Editor-At-Large: Praise be to Gilbert and George (and let their critics be damned)

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The Independent Online

ne conspicuous pair of names was missing from the much-criticised New Year's Honours List, and that was the couple of elderly men who are this country's finest ambassadors. I refer, of course, to Gilbert and George. Their controversial new exhibition entitled Sonofagod Pictures 2005 - was Jesus Heterosexual? has opened at the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton Square to predictable outrage from Ann Widdecombe, who labelled the artists "blasphemous in the extreme ... as [they] will find out when finally they stand before the Son of God".

I fully expect the loony Christian right to mount a picket or parade with placards before the weekend is out, and I'm sure that prayers will be said for the unrepentant pair at church services up and down the land.

Gilbert and George are contemporary commentators of the highest order. Not for them tasteful blurry paintings of cute boys or ironic still-lifes, dreary video installations of granny taking a nap or splodgy paintings of backsides. They are interested only in big themes: sex, religion, life and death, issues most people (and most contemporary British artists) shy from. That is their strength. Their talent lies in their unerring power to provoke, to stimulate discussion and to question conventionally held beliefs.

For ages, their work was better known and more collected in Europe, which is ironic when you consider that its subject - the subversion of tradition - has been so undeniably British. When they finally achieved recognition from the British establishment last summer as the country's representatives at the Venice Biennale, it was long overdue.

In previous years, Chris Ofili and Gary Hume had been selected for this honour, both still in the middle of their careers. G and G, on the other hand, have been making waves for nearly four decades and still have not had a major retrospective of their work in this country, an omission which will be rectified by Tate Modern next year.

The Ginkgo pictures they made for Venice were sensational, celebrating the cult of youth, with digital images of young men in hoodies and G and G sliced in half and doubled again looking impassively out at you like weird Knights Templar. The huge computer-generated collages were a real talking-point at the exhibition, and were created long before Britain's shopping malls decided to equate hoodie-wearers with anti-social behaviour and banned them.

The vast, richly coloured pictures in the Sonofagod series are made of blocks of black-edged panels that make the gallery seem a church. The density of the imagery seems reminiscent of a series of Victorian or medieval stained-glass windows as Gilbert and George take on all forms of organised religion, from Christianity to Islam.

They have split crucifixes in two and made double images, so Christ on the Cross starts to look a carcass. Their own images are so surreal they look demonic. Interspersed with all the crucifixes are good luck charms, lucky pixies, prayer medals, wishbones, and horseshoes.

Gilbert and George captivate and repulse you simultaneously by presenting Christianity on a level with freemasonry, horoscopes, or the wearing of a lucky charm bracelet. As far as they are concerned, organised religion is responsible for prejudice and persecution, and divides as much as it unites.

When you turn on the television each day and see violent deaths caused in the name of religion, it is easy to see that they have a point. And when a Catholic priest who is regarded as the pillar of a community in Ireland goes into hiding because he has fathered a child with a woman he has known for nine years, you can see why some people might find the present Pope's views on sex somewhat out of date.

Gilbert and George are too clever to preach. Endlessly polite, unfailingly courteous and crowd-pleasing, they tread the fine line between being mischievous and being mad. And they are still the best-dressed gentlemen in town.

Tony the rock star: best joke of the week

Tony Blair Rock Star on Channel 4 last week was a hilarious hour of television, with Christian Brassington's wonderfully creepy impersonation of our Prime Minister as a long-haired teenager making compulsive viewing.

How Tony ever thought he was going to make it in the music business (a dream he admitted only a couple of years ago that he still thinks about) when his singing was useless and his grin totally inane, I'll never know. He seems to have had the sexual charisma of a tea-towel, smearing lard on his hair and leaving off his shoes whenever a camera was nearby.

One of Tony's former teachers at public school raved about his acting abilities in Julius Caesar, and an old friend reminisced about a gang of them stripping off at a party, which led to "innocent" fun. Others were not so charitable, and our PM was described as hopelessly ingratiating and over-friendly, looking like a bit of a nerd and slightly asexual.

Most revealing was the news that he'd never been seen despondent, and that he seemed to really believe everything that came out of his mouth. Add his undoubted acting skills and you've got the perfect qualifications for being either Tony Blair or David Cameron.

Stealth tax: Why does it cost £250 to get to Yorkshire?

I spent a couple of days in Buenos Aires and found Argentinians are charming. From hotel receptions to serving in restaurants, helping you with directions or driving a cab, they were unfailingly happy. Back home and you're in Britain's ill-mannered reality. And I spent half an hour online the other day, trying to buy GNER return tickets to Yorkshire that wouldn't cost me more than £250. Now there are so many different tickets. Savers, super-advance savers, off peak, and so on. GNER also limit the number of cheap tickets so you have to pay more unless you book within 30 minutes of tickets going on sale months in advance. Now train companies are expected to rid of off-peak savers. The government extracted a huge fee from GNER when they awarded them the East Coast franchise. So passengers pay for exactly the same service, same trains, plus a hidden tax. And why should first class be full of GNER employees on free travel, when most people can't afford standard?

Brussels pouts: Peter and Gordon should act like grown women

Is there anything more pathetic than two middle- aged men having a tiff? If Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown were running Marks & Spencer or Selfridges, they would have been chucked out of their jobs months ago for poor inter-personal skills. Since Mr Mandelson took up his job as Britain's sole representative on the EU Commission, in November 2004, Mr Brown has refused to com-municate with him. Given Mr Mandelson is representing our position on matters such as the EU rebate, this is not only childish, but also unprofessional. I suppose leading politicians have plenty of qualities, and being efficient and grown-up are not necessarily two of them. (Remember John Prescott's "joke" about Mr Mandelson and a crab a few years ago?) I can't imagine two women behaving so pathetically. It shows how unsuited Mr Brown is to running the country.