Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

Our Lady of Willesden, the Black Virgin

This morning I took the train to North-West London on a personal pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden. A few weeks ago I received my copy of the new Britain’s holiest places by Nick Mayhew Smith. It’s a wonderful travel guide with personal observations to the places of Christian heritage around Britain. I must confess that I had never heard of Our Lady of Willesden. Reading Mayhew Smith’s one page write-up, I jumped on the train this morning to make pilgrimage.

The Shrine is both oddly English and oddly London. It is in the Parish Church of St Mary Willesden, a rather pretty English parish church surrounded by a verdant graveyard, typical of so many village churches up and down the country. Yet just beyond its stone boundary wall is a busy roundabout with red London double-deckers ferrying passengers to and from Neasden Tube Station.

St Mary's Church, Willesden

St Mary's Church, Willesden

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I marched, but the media reported wrongly

I joined the March for the Alternative on Saturday 26 March with around half-a-million others. It was an exciting day, and good to see people of all ages, including little children, and all backgrounds dancing and chanting along the Embankment and en route to Hyde Park. I got back to see BBC News coverage of the event, and was angry, albeit not that surprised, to see a very skewed view of what went on.  I have had around two-dozen friends say that they wished they had gone on the march, but were concerned about this or that. I have to say that this march was ultra-safe, and the babies and toddlers only cried when they saw Cameron or Clegg’s face on placards! If you stayed home and only know about the march from media reports, let me tell you something you have not yet heard: it was a great day out for all the family.

The main contingent of the march were the unions. There were lots of Unison, Unite and GMB banners there. There were firefighters marching in pristine uniforms. Teachers were marching, as were students. A huge Postman Pat was leading groups of posties. Plenty of Labour Party branches were there with banners, as were a few Green Party branches and the assorted other parties of the Left. Campaign groups were out, like Stop the War and UK Uncut. Many spent hours on coaches from Scotland and Northern England to get there. A group of carers for the elderly marched with placards, each bearing a photo of an older person and their message of support for the march — an old woman grasping her zimmer frame: “I would march if I could”. It took two hours for those at the back of the march to reach the starting point on the Embankment from which the front moved off. If each of us who marched has a handful of friends who stayed at home yet support us, the march represents many millions of Britons who refuse to accept the government’s rhetoric on necessary cuts. This is no minority, this is mainstream.

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On Englishness and English nationalism

Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.

All Hallows

The flag of St George flying from my church's tower.

Recently, I wrote an article here on POWER2010 and the People’s Charter. In passing I mentioned how I didn’t support the proposed policy for POWER2010 of ‘English votes on English laws’, something I now realise is a bit of a mantra among English nationalists, with its own camel-case acronym EVoEL (deliver us from…?)!

There were a lot of important ideas in that post, but was surprised by the complete focus on English nationalism in the comments. I was even more surprised by the poor quality of their argument, much of which was ad hominem (‘you are trash’ said one, another found me a traitor, another suggested that I was being anti-English and thus racist!). Then there was the misquoting and misrepresentation of my thoughts. For instance, I had written ‘In general, the promotion of English nationalism by a few fringe groups is very dodgy’. I should have been clearer about what I meant: that English identity and the nationalism based on it, promoted by a few fringe groups, is a minefield of problems that should be treated with care rather than emotional flag waving. However, the nationalists tweeted this as my saying ‘the English are dodgy’ (hmm, nice misquote there)! Aside from this there was demonstrable lack of understanding of our political constitution (I had to direct a commenter to read the 1911 Parliament Act). However, overall, I was shocked by the need to depict the English as persecuted, restricted and disempowered within a UK in which we make up around 83% of the population. If nationalism is about national liberation, nationalists feel the obvious need to conjure up an imagined captivity from which to liberate us.

I am English and proud to be English. I own an English football shirt (somewhere), but I’m not the flag waving type. Many of my friends are not English, and I find their perspective on Englishness very useful. I believe that it’s important to approach the issue dispassionately and practically, against the surging romanticism that can leave one delusional.

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