I slipped into a pub earlier this week for a quick lunchtime drink and found myself watching the TV set over the bar. It showed a political party conference in full swing, rendered even more magnetic by the total absence of sound. The man at the microphone on TV thundered out his views on unemployment (or Serbia, or sex ) but he thundered silently. He roared, he banged his fist, he flailed his arms and he even tried to knock the microphone over once or twice, but he might just as well have been a wing three quarter trying to tell the line-out where he was going to throw the ball, or a policeman trying to sort out a five-mile traffic jam."Extraordinary," said the man next to me. "They say we live in an age of progress, and yet you get this sort of thing happening."
"Television in pubs?" I said. "Couldn't agree more. The only good thing about the TV you get in pubs is that there is no sound. If there was no picture either, it would be perfect. And why is it that the programmes on pub TV are so dreadful? Do you think they get specially bad broadcasts piped into pubs, just as they get specially nasty white wine to serve in pubs? Do you... ? "
"No," said the man.
I wasn't quite sure what part of my monologue he was contradicting, so I kept quiet. I didn't have long to wait to find out.
No," he said, " I didn't mean TV in pubs. I meant political party conferences. Call that progress? "
"Well," I said, "I don't call it progress, but it is certainly an advance of some kind. To get a party together and decide on its policy, I mean. In the old days a party never met to decide what to do next."
"Yes, they did," he said. "Party conferences go way, way back. "
Well, I may have it wrong," I said, "but I don't remember ever being taught about the annual Whig party conference. I don't remember Robespierre getting up and waving his arms to persuade the Jacobins to vote more money for the arts. I never read in my history books about Oliver Cromwell addressing the party conference on the subject of law and order and telling them, a la Michael Howard, that a beheaded king was a king that would commit no more nuisances. I don't remember..."
"I'm going back a long way further than that," he said. "I'm going back 2,000 years."
There was something about the man's look that discouraged further badinage.
"Tell me," I said.
"I work at the British Museum," he said. "I examine scrolls, inscriptions, and such like. At the moment I am examining a new discovery from Biblical times. It seems to be the report of the annual party conference of Jesus and the twelve disciples. "<"The what? " I said.
"That's what I said first. I thought to myself: this can't be. Then I thought, well, if you have an organisation, you have an annual general meeting. Why not Jesus and the twelve disciples?"
"Was He re-elected annually?" I said.
"Jesus. The party leader. Did He have to go through a reselection process every year?"
"It doesn't say," said the man. "But I would imagine not. After all, He did start the party, and it was named after Him."
"So what did they argue about at the Christian party conference? "
"As far as I can make out, it was tactics, mostly," said the man. "Should we have an alliance with the Pharisees to form a coalition to get power away from the Romans? Should we not oppose the Romans at all, but infiltrate them from the inside? Shall we concentrate on local government results or go headlong for the next-world vote? Do we want to be part of Europe, or can Israel go it alone? Should bona fide miracles be tax deductible...?"
"Sounds a bit like the Liberal Democrats," I said. "Another fringe party fantasising about power."
"The Christians may have started small but they certainly hit the big time," he said. "Couple of hundred years later, they were in power in Rome. Nowadays the Vatican is one of the big power brokers in the world. Making a nuisance of itself in Cairo at this very moment."
"Is it all foreshadowed in this scroll of yours?" I asked. "I mean, did Jesus and the twelve ever discuss what should be done if they got to power?"
"Funny you should say that," he said, "because..."
Just then a gang of accountants, all very cheery, burst into the pub, and by the time they had reached the bar I had been parted from my new-found chum. Didn't see him again. Shame. I had the feeling he was about to tell me something crucial. Meanwhile, I think I will be avoiding the 1994 party conference season. It will look small beer by comparison.
The Independent Wednesday Sep 21 1994