We are so used to reading of malpractice in high places that I dare say our sense of outrage has become blunted. But when some devious act affects us personally, the sense is re-ignited. This is the story that shocked me — my grandmother, who died in the Sixties, had a great love of buying elaborate, expensive furniture. Her other hobby was fiddling with her will. She was thrilled to find that if she left us things deemed to be ‘of national interest’, we would be spared some inheritance tax. My sister and I are now owners of furniture we’d like to sell but punishing tax would make that pointless. Keeping it, we have to agree that constant access to the public is possible. The Inland Revenue maintains a beady eye. Regularly we get letters from them asking if the stuff is still available to be seen. We assure them it is. In 30 years, neither of us has had a single request by anyone keen to view the rather dull objects. So it was a surprise when we got a call from a student studying furniture. Could she come and see a table? I suggested she took the bus from London: cheaper than the train. She said expense was of no account. I thought this strange, but remembered that there are some rich students. She arrived in a taxi — young, smart. Within seconds she confessed she wasn’t really a student, but from the IR, ‘just checking’. Five minutes later, her lie having gained her access, she was off in the waiting taxi to report back that we hadn’t secretly sold the table and scarpered with the money. Should a body such as the IR really stoop to such deception? My anger drained me of the energy to complain: feebly, I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere. Since then there have been no honest requests to gaze upon the table.
As a keen amateur hoofer, when I heard there was tap dancing in Acorn Antiques I quickly rang to book tickets: £55 each plus, I was told with some glee, a £4 booking fee. This has become the normal penalty for those who don’t live near a theatre and must telephone. Reasonable or outrageous? I doubt the practice will change. But keen lovers of theatre seem somehow to find the money. Acorn Antiques is a sell-out.
We are currently in the uncomfortable position of trying to sell our house. Two other friends are trying, too. Naturally, we are all armed against those potential buyers whose eyes say how lovely it could all be once they’d ripped out our old stuff and done their own thing. But there are some reservations that cause surprise. One couple were put off by the bend in our drive. Well yes, we do have a drive that’s slightly longer than most Oxford drives, and it does curve gently through an archway of philadelphus. But in 27 years it’s caused no harm. We had a scatty dog for 13 years, brought up a daughter here, and now three active grandsons dash around the bend with bows and arrows. Their parents do not urge caution, or confide to us fears that something nasty could happen. I can only suppose that the drip, drip, drip of the Nanny State, so fearful of playgrounds and school outings, has trickled down to the sort of people who buy houses with drives. Perhaps estate agents should add to their advice on how best to sell your house: fill the place with the smell of baking bread and fresh coffee, and straighten your drive.
It’s hard not to agree with discussions about today’s depressingly bland school reports. The ones I’ve recently read, written by clever and inspiring teachers, sound as though they’ve been wearily plucked from some manual of political correctness: reservations are couched in euphemisms too diffuse to appreciate. I looked back to my own reports from the Fifties. I was a rotten pupil in most respects, but my failings were described in witty, lively language that made me think perhaps I should try harder. And Mademoiselle, who encouraged us to learn the grammar quickly so that we could leap on to Victor Hugo, wrote her reports in French. Can’t see that happening today. Shock horror! Who ever heard of parents able to understand French? Such a faux-pas would not be recommended in the handbook on how to write reports that won’t cause offence.
It has to be said that, despite all the sophisticated means of instant communication, we live in an era of extraordinary No Response. The old courtesy of a swift reply is dead. I know a dozen people, in various worlds, hanging on in that agonising state of Waiting to Hear. My own patience is tried by television. In the Seventies, two friendly producers (now sadly dead) one at the BBC, one at Yorkshire Television, would take me out to lunch, discuss an idea for a play, commission it, and it would be in production a couple of months later. The last time I sent a play to the BBC, to a high-up producer who was quoted saying that she was looking for new material, I received no acknowledgment, ever. Last August I sent one to Yorkshire Television. I heard from them in January. I believe scripts have to go through teams of important people these days. But it’s very despairing for those who stand and wait. To be rejected is fine: to hear nothing isn’t. A manuscript has just arrived from an aspiring author who wants my opinion. I know how she must be feeling. I’m going to try very hard and put aside The Line of Beauty and read it now.
Our 23-year-old daughter has joined the inspired Teach First scheme, whereby graduates are given six weeks’ intensive training and are then plunged into state schools of various standards to learn on the job. Her school, with a high proportion of ethnic pupils, is in Elephant and Castle. She’s thriving on the challenge. Within weeks of her starting, the enlightened headmistress asked if she would like to set up a Classics department. Latin books in hand, Eugenie went round the school recruiting. She would have been thrilled, she said, if four or five girls volunteered to join. She got 40. This surely should give pause for thought to those who believe that dumbing-down is the way to inspire a love of learning. In fact, in many ‘unlikely’ schools there are dozens of children longing to outreach their grasp if only they are given the chance. ‘We did the nominative and accusative last week,’ she said. How did that go? ‘They loved it.’