Socially useless activity by socially useless people

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column: the day I dined with David Frost, why we should stay out of Syria, and who will really benefit from Vodafone selling its stake in Verizon Wireless.

The phrase “He rose without a trace” – now commonly used – was coined by Kitty Muggeridge (wife of Malcolm) for David Frost, who has just died. She chose her words precisely. Frost became the best-known face and voice of That Was the Week That Wasand even then was clearly destined for TV megastardom. He wasn’t a singer, a dancer, an actor or a comedian. He was just good at what he did, which was delivering punchlines, written by (some said stolen from) other people, with perfect timing and a nasal, anti-establishment sneer.
 
It isn’t quite fair to say that Frost lacked talent; after all, he almost became a professional footballer with Nottingham Forest and edited Granta literary magazine when he was at Cambridge University. But nobody thought that he was likely to write even a mildly interesting book or that he harboured great passions (except to make lots of money) or strong opinions.
 
My personal memories illustrate the point perfectly. As far as I recall, I met him just once, sitting next to him at a dinner. He was friendly and polite (all the obits agree he was fundamentally nice) and I think we talked, as men will, about football and cricket. Otherwise, he left such a blank in my mind that I now wonder if I ever met him at all or perhaps imagined the encounter.
 

Don’t mention the war

 
If opinion polls are correct, the overwhelming majority of Britons are comfortable with their MPs’ decision to stay out of the Syrian conflict. Yet the politicians are uneasy, even if they were among those who opposed intervention, and are looking for ways of reopening the question. “We can’t just appeal to national self-interest,” an unnamed minister tells the Times.
 
Why not? There are difficulties in identifying self-interest but an appeal to it would save an awful lot of agonising and handwringing. Unleashing missiles and dropping bombs are serious and potentially lethal acts. Most people would say that they are immoral acts unless you face threats to your security, as Tony Blair tacitly acknowledged when he invented weapons of mass destruction, allegedly threatening British troops in Cyprus (with the faintest hint of a threat to London left hanging in the air), to justify the Iraq invasion. Who are we to decide that the lives of Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Serbs and Syrians should be sacrificed to higher moral imperatives?
 
There is plenty of good we can do in the world – development aid, provision of cheap medicines, fair-trade agreements, an open door for refugees, a generous attitude to economic migrants, a refusal to sell military equipment to dictators – without resorting to force. To those who cite the Second World War, I would point out that we fought to prevent Hitler dominating Europe and thus threatening our security, not to stop concentration camps and gas chambers.
 

Gove doesn’t fit

 
Michael Gove’s decision that pupils who miss grade C in GCSE English and maths should continue studying those subjects after 16 is only half right. Proficiency tests in English and maths – virtually essential to mere survival in the 21st century, never mind getting a job – should be like the driving test, which you can take until you pass. Yet the GCSE, with its elaborate syllabuses and grading structures, is not the right vehicle for them. Nor is it right to let pupils drop these subjects once they achieve minimum competence. Everybody should study maths and the native language to 18, as the rest of Europe requires.
 

Taxing times

 
Vodafone will pay no tax in Britain and a measly £3.2bn in the US on the £84bn it gets from selling its stake in Verizon Wireless. This doesn’t matter, we are told, because Vodafone shareholders will receive dividends worth £60bn, of which £15.3bn – a sum equivalent to Bolivia’s annual GDP – will be in cash. This money will boost the British economy and yield tax.
 
The argument doesn’t stack up. For one thing, a large proportion of shareholders’ rewards will go offshore. For another, the rich folk who benefit will save or invest the money elsewhere (in a tax-efficient way, naturally) rather than spending it. What the Vodafone affair demonstrates is Labour’s foolishness in agreeing to make the proceeds from such transactions tax-exempt. It wanted the City to become an international base for mergers and acquisitions – in other words, as Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK says, to boost “socially useless activity by socially useless people”.
 

Ayatollah of Ely

 
A few days ago, I visited Ely Cathedral for the first time. It is not the longest in England – Winchester and St Albans are longer – still less the tallest. But it is somehow the most imposing, because it dominates a landscape that is flat and largely empty for miles around. Those who shudder at the thought of clerical rule in Iran and elsewhere are probably not aware that it represented England’s theocracy until 1837. From 1107, the bishop exercised full temporal as well as spiritual power over the Isle of Ely, so called because it was surrounded by swamp. No wonder Oliver Cromwell, who lived in Ely from 1636, felt moved to join “the congregation of the firstborn”.
 
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005 
Broadcaster Sir David Frost at BBC studios. Image: Getty

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Photo: Getty
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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

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 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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