The Link-Boy’s Tale

I walked back to meet the procession, having inspected the shopping centre. Unfortunately, with Cardinal V-‘s pernicketiness about his dress, it was now late in the afternoon and people were leaving. Also the entrance was lower than I had remembered. Neither bothered me unduly.

The procession was a fine sight coming slowly along the road into central Stratford. It had increased in size. Local Catholics, energised by parish magazines or some more contemporary means of communication, were tagging along and there seemed to be far more nuns.

I took a closer look at these. The newcomers turned out not to be nuns, however, but modestly dressed Moslem women, also in black. I noticed one staring at me.

I’d recognise those eyes anywhere.

The Jibjab Woman!

Hello, Al.

Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah, I said.

Et cum spiritu tuo, said the Jibjab Woman.

Why are you here?

She narrowed her eyes.

The cause, she said.

I caught the almost inaudible sound of her grin against the cloth covering her mouth.

I am always pleased to see the Jibjab Woman and I feel safer when she is around. So, foolishly, I did not ask her whose cause.

By this time we had arrived at the entrance to the shopping centre. Cardinal V- was flinging blessings around as if they were free, but there was indecision. The cross could not go in upright; the doorway was simply too low. The bell-toller ceased tolling and awaited developments.

I assumed that they would pass the cross in with Our Lord on his back, but apparently that would be wrong. Many creatures in nature – notably sharks – lose consciousness when laid on their backs and it was felt that the same logic (if ‘logic’ is the right word) might apply to Him. The cross was lowered so that He was face down and manhandled through the doorway.

Halfway through this manoeuvre there was a nasty crack. Christ’s bottom half came adrift. He continued to hang by His hands, metal-alloy feet dragging noisily on the floor, but the nails in His wrists were now subject to greater stress than had ever been intended. Mongo, now rather hot and dishevelled, got the cross upright again.

At this point a further problem revealed itself. The ceiling would accommodate the cross held upright in some places but not others, where, because of ducting for example, it was much lower. Mongo indicated that it would be easier to compromise on a semi-upright position that he could maintain. He held the cross at about forty-five degrees. It must have been an immense strain on his shoulders and arms. From the top Our Lord hung forwards, at the same angle. The procession struggled back into life.

My mobile rang. I have, I should explain, a network of young people, crossing-sweepers, link-boys and the like, whom I pay small sums of money to keep their eyes and ears open for me. I had told them all of my urgent desire to see the Angel of Paddington Station again.

So my mobile rang. It was a text from one of them:

What price the Angel of Stratford International? Sighted! Come at once!

I had to make a quick decision. The procession with gorgeous robes seemed to be stable. It could manage without me. But I called a local member of my network and told him to keep an eye on things. He is my source for what happened then. I hurried off to Stratford International.

Hassan is a link-boy, aged about twelve. I have no idea why link-boys have a dubious reputation, unless it is because of that salacious painting by Joshua Reynolds. Whatever may be the case with other link-boys Hassan is an entirely wholesome lad and if he attracts attention it is because of his natural and unaffected good looks. He joined the crowd soon after I left. Almost at once, he told me later, two things happened, followed by a third, and the third brought the proceedings to an abrupt close.

As Hassan scanned the procession his eye lit on Cardinal V-. The latter chose to take this as contact directed at him personally. He deserted his place at the head of the procession and pushed through the crowd (‘like rat up drainpipe’) towards Hassan. He was, Hassan told me, gabbling in an unknown tongue. Whether this was Latin, Italian or the simple incoherent vocalisations of lust we will never know.

As I say, the shopping day was drawing to a close and the shops were shutting. When that happens the area is given over to skate-boarding. The youth had already started to gather, waiting for shoppers, processors and all to depart so that they could describe their arabesques on the marble-effect floor in peace, subject only to the appraisal of their peers. As they waited they spun their boards in and out of their hands, using minimal gestures with their feet.

How Mongo managed to intercept one we shall, again, never know. He was very hot, exhausted and stupid, and he could not see his feet on account of his robing. There is no reason to suspect some malign intervention on the part of the Jibjab Woman. I will leave it at that.

Suddenly, Hassan was to tell me later, he hurtled forward on the skateboard, the cross now held straight in front of him like a lance.

‘That metal man, he was hanging, first two hands then one, feet making a terrible sound on the floor. Then a woman, she was big, big like the man holding the wooden thing, she was Caribbean I think, she seize the metal man and pull him off.

‘She shouts, “My Lord! My Lord!”

‘The man with the red hat, he’s just arrived where I’m standing and he’s put his arm on me. He hears this and turns round. He shouts, “No! My Lord!”

‘Then he turns back as he is more interested in me.

‘The wooden thing is going like clappers. I don’t know how that lady got the metal man out from under it. Anyway it sticks in a shop and can’t be got out.’

And what, I said, did Mongo say?

