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4 August 2015

Dark forces in Putin’s Russia, high farce in the Lords and Labour’s martinet patrician

Imagine a coked-up Harriet (no, I can’t either) shutting down the leadership contest in exasperation and appointing herself leader.

By George Walden

My week began with the launch of The Oligarch, a thriller of which you may or may not hear more. Among the friends present were Jung Chang and Stephen Vizinczey, authors who have sold millions – Stephen with his modern classic In Praise of Older Women. Never mind. My book is longer than his and the women in it are younger. And if it bombs, too bad: it’s written under the pen name Joseph Clyde and Joe sounds like a resilient hombre to me.

I used to chair the Russian Booker Prize for fiction but gave up, partly because I sensed the dark forces of paranoid nationalism in the air – it was around the time when the British Council was coming under pressure there. The Oligarch concerns a conspiracy by other dark forces to assassinate a Russian president, so Clyde may not win too many awards in Moscow.

 

Toffocracy now

The Labour leadership contest is the most dismal spectacle in our recent political history, though it’s fun watching Harriet Harman preside over the rabble. A martinet patrician, she seemed to treat those objecting to her sending a child to a selective school in the 1990s as tiresome folk who should have known their place. Had she overlapped in office with David Cameron and Nick Clegg (as in 2010), we would again have had a toff­ocracy, with the leaders of the three parties uncontaminated by contact with the state-educated 93 per cent in their formative years and having to compensate for it ever since. Lovely, hard-working people, they might have agreed – just not leadership material.

The term “toffee-nosed”, you will recall, comes from holding your snout in the air to prevent the brown snuff-taking residue from trickling down. With our drug-snorting toffs today, we have come full circle. Imagine a coked-up Harriet (no, I can’t either) shutting down the leadership contest in exasperation, on the grounds that there was an insufficient quorum of talent, and appointing herself leader, with Tristram Hunt as her deputy. At a stroke, the natural order would be reasserted, together with social parity between the Whigs and the Tories and 18th-century-style tranquillity in the realm.

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Cracks in the eurozone

My wife is an art historian and restorer of Old Masters. With time for reflection as her brushes conjure some ghostly image back to life, Sarah has figured out the origins of the Greek crisis. In the 19th century, she reminds me, scientists invented a wheeze to prevent panels bending and bowing in damp castles or churches: they cradled their backs in a rigid framework. The result? Disaster. Instead of breathing naturally, expanding and contracting with the atmosphere – like a flexible national currency with the financial climate – the wood cracked and splintered, as many old panels subsequently have done. Sometimes with a loud report.

Getting to know the affable Jacques Delors was part of my job when I worked at the British embassy in Paris and Sarah at the Louvre. If only he had consulted her about his eurozone vision, then in its infancy, none of this need have happened.

 

Dad-dancing critics

The success of Rob Brydon’s and Steve Coogan’s series The Trip set me thinking about a new follow-up: a national pub crawl, lamenting the disappearance of those institutions. All you would need are a joke landlord and an offbeat, articulate wit and architectural connoisseur. And we’ve got them in the smart and hilarious Al Murray and the incomparable Jonathan Meades.

While I’m handing out jobs and commissions, I’d like to add: now that we have an Anglo-Italian director of the National Gallery, isn’t it time for greater diversity among our art critics? I’m sure Gabriele ­Finaldi shares the view of a former culture secretary, James Purnell, that the UK is undergoing a “renaissance” comparable with 15th-century Italy. “I don’t think that’s an overstatement,” Purnell said. If the country is oozing creativity, what have we to fear from closer scrutiny by outside eyes?

Today we blink in non-recognition as we read strenuously upbeat reviews by middle-class, middle-aged white men or women, or the maundering of semi-instructed youths, whose indiscriminate enthusiasms their elders feel bound to mimic, like dancing dads, so as to keep their jobs.

What we need is a new Robert Hughes, whom I recall stomping about on crutches (he’d smashed up a leg), delivering brisk judgements as he cooked our dinners when we stayed with him one fine summer at his house on Shelter Island in New York, off Long Island. Anything deemed crap by Bob stayed mired in the excremental category and there was a lot of it.

He was modern-minded but discriminating, as well as an outsider, with none of the inverted or otherwise contorted snobberies that so often lead us to over-praise work for its tedious social messaging or supposedly “disturbing” quality.

 

A lot of hot air

Heathrow and the House of Lords are in the news for similar reasons. Both are full to overflowing; the former is in the wrong place and the latter in the wrong era; and our solution in each case is to extend them further. To have more planes growling and screeching over London is as grotesque as giving hereditary peers, contributors to party coffers or rejected politicians a legislative voice in the airport’s future.

One superannuated institution is unlikely to refuse a new lease of life for another, and while an overblown Heathrow gets a third runway (and to hell with the suffering groundlings) our farcically inflated Lords will get 50 new members, making it vastly bigger than the Commons. Democratically it stinks, but then no one can think of viable alternatives, any more than for the Labour leadership. In these respects, we are what the French call une société bloquée. So are they – but that gives me scant comfort.

George Walden is a former Conservative MP

“The Oligarch” by Joseph Clyde is published by Gibson Square Books