Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Diary - 18 January 2003

The Express columnist suggests that the PM takes heed of his predecessors and Oxford takes care about Jenkins' successor

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When the Crimean war began in 1854, the prime minister was Lord Aberdeen, who carried a deep burden of guilt. Years later he was asked to pay for the rebuilding of a church on his estate, and pleaded King David's unworthiness: 'But the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Thou hast shed blood abundantly and has made great war: thou shalt not build an house unto my name.' When the Boer war began in 1899, the prime minister was Lord Salisbury, who felt intense misgivings: 'We have to act upon a moral field prepared for us by Milner and his Jingo supporters ...and all for people whom we despise and for territory that will bring no profit and no power to England.' And when the Iraq war begins in 2003? Tony Blair may be as consciously pious as Aberdeen or Salisbury, but he seems to have neither the one's sense of the horror of war nor the other's appreciation of its unintended consequences. But we have always known that the Prime Minister has absolutely no historical sense at all. If he did, he might apprehend that Iraq could yet make the Crimean and Boer wars look miracles of humanity and statecraft by comparison.

Although I shan't be contributing to the forthcoming three-volume anthology A Legend in His Lunchtime, I liked Roy Jenkins, enjoyed reading his books, and approved of him as chancellor of Oxford. The idea that his successor at my old university might be William Clinton is so obviously horrible that it must have been proposed from ulterior motives, maybe as a tactical ruse to make Baroness Williams of Crosby seem more plausible. But then why should she be chancellor either? Her reputation is one of the mysteries of the age. She had what Lord Jenkins of Hillhead might have called a rather secondary political career, and not in truth a very successful one. She fought 12 individual elections for parliamentary seats, and lost six; she served as a Cabinet minister for no more than five years, inconspicuously at Prices and Consumer Protection (yes, that really was a ministry), disastrously as education secretary in 1976-79, when she deserved far more of the obloquy which has been heaped on Jenkins's head for destroying the fabric of society. Nor does she have any very obvious intellectual distinction. Roy Jenkins got a First at Oxford, Shirley Williams got a Second; he was an excellent journalist, she isn't; he published numerous admirable books, she has published none, apart from rounding up her cuttings into the occasional volume (one under the unimprovable title Politics is for People). The fact that she has picked up a clutch of honorary degrees and a professorship at Harvard is baffling, except as a modern example of the thing, Cobbett's name for the way the system looks after its own.

The university can surely do better than that. If we want a capable and personable Oxonian with a distinguished public and literary career, what about Sir John Mortimer? I once described him, in a phrase current in Oxford a century ago, as a Tory-socialist: he has lifelong enlightened credentials, while his brave support for hunting should ensure the Fogey Vote. Do the Christ Church and New College Beagles still exist? We might yet see the chancellor out with them.

One way of getting through the wholly preposterous Gangs of New York is to try to work out where the actors think they come from. Although Daniel Day-Lewis spends most of three hours playing Captain Hook in the local panto, as my wife put it, he is ostensibly the leader of the natives battling against Irish immigrants in 1863; his accent, if it's anything at all, is Brooklyn Jewish circa 1963. Those immigrants evince a wide variety of Oirish accents; if anything at all, they are predominantly 'Gurrier', the unmistakable Dublin equivalent of cockney or titi parisien, and the one Irish voice which would never have been heard in the Five Points. It's curious how Hollywood manages to be both grossly sentimental, and completely ignorant, about Ireland.

As time goes by, you learn things about yourself. For two bachelor decades in London, I tended to fall asleep in the evening, not just at dances and in nightclubs as midnight struck, but at dinner or the opera, and I wondered why this was. At that point I should perhaps borrow the words with which George Robey used reproachfully to address his audience after telling a particularly gross joke: 'Will you kindly temper your hilarity with some modicum of reserve?' For one thing, when I began long ago to abstain from alcohol during Lent, I found that I was as likely (or almost) to doze off after a long day close to the Badoit bottle. But it was only when I moved a hundred miles from London that I learned the true answer. There really is a difference between 'larks' and 'owls', instinctive early-risers and natural late-to-bedders. I used to be a lark trying to be an owl. Nowadays I get up before six and go to bed by ten. Coincidentally, this vital self-knowledge came just at the time I married a genuine owl, who would happily read until two in the morning and wake at ten if she could. But then another discovery is that life never goes in quite the right order.

My Christmas stocking included David Thomson's entertaining and eccentric New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Connoisseurs of that 'reciprocal civility of authors' which Johnson called one of life's most risible sights will be pleased to find a gushing puff from Sir David Hare on the back of the jacket - 'much the most stimulating and thoughtful film critic now writing' - and then turn to the appropriate entry within: 'Hare's films ...will survive as landmark works'. Will they just. Mind you, We Are All Guilty. Few people who have ever recommended Books of the Year can honestly claim never to have plugged a pal, and so, when I say that I've been lapping up 'Selina Hastings's life of the hapless shagger Rosamond Lehmann' (as Private Eye more accurately than elegantly calls it), I ought to add that the author is a very old friend. But there's no reciprocal civility in pointing out how enjoyable the index is. The entry for the letter 'O' runs in its entirety: 'O'Brien, Edna, 362; Observer (newspaper), 244; Oliver (boatman), 23-4; Olivier, Laurence (later Baron), 294; O'Neill, Con, 172; O'Neill, Eugene: Mourning Becomes Electra, 196; Orion (magazine): RL and Day Lewis edit, 240-2, 304; Osborne (abortionist), 76; Oxford University: life at, 48.' Who needs Miss Wade's tabloids? All Human Life Is There.