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A role for life?

01 January 2016

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I HAVE heard the story told in more than one Christmas sermon over the years: the joke about the naughty child in the nativity play who causes havoc by welcoming Mary and Joseph into the inn. In one of those curious instances of a joke that becomes a memory, the poet Simon Armitage said, in Stars of Wonder (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), that he was that subversively hospitable innkeeper. Or perhaps he remembers correctly, and he, together with many a child, has sought to re-route the Christmas narrative into the cosy inn and a parallel narrative universe.

We could forgive Armitage for being an unreliable raconteur on this occasion, such is the power that the nativity play holds in our imaginings of childhood. In Miranda Sawyer’s opinion, the nativity play is the number-one reason to have a child. The pride and envy with which parents observe the casting process is painful to observe; and the status with which each role is imbued might establish a child’s self-worth for the rest of his or her life.

If you are Mary, you get to have the whole school bow down before you, and bring you gifts. What more do you need as a narcissistic six-year-old, whose parents already worship you? The next step in Sawyer’s investigation is to do a survey of the Sunday Times Rich List to see how many former parents of our Lord are among them.

The Norwegian novelist Lars Petter Sveen learned about self-esteem by a very different route. In The Essay (Radio 3, Christmas Eve), we heard about his upbringing in a robustly atheist household, where the notion of participating in a nativity play might bring on an apoplectic fit in his father, who could not even countenance having a star on top of the Christmas tree. Instead, Sveen was brought up on Norse mythology — not as an alternative cosmology, but as a way of exploring identity through stories.

It was only in his twenties that Sveen “came out” as a Christian to his parents, at a time when Norway was moving in a secular direction; and his account of swimming against the tide of faith was a highlight in Radio 3’s excellent Northern Lights series.

In a refreshing change to the usual accounts of boy trebles preparing for a busy Christmas, Woman’s Hour (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) provided a profile of the girl choristers at Ely Cathedral: an impressive cadre of singers aged 13 to 18, and a good deal more self-aware than the average 12-year-old treble.

These are girls preparing for GCSEs and A levels, who realise what performance nerves are, and the challenges of working intensively within a group. And, most tellingly, they were able to articulate an understandable sense of frustration at being treated as secondary to the boys’ choir. One suspects that these girls were speaking for girl cathedral choristers up and down the country.

Space permits only a mention of Howard Jacobson in A Point of View (Radio 4, Sunday) in defence of Thought for the Day. His only quibble is that it is not religious enough. At the turn of another year of religious discord, religious broadcasting should welcome all the support it can get.

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