One of the things that lockdown allows you to do is not just to read but to re-read. Obviously the smart thing to do is to say that you are ‘re-reading’ vast books you haven’t actually read (Gibbon, Macaulay etc). Easier, and often more enjoyable, is to re-read pieces you remember but haven’t read for a while.
Recent days have given me a good opportunity for doing that, among much else. And perhaps I should say at the outset that the editor has not asked me to do this. I have been offered no bribes, dangled no promotions and offered not even one bottle of Pol Roger. But I simply say, with honesty, that when the mind roams over various subjects and memories of recent years, pieces in The Spectator do stand out.
And so one pleasure I have allowed myself in recent days is to re-read pieces from the magazine that I haven’t been able to forget. Indeed I have gone back over them to check that they are as good as I remember them being – they are – and allow myself the pleasure of reading them again. A pleasure which I now pass on to anyone who wants to follow.
This is a very select (and perhaps first) selection of Spectator articles. All from my own time writing for the magazine. And I give just four to start off with. All happen to have some, albeit glancing, relevance to the current situation.
The first is by our late colleague Clarissa Tan who died six years ago now. Clarissa was a wonderful writer, as she was a person: sparky, super-bright and uncommonly careful – as well as kind – in her judgments. Whenever she had a piece to propose you knew it had come about because she’d thought about it. You just knew that the result would always be worth reading. This piece turned out to be one of her last, but it’s been on my mind for a couple of reasons. Firstly because Clarissa was so fair-minded about our own country, in a way that a vengeful new generation of writers have chosen not to be. And secondly because of her eye-opening account of what real racism looks like from China (among other places).
The second is one of the most memorable pieces I have ever read in The Spectator. It is from 2003 and is in that bucket of pieces that at the time – and still – I think ‘Gosh I can’t believe we ran that, but I’m glad we did’. It is an account by ‘Sean Thomas’ of how an addiction to online pornography landed the author in hospital. I might say that over the years as I climbed my way up the rungs of the Spectator ladder from lowly occasional book reviewer to my vast current heights I have still been able to find out nothing about ‘Sean Thomas’. God knows I have tried. Many years ago I discovered that it was a pseudonym. But my often crafty attempts to squeeze the author’s real identity from the (I think) now only one living person who knows have availed me naught. In any case this piece will have a relevance – and strike a warning – for some lonely readers and so I offer it as a work of warning as well as amusement.
My third selection is from Mary Wakefield, who in 2011 wrote a cover piece for The Spectator on a failed bill to alter the UK’s abortion laws. This is a tricky one. In the UK people laugh at Americans for getting hung up on abortion. But for some of us (even those of us who broadly speaking favour the non-Catholic rather than Catholic view on this issue) the American abortion debate is a remarkable thing to behold.
Tedious, repetitive and caught in a side-issue for most of the country though it certainly is, it is also a demonstration that the country remembers to discuss seriously moral issues that are serious. It is notoriously difficult to find anything original to say about the abortion debate, but as another hack said to me at the time Mary’s piece came out, she managed it here.
Most memorable was the simple and sincere observation that there was something wrong in the whole way in which the subject is discussed in the UK. That it is discussed as though it is a victory rather than a deep, profound, sadness. Mary absolutely hit the right tone in this piece. In recent days a number of people have observed the oddity in the UK of a country which currently views churches as closed because they are ‘non-essential’ while abortion services continue to be regarded as so essential that we have adapted to allow them. It needn’t be either/or, of course. But I’ve rarely read a piece which takes the full complexity and sadness of this issue into proper account so well.
Finally (for now) my mind has recently been casting itself back to pieces of prose which just made me gasp. Not only in the way that ‘Sean Thomas’s’ piece did back in 2003 (i.e. the gasp of – I can’t believe somebody wrote and published this, even under a pseudonym). Rather it is a gasp that we jealous and competitive writers sometimes must admit that we emit when a fellow writer does something we simply admire as a fellow craftsman, or tradesman.
Our Low Life columnist, Jeremy Clarke, writes memorable things more often than almost any other writer currently column-ing. But this column, which I have hunted down, is from 2013. Among all of Jeremy’s columns it’s one of the ones that struck me the most, and I’m happy to relate that it was as good re-reading it seven years on as it was the first time. Not many columns stay in your mind. But this one, describing a journey to hell and back, in a walk to the bar, just made me whistle with admiration.
Anyhow – I hope you enjoy these as much as I have. I’d be delighted to hear which pieces (from this century or before) have stuck with you the way these did with me.