Unusually for me, I had a weekend of sport. The heights of a victory at Lord’s followed by the defeat at Wembley were enough to test the faith. It will be a while before going to Rome is seen more positively than at the time of Cromwell.
The weekend also demonstrated the simplistic fallacy of the Tebbit test. I sat with people who had come from Pakistan a generation or two earlier who cheered Babar Azam’s men as they took wickets and scored runs. They spoke of family in Islamabad and the schools in Birmingham. They also discussed the chances of a victory at Wembley for England.
The sorrow they felt at Pakistan’s defeat would have been assuaged with an England victory the next day. Sadly, that was not to be. It’s only a generation ago that Catholics would have had their loyalty questioned and the Test Act of 1673 tried to catch them out. The past centuries of Catholic presence in England have shown you can – in the modern and Gaderene vernacular – be both British and Catholic as identity is non-binary and we all include legions.
Our weekends are usually quiet these days. Slavish obedience to rules has put surgeries online, and reduced visits to people and businesses to a fraction of what they once were. Now the recent spate of elections has ceased there was time to make a fuss out of our first’s First Holy Communion.
My own, some 41 years ago, was celebrated over by Fr O’Callaghan, whose voice echoed the accents of public schools and whose kindness is still remembered by those he taught. My son’s was celebrated by Fr Ben Fadoju who had just returned from a family funeral in Nigeria and has proven to be completely at home in our very rural parish. Our church’s Irish connections marked my generation, my son’s memories will be even more global and richer for it. The prayers to St John Southworth, martyr, reminded me that the cost of cheering from Rome back then was somewhat higher than today.
There was nothing more English than the party that followed. The threat of rain caused a frantic morning checking the rules for Covid compliance as we’re all governed by a canon that even a Benedictine would find intrusive. A legal discussion followed as to whether a First Holy Communion counted in the “wedding and civil partnership ceremonies, receptions and celebrations” section on the government website. My infallible source was confident and we went ahead with picnic sandwiches and strawberries from Marion Regan at Hugh Lowe Farms in Mereworth.
Hidden in the ordinary is the innovative. Their Malling Centenary crop shows that Kent’s finest can be improved – but never bettered – with science. East Malling Research has the skills and is now experimenting with red wines to add to the sparkling whites we got through.
British agricultural innovation is famous around the world. I spent time with agronomists in wheat fields in Nad Ali, just west of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, discussing the crops and potential of the soil. Using data that showed yields could be profitable, we were hopeful in those early days of turning the drug harvest into something less toxic. Sadly cheap food imports, subsidised by western governments, undercut attempts and strengthened the warlords who needed the profit heroin provides.
As we walk away from the people we’ve spent 20 years helping, I am reminded of meetings with mullahs explaining our position. Conversations with village elders discussing water rights and opening a school. But most of all of the hollow square, the padre, another CO, another OC, another name and another coffin heading back to Britain on the back of a Hercules.
For many of us, those moments will never leave us. The men I served with were “non angeli sed Angli”, to misquote Pope Gregory the Great, and they had, and have, reserves of strength that are admired. Meeting with Central Asian ambassadors recently. I heard surprise at our self-doubt on the football field or in the region.
Didn’t we know them well enough after so long to know we could stay? Hadn’t we already used 750 soldiers to keep 10,000 Nato allies supporting 400,000 Afghan forces in the field? Didn’t we remember that there are no final victories and that we sustain positions to allow new generations to grow? I share their sorrow at our departure. Their lessons apply to the football too, and I’m now looking forward to the World Cup next year. Yalla Britanni, as they say in Qatar.
Tom Tugendhat MP is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee
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