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The Spectator's Notes

Activists mustn’t be allowed to dictate the terms of the Grenfell inquiry

Also: Macron's mesmerising Frenchness; Jean Vanier visits the Queen; cold callers

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

8 July 2017

9:00 AM

Having worked flat-out to defend judges over the Article 50 case in the Supreme Court, the BBC has gone the other way, in relation to the judiciary, over Grenfell Tower. Its news coverage is working hard to displace the retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick from his appointment to chair the inquiry into the fire. Groups purporting to speak for the Grenfell victims are given airtime to denounce him. The idea is that they and their activist lawyers are entitled to a veto on who runs any inquiry, thus attaining effective control of what it decides. Something similar led to the hopeless, expensive collapse of chairman after chairman in Theresa May’s misguided independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. This is not in the public interest. There is no point in an inquiry if its outcome is predetermined. As I write, the government is defending Sir Martin. So I wouldn’t be surprised, given its current weakness, if he is out by the time you read this.

President Macron’s speech on Monday to the combined houses of parliament in the Palace of Versailles proved how stunningly different are the French from the British. Imagine our head of state promising to cut the size of parliament by a third. Imagine her, or even her prime minister, promising to renew the nation with ‘the spirit of conquest’, as M. Macron did. We are often accused of nostalgia for empire, but we would never say such a thing, or even think it. Imagine the ribaldry which would descend upon M. Macron’s equivalent — if our constitution could have such a phenomenon — for striding though the marble halls past a guard of honour holding their swords erect, and then dumping more than an hour of grandiloquence upon the assembly. I laughed out loud. The occasion’s pride perhaps presaged, I couldn’t help wondering, some mighty fall, as did Louis XVI’s gathering of the Estates-General in Versailles in 1789. Yet one would not have wanted it otherwise, because its Frenchness was mesmerising. Although M. Macron is pint-sized, his preposterous, magnificent performance reminded me of watching lofty de Gaulle on television when I was a boy. Pure theatre, which the republic surely needs.


Summer in the Forest is a powerful new film about the work of Jean Vanier, whom Mary Wakefield interviewed in last week’s paper. For half a century, Vanier has devoted his life to the radical proposition that love begins when power is abandoned. Since the mid-1960s, he has lived with mentally handicapped people in Trosly (in the forest of Compiègne), on an equality with them. Now his L’Arche movement has 146 branches in 35 countries. The film gets him and his companions talking. One of them, an old man called Michel, was born normal but severely damaged by an injection when a baby. He remembers the bombing of his native Amiens during the war, and he has a horror of violence. In the film, he walks through the forest to pay his respects at the monument to the Jewish deportees on the last train to Buchenwald, which passed that way. As he returns to the car along the railway tracks, Michel’s mood lightens and he says to his young companion: ‘You are nice — like the Queen of England.’ Aged 13, in 1942, Jean Vanier insisted on leaving Canada to go to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth so that he could join the Navy. In 1947, he was a junior officer escorting Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret on HMS Vanguard to and from South Africa — the famous trip when the princess made her 21st-birthday vow to the country and Commonwealth (‘the whole of my life, whether it be long or short…’). Last week, 70 years later, Vanier accepted the Queen’s invitation to meet her at Buckingham Palace, and brought with him two Trosly companions — one of whom, Celine, is a young woman the nature of whose starring role in the film I shall not reveal. It must have been more than nice.

The film, by the way, was really called The Idiots, but this was too much for the American distributors — hence the bland, though not inaccurate, title chosen. The original name gets closer to Vanier’s challenging message, which is, as he puts it, about achieving ‘freedom and foolishness’.

Is that Mr Moore?’ said a male voice on the phone. I warily asked who was speaking. The voice did not say, but asked whether I had heard about the current crime wave in our village, which it named. Since there have been recent reports locally of a gang attempting to bundle people’s dogs into a white van, I almost said, ‘Oh yes.’ Luckily, I just had the wit to say, ‘Are you trying to sell me something?’ The voice said it wasn’t, but was I interested in ‘mobile security’? I asked if this was a commercial call. The voice finally admitted it was. I put the phone down. There is something peculiarly creepy about cold calls which try to sell something by frightening people.

The English summer can be justified: our temperate weather occasionally throws up the perfect day. So it was when we attended the opera at Grange Park in Hampshire on Sunday. The air was fresh, but still and without any edge of cold. The sun shone upon the lovely, long lake until gradually, courteously replaced by the moon. We were only a few miles from Basingstoke, but felt in Arcadia. We ate outdoors. The neoclassical house is a sort of semi-ruin, so that the singers’ dressing-rooms have no running water. The opera — on this night, Il ritorno d’Ulisse — is staged inside the elegantly adapted orangery. The performers themselves seemed enchanted by the magic of the evening and attained — I heard from those who had been before — their best ever. It feels a bit silly that there is now, due to a complicated dispute, another place calling itself ‘Grange Park Opera’. There can only be one real one. Bamber Gascoigne, who owns West Horsley, where Grange Park II now perches, caused a stir by joining our audience that night. I hope he got the point.

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