I RETURN from holiday to discover something terrifying has happened: for only the second time since the beginning of July, my monitoring of the Mail Online site reveals more mentions of “Brexit” than of the Kardashians.
What on earth can this portend? If only their astrologer had not died unexpectedly earlier this year! Unaided human reason can’t work this out at all. It would be cheating actually to look at the site, and in my delicate state of re-entry from 12 days’ walking in the Swedish Arctic, without any phone signal or internet access, I don’t think I could take the shock of the Mail Online, anyway.
But my tireless little program counts the keywords on the front page every hour without any human intervention, and there are only 23 Kardashians there this morning (down from 49 when I left), against 32 mentions of Brexit. Elsewhere, since it is August, perhaps, the number of newsworthy “topless” women has gone up from nought to nine while the number of “braless” ones stays steady at four. I’m still not desensitised enough to the noisy world that I find the almost clinical prurience of that last statistic extraordinary.
THERE are good things, though, including the ingenious professionalism of John Bingham in The Daily Telegraph, who took a story about pew removals and turned out something funny and illuminating.
”When the Spanish Inquisition, as reimagined by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, wanted to torture their victims into confessing to heresy, there was only one thing for it: to fetch the comfy chair.
”Now the use of comfortable seating has become a test of orthodoxy in real life after an ecclesiastical court banned the use of padded chairs in a church on the grounds that they were verging on the ungodly.”
The story, in brief, is that the parishioners of a 12th-century church wanted to replace the pews with moderately comfortable upholstered chairs, as used (the Telegraph helpfully pointed out) in Lambeth Palace. But the Victorian Society objected, and the diocesan Chancellor went along with them on the ludicrously pompous grounds that “An emphasis on quality and seemliness is not only appropriate in buildings dedicated to the Glory of God but is also part of what attracts those new to the Church.
”When considering comfort I must give considerable weight to the expert advice that properly designed unupholstered chairs can be as comfortable as those which are upholstered.”
The congregation had spent two years trying to get rid of the pews before being stymied by this judgment. I suppose the story represents progress of a sort, since it is the congregation, or at least a churchwarden, who was trying to bring about the change, and it took only two years for their futile struggle to be decided. It is one of the underappreciated facts about Justin Welby that, in his first parish, he spent seven years trying to get rid of the pews — and failed. Apparently, it is easier to install women bishops than comfortable seating.
In any case, the story illuminates a lot of the day-to-day frustrations of establishment — rather in the way that a queue 100 metres long for radishes in Kiev in 1988 taught me more about economics under Communism than any number of books had done.
AND so from the ridiculous to the genuinely serious: a batch of stories about the Government’s struggle to control the spread of Islamist ideology. The Sunday Times reported: “One convicted terrorist has been moved from London to the north of England and banned from Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to stop him radicalising others. The father of two, who is in his thirties, has also been barred from contacting former associates and relatives . . .
”Another associate, a man in his late thirties who lives on benefits and has called for sharia in the UK, has been moved outside London. The men cannot be identified for legal reasons.
”None of the individuals has been charged with a criminal offence, but a source indicated it was ‘effectively like putting someone in jail’.”
It is easy to see why a government might want to do this, but very hard to see how it is a defence of such supposedly British values as tolerance, free speech, and the rule of the law. If people can be “effectively jailed” for entirely legal remarks without even being charged, let alone convicted, a great deal of rhetoric about fundamental British liberties looks entirely hollow.
I suppose there is precedent in the Second World War internment of Sir Oswald Mosley and similar characters. But that was a war that had an end in sight.
The struggle against jihadism has no clear military resolution, and may have no end in sight either. Perhaps I should have stayed in Lapland.