They weren’t all that pious in the good old days

You need to be wary of being too flattering about English churches. As John Betjeman said: ‘Be careful before you call Weymouth the Naples of Dorset. How many Italians call Naples the Weymouth of Campania?’ Even so, the rise of the English medieval church was extraordinary. As early as 1200 there were 9,500 churches in England — all built since 597, when St Augustine started his mission to the English at Canterbury. And lots of them are still there. Our Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Gothic churches must be the highlight of our architectural history, just ahead of our country houses. But how did the English use their churches? Step forward Nicholas

The young bride’s tale: China Room, by Sunjeev Sahota, reviewed

Sunjeev Sahota’s novels present an unvarnished image of British Asian lives. Ours Are the Streets chronicles a suicide bomber’s radicalisation, and its Booker-shortlisted successor, The Year of the Runaways, follows illegal immigrants in Sheffield — where Sahota now lives, having been raised in Derby by Punjabi-born parents. China Room, his most autobiographical work to date, mines his adolescence in deprived 1990s Chesterfield and imagines that of his great-grandmother in rural Punjab. In 1929, a 15-year-old girl is married to one of three brothers. On a remote farm, Mehar shares confined quarters with the best china and two other veiled brides —each competing to conceive a son first. Couplings take place

How to have an affair

Gstaad After six-and-a-half months apart, I had no trouble recognising my wife. Out she came on to the driveway to greet me as Charlie the horny driver brought a sleepy Greek boy home after a long flight from the Bagel. I pretended not to know her and embraced the maid instead, but it didn’t work. My son and two grandchildren added to the merriment, playing along when I asked them who that lady was who tried to kiss me. Here’s some advice to all you young whippersnappers: women will forgive anything as long as you keep it light and make them laugh. I’ve been in trouble with women throughout my

Forget race or class, marriage is the big social divide

The latest spark to ignite the culture wars is a report from the parliamentary education committee on the underachievement of working-class white boys. But this isn’t about race. The boys don’t underachieve because they are white. Their skin colour is merely a marker by which we can see that a certain cohort is doing worse than another. And despite received wisdom, it’s not just about poverty, school funding or investment. Children of other ethnicities who are equally poor, and even potentially at the same school, will likely do considerably better. It’s not even about class, which seems to be the latest factor on which the fickle finger of blame is

Boris Johnson’s refusal to talk about faith

I am struggling to make sense of the Prime Minister’s answer to my question: whether he is a practising Roman Catholic – which I asked in good faith and with good reason because he was recently married in Westminster Cathedral. His answer was: ‘I don’t discuss these deep issues. Certainly not with you.’ He is aware that – for better or worse (worse for a long time) – this has been a pertinent question for chief and prime ministers since Henry Vlll. More broadly, the professed faith (or none) of a leader matters to many voters. But it was the ‘certainly not with you’ that took me aback. There is

Marina Warner becomes her mother’s ‘shabti’

There comes a time after the death of parents when grief subsides, the sense of loss eases, and you, the child, are left wondering who those people were. What were they like? Not as you knew them as parents, but as people? For most of us, as the cliché goes, time is a healer, and these questions, thoughts, urges and memories lose their urgency. For others, and Marina Warner is clearly one, there is a more active, urgent, passionate and, yes, Proustian process at work — a need to bear witness — and it does not leave you alone until the questions are answered. For Warner, the questions relate in

Coromance is blossoming

It’s heartening to hear that while it’s curtains for the economy, our domestic lives are on the up. In Wuhan there was a spike in divorce rates, and in Japan, wives have been sending their husbands away to hostels. But here in Britain, there’s love in lockdown. Sales of engagement rings have risen significantly since we were all told to stay at home and couples have found creative ways to pop the question in their living rooms and local parks. For those who have been married for longer, working, eating and sleeping at home together 24/7 for weeks on end has been a strange novelty — an odd throwback to

Dear Mary: Can my marriage survive my husband working from home?

Q. Our son and his girlfriend have announced their engagement and we are delighted with his choice. Our problem is with what I regard as the misjudged tone of hilarity among some friends, many of whom we have not heard from for years, who have telephoned to congratulate us. It’s the emphasis on how clever our son has been and how thrilled we must be — the subtext being ‘because you’re all such snobs’ — which rankles. Yes, it’s a fact that our future daughter-in-law is a member of the aristocracy and has a bit of cash — but our son is, by any standards, an exceptional young man. Moreover,

How to avoid a lockdown divorce

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, the coronavirus pandemic now provides us with the ideal conditions to test whether the opposite is equally true: does being cooped up together in a small space for a long period of time also do the same? I think we all know the answer to that one. It will come as no surprise to any married couple – happy or otherwise – that the Chinese city of Wuhan, epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, has seen a large spike in divorce cases after couples escaped from a month’s quarantine. So, as millions of families across Britain embark on weeks, and possibly even

How could any woman fail to be won over by my new cinema room?

