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Selina’s spooks

17 July 2015

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“PEOPLE get lost between this world and the next.” This was Canon Paul Greenwell, of Ripon Cathedral, trying to explain the phenomenon of ghosts. And Canon Greenwell himself sounded as if he had got lost between a serious Radio 4 interview show, One to One (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), and a documentary about celebrities and their psychic pets.

The celebrity in this instance was Selina Scott. Canon Greenwell was there to reassure her that she was not bonkers, and that her dogs might indeed have a special sensitivity to the undead.

It cannot be easy being the diocesan go-to guy for exorcisms — or, in the favoured Anglican terminology, “house blessings”. Canon Greenwell was eloquent and convincing in the case of a guilt-ridden family who smelt mothballs until they righted a wrong done to their departed mother; and he was careful to steer a path between notions of a haunted place and a haunted person. He lost me, however, when it came to Ms Scott’s dogs’ getting spooked.

It is not about whether one believes it or not, but about at what point the explanatory tools of traditional theology are rendered powerless. Just because the question is asked on a Radio 4 programme does not mean that you are obliged to answer it.

Mathematicians and economists are not, by their own admission, the greatest of party animals. Or, as Tim Harford put it in Simon Evans Goes to Market (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), “when the economics conference comes to town, the hookers take the week off.” But they are starting to make us laugh — with them, not at them. Simon Evans is one of a clutch of comedians whose subject is numbers, and he kicked off his new series with a shouty rehearsal of the statistics surrounding alcohol: how much we drink, how much money we spend on it, and how much worse it is for you than any other drug in history.

Mr Harford, himself a statistical entertainer and writer for The Economist, was on hand to add some credibility; but the main polemical ballast came from Professor David Nutt, the government adviser who resigned when the Government did what all governments do, and ignored its own adviser. Professor Nutt has breathtaking stats coming out of his ears: one such is that if we were as careful about ingestion of wine as we are of food colorants, we would be permitted only one glass a year.

Something for Mr Harford and his More or Less (Radio 4, Sunday) team to investigate, perhaps. In the mean time, the Greek crisis has provided more than enough material for them to chew over, now anthologised in a must-download podcast, which debunks many of the myths about Greek self-indulgence and idleness.

The best is surely the claim, circulating four years ago, that there were more luxury Porsche Cayennes registered in Greece than there were taxpayers declaring an income of €50,000 or more. It is nonsense, of course; but the manner of its debunking on More or Less was especially charming — a German car-salesman bursting into rib-shaking laughter: “This is so ridiculous,” he spluttered in his mirth.

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