Michael Gove wants to punish those who use wood-burning stoves and possibly even open fires. It would be hard to think of a more direct attack on country life. All houses in the country are cold, and impossibly expensive to keep warm by central heating alone. The cheapest and most cheerful way of heating individual rooms is by burning wood in them. In the north, there are many houses that need such heat every day of the year. Even in the sunny south, where we live, we light fires in every month except June and July. Such fires are the heart of the house and life would become truly sadder without them. Instead of gathering round them, family members would retire shivering to their beds to keep warm. Fires are also good for human health because pensioners keep fit by chopping up and stacking the wood for them. They are good for houses, too, because they prevent damp, smell welcoming and help air the room. If there were no fires, there would be no working chimneys, and houses would cease to breathe properly. If stoves and fires come under attack, country pubs and restaurants will collapse. This will happen, I suspect, even if Mr Gove does not ban them, because he is opening up a new world in which they will come under official disapproval. Before long, it will be alleged that pub staff suffer from the equivalent of passive smoking because of open fires, and landlords will face lawsuits which bring village inns to their knees. We shall not even be free to relieve our feelings by burning Mr Gove in effigy, since he is setting out to ban bonfires too.
‘Onward’ is the name of the latest movement — ‘think-tank’ is not quite the right phrase — to try to revitalise Conservatism. It is led by some of the most able of the new political generation, such as Neil O’Brien and Tom Tugendhat, and under the patronage of the only current cabinet minister who (for all my strictures above) never stops thinking — Michael Gove. It will perform the necessary healing work of linking metropolitans and provincials currently at loggerheads — Camerons and Mays, you might say — in a creative alliance. But there is an annoying convention of party political thinking that one always has to be gooey about the future. Words like ‘modern’, ‘En marche!’ and ‘Onward’ attribute virtue to something which, in moral terms, is neutral. What is modern is not necessarily good. Isis is modern, for instance. I shall avoid the same mistake in reverse by getting gooey about the past, but it would be an interesting exercise to start a movement of ideas called ‘Backward’, and see where it took you. The past is really the only storehouse of ideas we have and so, if we care about the future, we ought to make the best possible inventory of it. The Renaissance was based on that thought.
The first episode of A Very English Scandal (BBC1), the story of the Jeremy Thorpe affair, was brilliant. So often, dramas about the past suffer from the disbenefit of hindsight. They use the dead as mannequins to wear their contemporary thoughts and attitudes. History, in their hands, is a form of what is now called ‘cultural appropriation’, paying no respect to the reality of the lives depicted. There is a brief moment in A Very English Scandal which teeters on the edge of this, when dear Lord Arran, sitting in his own house and in the presence only of his wife and Leo Abse MP, makes a rather pious speech about how wicked it is that homosexual acts are illegal. One feels one is being preached at, and the preaching is not much improved by the fact that the cause is just. Yet even this moralising is brilliantly undercut by Jeremy Thorpe himself. His attitude to homosexual law reform is striking. He is in favour of it, of course — he is a liberal, indeed at the time he is the leader of the Liberal party, and so he will vote for it, but really it is of little interest to him. He is an adventurer in everything, but especially a sexual adventurer. For people like him, the repressive state of the law feels more like an incentive than a persecution. The removal of one aspect of risk reduces the pleasure.
Hugh Grant’s acting gets the man just right. I knew Jeremy Thorpe slightly in the years depicted (late 1960s/early 1970s), because my father worked for him. Grant fits my memory of him almost exactly, not by mere mimickry, but by real imagination. He gets the wit, the quickness, the presence, and the important fact about the charm, which was that, unlike a lot of supposedly charming people, Thorpe really was charming. He also captures how such a man presented himself to the world in the last age in which very few people had ‘gaydar’. I was a teenager then, and it would never have occurred to me (despite what I now see was overwhelming evidence to the contrary) that a married man — or indeed, anyone in a public position — would be homosexual. I never remember anyone suggesting it, cynical schoolboys though we were. Perhaps to a modern sensibility, Thorpe’s flamboyant eccentricity would be a giveaway, a hint of something else which was hidden, but to me and, I suspect, to 98 per cent of the people who met him, it was just a funny act. Was it good or bad that so many of us were so innocent? Perhaps that itself is an unartistic, over-moralising question. The point is that is the way it was, and this drama captures it.
Philip Roth, who has just died, was sometimes accused of being over-autobiographical in his novels. One interviewer cited the close relationship between the death of the parents of his novels’ leading character Zuckerman and the death of his own parents. Roth gave a long and thoughtful reply. He ended by saying, ‘I suggest, by the way, that the best person to ask about the autobiographical relevance of the climactic death of the father in Zuckerman Unbound is my own father, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I’ll give you his phone number.’