A hundred years ago, the only barometer to gauge the political weather was by-elections, though far more of them — 101 during the 1906–1909 parliament, compared with four in 2005–2010, or from nearly one a fortnight to one a year (and congratulations to the newly knighted Sir David Butler, in the tenth splendid edition of whose British Political Facts I checked that). Then came opinion polls. And now? Well, there are the bookmakers’ odds. Last October the bookies were offering 6-1 or 13-2 against a general election in 2011. It’s now 3-1.
My new year’s wish was that this year would be less sorrowful than last for the loss of friends. It couldn’t be much worse. Alan Watkins and Anthony Howard were two of the first people who befriended me when I swayed into this funny old trade, as Alan would have called it, and Fr Kit Cunningham became unofficial Roman Catholic chaplain to Fleet Street. At least they were all were well over their threescore years and ten. More bitter is when contemporaries die before their time. My recent 65th birthday was sadder after the death of two marvellous historians, both slightly younger than me. Fred Halliday was a friend since Oxford, but I only came to know Tony Judt as a penfriend when he was dying of motor neurone disease. Every death ends a conversation. I wish I could still try to amuse Tony with emails relating the grandeurs et servitudes of the Arsenal supporter, or share with Alan my pleasure in the latest Tests. Your hand goes to the telephone, and then you remember there’s no one at the other end.
Someone who has seen The King’s Speech points out that, although that excellent actor Timothy Spall bears no resemblance to Churchill, he’s the spitting image of Alan Watkins. He should play him in a drama-doc based on A Slight Case of Libel, Alan’s hilarious book about the unsuccessful case Michael Meacher, the Labour MP, brought against the Observer in 1988. The hero of the hour was Stephen Nathan, another old Oxford chum, now a successful Silk but then junior counsel for the defence. At one point, Meacher’s counsel carelessly mentioned a document inadmissible until then, at which Nathan whispered, ‘They’ve put it in.’ We were thus able to learn that, whereas Mr Meacher had averred on oath, ‘I don’t think I have ever said, in answer to the question: “What was your father?” “He was a farm worker”,’ he had said in a previous affidavit, ‘I have always said that my father worked on a farm. I have always described him as a farm worker.’ Some years later Meacher was a junior minister at the agriculture ministry, but then sacked, which seemed harsh. With a background in rural affairs as varied as those remarks suggest, he was surely the New Labour man for the job!
‘Life is mostly froth and bubble,’ runs a ditty the late Princess of Wales liked to recite, ‘Two things stand in stone: / Friendship in another’s trouble, / Courage in your own.’ When Sir Kingsley Amis heard this, he immediately rephrased it: ‘Life is mostly toil and labour, / Two things see you through:/ Gloating when it hits your neighbour, / Whining when it’s you.’ I prefer Kingsley’s version: it’s grumbling that brings us together and keeps us going. My trouble is that ‘Musn’t grumble’ actually applies for once. When the Big Freeze struck a week before Christmas, I was enjoying a few days’ skiing in Switzerland, and followed from afar the ordeal of so many travellers at home. I thought I should keep quiet about the fact that my own journeys had been painless, every flight and train on the dot. Of course, that may have exhausted my supply of good luck for the coming year.
While the Americans made such heavy weather of it, the whole row over ‘gays in the military’ always seemed puzzling to an Englishman. Apart from ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’ inspiring the Royal Navy to so many victories, some of the smartest regiments in the British Army were traditionally queer. One of the smartest was the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, which my dear old friend Perry Worsthorne joined in 1942 because it had such a pretty uniform, including a double Sam Browne, whatever that may be. Another wartime unit, entirely officered by aesthetes, was informally known as the Monstrous Regiment of Gentlemen. And years later, when Lady Diana Cooper was attacked by thieves, Evelyn Waugh wrote to a friend suggesting that eminent widows should be protected by ‘a Praetorian Guard of Pansies (we know from the war how brave they are)’. That’s what everyone says, and what any number of DSOs and MCs testify. Mightn’t this courage have been recognised with a new regiment, presumably the Gay Gordons?
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