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Press Column

One of the minor pleasures of the modern press is the rebuttal letter. Every significant public figure has them organised: if you make a joke about the Archbishop of Canterbury, letters wing in from all sorts of people in his favour. Few are, of course, spontaneous: the trick for the organisers is to get someone to write who seems quite unconnected to their cause. Iíve always admired Lesley Perry for getting Desmond Tutu to write to the Independent once in protest against a profile I wrote of Dr Carey. (Donít tell me that youíre innocent, Lesley ó I want to admire you for this).

But now you no longer need be significant to have your reputation guarded. Itís not just Nicolas Walterís tireless efforts to bore England into the arms of the rationalist press association; even the pagans have got into the act. So we might as well start at the end of the Wilmslow story, with a letter to the Times , from Mr R Scott-Bruce, of "Celtic Spirit", a house in Sewall Highway, Coventry. "It is hardly surprising that the ĎCheshire Setí are angered by the accusations of the Rev David Leaver .. So, Iím sure are many Pagans (capital P please) who live in and around the county."

This is the first time I think that I have ever heard ĎThe countyí associated with paganism, though there is probably something about it in the works of Saki. Mr Scott-Bruce continues his correction of the un-Pagans: "A Pagan is one who follows a religion which has been around for 25,000 years ó it has nothing whatever to do with money, big cars, or Gucci handbags. Such condemnation of Pagans is typical of Christians."

The only thing I donít understand about this letter is why he stops at 25,000 years. Why not 250,000 years? Why not 25,000,000m, which would be less speciesist? Since everything about modern paganism has been made up since about 1930 there is no reason for any figure of its supposed antiquity to be less believable than any other.

The cause of the row was a parish letter article written by a departing curate, the Revís David Leaver, and seems at first site the kind of thing than every earnest curate believes, wherever they are first posted: "It seems to me this church is very good at being a bastion for the gentility of Cheshire life against all that is harsh and vulgar around us. But it needs to be much more enterprising in its mission to a whole generation of Wilmslow, who are as pagan as any group of people I have ever met."

But Wilmslow, if not unusually materialistic, is unusually rich. According to the Guardian , it is the first town to have its own credit card. And this was just the sort of story we need to distract attention from a boring and confusing war. So they interviewed the manager of the Ferrari dealership: "I think just because you have a nice car doesn't mean you are not a spiritual person - that's unfair. Wilmslow people like the nice lifestyle and they like to be seen in the right things in the right places." Said Richard Roger. For some of his clients, to be in all the right things they own would require more than the gift of bilocation: one has just bought his eighth Ferrari. "People who are successful tend to like to display that. It's only enjoying their worldly goods, it doesn't mean they are not religious or spiritual." The salesman explained.

This was delightful, as was the news that the curate responsible had gone on holiday to San Francisco before the piece was published. Perhaps this is a mission field for Jonathan Aitken when he comes out of prison bankrupt, before his touching reunion with his wife and assets. According the Times he has been offered a place to study theoloogy at Wycliffe Hall, though he is not seeking ordination.

Another politician in difficulties, Ron Davies, almost redeemed the News of the World by supplying them with a classic trope. It would appear from their coverage that it is entirely unsafe to go for a walk in any South Wales woodland unless you want to meet young men from the paper batting their perfect eyelashes at you. In the end, they got their man, or at least they got to make their excuses in person. "On Thursday, with the nation voting in the Euro elections, Daviesís Welsh Assembly office was telling callers that he was Ďout on the campaign trailí. In fact he was exposing himself to a News of the World reporter."

Rather further out, perhaps, than he had planned to be. I donít know why I find this so cheering. Perhaps it marks the moment at which the relentless pursuit of the sexual pecadilloes of even a disgraced and pathetic has-been like Ron Davies tumbles over into pure farce. To judge by the nationís turn-out in the Euro elections, most voters would have preferred it if all their politicians had followed poor Ronís example.

The other great News of the World story concerned Britainís most famous pagan ever, Princes Diana. A faithhealer named Jack Temple, whom she apparently consulted frequently, has sold his story to the BBC. He also claims Cherie Blair and Jerry Hall have consulted him. The 82-year-old former market gardener has preserved in a bottle of alcohol a lock of her hair and some nail parings. I suppose the habit of taking cuttings is hard to break. He claims, though, that it has diagnostic utility. "He diagnosed her health problems by swinging a pendulum, above the bottle of hair ó and that the princess suffered lead poisoning before birth, caused by her mum drinking wine from lead crystal decanters. This is what caused her bulimia." If the BBC does indeed put out this rubbish I hope the pagans write in by the horde to protest at the damage to their good name.

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