Category Archives: Religion

Three vicars are bodyguards against “stupid religious types” in Edinburgh

Yesterday, I got contacted by three vicars about the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe.

(L-R) The comic Trinity of terrifying Maggy Whitehouse, Satanic Ravi Holy and secretive Kate Bruce

Maggy Whitehouse is a former BBC journalist and Funny Women finalist, described by one head of BBC Religion & Ethics as ‘terrifying’… Ravi Holy is a former Satanist, now a regular on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought; Kate Bruce is a former crematorium worker, now a chaplain somewhere so important that she’s not allowed to say where. 

And one was expelled from the Brownies for cheating on her Housework badge. I don’t know which, but suspect it was not Satanic Ravi.

Well, OK, mea culpa, I told a fib… Forgive me Lord… I was only contacted by one vicar – Maggy Whitehouse.

I wrote a couple of blogs about her back in June last year

Yesterday, the message from her read:


If anyone at the Fringe is LGBTQ and thinks they might get any hassle from stupid religious types (though Edinburgh at the Fringe is generally lovely), Ravi Holy, Kate Bruce and I are the three vicars from White Collar Comedy, performing there this year, 1st-10th August. 

We are all three 100% allies of the LGBTQ community and we would all be very willing to act as a “don’t even think about it” bodyguard force for you if you think it might help. We can also out-quote scripture to any fundamentalist twat. Then, at the very least, you could say: “Would you like to speak to my vicar about this?”

Both Ravi and I have gay daughters and we think it’s REALLY important if vicars are going to the Fringe to nail our colours to the mast.


I wanted to know more…

This morning she told me…


“I went to the Fringe two years ago in a rainbow clerical shirt”

I went to the Fringe two years ago in a rainbow clerical shirt and I was amazed and touched at how many people from the LGBTQ community stopped me in the street and said: “Are you really a vicar?” They were so chuffed to see open support when there’s so often badly-researched religious prejudice.

Christianity began as a faith for the rejected, the poor, the slaves, the women and all the people who, in those days, didn’t fit in. It should be a place of love and safety for those who don’t fit in today. 

Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, St. Paul’s writings equated it with gossip and being rude to your parents (and who hasn’t done those?) and, anyway, he was talking about the Roman custom of male rape as a power game, not two loving people in a one-to-one relationship.

Where Christianity has gone so badly wrong over the centuries (as we three agree) is by becoming a religion of power and war. That was never Jesus’ message. Trouble is, it’s far easier to worship him (which he never asked us to do) than it is to follow him (which he did ask us to do). 

Ravi and I both have daughters who are gay so, yes, it is personal.

We are quite happy to quote the hell out of scripture to anyone who wants to have a go at the LGBTQ community and we really want everyone at the Fringe to know that, if they need help, support or a good scriptural rant, we are there for them. 

Obviously we’re not superheroes and we can’t fly directly to help but, if anyone is upset or made to feel they don’t belong, we’ll do all we can to remedy that situation, including – if possible – finding the protagonist and having a quiet, authoritative word.

Contact points? You can email raviholy@aol.com or maggy@maggywhitehouse.com.

UK mobile is 07799-761999 and texts would be by far the best way to contact.


“I suppose,” I told Maggy, “you had better also plug your show White Collar Comedy…”


It’s mainly about the ridiculous things that happen to vicars, from being asked to do a wedding dressed as Elvis or a funeral dressed as a pink fairy (and that’s just Ravi…) to…

…well, Kate has a lot of material about nuns and knickers… 

and I re-translate the Bible for the digital age, having Moses clicking on Buzzfeed for the Ten Commandments and selfies of the free Fish McFillet at the Galilee… and I mess about with unicorns. 

Then there’s the weird stuff people say to vicars too… 

“I can’t hear you properly. Your lips are too thin. You need louder lipstick…”

“Why did you speak out against Hippocrates? What’s he ever done to you?…”

“We need a small group for cat lovers…”

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Filed under Comedy, Gay, Religion

Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Muslim sister-in-law is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Lauren Booth, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, was a very vocal opponent of the 2003 Iraq War and a supporter of the Stop The War Coalition.

She is performing Accidentally Muslim at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

She trained as an actress, became a journalist and converted to Islam in 2010.

Her father was actor Tony Boothwho became famous as the Left Wing son-in-law of Alf Garnett in BBC TV’s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.

“Your mother’s maiden name was Pamela Cohen”

Accidentally Muslim is a dramatisation of her 2016 memoir Finding Peace in the Holy Land.


JOHN: Do you still exchange Christmas cards with Tony Blair?

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: So you are persona grata…

LAUREN: Ehhh… Well, I think there’s a lot of love in the family.

JOHN: Your mother was Susie Riley née Pamela Cohen. That’s a Jewish name.

LAUREN: Yeah. Her father, my grandfather, was Jewish.

JOHN: Was her mother Jewish?

LAUREN: No.

JOHN: So she’s technically not Jewish.

LAUREN: That’s right.

JOHN: There’s a lot of stuff at the moment about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Can someone be anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish?

LAUREN: I’m not going to go into that, because that’s not in my show.

JOHN: So…?

LAUREN: It’s not the same at all.

JOHN: Why not?

Lauren in Iran with an anti-Zionist Rabbi and Christian priest

LAUREN: Because you can be against a political regime without wishing harm on people who follow a faith. There are Zionists who are not Jewish and it’s the political ideas that people protest against.

JOHN: Why are you an ‘accidental’ Muslim?

