Monthly Archives: November 2015

Some seasonal thoughts about Operation Christmas Child

One of the debates currently in play amongst some parents from our school surrounds Operation Christmas Child, the shoebox-distributing charity that still gains wide support in the UK and further afield.

To cut a long story short, there’s been a backlash against what, for the sake of my typing fingers, I’ll call OCC, and that backlash is a good ten or so years old now. I first came across it through a series of articles in The GuardianGiles Fraser’s piece is one that springs to mind, though there was a feature piece in, I think, the paper’s Society section a good year or so before that.

One point worth making is that OCC, to the best of my knowledge, changed its literature after the mid-first-decade-of-the-2000s backlash, but as Giles Fraser pointed out in 2014, it’s still possible to have a huge issue with the very act of distributing Christian tracts along with shoeboxes, particularly within some religious contexts. As Fraser notes, it’s a particular problem within Islamic cultures, though I don’t think you have to be a Muslim to feel very wary about some of the charity’s operations.

Generally speaking, I suspect it’s difficult to separate your views on OCC from your own religious (or non-religious) viewpoint and, more relevantly, the degree to which you have a problem with organisations asking for donations from people of all faiths and none, and then distributing overtly Christian literature with those donations. Myself, I have a huge problem with that, not just because I vehemently and fundamentally disagree with OCC founder Franklin Graham’s venomous take on Christianity, but because… well, have some bullet points, because I have several other things to do and to write tonight.

  • Honesty is key here. My main dislike of OCC comes from their hiding, deliberate or not, of what they actually present along with the boxes. Granted, they’re much better on that now than they used to be (they even have the tract on their website) but I’m still very uneasy about the way they promote to schools. By the way, I don’t think for a second that any of this is the ‘fault’ of anyone at any particular school, and I certainly don’t think that well-meaning teachers are deliberately hoodwinking the parents. OCC have been going for years, but even after ten years of publicity, the sort of stuff I’m talking about here really isn’t that well known.
  • It’s possibly a rather provocative aside, but worth making – the very name ‘Operation Christmas Child’ implies that you’re getting something, at least, of a somewhat Christian nature. I accept, though, that what OCC do goes far beyond the secular, and that Christmas is at least as much a secular festival by now in the UK/Europe/US as it is a religious one. (And I’ve read, or at least dipped into, the excellent Ronald Hutton, taverymuch, so I’m well aware of the appropriation and culturally changing meaning of Christmas in Britain over the centuries).
  • While big in schools, OCC is slightly more marginalised in the remainder of society than it was. GMTV, the ITV breakfast franchise, used to support OCC annually. This hasn’t happened for quite a few years.
  • Everyone, but everyone, has a viewpoint on this. The initial link posted by a parent came from Innovative Minds, who appear to be an Islamic organisation, who, understandably, wouldn’t exactly be delighted about an evangelical Christian organisation including the literature it did include alongside its shoeboxes. Having said that, I have something in common with their concerns, though from a rather different perspective: I find Franklin Graham’s views to be fairly odious, and not ones I personally share.
  • Christians aren’t all like Franklin Graham. Really. We’re not all closed-minded racists who would rather dismantle the past 40 years’ progress on equal marriage. Mind you, ours is a broad church, and I’m fully aware that Samaritans’ Purse, OCC’s supporting charity, would be horrified and offended to hear their founder described in such ways.
  • And there’s a baby-bathwater thing going on here too. Christians have a social conscience (as, yes, do people of all faiths and none) which manifests itself in various helpful ways – most of them massively more helpful than OCC. The Trussell Trust works alongside faith organisations and secular communities. Churches open their doors for fairly non-pushy parent and toddler mornings. I could go on, but I feel there’s another point that I need to revisit…
  • …which is that honesty is key here. I’d say that truth, openness and plain transparency are values which Christian organisations should share alongside their wider secular community… but that opens a whole other can of worms, which, thankfully, I don’t have time to explore.

Incidentally, you’re very welcome to comment on this. Mine is one viewpoint and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for any other individuals, let alone organisations. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

Everybody in the house say Gaetano Pugnani

I’m doing one of those Facebook things where someone challenges you to post a piece of music every day for a week. It’s been surprisingly fun. One of my seven choices is below, but I want to say a bit more than usual about it – hence, a rarely spotted blog entry.

I play fiddle, which is what my legendary violin teacher would call the instrument. Started lessons at the age of five, sounded absolutely terrible for at least the first three years (I have the cassettes as proof), sounded slightly less terrible for the next ten, and past the apex of Grade 8 Distinction-and-prize-from-the-exam-board I slowly declined into violin-playing mediocrity.

But Jones The Fiddle, as we really did call him, had a passion for his subject that few of my educators, before or since, have ever matched. Not for him a dull plod through the standard-issue Suzuki Violin School, the well-meaning but nauseatingly ubiquitous fiddle-learning guide of the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Jones introduced me to the infinitely more interesting Dofleins,, the more elementary parts of the solo canon (everything from Fiocco to Bach to the neglected Alfred Moffat), and the more obscure backwaters: I still remember the joy of finding a CD of Béla Bartók’s 44 duos for two violins in HMV Oxford Street, because seemingly no-one had seen fit to record them, angular and playful though they were.

He had his likes and dislikes: his favourite rendition of The Four Seasons was this one, and he didn’t have many good words to say about Nigel Kennedy. But above all else, I think, he adored Fritz Kreisler, the irascible, prodigious, and probably the best violin virtuoso of any generation. I loved Kreisler too, not only as a violinist but also as an extraordinarily versatile composer, seemingly able to turn his hand to any violin genre from romantic to modernist, and make it his own.

This is my favourite Kreisler piece. It was originally published under a pseudonym, Kreisler having taken the name of long-dead Italian violinist Gaetano Pugnani to publish what was his own Praeludium and Allegro. Urban legend has it that he did this to avoid reprisals from his fellow violinists, because Kreisler wrote some of the most challenging pieces in the entire violin repertoire, even by today’s standards. (No, of course I can’t play it. Well, OK, give me the Praeludium sheet music and I’d probably have a go, as long as I could excuse myself half-way through and get a stunt double in for the Allegro.)

My favourite ever version of the Praeludium and Allegro is also one of the scarcest, which is a pity – Ruggiero Ricci’s early 1960s recording is fairly peerless, and not just because it’s the one I was most familiar with, having being bought on Mr Jones’ recommendation in a double-cassette box from Carmarthen Woolies for £1.99. There are many other versions, but most miss the mark: Itzhak Perlman, though generally untouchable, sounds far too urgent and furious in his take on the Praeludium: to my ears, Kreisler’s majestic opening needs room to breathe and puff out its chest before the fireworks of the Allegro. Joshua Bell, on the other hand, has pretty much hit the nail on the head, so you’re getting him.

Mr Jones died in 2005, but he gave me a classical music upbringing that I’m still immeasurably grateful for. I’m not sure whether he ever heard Bell’s take on this, but I humour myself to think he’d have liked it.