‘He said, “Aaargh!”’

And after the first two things came the third: the arrival of two policemen.

‘Unfortunately for the man with the red hat he has his hand on my trousers when the policemen feel his shoulder.

‘”We have warrant for your arrest,” they say. “Blah, blah, blah sexual offence…blah, blah, blah minors…blah, blah, blah thieving… blah, blah, blah European arrest warrant…”

I thought that European arrest warrants didn’t apply with the Vatican, I said.

Hassan beamed.

‘The man with the red hat say that too! Police say, “Let’s discuss that down at the Station, shall we, sonny?”’

And that was the end of the procession with gorgeous robes.

The Angel? What a waste of time. Some old whore with red knickers. Late middle-aged, I’d say. What is it about the red knickers that blinds people to everything else?

French too.


A Procession with Gorgeous Robes

When it comes to processions with gorgeous robes the Roman Catholics are frighteningly efficient. Congregations in the Church of England sometimes venture out in order to bear witness in shopping centres, usually assisted by Christmas carols and acoustic guitars, but they are tentative and embarrassed excursions by and large and one feels that those involved will be only too happy to be back indoors in church pulling the gates shut behind them. No such tentativeness was in evidence however once the decision had been made to hold a procession with gorgeous robes in Stratford.

I was deluged with emails from Popes Я Us. I occasionally wondered what it had to do with me, but my curiosity always got in the way of any request to be removed from the circulation list.

Before I knew it they were on my doorstep. (This is not literally true: they were staying not with me but at a seminary close by; the aspiring priests were away on their holidays.) Why, I asked Popes Я Us, had it been necessary to ship them all in? Weren’t the local Catholics up to a procession with gorgeous robes? They muttered something about necessary experience, executive positions ‘and, of course, invaluable assistance from the laity at ground level’. As things were to turn out, the contributions at ground level were indeed to be crucial to the day’s experience.

The procession was to be led by a Cardinal named V-. With hindsight, I believe that the haste with which the event was planned had something to do with Cardinal V-. Even at the time Popes Я Us remarked on his enthusiasm to come to England on such little notice.

Pederastic beast and thief, they added – sotto voce, as they would probably have put it in Italian.

Cardinal V- rather monopolised the gorgeous robes, though they certainly were gorgeous, all red silk and lace. All he needs is to give a little scream, I thought as he preened himself in front of a handy mirror, and who’d need Francis Bacon?

The other main character was huge, a taciturn man who was to carry the cross. This must have been ten feet in height and was to form the centrepiece of the procession and had been shipped separately. I must have heard his name but I forgot it and I thought of him as Mongo.

The cross was the main prop but not the only one. There was a bell, lugubrious in sound when tested in the seminary garden, cymbals, whips and some banners expressing views on the desirability of induced abortion. It was altogether, I thought, a solid response to the suggestion that Sharia Law should prevail to the exclusion of the Common Law in the London Borough of Newham, though not necessarily a conclusive one.

You’ll be there, said Popes Я Us.

Do my best.

Will you play your saxophone?

Certainly not.

Please, said Popes Я Us. We all have to stand up and be counted.

No, I said. First, I am an Anglican, and Anglicans do not play saxophones in processions in shopping centres. Secondly it would contravene the bye-laws of the London Borough of Newham, which, remember, this is all about.

Bye-Sharia-laws, said Popes Я Us, and there was an unmissably sarcastic edge to their voice.

Possibly because of this slight unpleasantness, we did not speak again until it was all over.

We were due to set out after lunch on the day chosen but the preparations were interminable. Mungo dressed himself in a friar’s outfit, thick serge from cowled head to foot and gathered together with a rope belt. It was a very hot day, one of those where they announced later on the television that it was the hottest of the summer so far. Several nuns appeared from nowhere, chattering excitedly with each other and telling their beads during the intervals.

The main cause of the delay however was Cardinal V-. He couldn’t decide about his gorgeous robes, trying on surplice after surplice and throwing the discarded ones into the corner with, usually, a moue of displeasure. There they lay, a pile of lovely lace, foaming, as art historians sometimes say.

Then it was his shoes. He kept tripping into the room wearing two crimson pumps from different but practically identical pairs.

Left or right, he would demand of me.

In the end I told him that if we didn’t set out soon all the shoppers would have gone home. He finalised his choice of pumps with bad grace and I put the others away before he could change his mind. By this stage he was in a state, of course the heat didn’t help, and it was necessary to have a restorative tisane, with I suspect a little something added, before we could set out.

The seminary gates opened with a creak, Cardinal V- installed himself at the front and put his best pump forward, Mungo hoisted the huge cross and someone struck the bell – a doleful sound for a Saturday afternoon in the Romford Road. The nuns settled in behind everyone else, as was only proper.

I’ll go ahead and check that everything‘s all right at the shopping centre, I said. I may not have been exactly standing up to be counted, but at last the procession with gorgeous robes was on its way.


It was Coca-Cola that altered me to the problem. With the unseasonably warm weather the one thing that one wants is a chilled bottle of Coke – and they can quote me on that. But in Stratford it was the one thing that could not be found for (as those with an eye for a happy turn of phrase might put it) love or money. I was surprised because I know of old the formidable logistical abilities of the Coca-Cola Company: never a demand for the brown and bubbly liquid willingly unsupplied. I made enquiries of the local shopkeepers.

The problem, as it turned out, was an advertising campaign. The slogan is ‘Share a Coke’, and there is a great deal that goes with it in terms of having your name printed on a bottle of the drink where the word ‘Coca-Cola’ is normally to be found. Possibly, in the spirit of reciprocity ‘Coca-Cola’ appears on your driving licence. Togetherness, it is fair to say, is the theme.

Now, the phrase ‘Share a Coke’ is generally to be found in the advertising as three distinct words and in the URL for the associated website, where gaps are of course not permitted, they are still distinct, being separated by hyphens. But it was not always so. The campaign was initially, or so it appears, tested in marginal areas, like Ireland and the East End, with a view to its being fine-tuned on the proles before being released on the ABs later. And in the earlier version, the slogan, certainly as regards the URL, was apparently all one word: ‘shareacoke’. And it was here that the misunderstanding arose.

One of the last areas where you achieve fluency when using a language to which you were not born, as the better half will tell you, is the spelling. This is particularly the case, as the better half will, if encouraged, emphasise, where one’s original language has a different alphabet. Many of the people who live in Stratford (some thirty per cent according to one account, though I didn’t know how they think they know; they haven’t asked me) are of Pakistani origin. It is not surprising that with all their fluency in English they read ‘Sharea’ as ‘Sharia’. It is a mistake that any of us might make.

Probably they were predisposed to reading it that way, thinking that some recompense was due after the frankly un-Islamic concentration in previous Coca-Cola campaigns on Christmas.

Anyway, hence the bulk buying of one’s favourite summer drink. The damage was done. No doubt a substantial minority of the people of Stratford (though probably fewer of the Irish) thought that it was a special release: Sharia Coke, like Classic or Sugar- or Carcinogen-free or whatever the others are. It might be a mistake but if it works it’s good advertising.

(Or, as it seems to be compulsory to say these days, I’m not sure why: ‘It may be a mistake but, hey, if it works it’s good advertising.’)

After a silence of some months, when they were no doubt busy, Popes Я Us have been calling again, and I shared these thoughts with them. As things turned out, it might have been better not to.

First of course I asked about the new pontiff.

Well, said Popes Я Us, it’s not like it used to be. The last one you never saw except safely though a cloud of incense or at a formal audience for which you were prepared. This new one you never know where he’s going to pop up. You can be tucking into your linguine con polpo in the Vatican Library canteen and there he is suddenly in the midst of you, wanting to talk about the Poor.

That’s good though, isn’t it?

Of course it is, said Popes Я Us, but at luncheon?

And his accent, said Popes Я Us in a whisper.

But, I said, from what I read, he is going to cleanse the Augean Stables that is the Vatican hierarchy.

Ng Stables? said Popes Я Us.

A-U-G-E-A-N. Hercules. Look it up. You’ll find them in the Vatican Library.

There was a moment’s silence and a tapping sound down the phone.

Or Google, said Popes Я Us. Ah yes, of course. I know these stables. Of course. In Italian we pronounce it otherwise. The pederastic monsters and the thieves among the Cardinalate! Oh yes!

Watch this space, said Popes Я Us.

And since he would not accommodate my prurient interest any further I changed the subject and told him about Islamic soft drinks and the thirty-something per cent of people in Stratford of Pakistani origin.

Many of them have an understandable attachment to Sharia law, I said. Periodically they suggest that it should be adopted as standard in the London Borough of Newham. I hope that they don’t succeed, having spent a working lifetime establishing some familiarity with the English sort.

Oh no, said Popes Я Us. The thirty-something percentage is for people originally from the sub-continent altogether. Indians, Hindus, Sikhs. Many of them would share your reluctance to replace the Common Law with Sharia: quite strongly in fact.

How do you know?

I looked it up in the Vatican Library when you said that you were moving.

We care about you, said Popes Я Us, in a whisper.

They called back an hour or so later.

The Church must stand up and be counted in Stratford, they said. The very clear message from our brothers in Islam must not go by default.

Mm, I said.

A procession: that’s what’s needed. With gorgeous robes.

It’s very hot, I said, currently, for gorgeous robes.

Pft, said Popes Я Us. If Our Holy Mother the Church knows about anything, after two millennia, it’s processions with gorgeous robes. We thought Westfield.

I remembered The Coca-Cola Company and its dry run.

Try the old Stratford Shopping Centre, I said. It’s cosier: much more suitable.

