Justin Webb is normally one of the least self-righteous BBC presenters, but he was out-Maitlising rivals on the Today programme on Tuesday. In that special, shocked tone broadcasters usually reserve for stories about racism or paedophilia, Webb contrasted ‘the final goodbyes not said’ by those who followed the rules with the Prime Minister’s birthday party/gathering in the Cabinet Room. He quoted Adam Wagner, ‘the human rights lawyer and Covid rules expert’, that it had been ‘obviously a birthday party’. It was ‘not denied’, Webb gravely intoned, ‘there was birthday cake’. How does he prevent himself bursting out laughing? The longer this story runs, now with added police, the more preposterous the solemnity becomes. The Prime Minister is unfit to govern, apparently, because his staff gave him a cake on his birthday. In the 1960s ‘satire boom’, Peter Cook warned Britain might ‘sink giggling into the sea’. Now it is sinking much faster, completely po-faced. Half the country feels this way, but dares not say it.
King George VI died in his sleep 70 years ago next week, after a day at Sandringham shooting hares and pigeons (the pheasant season having just ended). ‘I hope,’ said Winston Churchill to his doctor, ‘you will arrange something like that for me. But don’t do it till I tell you.’ He then broadcast to the nation. His phrase about the King having ‘walked with death’ was much admired. Evelyn Waugh was unimpressed. ‘Do your foreign set know that our King is dead?’ he wrote to Nancy Mitford in Paris. ‘Mr Churchill made a dreadful speech on the TSF [Telégraphie sans fil, i.e. wireless]. Triteness enlivened only by gross blunders… George VI’s reign will go into history as the most disastrous my unhappy country has known since Matilda and Stephen.’ ‘All the newspapers,’ he raged, ‘are full of the glorification of Elizabeth Tudor [because the new Queen was Elizabeth II], the vilest of her sex.’ He added that ‘The King died at the moment when Princess Elizabeth [in Kenya] first put on a pair of “slacks”… The Duke of Windsor lost his throne much more by his beret than by his adultery.’
Harold Nicolson saw the Elizabeth comparison differently: ‘How furious the great Elizabeth would have been to know that she had been succeeded by this sweet girl!’ The day the King’s death was announced was polling day in the Bournemouth by-election. His son Nigel was the Tory candidate. Harold was terrified the news would deter voters. In fact, Nigel won by almost 14,000 votes. Mollie Panter-Downes, in her London letter in the New Yorker, commented that ‘the week’s events have proved beyond doubt the impossibility of the British ever entering into any European federation, since Britons are already federated into a family which has loyalties and traditions bred in its bones’.
Writing to Father Hamilton Johnson, a High Anglican priest in the United States, Rose Macaulay said: ‘The funniest thing announced by the BBC [after the King’s death]… was that, during the period of national mourning, variety comedians on the air were abstaining from making jokes in bad taste.’ Seventy years on, that temporary BBC suspension seems to have become permanent. All ‘variety’-type jokes are, in effect, banned. Although the grief was genuine, there was widespread feeling that the long period of mourning was overdone. Denis and Margaret Thatcher, just married, had to cancel their first cocktail party because of it. There were shortages in London, Margaret complained to her sister Muriel, who was married to a farmer: could she buy some of her eggs ‘on a strictly business basis’?
Next week, Jesus College, Cambridge, goes to an ecclesiastical court seeking permission to take down a listed (Grinling Gibbons) monument to Tobias Rustat, its 17th-century benefactor who may have profited from slavery. Yet it ignores all criticism of its corporate and individual engagements with the regime of the Chinese Communist party, which can reasonably be judged guilty of enslaving hundreds of thousands of Uighur people and many other oppressions. Another China/Jesus connection has been found by the Henry Jackson Society in the course of its investigations into British university links with militarily tied universities in China. Professor Geoff Parks, the college’s senior tutor and a professor of nuclear engineering, has, it records, co-written and published six papers with an official from the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science, China’s broad equivalent of Porton Down, on matters related to satellite network design and aerospace engineering. Some of his other co-authors come from the National University of Defence Technology, a PLA offshoot. Some of this research was funded by the PLA. I have sought Professor Parks’s comments but had no reply.
We heat our house in the country with LPG. A computer automatically informs the supplier when we have fallen to 20 per cent of capacity and its tanker comes and fills us up. In winter, however, the system often fails, due to what the company calls ‘an exceptionally high volume of calls’. It is annually shocked by the fact that people need more gas in January than in July. This week, no delivery appeared, though we were down to 4 per cent in the tank, so I rang to sort it out. The automatic switchboard told me I was 120th in the queue. This year’s recorded message has upped the ‘exceptionally high’ volume of calls to ‘unprecedented’, repeating this for 90 minutes as I sat with my phone on. In between, it warned me that the company ‘will not accept abusive behaviour’. I don’t think I will either. The following day, the promised delivery still had not arrived, so my wife spent two and half hours on the phone chasing it. As I write, we have turned off all gas except for cooking and I am wearing four layers. Nowadays, such non-delivery is not just traditional British inefficiency. I discern the hand of Vladimir ‘Inky Poops’ Putin.