John Walsh: ‘Saint Therese is visiting Wormwood Scrubs prison on her tour of England’

Tales of the City

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I see that Saint Therese is playing the Scrubs in September. Let me put that another way: I see that the bones of St Therese of Liseiux will be put on display (inside a fancy reliquary casket) in the Victorian chapel in Wormwood Scrubs prison, from 15 September, as part of a tour of several English cathedrals, taking in Liverpool , Salford, Birmingham, Leeds and York Minster.

If you need reminding, St Therese was a French nun of unusually soppy and childlike demeanour, known in Catholic circles as The Little Flower. Idealised paintings tend to emphasise her rosebud mouth and soft hands, forever clutching blown roses, though contemporary photographs reveal a tougher-look babe, with a granite jaw and razor-blade lips. Her most celebrated utterance, delivered when she was dying, was: "I intend to spend my Heaven doing good on earth. After my death, I shall make a shower of roses rain down."

Since her death in 1897, she's been projected as the Shirley Temple of miracle-workers. Millions visit her home-shrine every year, turning it into a mini-Lourdes, with extra mini-tots appeal. She attracts rather a rough crew, because of her status as the patron saint of murderers – not that she offers them encouragement in whacking people, you understand, only in calling them to repent later. She famously prayed for the repentance of a triple homicide called Pranzini; no trace of remorse was forthcoming until the moment just before his head was chopped off, when the deranged killer seized a crucifix and began to kiss it. Therese, a little conceitedly in my view, took this as a sign from God that she should start praying for other crims.

I've known about the saint since I was a kid, and she always struck me as rather emetic. But she's to be taken seriously now, 110 years after her death. The cathedrals tour, we're told, is "the relics' first tour of England and Wales" as if these bleached bones were a new pop act – or indeed an old one: something about the words "celebrated relics to tour Europe" puts me in mind of Fleetwood Mac's reunion this autumn. The relics have been in Ireland, visiting more venues, from Kildare to Killarney, than The Corrs and The Nolan Sisters combined. They've been travelling the globe for years, hawking their way round 40 Papist countries and bringing New York's Fifth Avenue to a standstill.

I must say, I had imagined that the veneration of holy relics and stray bits of the True Cross was an old Catholic cliché, long abandoned. Every rosary I possessed as a child routinely featured a crucifix whose silver back unscrewed to display some noisome particle of St Godolphin's pancreas. To find, in 2009, that a casket of relics from a long-dead saint can warrant its own multi-venue rock tour of western Europe, with an entourage of stage managers and roadies, thousands of adoring zealots and (okay, I'm guessing) special tour merchandise ("£15 for the Little Flower T-shirt: roll up!") is more than laughable; it's positively alarming.

After all the Higher Atheism we've imbibed from Dawkins and Hitchens, is this a sign that a new Counter-Enlightenment is upon us? Michael Jackson was always a bit kinky about relics. Will he be the first secular entertainer to be canonised and have miracles ascribed to him?

***

You know Dominic West, the Old Etonian who plays Irish-American Jimmy McNulty (the only white man in the Baltimore projects able to understand the street argot of both police and villains without saying, "You what?" all the time) in The Wire? He's fuming about foreign actors playing English roles. That pushy Texan Renee Zellweger doing Beatrix Potter. That charmless Ocker Russell Crowe playing Robin Hood. But where has he been? Grotesquely inappropriate casting has been a feature of filmland for decades. Have we forgotten the row when a Spanish producer cast the stutteringly English Nikolas Grace in a biopic about Spain's favourite poet, Lorca? Or the fuss about Ben Kingsley as Gandhi? John Wayne did nothing for US-Mongol Hordes diplomacy, when he played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. Brace yourself for a film about the Bullingdon Club, starring Will Smith as the young Boris Johnson.

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