Gaining Perspective

“One of the principles of public service is that it does not just consist of a race to the top with the resignation of those who lose”

The Outsider's Diary
Roman respite: Fresco of a bird eating figs at the Villa Poppaea (Jebulon CC0 1.0)

“Brits don’t quit,” insisted David Cameron in front of Number 10 on June 21. Three days later he quit Downing Street and, three months later, the House of Commons. As someone who was never a fan but who slightly warmed to his brand of pragmatism, I find it hard to see how his greatest defenders can defend this. One of the principles of public service is that it does not just consist of a race to the top with the resignation of those who lose. If everybody behaved like that, Theresa May would have had paltry options from which to form her cabinet. Cameron’s excuse that the press would have made it all about him delegates the right to choose how we are governed to the media—a body which (and I say it with affection as well as complicity) has neither sufficient restraint nor accountability to make such calls.

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Only two pleasures interrupted recent book work. The first was a trip to Edinburgh to hear Cecilia Bartoli perform the title role in a production of Norma first seen in Salzburg. Bartoli was exceptional and the production exemplary.

The only stains on the trip were the unavoidable glimpses of the SNP’s fiefdom, especially the inescapably abysmal “parliament” building.  Just one curiosity of the Scottish nationalism that has grown in recent years is (like Sinn Fein’s adoption of the “progressive” social agenda) the way in which they hide their intense parochialism behind the veneer of “internationalism”.

Internationalism may be something one does, or even something one is, but in politics it has become just another cloak behind which people can pursue any agenda at all, including ones quite contrary to it.

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My only other respite was a weekend in Positano and Ravello, principally to see the villa of Poppaea along the way. It came recommended by a Neapolitan friend who noted not just the superior preservation of the site to nearby Pompeii but the almost total privacy in which one can see it. The day I am there only one other person is walking around the private rooms of Nero’s second wife.

For me the great discovery is the trompe l’oeil panelling on the walls, which lead to the reflection that perspective of this quality got lost for at least a millennia and a half before being discovered again. Cause for hope, vaguely.

I mentioned last month how many people it takes to coarsen a culture. Another example lies in the children’s section of a bookshop in which I am searching for a suitable gift. The Game of Thrones colouring book is worth reflecting on for a moment.  Anybody familiar with the series will know that whatever excuses can be made for it—and there are several—it is unrelentingly sexual and violent: a television drama for the age of IS. What child of colouring-book age could have seen such a show?

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Speaking of box-sets, the seemingly immortal Clive James has a new book out on the genre, Play All (Yale, £14.99), which I bought and gulped down—like a box-set—in nearly one go. The BBC’s Newsnight ran an interview with the author, headlining the event with the announcement that they had an interview with Clive James, who has in the past had marital fidelity problems. The interviewer asked Clive about his new book, and about dying and then got onto what was clearly the aim of the interview: intrusive questions about his private life which had nothing to do with the subject at hand. Clive deftly and politely swerved, but who precisely did Newsnight think they were appealing to here?  Did they think they might attract some crossover from Heat magazine if only they could get Clive to talk sex?

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In September the National Secular Society had their annual conference and I was invited to speak. As it drew closer, they day began to fill me with dread. What on earth will I say to them? As it turns out I am on a panel with my comrades Maajid Nawaz and Raheel Raza. I explain to the secularists that, were it not for the subject Maajid, Raheel and I spend a lot of time talking about, their society would be a quaint social gathering which had outlived any purpose. There is a slight intake of breath before I assure them that given the subject under discussion they instead find themselves on the front line of the most important battle of our time. The audience breathes out. Afterwards, I speak with an atheist from Somalia, a secularist from Saudi Arabia and numerous apostates from Pakistan. It’s all rather wonderful. “Thank you for going easy on us secularists,” someone says on the way out, leading me to wonder whether the organisers had feared my appearance more than I did.