I started this blog, mainly because the company that handle our PR, Puzzle Communications, thought it would be a good idea. Originally, I had no idea what I was going to write about, but now it’s become a bit like writing scripts, I’m not short of things I want to say. At the beginning one of the pieces of advice was – ‘stay away from politics’. Well I have to ask the question … is religion classed as politics? I don’t think so, but I would like to apologise before we get into the meat of the blog, this does touch on religion. However, it has been motivated by a TV series, which, I think, legitimises it. The intention is not to offend anyone, but no doubt I will.
The TV series that kicked off this train of thought was Unorthodox, a 4-part series on Netflix.
Without giving away any of the plot, it basically revolves around a young married girl escaping a strict Hasidic Jewish community in New York. It’s based on a true story and in a short documentary, which can also be viewed on Netflix, the filmmakers admit that the segments of the plot that depicts the girl’s life post the community are fictious, but the segments about life in that community are factual. The series was taken from Deborah Feldman’s autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. It describes how her first language was Yiddish, the use of English being frowned upon, how she had an arranged marriage at the age of 17 and became a mother at the age of 19. Eventually she cut all ties with the community.
I have to point out I’m not writing this to slag off religion per se. If a person wants to believe in God, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna or whoever, then it’s entirely up to them. However, if they use religion as an excuse to behave badly, then for me it ceases to have any legitimacy. By that I mean if the religion practices, preaches or covertly condones misogyny, homophobia or racism, then it shouldn’t be tolerated. We don’t and shouldn’t condone right wing extremists, so we shouldn’t tolerate this type of institutionalised bigotry and prejudice.
I was brought up in a religious household. We were C of E and would definitely attend church twice on a Sunday, morning service and Sunday school. Sometimes we’d even go three times on a Sunday – we’d go to evening song as well. That was every Sunday and surprisingly all that church wasn’t really a problem, as I wasn’t allowed to play out – not on a Sunday. This was the same for Good Friday and somehow that was even more baffling. It wasn’t a Sunday – it was a Friday! I got a day off school and we had to pretend it was a Sunday, we had to go to church and no playing out. The only real redemption that weekend was that you got Easter eggs, but at church you were quickly told that they didn’t have anything to do with Easter. Easter was about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Really important if you’re a Christian, because that’s what the whole religion is based around. So where did those eggs fit in? In those days there was no Google, so for years I never knew. I eventually I found out that way back, before Christ had fed 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes, or walked on water, eggs were regarded as a symbol of life and Christianity had nicked this idea from a pagan festival – but the real downer for the kids in those bygone days, was that the eggs weren’t made of chocolate. They were real eggs … it must have been a messy festival.
I was ten or eleven when we changed churches and went to ‘higher’ church, not in altitude, but in attitude. Every Sunday morning there was a family Eucharist, a posh way of saying communion, where there was a pitifully small amount of bread and wine. Mind it was a bit early in the day to start drinking, so it was probably a good idea wine was rationed. But this Eucharist communion was full of ritual and was much closer to the Roman Catholic church, than to the Methodists or the Presbyterians. And I liked it. I’d always loved church choirs, the sound they generate is unique and this new church not only had a really good choir, the service was full of pomp and ceremony. I was going to say it was bordering on being theatrical, when in fact it was theatrical! It was a long running show. The Mousetrap thinks it’s done well, nothing compared to the family Eucharist. There were crosses been carried, candles lighting the way, breaking of bread, pouring of wine, there was even changes of costume. I loved it and loved it even more when I became an altar boy. How good was that? I was no longer in the audience; I was actually in the show … on the stage. I might not have had the leading role, that was definitely the vicar, but I was certainly on the bill. I knew I’d never be a vicar, much to mother’s disappointment, but I was doing the next best thing. Each Sunday there were three altar boys – one carried the cross and also helped the vicar change and take communion, the other two walked slightly behind the cross carrier, carrying their candles. The two candle bearers were certainly leading roles, but it wasn’t as showy as the crucifer – the cross carrier. He was definitely number two on the bill. He had more ‘biz’ than the other two, his cross was much bigger than the candles and he made his entrance alone – ahead of the candle bearers and even the vicar, who brought up the rear – actually that would have been something I’d have changed if I’d have been directing.
For a good few years that was my Sunday, until for some reason, the rules relaxed. I was allowed out. To begin with I couldn’t wear jeans, but in time that changed and although Sunday still felt like Sunday, no shops open, everyone at home, kids at a loose end, all brilliantly captured by Willy Russell’s Long Sunday Afternoon in Blood Brothers, it meant only one trip to church, where I slipped into costume and tried to give a better performance than the previous show.
As I edged my way into my teens, which coincidentally coincided with the birth of the 60s, my life started to take a different turn. There were temptations galore. Growing up in the 60s was an amazing time, which I’ll go into in more detail in a later blog – it definitely deserves one of its own. But suffice it to say that although I still loved that Eucharist service, my absolute belief in the God and Christ jamboree was starting to wax and wane. As I’d moved on physically and mentally from parties where you passed the parcel and if you had the right girls, spun the bottle, to clubs in dark dank railway arches with brilliant music, so mentally I was starting to shift from this whole God idea. There were a lot of problems with it; problems I had trouble coming to terms with. I mean if you were this omnipotent entity, being, creation or whatever, why not sort out poverty, abuse, and violence and why allow the mother of all atrocities – the Holocaust. I know the standard answer is God gave man free will to make his own decisions. Okay – but why? Why would you do that? It’s obvious we’re pretty shit at making decisions. We’ve had war after war after war, we’re now told the planet won’t last another 50 years, the reason being we’re clearly not mature enough to be put in charge of a planet, we’re either going to ecologically destroy it, or we’re going to be wiped out by a virus. If I were God, I would say enough is enough. This lot are bloody useless, can’t get anything right, I’m going to have to step in and sort them out. And quite frankly it’s a bit irresponsible of God not to do that.
However, for many people religion is a great support system and I don’t think we should ever get rid of it. It can and has helped people though many a crisis. And most religions have moved forward and shown some modernity. But there are still whole religious sects preaching against policies and beliefs that this country has been fighting for, from long before I was born. The suffragette movement, Gay lib, the anti-racist movement and others. To say we’d been 100% successful would be disingenuous, but it’s out there and we’re talking about it and the majority of people know it’s the way forward.
I remember when the IRA were in full flight, bombing here there and everywhere. I was in the vicinity of two of these incidents, the threat felt very real. One of the incidents was at the Wimpy bar on Oxford Street where Explosives Officer Kenneth Howorth was killed. I remember thinking then, why doesn’t the Pope say something? This is meant to be a struggle between Protestants and Catholics and I don’t remember any of the religious leaders, on either side, saying anything. Was that down to the fact that man has to make his own decisions?
I’ve just watched a fascinating documentary called Hometown. It’s concerns Mobeen Azhar, a journalist, returning to his hometown of Huddersfield, which is approximately 15 miles from where I was brought up in Bradford. He was there to look into the shooting dead by the police of local youth Yasser Yaqub. His documentary delves into the world of Class ‘A’ drug dealing amongst the Pakistani/Bangladeshi community and I was shocked to hear that some Muslims thought it totally acceptable to deal drugs to the white population, because they were non-believers. That is how they morally justified their actions. For me that is as unacceptable as the IRA killing a three-year-old (Johnathan Ball) and a twelve-year-old (Tim Parry) in Warrington, or the Hasidic community subjugating women to such an extent they are second class citizens, or ignorant homophobes attacking the LBGT community. But there again it’s easy to slip into the mindset that all Muslims are radical drug pushers, or all Jews are misogynistic, which we all know is far from the truth.
At times as a mainstream writer, it has been impossible to criticise certain elements of society and if I tried, I was immediately branded as phobic, when really all I wanted to do was comment and hopefully start debate.
Writing about religions, about different sects in society, is great fodder for story as Unorthodox has proved. There have of course been other examples, some better than others. The Wicker Man (the original) was great, the remake not so good. The Lives of Others, set in East Germany in the 80s, if you haven’t seen it you should. Rosemary’s Baby Polanski doing the business. And the perfect Witness, a thriller where Harrison Ford ends up hiding out in the Amish community, never ceases to be good.
The other thing about religion is it’s a great source of story. Islamic history is full of them, along with the traditional Biblical stories, they had numerous Prophets, each with their own tale to tell. Rabbis are renowned for their story telling, normally highlighting some moral issue. A long time ago I wrote an idea which is very much on the lines of Unothodox, only it was based on a small religious sect where we live. They probably wouldn’t agree with me, but they’re the British equivalent to the Amish, minus the outlandish costume. The story revolved around a teenage girl who broke away from her background. We followed her on a Romeo and Juliet romance, but more interesting we watched as she discovered a world she’d never been allowed to be part of. Can you imagine if you’d never had a TV or radio, or had never been to a party, or your only reading material was the Bible, then ending up in Blackpool, as my character did in the story, would have been mind blowing.
But of course, the best character story arc has to be Jesus. Born in a stable, humble beginnings, turns into powerful leader, who appears to be able to perform miracles, creates enemies, wrongfully convicted, executed … but returns to show his followers the way forward … then just disappears again. Now that’s a fucking story.