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The angels climb Jacob's Ladder on the west front of Bath Abbey.

It seems to me that we spend most of our life on ladders.  Life is a series of ladders.  Sometimes we precariously straddle two or several at the same time.  Sometimes a ladder that we have been climbing becomes a liability and so we swop it for another ladder.  These ladders enable us to guage how well we are doing in relation to the Others.

There are two main ladders.  One for men and another for women.  The rungs on the male ladders are marked in your local currency and are used to measure how much you are earning.  The more you are earning, the higher up the ladder you are.  The rungs on the female ladder are less clearly labelled but relate to your attractiveness to the opposite sex.  The more attractive you are, the higher up the ladder you are.

Clearly, some people will be lower down on these two ladders than others.  Those who are at the top have a relatively easy time of things.  These are the only ladders they need bother with.  Those lower down will want to switch to alternative ladders to improve their perceived position.

There are many alternative ladders.  Here are just a few:

  • Sporting Prowess (male)
  • Intelligence (mainly male)
  • Educational attainments (not the same as intelligence)
  • Height (mainly male)
  • Absence of body fat (mainly female, but increasingly male.  Female and male rungs are labelled differently.  A bit more fat is possibly even desirable on the female ladder)
  • Gender (a super wide ladder with only two rungs.  Male wins but watch out for the females who keep trying to reverse the labels on the rungs)
  • Ethnicity (with your own at the top.  Other rungs are labelled according to your subjective prejudice with the most favoured ethnicities near the top)
  • Number of children raised or sired
  • Social Class (a more popular ladder in some countries than in others, a more obvious substitute choice for females)
  • Make of car and size of engine (almost exclusively male, a favourite in the UK and Australia)
  • Ability to handle a narrowboat (!)
  • Postal address
  • Musical ability
  • Husband’s occupation (unemployed females)
  • Your children’s achievements (mainly female, getting desperate now)
  • Profession (Doctors, Lawyers, Armed Forces, Engineers, University Lecturer, Dentists, Accountants – may be used long after you have ceased practising the profession)

This is not an exhaustive list.  If you do not like any of the ladders I have listed, it is quite simple.  You just create your own, though it makes sense to create a ladder where you have a right to occupy a rung at or near the top.  I have my own favourite ladders.

Some ladders have quite secure rungs.  Once you’ve made it onto the rung, you are unlikely to get knocked off by someone coming up from beneath.  The gender ladder, the IQ ladder, the Professions ladder, these are all fairly secure.

Other ladders have very slippery rungs.  There is no guarantee that you are there to stay.  The earnings ability or wealth ladder is one.  Looks is another.  Social class is probably the best example since it is the ladder adopted by women who have already had to move down or abandon the physical attractiveness ladder.  The labels on this ladder are very indistinct and there are lots of conditions and small print attached to each rung. 

Once you have acquired a certain rung on a ladder with slippery rungs, you need to keep others off your rung.  There is only so much room on each rung.  For every person that comes up, another must go down: these are the immutable rules.  So it makes sense to tip your paint pot or your water bucket over those who are coming up so they retreat (best option) or stay where they are (still preferable to a continued ascent).  Sometimes your foothold on a rung gets very slippery.  At this point it becomes essential to tip even more paint, or pour even more water.  Things are getting desperate and under no account must you be the one to go down the ladder.  No, sir.

Since this is a bit like a game of snakes and ladders, there are some life events that are wonderful levellers and generally knock those afflicted off their ladders, whichever ladders they are and however high they have managed to climb.  These events are – on the whole – no respecters of fortunes, looks, intellectual ability or any of the other measures.  They include:

  • Bereavement
  • Giving birth (females only)
  • Taking on parental responsibility (males and females alike but the responsibilities are different)
  • Divorce
  • Serious illness
  • Road Accidents
  • Domestic violence
  • Drug or alcohol Addiction
  • War

It remains true, however, that it is easier for some people than others to climb back on their ladders and that there is often a degree of unfairness about the speed with which some people accelerate up the ladder after a levelling event.

All these ladders do not actually exist in any concrete form.  They are illusory and highly subjective.  They are like the Jacob’s ladders that the sun throws down through the clouds – gone in an instant. 

There is only one ladder that really matters.  I think the final sentence of this quote sums it up.  It is often attributed to Mother Teresa, but was not written by her.  She had it hanging on the wall in her orphanage in Calcutta.

People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have,
and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

[The picture is of the front of Bath Abbey and shows angels climbing to heaven.  My mother-in-law said she was quite sure one was wearing a black fleece.]



