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The Spectator's Notes

Meryl Streep should watch her words on disrespecting the afflicted

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: my meeting with the police about electoral fraud

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

14 January 2017

9:00 AM

At the Golden Globes ceremony, Meryl Streep attacked Donald Trump because he ‘imitated a disabled reporter’. ‘When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose,’ she added. It has not been explained over here that hers is a disputed version of what happened. The controversy began in November 2015, when Trump, campaigning, alleged that ‘thousands and thousands’ of Muslims in Jersey City had publicly celebrated the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001. The allegation caused outrage, and it seems that Trump’s idea of numbers was wildly exaggerated. However Trump’s people did produce evidence that such a celebration had taken place. One piece was a contemporary report in the Washington Post by Serge Kovaleski. Fourteen years later, Kovaleski attacked Trump but, when challenged, said he could not remember the details of the story. At a rally, Trump mocked Kovaleski for this excuse and made gestures which, critics alleged, aped Kovaleski’s withered hand. Trump supporters, however, point out that the gestures were almost exactly the same as those he used when he publicly mocked Ted Cruz and (separately) an American general, neither of whom is disabled. He was mimicking weaselly excuses, not disability. If one can judge by the clips, the pro-Trump case looks quite strong. In any event, Meryl Streep should be careful when she speaks about disrespect for the afflicted. The makers of the film The Iron Lady, in which Ms Streep starred, produced a box-office hit about the senility of Margaret Thatcher, while Lady Thatcher was still alive. No Thatcher family or office permission was sought. Many thought the portrayal was intrusive. Meryl Streep won an Oscar for it, so she did very well out of imitating a vulnerable person in public. Her defence would probably be her favourite word — empathy. But this ‘empathy’ was imposed upon Lady Thatcher without regard for how she, or those close to her, might feel.

Kind readers sometimes ask what has happened to the case against me for electoral fraud. In these Notes on 20 August, I revealed that I had drawn attention in the EU referendum to the ease with which one could vote twice. Legitimately registered to vote in Sussex and in London, I had voted Leave in Sussex, and then gone to London, collected my ballot paper unchallenged, and spoilt it by writing on it that it was ‘my protest at how lax the voting rules are’. The Electoral Commission then publicly announced that it was referring my case to the police. Just before Christmas, I was dismayed to receive a letter from the Met’s Special Inquiry Team of Homicide and Major Crime Command. Last week, I met an officer in a London hotel. The very polite woman detective constable, accompanied by a male colleague, did not mention homicide. She explained to me that although I had not voted on my second ballot, and therefore had not done anything which could have affected the result, I had, under the law’s definition, cast two votes. After consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, however, they had accepted that, given my action was intended to be in the public interest, my criminal prosecution would not be. After what the officer herself called ‘a bit of finger-waving’, the matter was closed. I was sorry she had been dragged in, and felt a slight resentment against the Electoral Commission for this. After all, you could say I was doing its work for it. I am pleased to see that people are at last realising, about 25 years after it became a serious problem, that voting rules need tightening. In the post-Leveson environment, it is widely believed that whenever journalists meet police officers they offer them bribes, so I should record that all I did at the meeting was propose a cup of coffee, which was refused.


If someone has an interesting life, was much loved and dies young, friends naturally want a book about the person lost. But a normal biography rarely works in such cases: there aren’t, say, enough public achievements, or there isn’t an overarching narrative. On the other hand, a book of tributes, however well-meant, can be wearisome. These problems must have presented themselves with the life of Juliet Peck, who died ten years ago, aged 45, killed by the cancer that caused her to wear a dashing eye-patch. She was a beautiful woman, and led a bold life, helping Afghan refugees in Peshawar in the era of Soviet occupation. Both her husbands were photographers/journalists, and both were shot dead, the first in mysterious circumstances because of the suspicion that he was working for the Americans, the second in crossfire during the abortive coup in Russia in 1993. She had one child by each. Juliet was an accomplished and fearless horsewoman, whether on the North-West Frontier or with the York and Ainsty South. She was also a clergyman’s daughter who read the Bible every night. A new book, Juliet (Sickle Moon Books), edited by Georgiana Campbell, draws together the witnesses to every part of her life. They piece together in short individual accounts a story which would not be half so vivid if merged into one. The effect on the reader — on this one at least — is to make him long to have known her, but also to feel that now he does.

There is debate in these pages about what a snob is, and how the word is derived. The first is territory which cannot be entered without implicating oneself: see Bryan Appleyard’s snobbish attack, in an otherwise thoughtful and temperate piece [31 December], on those who wear ‘creepy black velvet slippers at dinner’; so I shall avoid it. The derivation is mysterious. Appleyard endorses Alain de Botton’s claim that the word comes from the 19th-century Oxbridge abbreviation of ‘sine nobilitate’ — ‘s.nob’. This sounds too pleasingly fanciful to be true, like the claim that ‘marmalade’ was a corruption of maids crying out ‘Marie malade’ as they brought orange jam to Mary, Queen of Scots on her sickbed. Once upon a time, the word ‘snob’ meant a cobbler. I even came across this usage — in the mouth of an old villager in the 1980s. But does anyone know the link between cobblers and the class-related word?


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