Simon Heffer

Diary - 26 April 2003

The Daily Mail columunist despairs at the lack of gentlemen in the nation's most vaunted clubs

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As an atheist, I am reluctant to intrude into the private affairs of the Church of England, despite having been baptised into it (I was six weeks old at the time, and had little say in the matter). However, conscious as I am of its residual cultural significance, I have been dismayed by aspects of the new Archbishop of Canterbury. His bleeding-heart views on the late war were only to be expected; it was the extreme beard that really caused me to despair. I consoled myself that perhaps it betokened a proper regard for the ideology of the Old Testament; but I fear I may be mistaken. However delightfully prehistoric it was of Dr Williams to revive the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday, it did express a humility that, I am afraid, is probably the last thing the Church needs. It has spent too much of its recent life cringing and grovelling, and look where that has got it. Having heard one or two of the Archbishop's pronouncements over the Easter weekend, I must say that he does at least sound like a prelate, lacking the mincing tone and the estuary inflections respectively of his two predecessors. Perhaps, though, if he has this regard for tradition he will stick to the 1662 Prayer Book and the King James Bible, and chuck out the modern dross. I am sure that congregations would swell at once, if only for aesthetic reasons. Much as I have always enjoyed the 37th Article, my favourite part of the Prayer Book is the Commination Service. If the new Primate can bring himself to hold one of those (and there are, for God's sake, so many wicked people who just cry out to be comminated), I shall forgive him even the beard.

I hope, too, that he will spend some of his time in office preparing the heir to the throne for a proper coronation, and not the Mickey Mouse multicultural version His Royal Highness has occasionally, in his more barking moments, hinted that he wants. The public love a good coronation, and will hardly expect to have one that would keep adherents of al-Qa'eda cheerful. Those cheering for the Prince's view will doubtless include the Arts Council. When my friend John Boyden, who runs the magnificent New Queen's Hall Orchestra on a shoestring, applied to the Council for funding for a series of 13 concerts performing all the music from the 1953 coronation to mark its 50th anniversary, he received an interesting response. The council, which lavishes money on other orchestras that make no effort to trim their costs, would give him a piddling £2,000 a concert. The upshot is that the NQHO is giving just two concerts, in Croydon on 17 May and in Guildford Cathedral on 12 June. They will be brilliant, and, but for the Stalinists of the Arts Council, there would have been more. The trouble is, of course, that music such as this is 'elitist'. Due, no doubt, to an oversight no rap music was on the menu at the last coronation. Meanwhile, the Arts Council continues to bail out lousy orchestras that are overstaffed, inefficient and play non-stop crap. It is time this racket was stopped. Good musicians will always get work, but a few dozen orchestral administrators and Arts Council executives on the dole would be very good for encouraging the others.

A note comes home via my younger son's school from HSBC to say that 'the School Fees Protection Scheme is subject to a Nuclear/Chemical/Biological Terrorism Exclusion'. I find it paradoxically reassuring that when all those on whom little Johnnie depends are wiped out in an anthrax holocaust, life in the greed-motivated insurance industry will be continuing sufficiently normally to ensure that, as a final blow, no one is prepared to pay his school fees either.

Following the exposure of a Tory MP who had claimed £90,000 fees to which he was not entitled, all MPs are now to be made to account more rigorously for their expenses. The presumption that all Members of Parliament are 'honourable' has finally ended. Many will be stunned that it has survived this long. Unfortunately, since, with one or two notable exceptions, only the certifiably insane want to be in the Commons now, the shortfall in quality is all too explicable. For a hardened political pundit like me, these events are far less shocking than what was implied by the arrival of my new MCC pass the other day. For the first time ever, it includes a photograph of the member. This step has been made necessary because some members were lending their passes to the unwashed to get into Lord's. MCC has about 18,000 members, so the men on the gate would be hard pushed to know the bona fides of everyone in the way that the hall porters at other gentleman's clubs do. However, it does seem that, like the House of Commons, MCC is no longer a gentleman's club. I am surprised at this improper behaviour for two further reasons. First, expulsion from the MCC is not to be taken lightly, considering some people now wait 20 years to get in. Second, and more to the point, cricket these days is usually so bloody awful that I am amazed that anyone but the most hardened addict wants to go to see it, even without paying.

I suppose another club that has rather diluted the calibre of the members lately is the army. When James Hewitt started telling all and sundry about his carnal relations with the late Princess of Wales, one could dismiss him as the sort of womanising rogue the services have thrown up throughout their history. However, Major Charles Ingram, who fiddled his way to a million pounds in a television quiz show, is somewhat harder to explain away. Having resolutely decided not to do so, I watched his performance in Who Wants to be a Millionaire on Easter Monday. I was shocked by the consistent display of precisely the sort of qualities that should get you barred from Sandhurst in the first place: insincerity, ham acting, panic, indecisiveness, stupidity. Then, of course, there are the small matters of dishonesty, greed and living in obvious terror of his wife. Apparently, the Major's father, a retired RAF officer, has rebuked his disgraced son for talking of killing himself after his conviction for fraud. He has said that such talk is not how an officer and a gentleman deals with matters like this. If Ingram senior brought himself to watch last Monday's programme, he might at last have realised that a real or fabricated tendency to suicide is the least of his boy's problems.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.