Come To Spelcheckia!
(The story so far: in Wordoc, capital city of the recently democratised Republic of Spelcheckia, I am seated in a bar in the company of some of the movers and shakers of this new land. So of them seem vaguely familiar. Read on, if you dare...)
The gloomy silence which had descended on us while contemplating the possible demise of the great hunter 'Ivory' Smith (last known whereabouts - under two-and-a-half-tons of imported Bulgarian sand) continued through the meal itself, and was only broken by the television in the far corner suddenly crackling into life.
All eyes turned to it as onto the screen came an elegantly animated graphic of an angel coming in to make a perfect two-point landing on top of a Doric column. The whole screen was then illuminated in gold, before fading to a picture of a dark-haired young woman, who began to talk earnestly (or so it appeared - the sound was off). A caption appeared in rather flowery script at the bottom of the screen. It read:
SARA GOSPEL-JONES: Church Of Peace/Convocation Of Descending Angels (COP/CODA)
The girl mouthed silently for a few more seconds. Then there was a clunk, and the screen went blank as a well-aimed beer stein hit the 'Off' switch. There was a smattering of applause from around the room, interspersed with cries of, "Good shooting, citizen!", and "Can we be making stein-throwing an Olympic event? We must surely be winning first ever gold for Spelcheckia!"
Silence descended again.
"Huh!", muttered Richard. "Religion."
Even in the pre-revolutionary days, Spelcheckia had not been a particularly religious place. It had managed somehow to avoid being taken over by either the Roman or Orthodox churches. There were two schools of thought as to why this should have been the case : the first, the 'patriotic' or 'virtuous' school, claimed that as the people of the country had always been peaceable or neighbourly, the early missionaries had seen conversion activity as unnecessary; the second, or 'realist', school maintained that this was a load of old cods. The reason that Spelcheckia had avoided the attentions of established religion for so long was, they claimed, because it was not on the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem, Knock, Fatima, Medjugorje, or indeed anywhere else. Moreover, the country's only claimed religious relic, the so-called 'Lost Trousers Of Israel', had been shown to be a fraud once scientific analysis had conclusively proved that the label on them actually said LEVI'S.
Since the end of the dictatorship, however, myriad sects had sprung up, some of them just plain bizarre (such as the Church of the Covenant of the Dome, whose adherents burned a large sum of money every month, dressed only in PVC, and believed that the Second Coming would occur at Greenwich). Most of them, however, were in the great old American tradition of fire, brimstone, and Amex card. They were proliferating like bacteria around the spiritual wounds of forty-odd years of repression, and they bought time on Spelcheckia's commercial TV channels to propound their post-Millennial visions.
"We are suffering", said Richard morosely, "from the Mural Majority."
"The Mural Majority! Are you not seeing the whitewashed walls all over the city?"
I replied that I'd hardly had the chance, seeing as I had only been back for four hours, the last two of which had been dark anyway.
"You remember after liberation how people decorated walls through the city with joyful slogans celebrating our freedom?"
I nodded. I had last been here just a few months after the fall of the old régime, and I particularly remembered the granite walls of the old Ministry of Arbitrary Detention in Glumi Prospekt being covered in slogans such as:
BE GIVING US LIBERTIES!
(I later bumped into a couple of lads from Bournemouth who admitted responsibility for this last one).
The most impressive was about twenty feet high, and stood above the portico of the building. It was in Cyrillic script and, roughly translated, read:
"All gone", said Richard, sadly. "All washwhited out."
"Why?", I asked.
"He has already been telling you!", said Gordon Gainsay agitatedly. "It is the Mural Majority!"
He went on to explain that the greater openness and freedom in Spelcheckia after what became known as the Velcro Revolution (because the opposition leaders had emphasised the necessity of sticking together) had inevitably led to liberties not only being given but taken as well, especially in the burgeoning private television sector. It had started off quite mildly, with a noted playwright calling a member of the former government an "armhole" on a discussion programme; but wedges can have very thin ends indeed, and it wasn't long before a group of concerned citizens, alarmed by the popularity of such programmes as Don't Try This In The Communal Apartment Block! and The Weakest Shrink (in which one-time doctors at state psychiatric hospitals were made to confess their crimes to their former-dissident victims under the baleful eye of Anna Robinova, three-times all-Spelcheckia tractor-pulling champion), formed a pressure group to campaign against what they called "this waving tidal of filth". It was originally to be called Spelcheckians for Higher Integrity in Television, but they had second thoughts just before the headed stationery went to the printer's. After some animated (but extremely well-mannered) debate, they finally settled on Citizens for the Upholding of Social Standards, printed leaflets by the vanload and fielded candidates in municipal elections, one of whom was actually elected, but later forced to resign when he was surreptitiously photographed in his back yard feeding a squirrel - to his dog.
But the genie was now well and truly out of the bottle. New organisations sprang up like mushrooms in a wood, all with a specific axe to grind and all with leaders whose faces were to become regular features on news and topical programmes : there was the Campaign Against Nudity and Titillation, headed by Daniel Prude, and the Campaign for the Removal of All Vice and Effrontery led by Pat Owen-Morals, to name but two. And there were lone activists, too, solitary types like the middle-aged matron who was tried on a charge of committing an arson attack on a visiting articulated lorry carrying beef stock-cubes. At her trial, she claimed that she had acted in defence of public morals, as it was quite clear to her that the legend OxO on the side of the truck was promoting cross-your-heart bras. In the atmosphere of public moral panic which now prevailed, she was acquitted and the trial judge ordered that such an obviously beastly and immoral product could henceforth only be sold in specialist outlets in plain brown-paper wrapping.
The two most prominent organisations, however, were the Mural Majority and its leader "Delete" Roberts, whose bucket-and-brush-wielding acolytes had become as much a part of Wordoc's life as the Changing Of The Money outside the Presidential Palace ; and the Campaign for Humility, Understanding and Freedom through Faith which, led by two (allegedly American-financed) puritan preachers called Grim Jones and Rachel Hellfire, bought air-time and advertising space in newspapers to rail against the decadence and immorality of contemporary society and to call for a return to traditional Spelcheckian values such as godliness, respect, and painting large red crosses on the front doors of people who disagreed with them.
"...And it is getting worse", said Gordon. "I was only this morning talking with the Chief Rabbi..."
"You are meaning Dave Shalom?", asked Richard.
"Very same. They are getting worried about these people, because..."
At this point, he was interrupted by the dimming of the lights and the appearance on a low stage in the far corner of the bar of a man dressed in a black dinner suit with what appeared to be glitter sprayed rather inexpertly over it. He went to stand behind a large, old-fashioned, lozenge-shaped microphone at the centre of the dais.
"Oh, no!", hissed Soya. "It is notorious drunken performance poet 'Rhymes' Hophead! I think it is time for us to be leaving!"
"Do you know what else he is being called?"
"The Pam Ayres of the Carpathian Mountains! Come on, quick!"
I shuddered at the prospect, and followed the mini-stampede out into the cold night.
(In our final instalment : I meet with some exiles, realise that Welsh people might just feel at home here, and draw some conclusions).