I say there, are you absolved?

`If aliens exist,' he said, `we would ask whether Christian atonement was applicable to them'
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The Independent Culture
OUTER SPACE and religion make odd bedfellows. Though they're technically incompatible - one is explored through arcane systems of physics, the other through foggy clouds of metaphysics - they sometimes get on remarkably well.

Both require from their students and disciples an imaginative leap beyond the mundane and the known. Occasionally some boffin will shyly concede that the "big bang" theory of the universe's origins is cognate with a moment of "creation" by an unknown force. A surprising number of cosmologists believe in a divine overseer of the universe: witness the fuss when Stephen Hawking - a man far too brainy to be anything but an atheist - ended his Brief History of Time by saying that if we comprehended all of quantum mechanics, "we might... understand the mind of God".

The supposed site of heaven has always been up in the sky, where we also imaginatively locate other galactic civilisations with Treen Ray Guns and Black Clouds of destructive learning. Army padres get jocularly called "sky pilots". Publishing Houses, called things like Screw Loose Books, bring out speculative works called Was God An Astronaut? And so on. But while scientists have occasionally flirted with intimations of divinity, the process has always been one-way. Organised religions have always had better things to do than wonder about how Venusians and Alpha Centaurians would respond to their sacramental rituals and benign homilies.

Until now, that is. One of the Pope's inner sanctum of thinkers, Fr Corrado Balducci, of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, has gone on the record. The existence of UFOs and extraterrestrials can't be denied any longer, he says. They obviously exist, you gotta believe all those stories of alien abduction, they're just more evolved versions of human beings, the truth is out there, etc. So far, so modern. But when asked what the Church would do about an alien race (and, of course, a new influx of potential converts), Fr Balducci reverted spectacularly to historical missionary type. Since they're part of the universe, he said, they come under the jurisdiction of Christ in his role as King of the universe. So there. Back in London, a Catholic spin doctor spelt it out for hapless, trans-galactic, ectoplasmic nomads everywhere: "If aliens were shown to exist," he said. "We would have to ask whether the Christian atonement was applicable to them."

Don't you love it? You're a genetically enhanced Zorg from the planet Chumba12. You've crossed gigasquillions of light years from a dying civilisation to fetch up, sweaty and exhausted (and extremely old), in our solar system. Your descending pheelies are killing you. And when the undercarriage locates Tarmac and asphalt, and the pod doors creak arthritically open, what are you faced with in the de-briefing room? A bloke from the Vatican saying, "Hello. Do you believe in God? He is your master. Er, no, I can't in fact take you to him," while another shakes his head with civil servant stubbornness and says: "Salvation? Redemption? Sorry mate, no can do. It's just not applicable for sinners living outside the borough." This cannot be the way to build tentacles of understanding across the firmament.

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"IT IS not the job of the state, and it is certainly not the job of the school, to tell parents when to put their children to bed," declared David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers, responding to David Blunkett's idea that parents and teachers should draw up "contracts" (which you could be fined for breaching) about their children's behaviour, time-keeping, homework and bedtime. Teachers are apparently concerned that their five-to-eight-year-old charges are staying up too late and becoming listless truants next day.

While I sympathise with Mr Hart's concern about this neo-Stalinist nannying, I wonder whether it goes far enough. Is it not high time that such concepts as Bathtime, Storytime and Drinks of Water were subject to regulation as well? I for one would value some governmental guidance as to the number of humorous swimming toys (especially Hungry Hippo) allowable per gallon of water. Adopting silly voices while reading Spot's Birthday or Little Rabbit Foo-Foo aloud is something crying out for regulatory guidelines, while the rights of children to demand and receive wholly unnecessary glasses of liquid after lights-out needs a Statutory Minimum Allowance.

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LOVELY BANK Holiday weekend, thanks very much. Everywhere you went, it was retro, retro, retro. The Princess died all over again (you couldn't help noticing) and all the amateur psychologists came barging into your living room to explain why you'd felt upset a year ago.

The choice of an evening out in the West End is now between Showboat and Oklahoma!, and Whistle Down the Wind, based on the 1961 Hayley Mills movie. The most popular children's toy under pounds 100 this year is apparently the yo-yo, that complicated piece of Nineties' hi-tech equipment. Margaret Thatcher is once more campaigning energetically on the stump (though admitted only in Iowa, in support of Steve Forbes of Forbes magazine). On the car radio, I became resigned to hearing old Beach Boys and Jackson Five hits being warbled all over again by a new generation of castrati and tiny black girls, but when some plagiaristic bunch called Sweetbox started playing Bach's "Air on a G-String" to the strains of "Everything's gonna be all right", a line patented by Bob Marley (shameless musical pinching is called "sampling", I'm told) well, I started to wonder - if I may sample F Scott Fitzgerald - why we are being borne back quite so ceaselessly into the past.

But as I raved and smote my brow about the recycling of culture, I suddenly encountered the most Proustian of memory-triggers. It was an item of clothing. They had a pair on the shelves of Gap Kids. The windows of Miss Selfridge were full of them. It was a pair of flared blue jeans with a dozen flowers embroidered on the legs. Instantly, I was hurled back to (can I date it precisely?) the summer of 1971. It was the post-Woodstock, late-hippie, pre-glitter period. Exile on Main Street by the Stones was steaming out of every open window as you walked around London. It was a pre-university, bliss-in-that-dawn time.

I was working in a hospital as a porter, enjoying a chaste but intense union with a blonde radiographer called Linda. She took a pair of my jeans (28-inch waist in those days, when I could still see my knees if I looked down) and spent weeks sewing flowers round the hem, sewing to keep faith with our relationship, like Penelope in The Odyssey. I wore them proudly in the street, got jeered at by Battersea toughs, and tut-tutted at by old men on the bus (it's the price you pay for being a crazed Bohemian, I'm afraid). Then, two weeks later, they were everywhere, and jeans manufacturers were churning out "loon pants" with embroidered butterflies flapping from ankle to knee. For one moment, I believed, I'd started a fashion (though it was, of course, just Linda reading the right magazines).

There I stood, rooted to the spot outside Miss Selfridge, drowned in memories of being a groovy bastard. "You know, children," I told the sneering offspring. "There was a time when..."

"Dad," they replied in three-part chorus. "You are so sad..."

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