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Nightmare visions

01 May 2015


IT READS like a particularly grim fairytale: babies chopped up for eating, their skulls used as footballs, their skin to make shoes. Most unbelievable of all is that anybody could believe it. But so strong is the hold of the internet on our imaginations that the stories of satanic abuse emanating from Hampstead, north London, last year are still swirling. In The Report (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) Melanie Abbott tried to work out why.

The accusations arose in a video of two girls, aged eight and nine, who were interviewed by their mother's boyfriend. After investigation, they were deemed to be entirely fictitious. As it transpires, there was abuse going on, but not of the kind reported. The two children are now in foster care, refusing to return to a mother who seems to have allowed her boyfriend to extract these fictions.

For most - even connoisseurs of internet conspiracy theories - the stories are plainly absurd. But that does not stop a small group continuing to protest against the institutions that they allege have covered up the horror. The last word was left to the children's father, who said that such lies only deflected attention away from places where real abuse occurs.

By contrast, the youthful cultic experience of Deborah Frances-White was sufficiently tame that she lives to have a laugh about it. In Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice (Radio 4, Monday of last week), the Australian comedian recounted her adolescence as a Jehovah's Witness, pounding the streets of suburban Brisbane in search of those elusive converts.

There is, of course, material aplenty for a comedy routine about restrictive religious practices, and we might feel more queasy about the same technique being brought to bear on certain other faith groups. Nevertheless, it was both hilarious and fascinating to hear about door-stepping for the Lord, from the Witnesses' perspective.

Highpoints in her career were encounters with the pop-star Peter Andre, and with Michael Jackson, who demonstrated how proselytising is done the celebrity way by knocking on two doors and then hopping in his limo and driving off. And, like all good comedy, there was a humanising sentiment at the end: Frances-White ditched the faith when she realised she did not want to convert the Cuban jazz musician she had befriended, and who would have had to give up all that made him the free-and-easy spirit she liked. She is unlikely to make it into the 144,000.

Adolescent angst was the topic of Call You and Yours (Radio 4) last Tuesday, in which Winifred Robinson and guests responded to a recent survey that showed a dramatic increase in young people who identify themselves as depressed or stressed. One caller said what many were surely thinking when he suggested that, if you ask young people whether they are unhappy, they will generally say yes. So the lady from the charity Young Minds is to be commended for giving that argument a kick into the long grass.

This is a survey that is conducted at five-year intervals, asking the same questions. Just because young people make it up sometimes, it does not mean that we can ignore them.

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