Press Column Saturday 10 March 2001

Steven Bates was off work last week. He had been bitten by the family dog. It will be punished by being renamed Wesley Carr, for reasons which may become apparent to readers of the Guardian’s corrections column. Then again, they may not, depending on the flight of lawyers’ letters. If ever the Taliban weary of shelling historic statues of the Buddha, there are now several journalists who would be happy to suggest a target in central London. Perhaps the most illuminating article on the Abbey was a feature in the Daily Telegraph by Benedict King, former pupil at the choir school who hated it: "During my holidays, I felt like someone living under the Taliban who had been sent to stay with a bunch of California hippies for a few weeks every year.

"Every day we ran twice around Dean’s Yard before breakfast, come rain or snow or sunshine … there were no personal posters allowed on the dormitory walls… Pope music of any kind was banned. It was forbidden to watch television, except on restricted and supervised occasions. Even drinking milk was banned… Parents were allowed to visit every three weeks for four hours: telephone calls home or anywhere else were banned." All this was taking place in the early Eighties. Since this is the Daily Telegraph, the author’s tone finished up elegaic. "All this will be destroyed if Westminster social services and parents start insisting on running the school .. the music will deteriorate and thanks to modernisaiton and New Britain, one of the crowning glories of English civilisation will no longer be quite what it was."

The real Taliban, meanwhile, are working on their own civilisation with light artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Neal Ascherson, in the Observer, pointed out that their motives are not purely theological: "What the Taliban are doing has two aims. One is nationalist as much as religious. It is to invent a completely new, completely untrue past for Afghanistan, in which no trace of any other religion or empire or regime apart from their own can be found. Afghanistan will soon never have been Buddhist, never have formed part of a semi-Greek Bactrian empire, never have become a subject territory of Britain and Russia, never have been a 20th-century kingdom setting off along the path of Third World development. An Afghan will now see only a Taliban eternity.

"The second motive is a mixture of revenge and reproach. The Taliban leaders are hurt by the West's disgust with them. They know the rich West cares desperately about the archaeological heritage of Afghanistan; this is a way to hit back. In this sense, the two Buddhas of Bamiyan, now being executed, were the tallest hostages in the world.

As Ray Whittaker pointed out in the Independent on Sunday the distressing things these fanatics are doing to statues are infinitely less ghastly than what they have done to living human beings over the years. He mentions a recent case in which a woman killed her husband: under Sharia law, this gave the family the right to have her killed. They declines, which makes one wonder, a little what the husband can have been like; but a large crowd had gathered to witness the execution, so one of the Taliban boys went ahead and shot her anyway, rather than spoil the show.

"You might accuse the movement of taking the country back to the dark ages, were it not that in Afghanistan these were years of enlightenment. One thing, though, is sure: you cannot expect the people of Afghanistan to worry about what the Taliban is doing to old stones when you see what it is doing to them."

This is of course the country to which the government proposes to return the people who hijacked an airliner to Stansted last year, on the grounds that they are bogus asylum seekers. The trial is intermittently reported in the local paper, and nowhere else I have noticed.

I don’t want to labour the point about religion being effective only when it works as theatre but this is undoubtedly the sense in which advertising agencies regard themselves as the prophetic voices of today. There was a piece in the Financial Times quoting Young and Rubicam, an advertising agency who had announced that "The brands that are succeeding are those with strong beliefs and original ideas. They are also the ones that have the passion and energy to change the world and to convert people to their way of thinking through outstanding communications." This is in some sense the biggest pile of rubbish one has read on the subject since Don Cupitt’s last book. But in another, very real, sense it has a message that goes beyond "hire our advertising agency" — which is what "outstanding communications" means, which the rest of the article goes on to deconstruct.

"If one product is as good as another, people will buy whichever is cheaper. But brands offer a way out of the price squeeze. If people can be persuaded that they are getting a way of life as well as a product they may well be prepared to pay more.

"So companies are trying to make their brands stand for a set of ideas to live by rather than just a thing. Nike, for example, s not just a sports shoe; it is a ‘just do it’ attitude and the idea of personal achievement."

The point, however, which emerges at the end of this article is that peope only believe these things so long as they can afford to do so. A personality — assuming that this is what I am expressing when I drink Coke only appears in bouyant time. "The quesiton is what will happen in the event of a sharp economic downturn. It may be a distant memory but in the recession of the early 1990s there was a brand bloodbath as consumers saved cash by trading to own-label products. If it happens again, it could be brand-owners who are saying their prayers, not consumers."

A last letter from the Independent ‘s correspondence on religious schools: "Does God ever wonder whether he is in fact Richard Dawkins?".

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