If we could get the hang of it entirely
     It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
     and falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
     Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
     Even a phrase entirely.

If we could find our happiness entirely
     In somebody else’s arms
We should not fear the spears of the spring nor the city’s
     Yammering fire alarms
But, as it is, the spears each year go through
     Our flesh and almost hourly
Bell or siren banishes the blue
     Eyes of Love entirely.

And if the world were black or white entirely
     And all the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
     A prism of delight and pain,
We might be surer where we wished to go
     Or again we might be merely
Bored but in the brute reality there is no
     Road that is right entirely.

     Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

A throwaway mention in a book I’m reading (about which more later) led me to this poem.  Google linked to this essay which brings together MacNeice and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I’m not sure what blogging is about at the moment, so I’m not going to post anything more than short Christmas posts for a while  – until after the New Year – so that I can think about it quietly.  In the meantime, tidying up this morning, I came across some sheets I printed out a while ago for a philosophy class.  Aristotle again, I’m afraid.  Here’s a link to the complete article.  I don’t agree with Aristotle about foreigners.  Many, if not most, of my dearest friends were born in countries other than my own.  But it’s a good starting point.  I remember that I even tried to put “friends” into the three categories and that they made some sort of sense or at least forced to to look at my friendships again.

 “Friendship… is a kind of virtue, or implies virtue, and it is also most necessary for living. Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things…. There are, however, not a few divergent views about friendship. Some hold that it is a matter of similarity: that our friends are those who are like ourselves… Others take the contrary view…. 

There are three kinds of friendship….

Friendship based on utility. Utility is an impermanent things: it changes according to circumstances. So with the disappearance of the ground for friendship, the friendship also breaks up, because that was what kept it alive. Friendships of this kind seem to occur most frequently between the elderly (because at their age what they want is not pleasure but utility) and those in middle or early life who are pursuing their own advantage. Such persons do not spend much time together, because sometimes they do not even like one another, and therefore feel no need of such an association unless they are mutually useful. For they take pleasure in each other’s company only in so far as they have hopes of advantage from it. Friendships with foreigners are generally included in this class.

Friendship based on pleasure. Friendship between the young is thought to be grounded on pleasure, because the lives of the young are regulated by their feelings, and their chief interest is in their own pleasure and the opportunity of the moment. With advancing years, however, their tastes change too, so that they are quick to make and to break friendships; because their affection changes just as the things that please them do and this sort of pleasure changes rapidly. Also the young are apt to fall in love, for erotic friendship is for the most part swayed by the feelings and based on pleasure. That is why they fall in and out of friendship quickly, changing their attitude often within the same day. But the young do like to spend the day and live together, because that is how they realize the object of their friendship.

Perfect friendship is based on goodness. Only the friendship of those who are good, and similar in their goodness, is perfect. For these people each alike wish good for the other qua good, and they are good in themselves. And it is those who desire the good of their friends for the friends’ sake that are most truly friends, because each loves the other for what he is, and not for any incidental quality. Accordingly the friendship of such men lasts so long as they remain good; and goodness is an enduring quality. Also each party is good both absolutely and for his friend, since the good are both good absolutely and useful to each other. Similarly they please one another too; for the good are pleasing both absolutely and to each other; because everyone is pleased with his own conduct and conduct that resembles it, and the conduct of good men is the same or similar. Friendship of this kind is permanent, reasonably enough; because in it are united all the attributes that friends ought to possess. For all friendship has as its object something good or pleasant — either absolutely or relatively to the person who feels the affection — and is based on some similarity between the parties. But in this friendship all the qualities that we have mentioned belong to the friends themselves; because in it there is similarity, etc.; and what is absolutely good is also absolutely pleasant; and these are the most lovable qualities. Therefore it is between good men that both love and friendship are chiefly found and in the highest form.

That such friendships are rare is natural, because men of this kind are few. And in addition they need time and intimacy; for as the saying goes, you cannot get to know each other until you have eaten the proverbial quantity of salt together. Nor can one man accept another, or the two become friends, until each has proved to the other that he is worthy of love, and so won his trust. Those who are quick to make friendly advances to each other have the desire to be friends, but they are not unless they are worthy of love and know it. The wish for friendship develops rapidly, but friendship does not.”

Aristotle The Nichomachean Ethics, 1155a3, 1156a16-1156b23 

The passages following this excerpt are well worth reading, but I’ll leave you to find those for yourselves.  The cartoon came up in a Google images search of friendship.  Weird?  I love the Donnie Darko film, though it makes shiver with horror.


