Sweet pictures of puppies and cats - it must be the lovable Unionists

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A magazine lands on my desk with a soggy thud and a picture of a fat, snoozing baby, swaddled in terry-towelling, on the front. "Let's Keep the Peace for Their Tomorrow", suggests a headline. Flicking through it, you're pulled up again and again by the lovely lovely photographs and their encouraging captions.

Here, for example, under a sweet photo of a small grey cat biting the nose of a perfectly adorable little golden retriever puppy, it says "Reconciliation is possible". A snap of a young family walking along a beach together is captioned, "We must move forward together", and you mutter to yourself, Mmm, that is so true. Under a ... But I'm afraid I really can't stand any more of this emetic sentimentalism, this glutinous guff. What is this magazine? Pacifists Monthly? The Watchtower? Some tract from an unusally wet order of elderly contemplative nuns keen on the propagation of world peace?

No it isn't. This, dear reader, is The Unionist, "the magazine of the Unionist Information Office", its pages full of gung-ho pieces from David Trimble and various lobbyists about the peace settlement, couched in the same emollient language ("Many people sense this opportunity. They sense that we can move forward positively ..."), going on about the importance of playing a full part in the peace talks.

Can these be the same Unionists who have hovered so tantalisingly on the threshold of the peace talks for so many weeks now? But then, you surmise, maybe this magazine is different. Maybe it represents a different, a nicer, a more conciliatory face of Unionism. Now then, who runs it? Why, one David Burnside. Not, surely, the flint-eyed PR man formerly with the Institute of Directors and latterly with British Airways, at the time of the controversial campaign against Virgin Airlines? Well, well. And what, I wonder, are the "dreams" he "dares to dream" about, say, Martin McGuinness? Or would they be rather hard to photograph?

It was a red-letter day for onanists everywhere. In bedrooms across the continent of Europe, chronic self-abusers of every shape and hue gave themselves a big hand. The J Arthur Rank Society (motto: "We do give a toss") organised a celebratory dinner. Crowds of partially-sighted auto- erotic bachelors joyfully descended on WH Smith and John Menzies, guiltlessly stripping the shelves of Hustler and Cop This, Big Boy magazines. Could it be true? After all the years of shame and deceit and, er, underhand dealings, the unbelievable had indeed happened. The Pope had gone and decriminalised masturbation.

La Stampa said he had "pardoned" it, the Corriere della Sera said he'd "almost absolved" it - almost, in fact, coming round to the Woody Allen view of the enterprise: "Don't knock masturbation," he used to say. "It's having sex with someone you really love."

What they were going on is a new form of words in the revised Catechism - the massive new rule-book which tells young Papists what they're supposed to believe. Those more densely mired in the swamp of Catholic doctrine than I am any more, tell me that all this is a misunderstanding of the papal corrigendum and that, in fact, Il Papa has become more, rather than less, disapproving of the solitary act. But the very mention of the subject pitches me back down a ladder of years to the time when we were devout and pious and believed in the total package of sin and conscience and obedience and the lurking chasm of hell. Being a young Catholic meant, as Kate Saunders has so eloquently put it, you were always one shag away from eternal perdition. If the chances of having sex with someone else were a little remote, as they tend to be in hothouse Catholic communities, they still got you: masturbation was deemed a mortal sin, just like murder and Invading a Neutral Country. How, in those days, we would have welcomed a little papal confusion.

I went down to Brook Street, Mayfair, on Sunday to see the unveiling of a blue plaque in honour of Jimi Hendrix, the great guitarist who died of a vomit-related condition 30 years ago. The azure platter outside No 23 was uncurtained by Pete Townshend of The Who, Jimi's old bassist Noel Redding made a speech and crowds of photographers snappedaway at lots of people in purple-haze velvet, crimson cravats and fuchsia bell- bottoms. And then a rumour ran around the crowd that Jimi Hendrix's father and sister had flown over from Seattle and were on the pavement across the road.

Consternation. The crowd surged over to where Al Hendrix stood, in white Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and green Jimi Hendrix cap alongside Jani, a very calm-looking piece of work with raven hair. The crowd proffered pieces of paper for autographs, clutched their elbows and told them what Jimi's music had meant to them. Unable to express their love for the main figure, they focused their love on the next of kin. It was all so Prince Harry and Prince William. Later, an assembly of rock journalists compared notes: how Jani isn't a sister, or even half-sister, only Al's adopted daughter; how her fondness for merchandising Jimi products (even golfing wear, though the great man was a stranger to the putting green) has alienated friends and fans alike; how they hadn't originally been invited to the opening, or had been, but originally said no ... There it was - after the public mourning and the expressions of sympathy to the bereaved there came the Family Row. Jimi Hendrix - rock music's royalty.

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