At the impressive Westminster Abbey vigil to mark the centenary of the first world war on Monday night, there was one big candle for each quarter of the Abbey, and one dignitary assigned to each candle. At different points in the service, each dignitary would extinguish his or her candle. Then the rest of us in the relevant area, all equipped with candles, would follow suit. The lamps went out, as it were, all over Europe. One thing niggled. I was in the South Transept, and our big-candle snuffer was Lady Warsi, Minister of State at the Foreign Office. I complained to friends that her prominence fell below the level of events. She was always a self-publicising minister — an Asian Edwina Currie — and she is notably sectarian. I had no idea, however, that she would resign the next day, once her little moment of history was passed, professing anger about Gaza policy. Her ill-advised appointment by David Cameron was tokenist, and so she gave no loyalty. Her resignation was tokenist too. How long before she pops up in another party?
Ever since Mr Blair’s New Dawn of 1997, the dominant idea in public policy towards public collections has been ‘access’. The doctrine is more than half-right: art, antiquities etc paid for by the public are not doing their work unless we can see them. But it has promoted the heresy that the person chosen to run every museum must be a communicator rather than a scholar. Actually, both is best. True, some learned persons are interested only in objects and cannot communicate with the human race, but the best evangelisers for a museum or gallery are the people who really know its contents. The best-known current example is Neil Macgregor, at the British Museum. So it has been a great frustration that the most knowledgeable and eloquent art historian of my generation, David Ekserdjian, has not — so far — been made head of any great collection. When he has got close, as at the Ashmolean, it has been held against him that he has not run a museum already (his career has been mainly academic), trapping him in a vicious circle. As anyone who saw his Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy will understand, Ekserdjian’s eye and his gifts of persuasion in getting people to lend things are astonishing. So are his gifts of exposition. As for his knowledge, it is so prodigious that it would make a good television programme — show him a photograph of a tiny fragment of a putto’s wing in the corner of some painting and he will say at once, ‘Ah yes — Tiepolo’s Assumption in the baptistery of St Maria del whatever.’ When the distinguished Nicholas Penny steps down from the National Gallery next year, Ekserdjian ought to be the obvious candidate. Possibly our strange culture renders him unobvious, but that does not stop him being the best.
Tony Bray has died. He was Margaret Thatcher’s first, but last surviving boyfriend. I discovered him through her letters to her sister Muriel. They met at Oxford, when she was 19. I tracked him down, a retired stockbroker in Burgess Hill. Margaret, though previously denying she had had any boyfriends before Denis, had in fact been serious about Tony (she was serious about most things), which was why he dumped her when he went off, in 1945, to serve. (He, too, was only 19.) I admired the way Tony Bray was very proud of being the first man to have kissed the Iron Lady, and yet had been so discreet for so long — never telling his wife of 50 years, although he married her well after he and Margaret parted. He was touched by ‘a degree of loneliness’ in the girl from Grantham. Having dropped her, he then took up with her again a couple of years later, telling her he regretted what he had done. Once I knew his story, I had to pluck up my courage and ask Lady Thatcher. She reluctantly confirmed it. Then she said, ‘It’s no good thinking about the chances you missed.’ The matter was closed.
Photo bylines in newspapers are mysterious. Why does it help to know what the writer looks like? From the journalist’s point of view, the problem is that as the years pass, one looks worse. The natural tendency, therefore, is to hold on to the old picture for so long that the new one bears no resemblance to its predecessor. Difficulties arise — I remember this with the late Peter Jenkins, for example — about how many of the author’s chins to include. My current Telegraph photo dates from 2004, when the column began. So I have had a new one done. The result, which I have not seen, will appear shortly. If it is unrecognisable, I hereby promise that the author is the same person.
My wife and I have belatedly discovered the Air-Pot. We met it when we had the wonderful privilege of being shown round Kew Gardens after closing time last week by the learned management. The king of the trees, Tony Kirkham, took us to his nursery and showed us his seedlings. Each is in an Air-Pot. The Caledonian Tree Company fashions it out of recycled milk cartons. It is essentially a strong black plastic sheet — size to taste — with lots of holes. It wraps round, and the holes aerate the roots, growing outwards instead of circling, which means that the air prunes them. When planted out, the seedlings quickly take root without need of anchor or staking. Mr Kirkham thinks it is the best invention since the flowerpot, millennia ago. The cleverest inventions are often the simplest.
My spam-box is clogged with offers exploiting human longings — get rich, get thin, get laid. The latest promises ‘3 words that make her horny’. I have not dared find out what they are, of course, but one can speculate. I suggested to my sister that they might be ‘The Liberal Democrats’. No, she riposted, ‘They must be “Iain Duncan Smith”.’
Because I really must finish Volume II of my biography of Lady Thatcher, I am relinquishing this column until I have done so. If the kind editor still favours it, I shall return in the spring of next year.