Lime Tea with Madeleine Bunting

First published in Emel Magazine.

Madeleine is sitting back in a comfortable polka-dotted armchair that matches nothing but compliments everything in her high ceilinged living room in Hackney, London. A seasoned reporter and commentator on religion and social affairs for the Guardian, Madeleine has momentarily forgotten that I have arrived to interview her. She fires a series of questions at me. Who am I? Where am I from? How did I end up here? I feel like it’s a test, and I am in no fit state to answer. I’m still trying to recover from having the front door opened for me by Madeleine’s handsomely tanned, topless husband. It requires all of my concentration to construct answers that won’t fall flat on their face against Madeleine’s effortless eloquence.

When she has satiated her curiosity, Madeleine reaches out, reclaims her cup of lime tea, and begins to tell me an extraordinary childhood story. ‘I’ve not dared tell anyone this before – outside immediate friends,’ she confides, ‘but at the age of about 11 I was sitting in a pub and I turned to my mother and I remember vividly holding this glass of orange juice up to the light and I said: “Mum. I think I’m going to become a Muslim.”’ Madeleine bursts out laughing at the absurdity of the anecdote. ‘To her great credit my mother just said “really?”’ ‘But for a child in North Yorkshire to say that – I can’t describe how weird that was. I swear I’d met no Muslims by that point in my life, none! In rural North Yorkshire it was the most outlandish idea.’ Madeleine confesses to being apprehensive about sharing this story with people, ‘I’ve always been a little bit nervous about repeating that anecdote though because lots of Muslims would be like ‘great! She’s gonna convert!’ and of course there’d be loads of critics of mine who’d say ‘Oh! She’s an apologist!’

Madeleine’s relationship with religion has been long and intense, and when I ask her about it, for the first time since I’ve met her, she hesitates. ‘That’s a huge question’ she retorts, ‘I’m sure you’d find it difficult to answer that yourself.’ She sits up in her armchair and takes up an expression that says ‘Ruminating. Please wait.’ Words form at her mouth, but fall away before any sounds come out. ‘It’s such a huge framing of my life,’ Madeleine finally answers. ‘A lot of the injunctions of Christianity are written into my DNA now.’ She goes on to discuss her admirable set of principles, which she feels incorporate Catholicism within a framework of her own personal ethics. Citing the general values of loving and caring for people does not satisfy Madeleine, they don’t pin down the spirit of her belief. ‘It’s about that, but it’s also about more than that.’ ‘There is a hymn that says ‘whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that is what you do unto me.’

Madeleine is confident about combining pragmatism with traditional religious teaching, and is effortlessly able to combine the secular and the Catholic in both her personal and professional life. Becoming the lead religion writer for the Guardian was a breakthrough for Madeleine, because it allowed her to combine two of her great passions; religion and writing. Madeleine speaks of writing with a great deal of intensity, ‘writing is like breathing’ she states emphatically. ‘If I don’t do it on a fairly continuous basis then there is some kind of processing of the world, of my own take of the world, that is just not happening. There is nothing more satisfying than feeling that you can manage to identify what was troubling you or concerning you or interesting you and really managing to express that to perfection.’

In one of the highlights of her time as a religion reporter Madeleine met the Dalai Lama. Talking excitedly now Madeleine describes how she was both bemused and astounded by this great spiritual figurehead. ‘I had long conversations with the Dalai Lama in which he described his dreams and his various divination rituals, and by the end my jaw was dropping with amazement and confusion. But it was a fascinating story and the Dalai Lama was a terrific man.’ Madeline admits that she ‘honestly, hand on heart, hadn’t a clue what he was talking about,’ but insists that he is ‘one of the world’s great human beings.’ She tries to elucidate this comment for me, saying that although the Buddhist tradition was densely symbolic, the fruits of its spirituality were apparent in its devotees. ‘You know precisely when its working. When somebody is compassionate, loving, generous, humorous, carries the world lightly on their shoulders while at the same time being utterly present with suffering.’

Madeleine has come to find the world of journalism a little frustrating, and this summer she has decided to leave the Guardian to become director of public policy think tank Demos. In what she describes as a ‘gamble’ Madeleine decided to take the chance to express her ideas in a new way. ‘The way I see it, is that I’ve moved around the dinner table. I’m still sitting at the same table with the same menu, but it’s a different perspective.’ In this new position at the metaphorical table Madeleine hopes to supply some of the answers to problems she has hitherto challenged other people to address. ‘There is a tremendous luxury in journalism, which I think many journalists don’t acknowledge, which is that they can say “oh I don’t like this! Oh I don’t like that!’ but they never actually have to get into the hard hard work of trying to put things a little bit right.’ Madeleine warns me, almost wistfully, that ‘the great occupational hazard of journalism is that it breeds cynicism and arrogance.’

Madeleine wants to develop the identity strand of Demos’ work, specifically in relation to the concept of ‘cultural capital.’ Proceeding slowly so as not to confuse me, Madeleine explains that ‘cultural capital’ is ‘the network of meaning and symbol that we all need to make our lives purposeful and meaningful.’ There is a new strand of thinking that emphasises the need for a culture of self worth, which can only exist if people rally around causes, beliefs, institutions, a sense of history or shared passions.

Madeleine believes that culture is about much more than a recreation. ‘How you understand the value of the good life, and what is a good life. These are all issues of cultural capital.’ The decline of the church, and of community organisations and trade unions have diminished the structural basis of a healthy cultural capital, but religious and ethnic minorities have managed to hold on to some kind of collective identity.

Madeleine believes that ‘many Muslims that I meet have bags of cultural capital.’ ‘You can see it,’ she continues, ‘in the way that they carry themselves and the way that they relate to people.’ To address the cultural dispossession of the British working class – Madeleine believes – is the next big challenge for policy makers. Madeleine identifies the problem as being partly with the economic elite, who are so steeped in their own cultural capital that they are unable to grasp the lack of it in other parts of society.

Ultimately, Madeleine postulates, it is about just getting beyond your own experience of life and truly engaging with what it’s like for other people. ‘And that is at the heart of every ethical, religious position; transcendence over the self in order to reach out and connect to other people.’

About Nussaibah Younis

Nussaibah Younis is an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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