IT IS difficult to think of anything more telephotogenic than our Communion’s wonderful mother church, and Alice Roberts’s choice of Canterbury as the city that best illustrates the Plantagenet chapter of our island story presented a feast of gorgeous images in Britain’s Most Historic Towns (Channel 4, Saturday 15 June).
The key event was, of course, the murder of Thomas Becket and its aftermath. She might have made more of the fact that it appalled all Christendom — indeed, in these insular times we cannot be reminded too often of the international reality of the Middle Ages.
We saw how pilgrimage came to define the city, and how Chaucer’s masterpiece largely created English language and literature: our most abiding and potent export. She met a contemporary pilgrim, but missed the central point of the exercise. It was not, in most cases, a longing for a miraculous cure from illness: surely most came to experience proximity to relics so holy as to impart sanctity in themselves, eternally gainful whether or not you are sick. Penitence and contrition were part of the package.
I sense that this failure of comprehension is all part of our post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment insistence on separate categorisation, of refusal to accept messy catholic reality. What we know and affirm is how mixed is human experience. Physical healing is not the only good: the most serious religious event can be joyful and communal; holy days can — and should — be holidays.
In penance for Becket’s murder, each bishop beat Henry II, after his public confession, with five blows; and all 80 Canterbury monks gave three blows each. What might, I wonder, be the appropriate act that would absolve our successive Home Secretaries and governments from the national shame explored in Who Should Get to Stay in the UK? (BBC2, Thursdays)? Case studies and interviews illustrated beyond doubt that the “hostile environment” set up by those we elected to office seeks to drive applicants back to their country of origin, whatever fate awaits them there. Budget cuts force the Home Office agency staff to do the processing, leading to “a systemic removal of compassion” and much sheer incompetence: many of the judgments when properly scrutinised are overturned on appeal.
We have, one former official said, a liberal system: look at how few we actually deport. He ignored the soul-destroying effect of waiting years for judgment, forbidden to work legally or access benefits or take up university places. He bemoaned the disjunct between the public’s overwhelming desire to halt immigration, and the weedy support that people offer to actual individuals threatened with deportation. Judaeo-Christian teaching is consistent in its requirement to welcome the stranger within our gates; when did we give that up?
For relief from these ever-present miseries, I suggest What We Do in the Shadows, a ludicrous and very rude everyday tale of a quartet of New York Vampires (BBC2, Sundays).