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The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

David Cameron says that he will not come back to the House of Commons again about the question of Syria because Parliament has spoken. Obviously, having sought its opinion, he cannot now try to override it. But no one can know how the issue will now play out, and it may well be that new circumstances (major foreign interventions, for example) will change everything. Parliament cannot make foreign policy decisions in advance of facts, and therefore should not try. Foreign policy is not like legislation: it is protean. The House of Commons should support the government when it gets it right and arraign it when it gets it wrong. It should not pre-empt it. What actually happened last week was that no motion about Syria passed. There is therefore a policy vacuum. Mr Cameron has no duty to perpetuate this emptiness.

A Labour ministerial aide famously emailed that 11 September 2001 was ‘a good day to bury bad news’. The government’s defeat over Syria was a good day to bury badgers. The wandering searchlight of media attention switched from the darkling woods of Somerset and Gloucestershire to Westminster and left a handful of fanatical antis blundering around with torches in the 200 square miles affected. The cull proceeded in an orderly manner, virtually unobserved.

Many articles say what a nice man Seamus Heaney was. I believe it, and it is nice to be nice. But niceness is not necessarily the same as goodness, let alone courage. It has also been truly said that Heaney was a fine poet of place. His place was Catholic, rural Northern Ireland. In that place, there was an opportunity for courage — to condemn without equivocation, from within the same tribe, the thuggery, murder and bigotry of the Provisional IRA. I have met people who lived there who did that, men like Fr Anthony Mulvey of Strabane or Mgr Denis Faul. But nice Seamus Heaney never quite did: his work left enough word-room for the bad people to thrive. ‘I loved his whole manner,/ Sure-footed but too sly’, he wrote of a drinker in a Derry pub. That was Heaney too.


In this wonderful summer, which still hasn’t left us, I was reminded that, more than any other visual experience, I love landscape. It is not, I realise, because it offers a natural purity undefiled by humanity. It is almost the opposite: it is because it discloses a successful human relation with the natural world. (For this reason, I am not so interested in complete wildernesses.) The British Isles — so small, so varied and so long inhabited — are full of such landscape. Above Holker, beneath the Lake District, for example, we climbed to a trig point and surveyed the scene. It has everything — bays, estuaries, hills, fields, mountains, woods. Rural and, in parts, wild, though it is, all of it, apart from the Old Man of Coniston, shows signs of the collaboration of man and nature. Even the sea has been altered, with fields below its level reclaimed from it in the 19th century. In Angus and in the Lammermuirs, we shot grouse. Grouse moors look wild, and indeed the birds shot there cannot be successfully bred, in any numbers, in captivity. Yet the entire appearance of the moors depends on the extent of drainage, the burning of the heather, the human care, as do the birds themselves. Landscape is a collective work of art, rather than an individual one, and the more moving for that. Like language itself, it aggregates and expresses what people have learnt from one another and from the circumstances of their lives.

As well as shooting grouse, which, in most places are abundant this year, I shot a hare (ground game was permitted). I asked if I could take it home. The keeper was happy to be rid of it because he believes hares taint the grouse if piled with them; but a disagreement broke out among loaders, beaters and guns about whether or not the Scottish blue hare was stronger in taste (and therefore more unpleasant) than the brown hare. I still do not know the answer. But I do know that this cooperation-with-nature business (see above) is quite exhausting. In my youth I used to gut and skin rabbits quite often. This time, the keeper kindly did the former, and then we set off south, with the hare in a cold bag in the car for a day and a half. Though not corrupt, the smell was powerful and pervasive. My wife then spent a couple of days skinning, frying, stewing, wrapping in bacon, adding two bottles of wine, procuring duck liver to compensate for the hare liver which had been left behind, chopping garlic and shallots so fine that they were in what the recipe calls ‘a molecular state’. The dish consists of four ‘operations’. The eventual result is a brown, more or less undifferentiated mass. It looks like a peasant slop. Yet it is called Lièvre à la Royale, and justly so. I have never known a richer taste.

On the way up to Scotland, we broke the journey to see Auckland Castle, the great palace of the Bishop of Durham which has been rescued by Jonathan Ruffer (see his first interview on this, Spectator, 31 March 2011). I had been before and was keen to introduce it to my wife. We approached the till. ‘Senior citizens?’ called out the receptionist brightly. We are in our mid-fifties. This week, for the first time, I addressed an Oldie literary luncheon. The days are getting shorter.

On the motorway south, we passed a Jaguar with what looked like a chauffeur, and an old man — dessicated, pale, mandarin — in the passenger seat. What struck me was the number-plate, which was Belgian, but in special, important-looking writing — EURO 1852. As well as its tax privileges and colossal pensions, does the Brussels ruling class have motoring exemptions as well? I buzzed him up.

Someone interviewing me has just emailed me an ‘oral history consent form’. Is there any activity left for which a form is not required?


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