John Laughland

Diary - 4 December 2004

Quare tristis es, anima mea?

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A charming retired lady doctor of my acquaintance buttonholes me whenever I run into her in London. She knows I write for The Spectator and she is convinced that this Diary page is an irritating spoof. ‘It’s just not possible that those people, like Joan Collins, could ever actually write such rubbish,’ she tells me in a Donegal accent undiluted by a life spent in Goring. I have pleaded with her, insisting that she is confusing this page with the one in Private Eye, but I can tell she does not quite believe me. At last I have my chance, by penning the page myself, to convince her that the rubbish which follows is real. Or maybe she will simply conclude that I have passed on her story as an anecdote for the spoof-writer of this column who, this week, has assumed my identity.

One’s grip on reality — and on the reality of one’s self — is at its weakest on the cusp between sleep and waking. Last Monday I drifted into consciousness to the sound of my childhood — the seductive and melancholy arc-like whistle of the Barbadian blackbird. The air in my bedroom hung soupy with humidity, for 15 inches of rain had fallen in seven days; there was a sense of loneliness and quiet. During the night, the milliard tiny tree-frogs, each one the size of a thumbnail, whose seemingly disembodied bleeping floods the darkness, had bleeped even more furiously than usual. I potter down to Heron Bay, where a magnificent Palladian fantasy mansion nestles improbably in the manchineel trees by the sand, and slither into the azure bath which is the Caribbean Sea. As ever, the beaches are empty; next to a beach hut, a man wearing a tea cosy loafs by a sign saying ‘No loafing’.

I enjoy the slightly schizophrenic sense of being the only person in the world who has both an Hermès beach bag and a polo shirt from Primark (price: £2.50). So for lunch, I make my way to Sandy Lane — to a small white Toyota van parked outside the luxury hotel of that name. Poking out of its doors at the back are three ample West Indian bottoms, which wiggle around in the air like ducks’ as Sandra and her team, their heads covered in bandanas, fish out take-away lunches for what seem like hundreds of gangling young workers who wait languidly behind their behinds. Like the Tardis, Sandra’s van must be bigger on the inside than on the outside to achieve this miracle. In the midday sun, the heat is ferocious, and yet she serves shepherd’s pie, beef stew, roast chicken and fried fish (usually flying fish or dolphin), with mashed potato, gravy, macaroni pie, salad, breadfruit and bread. You don’t have to have all the trimmings, of course, but Sandra usually asks — or rather ‘aks’, as the Barbadians say — ‘You wa’ everyting?’ Everyting it is.

The leaden skies of Ukraine are distant and seem unreal, even though I had been under them only a few days previously. I begin to wonder whether Jean Baudrillard was right that the Gulf war never took place: when the West decides to sponsor the overthrow of a government by means of a ‘popular revolution’, representation really does become reality. For days, the TV is flooded with images of ‘the people’, while the even larger demonstrations on the other side are hardly shown. The adjective ‘Orwellian’ seems lame when I hear a reporter explain that the pro-Yanukovich demonstrators have a hopelessly statist Soviet mentality because, in the absence of any instructions as to what to do, they wander aimlessly around the streets, while the pro-Yushchenko demonstrations are extremely professional and well organised, and this shows their genuine spontaneity.

Back in London, where the music of a steel band ripples outside Turnbull & Asser in Jermyn Street, I do a flurry of interviews for the BBC. As with the lady doctor, I can tell that my interviewers do not believe me. In fact, they think I am nuts when I claim that the Americans are behind the events in Ukraine, even though the person interviewed after me on Radio Four is the head of Freedom House, James Woolsey, who explains why his organisation supports the ‘revolutionaries’ in Kiev. James Woolsey’s previous job was Director of the CIA. People are happy to accept that the US in the past sponsored the coups against Salvador Allende in Chile or Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran; but they experience an enormous psychological reluctance to admit that it could be happening now. No doubt it is threatening to their self-esteem if you suggest they are victims of deception.

The soil, at least, does not tell lies. I am up to my elbows in it at my allotment when the mobile rings. This time it’s CNN. I get earth all over the buttons as I fumble to answer it in the gloaming. My mind is on the Jerusalem artichokes and fresh cabbage we are having for dinner, with three pheasants which a friend shot during a recent weekend I spent with him in the country. (I had missed every time.) The charming and cultivated man on whose land we hunted has just been had up for looking at kiddie porn, a testimony to the terrible power of fantasy, and to the boundlessness of sex just beneath the quaint veneer of all our respectabilities. On a whim, I make the pheasants’ sauce with the juice of Iranian pomegranates and it is delicious. There are few greater joys in life than watching guests enjoy their food.

Evelyn Waugh once reproached the Conservative party for never having put the clock back one minute, but I am happy to report that there is one institution where this is occurring — the Brompton Oratory. Since the ordination of two young priests there in September, you can now always find at least one Tridentine Mass in the main church in the early hours of the morning. Although it has become rare in the last 40 years, the sight of the biretta-clad priest and server making their way silently to a side altar is serenely timeless, as is the Latin they mutter in the flickering candlelight. Every day, I wheel in my dear friend Maita, whose age I stopped counting after 150 people attended her 90th birthday champagne reception some years ago; for 30 minutes, I have the luxury of spending time quietly in the company of the truth and several devout Filipina ladies wearing buttoned-up raincoats and mantillas. Suffering and forgiveness, the twin pillars of the Catholic religion, are surely the ultimate reality; in fact, they are really two sides of the same coin, ‘misery’ and ‘mercy’ being essentially the same word. So it is with painful self-knowledge that, every morning, my heart winces anew as the mournful question is intoned in the dark: Quare tristis es, anima mea?