The avalanche of words on last week’s Adair pensions report seemed to miss one significant point. Retirement is likely to be delayed to 67 or even later. Yet there is no realistic possibility that most people can sustain, at such an age, the jobs they held at 47 or 57. Even in an era when we are bursting with expensive health, few workers performing functions that require physical exertion or creative imagination can meet such demands late into their seventh decade. Commercial life will become moribund, if senior executives are given a right to stay at the helm into their late sixties, keeping big salaries and perks, even if exceptional individuals can justify them. Approaching 60, I know that I am already past a sensible age to edit a big newspaper, even if someone were rash enough to want me to. We need to start getting used to the idea that, in our last years before formal retirement, most of us will have to do humbler jobs than we have been used to, for more modest rewards. The rows about persuading people to accept this notion will be at least as fierce as those about a higher pensionable age.
We saw a delightful Manon at the Royal Opera House last week. One of my earlier appearances in the ROH audience caused Frank Johnson to exclaim with mingled disbelief and derision, ‘Why, if it isn’t that well-known balletomane, Max Hastings!’ Condescension will get him nowhere, the creature. Ballet meant nothing to me, like many men, until I was 45, but now delights. It is a just criticism of journalists that we write eagerly about institutions when they are struggling, and not at all when they prosper. A decade or two ago the ROH was seldom out of the news, as it staggered from one crisis to the next. Today we read little about the place, because it is going amazingly well. I have tormented the ROH’s director, Tony Hall, in this column about the ridiculous sign-language-interpreted opera performances for the deaf. But in almost all respects Hall has been a terrific success.
Researching a book in China last month, I spent many hours on night sleeper trains. In a country where only four-berth compartments are available, and always full, one gets to know lots of people quickly and intimately. My interpreter told me that our companions were nice enough to laugh at my snoring, when less good-natured companions might have snarled. One charming young couple hastened to tell us that they were lovers. So eager about each other did they appear that I was alarmed by the prospective embarrassment if they became determined to prove it. The night passed, however, with only a lot of hand-holding.
Part of the fascination of authorship and journalism is that, as a middle-class Westerner, one often finds oneself in the homes of people whom one could not conceivably meet in any other role. In China I was interviewing very old men and women, often in flats and houses of the humblest kind, about their lives in the second world war. One Saturday I was in a tiny hamlet in Manchuria (though never so called in modern China, it is always simply ‘the north-east’). We sat in an icy cold, two-room wooden house hearing about arranged marriages, the bloody doings of the Japanese, and the sensation of spending one’s youth living largely off wild fungi. I reflected on the serendipity of knowing that, the following weekend, I was due to stay in a large Norfolk country house bursting with butlers, keepers and pheasants. Yet the odd thing is that those Chinese peasants — for peasants they still are — would not have been in the least surprised by the Norfolk milieu. Now that television is universal they have seen it all, in innumerable imported costume dramas.
Shooting has been a big thing in my life. For years I have enjoyed writing about days with dogs and guns on moors and downlands. Come to that, I have just published a new book about it, Country Fair, as a rural stocking-filler. I was never a good shot, partly because I have always been poorly co-ordinated. Now, for reasons I cannot explain, my shooting has deteriorated to the point of embarrassment. I have been wondering whether to give up. My wife said in dismay, ‘What on earth would you do on winter Saturdays?’ I would terrifically miss the social bit, and working my dog. The trouble with possessing a certain notoriety, however, is that people notice when one misses almost everything. I once lamented to a friend the sense of humiliation after standing in the next butt to one of the best grouse shots in Britain. ‘Just be grateful if you can do one thing in life, Max,’ my friend said. ‘Which would you rather? Write books that sell, or shoot straight? I’ll tell you which pays better.’
Tip for a sure-fire Christmas present: a personalised Monopoly set, which my children gave me last year. Dial up My Monopoly on the internet, and you can rewrite the board on screen with somebody’s favourite houses, restaurants, resorts, clubs, dogs. A fortnight later, the whole thing appears through the post with cards as well as board appropriately printed up. It adds a delightful dimension to family games.
I am in Tokyo this week, nursing memories of that marvellous movie Lost in Translation, which captures the misery of everyone ever trapped in a Japanese hotel. These days it takes me about a fortnight to get over jet lag after flying halfway round the world. During recent Asian travels I have sat up half the night addressing big books I have been meaning to read since university. I did Thomas Mann and Ford Madox Ford in China. More Mann and a third circuit of Proust are solacing Japan. Though I like to think I have read lots of English novels, like many British people I have read shamefully few European ones. Buddenbrooks seems less fun than The Forsyte Saga, but it is never too late to get an education.
David Cameron took over his Witney constituency from the Tory renegade, Shaun Woodward, whose only discernible merit is to be married to an enormously rich Sainsbury. We should have guessed that the new MP would prosper when he made a notably witty Commons maiden speech, after Woodward slunk off to embrace champagne socialism. Cameron declared that he would say nothing disobliging about his constituency predecessor, since Woodward was one of the largest employers of domestic labour in the Witney area.