Press Column Saturday 29 April 2000

I didn’t spot any of the traditional Easter pictures of Filipino peasants crucifying themselves this year, though this may have been jetlag. Instead, there was a stupefyingly tasteless picture in the Guardian of what seems at first glance to be some kind of voodoo priest in front of a crucifix. Instead, it turns out to be a bankrupt car salesman, Keith Winchup, wearing a bowler hat over a clerical collar and surplice, posing with a friend outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The friend, has tied himself to a large cross labelled ‘Barclays’ and is wearing a placard saying ‘bank customer’. It is extraordinary how photographing a cliché can raise it from the grave: what could possibly be more banal or routinised than the charge that banks are "crucifying" their customers? Yet when the thing is amateurishly staged and, admittedly, brilliantly photographed it becomes a as shocking and hyperbolic as the first use of the phrase must once have been.

Robert Runcie, the most distinguished pig man in the country, has something of the same gift of making things fresh when he says them. He gave a long interview to Graham Turner of the Daily Telegraph, and obviously charmed the socks off him. His charm is independent of his gift for anecdote, but that is easier to quote. I particularly enjoyed his story of counselling a Russian woman who asked him, at a banquet, what sin might be. She explained her problem: "my husband is not a believer but my lover is, and I feel closer to God with him than with my husband. How do you explain that?" To this the great man replies, "It just shows that sin is too serious a subject to define in soundbites. Have another vodka."

In this country the devout do not crucify themselves, but as a substitute, Desmond Swayne, a Tory MP and evangelical Christian, has made hiself look so ridiculous he might, on reflection, prefer to spend a few days buried behind a stone. He decided to research the problem of pornography on the Internet in his office at the Commons during a late-night debate. So thorough were his researches, he told the Times political reporter (I imagine her opening her eyes wide in surprise, and looking encouraging) that he ended up with "hundreds of those pages open at one time and the computer virtually seized up. "I went to a public school," he told the Times, "and soft porn magazines were a feature of life there. But sitting there for half an hour or so I felt it beginning to exercise a malign power.

"I began myself to feel the powerful nature of corruption because within moments, of course, I could have established my ability to access that material and moved on, but I found myself lingering with a sense of fascination over it. I was saved, I reckon, by the division bell, which brought me to my senses."

What I love about this sort of thing is the way in which he blames the technology, and even the devil; anyone but himself: "I felt profoundly the words of St Paul when he said, ‘Your enemy, the Devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’." and never blames himself. Let’s hope the poor man never finds himself reading the Daily Sport , which placed quarter page ads for a "Hardcore Porn Mag Sale" and a load of chatlines on each side of its answer to the asylum seeker problem: "Tory Leader William Hague last night called for all asylum seekers to be LOCKED UP while their claims are processed. And he wants them thrown o8ut of the country if their claims are bogus. Today we are offering you the chance to help by shopping illegal aliens. We’ll even buy you a PINT for doing it."

"Today the Daily Sport is asking you to join Hague’s crusade [a word in this context to savour] and hunt down the thousands of missing asylum seekers. There are over 20,000 of them out there and they shouldn’t be that hard to spot."

The Sun spent the Easter weekend much more upmarket. Stimulated by a Mori poll showing that half its readers had no idea of the Easter story, it retold it with huge gusto in a series of fake tabloid reports. I particularly liked the thought for the day on Saturday: "Pilate Error" and the comment in Monday’s paper: "One furious Roman said: ‘this make a mockery of our entire execution system’. The paper had in fact obviously taken a lot of time and trouble to get the details right. It was a great deal more memorable than anything attributed to any archbishop, and a great deal snazzier and more enjoyable than the page which both the Times and the Daily Telegraph haf obviously decided should be filled in Monday’s papers with Church news of one sort or another.

The only religious story half as enjoyable came from Monday’s Independent , which had a long feature with a tomato-planting martyr to Feng Shui. It seems that times are so hard for British tomatoes, swamped as they are by sinister, cheaper immigrant tomatoes, that their farmers have resorted to Feng Shui to align their crops. This was too much for Martin Kelly, an employee at one of these farms. "Mr Kelly, a former Catholic, became ‘born-again’ after seeing an apparition of Jesus ‘with well-groomed oiled hair, wearing a white robe and a gold sash’ smiling at him through his television set. He insists that he is not, I his own words, a religious nutcase. ‘I love a laugh’ he says, breaking into a Tommy Cooper impersonation."

So he resigned, on the grounds that yin and yang were not powers mentioned in the Bible. He has resolved, too, to buy no British tomatos, since the whole scheme is sponsored by the British Tomato Growers’ Association, though he slightly spoiled this point by adding to the reporter "Not that I could stand tomatoes anyway."

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