Tales of the City: The end of the world is nigh, again

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The Independent Online

Nice to see Pope John Paul II back on his feet, waving at the crowds and having speech therapy sessions.

Nice to see Pope John Paul II back on his feet, waving at the crowds and having speech therapy sessions. I know many people think the supreme pontiff should retire in favour of someone more hale and lively. I hear voices who say that, if he is unable to say mass any more, his role as the Catholic church's top celebrant has become redundant. But they're wrong. I hope he stays on in the job for another 20 years at least. For him to go would be to bring the end of the world alarmingly nearer.

I don't know if you dabble in occult prophesy, but in south London we talk of little else on these freezing nights in the Brixton Windmill. We remind each other of how the fate of the Popes of Rome is inextricably tangled up with the Fate of Everything. My watchword is St Malachi, a 12th-century Irish seer who, in 1143, produced a list of Popes that looked far into the future. There would, he prophesied, be 112 of them, stretching forward into the 21st century. He didn't name them, but gave each one a brief description - so Pope John XXIII, the last century's great reformer, was called "pastor and mariner". And he was number 107. The present Pope (described as "from the toil of the sun", possibly a reference to his long record of service in the Italian heat) is number 110. That leaves just two to go.

The next Pope, whoever he is, will be called "the glory of the olive" and his successor, the last-ever Pope, will be, rather aptly, "Peter the Roman". After that, apparently, it's goodnight Vienna, or rather Rome. "In extreme persecution, the seat of the Holy Roman Church will be occupied by Peter the Roman," wrote Malachi, 870 years ago, "who will feed the sheep through many tribulations, at the term of which the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the formidable Judge will judge the people. The End." So there. And don't get me started on Nostradamus, who predicted the death of John Paul I three times, and who seems convinced that the Italian capital will suffer a "great inundation" after a papal assassination. All things considered, I hope the present incumbent sticks around indefinitely.

Writing wrongs is bad in Tories' book

Michael Howard says that criminals who write books about their misdemeanours should have their fees seized by the courts as constituting the "proceeds" of criminality. Hmmm. Mr Howard is probably thinking of Maxine Carr's forthcoming confessions and Ian Brady's noisome memoir that was published a couple of years ago. But once you discourage convicts from writing books (whether about their crimes or as self-justifying therapy), you establish a very dodgy precedent. Had Mr Howard's ruling been law in previous centuries, we'd have had no Ballad of Reading Jail or De Profundis, no Pilgrim's Progress, no Don Quixote (for Cervantes was imprisoned for giving "short measure" as a naval quartermaster and was clearly trying to make up for it with his 1,000-page blockbuster), no Jean Genet or Cobbett or Smollett - and the world might never have heard from the authors of The 120 Days of Sodom and Mein Kampf....

Read all about it

Tomorrow is World Book Day, and the air will be thick with benign inducements to stop staring at TV screens and get back to the printed page. Thirteen million £1 book tokens will go out to all children in full-time education, while 8 million specially designed postcards will be yours for the taking in bookshops, libraries and cafés all over the nation, cards on which you're meant to inscribe the title of a work you're recommending to a friend. Marvellous, marvellous, soon the entire country will be reading Cloud Atlas and the new Ishiguro, and discussing the evolution of the Unreliable Narrator in modern texts. But a few alarm bells go off in my head at the news of how the big Day will be celebrated in schools. One's heart sinks at the "Medieval Literary Banquet" in Bath (lots of troubadours and ladies in pointy hats), at the promised "Book Character Fancy Dress Parade" in Crossgar (stand by for lots of orcs and dementors) and a "Book Character Disco" in Antrim (I can almost see it - Heathcliff attempting to cop-off with Rebecca from Sunnybrook Farm). Only a churl or a misery would deny the nation's teachers the pleasure of sending their young charges into paroxysms of literary impersonation on the assumption that it will teach them to be unafraid of reading. I suspect it will do little more than introduce them to the culture of the theme park, the TV mini-series, the Reader's Digest condensed book, the dictionary of quotations, the Purple Ronnie poetry anthology.... If I were Culture Minister, World Book Day would be the day on which every Briton is encouraged to stay at home and read a book from start to finish (that delightful experience you otherwise have only on a beach on Italy). That would be a true engagement with reading. Fewer home-made hobbit outfits, of course, but you can't have everything.

Playing the blame game

All credit to Halle Berry for showing up at the 2005 Razzie (or Golden Raspberry) awards, to accept the prize for Worst Actress, for her moggyish performance in the title role in Catwoman. What a good sport. She rather spoilt it, though, by blaming everyone else. "I want to thank Warner Brothers for casting me in this piece of shit," she said bitterly, as if they'd held a gun to her Oscar-winning head, and she'd had no part in, you know, choosing to accept a few million bucks for playing the role. Even odder, she dragged her agent up on stage and upbraided him in front of everyone, telling him, "Next time, read the script first". You mean, she didn't read it herself?