Early in his career — and mine — I got to know Frank Field. Then, as now, he was being persecuted by extremists in his local Labour party. Then, as now, he was serenely uncompromising. Then, he won. But then — the early 1980s — the Bennite faction had not taken over the national party. Even Michael Foot, though fairly feeble in his fights with the hard left, came to Frank’s constituency and declared ‘If we lose Birkenhead, we lose the party.’ Now Benn’s most fervent disciple is Labour’s leader, and Frank has had not one word of support from the party’s central machine. Last week, the 1980s tricks were deployed once more: Frank had no notice of the resolution of his local party which called for him to be forbidden to stand for Labour at the next election as punishment for voting for the EU Withdrawal Bill. I don’t think he minds much. He has a 26,000 majority. His constituency opted for Leave, as did two thirds of all Labour seats. He will put his faith in his electors and stand at the next election whatever happens. But his attempted political assassination tells you what you need to know about the phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn, who also entered national politics in the early 1980s: ‘In my beginning is my end’.
The Beano is 80 years old. Its owners D.C. Thomson manage the publicity so well that the Beano is always presented as a ‘good news’ story. The facts are rather different. At its height in the 1950s, the paper sold two million copies a week. Today it sells 31,000. When I first devoured it in the early 1960s, it cost 3d. If that price had stayed the same in real terms, its current price would be roughly 25p, but today it actually costs £2.75. With such a tiny audience, it has lost all cultural importance. The magazine has got in a muddle about modernisation. Even when I read it, its staples — state-school teachers wearing gowns and mortar boards, Lord Snooty wearing a top hat and a bum-freezer, and even fathers who beat their sons with a slipper — were almost wholly obsolete. This caused young readers no trouble at all: we were entering an imaginative world, and enjoyed the oddities which we found there. Since then, it has been half-heartedly updated, becoming the magazine equivalent of a dreary wine-bar which thinks it is re-creating the Belle Epoque because it has Toulouse-Lautrec posters on its walls. Its 80th birthday edition is a poorly drawn celebrity vehicle in which Teacher in the Bash Street Kids boasts to the guest editor David Walliams that his school band played ‘God Save the Queen’ to Prince Charles by farting into their musical instruments. If the authority figure becomes subversive, all dramatic tension evaporates.
A long-standing prep-school master recently gave me his theory about the state of that curious institution. The golden age of the prep school, he thought, was in the early 1990s. By then it had been purged of its worst atrocities — endemic paedophilia, sadistic beatings, extreme cold, and disgusting food, yet had not lost its distinctive virtues — eccentricity, esprit de corps, independent-minded teaching and unpushy parents. Then, boarding and day places had achieved a reasonable balance and fees were within the reach of most middle-class parents. Now, boarding is a vestigial service for super-rich foreign children, regulations crush the spirits of staff and pupils alike, and fees put schools beyond households without six-figure incomes, making surviving parents unpleasantly demanding. This sounded convincing, so I am encouraged to read that Russian oligarchs are now removing their children from British schools, for reasons connected with novichok and constraints on money-laundering. Perhaps Mr Chips can now begin to ‘take back control’.
Harry de Quetteville’s interesting recent revelations in the Daily Telegraph about smart meters came just too late for us. Persuaded by our energy supplier EDF, we had one installed in June. The engineer told us that our old system had kept us on rates arranged in the days of night-storage heaters. He would switch us to something much cheaper. About a month after the smart meter began working, we received a letter from EDF telling us that we could save £687 by switching our tariff. Now Harry’s piece informs us that this probably won’t work because smart meters cannot accommodate such switches and accordingly ‘go dumb’ when asked to try. As I should have remembered before embarking on the change, the smart meters were introduced by Ed Miliband as part of his attempt to save the planet. For some reason deep in the psyche of human self-righteousness, not only does the planet remains unsaved by such schemes, but the customer is always screwed.
Where’s the F in News, new on Radio 4, is ‘an energetic, intelligent female-anchored show with a female panel’, according to its BBC description, of ‘fresh and funny challenges’. I listened to the latest episode. The panel of two comedians, one restaurateur and the Labour MP Jess Phillips were unanimous in their prejudices. The subjects were: vegetarianism (good, unless producing food that tastes like meat), Brexit (bad), Jacob Rees-Mogg (bad), Theresa May (bad/robot), parliamentary traditions (bad), Sir Christopher Chope (bad), new Girl Guide badges (good because they’ve abolished the ones for ironing and vermin control and introduced ones for ‘protesting’). I’m glad we had been informed that these were fresh and funny challenges, otherwise I might not have known. What did make me laugh was the underlying thought behind the programme: ‘Look!’ it seemed to say: ‘This proves that women can be just as rude (see our risqué title) as men, and even though they’re women, they can anchor a show all by themselves and have only women on it! And it can be an intelligent show too!’ Decades ago, there was a Radio 4 programme for women called, unforgettably, The Petticoat Line. I promise you it was less patronising to women than Where’s the F in News.