Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Faith No More

Sir Nigel Verkoff esquire, Kommisar of the new cargo cult The Order of Saint Macka the Usurper, talks with Ewen Campion-Clarke about life, God, the universe and his upcoming trial at Sydney Criminal Court

Nigel Verkoff does not look like the stereotypical view of a cult leader.

He is calm, collected, not prone to thunderous proclamations and his outfit is casual to say the least. A pair of denim jeans and a bright, neon-pink T-shirt with the words I AM WHAT WOMEN WANT (with the ‘I’ taking up most of the space) are not exactly the usual attire of religious leaders. Eyes hidden behind a pair of John Lennon spectacle sunglasses and with his beehive hairdo died peroxide blonde, he looks like a photo negative of some 1950s gay icon.

When I mentioned this to him, he called me a disgusting waste of DNA. Fair’s fair.

Appearances can be deceptive, but Verkoff’s history does not point to him as the sort of man to embrace any sort of religion, let alone style himself as the leader of a cult that misspelled the word ‘Saint’ for the first six months of their campaign.

Adopted at six weeks of age by the upper class Yang family, Aborigine Verkoff was clearly a fish out of water at home – exacerbated no doubt by his open courting of his sister, to whom he still regularly sends love tokens and used underwear.

"The past is a graveyard which need never be revisited," Verkoff opines thoughtfully over a chocolate milkshake. "Unless there’s a plague of zombie rats or something. No, I’ve restarted my life. You only have to look at my name – I used to be called Nigella Yang, but that part of me is dead and gone forever. One tick of a deed poll and I’m a new man."

Why exactly did he choose the surname ‘Verkoff’?

"Yeah, that’s a bit of a sore point. I was filling in the form at the pub, and I was chatting up the barmaid. She was obviously insane, but I respect them being released into the community so soon. They either sink or go under. No, wait, that’s wrong..."

Why was she insane?

"She didn’t want to sleep with me. Anyway, she took offence and wrote... er... something very rude on the form. I managed to convince people it’s pronounced ‘Ver Kov’ rather than ‘Far Koff’."

But why not simply change his name by deed poll again?

"I never thought of that," Verkoff admits after several minutes’ thought.

Moving on, what exactly is the core belief of The Order of Saint Macka the Usurper and what does it have to offer to ordinary Australians. "All religions are basically variations on the one pattern," Verkoff explains sagely. "One force creates the universe and everything in it, and the only way we can understand this and reach paradise once we die is to behave in a certain manner. Get it? Got it? Good. Oddly enough, every single religion works on the principal that it is the only true religion and all the others are misguided, wrong or out and out lies. Now, The Order of Saint Macka the Usurper is unique in the fact that, as a religion, it believes itself to be a pack of lies and all other religions to be correct, even if they contradict each other." He taps his nose with woozy cunning. "Clever, eh?"

And how in the name of all that is sane does this work?

"Well, say you wished to join The Order – and, looking at you, son, I think it might be a case of ‘too little, too late’ – after paying all the required duties, and making a contribution to the parish fund, I’d spin you a yarn about Atlantis, aliens, nuclear testing and angels. And," he continues, looking left and right to make sure no one’s looking, which is pointless as we are alone in his tree house, "if you believed so much as one word of it, you wouldn’t be allowed in."

Would I get my money back?

"Course not. If you believed it, you’d be a fool and a fool and his money are soon parted. God, are you mental or something?"

But what are the benefits of the Order?

"Depending on the amount of the donation you give, you will rise through the echelons [Verkoff mispronounces it as ‘etch-lions’] of the Order. There’s sergeants, inspectors, superintendents, detectives... no. Wait. That’s the police force. Sorry. Uh, the ranks in the Order are warrant officer, brigadier, sorry. That’s the army. In the Order, I am the Kommmisar, absolute ruler of the Order, High Lord of the Sexual Air Supply, Controller of the Supreme High Council of the Oompa-Loompas, President Elect of the Lower Order of Ice Cream Venders, Protector of the Legacy of Tarintino and Defender of Uluru.. Below me are... just about everyone really. There are Castellans, Coordinators, Cardinals and under them the most multitudinous and malevolent of all. The gofers. They are people whose contributions don’t break the five thousand mark. There are more of them out there than you think."

