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Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Blogs and blogging

Having not posted for several weeks, I hope that a few of you at least were wondering if I had run out of things to say.  In fact, my excuse is the opposite – I have been too busy writing for other outlets to sit down to tap out a specific piece for my friends and family around the world.  You see, I have entered the world of official blogging.

When this mailing started almost 10 years ago, as I was about to enter the Jesuits, the word ‘blog’ was still waiting to be discovered.  I created for myself a crude strategy of typing out some thoughts once a month and distributing them through yahoo groups (remember those?) to people I knew.  It was in fact mostly a way of getting round the e-mail restrictions in the novitiate.  But now this vanity of sharing your thoughts with dozens of people has become a whole new sector of social activity.  Even before it was called that, I was already engaged in blogs and blogging. 

(Incidentally, I was at a hotel a few months ago and noticed on the bookshelf a rather under-thumbed book entitled ‘Frogs and Frogging’: a guide for wannabe batrachiologists visiting the area.  I imagined a whole series being spawned (!) from this initial volume: ‘Logs and Logging’ for lumberjacks, ‘Clogs and Clogging’ for our Dutch friends, my own ‘Blogs and Blogging’ and for those looking for unquestioning affection ‘Dogs and ….’).

I don’t really like to think of these newsletters as a blog.  Not just because you can’t comment, but also because, by and large, I personally know all the readers of this piece and so can position the content to suit.  Religious enough for the Jesuits and yet secular enough for the Johns; serious for Clara and comic for Catherine; long enough for Mary yet short enough for Mark; reflective for Beth and deflective for Bob.  (I did, however, got a shock a few years ago when visiting India and meeting the auxiliary Bishop of Bombay. He greeted me by saying: “It is such a pleasure to meet you – your aunt has been forwarding me your newsletters for years.”  I had to do a quick check to make sure that I had not been too openly heretical.)

But now I have a proper blog:  Independent On-Line is a consolidated site for a number of newspapers in South Africa.  With 4 million hits a week, it claims to be the most visited news-site in the country.  Their editor – met at a Jeremy Sampson drinks party: the Interbrand network continues to sparkle – asked if I would join their small panel of regular bloggers to cover ‘philosophy, ideas, religion, that sort of stuff’.  

Would I like to write?  Would I like to be published?  Is the Pope German?  As a moth to a flame, I have been drawn to the lure of yet more fame and even less fortune (of course they don’t pay).  So now I have the first 6 weeks under my belt and, the brief being as wide as it is, I have so far covered: Muslim-Christian relations, gay rights, Valentine’s Day, Lenten sacrifices, selling body parts as a way of selling a movie and whether or not an ANC membership card will get you into Heaven! 

Who knows what will come next?  I certainly don’t; like many a weekly journalist I am beginning to dread Wednesday mornings and the pressure to come up with an idea to turn into 500-1000 words for approval and submission by Thursday afternoon.  But Oxford essay-writing technique has come back into play: so I think about it a little in the days beforehand, forget about it, and then wait until the last minute when with a huge sense of panic and adrenaline, I turn off the phone and just start writing!

I have no idea yet who, if anyone, is reading.  But I would encourage you to do so – or at least to ‘hit’ the page, since the more hits I get the more the editor will like me.  If you fancy making a comment, all the better. 

One person who did read, and like, was a local BBC producer.  He saw my piece about gay rights, sparked by the mysterious death in Uganda of the most well-known gay activist, David Kato.  This happened in the middle of an attempt by another Ugandan David (Bahati, an MP) to introduce a bill making certain homosexual acts punishable with life or even with the death penalty.  As a director of a Catholic institute I, of course, have no views on gay rights; as someone who worked in Uganda I do have some insights into the peculiar way in which homosexuality is claimed to be un-African by many Ugandan Christians.  And this was mentioned in my blog.

Thus, soon after, I found myself in a TV studio debate hosted by Zeinab Badawi (“that’s Zay like Say and then Nab”) and sitting opposite the very same Ugandan MP.  I met him in the green room beforehand and we had a lovely chat about Uganda and the River Nile.  They say that, if you met him, Hitler was also very charming though I think the Ugandan is rather more handsome.  As long as I have not been edited out you may catch my contribution.  The debate will be aired this weekend on BBC World News TV (Saturday at 09.10 and 22.10 GMT, Sunday at 15.10 GMT) and also on BBC World Service Radio (Saturday at 18.06 GMT, Sunday at 13.06 GMT). 

Some of the contributions were deeply moving: the lesbian woman who is a ‘sangoma’ (traditional healer) and appeared with her wife and daughter; the former president of Botswana who regretted he had not done more when in office to defend what he now sees as a mater of human rights.  Unfortunately, the crowd turned out to have been recruited more for their ability to support a claque than their willingness to engage in debate.  In the end it all became a bit too Jerry Springer – weirdly-dressed banshee gay activists screaming against clean-cut intensely believing African Christians.  Like an old iridescent bulb it created a lot more heat than light.

I have also been involved in some calmer encounters with the secular media.  I have mentioned before Kate Turkington’s Sunday night programme on the main talk radio station in South Africa ‘Believe it or Not’.  Last week I managed to get an interview for a visiting American Jesuit who worked in New Orleans just after Katrina.  He also promoted the daily e-mail reflections that we will again be sending out to MPs during Lent.  But as I was listening I realised that he had missed the moment to tell people how to get the reflections themselves.  I shouted at the radio but Ron did not hear me.  So I took a chance and sent a text message to the presenter and 5 minutes later on air Kate said “And Raymond, Fr Ron’s boss, has just texted to remind me to give the sign-up address!” (In case you are wondering it is:

And now a week later we just got another slot on the programme (Kate worries openly about a Jesuit takeover).  A group of MBA students from Georgetown are consulting for us on how to make use of social media so Fr Russell was interviewed about this together with one of the students.  You can hear the interview on:

We may still be a small institute but we are certainly getting known: Plugs and Plugging!

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