"When will it be, this end of which you have spoken?" Jonathan Miller asked in the famous "End of the World" sketch from Beyond the Fringe. "In about 30 seconds' time," replied Peter Cook. "According to the ancient pyramidic scrolls, and my Ingersoll watch."
Since then, the apocalypse has been a regular favourite among sketch-writers and cartoonists. Even after 9/11, Private Eye daringly carried on its front cover the famous photograph of President Bush being told what had just happened in New York. "It's Armageddon," the presidential aide was saying. "Armageddon outta here," said Bush.
Recent versions of the end-of-the-world joke have been rather less funny. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has predicted that the final conflagration, represented by the appearance on earth of the Twelfth Imam, will take place within the next two years. Not for the first time, those from opposing parts of the religious spectrum are in step on this matter, with Christian fundamentalists, proponents in what is called end-time theology, also claiming that something is about to happen not unlike that prediction from Beyond the Fringe - a mighty rending, and the mountains shall sink, and the sign of the manifest flying beast shall be in the sky.
What if these people are right? The global portents, with winds, floods and strange weather patterns, are alarming enough, but it is human behaviour which gives most cause for alarm. Quite suddenly our gently secular society seems to have succumbed to a sort of religious fever. Not so long ago, we were fretting about the increased godlessness of the modern age. Spirituality was absent from public debate. The wisdom of bishops was ignored. So irreligious had we become that Radio 4 kept Thought for the Day as a small island of piety in the raging torrent of atheistic chat.
Now look at us. The newspapers are dominated by religious discussion of some kind or another. The creepy Christian who orchestrated the move to ban Jerry Springer: the Opera is never off our screens. Ann Summers sex shops have been told that their rather jolly Mustafa Shag dolls must be withdrawn because it causes religious offence. Switch on the Today programme any morning these days and it is likely that some kind of faith-related controversy will be under discussion. It could even be argued that Thought for the Day should be devoted to a brief uninterrupted moment of secular good sense for those of us who cling to non-belief.
Once the apocalyptic mind-set takes a hold, it is possible to see other signs, large and small, that the end is indeed nigh. Down in Devon, they have taken our growing obsession with death and have turned it into a profitable business. A glass company has been doing a thriving business by using the ashes of a deceased human or pet to make ornaments and jewellery. A vase made of the ashes of a loved one will cost you between £275 and £399, a necklace will be £435 and a brooch £545. If a special occasion is approaching, then all your present problems could be solved at once. One person got a necklace, three vases, three paperweights, a fob brooch and a charm bracelet out of her late mother.
You don't have to be a religious zealot to see that once you start wearing your mother as a bracelet, some kind of end is approaching. Perhaps it will be the mighty rending and the sign of the manifest flying beast in the sky.
High price of an old school tie
Sophisticated begging has become a part of modern life, with every delivery of the post bearing at least one heart-rending request for money. Some appeals, though, are easier to bin than others. The school I once attended, a private institution which caters for the privileged, writes to me on a regular basis to bring me up to date on the wonderful things it is doing and how desperate for money it is.
It has been a shock to discover that public figures who also went to Wellington College - Will Young, Sebastian Faulks and, er, that's it - sometimes take these letters seriously. Young, right, whose open gayness had meant that he received muted coverage in the school's newsletters, offered to run workshops for pupils. Wellington replied that they would prefer some cash, please.
"It was just so brash and vulgar," Young has told the Tatler. "I remember thinking 'Oh, fuck that school'." Perhaps the fundraisers should try Jeffrey Archer who used to claim - could anything be sadder? - that he attended Wellington College.
* It is a noisy time of the year in the countryside as men with guns, aware that the shooting season is drawing to a close, blast away with all their might. There is surely now a case for discussing the morality of slaughtering large numbers of plump, semi-domesticated birds which have been bred for the purpose. While shooting is less cruel than fishing, the favourite sport of that famous animal-lover, the late Tony Banks, it raises more ethical questions than fox hunting, the killing of an animal by animals.
In the meantime, it would be sensible for the shooting lobby to put a silencer on its more asinine champions. A recent edition of the Shooting Times, for example, named 30 "pricey pests" which were the enemy of country sports. The list included golden eagles, otters, ospreys and hedgehogs. We knew that proximity to loud bangs can harm hearing. Does it have a terrible effect on the brain, too?Reuse content