Christmas is a time of goodwill and I must, as usual, suspend my dislikes for the season. What are they? The list lengthens every year. It now includes Scotch announcers on the BBC and radio reporters who use what I call Elementary School Sing-song when reading their (often ungrammatical) dispatches. All footballers and their managers (and mistresses) and football fans. Men who shave their heads; Welshmen (not Welshwomen, far from it); TV producers, and especially their assistants who ring me up and ask me to appear on their beastly programmes and call me ‘Paul’; all New Labour MPs and life peers and, a fortiori, Social Democrats — David Owen, who knew, rightly called them ‘Labour with syphilis’; gossip columnists, whatever paper they work for; newspaper photographers, who waste my time and then connive with picture editors to show close-ups of me looking blind, toothless and senile; writers of Gobble Columns — not cookery writers and especially not Tamasin Day-Lewis, who is not only a brilliant stylist but a cuisinière of extraordinary skill — you should taste her caramel orange ice cream! I dislike Yags and Chromos, Lugs, Voidies and Snagereens; pushy people who are always grabbing the headlines, like Nigella Lawson, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and the Bishop of Oxford), Michael Winner, Richard Branson and Philip Green; anyone connected with the Turner and Booker Prizes, and so dedicated to the destruction of art and literature; nearly all intellectuals, and especially anti-American ones, who curse the United States, all its inhabitants and everything it stands for in one breath while puffing their way across the Atlantic with the next to collect their royalties from the generous Joe Public. I dislike mullahs who enjoy our hospitality and tolerance and plan to slit our throats; Jacques Chirac and his latest puppy-dog camp-follower, poodle and yes-man, the Spanish Prime Minister; anti-Semites who pretend they are anti-Zionists and who really want to begin again where Hitler left off — and a great many other monsters, real and imaginary, Dongerites, Toileys, Loabs and Somerset Shingoes. I particularly dislike the Secretary of State for Culture and her horrible fountain in Kensington Gardens. Indeed, I dislike all ministers except Tony Blair and the Home Secretary.
Let me assure readers I am totally without prejudice. I do not prejudge. I have formed my dislikes on the basis of long experience. I tried explaining this once to James Baldwin, who complained to me that it was sheer race prejudice and homophobia which made people dislike him: ‘No, James, it is not prejudice, it is actual experience of how awful you are.’ He said, ‘What experience have you had of prejudice?’ I replied, ‘Listen, old sod, if, like me, you were born in England red-haired, left-handed and a Roman Catholic, there’s nothing you don’t know about prejudice.’ At this point he stumped off in a rage.
But what I said was, is, true, though perhaps less so now than in my salad days. If you are left-handed you are liable to be told you are aggressive and likely to live less long than the rest of humanity. Actually I don’t mind that. And, having had enlightened parents, I was spared the business of being forced to use my right hand and so turned into a hopeless stammerer, like poor King George VI. Of course his father, George V, did this because he thought ‘there’s no such thing as a first-class shot who shoots left-handed’. This view was once widely held in the army, especially in rifle regiments like mine. Your company sergeant-major was liable to thrust his enormous red-faced head to within an inch of your nose, so you could see last night’s beer-stains on his eyeballs, and roar, ‘Southpaw, are you? I’ll paw you, believe you me!’ Fortunately I had learnt to shoot right-handed at school, as well as with the left, but other folks were not so lucky, because in those days the King’s Royal Rifle Corps did not go in for Lee-Enfield 303s with a left-hand bolt-action. Latrine duties for them; and the army did not take Nicholas Serota’s view that a latrine is a supreme work of art, like a Michelangelo ceiling — just an object to be scrubbed, daily.
Having red hair, in my experience, exposes you to the worst form of prejudice, worse by far than skin colour. And accusing red-haired boys of being belligerent is still approved of, especially on the Left. At my convent school, the delightful and warm-hearted Dominican nuns assured me that red hair was no stigma. Sister Mary Angela told me, ‘Many of the angels have red hair.’ But at boarding school it was not the same. My mother would not allow me to go away to school until I was 12, so I arrived at the big school not having attended the attached prep school. All the other boys had, so I was an exception. And my flaming curls drew attention to me. Shortly after my arrival I was attended by a delegation of boys, or perhaps surrounded would be a more accurate word. It essentially consisted of one large boy and his sycophants. He had a powerful voice and was known as Boomer, and was lock-forward in the under-14 XV. He surveyed me, up and down, and said, ‘You’re a new squit, aren’t you? And suffering from capillary inflammation, I see. Can you give me one good reason why you should not be beaten up?’ By a happy chance I had been taught boxing at my previous school, but I realised that Boomer’s height was an insuperable disadvantage unless I could reduce it. So I said, ‘Yes, Boomer, I have got a good reason, but I must whisper it.’ Hoping to hear something disgusting about me, which he could exploit, Boomer grinned and condescendingly lowered himself to listen. I instantly delivered what I believe to this day was an inspired and wholly justified uppercut to the side of his jaw, which caused him to yelp in pain, surprise and indignation. A general m