Tuesday, 31 March 2009


The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?
Created by OnePlusYou - Free Online Dating Well, as an ex-convent girl I should jolly well hope there wouldn't be...

Monday, 30 March 2009


Some time ago, somebody posted a request in my combox for more information about my grandmother. She was the inspiration behind Carmelina Buhagiar in The Cassandra Curse, but she deserves a book of her own. Like Carmelina she was taken to America by her mother as a child, she did become a seamstress and her husband (Lawrence in the book, Michael in real life) died at sea, leaving her to raise a young family alone.

She was a natural storyteller and in many ways, listening to her taught me how to be a writer. She would describe events from her life in such vivid detail that it was almost as though she were holding my hand and taking me there in person. When she talked about going to America, I could practically feel the motion of the ship, when she talked (rarely) about the War, the whole scene would appear around us; the shriek of the air raid siren, the dank interior of the shelter and the dust hanging in the air when they emerged after the all-clear. When I showed my family the manuscript version of The Cassandra Curse it turned out that she had told me a few stories she had never told anyone else. Girly stories, like the Polish boyfriend she had as a teenager from whom she was parted when her family returned to Malta. I made up the bit about them sitting behind the orange boxes, but I don't think she would have minded.

Right up until she died, she would tell me during her lucid moments: "As soon as you find a good man, I will make your wedding dress, just the way you want it." She was far too frail in her final years to sew anything but we all played along and I imagined what it would have been like to stand in her sewing room whilst she pinned panels of satin around me and gave me marital advice through a mouthful of pins. My only regret is that she died three weeks before I brought my boyfriend to Malta to meet the family and never saw the next chapter as it was being written. I am sure she would have approved.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Faith Magazine

The current edition of the Faith Magazine is now online. My article can be found here

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Cosmic Things

We had a friend round for dinner yesterday and had a great evening. I have always had a certain terrified fascination with Space, and since our friend is an observational cosmologist, I had plenty of opportunity to ask about the stars; red giants, neutron stars, black holes (I find these particularly freaky to contemplate, so don't very often) and to enquire as to what would happen if aliens pinched the Moon. I gather that if such an unfortunate eventuality were to occur, we would need to worry more about having gigantic aliens in our neighbourhood than about the effects of an absent Moon, though it would play havoc with our marine life.

. The conversation reminded me of the only stories about space I have ever read (I hesitate to call them sci fi) and really enjoyed. C.S. Lewis' The Cosmic Trilogy tells the story of Dr Ransom, an English don who is abducted by two evil scientists (yes, I am an English graduate married to a scientist) and taken by them on a voyage to Mars. My favourite of the three books is Perelandra, which describes an innocent world Dr Ransom must save from The Fall. In the words of a friend, it is the sort of book that makes you 'homesick for Paradise.'

Friday, 27 March 2009

Mummy, I'm frightened

Yes, Lucy (commenting all the way from Budapest), the little boy in the film clip grew up to be none other than Fr Hugh Mackenzie, editor of the Faith Magazine.

I have never watched The Man Who Haunted Himself but I have it on good authority from a film buff that it is the only Roger Moore film worth watching. I couldn't help asking a childminder whether she had ever actually heard a child declare that they are frightened, rather than just displaying fear. I was far too proud to admit it as a child, even if I was quaking in my boots, or just wouldn't have thought of saying it out loud, but apparently some children do. I stand corrected, it's not a cliche after all.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Mortal combat over the phone

I spent most of today doing media interviews and discussions over the phone in response to the news story that the Advertising Standards Agency is thinking of allowing abortion agencies to advertise on prime time TV. It was one interview after another at one point, mostly live radio as well as a few calls from newspapers. Some went rather better than others. I recall being a little flummoxed when a presenter asked if SPUC was against abortion.

I found the debate with a woman from Marie Stopes fairly frustrating as she had the tactic of just talking incessantly to prevent me from responding, then giving a pert "excuse me," whenever I tried to come in, as well as bringing up the Brazilian rape case at the end to divert attention from the actual issue we were talking about. I was particularly amused by her assertion that advertising abortion was just a way of helping parents to talk about sex to their children. "I assure you, as a parent, I do not need you to help me to talk to my children about such subjects." I think I said something else about the nanny state not being obliged to stick its nose in.

