Press Column Saturday 07 October 2000

The big story last week, I’d have thought, was a bishop proclaiming that the Church of England is "in an urgently missionary position" but not even this startling news made the national press. So I typed the word "sacred" into various newspaper search engines to see what had been treasured around the world in September. The only sacred things mentioned in any British newspaper were various shrines in and around Jerusalem, whose sacred quality is attested by the willingness of people to kill for them. Indeed, the strongest sense of "sacred" or "holy" that an archaeologist from Mars might deduce as he picked his way around the ruins of our civilisation is that the sacred is something that must be defended, rather than something revered. Holy, of course, is now a term reserved in Western journalism for sports grounds. This makes it rather difficult to understand why people are dying with such enthusiasm on the West Bank.

In America one might hope that a more religious society had a more religiously conscious approach to the news. And it's true that the Washington Post used the term "sacred" about eighty times in September, as opposed to five appearances in the Daily Telegraph. The overwhelming majority of these, too, were Holy Places, as territory to be fought over. But there was one remarkable story which may well strike readers as obscurely blasphemous. It was a commentary on the latest craze in children's books: nothing to do with Harry Potter. Nor is it the Lord of the Rings being censored because Gandalf smokes a pipe (though that must surely come). No, it is squarely in the mainstream of American life. There is now in the US a fashion for children's books whose stars or heroes can be bought at the sweet end of the supermarket, among them "Froot Loops, Cheerios, M&<M’s, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Skittles, Hershey’s chocolates, Sun Maid Raisins and Oreo Cookies" One example, "The Cheerios Play book" has sold more than 1.2m copies in less than two years.

Jonathan Yardley, the columnist, goes on ruefully to observe "only the terminally innocent can be shocked by the proliferation of children's books that are not really books but advertisements. Everything in these United States is an advertisement. Ostensibly mature men and women shell out good money--in some cases a lot of it--for T-shirts and fancier garments the most prominent features of which are the manufacturers’ or designers’ names and logos. When their parents pay to make themselves into billboards, why shouldn't children take it for granted that books they read in school will try to sell them something? Selling, after all, is the American way, and it certainly would be un-American to deprive our children of the pleasure and enrichment it provides.

"So let's have a round of applause for Meghan Parkhurst of Kellogg, who spoke glowingly to the Times about "Kellogg's Froot Loops! Counting Fun Book" and its inclusion in the nursery school curriculum: "It is a great way to get the Froot Loops brand equity into a different place, where normally you don't get exposure--taking it from the cereal aisle and into another area like learning’."

I think the thrill of pure horror that one gets from Ms Parkhurst is about as close as most newspapers nowadays can get to a sense of the sacred.

Everyone knows that California is the home of people who will revere anything but when I tried the same trick on the San Francisco Chronicle I was astonished to find that the word "sacred" had appeared in a story headlined "Wombat Fatso steals the show in a runaway". It turns out that at least part of this headline means something. Fatso the (stuffed) Wombat had been an anti-mascot at the Olympic Games, whose popularity stemmed from the fact that his owners, a couple of television comedians, vowed never to merchandise a single copy of their totem. He had even been smuggled onto the "sacred podium", when a couple of Australian swimmers won medals, in case you were wondering what was sacred about this.

Alas, from Sydney, any further flight could only bring me back to the English press, where I learnt from the Times that the sixth-form pupils at Stoneyhurst had a tradition of streaking en masse at the end of term; an activity which has grown more exciting since girls were admitted. The story appears to originate from the Catholic Herald, though this is not mentioned until the end of the fifth paragraph; it is also denied by the school in terms I find quite fascinating: "The governors were aware of the allegations and of the facts that may have lain behind them and after a proper investigation were satisfied that the reports of them were a gross misrepresentation and distortion of the facts." Now that is a proper Jesuitical denial: I assume that every word is true; also that something fascinating must have happened, even if not as reporteed by anyone. Ruth Gledhill managed to find a "school insider" whose gloss was even more schoolmasterly. "There is a tradition in the school of end-of-term japes. Some of the sixth formers do run up and down the avenue naked. But is it a sexual act? No. As for the allegations about the morning-after pill, those matters are confidential."

This is not just an example of the waning of tribal loyalties among the Roman Catholics; it also shows a lingering sense of priorities, since far more fuss was made in the article about the danger that the children might have been exposed to contraception than about the allegations mentioned wholly in passing that the staff had been assaulted and pupils had been found in possession of a weapon.

John Sutherland, in the Guardian, had an interesting column on astrology, based on his Grandmother’s exploits in wartime Britain, when she would read the tealeaves for her women friends: "In the muddled heads of those unhappy, infinitely put-upon women, she was not merely foretelling good things, she was mysteriously ensuring that they would happen. She had a hotline to destiny. They left to prepare their family’s evening meal lighter of heart. The force was with them.

"Many men are superstitious. But few really powerful and fulfilled men, I suspect. Astrology is the religion of the loser — and of women whom we do not easily recognise as losers."

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