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Britain greets Pope, wanly

Ancient history looms over a papal visit. Modern history looms over Britain’s economy. The chips are down for a “potato-faced” footballer and the perpetrators of a tabloid phone hacking scandal. Plus: There’s cheerful news for a gloomy rock group, and salad days for a thief.

Top News: Sometimes it seems Britain is trapped in its own history, a situation never more apparent than when the pope comes to town. Obviously it’s pretty big news wherever Benedict XVI’s popemobile hits the tarmac, but thanks to a bit of a dust-up between King Henry VIII and the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, Britain tends to get more worked up about his holiness than most countries.

Apathy, anger and ridicule were forecast to greet the pontiff this month in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and London, fueled by disquiet over the Catholic Church child abuse scandal and complaints by some British taxpayers over the cost of his visit.

There were indeed protests, with thousands massing to decry all things papal, there was also apathy, with some tickets to Benedict’s appearances left unsold. The ridicule, however, came from unexpected sources.

The first of these was the papal entourage itself, with one aide being excluded at the last minute for describing Britain as a “Third World country.” Cardinal Walter Kasper based his judgment primarily on London’s Heathrow Airport.

As one Financial Times reader — clearly soured by his own U.K. air travel experiences — pointed out, this view was “wrong and offensive,” but only up to a point. “His Eminence obviously confused Heathrow with the arrivals terminal at Gatwick,” he wrote.

The second source of ridicule was directed at the police, who — as part of an estimated $2.3 million security operation (funded by taxpayers) — arrested six street cleaners over a “Muslim plot to kill the pope” or, as it later transpired, a bad joke.

Still, for all the upset, anger and confusion, the Vatican itself was fairly pleased with the trip, saying the pope’s efforts in reaching out to a wary nation were a “great success.”

Having previously warned that cell phones are “bad for the soul,” you could forgive the visiting Vatican entourage a modicum of schadenfreude at the expense of the tabloid News of the World, which is caught up in a scandal over hacking into celebrity and royal voicemails.

Although the accusations — which implicate the tabloid’s former editor Andy Coulson (now media advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron) — are old news for the British press, it took a New York Times investigation to re-ignite and expand the story.

Since the Times came on board, complaints from numerous public figures — including former deputy prime minister John Prescott and actress Sienna Miller — have led to a fresh police inquiry and possible legal action against the paper. Coulson has denied authorizing or having any knowledge of the hacking.

Apparently unruffled by the investigation, reporters at News of the World served up a classic scoop exposing visits made to prostitutes by England’s star soccer player Wayne Rooney while his wife was expecting their first child.

Rooney, whose rather rumpled features are often uncharitably compared to root vegetables or cartoon ogres, may have taken some comfort from sex worker Jenny Thompson’s verdict: “I know a lot of people call him Shrek, but he’s actually not that ugly when you’re sat in front of him.”

Until he effectively admitted the allegations by apologizing to his wife (none too gracefully, apparently), Rooney may have earned some sympathy from British Foreign Minister William Hague, who found himself defending his marriage against an onslaught of newspaper innuendo.

Hague took the unusual move of issuing a statement detailing marital heartache over failed efforts to conceive and reaffirming his heterosexuality following newspaper questions over why he hired and then shared bedrooms with a young, male political aide.

Money: In considering its economic outlook, Britain likes to look back to a slightly more contemporary period than the days when kings had a thing for beheading their wives — chiefly the late 1970s, when widespread strikes during the “Winter of Discontent” paralyzed the nation.

Questions over whether this grim period would be reprised were inevitable when the country’s trade unions threatened coordinated industrial action to protest “reckless” public sector cuts announced by the government.

With the outlook bleak, it seems the men who some might say are the chief architects of Britain’s current financial misery aren’t sticking around. It was revealed Eric Daniels, chief executive of the Lloyds Banking group, is the latest in a series of senior banking figures to stand down.

Meanwhile, Vince Cable — the British business secretary often touted as the country’s best asset in its efforts to reverse the financial crisis — was criticized over a speech that appeared to attack the very tenets of capitalism at the heart of his government.

Elsewhere: If you look to awards shows for a guide to what’s hot on the British music scene, then the eponymous debut by the winners of this year’s Mercury Music Prize — the xx — is where it’s at. Universally hailed for their gloomy synth-driven sound, the xx have seen sales soar since scooping the influential $31,000 prize for the year’s best album.

Also having a good month is one criminal in Hampshire, southwest of London, who stole nearly $90 from an old lady and evaded police attempts to track him down after a software glitch resulted in a wanted poster of him wearing lettuce on his head.