The Devil gets a life - and it's coming to your bookshop

Geraldine Bedell meets Peter Stanford, who has just written a biography of Satan
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The Independent Online
AS A child, Peter Stanford thought that if he went into a tunnel he might meet the Devil, who, of course, lives underground. This made train travel alarming, and even at 18 he found the London Tube unnerving. At 34, however, Stanford has overcome his anxiety sufficiently to have spent two years closeted with Satan in order to write his biography.

The resulting book, like the man, is an engaging mixture of liberal scepticism scarred by belief. Stanford thinks the Devil is "one of the best ideas Christianity ever came up with", a copywriter's dream-motif in the Church's campaign for brand leadership. "The Church rose ruthlessly - I know we're supposed to believe the holy spirit did it, but Christianity was in danger of becoming one of many near-Eastern cults and the Devil was a fantastically effective weapon against that."

Stanford may have traced Satan through history and literature with cool rationality, but he isn't immune to the myth. He had misgivings about the project: if his Christian Brothers education had taught him anything, it was not to dabble with the Prince of Darkness. His mother was horrified. And there weremoments when he wondered whether Baudelaire mightn't have been right to say that "the Devil's deepest wile is to convince us he does not exist".

One troubling moment occurred in Rome during an interview with an exorcist who claimed to have cast out, earlier that day, a demon planted by the media. The implication was that Stanford's questions were insufficiently reverent. The victim of the possession had vomited bits of radio. Faintly comical as this seems months later in Stanford's front room in north London, it was chilling in a dank church on the edge of Rome, with an exorcist and his assistant, who looked like theHunchback of Notre Dame. "I had the feeling the Devil might still be around and out to get me."

The other disturbing moment came in his kitchen, when he was "writing about what sad and tragic people satanists were and how they really needed care in the community. The branch of a tree kept banging against the window ... there is a Catholic part of me that is prepared to believe those things."

Stanford grew up in Birkenhead, in a home subscribing to what Cardinal Hume once described as fortress Catholicism. His doctor and dentist were Catholic; life revolved around the parish, and his 43 first cousins lived nearby. It wasn't until he got to Oxford that he met someone whose parents were divorced. "It was a terrible shock. Here were people who weren't going to church, who were Jewish, who were having sex."

He wasn't devout, but he was interested in religious questions and he wanted to be a journalist. He joined the Catholic paper, the Tablet, then moved to the Catholic Herald, where he was offered the editorship at the age of 26. The Universe, the Herald's rival, wrote recently that Stanford was writing the Devil's autobiography. Somewhat perturb- ed, Stanford rang the editor who was "charming" and subsequently published a correction stating the book was a biography, and apologising for any offence they might have caused to the Devil.

At the Herald, Stanford explored the aspects of Catholicism he saw as positive. The Daily Telegraph once described him as "sobbing for the Sandinistas" and he admits he spent a lot of time on Central America. "But we also did a lot about poverty and mental health, sex dilemmas and divorced Catholics: people who felt part of the Church but excluded."

He sees himself now as on the liberal, questioning wing of the Church - "which is sometimes associated with nuns in polyester strumming guitars". But he is traditional in his style of worship: when he married last year, much of the mass was in Latin. He is also slightly defensive about his faith: "I don't want to sound like some religious nut. Not many people write about religion, so I think why not take the commissions? It's a living."

Stanford's biography is rigorous and judicious, but too conscious of the Devil's potency to be dry. Stanford himself doesn't believe in the Devil, but realises the difficulties this raises for his belief in God. "If the Devil is simply a face to put to an abstract idea of evil, is God just a face to put to the abstract idea of good?"

There is, happily, a theological way out of this. God is all-powerful, not, as the Churches have sometimes liked to imply, at the opposite pole to Satan, with human beings as their battleground. But there's no doubt it's the latter idea that's been effective in copywriter's terms. One way of accounting for the recent success of evangelical Protestant sects is through their insistence that the Devil is out there and must be resisted.

The orthodox Churches meanwhile seem embarrassed to raise the subject, for fear of sounding medieval and controlling. "For a Catholic priest to tell you the address of the diocesan exorcist would be like saying he'd slept with Mother Teresa." The most active Catholic exorcist, Archbishop Milingo, was removed from his job to what the Church hoped would be a lower-profile role. When Stanford interviewed him, he cut the meeting short at 5.15pm, saying he finished at six and had 400 demons to cast out by then. Most of the people waiting to see him seemed to Stanford to have runny noses: "I wanted to tell them to see the GP."

If the Devil is dying, he's taking an awfully long time about it. Stanford believes Satan surfaces whenever societies are particularly troubled, not least because the idea of a group of people who are outwardly normal but acting out taboos and sublimated fantasies is enduring. So is the urge to demonise: American anti-abortion literature, for example, uses stock imagery of hell. At the same time there remain more things in heaven and earth than are accounted for by psychiatry and chemical imbalances in the brain. "Writing about satanists, I wanted to adopt the liberal 20th-century view that they were sick, but sometimes it seemed sickness wasn't an adequate word. Perhaps one day we'll have words to substitute for evil, but we don't have quite enough of them yet."

Not that it's been all misery. The Devil has been portrayed as delicious in his dangerousness and hasinspired great art. "It's been an excuse to read Dante and Milton and watch a few films. In many ways it's been a really nice exercise. I'm grateful to the Devil in that sense."