The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

3 November 2016

3:00 PM

3 November 2016

3:00 PM

It is a great relief that there will be no inquiry into the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ in 1984. The weirdness is that Mrs May’s people ever entertained the thought in the first place. The push for an inquiry is a classic example of the attempt by the aggrieved, usually on the left, to turn history into a trial. If we were to inquire into the miners’ strike, more than 30 years on, it would be far more pertinent — though still a very bad, divisive idea — to establish the full facts about how Arthur Scargill got money from Gaddafi’s Libya and was promised it by the Soviet Union. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is current proof of how retributive urges make a just process impossible. If Orgreave, which was actually a victory for the rule of law and the right to work, had been put in the dock we really would have entered the world according to Ken Loach.

Following my note last week about how to be addressed by my bank, a friend tells me her mail-order problem. She is Lady X, an option not offered by the computer form. So she clicked ‘Other’ in the box marked ‘title’, and now is addressed as ‘Other’ in correspondence. ‘No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States’, says Article 1 of the US Constitution. The same applies to the internet.

‘The Other’, by the way, has become a cant term. It is used by people who studiedly don’t use it, but attribute its use to people they dislike. Thus those who oppose mass immigration or transgender lavatories or gun control are alleged by their critics to have a fear of ‘The Other’. This dislike of people said to fear ‘The Other’ embodies the vice it attacks.

At a family lunch last weekend to mark my 60th birthday, my mother revealed how she had heard the result of the US presidential election in 1956. The BBC Home Service announced that General Eisenhower, the Republican incumbent, had beaten Adlai Stevenson. My mother burst into tears and I, who was in her arms, was sick. Poor Eisenhower did not deserve this reaction. After next week’s election, I expect there will be lots of weeping mothers and vomiting babies, whoever wins. Each side has come passionately to believe that the other is The Other, which is sad.

It is such bad luck for Mrs Clinton that her last-minute troubles have come upon her because of the curious 21st-century men’s habit of sending pictures of their genitals to people via social media (‘Dickileaks’, is what the New York Post calls the scandal). If only Anthony Weiner, ex-congressman and recently estranged husband of Mrs Clinton’s close assistant Huma Abedin, had refrained from this pastime, and from ‘sexting’ a 15-year-old girl, it seems unlikely that the FBI would have excavated the family computers. Then Mrs Clinton would have had a clearer run at the White House. It should be a major advantage of the woman candidate in any political race that she is, on average, much less likely than the male to be caught up in this sort of thing. But poor Mrs Clinton has had to deal with her husband’s sex scandals throughout her career, and now this — just when the race was turning into a readily comprehensible struggle between typical, show-off, male groper and mature, policy-oriented, female public servant. Why do people like Mr Weiner do what they do? I wonder if the constant struggle for internet publicity really does alter their minds. Working like those algorithms which calculate that because you bought X you might also buy Y, they may conclude that because millions have viewed their faces online they might also want to see their private parts. In a world where privacy has been abolished, this ‘data clustering’ has a certain logic.

Gillon Aitken, the great literary agent, who has just died, was a reserved man. It is an admirable and brave thing to be in a culture which increasingly mistakes reserve for coldness. All Gillon’s communications, written or oral (I was one of his authors), were exact and economical. One could find this disconcerting, but what he said was what needed saying, and was conveyed with charm. He possessed no notebook, and would write minimal jottings on his cigarette packets. It used to puzzle me that such a literary man as Gillon was not a writer manqué sort of agent (though he translated Pushkin with great elegance): he dealt skilfully with money issues and never attempted to be ‘the midwife to genius’. (He did occasionally — rightly — become the abortionist of error, efficiently disposing of terrible, unprofitable ideas for books.) I also wondered why he wanted to spend his life dealing with writers’ money, since it is a painful subject, and we so often behave badly about it. But perhaps this was part of his reserve. He believed in authors and, as his business partner Clare Alexander puts it, ‘He liked to be a percentage of an author.’ I am glad to discover, however, that Gillon was not all self-effacement. He was proud of being six foot six inches, and decreed that no one he employed should be taller. The restriction was unnecessary, because Gillon stood uniquely tall. We all looked up to him, literally and metaphorically.

What can be said in a word? A lot, if you are a poet. Poets annex familiar words and empower them. Sometimes a single word, as used by them, can provide a key to their whole work. Here are some examples. (In this game, I permit two words if one is a definite or indefinite article or a preposition.) Blake: ‘lamb’; Milton: ‘high’; Keats: ‘blushful’; Gray ‘in vain’; Cowper: ‘stricken’; Tennyson: ‘the deep’; Pope: ‘Man’ (not ‘man’); Housman: ‘lad’; Burns: ‘lass’; Herbert: ‘sweet’; Hardy: ‘darkling’; Larkin: ‘almost’; Betjeman (this a good suggestion by my wife): ‘Aldershot’. In the case of T.S. Eliot, I am torn between the too general ‘time’, and the too recherché ‘axle-tree’. The poet I find it impossible to begin to ‘get’ in one of his words is Shakespeare.

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