Archbishop’s kindness always shone through

I SHALL miss Rowan Williams when he quits at the end of the year as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Perhaps it shouldn’t matter much to me, a non-believer, who leads the Church of England. But in Britain – as in Iran, but not, oddly, the god-bothering USA – the senior clerics of the established religion still have an official role in governing the country. Bishops sit, entirely unelected (as, of course, are all their fellow peers), in Parliament’s supposed “upper chamber”, the House of Lords.

Some democracy.

Williams, unlike many of his predecessors, has played his part in the political life of the country with notable decency, honesty and intelligence.

Too much intelligence, some might say. Because in his scrupulous attention to fairness and rationality he has often become almost unintelligible to most ordinary folk.

His humanity and kindness have always shone through, though. One can only hope his successor will be someone with the same qualities – as well as the “constitution of an ox and skin of a rhinoceros” he says will be required.

Some hope, I’m afraid. In the long history of Canterbury archbishops – the next one will be the 105th – there have been few to match Williams’s combination of intellect and integrity.

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TWENTY-some years ago, when I was sports editor of the Sunderland Echo, one of the paper’s reporters was a young man with an unusual hobby.

John (now, I suppose, like me a middle-aged man) was the district reporter running the Echo’s Seaham office.

There is nowhere in Suffolk quite like Seaham. One of East Durham’s old mining towns, it consists almost entirely of small, red-brick terraced houses in long back-to-back rows.

Back then, the pit, which employed nearly every man in the place, had recently closed – as had the pits in most of the surrounding villages. Today even the pit-head gear is gone, the beach has been reclaimed from its old covering of coal slag and grime and re-designated as “heritage coast”.

You’ll have an idea of what Seaham was like if you’ve seen Billy Elliott. The film was largely shot there and in the neighbouring village of Easington.

It’s a real community; a tough, rather insular, working-class community that was then going through very hard times.

John, as the only reporter based in the town, was an essential member of that community. And yet, in one very obvious way, not of it at all.

John’s hobby was morris-dancing. Bells, handkerchiefs, silly clothes – the lot.

It must have taken a lot of chutzpah in a mild-mannered man.

I was put in mind of John’s strangely brave, and bravely strange, behaviour by news this week of an equally quirky piece of scientific research.

A study at Newcastle University has uncovered some fascinating data on people’s differing reactions to seeing a person riding a unicycle.

My reaction – rather like my reaction to seeing morris-dancers – is to think: “Very clever. But why?”

Which makes me, apparently, a slightly untypical man.

According to the research, the common reaction of women to unicyclists is “warm, kind and encouraging”.

Children, of both sexes, are simply curious. But as boys grow older, their responses become increasingly aggressive.

Verbal abuse turns to shouts of “Fall off!” Even to stone-throwing. Grown men, it seems, generally rein in the urge to injure the rider, but still hurl nasty jokes.

These are common enough responses to anything ‘different’. You can see in them the human tendency to impose tribal behaviour by punishing the aberrant.

It’s not too difficult, either, to detect a basic evolutionary pattern in women encouraging cute male cleverness, while other men attack it.

Sam Shuster, the unicycling prof who came up with the research project, draws a slightly less obvious conclusion.

“The consistent response to seeing a unicyclist,” he says, “is related to sexual development, suggesting that humour develops from aggression in males.”

That, I think, is to take a slightly narrow view of humour.

But it’s interesting, and a bit funny – rather like unicycling. Or morris-dancing.


AS I write, a grey cloud spatters the parched garden with enough rain to lightly moisten the spring grass.

We face a hosepipe ban from April. Water companies tell of reservoirs at low levels unprecedented at this time of year, and warn that “this is what we’re going to have to get used to”.

Meanwhile, those papers that scream indignantly about higher charges for less water continue to pour ignorant mockery on the science of climate change.

By how far, exactly, is it possible to miss the point?

And how long will it be, I wonder, before weather forecasters stop referring to rain apologetically, as if it was bad news?


THREE questions that baffle me about gay marriage:

a) Why should anyone bother? You can have a long-term relationship just as good – in my experience, better – without a licence.

b) If they do want to get married, why should anyone not directly involved try to deny them that right?

c) Why on earth is it a political issue?

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