By Brendan Walsh
The strange feeling that you often get in cities in Europe and North America of being in the First World and the Third World at the same time is at its most intense in New York. The city oozes wealth and glamour, but blink, and with the enfeebled local currency, the plentiful supply of cheap labour, and the drive to supply the cheapest breakfast in the neighbourhood, you could be in Lagos or Johannesburg. The two New Yorks occupy the same space, hardly meeting each other’s eyes as orders are taken across deli counters and shirts are passed over to be washed and ironed in 24-hour laundrettes. The relative social fluidity of the past has been arrested. New arrivals once lived and worked in cramped conditions, and took on two or three jobs; but there was a pay-off: you could put a little aside, maybe buy a small business of your own, see the kids through college and hope for a retirement of dignity and ease. The dream of arriving here with nothing and of creating a life of security for oneself and one’s family through honest endeavour retains its hold on the imagination. But the distance between the dream and the reality is becoming stretched to breaking point. Wealth, security and opportunity are increasingly congealed at the top. Insecurity is spreading to white-collar workers, as skilled work is increasingly outsourced to Bangalore and Beijing. And there’s no longer any spare room in this itchy and anxious middle stratum for the hard-working poor.
My wife and I settle into our familiar holiday drill. In the mornings I look at churches and art galleries while Barbara examines sunglasses and alligator handbags; we meet up for lunch, after which she goes back to the hotel for a snooze while I scurry off again with my maps and guide books, like a man with a list of errands to complete before dinner. Our hotel is on the Upper West Side, a lively, slightly scruffy, little-bit Fulham, littlebit Chelsea kind of neighbourhood. We stay long enough to be on nodding terms with local shopkeepers, have a haircut, and make a few cameo appearances at local church services. When friends from Boston join us at the end of the week we proudly show them the sights of “our” neighbourhood. But the feeling of precariousness, of a social contract that is all smoke and mirrors, persists.
I’m here to work too, visiting colleagues in New York and then going on to a book fair in Chicago. Publishers are like gamblers, anxiously prowling the tables, fretting over where to put their chips. There are several “pope books” on offer, some good stuff too, not just quickie cuttings jobs but wellresearched insider accounts of his election and serious studies of the daunting Ratzinger oeuvre. The tide has turned in Vaticanology. In the 1960s and 1970s it was dominated by writers like Francis X Murphy (“Xavier Rynne”) and Peter Hebblethwaite. Their accounts of the Second Vatican Council and the years of Paul VI’s papacy read like scripts for The West Wing. Progressives – decent, smart and much more fun to have lunch with – are in power and are trying to force through enlightened reform; turkey-necked conservatives from the tobacco lobby and the rifle association are determined to stop them. The liberals win every round. Now of course it’s the conservatives who look like the cat that got the cream, and it’s not such a happy time to be too theologically louche.
Whatever “side” they take (most English Catholics would wince at the way liberal and conservative Catholics in North America – quite unembarrassed by these labels – slug it out) the type scripts I look at all perpetuate a way of writing about Catholicism that emphasises institutional processes, positions and alliances, with good guys and bad guys. We now have a Pope who is clever, theologically uninventive and camera-shy. Just the job. Perhaps we will be encouraged to shift our focus a little away from the centre to the periphery. My hunch is that the supply of material on the new Pope will outstretch demand. I lay my chips elsewhere.
If you roll up persistently to a professional conference you eventually reach a stage in your career when its organisers will feel it is appropriate to invite you to address it. If you’re asked to give a “keynote address” you know you’ve reach a position of eminence in your trade. If the organisers ask you to join a “panel” to speak at a “workshop” in an after-lunch slot you know they have picked up mixed reports of your combustibility and coherence. I’ve been asked to talk about the state of the religious book market in Britain, and I’ve done my research. Fewer people attend church on Sunday than go shopping at Ikea; a new religious book is published every 60 seconds but only one in 20 of them will sell more than four copies; more books are returned unsold from bookshops to publishers than are actually printed. Well, all right, I don’t have the precise figures to hand, but, believe me, the statistics are bloodcurdling.
The falling sales, the company mergers and the job losses that we’ve enjoyed in Europe for several years are just starting to kick in over here in the US, though it remains a thriving market for religious books. Most North Americans describe themselves as regular churchgoers, and evangelical or “born-again” Christians make up a quarter of the population. (Really – I’ve checked that one.) In England, religion is regarded with increasing distaste, at best a consolation for the soft-headed, at worst a breeding ground for sleaze and violence. Church leaders of integrity and intelligence, with skilled media handlers, can at best aspire to avoid regular public ridicule. I overdo it of course, but I succeed in lifting everyone’s spirits. They drift back to their booths like people with toothache returning from a visit to a friend with a gangrenous foot.