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‘‘You’re Jewish? You can't be English"

As a New Yorker long settled in London, Rhoda Koenig has become increasingly concerned about low-lev

The moment the icy splinter of fear entered my heart, four years ago, occurred, as it has for so many of us, at a dinner table. “Don’t you think that Israel is becoming very unpleasant?” said one deep thinker. “We used to be on their side because they were the underdog, but now they’re so aggressive.” That was not the moment. It was the next comment, made as I was taking a deep breath, by another guest. “Well,” he said, “I never thought about that before, but, yes, you’re right.”

That person was someone who had for several years been a good friend, good not only to me but in general. He is a kind, compassionate man, quick to offer practical help and moral support to his friends. He does a great deal of unpaid work for charity. His words took me back to a time when the same sort of mindless verbal ping-pong was played over other tables, when Gentiles in England dismissed reports from central Europe as hysteria or propaganda. I later said to my friend, who never reads a newspaper, that he shouldn’t comment on topics he didn’t understand. He protested that he wasn’t commenting: he was “just agreeing”.

In New York, where I grew up, I never heard remarks of this type, not simply because of the number of Jews living there, but because my accent and appearance identified me immediately as one of them. Since moving to Britain 20 years ago, I have learned that others see me only as an American or a New Yorker. I therefore came late to the sort of disconcerting encounter that European Jews probably take for granted – the person of respectable and benevolent appearance who, chatting to us in a railway carriage or a coffee shop, hopes we do realise that the Jews are plotting to steal our gold and rule the world.

That type of person – as well as those, of course, who won’t hire Jews and those who vandalise synagogues and cemeteries – is what most people think of as an anti-Semite. But I would suggest that the definition be made broader to include those who let unpleasant remarks about Jews go unchallenged, who don’t consider the subject to be worth a fuss. Those, in other words, who feel that we are not worth defending from the mindless vilification that has been increasing over the past several years, and zooming up since the air strikes on Gaza.

It was not the first time my friend had startled me with a remark of this kind. We had met not long before 11 September 2001. About a week after the World Trade Center was destroyed, he said to me, “I don’t mean to offend you by saying this: I just wonder if you think this could be true. Someone told me there was a rumour that the Israelis were responsible.”

That remark, however, passed me by in an I-didn’t-hear-that moment because I was already reeling from the reactions of the “America deserved it” crowd, and couldn’t take in anything more. But later I reflected that there was a point at which innocence and ignorance are not the same. As recently as 50 years ago, it was normal to think that homosexuals sought to corrupt pure young boys, and that children who said an uncle or priest had touched their private parts were dirty little liars. Nowadays, anyone who

espoused such beliefs would be ridiculed and might be up on a charge – as would someone who believed, as people did 700 years ago, when the Jews were expelled from England, that we kill Christian children and use their blood to make matzos.

My friend and I remained on good terms until last year, when he asked if I would join him on a trip he was very eager to take – to Syria. As my heart sank deeper and deeper, he enthusiastically described the archaeological treasures, the history, the romance.

“I know all about those,” I said sadly, “but do you know that Syria is a hotbed of anti-Semitic terrorism? Their newspapers and radio and TV are full of attacks on Jews, and some of them actually say it is part of our religion to kill babies.”

He was silent for a moment, and then sighed. “Oh, can’t you forget about that? Just for two weeks?” I said I couldn’t.

My friend departed alone for Syria – where, he told me, he had a marvellous time and didn’t hear a single anti-Semitic remark – and I was forced to conclude that, sadly, as we say in my native land, three strikes and you’re out.

I never thought I would end a friendship on political grounds and it distressed me greatly to end this one. Was I simply taking personal offence at my friend’s unwillingness to treat me with imagination and sympathy? In the end I decided that if the comments had insulted only me, I could have chosen to ignore them, but, as they did not, I could not.

Many non-Jews will probably think that I behaved in an intolerably pompous way towards someone who has no political influence whatsoever, and that I am elevating a personal slight to an absurd degree. But, as the last sentence of my favourite novel, Middlemarch, says, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts”.

Surely that goes for the growing evil, too? How do we know what effect a word or a nod may have? A single remark has at times been enough to alter a life. And not only words but thoughts – recorded in surveys or the ballot box – sway politicians to pass, execute, or ignore our laws.

Unfortunately, many of the sentiments that make the English so agreeable – their diffidence, tolerance, witty detachment – mean that “nice” anti-Semitism is practically bred in the bone. It’s a condition that has less in common with bomb-throwing than with the reluctance of most people to tell off those who are discourteous or disgusting in public, with the results we know. Just as the “nice” passengers on the bus or train turn themselves into zombies when others start shouting obscenities, the nice guests at the dinner party pretend, at an awkward moment, that they have heard nothing amiss.

Another friend was at such a party when a turn in the conversation made it relevant for her to say she was Jewish.

A man asked, “You’re Israeli?”

“No,” she said, “I’m English.”

When he asked her to explain this apparent paradox, she said that she and her parents had been born here. “But,” her interlocutor continued, struggling with this concept, “you’re different from the rest of us.”

When no one else said anything, my friend decided it was time to leave. She knew that there was no point in challenging the company, or taking up the matter with the hostess later, because, like me, she had done so in her youth and met only embarrassment and resentment. Why, we were asked each time, did we (and not the person who had made the remark) have to create unpleasantness?

I can understand the reluctance to turn an amusing evening into a trial for thought crime. But the riposte to bigots need not be solemn and drawn-out. Once my fork stopped halfway to my mouth when a film director’s bimbo girlfriend came out with an offensive characterisation of Jews, which she followed with the defence: “But I’m not anti-Semitic. No one can say that I’m anti-Semitic.”

A Gentile screenwriter replied: “I’m afraid, dear, I’ll be the judge of that,” and got a laugh. I then got a bigger laugh with, “No, I’ll be the judge of that,” and we moved on.

People may sometimes be deterred from objecting to remarks about Jews because they don’t feel qualified to judge whether the comments are true. But it is not necessary to know a raft of facts before you challenge a statement. You need only refuse to accept it unquestioningly. Be suspicious, I would urge you, of statistics that are presented as carrying intrinsic moral weight. (You hear a flagrant example of the current rush to judgement from people who want to arouse horror by pointing out how much higher the Palestinian casualty toll is than the Israeli. In response to their “That’s so not fair!” one might mention that German deaths in the Second World War were many more than deaths of US and UK forces and civilians. Should one, therefore . . .) And anyone announcing, with sanctimonious condescension, that the Jews today are just like the Nazis of yesterday should be handed a history book and asked: “Do Israelis do this?”

I should not like to leave the impression that my life in England has been characterised by anti-Semitic prejudice and hatred. Far from it; I have enjoyed prosperity and pleasure here, and my Jewish friends would say the same. But the intelligence and good manners we have known so much of the time make even more shocking those moments when they fall away. We wish that more of you would speak up when you hear ignorance and nastiness paraded, and not remain silent, like spectators to a crime, though the crime in this case hasn’t happened. Not yet.

Rhoda Koenig is a former nightclub singer, travel writer, literary editor and theatre critic for Punch and the Independent

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle