Saturday, 29 November 2014

Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief is Humanae Vitae as a novel

This week marks the end of an era: The Catholic Herald is morphing from a weekly broadsheet newspaper into a magazine. From now on, the website will have the news stories, and the magazine will specialise in colourful features and be more of an erudite digest.  

The content from the magazine will be available online - from behind a pay wall. So, I may not have permission to post on my blog the stuff that I will (hopefully) get published in the new magazine.

I've been writing for the paper for over six years.

Here is the first full-length article that I got published in the print edition of the newspaper in autumn 2008. When Ed West commissioned the piece, it was the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, and also Evelyn Waugh's name was in the air because there was the disappointing film version of Brideshead Revisited in cinemas. 

Bear in mind that I was much younger, not long out of university and I think that I strung my points together in a cluttered way. I think my thesis still resonates: that Waugh's work Black Mischief is a literary portrayal of Paul VI's lesser known teachings....


Of all the 20th century Catholic novelists, Evelyn Waugh is among the best and Brideshead Revisited is generally considered his best work. Waugh himself described Brideshead Revisited as ‘my magnum opus’. The novel is a quintessential literary parable of lives spent in vain glories, languishing in human weakness, until redemption is sought in Christ.

Brideshead Revisited is all the more powerful because it charts the very real lives of sinners. It doesn’t shy from detailing the vicissitudes of the Flyte parents’ marriage break-up; Sebastian’s extravagant alcoholism; or the adulterous affair between Julia Flyte and Charles Ryder. Also a historically important work, it is frequently lauded as an apt portrayal of ‘that
generation’ between the two great wars: the generation that were too young to fight in the First World War and too old for the second.

Support from Catholics for Brideshead Revisited is unanimous; all the
important characters convert in the end and there are plentiful references
to Scripture. Few fans of Brideshead, however, are as fond of Black

Black Mischief: Waugh's first novel as a Roman Catholic and initially
regarded by the then editor of The Tablet as ‘a disgrace’. The reception it
receives now is like that in 1932; pious Catholics are either scornful or

Mostly Catholics are uncertain. Is Black Mischief, to use the honoured word among the scrupulous, ‘scandalous’?  With the crude sexual and
exploitative motives of the characters and their language it does challenge our politically correct and feminist sensibilities. Yet, does it fall squarely into the category of vulgar books? 

In my judgment the poor understanding of Black Mischief is not fair or of benefit to Catholics. It is my contention that Black Mischief, like Humanae Vitae has never been given its due recognition. Remarkably, like Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Waugh’s work Black Mischief was strangely prophetic. But what compelling similarity is there to be made between novel and encyclical? 

It is this: when Waugh fictionalised an account of a country’s indefatigable drives to force contraception on the nation’s people, it is a drama of Pope Paul VI’s most unheeded warning; that governments would use contraception for coercive purposes.

It can be easy to laugh one’s way through the novel and miss Waugh’s dire
warning.  Black Mischief is hilariously funny and unashamedly irreverent.
The plot revolves around the misdemeanours of Emperor Seth of the country
Azania. In case anyone has run to check the atlas, Azania is a fictional
East African country. Emperor Seth has a monomania about everything he
perceives as 'modern', particularly birth control.

With the help of the British Basil Seal, Seth re-orders Azanian society; hoping to dismantle tribal life by seducing the masses into contracepting. Seth renames the site of the Anglican cathedral 'Marie Stope’s Place', displays a ludicrous birth
control poster everywhere, and organizes a 'Birth Control Pageant'.

It is all the more pertinent that the leader Seth is Azanian; it is he who
is obsessed with foisting contraception on his own people.  Why, may you
ponder, did Waugh, a Catholic convert who accepted the Church's teachings
without protest, go to the trouble of inventing a society obsessed with
birth control endorsement and with no obvious arguments against birth

But no, Waugh lets the ensuing irony do the teaching. The
landmark ‘Marie Stope’s Place’ is as meaningless to the indigenous
illiterate population as every other government led contraception drive.

