Deborah Orr: Can we for once forget the rules?

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The Independent Online

I can't help it. School nativities, passion plays, I still think that theatrical renditions of the life of Christ are wonderful and precious aspects of folk culture, with valuable and affirmative things to teach our children.

Which is why I was only too happy this week to travel to the Wintershall estate in deepest Surrey to watch my son perform in a seven-hour outdoor production that takes the nativity and the passion, then fills in the rest, with a cast of hundreds, including adults, children, professionals, amateurs, sheep, horses, donkeys, doves, pigeons and a dog.

Inaugurated in the run-up to the millennium, The Life of Christ has been playing to large crowds each summer ever since, in a highly original and charming event that takes the audience on many short marches through stunning countryside from valley to hill to pond (for the Sea of Galilee scenes), feeding loaves and fishes to the audience when appropriate to the narrative.

It's all there – the touching parables, the political intrigue, the irrefutable human wisdom, the death-cult discomfort and the inherent, troubling message that Christianity trumps Judaism. The Pharisees, Christian myth never emphasises, were just a particular ascendancy in a particular time and place, not at all the embodiment of all that is Jewish.

Anyway, since I don't believe in the existence of God, I'm unable to believe that Christ was his son, and incapable signing up to Christianity, or Judaism or Islam, for that matter. Yet I remain convinced that if you can't understand why people are attracted to monotheism, in all its strange manifestations, then you can't understand people at all.

Admittedly, I could be fooling myself, since I don't understand people terribly well anyway, specifically in this case some of the people I encountered on my epic journey back from Wintershall. The estate is not easy to get to, or from, and after a pleasant two-mile stroll to the nearest bus stop my son and I discovered that the next bus to Guildford wasn't due for nearly a couple of hours. In a recherché move, I stuck my thumb out, and passed an idle 20 minutes wondering what proportion of the half-empty cars passing by us, driving eyes dangerously averted, were being propelled by Christians. The white-haired ladies who eventually picked us up were Christian indeed, and feeling much too guilty that they'd been credited with selling programmes at the Wintershall event this summer, when they had actually done that last year.

The man at the Guildford railway platform seemed like a good sort as well, even if he was not a Samaritan, and advised us to go to platform five and the fast train to London, instead of the slow one we were about to board. Alas, at Waterloo, our tickets wouldn't open the barrier, which mystified and baffled us until an attendant pointed out that our tickets were to Clapham Junction only, and that we'd therefore have to have a word with "the management".

The management insisted that we'd have to get on another train and return to Clapham Junction, which we'd only just passed through without stopping, or pay a fine which they would have to calculate, but would definitely be at least £20. Wouldn't it be more sensible, I asked, just to let us out, than to force us to take up two scarce seats on a rush-hour train for no reason, or to punish us financially because we didn't see the point in this pointless exercise? Apparently not. Forty-five minutes, and five layers of "management" up, a besuited and busy chap called Sam Bourne agreed that since I'd convinced him there was no deliberate attempt at fraud, just £2.40 for the Clapham-Waterloo extension fare would secure release from the station. It took a while, but there was some wisdom to be found among the staff of South-West Trains.

What can I say, more generally, about this odd little day trip, except that it is, to me, just another tiny illustration of how the Pharisee mentality has won, and that rules trump all, including common sense, sympathy, logic, kindness, fellow-feeling and personal initiative. Staying within the rules, however counterintuitive they may be, is the curse of our age and time and place. Just look what it has done to Parliament. It's woeful that a preacher from 2,000 years ago could see the perils of living by intractable rules more clearly than anyone from our leaders to our "customer service attendants" can today.

When the tapestry unravels

Only very occasionally, reality television manages actually to feature something approaching reality. This week's two-parter, Rich, Famous and Homeless, subverted the celebrities-under-pressure format with some brilliance, leading its five media darlings into the heart of British darkness.

Bruce Jones, who played Les Battersby in Coronation Street, started out as a man who was certain that misfortune and degradation were always the result of fecklessness and laziness. Ensconced in a wet hostel in Glasgow, he realised that he was in a "suicide hotel", where elderly alcoholics drank themselves to death. Eventually he visited the cemetery that was the final destination of most residents, the hostel-purchased plots often unmarked, because these men died with no family left to remember them. "Society's fucked up," he said. "I get it now."

The former tennis player Annabel Croft was also inspired by her experience to come to a simple and profound conclusion. Placed in a hostel for young homeless people, she realised that the problem of homelessness was intimately connected to "the breakdown of families". I think she's dead right.

Maybe too many people were to keen to quote Thatcher out of context when she was interviewed by Woman's Own in 1987. "There is no such thing as society," she said. "There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate."

Thatcher's policies, wretchedly, gave the lie to her sentiments. But she was right in her belief that without family, no amount of social engineering can build robust and healthy human networks.

I'm happy to accept society as "a living tapestry of men and women and people", unravelled when any part of it is damaged. That's the quote that should have been thrown back at Thatcher, not the one that became such a nihilistic soundbite.

The burqa is not a form of dress

I'm horrified by the burqa, but also deeply uncomfortable about the idea of banning certain items of clothing in a supposedly free society. I am struck, however, by the description of the burqa offered by a French MP, André Gérin, as a "moving prison".

Perhaps it might help the debate moregenerally, in France and elsewhere, if the idea that the burqa is actually an item of clothing at all is challenged. Sure, it is made of cloth, and it drapes over the body. But it exists specifically as a machine to facilitate the movement of a woman through public spaces, unaccompanied by a male escort who is related to her, and predates Islam as a means by which females can travel alone. As such, it is a gender-specific mode of personal transport, not a form of dress, one that is simply fashioned from the cheapest, most practical and most convenient material available. Maybe we should define the burqa in terms of its primary purpose, as a barrier-providing, self-propelled vehicle.

Off-road vehicles, suitable only for use on private land, and not on taxpayer-funded communal roads, pavements, parks and gardens, are already an accepted fact of life. Maybe the burqa should be honestly defined as a primitive form of transport and legislated for accordingly.

I'm reminded, for some reason, that Lenny Henry and Dawn French once attended a fancy-dress party kitted out as Bubbles and the late Michael Jackson (respectively). How long did it take them to realise that their fellow guests were not highly amused at their double act, but desperately, wildly uncomfortable with it? Three seconds, tops, Henry reckons.