I point out that at last count the membership of the Order numbered in the tens.

"Pah," Verkoff jeers. "Semantics. I thought you were a serious journalist. The Order of Saint Mazza the Usurper—"

‘Macka’, I correct.

"Whatever! The Order is a serious movement for those concerned about the problems facing the Earth and the people on it. It’s the only planet we have. In fact, it’s the only planet there is!"

I can think of a few astronomers that would argue about that.

"What? Have you been to any of them? You just see a few pictures of Saturn in a school book and take it for Gospel. For crying out loud, that sort of gullibility would get you chucked out of the Order. We call your sort ‘Ye of too much faith’."

The Order was created by Verkoff on 15th of May 2002 based on the holy text What I Did On My Christmas Holidays by Verkoff himself. From a rental of the local Masonic Centre to its own prime time public access TV hour, the Order still does not carry the same weight as the Christian Church or Bhuddism to name but two. Indeed, the two members of the order that admitted their religion on the census form were fined for not taking the project seriously. Verkoff scoffs at the idea that more people claim to be ‘Jedi’ rather than ‘Usurperists’, but doesn’t say much else about it and indeed changes the topic.

"Of course, public awareness of the Order has sky-rocketed in the last year," Verkoff boasts, making a rare trip to the reality the rest of us inhabit. "Surrender to Your God with Nigel Verkoff is the highest rated informercial in its time slot and that’s a fact. Just a pity we couldn’t get it broadcast any later than five in the morning. But with only five episodes, you’d have to be bowel-shatteringly insane not to say we’ve made an impact."

That is certainly true with over thirteen TV critics listing Surrender to Your God with Nigel Verkoff as Show of the Week, with their only criticism being the ungodly hour the episodes were screened yet. However, it must be pointed out that Surrender to Your God with Nigel Verkoff was mistakenly believed to be an adult comedy with topical religious satire as its cornerstone. Verkoff himself was nominated for a Logie after his roll call of people who he had cured using the power of faith and positive thinking, especially when the unimpressed audience discovered he was bluffing this speech with a copy of the Yellow Pages and a medical dictionary.

"Philistines," is all Verkoff has to say on the matter before abruptly changing his mind yet again. "That show was made with a shoestring budget, broadcast live. I had to, out of my own pocket, pay the audience members to turn up. Half of them weren’t even members of the Order. Do you know how off-putting it is to have the floor crew singing Abide With Me? To have the audience sitting there, sobbing in silence? To have drama students thanking me after my two-hour long dissertation on the history of Atlantis and the nature of Hollow Earth in relation to the French nuclear testing? I suffered for my art, and those morons in the press assumed it was a stand up comedy act. How these people got to where they are today beggars my imagination. And my imagination isn’t begged easily."

I note that of the several jobs that Verkoff is recorded to have had before starting the Order, nearly every attempt was made to become a TV reviewer for the local paper. On one attempt he was trying to make his own newspaper, The Irish Racist, which was never seriously taken up. Is this a case of sour grapes on Verkoff’s part to be ridiculed by the very profession he was desperate to achieve?

"Well, come on. Everyone wants to be a TV reviewer. Or a porn star. Or both. Why do you think Big Brother gets so many contestants? To get paid for sitting on your arse and doing what comes naturally is the Australian ideal, the Ozzie Destiny if you’ll pardon the pun."

What pun?

"Wasn’t there one? Sorry. I mean, we may all think putting down your occupation as ‘sperm donor’ is incredibly pathetic and immature, but that guy is having a lot more fun than ‘inner city banker’, ‘rat catcher’ or ‘one-legged Tarzan impressionist’. Now, enough of these digressions. Where were we?"

