Thirty years, almost to the day, after we greeted our first woman Prime Minister, we greet our first woman Poet Laureate. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who was careful not to press the sex point, Carol Ann Duffy describes her own appointment as ‘a historic day for women’. She says she wants 300 years of female poet laureates, to balance the past three centuries of males. She has lots of ideas about ‘the vocation of poetry’, and wants to use the laureateship to get her fellow poets into schools, preach about how homosexuality (she is a lesbian) is ‘a lovely, ordinary thing’ etc. I fear that the post may suffer from what economists call ‘producer capture’. Miss Duffy says that in her conversations with ministers and with Buckingham Palace, ‘I was told there was no expectation that I would write royal poetry.’ Why not? The Master of the Horse does not devote his time to promoting careers in horsemanship, but to the royal horses. The Lord Chamberlain does not try to persuade people that walking backwards carrying a wand at state banquets is a ‘lovely, ordinary thing’. He does it because it is his task to serve the monarch. So it should be with the laureateship. You hear it said that it is impossible to write poetry to order, and people unkindly exclaim how hard it must be to celebrate events like the marriage of the Earl of Wessex to Sophie Rhys-Jones in verse. This assertion goes against the entire history of art, which has often depended on patronage, and frequently on glorifying royal or aristocratic personages. Rubens’s magnificent ceiling in the Banqueting House, Whitehall, for example, is a vast apotheosis of James I. Milton wrote ‘Comus’ to mark the fact that the Earl of Bridgewater had become Lord President of Wales. True artists are stimulated by patronage, and do not get all huffy about producing only what they consider ‘authentic’.
Such subversion of the purpose of an old institution to suit the current office-holder is a feature of our culture. It seems to be happening at the Royal Geographical Society, which once sent Darwin to the Galapagos and Shackleton to the Antarctic. The RGS has not mounted its own expedition since 1998. A group of young rebels is forcing a special general meeting on 18 May and a ballot to try to make the society adhere to its original purpose, as expressed in its charter, and send proper expeditions once more. They argue that these enterprises produce a mass of scientific material, and engage directly, as geographers should, with actual places, people and nature. But the bosses of the RGS are people of committee meetings, not wide open spaces. The president, Sir Gordon Conway, is chief scientific adviser to the Department of International Development, and has a record as long as your arm in the world of quangos and busybody groups (he was on the committee which first launched the idea of Islamophobia in the 1990s). The director, Dr Rita Gardner, is also an adviser to the government, and is said to believe that the Fellows of the RGS should not be so named because this is offensive to women. During Dr Gardner’s time, the society has become more a trade union for academic geographers and less a body doing its own intellectual and practical work. It has set up a Space, Sexualities and Queer Working Group to promote interest in ‘geographies [that unnecessary plural is always a bad sign] on issues related to sexualities [ditto] and queer studies’. The RGS expedition advisory centre has been renamed ‘Geography Outdoors’. The bosses are trying to secure the vote, forbidding the rebels to circulate material putting their case to the Fellows, while printing their own argument against the motion on the back of the ballot paper. In normal times, one would calculate that these Blair/Brown-era operators would prevail, but, luckily, these are not normal times; and now Joanna Lumley, fresh from her triumph over the Gurkhas, has given her support to the rebels. So perhaps Sir Gordon and Dr Gardner can be thrown into the dustbin of histories.
Like Miss Lumley and everyone else, I love the Gurkhas. I first liked the sound of them, aged about seven, in The Wonder Book of Daring Deeds, which said they were ‘active little fellows’ with their kukris. But this column has not joined in the hue and cry against the government on the subject, because I have a horrible feeling that if the Gurkhas get all their demands and can come and live in the faraway country which they have served so well, they will become just as whingey and ‘rights’-oriented as the rest of us. The point about the Gurkhas, surely — and I do not mean this is a criticism — is that they are mercenaries. They are loyal, yes, but they have served the British Crown for so long because it has paid them much more money than they could otherwise have obtained in Nepal. The Gurkha example proves that mercenaries, if well organised and commanded by non-mercenaries, can be ideal soldiers. They cost less, fight well, and do not have votes and families back home. Just suppose that the Gurkhas had not previously existed, but were invented by us and the Americans to help fight the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What cries of outrage there would be. Yet it would be a rational thing to do, and in fact various security companies, some of them British, play valuable parts in both these wars, and often recruit Nepalis.
It is, indirectly, thanks to me that Rod Liddle is my fellow Spectator columnist, since I ran a successful campaign to get him sacked from his job as editor of the BBC’s Today programme. My complaint was that his public denunciations of hunting were incompatible with the impartiality of his job. On the whole, I did Rod a favour. He is a free spirit and therefore much better suited to this magazine than to the Corporation. But freelance Rod now adds to the many tales of woe I receive about how the BBC behaves. He says that it is the only institution to which he contributes which will not pay his VAT directly but insists upon ‘separate forms being a) requested by me and then b) sent out by them and c) returned by me’. These are for tiny sums — his last was for £4.58. He reckons the BBC calculates that ‘small people will not bother’. If they do bother, the forms are sent back, pointing out some very minor error. The BBC now owes Rod more than £1,000. He thinks he might join the great licence fee revolt until he gets paid.
Just over a year ago I floated, in passing, the suggestion that if only Labour made Alan Johnson its leader (thus winning the south) and Hazel Blears his deputy (securing the north) it might still be in with a chance. Until now, this disinterested and sincere suggestion has been ignored, but surely it is an idea whose time has come.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 9, 2009