And as it turned out that was my biggest mistake so far.

A Pope in Love

Popes Я Us have been in contact again. They are all atwitter about the conclave that is to be held next week in order to choose the next Pope, and they maintain that they are much too busy to talk. They did have time however to tell me this strangely affecting story.

The Pope (I won’t tell you which one and you certainly shouldn’t assume that it is the most recent) was in the habit of making official sorties from Vatican City into Rome. Ivy Compton Burnett wrote in one of her novels of the weekend inhabitants of one country house making ‘bombing raids’ on those of another. Popes Я Us would not be familiar with the novels of Ivy Compton Burnett, and perhaps it is not such a good comparison anyway, because the mystical gulf between pontiff and people is immeasurable whereas spiritually one English grandee is much like another, but the same chilly implacability invested the Pope and his entourage on their missions as the English upper classes on theirs.

And in the Pope’s case, it was a mission. He wanted to spread the word (or, as his PR advisors put it, ‘send a very clear message’) about God. He would dress up in his best, surround himself with a cardinal or two and set off in his open-topped vehicle, with his motorcycle outriders, to the poorer parts of town, which he would bless and then return to the Vatican for Vespers and a meat tea.

This was a great success, and the visits, although unannounced, always found the streets lined – the word spreading rapidly – with cheering Catholics and other well-wishers.

One of these outings however went wrong. In a dim part of town the Pope’s open-topped vehicle struck a pot-hole and something came off it. It stopped, unable until fixed to go any further. The Pope’s hand, outstretched to bless, returned to the papal pocket. The advisors conferred. Clearly His Holiness had to be got back safely to the Vatican as soon as possible. Equally clearly the back of a motorbike would not be an appropriate place for the papal bottom; apart from anything else the munificence of his robes would be all too likely to result in what the advisors called an Isadora Duncan-style outcome.

The Pope himself resolved the problem. He indicated a nearby espresso bar.

I will stay here, he said. Send for a papal Zil.

As the cardinals and advisors kept the people (who naturally wanted to get as close as they could to their spiritual captain) physically at bay, the Pope found an empty Formica-topped table and ordered un caffè from a waitress, who was called Irma.

Irma was a woman in her mid-twenties. She was not the owner of the café or, as might have made the story more appealing, the daughter of the owner of the café: she simply worked there. She was not originally from Rome. She knew who her customer was but thought that he would rather not be made a fuss of. However she did bring him with his coffee a small cake, which she indicated was on the house, and extra paper napkins to protect his robes against spills.

In no time the papal Zil arrived, along with the paparazzi. The Pope said, a little embarrassed, that he had no cash on him; he had not been intending to stop for tea, and his credit card didn’t work because of some misunderstanding involving the Vatican Bank. Irma said that he was to regard the entire transaction as complimentary in the circumstances, but the Pope said that that was inconsistent with the Church’s mission in the World and that he would ensure that she was paid in due course. He asked for an invoice, which she gave him, including the small cake but showing it with a nil charge.

Back in the Vatican, the whole brief episode nagged at him in retrospect. He never intended to leave his debt unpaid but initially he proposed to send a chorister in a papal Zil with some change. Before he had had a chance to do anything it turned out that it was his afternoon off. He remembered Irma’s pleasing lack of subservience and the gift of the cake. What style, he thought; I’ll go myself.

There is never a shortage of papal Zils and drivers mid-week in the afternoons. Cash was more of a problem. Popes, like our Queen, don’t carry it, and the ATMs in Vatican City then as now were non-operational owing to a misunderstanding involving the Vatican Bank. In the end he borrowed a tenner from a priest who worked in a department in the Curia then called something in Latin but now Popes Я Us. (If he hadn’t, I never would have heard the story.)

Curiously, the reappearance of their spiritual leader in this poor district of Rome, robed to the teeth but all by himself, caused more surprise than his earlier cavalcade. A number of people asked for autographs which he gave with unhurried courtesy. But he made it clear that it was Irma that he wanted to see. He handed her the €10 note and tipped her appropriately from the change. They sat down together at the Formica-topped table. His conversational skills were a little rusty but he asked her about her early life and she asked him about his.

After ten minutes or so it was clear that there were customers waiting to be served so he stood up and indicated that Irma should return to her duties.

I hope that I see you again, he said.

He was about to add: Maybe at mass. She interrupted, however.

We’re always open, she said. I’m usually here.

And of course he returned – and again. First it was on his afternoons off, but then he discovered that some of his engagements could easily be delegated to some cardinal or other without imperilling the souls of the faithful.

Early on he resolved to go in secular clothing, but realised that he had none. Actually he did have some baggy trousers and amusing t-shirts for pottering about the garden at Castel Gandolfo, but nothing for town. With the help of a chorister he bought some nice slacks and one of those open-necked shirts, not cheap, that until they have been washed a few times tend to stick up and to scratch your neck. He also bought some All Stars; fortunately Converse do them in papal crimson.