LAUREN: Because things kept happening to me that pushed me in one direction until, one day, I pretty much woke up and went: Whaaaaat?? – Oh! OK! Right!

Some people will go and read and study for six years. Other people will just accept a faith. But I was resisting. I was like: Nice food, but no thankyou. And… it just happened.

JOHN: You saw a report on TV in 2000 of a boy who got shot in the Gaza Strip and then you accidentally found yourself in his village.

LAUREN: Yes.

JOHN: Are you Sunni or Shiite?

LAUREN: I just say I am Muslim.

JOHN: Can you be?

LAUREN: You can, because everything is between our hearts and the Creator. I just think it’s really disingenuous and unhelpful to get involved in sectarianism.

JOHN: Don’t people say: “You have to be with us or them”?

LAUREN: Yes, unfortunately that happens and that’s why I don’t go into it.

JOHN: How do you spell the faith? Moslem or Muslim?

LAUREN: Muslim. Like the word mosque. You know the origin? Apparently the colonial troops in India described the people flocking to their religious building as mosquitos – that eeeee sound. There were thousands of them and you didn’t want them, so that’s why it’s ‘mosque’. Most Muslims refer to it as ‘masjid’.

Young Sarah Jane later Lauren Booth

JOHN: You were born Sarah Jane Booth. So where did ‘Lauren’ come from?

LAUREN: It’s an Equity name. There was already an actress called Sarah Jane Booth, my height, brown hair, brown eyes, born the same year.

JOHN: That is rather creepy. You have a doppelgänger!

(LAUREN HUMS THE THEME TO THE TWILIGHT ZONE)

LAUREN: I just plucked ‘Lauren’ out of the air.

JOHN: Accidentally Muslim is billed as a play in the Theatre section of the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Is it a play or a monologue?

LAUREN: A monologue.

JOHN: So is it a monologue about how we should all become Muslims?

LAUREN: Absolutely not.

JOHN: But it’s going to be a terribly serious talk about death, destruction and…

LAUREN: Well, I’ve just come out of rehearsals for it and we’ve been roaring with laughter for 30 minutes. It has some real light and shade in it.

JOHN: You have a director for the show. You started as an actress, then became a journalist. You can write and you can act. Why do you need a director?

LAUREN: It would have been such an act of arrogance to have come back after 26 years of not being on the stage as an actor and say: “I can do this on my own!”… It would have been a catastrophe. I wanted to dramatise the story and make it ‘live’. It has a soundscape and visuals and lighting cues and I play twelve characters. So it’s very much not a lecture.

JOHN: So it’s not a monologue: it IS more of a play.

LAUREN: Is it a one woman dramatisation? Does that work? One of the characters I play is Billy Connolly.

One of the 12 characters Lauren will play (Photograph by Eva Rinaldi)

JOHN: If you have to cover your head for religious reasons and you don’t have a beard, how are you going to do that?

LAUREN: You’ll have to see the play to find out.

JOHN: Good PR!… So the play is a coming-together of your skills as an actress, journalist, world traveller…?

LAUREN: You know, going through these rehearsals, it’s a story of somebody who’s by chance at certain pivotal moments in history and has certain realisations along the way. It covers 40 years, 12 characters, 2 faiths and 2 or 3 continents.

JOHN: Which continent is the Middle East in?

LAUREN: It’s a totally Orientalist term. The Orientalists said Britain is the middle of the world and everything else (beyond the English Channel) is East, so it is the Middle of the East.

JOHN: It’s certainly not Africa; it’s certainly not Europe; it’s not Asia.

LAUREN: What about calling it Middle Earth?

JOHN: We would have to worry about the Nazgûl coming in. Talking of which, among others, you wrote for the New Statesman AND for the Mail on Sunday. There’s a – eh – mixture of politics in there.

LAUREN: Well, my politics was always the same. I like to tell myself that the Right Wing paid for my Left Wing pretensions. But I don’t know if ethically, looking back, that really works. Can you take quite so much money off Associated Newspapers and still be Left Wing? That’s up for debate. But I wrote what I wanted. They did give me free rein and I did get some good stories that I wanted in because I used to stand-in for Suzanne Moore: hardly a bastion of the Right.

I described doing that kind of job as being an aquifer for hatred for Middle England.

JOHN: …and at the New Statesman? The type of stuff you were writing was…?

LAUREN: I would call myself  “a chronicler of London society” at that time.

The Daily Mail’s photo of Lauren with her dad Tony Booth

JOHN: Someone said, when you converted, you had moved “from hedonism to hajj”. Your dad, actor Tony Booth, was very Bohemian.

LAUREN: Well, we are all products of our childhood and my dad taught me an awful lot. He taught me how to roll a spliff that would look like a cigarette.

JOHN: Remembered fondly.

LAUREN: Absolutely.

JOHN: You’ve worked for Press TV AND Al Jazeera. Press TV? That’s pure propaganda…

LAUREN: It was the only place to get out some really good information about Palestine.

JOHN: You spend a lot of time in the Middle East?

LAUREN: I haven’t been for five years. I’m hoping to go back to Qatar. I can’t really get into Gaza at the moment. The last time I went through Israel was 2009. The problem with getting into Gaza is you can’t get in through Egypt. You have to go in through Israel.

JOHN: Do you personally, specifically have problems getting into Israel?

LAUREN: I haven’t so far.

JOHN: You were on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in 2006. Why did you do that?

LAUREN: Because it was adventure. The only thing that scared me was bungee jumping and I did three… Three!

