At Chequers last week to interview the Prime Minister, I hear some sad news of Churchill’s mouse. The story goes that the rather fine painting there by Rubens and Frans Snyders, illustrating Aesop’s fable of the lion and the mouse, was ‘touched up’ by Winston himself. During the war, staring at the painting, Churchill decided that the mouse was hard to see properly. Never a man for whom self-doubt was a crippling disability, he promptly picked up his paints and improved the rodent. That, at least, was the story put about by Harold Wilson. As I was waiting for Mrs May and her NHS figures, I was told the painting had long since gone away for restoration and had come back ‘with that awful rat cleaned off’. Very sad — though Chequers also has a good original Churchill, a Constable and much else.
May’s NHS announcement was described by the Mail on Sunday as a ‘gamble’. This is probably right, though not because of the row over a non-existent Brexit dividend to pay for it. The problem will be the sound of water gushing once more from the Treasury, into a major department. This leaves Philip Hammond and the Prime Minister with a dilemma. If for the NHS, why not for social care? Then there is the crisis in defence spending, with Trump urging us to increase our contribution to Nato, and Putin giving us good reasons to do exactly that. English schools are also desperate for extra cash; as are local authorities. Having conceded to Jeremy Hunt, a possible successor as Tory leader, Mrs May will have a harder time with other jostling members of her cabinet. Hammond is pushing back hard but the sound of water in a desert is intoxicating.
After any major interview, I turn with great interest to discover from Twitter whether I am currently a sinister Marxist undermining the Tories; a foam-flecked believer in the hardest of hard Brexits; or a mildly outdated Blairite propagandist. Maybe, I’m all three. Or, just possibly, I ask the questions, rather than taking responsibility for the answers. Our job at the BBC is not to denounce, lampoon, deride or sneer at elected politicians but to ask them, politely, direct and relevant questions — pause — and let the viewers decide. The number of viewers watching the show suggests the majority understand this. But there’s no doubt that the vote to leave the EU has made many people in certain parts of British public life almost uncontrollably angry. That’s going to be a problem for the lucky soul who eventually takes over from the great David Dimbleby on Question Time. I’ve shared late nights with him during elections and heard the babble of frantic voices coming into his earpiece as he sails on imperturbably. Whoever succeeds him should remember: Dimbles made it look easy. That doesn’t mean it is easy.
I have been saying goodbye to around 60 oil paintings I’ve made over the past year, and which are now up in Liverpool for ‘Angels and Open Windows’, which will be my fourth show. I agree with Churchill that painting is one of the most important things you can do in utter silence. I’ve had shows in London and Cambridge too, but for me there is something special about Liverpool. It’s a great painting city, with a great art tradition, yet not part of the money-crazed metropolitan art scene. The people who came to my last show there were blunt, direct, friendly and bought a satisfying number of pictures. This one, as well, will be at the Corke Gallery in Sefton Park, from 5 July onwards. All readers cordially welcome.
The past week has also seen the start of filming for a TV series about social change. I’ve been in Folkestone to tell a story about Diana Dors, whose biographer memorably called her a ‘hurricane in mink’. She was born Diana Fluck but changed her surname because, as she explained, she dreamed of having her name up in lights… and was worried about what might happen if one of the bulbs went out. We filmed in Margate, too, which to my shame I’d never visited before. I’d vaguely, lazily, assumed it would be rundown, tatty, slightly sad. Instead I found a buzzing seaside town with a beautiful beach, salt-water lido, the Turner contemporary art gallery — whose rooms are a delight — the iconic Dreamland fun park, and lots of chic shops, pubs and restaurants. So much for the decline of the British seaside.
I’m still in an ecstatic euphoria of relief after the successful zapping, by cryoablation (essentially, freezing) of a cancerous tumour on my right kidney. Once, getting rid of this would have meant a 14in scar and many months off work. I was in hospital for one night, and since the demise of the tumour, haven’t had to take so much as an aspirin for pain relief. Fingers and toes crossed, of course, for the future but for now — yippee for modern medicine.