During the second world war, the collection of the National Gallery had to be hidden in a mountain in Wales to prevent bomb damage. Its director, Kenneth Clark, eventually realised, however, that this was bad for morale, and so made a single but striking exception. Starting with Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of Margaretha Trip’, which the gallery had just acquired, he ensured that each month one famous painting would be on display in an alcove at the top of the main staircase. ‘Picture of the Month’ proved tremendously popular, almost a pilgrimage site. In the time of Covid-19, the gallery is closed once more, but now the danger is not to paintings but to people. Obviously this has been partly remedied by the virtual tours offered by the gallery (and by many other collections), but wouldn’t it be nice to find a way of achieving some direct human contact? How about selling lottery tickets in which the winners — up to, say, six people who do not have to distance from one another — would be given a guided tour of the gallery by its learned director, Gabriele Finaldi? This could be live-streamed, so that watching millions could enjoy it. It would be a highbrow version of Camelot’s old cry: ‘It could be you.’
The coronavirus came to Britain a little later than to many comparable European countries. We are emerging from the worst of it correspondingly later. I am told that ministers and officials do not yet have a systematic way of studying the successes and failures of those chronologically ahead of us. Surely there should be one. How is Denmark’s school opening going? Is the low-key Swedish approach to the virus working, or New Zealand’s sudden reopening? Is Italy, from whose disaster we tried to learn on the way in, making the right moves to head out? Which states in the USA are doing the right thing?
It was extremely odd that the owners of the Jewish Chronicle reacted to the virus by announcing the liquidation of the paper. To be sure, it was loss-making already, and most of its best advertising markets had collapsed overnight. But you don’t close a 180-year-old publication just like that, especially not on the day of the first Seder of Passover when observant Jews will be out of action for the next few days and the banks will be closed for Good Friday and Easter Monday. The paper’s chairman and the Kessler Foundation that backed the paper seemed over-keen to liquidate, shed liabilities, and then create a new entity by merging the paper with the Jewish News, a freesheet. They sacked the excellent editor, Stephen Pollard, as their first move in this process. It must have been a shock to them that despite all those holidays, a new consortium moved fast to intervene, and outbid the existing management in order to reinstate Pollard, see the staff right, pay off the debts and secure the future. Headed by Sir Robbie Gibb, a Gentile, the consortium is serious about reinforcing the Jewish Chronicle’s strength rather than shutting it down. Behind all this I detect a battle for leadership in the community. Those who are braver about confronting Islamist anti-Semitism have prevailed over the outdated establishment view that the greater threat to British Jews is from the far right and that Islamists should be appeased in the name of ‘interfaith dialogue’. The consortium’s victory is good news. It would have been a weird epilogue to the successful exposure of Labour’s anti-Semitism under Jeremy Corbyn if the most prestigious Jewish paper in Europe had then folded. As the general election result proved, the supposedly anti-Semitic white working class saw through Corbyn. The rising danger to Jews — as, though more surreptitiously, to Christians — comes from the alliance between the hard, secular left and political Islam.
David Johnson was the funniest speaker I ever heard at the Cambridge Union. This may not be the highest praise — most Union speeches are not funny, especially the ones intending to be so — but David had the key gifts in a high degree. These include timing, po-facedness and a personality at once preposterous and secret. Now he has died, aged only 66. Behaviour which was accepted among undergraduates tended to cause havoc in the Church of England, into which he was ordained. A clerical friend tells me about Johnson in a Kensington post-ordination training group when the subject turned to healing: ‘One of the evangelical brethren present recounted a “wonderful example” of healing in their church when a woman came in who was walking strangely because one leg was shorter than the other. They laid their hands on her leg and prayed for her and “Do you know, we felt her leg grow under our fingers as we prayed for her. She got up and walked away; she was still wobbling a bit but it was a wonderful example of the Lord’s healing”. David decided to cap this with a better story: “We had a wonderful example of healing in our church. This woman came to see us because her breasts were too small. We laid our hands on her breasts, and we prayed for her, and we felt her breasts grow under our fingers as we prayed for her. She got up and walked away wobbling like crazy — it was a wonderful example of the Lord’s healing.” As a result, the other clergy protested to the Bishop of Kensington that David was “a block on the Holy Spirit in SW6”.’ Once, David showed me with pride a dry-cleaner’s bill, which said: ‘Fr David Johnson. To removing vomit stains from cassock … £11.00.’ His life was tragic really, because of drink. But like Jeffrey Bernard, he understood that tragedy can be shockingly funny.
My nephew George, who lives near us in the country, is autistic. During the lockdown, he spends much of his time mooching outdoors. ‘What are you doing, George?’ somebody asked him recently. ‘Sitting.’ ‘And what are you doing while you’re sitting?’ ‘Seeing leaves.’ His is the most succinct description I have heard of the silver lining of this dark cloud.
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