Friends of mine called Georgiana and Mouse Campbell recently bought a new house. In the period between completion and moving in, Mouse arranged for British Gas, who supplied the electricity, to switch the account to his name. British Gas said that this involved changing it from a business account to a residential one. While this was supposedly in progress, BG’s business division sent Mouse a bill for £299.80, although the Campbells’ actual use of electricity was virtually nonexistent. Despite many calls to BG, and its promises to sort things out, the company pursued Mouse for the fictional bill with threats of a debt recovery company and damaging his credit rating. No one seemed capable of solving BG’s self-created problem until Mouse wrote to BG threatening legal action and saying that if the dispute involved any more trouble for him, ‘My time shall be charged at my normal charge-out rate [sum specified]…’. Within three days, British Gas suddenly turned helpful, and on Monday, Mouse got a credit note for £300. Mouse is highly intelligent, and a businessman, but one wonders what happens to similarly guiltless customers who are old or ill-educated. They probably pay up, terrified of bailiffs. It is not surprising that people think of the utilities as rotten bureaucracies, differing from state-run services only in the size of their executive salaries. Ed Miliband’s absurd price-freeze promise has an allure to voters, not because they believe it is economically sensible, but because they want to punish the companies.
You will remember that the Arab Spring is held to have started with the self-immolation of a frustrated street vendor in Tunisia. Then the Islamist leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who had been harboured by Britain, returned and took effective power there. Chatham House gave him its prize last year because of his supposed moderation. Now, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, there is huge discontent with Ghannouchi, and his Islamist regime is tottering. You hear practically nothing about this. The Chatham House/BBC version of the world has an Orwellian memory hole.
‘I had been there before’, begins the last sentence of the prologue to Brideshead Revisited. I had a comparable moment when I arrived last Friday at the Hotel du Vin in Henley, where I was billeted when addressing the town’s literary festival. The hotel, I realised, was the place where they used to make the beer. In 1973, while at school, I was a prototype real ale bore, so I wrote to Brakspear’s brewery and asked for a guided tour. The firm kindly agreed and I drove there on my feeble little moped, illicitly kept at school. The marketing director was taken aback that his guest was one dirty-looking boy, rather than the orderly school party he had been expecting, but he was extremely polite, and showed me round the sturdy yet elegant brewery with its Victorian machinery and wonderful smell and the free samples which were my main target. After my happy visit, I drove away in the gloaming, up the hill back to Eton. The moped broke down. Feeling unreasonable teenage anger at it for spoiling my mood, I threw it into bushes below the level of the road and hitched back. Being 17, I did not foresee the consequences: the police turned up at home, revealing what I had been up to and demanding payment for having my abandoned vehicle in their pound.
Henley then was very beautiful and, presumably, prosperous enough. But 40 years on, it is rich in a way that almost nowhere in England has ever been until this generation. Every shop front says money. Every private drive in the surrounding country is closed by security gates. Every visible estate looks as neat and expensive and characterless as a golf course (quite often, it is a golf course). The town itself is lovely still, and its jolly festival shows that people can enjoy themselves there, but the property prices are much too high and the atmosphere much too fastidious for trades like brewing to take place in the centre of town. I lay in my large ‘designer’ bedroom, and tried to imagine it full of hop-pockets, as perhaps it was when I first visited. If Evelyn Waugh felt sorrow at the despoliation of a great house by a poorer, more utilitarian age, I felt melancholy at almost the opposite — the way that what once was workmanlike is now turned chic.
According to Anne Robinson, who interviewed me on stage at Henley, the late Marje Proops believed that there only ever are roughly ten questions that people want to ask about anything. I certainly find this in the many talks I have given about my biography of Mrs Thatcher. There are always ones about Mrs T as a mother, and as a role model for women, one about her and the Queen, one about her religion, one about Denis. There is also the ‘What would Mrs Thatcher think of x today?’ question, which I always refuse to answer (since I don’t know). So far, on the dozens of occasions when I have addressed general audiences, virtually no member of the public has asked me a strictly political question. I do not think the favoured questions are trivial: in fact, they get near the heart of things. But I find it fascinating that such a deeply political person as Margaret Thatcher arouses so much non-political interest. Politics matters a lot in the history of the world, but it is in the second rank of the human mind, whereas subjects like God, family, love and the condition of women are in the first.
I went on west, first to Cheltenham, to speak yet again, and then to Dorset and Wiltshire. Some bits of those counties still are actually rural and unHenleyfied. Hunting in the early morning, I heard one woman say to another, ‘Do you know, when she marries, she’s going to keep her maiden name. Have you ever heard of that happening?’ There was, it is true, much talk of the recent troubles of Associated Newspapers, but not about whether Ralph Miliband ‘hated Britain’. The big news was that bold Lady Rothermere had jumped a hedge out hunting, fallen and been knocked out.
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