The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

13 October 2016

2:00 PM

13 October 2016

2:00 PM

Given all the outrageous things that Donald Trump has done and said already, why has he got into so much worse trouble for dirty remarks about women taped more than ten years ago? He gets away with dog whistle politics but not, seemingly, with wolf whistle ones. Some might say this is because of political correctness; or because his evangelical supporters, while not necessarily offended by his violent views, disapprove of his lewdness; or both. But my theory about sex scandals in politics is that they are not, strictly speaking, about morality. They are tests of how the accused man (or, much more rarely, woman) behaves when attacked. Does he seem odious or contrite, arrogant or charming? If he lies, does he do it beguilingly? It is a test that Bill Clinton, though famous for his charm, failed when he angrily denied having sex ‘with that woman’, Monica Lewinsky. He seemed nasty and mean spirited, as well as untruthful. But the enormous power of the presidential office carried him through, just. Mr Trump does not have that power, and he too seems nasty. He may be right that the Clintons’ behaviour makes a darker story than his own, but he seems so horrible when he says it. He has not emerged as a much wickeder man than last week, but as someone it really is impossible to like or respect.

Where is an expert on the US electoral rules when you need one? In Britain, it is clear when a parliamentary candidate is or is not eligible for election and at what point it becomes too late for his party to replace him. I have seen no absolutely authoritative account of what the situation would be if Mr Trump were to fall on his papier mâché sword and withdraw from the contest. Is this because no rules exist, or just because nobody knows them?

The late Alan Clark was often much irritated by the very existence of Kenneth Clarke. He used to complain about ‘that podgy puffball’, but what really annoyed him, I think, was that since Alan’s own father was a famous man called Kenneth Clark, Kenneth Clarke had no business confusing matters by being a famous person himself. Alan always referred to him as ‘Clark y’, to emphasise the normally silent ‘e’. Now the confusion is made worse by the fact that both Kenneths are subjects of new books, just out. The first is a biography called Kenneth Clark, Life, Art and Civilisation, by James Stourton. The second, Kind of Blue, is the autobiography of Kenneth Clarke. I have a nasty feeling that young people have not heard of either man, so let me make it clear to them that Kenneth Clarke was the roly poly, beer drinking, jazz loving art historian and cultural panjandrum with an alcoholic wife and a castle in Kent. He said: ‘I found the King and Queen very pleasant — she just above the average country house type, he just below it’. Kenneth Clark, on the other hand, was the rich, cultivated master of exquisite prose and Tory Minister of Health, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer who three times failed to become his party’s leader. His wife was a medieval historian with whom he went bird watching. He wrote: ‘It remains my opinion that reforms I introduced into the NHS were a turning point in the successful operation of our health care system.’

With that Sellars and Yeatman style service to future generations performed, I should say that I have not yet read Clarke’s memoir, but I am greatly enjoying James Stourton’s biography. It is extremely good at not imposing the eye of the present upon the past. Instead of fretting, as so many would, about the wickedness of a world in which ‘K’ could become head of virtually everything in the world of visual arts at a preposterously early age, Stourton attentively recreates the era in which such things happened. He also explores the paradox that the great elitist was the first (and best) TV populariser of art. He seemed to embody what he meant by ‘Civilisation’, in a way which millions revered. I find myself asking whether the way things were done then was better or worse. The time of the ‘Great Clark Boom’ seems snobbish and amateurish to us, but also, oddly, freer. It was so much easier than it is today to get on with what matters in art and not be swamped by our deadly culture of cultural compliance.

The sad possibility that King Bhumibol of Thailand may not be long for this world is causing considerable perplexity, because it is not possible for Thais to talk about his death. It seems that this is partly because it is a form of treason in Thailand to encompass the death of the sovereign, but also that, in Thai culture, the personal grief felt at his death will be so great that the thought of it is literally unspeakable. So foreign businesses, visitors, diplomats etc cannot find out what will actually happen when he dies, having reigned since 1946. Rumour suggests that there may be ten days of mourning so total that Bangkok airport will close down and no one will be able to leave the country. But it is no good asking if this is true, because no one will tell you, even off the record. It is moving that an entire nation can act as if following the instructions in Auden’s poem about stopping all the clocks.

A friend has just spotted a piece of product placement which I had failed to notice. In the opening sequence of Salting the Battlefield, the third of David Hare’s Worricker trilogy for television, in which Bill Nighy acts the eponymous hero, Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), the corrupt British prime minister who covers up American iniquity, is woken by his alarm clock at five in the morning. Beside it, discreetly but unmistakably, lies a copy of my biography of Margaret Thatcher. Sir David’s subliminal implication is that my work is a handbook for villainy of this kind. I shall not discourage the idea, as it opens up a whole new market, the biographical equivalent of the dark net.

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