Peace on Earth

I’ve never been religious. Despite singing hymns and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in school assemblies back in my kiddie years, the whole God thing pretty much washed over me without leaving a mark. Sure, I liked the Jesus fables – still do. I even once played one of the three wise men in the school nativity. And who wouldn’t agree with the whole ‘peace and goodwill’ Christmas message?

I think my lack of faith has much to do with my upbringing. My parents were little troubled by the vicar. The only trips to church were for weddings, funerals and christenings, which was more to do with social convention than piety. I have four siblings. The first two were baptised in swaddling clothes but my eldest sister had to wait four whole years before she got her dip in the font, accompanying me in a kinda two-for-one offer. And my youngest sister is still a heathen. I guess as time went by, my folks just got a bit bored with the charade.

It seems quite a few of my fellow citizens agree with my strictly secular world-view. According to latest census data for England and Wales published by the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of people describing themselves as Christian has dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since the Dark Ages.

So as a confirmed atheist, imagine my surprise when this popped up in my in-basket.

I opened the email when these two sinners were boozing in a Soho gay bar. Oh, the irony. I really don’t care what people believe in – gods, prophets, angels or the tooth fairy – it’s ok with me. If someone wants to think the world is flat and the moon is made of cheese, that’s fine too. But whoever bought my personal data should get a refund.

Season’s greetings and wishing you all goodwill. God knows we could do with some peace on earth right now.

Where is St Edmund Buried?

In Bury St Edmunds, obviously – or is he? The cute Suffolk market town might be the final resting place of St Edmund, ninth-century Christian king of East Anglia. Allegedly, he was cut down by a wild bunch of pillaging Danes doing what the Danes did back then.

Eventually those pillaging Danes saw the error of their wicked heathen ways, dropped to their knees, converted to the ‘One True Faith’ and hung up their horny helmets.

For his sins, Eddie the Martyr was canonised and an abbey founded in his honour by that great Dane, King Canute – he of holding-back-the-tide fame. Edmund even became England’s patron saint for a few hundred years until he was rudely upstaged and replaced by George in or around the fourteenth century. And Georgie boy wasn’t even English. But then, who can compete with a dragon slayer?

In Medieval times, a gravy train of pilgrims rolled in from all over Europe to visit Eddie’s shrine. It was a good little earner and the Abbey of St Edmund became one of the richest, largest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in all of England. Then in 1539 that old letch Henry the Eighth popped along and ‘dissolved’ the abbey (i.e. pillaged like those Danes of old) and that was the end of that.

A sunny day took us across county lines for a gander around the old holy pile. Apart from two impressive medieval gatehouses, little remains of the abbey itself, though next door is Bury St Edmunds Cathedral called – wait for it – St Edmundsbury. The Abbey’s pretty grounds are lovingly tendered by the local council and a dedicated army of volunteers; many of them could well be the descendants of those pillaging Danes who cut down the saintly king. ’Tis their penance.

All is forgiven. Nowadays, we really like the Danes.

Among the roses and the ruins, there’s a World War Two memorial to the US Airforce (or the US Army Airforce as it was known back then). The USAF was, and still is, big round these parts as East Anglia is famously flat and just a short bombing raid to the continent.

But … the current whereabouts of Edmund’s sainted bones is anyone’s guess.

Go West, Young Man

We have old friends in Torquay, a palm tree-lined seaside resort in Devon. We hadn’t seen them in ages because of the pandemic, so a catch-up was well overdue. All roads lead to London, and we didn’t fancy the hassle of crossing the sprawling metropolis only to come out the other side, so we flew from Norwich International airstrip to Exeter International airstrip on a little jet – like Z-listers without the paps.

Old Exeter – Roman Isca Dumnoniorum, Saxon Execeaster – has been around a while, though at first glance you’d never know it. The Luftwaffe did a great job flattening the city in the Second World War, so you have to look closely to find ancient treasures.

Mercifully, the magnificent cathedral, founded in 1050, was spared the hellfire that destroyed pretty much everything else – a little odd considering it sticks out like a bullseye at the heart of the city. Although I’m not religious in the slightest, I do so love a gander round a holy pile.

Most of what the visitor sees is thirteenth century, and what impresses first is the awe-inspiring ceiling that soars towards the heavens. At 96 metres, it’s the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world. It surely convinced the hovel-dwelling, unwashed illiterati of old that it was made with divine intervention – and so helped keep them on their knees.

And then there are all the elaborate tombs – mostly containing the old bones of long-dead bishops.

And the stained glass windows aren’t bad either.

While Norwich hosted T-Rexes and steppe mammoths for the summer, Exeter went for giant cutesy street dogs.

After Exeter, we spent the next couple of days hitting the sherry and chewing the cud with our old muckers at their palatial digs in Torquay. And fantastic it was too. Our hosts are a little camera shy so, instead, here’s an elegant bust of Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunnit and the best-selling fiction writer of all time, who was born in the town.

The Book of Mormon: The Newest Testament

Since they switched the theatre lights back on, we’ve been playing catch-up with all the shows queuing up impatiently in the wings. Our latest gig was the UK tour of The Book of Mormon. Deliciously camp, rude, lewd and super crude, the song and dance show pulls no punches when ridiculing the fairy tales at the core of the Mormon credo – and by extension, organised religion in general. So there was a third biblical testament buried on a hillside in upstate New York? Who knew? Not the villagers in far-flung Uganda who had more pressing, real-world problems to deal with, like trigger-happy warlords, grinding poverty, AIDS and female genital mutilation. Ripe for conversion? The all-American dancing boys from Salt Lake City thought so. The desperate often are.

Credit: Paul Coltas

All’s well that ends well as the Bard once wrote and the show does have a happy ending because, in the end, we all need something to believe in, even if it’s just the power of the human spirit. By curtain call we were all on our feet. Yes, it’s that good.

As we left the theatre, we spotted a solitary Mormon elder politely handing out leaflets for the cause. Seems The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sees the show as an opportunity for a recruitment drive. Who said there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

Belfast – Should We Stay or Should We Go?

I was a little nervous when I took my seat to watch Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film about the life of a working-class family in late sixties Belfast. It was a time when the Troubles really exploded on the streets, and I was dreading being slapped about the face by the grim senselessness of sectarianism.

But despite the nightmarish backdrop, there’s something incredibly warm and generous about the film. Set to a Van Morrison soundtrack (with a little help from Love Affair’s Everlasting Love) and shot in radiant black and white, the tender and funny script has a simple question at its heart – leave for a brighter future ‘across the water’ or stay for kith and kin and all that’s familiar. It was a choice faced by generations of Irish people – including our own.

The sparkling cast really deliver – anything with Judi Dench gets my vote – and despite the eye candy that is Jamie Dornan, the stand-out performance has to be from Jude Hill as Buddy, the young boy around whom the story revolves.

Do they stay or do they go? Here’s a clue. Sir Kenneth Branagh is now one of the UK’s foremost actors and directors.

Here’s the trailer…