However, the whole debate was worth it just to hear the response I got to a point about misleading use of language. She had been saying how important it was to give women 'unbiased, accurate information' and I pointed out that this is precisely what abortion providers do not give. They talk about 'the contents of the uterus' and 'products of conception' when, during my two pregnancies, not one nurse, midwife or obstetrician referred to my baby as anything other than - the baby.

She jumped in immediately. "This is the nub of the issue," she said, without a hint of irony. "There is a world of difference between a wanted pregnancy and an unwanted pregnancy."

Huh? Sorry, since the lady insisted on rabbiting on for the next three minutes it was impossible for me to ask what on earth that was supposed to mean. Since when did a human being become a human being because he/she was wanted? What incredible supernatural power is it that I am supposed to have as a mother, that by simply wanting my babies, they were transformed from mere bundles of cells to human beings?

I am feeling a little tired after the day's combat, so I will leave it to more alert minds to work out the logic of that particular position. I know it's Lent but a very large mug of steaming hot chocolate is in order.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe

Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe is one of my favourite literary meditations on Our Lady. In honour of the feast of the Anunciation, here is a short extract.

Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Guess Who

Sorry, I just can't resist. Guess which Westminster diocese priest plays the little boy who says, "Mummy, I'm frightened" in this film clip.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Time for a New Feminism?

I have an article on this subject in the latest edition of FAITH Magazine. I look at the status of women, currently and historically, and at early feminism, particularly Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women. Unfortunately, the online version does not appear to be up yet, but when it is I will provide a link.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Remembering Mothers

I have had a wonderful Mothering Sunday. The children gave daffodils to all the women in the congregation during Mass this morning. Afterwards, we took my parents out for lunch at a little Thai restaurant round the corner from their house as a thank you for all their support over the past three years.

It is impossible to say it without sounding sentimental but I love being a mother more than anything. The cynics (and there are plenty of them) can say what they like, but I have never experienced such joy in my entire life as I feel raising my children. I tend to take my motherhood for granted and rarely think about how lucky I actually am to be a mother. I think that was why the celebration of motherhood today made me think about women who find Mothering Sunday painful, either because they would have liked to have become mothers and never had the chance or because they have lost a child through early death, miscarriage or abortion. In amidst the celebrations, these women and their lost motherhood deserve to be remembered too.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Oh sleep, it is a gentle thing...

Beloved from pole to pole
To Mary Queen the praise be given
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven
That slipped into my soul.

One of my children got ill last night at around midnight. I think I finally staggered into bed with a slumbering child on my arm at six in the morning, to the sound of birds singing. I have vague memories of pacing the floor for a while and of putting In The Night Garden on in desperation to try and distract her. The rest is lost in a blur of sleep deprivation.

However, having had a delightful afternoon nap, I now feel almost ready to apply for naturalisation papers to Planet Earth and may rejoin the human race again by tomorrow lunchtime.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Shoot, Kill, Mock

This vile story really made me see red. Israeli soldiers designing and wearing t-shirts mocking the killing of Palestinian women and children. The t-shirts apparently come in a range of styles, one featuring a pregnant woman in a gunsight, with the slogan "1 shot 2 kills", another showing a Palestinian mother weeping over her dead baby with the slogan "Better use Durex."

Words fail me. What sort of people find it funny to kill hundreds of civilians?? I note the assurances of an IDF spokesman that the t-shirt stunt is 'tasteless' and 'not in accordance with IDF values' though I simply do not accept that this is an isolated incident when it reflects fairly closely the sort of attitudes I came across when I was in the West Bank.

I can't help feeling that if an Islamist group was going around in t-shirts joking about the lives they had ended, every blogger, journalist and commentator in the western world would be queuing up to condemn them - and rightly so. How many will bother to condemn this?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

What a wonderful day! Hugh woke up this morning full of the joys of spring and insisted on telling everyone we met on the way to the railway station that we were going to the seaside. At the station, we bumped into a group of seminarian friends from Wonersh on their way into London and chatted whilst we waited for our train.

I don't think I have ever seen Hugh so excited as the moment we stepped out at Portsmouth and he saw the sea. He had a wonderful time rushing around the beach and paddling with his great aunt (over my dead body was I taking my shoes and socks off, it's far too late to build my character), whilst Francesca slept and Hannah and I drank hot chocolate. I was relieved that Hugh was on his best behaviour, blithely eating his way through a sand-covered picnic, remembering to say 'please' whenever goodies were offered (and there were lots of goodies) and sitting next to Francesca to drink milk when we stopped at a cafe for afternoon tea.

