I grew up listening to tales about Padre Pio. In the world of hard-line, superstitious Catholicism, the arena of miracles and mythologies, he was the ne plus ultra. I learnt how he could cure people in the street, just by waving at them (what a cheery cove he must have seemed). That he could cure any disease, no matter how nasty or terminal. And that he could, if he wanted, mend a broken bottle just by looking at it (the saint as handyman). I heard that, during the war, Allied fighter pilots once saw him walking in the sky over Italy and waving at them.
I grew up listening to tales about Padre Pio. In the world of hard-line, superstitious Catholicism, the arena of miracles and mythologies, he was the ne plus ultra. I learnt how he could cure people in the street, just by waving at them (what a cheery cove he must have seemed). That he could cure any disease, no matter how nasty or terminal. And that he could, if he wanted, mend a broken bottle just by looking at it (the saint as handyman). I heard that, during the war, Allied fighter pilots once saw him walking in the sky over Italy and waving at them. It sounds like a typical bit of celebrity showing-off to me, but they took it as a warning and zoomed off back to base. We learnt stranger things about him – that he was a recluse, but could sometimes be spotted with fast women in fashionable nightclubs, and therefore (the only possible explanation) he must be capable of bilocation, or being in two places at once. (A likely story, I thought, even at the age of seven.) But the most enduring myth about him was the Glove.
Padre Pio's glove seems to turn up all over the place. It gets everywhere, like Zelig or Geri Halliwell. If you explore the scores of websites devoted to Padre Pio, the glove will feature in half of them. Readers brought up Catholic will know how swoon-makingly disgusting were the little "relics" you used to find inside the crucifix on the end of your Rosary, like a toy in a bad-taste cereal packet – an unidentifiable lump of St Agatha's flesh, say, or something from between the toes of St Jerome. But Padre Pio's glove was the ultimate fetish object, because it had once covered a simulacrum of the blood of Christ. Hospitals in Pennsylvania, nursing communities in Brooklyn, credulous nuns in Sligo and converted zealots in Belize all claim to have seen, or to have known someone who saw, the glove being used to heal the sick before their very eyes.
The thing is, the saint did have a pair of gloves, which he used to conceal the signs of stigmata on his hands. But in the Padre Pio shrine in San Giovanni (his home town), there's only one of them, encased in a gold frame. And everyone who's seen it has presumably said to his or her neighbour, "'Ere – where's the other glove?" And thus a worldwide conspiracy is born. The Other Glove, like the Wrong Trousers, owes more to fiction than fact. It was lost at sea. No, it's being held captive by Basque separatists. No, it's owned by a spoilt priest who uses it as a freak show to make money. No, the priest who used to be Pio's minder in Rome brought it back to Brooklyn with him when he became a parish priest...
Whatever the truth, thousands of Catholics believe that it could heal them if only it were fitted over their quaking fingers. As a cult object, it has escaped from its owner's moribund embrace, and scuttled off (like the disembodied hand in The Addams Family) to find fame and stardom on its own. I expect there'll be a movie quite soon. Glove Story, starring Joe Pesci as the man with blood on his hands...
When it comes to literary criticism, you can know too much...
Oh, the perils of having media-savvy children. My friend Grace has a daughter who is doing her mock-GCSE exams, and she's been giving the child – a gorgeous but stroppy young minx called Layla – a little help with her revision. For an English-literature paper, the two of them pored over the poetry of one of the modern writers on the syllabus, a talented man famous for his love lyrics. Layla wasn't sure she understood them all, so mother and daughter discussed rhyme, scansion, rhythm and subject matter like a pair of Oxford dons in a Senior Common Room. They particularly liked one poem about a man whose life appears to have ended. The ending left it ambiguous: had his wife died or had she left him?
At exactly this point, Grace's husband came into the room and asked, "Who are you talking about?" They told him the poet's name, and the work they'd been studying. "If you ask me," Grace's husband told her, "it's a poem about how his wife left him after she found out about his raging affair with [X] the TV presenter." "You think?" said Grace, and went back to discussing iambic metre with her daughter.
You can imagine what happened, can't you? The blasted child came back from school the next day and said, "Yes thanks, Mum, the exam went fine. remembered all the stuff you said about rhythm and scansion. And I quoted a few lines of the poem about the sad bloke whose life was over. And –" "No!" shrieked Grace at her daughter. "Don't say it!" "– and I put in a bit about him having a raging affair with [X] the TV presenter, too."
"OhMiGod," cried her mother, "that's a secret. It's a scandal. Nobody's supposed to know about it. How could you?"
"I just thought that it was quite interesting," said Layla. "More interesting than blooming rhythm, anyhow."
So there it is. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of a school in Dulwich, the first-ever defamatory mock-GCSE paper is stashed like a ticking time bomb...
The art of insults
According to the Italian Appeal Court, it no longer counts as an insult to human honour and dignity if one man uses vulgar language to another. M'learned friends have decided it's time people stopped resorting to knife-play in the street just because one motorist has informed another that his wife is being unfaithful with the town halfwit. The case under appeal was a row over a parking-space, in which one driver told another, "Don't break my balls." These words got him arrested and fined, as behaviour likely to incite a duel. But now they've overturned the fine and told Italian men to grow up.
Well, it's nice to see common sense prevail, but I shall miss the seriousness with which Italians take their insults. Where to make two horns out of your waggling fingers and thus imply that a chap is a cuckold can land you with a 50-year vendetta – now that's what I call a manly society. To tell someone their mother-in-law is a water buffalo and have them carving their name in your throat – that's a society that takes the family seriously.
Is "honour" – as in the Mafia phrase "men of honour" – a concept it's safe to devalue? Do we assume it's only in Islamic countries that people are allowed to get mortally offended by insults, abuse of the family, blasphemy against one's personal god, while we merely exchange vulgar, meaningless expressions? I am reminded of the story about Harold Macmillan meeting General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer at a European summit, where they fell into conversation about a delegate who had reportedly told a fellow politician, "Your wife, sir, is an alcoholic." What, the three men asked one another, would they have done if they'd been so insulted? "The man has insulted Madame de Gaulle," said the General. "I would have to challenge him to a duel and shoot him."
"I would not soil my hands with such a person," said the German. "I would arrange to have him arrested and beaten up."
And you, Macmillan, they asked, what would you have done? He replied, "I would have said, 'My dear fellow, you should have seen her mother.'"
Harry, quite contrary
I worry about my chum Harry. He's a Scot, and cannot bring himself to support the England football team. Years ago, I attacked him with fists and colourful language because he was supporting West Germany against England as we watched the World Cup semi-final. He's still at it. He was one of the perverse Caledonian gits who boosted sales of Argentine wine in the run-up to the match on 7 June. Before the Nigeria game, he filled his kitchen with plantains, palm hearts and the novels of Ben Okri. By the time the Denmark game rolled round, you couldn't move in his living room for unfeasibly rich pastries, cans of Carlsberg, and whole flitches of bacon with the hated national name stencilled on the side. Between now and the Brazil game, he's hardly got enough time to buy everything he needs: large nuts, beach thongs, books about Nazi war criminals, plaster figurines of Christ the Redeemer, the novels of Paulo Coelho... frankly, I think he's taking anti-Englishness a tad far. What will he do if we have to play Senegal, for whom there are (as yet) no cultural clichés?Reuse content