The Press Saturday, October 25th 1997
Towards the end of the party to launch Cristina Odone's second novel at the Ivy, she joined the group I was with. "If you call me baby doll once more", she said, "I'll hit you." Christopher Morgan, one of the group, saved me: "But you call everybody mousse mousse". Cristina was pacified. But she is no longer the woman whose switchboard, when she was editing the Catholic Herald, would put through callers claiming to be "the baby rabbit".
Watching the hype gather round her novel has been fascinating. The trick to publicising a literary hardback novel — which might, with good reviews, sell as few as 1500 copies — is to get it off the books pages, and into the news, and the first few conversations I heard at last night's party were ecstatic at her cleverness in getting the Sunday Times to run as a news story her attacks on HTB. "I want to alert Britain to the danger of Christian fundamentalism. While it is cloaked in a squeaky clean presentation it is certainly promoting a narrow moral policy — both anti-gay and antifeminist", she told the paper.
Cristina started her campaign with an article in the Spectator on September 20th. It dropped the reader straight into the action. "The events of the past remarkable weeks' the preacher's voice trembled as he raised his arms heavenwards 'herald the dawn of a new revival for Christians.'" It was characteristic of Cristina that she should have got the quote slightly wrong; and entirely characteristic of HTB that they had taped the sermon and could prove she had.
"Recruiting takes place at drinks parties where, armed with a champagne glass and a cocktail sausage, dewy-eye converts enthuse about Jesus Christ as if He were a particularly glamorous guest on the party circuit, and praise the Holy Spirit as if It were a fabulous, no-nonsense nanny who had taken charge of their spiritual upbringing" The cocktail sausage is a particularly damning touch: the canapés at Cristina's parties are far more interesting.
"The social framework is the key to the spread of the movement: a ten-week dinner party programme known as the Alpha course brings together 200 potential converts for a meal followed by a 'talk' by a minister, and discussion of the ten points that underpin the movement, from 'Evil' to 'Resurrection'." The use of "dinner party" to describe what are by all account fairly disgusting meals of pasta is not the only oddness in this piece. The only member of HTB quoted repeatedly in the two-page article was a woman called Jean Borne-Stewart, whose name appears nowhere in HTB's records. Cristina says that she changed it to protect her informant. It is, I think, naughty to do so and not to say you have; it is also missing a trick: it could have added a wonderfully sinister touch if at the end of her original article she had added that her informant did not want her name given out for fear.
I am not sure what there was to be afraid of: a special double zapping with the spirit, perhaps: I once went round to watch the Toronto Blessing in St Paul's Onslow Square, one of the HTB daughter churches, and afterwards, over coffee with the curate and his wife, I became uneasy. It seemed to me that they were wrestling with an urge to pray over me. Did I imagine the wife's hands poised to descend on my shoulders and blast my troubles away as she fluttered around with the coffee?
In the fictional church of Cristina's novel, any informant would have much to fear. As the Sunday Times put it: "the fictional happy-clappy church of St Marks [is] a sinister cult which is intrusive and manipulative, controlling worshippers by making them confess in front of others. Many of the principal characters, including the charismatic vicar, bear a resemblance to the clergy and congregation of Holy Trinity. The novel centres on the approach of the millennium and a revival of morality inspired by the Renewal Movement under Alexander Connaught, its leader at St Mark's; Sandy Millar, vicar of Holy Trinity - one of the most popular churches in London — has Alexander as his first name."
This is curious, since she spent an hour with Mark Elsdon Dew, the rather grandly titled Director of Resources and Communication at HTB, the day before Morgan picked up the story, and assured him categorically that the church in her book was not based on HTB.
Before leaving Christopher Morgan's story, I should point out one elegantly twisty phrase. "her criticism .. .has already prompted 60 'unpleasant' letters from people she suspects to be church supporters." See how merely 'supporting' HTB becomes an activity which must be 'suspected'.
But it was a great party. There were a couple of eternally hopeful gossip columnists prowling: a young man from the Times diary came up to me at the party and asked whether "Sandy whatsit; you know, that man" was there. He seemed puzzled that he was not. But Cristina's mother was there, looking like the Queen, rather awed by her daughter's success. Two of the guests I talked to had even read the book.
All this must be rather disheartening for Mark Elsdon Dew,. He copied his letter of complaint to the Spectator to the editors of six national newspapers, who may have been puzzled by it and certainly ignored it. HTB does matter — indeed, I tried to interview Sandy Millar as one of the most important spiritual leaders in Britain earlier this year, and wad was turned down on the grounds that he didn't want publicity. But its form of Christianity is opaque to outsiders. I never went on an Alpha Course and I know of no journalist who has done so professionally. Most of the congregation do seem to be the kind of people I got expelled form school to avoid but if God made little beetles, he surely made Wykehamists, lampreys, Etonians, slugs and even Marlburians as well, and they all have a place in his heart. Perhaps the best attitude to adopt is that of Ford Prefect towards the earthlings: they are "mostly harmless."
Cristina is due to return to the attack in this week's Spectator, where she is writing the diary. In the meantime, her fans must content themselves with "Why I have never married": half a page, with attractive photograph, in Monday's Daily Telegraph. In this, she appears as spokesman for a generation of unmarried thirty-somethings: "We are everywhere — not only as the subject of best-selling books and films, but as key players in demographics, marketing, and urban night life." So now all they need to do is sell their books.