Become a saint or face the global cosmic penalties

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The Independent Online
SISTER Marie Gabriel, a lay sister who also goes by the name of Sofia Richmond, took an advertisement in the Independent last week to announce that the comet destined to hit Jupiter next Saturday is a divine warning that we must 'Return to God's COMMANDMENTS BECOME SAINTS OR FACE COSMIC GLOBAL PENALTIES.' Sister Marie has an eccentric way with punctuation and typography.

She is also curiously obsessed, for someone so concerned about cosmic catastrophe, with unpaid royalties on a book she wrote in 1992. And when you ring her up, she sounds exactly like Julie Burchill, a journalist of vitriolic wit and sweet, girlish voice. It crossed my mind that she was Julie Burchill, because she admitted that the fetching photograph accompanying her announcement didn't look remotely like her, having been chosen 'so I wouldn't be recognised in the street'. She also, rather fishily, refused to disclose who had paid for the ad.

She insists, however, that she is a 53-year-old secular sister in the Carmelite order (the Carmelites 'are taking an attitude of wait and see,' she says), and that she had her first mystical experience at 15, when she was told that a Pole would ascend the papal throne. Things went rather quiet after that until the comet revelations, which, she insists, are not a prediction of the end of the world ('that's a very big mistake'). She's had one other vision, about big times ahead for the Royal Family (not the obvious one: they're going to become absolute monarchs, 'because Parliament has failed the people'); and she's especially concerned about video nasties, bullfights, and the money she claims she is owed for her book. She has advised Virgin boss Richard Branson to ground his planes until the comet hits.

THE HUMAN male, increasingly threatened with the possibility of becoming redundant, has not had a good week. First, there was the judge who gave two lesbians joint rights to bring up a 22-month-old boy born to one of them, which led to a lot of follow-up scare stories about lesbians being artificially inseminated by health authorities up and down the country. And then the Office for Standards in Education uncovered disturbing disparities in the academic achievement of boys and girls at all stages of education. Girls have long been known to do better at junior school and in their early teens, but the theory was that, come the time that really mattered, they got distracted by eyeshadow and teenybopping and declined gracefully.

But even at GCSE and A-level, and in subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry and technology, girls now appear to be out-performing boys. There is clearly cause for concern: one headmaster was quoted as saying: 'The best we can do is practise a bit of positive discrimination, such as not penalising boys for untidy work.'

Considering how long the debate about positive discrimination in favour of women has been dragging on, and the scorn which greeted recent tentative suggestions that some attempt should be made to undo the bias against women in university finals, this seemed an interesting reaction, certainly in its rapidity. It also seems to me doubtful whether it is entirely desirable for boys to be encouraged to be mucky, when they do so well as it is.

One explanation of the Ofsted figures has it that education has been feminised (too many long-term assignments, requiring sustained diligence, obviously designed to penalise boys). Supporters of this view suggest that a properly masculine atmosphere - rugby, beatings, fagging and a general rampant individualism - should be returned to schools in the name of equality. They can only have been pleased to learn last week of the existence of Mr Graham Fenner, headmaster of Hawtreys, an exclusive public school in Wiltshire, in whom they have a fine individualist to emulate. Mr Fenner has effectively sold the boys in his school, or to put it more politely, struck a deal whereby he receives consultancy fees of pounds 500 per child for each boy transferring from Hawtreys, which is closing, to Cheam, a school with which it is merging.

It looks as though Cheam might have done better to buy in a few girls.

THE NEWS that business executives were turned away from Wimbledon in droves, because their pounds 1,000 tickets were actually worth pounds 4 and shouldn't have been sold to them in the first place, excited in me a thoroughly unpleasant sense of schadenfreude, which I blame on the time I worked, briefly, in an advertising agency. The secretaries all spent the whole of May and June ringing ticket touts, offering to pay exorbitant sums of money for tickets for Wimbledon and Glyndebourne so that the directors could take their clients. The directors were, in other circumstances, often rude about having to spend time with the clients, and sneakily pretended on these occasions that they were entertaining lavishly, though in truth the clients were paying (as they paid for lunches, dinners, and anything else that could be loaded onto their bills). The whole thing was also personally irritating because all the agency secretaries were so busy acquiring tickets, they couldn't type the many tedious memos it was my duty to compose. If business people are so keen on tennis, they should fund coaching in the inner cities, and then one could perhaps overlook their belief that having access to someone else's money puts them above the rules.

TOUGHISM, it is pleasing to see, is fast becoming the political creed of the Nineties. Labour's environment spokesman, Chris Smith, has announced that his party's policy will henceforth be 'to be tough on grime, and tough on the causes of grime'. And following the suggestion of toughism on yobs here last week, several people have pointed out to me that, as a creed, it's infinitely adaptable. Great potential slogans include 'Tough on divorce, and tough on the causes of divorce', and 'Tough on cones, and tough on the causes of cones'.

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