Modern Manners

‘It is Homer Simpson, I believe, who is credited with the observation, “Actors—is there anything they don’t know?”’

The Outsider's Diary

Well I for one loved Panama. Not the traducing of the Prime Minister’s late father, nor the latest attempts to turn British public life into a morass of financial prudery, but for the reminder of one of the only beautiful things in politics — its unpredictability. No sooner had David Cameron cleared his desk to make the case, undiverted, for the EU when — wham! — an obscure leak from an offshore fund started alarming world leaders. The following week it was the turn of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale. Doubtless he started the week looking forward to an untrammelled focus on BBC Charter renewal when before he knew it — bang! — he was on Newsnight explaining how he had been unaware that one of the many ladies he had been stepping out with was a dominatrix. Perhaps it was always like this. But the speed of the modern world does make political life like trying to govern in the midst of a perpetual meteor shower.

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It is Homer Simpson, I believe, who is credited with the observation, “Actors — is there anything they don’t know?” I wondered about this when Channel 4 had me on to discuss the migration crisis opposite Juliet Stevenson. She, of course, wanted more people — on this occasion specifically children — from Calais to be brought into the UK. My role was to be the baddy saying “no”. Actually, my position was a little more nuanced than that, but it evaded Ms Stevenson, who narrowed her eyes at me whenever I talked and turned out to be a fine purveyor of the verbal sideswipe. At the end she was clearly furious and wouldn’t even walk out with me. Why such hatred, I wondered.There is always something saddening about these encounters. Actors store up vast public goodwill by being in films and thus famous. Anyone who stands against them seems somehow to be committing an act of bad manners. I quite liked Truly, Madly, Deeply, but feel this should in no way commit me to the cast’s political views.

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Self-serving in a supermarket the other day I was reminded of a problem of modern capitalism — not just that one ends up serving oneself, but that people who work in such shops have zero stake in them. When I got to the till the purchase information of the previous customer was still up on the screen. I couldn’t work out what it meant. When the surly attendant turned around it suddenly became clear to us both that the earlier man had walked out without paying. In a voice resonant with lack of concern the attendant said, “He got away with it.” Should I chase him, I asked. I think I could recognise him. “He got away with it,” the man repeated before pressing some buttons and turning away. It has become normal for shop staff to feel no need to persuade you to buy, but it is a bigger problem when they do not mind being robbed.

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Charles Moore’s revelation that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s father was not Mr Welby, and the astoundingly graceful reaction of the Archbishop provokes a sober reflection from a lefty friend. Could there be anything more terrifying, he asks, than the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher asking you for a DNA swab while persuading your mother to talk about her sex life?

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A year ago there was a party in Cambridge to celebrate a new volume of poems by Clive James. So loved is he that this fact persuaded most of literary London to get on a bus and travel to Cambridge for the afternoon. That party included the poet reading his finality-filled “Japanese Maple”. But the combination of modern medicine and whatever rocket-fuel has always propelled the poet and critic meant that this year we gathered again for what he described as his “Clive James says goodbye forever — again” party.

A magnificently produced new Collected Poems and a new verse commentary on Proust were the ostensible excuses, but it was also — once again — a chance for his friends and admirers to show their love and respect for him. Mary Beard, the Stoppards, Carol Ann Duffy and most British poets assembled to hear Clive read a number of works he has written even since the new Collected was printed. As he struggled to stand up to speak he said, “Here’s the action bit” and — once on his feet — “Not even any need for a double.” The new works included an epitaph he said he wants on a plaque when — as he says his wishes now are — his ashes are taken back to Australia and scattered in  Sydney Bay. Don Patterson put it best when he said that it should surprise no one that someone like Clive — who’d lapped everyone else so many times in his life — should have got such a sprint on once he saw the finish line. How one wishes this wonderful last lap could go on and on.