The Spectator's Notes

The sense of betrayal feeds the demand for a no-deal Brexit. Watch this space

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

21 July 2018

9:00 AM

The collapse of Mrs May’s Chequers plan, followed by Tuesday’s failure of the Tory Remainers to defeat the government, creates a new situation. Mrs May greatly underestimated the threat to her from the ‘betrayal’ narrative which her plan invites. Two years of getting nowhere have made people long for decision and furious at Brussels dogmatism. There is a new appetite for no delay and for no deal. ‘No deal’ however, is not the right phrase. There is a deal — and we and the member states of the EU are already signed up to it. It is called World Trade Organisation terms. The clue to its nature is in the name: it allows the world to trade. It should carry no fears and must now be urgently prepared for and publicly explained, by the whole government, starting with Mrs May.

I don’t like articles called ‘Why we still need the novel’, because they unwittingly imply that we don’t. It is a loser’s argument to insist we must read novels because they are good for us. When novels first became popular, they were widely considered bad for us. Women, thought to be particularly susceptible, were forbidden in respectable families from reading them in the morning. As a result, they sold more. One reason novels are now at a low ebb is that they suffer from producer capture. Novelists should not form a trade union for novels: they should write for readers. Writers are also curiously unwilling to recognise how much form and technology change content. The novel arose partly because of the possibility of printing and distributing unprecedentedly large numbers of hardbacks (and later swelled with paperbacks). It is falling now, partly because the nature of fiction is expanded by online technologies which allow a huge variety of stories to be told with equal success. Print probably will not disappear, but it is suffering the fate of brown furniture — nobody much wants the old standard fare: only the best is sought after.


Prizes can also play a malign role. With the Man Booker Prize, aged 50 this year, one often feels that an attitude is being struck. The winner has to have the ‘right’ views about colonialism, gender, migration etc, and has to generate media controversy. The last people considered are the reading public. Yet it is a serious, worthwhile task to try to find the best of a genre. Two leading current prizes set a good example. The first is the Wolfson History Prize. When its shortlist is annually announced, you genuinely cannot hear any axe being ground. This year, the shortlisted books were about modern China, Lister and medicine, German Jews in the Great War, black people in Tudor England, the English Reformation, and Heligoland. In many other prizes, you would have had to bet that Black Tudors would win because it is written by a woman and concerns a fashionable subject (I am told, by the way, that it is also very good), but it didn’t. The one about the Reformation, by a not-young white professor called Peter Marshall came out on top. The process has integrity, and therefore attracts little publicity, even though the winner scoops £40,000. The second is the Hawthornden Prize (I should declare a connection here, since my wife is a judge). Its preference is for fiction or poetry, but other books are permitted if they have strong literary merit. This year’s winner is Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear. Almost all Hawthornden-winning books are ones which people love reading. Drue Heinz, who rescued, paid for and presided over the prize, died this year, aged (probably) 103. She used to say ‘Death is a long journey and you can’t take anything to read on it’. To dispel this grim thought, she loved people to read to her as she lay dying. The last book she heard was Jenny Uglow’s. That is a high compliment to the author and the prize.

House martins, and how to win them back (Notes, 6 July): my thanks to the many concerned readers. Several recommend fake nests, on which the RSPB has advice. The need for a local supply of mud is widely agreed. Plenty of flies and other insects are also required, of course. One correspondent from Hampshire says he now has plenty of martins because he has the right eaves, ‘at least 2 storeys high (3 if you want swifts)’, and because a nearby farmer who has surrounded his own house and barns with pesticided arable crops has effectively exiled them to his insect-rich garden. Others take up my point about sparrows occupying martins’ nests. Benjamin Eliason, from a rural part of Israel, says that sparrows there are themselves in grave decline because modern house design stops them nesting in roofs. He advises us to provide housing for both species. Lord Cadogan has a radical answer to sparrow squatting. As his PA puts it: ‘He has asked me to let you know that the best way to get rid of the sparrows is to knock down the house martin’s nest every year around October/November time, which will stop the sparrows stealing their nests and the house martins will return the next year to build in the same spot. His Lordship says he does this every year and it works very well.’ Given the amount of residential expertise in the Cadogan Estate (worth roughly £2 billion), this advice must be treated with respect.

Our hunt’s annual puppy show passed off in its customary low-key manner last weekend, with judges in dark suits and bowler hats ignoring the heat. I love hound names — their plays on the names of their parents, their mixture of the workaday, the natural, the biblical, the mythical and the contemporary. This year’s new entry included Dalesman and Dartford, Blackberry and Blossom, Solomon and Solanoid. The Best Hound in Show was a bitch called Danger. I possess a list of 5,000 hound names current in about 1900. Snatches of them give a poetic flavour of that age — from Abbess, Abelard and Abercorn to Zephyr, Zetland and Zulu. I particularly like Torpid, Torturer and Tory, and Ugly, Uhlan and Ulster.

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