Hearing about the tsunami on Boxing Day, I remembered Keith and Nicki. Keith Lake used to be my driver when I was editor of the Daily Telegraph and remains a great friend. He and his wife Nicki were on holiday in the Maldives. I felt certain, knowing Keith, that a) he would have got into trouble and b) he would have got out of it. Keith rang when he reached home, in response to our messages. He told me that he had been snorkelling in two feet of water when suddenly the sea level rose to his chest. He and his party heard a great roar. They ran, and reached the shore, but the wave sucked him out to sea, to the bottom. The force of the water pulled even the wedding ring from his finger. As he lay on the ocean floor, he remembered a conversation he and I had once had about drowning being painless; he felt calm and peaceful, and accepted his death. Then the air in his body pushed him to the surface, and again he heard the terrible roar. He had been swept past the tiny island but, by incredible luck, he was a few feet from ‘H’ (full name Helena Benge-Nilsdotter), ‘a leggy Swedish blonde’, one of his snorkelling group. H, a qualified lifesaver, could see that Keith was in trouble, with all the energy knocked out of his body, so she made him hold on to her hips and they swam back towards the shore for 20 minutes. Then a second huge wave hit them, dragging them twice as far out as before and creating a whirlpool into which Keith was sucked. Keith is a big man — six foot four and strongly built — and in his panic, he tried to pull H down with him. She — six foot herself and trained in martial arts — tells me that she punched him twice to break free, went up to spit out the water in her body and then dived back down for Keith. She pulled him up, and they set off swimming again. They landed on a coral reef, Keith vomiting and faint, and walked across it, tearing their feet to ribbons. Twenty feet from shore, a third wave threatened, so they gathered their last strength and ran through the water to the devastated beach huts. There was Nicki standing on top of a diesel tank looking for her husband. She burst into tears. Now the survivors are all back in England. Keith has a swollen elbow where H yanked him to safety and H has an injured pelvis where Keith held on for the dear life, which, thanks to her courage and skill, was saved. Another of their group, Stuart Shields, was not so lucky. His body was found on a neighbouring island.
One of the minor, but horrible consequences of disasters such as the tsunami is the chance it gives for the self-righteous to accuse others of not caring as much as they. Thus Michael Howard criticised Tony Blair for failing to return from his Egyptian holiday when really the Prime Minister should have been praised for his uncharacteristic self-restraint. A rent-a-quote Labour MP called Stephen Pound came on the air to call for the national lottery to transfer vast sums to the disaster appeal, making the preposterously untrue claim that, with such a disaster, ‘no money is too much’. In fact, large sums of money rushed through always lead to corruption, mis-spending, waste and politicking. If Mr Pound cares more than the rest of us about the suffering, why doesn’t he contribute the whole of his salary to the cause and invite his fellow MPs to do the same?
In what must surely be a first, the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, I gather, has attracted a number of angry telephone calls to Her Majesty’s representatives, such as lord lieutenants. Read as a text, the message, about tolerance, seems unexceptionable, though its central anecdote about how a visitor to this country enjoyed nothing so much as his ethnically mixed Tube trip from Heathrow to central London has the ring of untruth about it. But the images which illustrated the message irritated many because the emphasis on ‘diversity’ was so great as virtually to exclude the 92 per cent or so of the population which is white. Inspired by the Good Samaritan, the Queen said, ‘The need to look after a fellow human being is far more important than any cultural or religious differences.’ Exactly, which is why it is odd that ‘multiculturalism’ endlessly harps on these differences and presents them as intrinsically virtuous. After Christmas came the news that the programme of volunteer rangers in the Lake District national park will no longer attract government money because the walks the rangers guide appeal to ‘white, middle-class, middle-aged people’. The 300 rangers are volunteers and, not unnaturally, they are furious. They were doing what the Queen suggested, looking after their fellow human beings, but because those human beings happened not to be black, the volunteers’ kind acts are trashed. Thank goodness, public outrage has now reprieved them.
Shortly before Christmas, I was shooting in West Sussex in beautiful downland near Arundel. I remarked on how unfrequented it was and our host revealed an interesting fact. Get out a 2.5 miles-to-the-inch road atlas of Britain, he said, and try to find a place in England south of the Wash where you can lay a 50 pence piece without covering a public road. You can in Dartmoor, he said, and Exmoor, and almost nowhere else except, oddly, the spot on which we were standing. Since then, I have been scouring the map and dropping 50p on likely places. To my friend’s list I would add Bodmin Moor, Thetford Forest and Salisbury Plain, but that’s about it. Only when you go left to Wales or up to Northumberland can you start laying your coins shoulder to shoulder. No doubt there are very few ethnic minorities lying beneath these 50p pieces, so it cannot be long before John Prescott’s housing policies seek to do away with the problem for good.
At any one time, there are several ‘funny’ phrases in use which aren’t funny. Thus, when I was a child, mothers used to survey their children’s tea parties and say, as if they had just thought of it, ‘Feeding time at the zoo!’, and laugh. Today’s equivalents include any joke about ‘giving up the day job’ and telling people with whom you disagree that they should ‘get out more’.
This week I was talking to a woman who helps the local Brownies. Rules now state that they are not allowed to use lavatory rolls to make things (in case of germs) or to rub suncream on to a child’s arm (in case of sexual abuse) or, if a child is injured, to take her home in their car without the presence of another adult (ditto). My friend remarked sadly that it is quite hard to recruit Brownie leaders.