Belgium has a particular smell.  It smells of waffles and chocolate, combined.  I’ve tried to tease the waffle smell out of the chocolate but they refuse to separate.  The smell is most pungent at the shafts that exit from the underground metro stations.  It’s a smell that creeps over into France a bit too.  You catch whiffs of it in Paris in the Metro.  I thought about other countries I’ve visited and most of them have smells.  France, for example, except for the wafflely bits, smells of bad drains.  As in Belgium, the smell is worst in underground train stations, but it can be found in almost every house, leeching out of the sinks and the lavatories.  In French houses the smell is generally mixed with Javel water, a liquid bleach.  The combination of ripe Reblochon and Javel and drains is very evocative of France and quite overpowering. 

Greece smells of the crushed leaves of warm oregano in sun-baked mountains.  India smells of sandalwood.  Sri Lanka is a two-faced combination of rancid butter from the butter sculptures that decorate hotel dining rooms and which makes my nose wrinkle and wince just to think of them, and the heavenly smell of frangipane flowers.  I decided that they were all new smells, smells I hadn’t smelt before I smelt them for the first time and so they were locked into my memory of the country forever. I couldn’t summon up a smell for America or for Australia or for Egypt, though I tried. 

England smells of cut grass, Wolf’s ears, damp churches, sugar beet being boiled to make sugar, clean washing dried outside on the washing line, basmati rice cooking, oranges covered in cloves, old fashioned Buff Beauty roses, river mud, stale beer.  Washing never smells the same in another country.  I like the smell of my home.   Lola Button says her friends like her smell so much they come and sniff her.


“I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my my mind there.  But there the questions still recurred, “Are these things true?”  Still the answered followed as instantaneously “They are”.  Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere”.


Thomas Clarkson stood 6’2” tall, topped by red hair and apparently lacking any sense of humour.  His role in the movement to abolish the slave trade in the United Kingdom is largely unsung: William Wilberforce gets all the credit.  Yet it was Clarkson who travelled more than 35,000 miles around England in seven years, on rotten roads either on horseback or in uncomfortable carriages, gathering all the evidence that was necessary to convince the many wavering Members of Parliament that the slave trade should be abolished.

After graduating from Cambridge University in 1783 with a degree in Mathematics and becoming an Anglican Deacon, he decided to stay on at Cambridge to become a clergyman like his father.  Thomas Clarkson’s interest in the slave trade began when he chose to enter an essay competition in his second year of postgraduate studies at Cambridge in 1785.   He had to write an essay in Latin entitled Anne Liceat Invitos in Servitudinem Dare? – Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? 

At first his only interest was to repeat his previous year’s success when he had won first prize.  In researching the essay, however, he began to uncover the true extent of the slave trade and was appalled.  He began by reading Anthony Benezet’s Some Historical Account of Guinea.  Benezet had been born in France a Huguenot and had experienced discrimination himself in Catholic France before emigrating to Philadelphia.  There he set up the first girls’ school in America and subsequently the Negro School in Philadelphia.  A Quaker, like so many of the abolitionists, Benezet published, at his own expense, pamplets which had a huge influence both sides of the Atlantic.  He died before the abolition of slavery in either Britain or America.

The prize, which Clarkson won, was after all neither here nor there.  He read the essay aloud at Cambridge and then rode to London, stopping to rest his horse on the way.  As he paused, 

“a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamaties to their end”. 

This was his moment of conversion.  For the rest of his life he would work himself to blindness on occasions, driven on by the need to abolish the dreadful trade, first through an English Act of Parliament and then, subsequently, attacking the slave trade in America.  Coleridge described Thomas Clarkson as “the steam engine of the movement”, a movement that had William Wilberforce as its political face but which also counted the Lakeland poets, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and Mary and Charles Lamb as its advocates and firm supporters of Clarkson.  Wordsworth wrote a sonnet in Clarkson’s honour in recognition of the passing of the Abolition Act in 1807 and Coleridge later said of him:

“He, if ever human being did it, listened exclusively to his conscience and obeyed its voice.”

Of course, it was never enough for Clarkson that the trade in slaves should be abolished.  His goal was the abolition of slavery itself.  It was a long battle, lasting for the whole of the rest of his life.  Although the trade in slaves was outlawed in 1807, slavery was only abolished by the Emancipation Act of 1833.   Not content with trying to abolish the slave trade in England, he spent five revolutionary months in Paris between 1789-90 trying to persuade the National Assembly to abolish the trade also.  France seemed poised to follow England’s lead until internal politics overtook the National Assembly.  His health collapsed at this point and he retired from the fray, almost penniless. 

Wilberforce helped to raise funds for him and so he was able to buy a small estate on Ullswater in the English Lakes.  He married, and his charming intelligent wife soon captivated the Wordsworths and Coleridge.  She became one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s closest friends.  The Clarksons left the Lakes and settled in East Anglia with their children. 

From 1816 they lived outside Ipswich in Suffolk where Lord Bristol made available to them Playford Hall,  a mellow red brick Tudor mansion with leaded windows surrounded by a wide moat and beautiful gardens.  On his earlier travels Clarkson collected signatures to support the parliamentary bills seeking abolition of the slave trade. When Thomas Clarkson visited Manchester, at the start of the campaign in 1787, a petition was signed by nearly 11,000 persons, more than one fifth of the city’s total population. Later in 1792 Manchester’s petition carried 20,000 signatures. The people of Manchester wove the cotton produced from the slave-labour plantations, but their support was in stark contrast to the neighbouring slave trading port of Liverpool. On a visit to the latter, also in 1787, Clarkson was threatened with his life and almost thrown off the docks.

Brooke’ s Slave Ship

Methods were used by the abolitionists that set the pattern for political campaigns today.  Pamphlets were printed and distributed.  One particularly effective pamphlet showed how 482 slaves could be packed onto one ship – the Brookes of Liverpool – and shocked almost all who saw it.  Josiah Wedgwood manufactured unglazed stoneware cameos like the medallion below by the thousands and gave them away to supporters of the movement. People began to boycott goods produced using slave labour – sugar and rum.  Wedgwood slogan “Am I not a man and a brother” and the image of the manacled kneeling slave would be taken up by the abolitionists in America.

Clarkson died in 1846 at Playford and was buried in the churchyard there.  In 1996 a plaque to commemorate him was placed near Wilberforce’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.

One wet Friday night, a couple of weeks ago, we sat on makeshift seating in an old church to watch a play about Clarkson’s life by a young theatre company.  Wilberforce was played by an Afro-Caribbean actress who had grown up in Bangladesh.  The audience was the usual crowd of left-wing pensioners and charity workers.  Lola Button was the only child and got a bit fed up.  The Time Line below is from the centre of the play’s programme.

Read a much longer account of Clarkson’s life here.






There is so much that has to be done, that the things that do not absolutely need doing often get left, like tidying my study and filing bills and paperwork. Today I spent the whole day putting things away, and shredding years of utilities bills and expired insurance documents, writing letters, folding up washing, wrapping up birthday parcels, and planning the sixty-eight Christmas presents that I need to find, wrap up and deliver.  I feel as if I have achieved nothing.  Somebody tell me – how, exactly, are you supposed to simplify Christmas and make it less commercial? If you are a woman, that is.

Along the way I got distracted – by articles I found that I had cut out to keep, but a new book that arrived on how women’s writing is suppressed (boy, did that make me stop and think and almost close down this blog …), and by some notes I found from an evening arranged a couple of years ago at my daughters’ (all girls) school on Teenage Trauma and how to avoid it.  It was an uncomfortable evening since most of us knew parents in the audience whose girls were self-harming or anorexic or depressed.  Most of the focus of the talk was on the Human Givens.  I like the idea of the Human Givens and will write a post about them one day.  In the meantime, I found these definitions in the notes of the evening and wanted to post them as a reminder of what I’m trying to achieve in my primary role.


A mentally healthy child or young person is one who has the ability to:

  • develop psychologically, emotionally, socially, intellectually and spiritually

  • initiate, develop and sustain mutually satisfying relationships

  • use and enjoy solitude

  • become aware of others and empathise with them

  • play and learn

  • develop a sense of right and wrong

  • resolve (face) problems and setbacks satisfactorily and learn from them.

    This definition is taken from Bright Futures: Promoting children and young people’s mental health, published by the Mental Health Foundation and is included as part of an NHS presentation about children and mental health here:

Thinking more about the parables of Rabbi Johnathan Sacks in relation to the three models of integration of immigrants summarised in a previous post, I came across an article from Prospect magazine, written in 2005 by Bhikhu Parekh.  The article is based on a speech given in 2004 at the International Labour Organisation and published as “Unity and Diversity in Multicultural Societies”.  Lord Parekh, Baron Parekh of Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire, holds the Centennial Professorship at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, and was previously Chair of the Runnymeade Commission on the future of Multi-Ethnic Britain.  In many ways Parekh’s article is a precursor of the themes developed in Jonathan Sacks’s more recent book.  His article deals not only with the obligations of the community towards new immigrants but also the obligations of immigrants towards their new society.  It is not just about rights, but also about responsibilities. 

Parekh begins by reminding us that most developed societies are inescapably multicultural in the sense that there is enormous diversity of belief amongst people.  Causes of this diversity include: 

  • The rise of moral individualism

  • A decline in the traditional moral consensus

  • Ethnic and religious diversity

  • Globalisation

  • Immigration

 In an article that focuses on the diversity introduced by immigrants and the responsibility of immigrants in relation to society, Parekh remarks at the outset that immigrants do not necessarily introduce any further diversity into a society and more often than not tend to share the views of the majority.  Of the three models described by Sacks in his parables – the assimilationist or “country house” model, the “thin” integrationist or “hotel” model, and the third most desirable model of shared ownership – it is unsurprisingly the third model that Parekh, too, recommends.  In this third view of “equal citizenship” there is a recognition that a political community is a voluntary organisation of free and equal citizens held together by principles of justice as embodied in the structure of public authority and a regime of rights and obligations.  In other words a political community is a “bottom-up” and not a “top down” creation. 

In order for this political community to have any meaning for the participants, individuals have to identify with, or own, the community, accepting responsibility for it and promoting its wellbeing.  Ownership will include a sense of history which builds past experience into the identification, and will also include a future hopeful projection that plans the extension of the identification.  It is this past/present/future sense of common belonging that Parekh wants to see developed in Britain, including a moral and emotional commitment. Parekh draws a simple analogy with a membership club: 

“Ordinary clubs and associations insist on rules of membership, and rightly expect their successful new applicants to join them in good faith, observe their norms and do nothing to undermine them.” 

Belonging to the club does not involve severing ties with the individual’s country of origin, but does involve affording the new country an intrinsic value as a “home” and not just a place in which they happen to live or a place to make money.  Nor does the club always remain the same: it is inevitable that a society will change as new members are admitted and it is this inescapable change that threatens existing members. Immigrants should, Parekh argues, express their commitment to their new home.  This may be in one of the following ways: 

    • Respecting the existing structure of authority
    • Participating in the common life of the society
    • Discharging their share of collective responsibility by being productive workers, not abusing available welfare provisions.
    • Explicit professions of loyalty and patriotic sentiments 

Participation in the public sphere of the new society does not, however, rule out a personal, private sphere of activity where the immigrants are free to carry on their lives as they wish.  This freedom is, after all, already enjoyed by their fellow citizens. In order to participate in the public sphere, immigrants will need to acquire a “cultural competence” by learning the majority language, understanding and observing norms of civility and behaviour and familiarising themselves with the “small morals” of society, that is, society’s traditions, history, moral sensibilites and habits of thoughts. 

As this cultural competence is acquired, there will be a tendency to internalise the majority culture of the society, even where the practices seem to have no practical meaning.  Parekh gives the example of standing up for the national anthem: 

“There is nothing insincere, hypocritical or self-alienating about observing them without endorsing them, for it shows respect for society and its way of life, and facilitates good relations with its members.  Being new,  immigrants are unlikely to fully master the complex cultural grammar of a society.  But unless they make a sincere effort to acquire a modicum of cultural competence, they show lack of respect for society and create serious difficulties for themselves.  Their commitment to society is likely to be questioned.  They would be unable to communicate their aspirations and frustrations nor understand why sometimes others respond to these with incomprehension or resentment.  They also remain at the mercy of their more articulate spokesmen and brokers who have their own political agendas.”

In return for the moral and emotional commitment of immigrants, the wider society needs to ease their transition, recognising that the immigrant is often up against the following difficulties: 

    • The likelihood of experiencing discrimination and hostility from some members of the society
    • Discrimination in significant areas of life
    • Disadvantages resulting from poverty and lack of the majority language
    • The trauma of transition from one culture to another
    • Anxieties about their children
    • A mismatch between their aspirations and the reality of their new life 

Whilst formal and institutional discrimination if fairly easy to manage, informal discrimination is more insidious and will wear down victims and build resentment.  Living together can provide immigrants with a sense of security which enables them to overcome these feelings of discrimination.  Once they feel personally and socially secure they are more likely to begin to reach out to the wider society and experiment with its ways of life and thought.  In other words, informal, voluntary segration may be a positive thing in the short term;

“immigrants tend to move out of ethnically concentrated areas when they feel physically secure, acquire cultural self-confidence, improve their economic prospects and feel sure that they will not face rejection.” 

