by John Morrison


78: Lights, Camera, Action...

There's a God-shaped hole inside us, whether we know it or not. We're all looking for a plan, a purpose: the timely intervention of a divine hand. We're trying to find an answer to the question that's preoccupied mankind ever since we started walking upright: "Why are we here... instead of, say, over there?"

Milltown is a place where all manner of creeds - from the conventional to the frankly bizarre - can co-exist. We have our quota of Quakers: nice enough people, of course, though you wouldn't necessarily want one by your side in a gangland rumble. We have Evangelists: excitable folk who congregate in draughty halls to praise the Lord and sing hallelujahs (their guitars tuned to play only those heart-warming Christian chords). Do the Evangelists really speak in tongues - as they claim - or is it just the poor acoustics? We have smiling men in saffron robes who stop you on the street and try to persuade you to say 'Gouranga'. Of course, even a smiling man in saffron robes will have trouble saying 'Gouranga' if he's spitting out teeth at the time.

We have a few intractable fundamentalists, blessed with the tolerance and insight of a bath-sponge. They prove, if nothing else, that one man's religion can be another man's belly laugh. They believe in the literal truth of every single word in the Bible. So an argument between a Christian Fundamentalist and a confirmed atheist can clear a crowded room in seconds. The one wants to spread the word: "The Bible proves that Jesus was the Messiah. He performed miracles. He turned water into wine". The other takes a more empirical view: "No, what he actually did was turn wine into vinegar, and even then it took three days. It wasn't a miracle; that's what happens when you leave the cork out of the bottle".

Milltown has had a long tradition of non-conformity; 'do it yourself' religions suited a self-reliant and hard-working population. It was never easy to get non-conformists to agree about anything, and especially to agree about anything with other non-conformists. That was the trouble with non-conformists, in a nutshell. They were always ready to debate some minor point of scripture and, if they felt they were losing the argument, to walk out and found some new schism. Groups of believers would split, amoeba-like, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Walking out became a way of life.

The preponderance of chapels throughout the South Pennines is testimony to their unwillingness to back down and consider another person's point of view. They'd walk that extra mile, but not in someone else's shoes. They'd turn their gaze toward heaven, but wouldn't try to see the Elysian fields through someone else's eyes. Religion was a more compelling force when John Wesley, George Fox and other tireless visionaries roamed these hills in search of converts. Compromise wasn't big on the agenda.

The Milltown of today offers fertile ground for new-age believers. They make smash and grab raids on ancient spiritual traditions, to assemble a treasure trove of stolen booty such as crystals, charms, amulets, wind-chimes, runic stones and self-emptying dream-catchers. Centuries of rational thought have forged the triumph of science over mysticism... only for a handful of raddled hippies to put that process back a thousand years.

We have astrologers, whose scattergun approach to clairvoyance and character assessment ensures that they're bound to get something right, if they keep on guessing for long enough. We have Pagans, as in "Oh God, it's the Pagans...". We have past-life regressionists, who know that if they're naughty they'll be forced to come back, in their next incarnation, as something awful... like a woodlouse or Melvin Bragg's sinuses. There isn't, alas, a religion called 'Deep Suspicion Twinned with Existential Angst', which means that our Town Drunk will continue, instead, to find his solace in a bottle.

We have faith healers who try to unlock those blocked, negative areas of their clients' wallets. How do people come to recognise that they are blessed with healing hands or special intuition? Well, perhaps they've lit one joss stick too many, or the rent man's about to call. For Wounded Man it was listening to countless friends pouring out their troubles. The notion dawned that if he was going to be bored to tears by everyone else's woes, then he might as well get paid for it.

It's mildly disconcerting to hear about other worlds, alternative realities and past lives - especially from people who can't even find their way around a road atlas. The Millenarians, for example, are attracting so many new converts to their cause that they've decided to bring forward the date for the end of the world. The rest of us may scoff, but one day they'll get it right. The world will end, and won't we all have red faces? We won't be laughing then.

We live in exciting times. Milltown has been chosen as a location for a feature film called Fanny & Elvis . When the producer advertised for extras, queues of hopefuls stretched all around the block. With Milltown being a haven for unusual fashion statements, most people seemed to think they were auditioning for the next Mad Max movie. Wounded Man turned up, in the overly optimistic hope that the producer would take one look at him and say: "Yes, yes ... Just what we we're looking for: a bloke with a careworn expression and grey, straggly hair. Send everyone else home".

Most folk seem to enjoy the town's transformation, for a few days, into one big film-set. But not all. There have been predictable complaints from the Presleyterians (an eccentric sect, even by Milltown standards) who don't much care for their saviour's name being taken in vain. They've been parading up and down in their distinctive robes (those sequins were probably a mistake, guys) and waving anagrammatic placards: 'Elvis Lives'. But when they interrupted the producer's shooting schedule - with an impromptu mass, complete with a Coke 'n' cheeseburger sacrament - they were unceremoniously bundled off the film-set.

Our Tourism Officer, never slow to recognise a heaven-sent opportunity, has no such qualms. Wherever a film-crew goes, he knows that tourists won't be far behind. In the confident expectation that 'Fanny and Elvis' will be a rip-roaring success, and follow 'A Boy, a Girl and a Donkey' into Milltown folklore, he's already roughing out the lavish, full-colour brochures that will hopefully attract people in droves to explore the delights of 'Fanny Country'...

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