He would sit at the Formica-topped table nursing his caffè. Irma would sit with him when she could, jumping up when new customers came in. When she was busy, as at lunch time or during the evening, he would work quietly on an encyclical. The owners were content with this arrangement; after all, they were Catholics. When the initial curiosity died down people left him alone.

Every time he visited, his affection for Irma grew. To start with he hatched various plans for her. She could become a nun. She could be appointed an advisor to the department in the Curia then called something in Latin but now Popes Я Us. He knew however that she would never agree and he realised that to try something like that would be untrue to the spirit of their relationship, whatever that was. Of course, he always behaved with perfect propriety.

Then he took to wondering what her feelings towards him might be. She was always happy to sit with him, but was it spiritual respect or was it the feelings that might otherwise have been directed to her father, a man, she had told him, who lived far away and had never been entirely satisfactory even when available?

He was to find out. One afternoon they were sitting together. The place was almost empty. She put her young hand over his old one. It was the first time that they had touched, apart from the passing of coins.

I like you very much she said. I would like to marry you, if you weren’t so old.

He thought about this, immensely touched.

Possibly of more importance, he said, is that, as Pope, I have taken a vow of celibacy.

Yes, she said. That too.

The Chorister Stopped at a Chemist

Unsurprisingly, Popes Я Us have not been returning my calls. No doubt the issue of what His Holiness’s position should be on the trans community has slid down the list of priorities with the announcement of his resignation. He may reasonably feel that the trans community can safely be left to his successor.

And who would want that job? As our vicar said to me when I facetiously told him that I had had him down for Canterbury: I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.

And this is Canterbury in spades.

I left a phone message after two or three attempts, with my best wishes for the man. These are sincere. I don’t agree with much of what he has said but he seems to me to be a genuine and godly man in an impossible position. The only time I saw him was in the distance in St Peter’s, soon after his appointment. He was celebrating mass and the congregation, instead of standing with modestly lowered heads, were pogoing up and down like early enthusiasts for the Sex Pistols, holding their mobiles above their heads and attempting to get a good snap. I can’t help thinking that he hoped for better when his colleagues shyly but firmly thrust the keys of the fisherman into his hands.

His enemies say two things against him, both of which seem to me to be beside the point.

The first is that he turned a blind eye to the sheltering by the Church of paedophile priests. That doesn’t seem to be borne out by the facts, which seem to be that he did pretty much all that he could to ensure that the police were involved as a matter of routine, but that things drifted and decisions were put off during the senility of his predecessor.

The second is that when a boy in Germany he joined the Hitler Youth. I think that in his circumstances most of us would have; I myself joined the Surrey Young Conservatives.

(I should say in my defence that I had no hand in the matter. My mother forged my signature on the application form. She thought that it would enable me to make a better class of friends than the cross-dressers and jazz fiends into whose company I had fallen.

Actually there was only the one cross-dresser, and he gave it up when he grew too big for his mother’s clothes. We drifted apart but I believe that like his father he went on to a successful career as a stockbroker.

I never attended the deliberations of the Surrey Young Conservatives. With the over-sensitivity of youth I was never convinced that my tweeding would pass muster.)

Of course there are rumours why the Pope is leaving. By all accounts the Vatican is awash with fraud and sexual incontinence. He has been threatened with the exposure of this secret or that, so the rumours go, unless he resigns and leaves matters in the hands of someone more malleable.

These rumours cannot simply be ignored, and that is one reason why I was anxious to check some of the more extreme of them with Popes Я Us. The crux of it (as regards sexual incontinence anyway, rather than fraud) seems to be that Cardinals have been freely indulging themselves in the Roman gay underworld – many of them, indeed, with rent boys.

The first rumour has some Eminence or other sending out from his eyrie in the Vatican for home delivery. Apparently a ‘chorister’ would act as the go-between. It’s not clear to me whether this ‘chorister’ was a smooth-cheeked treble or an older tenor or bass singer on whom such worldliness would sit more naturally. My belief, though without checking, is that castrati are a thing of the past. It was probably a grown man, as one detail that has come to me involves the purchase of condoms.

Condoms are apparently hard to come by in Vatican City. You will look in vain for a condom dispenser in the public lavatories to be found there, just as, for different reasons, you will look in vain for an ATM with money in it. Nevertheless the application of a condom to His Eminence’s elderly and uncertain member is, on health grounds, as desirable for His Eminence as for the rent boy. His Eminence has researched the knotty theological question whether an act that would condemn a man and wife to the everlasting bonfire might be, for him, pure and free from sin. He has delved into the incunabula of the Vatican Library (to be found between the Hollywood DVDs on the one side and the complete recordings of Paul Simon on the other) and his conclusion is that, whilst condoms are in general the work of the Devil, as used between himself and his young friend no sin is involved as there is no conception to be thwarted. Preventing conception, he has convinced himself, is the nub of the matter. This is despite certain Thirteenth Century manuscripts that assert that the mingling of the fluids of a Cardinal and his catamite is the very best thing for the creation by artifice of certain monsters. He discounts these as superstitious.

Anyway the upshot is that when the ‘chorister’, disappears into the stews of Rome in one of the Papal Zils he stops at a chemist (there is an all-night Booti on the way), buys a pack of three – or ‘Trinita’ as it is colloquially known around Vatican City – and delivers it to His Eminence together with the boy.

That’s why I think that the chorister must be a tenor or bass. The words ‘Trinita, per favore!’, delivered in an unbroken voice of a purity that would, the following Sunday, launch the glories of Palestrina across the great space of St Peter’s, would cause the hardened old pharmacist not to come across with the goods but to sink to his knees in prayer.

Younger Cardinals, on the other hand, take the Papal Zils into town in search of pleasure. Their chosen destination, I gather, is the ‘Bathhouse of Caracalla’. My source (who has been, so he tells me, their chauffeur on more than one such occasion) describes the high spirits with which these saintly gentlemen clamber into the back of the limousine in their Armani suits. Their excitement is such that as often as not they have forgotten to change their collars. What a giveaway! they shriek, stuffing the clerical articles beneath the seat, and appearing at the Bathhouse otherwise impeccably dressed but open at the neck.

Curiously, when I make my way to places such as this, I find that wearing the full Cardinal’s robes, crimson from biretta to Prada-encased toes, makes for a talking point and can break the ice when it comes to introductions. (I am not homosexual myself, but I think that it’s right to keep one’s hand in.)

My informant does not follow the gentlemen into the establishment, waiting outside until they are done, but he tells me that he likes to imagine their smooth well-fed bodies doing the business with the laity of Rome and the great community of Christendom beyond, the latter in town as tourists and drinking up the atmosphere.

Urbi et orbi, he comments wryly.

I was hoping that Popes Я Us could deny all this filthy talk and put my mind at rest. I am still confident that they will. If half of it is true, and it becomes generally known, the Church will be in an appalling predicament. In the meantime we owe it to His Holiness to maintain silence: sceptical but reverent. These secrets, whether true or tittle-tattle, are safe with me.

Frothing in the Blog Space

The very real hurt of the transgender community will not go away. His Holiness can be trusted, I am sure, to take a long and measured view on the matter but not the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who rang me spluttering with laughter. Some oligarch – they did say but I have forgotten his name – was in Cannes to attend the launch of a film that he had paid for, and fell in love with a beautiful woman. It was immediately apparent to his entourage, though not to the oligarch, that she was a hooker but what did not appear until a critical moment involving the oligarch himself alone was that she was also a member of the transgender community. The oligarch had taken the position that love was love, but she had explained that he didn’t understand, she had photographs; he had paid her some money (a lot in the context of her published rates but not in terms of his budget for the trip) and the relationship had come to an abrupt end.

I was thinking, having got the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached off the phone, about how questions of gender, especially when seen from the perspective of the straight community, turn irresistibly into questions of sex. I recalled reading a piece somewhere by a member of the male gay community. He said that he welcomed the trend by which gay men were now almost universally respected as such and treated as regular members of the human community. This had gathered pace over the last fifteen years or so in a way that would never have been predicted during, say, the Thatcher years. But he missed being able to be a screaming queen, to be an outsider, and he missed being encouraged to at best seduce and at least outrage straight men.

When I told Popes Я Us about fooling around with Brazilian transsexuals I was of course lying; I was teasing them and attempting to provoke some outrage in return. I succeeded better that I hoped. I have not met many members of the transgender community. Those that I have met have all been quiet and courteous, except one who was terrifying. They were not screaming mimis, or whatever Julie Birchill’s phrase was. But the question of negotiating some sexual accommodation between straight man and transsexual, however remote the possibility, was unmistakeably there. Furthermore, I never got the impression that their greatest ambition was to be accepted as, say, a chartered accountant and an open member of the transgender community; they were happy to compartmentalise their lives.

Unlike the great Buffy Ste-Marie:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be an Indian
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

She wrote that in the unregenerate 1980s. Now of course we would say:

They tell ya “Honey, you can still be a member of the Native American Community
d-d-down at the ‘Y’
on Saturday nights”

I suspect that there is much in the wonderfully on-the-one-hand–but-then-again-on-the-other hand apologia published yesterday by the Observer’s Readers’ Editor (what exactly does a readers’ editor do?). He wrote:

Concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby felt hurt that a minority that could expect to be protected by a liberal publication was being attacked in an extremely insulting manner.

