Paul Little: She's right to sing out about abuse

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Dame Kiri Te Kanawa recalls being beaten by nuns. Photo / Ben Fraser
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa recalls being beaten by nuns. Photo / Ben Fraser

The Catholic Church's doughty spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer was being economical with, if not the truth, at least with institutional memory when she defended her employer from criticism from Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. If you can call them criticisms.

The singer probably thought she was doing no more than stating the obvious when she reminisced about being "beaten by nuns".

She was responding in turn to criticism that she had been overly harsh with some students. Music is no place for sensitive souls. More than one talented youngster has been turned off a career because they could not tolerate the cruel discipline. My brother recently reminded me that my mother was taught piano at boarding school by a nun who would hit her over the knuckles "even on frosty mornings".

Having taken the Trinity College exam system as far as it went,Mum never played the piano again. Dame Kiri, to her credit, gritted her teeth and carried on.

But this is academic. It's not like that now, according to Freer. "This was a long time ago though," she said. "More around the 1940s, and more so at boys' schools."

This writer and several hundred of my contemporaries would beg to differ. Caning was standard practice at the two Catholic secondary schools I attended. As often as not it was done in front of the class to set an example. I was caned as late as the early 1970s.

For the robust of temperament it was indeed no big deal. But I often wonder what happened to the boy who snapped and tried to wrest the cane from his attacker.

"It didn't do me any harm," is the line usually used to brush off such experiences. But that's not really the point. We should rather ask "Did it do any good?" And there I can't help you because for the life of me I can't recall what transgressions incurred my penalties.

What I do know is it ill behoves the Catholic church to give the impression that it is covering anything up.

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A friend wrote during the week about seeing a magazine feature that showed a woman wearing a dress costing $3600, and a baby whose clothing cost $1100, as though this were normal. It seemed absurd and it is.

Yet it's also relative. It's absurd to me, who can spend a couple of hundred dollars on an item of clothing now and then. To someone who can only clothe their children in something costing $10 from an op shop - and there are many such people - my level of spending seems the height of privilege.

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The height of inanity in the David Bowie post-mortem frenzy was reached in a sentence in the Guardian. Reporting that the musician had had a lightning bolt-shaped constellation named after him, which didn't actually happen as more sedate starmen pointed out in following days, the usually sane British newspaper said: "It is a fitting homage to Bowie, who used the universe as a key inspiration throughout his career." Well, it's no wonder he did well if he was casting his net that wide.

Many of the Bowie bereaved found room to lament the death of Eagle Glen Frey. There's no comparison. Many of us grew up with Bowie. No one grew up with The Eagles because they never grew up. Whereas his career was a constantly evolving series of artistic explorations, The Eagles wrote a bunch of songs about what bitches all women are with their lying eyes, spent the fortune they made on drugs and passed their later years bagging each other except for brief periods when they got back together to make more money.

Frey and Bowie did have one thing in common. It's become clear since they died that even now no one can agree on how their surnames should be pronounced. Such is fame.

- Herald on Sunday

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