Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 1 June 2017

Also: Catholic questions for election candidates; my initial hostility to John Noakes

The Spectator's Notes | 1 June 2017
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At Mass on Sunday, we were issued with a letter from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, entitled ‘The General Election 2017’. It set out questions which Catholics should ask candidates. These included the ‘uncertain future’ of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU, rehabilitation in prisons, immigration, overseas aid, welfare services. All important issues, of course. But it was striking what we were not invited to raise. Nothing about how high spending and taxation might burden poorer taxpayers. No subject in which the interests of UK citizens (who, after all, are the people for whom any British election takes place) come first. No mention of the difficulties of immigration for people living here, of the Islamist threat, or of any need to defend ourselves. No suggestion that creating wealth might assist human dignity and opportunity. Even when discussing trade deals, no mention of free trade. No hint that national independence could help democracy. On strong Catholic issues, no direct reference to abortion or to marriage (except as it assists immigration rights). The Catholic magisterium had boiled down to an upmarket version of the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Operation Temperer was put into effect for the first time after the Manchester bombing. Troops substitute for some police tasks in a terrorist emergency. The Bombay and Paris attacks rightly convinced our authorities they must guard against what is known as a ‘marauding terrorist firearms threat’. In this case, the deployment of 1,000 troops freed up 1,100 armed police officers. A couple of problems have emerged. One is optical. If troops are involved, the media naturally look for film of them — hence the foolishly authorised sequences in Downing Street and Parliament, as if the security of the powerful mattered more than that of Manchester. In reality, the military support is low-key — guarding Dounreay and Sellafield, for example, and letting the police lead. But it looks the opposite, and suggests a nationwide crisis, as France has felt since Opération Sentinelle began in 2015. The other is the problem of scaling back. Once you have deployed so many troops, when do you revert to normal (as we began to do on Saturday)? After the attack, the threat level rose from ‘severe’ to ‘imminent’. Was this really a correct intelligence-based assessment, or the result of prime-ministerial pressure to act tough? It must be agonisingly difficult to calibrate these things right. The way it was done last week failed to give the necessary reassurance.

How well I remember the impact of John Noakes when he joined Blue Peter in the mid-1960s. My first reaction, as a nine-year-old fan of the programme, was, I must admit, hostile. Noakes had a West Yorkshire accent like that of the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. This seemed a negative. I also regarded him as a rival to Christopher Trace, the Old Cranleighian who had been in post throughout my viewing life. I considered Christopher to be a trustworthy, avuncular role model and John to be a bit of an idiot. I particularly admired a manly jersey which Christopher brought back from a Blue Peter expedition to Norway. One day in 1967, however, Valerie Singleton suddenly announced on air that ‘Christopher has gone to Spain to write a book’, and that was the last we saw of him. Only years later did one hear rumours of scandal. According to Wikipedia, he had begun an affair with a 19-year-old hotel receptionist on that Norwegian trip, so perhaps the jersey was a memento. Trace’s wife then divorced him, and his consequent offer to resign from the programme was eventually accepted when the production team had decided viewers were happy with John. Was I happy with John? I certainly came to admire his courage in jumping out of aeroplanes, off cliffs etc, but he seemed insufficiently grave to me. The BBC was a serious thing, I felt, and children’s programmes should be as serious as anything else on it, unless declaredly funny, like Top Cat. John may have been the first example of what was later called dumbing down. Nowadays virtually all presenters are like him, though less genuine. Poor Christopher died of throat cancer in Walthamstow, aged 59.

My thanks to D.J. Butterfield, who has sent me names taken from battles (see Notes, 20 May). The Crimea seems to have been the first war to have supplied several, notably Alma. There was a geologist called Inkerman Rogers, and Florence Nightingale sought in vain to have one of her Verney great-great nieces named Balaclava. Most touching, though, is the story of Ensign Thomas Deacon and his wife Martha, who followed him in the Napoleonic wars. They lost one another in the mêlée, she heavily pregnant and with three children in tow. She walked ten hours back to Brussels in search of him through thunder and rain and, having found her husband, safely gave birth, on the day after the battle, to a daughter, Waterloo.

Houses live and die: there is a time for building/ And a time for living and for generation/ And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane/ And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots/ And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto’. So ends the first stanza of T.S. Eliot’s ‘East Coker’. Now I hear from a resident of East Coker that the Bath and Wells diocese wants to sell its vicarage. The house is Georgian, forming what my correspondent calls ‘a charming quartet with its neighbouring church, almshouses and pub’. It is unusual nowadays for a country vicarage of that age still to be performing its function. The saddest bit is the reason for sale. The departing archdeacon declared that ‘the sort of priest who would like to live there is not the sort of priest we would want’, as if it is snooty and irreligious to inhabit handsome architecture among one’s flock. I’m sure Eliot would have found the poetic way of explaining how a fine working vicarage can live well — not only for its inhabitants, but also for its parishioners.