You can't give offence, it can only be taken

BY JOE BENNETT
Last updated 08:06 21/04/2010

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OPINION: I'm afraid I'm going to upset the Pope again. Though his clergy have done wonders with many a treble section, and though his cardinals have done wonders in denying it, the church still isn't my news story of the week. Indeed it hasn't even made the podium. Sorry, Benedict. But you'll be back.

Bronze medal this week goes to Antonio Tajani, European Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry. He has demonstrated the old truth that the grandness of a man's title is inversely proportional to his worth. For Mr Tajani has created a new human right.

He has declared that not only does every citizen have the right to free speech, the pursuit of happiness and similar big stuff, but he also has the inalienable right to be, wait for it, a tourist. I am not making this up.

According to Commissioner Tajani, anyone who can't afford to exercise the right to tourism must be subsidised.

His pilot scheme will see Liverpudlian pensioners and jobless Glaswegian football enthusiasts issued with cameras, bumbags and taxpayer-provided traveller's cheques, crammed into rented Boeings and flung down to Athens to gawp at the Parthenon. But if, in mid-gawp, they want to ask questions about the roots of Western civilisation or the ontology of Greek myth, they'll struggle to find old locals to put them to.

For simultaneously, Mr Tajani will have whisked Greek pensioners north to enjoy a subsidised tour of, and I quote, "the archaeological and industrial sites of Manchester". I hope they have a lovely time.

The silver medal goes to an Aussie cookbook called The Pasta Bible. The title will have upset the Pope, but it's the recipe for "tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto" that's done most of the upsetting. It includes the instruction, "add salt and freshly ground black people".

The opportunity to take offence was instantly seized by large numbers of people, most of whom were not black. The publishers, Penguin Australia, appalled at having trespassed into the no-go area of skin colour, an area so littered with razor sensitivities that the trespasser's feet are instantly shredded, apologised to everyone and pulped the book.

* * *

I rejoice at the destruction of a cookbook. There's a plague of the things and they are all pornography. But this one should have been allowed to live because the words "black people" made such a cracking inadvertent joke. And in being inadvertent it illustrated, more clearly than any abstract argument, that offence is never given. It is only ever taken.

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But the story has led to one good thing. It has given me the idea for a racially offensive cookbook. Designed to upset everybody from the Pope to European commissioners, it will sell by the squillion and allow me to retire to an island and grow dogs. My recipe for Eskimo pie, for example, includes an Eskimo, skinned, boned and diced, puff pastry, and anything else you want to put Inuit.

But the gold medal for story of the week goes to the unspellable Icelandic volcano. It's grounded a thousand planes, upset Richard Branson to the tune of several million bucks a day, and prevented our governor-general from flying to Poland to say how much he loved a dead president he'd never met. Better still it has reminded us that, however we may strut and preen, we do so on a thin and fragile crust. And beneath that crust lie forces against which even governors- general are powerless.

The wealthy West is already drenched in a sense of imminent doom. We're feeling guilty and we're running scared. There's an endless hunger for Nostradamus nonsense, Book of Revelations nonsense, end- of-the-Mayan-calendar nonsense. And now this naughty little Icelandic volcano has put the wind further up us. It feels like our fears made ash. What if it were to continue erupting for months?

Clouded skies for the northern summer and reduced photosynthesis leads to crop failure, leads to skeletal livestock leads to top-of-the-food- chain predators going out of business.

Top-of-the-food-chain predators means us. Visions of a post- apocalyptic world, with London bankers wandering the dead fields begging for scraps, their blue- striped, white-collared shirts in tatters, their shrunken dugs swinging like empty hammocks.

Starving Europeans desperately try to get into Africa and India but are turned away at the borders by soldiers whose guns are loaded with irony.

And through it all go the priests and clergymen, wailing of doomsday, and calling for the skies to split and the Lord to descend and get judging. Only he doesn't. Which will upset the Pope even more.

- The Dominion Post

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