The Spectator's Notes

If Corbyn’s PM, expect him to wear a white poppy and Frida Kahlo T-shirt

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

‘It’s time for Bond — Basildon Bond,’ is the joke among pro-Leave MPs as Theresa May serves up her mess of pottage as Brexit. Market research, however, shows the joke does not work on MPs under 40 because they do not know what Basildon Bond is. So perhaps I should explain to the hip Spectator crowd that Basildon Bond remains the commonest brand of quality paper on which to write letters. There need to be 48 such letters sent to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, to provoke a vote of confidence in Mrs May among Conservative MPs. There are certainly far more than 48 who do not, in fact, have confidence in her. It does not automatically follow, needless to say, that they will say so when asked. The weapon can be used only once in 12 months and could recoil upon those who wield it. Or it might provoke what Tories call ‘the catastrophe of a Corbyn government’. But what to do about the catastrophe of the May one?

I feel a proprietorial interest in Labour leaders’ attire at the Cenotaph, because Michael Foot’s famous donkey jacket in 1981 caused me to write almost the first article in my career to attract any public notice. It was a leader for the Daily Telegraph, headlined ‘Dressed to Wound’, and it attacked Mr Foot for his jacket, flapping trousers, Cornish-pasty shoes and his laying of his party’s wreath ‘with all the reverent dignity of a tramp bending down to inspect a cigarette end’. It seemed to crest a wave of reader indignation at Mr Foot. Hundreds wrote or telephoned in support. For years afterwards, I felt I had been unfair to the dear old boy, but when I subsequently learnt that he had taken money from the KGB, I reverted to my original indignation. So I watched Jeremy Corbyn’s anorak closely on Remembrance Day. It was not as bad as the donkey jacket; but compare the Corbyn rig in his first wreath-laying as leader in 2015 with his outfit today. As a cautious cadet three years ago, he carefully avoided the Foot trap, wearing a sober suit, dark tie and conspicuous poppy. Now he is politically dominant, he can risk the anorak. If he becomes PM, perhaps he will wear a white poppy and a Frida Kahlo T-shirt.

The Queen has been attending Cenotaph ceremonies since before even Mr Corbyn was born. I am grateful to Robert Hardman’s fascinating new book about her as a global figure (Queen of the World) for the information that ‘On her first tour of Canada, in 1951, she was introduced to Benjamin Mansell, an old soldier of such advanced years that he had been too old for the Boer War. Mansell, of Springfield Junction, Nova Scotia, had served in Afghanistan during the 1870s…The Queen must, therefore, be the only person who has heard first-hand accounts of both the Anglo-Afghan War of 1878 and the 21st-century Afghan war against the Taliban’ (including, in the latter case, from her grandson).

Obituaries of Bob Bairamian, the colourful prep-school headmaster, paid tribute to his gift for teaching classics, glamorising education and helping his pupils win scholarships. He was also a generous man, taking pupils out to lavish celebratory dinners. But I wonder where the money came from. A dear friend of mine and neighbour of Bairamian, also a prep-school master, bumped into the great showman in a local pub, roughly 30 years ago. ‘I say,’ said Bob, ‘I’m in a spot of trouble because some parents haven’t paid their fees on time. You couldn’t see your way to tiding me over for a month, could you?’ My friend, who was excessively innocent and kind, wrote a cheque for £28,000. This was, apart from his small cottage, his entire life savings. Bairamian only ever paid him back £500. Despite my urging, my friend was too embarrassed to complain. By the time he died in a care home two years ago, he had run out of money. These ‘larger than life’ charmers often have much to answer for.

One of Bairamian’s skills was recruiting pupils from West Africa. When the social history of mid-20th-century prep schools comes to be written, it will show that they were among the few entrepreneurial institutions in post-war Britain. With big-house rural property prices very low, regulatory costs minimal and lots of ex- officers looking for work, bright sparks could easily fill a school with about 60 sons of friends and get going. Rich people in poor, far-flung countries were identified as valued customers. When I went to my own prep school, Claremont (of which Bairamian much later became headmaster) in 1966, it was a fine example of what we now call diversity. The first prefect to shout at me was the son of the sports minister of Liberia. The father of our most colossal cricketer was the recently assassinated president of Nigeria. There was a dignified boy from Iran, and a large contingent of the academically very able sons of Indian grocers from the Canary Islands. Such prep schools went ‘rainbow’ long before the state system, but of course they still studied Kennedy’s Latin Primer and the Dragon Book of Verse.

Jane Goring was killed last week in a drag-hunting accident. She came to unwanted fame last year when she was filmed striking out at a masked hunt saboteur who had grabbed her frightened horse’s bridle, shouting at him to let go. If she had lived, the case might have come to court. I do not know its exact rights and wrongs, but anyone who has seen masked ‘antis’ at work will recognise how hard they try to provoke riders by threatening horses. Such people have gleefully trolled Jane’s death, of course. Jane, whom I knew, was a lovely, funny, warm-hearted woman, who will be grievously missed. Because she was married to Richard Goring, of the hotel family, and because she liked hunting, she was described by the Sun, who reported the fracas, as ‘aristocrat Jane’. This amused Jane’s friends, because she was red-blooded, not blue-blooded. The paper had forgotten it, but she started her working life in the 1980s as a page-three girl in the Sun.

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