The poster advertising contraceptive devices contrasts two families; a
one-child family with material comfort, and the other a scene of poverty
with many children and a tired wife working in the field while her husband
relaxes. WHICH HOME DO YOU CHOOSE? is the caption.  Stock contraception
propaganda, not unlike what Planned Parenthood use today in Nigeria.  But
the Azanians construe that the one-child family is most unfortunate, because
the parents could not possibly be fertile!

Most comical of all, is that the Azanian populace misconstrue the birth
control pageant to be a fertility festival and behave in the opposite way to
how the pageant organisers had expected; they celebrate their fertility as
the mere concept of curtailing fertility is unknown. The emperor issues lots
of contraceptive devices — 'jujus' as the people call them — and the native
Africans perceive them as something, which will increase their fertility.

The idea of posters, devices and even festivals that would promote embracing
the means to limit your family's number, is anathema to the Africans. Should
Black Mischief be required reading for all aid workers who pawn off first
world state-funded contraceptive devices on native Africans?

The novel takes a more sinister tone when leader Seth dabbles in primitive
IVF. One day Seth announces, “I have read here,” he said, tapping a volume
of speculative biology, that there is to be no more birth. The ovum is
fertilised in the laboratory and the foetus is matured in bottles. It is a
splendid idea. Get me some of those bottles.”  Such is Seth’s very real
disrespect for his native people that he will force them to acquiesce.

Thankfully, the government in Azania collapses in a shambles. Seth is
murdered, before he can coerce his people into following the dictates of his
own type of HFE Bill. Reading this, as if it were true, the augury of
Humanae Vitae becomes real: that governments may use contraception for
‘coercive’ purposes.  The dire fact is that tenets of Black Mischief have
become reality for us, as have the consequences of widespread contraception,
spelled out in Humanae Vitae.  The irony remains; Humanae Vitae was
dismissed as being ‘out of touch’ whilst Black Mischief was ‘just a laugh’.

Few have dug deep enough to see the parodies of Black Mischief are often
clever didactics in Catholic teaching.  

Religious dogma becomes seamlessly thematic to the story, so much so, that one could assert that Waugh was trying to skillfully hide his intentions of simultaneously
teaching dogma and writing good satirical fiction. Seen in its proper light,
the novel is a subtle mockery of artificial contraception and its advocates.
Waugh died before Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, but Waugh’s narrative teaches the quintessential truths Paul VI wished to convey.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Muslims and Christians are like-minded when it comes to revering Mary

I often feel hopeless when I read about the persecution of Christians. The global situation is grim. A recent report by Aid to the Church in Need explains that the most pernicious persecution of Christians happens in predominantly Muslim countries. We would do well to remember that in these same countries, Muslims are often persecuted by their fellow Muslims.

As as this Catholic Herald View suggests, we would do well to seek out Muslims “who are dedicated to prayer, peace and charity”.

Over the past five years of living in London, experience has shown me an area of common ground. Muslims and Christians are like-minded when it comes to revering Our Lady. I discovered this because as my name is Mary, many Muslims say sincerely to me, “that’s a lovely name”. A Muslim friend of mine engages in mental prayer to Our Lady. He gives very difficult prayer intentions to Our Lady and he says that, “it’s incredible how many prayers get answered by asking her”.

No other woman is given as much space in the Koran as Our Lady. Reviewing sections of the Koran that concern Our Lady, she is revered as the one woman who was chosen, “above the women of all nations”. If you ask Muslims who have a devotion to Our Lady, they will simply say, “she was the best woman ever”. The Koran corroborates Catholic doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s immaculate virginity.

Would it not make sense to make Our Lady the foundation of our inter-faith discussions? It needn’t be very formal. Devout Catholics could open a discussion on respecting Our Lady with their Muslim friends, neighbours and colleagues.

This is not to disregard the doctrinal shaped elephant in the room. We hold Our Lady as the Mother of God. Muslims believe Our Lady to be the mother of a prophet. But they do hold her as the most holy woman who ever lived and they have a fear of offending her.

