R ing ring ... ‘John Humphrys speaking.’ ‘Oh that’s wonderful because
I just know I can help you!’ This has been happening a lot in the past week or two. Heaven knows how total strangers get my number, but they do. Maybe it’s divine intervention. I knew I’d be offering a sizeable hostage to fortune by doing a Radio 4 series with the preposterous title Humphrys in Search of God. I knew clever-dick columnists would write witty pieces about God in search of Humphrys (Michael Gove’s was the wittiest) and I knew I’d get lots of letters. But dear Lord — if he’ll forgive me I didn’t know there would be so many. I could open a religious book store with the tracts, books and Bibles I’ve been sent. It will take me until the Second Coming to read all the letters. Of the hundred or so I’ve skimmed so far, their writers either want to convert me or to complain about Dr Rowan Williams. They seem to think an archbishop should sound more robust than he did in last week’s programme. I find that odd. It’s true that he was sometimes hesitant. I asked him the predictable question: can you reconcile your belief in a merciful God with the suffering of a child? He paused for quite a long time before he said, ‘Just.’ Dammit, the man’s a father and a decent human being as well as a Church leader. How could he not hesitate? Would it have been better if he’d sheltered behind Thomas Aquinas to ‘prove’ God exists? Theology is a cop-out if one is talking about faith. The best it can do is shore up an existing belief. To his great credit Williams, a brilliant theologian, didn’t try it. I suppose he could have employed humour. One of my correspondents reminded me of the Woody Allen character who asks his devoutly Jewish father to explain Auschwitz. The father says something like, ‘How can I explain Auschwitz? I don’t even know how the can opener works.’ I’m interviewing the Chief Rabbi next week. I wonder if he’ll pause.
The English language is dangerous territory too. I’m in trouble with David Crystal — perhaps our greatest authority on the subject — for what I’ve written about him in my new book. I suggest that he’s too relaxed about applying the rules of grammar and he tells me very politely that I’ve misrepresented his position and obviously haven’t read his books. I toy with two (inadequate) defences. One is that he’s written more than a hundred books on the subject and I don’t believe I’ve ever read a hundred headquarters in Iraq, that the British government was pulling out most of its staff and retreating to the air station. It is said to be a temporary move but I’d be amazed if they went back. You can’t defend a compound against mortars and rockets when the men firing them are less than a hundred yards away on the other side of the Shat al-Arab. I’d been there for nearly a week, reporting for Today and presenting a couple of programmes. For the first couple of nights you panic when you hear a rocket exploding in the compound. Then you get used to it and stop counting the bangs. Then you get complacent, which is dangerous. I took to jogging round the lake thoughtfully provided by one of Saddam’s psychotic sons — and breaking the rule about always keeping your flak jacket and helmet with you. The cure for complacency is to have a rocket explode three feet above your head on the roof of your ‘pod’, which is what happened to my two producers. No more jogging for me after that. I’m surprised and impressed that the British stuck it out for so long. The old dictator may be facing the gallows, but it’s not easy to feel like liberators when you’re imprisoned in your own compound. The British consul–general, an impressive woman called Ros Marsden, was based in Afghanistan before Iraq. Seems a bit unfair — one hellhole after another — but she told me it was her own fault. ‘When I got back from Afghanistan I said even Iraq would be an improvement ... so they sent me. It’s the last time I’ll do that.’ Next stop North Korea?
As I write this overlooking my garden in London, a handsome young fox is gazing at me from his favourite spot on the roof of the summer house. It catches the autumn sun nicely. An older fox (his mother?) dozes in the border alongside. For years I tried to scare them off — the smell of their faeces is particularly disgusting and anyway foxes have no right in city gardens — but it proved hopeless. Now I’m not sure I want them to leave. They’re getting pretty good at catching squirrels and I like squirrels even less than I like urban foxes. They raid my bird-feeders and I like the birds most. Now a large cat has appeared. Probably the one that killed so many birds this summer. Ye gods, this garden is a war zone. Pity I didn’t bring a rocket launcher back from Iraq.