Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 3 May 2008

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

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If, when you read this, Boris Johnson is the Mayor of London, it will, I have just discovered, be thanks to me. When the idea of Boris’s candidacy was first suggested, I spoke on the telephone to Mary Wakefield, who is now the deputy editor of The Spectator. What did I think of Boris for Mayor, she asked. I snorted. ‘Mayor of Henley more like!’ I said, satirically. I cannot now remember why I took this line, but Mary Wakefield relayed it to Boris, who mentioned it, ruefully, to me. Now I read in the newspapers that my words stung him so much that he made up his mind to prove me wrong. So my cheap shot had the effect on Boris that the bells of London had on poor, young Dick Whittington as he hesitated, about to turn back from the walls of the City. Whether Boris has succeeded or not, I feel proud about this. Like Whittington, and unlike all other current politicians, Boris would be a marvellous subject for a pantomime. I claim a small part in the production which, I hope, will be playing hundreds of years hence.

Vera Baird, the Solicitor-General, who thinks she is closer than the royal family to the human race (see last week’s Notes) has been rebuked by her senior, the Attorney-General. She will not, for the present, be in charge of deciding the succession to the British throne. Mrs Baird, I discover, has great zeal in another well-known aspect of the legal profession — its fees. In 1998, she claimed £20,000 from public funds for her junior part in an appeal in the House of Lords. This was reduced on ‘taxation’ (the system of questioning fees) to £6,000, an almost unheard-of drop. The Law Lords reported on the case. They said that it could be ‘unprofessional conduct’ to claim an excessive fee. ‘A number of the fees claimed in the present case would appear to be excessive,’ they said, which, by the standards of lawyers judging lawyers, is fierce indeed. Nowadays the poor thing has to get by on the salary paid to a minister of the Crown, which may partly explain her anti-monarchical resentment.

In the latest Sunday Times, John Carey reviews Ferdinand Mount’s memoirs (Cold Cream, Bloomsbury), and calls them ‘a wilderness of name-dropping’. This raises a question: what is the writer of memoirs to do if he has known famous people? The Diary of a Nobody begins with Mr Pooter saying, ‘...I fail to see — because I do not happen to be a “Somebody” — why my diary should not be interesting.’ Quite right, but Carey goes one further, seeming to believe that anyone who is a ‘Somebody’, or who knew lots of ‘Somebodies’, should shut up about it. If this rule were followed, the loss to literature would be incalculable. Professor Carey’s logic would ban Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Aubrey’s Brief Lives, for a start, and possibly St John’s Gospel as well. The apparent answer to Carey is that mentioning the famous is only ‘name-dropping’ when the anecdotes about them have no intrinsic merit once their fame is subtracted. But even this is not true: it is much more interesting to learn that, say, Tolstoy liked Marmite for breakfast or that Queen Victoria always relaxed with a Havana cigar than to be told the same about people one has never heard of. Ferdinand Mount’s powers of observation are too well known to readers of The Spectator to need defending here, so let me merely ‘drop’ some of the names he mentions in his book to indicate what pleasures, in his hands, they promise — John le Carré, Keith Joseph, Harold Acton, Isaiah Berlin, Alfred Sherman, John Betjeman, Margaret Thatcher, Donald Maclean, Siegfried Sassoon and Oswald Mosley.

People sometimes say, ‘Ah, there’s a name to conjure with.’ Selwyn Lloyd surely does not come into that category. No one has heard of him now. His small surviving public reputation is as a byword for dullness. But Ferdy Mount, who worked for Lloyd in the early Sixties, does indeed conjure with him, bringing him alive as an admirable politician, the type of modest English virtue. This is the opposite of name-dropping — picking a poor dusty old name off the floor, and lovingly polishing it up.

From a position, I must admit, of ignorance, I have always been suspicious of psychotherapy. It seems to encourage unhappy people to do what they do too much of anyway, which is to concentrate on themselves. Wouldn’t it be much more liberating to lie on a couch and be forced to talk to a therapist about someone else? For this therapy to work, one would not be allowed to discuss people who mattered to one personally — parents, children, spouse, etc. Instead, one would be forced to imagine the plight of those one knew little, or not at all — a person who worked in a call centre, perhaps, or Professor John Carey, or Gordon Brown. One’s own problems would quickly come into a proper perspective.

When I first visited Zimbabwe in the early Nineties, I came across the powerful story of an Englishman, John Bradburne. He was, in his own words, a ‘strange vagabond of God’, who ended up living with the inmates of a remote leper colony called Mutemwa, which means ‘You are cut off’. He inhabited a tin shack near the lepers’ huts and would help care for the lepers, pray with them and create musical settings of the Mass which they would play in the bush church, banging on the drums with their stumps. John Bradburne was an early martyr of Robert Mugabe. Despite his absolute lack of interest in politics, he aroused the suspicions of Mugabe’s guerrillas because he refused to leave the lepers despite the dangers of the civil war. In September 1979, Mugabe’s guerrillas kidnapped him, subjected him to a rather Christ-like trial in the bush, and shot him. Since then, a cult of John Bradburne has grown up, and some want him made a saint, attributing miracles to him. Bradburne wrote poems, reciting them in his own very beautiful voice. One of the best things he did was to dignify each leper, and he tried to write a separate poem about every one, by name (‘This is the panoply of Dick — / Blanket, love, and a blind man’s stick’). Friends of John Bradburne have now made a selection and released them on a CD called Alive to God (Herald Talking Books, It is more poignant than ever to hear them today now that Bradburne’s killers have reduced the entire country to the poverty which, in his day, was reserved for the people he tended.

‘A billion people will lose their homes because of climate change,’ I half-heard, listening to Radio 4 at breakfast. Someone will one day write a fascinating history of how the climate change idea was implanted in the public mind. How has it come about that almost literally any claim can be made on behalf of this phenomenon, and we must all report it credulously, look concerned, and pay more taxes to propitiate it?