Hello. My supernatural thriller novel The Last Days Of Jack Sparks concerns an arrogant celebrity journalist who finds himself in trouble with unseen forces, after he laughs during an exorcism in Italy, organised by the Catholic church.
So to celebrate the paperback release, I want to tell you about the day I got into trouble with seen forces in Rome. Namely, the Pope’s armed forces. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Yes.
Life sometimes throws up subtle signals that you’ve acted unwisely. Being surrounded by angry men with machine guns is arguably one such signal.
Time-whoosh! It’s 1998 and I’m a rock journalist. Photographer Paul Harries and I are in Rome, to cover the Devil’s own metal band Cradle Of Filth, who’ve released their album Cruelty And The Beast.
Aiming to drag some local colour into the piece, we head to Vatican City. Funnily enough, there’s been no prior discussion with the Pope’s press office regarding photo shoots and the like. So we are, of course, foolish to think we can simply waltz onto Vatican turf without getting people’s sacrificial goats up.
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When we arrive at a square on the edge of Vatican City, it’s early evening and freezing cold. The dome of the nearby St Peter’s Basilica is obscured by scaffolding. “They heard we were coming,” smirks Filth drummer Nick, before leaving in a taxi like a big lightweight. Albeit a big lightweight who doesn’t get detained at gunpoint.
Cradle Of Filth have been here before. Like many unsuspecting tourists, they were thrown out for not wearing proper shirts. Tonight proves they have learned nothing. The band’s singer Dani is sporting one of their own T-shirts – the one with the clear slogan I LOVE SATAN. Keyboardist Les ‘Lecter’ Smith sports his trademark vicar’s collar. Spoiler alert: Les is not an actual vicar.
The square is deserted as we wander about. While talking nonsense about fictitious past Popes (like “Lucius The Second, The Masturbating Pope,” according to guitarist Stuart), the Filth admit to being interested in Vatican architecture. Guitarist Rob takes photos of his own.
“Rome is confused,” ponders Lecter. “In the Colosseum, they used to throw Christians to the lions. And here’s this big monument to Christians.”
Dani and snapper Harries disappear to do some pictures. The singer eventually returns at speed. “You’ve got to see this,” he yells. “The Vatican Police have taken Paul’s camera and passport away! They told me to fetch ‘the preacher’!”
“Fuck,” groans Lecter, tugging his collar off as we follow Dani between some massive pillars. “I’m sick of getting arrested wherever we go…”
All of a sudden, we’re surrounded by armed guards. Six or seven of them, levelling submachine guns right at us. Even worse, they’re seriously pissed off. Red in the face, they shout at Lecter until he hands over the collar, which is shaken aloft in a self-righteous fist.
I’ve never been held at gunpoint before (or since), but you won’t be shocked to hear it’s no fun. Worse, actually, than the time a mugger held a knife to my throat in Amsterdam – and perhaps that’s because guns are more remote, more cowardly. A sick feeling grows in the pit of your stomach, as you struggle to grasp that your very life now literally rests in the hands of others. Men who only need to pull a small metal lever to fire those obscene devices.
When you’re staring down the barrel, down that infinite black hole, guns have assuredly never seemed more wrong.
“Maybe if we explain that we have a gig to play with Napalm Death later on?” considers Dani after fifteen minutes of stilted interrogation. Luckily, a younger guard speaks English and mediates as we explain that we’re not intending to assassinate the Pope.
Eventually, thanks to this younger guy calming things down, the atmosphere begins to cool. And that’s when Rob decides to throw an upside down cross into the works. When the young guard, our saviour, tries to make conversation and asks what kind of music Cradle Of Filth play, Rob sneers, “Evil music!” To make matters worse, he says this with a dour northern accent. Outrageous.
Despite this setback, we are finally set free with a stern warning. In Italian.
“That was quite amusing,” Dani reflects, as we rapidly leave the area. “I must admit, everybody was shitting themselves somewhat. Different laws apply to the Vatican, so you could find yourself in a cell for the night with a good kicking!”
Vatican City is indeed a land-locked sovereign city-state with full independence. They can probably do pretty much whatever they please, just like the Pope.
“I should’ve chinned ’em,” says Gian. “It was like putting your head in the lion’s mouth – we were asking for it a bit. I had strange feelings about the Vatican anyway: I was raised a Catholic until I was fifteen, when I started thinking for myself. I speak some Italian, but didn’t want them to know. Best act ignorant!”
“It was totally unreasonable,” reckons Stuart, “but I’ve seen unreasonable behaviour before in other countries. The police are more unreasonable in England than they are in most other places. I got nicked for walking down the street once – with intent to go home!”
Recalls Lecter: “You could see the hatred in one bloke’s eyes in particular. He would have tortured us and burnt us at the stake if he could get away with it, and thought it was entirely justifiable. To see so much hatred in his eyes, for something so ridiculous as wearing a vicar’s top and an I Love Satan shirt… it was like going back two hundred years. Total fascism!”
When we get back to the UK, muttering about fascist bully boys, the incident ends up being reported in such vessels as the NME and Q as well. As much as it was an unnerving experience, it’s also, of course, a journalist’s dream. Why, it’s the kind of thing that a man could store away and release almost two decades later. Perhaps when he has a novel to promote or something…