Last week, David Cameron said that we have ‘seven months to save the most extraordinary country in history’. He meant the United Kingdom. It was a powerful speech, part of a welcome and overdue campaign to make us all think about what is at stake in the referendum on Scottish independence. It seems strange to argue that the loss of less than 10 per cent of the population would bring this country to an end, and yet I do really suspect it might be so. Mr Cameron did not touch on the question of what the nation, minus Scotland, might be called, perhaps because he does not know and is fearful of making plans for such an eventuality. But the difficulty of getting the right name is a fascinating emblem of the depth of the problem. It could not, obviously, be called the United Kingdom, since that name derives from the union of the two which would be dissevered by a Yes vote. Nor could it be Great Britain, since a physically large chunk would have left. It could not be ‘Little Britain’ — which is spoken for — or even ‘South Britain’. It cannot be called ‘England, Wales and Northern Ireland’, since that is too long, and misrepresents the component parts as being equivalent entities. Nor, however, could it be just ‘England’, because of the insult to Northern Ireland and Wales. There simply isn’t an answer. What sort of a country is nameless?
A reader sends me a card for sale in Scribblers in the King’s Road, Chelsea. It depicts two slices of cheese standing vertically on their thinner ends. On both, black beards and eyes are crudely superimposed, and above them two gold rings form haloes. The caption says ‘Cheeses of Nazareth’. The joke is pathetically bad, not least because, in order to achieve the cheese/Jesus pun, you have to have two cheeses, whereas there was only one Jesus. But my correspondent’s point is that the equivalent gag about Mohammed would provoke a storm, not only from some Muslims, but from much of the media. I recently watched an interesting example of this on Channel 4 News. It ran an item about Maajid Nawaz, the brave and moderate Muslim Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead, who had re-tweeted the now well-known ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon, saying that it was ‘not offensive & I am sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it’. Islamist activists had rustled up 20,000 signatures against Nawaz, hoping to dislodge him from his candidacy. Channel 4’s treatment of the story was an interesting case of having it both ways. Ostensibly, it was challenging Nawaz’s assailants to justify themselves, but it was also pushing the idea that they might manage to have him disciplined at a meeting with Nick Clegg the following day. (In this they later failed, though they seem to have succeeded in making Nawaz lie low for a bit.) When it came to depicting the cartoon, Channel 4 showed the Jesus half, but blacked out the Mo one, on the grounds that some viewers might find it offensive. The same news programme, I noticed, also showed a bare-breasted woman protestor, and several shots of the dead bodies of people killed by a drug gang in Mexico, without any such delicacy. So, in an odd way, the extremists achieved the censorship they sought, and the publicity.
It is hard to convey the innocuousness, indeed the charm, of the Jesus and Mo cartoon. If this column carried illustration, I would try to persuade the editor to let me show it to you. It is produced by atheists, but any believer of an ecumenical turn of mind would like it, because it shows the two men chatting pleasantly (over a pint of beer — doubly ‘offensive’ to some Muslims therefore) about matters of common interest. Given that ‘Mo’ stood in the tradition of Jesus and acknowledged him as a prophet, this fits. By the way, if offending Muslim zealots is truly the issue here, Channel 4 should have blacked out the face of Jesus as well. Since he is a prophet in Islam, his depiction is blasphemous too. In England and Scotland in the 17th century, Christian iconoclasts frequently destroyed images of Jesus in churches. How long, in the 21st century, before Muslim ones do the same?
Recently, I underwent the annual ‘360-degree’ medical which my company pays for. I find it helpful, because it helps one keep track of trends. Over the years, the testers have become almost hyper-attentive. I don’t think it is because of concerns about my health, since nothing much has altered there, thank goodness. Perhaps it is more to do with a fear of lawsuits. It is now apologetically explained to you, before you climb on the exercise bike, that there is a tiny chance of dying in the course of the tests. An extra assistant stays in the room while you peddle away, so that his colleague has a back-up witness. The cumulative effect of this punctilious care is unnerving. When I left my latest session, the blood results had not all come through. I got a call on my mobile about half an hour later from the doctor saying that my calcium count was low. He would not tell me all the things that could happen with low calcium, he said, but I should go and have another blood test with my GP at once. I decided not to look up on the internet what low calcium might do to me, and instead spent a mildly uncomfortable fortnight getting the NHS blood test, waiting for the result, having to ring up because they had forgotten to ring me, and then learning that in fact my calcium was fine. No doubt the stress of these tests is part of the point of them.
Having moaned rather at the prospect of four years of commemorations of the first world war’s centenary, I am now coming round to the idea. There is so much to learn. This column proposes to be the occasional home for startling facts. This week: did you know that more French died at Gallipoli than either Australians or New Zealanders? Or that more Turks died than any other nationality? Other such facts gratefully received.
Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.