There are certain political moves which have now become regular, almost ceremonial features of our national life. One is the IRA’s announcement that the conflict is over. This is repeated once a year or so, flagged by the BBC and No. 10 as ‘historic’, and used as a reason for further concessions to Sinn Fein. Another summer visitor, though only every four years, is a bid for the leadership of the Conservative party by Kenneth Clarke. The form goes like this. Friendly journalists write that Mr Clarke is ‘a fully paid-up member of the human race’ and polls are published showing that many voters have heard of him and some like him. Mr Clarke then indicates that he still wants to be prime minister (a job which, in his old-fashioned way, he believes goes with being Tory leader). Then the script takes one of two forms. Either it says that Ken is a very pragmatic fellow and is quite happy to do a deal to moderate his euroenthusiasm, or it says that Ken is a man of rocklike integrity and that the Conservative electorate must just take him as it finds him, euro and all. The first, the Paris-is-worth-a-Mass course, involving a deal with John Redwood, failed in 1997. The second, the here-I-stand Martin Luther act, failed in 2001. Four years have passed, and the ceremony is back once more. It is a reassuring tradition, and I hope Mr Clarke keeps doing it for so long that its origins are only dimly remembered, like Black Rod banging on the door of the Commons Chamber before the Queen’s Speech. I fear, however, that the rule changes by which the parliamentary party is grabbing power back from members means that Mr Clarke’s chance is now better than last time. It would be a great pity if the custom were to be broken by him actually winning.
Sometime in the late 1990s I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for my lunch guest and reading an article about how Gordon Brown could not get on with Robin Cook. Then I heard a voice at my ear: ‘It’s not that he can’t get on with me: Gordon Brown can’t get on with anyone.’ My guest was Robin Cook; but that was then. As we know from his generous funeral oration for his fellow Scot last week, Gordon Brown had become friends with Cook. When I last gave lunch to Robin Cook, a few weeks before this year’s election, he was full of the burgeoning relationship, mentioning his pleasure in a little toy robin that played music which Sarah Brown had given him. As usual at the top of politics, this friendship, however genuine, was also opportune. Cook considered Tony Blair a liability within the Labour party and the public services, and clearly expected him to do much worse at the polls than he actually did. He foresaw a leadership challenge, but with himself as the deliverer of votes to another. He told me that Brown’s best chance to be leader was immediately after the election: if he were to wait much longer, he would start to look historical, and people would turn to a younger man. I wonder if Mr Blair had similar thoughts: having won convincingly he sensibly kept Mr Brown en poste where he must live with the consequences of his mistakes.
The word ‘edgy’ used to mean ‘uneasy’, as in ‘The conversation was rather edgy’. Now it means ‘on the cutting edge’, and is the highest term of praise applied by critics to anything in the arts (‘an edgy take on bourgeois society’). I want to found a militant artistic movement dedicated to ‘cutting hedge’. We shall raid Tate Modern and hang daring, ‘hedgy’ pictures of a cottage in a cornfield or coachmen at a country inn when Sir Nicholas Serota isn’t looking.
Walking across St James’s Park last month, I found myself confronted with an ethical dilemma so neat that I wondered if it had been staged by a television company with a hidden camera. On the ground lay a sum of money too small to be important to its possessor, yet too large to be of no account whatever. With the money were two tickets for the coming lottery. My first feeling, I must admit, was a simple pleasure in being a little bit richer, with the added excitement of the chance of a lottery win. But then, unfortunately, the worm of conscience set to work. Noticing a telephone number printed on the lottery ticket, I rang up Lotto (‘All calls are recorded’) and asked if they had the names of those who bought tickets. The man said that they didn’t, but that I should fill in the form on the back of the tickets and post them to him in case they were claimed. I decided that this was too much bother unless one of the numbers came up. Needless to say, none did, but who can say how much my conscience might have weakened if one had? Anyway, I still have the money. If the owner can correctly identify the amount, and the slightly unusual notes in which it was denominated, he can have it back. Otherwise, it goes to charity.
In fact, I think I shall send it to Songbird Survival, a small charity which is worried by the decline of songbirds. It wants to fund a research project into ‘the influence of avian predators on songbird abundance’, believing that the 53 per cent decline of the songthrush and the 75 per cent decline of the skylark over the last 25 years probably have much to do with the doubling of the population of sparrowhawks. Because of its strangely political character, the RSPB will not admit the possibility that there could be too many raptors, so we shall have to depend on brave independents like Songbird Survival (www.songbird-survival.org.uk) to preserve the best free music in the world.
In his Spectator Diary last week, Simon Kelner wrote about how he and his dachshund were taking to a dose of country life. On one evening walk, the dachshund met a ‘hostile’ Jack Russell. ‘I’m afraid he’s not very good with dogs,’ said the Jack Russell’s owner, prompting Kelner to speculate exasperatedly what his dog might be good with (‘Aardvarks? Zebras?’). I suspect a misunderstanding here. When the Jack Russell’s owner spoke of dogs, he surely meant not the species but the sex. The Jack Russell was fine, in other words, with bitches.
You sometimes hear of a future benefit or problem being ‘in the price’ of equities traded on the stock market. I feel like this about some months. Spring is ‘in the price’ of March, and therefore the month feels better than it actually is. By the same token, autumn is ‘in the price’ of August, which makes it depressing. It is a month in which nothing interesting grows, the light is dull and the days begin to shorten. For some reason, this is not a problem when autumn itself comes: October is melancholy in a way, but not boring. August should be abolished.