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Celebrities, socialists and the stinking mob

If I were writing the Diary for the celebrity-obsessed Spectator, I would undoubtedly start by describing how, at a Notting Hill Gate party I attended recently - given by my sister-in-law, the author and actress Anne Lambton - a fellow guest, Daniel Craig, the great film star, took the lead in searching for my hearing aid. Having looked in all the chairs and sofas, he turned in desperation to the dustbins, not hesitating to plunge his arms into the kitchen waste within - hardly a role James Bond would have volunteered to undertake (and still less Bond's creator, Ian Fleming). Nor was that all. For when it transpired that the hearing aid was not lost but hiding in my shirt, having fallen through the open collar, Craig managed to smile rather than scowl; and it was he who went off to the off-licence when the booze ran out. All in all, a good sport, and quite unspoilt.

To more serious matters. Having been very shocked to learn that the Evening Standard, our capital city's only proper evening newspaper - and no mere football club - has fallen into the hands of a Russian plutocrat, why then did my heart leap on hearing that the German media company the Spiegel Group might be taking over the disintegrating Sunday Telegraph, of which I was one of the founding fathers half a century ago? Sad to say, the reason is simple: anyone would make a better owner than the sinister Barclay brothers whom Bill Deedes, as he lay dying, denounced, along with their executives, as "a stinking mob". Conrad Black's greed mucked up the Telegraph group's finances, for sure, but that was not nearly so damaging as what the Barclay brothers did to its journalistic content.

One of the occupational hazards of being a journalist is to run into someone socially whom you recently savaged in the public prints. This happened to me at a literary party in Oxford to celebrate the launch of Francesca Kay's impressive first novel, An Equal Stillness. There I ran into Sir Ian Blair, until recently London's Metropolitan Police commissioner, whom I am very conscious of having hit below the belt on several occasions. In one particular gibe, which I was pleased with at the time, but which now sticks in my gullet, I snobbishly said that he had got rid of the police's canteen culture only to replace it with something worse: the politically correct culture of a red-brick university sociology department. In truth, of course, Sir Ian went to Oxford, where he got a good degree in English. So when I ran into him I had every reason to expect at least a turned back, and it would have been well-deserved one. In the event, he was charm itself and Lady Blair tactfully turned the tables by saying how much she had always enjoyed my work!

Few lecturers today can expect an audience to remain attentive for four hours. Even the Reith Lectures have had to be reduced to a mere 40 minutes, so short is the public attention span. Last Friday, I was part of a captive audience of drivers caught speeding only just above the 30mph limit and we had to sit through a whole four-hour re-education lecture. The alternative was to have a lot more points on our driving licences.

The aim of the lecture was to drive home a lesson that could easily have been expressed in 15 minutes: namely that every single decimal point above 30mph can add fatally to the danger of collision. Having listened to the same lecture three years ago, as most of us recidivists present had, I was already convinced of this obvious truth. But I am equally convinced that, however hard even the most responsible and civic-minded driver tries to obey the 30mph rule, it is almost impossible to avoid the occasional lapse. So this stint of re-education was a waste of time. Human nature being what it is, the only realistic way of being on the safe side would be to reduce the limit to 20mph, and apparently this is precisely what the authorities are planning to do.

In a recent issue of the New Statesman, Sebastian Shakespeare had some fun at the expense of the late Harold Pinter's group of champagne socialists, who in 1988 used to meet at 52 Camden Hill Square, Lady Antonia Fraser's house, to plot the death of Thatcherism. The group, which of course also included the late John Mortimer, did not last long, as champagne socialists are never taken very seriously. But in my recollection it was not the swilling of champagne that gave rise to the hostility. What rankled was that Pinter's group held its meetings in the same Camden Hill house - same chairs, same sofas - that only very shortly before had been the meeting place of the Conservative Philosophy Group led by the Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser, Lady Antonia's first husband. In other words, it was not the group's drinking habits that gave offence so much as their lack of basic tact and sensitivity.

Finally, a question: what reason other than rank class prejudice prevents the restoration of hereditary peers? Discuss.

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009