Some friends of mine are off on holiday to Rome later. As usual when anyone I know is going to a place with vaguely religious connections, I have asked them to bring me back a glow-in-the-dark virgin, an icon I recall with both spiritual and aesthetic horror from night stays at my Grandma’s in Preston.
When I was in Israel after the start of the second intifada, I remember walking through a touristy part of Jerusalem and being spotted by desperate Arab-Israeli souvenir sellers standing in the doorways of their little shops. “Come and buy!” they shouted after me. “You English?! Manchester United!” they called. Even more memorably, as I disappeared round a corner, one pleaded, “Won’t you even let us rip you off?!” Only minutes later, one of his colleagues did so, flogging me a completely non-luminous plastic Madonna as the real thing—the display model worked of course. Foolishly, I ignored the warnings of my much savvier Israeli companions, who could smell a dodgy deal across the width of the Dead Sea.
It used to at least require me to make a pilgrimage from the eruv in North London where I lived with my Hungarian stew-cooking landlady to the Irish enclave of Kilburn to find stuff like that. Now Catholic kitsch is cool and you can buy fluorescent Fatimas in Paperchase. Where’s the fun in that?