What is it that people do not understand about the concept of retirement for politicians? Those who think I should not have participated in Strictly Come Dancing seem to believe I am doing a job called ‘ex-politician’. I have no idea what it involves. I have left the House of Commons and have not been invited to join the House of Lords, which must surely leave me free to do anything I like as long as it is legal. Only popes and monarchs stay in post until they die.
Actually, there are strong similarities between a dance competition and life in the Westminster village: smart manoeuvres, about-turns, fancy footwork, audience appeal and outlasting the competition. One is dull and the other is glamorous but in each it is the style which determines the outcome. Anyway, I knew I was ready for retirement when I began to prefer the countryside to the metropolis and Countdown to Question Time. I wanted to travel so six months in Luvvie Land is a good start.
A few days ago, I led two donkeys, one bedecked in tinsel and the other in a Santa hat, along a street in Newton Abbot. The exercise was taken in good part by the residents who have for more than two months looked on in quiet bemusement as the paparazzi have invaded the small town where my dance partner Anton and I rehearse. This time I was promoting a charity which I hold very dear: the Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land. It was formed by an English air hostess who couldn’t bear the ill treatment and neglect and now it houses scores of grateful ungulates. My favourite tale is of the two Palestinian boys who found an abandoned donkey too ill to walk. They knew of the shelter but had no means of getting the animal there so they approached, of all people, an Israeli soldier, who in turn summoned assistance, and off the beast went in an army truck to be nursed back to health before enjoying a life of idle munching. Sometimes folk call me eccentric to worry about far-off donkeys, but after a story as powerful as that one I think I am not such an ass.
The snow lies round about us but it is not deep and crisp and even. It is slushy and frozen and doubtless the NHS is now being overwhelmed with broken bones. On Dartmoor, where I live when I am not prancing the paso doble in Shepherd’s Bush, it is beautiful, coating the moors with white, throwing the dark, roaming cattle into relief. Unfortunately too many of those who live in towns come out on to the moors as soon as the snow falls to appreciate the scenery which we natives can see from our front windows. They come ill equipped and often leave their cars behind them when they go. Last year the road was full of dented cars and smashed toboggans. I reflect that once, not so long ago, tourism to me meant Americans gazing with reverence at Big Ben.
The coalition has been in power for not much more than half a year but it feels as if it has been a lot longer. Gordon Brown has pretty well disappeared. A ruined economy, plundered pension schemes and job insecurity make up his legacy, but on the few occasions he has been seen there is no hint of apology. Instead Lord Young apologises for stating the blooming obvious when he observed that most Britons are doing well out of lower mortgage rates and Howard Flight apologises for remarking that our crazy system encourages the feckless to have more children. We live in a country in which even the politicians dare not speak truth, and yet it is a time when courage is needed. Where are today’s Wilberforces or Churchills or Thatchers, who will utter unpalatable realities with conviction?
As Christmas approaches, my mantelpiece is full of images which no longer bear much relation to the reality of 21st-century life. Christmas cards portray roaring fires, families feasting and, of course, nativity scenes. The reality is the radiator, split families, and a minority of the population in church on Christmas morning. I believe those scenes on cards endure for more than reasons of tradition or sentimentality: they remind us of what we have lost. If you took away the fire, the family and the manger and put in their place a pile of goods from Toys ‘R’ Us, with a television playing in the background and a can of lager on the arm of a chair, people would recognise what is rather than what they would wish. So are the nation’s mantelpieces festooned with escapism? Possibly, but at least the place to which so many aspire is achievable not with a change of location but merely of attitude. Merry Christmas!