Saturday, 27 October 2007

What If Catherine Of Aragon's Sons Survived?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Exits: REVISED. 'What If?' Outcomes for Tudor and Stuart Monarchs’ by Alexander Rooksmoor. It is available for purchase on Amazon:
UK readers might prefer to access it through:

What If King Edward VI Had Lived Longer?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Exits: REVISED. 'What If?' Outcomes for Tudor and Stuart Monarchs’ by Alexander Rooksmoor. It is available for purchase on Amazon:
UK readers might prefer to access it through:

Friday, 26 October 2007

Blogging the Blog 3: Chinese blogs and Freedom of Media

Sometimes you wish you had the ability to read certain languages and if I could I would be able to reinforce this post. However, I lack the ability to read Chinese script so will have to rely on the evidence of a woman called Prof. Susan Shirk who is Director of the University of California systemwide Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation, quite a mouthful, but she seems to know her stuff. She comments quite a great deal on current developments in China and it seems that she knows Chinese very well. Anyway, recently I came across some stuff she was outlining on changes in the media in China and how blogging is playing a role in that.

As you know, China is currently under a kind of dictatorship which is Communist in name but is thoroughly engaging with capitalist economics. Since the 1980s there has been a huge economic boom with millions of people moving to the cities and being able to travel far more freely, buy consumer goods and so on. It has been noticeable in the UK where many universities now seem to each recruit hundreds of students from mainland China whereas in the past they would have come from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Despite the move to economic freedoms (itself causing major environmental and also social problems as China's welfare state seems to have disappeared) political freedom has been far more restricted. Most obvious was the suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tianamen Square in 1989 which were broken up by troops and tanks. This ended speculation (at least for a while) that China would follow the path of the USSR at the time, i.e. economic hardship leading to economic liberalisation and openness and then in turn to freer press and TV and to democracy (of course since then Russia has started going back to a more authoritarian system under Vladimir Putin.

As an aside, I was talking to a Chinese man who said that China currently has democracy at least to the level of democracy that there is in the USA and the UK. His view of Anglo-Saxon democracy is that it is dominated by multi-national companies and established families, along the lines of the Bushs, Kennedys, etc. in the USA and noble families in the UK. The people superficially have the ability to choose their government, but in fact it is these powerful families and their companies which run everything. Thus, he sees China with all its nepotism and Communist party leaders running large companies, as already having attained the level of democracy that the USA and UK have. Given that half of the British parliament (the House of Lords) is unelected, I would accept he has some points here, though I would not agree with his overall conclusion; neither Tony Blair or George Bush will be in power when they are 92. More importantly, though, it says something about the level of expectations of people in China, given that this man was in his 20s, spoke fluent English and had had the money to come to the UK for education.

A free media is vital for democracy. In China steps in that direction have almost come about by accident. Up until the early 1980s all publications, television, etc. belonged to the government and simply reported what the government wanted to say. The upper elite had access to information about the wider world, but they kept this to themselves. Journalists were civil servants and not only reported news to the public, but also reported on the feelings of the public to the elite. The cost of running such a system became impossible to sustain and so since then there has been a mushrooming of independent newspapers and magazines, particularly appealing to the urban middle class which has done well out of the economic changes. In fact most of them have a government newspaper at their core as these were the only people able to finance and get passed the bureaucracy to set them up. However, the news they report is much more extensive than in the old days. In addition, freer media from Hong Kong such as Phoenix television brings in a different view on things. Of course a free media may help democracy grow but it does not necessarily mean it is pro-democracy and a lot of the media in China is very nationalistic especially towards the USA and Taiwan.

So, where do the blogs come in. Well, the Chinese government still has a lot of power over the media and can push out editors they do not like. They still control the 11 television stations and 40 provinicial television stations and they still produce numerous official newspapers. Even on the internet they patronise news digest websites and ensure that the news they include on them is not out of step with what the government wants to cover. However, the internet cannot be a closed loop in the way that even television media can be. The Chinese government has heavy filtering of internet material accessible from China and some western companies have been criticised for collaborating on such filtering. In addition now, if you visit sites that are felt to include material that is inappropriate to what a person in China should be looking at, automated images of Chinese police appear on screen to tell you off. However, blocking and monitoring the internet is costly. Singapore which has an authoritarian government had to stop trying to control the internet coming into its country in the way it does with newspapers and television because it began to cost too much. The Chinese government continues to foot the bill for such control within its borders.

The Chinese government's filtering, despite the numerous monitoring staff its Department of Propaganda employs, is not perfect and things sometimes slip through, sometimes only for a few hours before they are eliminated. Now, apparently, however, there are bloggers waiting to snatch up such nuggets of news from the outside world. They email them around very quickly and put them up on their blogs so that Chinese people can read what is otherwise being denied to them. Obviously the Chinese government can go around eliminating blog by blog, but speed of communication and the number of bloggers will always mean some escape to post news of that kind in the weeks and months to come. Sometimes I worry that much blogging is little more than navel-gazing, so I guess my faith in its value was partly restored by realising that some bloggers out there are actually helping to spread knowledge and indirectly (hopefully) move the world's most populated country closer to (true) democracy.

Why the USA Scares Me

Living in the UK people for some reason always feel we are in danger of being dominated by others. In the Cold War many believed the USSR had a desire to overrun the UK and that they would fight a guerilla war to stop this. Given the economic difficulties of the UK and the USSR throughout that era, I doubt it would have made much economic sense, but it was what people feared. Since 1973 when the UK joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) and is now the European Union, many people constantly complain that our country is increasingly 'controlled from Brussels' with most of the focus on keeping EU rules for tinkering with our quirky systems of measurement and keeping the pound as the currency. The argument does not go beyond that and never addresses the broader economic and political questions, beyond complaint about Polish immigrants though they are generally lumped together with asylum seekers. There is a sense always that there is a British identity focused on the eccentricities of the UK in the 21st century, the loss of which, will mean the end of freedom in the UK. This takes no recognition of the massive changes that have gone on in British society since the late 1970s (probably more extreme than anywhere in western Europe) or the fact that freedom is more at risk from the government's erosion of civil liberties throughout the 2000s.

So where does the USA appear in this equation? Many people see it as a defender of democracy and certainly of the capitalist form of economics, though I would argue the EU certainly has an equal role in the latter. Due to the long historical connection between the USA and UK we probably get more US culture and hence attitudes flowing into our country than any of our neighbours and at various times France and (West) Germany have sought to shake off such influence. In the UK no politician can be seen to be hostile to the USA and so damage the 'special relationship' even when we have no need for US military bases on our soil (if we ever had a genuine need for them in the first place). The UK presents itself as retaining a key role in policing the World, but actually when you look at it, it cannot do this independently of the USA. This has been the case probably since 1941 though it was not put to the test until 1956 when the Americans opposed British intervention in Egypt.

Now for much of the 20th century the USA has managed to go off and have ill-advised wars without involving the British. There were British troops involved in the Korean War 1950-3 but fortunately that was comparatively short. The influence of Prime Minister Clement Attlee dissuaded the Americans from using atomic weapons which many millions of people in the world should be grateful for. The UK (bar a few individuals working with the Australians or later directly for the Americans) managed to stay out of the Vietnam War. What it was unable to do was to avoid the overall Cold War paranoia. This brings me to the first period when the USA scared me. It was during the terms of office of President Ronald Reagan. Like the current President Bush, Reagan was a man so lacking in talent that he should have been barred from holding high office. People portray him as the man who ended the Cold War and I have even seen a website arguing that if he had not been elected president in 1981 we would still be in the Cold War, that is utter rubbish; if he had died following the assassination attempt in March 1981 actually the Cold War may have ended a lot sooner. Especially in his first term of office (1981-1984) he brought the world closer to nuclear war than it had been at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He diverged from the steps to detente that had occurred in the 1970s (not helped by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979) but started adopting the jargon of the 'empire of evil' rather than seeing the Soviets as humans too and with no appreciation that by the mid-1970s their economy was in melt-down.

What was so alarming about Reagan and this has been an aspect which contributes to making the USA so frightening how, is his high degree of self-righteousness, and his belief that in the case of nuclear war the 'elect' (including himself) would be lifted clear of Earth by God and then brought back down to a new Eden that would rather be like the world following the end of the Deluge at the time of Noah. You cannot have the most powerful man in the world so detached from reality and with so little concern for billions of people living on this planet and not be afraid. Consequently through the 1980s I would awake to a loud bang fearing Reagan had triggered a nuclear war to bring about the new Eden. I was just grateful that living near a NATO computer base that we would be hit by one of the early missiles (in the UK we only had a 4-minute delay between war starting and missiles hitting the country, being only the size of Rhode Island there was nowhere to run to) rather than face a lingering death in the irradiated wreckage of what had once been the UK. Reagan also brought fear to Latin America by backing dictatorships in El Salvador and Honduras that were involved with the murder and horrific torture of their citizens and by sponsoring and arming rebels in Nicaragua too.

