I am in the midst of a tour promoting a book, The Political Animal. Like all journeys in this country, it is almost impossible to travel anywhere with any confidence that you will arrive within a day of your anticipated time. A trip to Norfolk, which ought to have taken three hours, lasted five. The return journey, involving jams on the M11, closure of the M25 and so on, took five and a half. Complaints about the ludicrous state of the British transport system have become so commonplace that we all just ignore them. ‘It took me two hours to get through the Dartford Tunnel.’ ‘I travelled five miles on the M6 in an hour and a half,’ they go on. The trouble (and reassurance) is that the British are a people with very low expectations in almost everything. The state of the roads is an excuse for smug people who never have to travel anywhere off the beaten track to drone on about the superiority of the railways. But what is left of the railway system serves only the major conurbations, and does so with by now predictable ineptness. I was delighted to hear a guard recently come on the public-address system to announce, ‘We are sorry for the late-running of this train. This is solely due to management incompetence.’
One does not, of course, see a truly representative cross-section of Britain on these publicity tours: sadly, we have been invited to no book fairs in Merthyr Tydfil or Accrington. But, from Norwich to Glasgow, one is struck again and again by how remarkably prosperous Britain looks. If I was Harold Macmillan, I might be tempted to say that it really did look as if most of our people had never had it so good. But something keeps troubling me. Not just the inner poverty which has accompanied external wealth, or the fact that there seems scarcely a market-town in the land where there isn’t blood spilt in the early hours of Saturday or Sunday morning. Nor is it the fact that all the high streets, whether they be in Bury St Edmunds or central Nottingham, have become almost interchangeable dystopias, dreary expanses of Sketchley’s, BonusPrints, McDonald’s and Carphone Warehouses. It’s that I can’t quite understand how it all works. I am no economist, but, looking at the vast churches of Norfolk or the great civic buildings of industrial Glasgow, one knows where the money came from. The country produced wool or ships which the rest of the world wanted to buy. Now the service industries, which we were told throughout the Thatcher years would replace the steel foundries, are transferring their operations elsewhere; my local radio station the other day was full of news that one of the biggest names in insurance was moving operations from Berkshire to India. A few years ago a man from the redevelopment agency in Sheffield told me, in all seriousness, that he believed all the lost jobs in the steel industry could be replaced by ‘the leisure sector’. My question was very simple. Where does the wealth come from to pay for enjoying leisure? It didn’t seem to trouble him at all.
The order of service for the memorial to the fine Euro MP Madron Seligman the other day ended with a quotation from Auden that I had not come across before:
We are here on earth to do good to others.
What the others are here for, I don’t know.
As Roy Jenkins reminded us, Seligman had been at Balliol, Oxford, with Edward Heath, and became his closest friend. At a family gathering many years later, Jenkins found one of the Seligmans apologising for the fact that Jennifer Jenkins had been seated next to the former prime minister, who was in one of his uncommunicative moods. He explained that she had known Heath long enough not to be perturbed by ‘Ted’s fluctuating loquaciousness’. It reminded me of Mr Heath’s opening conversational gambit a few years ago in which, out of the blue, he turned and asked me, ‘Do you know what our trade balance is with China?’ I had absolutely no idea, but made the mistake of thinking for a second. ‘No, of course you don’t,’ he snapped. This was, of course, completely true, and proved what ought to be the iron rule of conversation (and interviews): don’t – as our distinguished Culture Minister would say – bullshit.
One of the chores on Newsnight is writing a daily email explaining to subscribers what we shall be covering on that evening’s programme. I have a strong suspicion that it would be a lot less inconvenient simply to amble around to the recipients’ front doors and tell them in person. But it has the consolation of often being the most creative work of the day, requiring powers of clairvoyance at four in the afternoon for which the sainted Doris Stokes would have given her tea leaves. It does, however, give the opportunity to pass on a daily joke. On the old journalistic principle that the best way to produce a regular column is to get the readers to write it for you, I solicited jokes. On the basis of this totally unscientific study, I conclude that, by a long way, the British find sex the greatest source of comedy. It would be tempting to make a comparison with the Germans, for whom sex – as most subjects – is no laughing matter. But the old racial jokes seem to have died out, certainly among Newsnight viewers. Even the venerable ‘An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman’ variety have now been recast, so that the clod who jumps out of the plane without a parachute is usually David Beckham. The blonde joke, however, refuses to die. A (blonde) friend sent the following. A blonde woman in financial trouble decided to kidnap a child and demand a ransom. She went to a local park, grabbed a little boy, took him behind a tree and wrote a note: ‘I have kidnapped your child. Leave £10,000 in a plain brown bag behind the big oak tree in the park tomorrow at 7 a.m.’ Signed, ‘The Blonde’. She pinned the note inside the boy’s jacket and told him to go straight home. The next morning, she returned to the park to find the £10,000 in a brown bag behind the big oak tree, just as she had instructed. Inside the bag was the following note: ‘Here is your money. I cannot believe that one blonde would do this to another.’
Finally, a note to the editor. The excellent Chilterns beer, Brakspear’s, has been manufactured locally since the 18th century; the brewery is about the last remaining piece of industry in Henley-on-Thames. Now the company has succumbed to asset-strippers who are shutting down village pubs, flogging off the local cricket ground, and closing down the brewery. The beer will now be produced miles away and continue to be marketed as some ersatz ‘local’ pint. At times like this, one looks to one’s MP for leadership. His latest proposal, in the local paper, is merely that there be ‘a general blind tasting’ of the replacement for what he calls ‘the rust-coloured nectar’. Come on, Boris, get off your knees and lead us in a drink-in at the brewery.
Jeremy Paxman’s The Political Animal is published by Michael Joseph.