch Charlie had a party to go to, and Dominique went to the pictures with a friend (Charlotte’s Web). Bernie had a lot of music practice and homework to do, and Ant and I worked on a tree house she is building: it is going to be a pirate ship, quite high up in a tree in the garden. I had to fix the first of the major stress bearing beams to the tree at the top of a ladder. If I can master the technology, I’ll post photos as the project progresses (See below!)

In the evening the kids watched part of The Lord of the Rings on DVD before supper. Evening prayers and a bedtime story for the little ones followed. Then bedtime for the big ones. After that I took Goldie for a walk and admired the wonders of the lunar eclipse. And so to bed.

On Sunday we went to Mass early, then had breakfast, and I spent a bit of time with Charlie and Dom talking about Lent, penance etc (we try to have a Sunday Morning Religion spot every week, though it doesn’t always happen).

While I was doing that, the big girls were doing their music practice, and Anna was making a casserole for later and some sandwiches for lunch. We then went for a long walk in the rain and driving wind.

We had a picnic lunch in the lee of a monument at the top of a local hill, with ferocious gales lashing past us. Running down the hill in the rain was most exhilarating. We make sure we all have good wet weather gear for these occasions, so nobody gets too cold or miserable. The kids declared it a great expedition.

We then went to Benediction before returning home for a hot meal. The kids watched a bit more of the Lord of the Rings, while Anna and I went through our diaries for the next few weeks to check everything was going to work. Then prayers and bed for the little ones, and the trickier task of getting Bernie to go to bed at a decent hour. Ant is reading by the fire as I type this.

Friday 2 March 2007

Good News and Bad News at the Grammar School

The good news:

We heard today that Charlie has got into the Grammar School which Ant and Bernie go to, which is a relief. (And yes, it is a state Grammar - some have survived the comprehensive debacle...)

They are doing well there - and entrance is by competitive examination with no preference for siblings, so there was no guarantee he'd go there.

The bad news:

We went to the 6th form evening the other day, as Ant needs to start thinking about her choices after GCSE.

One of the subjects she's considering is History (16th Century) and I was leafing through a text book on Luther and found some extraordinary inaccuracies and biases. Inaccurate in that it stated that Catholics believed that priests re-crucify Christ at every Mass (which they don't) and biased in that it said: 'they even believed that Masses could be offered for the souls in Purgatory') that word 'even' is clearly a bias. An unbiased writer would have written 'they also believe...'

However it was not the occasion to go into battle (Anna assured me) and I am confident that Ant can deal with such prejudicial text books if she pursues History.

But it did remind me of the need to keep an eye on the stuff the kids are given to study: we simply cannot expect the schools to vet tests that are approved/recommended, and we cannot trust those who do the approving/recommending to be accurate, objective and unbiased (or even properly educated, I fear...)