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The Spectator's Notes

What Vladimir Putin said to the Eton boys

Also in the Spectator’s Notes: James Fairfax remembered, affirmative action in Twelfth Night, and the language of psalms

18 February 2017

9:00 AM

18 February 2017

9:00 AM

How does Vladimir Putin think about the world? It becomes dangerously important to know. I still have not seen a revealing speech by or discussion with him. I have found out a bit more, however, about the two-hour private interview conducted with him by several young Etonians last summer. One reason they got into the room, it seems, is that Mr Putin wanted to know about Eton and why it produced 19 prime ministers. The boys explained that one of the school’s great advantages was its societies — Political, Literary, Cheese etc. — largely organised by them, not by masters. They said these brought them into contact with a wide range of visiting speakers, broadening their minds. It is interesting that Mr Putin did not understand what ‘societies’ were, and had to have them re-explained. In Russia, perhaps, there is no such thing as societies. The President was asked about leadership. He replied that when he worked in Soviet intelligence he had been advised that he should never take out his gun unless he intended to use it. If he merely threatened to use it, his adversary would snatch it and hit him on the head. Sensible advice about the need for a leader to mean what he says, but a chilling metaphor all the same.

The boys’ meeting was arranged by Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, who is sort of confessor to Mr Putin. The bishop delivered the Lyttelton lecture at Eton, and the boys met him there. He is interested in how a Christian foundation can be an enduring worldly success. In this changed world we are living in, the best channels to political leaders do not come through ordinary politics. There are similarities between Bishop Tikhon and Mr Trump’s Steve Bannon, though I hope neither is pleased by the comparison.


James Fairfax, who died last month, was so modest that few know he was The Spectator’s proprietor. In 1985, his family’s Australian newspaper company, John Fairfax and Sons, of which he was chairman, bought the paper off Algy Cluff. For the first time, The Spectator became part of a media publishing group, and this greatly assisted its editorial and commercial success. James came to our offices only once. I gave a lunch in his honour and invited Willie Whitelaw, then the deputy prime minister, and various journalistic luminaries. I remember it as a slightly embarrassing occasion because one of the guests, apropos of nothing much, suddenly exploded with the opinion that homosexuals ‘though they often seem perfectly normal, suddenly EXPLODE’. James was what was then known as a ‘confirmed bachelor’, but he failed to live up to the proffered caricature, and remained perfectly composed. His benign interest in The Spectator continued unaffected. In 1987, however, James’s half-brother, young Warwick Fairfax, took control from the rest of the family in a leveraged buyout. I could tell the tone of the ownership had changed when I was visited in our offices by Warwick’s mother (James’s stepmother) Mary, Lady Fairfax. The first thing she said was, ‘They say I married my late husband for his money, but that’s not true: I’m a very wealthy woman in my own right.’ Shortly afterwards, Warwick’s buyout collapsed, and the paper was bought by the Telegraph Group. James Fairfax was a quiet friend to The Spectator.

Twelfth Night launched at the National Theatre this week, with Malvolio turned into Malvolia. ‘We’ve definitely upped the gender-bendedness of the play,’ says Phoebe Fox, who is acting Olivia. Otiose, one might think, since the original is gender-bent to perfection. But Shakespeare did not have to wrestle with the strict controls now demanded in the subsidised theatre. In the same feature in which Phoebe Fox speaks, Ben Power, the deputy director of the National, tells the Sunday Times, ‘There are agendas we are aware of now, and we have targets in terms of gender and ethnicity, because we want to be as diverse as possible, speaking to our audiences, reflecting the nation to them.’ Mr Power seems to be saying that more women and more non-white people must be crammed into the National’s productions, regardless of what sex or colour was allotted to a character by the silly old playwright. Being ‘diverse’ means that everything must be the same. Tamsin Greig, who acts Malvolia, explains that staging a classic play is like working out what you should say at a dinner party: ‘Is it of value for these words to be spoken now, at this time of the evening, with these people listening?’ She is right that the moment and the audience matter. But the National’s approach neglects the fact that the play itself has a content not defined by the audience, or the actors, or the present. Much of a classic play’s impact lies in the way it is different from the way we live now. Thus it expands our minds: ‘In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise,’ W.H. Auden exhorted poets. No doubt Auden’s lines are now blacklisted, for gender reasons.

Comparable thoughts occurred to me in the chapel of Lambeth Palace last week. We were gathered for a special Book of Common Prayer evensong to say goodbye to Richard Chartres, Bishop of London for the past 22 years. Canterbury Cathedral choir were singing the famous Psalm 42, ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.’ The psalm builds up a composite picture of disquiet, grief and fear. Verse 9 says ‘One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes: all thy waves and storms are gone over me.’ Obviously, these lines, though inspiring awe, are also unintentionally comic, thanks to the word ‘water-pipes’. Later, I looked up the modern version of the psalm, in Common Worship: ‘Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls: All your breakers and waves have gone over me.’ I do not know which does greater justice to the original Hebrew, but the Prayer Book (essentially Coverdale) stretches the imagination more, partly because its use of language is unlike our own. If we really cared about diversity, we would honour the difference between past and present, not erode it.

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