JOHN: The viewers voted that you had to?

LAUREN: Yeah.

JOHN: You are always going to be tarred with Tony Blair… but the good side is you will always get coverage out of it.

LAUREN: It’s not about coverage. I have no issue with it having been a door-opener. At certain times, you have to say: That door was absolutely opened because of it. What you do when you get inside, though, is what defines you. So I am very grateful for that and I hope I’ve used it for good and made some points that needed to be made and told stories for people who don’t normally get their stories told.

JOHN: I was going to say it’s a cross you have to bear. But I suppose it’s a crescent you have to bear.

LAUREN: Can I have that for the play?

JOHN: It’s yours.

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Filed under Islam, Palestine, Politics, Religion

Praising the Lord in Kenya, as dirt is shovelled over a dead 12 year old boy…

Copstick is in Kenya

Journalist, comedy critic and charity-founder Kate Copstick is currently in Kenya.

She is, once again, working there with her charity Mama Biashara.

Here are the latest extracts from her journal.

Fuller versions are posted on the Mama Biashara Facebook page.


Moses (left) enjoying his favourite nyama choma (roast meat)

Friday 26th April

We head for Mutalia, near Ruai, to visit the family of Moses who died of meningitis last Monday, aged 12. Mama Biashara buys him a coffin. And coffins are important in Kenya. 

We were with Moses in 2010, when he arrived at Felista’s suffering from extreme malnutrition. His baby brother had a serious chest infection, his sisters had infections in liver and spleen and his big brother had a growth on his back. 

Their ‘father’ had abandoned them after their mother died. That was 2010. Their great uncle took them in when they left Felista and Mama Biashara paid school fees and bills. Now the children are with their great aunt. ‘Great’ both in the sense of being their great uncle’s wife and ‘great’ in looking after them when she herself has very little and four children of her own. They call her mum.

All the children flourished. But Moses was the little academic star. He was always No 1 or No 2 in his class. He wanted to be an engineer. He was so much fun. Lively and lovely. And now he is dead. Science tells us we are all stardust, but Moses, more than most. I hope that wherever he is, whatever he is, he is shining brightly.

President Uhuru Kenyatta was seeking a loan from China

Saturday 27th

The market is full of people worrying about the Chinese invasion, new taxes and getting angrier by the second at a government that borrows vast fortunes to build roads while people starve. Everyone – even the Kikkuyu – is finding some happiness in the fact that the president has just come from a trip to China without the extra extra extra loan he went asking for. 

“The Chinas say No. I am very happy,” says one of my pals and we all nod vigorously. 

The personal debt of each individual Kenyan is calculated to be just over £1,000. Much more than a huge percentage of them see in a year. 

Now, do not get me wrong. I am a HUGE fan of their cuisine, the noodle is my staple food. I am in awe of their State Circus and their religion seems lovely. I personally do not have a phone made there, but many of my best friends do. However, the Chinese have all but destroyed the Kenyan fishing people in Lake Victoria. 

Our ladies (and men) who were doing SO well for many years have now returned to prostitution, Doris says.

What happened was this. 

The Chinese came, at the invitation of the Kenyan Government, they saw, they liked the tilapia and the tilapia business. They bought entire boatloads of fish, removed the eggs, shipped them back to China and now China farms Lake Victoria tilapia and sells it back to Kenya where it is bought, frozen, sold in supermarkets, because it is much cheaper than the fresh stuff which comes from Lake Victoria. And the Kenyan Government allows this to happen. The Kenyan fishing people of Lake Victoria are collateral damage. 

Moses: “He was so much fun. Lively and lovely. And now he is dead. Meningitis”

Tuesday 30th April

Today is Moses’ burial. 

Langata Cemetary is huge and we are over at the back amongst what Felista tells me are temporary graves for those who cannot afford permanent resting places. 

There is a huge crowd. People from the school, people from churches and I have no idea who else. Also a couple renting out chairs, a bloke selling peanuts and someone setting up a little stall selling soft drinks and snacks just behind the seating area. 

We take our places and, as a tiny, shiny little man in a shiny suit welcomes us, there is much clanking as scaffolding for a gazebo tent is erected and the coffin placed underneath. 

I am invited to sit with the family which is very touching and a great honour. Dinah has pretty much arranged everything and I think it is due to her that so many have come. 

The proceedings start with the tiny, shiny man explaining that we should all be rejoicing because this was God’s plan for Moses. I am thinking that, if it was, it was a rubbish plan. 

We then sing for around ten minutes about how great the Lord is and how wonderful/excellent/glorious/powerful/great/amazing/fabulous is his name, clapping and doing that step-dig step so beloved of the Four Tops. 

Then there is a lovely, lovely bit where people come up and talk a little about Moses (including, in an unexpected turn of events, me). 

Dinah spoke wonderfully and some kids from the school sang. But, apart from that, it was like an extended episode of Nairobi’s Got Pastors. 

There were about six or seven of them, welcomed to the microphone by the tiny, shiny man who has missed his vocation as a comedy club MC because he really whipped up the applause for each pastor. And the pastors’ wives. And every church elder who was with us. And anyone who ran a youth group, church choir or had at any time had anything to do with any church. 

I understood about 60% of what each of the suited and booted septet was saying but no one really mentioned Moses.

They name-checked their churches and I wish I had counted the number of times the words Bwana Sifiwe (Praise be to God) were uttered because I think a record must have been broken. 

I am invited to view the body. I say goodbye and wipe dust off the window covering him. Then there is a scramble for others to see him. 

I have no idea who these people are. 

There is more extended praising of Jesus’ name in song.

The family (and I) are surrounded by the suited and booted ones and prayed over with still no mention of Moses. And then we go to the graveside, marching, as we do, over dozens of unmarked graves. 

Now things rachet up a notch with much howling. 

As Moses goes into the grave, a brightly-dressed woman flings herself to the ground and threshes around shrieking. Most ignore her, but she upsets the small children. 

It turns out that she is an aunt. The mother’s sister. It turns out there is actually a family who have ignored these kids for the nine years they have been with Mama Biashara. The shrieking one is a little late in her feelings for her nephew. 

We stand as the grave is filled-in, which is horrible.

It is made even more horrible by a weeny woman with a bad weave who bursts into enthusiastic song about rejoicing. 

She really goes for it. 

For a long long time. 

Praising the Lord, as dirt is shovelled over a dead twelve year old boy.


Mama Biashara works with the poorest and most marginalised people in Kenya. It gives grants to set up small, sustainable businesses that bring financial independence and security. It offers training and employment in everything from phone repairs to manicures. It has built a children’s home, which it still supports. It has created water-harvesting solutions for drought-devastated areas. And it helps those fleeing female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex slavery and child rape. It receives no grants and survives totally on personal donations (and sales at its shop in Shepherds Bush, London), 100% of which go to its work, none of which goes to Kate Copstick. She herself covers all her own personal expenses, including her accommodation costs and her travel costs.
www.mamabiashara.com

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Filed under China, Death, Kenya, Politics, Poverty, Religion

Comedian Lynn Ruth Miller in Jakarta on lovely audiences and anti-Semitism

Lynn Ruth went on stage unusually “terrified” in Jakarta

In the last few months, London-based American comic Lynn Ruth Miller (who recently turned 85) has been gigging in Prague, Dublin, Berlin, Paris, Edinburgh, San Francisco and Manila. Coming up are gigs in Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Bangkok and, she says, “possibly somewhere in Cambodia”.

But last weekend, betwixt Manila and Shanghai, she writes…


I was in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was hot and wet. A characteristic I gave up when I hit sixty. I arrived at 11.00am their time and the first thing that struck me was how really lovely the airport was. It was amazing how easy it was to navigate compared to Manila, which was a nightmare.

Indonesians like old ladies and I was swept through Immigration so easily I thought I missed a window and someone would make me turn around and start all over again.  

David, the pastor for youth I met while waiting for the plane, was there at baggage collection to help me with my bag and used his phone to contact Eamonn Sadler, who books comedy at The American Club in Jakarta.  

I had had approximately two hours sleep on the plane and was not at my best as I staggered out of Immigration and tried to find Eamonn. But there he was towering above everyone else in that airport looking down at the top of my head.  

I just about reached his kneecap and I knew he was thinking: ”I hired a comedian, not a pygmy.”  

But he is British so he just nodded politely (at least I think he did. I couldn’t see that far up), asked me if I was all right (at least I think he did; my hearing aids were in my bag), took my case and I toddled after him taking fourteen steps to his one.  

As soon as we walked outside I was smacked in the face with hot, wet air.  

Lynn Ruth performed her show Not Dead Yet!

Even Manila is cool compared to Jakarta. But, indoors, the air conditioning is very efficient and for some reason you don’t feel that blast of cold air when you are inside.

The ride from Jakarta Airport took about two and a half hours. Obviously no-one in the place uses his or her feet and everyone has large, cumbersome, air-conditioned automobiles with which they enjoy trying to get as close to one another without actually denting a fender. Bicycles and motorbikes weave in and out between the cars making everyone hate them.  

The traffic department decided to build brick barriers in the middle of the street so no-one can make a right turn. So you have to do a U-turn at intersections if you can. But the roads are like parking lots and nothing moves.

When we pulled up to the entrance of the Liberta hotel, Eamonn stopped the car and I got out thinking we had arrived at our destination. But this was only for a routine inspection. There was a wave of terrorist attacks in Surabaya (Indonesia’s second largest city) last May and there is heightened security in Jakarta because of that and because they hosted the Asian Games. 

Foreigners are often targets, which is why most expats have a night watchman to guard their property and all public buildings conduct routine inspections on every car that enters their premises.  

By the time I got to my hotel room, I was in a coma of fatigue. I crawled into bed and slept until 7.00pm, when we drove to The American Club.

Since The American Club is part of the American Embassy complex in Jakarta, the security is even more intense there.

The thing I liked about the show, which had about seven acts, was that Eamonn established immediately that comedy is meant to be fun, not politically correct and everyone on the bill deserved to be listened to without interruption.

Even so, I was terrified that I would say something that offended someone or would go on for hours without that laugh all of us in this profession lap up like manna from heaven. Or that the local audience would not get the jokes. But they did. They laughed and they clapped and they all joined in the song that ended my set.

Another country; another cake. Lynn Ruth & Eamonn Sadler

At the end of my performance, Eamonn came on stage with… yes… ANOTHER BIRTHDAY CAKE and flowers. This birthday celebration of mine seems to go on and on and on.  If I keep getting all those cakes, I will probably explode before I am 86 or won’t fit into the coffin.

After the show, Naomi and Eric welcomed me on behalf of Jakarta’s Jewish community.

It turns out that there are about 20 Jewish families in Jakarta in this predominately Muslim country. It is estimated that there are about another 20,000 descendants of Jews who have assimilated and are part of greater Indonesia.

