I have been forced in the past few days, because of a broken-down boiler, to spend a great deal of time ‘holding’ — as in ‘Thank you for holding; your call is important to us’ — and it occurred to me, in my frustration, that organisations that keep you endlessly waiting could at least make an effort to fill this empty time with something worthwhile. Instead of churning out Muzak, they could transmit interesting facts — lists of great British inventions, for example, or of countries that still have monarchies; or potted histories of the important battles of the 20th century, or of the great scandals of the 19th. Learn while you hold.
Rupert Murdoch was very kind to my former husband John Gross, who died earlier this year. When Murdoch heard that John was seriously ill in hospital, he repeatedly asked after him and offered to pay for any special treatment that might be necessary. Sadly John’s condition turned out to be fatal. After his death, News International insisted on paying for a large memorial service. John had been editor of the Times Literary Supplement in the 1970s and Murdoch much admired the way he had made the journal livelier and more authoritative. When John left the TLS in 1981, Murdoch asked him to be an independent director of the Times. The generosity shown by Murdoch at the time of John’s illness was entirely a matter of loyalty. He has behaved with equal kindness, I’ve been told, to other former employees. (By the way, News International is routinely referred to as the ‘Murdoch Empire’. Shouldn’t the BBC, a much more powerful organisation, be known as the BBC Empire?)
Not long ago I went to a lecture in which a distinguished academic was described, with approval, as ‘one of the greatest networkers of his generation’. This gave me a jolt. Till very recently, networking was regarded as an activity which, though of course done, was better not seen to be done. Someone who set out to meet people with a view to advancing his or her career, or social life, was more likely to be mocked than admired. If you wanted to dash from one person to another at a party in the hope of finding someone important, you would do it covertly, hoping no one would notice. All this has changed thanks to the rise of the PR industry. But what about the expression ‘social climber’? I haven’t so far heard it used as a term of praise. Yet social climbing is not very different from networking. There is certainly more emphasis in the latter on professional contacts, but the two are inextricably linked. Perhaps someone will soon be extolled as ‘the greatest social-climber of his generation’.
The speed at which you eat, it seems to me, is one of the most crucial criteria for compatibility in marriage. People may not realise this until it’s too late. My husband and I, luckily, both eat very quickly indeed. We get through a three-course meal — many people will find this barbaric — in, at most, 15 minutes. These thoughts came to me while we were having supper the other day with an old friend, an unbearably slow eater. I could not cohabit with such a person for more than a few days, however wonderful he may be in every other respect. Almost as irritating are people who spend ages in restaurants dithering over the menu. Another ground for divorce.
The phrase ‘beg the question’ is misused on an almost daily basis in one or other of our media – so much so that its correct usage has probably become extinct. On Newsnight a day or two ago, for example, one of the presenters said: ‘All this begs the question whether we should get out of the European Union altogether?’ No it doesn’t — it ‘raises’ the question. The original meaning is a much more complex concept: you beg a question when you make a statement based on an assumption which is unproven or questionable. The great English usage expert H.W. Fowler gives the example ‘Fox-hunting is not cruel because the fox enjoys the fun’. Now that the correct meaning of these three words has fallen by the wayside, it will take many more words to explain the same idea.
One of the great unsung reforms of last year was the scrapping of the infuriating bus lane on the M4, which ran all the way from Heathrow to London and which was introduced by John (two Jags) Prescott in 1999. Now, instead of sitting in a two-lane traffic standstill, gazing longingly at this empty third of the motorway, you can speed unmolested along its terracotta-coloured surface. I wish Mayor Boris had made the decision, but it was the almost equally admirable Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond.