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Press: The Sun’s graveyard tale is spin and needles

11 September 2020

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SO MUCH for windy generalisations (Press, 28 August): last week’s Spectator had a piece about religion with no mention of church politics at all.

Instead, it was about the practice of sex in cemeteries. The author, Andrew Watts, had actually followed up reports in a local newspaper that the oldest churchyard in Torquay was being used by people “openly having sex and sunbathing nude in broad daylight”. Of course, the story turns out to be almost entirely untrue — so much for my faith in local journalism as a school of honest reporting — but he had a lot of fun finding this out.

“When I raise the subject with a few of my friends, I was surprised to find that virtually all of them had at one point had sex in a graveyard (the one person who hadn’t was an undertaker, who I thought was a dead cert). While this is in no way a scientific sample . . . it suggests it is at least not uncommon. The grave’s a fine and private place: more than you think do there embrace.”

In the end, he approaches two dog-walking women. He had assumed from their dogs, Alsatians, that they were some kind of vigilante patrol, but the dogs just roll over to be tickled, and the women point out that the problem is actually drugs: “Looking around the graves I could see spoons and foil and needles . . The dog walkers . . . had all seen people injecting into their feet because they could not find veins anywhere else. . .

“A national newspaper’s article about the churchyard didn’t mention drugs at all. Drugs aren’t transgressive or depraved: they just kill their users, destroy lives, and hospitalise over-inquisitive dogs. But having sex in broad daylight — that’s horrifying,” Watts writes.

While Googling to discover which was the “national newspaper” (it was The Sun), I came across another headline, this time from the Daily Mail: “Sex mad Torquay duck forced to have penis removed after infection trying to mate 10 times a day”. In the small print of other headlines from the same page is the apparently much less interesting “Homeless man is found dead in church graveyard”.

 

THE other discovery from searching the internet was the strange fascination that The Times has with the Pope’s view of gossip. (He’s against it.)

“Pope tells hairdressers to trim their devilish gossip”; “Pope curbs power of ‘sick, gossiping’ Vatican officials”; Pope lashes ‘gossiping mediocrity’ of Vatican bureaucrats” are all headlines within the past ten years.

In the first two days of this week, we had, first, a news story: “Pope claims gossip is worse than coronavirus”, and then two comment pieces: “Are you a gossip? Why the Pope might be missing the point”, and “Keep it to yourself, but the Pope’s quite wrong about gossip”.

The point being, I suppose, that the notion of gossip is relatable to as much as some of the Pope’s other concerns — peace, justice, refugees, all that stuff — are remote from the readers’ lives.

In any case, Quentin Letts, once a gossip columnist himself, reminisced about what a service he had provided to the readers in those days. “There may be occasions when innocents catch a stray shard of shrapnel, but gossip is generally a force for good. It punctures the pompous, is democratic, and often funny.

“Mind you, Francis is right about priests being incorrigible gossips. Some of our best sources wore dog-collars. Few days went by without some ecclesiastical morsel: backbiting at synod, prickly bishops, clerical gourmands, their chins glistening with goose fat. One of the best church gossips was a plump canon from Reading. He later died during a seven-course dinner at the Athenaeum, between the dressed crab and the boeuf en croûte.”

 

THE other intersection between religion and gossip comes with the entertainer known to Mail readers as “the third-party presidential candidate”: Kanye West, who seems to have recovered from his recent meltdown sufficiently to perform with Joel Osteen. “Kanye West made a dramatic entrance to his Sunday Service in Atlanta on the weekend as he appeared to ‘walk on water’.

“The third-party presidential candidate was joined by his seven-year-old daughter North and four-year-old son Saint for the stunt — which was achieved by walking on a translucent platform hidden just beneath the surface of the pond.”

They are all dressed in white, of course. But of all the various forms of hubris on display here, nothing much beats naming a baby “Saint”. Pity the poor nanny who must yell across the playground “Saint! Stop that at once. It’s time for your yoga!”

 

THE GUARDIAN rather rashly published an opinion piece that had been generated entirely by Artificial Intelligence software. This was an entertaining stunt for anyone who has not kept up with the ability of AI to string together words as if they meant something. But it also opened a disconcerting vista.

If the output of eight runs of a wholly mindless computer “required less editing than some humans”, as the paper claimed, what does that say about the cognitive capacity of the average opinion writer?

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