Probably it will all be all right. Probably the Scots, rightly offered an either/or rather than a third way, will vote to stay in the Union in 2014. But there is something unhappy about the choreography of this week’s announcement of a referendum agreement. It is not clear why David Cameron had to negotiate this with Alex Salmond. Votes on the future of the United Kingdom are not a devolved matter. They should be settled by all MPs with, in this case, a decisive role for Scottish MPs. Obviously it was prudent to seek Mr Salmond’s views, but the process has contrived to make him look like the leader of his nation’s liberation struggle. When Mr Cameron was filmed shaking hands with him in Edinburgh this week he had the colonial air of an Englishman embarrassed by his country’s arduous commitments in a foreign land. Tubby little Mr Salmond, though he lacks actual power, seemed somehow in charge. This is a matter on which a Labour government, knowing more about Scotland, would make fewer unforced concessions than the Tories.
Why doesn’t anyone stand up for Jimmy Savile? For decades, thousands said how marvellous he was. I remember thinking myself rather daring for suggesting in this column just after his death that he was frightening and creepy — the BBC had been reporting reverentially that there were plans for his body to ‘lie in state’ in a Leeds hotel. There was a feeling of ‘Santo subito!’ in the air. The tabloids which now almost literally spit on his grave were fulsome in their praise, even though they knew the long-standing rumours against him. Isn’t there a single, solitary person who will maintain that Savile devoted himself to charity work for good reasons as well as bad? Is there no priest who will testify that the man was a repentant sinner, no unmolested child grateful that Jim Fixed It for him? What a dreadful warning all this is about the perils of fame: when you are up, no criticism, when you are down (and dead), no mercy.
And Sir Jimmy should keep his knighthood. Partly this is a question of evidence: it will be very hard to prove any allegation against Savile. Unless it can reach a legal standard of proof, he should have, in official terms, the benefit of the doubt. Besides, those who confer honours should not be allowed to escape from any mistakes that may subsequently become apparent. An honour is granted unconditionally. For someone dead to be stripped of it is a cowardly act, like the photographic airbrush wielded by dictators after their former cronies fall from grace. Personally, I am not in favour of disc jockeys being knighted, but if you insist on sucking up to these Pied Pipers of our age, you must take the consequences when one of them leads the kiddies off under the hill.
I am greatly enjoying Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s letters (Counting One’s Blessings, edited by William Shawcross). Here she is on politics, aged 23 and already Duchess of York: ‘I am extremely anti-Labour. They are so apart from fairies and owls and bluebells & Americans & all the things I like.’ And here, to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary, on the effect of western religion in the South Seas: ‘The natives …are very diseased and are rapidly dying out. Instead of being strong healthy cannibals with strange religions and no clothes, they are now half-hearted Roman Catholics with European clothes. It seems all wrong, but that is what happens.’ The funny thing is, she is absolutely right, on both subjects.
Kingsley Amis liked to complain about the growing tendency to pronounce English as it is spelt, even when this conflicts with existing usage. Certainly it is strange that when people are no longer taught to spell accurately they nevertheless pronounce words as if they were reading them out phonetically. Take the word ‘worry’. Until recently, virtually everyone pronounced it to rhyme with ‘hurry’. Now most people make it rhyme with ‘lorry’. It is a part of a trend to treat all uses of the letter ‘o’ in the same way. Brought up to say ‘cundit’ for ‘conduit’, I notice I now get funny looks, as if I am talking dirty. How long before our capital city is re-pronounced and becomes, in this sense, non-u?
Friends whose much-loved Norfolk terrier recently died have received the following letter from her insurer: ‘We are sorry to hear the distressing news that you no longer have Miss Muffett. At this very sad time, we would like to extend our heartfelt thoughts to you… During this difficult period, you may find some comfort in calling our free Bereavement Counselling Line. This is open 24 hours a day, and is manned by trained counsellors… If you decide to welcome a new pet into your home in the future, please do get in touch as we would be delighted to have the chance to offer you pet cover for your new companion’. After my initial snort of derision, I reflected that this offer might be genuinely helpful. I know from my own family’s experience how sad it is when you ‘no longer have’ your dog: it might be soothing to ring experts in the slow watches of the night, so long as they refrain from trying to sell you new ‘products’ in the course of the call. I wonder if the grieving beneficiaries of human life insurance get a similar letter — ‘If you decide to welcome a new spouse into your home…’
It is good news that the bad harvests this year have increased the sale of ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables. Very knobbly fruit and veg can produce more waste, but on the whole — I notice it particularly with apples — the physical defects improve the taste. If you breed for looks, character suffers. It is the vegetable equivalent of the idea that the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ is, paradoxically, the best. Village flower shows have much to answer for in demanding perfection of form. It would be in the spirit of the times to launch a horticultural Paralympics.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012