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Press: Stories that lurk beneath smaller headlines

05 January 2018


I HAVE a kind of allergy to headlines, which is a disadvantage in this business. Generally, I reckon that, the bigger the print size, the less novel and thought-provoking the story beneath will be; and, generally, I am right.

So the stories I remember are usually found at the end of very long rabbit holes, such as the Christmas double issue of the London Review of Books (LRB), which contained an excellent ghost story about Richard Dawkins, and an enlightening account of Princess Margaret’s divorce, both by writers of extraordinary technical accomplishment.

John Lanchester’s ghost story is an M. R. James pastiche, which has a protagonist who reads The God Delusion for comfort; so he cannot really be Professor Dawkins, who used to have his wife read passages of his own prose to him for relaxation.

But the tone of cold superiority and barely stifled anger at the stupidity of the lower classes is perfectly caught: “I find I have been brought to this godforsaken country in Central Europe — I say godforsaken purely as a figure of speech — to attend a conference on the ‘dialogue’ (emetic term) between science and mythology under entirely false pretences. My views on this subject are well known.

“‘I have been lured here under a pretext,’ I said. ‘My understanding was that this event would be an opportunity to explain my ideas and to point out the ways in which other people’s beliefs are wrong. I now find that this is not the case.’”

He is taken around a museum where his fellows admire a Dürer crucifixion. He does not: “My point is merely that it is a shame that . . . he had no choice except to squander his talent on myths and legends and fantasies and, to put it bluntly, other nonsense. . . He could have painted a great picture about the difference between mitosis and meiosis, or how photosynthesis works, or Boyle’s law, which should be of interest to you, madam, since it applies to hot air. Now I give you good day.’ And with that I left the café and went back to my room.

“Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain. It made a dispiriting end to the day. I turned out my light and slept fitfully.”

He ends, of course, in an asylum, pursued by an unspeakable fury.


THE GUARDIAN was busy with religious stories over the holiday period. The columnist Deborah Orr gave the National Secular Society a kicking: the society had complained to the BBC that “Thursday’s episode of the Today programme . . . amounted to a PR exercise for the C of E.”

She responded: “As a Scottish secularist, I feel the society’s pain. And yet . . . just turn it off, National Secular Society, and go about your business. It’s literally Christianmas, FFS. Lump it. Peace and goodwill to all men. And all women. And all the gender non-binaries out there. That stuff.”

It is difficult to imagine such blasphemy appearing in The Guardian even ten years ago. And Harriet Sherwood made the splash by reporting what Paul Bayes had said at the launch of the Ozanne Foundation. She did so by leaving the sexuality to the bottom of the story, and putting the politics at the top: “Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, said ‘self-styled evangelicals’ risked bringing the word evangelical into disrepute, and added there was no justification for Christians contradicting God’s teaching to protect the poor and the weak.

“Bayes told The Guardian: ‘Some of the things that have been said by religious leaders seem to collude with a system that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.’”

The great schism in worldwide Evangelicalism seems to me an under-reported story. But white American Evangelical Christianity is becoming as nationalist and as distinct from the rest of the world as, say, Russian Orthodoxy, but without the spiritual depths. If we’re talking corrupt court preachers, I would much rather have Rasputin than Paula White.


BACK at the LRB, Ferdinand Mount had a long review of Craig Brown’s semi-fictional life of Princess Margaret, which makes plain the rather villainous part played in her life by Archbishop Fisher, who pressured her not to marry Group Captain Townsend because he had been divorced, and then lied repeatedly about his part in the affair.

This, Mount says, “didn’t derive from the teachings of Jesus. The stricter standards were a last-ditch attempt to hold the line. The royal family was to be deployed as an instrument of social control.”

The blowback from this was, in the long run, terrible, both for Margaret and, I think, for the Church, which put power over pastoral concerns. The only Archbishop to come well out of the story is George Carey: “On her deathbed, Archbishop Carey came to give her communion, and left her a bottle of olive oil which his wife Eileen had brought back from the Holy Land. Margaret was thrilled.”

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