My Deepest Shame

Roger Ebert has written a powerful, meandering essay about shame.

The essay takes many twists and turns and each one of them is fascinating journey in its own right.

It starts out as a review of the movie The Reader

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with “The Reader,” that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t agree or disagree. What I thought was, “The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about not speaking when you know you should.

[It’s great that The Reader is not about the holocaust because I’d like to see it and my wife wouldn’t watch it with me if it were about the holocaust.]

In his first meander, Ebert uses Twain

That wise man Mark Twain told us: “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”

as an excuse to reel off a laundry list of Things He Believes

This is true. It is even sometimes true of me. Perhaps of you. However, there are certain areas in which I consider myself an authority, like the movies. I have devoted years to learning about the Theory of Evolution. I think Creationism is superstitious poppycock. I believe the problem with the literal interpretation of the Bible is that anyone can easily discover its support for the opinions they already hold. I believe Conservatism has proven itself disastrous every time it has been implemented in this country.

After meandering past speaking engagements, dinner parties, segregation and atheism – with every meander a gem – he ends up back at The Reader.

The Reader, Ebert says, [Spoiler Alert!] is about a woman’s wrongful conviction that she could have easily avoided if only she could overcome her shame about her inability to read. A key witness realizes this but fails to speak up because of his own shame that he had an affair with her.

This is where his essay gets interesting because it leads Ebert into a riff on the power of shame

We learn of young mothers who put their babies in dumpsters because they are ashamed of their pregnancy. Young fathers who murder their girlfriends, simply because of the universal human reality of pregnancy. We hear of prison guards who follow orders to torture, orders they know are illegal and immoral. And leaders who issue the orders. We learn of terrorists who die and kill others rather than face the shame of being frightened to. We hear of gang members who kill people unknown to them, not because they want to, but because they have been shamed into “proving” themselves as men. We hear of Wall Street executives who lead their firms into what they know are dangerous and unsound practices, because they would be shamed to be outdone by rival executives. They steal the savings from millions of victims, so they can win a pissing contest.

and ultimately triggers Ebert’s memory of a shameful episode in his own past. Ebert’s shame story is about cheating in a game of chess with a blind man who was his very good friend.

More than 40 years have passed since that game, but I have not forgotten it. I can never even think of the University of Cape Town without it coming to mind. My cheating itself was shameful. When I denied it, that was despicable. Herb, I hope someone reads this and tells you about it. You were right. Of course, you always knew you were right, and we both knew that I had lied.

Just reading that makes me feel that familiar burning sensation that heralds the unbidden return of my least favourite memory. Suddenly I am transported back to my fourth year Latin exam in Room 41 and

David Samuel is handing me his exercise book under the desk.

We are halfway through our end of year exams.

Our exams are kind of a big deal because, unlike America in 2009, in England circa 1981 the only thing we will have to show for all our years of schooling is a certificate that said how we performed in a bunch of exams that we’ll take at the end of the fifth year [maps to 10th grade – ed].

We do one of these six hour exams – an ‘O’ Level – for each subject we take (plus an oral for languages). I’m taking 9: English, English, Maths, Maths, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, French and Latin.

Every year until now has ended with a solid battery of  two weeks of exams with 8 hours a day under exam conditions. Our grades throughout the year are based on classwork and homework but all that was tossed aside after the exams. Only the exam counts. The fourth year exams are special because they are a dress rehearsal for the real thing at the end of the fifth year.

For me, exams are a godsend. The laziest student ever (at least until I have children of my own), I have made avoiding work into an art-form. In the last two years of chemistry, I have written a total of three and a half pages of notes and have done no homework at all. I read computer magazines in Latin class and I am teaching myself BASIC in French. I am bottom of my class. In two weeks I will be top. Again. They stopped giving me ‘most improved student awards’ after four years of improving from worst to best every exam time.

Best of all, I genuinely enjoy exam time. We have no homework assigned and I have no need to study. The fact that I have no notes to study from is irrelevant. I will not open a book. Last Christmas, Miss Mills said that we should be studying about 6 hours a day by now. I have studied for less than 6 hours total in my whole life and Not At All for these exams.

Each subject has an essay-based exam and a quiz-based (occasionally multi-choice) exam. In Latin, it’s translations.

In class, we have translated Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Tacitus’ Histories, umpteen poems by each of Ovid, Horace and Catullus and the complete works of Pliny the Younger. In the exam, we’ll have to translate some 10 or 12 of these.

And now I’m sitting in the back row of room 41, next to David Samuel and, when I open the exam paper, I realize that I don’t know anything.

It’s easy to fake your way through translating French. It’s all “Ou est la place de la Concorde” but Latin is much more precise, more distant. More foreign… And you certainly can’t fake your way through poetry. They expect us to understand it.

David Samuel leans over, opens his bag and shows me that he has a book with all the translations. “Give it to me”, I signal. He smiles and hands it over. I copy just enough to save me from being booted out of Latin class because Mr Hickey doesn’t want bad students sullying his record.

That feeling of dread when I opened the exam paper inspired me to study for an exam for the first time in my life.

I still didn’t study for Maths or any of the sciences (all As, in case you are wondering) because they were easy. Nor did I study for English Lit as I had never got better than 8% and studying wasn’t going to make much difference. [I didn’t even read one of the assigned books – Brighton Rock – until I was 23. When I did finally read it, I fell in love with Graham Greene and have now read all of his books. If I had read it at 15 like I was supposed to, I might’ve gotten a better grade at ‘O’ Level but I might’ve hated Greene and never read him again.]

But I did study Latin.


I memorized the translations of every single one of those histories, poems, legal documents and letters to the Emperor Trajan [except Pliny X.96 – the one about the Christians, but that’s a story for a different day].

I still remember many of them now

That Suffenus, whom we know well Varus,
Is a charming, witty and sophisticated man.
Yet at the same time he writes more verse that anyone else.

Not, as usually happens, on second class papyrus.
He uses new papyrus, all ruled with lead and smoothed with pumice…

But, more than the poems, I remember the shame because it eats into my conception of who I am. I have barely spoken with David Samuel since that day but I don’t think I could even look him in the eye if I saw him again.

Worse still, he was the boyfriend (and may have married?) of my girlfriend’s best friend. I imagine him telling Sarah who tells Jo, remember Kevin? The kid who was good at exams? He was a cheat. I saw him. He used to take books into all the exams.

David Samuel’s mum used to work with my mum. They were very competitive about their offspring as mothers often are. What if David’s mum knows I am a cheat?

I never cheated again but that once was enough to give me a lifetime of shame.

The common element of all these shame stories leads me to propose the following thesis:

Our greatest shame arises when we do something that is not just bad but that conflicts with our image of ourselves.

Ebert’s is bleaker:

I believe the movie may be demonstrating a fact of human nature: Most people, most of the time, all over the world, choose to go along. We vote with the tribe. What would we have done during the rise of Hitler? If we had been Jews, we would have fled or been killed. But what if we were one of the rest of the Germans?

It’s a shame that the move is about the holocaust because I’d really like to go see it but my normal movie going companion won’t take me so it will be condemmed to my Netflix queue where it will fester until it finally arrives and sits on the shelf for three weeks because I can only watch those movies after everyone else has gone to bed which seems to get later and later as the years go by.

It’s a shame, I tell you.


Fastest Hymn Sheet Monitor in the West

I was delighted to find that someone had left me the full lyrics for Judas and Mary I love strangers!

They are my favourite people. So kind. It made my morning.

The hymn sheet story was also a good excuse to get in touch with Mark who used to operate the other Hymn Sheet Contraption. He claims that he and Iain Turner were much faster than Graham Burton and I because Iain was a giant and Mark was really quick with numbers. If course, I don’t believe him because he also claims that he beat me in my very first 100 metres and everyone knows that’s just patently untrue.

The track at Chis and Sid was on not-very-well-kept grass (in the winter it was a rugby pitch) and was carefully arranged so that the home straight was up hill against a constant headwind. It made long distance races brutal because you’d be trying for a big finish but as you turned the corner a gale would kick up and you’d be struggling up the hill as your last reserves of energy seeped away.

Anyway, our school was big on sports and everyone had to do rugby or cross-country in the winter and cricket or athletics in the summer. Our summer PE lessons would have us going through all the track and field events one by one and the first we ever did was the 100 metres and I was in the same race as Mark.

It being my very first race and all, I didn’t know how to pace myself and I started rather slow. By 50m, I was a few paces behind the pack but I had a big finish and passed several people in the last 20m. I just managed to squeak by Mark at the finish line to finish in 14.2sec (that sounds crap, but remember it was uphill and against the wind and we were only 12).

Mark still maintains that he beat me that spring day in 1978 but we both know the real truth. I think the only way to resolve this issue is if we have a re-match.

How about it Mark? Are you scared?

Judas and Mary

When I was a lad, it was the law that every school had a religious assembly and, at my primary school especially, we used to sing 3 or 4 hymns every morning. In the assembly hall, we had two enormous (to a 10 year old) contraptions that dangled enormous hymn sheets from the ceiling.

One of the occasional duties of a 10 year old at my school was Hymn Sheet  monitor. There were two monitors to each hymn sheet contraption and, when the music teacher said ‘Hymn number 127’, one of the monitors would undo the rope from the cleat and lower the contraption from the ceiling. The other monitor would then rummage through the giant (to a 10 year old) sheets of paper looking for hymn number 127. After lots of searching and then hefting of hundreds of sheets – each bigger than a 10 year old – the first monitor would heave on the rope to return the contraption to the ceiling and then hang on with all his strength while the other monitor belayed the rope to the cleat.

Then the singing would commence.

The singing was fantastic. I remember one time, we had a visit from the Mayor of Bexley in all his mayoral robes and he pronounced that “he would always remember this as the singing school”.

We sang every one of those hymns. There were the hymns that everyone knows like What a Friend we have in Jesus and All Things Bright and Beautiful and Onward Christian Soldiers but there were also a few pop-songs-turned-hymns like Lord of the Dance, Morning has Broken and Any Dream Will Do from the latest (and first) Rice/Weber blockbuster and plenty of obscure songs that I have never heard before or since.

I was reminded of one of those obscure songs last week – my absolute favourite – when I read the most beautiful passage in the New Testament in Luke while camping at Sunset Beach.

36 And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to meat. 37 And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, 38 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

I loved that song. I wish I remembered all the words. I have the melody down on my harmonica but my memory, and Google, fail me for the lyrics.

Here’s what I remember:

Said Judas to Mary, “O what will you do
With your ointment so rich and so rare?”
“I’ll pour it all over the feet of the Lord
And I’ll wipe it away with my hair.”
She said.
“And I’ll wipe it away with my hair.”

Said Judas to Mary, “O think of the poor.
Think of all of the riches you can give to the poor
Something something something
If, your ointment, you sell it today.”
He said.
“If your ointment, you sell it today.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll think of the poor.
Tomorrow.” she said. “Not today.
For today I must think of my only true Lord.
For my Lord who is going away.”
She said.
“For my Lord who is going away.”

It’s funny how memory works – for that song to spring back into my mind so nearly complete after 30 years. I wish I remembered the rest.

It’s funny too how our collective memory works. So many of the most vivid, rich scenes spring from throwaway one-liners like

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.


11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

The whole nativity is only 20 verses of Luke, less than that in Matthew and not covered at all in Mark and John. Matthew and Luke made those little bits up but, in 2000 years, we did the rest.

Teaching creationism in religious education classes

The Guardian has an article about new government guidelines for teaching creationism in religious education (RE) classes. Schools will also be required to teach the creation myths of all the major religions and will be required to compare and contrast natural and supernatural explanations of our origins.

This is nothing new to me, of course, since we were taught creationism in school when I was a lad. As I have often said, there is no better way to inoculate teenagers against some of the zanier myths than to have them debate it with their peers.

[to our second year (7th grade) RE teacher]

Miss! So, was Jesus a bastard?


Er. Well. It’s true that Mary and Joseph weren’t married when Jesus was conceived, but we don’t usually call him a bastard.

Wasn’t me asking the question, by the way.

A kindly old man

I heard from several correspondents that they thought my attitude to religion (Christmas vs Holidays) was unusual.

One had been brought up in a religious environment and now rejects the whole shebang – she can’t understand why I am interested in Christian mythology at all. She wouldn’t even let me buy a children’s bible for our daughter because she still has bad memories of the nuns who ran her school. Another reported that their family, having walked away from their childhood beliefs wanted to get as far from them as possible. Still another suggested that I had fabricated my whole attitude just to be controversial.

For me growing up, the Church of England was like the kindly but eccentric old man who lived down the road. He had a whole bunch of fascinating stories and some of them may even have been true. Everyone knew him and liked him but no one took him very seriously. I have nothing but fond memories of him.

Perhaps, for people who were brought up with a more strict form of religion, a part of their identity is tied up in their religious beliefs? Maybe religion is like a strict aunt who tried to control their lives? When they finally break free from her controlling ways in adulthood, they have to let go completely and discard everything that might remind them of her.

I have often thought that these differences in attitude towards religion between Americans and Europeans (Malta doesn’t count as it’s pretty much a theocracy) can be attributed to the lack of religious education in schools in America. My son will never play the innkeeper in the school nativity play. My daughter will never sing Little Donkey in the Christmas pageant. They will never get to tease the RE teacher about some of the more way out stories from the bible.

The only way my kids will get a religious education is if we sign them up for the whole package and that requires actually believing that the stories in the bible are true. That can’t be right.

They are all so young!

My best, most vivid memories of school comes from the second and third year of secondary school (that’s 7th & 8th grade to all you mercans). That’s the period when I got into the most trouble, had my biggest triumphs, copped my first feel, made my first teacher cry (and the second a couple of days later), got caned for the first time [could that be related to the previous memory? – ed], was most active in sports, got beaten around the head hardest by a teacher, wrote my first song, wrote the most lines (le silence aides le travail) and a thousand other similar memories.

It was shocking to think, when I dropped my son off for his first day of middle school this morning, to think that those kids were only a year younger than I was in Mr Gooden’s class.

I feel a whole lot of memory-related blogs coming on…