Right, you may say, well Reagan has long been out of office and is now dead, surely you cannot be worried about the Americans. Well, we have a US President who seems even more incompetent than Reagan. Since the 1980s fundamentalism has been growing across the world (in part because people feel they have so little to direct their own fates) and in the USA as in Iran, it has taken control of the political system. George W. Bush's attitudes are shaped by it. This means that the self-righteousness is back in full force, the sense that the Americans are so special that the policies they carry out are holy and cannot be wrong. Of course these policies are not applied, say to eliminate dictatorship across the world, but bar in Afghanistan (which I increasingly believe was invaded simply to have a war) has more to do with securing raw materials, notably oil (there may be raw materials in Afghanistan, something like uranium that the general public are currently not aware of) and to provide big contracts for US companies which have made billions out of rebuilding Iraq. At the moment it looks like Bush is gearing up for a war with Iran without even having tidied up in Iraq; the same language is being used as in 2002-3.

Thus, it is unsurprising that the world feels dangerous with a country that seeks to start a war every 3-4 years. The last person to get away with that was Benito Mussolini in the 1920s-40s in Greece (twice) and Ethiopia and ultimately he was executed. What is infuriating is not only is US policy so geared to these policies but somehow we (especially in the UK) are constantly being told we should support it and see that it is right. What enabled that forced sympathy was the attacks on the USA on 11th September 2001. Now I am not going to go into any conspiracy theories on this, though it is clear that the Bush family and Osama bin Laden's extended family were in friendly contact. What infuriates people in the UK is that after 2001 the Americans keep suggesting that they have suffered more than anyone else and so this gives them a special right to behave how they wish in the world. Now, even for Israel, home to the Jews who lost over 6 million people in the space of five years, this argument is wearing thin. For the USA such an argument has no strength (or it should have none). Growing up in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s we were regularly exposed to terrorist atrocities by the IRA. I witnessed one in 1999 in East London and had a friend who was standing very close to two bombings in London and Manchester. Other parts of Europe, notably Spain, witnessed similarly regular attacks and other countries such as France, West Germany and Italy were not spared.

These attacks led to deaths and maimings and also altered how our society behaved. I remember being separated from my parents when we visited the Tower of London so that we could each be searched for explosive devices and inside is a plaque where people were killed by a bomb in the 1970s. Attacks even reached the Houses of Parliament where the war hero Airey Neave was blown up and the royal family as Earl Mountbatten was blown up on his yacht. British policy in Northern Ireland was harsh, but at no stage did the British assert the right as a result to go round attacking who they chose, and particularly not simply for economic gain. We could easily have said that the IRA was being funded from Libya so we needed to invade Libya and take over its oil wells. The Vietnamese could easily claim reparations from the USA for the constant bombing of the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s (there are estimated to still be more landmines in the country than there are people) and the use of chemical weapons which are still causing severe birth defects thirty years on. By being so bullish about the attack on them rather than presenting it in the context of suffering that terrorism has long caused in the world, the Americans have shown how self-centred they are and how they continue to think they are better than anyone else. It ends up with such a patronising position that is communicated to the UK that somehow we know nothing about global politics, that we know nothing about true suffering from terrorism and so we should give up any rational objection to how these things are being handled to those people who know about these things, i.e. the fundamentalist right-wing in US politics.

I accept that faith is about believing whole-heartedly that you are right in what you believe. However, I am always afraid of those who will accept no questioning of their actions and have no ability to see anyone else's perspective. I wish I could find online an image of the 1960s cartoon which shows an an American man dressed in a jumpsuit made of the US flag saying it is a wonderful outfit suitable for church, school, leisure, work and then next to him a smaller, Vietnamese man draped in the oversized outfit saying 'It doesn't fit'. That cartoon is not only as applicable today as it was 40 years ago, it is applicable to the UK as much as it is to Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Somalia, the Philippines, Cuba, etc. You may argue, well, surely my concern about fundamentalist attitudes should extend to the 'other side', and it does, I do fear an Islamist suicide bomber, London has experienced these as well as other countries. However, it is an issue of scale. Even if al-Qaeda existed, which it does not in the form people seem to assume, then it lacks a fraction of the military might that the USA has. The US military could still wipe out the whole world either via nuclear, chemical or biological weaponry if it chose or some combination of these; it might even be able to do it with the conventional weapons it has. People would live on, but like the Vietnamese during the late 1960s it would be in tunnels and bunkers. That is the enduring strength of the US and why with their current obsessions, misapprehensions and self-righteousness I find them as frightening today as I did in the early 1980s.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Gordon Brown and the Election

It is interesting how the political situation in the UK has changed since I began this blog. Whilst as I have noted the prime minister now, Gordon Brown, does not have a good human rights reputation, just like his predecessor, Tony Blair, but what we are spared is the smug, patronising tone of Blair which seemed to suggest that none of us could match his self-perceived saintliness and thus should defer to him in all things. At least Brown remembers he is a politician and not some spiritual leader. I am also glad to find that Blair has so quickly faded into obscurity despite the perversion of giving him the role of a Middle East envoy. Whatever can keep him away from the UK now is a good thing, but I do feel sorry for the Arabs and Israelis who now have to be patronised by him. I do fear for Middle East peace if Blair has anything to do with it and I just hope that people realise he is a failure and he can be properly pushed into retirement, say in a remote villa on a hillside in Tuscany, Italy, where he can do little harm to the world.

Anyway, back to Brown. There has been a world of speculation in the UK about whether he will go for an election in November. He is not obliged to do so, but having managed the crises of the Summer pretty well and with a good standing in the polls, there was temptation to do so. The Conservative Party were baiting him to do so. I think the media have assumed that Brown had risen to that bait more than in fact he had done, so it has been a very artificial disappointment and very artificial claims of cowardice now that he has ruled out an election that early. As Brown notes he has not had a chance really to put his mark on the political scene yet, especially on the agenda which he feels are important. That is less vital for winning over floating voters and more essential for securing traditional Labour Party supporters who had become disillusioned with Blair especially over the Iraq War. In this context, the announcement of withdrawal of 1000 British troops from Iraq and the report on National Health Service reforms coming at the same time are important.

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party has proven he is a competent Opposition leader and that despite fitting the trend of bland personalities in the Conservative Party leadership since the departure of Margaret Thatcher and the marginalisation of Michael Heseltine and Michael Portillo, he is asserting some identity. He is also shaping the Conservatives' policy approach pretty well, seeing off extremist views and coming up with an agenda which is different from Labour's. For both parties putting 'clear blue water' between them (a lovely British phrase taken from the sports of rowing and sailing, in fact in British waters it is more likely to be green or brown water) has been difficult since the political consensus in Britain became focused around the Thatcher Consensus. Naturally this has gained Cameron support and has emboldened him. However, he does not have much basis on which to accuse Brown of cowardice as Brown had no obligation to go for an election now and not responding to media pressure actually demonstrates he is his own man, in contrast to Blair (and to a great extent John Major prime minister 1991-7, too).

It is foolish for the Labour Party to go to the polls in the Winter months. In February 1950, because Clement Attlee waited until the King came back from his tour, Labour lost its large majority and fell from office in October 1951. The one situation in which a delay beyond the Autumn was wrong was in 1978. Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan did not bow to media pressure that year and delayed the election until May 1979 and lost very heavily ushering in one of the worst periods in British politics and society by allowing Margaret Thatcher to wreck the economy and batter people to an extent that Britain still has not really recovered from. The so-called Winter of Discontent 1978/9 when many public sector unions went on strike damaged Labour's chances severely. Now, it is unlikely that Callaghan could have won in September 1978 given the economic problems Britain, like the rest of the Western world was facing in the light of the sharp oil price increases and the inflation they brought, but Thatcher's majority would have been less and she would have had to have dealt with the public sector issues. This probably would have been done very brutally and you would have seen the crushing on trade union rights in 1979 rather than in the mid to late 1980s.

