Max Hastings

Diary - 25 October 2003

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An evening of virulent anti-American propaganda at Covent Garden, or rather a terrific Madame Butterfly, brilliantly lit as well as sung. The evening was marred only by the distraction of a madwoman waving her arms at the edge of the stage. This was bootlicking by the Opera House to the Department for Culture. In order to get money from New Labour, every arts institution must prove itself ‘accessible’, apparently to all 60 million people in this island. ‘Sign-language-interpreted performances are part of the ROH’s commitment to enabling as many sections of the community as possible to appreciate and enjoy its productions,’ said the Butterfly programme. I am full of admiration for deaf people who relish the visual aspects of an operatic performance enough to pay three-figure sums for tickets. Surely the ROH has also got surtitles? Not good enough. The programme says that for some deaf people, sign language ‘is their first language, and English their second or third’. Yet out of 1,200-odd people in the house that night, how many were both deaf and unable to read English? Two? Three?

A first: planting daffodil bulbs with a pickaxe — the only way to pierce the iron-hard ground.

Returning from a Scottish shooting expedition, a carrier bag containing four grouse was removed from me by security staff at Aberdeen airport. They said that the birds would pose a health hazard in the cabin, and must travel in the hold. Airport security staff, the sort of people who once became traffic wardens or food-safety inspectors, approach their work with sadistic glee. I was put through the search routine, down to the soles of my shoes, for a second time after surrendering the corpses. Matters grew worse at Heathrow. The grouse were confiscated by the quarantine authorities. ‘Quarantine authorities?’ I howled. ‘I’ve come from Aberdeen, not Ouagadougou!’ British Airways explained apologetically that it was all down to the British Airports Authority. Its baggage-handlers’ enthusiasm for removing other people’s property is hard to restrain. I told BA to forget the damn birds — I would avenge myself later on BAA, one of Mrs Thatcher’s most disastrous monopoly privatisations. The airline sent the grouse to my home later that day by courier. This increased my lifelong affection for BA, but seemed embarrassing. Many people have abandoned air travel not from fear of Osama bin Laden, but through weariness of the nonsense to which even non-grouse-carriers are subjected at airports.

Lovers of moules marinières are sometimes dismayed by the mingy portions provided in English restaurants. The French are more generous. After a mussel orgy in Brittany the other day, I counted 128 empty shells on my plate. The inner man suggested that this was about right.

I watched for the twentieth time Topsy-Turvy, the best British film of the past decade. So many brilliantly gifted actors and actresses shine once in such a piece, then disappear off set, apparently for ever. Acting is much the cruellest of the artistic professions. Even the most moderate writers can gain steady work as newspaper columnists. There are far more slots than there are pens competent to fill them. Fine thespians, meanwhile, vanish without trace.

A golden wedding party given by Jean and Tommy Macpherson, one of the last authentic war heroes. His grandfather was station porter at Kingussie in Inverness-shire. All the porter’s many children became great people in different ways, as did Tommy’s six siblings. At the age of 21 he himself was captured in the 1941 desert commando raid on Rommel’s headquarters. He escaped repeatedly from PoW camps, finally reaching England in the autumn of 1943. He immediately volunteered to be parachuted into occupied France. The team he commanded included young Prince Michel de Bourbon. When they landed in the Lot, an excited Resistant in the reception party rushed over to his companions and announced, ‘There’s a French officer here, and he’s brought his wife!’ Tommy had jumped in a kilt. He ended the war with three Military Crosses, and went on to forge a notable business career. Today Colonel Sir Thomas Macpherson is 83, but still shoots pretty straight.

For all the tosh about declining standards, it is nice to be able to enter restaurants without a tie. My mother expressed dismay when I mentioned that I was off to a dinner at the Mirabelle. She said she had not set foot in the place since an incident 40-odd years ago. Just after Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Bolshoi Ballet amid huge headlines, she fixed a priceless scoop interview for the Daily Mail, and made a date to lunch with him at the Mirabelle. He arrived looking divinely beautiful in a silk tunic. The head waiter shook his head sternly. No tie, you see. My mother pleaded, begged, cajoled, explaining that her guest had just arrived from Moscow, one step ahead of the KGB’s jackals — all to no avail. They were evicted. Nureyev took it well, and led her off to a more civilised spot of his own choosing in Beauchamp Place. I assured my mother that the Mirabelle had changed owners since those pompous days. Yet she is aggrieved that even the name survives.

There is a rush to build huge electronic information signs on roads. These may serve a purpose around conurbations, but it seems idiotic to pollute the Scottish Highlands. There are now three or four such eyesores on the A9 north of Inverness. I have passed them several times this year, displaying such gems of practical advice as: ‘drive on the left’; ‘drive safely’; ‘do not take drugs and drive’. On the odd wintry occasions that motorists need weather warnings, old-fashioned handwritten ones could be provided at a fraction of the cost. Pointless signs — especially flatulent indicators at county boundaries such as ‘Welcome to Northamptonshire, Rose of the Shires’ — have become a blight. The Campaign to Protect Rural England is crusading against them. Only feckless policemen and jackbooted road-safety lobbies are in favour.

I asked Simon Jenkins what he thought of a newspaper’s redesign. ‘Not bad,’ he said. I said, ‘Oh come on, you know it’s ghastly.’ He said, ‘I’m determined not to become a boring old fart, and say the sort of things which boring old farts say.’ At heart, I am a Panglossian optimist, as reflected in the vigour with which I dismissed my wife’s assertions last spring that the allies would find no WMDs in Iraq. Or was that pessimism?