We were here. We haven’t moved.

"Leave the humor to the experts, duck face," Verkoff spits on the floor.

Surrender to Your God with Nigel Verkoff is no longer being produced or broadcast, however several copies of the last episode are now highly sought after by fans, members and above all the police. During the last episode, Verkoff took faith healing to the next level in what the tabloids dubbed as ‘Slaughterhouse Savior’.
Just what possessed Nigel Verkoff – a man who even his best friends would describe as a ‘complete and total See You Next Tuesday’ – to start shooting innocent people live on television in front of not only an entire studio audience but a home audience increased to six million people by favorable reviews in the Junior Gazette?

"I am not a psychopath," says Verkoff with a surprising earnestness. "I took no joy in the shootings. I was as scared at any one and was as sickened as the next man when it became clear it wasn’t just flesh wounds. I was the one who called the ambulance, after all."

Only after the third victim died, I remind him.

"That was a tragedy and in no way my intention or the intention of the Order. How was I to know the idiot was a hemophiliac? Why didn’t he tell us? He’d be alive today if he was a bit more forward with that info!"

Maybe he would have had he known he was going to be shot?

"I couldn’t have revealed that information. It was reality television and it was what the public expected – real emotions, real fear, real desperation..."

Real corpses?

"I have more than enough visual and printed evidence to show I aimed to wound, to disable, never to kill. If those morons hadn’t started running around and screaming, my aim would have been better."

I point out he shot his own floor manager who was not part of the sequence in any way at all.

"Well, that was an accident. It was good he was appealing for calm. It was just that I wanted to appeal for calm as well and fired two warning shots."

Into his head?

"He moved. Had he stayed perfectly still, he might have got off with a fractured kneecap."

The question is, of course, why did Verkoff bring a group of audience members on stage and then go crazy with a loaded firearm? Verkoff who, as the massacre demonstrated, had no prior use or even inclination to use firearms? A man who was unable to perform even the most basic of nipple cripples? Why kill seven people?

"It was eight actually. A fiancé of one of the victims committed suicide," Verkoff corrects absently. "You see, this entire situation was forced onto us by the press."

So Verkoff is blaming the media for his use of a gun?

"No, I’m blaming the media for forcing me into the position where I needed a gun to use. You see, as you should point out in your article if you have even the slightest shred of journalistic integrity, the media assumed we were some comedic variety act. The penultimate episode, where I brought on all those healed, former-sufferers, was treated as a complete joke."

A very funny one.

"That doesn’t make it better, boy!" Verkoff snarls.

The sequence in question was in the fourth episode, just after Verkoff slipped a mordant epileptic some hallucinatory drugs and performed an ‘exorcism’ ("That was a valid reconstruction," Verkoff opines. "At no point did I claim it was the genuine devil. Apart from that one time. But hell, it convinced me."). Verkoff brought forth twelve people he knew had suffered childhood diseases and claimed that the power of Saint Macka the Usurper had cleared them of their horrible ailment. Eleven of them ridiculed this and called Verkoff a ‘lying, cheating bastard fraud’ and the remaining victim giggled uncontrollably.

"I can understand their criticism. We’ve all seen some fraud bump into a quadriplegic with syphilis, a head cold, no facial features and leprosy, lay their hands on the poor git’s head and say ‘What ails you, my child?’ and they say ‘What do you bloody reckon?!’ and then suddenly they can walk, and dance and sing and praise the word of the lord. Sure. The fact we saw the cripple lap-dancing before the show is quietly ignored.

"That was why I came up with the plan. I brought out genuine members of the audience, who I had never met before in my life, lined them up and got out the gun. No one, and I mean no one is going to think it was a set up. I maimed complete strangers live on stage. The wounds were real, the reactions real, and the faith healing would be real."

Verkoff never did get round to the faith healing part, though, did he?

