Last week I was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend a Christmas drinks reception at Lambeth Palace. Anyone stumbling into the party by accident could have been forgiven for thinking they were attending a weirdie-beardie convention. In one corner of the Guard Room was the birdwatcher Bill Oddie, in another the arch-luvvie Dickie Attenborough, and then in walked the religious affairs writer Christopher Howse, resembling a genial Santa. I found myself chatting to Professor Robin Cormack, curator of the Royal Academy’s “Byzantium” exhibition. He may be unwhiskered but is married to the classicist Mary Beard.
Many of us, beardies and non-beardies alike, wondered why we merited such an invitation. Bill Oddie thought he might be there because of his environmental work. Perhaps the archbishop wanted to talk to a him about the damage being wreaked on Anglican churches by bats. While at university, I once attended a lecture by Dr Rowan Williams on Zeno’s paradoxes, but that seemed a pretty tenuous connection. The archbishop then got up to say a few words and told us that someone had rung him up prior to the party expressing qualms. “Should I come?” asked the unnamed guest: “I am an atheist.” Oddie told me he was an atheist, too, and then fulminated about the dearth of women at the party. Oddie may be renowned as a great birdwatcher, but he failed to spot that we were surrounded by numerous women, including our hostess. Was this because they weren’t birds he fancied ? He then waxed lyrical about the BBC Natural History Unit, where the female quota is exceptionally high. “I think women are drawn to nature because they like to hug big furry things,” he said. Might this explain his beard?
Dr Germaine Greer has just written a highly charged polemic, On Rage, for the Melbourne University Press, which is about the ongoing blight suffered by the Aboriginal men and women at the hands of colonialists. “People now talk of establishing an annual sorry day, as if it would do Whitey good to remind himself how magnanimous he was on 13 February 2008,” she says. “More useful would be an annual angry day.” I agree. We need a rage day if only to express our fury against the bankers and politicians who got us into the financial mess we find ourselves in. Alternatively, I suppose we could save our rage for the ballot box.
When a Times sub-editor had the temerity to query an article written by Peter Jay, he grandly replied: “I only wrote this piece for three people – the editor of the Times, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Do the current incumbents of these offices, namely James Harding, Mervyn King and Alistair Darling, still pay any attention to the wise words of Peter Jay? Perhaps they should. The former BBC economics editor and former son-in-law of Jim Callaghan has a cunning plan to stave off financial depression. And if the man whom Time magazine once dubbed England’s brightest bulb has a solution, surely this triumvirate should take note. The Jay plan is a variation of Milton Friedman’s helicopter drop. Rather than drop money out of helicopters, as Friedman advocated, Jay thinks the helicopters should drop vouchers. The public might hoard cash, whereas vouchers with an expiry date attached would be spent quickly. After Jay was anointed the cleverest man in England, one wag responded: “If he’s so clever, how come he got the au pair pregnant?” Blackadder would ridicule Baldrick’s cunning plans and sometimes end up using them in desperation. We will know the chips are really down when Jay’s plan is put into effect.
Am I other? The Office for National Statistics will now collect information about your sexuality in its surveys. You can tick heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual or “other”. According to the ONS, 1 per cent of the population reject standard categories, hence the “other” classification – whatever “other” entails. I am always dubious of statistics. Where did they come up with this 1 per cent figure, for a start? Thank goodness respondents will be entitled to refuse to answer the question or put themselves down as “don’t know”.
The move has been welcomed by Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, which campaigns for gay equality. “Getting the Office for National Statistics to take this issue seriously has been like pulling teeth,” he says. But should it be taking the issue seriously? Summerskill argues that the survey is confidential and is about public service delivery. Nevertheless, it strikes me as yet another unwarranted intrusion into our private lives. Yes, we should wage war on sexual discrimination, but not at the expense of privacy.
Summerskill once worked for me on the Evening Standard as a loyal and able deputy. But never once did I ask him if he was gay or heterosexual or other. If I had, I am sure he would have told me to mind my own business. Or my other business.
Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary