Of the many horrible things said by Gore Vidal, probably the most famous is, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Quite the wrong way round, in my view. I am always absolutely delighted whenever I learn of a friend’s success. Tempering your elation when someone you dislike falls, on the other hand? There’s a test of character.
I had cause to reflect on this after the recent downfall of the Conservative MP Brooks Newmark. I cannot think of a politician (and I have quite a list) who has been so consistently rude to and about me. Having chummed up to Bashar al-Assad and indeed the Conservative party’s Arabist lobby for years, Newmark then did something of an about-turn after Assad — completely unexpectedly if you were Brooks Newmark — revealed himself not to be a leading liberal but a ruthless tyrant. It was not only through his rude politics that Newmark distinguished himself, but by his quite amazing personal rudeness on the few occasions we met.
Despite all this, last month’s pictures of him on the cover of various Sunday tabloids, naked (but for a grin) as the day he was born, did not please me. Whenever I meet people who are outstandingly rude I have learnt to assume that they are in some way unwell. It tends to follow that sooner or later they will be found literally or metaphorically flashing their private parts by means ancient or modern. So no particular surprise, but no celebration, either.
Since my last column our Union has stayed together. A couple of days before the vote — and only shortly after a YouGov poll put the Yes to Scottish independence vote ahead in the polls, there was a hastily arranged pro-Union rally in Trafalgar Square. Since I don’t especially like crowds, nor what they do, I tend to avoid demonstrations. But how nice it was to turn up to this one and find the square full of other apparently protest-averse demonstrators. An actress recited Auden’s “Night Mail” and there was a superb speech from Sir Bob Geldof.
The only person who made me feel uncomfortable was Eddie Izzard. Here is a man with a strange career trajectory. He started out as perhaps the funniest stand-up comedian, only to have become a mediocre actor and a patron saint of political lost causes. Along the way he has probably done more damage than anybody else to the cause of transvestism, having worn ladies’ clothes when he started off but noticeably ditching them once the attention was there. Anyhow, he gave a speech about outer space and the idea that the 21st century was meant to be (though he never said why) the century when there would be no borders. There was much shuffling of feet. The crowd weren’t there because they didn’t want any borders at all, but to show that they quite liked the successful natural borders that we have had for centuries.
Having recently restricted my travels, a trip to Winchester becomes a big event. It was also very pleasant, to attend a conference organised by the publishers of Standpoint and the American magazine The New Criterion. After a day’s rumination on freedom of speech I thought I would wander over to the city’s best antiquarian bookshop and then to evensong. Every other conference participant had exactly the same idea. So we found ourselves reconvening around the literature and history sections before congregating again in the magnificent cathedral nave. There is nothing quite so wonderful as evensong in an English cathedral. If you have never gone you ought to several times before you die. It is why cities and towns like this exist. They certainly aren’t there for the uniform high streets, the Boots, Tesco or Costcutter.
During the service I remembered the last time I was there. I had returned from witnessing part of the 2006 Lebanon war. Evensong in Winchester seemed a world away — until the first lesson, which opened with, “And lo the people of [Syria on this occasion I seem to remember] did wage war upon the Israelites.” Truly there is nothing new under the sun, as we learn from the same book.
Now that the nights have become longer and there’s little joy in being outdoors, reading suggestions become vital. For several years people have recommended Edward St Aubyn to me. A few weeks ago I finally opened Never Mind, the first of the Melrose novels. The characters are almost all reprehensible. The subject matter is often horrific. But I had to get the succeeding volumes picked up for me as I went along because I couldn’t move until I got to the end of the fifth volume. I cannot overpraise them enough.