A few days ago I decided to take my husband out for a treat. What could be more suitable than an outing to the theatre to see the hugely acclaimed Jerusalem, a rural tragi-comedy set in Wiltshire, where my husband was born and bred. The play has received ecstatic accolades from all the critics: ‘unarguably one of the greatest plays of the 21st century’; ‘sometimes criticism must fall silent and give way to joyous celebration’; ‘never have 200 minutes flown by so fast’ and so on. We were all set for an exceptional evening. It was not to be. After only two minutes, I began to find the play unbearably boring. The dialogue was plodding and clichéd, its banality camouflaged by a predict- able, endless stream of ‘f***s’. The jokes were unfunny. I kept glancing at my husband to see whether he felt as I did — or could it be that he agreed with all those critics, in which case I would be condemned to sit through the entire thing. I needn’t have worried. As the curtain came down after the long first act, he turned to me: ‘Home and supper I think.’
I live in Westminster North, the newly created marginal constituency where Joanne Cash — the glamorous libel lawyer who caused so much commotion recently when she resigned and then swiftly unresigned as Conservative candidate — is the person for whom I intend to vote at the coming election. But I am not very happy about this. For one thing, the row at Westminster North highlighted the most off-putting aspects of Cameron’s party, epitomised by that snobbish, unfeeling and PR-minded phrase, the ‘Tory A-list’. For another, the fact that Joanne Cash is pregnant raises a commonsense question that many enlightened people regard as out of bounds. If I ask it, I will be marked down as the mother of all dinosaurs. Never mind, here goes: is it a good idea to elect an MP who will become a new mother shortly after the election? It is well known that first-time mothers are often astonished by the force of feeling and the change in priorities that accompany the arrival of a child. This was certainly true of me; I was determined to go back to full-time work soon after giving birth and then found it unbearable to be away from my baby for long hours at a time. Joanne Cash will be able to do a lot of her work from home and she is presumably a much more ambitious person — so there is a good chance that she will be an effective MP-cum-first-time-mother. But a question mark nevertheless hangs over it.
Europeans give many more honours and awards to foreigners than we do. The Germans, for example, have a ‘Shakespeare prize’ awarded exclusively to British citizens — Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan and A.S. Byatt, among many others, have won it. The French, perhaps surprisingly, are particularly cosmopolitan in this respect. Even their highest honour, the Légion d’honneur, established by Napoleon in 1802, occasionally goes to foreigners — to Clint Eastwood and Harold Pinter for example, and a few weeks ago to the constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor. But the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, set up in the 1950s, is the most frequently bestowed decoration. Kazuo Ishiguru, Julian Barnes, George Clooney and Kylie Minogue are all proud owners of the asterisk-shaped medallion. Last week my friend Vikram Seth became the latest recipient. He was dubbed Officier (the Order has three grades — Chevalier, Officier and Commandeur) at a ceremony held in one of the French Embassy’s beautiful reception rooms. There were two speeches. First the ambassador extolled Vikram’s many achievements in very Gallic, very (in his own word) ‘grandiose’ terms: ‘He embodies all the fields of culture.’ (Vikram, it is true, is not just a writer of poetry and prose, he is also a distinguished musician and, latterly, a sculptor.) Vikram reposted in ungrandiose, British mode, pointing out that one of the many things for which he was grateful to the French was encapsulated in the two, mutually contradictory, quotations by Voltaire with which he’d opened his vast novel, A Suitable Boy: ‘The secret of being a bore is to say everything’; and ‘The superfluous, that very necessary thing…’ What this had taught him, he said, was that it was all right to be inconsistent.
I still feel embarrassed when I remember the Christmas message I inadvertently sent to many of my friends. I’d bought several packets of an attractive charity card — without checking which good cause I was supporting. Much later, my eyes chanced to fall on the words printed on the back of a remaining card: ‘EIA. Our undercover investigations expose environmental destruction and the criminal networks that profit from it. Over the coming year we will work to secure a ban on climate changing chemicals, to stop the illegal logging of Indonesia’s rainforests and to protect the last remaining wild tigers, elephants and whales.’ Shock, horror! This threatening message sounds more like a warning from the police than a charitable appeal. Will friends who share my scepticism about climate change think that I’ve been brainwashed? Oh well, I suppose I do believe in protecting wild animals.
I attended an educational debate last week at which one of the most impressive speakers was the shadow minister for schools, Nick Gibb. He spoke forcefully in favour of teachers authoritatively passing on knowledge rather than focusing on social initiatives and ‘learning processes’. I hope he represents the true voice of Cameron’s Conservatives — he certainly made me feel much better about voting for them. Not on the Tory A-list, I think.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 27, 2010