So farewell then, Alan Coren, the funniest and most stylish of columnists. It was a surprise to learn that he was so prudish that he would not have as dinner guests any couple who were living together but not married, but this was reported some years ago and he may have mellowed later.
We shall miss him, but happily his short pieces have been comprehensively anthologised; they do not date and the collections will be readable for years to come.
Here he is in Bethlehem, in the year BC (and AD) 0. The star has arrived overhead and the ox and the ass have been arguing about which of them is to be the Messiah, when a ram turns up:
‘Anyone seen three wise sheep?’
“What?” snapped the ass.
‘Three wise sheep,’ repeated the ram, ‘They’re due here any minute now, bearing gifts.’
‘Gifts?’ lowed the ox.
‘Yes,' said the ram, confidently. ‘It is traditional, I gather. Three wise sheep come from the East, bearing gifts for the Messiah. Grass, grass and grass, as I understand it.’
‘Messiah?’ croaked the ass, ‘What Messiah?.’
‘You’re looking at him’, said the ram. ‘Or rather, Him. It is customary at this point to fall down and praise my name, but as my three wise sheep are still en route we might as well hang on till they get here and I can do you all at the same time. Makes sense.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said the ass, ‘The star is hanging bang over the stable, the Messiah is either me or the ox, there are no sheep on these premises, you are well out of order!’
The ram tutted, as only rams can.
‘Never mind hanging over the stable’, it said sharply, ‘we have had an angel up our field, sunshine, there is no question but that I have been singled out, it is all over bar the paperwork’.
‘Hail the King of the Ewes!’ cried an invisible chorus.
‘See?’ said the ram.
The ass and the ox peered out into the night.
‘Stone me!’ cried the ox. ‘Who are they?’
‘Ewes,’ replied the ram. ‘My followers. You got to have followers, if you’re a Messiah. It is doubtless why He chose a sheep. It is one of the main things sheep do, follow’.
There was a long uneasy silence. Finally, the ass said:
‘What did this angel say, exactly?’
‘Hard to tell, replied the ram. ‘There’s the hell of a wind up there and I got all this wool in my ears, but the gist was unto us a something something and follow the star, and then He give me this Look’.
The ox shrugged.
‘Well, that’s it, then,’ it said, ‘Can’t say I’m sorry, it’s a big responsibility redeeming mankind, never mind not liking ‘em much to start with, if they’re not eating you they’re turning you into bloody suitcases.’
‘Good point,’ said the ram, nodding. ‘One of the first things on my agenda will be the commandment Love Thy Sheep. You’ve no idea what it’s like, having them shears running over you, I go all funny just thinking about it. My millennium will spell the end of the pullover, as we know it, and not before time. Also collies. I am not having the disciples rounded up and put in pens just so’s some nerd in moleskin trousers can go home with a silver cup.’
The ass cleared its throat.
‘That could explain it,’ it said.
‘What could explain what?’ enquired the ram.
‘The non-arrival of your three wise sheep. You got to go through Turkey, if you’re coming from the East. They are probably a gross of shish kebabs by now’.
‘Careful, son,’ said the ram. ‘When they get here with the documents, I shall be able to do miracles, e.g. turning donkeys into frogs.’
‘Possibly, possibly’, said the ass. ‘However, I remain to be convinced that the Almighty would entrust the salvation of mankind to something on which mankind has been putting mint sauce all these years.’
The ram narrowed its eyes.
‘Listen,’ it said. ‘it may interest….’
But at this point there is another arrival at the inn, and of course in the end all three creatures are disappointed.