Philip Hensher: At least make use of the Papal visit

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The Independent Online

The Pope, as you may have noticed, is going to pay a state visit to Britain later this year. The last time a Pope visited, in 1982, it was technically a pastoral visit, paid for by church funds.

This state visit, however, commits the Government to funding it to the tune of some £15m, including some church contributions. The Government’s official role obliged it to think of some things for the Pope to do, and some rather junior officials in the Foreign Office were given the task.

What came back were, among others, these suggestions. The Pope should launch a brand of “Benedict” condoms. He could open an abortion ward, and bless a civil partnership. He should launch a telephone helpline for abused children. He should apologise for – a small lacuna here, while we wait for the Pope to produce a list, perhaps. And he should “canonise/pseudo-canonise a group”.

The suggestions of the internal document, speedily leaked to the media, didn’t go as far as suggesting that the Pope spend his four days, and perhaps a few more, in Wormwood Scrubs while the charges are brought. But the possibility was clearly there without anyone mentioning it. Ministers have been quick to apologise. David Miliband said it was a “colossal failure of judgement”. The official in charge has been transferred to other duties – I hear our embassy in Guinea has an opening for a filing clerk. Let it be a lesson to all of us not to let one of those dismal “brainstorming” meetings grow too exuberant.

Everyone knows what the Pope will really be allowed to do: to meet people who agree with him. No gays, no single mothers, no one who doesn’t believe in God, and certainly no human rights lawyers. Probably the Government and the Vatican will tiptoe around each other, until an opportunity is found for the Pope to allude regretfully to the plight of abused children, though perhaps not to apologise for any cover-up. I seem to remember that the founder of his church was not so selective about the company he kept. Of course, it is not very likely that the Pope would take this opportunity to launch a brand of Vatican sponsored condoms. He is on record as saying that the distribution of condoms in Africa could “aggravate” the problem of HIV/Aids, and a senior member of his church even spread the disastrous lie that condoms were permeable to HIV.

I don’t suppose he is going to apologise for this, and the Foreign Office memo which contained these suggestions reflected the dismay, bordering on contempt, which many people feel about the church’s actions in recent years. Still, it would be nice if the Pope, on his visit, were to meet face to face a wide range of the humanity his church ought to love: thinkers, atheists, aid workers, gay people, the poor, single mothers, prisoners, victims of sexual abuse. He is not so much the head of state as the chief proponent of an idea. Ideas should be exposed in debate, and, if necessary, in court. I would not hold your breath, though.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually

I always liked Peter Porter, who died this week. Before I ever met him, I very much liked his scholarly, wry, rather shy verse; his was a reader’s poetry, elegantly wrought and unabashedly cultured. For some years we sat opposite each other on the committee of the Royal Society of Literature, and I always enjoyed his contributions, somehow both diffident and enthusiastic. He was a nice man, as well as, obviously, a very good poet.

Our relations were rather clouded for me, however, by the fact that he always believed that my name was Paul. Whenever he said “Hello, Paul,” to me at a party, or, in a committee meeting, referred respectfully to something “Paul” had just said in discussion, there was that familiar faint rustling of onlookers wondering if they had missed something here.

After correcting him gently three or four times, I gave up, and never really minded, since the greeting was always pretty warm. Actually, I came to think of it as one of the nice things about him. Think for a moment of the life of Madonna, or Tom Cruise, or Katie Price, and it’s obvious that they never meet anyone who doesn’t know who they are. For the rest of us, it is very good for the soul to spend the majority of your time with people who have no idea who you are, or who may be under the years-long impression that you are called Paul. Anyway, I always knew who he was, which, considering our relative distinction, was the important thing.

The long journey home

How did you deal – or, God forbid, how are you still dealing – with the great volcano disaster? Me, I just sat where I was, on our sofa in Geneva, until British Airways found me a seat on a flight, a week later. But a friend who found himself stuck in Kiev, in Ukraine, was of sterner stuff. When a rebooking fell through, he went to the railway station, and waited three hours to book a train ticket from a monoglot booking clerk. A train to Warsaw, where a colleague had booked a further train to Berlin.

A shower and a schnitzel in Berlin later, and he was on the slow train to Amsterdam, then to Schiedam, a change, and then to Hook of Holland. A ferry crossing, a change at Colchester, Liverpool Street and then home. Fiftyfive hours without stopping anywhere for more than a couple of hours.

There is a rather wonderful website, seat61.com, which positively enthuses over these immense journeys, telling us that it’s “easy” to get to Kiev by train, and “perfectly feasible” to travel this way to Istanbul. I’ve often pored over it, in Paul Theroux-like reverie. He even claims that it’s possible to get all the way to India by train in two or three weeks, if you can cope with the bandits in south-east Iran, and find tourist visas for Iran and Pakistan. A lovely idea, unless you happen at this moment to be stuck in Delhi with no immediate prospect of a flight. The volcano has reminded us that, within living memory, if you wanted to go to Ukraine, you had to travel under, not through, what W H Auden calls “the sixteen skies of Europe”. Fifty-five hours: who’s got a worse story?

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