We are not allowed to know any details about the Muslim woman, charged with intimidating a witness, who has been ordered to take off her full-face veil to give evidence in court. But when it is all over, it will not be surprising if she turns out to be a convert. All mainstream religions have some sort of teaching about what to wear. Within living memory, for example, it was all but compulsory for women to have their heads covered in church. But general teachings in favour of modesty have different cultural applications, and it is usually false to claim that a religion absolutely insists upon a particular garment. What happens is that zealots, often manipulating ignorant converts, decide to make dress into a shibboleth. Teachers in schools with substantial Muslim populations will tell you that the people most opposed to the niqab are those Muslim parents who interpret their religion more liberally. If the public authorities give in to the dress demands, they make the moderates the prisoners of the fanatics. It is as bogus as if Christian revivalists demanded that all the faithful abstain from meat during Lent. What school would listen to that?
Almost the only remaining dress rule in Christianity is that a man should not wear a hat in church. A couple of years ago, I was in Westminster Cathedral when I spotted a Muslim couple walking around. She was in a veil; he wore a hat. I was pleased to see them there, and so I wondered whether to do nothing, but then I decided that I would not thank a Muslim so polite that he let me cause offence in a mosque by staying shod, and so I approached the couple. ‘You are very welcome here,’ I said, ‘but I wonder if the gentleman would mind taking off his hat. It is our rule, like removing shoes in a mosque.’ He was a big, unsmiling fellow, and for a moment he glared silently at me, but then he seemed to relent, and removed his black brimless hat. ‘This church,’ he asked me courteously, ‘is it the same as that big one with a dome in the City?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Well, not exactly.’ And then I had to try to explain the English Reformation in a couple of sentences, which is even more difficult than the Sunni-Shia split.
Last week, in thanks for my making yet another speech about Mrs Thatcher, my kind hosts presented me with a bottle of Château Léoville Poyferré 1995. It will be delicious. But what caught my eye was not the wine, but the smart wooden box in which it was encased. On the side of the box appeared the words ‘Lehman Brothers’. Five years to the week after that bank’s world-shaking collapse, I was being given a piece of history. I presume that, in the bad old days, boxed clarets were handed out to clients as if there were no tomorrow; suddenly, in September 2008, there wasn’t. I badly want to drink the wine, but perhaps I should keep the whole package as capitalism’s memento mori.
Larry Summers has withdrawn his name from the race to become the next chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Part of the reason may be his role, as Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary, in creating the ‘Great Moderation’, which ended, with the fall of Lehman’s, in a great crash. Another is the fact that he once told the people of Harvard, of which he was then president, that women were less good at maths and science than men. As he put it, ‘there is a different availability of aptitude at the high end’. His theory may now be tested, since the next Fed chairman may well be the present vice-chairman, Janet Yellen. Being extremely bad at maths and science, and also a man, I have never felt able to judge whether Mr Summers was right or not, but his case is an interesting one. You often hear how ‘brave’ someone is being for admitting to being trans-sexual or bipolar or addicted or for challenging racism, homophobia etc; and there will be occasions when such things do require courage. But what requires real courage in modern western society is publicly to assert certain traditional points of view. It would now be suicidally brave, for example, for anyone aspiring to lead any of our three main political parties to say ‘I believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman’. Unless he is merely very insensitive, Mr Summers was being brave when he delivered his views on ‘high-end’ women scientists. But he got no credit for it, and his career has never quite recovered.;
During researches on something else, I came across the following in a speech from 1986: ‘The globe on which we live is like a petroleum-sodden sponge: give it a poke almost anywhere, and oil and gas will spurt out.’ That was Enoch Powell, at a time when British markets were panicking at a fall in oil prices. ‘’e was right, that Enoch, wasn’t ’e?’ as taxi drivers used to say, referring to something else he said.
I shall not read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, just published. It is all that he left of the third volume of his famed account of his pre-war walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. No doubt it is well edited and interesting, but it is fragmentary, and therefore imperfect, and the thing about the first two volumes is that they are perfect (by which I do not mean perfectly true). The old saying that the journey, not the arrival matters, applies just as much to the prose as to the way travelled.
Last week, my poor wife went down with what may well have been the winter vomiting bug, and we debated how to prevent the infection spreading. ‘Lick brass door-handles’ was my mother’s contribution. I told her that her wits were wandering, but it turns out that there is quite a lot of scientific study suggesting that brass (and copper) does indeed have this effect, whereas plastic and stainless steel are the superbugs’ friends. I immediately licked our brass door-handle, and have neither gone down with the virus nor passed it on. QED?