Indonesians must carry an identity card that states their religion and, since Judaism is not one of the seven they recognize, most Jews say they are Christian.  

Those who practice Judaism keep a very low profile. It is not easy to be Jewish in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and it is even harder this year, as anti-Semitic sentiment has grown since Donald Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a holy place to both Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. Every time there is a Palestinian/Israeli conflict, anti-Semitism flares up in Indonesia.

When I realized how dangerous it is to be Jewish in so many countries, I began to understand why the synagogues in Stamford Hill, London, where I now live, are so hidden that I have lived there for two years and only now have begun to discover where they are located. All of them are set far back from the street,  heavily gated and even more heavily guarded.  

In 2013, The Times of Israel reported that Indonesia’s last synagogue – the Beith Shalom synagogue in Surabaya, Java – had been destroyed to its foundations by unknown persons.

I personally have never encountered overt anti-Semitism and so I have never taken it very seriously but, when I met these lovely people in Jakarta who dare not openly practice their faith, I realized how deeply imbedded hatred of the Jews actually is, not just in Indonesia but worldwide.

The next afternoon, Joe and Rheysa took me to Jakarta’s version of an Italian restaurant: Mama Rosy’s.

It turned out that Rheysa once worked for L’Oreal and now she puts on a great deal of make up to look like she has no make up on at all. She explained the procedure for the ‘Natural Look’ that begins with ironing her hair and continues with darkeners and lighteners, blushers and intensifiers to make her look like the natural beauty she is in the first place.  

It occurred to me that I should follow her advice but iron my face instead of my hair. However, I gave up that idea before we got to our coffee. I have not so much as ironed a napkin in sixty years.

After lunch, we drove through the city and I was struck by how crowded the streets are, how dense the concentration of people and how little actual green space. The houses seem to be packed tightly next to one another and the streets are narrow, lined with tiny shops and street food vendors. It was a very different feel from Manila with its very tall streamlined buildings and wide highways. It reminded me a lot of Bangkok.

Jakarta – partly houses packed tightly together – partly not.

That night I had arranged to go to Naomi and Eric’s home for dinner to meet their three children and have dinner. When I got into Eric’s car, I entered a totally different world. He and Naomi have lived in Jakarta for 17 years.

His home is modern and spacious and they have seven servants, as do most of the well-to-do in Jakarta. They have drivers for the children, plus cooks, cleaners and gardeners. They are a part of an ex-pat community that does so well in this part of the world. Both are originally from the United States and after they married lived in Singapore for a while and loved it.

In fact, Naomi still works in Singapore several days a week and both of them do a great deal of travel. That is why they need so much domestic help.  

Yet they are trying to keep up the Jewish traditions we all learned growing up. I too observed those holidays and, of course, loved the special foods: the challah, the gefilte fish, the bagels and the chicken soup. Those things are as much part of being Jewish as observing the Sabbath.

China is next!!!! Not the dinnerware; the country.

But I got a message this morning from Andy Curtain who runs the Kung Fu Comedy Cub in Shanghai that the government had closed down the club.  

In China, there are all kinds of intricacies with licensing and permits that are only occasionally enforced. So it seems I am going to Shanghai with nothing much to do but explore the city…

… CONTINUED HERE

Lynn Ruth with the Jakarta show folk

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Filed under anti-semitism, Indonesia, Jewish, Religion, Travel

Maggy Whitehouse, comic and vicar: “Let’s say The Truth is in Finchley”

“I was at the end of my rope with Christianity…”

Yesterday’s blog was a chat with Maggy Whitehouse, stand-up comedian and freelance vicar/priest.

It was intended to be about her comedy, but strayed into religion… Here it continues…


JOHN: So, at home, you have an Isis and Mary altar? Isis the Egyptian god, not the Islamic fundamentalists.

MAGGY: Yes, Isis and Mary represent the Great Mother, because it’s all one Great Mother and one Great Father. The idea is she stuck her husband’s body back together after he was all carved up and she managed to conceive a child from it.

I studied New Testament Greek and really got into it and then I met a Jewish guy and he was at the end of his rope with Judaism and I was at the end of my rope with Christianity and my teacher of healing sent us off to this guy in London who was teaching Kabbalah, which is Jewish mysticism. So I started studying that.

JOHN: The Madonna stuff?

MAGGY: No. There are two sorts of Kabbalah. Hers is based in the 16th century and takes the theory that, when God created the Universe, he made a mistake. 

Mine is based in Biblical times, which is that, when God created the Universe, it was all perfect and we screwed up. Well, not even that, because Jews don’t believe in Original Sin, so how could Jesus?

Independent Maggy marries a Sikh man & a Christian woman

Anyway, there I was, doing this New Age stuff, doing funerals and my now-husband’s best friend was murdered in London and he and I were members of the same Kabbalah group. He asked me to do the funeral for Jon and my (Christian) bishop was in the congregation and phoned me up the following week and said: “OK, God told me we need you and you need us.”

I told him: “You must be out of your mind.”

But he was a guy after my own mind who was saying: Christianity has lost EVERYTHING. It’s all meant to be about love, inclusivity, kindness, simplicity. So I decided I would train. And I did.

JOHN: The Old Testament and the New Testament appear to me to have totally different gods. The Old Testament teaches “an eye for an eye”… The New Testament teaches “turn the other cheek”.

MAGGY: One thing is we only have one Hebrew testament. There used to be dozens and dozens and dozens of versions of it. But they pulled it all together into one after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. So we don’t know what the original text was.

We DO know that there are an awful lot of edits. And also, in ancient days, they read the text on four levels: the literal, the allegorical, the metaphysical and the mystical. If you take the texts out of the literal sense, they’re all about the psychological development of the soul. 

JOHN: You don’t sound especially Christian to me; just generically religious.

MAGGY: I am a very passionate follower of the teachings of Jesus… But he never once asked us to worship him. He said: “Follow me.”

JOHN: Buddha tried that. It didn’t work. I am not a god. I am not a religion. Do NOT worship me. But now loads of people clearly worship him as an idol.

“90% of people can’t be arsed to go to Finchley”

MAGGY: Of course it doesn’t work. The thing about faith is… If you like the look of it, you’ve got to go on the journey, go through all these Road to Damascus moments.

Let’s say The Truth is in Finchley. If you are a proper seeker, you travel to Finchley. But 90% of people can’t be arsed to go to Finchley, so they will find somebody who HAS been to Finchley and worship them. And, if they can’t find someone who has been to Finchley, they will worship the signpost… And that is what religion is.

I was Church of England, but now I am an Independent. We have been associated with part of the liberal Catholic Church, but I am actually ‘an independent’.

JOHN: If you don’t follow the rules of a specific recognised branch of Christianity, surely you are a heretic?

MAGGY: Of COURSE I am a heretic. The Methodists in West Devon use me – I’ve got two services this Sunday – 11.00am and 6.30pm – which is very decent of them. They heard me on BBC Radio Devon: I did a year there as a presenter. But my local rector, who runs the Anglican area can’t use me, because he would get lynched. 

JOHN: Not literally.

MAGGY: Not literally.

JOHN: So you are only really recognised as a proper person by the Methodists?

MAGGY: I’m not really recognised by them, because I can’t do communion for them. I just showed up, lay on my face on the floor in my white robe and got my hands and brow anointed.

JOHN: Ooh! A white robe. Sounds kinda Druidy.

MAGGY: I COULD be Druidy. The wonderful thing is, if you do this mysticism, this direct experience of what you perceive to be the divine, you can converse with anyone of any faith and none – And that’s what it’s about.

Maggy’s first book – about a different type of journey

JOHN: You have written seventeen books, mostly about religion and spirituality.

MAGGY: I’m writing a new book at the moment: Kabbalah and Healing. I have to deliver it to the publisher by the end of September; published the beginning of next year.

JOHN: I suppose we should mention you doing stand-up comedy as, supposedly, that is the bloody reason why we are sitting here chatting in the first place. How did you get into comedy?

MAGGY: I do spiritual workshops and events and things like that to make a living. People kept saying to me: “You’re very funny; you should do comedy.”

There was a comedy course in Birmingham half a mile from me that cost £50. I went along and I was the oldest person by 35 years. At the end, there was a showcase and, a week later, I was asked to back Hal Cruttenden on an Edinburgh Fringe preview at Kings Heath in Birmingham.

I started doing unpaid gigs after that. But then I moved to Devon. Six months later, I got cancer – non-Hodgkin lymphoma. That was a massive Road to Damascus healing journey too.

JOHN: Edinburgh Fringe?

MAGGY: I did one Edinburgh run in 2014 when I had only been performing comedy for 18 months and I had the cancer at the time. I went to Edinburgh as a bucket list thing. I had to rest all day, do my hour at night, then go back and rest. So I didn’t really get the Edinburgh experience at all.

JOHN: Will you go again?

MAGGY: At the moment, I am trying to get together four priests including me to go to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 – There’s Ravi Holy, a rector in Canterbury; Kate Bruce, who’s chaplain to the RAF at Brize Norton; and Mark Townsend, who’s an ex-Anglican but still a vicar who is a magician.

Maggy performed at the Monkey Business comedy club in London earlier this month

JOHN: So where else do you go from here? Another Road to Damascus?

MAGGY: I have no idea where I go from here. I basically thought: I will give the comedy five years and see what happens. That is almost up now.

I don’t know where I’m going.

I am writing the book; I am doing spiritual workshops; I am pottering along quite happily in comedy.

And I am happy.

I am incredibly happy. 

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The Maggy Whitehouse Experiences – the stand-up comic who is also a vicar

Maggie says: “Most of the congregation are sheep… Literally”

Maggy Whitehouse bills herself as a “Maverick priest, comedian and author who believes in an All-Inclusive Loving Beingness that also kicks ass.”

 So, obviously, I wanted to talk to her.

So, obviously, we did – at Paddington station – when she was in London.

So we were, obviously, supposed to be talking about comedy but we ended up, obviously, talking about religion…

…and, no, she is not related to Mary Whitehouse…


JOHN: I tend to ramble when I chat to people..

MAGGY: I love rambling. Going off in different directions. Most of the congregation are sheep.

JOHN: Be careful what you get quoted saying!

MAGGY: No. Literally. I sometimes go out and practise a sermon at night, when I’m putting the chickens to bed. I will be in the paddock sermonising out loud and I will turn round and 30 pairs of sheep eyes are staring at me, from the field behind.

JOHN: You live a rural life on Dartmoor. Are you from there?

MAGGY: No. Harborne in Birmingham.

JOHN: And you were a producer for Carlton TV.

MAGGY: I did a couple of documentaries on China in the 1980s, because my dad was a railway expert and used to write books about steam engines. He founded the Birmingham Railway Museum. He went in to China in 1976 – as soon as it opened up – with my brother. After three or four years, my brother decided to get married. My father had no-one else to travel with, so he took me to China.

