The attempt by the Pope to pronounce his Easter blessing on Sunday and his failure in that attempt were so moving. On the day which, of all days, affirms life, John Paul II must particularly have longed to speak. As he struggled to do so, he looked like a strong man drowning, in sight of the shore yet unable to reach it. Some say that such a sick man should abdicate. But surely the Pope is fulfilling the vows which he made when he became a priest. He is trying to stand in the place of Christ, not usurping Him, but imitating Him. Against the humiliations which Christ endured, those which accompany the approach of natural death must seem minor, and the Pope wants to be seen to bear them for the sake of his Master. His example must be particularly inspiring to other old people. Despite the huge increase in longevity, we are less and less led by the old, and they tend to disappear from our sight some time before they die. When you see the Pope, you think, ‘When I am weak, then am I strong.’
‘The greatest conservative Prime Minister has died,’ a friend rang to say, and I knew that he did not mean Margaret Thatcher. Every detail of Jim Callaghan’s life was conservative: his long, happy marriage to Audrey (there’s a conservative name), whom he met through a Nonconformist church, his work in the navy and in the Inland Revenue, the sailor’s tattoo on his arm and his desire to conceal it, his belief in respectable trade unionism, his Old Labour combination of decency and ruthlessness, his instinctive distance from continental Europe, his avuncular demeanour, his patriotism, his graduation from rented rooms in Portsmouth to a small Sussex farm, everything. He has the honour of having almost no reforms associated with his name, apart from the introduction of zebra crossings. Unfortunately, his career also illustrates the limitations of pure conservatism. Attractive though it undoubtedly is, it does not know what to do when confronted with malignancy. The Winter of Discontent from 1978–79 showed that his view of life had become a kindly fantasy. Jim could not really deal with ‘the enemy within’, perhaps because the concept was so inimical to him. Luckily, someone else could.
At last, as I have been urging, more attention is focusing on Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, the man who is, through no fault of his own, the only obstacle to a full church wedding for the Prince of Wales. The Bishop of Salisbury, Dr David Stancliffe, has said that Prince Charles must apologise to the former head of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps before he can marry his ex-wife. The words of apology, apparently, are not prescribed. As a great believer in the invention of tradition, I hope that they will be expressed with suitable majesty and eventually be incorporated into the liturgy of all future royal remarriages. The Form of Solemnisation of Apology might begin, ‘O Lord, forasmuch as I have displeased thy servant Andrew ...’ and continue in similar vein. Over the centuries, their precise origin would be forgotten, rather like that of the Cap of Maintenance at the State Opening of Parliament, so that future Dimblebys and other holders of hereditary offices would speak solemnly about the ‘Andrew clause’ without quite knowing what it was.
The Tory injustice this week is not against Howard Flight but against Adrian Hilton, the Conservative now ex-candidate for Slough. Since this column’s mention of the case last week, Mr Hilton was interviewed again at Conservative headquarters and was offered the enticing ‘choice’ by 9 a.m. last Tuesday morning of resigning or being sacked. He then heard from the BBC, not from the Tories, that he had been sacked anyway. Mr Hilton is supported by his local party. As a result, the entire local party has been sacked too, so it has closed its office and will not produce the new candidate’s deposit or do anything else in the campaign. The Tory bigwigs say that Mr Hilton had to go because the Catholic Herald called him a bigot on the strength of two pieces he published in The Spectator in 2003 supporting the Protestant Succession and questioning Roman Catholic influence in the European Union. Now Michael Howard has come out against the Protestant Succession, but poor Mr Hilton, naturally, was not to know this in 2004 when, in full knowledge of his articles, Conservative HQ approved his candidacy. If candidates are to be kicked out just because they are called names by the trade journals of the organisation criticised, will there be any left?
Gerry Adams says that the men who murdered Robert McCartney are ‘cowards’ and should ‘face up to their responsibilities’, but he knows perfectly well that the chief suspect at present walks round the Short Strand area in the company of one of the IRA’s leaders, a man who is close to Adams. As media attention drifts away from the case, no helpful witnesses come forward and the British authorities deliberately do little to pursue the matter, this column proposes to start a small vigil by reporting new developments each week. All relevant information gratefully received.
‘Home stays’ are great things for school-children. They are the arrangements which allow pupils to be billeted on local families when they go abroad on school trips — a week’s language improvement in France, a botanical expedition, a choir tour, etc. Now, I gather, they are threatened by ‘Health and Safety’. New guidelines require that before a student may stay in anybody else’s house anywhere a teacher must personally visit the premises to check that they and their inhabitants are suitable. The recommendation of the local school is not enough. It would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for schools to do what is demanded, so they face the choice which is becoming increasingly common for all organisations which have to deal with children — do you give in to the rules and withdraw the service, or give the children what is good for them, and run the risk of being persecuted in the courts?
To my wife’s displeasure, I have picked five snake’s-head fritillaries from our garden. There are hundreds, so I think it is all right, but she says that every single one should stay so that they can continue to spread. Because of their almost sombre plum colour they are not joyous emblems of spring, but I picked them because I think they have a more beautiful shape than any other flower, and if you stand a few of them in glass you can see it all so clearly. The delicacy of the petals (the ‘snake’s head’) is astonishing, and the angular stalk and thin leaves have a modernist look which sets off the flower to perfection.