D J Taylor: Beyond belief

The Bottom Line: Our commentator seeks out the truths behind seven days of ungodly transport, mouthy comics, flawed celebrity and a mauling by the Beast of Bolsover
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The Independent Online

Quite the funniest thing that came my way last week was the news that a band of proselytising non-believers is preparing to mount an advertising campaign. The precise details are somewhat vague, but it appears that one plan is to decorate the sides of buses with the rousing slogan "There is probably no God". No disrespect to the sincerity of those involved, but I am afraid that when I heard this I burst out laughing. Somehow it is that slight qualification that lets the scheme down. Surely a no-nonsense, anti-religious absolutist such as Richard Dawkins, who has apparently offered financial support, would surely have struck out the "probably" almost before the draft hit the table.

And yet, in the context of the continuing and one-sided struggle between "rationalism" and "faith" which burns on in the broadsheet newspapers (one-sided in that "faith" rarely gets a look-in), this kind of tentativeness ought to be warmly applauded. If anything distinguishes the contributions of Professor Dawkins and the other professional atheists to the debate about religious belief, it is their complete lack of subtlety – that, and a refusal to allow religion some of the imaginative licence that science nearly always extends to anyone in a white coat with a degree in molecular biology. Listening to Radio 4's account of the attempt to recreate the Big Bang the other month, I was struck not only by the tremendous air of self-congratulation but by the difficulty the various scientists had in explaining what was going on in anything other than figurative terms. The search for the constituent parts of the atom was likened to a series of Russian dolls, each containing a progressively smaller element. The Higgs Particle, meanwhile, was supposed to resemble "a field of snow". The degree of contempt on Professor Dawkins's face if anyone who had tried to explain religious belief to him by way of analogy can only be imagined.

* Lack of subtlety was also much in evidence at the Carling Academy Brixton earlier in the week, where I spent an instructive couple of hours with my teenage son watching The Mighty Boosh in concert. Having tracked the progress of many a comedy act from late-night, small-screen obscurity to sell-out tours and piled merchandising, I had a pretty good idea of what Felix and I might find here in Boosh-crazy SW9, and, sure enough, practically all the feyness, finesse and whimsicality of the original TV show had vanished into a blur of noise, special effects and swearing. There was a time – as far back as the mid-1970s, perhaps – when media savants used credibly to maintain that if we could only get four-letter words off the urinal walls and into everyday discourse they would somehow be "demystified" and rendered less offensive. Well, I can report that the sight of a grown man saying "fuck" (always done with an odd schoolboy smugness) still has three thousand Brixton theatre-goers cheering themselves hoarse. The Boosh show, which ended with Messrs Fielding and Barratt (plus assorted sidekicks) performing their celebrated punk pastiche "I did a shit", prompted the thought that Joyce Grenfell was probably more left-field in her day. On the other hand, Felix, whose 16th birthday treat this was, loved it.

* Kerry Katona's latest embarrassment – slurring her words on ITV's This Morning and blaming the fell influence of "medication" – offered all kinds of aperçus on the world of modern celebrity. The show's presenter, Philip Schofield, criticised in some quarters for "ambushing" the hapless Ms K, waxed eloquent on the "irresponsibility" of whoever had brought her into the studio, when surely at least some of the blame was down to Schofield himself or even, without being unduly exigent, his talented guest. Max Clifford was reliably on hand to pronounce that he was "concerned" for Ms K's welfare, which is rather like a brothel madam being "concerned" for the sexual health of Dolores in the Pompadour Suite.

Of all the people whose lives are so intimately detailed in the pages of OK!, Closer and Heat, Ms Katona has always seemed the most fascinating, if only because of her relentless determination to tell us absolutely everything about herself all the time. In the past month alone we have been treated to her bankruptcy, the possibility that glum-looking husband Mark may have fathered a love child, Herculean bouts of cosmetic surgery in which "pints of fat" have been drained off her stomach, and a whole lot more besides. The problem about the world so pitilessly exposed is that it consists entirely of primary colours, with not a hint of chiaroscuro in sight. Kerry either hates one of her professional rivals like poison or is mysteriously reconciled to her. She is either renewing her marriage vows to Mark or telling a "friend" that it's time he got off his arse and found a job. No doubt Ms K, like the rest of us, must experience the odd mixed emotion now and again, and admit one or two grey areas – or even pastel shades – into her crowded and demanding life. Then again, if it could be proved that she did, a whole swathe of the modern media would simply cease to exist.

* But then stereotypes, primary colours, black and white polarities are, as the Shadow Chancellor's little misadventure with Oleg Deripaska demonstrates in spades, sometimes a welcome sight. Politics has got rather complicated lately, what with the LibDems advocating tax cuts and the Conservatives posing as the party of social responsibility and a return to the ancient certainties of toffs on yachts in shady company while horny-handed sons of toil worry about foreclosed mortgages is always a pleasure. The best moment of all in George Osborne's discomfiture came at Prime Minister's Questions when Dennis Skinner clambered up from militants' corner to assail him. The Beast of Bolsover is a bit quiet these days, but this was a vintage performance – mouthy and at times incoherent, but assuring us that whatever Gordon Brown might have done to undermine the public finances he would never take money from a Russian oligarch. Given some of the people from whom New Labour has subbed up funds – is there any real difference between Mr Deripaska and, say, Bernie Ecclestone? – all this was a bit rich, but as an intervention it was almost as good as Skinner's famous dismembering of the late Reggie Maudling back in 1977. Maudling, by this stage a disgraced and diminished figure, was pontificating on a round of poor productivity statistics. "It takes a German worker a day and a half to assemble a car," he lamented to the House, "whereas it takes his British equivalent more than three days." "An' 'ow long would it tek you, fats?" Skinner enquired.

* For an antidote to this succession of lives from whom all trace of nuance has been trimmed (rather like Ms Katona's liposuctioned midriff), I turned to I Once Met, the latest selection from the Oldie column in which the magazine's contributors reminisce on chance meetings with "the famous and infamous".

The point about these encounters in which a celebrity's private face is usually revealed to be light years distant from his public façade, is their display of individual quiddity. The subject may be Anthony Powell, refusing to admit a plumber into his home on the grounds that the man couldn't pronounce his name, or E M Forster screaming at a woman who had tried to wheel a pram-bound infant across the lawn at King's College, Cambridge, but the effect is to make everyone involved seem more human, not less.

"Famous people," my father used to tell me, "like to be recognised." My own experience is that, on the contrary, famous people don't like to be recognised. Aged 22, and with a blithe insouciance that my adult self finds remarkable, I once bearded Enoch Powell on a Tube train running from Victoria to Oxford Circus. It was a scorching July day. Powell, in full morning dress with a furled umbrella on his arm, turned on me an eye of such beady disdain that I lost my nerve on the instant and started babbling. Funny to see him here, I wittered, for surely Parliament was in recess. "Parliament is not in recess," Powell chided me. "I am on my way to the BBC to deliver a talk on Schopenhauer."

Somehow the talk turned to my alma mater. "Of course, you're an Oxford man yourself," I burbled. "I regret I did not have the pleasure of attending that university," Powell lobbed back. All this went on for several minutes, to the great amusement of those within earshot.

Finally, on the platform at Oxford Circus, Powell turned to me. "I regret that when we began this conversation I omitted to enquire your name." I gave it. "Mr Taylor," Powell announced, "I wish you success."

If success means this kind of haut-stylisation then Powell, not to mention The Mighty Boosh and Kerry Katona, was welcome to it.