Press Column Saturday 13 May 2000

If I want to get the hang of a foreign country I look anywhere in the newspapers but the news and serious features. The cooking columns, the short items at the end of the news, and, best of all, the classified advertising, are all much more revealing about the strangest things in a society, which are those it takes for granted. So if you want to examine the attitudes of the middle classes towards religion, look at the stories which are hardly news at all, or the bits of the news that no one thinks need explaining. A wonderful example of this is the £50,000 that has been given to a 17-year-old for three fantasy novels. There is no literary genre more formulaic than "Fantasy". Once youíve got Good, Evil and Silly Names ó one author had a success with The Lament of Abalone ó the padding seems to matter no more than the filling in a sausage roll. Anselm Audley, the schoolboy who has won this publishing deal called his novel Heresy, which is less ghastly than most, and much more revealing. According to the Daily Telegraph "Characters live in the world of Aquaselva, where anyone who opposes the ruling domain is branded a heretic. One of the main characters, Cathan, holds different beliefs from those approved by the Inquisition and he spends his time struggling to find his clan while dodging the gaze of the Sacri, the kingdomís warrior priests."

What I like about this is the instant shock of familiarity we get from the idea of an evil religious establishment, full of priestcraft and torture, devoted to the suppression of all independent thought. Here, in the fantasies of adolescents, is the final resting place in England of nineteenth century Protestantism, not in its positive ideas, but in its nightmares about Roman Catholicism. Of course, in Ireland they order things differently. It is extraordinary how much the imagery of English polemical atheism owes to Protestant or Paisleyite fear and suspicion of Rome and how, when the middle ages are replayed in Fantasy worlds, the heroes are always now the small and persecuted remnant rather than the more obvious knights and emperors. Of course, part of this, by an elegant historical irony, is the work of JRR Tolkein, an extremely devout Catholic. The parts of the Lord of the Rings that stay in the imagination are those where a small party of travellers are working through the wilderness, bearing a treasure beyond price, not the pageantry and elephants. They are what has been copied and they fit more easily with the Protestant myth of the persecuted remnant and the true church unrecognised, in exile, than with anything represented on St Peterís Square.

I am sure that this deep explanation, rooted in the collective unconscious of the English middle classes, has much more to do with the authorís view of religion than the trivial fact that he spent six years as a schoolboy chorister.

Just as enlightening, though more deliberately so, was a long feature in the Independent on Sunday magazine about the invention of witchcraft in the middle decades of the last century. The story has been cropping up in the obituary columns for the last few years, as the first generation of witchcraft revivalists, such as Doreen Valiente, died; but this is the first thing I have seen to pull all the threads together. Julia Stuart, the author, had found a professor in Bristol who has pretty thoroughly debunked all the origin myths of the movement, establishing, for example, that the "Old Dorothy" who is meant to meant to have initiated Gerald Gardner into the secret religion was in fact exactly who she appeared to be: "a church-going, pearl-wearing, garden-party giving pillar of society", whose diaries reveal a sincere and devout Christian faith.

"On balance" Julia Stuart concludes, "the evidence suggests that all [the founders of modern wicca] were involved in a religion that they knew, however deep their feelings about it, was made up." Then comes the kicker: "That doesnít invalidate it as a religion." Is this just piety: she obviously liked the witches she met; or it an unselfconscious expression of the belief that all religions are grounded on lies about history? She goes on: "but [the knowledge] must have created a certain ambivalence in their practice of it. But their passing leaves a younger generation of Wiccans cut off by death from their religionís originators, who can thus enjoy a much less qualified kind of faith. Perhaps that is how all religions start."

It comes as a terrible shock to discover that people on the Daily Mail actually read the Church Times. It doesnít seem to have much influence on their world view, unless I can claim as a victory the disappearance of trumpets, note uncertain sounding, from the leader writersí tool kit. But I think that actually they no longer care very much either way. The whyohwhy piece about the Royal Academyís planned "Apocalypse" exhibition, from David Lee, a man billed as "Former editor of art review" was distressingly formulaic: "The blasphemous nature of the work inevitably inflames churchmen, the artists spout off about censorship Ö" But it has been years since any church leader was silly enough to be outraged in public about this stuff; and years, too, since Mr Lee was in church, to judge from the bt where he says "To show {ope John Paul II trapped and pained under a meteorite will doubtless cause a similar reaction. Presumably its artist Maurizio Cattelan attempts to parody the iconography of the Holy Ghostís descent from Heaven."

Actually, this may be a more important article than anyone realises. If even the Daily Mail with all its contacts and money, canít find anyone prepared who can cover the exhibition in piping hot frothing fresh outrage, it looks as if the joke is really over. If you canít disgust them in Tonbridge Wells, you might as well go back to being tasteful.

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