As Christmas approaches, fighting has broken out in the Young household. No, I’m not talking about my three boys, aged 11, 12 and 14, who have taken to playing a no-holds-barred version of American football in the kitchen. Rather, it’s Caroline and me who have been going at it. My sin has been to assume responsibility for the decor of one of the rooms in our house. This has been Caroline’s domain until now. She chooses which colour to paint the walls, what furniture to buy at Ikea and how that furniture should be arranged. My role is confined to assembling desks and bookshelves and occasionally moving beds around. But

Emma Watson, ‘self partnering’ and the rise of marriage for one

Emma Watson has said she is not single but ‘self-partnered’. The actress told Vogue: ‘I never believed the whole ‘I’m happy single’ spiel. It took me a long time but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.’ Here Ariane Sherine writes about the rise of the marriage for one: As far as the bride was concerned, the wedding was perfect. Her dress was beautiful, the vows were traditional and she changed her name after the ceremony. The clifftop scenery was breathtaking, the seven bridesmaids were encouraging and supportive: move over Princess Di. There was only one thing missing: the groom. Like a growing number of single women,

Letters | 18 July 2019

Leave we must Sir: It is interesting that as the Brexit process drags, people become more distanced from what was a simple decision made at the referendum. The question was stay or leave, and the decision was leave. In last week’s letters, Mark Pender writes that it is a mystery to him why MPs continue to support the decision to leave despite knowing it is against the country’s interests. I would venture to say that it is most certainly not ‘known’ to be against the country’s best interests. Pender goes on to say that this decision flies in the face of advice ‘from the civil service and others who have

Male order | 4 July 2019

Another turn around the block for David McVicar’s handsome 1830s Figaro at the Royal Opera — the sixth since the production’s 2006 premiere — scarcely raises an eyebrow, let alone a pulse. But a quick glance down the cast list of the current revival reveals some curiosities. First to catch the eye is Kangmin Justin Kim — the first countertenor in the company’s 250-year history to play sexually rampant page Cherubino, traditionally a trouser role for a woman. Read on and you’ll see starry German baritone Christian Gerhaher making an unexpected mid-career role debut as Figaro, as well as a main-stage house debut for his Susanna — young American soprano

Your problems solved | 6 June 2019

Q. My mother died a few months ago. Her collection of colourful clothes, hats, shoes and an immense amount of costume jewellery was donated to various charity shops in nearby Devizes. Consequently, I now see a diverse range of ladies wearing one of my mother’s ‘little numbers’. If I bump into a friend festooned in these purchases, what is the right compliment to make? — N.C., Stanton St Bernard, Wilts A. Say nothing. Part of the joy of vintage clothing is the mystery of its provenance. The buyer can fantasise — surely it must have cost a fortune originally! It’s so chic it might even have belonged to Catherine Deneuve? Or

Divorce’s faultless history

The Christian church ordained that marriage, a sacrament imparting divine grace, was for life. In 1857, the state enacted its first generally applicable divorce law, to be triggered only by sexual misdemeanours. Liberalisation slowly followed,and now ‘no fault’ divorce is being proposed in England. We edge closer to pre-Christian practice. To generalise: in both Greek and Roman worlds, marriage was essentially an understanding between two families, with fathers on both sides agreeing to and sealing the deal (that does not mean the couple’s view was irrelevant), and the bride being given a dowry by her father. The state had no official stake in the relationship. It did not keep records

Ending the divorce ‘blame game’ is a mistake

“Why do people get married?” It’s a question worth asking, not least because the government has announced the biggest change to divorce law in 50 years without attempting to answer it. Under the present law justifying reasons (adultery or unreasonable behaviour), must be given for a divorce to be finalised, usually within three to six months. Where there is no justification, the couple must live apart for at least five years, unless both spouses agree, in which case the divorce will come through after two years. The change to the law introduces ‘no-fault’ divorce, which means that no justifying reason is required. All divorce applications will go through in six

The problem with no-fault divorce | 9 April 2019

It looks as if I’m the only one who wants to keep fault in divorce then. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many divorces where there was actually fault, usually one of the parties running off with someone else. I can see why the adulterous party in the business should want to remove the distasteful fault element; I can’t quite see how it improves the situation for the cuckolded or otherwise wronged spouse. Some women I know whose husbands have moved onwards and upwards to marry their mistress have referred to them  in a fashion that would make that poor woman who was banged up in Dubai for saying that

Dear Mary | 4 April 2019

Q. A woman I’ve known for years is getting divorced and rings me every day to talk about it. I have closer friends with ongoing problems and, though I do care, I don’t have the emotional energy or time to deal with her problem as well. I work and she never has, so she can’t really understand how tired I am. Your advice? — Name and address withheld A. Confide that you are finding it difficult, both at work and at home, to talk on the telephone without being overheard. Explain that this is inhibiting your ability to empathise and strategise with her. Suggest that instead she begins to communicate

China’s singles market

 Shanghai ‘How old are you, young lady?’ A small, curious crowd starts to surround me. ‘How tall are you? What do you work as?’ The parents camping out in Shanghai’s infamous marriage market have no time for small talk. They come here every weekend, rain or shine, seeking a partner for their grown-up son or daughter. Age, wage, height, education — everyone has a wish list, and they also condense their own child into such a list. Today’s special: me. The so-called Matchmakers’ Corner has seen tens of thousands of Chinese parents, including members of my own family, come to investigate what (or who) is out there. A great many

Clucking hell

‘Last fling before the ring.’ ‘Buy me a shot, I’m tying the knot.’ ‘Keep calm and bridesmaid on.’ If you find yourself on a train to Brighton, Paris or Amsterdam with a group of women in T-shirts bearing the above slogans, change carriages. You are about to witness Jen’s hen in full prosecco-and-Pringles feather. On the lash, off the leash, bonded together in squealing sisterhood for one night only. If only it were for one night. The hyper-inflation that has seen weddings go from church and breakfast to three-day wonders now extends to the hen. Away we go to Lisbon, Barcelona, Marbella on a dawn flight in matching hoodies and