I am in a small minority in turning off the news when it is not about Brexit. The slow, agonising process fascinatingly brings out what people in public life really think. Do they care about representative government, or not? My estimate is that 60 per cent of the House of Commons do — while differing about exactly how to apply the principles — and about 40 per cent are perfectly indifferent, seeking their own personal or ideological advantage. By the standards of most legislatures in history, this is a more impressive proportion than people recognise.
Matthew Parris (2 February) attacks those who warn that failing to leave the EU would cause civil unrest: ‘…there is something deeply unConservative about this tack. A proper Conservative does not pray in aid of his argument by citing criminal elements that may otherwise be unleashed.’ Broadly, that sounds right, although frustrating a major democratic mandate is always a serious provocation. So what does Matthew think of the following? ‘I will tell you what I think playing with fire is: blundering into the politics of Northern Ireland with a policy which is sometimes clueless and sometimes delinquent with a can of petrol in one hand and a box of matches in the other. That is playing with fire. That is what we are in danger of doing.’ That was Lord Patten in the Lords debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill 2018. He was attacking Brexiteers for the civil unrest (and worse) he thought Brexit would cause in Northern Ireland. Chris Patten is Matthew’s very model of a true Conservative.
Private Eye recently featured a tweet by Titania McGrath in Pseuds’ Corner. She was advertising her new book Woke: a Guide to Social Justice: ‘I have written the most important book of 2019. Do not buy it for my sake, but for the sake of humanity.’ The magazine was fooled. Titania is a spoof, and her book, out next month, is categorised on Wikipedia as ‘Genre: Humour’. She tweets every day. On Monday: ‘Dear Hollywood, please reshoot every scene that Liam Neeson has ever acted in and replace him with Christopher Plummer. Do this NOW’ and, ‘If you don’t think exactly the same way as me, you have clearly got a lot to learn about diversity.’ Last week: ‘It’s a broken kind of democracy which allows a majority of voters to impose their wishes on the rest of us.’ She is a genius.
Sotheby’s this week held an interesting clearance sale from the Fine Art Society. The reason, though, is sad: this illustrious body can no longer afford the rates and rents at its New Bond Street premises opposite the auction house. With the society moving, Bond Street is exposed as an almost completely dull street of uniform shops selling expensively uniform things. No doubt property owners will get more money out of this in the short term, but will they in the long? The more intelligent management of prime streets — look at Marylebone High Street — seeks an environment which gives pleasure. It is often said nowadays that people prefer an ‘experience’ to things. It follows that, even when they are buying things, people care about the experience. Bond Street now offers a joyless one.
One hundred and fifty years ago this Monday, the York and Ainsty hounds found a fox which ran for an hour. They then followed him as he swam the river Ure in flood. Eager to keep up, the famed Master and huntsman, Sir Charles Slingsby, and Orvis, his first whipper-in, took their horses on to the Newby Hall ferry with 11 other riders, packed terribly close. One of the party, Colonel Richard Meysey-Thompson, later described the scene. Sir Charles’s horse, Saltfish, leant over as if to smell the water, and jumped the boat’s gate, dragging Sir Charles with him by the bridle. Everyone shouted, ‘O save Sir Charles!’ and rushed to his side of the boat, unbalancing it. Seeing the danger, Meysey-Thompson shoved his mare violently into the water and jumped in himself, but most stayed. Eventually, the boat reared right up in the air ‘pouring men and horses in one confused heap down into the water’. On the bank, someone pulled off Meysey-Thompson’s top-boots and he plunged back in after Sir Charles, but the Master was swept away and drowned. Saltfish survived. Poor Orvis (‘the cheeriest of huntsmen and the most civil of servants’) also sank. A Mr Robinson, who had stayed mounted because he could not swim, was completely submerged, but then bobbed up again with his horse still beneath him. Both were dragged into the weir and perished. In all, six passengers and 11 horses were lost. Sir George Wombwell, however, who had survived the Charge of the Light Brigade 15 years earlier, survived the Newby Ferry Disaster too. Meysey-Thompson’s great-great nephew, Adrian Dangar, has organised a reprint of his shocking story, with all proceeds to the Hunt Staff Benefit Society, which helps brave men like Orvis.
In his recently published Journals, Kenneth Rose records walking to the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool during the Conservative party conference of 1977 with Lord Carrington and Norman St John-Stevas: ‘Peter tells me that he [was] nauseated by the much-heralded speech of a 16-year-old schoolboy called William Hague. Peter said… “If he is as priggish and self-assured as that at 16, what will he be like in 30 years’ time?” Norman St John-Stevas replied, “Like Michael Heseltine.”’ I had just read this when I attended Peter Carrington’s memorial service last week. Lord Hague was prominent among the guests and Lord Heseltine read the lesson from Revelation about the new heaven and the new earth.
Two weeks ago, I unwisely wrote about refusing to take up NHS offers of bowel tests. An avalanche of learned opinion and first-hand testimony has submerged me. I could mount a partial defence but I shan’t. I was wrong. If after all your kind advice I do not bother to have a bowel test, that’s, possibly literally, my funeral.