No amount of reports in the press that Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet-making is farcical and his party is divided should distract us from the fact that he is winning. I don’t mean that he will become prime minister, or even (though this seems quite possible) that he will survive as leader until the general election. It is just that he is gradually bringing more and more of Labour under his control, and grinding down his opponents. Besides, his public positions are coherent — in the sense of being internally consistent — and he is quite accomplished at adhering to an undeviatingly hardline, left-wing ideology while sounding mild and decent. Taxed, on Monday, by Nick Robinson about his support for terrorism, Mr Corbyn was able fiercely to declare that he detested terrorist attacks on ‘civilians’. (Sometimes, he and his like refer to ‘innocent civilians’.) ‘Civilians’, you see, are not to blame for bad policy or for enforcing the will of the capitalist West. The tougher question would be what he thinks of attacks on British forces in the Middle East, on the police when they arrest terror suspects here, or on the RUC in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He will not condemn these unreservedly. If you deplore attacks on civilians, but equivocate about attacks on those who most actively defend them, you are weeping crocodile tears. On Tuesday, by the way, Mr Corbyn’s favourite organisation, the Stop the War Coalition, reacted angrily to North Korea’s latest testing of a nuclear bomb: ‘We call on the US to stop stoking the tension, end its provocative exercises, drop the sanctions and seek dialogue.’
There should be a short booklet with a list of points for those about to take up public sector appointments — not the formal rules, which already exist, but certain informal tips for survival. One would be ‘Do not own — or at least visit in the winter — any house in a hot place abroad.’ The case of Sir Philip Dilley, the chairman of the Environment Agency, is in point. No doubt it would not have made the slightest practical difference if he had been around after Christmas to come and peer sympathetically at the victims of Cumbrian floods, but the idea that he was thousands of miles away — warm, rich, suntanned and wet only when he jumped into the Caribbean or his pool — was intolerable. Jim Callaghan, as prime minister, made the same sort of mistake by going to an economic summit in Guadeloupe during the Winter of Discontent in January 1979. It is part of the native prudence of our royal family that they seem to have no large houses in hot places at all.
The Court Circular on 7 January reported that ‘Today being the Feast of Epiphany, a Sung Eucharist was held in the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, when the customary offerings of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh were made on behalf of the Queen by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Breakwell and Air Vice-Marshal Richard Lacey (Gentlemen Ushers to Her Majesty).’ It is touching to think that the Queen annually makes this act of homage, even if vicariously. I wonder how the Gentlemen Ushers, being only two, divide the gold, frankincense and myrrh between them. The scene would make a charming Renaissance painting — ‘The Adoration of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Breakwell and Air Vice-Marshal Richard Lacey’. There should be a Painter Laureate to record such scenes.
As unhappy Anglican bishops from all over the world argued away in Canterbury this week, I attended an interesting innovation in Westminster Cathedral. The Ordinariate is the means by which Anglicans who become Roman Catholics can now have a liturgy which includes large bits of the Book of Common Prayer, historically seen as clearly anti-Catholic. This votive Mass of Our Lady of Walsingham, after which the Ordinariate’s new Missal was presented to the cathedral, contained such Anglican favourites as the ‘comfortable words’, the confession (‘we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness’) and the Prayer of Humble Access. For my personal taste, the ceremony was too ‘high’ — with priests taking off birettas at the name of Jesus — but this was not of the essence. It was Benedict, the only modern Pope really interested in liturgy, who saw that Christian unity can be expressed in the choice of the language used to address God. This is one of the results. Given how often we burnt one another 450 years ago, it is extraordinary and moving that words of Thomas Cranmer can now have the blessing of Rome.
Emma Rice, the new artistic director of the Globe Theatre, admits she is unfamiliar with most of Shakespeare, but is excited to have ‘got custody of this canon for a while’. She intends, she declares, to take advantage of her time as Shakespeare’s jailer to make women act half his parts and rewrite, where she thinks fit, his plays. She gives as an example the dirge from Cymbeline, ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’, which includes the famous lines, ‘Golden lads and girls all must/ Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust’. Modern audiences cannot understand this, she thinks, but in Shakespeare’s day, ‘chimney-sweepers’ was a word for ‘dandelions’, so her solution is to delete the former and insert the latter. I must admit that I had not known about the interesting dandelion meaning (I have looked it up: apparently it was Warwickshire dialect), but it seems strange that Emma Rice thinks it is a good substitution. First, why are dandelions easier to understand than chimney-sweepers? (Both are easy to understand.) Second, the phrase ‘chimney-sweepers’ permits a joke which the word ‘dandelions’ loses: chimney-sweepers ‘come to dust’ in their trade, as well as in the sense in which golden lads and girls do by dying. Where is the gain in the Rice version? In the play, ‘Fidele’, the boy thus lamented, is in fact Imogen in disguise, and is not dead but drugged. Once those planning her interment depart, she wakes up. So it is with Shakespeare, whenever a director tries to bury him.
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