Measures to combat discrimination and to foster this self-confidence will be most effective if carried out at a local level.  Local schools are particularly important and must strive to avoid the assimilationist ethos that immigrants fear.  A broad programme of multicultural education “should also reduce the demand for separate ethnic and religious schools, which sometimes stand in the way of a common sense of belonging”. 

Parekh warns of the danger of ignoring understandable fears of the majority as change occurs: 

“A common sense of belonging is easier when both the majority and minority communities feel at ease with themselves and each other.  If minorities feel threatened, besieged, and fearful of cultural extinction, they turn inward, become defensive and tend to avoid all but the minimum contact with the rest of society.  This is equally true of the majority.  If it feels it is no longer in charge of its future and that its way of life is subject to relentless erosion, it becomes defensive and intolerant and either tries to close its doors to immigration, or falls prey to the unrealistic and self-defeating project of assimilation or total integration.” 

A fair, transparent and publicly debated immigration policy is essential, and must address the legitimate fears about immigration whilst combating racist rejection of all immigrants.  To refuse to recognise the fears, or the distinction between reasonable fears and racism is to be politically irresponsible.  Equally, a new British identity must be capable of being expressed in a plurality of images and must be capacious enough to encompass not only the traditional literary image of a green and rolling landscape of “church bells, quiet Sundays, dreaming spires, emotional self-disclipline, and the art of understatement and irony” but must also embrace the newer images from immigrant writers of elderly gentlemen walking to Friday prayers, of Diwali celebrations in public squares, spicy food and saris. 

On the one hand a British identity must be strong and fulfilling enough to enrich those who currently feel alienated and lonely.  On the other hand there must be a strong spirit of mutual commitment between the Muslim community and the wider British society. 


One of the refugee women I worked with was a practising Muslim.  She kept her hair covered at all times by a variety of neatly, tightly folded and fixed scarves.  She was a political refugee and the mother of two small boys whose father had disappeared in their country of origin.  She did not know if she would ever see him again as she had not heard from him since his disappearance.  She was anxious about coming to my house because she did not want to encounter my husband as it was forbidden for her to meet a man who was not related to her.  She was also unable to go out alone without a chaperone, although she did agree to allow me to take her to the shops and to the local park with her sons.  I was surprised, therefore, to discover that she was sharing her accommodation with a man who was neither her relative nor her husband.  She explained that he was her milk brother,  a term I had never encountered.  Milk brothers and sisters are people who were suckled at the same breasts.  She was allowed to stay with the man because he was her milk brother.

Milk brothers and sisters are one category of “Mahram”.  Under Sharia law a mahram is a blood relative or other person with whom marriage or sexual intercourse would be incestuous. 

Men falling within this description are a woman’s:

  1. father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on;
  2. brother;
  3. son, grandson, great-grandson;
  4. uncle, parents’ uncle, grandparents’ uncle and so on;
  5. nephew, grandnephew, great-grandnephew and so on;

When she marries, a woman’s mahram will be extended to include her father-in-law and, when she has a daughter who marries, her son-in-law will become a mahram.

Strictly, under Sharia law a woman is not allowed to travel without a mahram.  A mahram is the only permissable escort for a Muslim woman.  She may be alone with him at home too.  A woman is not allowed to be a mahram for another woman.  In September I happened to go the Designer floor of Selfridges.  The floor was a sea of women clad in black.  At times I was the only woman not wearing the full length veil and gown or niqab which allows only a slit for the eyes.  Each group of women was accompanied by a mahram, often a very young man.  The older men waited outside in huge Mercedes limousines.  I noticed a group of women giggling at a glass cabinet displaying lingerie and accessories from Agent Provocateur and wished I had my camera.

I was struck by how these categories were almost identical to the categories I had formulated in frustration in an earlier post.  Even the category of ‘milk brother’ may be equated with the Western limited exception for male-female friendships which pre-date the marriage where, one assumes, any romantic attachment has already run its course if it ever existed and had certainly been supplanted by the new relationship.   It strikes me, however, that Prince Charles’s friendship with Camilla Parker Bowles would be a notable and cautionary exception to the non-threatening nature of such pre-existing friendships, which might be explained by the fact that he was unable to marry Camilla because she is a Catholic, and he was forced to choose a more suitable bride against his inclination.

