Sole-searching: Theresa May has launched an enquiry into child abuse allegations. Photo: Getty
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A very British “cover-up”, the truth about the Isis crisis and the Tour de France in Essex

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

Many institutions – the Catholic Church, elite fee-paying schools, the BBC, children’s homes – have covered up instances of sexual abuse among their own. So it is hardly surprising that Westminster and Whitehall are now accused of doing just that. It’s hard to shop people you’ve worked with most of your life and all the more so when you believe, as most priests, schoolteachers, BBC employees, politicians and civil servants do, that they need to maintain collective moral authority.

“Cover-up” isn’t quite the right term. It’s a matter of casually brushing things under the carpet – or more precisely shoving them to the back of the filing cabinet – and trusting to the old British practices of secrecy, discretion, quiet words here and there and believing that chaps who went to the right school wouldn’t do anything truly wicked. That was how Soviet spies such as Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt got away with it and so, it now seems, did child abusers in high positions.

 

No slice for Pie

Nowadays, the mere mention of paedophiles, even if they’re mostly dead, causes everyone to lose their head. As Theresa May announced what the Guardian called “a soul-searching national inquiry” into how public authorities handled child abuse allegations, the Home Office released a report on media claims that it provided direct funding to the Paedophile Information Exchange (Pie) in the 1970s. We learn that its voluntary services unit gave £65,750 over five years to the Albany Trust, a charity for sexual minorities, which reportedly held a series of “meetings” with Pie in 1975 and, in 1970, arranged the translation of a Dutch report on lowering the age of homosexual consent to 16. The same Home Office unit (through another charity, the Princedale Trust) gave £410,000 over ten years to Release, the drug users’ charity, whose address was also used by Pie for correspondence. Incredibly, civil servants spent three months investigating this non-story.

 

Simple twist of caliphate

Sir Richard Dearlove, the ex-head of MI6, now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, says that members of Isis are “misguided young men, rather pathetic figures”, who present little threat to Britain.

This is a refreshing change from the credulous consensus that has emerged after Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed he was the new caliph. If you believed most politicians and journalists, you’d think the caliphate was already a done job. In reality, Isis has an awful lot of Shias and rival Sunni factions to win over – or, more likely, behead – before one is established in the Middle East, never mind Europe.

The last widely acknowledged caliphate was the Ottoman empire, where in 1914 the sultan-caliph declared jihad against western imperialism (that is, the British and French) and rumours later spread that the German kaiser had converted to Islam. It didn’t end well. Empire and caliphate collapsed during the war and were succeeded by a determinedly secular Turkish state.

 

Two wheels good

To Epping in Essex to see the Tour de France on its way to the Olympic Park and the Mall in London. A friend observed that it is one of the few great sporting events free to watch. Given that you see the cyclists for no more than about 30 seconds, it would be poor value if it charged. Moreover, long before anyone on a bicycle appears, you endure about 20 minutes of marketing – cars, vans and floats tear past, all blaring horns and throwing free samples – for just about every brand you’ve ever heard of.

Even the police seemed to be in on the act, riding motorbikes in advance of the race, waving as though they were conquering heroes and, in one case, slapping the hands of spectators lining the route.

The Tour de France was never just a cycle race. It started in 1903 as a promotion for a French sports newspaper that, since the paper’s circulation rose from 25,000 to 854,000 in 30 years, probably counts as the most successful sponsorship in history.

 

Call me Peter

Npower, which is reported to have the worst customer relations of any energy company, sent me an “annual summary”, saying that I was more than £1,200 in credit. I rang and asked if I could have the money back. No, I was told, the credit existed only because I hadn’t been sent a bill for six months. The next day, the company emailed me: “Thank you for contacting us . . . We’ll change the name on your account to PETER.” That must be its solution to the customer relations problem: to put us all on Christian-name terms.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

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 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear