Flabby, vaguely disorientated and, more than three years on, still struggling with stroke recovery, I am on a radical diet. No booze, no caffeine of any kind, no lots of other things — sausages, bacon, roast meat, you name it. Not a lot of fun, but the revelation has been coffee: for well over 40 years I have believed that I can only function in the morning after pints of coal-black, extremely strong caffeine. And now, aged 57, I find that it was total horlicks all along — I feel perkier, less tired and less stressed (after a hard few days) without the stuff. This makes me a real oddity in a country in which coffee has become a massive popular cult. I wander around Baristastan, passing ’Bucks, Costas and Neros, feeling a bit like a Wahhabi in Soho at chucking-out time.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen in our referendum. But for the past three or four weeks I have felt things are going Brexit’s way. The polls, which I don’t believe, are only now catching up on Marr sampling. One of the very few advantages of having an — ahem! — distinctive televised face is that people come up and tell you, often out of the side of the mouth, what they think. Over the past few weeks I’ve been filming all over Britain. Everywhere I go, from cafés (‘hot water please’) to trains and airports, walking down the street or lazing on a Scottish island, I hear, ‘Psst, I’m for out.’ I’ve heard it from Scottish nationalists, red-hot socialists and Tories alike. It’s utterly unscientific, of course, but if I had trusted this kind of informal street chatter during the general election I’d have realised exactly what was going on. I didn’t. I listened to the polls and the commentators. The best bet for the Remain side is a dramatic last-minute moment of alarm. That might happen. But there’s precious little sign of it yet.
I am making no fewer than six documentaries for the autumn, so feeling a tad frantic. Three of them owe their existence to a BBC producer in Bristol who spotted that three major kinds of genre fiction popular around the world — spy books, whodunnits, and fantasy novels — were all invented in England in the early 20th century. It’s an under-discussed British export.
Spy novels start with the pre-first world war German spy scare, whipped up highly successfully by William Le Queux, before the baton passes to John Buchan, Eric Ambler, John le Carré and Len Deighton. Le Queux’s spy novels were so successful in the 1900s that they provoked thousands of letters to the government reporting the suspicious activities of tweed-jacketed foreign gentleman around the Home Counties — the Kaiser’s men measuring railway bridges and counting cows. Asquith’s cabinet realised they had no idea whether the stories were true, and so our own counter-espionage system was created. Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5 and a cracking novelist herself, told me that the former naval officer who became the first head of MI6, Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, was involved in a very early fatal car accident in France in 1914: his son was killed but he saved himself by cutting off his own leg with a penknife. Though this may be legend, the original ‘C’ went on to use his disability highly effectively during vicious Whitehall departmental arguments — always, of course, about money. In meetings where he was losing, he would calmly pull out a paper knife and, to make his point, methodically stab himself in the (as it happens, wooden) leg. It tended to bring the conversation to a halt.
But isn’t it interesting that so many new genres appeared in the same place so quickly? After Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie was creating the modern detective thriller in the latter years of the same war, using a recent refugee by the name of Poirot as her hero. After the war, one demobilised soldier-turned-Oxford academic, J.R.R. Tolkien, got together with C.S. Lewis to invent the fantasy novel. They did it partly in a gloriously old-fashioned Oxford pub, the Eagle and Child, where we were lucky enough to film. I’m glad I hadn’t given up alcohol at that point.
Another current project is about Scottish politics. Before the European vote it’s far too early to report back. But I will say this. Nationalist unease about pushing too quickly for a second referendum, and a growing realisation among senior Conservatives and some London Labour people that there is no return to the old union, is producing an underground mutter about home rule — an English Parliament too, and a Council of the British Isles, small and perhaps meeting in the Lords chamber. More Edwardian echoes: that takes us straight back to Asquith and ‘home rule all round’ in 1912. Had the Kaiser not intervened it would probably have happened and we’d be living in a very different Britain now.
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