The Diary: God protect us from jolly churches

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The Independent Online
PERCY HAS just been violently sick, for the third time in an hour. While we weren't looking, he jumped up and ate a bag of jelly babies which a kind friend had given to our infant. Something in these sweets (would it perhaps be E numbers?) produces not merely nausea, but outright madness in a dog. Percy when sane is irritating enough. But Percy mad is a dreadful companion. He lets out whoops and moans as if the terrors of hell had been revealed to him. He becomes hyperactive. He runs hither and thither. Nothing said or done or shouted to him has a calming effect on him. Howl, howl, howl, howl, as King Lear says at his most abject moment. Last time something similar happened - he ate a whole box of chocolates on that particular occasion - he was mad and vomiting for 24 hours.

Was it some such incident which led to his arrival in Battersea Dogs' Home where we met him two or more years ago? Among the many emotions evoked by his howls - irritation, pity, anguish at the suffering of another - there is the worst feeling of all: the fact that, when it comes to it, one does not even like this little suffering creature. It is said that the suffering of those we love is the worst pain which life can impose. On one level this must, I suppose, be true. But at least they are pure feelings. As the air is rent with Percy's banshee-shrieks, I feel waves of self-reproach and self-hatred sweeping over me. If only I were a kinder person, I'd love this little animal which the fates have given into our care. But, oh, the smell of sick.

NANNY innocently remarks that there does not seem to be much news at the moment. I ask if she recalls the demeanour of some of the men who visited my house last week, and I explain to her that they are all normally busy writing for the papers.

At this time of year, the journalists are all tottering up and down stairs slightly the worse for drink. You could say that they did this all the year round, and that this did not prevent them producing good "stories" in spring or autumn. True, but there is something about the pre-Christmas binges in what used to be Fleet Street which produces near-inertia. So, in a week in which there has been a great deal of news, far more than usual, the newspapers nonetheless feel, and are, thin.

It is Christmas Day as I write and we have all been to church, and contemplated "One born in a manger". Probably in Hartlepool, which is Mandy's constituency, they think that a manger is luxury. In Hartlepool, young families could not afford to stay at an inn, even if there was room for them. So, of course, we remembered the people of Hartlepool in our prayers at this time. But even more, I feel sympathy for those who want to live in London and simply cannot afford the house prices. It is all right for journalists, barristers, advertising executives, sheikhs, best-selling novelists. But even if you brought all such people together, they would still only fill up a few Kensington squares. Add all the pop stars and TV personalities and you could fill up a street or two in Notting Hill. But that still leaves huge tracts of our capital inhabited by people who can't afford the house they live in.

London was built at a time when this country was truly prosperous. City clerks lived in the sort of Islington house which the Blairs sold for pounds 600,000. Men of the prime ministerial class lived in such places as Carlton House Terrace, in palaces which today would be worth many millions. We surely want London to be inhabited. And for the sake of a mix, we surely want some, at least, of the streets and squares within five miles of Piccadilly Circus to be inhabited by English people. But how the hell can a normal person - let's say, for the sake of argument, an MP on a modest salary - be expected to afford a perfectly normal house with, let us say, six pokey rooms? Like everyone one else in London, such people must live on borrowed money.

The Mandy affair shows how much braver and more resourceful most Londoners are than those who live elsewhere. People in Hartlepool would not be able to sleep at nights if they had debts of pounds 30,000, let alone more than pounds 300,000. Nearly everyone in London has insane levels of debt. This is the first Mandy story which makes him seem normal.

THE DOG'S troubles apart, it's been a blissful Christmas here in north Norfolk. From the salt marshes, the only human things which pierce the enormous cloudy skies are the churches. Every mile or so, you pass them. And almost every one is a masterpiece. Thanks to the vigilance of the North Folk, most of these churches are still used as churches. Sunday by Sunday, a faithful two or three gather in them.

There is something more impressive, to me, about these monuments to the faith, and the people who continue to maintain them, than in any number of bouncy- friendly Alpha Courses, run by Evangelical focus groups. They impress me more, too, than the Pope, with his encyclicals on every subject from Indulgences to in vitro fertilisation. They make me feel, for all my doubts about the Bible, and all my questioning of theology, that the Church is one of the most fascinating of all human collective endeavours. How I wish I could be part of it again without a sacrifice of honesty.

Actually, as one walks along and sees these magnificent pieces of splendour reaching up towards a Great Mystery, one remembers how boring it is to have opinions about things.

There's no need to have views about the Creed. The churches are there. The Norfolk landscape is not the only thing which would be immeasurably impoverished without them. So long as they are just about open for worship, they are somewhat the better for being ill-attended. We don't want full, jolly churches. A vast, echoing barn, with a Cambridge-educated voice muttering, somewhere near the east end, the words of Thomas Cranmer, can be a more persuasive witness for Christ.