Simon Heffer

Diary - 3 January 2004

Blair could court popularity by demolishing the worst excesses of London's concrete architecture

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The recent story in the Sunday Times about the hundreds of people who have declined honours in the past 50 or 60 years was fascinating. Contrary to the usual interpretation, it showed that the system is actually fairer than I thought. The list was dominated by people of immense worth whose apparent neglect by the establishment had seemed inexplicable. The other day the self-advertising poet and retired burglar Benjamin Zephaniah rejected an honour as a protest against colonial oppression (yawn). How much better to have the inward satisfaction, and the good manners, to refuse privately. Only one refusenik was well known to me, and that was the composer George Lloyd. He declined a CBE in 1996, two years before his death. I would like to think that, like Evelyn Waugh, George refused because he was holding out for the knighthood he richly merited, but he was the least self-regarding person you could ever wish to meet. I suspect the real reason was that George, a devoted Thatcherite, detested too much the man who made him the offer, John Major, for squandering his heroine’s legacy.

Anyway, many will not have refused a bauble in the New Year Honours, and therefore will now be that little bit (or a lot) happier. The process is now pretty disgusting, with utterly meretricious people being given gongs so that Labour can suck up to large constituencies, such as to those who follow soccer or buy pop records. The honours system is now divorced from its original purpose, which was to reward leadership, merit, service and a contribution to our country. The lack of imagination in the process also leads to many who are recognised being honoured inadequately. One such is George Lloyd’s heroine. Lady Thatcher reputedly declined an earldom because she feared that her son’s inheriting it would be controversial. But now that a hereditary peerage confers no right upon heirs to sit in the Lords and legislate, what objection can there be to people of real distinction being given them?

Talking of lists, I almost took an interest in the recent BBC stunt to find the nation’s favourite novel. However, the long list was so uninspiring that I was dissuaded, and the short list seemed to have been chosen from the most mediocre. The three novels I regard as the finest in the English language — Ulysses, The Way of All Flesh and Wolf Solent —were nowhere. I keep telling people that Joyce’s masterpiece is not difficult, is packed with humour and other varieties of brilliance, and is an essential read for anyone who considers him or herself to be well read. I usually fail to convince them. Next 16 June is the centenary of the day on which the novel is set. I trust that suitably drink-fuelled plans are afoot in Dublin and elsewhere to mark it appropriately. If ever there was an excuse to broaden the minds of the reading public to travel beyond the dross they have been forced to read for GCSE or seen dramatised by Mr Andrew Davies on television, this is it.

The other day at dinner I sat next to a woman who, with the rest of her parochial church council, had just sacked their vicar for financial incompetence. He is being replaced by a woman. More and more incumbents in small rural parishes appear to be women. As a militant atheist this is of absolutely no concern to me, though I know many Anglicans will, for reasons of doctrinal conservatism, find it very shocking. My companion felt that within 100 years the Anglican clergy would be predominantly female, which (come to think of it) is rather what is happening to the teaching profession. I know that, if that is the case, many Anglicans of traditional views who have so far held fast will convert to Roman Catholicism. Could it be that many of these new women priests are fifth columnists sent by the Pope to help regain his jurisdiction in this realm of England?

A friend who works in the building tells me that New Change, the long curvilinear office block to the east of St Paul’s built by Victor Heal in the 1950s, could be demolished in the next couple of years. It has a huge internal courtyard — described as ‘bleak’ in Pevsner — and, with land going at several squillions an acre in the City, is earmarked for redevelopment. New Change looks fine from a distance but is horrid close up. It has cheap and nasty brick, tatty stone dressings and, above all, repulsive metal windows with too many glazing bars. The quality of design has improved so much in recent years that there is now, at last, a fair chance that what replaces it will be an improvement — and it might even last more than 40 years. That will, no doubt, not prevent those activists who wish to preserve buildings from the Hammer Horror period of British architecture from campaigning that this nasty edifice be allowed to survive. If Mr Blair wished to court popularity (and God knows he needs to) he should immediately establish a Demolition Commission to deal as a matter of urgency with the removal of most of the hideous concrete excrescences which add that authentic Stalinist, suicidal feel to London and so many of our other towns and cities.

The solecism I thought offended me more than any other was the use of the word ‘prevaricate’ where the writer meant ‘procrastinate’. A half-educated snob with whom I once worked was addicted to this pompous misusage, failing to see that not all ditherers are liars. Of late, however, my wrath has been redirected to the nauseating phrase ‘fall pregnant’. Even quite respectable newspapers allow this preposterous term to creep into their columns. ‘Dawn thought she had a wonderful career ahead of her as an actress