The pre-commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales is already in full swing. She is a subject on which it is hard to get the balance right. Her impact was remarkable and her death tragic. On the other hand, the picture of the loving, giving saint which has been getting a new lick of paint these last weeks is hard to recognise. I remember being in the Daily Telegraph newsroom on the frantic night before the funeral. We had a special supplement to get out and a demented press conference by Mohamed Al Fayed to report. Suddenly someone on the picture desk looked up from tapping his computer and shouted out: ‘Oh Jesus. Now f***ing Mother Teresa’s dead!’ I’m sorry to say that we all burst out laughing under the strain. We had to scurry round looking for pictures of the future real saint with her friend Diana. Much later, I learnt that the Missionaries of Charity, knowing that their leader was mortally ill, debated whether to tell her about the death of the princess. They decided they would. On hearing the news, Mother Teresa said: ‘Well, that’s very sad, but perhaps it was the right time.’ An odd thing to say about someone who died before she was 40, but not wrong.
Last week the births, marriages and deaths column of the Times announced an unusual marriage. Lord N.J. Blackmore had married Lord M.T.D. Hiscutt. The ceremony took place in the Palace of Westminster. ‘Marky’ was attended by five women/girls, said the announcement. Nick had two best men. Somebody ‘acted as page boy’. The honeymoon will be spent in Kenya ‘…with Benidorm delayed’. I had not previously known this, but members of the public can be legally married in Parliament — in the Members’ Dining Room, for example (£2,000) — so my original hunch that the notice was a hoax must have been wrong. I wondered, therefore, why the first-ever same-sex marriage of two peers had not made a news story. Checking, I found that there is no such person as Lord Blackmore or Lord Hiscutt in the House of Lords, and since neither man seems to be the younger son of a duke or marquess, we are not dealing with courtesy titles either. Did the Times fail to check and so was fooled, or did it connive in a sort of ‘King for a day’ lark? If you marry in the Palace of Westminster, can you take whatever title you like for the purpose? Can you be ‘Lord’ on the register? Could a couple call themselves MPs and get the Times to print them as such? It is like one of A.P. Herbert’s Misleading Cases, refreshed for the era of political correctness.
A curious example of a more radical impersonation emerged from Dame Moira Gibb’s recent report on the Church of England’s failure to deal adequately with the sexual abuse perpetrated by Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Gloucester. Peter has an identical twin, Michael, who was Bishop of Truro (and also, like Peter, a monk). After Peter’s disgrace, but before his conviction and imprisonment, Peter lived with Michael and would sometimes, with Michael’s permission, attend episcopal social functions pretending to be his brother. I now learn that the twins played this game for many years. James Hughes-Onslow remembers Peter preaching to confirmation candidates in Lower Chapel at Eton in 1961. When talking of Christ rising on the third day, Peter suddenly ducked down in the pulpit, and Michael jumped up in the organ loft to complete the sermon. They pulled a similar stunt at Rugby ten years later. At the time, people recall, it seemed witty and inspiring. Knowing what we now know about Peter Ball, it seems sinister. Michael, who has no record of sexual offences, is Bishop Jekyll; Peter is Brother Hyde.
Writing about judicial appointments (Notes, 15 July), I incautiously compared a silly interview question asking a judge to cite an example of when he had acted with integrity, to asking a farmer, ‘How many times a day do you milk your cows?’ Jamie Blackett, a farmer, writes to say that, in the 21st century, it is a question to which the answer reveals much. He explains. Farmer One milks his 50 cows only once a day. He follows the Norwegian system and makes a marketable green virtue of leaving the calf on the cow. He lives near rich people and sells them his artisan cheese and yoghurt. He voted Remain. Farmer Two milks 120 cows twice a day in the time-honoured way. Even when the price is good he earns less than the minimum wage. He scrapes extra money as a delivery driver. Voted Leave, only because things can get no worse. Farmer Three milks his 1,000 cows three times a day by employing a team of Romanians working in shifts for 20 of each 24 hours. He loses a six-figure sum but thinks he’ll make a profit when the price goes up by a couple of pence a litre. An instinctive Leaver, but voted Remain to keep the Romanians. Farmer Infinity has installed robots, so his 300 cows can get milked whenever they feel like it. They live inside all year. Enjoys his reputation as an innovator, and writes off his farming losses against his other businesses. Voted Leave on principle. None of the four farmers knows whether Out means Out or half In, so none can invest with any confidence. Farmer Zero ‘has sold all his cows and installed a “concrete cow”: an anaerobic digester. His farm now produces electricity rather than food. His vote is opaque.’
More than once recently, I have seen country estate agents advertising properties which have a ‘ménage’. I think they mean ‘manège’. The former describes a human household, and is not (usually) for sale. The latter is something for horses. I dread to think what a ‘manège a trois’ might be.
From next week, I’ll be taking time off to get on with my book. This column will resume in September.