Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Monty Python and a curious approach to religious difference

Every now and then I have to travel for work on a Sunday, and that leaves my week completely topsy turvy. I remember that my son Michael became fractious, often even tearful, on a Sunday evening for the first several years of his school education. Such was the dread of the coming Monday morning. 

Well, I don’t feel that bad. In fact I enjoy my work. Even so, I attach great importance to having a full weekend, and it isn’t really complete if I don’t get my Sunday evening sat at home with my wife and doing very little. My son needed that Sunday evening with his mother, I need it with my wife. Though I'm happy to spend it with his mother, since they turn out to be the same person anyway. 

This weekend I was deprived of that Sunday evening calm as a transition to the maelstrom of the week. I was on a train heading towards a Monday morning meeting. That's going to leave me disoriented for the rest of the week, unable to remember what day it is, as I navigate blindly towards the relief of next weekend. 

The train I caught was taking me towards the Pennine town of Bolton, now all but absorbed into Greater Manchester. The name of Bolton always makes me think of ‘Notlob’. For those who perhaps don’t have the Monty Python Dead Parrot Sketch off by heart, here’s the relevant bit:

‘I understand that this is Bolton.’


‘But you told me it was Ipswich!’

‘It was a pun.’

‘A pun?’

‘No, no... not a pun... What's the other thing where it reads the same backwards as forwards?’

A pause.

‘A palindrome?’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

‘It's not a palindrome! The palindrome of "Bolton" would be "Notlob!" It don't work!’

Fortunately there’s more to Bolton than the Parrot sketch. For one thing, right behind the office where we went for our meeting there’s a colossal church. Of near-Cathedral proportions, it’s a silent but eloquent testament to that glorious nineteenth-century tradition of men who made fortunes in Northern towns, from wool or cotton, steel or coal, endowing their towns with monumental buildings, secular or religious: great municipal halls, public libraries or, as in this case, massively over-proportioned churches.

Bolton Parish Church
mighty monument to the industrial glories of the past
The people we were visiting told us they parked their cars in the church grounds. They said it made the walk back to the vehicles interesting on winter nights, as they picked their way through the howling wind, between the gravestones.

Talking about religion makes me think of my travelling companions on the train up. I took them at first for a young couple, of ‘Indian’ origin – the quotation marks because, of course, they were as as English as any, by their attitudes and their accents, even if one of them took a couple of phone calls in Urdu. 

When we got chatting they revealed that they were in fact colleagues travelling to a week’s work at a client’s.

At one point they began to talk about the difficulties the young man was having over what he felt were unnecessarily complex preparations for some religious ceremony or another.

‘Ah, yes, but we’re Sunni,’ said his companion, ‘and we don’t have any of that shit.’

He nodded, dejectedly, recognising the superiority, at least in this respect, of Sunni practice.

But a few minutes later, talking about some other aspect of observance, she told him, apparently completely unconscious of the inconsistency, ‘well, your religion is just so much more attractive than ours.’

Poignant, I felt. A touching moment. When I think of the trouble, the bloodletting, that Sunnis and Shias have inflicted on each other down the ages, the burning of the Catholics by the Protestants and vice versa, the tribulations everyone heaped on the Jews, to overhear that conversation struck me as a powerful illustration of just how trivial those distinctions are.

If only they could always be as easily dealt with as by that blithe young woman.

1 comment:

Malc Dow said...

Quite so.
Again it brought to mind (stop me if you've heard it),that in 'The Waters Under the Earth (1965)', John Moore notes that while the US and (at the time) the USSR were entrenched in mutual hatred, an American farmer and a Russian farmer would get on just fine, lots in common, plenty to discuss. No problem there.