I was watching the brilliant Stewart Lee’s stand-up DVD 90s Comedian the other evening and on it he talks about the time in 2005 when he received a ton of hate mail from born-again Christians after the BBC decided to show his controversial musical Jerry Springer: The Opera. A private court case brought against him by Christian Voice – a totalitarian organisation that had never seen the show – was rejected by a magistrate’s court because, as Lee claims in his stand-up act, “it was not 1508.”
It was during this section of his act that Stewart Lee asked the audience if any of them had ever been accused of blasphemy and as I watched in the comfort of my lounge I said to myself, “Yes, I have.”
Since my wife went back to the UK to study Fine Art at the University of Cumbria talking to myself has become a worryingly regular feature of my life. My neighbour has been largely absent owing to the fact that his wife has returned after spending three or four months in the UK handing over her business. The bromance that my neighbour and I had – those halcyon days where we talked about comic books, listened to loud obnoxious music, watched unnecessarily gory zombie films, cooked meals for each other (well, I cooked and he defrosted) and got drunk on a regular basis – is now a distant memory, a fleeting wonderful thing of the past. But, although I am on my own and talking to myself on a regular basis, at least I am not like my neighbour, who now, when he is at home, only listens to quiet music and talks exclusively about shopping, shoes, handbags and fluffy kittens.
Although my experience of being accused of blasphemy was nowhere near as stressful as what Stewart Lee underwent, it was still a strange thing to go through.
It was 1990 and I was in the Royal Air Force at RAF Marham in Norfolk. One of the secondary duties I had was working as deputy editor on the Station magazine The Marham News. The editor and I had resurrected a defunct magazine, writing virtually all the articles ourselves for the first couple of issues until we had enough contributors to ease off and concentrate on what we actually wanted to include. One of the things I wanted to appear in the magazine was a full-page comic strip that myself and a good friend of mine, Phil Gibbons, had created called They Came From Outer Space (But Spoke Our Language Perfectly). It was an homage to the black-and-white American science fiction movies of the 1940s and 50s that included frequent references to popular culture.
|A (not very clear) panel from the original strip featuring the Geriatric Radioactive Narrow-Minded Tortoises.|
Phil and I began writing and drawing the strip at RAF Hereford in 1987 and although we were both in our mid-thirties we were both avid readers of the weekly comic 2000AD and I would appreciate it if you don’t judge us on that. Lots of adults read comics – there is no shame in it.
They Came From Outer Space was about two aliens with pointy head and Mohican haircuts who are scouring the universe looking for the perfect hairdresser, which they eventually find on Earth. It consisted of three parts, of which the first part contained ten episodes. The tenth episode was due to appear in the October issue of the magazine and I didn’t want the second part to start until the New Year. So, rather than have readers lose interest I decided to fill the two month gap with two specially written episodes that explained the religion of the planet where the two main alien characters hailed from.
They Came From Outer Space was very popular and so it came as a bit of a surprise when I was contacted by the editor who told me that he had received a written complaint and that I should see him as soon as possible.
When I arrived at the editor’s office he handed me a letter that had been sent to the magazine by a Corporal who worked in the Electrical Supply Group (ESG) at Marham. I knew him vaguely, but didn’t make a point of spending much time with him because I thought he was a bit of a tosser.
I turned out to be absolutely correct about my opinion of him because nobody but a tosser would send a letter to an in-house Station magazine like the one I had just read.
In the letter he complained about how my comic strip was an affront to God and Our Lord Jesus and all of his followers (him included). He stated that I would go to Hell for what I had written and that he was writing a separate letter to the Padre, requesting him to speak to the Station Commander in order to have me charged with blasphemy, punishable with, I can only assume, eternal damnation.
|A panel from the offending strip.|
Now, I’m an atheist and therefore don’t believe in God or the Devil. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell and I don’t believe that Jesus Christ ever existed. I think people who believe in these things are deluding themselves – if JRR Tolkein had written The Hobbit two thousand years ago these same people would in all probability be worshipping Bilbo Baggins today.
A few years ago my daughter attended a group run by the local Baptist church in the village where we were living at the time. They were fairly pleasant people individually, but collectively they were as mad as a box of frogs. They were, it turned out, a random collection of exes – ex-junkies, ex-pissheads, ex-wife beaters, etc. They had replaced one crutch of dependence with another and were now true believers.
Fossils are not facts in the world of the true believer, they are merely placed there by God to make us doubt. True believers are – what the rather marvellous Scottish writer Christopher Brookmyre alludes to – Unsinkable Rubber Ducks – people who still continue to believe in something despite all the evidence to the contrary.
I liked the people in Baptist group immensely. I liked them because they took me out for meals in order to convert me to their particular form of Christianity. They may have succeeded had it not been for the timely intervention of my wife who asked me if I could help her one day because she had invited five thousand of our friends round for dinner and we only had five loaves of bread and four fishes in the freezer.
I like to tell people that I had recognised the supreme silliness of believing in something that could never ever be proven, but in all honesty I have to admit that I rejected their religion because a system of belief that relates humanity to an order of existence intended to explain the meaning and origin of life in the Universe cannot be solely based on how good the Peshwari Naan and Chicken Balti is in The Golden Raj Indian Restaurant on the High Street.
But thinking about it, the real reason I didn’t buy into their religion was because of their irrational hatred for almost every other religious movement. They hated the Mormons, the Muslims, the Seventh Day Evangelists, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, the Anabaptists, the Pentecostalists, the Adventists, the Quakers, the Amish, the Methodists, the Calvinists, the Budhists, the Hindus, the Presbyterians and especially the Catholics. They even hated the other Baptist Church in the village because it didn’t follow their strict guidelines.
Now that is a lot of hate. As I said before I am an atheist, but I don’t hate any group of people because they have different ideals to mine. In fact there are only two things in life that I genuinely hate and they are gooseberries and tripe.
Three if you count Downton Abbey.
And there was me thinking that religion was all about love.
But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to that letter.
The editor of The Marham News took the letter from me and said “I’ll photocopy this idiot’s letter and give you a copy. I’m going to print it but I want you to write a reply, which I will publish alongside it in next month’s issue.”
“I’m not going to apologise,” I said.
“I don’t want you to apologise. I just want a balanced view.”
My reply went something like this,
Dear Cpl Wankstain,I read your letter with interest and I have taken on board all of your comments about the episode of They Came From Outer Space that appeared in the December issue of The Marham News.Whilst I sympathise with your views I can’t help thinking that if God does exist (as you believe he does) and He created us in His image then it must be logical to assume that He has a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at Himself.RegardsSteve Mitchell
I never heard any more from him after my letter appeared next to his in the December issue of The Marham News.
Maybe – like a good Christian – he forgave me.