David Cameron gives Old Etonians a bad name. Critics deplore his Old Etonian-ness, his Lord Snooty Factor. Childish, but it’s an uncomplicated prejudice which can be freely expressed in our otherwise rigidly policed public discourse. Is there an OE who might rescue the school’s reputation? There is: Rory Stewart, 40, Tory MP for Penrith. Known in some quarters as ‘Florence of Belgravia’ because of his expertise in Arabic affairs, he is famous for walking 6,000 miles through Afghanistan in two years and for writing two bestselling books about working there and Iraq. And, says the Guardian – of all papers – he is ‘hugely appealing: self-deprecating, funny, open, curious and kind’. Stewart talks in perfect sentences, never relies on clichés and tells Decca Aitkenhead we should create, in Britain, ‘1,000 little city states, and give power right down to all the bright, energetic people everywhere who just feel superfluous.’ Being able to talk persuasively, without cant, about political solutions must be half the battle.
Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years a Slave, is described as one of the greatest movies of all time and has been nominated for seven Golden Globes. McQueen – no relation to the rugged motorcycling movie star who died in 1980 – is being lionised by broadcasters and journalists. He says Hollywood has ignored the horrors of slavery, although we had the great 1970s TV series Roots and the films Mandingo, Amistad and, more recently, Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino. McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the 1853 autobiography of New Yorker Solomon Northup, sold into bondage in the 1840s. McQueen, of Grenadian descent, says this aspect of slavery had never been tackled by movie makers. I haven’t seen the film, so I am not able to judge whether or not it says anything novel about slavery. Surely for a black movie maker, though, a truly original film might be one which tackles the little discussed complicity of West Africans in the slavery trade?
An American is alleged to have protested after his first week here: ‘Everyone talks non-stop about the weather, but no one does anything about it.’ We don’t want to be killed, drowned or maimed by floods, blizzards and tornadoes but they make TV news more interesting. Somewhere Jane Austen, writing about a great catastrophe elsewhere, says, ‘Poor people, how fortunate we do not care for them.’ I am old enough to remember the great 1953 storm, which caused enormous damage in our Moray Firth area. Water was six feet deep in houses. Furniture and assorted household items floated down the village streets. The railway station was flattened. Bad news for adults, but terrifically exciting for children, bundled up into attics, peering at the tempest through skylights. But what we have talked about since that day was a daft, grasping neighbour who, spotting a fireguard floating by, snatched it from the water. After studying its shape, and not working out what purpose it served, he nailed it to the top of his wardrobe. ‘Poor Alec is not all there,’ explained my grandmother.
Critics of the Church of England are ‘stunned’ by ‘divisive’ changes to the christening ceremony, which include the need to ‘reject the devil’, says the Mail on Sunday. Instead, parents and godparents are asked to ‘reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises’. As a lapsed Church of Scotland devotee, I have no dog in this fight, but eliminating the devil doesn’t seem to me to resolve the problem. As ever, a Scotsman long ago considered this question. The 18th-century philosopher David Hume wondered pointedly about the Almighty and Job: ‘Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?’ Too complex for the C of E, perhaps.
As a lifelong motorcyclist, I tell sceptical friends it’s like flying on the ground. Now, learning to fly, I realise it’s motorcycling in the clouds. That’s me circling the Chipping Norton area gracefully in a Cessna 152, under the tutelage of my Scots-born (naturally, I insisted on it!) instructor, Gill. Flying’s in the blood, you know. Years ago my late mother took her spinster sister to an air show at Lossiemouth. They were attracted by a gleaming, stationary helicopter and a notice saying, ‘Flights around the Firth, £10’. My impetuous mother bundled her timid, protesting sister aboard. Out of the crowd sprang a man attired as a clown, with flapping shoes, half-mast trousers and a red nose. He jumped into the pilot’s seat, slammed the door shut and switched on the engines. ‘Oh God, what’s to become of us?’ cried my terrified aunt. ‘Haud yer tongue! He knows what he’s doing!’ advised my fearless mother, no more certain than my aunt that the clown was the authorised pilot.
Peter McKay writes for the Daily Mail.