The other day, a friend told me, he had been chatting to an old friend of his who has spent his life in diplomacy and international relations. The man, who will quite soon retire, has had a successful career, but he was full of gloom. Essentially, he said, the entire system of international relations has now been working very badly for 20 years, having worked much better in the previous 50 or so. No one — particularly no one in the West — can see a way through this, but the chancelleries and ministers are reluctant to confront this sad truth, and so a pointless merry-go-round of international conferences, bodies and negotiations consumes the energies of those foolish enough to stay in the game. My friend’s friend now longs to do something which actually helps actual people. I suspect that this disillusionment is not unusual, nor unjustified. No one knows how to concert the affairs of the world today. I am just old enough to remember a similar feeling in the 1970s, but at that time the remedy — a remoralisation of the West — was possible and, indeed, was administered. Is there a remedy now? I don’t know, but one would not advise an able young person to join the Foreign Office, the European Commission or the United Nations.
Why are international sports bodies inveterately corrupt? Could part of the answer be that they have very few women on them? I am not saying that women are intrinsically better people than men, but they are less likely to be members of the mental club which instinctively lets your mates do whatever they want.
Faithful readers of this column will know that I do not have a television licence for my flat in London, because I do not have a television. As a result, I receive a couple of letters a month demanding that I prove my innocence, which I never answer because I do not see why I should. Indeed, they normally remain unopened. This week, however, I received one in a window envelope. Through the window, I could see the calendar for November and the 24th of the month circled in red. ‘We’re giving you ten days to get correctly licensed’, it said, and implied that if I did not do so it would send an ‘Enforcement Officer’ after me to start a ‘full investigation’. Such messages are wrong, and may be well be illegal. TV Licensing is not a public authority, and therefore has no power of enforcement, so Steve Latham, the enforcement manager, who sent the letter, is falsely titled. It also libels all bona fide non-television owners to whom it sends this message because it implies we are cheats. I think I shall invent an authority called something like ‘Keeping Kids Safe’, and write to Mr Latham saying that he has ten days to prove he is not a paedophile. If we do not hear from him, we shall send Tom Watson MP to break his door down.
Kingsley Amis used to say that one of the two worst phrases in the English language was ‘Shall we go straight in?’ (The other was ‘Red or white?’) Increasingly, I find myself feeling it is one of the best. Why is it considered a good thing to sit, or — much worse — stand, for a long time drinking when there is food to be had? I yearn to eat as soon as a meal is in the offing; and when I say ‘eat’, I do not mean peanuts and canapes, but actual, plentiful food, sitting down with a knife and fork at a table. Until this happens, I cannot sustain a conversation for long and will either drink too much while waiting or, attempting self-discipline, stick to water and stare austerely at my merry companions. Even the leisurely study of menus in restaurants which some people go in for is painful: I find myself calculating the number of minutes they will take to decide, add to it the number of minutes taken to prepare and deliver the food, and then realise that nothing might pass my lips for the next 40 minutes. I believe that, in Victorian society, the gong went, everyone assembled in the drawing-room for five minutes, without a drink, and went in to dine. Was it the invention of cocktails which made it all go wrong?
At my dear uncle Norman Moore’s funeral in Dorset last week, my sister read out a poem by John Clare called ‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’. Clare describes how ‘coy bumbarrels, twenty in a drove, / Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain/ And hang on little twigs and start again.’ Bumbarrels are long-tailed tits. How, as children, we would have giggled at the word; but of course the word ‘tit’ also made us gasp with delight at hearing grown-ups say something which, in other contexts, was impermissibly ‘rude’. The Observer’s Book of Birds, presumably worried by this, was always careful to refer to a tit as a ‘titmouse’, which I believe is correct, but never used in real life. In those more prudish days, huge tension entered public occasions if any naughty innuendo could be picked up from a word, as it does nowadays over anything that might be considered racist. At Norman’s funeral we sang ‘In the bleak midwinter’, including the verse with the phrase ‘a breastful of milk’. When I was a child, this was usually omitted as being risqué. I remember that once, in our village carol service, it was included: the congregation was too embarrassed to sing it and muttered and mumbled instead. Autres temps, autres moeurs.
On Monday night, I arrived in Bath to make a speech. It was raining and I didn’t know where I was going. A man who had also got off the train saw my perplexity and kindly walked with me the quarter of an hour to my destination, even though it was out of his way. As we chatted, I discovered he was the chief executive of the Nationwide, the only large building society which never demutualised. Maybe I am being unfair, but I suspect the chief executives of our big banks would not have gone to the same trouble.