Two recent experiences have shaken my confidence no end. The first was to be told by my favourite travel tour agent that I was too old to go on a planned excursion to Istanbul because I would not be up to the hilly walking involved. As it happens, my walking muscles are still relatively unimpaired by old age. Every day I take the dogs for at least a mile and a half walk. (Not level ground). But if the agent, a most knowledgeable man, thought I might be a liability, it did not seem prudent to argue. Next came a much more worrying experience, involving loss of memory. I was being interviewed for a TV programme on the monarchy — something which over the years has quite often happened before — but when asked, ‘Tell me, Sir P., why are you a monarchist?, to my surprise and horror, I could not remember the answer. My mind went blank, and the interview ended before it had begun. Nor was this only a temporary lapse, because later I tried to regain confidence by asking myself why I believe in God — another great question for which I thought I had a long rehearsed answer — with equally negative results. It is all a bit like returning to childhood again, when one simply assumes automatically that such big subjects are beyond one’s comprehension.
So far there has been only one compensation for this worse than worrying development, and that is that I have also forgotten why I hate my old enemies. I smiled at one of them at the Garrick Club the other day. Unfortunately it was immediately evident that he had not forgotten why he hated me! My old loves, too, are getting a bit blurred. For example, in the old days I loved reading Taki; now, however, I can’t remember why.
Truth to tell, mental confusion reigns, with other strange results. In the London Library the other day I noticed a pacifist shelf, which I must have passed a thousand times before without registering any interest. (As a veteran Cold War warrior I would have probably passed by, at best, with a sneer). This time, however, I took out a volume and its pacifist conclusions seemed surprisingly plausible. For anybody looking at contemporary Britain without preconceptions, which is what my memory loss forces me to do, cannot fail to see something shocking: that in its present condition — in which the death of a single professional soldier leads the news bulletins and comes near to receiving a day of national mourning — Britain is demonstrably mentally unfit to go to war. Indeed once one forgets all the glorious past, this country, with its unity unravelling and great institutions in disintegration and disgrace, looks fit only to write itself out of history. In any case, how can a coalition of politicians determined to be ‘nice’ ever be relied upon to implement a thermonuclear defence policy which would incinerate millions? Young historians like Andrew Roberts and Professor Niall Ferguson may be able to envisage such a murderous martial future, but to those of us who only see Britain as it really is today, it is militarism not pacifism, which makes no sense.
Given my views on old age, I can’t help disapproving of the nonagenarian writer Diana Athill, who goes on so much in print and on TV — to great public applause — about how much she is enjoying hers. In my own octogenarian experience, not a month goes by without the loss of a dear friend. I dread opening the newspaper for fear of reading another obituary. In other words, advanced old age, except for those with very thick skins, is a time of mourning, disguised by day but inescapably present at night. A stiff upper lip is one thing, but Diana Athill’s broad TV smile is quite another: little better than an old person’s version of ‘I’m alright Jack’. Enoch Powell used to say that he had never been able to forgive himself for surviving the second world war, in which so many of his friends had perished. That was characteristically overdoing it a little, but even in peacetime, outliving all your contemporaries can give rise to feelings of guilt.
For a long time it looked as if most of the better educated of our citizens — the ones specifically trained up at the great public schools for public service — were the very ones barred from politics, because of the stigma of their toffdom. The arrival of Cameron, Clegg and Boris at the top of the greasy pole suggests that this mad state of affairs is coming to an end. A very English evolutionary process has been taking place. Ever since the City of London’s Big Bang, the old upper class has been breeding snobbery, pomposity and, above all, arrogance out of the system, rather as in an earlier period they had been breeding patriotism, courage and military prowess into it. And the experiment has worked. Cameron, Clegg and Boris are genuinely different — not just wearing a new egalitarian mask behind which they are still looking down their noses. Indeed a new modernised version of the English gentleman has been created just in time. Whether the trade unions have used the recent years to breed a new and less offensive leadership style won’t be clear until put to the test in the forthcoming winter of discontent — but judging by the off-putting voice and appearance on TV of the current Unite boss, this does not seem likely. Which is probably just as well.