Summer holiday?

by Laurence Clark

BBC Ouch 17th July 2006

Once when I was younger I was offered an all-expenses paid holiday to the south of France. Sounds good, huh? It turned out to be a pilgrimage to bloody Lourdes!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as tolerant of other religions and faiths as the next person. However I do object when religion has a negative impact on the lives of people who don’t share those beliefs.I have plenty of friends who, like me, aren’t Catholic but were still shipped off on the obligatory trip to Lourdes when they were younger. It really amazes me that, in the Twenty-first Century, instead of trying to instil a sense of pride and identity in our young disabled people, we’re still sending them away to be cured.The little French town of Lourdes shot to fame in 1858 when a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared there. She made a girl called Bernadette dig in the mud, thus creating what Charlie Dimmock would call a water feature.

This particular water feature is meant to cure disabled people, but statistically it has only worked for one in eleven million of us – only slightly better odds than winning the National Lottery jackpot! It couldn’t even help poor Bernadette, who died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five. How ironic is that?!?

Laurence in lourdesI was taken to Lourdes in 1986 – on the right is a picture of the group that I went with. I’m the only one not wearing a Newcastle United hat with my name badge pinned to the front, as I refused to be both labelled and made to look an idiot.

The disability hierarchy – which seems to impinge on so many aspects of our lives – is never more present than in the travel arrangements made by charities planning a trip to Lourdes.Your average, everyday disabled child, gets the choppy ferry crossing followed by a highly uncomfortable twenty-four hour train journey across France. This was how I travelled there. Your more severely impaired child, gets the luxury of flying straight there and back – much to the other children’s envy, believe me.

Of course, the most severely impaired kids – those with life-threatening conditions – get flown to Disneyland instead. I reckon this is because even the most zealous charity worker must realise, deep down, that trips to Lourdes are a bloody waste of time.

My typical day there consisted of morning mass, midday mass, afternoon mass, evening mass and bloody midnight mass. By the end of the week I felt like committing mass murder!

Recently, whilst researching material on Lourdes for my new stand-up show, I’ve been spending a lot of time on the official Lourdes website. Here, amongst other things, are a number of handy live webcams trained on the Grotto, so you can spot any miracles as and when they happen.

I have a little webcam window permanently open in the top-right hand corner of my screen, just in case there are any impromptu cures whilst I’m working. However so far this has merely made for some extremely mind-numbing viewing.

The website also explains how the miracle cures come to be officially recognised.

Basically, the International Medical Committee of Lourdes – made up of doctors and bishops – meets once a year to consider cases. They examine the facts of each one and then vote on whether to declare the cure inexplicable according to present scientific knowledge. A two-thirds majority is required for your actual, bona fide genuine miracle cure.

Wouldn’t you just love to be a fly on the wall in that meeting? What do they do if the vote comes out as a tiebreaker? Flip a coin: heads it’s the work of God; tails means it’s just sheer luck?

Lourdes has seen fewer and fewer miracles in recent years, as medical science has advanced, and cures have come under more scrutiny. An officially-recognised cure hasn’t occurred for almost twenty years now. To get around this fact, last year Lourdes decided to finally officially recognise the curing of an Italian woman with heart disease in 1952. Apparently this had gone unnoticed for the previous fifty-three years!

Out of all the people who have been cured at Lourdes, 80% are French, 9% are Italian and 5% are Belgian. You may be wondering what is the precise number of British people who have been cured there… the answer is a big fat zero! Now you’ve got to admit … that’s some pretty xenophobic holy water they’ve got over there.

In competitive terms our performance at Lourdes is as bad as our performance at the Eurovision Song Contest – we haven’t even made it onto the scoreboard! Le Royaume-Uni … nil points.

As with Eurovision, it makes you wonder why we bother going in the first place.

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