Western women, of course, are also allowed out without a chaperone even if most of us would prefer not to walk alone outside at night and in most cases the rules are not applied until a woman has married or entered a romantic relationship with a man. 

I conclude that the unwritten rules applying in Western Christendom mirror the Sharia categories of mahram because they serve the same purpose.  That is, they exist to ensure that women have no opportunity to stray from their husband and that their children are the offspring of their husband and no other man.  They exist to outwit the power of eros untrammelled.

The same work exception to the rules that I identified in my earlier post applies in many Muslim countries too, as does an exemption for study.  The economic imperative means that a Muslim woman may be allowed to associate with work colleagues whilst at work.

Given the restrictive nature of the mahram categories, it is little wonder that women want to work to escape the bite of the rules.  In Europe, too, I suspect that women realise that their greatest freedom is when they are working and that their worlds will often shrink to become entirely feminine (except for the mahram equivalents) if they give up work to have children.  Women often say that they work because of the opportunity for social interaction, not because of the money they earn.  Working women are less likely to have children and particularly less likely to have more than one child.  Birthrates are very low in some Western countries.  I wonder if it is any accident that the birthrate is lowest in countries where women vanish almost completely from society once they become mothers until they are widowed.  This 2006 article in the Guardian seems to confirm my suspicion.  France has one of the highest birth rates in Europe but, perhaps significantly, also has one of the highest participation rates for women in employment with effective family-friendly policies.  High rate of female participation may be excellent news for the economy but is not necessarily such good news either for the women or their children.  Women who work often still have to carry most of the burden at home, resulting in increased stress and sickness.  Working parents have less time to devote to their children than non-working parents.

It is hard to see any evidence that the rules achieve their goal, especially given the scope of the work exception.  I speculate on the basis of my own anecdotal observations that a large percentage of affairs begin between work colleagues.  Divorces in the UK ar, incidentally,  now at their lowest rate ever since 1977. 

I wish the rule did not exist.  When I was a teenager I enjoyed sailing my boat against boys.  When I was older I enjoyed studying law alongside men.  When I began working as a solicitor, I enjoyed working alongside men.  When I became a partner in a law firm, I enjoyed running a business with men.  When I got married nothing changed because I was still working.  When I had my first child the shutters came down shockingly quickly and I was forced to exist in a world that, with the exception of my husband, was entirely female.  Occasionally we would meet other couples socially and, if I was lucky, I might find myself sat next to a man at dinner.  I miss the mixed environment a great deal.  I have no economic imperative to justify returning to work.  I often wish I had – or that I could change the rules all by myself.

You could say that the rules apply equally to men and women.  But they do not.  Men continue to benefit from the work exemption for the whole of their working lives.  Recently my husband said how sad he was that one of his work colleagues was going to be working elsewhere.  Their offices had been next to each other for years and he was understandably attached to the man who was leaving.  I remarked that though it was sad for my husband, it was even more sad for the man who was leaving.  My husband was losing only one colleague whilst the man moving was losing all of his colleagues for a much more solitary job.  I felt sad for the man who was leaving, and it was only days later connected my sadness for him to my own grief at giving up my job when my daughter was born – a grief that I was not allowed to express.  Like him I had lost colleagues who were  like my family.

You can read an article on the wisdom of having a mahram here.  I read about the mahram first in two introductory books to Islam that I read during half term. Neither was very good.

An aquired taste.  I wrote this four years ago, and was looking at it again today.  It is a overly long essay about the difference between compassion and pity – in relation to Nietzsche who abhored both – and the impossibility of reconciling the will to power with love, basically.  I doubt anyone else will want to read it, but it is still what I think several years later.




I went to a small Anglican primary school in a small town.  I lived quite a long way from the school which was near the town centre.  Our home was on an outlying estate of new semi-detached three-bedroomed houses.  I think I walked to school every day but I don’t really remember.  Perhaps my father took us to school in the car.  I remember that my mother used to collect us with her bicycle and we would walk home together, and that on Mondays we would stop off on the way home to see my paternal grandparents.  My grandfather never spoke to me.  He had a two-storey shed at the bottom of the garden.  The bottom of the shed was a greenhouse for growing tabacco.  The top of the shed was a drying area, with rows of tobacco leaves hung on string along the ceiling.  He spent most of his time there, smoking his tabacco.  He died of lung cancer.  But my grandparents had a beautiful garden, full of little corners between old fruit trees and orange chinese lanterns where fairy statues where hidden.  We picked gooseberries and sat on the swinging seat covered in faded flowered cotton and ate chocolate bourbon biscuits.  Always chocolate bourbon biscuits.  The seat used to brush the lavender bushes as it swung.

