George Pitcher: The week I was fired by the nicest man I know
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s outgoing PR adviser, George Pitcher, writes the NS diary.
Can of canapés
Journalists and friends - and sometimes friends who are journalists - have been calling, asking if I've been defenestrated from Lambeth Palace, where I've been secretary for public affairs this past year. The line is that I'm returning to journalism, which is true, but the suddenness of my departure has attracted attention, and I've told colleagues I won't lie.
I feel like Stig, the spiv in Monty Python's extended Piranha Brothers sketch (not the boring Top Gear driver). George, we understand the Archbishop of Canterbury has fired you? "Nah, never." But we have a video of the archbishop sacking you. (Pause.) "Yeah, well, 'e done that. But I had to beg 'im to do it. After all, I'd transgressed the unwritten code."
In this case, the unwritten code is that you don't work for the Archbishop of Canterbury and get quoted in a national newspaper diary column saying that he physically attacked a female Catholic commentator at a drinks party, even in jest. Actually, especially in jest. It suited some coalitionistas to suggest that I'd been fired for organising the archbishop's guest edit of this magazine. But that was a triumph (as anyone who read it will attest).
Here's the truth: I got stitched up by the Telegraph's Mandrake column, which reported my schoolboy allusion to the archbishop's drinks-party ruck over the canapés with Cristina Odone (google it if you must). I was the archbishop's placeman with No 10 and he can't live in fear that I might say something similarly stupid about the way the PM runs the country (as if). So, to coin a phrase, this time my resignation was accepted.
Give me the Self-Preservation Society
That Mandrake column appeared a year to the day after I was fired by the new regime at the Telegraph. A pattern is developing: every third week of June, the Telegraph shafts me. Next year, I'll try to be with our Italian family in the approach to the summer solstice. I'll look forward to the relatively civilising influence of Berlusconi's newspapers.
Last November, Will Lewis, who had hired me at the Telegraph but then moved to News International, phoned to chew my ear off over the Church of England's opposition to his new employer's bid for BSkyB. Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester, and his fellow "media bishops" had taken the highly unusual step of opposing the takeover, citing concerns about media plurality. Talk about ahead of the curve.
Back in those days, it was a brave and foolhardy thing to do - indeed, by an amazing coincidence, the News of the World ran a story the following Sunday about the Church's "secret list of sinning vicars". A few days later, I told Gordon Brown about this at the foot of the grand staircase in Lambeth Palace, when he was in. He looked grave and said there could be no proper political discourse until News International was sorted out. Job done, Gordon.
Garden of plinthly delights
To Highgrove for a little light relief from squashed canapés, tagging along with Shona and Ian Anderson, the enduring composer and conductor of the folk-rock legend Jethro Tull, and his fellow musicians and their partners. The band played Canterbury Cathedral last Christmas and, despite ten inches of snow in an hour and a half just before the gig, they packed the place and made a pretty penny for its restoration appeal. So HRH, as patron, wants to say thank you. We tour the gardens, full of nooks and crownies, reaching parts that other tourists can't reach because we have one of the prince's confidant-insiders hosting us.
At one point, we admire the Gate of the Worthies, which has busts of people the Prince of Wales admires across its plinth. I recognise one as Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, because I'm a lowly priest under his authority. Asked to identify his bust, one of our number offers: "Lenin?" Back in London, I relate this to the bishop, not best known as a Bolshevik, and he tells me he was once offered work as a Lenin lookalike. Which just goes to show, as the coalition keeps telling us, you can't judge a person's politics by what they look like.
The human touch
I'll miss being close to Rowan Williams. Everyone talks about his intellect, but there's so much more that flows from that, which is what my friend and colleague Tim Livesey, who worked at the Foreign Office before moving to Lambeth Palace, calls "world-class". I've seen him deliver an hour-long lecture to hundreds without a single written note or a beat of hesitation.
In Kenya recently, he was struggling to be understood at a press conference, so he switched to French. He writes faster than any journalist
I know, and better than most. He says deeply unfashionable things - viz: sharia, Osama, his critique of British politics here in the NS - and in doing so makes unpopular opinions respectable. But the human stuff, too, is impressive. He replies personally and at length to very many of the letters that arrive from the lonely, sad and desperate. He connects most readily with young people. When the Telegraph thing blew up, his first concern was for me. He is sparse, unsentimental and very funny.
And the word was God
So it was with heavy heart that I went to the Garrick Club for supper after we'd terminated. Opposite me were Tom and Harry. They asked why I had a long face. I said I had my son's speech-day speech to deliver at Battle Abbey School in Sussex, where I'd just been made a governor, and I didn't know what to say (which was partly true). "I've got one for you," said Harry, whom I suddenly recognised as Harry Hill. "What's God backwards?" "Dog," said Tom Courtenay (for it was he). "What's Jesus backwards?" We blanked. "Susej!" said Harry. "Dog. Susej. Coincidence? I don't think so. Up yours, Richard Dawkins!"
So I used it as my opener at Battle Abbey. The children laughed, but I don't think the dean of Battle was amused. Story of my life.
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis