Recently, I was talking to a literary agent about the need for a novel that portrays the poverty of our age.
My imagination is constantly fed by encounters with the new poor in central London. During a recent summer night, I met a group of exhausted children sitting on the steps of my building. Speaking in Spanish, they told me that they had just arrived from Spain, and that their parents had asked them to wait there, while they looked for a bed for the night. So many of my peers, who hold university degrees are in a cycle of sofa-surfing and competing with ten other people for a job of pouring coffee and mopping floors.
In this revolving recession, writing a novel about people pinned down by penury would be apposite. But is a literary description of hunger and desperation enough? Not at all, but as the recent trials of Fr Ray Blake show, discussing the grubby nature of actually helping the poor is a tricky business.
Fr Ray struck a nerve when he wrote about the unpleasant consequences of inviting the poor into our lives, with a Brighton newspaper depicting him as “a complaining priest”, and a number of national newspapers followed up on the story.
But by writing about his experiences, he is showing the poor kindness. He presents the true reality of being at their service, and reading his blog is a preparation for those who wish to do more for the poor than just pity them.
Due to the controversy surrounding the blog post, Fr Ray has since written that he is considering putting a stop to his blogging. In the absence of Fr Ray, Britain would have no priest who is putting forth such uncompromising accounts of caring for the poor. We have a Pope in Rome who unceasingly insists that we share with the poor – and a situation in Britain where a frank priest has qualms about blogging on the reality of carrying out the Pope’s wishes.
Fr Ray is succeeding where the mainstream media is failing. He writes about the dilemmas of bringing the destitute into one’s home. Why is the mainstream media not doing the same? Why are we kidding ourselves that we will overcome poverty when we can’t even discuss its grim reality? Maybe because to do as Fr Ray does, and clean up trails of vomit or counsel a junkie who is desperate for cash, is not glamourous.
If Fr Ray stops blogging, it will be a victory for the worst kind of censorship. It’s a form of intellectual suppression that misinterprets a priest’s realistic experience, and punishes him for being honest. Not just because the details of cleaning excrement and blood are disgusting to our sanitised sensibilities, but because Fr Ray’s good works makes some feel guilty. And this is central – Fr Ray’s blogging upsets the consciences of people who have not let the poor near them.
Fr Ray, please rebel against your critics by blogging more zealously than ever before. If I ever get round to writing a novel about our era’s rampant poverty, I’ll dedicate it to Fr Ray and send a copy to every columnist who has ever criticised him. I’d imagine that their reviews would be scathing, but maybe the cash earned from the book could go towards the soup kitchen that Fr Ray runs.