I didn’t complete my primary school education because the government was in the process of abolishing selective grammar schools country-wide, county by county, and replacing them with comprehensive schools.  Girls who passed the selective 11-plus exam had been bussed to a girls’ grammar school twelve miles away whilst boys had gone to the historic boys’ grammar school in the town.  Those who did not pass the eleven plus all went to the town’s “secondary modern” school.  It did not have a good name but was to form the new comprehensive that replaced the grammar schools in September 1972 when I was ten.

My mother had been to a grammar school and did not want me to go to the old secondary modern school.  So, together with one other girl, I was assessed by an educationalist psychologist and allowed to take the exam a year early.  I also took the exam for the private girls’ school in the much larger town a short bus ride away.  I passed both exams and so I went to the grammar school.  The writing had been on the wall for a long time so the school was starved of money.  We froze in winter in seventeen portacabins and bought our own books.  We used to have to kneel in front of the spinster teachers to have our skirts measured – 4″ from the floor – and we had “outdoor” shoes that we had to change into to walk in a crocodile to the windswept sports pitches more than a mile away behind the fire station or to the church hall where we learnt Scottish country dancing.  Running was forbidden as was walking on the Walnut Tree lawn.  Both offences were punished by being sent to the Headmistress.  She frightened the life out of me.  

There was one other girl younger than me in the year.  She was mouse-like with thick glasses.  I felt very young and very small.  Two years later there was another influx of girls into my class, an influx which I have never really understood.  These were girls who had failed the 11-plus exam, but had been judged at 13 to be sufficiently bright to have a grammar school education.  With one caveat.  They were only allowed to join the class below their correct age-group.  These five or six girls were all middle class children and I suspect a conspiracy.  They all became tall prefects with long hair and had boyfriends.  I was almost two years younger than them and had a lot to prove which I don’t suppose endeared me to anybody.

There was a social divide in the town where I lived.  I and two other girls lived on the wrong side of the town and got on the bus last.  The other girls were all daughters of professional fathers – a headteacher, an accountant, a research scientist.  Looking back on it I think that their fathers were all graduates, though I didn’t realise that at the time.  I just knew that I was different and so was the house I lived in. 

One of the girls in my class was a thalidomide victim and had half of one arm missing.  She lived in the town where the grammar school was, the market town where my mother had been a health visitor until a year before my birth.  I had never thought about that before – that my mother was a health visitor there.  There was one other thalidomide victim in my school and she became head girl.  The girl in my class was the opposite.  She was very disturbed, angry, aggressive and violent.  She used to cut her arms and pierce her body with a stapler.  She was also a tall, striking girl with an unruly man of dark hair and she was very good at sport.  She had a collection of metal arms that she attached to what she had of her arm.  One arm was a basic metal arm, painted flesh colour.  Another, later, was a more realistic rubber flesh-coloured hand with fingers that bent like Sindy’s legs.  When she played hockey she had a stainless steel rod with a hoop on the end which strapped to her arm and which fitted over the stick.  The same with tennis.  Sometimes, in the summer particularly, when it was hot, her arm would be left bare.

Her arm had other uses too.  It was a powerful weapon.  She retained great strength in her shoulder and so could wield the metal arm like a long truncheon.  I remember a fight in the almost empty Geography room between her and two other girls, the only ones who would ever stand up to her.  Her arm flailed around as the three of them turned over desks and kicked over chairs in a terrifying display of rage.  I felt trapped in the room.

I was easy prey.  My aunt was a biology teacher and knew everything.  I overheard her telling my mother that one of her friends had died of an allergic reaction to a wasp sting.  I was too shy to ask any questions.  I just swallowed the information.  At school the thalidomide girl fixed a wasp to the end of her claw and chased me around the school playground with it.  I hated her, but really I was terrified of her and powerless to confort her physical violence.  She worked in an antique shop later on, but I would never go in the shop.

Only two or three years ago I took my daughters to a Halloween sewing class at a quilting shop in another small market town.  She came to the class too with her daughter.  We talked and were nice to each other and I felt proud for her of all that she had achieved and of her lovely, happy daughter.  I can go into the antique shop now.

I paid privately to go and see a skin consultant and he scratched wasp venom into my skin.  I have a framed letter from him confirming that I an not allergic to wasp stings.  I still don’t like them, but I am less afraid and more able to stay in the same room.