John Walsh: Festive mice are not a pagan plot

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The Independent Online

Will you be wearing a crucifix to work this morning? Have you pinned your "Not Ashamed" badge to your lapel to show the world you're proud to be a Christian? Have you noticed the concerted campaign of anti-Christian bias all over the nation? No, I hadn't either – but that may be more evidence of the attack on religion that's secretly under way, like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or so some leading churchmen would have you believe.

The "Not Ashamed" campaign is the work of Christian Concern, a pressure group whose most vocal spokesman is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. He has been sketching out an alarming, totalitarian scenario in which Christmas cards are "censored" because some don't feature mangers and oxen, school Nativity plays are "watered down" because they dramatise festive mice and squabbling baubles as well as baby Jesus, and Christmas lights have become rubbishy "winter lights" with no angels anywhere.

"Christmas has become something of which some are ashamed," Carey thunders. "A new climate hostile to our country's tradition and history is developing." Gosh, how nostalgic the ex-Archbish makes me feel. I'm pitched back years to when, as a tiny child, I listened to our local priest, Fr Smith, smiting the pulpit and declaring to his Battersea flock that the "real meaning" of Christmas had been lost in a haze of Morecambe & Wise TV specials and the American way of calling Yuletide "the holidays".

One thinks back a century before that, to when Dickens was inventing Christmas as an almost entirely humanist phenomenon, as "a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely..." And, if we're talking about "our country's tradition and history", one might point out that Christmas gradually evolved as a Christian gig after years of being a pagan Saturnalia, designed to cheer up the drear nights of the medieval winter.

Not even Lord Carey's own people believe in his awful warnings about anti-Christian discrimination, the censorship, the undermining. The heads of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia say they can find no evidence to back up the "Not Ashamed" campaign, although "we have found consistent evidence, however, of Christians misleading people and exaggerating what is really going on, as well as treating other Christians, those of other faith and those of no faith in discriminatory ways".

The sad truth, Lord Carey, is that people aren't hostile to religion or passionately devout about it; just increasingly indifferent. They may send religious cards, sing carols, attend Mass, inspect the crib, as they've always done – but more as a style choice than an expression of devotion. They haven't been nobbled by Christianophobes. They just don't feel any atavistic twitch of veneration any more.

When the philosopher AC Grayling was introduced on a recent radio show as "a devout atheist", he corrected his host: "That's like calling me a devout non-stamp collector." What bothers Christian Concern, and the like, is that many people just aren't disposed to collect the stamps any more.

Prince Andrew's guide to closing conversations

There's been comment this week about Prince Andrew's verbal incontinence on foreign trips. He's been described as "a saloon-bar loudmouth". But, as I discovered a few years ago, he has one diplomatic trick up his sleeve when he wants to shut you up. It was the launch party for his collection of photographs. I asked him why he photographed so many roofs and empty courtyards (did he point his camera only out of Buckingham Palace windows?) and he banged on happily about his love of landscape. Was he, I persisted, a fan of André Kertész, the great Hungarian snapper? "Yes," said the prince shortly. "I believe I have some of his books at home."

"I ask," I persisted, "because he also started by photographing roofs and empty courtyards, though he graduated to more exciting street scenes and I wondered if perhaps..."

The prince didn't want a lecture on European art from the oikish hack before him. How to shut him up? He abruptly looked up at the ceiling, and twisted his neck slightly sideways, as if he'd noticed an absolutely fascinating insect in the rafters, or an unexpected Michelangelo fresco round the light switch. It's hard to keep babbling about the Hungarian deployment of wide-angle lenses when there's a royal Adam's apple before your eyes, so I subsided. He cranked his chin down to the horizontal, said "Goodbye" with evident relief and vamoosed. Damn. If only I'd brought Kazakhstani arms dealing into the conversation...

Ah, me hearty

Johnny Depp has told Vanity Fair that, in the early days of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, he encountered hostility from the Disney studio, which bankrolled the film. Mystified by Depp's character Jack Sparrow's bleary English delivery and uncertain gait (Depp was, of course, "channelling" the vagabond rocker Keith Richards) they asked if Jack was supposed to be gay, or drunk. "Upper-echelon Disneyites [were] going, 'What's wrong with him? Is he, you know, like some kind of weird simpleton?'"

Did similar, high-court-judge complaints greet earlier flamboyant performances? Did a studio exec look with horror at Robert Newton's eye-rolling Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island and say, "What's wrong with him? Does he suffer from some thyroid condition? Why does he keep saying 'Ah-harrgghh'? Is he clearing his throat? He's not going to spit, is he? And why does he keep calling Jim Hawkins 'me hearty'? Is he some kinda paedophile?"