I’m taking the risk that I’ll be mocked for proffering a pious strategy. I know that, “Unite Christians and Muslims on the grounds of their shared love of Our Lady”, is not likely to become foreign policy any time soon. But without basic strategies, we are back to hopeless handwringing. In order for this to work, it needs the oxygen of our conversations with Muslims. Maybe we should, “let go and let Our Lady”.

It needs a few sparks of publicity. For starters I invite my fellow Catholic writers and bloggers to take the plunge and try out this strategy. Then blog any conversations and encounters. My guess is that they’ll be pleasantly surprised by the smiles that mention of Our Lady brings to the faces of many Muslims. No wonder Our Lady is called, ‘Cause of our Hope’ and ‘Smile of Heaven’.

I wrote this blog for The Catholic Herald. Visit the site and read all the latest news about the Church in England.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Dorothy Day turned me into a film director

"I’m not a filmmaker,” insists Claudia Larson, the writer and director of Don’t Call Me a Saint, a documentary about Dorothy Day. The film is an honest and beautiful portrait of Day’s life. And if you’d seen it, you would be forgiven for thinking that Larson is an expert in filmmaking. 
Larson spent 15 years making the documentary. When I ask her how she became so committed to preserving Day’s memory, she says with a laugh: “It’s as though Dorothy walked up my front stairs, knocked on my door and, like a fool, I answered it. She just moved in and made me do it.”
Larson made the movie even though she had never been to film school and she also paid for the production mostly out of her own pocket. “I learned as I went along,” she says with breathless enthusiasm. 
She is certain that it was Day’s spirit that guided her. “I was consumed with researching her life and if it never came to anything, that would have been OK because it was a great journey. But I knew Dorothy was too practical. She didn’t just want me to have lots of historical stories to keep to myself.” 
Listening to Larson, I have the strong impression that she and Day were close friends. But they never met. Day was born in Brooklyn and died at the age of 83 in 1980 in the residence she founded for homeless women. Larson grew up in Los Angeles and, although she lived in New York for many years, she never heard of Day or the Catholic Worker Movement. It was in the early 1990s that she began to chronicle Day’s life and was very determined to have “Dorothy tell her own story with no interference from me”. She insists that the film is “pure Dorothy”.
Larson even goes as far to say that “Dorothy directed the content and the length of the film”. The stars of the documentary are the people who were closest to Day: her good friends and, most notably, her daughter Tamar. Larson used the medium of cinema to capture on camera those who knew Day best. The clock was ticking because some of her interviewees were nearing the end of their lives and many have now died.  
Was Larson making the film because she is a Catholic who yearned to document Day as a celebrated convert to Catholicism? “No. The fact that I’m a Catholic has no bearing on the film,” says Larson, “I am a cradle Catholic but I didn’t make the film because Dorothy was Catholic.” 
This confounds me, because Larson’s film focuses on Day’s devotion to the works of mercy. Digging deep as to why Larson did not single out Day’s Catholicism, she says: “I didn’t want to alienate anyone and Catholics are not the only ones interested in her. People of all faiths are drawn to Dorothy and to studying her work. Many an atheist is fascinated by Dorothy Day.”
When the film premiered at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, Larson was reproached by one audience member for not concentrating on Day’s relationship with the Catholic Church.  Larson says: “If I had focused solely on Day’s Catholicism it could have been a three-hour film.”  
As I’m someone who finds Day’s conversion to Catholicism mesmerising, I appreciated the way Larson’s film portrayed Day’s strong faith as an integral part of her life. Don’t Call Me A Saint doesn’t create a divide between Day’s faith and social activism, but treats them as they were: completely interrelated.
A stirring section of the film covers Dorothy Day’s time as a reporter at the Hunger March in Washington DC in 1932. Day felt very conflicted because she wanted to employ her Left-wing practices, but felt they were at odds with her Catholicism. So she prayed at the  Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception that she would find methods to help the poor in a way that sat well with her faith. 
The next day, she went back to New York and found Peter Maurin waiting for her. Maurin had been a Christian Brother for a time, but now sought out Day as his collaborator. Together they founded The Catholic Worker in May 1933, but Day always credited Maurin as being the primary founder.  
Larson’s film bridges an important gap by showing how Maurin became Day’s teacher – sharing with her his system of combining Catholic beliefs with a blend of radical socialism. Maurin and Day aimed to put as many of the works of mercy into practice as possible.
There are many earnest Catholics who distrust Maurin and Day because they find it hard to accept Day’s Left-wing sympathies, and see Day’s political views as incompatible with Catholicism. So it’s important to ask if Larson has strong political allegiances that influenced the film. “No, I’m not a Catholic Worker,” she says. “I don’t have any political agenda. Maybe that’s why Dorothy knocked on my door.”
Larson’s film shows that Day was not a textbook Left-winger, but rather that her greatest teachers were the poor people who crossed her path. The most striking example is the film’s interview with Eileen Egan, a close friend of Day’s, who relates what Day did after a gut-wrenching tragedy. It was the 1930s and America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Two female friends came to the soup kitchen. They were homeless and so asked Day if they could stay the night. Day could not find an inch of space for them: people were already sleeping on every floor. 
Later, one of the women returned. Day asked her where her friend was. She told Day that her friend was so distraught at not having a place to sleep in the soup kitchen that she had gone to a subway station and thrown herself under a train. Cut to the heart, Day took her last five dollars, went down the street and found an empty apartment. She put the five dollars on the table, offering it as a deposit, and the flat became the Catholic Worker Movement’s first house of hospitality. There are now more than 180 houses of hospitality across the globe.
There are other tear-jerking moments when the film focuses on the crowds of severely mentally ill people who congregated in the houses of hospitality. One interviewee, Pat Jordan, tells of two mentally ill guests who caused a disruption. One of them went out naked on to the fire escape. They had to be asked to leave the house. But they came back on Easter Sunday and were welcomed with open arms. Their behaviour was never held against them. Thus, Pat Jordan concludes, they were forgiven “77 times seven”, as Jesus commanded. 
Larson does not consider herself a particularly good Catholic, but her film shows clearly how Day abandoned herself to Divine Providence. One story is likely to resonate with readers who struggle with high fuel costs during wintry weather. One bitterly cold winter, when there was no coal to light the furnace, Day had only one piece of coal left.  As St Joseph was patron of the Catholic Worker house, she put the last piece of coal beside his statue. Without any notice, an anonymous benefactor ordered a truckload of coal and it was delivered that very evening.