What with all the excitement - trains, boats, sand, sea, cake, playground - the two of them were so exhausted on the way home that they kept trying to curl up and sleep on the floor of the train. As I tucked them up in bed and switched off the light, Hugh was still saying to himself, "seaside. Train. Water. Going to the seaside. Niiice."

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Isle of Wight

I am off to the Isle of Wight tomorrow, to take Francesca on her first boat trip (Hugh has been on a boat once before, but probably doesn't remember it). I have been promised that I will like the Isle of Wight as it is around the size of Malta (ha ha, but how many islands the size of Malta have their own language, culture, heritage and highway code??)

I am saying a little prayer that the weather will be as good as today and that my children will manage the train journey down to Portsmouth without trying to escape, pinch anybody's sandwiches (yes, Hugh has tried this before) or eating the ticket (don't go there, we managed to salvage enough to show the inspector).

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Miss Pettigrew

With my husband called away on business yesterday evening, there was nothing for it but another girly night. Being Lent, it was a slightly more austere affair than before (no marshmallows or ice cream - sigh) but the company was great, the children enjoyed the sudden appearance of the Hugh and Francesca Fan Club and, after the little ones were safely in bed, we watched Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film (yet another that I meant to see in the cinema and, well, didn't get round to), though I always find films set in the last days before the War a little painful to watch. I particularly liked the countercultural heroine, plain, principled and intelligent, who holds true to her beliefs right until the end. I have just one question to put to anyone who remembers the 30s or just happens to know about these things - did many women speak with that squeaky Olive Oil voice?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Literary Inspiration

In the absence of any luck on the novel-writing front yet (I did ask Francis De Sales very nicely) I am concentrating on short stories for the time being. Looking round the Internet for inspiration, I came across this excerpt from Henry V on Fr Blake's blog, which really got me in the mood.

Mulier Fortis suggested once that I could consider 'and they lived happily ever after' as a possible ending for a story, but I've never managed to write one of those before. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I am very good at writing about happiness at any stage of the story...

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Agnes and Michael

Please pray for the repose of the souls of my grandparents, Agnes and Michael, whose anniversaries occurred this week. My Nanna was the gentlest and most loving soul I have ever had the privilege to know and five years after her death, I still miss her. She was the inspiration behind the Carmelina Buhagiar character in The Cassandra Curse and much of that part of the story is based around the events of her extraordinary life. Her husband Michael died on the same date, fifty-five years before, leaving her a widow in her thirties with four little children (one of them still in utero) to raise alone.

At the time she died, I was a cloumnist for a Catholic newspaper and wrote about the influence she had had on my faith, only to be sent an obnoxious letter by an IBVM sister, ranting about how awful the Church used to be and regretting that I had not used the occasion of my grandmother's death to write about 'the darker side of the Church she represented.' I could not believe that anyone could possibly be that offensive and heartless. I wrote back to her, asking why it was 'diversity of opinion' when she disagreed with the Church and 'sad divisions between us' because I disagreed with her. She never bothered to answer.

If the dear sister had deigned to ask me about her, I could have told her that my Nanna was worthy of her admiration not her contempt, that she was courageous, enterprising, intelligent, talented, devout and completely dedicated to her children. I would have told her how she taught me about the saints and about the power of prayer, how she helped me to make sense of suffering - and she of all people had a right to speak of such things.

As a woman in my twenties, there is simply no contest between the bitterness, spite and self-pity of the self-proclaimed champions of women and the honesty, courage and piety of a woman who experienced so much suffering - exile, war, hunger, bereavement, poverty - and never lost her ability to love. Requiescat in Pace.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Never a dull moment

Francesca is normally a cheery little soul, so I knew something was up when she started bursting into tears at the slightest provocation and demanding hugs. And so there was, I discovered, when I was getting her ready for bed and she was covered in spots. "Has she had chicken pox?" asked the doctor who examined her. I shook my head. "Well, she has now. Has her brother had it? Oh well, best to get it over with when they're young."

So, the Nash fortress is under quarantine for five days (only previously infected visitors allowed) and Francesca is tucked up in her cot, smothered in Calamine Lotion and dosed up with Calpol. Never a dull moment.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Detention Centres again

Please pray for a young Catholic father, based in Bristol, who has been detained unexpectedly and may face deportation back to Africa. The case has horrible parallels with Hannah's, except that in this case the man risks being separated from his own children who have UK citizenship.

