Spirit of the age

‘I’m not sure that “gender studies” are having a terribly good war. A professor tweeted—Pat Robertson style—that Covid-19 “took its revenge” on men after the domestic abuse they inflicted on women’

Justin Webb

In a front garden near my home in South London at the height of our lockdown: a wonderful scene. Swallows and Amazons meets modernity.  The Swallows and Amazons bit is a wooden boat, several feet long, with a sail made of bits of plastic. Ties—household string—tether the sails to the bow. It’s the kind of thing one imagines good fathers did in the 1950s before retiring with a pipe and the Daily Telegraph to let the little ones carry on and mum clear up the mess.

But this is a modern scene too. The modernity—and it is highly modern modernity—is the actor Laurence Fox, fag in mouth, tattooed arms bare, helping his young sons put the finishing touches to the construction. Laurence has been a neighbour for years. I see him in his off-camera moments: a talented mimic, self-deprecating, charming, but above all a loving father coping manfully with a life that is less-than-straightforward. Is some of that un-straightforwardness his own fault? Of course. But forgive us our trespasses. I give him my usual advice: don’t talk to the press. He salutes with mock gravity but he’ll take no notice.


I am learning Russian with my sixteen-year-old daughter, Clara. However thuggish and unpleasant the Putin regime seems to be; however disappointing Russia is, the language is still one of the wonders of the world; and anyone who has travelled in Russia knows how textured and rich is the culture of the place. Our language course is humorous in a dark kind of way. One of the early exercises for translation is about Dima who is rich. He has an expensive car. He has a new girlfriend. She is pretty and young. But she is rather boring.

Tee-hee. Proper London Russian. My sixteen-year-old picks it up easily. It is harder for me (at 59 and dazed from early starts), even though I once spoke a bit. To be precise: I learned to say “thanks for everything” in order to impress a girl, because I knew we would be at Moscow airport together and some local chaps would be helping us lug the heavy silver boxes of TV equipment. You should try it: spasibo za vse. It worked a treat by the way. It ought to be an exercise.


I am late to the game of the Charles Moore Thatcher biography but who cares: it is profoundly wonderful and will read well for decades. Partly because Mr Moore writes so easily but mostly, I reckon, because of the footnotes. I turn the page hungry for them and read them before the actual text:  biographies of chaps who went to Eton and Balliol, and went on to bugger up the governance of Britain. One or two who attended the LSE and do rather more technical things involving Econometric Methods, but still buggered it up. And vignettes to die for, like the deputy Cabinet secretary who takes a holiday “on the continent” as we used to say and thus misses the invasion of the Falklands and its subsequent kerfuffle. He has read no papers and heard no news. One can only imagine his consternation as he sails into Portsmouth as the fleet is sailing out. The next day he is servicing the war cabinet. That’s how England was run. Perhaps it still is.


I’m not sure that gender studies are having a terribly good war. A professor tweeted—Pat Robertson style—that Covid-19 “took its revenge” on men after the domestic abuse they inflicted on women. Another, who claimed to be an Oxford don, wrote a piece suggesting that she didn’t want the vaccine to be created at the university because it would reinforce the privilege of elderly white men. Well, these are points of view. And they are certainly not alone in projecting their view of the world on to a disease and finding—hey presto—that said view is confirmed in its genius and forethought!

There is no doubt either about the real horrors being inflicted, usually by men, behind too-long-closed doors. But for me the thing that stands out from this horrible time is the strength of women and their love for their men. A friend was very ill in hospital with the wretched disease. I passed his wife in the street. She could not speak. She was wracked with acute distress. The day he got out of hospital my wife and I saw them in the park. Such joy. Such relief. So many smiles. A story of love—human being for human being—that echoes down the ages and will outlive, for sure, the varying fashions of identity politics.


Speaking of the ages, someone in the literary world has asked me to write a book about my childhood. He read something I wrote about my largely dismal upbringing and the experience of a Quaker boarding school in the 1970s and thinks it could be turned into . . . well, what? My daughter—looking up from her Russian—asks the entirely valid question, who would be interested in reading that? She suggests firmly that she would not. I mumble something about the oddness of the ’70s, Jimmy Savile and the three-day week, glam rock and Richard Nixon . . . and then go back to my Russian verbs.

This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"