Generalisations about nationality are worthless. I've met plenty of extremely unpassionate Spaniards, several far-from-cowardly Italians and a few Welshmen who have no obvious tendencies to larceny. So I'm suspicious about the claim that the Office of National Statistics' annual update of the country's favourite purchases offers a true picture of the Real British. They keep a record of the 650-odd things on which we spend more than £400m, and claim that these goods and services somehow define us as a population. And if sales drop below a certain level, it means that we're just not like that any more.
Do we believe that we are what we buy? According to the new figures, we're crazy about mobile phone apps, conditioner, dating agencies, dried fruit, sparkling wine, medium-density fibre and oven-ready joints of meat. We spend a fortune on them. Really? I possess an iPhone, like everyone else, but I can't say I've ever felt the need to buy a single app. Not even the one which takes photos of your friends and replaces their faces with those of badgers. Nor the one with the cat which repeats what you say in a silly voice while pulling faces. Incredible but true, I've never acquired the app which makes you look as if you're drinking beer out of the phone.
Likewise conditioner. I had a brief flirtation with the stuff in the new male-grooming world that followed the hippie era, but I was never convinced. Doesn't everyone know it just makes your hair flat and greasy? To the Office of NatStats, it may proclaim that we're a nation of hair-tossing, chestnut-maned sophisticates, but I (literally) don't buy it. The amount I've spent on dating agencies over the years is nil, though some ill-advised lines in Time Out's Lonely Hearts column stirred up a whole barking seraglio of lovelorn harpies. Sparkling wine? If we've stopped drinking champagne for a while – which is understandable – it's shocking to think we've replaced it with that prosecco, which is alcohol for bedwetters. Dried fruit? You mean those desiccated bits of apricot devoured by stenographers five times a day because the poor darlings can't handle the earthiness, the volume, the sheer grossness, my dear, of eating actual fruit? As for oven-ready joints of meat and medium-density fibreboard, I've found that, when you buy the former from your favourite high-street supermarket, it tends to taste suspiciously like the latter.
I know, I know. I can hear the shouts of "Get with the programme, Grandad". But I can't believe this is a true picture of us in 2011. It sounds like something invented by a props department for a BBC3 drama about interior designers and advertising folk, in which they pour each other slugs of vin mousseux, store their Pilates DVDs on their chi-chi, teal MDF bookshelves, and check their iPhone app to discover where the nearest Daylesford Organic dried fruits can be found.
Miscarriage of justice that should never be forgotten
It was 20 years ago this week that the Birmingham Six – Paddy Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, Hugh Callaghan, William and John Walker – emerged from the Old Bailey free men, after spending 16 years in jail for the Birmingham bombings of 1974. They didn't do the crime. They were innocent. At the second appeal, it was admitted that the forensic evidence against them was fabricated, and their forced confessions were ruled inadmissible. But the Crown prosecuters at the Old Bailey refused to give up. It was only on the third appeal, on 14 March 1991, that the judges finally realised the jig was up.
Six men had wasted 16 years of their lives on rigged evidence. The real culprits were never charged, although their identities were known. The banging-up of the Six was one of the most infamous travesties of justice in British legal history, and left a scar on Anglo-Irish relations that no amount of compensation to the jailbirds could heal. Thank goodness the judges saw sense at the end, or the men would still be inside. And we wouldn't be able to say: Happy St Patrick's Day, everyone.
Does James Frey really want to avoid trouble?
I met James Frey, the American author of A Million Little Pieces, when we were both guests on Libby Purves' Midweek some years ago. I remember saying I was surprised to read, at the start of his autobiography, how his parents had dragged him – bloodied and with vomit down his shirt – on to a United Airlines flight. Wasn't it unusual, I asked, for a national airline to allow passengers near their cabins covered in puke?
So when his book was revealed to have a relaxed attitude to the truth (A Million Little Fibs?) and he was ticked off by Oprah Winfrey on her TV show, I wasn't very surprised. Now Mr Frey is back with another controversial item – The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, a novel about the Messiah in the 21st century, where he goes by the name of Ben Jones and lives in a dirty Bronx apartment.
The book comes a year after Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which likewise played fictional tricks with Christian mythology, and three years since Tibor Fischer's Good to be God, about a British down-and-out pretending to be Christ in modern Miami. Mr Frey has evidently noticed that writing subversively about the Most High guarantees column inches. "I'm sure the religious right will go crazy because of the story of Ben," he told the New York Post, eagerly. Explaining why the book is being published in America by an art gallery, his British publisher said, "James couldn't imagine a corporate publisher standing by him in an environment of potential death threats, book burnings, and bannings in the US."
They wish. Being chastised by Oprah has clearly given him a taste for the cane. What a shame if the religious right just yawned and said, "Oh God, not that old chestnut..."