Jackie Parkes revisited

Jackie Parkes has asked me to publicise her new blog. Better still, she has relaunched her book club.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The troubles of monkey mothers

This story made me smile. You have my sympathies Mrs Monkey.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

It's all right for a man to hit a woman...

...if she is wearing revealing clothes, according to 1 in 5 people questioned by MORI on the subject of violence towards women. 14% also apparently believe that it is all right to strike a woman for nagging.

I suppose one could phrase it differently and say that 86% think it unacceptable to hit a woman for nagging, but whichever way the figure is quoted, it still comes as an unpleasant surprise. Domestic violence is still a major problem in this country with an average of two women dying every week as a result, but a man hitting a woman has always been such a social taboo here that I was surprised anyone was prepared to admit that they thought it acceptable. Mind you, judging by some of the comments I have had from men when I have stood behind a pro-life stall, I ought to be beyond being shocked. I think the worst one was a man who came leering up to me and said: "Can I have one of those leaflets about rape, love? I thought I'd learn how to do it. Haw haw." If violence against women can be trivialised in such an insulting way, it can certainly become accepted.

Radical feminism has had the unfortunate effect of alienating many people who believe in women's empowerment. I have heard women at feminist meetings lament the 'backlash' against women's advancement, without having the courage to question whether they have contributed to that backlash, but surveys like this serve as a reminder that attitudes towards women are still unacceptable in some areas and that there is still much work to do. The question is whether the self-proclaimed champions of women's rights are really up to the challenge.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Time for a joke

The relatives gathered in the waiting room, where their family member lay gravely ill. Finally, the doctor came in looking tired and somber. 'I'm afraid I'm the bearer of bad news,' he said as he surveyed the worried faces. 'The only hope left for your loved one at this time is a brain transplant. It's an experimental procedure, very risky but it is the only hope. Insurance will cover the procedure, but you will have to pay for the brain yourselves.'

The family members sat silent as they absorbed the news. After a great length of time, someone asked, 'Well, how much does a brain cost?'

The doctor quickly responded, '$5,000 for a male brain, and $200 for a female brain.'

The moment turned awkward. Men in the room tried not to smile, avoiding eye contact with the women, but some actually smirked. A man unable to control his curiosity, blurted out the question everyone wanted to ask, 'Why is the male brain so much more?'

The doctor smiled at the childish innocence and explained to the entire group,'It's just standard pricing procedure. We have to mark down the price of the female brains, because they've actually been used.'

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Did I deserve the death penalty?

The conference was a great success, though it passed in a cheerful blur of activity for me. I gave two presentations back-to-back yesterday and was involved in a lively panel discussion this morning. It was wonderful to see so many young people there, some familiar faces but also many new members getting involved for the first time.

The keynote speaker was Rebecca Kiessling, a woman who was conceived through rape, shortly before abortion was legalised in the United States. She told the story of how she discovered the truth about her origins when she sought out her birth parents and was confronted with just one piece of information about her father: "Caucasian and of large build." She described being reunited with her birth mother and the difficulties she had in coming to terms with her past. During the course of her talk, she exploded myths about abortion and rape - for many the ultimate hard case - such as the assumption that the majority of women who become pregnant through rape have abortions when the opposite is true and that abortion in any way helps women to heal after rape.

Feminists for Life have used Rebecca in their poster campaigns. According to Rebecca, she once went to a university to tell her story and saw that the poster had been defaced with swastikas (Rebecca was raised Jewish) and after the question: "Did I deserve the death penalty?" somebody had written "YES!!!!" in red ink. It is difficult to comprehend how a person could be hate-ridden enough to write something like that, but listening to Rebecca made me realise how insulted and undermined she must feel every time she hears a person say, "I'm in favour of abortion in case of rape." In the end, it is a gentler way of saying "YES!!!! You did deserve the death penalty."

Friday, 6 March 2009

Off to Edinburgh

I am writing this from the Edinburgh train, which is very exciting as I have never blogged on the hoof before. I am on my way to Carberry Tower for the SPUC International Student Conference, where I will be talking about pre-natal development. I will try to post over the weekend, but may be a little short of time.

