We were doubtless all, as children, told we didn’t know how lucky we were. And rightly so: in my case it was often because I had disparaged something my late mother (a superb cook) had prepared, prompting a lecture about children starving in Africa. It was highly effective when the news was filled with footage of the horrific effects of the famine during the Biafran War in 1969.
This past year I have regularly chanted to myself that my family and I are lucky. None of us has had Covid. We are usefully employed. We live in the country, far from epicentres of the disease. We have a garden to stroll in, and a house big enough that we are not under each other’s feet. The surrounding landscape has a network of footpaths where we can exercise the dogs. But there is much time to consider those living in cramped surroundings, in densely built-up areas, in fear of their livelihoods, and affected or bereaved by the pandemic. Anybody minded to belittle our people should note what most have endured, and how they have endured it. It has been a display of real backbone. However, I fear our greatest challenges are ahead.
Our closed village pub has left a great hole in our life. So pathetic is the sense of loss that when watching television our eyes water at the sight of “pub action” on screen. I am biased, but I think ours is the best pub on Earth. People drive from miles around to pack it out. Its landlord and staff are genial; its ambience is of an old Eastern Counties rural boozer, where people go to talk and chuckle and to avoid grim piped music. It serves proper pub food – such as ham, eggs and chips – but its splendour is its beers, drawn from barrels in a back room visible from the bar through a window. It generates a true sense of community, partly through the charitable work it organises, but also through the traditional means of bringing people together and taking them out of themselves.
Instead, we are forced to buy beer from a supermarket and drink it at home, alone. And tragic home drinkers have not even had the dividend we craved from Brexit: the supermarkets still sell short-measure 500ml bottles rather than beer in pints. I feel a campaign coming on.
LGBTQ+ and Chips
My lockdown project was finishing editing three volumes of Henry “Chips” Channon’s unexpurgated diaries, the first of which appeared on 4 March. You may know the story: Channon kept a diary of nearly two million words from 1918 to 1957, the year before he died. From 1935 until his death he was an unremarkable Tory MP, but a remarkably technicolour man. He knew everybody – well, everybody in Burke’s Peerage – and used first his father’s money and then that of his wife’s family (the Guinnesses) to entertain like a prince. He filled his diaries with scabrous gossip gleaned from his immersion in high society.
For all his faults and absurdities he created a vital historical document, a mere 200,000 words of which comprised an edition in 1967. It was so heavily censored by Chips’s partner, Peter Coats, that even the diary’s editor, Robert Rhodes James, did not see the original manuscript. The first unexpurgated volume is rather before the watershed; the second and third definitely aren’t. The LGBTQ+ community has yet to embrace Chips for raising two fingers to the law that oppressed homosexual men until 1967. That may soon change.
Chips’s name sells books. Many publishers, however, urge authors to seek endorsements for their dust wrappers from fellow writers. I can’t see why; reading a manuscript is time-consuming; only a good friend will do it; and therefore the chance of the truth being told about a bad book is zero. I agreed to do it once, for a very close friend, and only because his publisher, who was an idiot (my friend’s reputation required no endorsement from me) was nagging him unpleasantly. I read every word. It was a superb book and I said so.
A fellow author did the same for one of his friends. I reviewed that book, which its illustrious endorser had described in the most extravagant terms. Along with every other reviewer, I found it to be at the wilder end of turkeydom. Inevitably, when I asked the endorser (a man of taste and judgement) what we had all missed, he didn’t know. Of course, he hadn’t read it. The sooner publishers stop this ludicrous and patronising racket, the better.
[See also: Boris Johnson’s crisis of statesmanship]
Biting back at dog thieves
Criminals are always alert to opportunities: it is why so many end up in business. The latest is dognapping, satisfying a new demand for canine companions from those stuck at home. It sounds trivial, but after seeing a news report of a very old, vulnerable man traumatised by the theft of his beloved dog – the brute who stole it stamped on his hand until he was forced to let go of its lead – I realised the cat-o’-nine-tails had been abolished rather too soon.
A couple of years ago my wife, without researching the breed at all, bought a Cairn Terrier. When friends with experience of Cairns learned we had one, they offered their sympathy. Cairns are liable to periods of profound bonkers-ness, are routinely disobedient, and rather like eating books. Despite fencing our garden in so tightly that it could be a location for a prison film, the dog sometimes escapes. His name tag bears our phone number. Only a brief exposure to him is required before the kind souls who find him ring us up and beg us to liberate them. So if dog-lovers wish to avoid this contemporary horror, the way forward is clear.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Telegraph. He is editor of “Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries: 1918-38” (Hutchinson)
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation