John Walsh Column

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It's time somebody came to the defence of the Virgin Mary. I think what made my mind up was the experience of watching her being manhandled across the stage during the Christmas play at my children's school the other day. She was a tiny demure vision in blue (played by Alice, aged five), carrying a doll Jesus with an abstracted air, her waist encircled by the arm of my son Max, who was playing St Joseph (usual pounds 10 to form mistress) as if the divine carpenter were an ageing roue intent on finding a fashionable wine bar rather than a manger.

But as I looked at Alice/Mary - a traditionally non-speaking, endlessly put-upon role in Nativity plays - it occurred to me that the Mother of God has been getting a terrible press lately. Forget the obvious stuff - how, for instance, her most beautiful nickname has been so totally co- opted by Ms Ciccone. Worse is the way her image is so casually abused by marketing departments.

When Virgin Records decided they needed a special Christmas thrust, they grabbed a (frankly rather experienced-looking) babe in a Virgin T-shirt, put her in a white veil, gave her a sad expression and appended a banner saying "All you need is ..." Very subtle.

Then the "Churches Advertising Network", whom I take to be some ecumenical convocation of marketing-minded clerics, festooned the hoardings of central London with their "Bad Hair Day" joke ("You're a virgin, you've had a baby, then three kings show up"), the kind of sally that comes from people who have heard of the concept of humour without knowing how one actually goes about it. One thinks of the uncomplicated affection with which, in more devout days, one used to regard the Queen of Heaven and one cannot but feel rather appalled by this thick-eared, block-headed lese-majeste.

Then Science and Christian Belief magazine (I get it for the loaves and fishes recipes) plops through the door. Seeking to answer the cavils of some sceptical Christians who doubt that Mary could have stayed a virgin while conceiving Jesus, a credulous genetics boffin called Sam Berry from University College London tries to explain the genetic circumstances of "virgin conception". It's an uphill struggle.

"The mechanisms I have outlined," says the Prof nervously, "are unlikely, unproven and involve the implication that either Jesus or Mary (or both) were developmentally abnormal."

There follows a hailstorm of chromosomal acronyms, XYs and XXs flying around like typewriter cancellations, and a lot of stuff about genetic mutation.

Prof Berry sees Mary as an androgynous mess, sterile and wombless but with the capacity to develop human eggs. "If this happened and if the ovum developed parthenogenetically," he writes, clutching at straws a little, "and if a back-mutation to testosterone sensitivity took place, we would have the situation of an apparently normal woman giving birth, without intercourse, to a son."

Well done, Sam. I think we all feel a great deal better after that. Myself, I'm happy to leave it a mystery, of the interpersonal rather than the genetic kind. It's ages since I went near a Catholic church, but I'd prefer it if the Virgin Mary were allowed to keep her secrets. Remember Charles Causley's poem "The Ballad of the Bread Man", in which the neighbours speculate rudely about her pregnancy? They wonder about Joseph ("`The old man's past it', the neighbours said/ `That girl's been up to no good'") and the angel Gabriel ("`And who was that elegant fellow,'/ they said, `in the shiny gear?'") and look for an answer. They don't get one: "Mary never answered./ Mary never replied./ She kept the information,/ like the baby, safe inside." Merry Christmas.

I was sorry to hear that Edward Blishen had died. The possessor of the most amused voice and most mobile eyebrows in medialand, he was also a plausible candidate for the title of Nicest Man in the World.

Readers of his multiple autobiographies will know the self-deprecating warmth that came off the pages as he described his run-ins with schoolboys, supply teachers, Civil Service types, army personnel and his appalling father.

He was amazingly well-read - although far too appreciative of the printed word ever to make a plausible critic - slyly flattering, a virtuoso Good Egg.

I met him just once some years ago, when I was a guest on A Good Read. My co-guest was Maeve Binchy, the Irish novelist, at whom Blishen twinkled with merciless charm for half an hour. He praised her taste, her choice of books, her insights, her Irishness ... Finally, as she rose to leave, she extracted from her pocket a curious metal object which she shook out in front of her. From a series of zigzag angles, it resolved itself into a walking stick. "Oh Maeve, how splendid," breathed an entranced Blishen, "a telescopic shillelagh."

Like right-thinking people everywhere, I have no truck with terrorists. I abhor the use of violence to further political ends. I cannot condone the deployment of force in the service of a higher good. The rhetoric of the so-called freedom fighter cuts no ice with me.

And I have no clue about the precise nature of the demands being made by the Tupac Amaru, the Peruvian organisation that interrupted the ambassador's reception in Lima on Tuesday night with a burst of gunfire, having infiltrated the party by dressing as waiters. But I cannot help feeling a small instinctive empathy about their invasion of the diplomatic circuit. I mean, somebody had to do something about that horrible bald butler. Someone had to upset that idiotic pyramid of gold-wrapped chocolates. And somebody - anybody - would be surely justified in visiting an awful revenge on the blonde who gushes to the ambassador, "Why, wiz zeez Rocher chocolats, you are zpoiling us ..."

I rushed to see Evita at a preview on Sunday morning, where, at a time when the rest of the civilised world is digesting Cumberland sausages, one sat enduring Jimmy Nail's crooning technique, and scrutinising Madonna's abdomen for signs of gestation. But the film is very absorbing: Madonna sings "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" with an unexpected sob in the lower register (is it pregnancy or has she been taking lessons?), and Antonio Banderas is amazingly charming as Che Guevera.

It's all conducted at a high old Wagnerian pitch as we've come to expect from the great Alan Parker, who has a Hitchcockian cameo as a film director exasperated by Evita's ineptness. What puzzles me is the "screenplay by ..." credit. It goes to Parker and Oliver Stone. Now I can see how the film expands the stage version in various ways, with little coups de theatre like the opening sequence in a cinema - but it remains a sung-through musical. That means, there's no dialogue. There's Tim Rice's lyrics and recit, and that's your lot.

Intrigued, you sit there waiting for some stunning interpolations of Oliver Stone chat, as per usual in a screenplay - and after two hours, all you can remember is a single conversation outside a church, where Evita's mum is barred from the funeral of her children's father. The dead man's widow abuses her and gesticulates. Does this mean Oliver Stone's only creative contribution to this movie is this?

Widow-woman: "You were his whore and your children are bastards." (Spits. Bites thumb.)

Is that it? He could have done it over the telephone.

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