Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 15 November 2008

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

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My old friend ‘Posh Ed’ Stourton begins his new book about political correctness (It’s a PC World, Hodder and Stoughton) with an anecdote about the Queen Mother. She told him, in private, that the EEC would never work, because of all those ‘Huns, Wops and Dagoes’. Ed was displeased: ‘I thought that what she had said was nasty and ugly.’ He thinks what upset him was that the ‘ghastly old bigot’ (a bit of ageism in that description?) was expressing racist sentiments. I choose to interpret the matter rather differently. What really shocked him, I suggest, is that the Queen Mother forgot two basic points of etiquette to observe when one has the privilege of talking to members of the BBC family. The first is that one must never use rough, colloquial words like ‘Dago’ in their presence. The other is that one must never, ever speak ill of the European Union. By failing to follow this pattern of deference which does so much to hold our social fabric together, the ex-Empress of India was committing lèse majesté. Ed is too well brought-up to mention it, but I expect she also failed to curtsy to him.

It is important to remember, however, that because the BBC family is above you, me and the Queen Mother, it is fine for them to use rude words to you. If they take your money by law in order to pay someone £6 million a year to ring up a grandfather and tell him that one of their stars has just ‘f***ed your grand-daughter’, you should feel honoured at attention from such a noble source and concede droit de seigneur without complaint. If, like Mock The Week, they make public jokes about your daughter’s sexual organs in old age (your daughter, in this case, being the Queen), you should, if you are alive, smile respectfully.

In last week’s Notes, talking about my intention to keep my television but refuse to pay my licence fee unless Jonathan Ross is sacked, I mentioned that several other rebels have contacted me. They say that the BBC does not dare act against their defiance. Since then, another, John Kelly, has told me that he has refused to pay his licence fee for eight years because, he believes, the BBC is in breach of its Charter to be ‘fair, balanced and objective’ in relation to the EU: ‘By its failure to pursue me, the BBC is implicitly accepting my case and others may be encouraged to pursue the same course, with the additional advantage of not having contributed to the salaries of Messrs Brand and Ross.’

On Saturday, we attended what I think might almost count as the perfect country funeral. A friend and neighbour of my family for 50 years, called Anne Norris, had died at the age of 82. She was the daughter of a farmer, the widow of a war veteran and farmer, and the mother of a farmer, and of three other children. She was a magistrate of liberal inclinations, a church-warden, a strong, active, tennis-playing, kind, clever woman, who had a gusty laugh and a way of speaking directly. (When I first introduced our son to her, she said, ‘Oh, he takes after his father — poor little chap!’). The small mediaeval village church took in more than 300 people, which meant that a third of the congregation had to stand, and that the sheer press of people created an informal and jolly, though emotional, atmosphere. A very high proportion of those present were young. The service was Book of Common Prayer. Two old friends gave touching talks in mid-20th-century accents (the word ‘happy’ pronounced ‘hiappeh’). There was ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’, I Corinthians 13 (AV), Crimond, and the Nunc Dimittis. The vicar spoke of how Anne always wished to give back to God and neighbour what she had received, and how she always won her battles with him (the vicar, not God). Grandchildren played music and sang, and bore the body out to interment in the churchyard in November wind and rain. It was very sad, of course, but not painful, because the funeral performed its task. It brought together every thread of a long, good life so that you could see the full tapestry. I think there are a lot of people like Anne in Britain in all generations: it is just that they are forbidden to appear on television.

At the reception afterwards, many raised the subject of Ross and the BBC and wanted them punished, but the recurring difficulty is the fear that an end to the licence fee would put paid to Radio 3 and Radio 4, and the handful of television programmes which are worth watching. It is a very reasonable anxiety, and although in general I like free markets, it is not obvious that privatisation would guarantee quality. I cannot believe that there is no solution to this problem, though. One could be that those who like the radio channels could subscribe to them. The costs would be less than membership of the National Trust. The objection to this is that free riders could listen while paying nothing, but there might be technological solutions to that. If there are no technological solutions, then the licence fee is doomed anyway, because free riders are already finding ways of watching television free (by computer, phone, etc) without owning a set, and it is all but impossible to catch them.

This Remembrance Day, it was often and rightly emphasised that we should remember those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the dead of two world wars. It is particularly sad and unfair when servicemen are not properly remembered because the war in which they died happened to be unpopular or the cause has been left behind by history. It would therefore be a good thing if much more attention were paid to the troops who served in the Cyprus emergency from 1955–59. In that time, 371 British servicemen died containing the insurgency of the EOKA separatists. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the end of the emergency (which led to independence in 1960), and a memorial is planned. Politics prevents it being sited in Wayne’s Creek, the British cemetery in the Turkish part of the divided island where most of the dead lie, so the memorial will be erected in the old British cemetery in Kyrenia. Money is needed: or British Cyprus Memorial Trust, 26 York Street, London W1U 6PZ.

For years, the phrase ‘African-American’ has annoyed me. It pointlessly avoids the word ‘black’, and seeks to manufacture an identity. It is like saying that I, whose great-great grandfather was born in Ireland in 1811, am Irish-British. But the interesting thing about Barack Obama is that he exactly is African-American — half one and half the other. In him the twain have met.