Suzi Quatro, Vince Hill and Caesarian scar sightings

I was already working as a radio presenter with Radio WM in Birmingham, then I moved over to BBC TV – Pebble Mill at One – as a producer. I joined them three months before they closed. Then I moved to Carlton TV and a terrible lunchtime show called Gas Street. It had Suzi Quatro and Vince Hill as presenters. That was a marriage made in Hell. Suzi was great fun: she used to show us her Caesarian scar and things like that.

JOHN: You met loads of famous people.

MAGGY: Yes. This was back in the politically incorrect days. I met Rolf Harris and he was disgusting.

JOHN: He had a reputation, back then, as a groper.

MAGGY: He used to push himself up against you and put his hands behind you and go “Woo-wugh-wugh-woo-wugh-wugh” like his wobbly board thing. Fortunately I was too old for Jimmy Savile. I just knew he was vile; he made my skin crawl.

JOHN: Steam engines got you into TV…

MAGGY: Yes. My dad got a commission to write a book on steam engines in China but they wanted a real coffee table book – not just all about the engines; more about travel. I had been travelling with him for six years by then – we went out every summer – so I wrote the book and he took the pictures.

Then I did two TV documentaries on steam engines in China and got lots of marriage proposals but Tiananmen Square happened and all future travel in China went out the window. And I had also met my first husband, Henry. He was a sound recordist. We got married and he was diagnosed with terminal cancer six months later – two months after Tiananmen Square – and by February the following year he was dead. So I lost husband and career within a year, which was a bit…

JOHN: Was this when you had a Road to Damascus and decided to become a vicar?

MAGGY: No. But I lost my faith then, really. I had been an armchair Christian. I just showed up at church occasionally at Christmas.

My husband Henry had been an atheist and, on his deathbed, the Catholic hospital chaplain said: “I’m sorry, my dear, but, if he’s an atheist who does not believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, then he cannot go to heaven.”

THAT was a Road to Damascus moment, because I just thought: But that is wrong! Henry was a better person than I. He was kinder than I. He was far less of a trollop than I had ever been. I just thought: No! No! And I could not get a funeral for him that would reflect a little bit of faith. 

It had to be Church of England or Humanist back then and my family and his family would not go for Humanist so, basically, I walked up the aisle behind my young husband’s coffin hearing him damned to Hell. And I was thinking: This isn’t right! This isn’t right!

Most people might go into Atheism from that, but I went crazy and went into New Age – Buddhism and chakras and healing and that sort of thing.

JOHN: Kabbalah?

MAGGY: That came later.

JOHN: Did the New Age stuff help you?

MAGGY: Yes, because I learned about all sorts of alternative things and Healing was very interesting at this point.

Maggy’s business card (NOTE: Terms & conditions apply)

After a few years, I realised I was still FURIOUS with Christianity. The whole idea that, if you didn’t believe in Jesus, you didn’t go to heaven. And all the power and corruption which everybody alerts me to and I know about… But I realised what I had done was I had stuck all this in a nasty heap in the corner, put a nice pink blanket over it and covered it in tea lights and crystals and I was pretending it didn’t exist. I realised I was going to have to deal with it.

I also started having the opportunity to do funerals for people.

JOHN: You were a multi-faith funeral giver?

MAGGY: Sort of. A sort of self-taught one. I found a guy in London who taught me.

JOHN: Funerals? What needs teaching?

MAGGY: You have to be taught what not to say and how to deal with dead bodies and bereaved people. You are quite often going to be there when they are dying. I ended up being a hospice chaplain.

So I started putting myself around as a funeral person in London, where the work was. And I went to university to learn New Testament Greek because I thought: If I can read the New Testament in Greek, I might actually understand what this guy Jesus was on about and not have to rely on other people’s translations.

However, it turns out there are 32,000 versions of the New Testament in Greek.

JOHN: Not literally 32,000…

MAGGY: Yes, literally. Most of them are fragments. Only about 500 are full ones. But they are quite dramatically different.

JOHN: Are they all translated from the Aramaic or something?

MAGGY: No, they’re just different ways they wrote it down because, in those days, if somebody had written down one of the Gospels and wanted to copy it out, they would read it out loud and people would copy it down and they would make mistakes. 

JOHN: I remember reading or hearing somewhere that, in the original language, there is no definite or indefinite article. 

MAGGY: That’s right.

JOHN: So the phrase ‘Son of God’ does not necessarily mean THE Son of God, it can equally mean A Son of God. And we are all Sons (or Daughters) of God.

MAGGY: Yes. We are all children of God… and Christ is not Jesus’ surname… The Christ exists independently of Jesus.

JOHN: In the original, no-one was saying he was The Christ. They were saying he was a Son of God: he was a good man. The Moslems believe in Jesus as a prophet, don’t they?

MAGGY: Yes. In fact, he is mentioned in the Koran more than Mohammed is.

A sphere representing the Left Eye of God – inside the Cao Dai Tây Ninh Holy See in Vietnam.  (Photograph by Ernie Lo)

JOHN: The Cao Dai religion in Vietnam reveres Confucius, Jesus and Victor Hugo… I think because the French civil servant who created the religion rather liked the works of Victor Hugo.

MAGGY: Well, you should see my altar at home. It has Isis, Mary & Joseph and…

JOHN: Isis as opposed to ISIS

MAGGY: Yes. One of my friends Christened his daughter Isis eight years ago. It is a problem now…

(… CONTINUED HERE …)

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Why has comedian Akin Omobitan started a podcast called IT DIES HERE?