Brown is going to face industrial unrest this Winter, postal workers are already on strike. However, things have changed greatly. With the mass privatisations of the 1980s there is hardly any public sector left in the economy, so even mass industrial unrest would not land at the feet of the government in the way it did in 1978. Even though Labour supporters are not made up of the industrial workers with no cars as they were in the past, they are still often working longer hours and have less opportunity to get to polling stations than traditional Conservative voters many of whom are self-employed or retired. Given that Brown's strategy is to shore up the loyalty of the traditional Labour voters, he needs to pick a time when his core support can get out in daylight and decent weather. I am sure Blair's victory would have been far less if John Major had called the election in November 1996 (as he could easily have done given his shrinking majority) rather than May 1997.

Whilst the media will taunt Brown towards an early election, it would be foolish for him to be swayed by this approach. With more time he can establish a true Brown government rather than a second-hand Blair one, which had lost far more glamour than many commentators have realised. Even if nothing changes between now and the late Spring, Brown will not lose anything by waiting. He is likely to lose some seats from those who fear he is too Old Labour, but with a majority of 66 he can afford to lose some. For Brown this will not be sufficient, he would want to come home with a raised majority rather than the 20 as threatened at present, which as with Major could be chipped away to being unworkable within 4 years. Brown's policy seems to be to work from the base up. He does not have to go to the polls until May 2010 at the latest and he could quite easily hold on into 2009. All of these claims of him lacking a mandate are foolish, people elect their own MP in the UK not a party leader, they vote for the policies that that MP is guided by and given that at least half the policies Labour stood on at the last election came directly from Gordon Brown, there is certainly a mandate for thes. By refusing to go now, even though he may have been tempted, Brown also demonstrates that it is he that dictates policy rather than the media. Personally I would have thought less of him if he had rushed to an election.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Blogging the Blog 2: A 10th Century Blog

In August I produced a posting outlining what I saw as the types of blogs that are in existence (in my view - journal, scrapbook and anger management) and also thoughts on why blog for a certain period of time. Meanwhile I came across a book published in 1967 called 'The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon'. Before you jump to any conclusions 'pillow books' have nothing to do with erotic literature. They originated in Japan in the 10th century and in modern times have been termed zuihutsu, i.e. 'random notes' or 'occasional writings'. They are termed pillow books as people generally wrote them when they went to bed. Also, Japanese bedding tends, even now, to be rolled up during the day and people do not have the bedside tables that are common in the West, so things were kept inside the pillow instead. Now Japanese pillows even into modern times have not been textiles and soft, rather they are made of wood and are more like headrests than pillows. See the movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha' (2005) for a good picture of what they look like. They were often hollow and had little drawers that could be pulled out from them to hold personal things like pillow books. Pillow books come from court life as courtiers had the time and (unlike their Western counterparts) the literacy and writing skills to keep them. Poetry as a form of interaction was also highly rated in Japan throughout history and led to such developments.

Sei Shonagon was a lady-in-waiting at the Emperor's court from about 989-999 CE (also known as 989-999 AD). She came into regular contact with the highest officials and their families in Japan at the time. The pillow book started off as something that was personal to her, but from about 996 onwards it seems that it became known to the court and she began to write in a more formal and better organised way. It is clear that like the blogger, Sei Shonagon was bringing the personal into a format that she kind of half expected to become public or at least readable by a certain circle of people. In nature the pillow book throughout resembles a blog. There are lists of varying lengths about what she likes and dislikes, gossip from the court, comments (often quite cutting) about people and their behaviour.

The personality which comes through in the book is very believable, with her snobbery, her emphasis on doing things 'properly', her respect for rank and manners, her adoration of the Imperial family, her dismissal of the behaviour of the lower classes, combined with her enjoyment of the seasons and various festivals, plus affairs with men of the court, all strike the modern reader like a typical upper or upper middle class woman working in the UK today. The fact that she discusses things in her life and experience on a non-chronological basis, often reminiscing about the past or speculating on the future and juxtaposes these with general discussions about the world and society seems incredibly like a blog, in a way that historical diaries such as that by Samuel Pepys (writing 1660-1669 CE) do not do. Obviously she lacked the modern technology but this enabled her to include physical things such as cloth from clothes worn during a certain festival or dried flowers in a way that a blogger can only do in visual form.

