Stuart Reid

Diary - 8 May 2004

Desmond is the good guy, Black the bad guy. Go figure

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My granddaughter was christened at the Brompton Oratory on Saturday. Although the day was muggy and storms had been forecast, I am sorry to say that there was no thunder and lightening. Like Hector Berlioz recalling the circumstances of his birth — ‘I came into the world quite naturally, unheralded by any of the signs which, in poetic ages, preceded the advent of remarkable personages’ — I was a little put out that Holly’s reception into the Church was not accompanied by some celestial commotion. Other than that, the only bleak thing about the service was that it forced me yet again to confront my own perfidy: over the years, and with barely a thought, I have broken most of the baptismal vows I have made as a parent and godparent.

It is easy to laugh at the Oratory. My friend and former colleague Paul Goodman once said it put him in mind of ‘Brideshead Revisited choreographed by Derek Jarman’. But — and call me a sentimental old fool — I love the place. Its cavalry-twill Catholicism reminds me of my days at a Benedictine school in the 1950s, just before the Church was given a makeover by Vatican II and was left looking, even sounding, like Michael Jackson. Fifty years on I can still hear Gregorian chant (with Buddy Holly in the background) and smell new-mown cricket pitches. The abbey was at once English and universal. How little I valued it at the time! On Sundays I could not wait for Vespers to end — except perhaps once, when I was stoned — and I did not much care for cricket. Naturally, I was sacked.

Life at a British public school in the 1950s could be tough. (Not much more of this schoolboy smut.) To be sure, we were not hooded, attached to wires and told that if we fell over we’d be electrocuted — or at least I never heard of any such incident — but we were thrashed until blood welts formed, each of which would be worth about £10,000 today. I do not remember anyone complaining. Perhaps that is why I am not as moved by the so-called torture pictures as I should be. At least the monks did not sexually humiliate us, however, or allow Matron anywhere near the punishment cells. Only a revolutionary liberal society can place women in charge of male prisoners. Is the United States any longer a morally serious nation? All that is asked of Americans today, as Russell Baker observes in the current New York Review of Books, is that they shop, accept tax cuts and live in fear.

In three weeks’ time, talking of fear, I am required to present myself for jury service. I do not like courts: all those lumpen thugs, creepy coppers and reptilian pleaders; all that lying, evasion, fear and hopelessness. Such is my girlish sentimentality that I would be reluctant to reach a verdict that might result in a custodial sentence, unless the accused had done something truly wicked (by which I do not mean shoplifting, or even burglary). There are far too many young men in our prisons. To what purpose? After 18 months of buggery and dope, young thugs are released. Inevitably, having been further corrupted by the criminal justice system, they offend again. Why should anyone be surprised? Alas, there does not seem to be any way out of jury service. My doctor won’t give me a note. I suppose I could plead mental incompetence, but that would mean consulting a psychiatrist and perhaps doing a stretch in an institution. My guess is that the human resources people at Canary Wharf would not be amused if it got out that the deputy editor of The Spectator was insane. So it looks as though I am just going to have to swallow my Valium and do my duty.

If Timothy Garton Ash had been at the dinner party, we might have had an improving discussion about the likely ramifications of the accession of ten new nations to the European Union; but he wasn’t, so we turned to the usual topics: falling sperm counts, clinical depression, short-term memory loss, failing powers of concentration, and so on. In the confessional mode of the evening — and in the interests of medical science — I recalled a tricky moment some years ago when I was being treated for a torn cartilage in my right knee. The routine was that I’d take off my trousers and the physio would massage my knee. On my second or third visit, she asked me to drop my strides, as per usual, which I did. But I did not stop there. I unstrapped my watch and placed it carefully on the ‘bedside table’. The physio looked puzzled. I removed my tie. The physio began to look alarmed. I started to undo the buttons of my shirt. ‘That will not be necessary, Mr Reid,’ she said. Then I came to my senses. I just hope that I have my wits about me in the jury box later this month.

Here’s a curious thing: Richard Desmond has become a heart-throb on the Right, and not just because he has switched the support of the Express to the Tories. He is considered a sexy beast, or so I gather, because his Hitler impersonation upset Guardian leader-writers and other killjoys. Conrad Black, on the other hand, is vilified in many quarters on the Right because he may turn out to have been a law-breaker. Desmond is not a law-breaker. On the contrary. The end of censorship has allowed him to prosper as a law-abiding, and therefore blameless, pornographer. With the blessing of the law, he has corrupted and demeaned thousands of people. Black may have pulled a fast one, but he has not corrupted anyone. He is a civil and civilised man. He has put his intellectual and financial muscle behind not only the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator but also the Jerusalem Post and the Catholic Herald. Yet in the judgment of some gung-ho Conservatives — though not the editor of this magazine — Desmond is the good guy, Black the bad guy. Go figure.

Last week, in his splendid new column, Charles Moore said that ‘iconic’ is the most overused word right now (although he didn’t say ‘right now’). I suppose it depends on ‘where you are coming from’, and no doubt there’ll be a lively correspondence, but, if I may get in first, the words that I would like to see used less often are: ‘choice’, ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘resolve’ and ‘liberty’.

Daniel Bernard, the former French ambassador to London, died last week. He was a charming and witty man. He became briefly infamous when, at a private dinner party, he described Israel as a shitty little country. The remark was made public, and Bernard was accused of anti-Semitism. I am convinced that Bernard spoke as he did to tease. He was the guest of prominent Zionists, and perhaps calculated that they would have the smarts to see that he was just trying to keep the conversation lively. Not long after his error of judgment — indeed of taste — Bernard was sent to Algeria. He was a self-confessed Anglophile, but it would not surprise me if after leaving London he sometimes wondered whether England was perhaps the shitty little country. May he rest in peace.