At the weekend, one of my favourite soldiers remarked sombrely that the armed forces have been sandpapered into so small a critical mass that little needs to go wrong for things to unravel disastrously. Amazingly few people notice, however. When army manpower cuts were announced, the story received brief coverage even in supposedly serious papers, and principally in the context of sentiment about cap badges. The services now lack a political or media constituency, such as once raised hell when governments maltreated them. The new indifference suits ministers. General Sir Mike Jackson is the only chief of staff who is known to the public and reaches out to the media. His colleagues are more reticent. The last defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, decreed that senior officers should have no contact with journalists save under political supervision, and replaced uniformed service public relations officers with creatures of his own. Excepting Jackson, the chiefs emerge from their boxes only on terms that Peter Inge or Charles Guthrie would have rejected with contempt. The current Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, has chosen to survive his tenure by making himself invisible. I am told that one day when Walker’s appointed successor, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, lunched privately with the defence correspondents group, they were startled to see him arrive with a minder who placed a tape recorder on the table. I once invited Stirrup to lunch. He responded that he would be happy to accept, but our meeting must be on the record, with a civil servant present. I wrote back declining these terms, and suggested that it was humiliating for an officer of Stirrup’s seniority to allow himself to be exercised on a choke lead by ministers. To mix metaphors, if the chiefs accept purdah, they cannot be surprised that they lack clout. When service morale is low and recruitment languishing, they need to be out there articulating a vision for defence which a new generation can understand. We should hope for better things under the new Secretary of State, John Reid.
Mentioning lunches makes me think of Michael Howard, whose protracted exit makes Japanese methods seem humane. Some time before the election, he invited me for what John Major used to call a ‘meal’. This was a surprise, as we had a pretty sulphurous relationship during his years as a minister. Reporting to Howard’s office at the Commons, I beheld on the table a bowl of salad and two bottles, containing still and fizzy water respectively. It dawned that this was all we were going to get, reminding me of Bertie Wooster’s suggestion to his Aunt Agatha that Sir Roderick Glossop might be suitably entertained with a glass of water and a dog biscuit. Afterwards, en route to Brooks’s for a reviver, I mused. There had been no reason for Michael to feel obliged to entertain me. If he was going to do so at all, however, he could have pushed out the boat as far as a glass of parliamentary Rioja without compromising his commitment to fiscal stringency.
Shops have abandoned salesmanship. I visited several recently, looking for a digital camera. It proved impossible to find an assistant willing and able to explain the products he was selling — quite expensive ones. Eventually I took pot luck at a warehouse. This is commonplace. The average shop assistant is apathetic, ignorant or downright rude. The consequence is that customers shrug their shoulders and hunt discounts online.
My neighbour at a country party, an ardent female fox-hunter, described how two well-known MFHs argued at dinner about which of them possessed larger private parts, sprang from the table and disappeared upstairs to settle the issue. Only in the Shires could such an episode take place, and only a fox-hunter would think it deserved enthusiastic re-broadcast. With the banning of the sport, one of England’s most exotic minority cultures will atrophy. Critics would say a story like this shows its irredeemable boorishness, not much diminished since the days of Squire Western. True, but we shall be a drearier society without it.
I waged a campaign at the Daily Telegraph, and more recently in this Diary, which I am losing. Its purpose is to fight fatuous use of the definite article. Almost everyone mentioned in print is nowadays dignified as ‘the photographer Joe Soap’, even if he takes wedding snaps in Grantham, or ‘the novelist Jean Soap’, when she has published only an unreadable tale of incest in Ealing. Why not just ‘novelist Jean Soap’, ‘photographer Joe Soap’? Gossip columnists have always overpromoted their subjects to make stories about them sound more significant. Now, almost every writer does this. Describing your local electrician as ‘the technology consultant Johnny Soap’ massages Johnny’s ego, but is poor journalism.
The National Theatre has become a national miracle. Richard Eyre did many wonderful things as its director, but Nicholas Hytner seems unable to put on anything less than a triumph. We saw both parts of Henry IV in an afternoon and evening, and came home overwhelmed. Last week I glimpsed John Wood, a theatrical treasure, on a street in Rheims, where my children and I were road-testing champagne-makers. I wanted to tell him to get straight back where he belongs, playing Shallow beside the Thames.
On our champagne tour, I was intrigued to hear that while everybody is drinking the stuff, among the big names only Dom Perignon is earning really good profits. World over-supply and supermarket discounting make all but the very best wine ridiculously cheap. At home, we drink Entre Deux Mers from Tesco in Calais for less than £2 a bottle, and like it.
Lawrence Freedman’s monumental official history of the Falklands War, published this week, reminds me how hugely I enjoyed the experience — and I would never have become editor of the Daily Telegraph without the notoriety it conferred. I know it is wicked to suggest that wars can be fun, but gosh, that one was. To my lasting regret, I was born too late to ascend the Nile with Kitchener. Going to the South Atlantic, by proxy at least with Thatcher, was the next best thing.
The Health and Safety Executive, one of the most pernicious bodies in Britain, is getting its claws into the countryside. For their own legal protection, shoot bosses now feel obliged to recite to guns at the start of a day a catechism of the obvious. This includes injunctions to sit down when travelling on trailers, and to unload guns between drives. Everything in life is about proportionality. Health and Safety lacks this, yet no one seems able to check its march to despotism.
We put down our 14-year-old Labrador Paddy last week. Between sobs, my wife said, ‘I think he’s ready for a good rest.’ This seemed the nicest thing one could say about death in old age, and often applies to people as well.