Clotted cream, cooing pigeons, vengeful croquet – I’m living the English summer dream

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, I am enjoying a pot of Assam and a scone heaped with jam and clotted cream, on the terrace of the tearooms at Hidcote Manor Garden, Glos, and, as so many men in similar situations do, idly and with no serious intent whatsoever, I’m checking out the talent.

It’s a Monday afternoon, so we have a mainly senior set of visitors around us. It occurs to me, with a mild shock, that apart from the Beloved, her twin sister and her paramour, I am by some measure the youngest person here, if you don’t count the staff. (The man at reception was older than me, though, and had a manner about him that strongly reminded me of Pickles, the louche long-haired posho who used to prop up the bar of the Coach and Horses and deliver withering verdicts on your personality in exchange for the odd drink. Could they be the same person? The receptionist at Hidcote is far nicer but still has a way of talking that makes you feel as though you are sitting in the cheap seats and have been caught picking your nose. The Americans buying tickets are positively writhing in pleasure.)

This new-found youthful feeling is rather pleasing, if a little unsettling. The only time I could ever imagine being the youngest person in a place would be if I stood in a graveyard, and even then it would be touch and go. And yet here I am. Relatively young. But not as young as the B and her sis, even though today they are officially a year older, as today is their birthday. Quite a few years – enough to insert a young person of voting age – separate the B and I but circumstances have contrived to make her seem as though she has come from an earlier stage of British history. Growing up in a household too poor to afford a TV, she and her sisters had to learn to make their own entertainment. I always suspected that the notion of doing without telly and “making your own entertainment” was bogus and intended to make people my age feel guilty about watching Wacky Races but it turns out it wasn’t bogus at all, and when I’m with the B it can feel like I’ve been catapulted back to the 1930s. Not only can they all play about five musical instruments each, some of them pretty arcane ones too, they are expert and inspired at making up games, and on the train to Banbury, where we are to be met, my book is confiscated and I am commanded to give the B my full attention.

The first game is Hangman, by way of easing me into the whole concept of mutual conviviality. There is a small boy sitting next to us who starts taking an interest and offers “danger” as a suggestion to the word I am thinking of, but when the B works out that the word’s first letter is a W and its fourth is a K, she confiscates the piece of paper and we move on.

“Guess which one of the colours in Joseph’s Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat I’m thinking of,” she says. “How will I know you’re not fibbing?” I ask, although this is the least of my worries, as I have not seen the musical since my children’s primary school forced an audience of stunned and disbelieving parents to endure a loose performance of this work about ten years ago, and not all of us were giving it our full attention. She scribbles a word down on a piece of paper and hides it, and after about 20 minutes, and several clues, in which I name every gaudy colour I can think of, I correctly give the answer “ruby”.

But then we have a pub lunch and pétanque and then off to the National Trust’s Hidcote Manor. “Are you Trust members?” asks the man who looks like Pickles. “No,” says the B’s sister, “but our mum’s on the cover of your leaflet” – and fuck my old boots but there she is, along with the B’s older sister and her husband, busy admiring some lupins. I have landed, it would seem, bang in the middle of the most English family in the world. Being technically only a quarter English myself, I find this extraordinarily thrilling.

We enjoy a delightfully rancourous and vengeful few games of croquet on the massive lawn (to play the game croquet properly, it is important to suspend every generous and sporting impulse you have). I retire to smoke a crafty jazz cigarette under a massive pine and watch the others race around in improvised croquet-related games while the sun blazes down. The wood-pigeons coo in the trees; we virtually have the place to ourselves. After a while I beckon the B over and whisper in her ear. “Sorry to bother you,” I murmur, “but isn’t heaven meant to be rather like this?”

A woman playing croquet, 1930. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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