Having encountered Sei Shonagon's work, I do now wonder if people have been waiting a thousand years for the blog to be invented and that in some people it is a natural tendency that can now be realised. I suppose many people, myself included, feel their views and opinions are of value to more than just themselves and so have this desire to bring to the public view what they think about things. Maybe too we seek, like Sei Shonagon, to point to what we see as good and bad behaviour in the hope that we might shift people to act in what we view as a 'better' way. A thousand years from now, it will be interesting to see how many blogs of today will be accessible to the people of the third millenium and whether the continuities in what at the base interests and annoys us, and that desire in so many humans to draw attention to such things, remains.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Life Begins to End at 40

As I have noted in previous postings I turn 40 in October. As with most men this is something that preys on my mind a great deal. What angers me is people saying 'life begins at 40' which is clearly a lie. By the time you turn 40 you can no longer, in the bizarre words of one commentator, come home and find your family wiped out go to a monastery and train to be a martial arts expert and wreak revenge. Though this is an odd analogy, it does reflect that from 40 onwards, and probably a few years younger, you are incapable of learning anything new. If you lose your job you will be unable to move into a new career, rather your new job will usually be the same or simply a lower grade version of what you did before. Your options are severely limited. Despite all the legislation, age discrimination creeps in and this means if you have a job you cling to it. There is no longer any opportunity to pack it in and move to somewhere you prefer, you have to hold tight to whatever you can get. Within the job itself your ability to comment and criticise is stripped from you too, or you face the risk of being replaced by someone younger, cheaper and more compliant. You are seen to be out of touch and can be patronised by younger colleagues and yet not allowed to take offence.

From 40 onwards your healthiest part of your life is over. You will never be as fit or free from illness as you were before. Your senses, your memory, your fitness levels all begin deteriorating. Obviously the speed of deterioration is faster for some people than others. I have suffered this for the last couple of years. I do not really feel ill, but I never feel good. My head feels like it is in a box, I am constantly flatulent or bloated, my limbs ache, I find it difficult to wake up in the mornings and come home from work feeling so tired that I can do not activities in the evening. Slumping in front of the television is all that I am fit for these days when even just a few years ago I could cycle 40 miles on a Sunday or write thousands of words of a story in an evening, all of that has gone now and will never return.

Now, I accept that not everyone goes down hill as fast as me, but even if it takes a few more years, you have to face the fact that the best of your life is over. Of course if we lived in Stone Age times we would be dead by now, and even in the 1880s the life expectancy of a working man was 45, so these days were are effectively being kept alive by artificial means and living though what in normal human lives would be 'dead time' quite literally. Your body and brain are not equipped to take on new skills or fitness once you turn 40, for the biological pattern there is no need for this as you should no longer actually be around. I suppose with the juvenalisation of our society and middle age being pushed further into the 50s rather than starting at 40 as it did in my youth, I guess people are tempted to pretend that they are not ageing. For women it might be a bit different as the menopause can mean the end of complicated and uncomfortable contraceptive methods and a greater freedom in sex, but the menopause itself brings on physical difficulties to counteract this gain, plus all the wrinkles that commercials seem to advise you how to combat.

The juvenalist behaviour of the middle aged means they have lost the respect of those who are both younger and older than them. The elderly look down on us with disapproval, the young as if we are irrelevant. We need to restore the credibility of the middle aged by behaving properly, not thinking we can begin to snowboard and go to Take That concerts. As it is, our bodies are not up to it. I will try to live my middle age appropriately and encourage others to do so rather than fooling themselves about their capabilities.

What If Jesus's Wife Had Not Been Written Out of History?

Note that this posting is not about whether Jesus Christ had a wife or not, but what would have happened if the wife he certainly did have was not written out of history. There has been discussion around Jesus's marriage for over thirty years now and it has been brought back into the spotlight by the novel and subsequent movie, 'The Da Vinci Code'. All good novelists mix fact and fiction and a lot of what is in the book about the Templars is fictional, but at the same time it outlines the points about Jesus's wife, most likely the woman we know as Mary Magdalene in a way that is comprehensible to the general public. For me it is less important whether Jesus started a bloodline than what the fact that so much church dogma has excluded Jesus's wife from the story and in doing so has also excluded women from a full role in the Christian church.

You do not have go beyond the Bible itself for evidence that challenges many of the assumptions that people take for granted about the life of Jesus and of his family. The divine and human natures of Christ and their relationship to each other are contested, but all denominations of Christianity accept that Jesus had human manifestation. In Islam Jesus also appears but without any divine aspect, just as a human prophet. Thus, whilst there is disagreement whether he was the son of God or part of God, there is agreement that on Earth from about 4 BC (4 BCE) to about 33 AD (33 CE) he was a man. Now that means he fitted into the human context of the time, living in a reasonably well off province of the Roman Empire. He was not from a poor family. People often assume he was, but in the Bible there is a lot of evidence that his family was what would be called lower middle class in modern day UK. His father, Joseph, owned a successful carpentry business in Nazareth a sizeable town. He was rich enough to hire or own a donkey for his wife to ride on and to close up shop or leave it in the hands of journeymen or apprentices while he travelled to Bethlehem and paid for food and lodgings along the way. Mary and Joseph were not beggars. Even when they arrived in Bethlehem, though the town was over-crowded because of the census they were able to hire a stable to sleep in (and remember even in the Middle Ages people often slept in the same rooms as livestock so it was not as unusual as it appears to modern readers); Jesus was not born on a street corner or in an alley in Bethlehem as the babies of the poor are still in many countries today. When Herod moved against the first born, Mary and Joseph were able to flee to Egypt which would have taken money and Joseph either had sufficient savings or was able to find work to sustain his family during the years he was outside Judea and then return to re-establish his business.

There are big gaps in the recounting of Jesus's life but we see him again on the verge of adolescence travelling with his parents to market. They were not working day and night to earn a living in the workshop. Jesus was not out on the streets begging, he, and presumably his brothers and sisters were sustained by the prosperity of Joseph's business. The fact that Joseph had been able to get out of Bethlehem and move to Nazareth might indicate that he was driven by a shortage of jobs in Bethlehem or that he was drawn to the greater income possible in Nazareth; certainly he was economically mobile, something that poor people are not. Maybe it took him time to earn a decent income, which is why he was older than Mary when he married, but by 4 BC he was doing pretty well; Mary might have been his second wife, having buried one closer to his age already. Right into modern day disease and death in childbirth could often carry often even comparatively young women.

When we see Jesus again it is in the final three years of his life, and he was in his mid to late 30s. The thing that always strikes me is what has he been doing in the past twenty years? Presumably, like most men in the region at the time, he has followed in his father's footsteps and become a carpenter, maybe also taking over running the business, especially as we know he was Joseph's eldest child, his first born. Given that Mary was able to travel such a distance on donkey back and give birth to a child and survive the birth herself indicates she was a pretty robust woman and we know had other children by Joseph, there is reference to Jesus's brothers at the Wedding at Canna and these brothers probably worked alongside Jesus. We can also be pretty certain that Jesus got married. Even nowadays in our fragmented society marriage is incredibly common and in 1st Century Judea it would be the norm. It seems likely that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or maybe he only married her later when he began preaching. It would be interesting to speculate that Jesus sees it as time to start preaching when his first wife and possibly his children by them are carried off by disease. In such circumstances men often become reflective and find religion. Jesus the widower is not something we commonly think about, but in a time when life expectancy was short and women faced great hazards in childbirth, it is certainly far from impossible. What we see is that rather than some unemployed loner who could not find a wife, despite being well off and healthy which is the implication of some many people's portrayal of the gospels, Jesus was a very ordinary man with a wife and a job. Surely this is the kind of man God would have wanted to speak to other ordinary people? Through his works, it is Jesus who indicates that we should look after people on the margins of society rather than through his own background.

Though the focus tends to be on the Apostles, all of whom are shown to be men, we know from all the gospels that numbers of women also followed Jesus around and some of these are the women who went to Jesus's tomb after he had been crucified. Different gospels name different women, but all of them put Mary Magdalene in the lead. This would obviously be the case if she was his widow. She is the one who goes to the Apostles and tells them what has happened when Jesus's body is missing, which indicates that they did not disregard her. So I feel even if we look at the accepted gospels we can see Mary Magdalene was close to Jesus and travelled around with him. Surely that would have been more 'proper' if she was his wife, than being portrayed as some camp follower or 'groupie'.

