Press Column

One of the largest lakes on earth lies in perpetual darkness a couple of miles below the ice sheet of Eastern Antarctica. Lake Vostok has been sealed off from the outside world since the ice sheet covered Antarctica, and contains bacteria that have been evolving all by themselves since then. Scientists have not dare drill through the last two for three hundred metres that would push their boreholes into this strange ecology. Yet if some crevasse were to open at a travellerís feet, dropping unfathomably straight into this alien world, the shock would be something like that which awaited readers of last weekís Daily Star.

Itís only a nib, or News in Brief item. Here it is, in full: "Nuns at an old folks home in Leon, Spain, have persuaded an 84-year-old midget to come back after he ran off to wed a girl of 20. He had no money apart from his pension and his girlfriend is twice his size." It is a glimpse into another universe. Why did the woman want him? Were they both to live on his pension? Who proposed, and how? Did she, perhaps, kneel as he popped the question? This is a story crying out for a picture (as the news editor said about a young man who had killed himself when the Army turned him down because his acne was so terrible). I imagine a nineteenth-century genre painting: the broad-shouldered nuns, stern, yet compassionate; the young woman weeping as her pension slips away; the old man torn between duty and desire. But perhaps the whole thing would be much more simply illustrated from Asterix. There, too, in the village of the indomitable Gauls, lives is an old man who has a wife a quarter his age and twice his size. Very happy they are too.

The same cartoonish quality is slightly evident in the Daily Telegraph magazineís feature about the wives of men who left prosperity to become priests. Naturally, one of the men involved was Peter Owen-Jones, the former advertising executive who has written at length about his transition to a priest; just as naturally anotherís background was Eton, Cambridge, and HTB. This man, Justin Welby, said: "When I was contemplating ordination my biggest single hesitation was that we wouldnít be able to educate the children privately". I think this is admirable candour. One giggles about HTB being posh, largely because it is; but it is also the only institution I can think of that might lead Etonians voluntarily to lose caste like that. Giving up your childrenís place in society is a much greater sacrifice than merely giving up your own income. In fact, they have five living children (and their first-born died) but he was a corporate financier in the oil industry, so perhaps he would have been able to pay school fees for the lot of them. It will be interesting to see how the children turn out.

The prize for the most photogenic vicarís wife, however, is awarded unanimously to Jacs Owen-Jones, who meets the writer, Serena Allott making coffee "cigarette in hand, her enviable figure off-set by stiletto-heeled leopardskin boots, tight jeans and a tangerine-coloured fleece.". She poses for the photographers sprawled across her husband in a hammock, wearing cut-off jeans with sunglasses pushed up on her forehead. She, unlike the Welbys, has sent their eldest daughter to a subsidised place in an independent school, which apparently caused some local resentment.

Itís all gloriously unlike the home life of Uri Geller, who was given a fairly gentle treatment by Lynn Barber in the Observer magazine. She is a famously acerbic interviewer, but she seems to feel a kind of bewildered pity for him as much as anything. "Spoonbending is his most reliable skill, but he also claims that he can mend broken watches, find minerals by dowsing, grow seedlings from seeds in his hand, and read peopleís minds. However, I donít think he can read minds very well, because otherwise he would have noticed my mind screaming ĎOh no, please donítí every time he said ĎLet me tell you a story, Lynní. He prides himself on being Ďa great storytellerí just like Jeffrey Archer,. And going round the house takes forever because every single sodding object has a story attached." I see, writing this out, that it may not be quite what most people would describe as bewildered pity, but it is not in the least unpleasant by Lynn Barberís standards.

"Anyway, his next plan is to take Michael Jackson on a Ďpeace missioní to the Middle East ÖíThe focal point of the three main religions is Jerusalem, and that is why I feel that going there with Michael, with Schmuley, and maybe with other positive people who are singers, but nothing to do with politics, we will make something happen.í But they wonít go just at present, he explains, because the situation is too dangerous." Itís difficult to believe that the knowledge this mission is planned with will fire the peoples of the Holy Land with a lust for peace.

A whole bundle of oddities to end up with: Jonathan Petre had a real scoop in the Sunday Telegraph: the Lancet is to publish another study of near-death experiences which suggests that one in ten heart attack patients return from clinical death with memories of something happening while their brains were to all external observation not working at all. Jim Rosenthal was pictured in the same paper waving his crozier in public, dressed up as St Nicholas in Canterbury Cathedral; and the Daily Mirror put prayerful devotion all over its front page. But it was in a football context, so that was all right. There was a photograph of Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United, talking to a priest. "FERGIE SAYS HIS PRAYERS. .. but even He canít help you now Alex."

In news almost as shocking as the fall of Manchester United, Steve Bates has actually sent a writ for libel to the Catholic Herald.

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