T he Pope is going to Lourdes at the weekend. But
he has made it clear in advance that he is not going for a cure, even though he
has Parkinson's disease and for several years now has looked as if he might die at any moment. Rather, he is going to the world's most famous Marian shrine to praise God for his gifts' (God's, that is, not his own). So that's that. It must be said that Lourdes is one of the very few places on earth where the Pope is likely to blend in. I've been only once, a couple of years ago, and I've never been anywhere that more closely resembled Hogsmeade. You know, that village in Harry Potter where every troll, witch, warlock and giant could mingle at will? I'm not being rude. What I mean is that you get more oddities here than in most other places I can think of — archbishops in full dress (and they can be splendid when they try). Italian Scouts in wonderful kit, monks in habits, Scottish youth in kilts — in fact, people from all over the place in national dress. And then there are the invalids, the people on stretchers and in wheelchairs who here, if nowhere else, are centre stage rather than at the margins. Going there, I entirely sympathised with Ruth Harris, the Jewish historian, who has written the best modern book on Lourdes. 'Mostly. Lourdes impressed and moved me,' she wrote. 'Less frequently, some of the people there shocked and horrified me.' Actually, it's one of the most democratic places I've been to, precisely because it's a shrine. There are not that many other places where rich and poor share the same space in the same way, apart from at the races. It's like Blackpool, with a snobbish and redemptive element. Canterbury in Chaucer's time was probably much the same.
In advance of the Pope's visit, I heard the Sunday Times paid a visit to Lourdes. I do hope they don't focus overmuch on the unedifying aspects of this year's pilgrim activities, like the two girls from the wellconnected Kensington group who were rushed off to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped after getting completely stocious. Or, indeed, the Westminster pilgrimage which, tragically, mislaid one of its invalids, a lady with Alzheimer's. Apparently she simply absconded from Lourdes on a TGV to Paris — and who shall blame her? — only to be picked up by the police and ferried by car back to the shrine. Meanwhile, the scores of helpers who had come to Lourdes specifically to
look after the sick pilgrims were going quite frantic with worry. Of course, everyone else jeered at them when she was finally returned safe and sound.
It's always a good policy to travel with doctors. My husband, who is a medic, was on a British Airways flight from Kosovo the other week when a fellow passenger was taken ill. He noted that the lady was surrounded by two stewardesses and a steward. Trouble was, all they were doing was standing there, clipboard at the ready, urgently repeating questions from their questionnaire. The lady. unfortunately, happened to be dumb, and her husband, who had the same affliction, intimated as much before he was asked to sign a form on her behalf. The other reason she wasn't answering the questions was that she wasn't able to breathe. This did not prevent the stewardesses from asking her whether she had eaten, whether she'd like to eat, what her date of birth was and did she smoke. My husband butted in, saying that he was a doctor, and they tried to get him to sign a form too. He asked a few routine questions to establish whether she was having a heart problem and found she had hypertension and was, naturally enough, panicking. At his suggestion, the BA staff fetched an oxygen cylinder. It gave only temporary relief, because, as he noted, it was empty. They fetched another, and the poor woman breathed freely. It's nice to think that if she had expired for want of air, the paperwork from this distressing case would have been in order, right down to her smoking habits.
What's more, it's reassuring that we have the war on terror well in hand. Last Saturday I saw scores of police, in full body armour and carrying what looked like automatic weapons, milling around the Kensington branch of Marks & Spencer. Naturally, I went to have a look and found, at the centre of this gathering of the Metropolitan police, a group of animalrights protesters. I counted 19 of them and again, without wishing to be rude, I've never seen a less alarming group of people. They were mostly rather elderly women, with the flowing grey hair and batik trousers that you associate with CND gatherings, and a young boy with a complexion of Cathar-like pallor. They were straining to hand out leaflets to those members of the public who managed to penetrate the cordon of police, about some connection between Marks & Spencer and Gist, an offshoot of Huntingdon Life Sciences. Even their pamphlet was unthreatening. They invited sympathisers to write — 'politely, of course' — to Stuart Rose, M&S chief executive, to put their case. At a rough guess, there were some 25 police surrounding these firebrands, not counting the 40-odd in the police vans nearby, all of them presumably on overtime. I dimly grasped some time ago that the war on terror was becoming all-embracing. Now I know it is.
The other problem with our collective paranoia is the sheer inconvenience it entails. For my entire lifetime, you used to be able to travel freely between Ireland and Britain without any form of identification whatever. It was a mini Schengen-style arrangement which suited everyone. Now when you arrive in Dublin airport from London you find that you have to stand in a queue to hand over a passport or identity document, to show where you came from. It's another tiny diminution of those liberties that we used to take entirely for granted.
Qne of the nice things about the Proms on a lovely sunny evening is that you get the chance to admire the Royal Albert Hall properly. Until the other day I had never read the inscription on the outside, which I could only follow by stepping into oncoming traffic on the road. It says that the building was erected 'for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations'. Above, there's a frieze showing architects through the ages constructing buildings from the Acropolis to St Paul's, The concluding verse on the inscription reads: 'The wise and their works are in the hands of God'. How very true. But what on earth happened to confound these noble aims and sentiments, so as to turn the RAH into a mere music hall? Messiaen might fit into the Prince Consort's world view, but Jools Holland?