Larson tells another story that illustrates how Day learned from the poor, “Dorothy and Eileen Egan were on a boat going down the Thames in London. It was chilly and they were only wearing cloth coats. Dorothy took the Times, divided it with Eileen, and stuffed her half inside her coat, saying that she had learned how to keep warm from the men on the Bowery.”      
Larson’s film does not shy away from the grittier aspects of serving the poorest of the poor. There are snippets of a television interview with Day, in which Day tells the viewers that the Brooklyn police brought old women who had been sleeping in abandoned buildings to the Catholic Worker house so that Day could care for them. Day described elderly woman as being covered in lice and suffering from a prolapsed rectum. It was not unusual for the police to drop off people who were drenched in their own urine.  
Don’t Call Me a Saint is both a poetic and harrowing piece of cinema.  For a film that was a decade and a half in the making, it is concise, coming in at just 55 minutes. It’s clear that Larson took great care in choosing each frame of the film. “It’s the length that Dorothy wanted,” she says, “so it would fit in a classroom time-frame.”
Larson will not allow me to give her any credit for the documentary, insisting that “Dorothy made me do this film”. I keep asking her Larson why she feels so attracted to Day. She says: “I related to Dorothy’s daughter Tamar, because my mother was a single working mom.” Tamar was Day’s only child from her relationship with Forster Batterham. Larson appears to see a lot of her own mother in Day and that sheds light on why she has such immense respect for Day, and a burning love of making Day’s legacy known. 

To find out more about Don’t Call Me a Saint and to buy a DVD of film, visit
This interview was carried in the October 31st 2014 print edition of The Catholic Herald.
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