I finished reading Letters to a Wife and Mother on the train from Guildford to Waterloo, but I found it so inspiring that I think I will read it again. Besides Francis de Sales and my trusty laptop, I have a copy of Chesterton's Heretics to keep me out of mischief for the next four-and-a-half hours.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Hugh and the Adventure of the Harley Davidsons

My childminder friend Maggie took us all on an outing to the Harley Davidson showroom today, promising that our boys would enjoy the experience. I have seldom felt quite so out of place than in the middle of a large building crammed full of gleaming motorbikes and men with shaven heads wearing leather jackets, but they were remarkably friendly and chatted to us whilst the boys ran around, ecstatic, calling out: "BIKE! Black bike! Gween bike!"

"We do pink Harleys," said one of the men, cheerfully. I tried to imagine myself speeding down Guildford high street on a bright pink Harley Davidson with rainbow streamers fluttering off the handlebars. Well, if I don't pass my driving test...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Home from Hospital

My father had a small operation yesterday to mend a perforated ear drum and is now back home. Please say a little prayer for his speedy recovery.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Be patient, son, just like your mother...

My son appears at the moment to be making the most of his last six weeks as a two-year-old to do the 'terrible' bit. I felt as though the world and his wife were watching on Ash Wednesday when I had to drag him out of church screaming blue murder (Francesca got the ashes and he didn't for some reason). People are usually very supportive. "Don't worry, love, he'll grow out of it," I have been promised by ladies whose children had tantrums once and have grown up to be charmingly well-adjusted.

"It's called Original Sin."

I wonder whether toddler tantrums were invented as a perpetual lesson in humility for parents. I can feel myself glowing with pride when he sits very properly at a friend's dinner table and eats up his food without complaint, giving shy smiles and saying 'please' whenever he wants anything, only to beg God to cause a small earthquake so that the floor will swallow me up when it all goes horribly wrong.

"Hugh, I'll remind you of this one day," chuckled the priest on one memorable occasion, when we were leaving the church and the pushchair did not look very inviting.

Oh yes, I had forgotten that they grow up. Think of all those really public moments I will have in twenty years time to bring up my children's embarrassing behaviour, all those little details to slip into the conversation when they are doing something really dignified and impressive like graduating or getting married...

I wonder what the terrible threes are like?

Monday, 2 March 2009

Outsourcing Abuse

When Hannah was awaiting deportation, she kept ringing me, telling me that she was being threatened with force if she refused to board the plane. What they did to her amounted to psychological torture, but even after what I had seen at Colnbrook, I assumed they were bluffing just to get her to co-operate. However, after the deportation order was cancelled, I was put in touch with an organisation called Medical Justice and came across this lengthy report they produced two years ago about the abuse of asylum seekers in detention centres and at airports.

If I had not known it was referring to Britain, I would have thought I was reading a human rights report about a police state.I suppose I should draw the obvious conclusions really.

Here is an extract from one account.

I refused to board the plane. They started beating me, kicking me all over. They put me on the floor and continued to kick me every where. I was agonising of pain. I thought that they will kill me. They then dragged me back to the van. I was left with one officer in the van (his colleague returned to the plane with other people) – he called me “b*stard”, “F-ing Black” … “You F-ing Black must f-ing go to your f-ing country by all means”. I was injured in my hands and was losing my blood from my injuries. These injuries have now left visible marks in my hands. He threatened me that on the next deportation attempt, I will have more injuries. When his colleague came back to the van, they drove me to a detention centre at the airport. As I was getting off the van, they started to beat me again. My hands were twisted and put with extreme force to my back so that I could feel that they were touching the back of my head. This was extremely painful. I have never had such pain in my life.

Sunday, 1 March 2009


We had a wonderful day yesterday, visiting friends at St John's Seminary, Wonersh. The seminary is just a ten-minute drive away from Guildford, tucked away in a charming Surrey village, but we have only just acquired a car and this was the first time we were able to get out there. We thoroughly enjoyed our lunch (and the sight of Hugh and Francesca devouring slices of watermelon) and the children had fun racing around the grounds afterwards. Being a boy, Hugh particularly enjoyed parking himself on top of a molehill and getting covered in soil, then he found the remains of a bonfire and set to work transferring a large quantity of ash onto his black shoes and overcoat.

I didn't realise that St John's Seminary was one of the locations used to film Foyle's War, which I gather is a series set during the Second World War. Not owning a television, we had never come across it before but I will have to get hold of the DVD just to see what the refectory looks like transformed into a 1940s hospital ward.

On the way home, Hugh became completely mesmerised by the SatNav and kept repeating the instructions as I got him ready for bed. In fact, I suspect he was still saying them to himself as he dozed off.

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