There, I suspect, we have it. Many members of the transgender community are getting on with their lives, quietly proud to have provoked Julie Birchill into wit and hysteria, and nearly all the noise is being made by ‘concerned readers with no connection to the trans lobby’, or as we might say ‘busybodies’. Certainly that is what is suggested by most of the frothing in the blog space.

Taking of the frothing in the blog space, what a wonderful word ‘transphobia’ is. Spell Check, it becomes apparent as I type, hasn’t met it before. Literally it must mean ‘fear of across’. Presumably it acknowledges that useful neologism ‘homophobia’. This does not mean, as those of us with a dusting of the Classics might have assumed, ‘fear of the same’, but ‘hatred (it’s more than ’fear’) of members of the gay community’. So ‘transphobia’ indicates ‘hatred of members of the transgender community’. Of course we need such a word, if we are to really stick it to Julie Birchill, and I am sure that when dawn breaks in Seattle on Monday some junior employee of the Microsoft company will be beetling across the yard to the computer room to update Spell Check; but I can’t help feeling that it is a shame. For years I have used the word to indicate a pathology common in the crossword community: ‘fear of across’, and now I shall have to find an alternative if I am to avoid yet again giving offence. I should have trade-marked it. Popes Я Us would have done. But hindsight is a wonderful gift…

I was musing along these lines (as the even greater Anthony Powell occasionally writes, when attempting to crowbar a bit of straight-to-camera into his story) when the phone rang again. It was an overseas call, so it must I thought be either my investment manager in Geneva or someone trying to sell me insurance for my non-existent Bosch washing machine. It was of course neither.

Dominus vobiscum, said a now familiar voice.

Talk of the Devil.


Know you’re busy. Just a quick one.


His Holiness has a question.


What’s so good about jokes? You say that the desirability of Julie Birchill’s jokes trumps any right not to be offended. He asks in all humility, he says, being not only a good Christian but a German.

Has His H read the science fiction novels of E. Doc Smith? I said. I thought not. Let him do so. With E. Doc Smith, travel through hyperspace, which is impossible in terms of conventional physics, enables plot developments that could not otherwise happen. You can cross impossible distances in an instant. You can cut to the crucifixion. It’s the same with thinking and discussing, in addition of course to making us laugh. Jokes take us through hyperspace. Of course it brings risks. You may travel through hyperspace and come out in the middle of a supernova, in which case you’re dead. Or, in our case, you’re the subject of a wigging from the Observer newspaper’s Readers’ Editor.

I see. I will provide that to His Holiness translated into Italian.

Yes, or into German. The German Community is often unjustly vilified for not having a sense of humour. German will do too. And give him a copy of Triplanetary. You’ll have it in the Vatican Library. He’ll like it anyway, and he may even find material for a homily.

Thank you. And he has a comment.

Go ahead.

Tennyson. Only three memorable quotes, you say. What, he asks, and again he says that he does so in great humility, given your infinitely greater knowledge of English literature, especially in the secular space, but what, he says, about: Come into the Garden, Maud.

Memorable or what, he says.


Four, then.

Dicks in Chicks’ Clothing

The phone rang.

Popes Я Us here.

The tone of voice suggested hesitation.

Yes? I said.

Borgias. Pope Alexander. Ha ha.


It’s me!

I realised yet again how much I dislike the telephone. One’s friends and family are bad enough, but one should not in a fair society be subjected to long-distance, number-withheld calls from Roman Catholic priests.


I spoke as coldly as I could.

We thought that we had established some sort of understanding, they said.

You did?

Surely, I thought, Popes Я Us are not planning to try to convert me from the decent Anglicanism to which I was born – by phone, moreover.

No, it turned out, they weren’t.

You said, last time, Cut to the crucifixion. Meaning, we suppose, ‘Cut to the chase’, but with a religious spin to it.

Yes, I said. I’m sorry if it was an offensive remark. I’ve thought about it since. At the time I felt that it was too good a line to ignore, but later it seemed to me that it might be offensive to those for whom Christ’s passion is the defining and most deeply felt element in their world-view. On the other hand, I thought, the Gospels’ is as well-trodden a story arc as the standard Hollywood movie, so why not?

Yes, yes, said Popes Я Us.

The offensiveness or otherwise of my remark was apparently not at issue here.

We’re not offended, they said. Goodness, no. Most amusing. We have a junior canon who is investigating whether it can be adapted into Italian for one of His Holiness’s homilies. Unfortunately we have identified a possible problem. There is, you understand, a great tradition of Italian cinema, The Bicycle Thieves, the great works of Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci…

La Dolce Vita, I suggested.

Popes Я Us coughed delicately.

There is a glorious and positive tradition of anti-clericalism in Italy, they said. The Church embraces it with love. But there are limits.

Anyway, they persisted, unlike in Hollywood, it is usual for Italian films not to feature a car chase during the final thirty minutes. As a result he phrase ‘Cut to the chase’ is far less common in Italy. And so the point of your variation ‘Cut to the Crucifixion’ would be less apparent to the faithful.

