Diana Spencer has been dead for 20 years. I was a journalist on the Evening Standard in those days and she came to lunch at the newspaper a few months before she died. Apart from her blinding charm, and her overwhelming beauty, it was her perfect manners which were striking. She mastered a few details about anyone she met, so that they always felt she was interested in them. It is a great gift. I do not go in for meeting famous people, but that lunch was something very special. I went home in a blaze of love which has lasted to this hour. Conservative-minded people feared her because she wanted to upset the apple cart. She certainly did. It is strange that after she had done so, and there were bruised Granny Smiths all over the street, the monarchy was more popular than it had ever been. I was among those buttoned-up people who winced recently when her sons emoted about their grief. Then I remembered her, and realised I was wrong to wince. There is nothing wrong with admitting to heartbreak. The monarchy exercises a role in public life which is difficult to define, but Diana certainly expanded that role. The paradox is that, by causing the Establishment such embarrassment, she actually strengthened the monarchy. Strength is made perfect in weakness. Our love of the Queen herself is not a thing of the head, but of the heart.
Finished copies of my new book, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, have arrived from the printers. A new book always fills the author with a mixture of emotions. Pleasure predominates, but there is also the fear that reviewers will not like it. There are so many fundamentalist Darwinian bigots at large. Before I started work on the book, I had ignorantly supposed that only Bible-bashers disputed the Darwinian version of evolution. It was a surprise to discover how many palaeontologists, biologists and philosophers do not merely question individual points of the Darwinian position but, well, nearly all of it. The stupendous advances in the science of genetics really make redundant the simplistic Darwinian ‘explanations’ for how living forms mutate. And the Darwinian belief that species are perpetually struggling for pre-eminence, like pushy Victorian carriage-folk, is simply not true. If science demonstrated the Survival of the Fittest (Herbert Spencer’s phrase), why did Darwin and his cousin Francis Galton need to invent eugenics to correct the (to them) unfortunate fact that the poverty-stricken drunken masses bred in larger numbers than the nouveaux riches like the Darwins? So there it sits on the table, my book. I wish it luck. John Murray, my publisher, has at least made it an object of great beauty — whatever you make of the contents.
Meanwhile, I am writing my next novel, working title Aftershocks, which is about same-sex love between Anglicans in a country very like New Zealand. A few months ago I went to New Zealand for what I hope will be the first of many visits. I loved Auckland, and felt I’d made friends for life with my witty, clever hosts. It was Christchurch, though, which wrenched my heart. I have never seen L’Aquila, never been to California, so it was in Christchurch that I had my first sight of the torment an earthquake can inflict. I was so disturbed by the phenomenon, and by the accounts I heard from survivors, that I immediately began to write about it. My reflections have evolved into fiction. I’ve become fervently pro-Kiwi, support All Blacks against the British Lions, and think the glorious Pinot Noirs from Kiwi vineyards knock spots off Gevrey-Chambertin.
But this week I have put my novel away in a desk drawer. We are on holiday with kind friends on the west coast of Scotland. It is a beautiful sunny day, and we are heading away from Mull in a little motor launch, bouncing at speed over bright water beneath a blazing sky. After a short whizz through the waves, a vivid emerald island looms up, greener than anything you ever saw, with a tall lumpy cream house set back from lawns and shrubs. It is Inch Kenneth, about which Dr Johnson wrote a fine Latin poem (I admire him more and more as a poet). When he and James Boswell came here in 1773, the only inhabitants were Sir Allan Maclean and his two daughters and their servants. Sir Allan, a Jacobite, had suffered the confiscation of most of his property. Johnson, who felt the attraction of this cause so warmly, took a great shine to him. On a Sunday, the elder of the Miss Macleans read aloud the evening service, but when she came to the prayer for the (Hanoverian) royal family, she stopped. I’d rather remember brave old Sir Allan than sad Lady Redesdale, who nursed her daughter Unity Mitford at Inch Kenneth during the 1940s after she had shot herself at the outbreak of war — another political exile, though less noble than the Jacobites.