Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 29 January 2005

Immigration is an issue like new housing in the Green Belt

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Immigration is an issue like new housing in the Green Belt — governments have to permit it and they have to try to restrict it. This is because the interest of those already present — the indigenous population, the nimby houseowner — is damaged by the arrival of many more people and yet, at the same time, it is also helped. People may say that they want a ban on immigration, but if that happened, they would quickly discover that they could not find enough building workers, waiters, cleaners, plumbers to satisfy their wants. The government is probably right to say that the immigration it has recently permitted from Eastern Europe has not caused great outrage, because people can see that the workers who come do things that need doing and do not appear, for the most part, to be importing religious or cultural problems with them. But Michael Howard is right that the loss of control of immigration is very alarming, particularly through the asylum system, which has become an organised and expensive dishonesty. It is the human equivalent of putting up prefabs right across the Green Belt and sending taxpayers the bill.

Some say that Donald Trump, always described as a ‘billionaire’, has been cheapskate in the arrangements made for his wedding to his latest wife, Melania. Friends of mine who had dealings with his former one, Ivana, know that Trumps and cash do not always go together. Ivana commissioned from them some expensive furniture for a hotel in New York. They delivered and she was delighted, but somehow the cheque did not come through. Desperate, they came up with a scheme. They wrote to Mrs Trump inviting her to a dinner in her honour, given in London, to meet the grandest and greatest in English society (guest list supplied). She accepted happily. A few days before the dinner, they faxed her to say that it was off unless the cheque was through and cleared in time. The ploy worked: Ivana paid. My friends then had a difficulty about the dinner. No one had actually been invited. But now Mrs Trump had kept her side of the bargain, so they must keep theirs. They rushed round ringing up all the dukes and beauties and stars on the list they had invented, inviting them to the real thing. Despite the short notice, almost everyone wanted to meet the famous Mrs Trump, and accepted. The dinner was a triumph.

It has been pointed out that almost nothing is known of what happened to Burma in the tsunami. Hundreds of people are thought to have died, but the Burmese government won’t say. A Burmese friend of mine has information that there was a surprising number of Iranians working on the Burmese islands affected. It would be interesting to know more about what they were working at.

This week No. 11 Downing Street lent itself to a party to celebrate the fact that ShareGift, of which I am a trustee, has now distributed £5 million since its foundation by the brilliant Claire Mackintosh in 1996. In fact, the figure turned out to be wildly wrong because, thanks to the fact that Centrica has recently urged all its shareholders to use our service, it is now £6 million. ShareGift takes all the small bundles of shares which it is not worth your while to sell, realises their value, and gives it to more than 700 charities. Big public companies like it more and more because it offers a philanthropic means of persuading tiny shareholders to depart in peace. Spectator readers should like it because it solves one of the puzzles of modern times, the asset which is too valuable to throw away yet of absolutely no use to its possessor.

Whenever a writer uses the word ‘brigade’ (as in the phrase, ‘the politically correct brigade’ or ‘the family values brigade’) you know that he is sacrificing thought to odium. In an article in the Guardian last week, the children’s novelist Philip Pullman attacked ‘the common sense brigade’ of people who think it a good idea that children should learn grammar. Pullman was supporting a study from York University which claimed that learning grammar did not improve children’s writing. The heart of Pullman’s argument was a good one — that children’s most basic approach to the creative use of language is ‘playful’: ‘It begins with nursery rhymes and nonsense poems, with clapping games and finger play and simple songs and picture books.’ But he was so keen to attack the idea that common sense is ‘the exclusive property of the political Right’ that he had to go on to trash the belief that grammar could assist this originally playful desire to understand. He saw it only as the finishing touch to a process achieved by other means. He did not seem to recognise that his own mastery of grammar is a necessary part of what makes him a good writer. If you want to learn anything, you need to understand the tools of the trade. That is what grammar is. Pullman is right about nursery rhymes, clapping games and songs, but it is essential to these forms that they have rules. If children have no understanding of the rules, the materials of writing will remain dark to them, and the linguistic gap between people like Philip Pullman and the average school pupil will grow deeper still.

A man I know who is about 60 was sitting on a crowded Tube the other day, when a young woman came and stood in front of him. She had dreadlocks, nose-studs, etc., and a short T-shirt. From where the T-shirt stopped extended a naked stomach that was more than eight months pregnant. He therefore stood up and offered her his seat. She said, ‘F—– off, granddad.’ He says he wasn’t sure which part of her remark he found the more insulting.

For some reason, I found myself juxtaposing this story with my first clear memory of a public event, the funeral of Winston Churchill, which took place 40 years ago this week. My father had an office in Whitehall, and we could look out at the procession. It was bitterly cold, and I was very impressed by the fact that soldiers, standing stock-still along the route, would suddenly fall down in a faint and be dragged silently away by St John Ambulancemen. Every man wore a black tie, and I almost literally mean every one, not just people in the funeral crowd, but people all over the country. There must have been those that day who didn’t notice or care, but they were invisible. This unanimity of mourning suggested to my childish mind not only the greatness of the man mourned, but of the nation that did him this honour. Forty years later, 40 years of freedom and prosperity, and it’s ‘F—– off, granddad.’