THE Financial Times on Saturdays has an interview
series called "lunch with the FT". The gimmick is that the
interviewee gets to choose where to meet and what to eat.
Normally the game is played by picking somewhere fantastically
expensive and ordering very little food, and what little there is
very healthily, but subtlety is not a quality associated with
Richard Desmond. The billionaire pornographer who owns the
Daily Express has a reputation as grasping, and, sure
enough, he suggested lunch at the Coq D'Argent, a very fancy
restaurant in the city. He ordered tuna steak with a tomato salad,
two bottles of water (at £4.50 each), and a bottle of claret, quite
good claret. So it should have been, for £580.
Henry Mance, who conducted the interview, very properly made
this bottle the centrepiece. He has to get the expenses claim
through somehow. He kept and reproduced the receipt. He also
reproduced an anecdote from Desmond's (ghost-written) autobiography
in which "he once turned down a prostitute because he calculated
that her fee was equivalent to the profit on a page-and-a-half of
Yet there is a streak of sentiment and self-delusion even in
someone so calculating. "I was always slow to adopt the internet
because I knew what would happen," he said, adding rather
mysteriously: "It's interesting how vinyl's coming back, isn't it?"
And then, wonderfully, "BuzzFeeds, SchmuzzFeeds - at the end of the
day, you trust the Daily Express."
Consecutive front-page splashes in last week's Express:
"Migrant invasion out of control", "How chocolate can add years to
your life", "Exercise to fight misery of back pain", "How Aspirin
fights cancer", and "New wave of migrants to flood Britain".
I'd put my money on Buzzfeed.
OVER at The Spectator, Damian Thompson had a return to
more normal form with a long essay on the collapse of Christianity
in England. "It's often said that Britain's church congregations
are shrinking, but that doesn't come close to expressing the scale
of the disaster now facing Christianity in this country.
"Every ten years the census spells out the situation in detail:
between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell
by 5.3 million - about 10,000 a week. If that rate of decline
continues, the mission of St Augustine to the English, together
with that of the Irish saints to the Scots, will come to an end in
"That is the year in which the Christians who have inherited the
faith of their British ancestors will become statistically
invisible. Parish churches everywhere will have been adapted for
secular use, demolished, or abandoned. Our cathedral buildings will
survive, but they won't be true cathedrals because they will have
This last prediction has to be wrong. The Church of England will
shrink as South American armies are supposed to do, so that the
last congregation, of 4.3 people, will find itself supporting 43
bishops and several hundred communication professionals.
Thompson has a great deal of fun demolishing most of the glib
reasons for optimism: immigrants will not rescue the Roman Catholic
Church; neither will following the instructions of Jesus and being
"a faithful presence". "This seems to me to ignore the reality that
religions invariably die, at least on a local level, when no one
can be bothered to attend their services."
THE difficulty with the Pope's encyclical, which may or may not
have been leaked early, although we're told that what's out there
is only a late draft, is that it's been leaked in Italian. Nothing
would normally stop the instant analysis of a mere 192 pages of
dense argument - in fact, one could write most of it now - but the
fact that we can't even pretend to have read it has brought an
unwonted thoughtfulness to the English coverage.
WHICH leaves a really astounding piece in The New
Yorker about the poetry of jihad. So much is written about the
seductive powers of internet grooming in luring young people into
the mythology, and yet it turns out that there is also a thriving
scene of poetry in classical Arabic, obedient to the conventions of
rhyme and metre, some of it written by women.
"Unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made
primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window on to
the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most
clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad." Robyn Cresswell and
Bernard Haykel have written the most enlightening thing I have read
in years about the lure of jihadi ideology.
The moral, perhaps, is that, if you want to be a world-class
religious correspondent, it helps to speak languages that aren't
English, since they are where the action is.