"I couldn’t have just gone, ‘Whoops! Get an ambulance!’ could I? I’m a faith healer. These hands heal using the power of Saint Macka the Usurper – I’m talking crap, I hope you realize this, gullibility-brains – and the moment I call a mortal man to heal is the moment the grass-munching pig-ignorant public realize what a fraud I am!"

Isn’t that the point?

"In the long run, yes, but I wanted the audience to work it out for themselves. That’s why I held back the emergency services until the first one died. And, to be honest, I claim no responsibility for that death. OK, I shot him through the kidney, but I wasn’t the smart arse who shouted "LET ME THROUGH, I’M AN AROMA THERAPIST!" and started applying lavender oil to the wound, am I?"

With all the witnesses to testify how upset and desperate to help Verkoff was after the shooting, one would think that Verkoff might have a chance in hell in his upcoming trial of not going to jail. However, while only three people were shot during the show, the rest were still mortally wounded by Verkoff using golf clubs, a boom mike, the inflatable plastic furniture which is the signature of Surrender to Your God with Nigel Verkoff’s set design.

"After the first four shots, I had no intention of still firing the gun. It went off the remaining two times, I can assure you," he says with no real gravity. "I dropped the gun, kicked it out of harm’s way and immediately directed the police to it when they arrived. However, the show had to go on, so I continued to injure and beat the remaining participants with less immediately lethal weapons. In fact, I’m not sure I should be telling you this, but one of the main points of my defense is that I am not directly responsible for the death of five of the victims. Not only was one a suicide, the rest were only killed after the lighting scaffolding fell on top of them and crushed them to death. Just because one of my stray bullets is responsible for that, it’s entirely inadmissible."

I point out that at least one of the victims was found suffocated by Verkoff’s inflatable armchair.

"Oh, right. Yeah, I forgot all about that! Thanks." Verkoff shakes his head in wonderment. "That totally dropped out below my radar. Thanks for that, mate, that’s a good point to know before the court case. Man, I’d be stuffed if the prosecutor noticed that before I did. I owe you one. Do you want everlasting life?"

Ask me again in 500 years.

"OK, how about a book token? Or a free autographed pen?"

Assuming the so-unlikely-as-to-count-as-a-miracle event of Verkoff leaving that court case a free man, will he continue his association with the Order of Saint Macka the Usurper? Or start another career?

"Well, whatever happens in court, it’s got to be worth a book deal with Allen and Unwin. I’m made either way, but with a personality like mine can you imagine any reasonably-impartial jury will find me guilty."

Without doubt, I say.

"Yeah, well, you’re gullible. We established this at the start of the interview. Once the book’s published, I’ll be taking a sabbatical in my duties as Kommisar. The Order of Saint Macka the Usurper will be torn apart by internal strife and I shall salvage the wreckage to collect any more donations made during the intervening weeks. After that, I have another religion in the pipeline: the Church of the Later-Day Nymphomaniacs with me as Arch Deacon. For any Usurperist, the Church of the Later-Day Nymphomaniacs will offer the same spiritual and financial benefits, however, I should point out that joint membership will be charged double. Get it? Got it? Good. After that, well, maybe I’ll have enough experience and patience to pursue my career goals of TV reviewer and porn star. Imagine that – I could review myself. What a wonderful world we live in."

However, it appears that the police I called for when Verkoff approached me for this interview have finally arrived. Verkoff moves to climb out the window and make a break for the local railway station, intending to flee to Manly via a ferry from Circular Quay.

One final question – why did the Order petition parliament to replace Advance Australia Fair with No Milk Today by Herman’s Hermitts as the Australian national anthem? Was it some spiritual decision? Or because No Milk Today is obviously the better song?

"What a stupid question," Verkoff sneers and makes a break for it.

Depending on the outcome of his trial – assuming the police recapture him in time to attend it – our concept of Sir Nigel Verkoff esquire is hard to define. A modern-day religious icon? A notorious fraudster? A man with a unique perception about how humanity views its own reality? A dangerous lunatic with delusions of grandeur?

But what he can’t be pegged as is unAustralian.

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