There are, one must admit, things to be said against Boris Johnson, but his leading critics do not understand that their attacks assist him. On Tuesday in Birmingham, Mrs May tried to upstage his arrival by claiming she had a new policy about post-Brexit immigration. She didn’t. The only person she upstaged was her Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who should have been left alone to speak about a subject which, both by his job and his background, is his. Boris was boosted by her hostility, and people listened to his wide-ranging speech. His opponents must understand his subversive power instead of being pompous about it. He is clever. A classic device of our times, much employed by New Labour, is to set up a media hue and cry — ‘Where’s X?’ — against a politician who is trying to evade attention. Boris reverses this. On Tuesday, ‘Where’s Boris?’ was a question which raised expectations of his arrival to a fever pitch, as if he were the Messiah rather than just a very naughty member of the Bullingdon Club. The more his enemies try to dethrone the Lord of Misrule, the more they look like sour-faced Puritans (which is what, in fact, Mrs May is). ‘He’s not serious,’ they moan. But are they — other than in the sense of being seriously incompetent?
In our unagricultural age, no one seemed to realise that Boris could not have run through a field of ripe wheat in Oxfordshire, since all is safely gathered in.
David Cameron was right to get a Holocaust memorial going (though one or two already exist), but I have been feeling uneasy about the one proposed, so I was pleased by the letter from several Jewish peers opposing it in the Times this week. They questioned the design and the location. The former is not contemplative enough. When I was a student in Paris, I often visited the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation on the prow of the Ile de la Cité. You descend into a slightly confined space, but then look out of its window on to the river. You sense the suffering of those commemorated, yet you feel at peace. This one is too toothy and aggressive. The location, in Victoria Gardens next to the Palace of Westminster, is loved as it is, both for its Jubilee trees and Rodin’s ‘Burghers of Calais’. It is a precious patch of green in an area short of the stuff. There is no room for such a large monument, let alone for the ‘learning centre’ also proposed. Besides, the location is parliamentary, which is wrong. It invites controversy, envy, disrespect and, as the letter writers put it, might be seen ‘quite wrongly, as conveying an impression of national guilt’. One can imagine it being hijacked (by those who want the Holocaust commemorated only as one of many genocides), daubed and involved in demonstrations. The rise of Corbynista anti-Semitism reminds one that what is needed is a quieter place where commemoration and study can be combined. There is time to re-think.
A friend tells me that if you wish to write psychological thrillers nowadays, you must not do so under an unambiguously male name. Plain adventure stories can have tough, manly bylines like Andy McNab or Brent Crude, but women buy the psychological stuff, and apparently they won’t take it from men. It is the opposite of the age when Charlotte Brontë had to pretend to be Currer Bell. You must therefore, publishers urge, be a woman, or take a woman’s name, or choose a name like Kim, Evelyn or Jan which could belong to either sex, or write under your initials. This last is an interesting development. When I started as a journalist nearly 40 years ago, I wanted to be C.H. Moore, on the grounds that an unremarkable surname needed some slightly more distinctive support (as in A.N. Wilson), and because I thought it sounded Victorian. I published two or three articles under that byline, but was warned by older, wiser persons that it would alienate readers who felt, by seeing a first name, that they somehow knew the author. Yet a long line of bestsellers — H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, P.D. James, E.L. James and J.K. Rowling — would seem to disprove this theory. Fogeyism triumphs when least expected, vide Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Travelling briefly in Albania last month, we were impressed by how far the country seemed to have moved from its Communist dictatorship, probably the worst in Europe. As we were descending a mountain road, our driver suddenly stopped. ‘Look, there’s his name,’ he said. We could just make out ‘ENVER’, the first name of Hoxha, the revolting dictator, shaped in trees which had been planted in his honour. They had been neglected for a long time, and the untrimmed branches were slowly growing out of their original shape. I preferred this gentle evolution to all those Ozymandias scenes of smashed statues.
The most beautiful town we visited was Gjirokastra. This is what Edward Lear wrote about its women after visiting in the middle of the 19th century: ‘The quaintest monsters ever portrayed or imagined fall short of the reality of these most strange creatures in gait and apparel; and it is to be wondered at when and by whom the first garb of the kind was invented, or how human beings could submit to wear it. Suppose first a tight white linen mask fixed on the face, with two small slits cut in it for the eyes to look through. Next, a voluminous wrapper of white, with broad buff stripes, which conceals the whole upper part of the person, and is huddled in immense folds about the arms, which are carried with the elbows raised, the hands being carefully kept from sight by the heavy drapery. Add to these, short, full, purple calico trousers, and canary-coloured top-boots, with rose-coloured tassels; and what more amazing incident in the history of female dress can be fancied?’ Boris-style Islamophobia! I shouldn’t really point it out: now Lear’s Book of Nonsense will be banned in schools.