It was half an hour before the Spectator’s Christmas carol service, at which I was to read a lesson, and I was just putting on a tie in my London flat.
It was half an hour before the Spectator’s Christmas carol service, at which I was to read a lesson, and I was just putting on a tie in my London flat. The intercom bell rang and a man said that he had come to see me. Then the receiver started squeaking with feedback and I could hear nothing more. The porter of our mansion block then rang me. Two men, he said, were on their way up in the lift. Since I had no idea who they were, I asked him to take them back into the hall and find out. He did so, and rang back. They were called, I think they said, Roger Spriddell and Denis Clayden, and they were from Capita. Capita, I remembered, is the company charged with the collection of the BBC licence fee. (It is interesting that the BBC and its arm, TV licensing, do not use their own names when doing the rougher side of the work.) So here, at last, were the people who had been threatening me for years with an investigation for the licence I don’t have for the television I don’t have in my London flat. I went down and said hello to them. They were burly but respectable-looking men in Barbours — ex-policemen, I judged. With a tactful cough, Mr Spriddell sought to conduct our conversation in private away from the porter, but I did not mind having it with witnesses. I explained that I did not have a licence and objected to the offensive letters. But Mr Spriddell said that this was not what he had come about. He had been deputed by the manager of the Sussex bit of the operation to hunt me down. At home in Sussex, readers may recall, we do indeed have a television, but since July I have refused to pay the television licence because of the BBC’s failure to sack Jonathan Ross. According to Mr Spriddell, the Sussex posse could not find me, hence the surprise London visit. I explained that their men had called twice without warning and on both occasions I had happened to be out. All the Sussex team had to do was to ring my number and I would readily make an appointment. I then gave my number, which Mr Spriddell said he had anyway. We parted, and I scurried off to St Bride’s to read from Dickens — a Sketch by Boz about how, at Christmas, we must ignore ‘dismal reminiscences’ and ‘Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many’.
Obviously, I could be said to be courting official action (though I maintain that I am committing no crime), but the great majority of those prosecuted for licence evasion are not. And the numbers involved are huge. In 2008-09, the CPS brought 1,003,674 prosecutions for all other varieties of crime. On top of these, there were 168,800 for licence evasion, just over 15 per cent of the whole. No doubt the huge expense of public money in charging these people is not docked from the BBC’s income. No doubt, too, most of the licence-evaders are poor people, forced to pay a regressive tax for a service which need not be charged for at all, and which they may not even watch. The human misery caused by this is worthy of the pen of Dickens. But Mark Thompson must get his £834,000 per year and Jonathan Ross his £6 million somehow. It is a modern version of ‘Wretches hang that jurymen may dine’.
Oh dear, Lord Mandelson seems ‘conflicted’. He tells our editor [page 22] that he did indeed spend time at Waddesdon with Lord Rothschild and Saif Gaddafi [see Notes, 28 November], but he is still fretting about the shooting-party aspect of the thing. Shooting, he says, is ‘what you do when you’re that sort of person, and you’ve got nothing else to do, and you haven’t got two large red boxes of work to do, which I did on that Saturday’. This seems rude and unfair to his hosts and fellow guests. Traditionally, it has been possible to shoot and read the red boxes. Macmillan, Churchill, Baldwin, Balfour etc all shot. Alec Douglas-Home was one of the best shots in the country. It is interesting that even someone as disdainful of his party’s rank-and-file as Lord Mandelson is a bit nervous about being associated with field sports. Plutocrats and the heirs of former terrorist regimes are one thing, but not a pheasant falls to the ground without the wrath of ‘this great movement of ours’.
It is somehow fitting that a toy mouse which sings ‘Jingle Bells’ has been recalled after complaints that the words sounded like ‘paedophile’. (The mouse is a Chinese product and it seems that the man singing ‘Jingle Bells’ had difficulty with pronunciation.) I am convinced that our apparently growing inclination to paedophilia, and also our hysterical reaction to anything which even faintly suggests it, derive from the fact that not enough of us know children nowadays. We therefore find it hard to understand them or to interpret other people’s behaviour towards them. Our culture sentimentalises them, or hates them, or sexualises them, or somehow mixes all three. And these feelings are at their most difficult at Christmas, when hundreds of thousands of estranged parents, usually fathers, can’t or won’t see their children. In this nightmare world, ‘Jingle Bells’ probably does sound like ‘paedophile’.
Rampant atheists, I notice, are particularly unkeen on the childhood state. Richard Dawkins never tires of saying that the condition of religious belief is ‘infantile’. At least this view of life does not, unlike most current public culture, suck up to ‘kids’. But behind it lies the assumption that the human understanding of the universe and the meaning of life is, or can be, fully ‘adult’. Is that really so? How can Professor Dawkins be so sure? ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Speak if thou knowest.’ To be in the condition of children is not necessarily to be childish or infantile. It can mean, as Christmas shows, to be ‘child-like’. The word infant meant, originally, ‘wordless’. It is a good Christian paradox that the Word was made flesh in a wordless baby.
Realising that our own children are now grown-up, I remembered that a benevolent relation laid down port for them when they were born. I inquired what its value might be, in case they wanted to do something with the proceeds. Unfortunately, it is probably worth not very much more than the benefactor originally paid for it. For some reason, port has gone out of fashion as completely as tea services or antimacassars. Claret, traditionally the Tory drink, has soared in price, but Whiggish port has been cast aside by modern drinking habits. Since the port can’t pay for a trip round the world (or even a trip to Paris), a previously unconsidered possibility presents itself — why not actually drink it at Christmas?