Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Monday, October 17, 2005

Saint Sherbert and the women

I’ve done two more events since my last blog. At the Italian Cultural Institute earlier this week about fifty people assembled to hear Francesco d’Adamo and me talk about our writing. He is a writer of adult novels described as “noir” (shouldn’t that be “nero”?), who has also written four books for teenagers. One of them, Iqbal, has been translated into English. Francesco has no English and our Chair Nicholas Tucker has no Italian, in common with at least half the audience.

So the event was conducted in English, with a wonderful interpreter for Francesco. He and I don’t have much in common in our writing, though he is a charming man. His Iqbal tells the true story of a boy who spoke out against the child slavery scandal of the Pakistani carpet industry, was rewarded with an International Prize and a scholarship to Harvard and was then shot by the carpet Mafia.

Grim stuff but it was delightful to hear Francesco speak of a “Pakistan inventato,” when asked if he had ever been there. I suppose invented countries might be the link though mine is more obviously so than his.

I have just got back from a frustrating trip to the Durham Literary Festival. I was as always beautifully looked after by the organiser but only four of the twenty-plus students who were supposed to be there actually came. The group had been working on inventing “an alternative Durham” supposedly inspired by Stravaganza, though only one of them had read “City of Masks.”

Their work was really promising, with a city ruled by a woman whose name was made entirely of vowels. The woman who sat beside me at the Sung Eucharist in the cathedral on Sunday sang in a high accurate piercing metallic soprano, without any consonants at all. Perhaps the students who called their imaginary city's female ruler Aeiou were reflecting a local speech pattern?

They had converted Saint Cuthbert into Saint Sherbert. More than thirty years ago I had my first encounter with old Cuddy in the cathedral at Durham. I walked up to see his burial slab of black marble, with four huge silver candlesticks, one at each corner and, by chance, my foot touched the edge of the slab.

A shock went through me like a mini-electrocution. It was as if every bone in my body was a funny one and I had jarred them all. I read later that St Cuthbert hadn’t approved of women in the church. Yesterday I sat in that same cathedral and heard a very bad sermon about women priests. The preacher said he “didn’t agree with either side,” which is palpable nonsense and then compared the issue to providing access to churches for the physically disabled! I imagined the saint lying quite comfortably in his grave behind the High Altar and not turning at all.