The generality of the faithful, that is, they added modestly. Not to us in Vatican City. We have a well-stocked library of American DVDs and are thoroughly familiar with the culture of the New World.

Ha ha, they added.

Anyway, they said. To cut to the crucifixion …

Ha ha.

Ha ha, indeed. Anyway, to cut to the crucifixion, what is all this we read in the newspapers about Julie Birchill and the transgender community? We don’t understand. We thought, dear Mr. Àlablague, that since you so clearly have your finger on the pulse of Modern Thought, you could assist us. His Holiness wishes to make the Church’s position in the matter clear but we don’t yet know what our position is.

You can call me Al, I said.

Oh! Ha ha! Ha ha! Another joke! Very funny as well! You are referencing, I think, the song of Paul Simon, the well-known Jew. We have all his CDs here in Vatican City too – or possibly just the Greatest Hits one.

I ignored this. If there is one thing worse than having your jokes ignored it is having them explained.

I summarised.

Suzanne Moore, who is an English journalist, wrote that women sometimes felt a compulsion to aspire to the artificial beauty of Brazilian transsexuals. I’m paraphrasing because I haven’t read the piece. This compulsion was unfair on women; if she didn’t use the phrase ‘real women’, that was what she implied. Anyway the Transgender Community, if there is such a thing, or elements of it, or possibly just some people who felt entitled to take on themselves the emotions of the Transgender Community, if there is such a thing, decided to express their very real feelings of hurt at her remarks.

We like Brazilian transsexuals, said Popes Я Us, interjecting. His Holiness believes that God’s love shines through their simple antics, cavorting as they do on Copacabana Beach, in a way that is absent from the more sophisticated social transactions of the metropolitan world.

Yes. And if you’re lucky and they’re feeling friendly they sometimes let you fool around in a most interesting way.

Popes Я Us chortled.

Yes, Al, yes! With us it’s choirboys!

Anyway, those who took it on themselves to object to Suzanne Moore’s remarks said that they felt offended, and particularly that they felt that they were being diminished in comparison with women born as such, whom those whose business it is to identify groups of people (or ‘communities’) that might qualify for victim status apparently refer to by the revolting word ’cisgendered’. They expressed their views intemperately.

But we thought it was all about Julie Birchill.

Indeed. Julie Birchill, who is also an English journalist, and a friend of Suzanne Moore, sprang to her defence. Julie Birchill is a very funny writer. She sometimes (her opponents would say ‘always’) sacrifices fairness in the interest of a striking phrase. She suggested that those who had taken it on themselves to be offended by Suzanne Moore’s remarks (whether the so-called Transgender Community, or elements of it, or just some people who felt entitled to take on themselves the feelings of the so-called Transgender Community) were up their arses and that when it came to having a hard time, real women (as she may even actually have said) had it much worse (she mentioned PMT) than what she called ‘dicks in chicks’ clothing’.

(‘Dicks in chicks’ clothing’. Phoar! said Popes Я Us)

It had become a vicious scramble for the top of the victimhood pole.

The fact that Julie Birchill had produced several scabrous phrases, which will now be used whenever two or three are gathered together and attempt a serious discussion on gender issues, infuriated many. Some cabinet minister wrote that what she had said was ‘bigoted vomit’ (which is a metaphorical leap too far for me) and should be sacked.

A bloody Tory!

Sort of. The editor of the paper which had published Birchill’s piece took it off the website and apologised, saying that he was passionately in favour of free speech but not right now.

And you, Al. What do you say?

So that His H can steal that too?

Probably. Ex urbe et orbe. That’s his motto.

What do I say? I think that people are entitled not to be threatened and put in fear but they have no right not to be mocked. I think a bit of mockery is good for you and it’s particularly good for self-regarding ‘communities’. The Church has thrived on it over the centuries. And even if there is a right not to be offended it is trumped by the desirability of good jokes. God save Julie Birchill is what I say. I disagree with her conclusions…

But you would defend to the death her right…

No, she can manage quite well without that. Curiously I was listening when the story broke to Neil Young, whom Julie Birchill would no doubt regard as a hapless old hippy, and his song Southern Man

Ah! Neil Young. We also have here in Vatican City…

Never mind that now. Southern Man is lazy, offensive and wrong, just like so much of what she writes, but I would hate to be deprived of it, and I would particularly hate it to be banned at the instance of some holding-on-by-their-fingertips member of the Cabinet Minister Community.

Well, said Popes Я Us, more strength to your elbow, say I (where did they learn their English?), and do you recommend that His Holiness takes that line when he next has a window for a homily?

I considered. What do I owe to His Holiness? There is a view held in the Bigoted Protestant Community, after all – passionately and sincerely held – that he is the spawn of Satan. But charity prevailed.

Best not, I said. His Holiness, transsexuals, dicks in chicks’ clothing: best avoided