JOHN: So you have started a podcast. Why not do a blog? – Or is that too old-fashioned?

AKIN: I did do a blog back in the day and someone did once call me a blogger and I really didn’t know how to take that.

JOHN: Are you sure it was a blogger he called you?

AKIN: Yes. You have a blog. How do you describe yourself?

JOHN: The former John Fleming. 

AKIN: I used to blog back in 2004. I had wanted to do a podcast for ages but never had an idea I thought would be ‘for people’. 

JOHN: And now you have. Why is it called It Dies Here?

AKIN: It is pretty much a celebration of idiocy, calamity, regret, stupidity, misfortune, mishaps. So, each week, I have a different guest and they bring a story, a situation or an event which plays in circles in their head because, in hindsight, they now know how they could have handled it differently and better. So, instead of it living in their head, they bring it to the podcast and it can die.

JOHN: Sounds like online therapy.

A couple of people have said: “Oh wow! This is like therapy!

AKIN: A couple of people have come on and said: Oh wow! This is like therapy! but none of them has agreed to pay for my services yet.

JOHN: Do you have a couch to lie on?

AKIN: I do. But, if I invited people to my home to lie on a couch, it might just lead to misinterpretations.

JOHN: People might queue.

AKIN: Well, since releasing the trailer and putting Episodes 1 and 2 online, people have got in touch with me asking to be on the podcast.

JOHN: Do you edit it?”

AKIN: No. Because of the time it takes. And because I think it’s good for the listener to get the full conversation.

JOHN: Are the guests all comedians?

AKIN: No. Coming up, we have a couple of comedians, a financial journalist, a DJ and a TV presenter.

JOHN: Despite having co-hosted 101 Grouchy Club podcasts, I am not really a podcast listener. I have a feeling there’s something else I could do – like watch two-thirds of an old British comedy movie on TV.

AKIN: Or you could listen to a podcast and hear about the demise of an individual who started his own business, was offered millions for it and a job in Silicon Valley and all of that crumbled.

JOHN: But will it have knob gags? Anyway… where is this new weekly podcast leading? To a ‘proper’ broadcast radio show?

AKIN: I don’t know. It’s a different way of expressing yourself creatively. I used to write; that was one method. Doing stand-up comedy is another method. I MC shows as well; that’s different. And the podcast is such a different platform.

JOHN: How?

AKIN: With a lot of my stand-up, it is scripted. I may go off on tangents and play around a bit, but the majority of it is premeditated… When you are MCing, you can have a chat with the audience, but there are lots of different people and you are not really having a conversation with them; you are just trying to make the room fizz… When you do a podcast, you sit one-on-one with someone and have a good in-depth conversation for around 45 minutes.

JOHN: I find listening to what people say is over-rated.

“…I had things which ran around in MY head…”

AKIN: Part of what inspired…

JOHN: What?

AKIN: Part of what inspired the podcast is that I had things which ran around in MY head much longer than they should have… You know when you are a teenager and you are just very broody and moody and miserable? And that can go from adolescence into adulthood. Break-ups, different careers, failures. I was fired from jobs on a number of occasions. There were lots of things I had to let go of and, in letting go of them, I realised that I myself was the main reason I was not happy.

When I realised that and took a bit more control of my own happiness, I became a happier, nicer person.

And, because I had this reference point of me being a moody, miserable, self-indulgent person, I never wanted to be that person again. It inspired me to drift away from that aspect of my personality and more towards embracing the good things of life.

JOHN: You are a Christian. Did you go through a period in your teens of not being a Christian?

AKIN: I wouldn’t describe myself as re-born. I think a big part of it, actually, is that, when you grow up in a Christian household, there are a lot of beliefs and belief systems which you adopt without really making a choice. I guess part of my ‘liberation’ was stepping away from a lot of things. 

I guess I stepped away from a lot of the formalities of Christianity and the closeness I had with my parents. I quit my job. A lot of things: friendships, relationships, even myself. Lots of things I just stepped away from entirely.

Akin will be appearing with Lew Fitz at the Edinburgh Fesival Fringe this August

And then, one-by-one, I started re-connecting to all of these things, but under my terms. My relationship with my family is great, but I no longer feel the need to pander to my parents’ wishes for my life. I have tailored my friendship circles, so it is people who I genuinely want to be friends with, as opposed to people who I have just known for a long time.

Even with my Faith, I would say I am a lot more liberal in my views and outlooks. I guess there are different ideals and morals and stuff which I agree with. I just connect with things very differently. I guess there’s just a certain amount of freedom now.

JOHN: So you are more liberal in accepting other people’s ideas and beliefs?

AKIN: Definitely. I would always have described myself as liberal but I think, until you step away from your ideas then re-connect to them as you want, you are not really living your Truth.

When I decided who I wanted to be and who I wanted to connect with, I then started thinking: Why do I?

So, as opposed to Oh! I just love everyone, man! I then started thinking Why do I believe that?

I guess a lot of my beliefs and ideologies now are bounded more in me personally, not just: Oh. Because I’m a Christian, this is why I love everyone… or Because I’m a black person, this is why I behave this way. I just separated myself from a lot of parts of my identity and found a way of re-connecting… Yeah…

JOHN: Yeah.

AKIN: Maybe that sounds a bit hippyish and… Yeah…

JOHN: Yeah.

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