I am living in rustic seclusion while writing a book. Our only cultural outing of the week was to Newbury cinema to see, transmitted from the National Theatre, Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, object of rave reviews. We respected the piece but did not enjoy it. Granted, appreciation of all major works of art requires an effort by the viewer, listener, reader. But a pleasure of getting older is to be unafraid of waving the white flag. We resist modern-dress Shakespeare or worse, opera. We will cross continents to avoid the music of Harrison Birtwistle or the art of Damien Hirst. We are ardent Trollopeians, incorrigibly middlebrow.
John Hatt, founder of Eland Books and a life-enhancer to all fortunate enough to know him, sent me the DVDs of BBC TV’s 1960 Face to Face interviews, saying that he had enjoyed them so much he wanted to try them on us. They are compelling. That old rogue Lord Boothby seemed intelligent and curiously appealing. Adam Faith, then 20, handled himself brilliantly, while Simone Signoret was a bore. We marvelled that such a repellent human being as Evelyn Waugh could have written the best English novels of the past century. Gilbert Harding, supposedly a monster, appeared movingly vulnerable. A BBC veteran with whom I discussed the programmes said the only subject for whom John Freeman formed a violent dislike was Martin Luther King.
Lord Hailsham, not seen to much advantage in his Freeman appearance, enthused about shooting. Any modern politician who did the same would be Twitter toast: the only advice David Cameron ever accepted from me, back in 2009, was to put away his gun. I was brought up to regard the sport as part of the warp and woof of the countryside. It has played a big part in my life, though I have become increasingly more interested in working my gundogs. A young Radleian told me recently, however, that many of his schoolfellows would rather handle cat poo than a dead pheasant, and think killing them barbaric. I doubt the sport in its present form will survive another half century. Or could it? My father predicted doom for field sports back in 1945, yet I have done far more shooting than he did.
I am writing a book about intelligence in the second world war, my first venture into the world of spooks. It is striking how many of the characters involved seem to have been unhinged. While MI6’s then chief Sir Stewart Menzies was not clever, at least he was intermittently sensible. Among the indictments on Tony Blair’s charge sheet is that he appointed John Scarlett to head MI6, presumably from gratitude for his role as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, assisting Alastair Campbell to compile the 2002 WMD dossier that took us to war with Iraq under false pretences. The current ‘C’, Alex Younger, who made his first public appearance on Monday night, unveiling a plaque to SIS’s founder, Mansfield Cumming, is the most impressive appointment to the job for years — and needs to be. A century ago the secret services played a marginal role in national security, but today they are central. In 1945, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s scorn for the stupidity of his SIS superiors was a matter for laughter. In 2015, the service needs the brightest and best.
An American foundation paid for me to fly first class to Washington to give a lecture. The outbound flight was held on the tarmac for seven hours with technical trouble before we were offloaded into a Heathrow hotel overnight. Next morning I was shoehorned into the only available Club seat on a plane which was two hours late. Nobody at BA offered a vestige of an email apology. BA is better than most airlines, and its pilots appear sane, but a computer should be programmed to grovel in its name when appropriate.
I notice an online howl of anguish from a Kentucky professor of biology who faces demands from local evangelical Christians that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in his classes. This, it seems to me, parallels the Prince of Wales’s successful lobbying for some NHS funds to be diverted from conventional medicine to homeopathy. I have beside me a copy of a letter allegedly written by him some years ago to a cultural institution, asserting the conviction that ‘there is a DIVINE Source which is ultimate TRUTH… that this Truth can be expressed by means of numbers… and that, if followed correctly, these principles can be expressed with infinite variety to produce Beauty’. The heir to the throne is entitled to believe such things, but if he aspires to influence public affairs, he has no claim to keep his interventions secret. The Supreme Court last week reached its only credible decision, by acceding to the Guardian’s demand that his lobbying correspondence should be published.
Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph. His most recent book is Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914.
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