The Spectator's Notes

We selfish gits must wear the name with pride

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

12 October 2019

9:00 AM

I walked down Villiers Street to Embankment Tube station. In front of me were two Extinction Rebels, a mother and daughter. Strapped to the little girl’s back was a white teddy bear. Strapped to the bear’s back was the handwritten slogan: ‘You selfish gits. Stop burning down my house.’ I wonder how they knew I was a selfish git, since I wore no emblem to announce the fact. Luckily they did not know I was off to a large party of fellow selfish gits to launch volume III of my biography of Mrs Thatcher. It was taking place in the Banqueting House, Whitehall, yards from XR’s encampment, and was eloquently addressed by our git-friendly Prime Minister, who referred to them as ‘uncooperative crusties’. Had they found us out, they might have tried to gatecrash.

On the whole, the Extinction Rebels were peaceful. When I walked through their gathering the following morning, the scene reminded me of the Fourth of June at Eton, with ordinary parents in ordinary tents and nouveaux riches ones in huge picnic tents with pseudo-Georgian plastic windows and large drinks areas at the front. Also as at the Fourth of June, the women appraised one another’s outlandish hats as they promenaded. But as I passed the Treasury, a great howl went up, as the patron saint of us selfish gits, Jacob Rees-Mogg, strode past. Suddenly the mood altered and the previously herbivorous crowd chased after him, shouting angry slogans and attempting to corner him before he passed through the back entrance to Downing Street. We selfish gits, I realise, must assert ourselves. We should wear that description with pride, as Young Conservatives started a Vermin Club when Aneurin Bevan, after the war, had called the Tories ‘lower than vermin’. We, after all, are many, and these holy families with tiny girls who write out slogans of contempt for us are few.

In his speech, Boris reflected on the political assassination of Mrs Thatcher, comparing it with that of Julius Caesar, and quoted Mark Antony’s famous line about their being ‘all honourable men’. In Mrs Thatcher’s case, it would be more exactly accurate to call them ‘all Right Honourable men’. They were all at the top of the party — mostly cabinet ministers and members of the Privy Council, not backbenchers.

In my speech before Boris, I reminded the audience that Charles I, with whom Remainers most unjustly compare him, had to leave the Banqueting House by the window, departing this life as he did so. Boris left by the door with his head still held high and still on his shoulders.

Sir Richard Henriques has courageously exposed the harm done when the word ‘victim’ is applied to all complainants. The word begs the question in a way that is fatal to justice. The word ‘whistleblower’ is now having a similar effect, fatal to objectivity. It is used in news items to describe anyone who leaks information. It implies virtue. In fact, however, the motives of people who leak can vary enormously. Some are brave exposers of iniquity. Some are working off grudges. A few are even traitors. Surely the correct word, until the full facts are known, is ‘leaker’.

Since I have been a friend of Nicholas Coleridge for nearly 50 years, I cannot pretend to be dispassionate about his memoirs, The Glossy Years, just published. I may also be heady with relief that Nick did not include any shocking disclosures about me. However, I truly think it is a brilliant book. His economy and precision of style mean that he often tells you much more in a few words than you quite realise at the time. Many passages are straightforwardly very funny. I laughed almost continuously through the chapter about his prep school, for instance. But it is not hard to be funny about terrible prep schools. What impresses me even more is Coleridge’s ability to get inside a more unpromising subject, such as being chairman of a museum (the V&A) and showing through light anecdotes and shrewd human analysis how these strange institutions work.

Another potentially dull subject which Coleridge brings alive is the management of magazines. Some of the best bits of The Glossy Years concern running and sometimes setting up titles abroad — in India, for example, Russia and Germany. Here is Coleridge arriving in Bombay in search of a first managing director for Indian Vogue: ‘The monsoon was so heavy and relentless that year, it was like standing in a wet-room in a boutique hotel… India had that special monsoon smell of damp, drains, floor-polish and dead dog. Driving through the waterlogged city it seemed almost insane that we intended launching luxury magazines here. Through the fogged-up windscreen, I could spot neither potential readers nor advertisers. At traffic lights, small children tapped on the windows, clutching armfuls of Elles and India Todays for sale. This, apparently, was the supply chain.’ Thus is a culture clash neatly described. How well Max Beerbohm would have done a cartoon entitled ‘Mr Nicholas Coleridge seeks readers and advertisers in the streets of Bombay’.

Coleridge is right about Bombay too. When he first went there, he dutifully said ‘Mumbai’, but was quickly corrected by Indian friends: ‘Nobody calls it Mumbai. Well, maybe some government goons, but seriously!’ It was in The Spectator roughly 30 years ago that the reason for the official name change was exposed by the late Dhiren Bhagat. It was a Hindu nationalist move, advanced by an anti-Muslim populist called Bal Thackeray, and nothing to do with liberation from the British colonial yoke. I suspect similar motives lay behind the change of Madras, surely a name of Muslim origin, to Chennai. Stick to the names normal Indians use.

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