Why has Jesus's wife been written out of history? Mary Magdalene appears in the Gospel of St. Phillip but in 1945 when it was rediscovered the Catholic Church ruled this gospel out as being not a true gospel. She also appears in this role in other Gnostic writings. Though religions may be divinely inspired their manifestations on Earth especially as organised religion are as much about regulating society as about providing the message of a god. This is why so many religions cover things such as treating the poor and sick well, being just and merciful, because priests know that without such regulation on society people would live in chaos; in addition they write in holy days and days of rest so that employers cannot work their staff every day of the week. They also make regulations that keep adherents with the church in question, for example, not worshipping false idols. There are other elements in religion which help with safety of society, for example both Islam and Judaism command their followers not to eat pork and Judaism also rules out shellfish. Why? Well, in the hot climate of the Middle East these are the worst foods for bringing on food poisoning which is something no religion wants to happen to its followers especially in an area when diarrhoea could be a death sentence (as it remains in many parts of the world today).

Throughout history the Christian gospels were translated and re-written into terms understandable and to some extent acceptable by the contemporary readership. Various councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE actually sat down and decided what could be counted as legitimate or illegitimate in terms of what Christianity involved. Thus, it is unsurprising, that in male-dominated societies, women were pushed into a secondary role. Whereas Mary as Jesus's wife is portrayed as his closest of Apostles and in turn marriage rather than celibacy is promoted, with the adjustments, Mary increasingly is marginalised until she is portrayed as a prostitute (though the Catholic Church changed its mind on this in 1968). When the Gospel of St. Luke Mary Magdalene is portrayed as having had seven devils come from her, maybe this does not indicate that she was any more sinful than the ordinary person, as it has tended to be seen, but that through her interaction with Jesus she has purged herself of the seven deadly sins, things like avarice, wrath, envy, etc. things that the wife of a celebrity on tour of the day would have likely to have fallen prey to. Of course, accepting Mary Magdalene as first among equals would have meant accepting women priests from the start, even if held in a secondary role to that of the man, standing in for Christ. Women could be very holy and there were numerous convents, anchoresses, etc. throughout Christian history but they never rose higher than abbess, certainly no female bishops. Thus, women could be good Christians but never have a function in directing the church and in turn they are then marginalised from civil society too. There were of course queens and ladies of the manor who ran things when men were away or died out, but imagine if Innocent III had been a woman contesting with Emperor Frederick of Hohenstaufen and the implications for men in position of power from Rome down to the local village. Such a development was totally unacceptable even in the 4th century let alone later, so had to be excluded from possibility.

So, if the Christian churches had allowed Mary to continue to be portrayed as Jesus's wife it would have been a challenge to the way they were constructing society. Celibacy early on was seen as a good thing for priests and you can see why. It stops dynasties developing among priests and also means they have no greater concern for their own family than other people in the community they serve. I also accept that sexual thoughts can get in the way of spiritual ones. Thus, Jesus has to be shown to separate from all that marriage implies, though ironically God had chosen him to be born into a healthy marriage. With Mary Magdalene marginalised the only role for Christian women was Jesus's mother, Mary. I have no problem with Mary, wife of Joseph, but she is a virgin even in marriage, presumably young and naive, no role model for mature women. Her only function is to her first son and this is hardly a template for successful marriages and for families with multiple children in them.

The Gospel of St. Philip illustrates Jesus's life in relationship to the sacraments, so not surprisingly makes much about his marriage to Mary. The one thing that has always struck me when attending weddings is that the only reference the priest can point to is the wedding the Canna and how this single incident represents the 'mystical union between God and his Church'. This seems rather paltry. Would it not be better to highlight that marriage is something Jesus went through and that that marriage indicates the sacrifices and the strength of marriage? Mary Magdalene travelled with Jesus everywhere and shared all his troubles with him. Presumably both Jesus and Mary got through all the challenges of marriage, the temptation to stray, the rows, the weariness and also experienced the sharing, the love and all the things that marriage ceremonies try to include, yet we see none of this.

Whilst Jesus's and in turn God's sacrifice of his life is what allows us to be washed of our sins, is there not another dimension of sacrifice from Mary of her husband for what he believed in? This kind of sacrifice is one that many of us will experience in our lives and it seems a pity that for the sake of keeping male dominance in the church and society, it has edited out this aspect which through the centuries could have given comfort to millions of people.

By editing out Jesus's wife, the New Testament as we know it does not provide a rounded picture of life people can aspire to. Women were given one of two roles: virgin or whore, not very practical for society, loving, supportive wife, equal to her husband is a much better one that we have long been missing in Christianity. Now, however, after so many centuries, at last some Christian churches are allowing women to take up the role that I believe Jesus would have envisaged for them.