Sunday, January 25, 2009

A gentleman after all?

There has been discussion recently on the Times letters page, most of it feeble in the extreme as is sadly typical these days of the Times letters, of what is a modern definition of a gentleman. When this comes up, as it does from time to time, I cannot think beyond the wonderful Beyond the Fringe sketch about the railway lost property shop advertising 2000 pairs of ‘lost’ corduroy trousers. Jonathan Miller muses about how they came to be lost all at once, imagining a regiment of men detrousering on command at a predetermined point in the journey and marching off bare legged, to the horror of a watching matron in charge of a group of children – ‘turn your faces to the wall dears, while the ‘gentlemen’ walk by’.

The trouble with the sort of definition that Times readers come up with is that it is nearly always pseudo-funny or pretentious, when gentlemanly behaviour is more than anything a matter of good manners and certainly nothing to do with class. I had a supervisor once who might have passed at first meeting but soon revealed his true colours through his inability (it seemed more than a reluctance) to say please or thankyou to waiters or secretaries. (He also claimed to speak French but could not grasp that a feminine noun in French, such as personne remains feminine even when it refers only to males, a dead giveaway if ever there was one.) In fact it was almost a defining feature of British industry up to at least the sixties that senior ranks behaved in this way – the lack of please and thankyou I mean, not the bad French.

Which brings me to Alastair Campbell. I have long regarded him with the utmost distaste and have held it against Tony Blair that he would ever employ such a person. But from the rash of opportunistic memoirs that have appeared recently following Blair’s departure it is clear he moved in polluted waters. For Cherie Blair, in her own most untimely and inappropriate memoirs, made a number of uncomplimentary remarks about Campbell, including the accusation that he once referred to her ‘personal stylist’ Andre Suard as ‘only a fucking hairdresser’. Campbell denies this vehemently with what, if true, is a good working definition of a gentleman in the modern world. He claims ‘there are other direct quotations... which were not accurate, but this is the one I would like to deny, not least since it goes against the rule I have tended to operate most of my life, which is to save my harshest words for colleagues at or above my level within the organisation’. Of course this could just be an obtuse way of placing his boss’s wife in the pecking order of the Downing Street entourage.

Maybe for a final thought we should revert to Jonathan Miller, discussing the meaning of the famous sign that used to be found in train lavatories: gentlemen lift the seat. Was this, he wondered, a new kind of loyal toast, or maybe a latter day definition of a gentleman?

Inauguration of hope

One of the less edifying sights of the political near future will be that of George Brown sucking up to President Barack Obama. The incongruousness of it is staggering. The man who will lead the free world, whose oratory has inspired millions, who embodies the American creed of yes we can and who so far has proved it, is set to be tainted by association with the bullying, dogma ridden, tediously uninspiring co-architect of the party of no you can’t, don’t you dare and let’s not even think about it.
Twelve years of New Labour, its glib pronouncements, its cynical attitude, its bullying of the whole parliamentary process through an unassailable majority, its twisting of the facts, its redefinition of the basis of any measurement of progress or performance so as to present news to its advantage have reduced me to a despairing impotence and obliterated any memory of why I originally wanted the Tories out. And now Brown is going to try to get some of the glamour, the hope, the sheer quality of Barack Obama to rub off on him. It will be like watching a hyena trying to steal the show from an Afghan hound, a vulture trying to soar with the wandering albatross.
When Obama made his now almost definitive race speech I started a piece that I tentatively called ‘if only we had one like that’. And I didn’t mean black, coloured, African-American or whatever the right term is. His race is understandably important to millions of Americans and more millions elsewhere but to me it was irrelevant. I rejoiced because first the speech emphatically removed race as an issue in the primary process but second and mainly because it revealed him as so clearly the best person for the job, demolishing in the process any claim to special consideration that Hillary Clinton, in many ways an entirely worthy candidate, might have had simply for being a woman. For some reason I never finished the piece, absorbed in the arithmetic of the primary race and daring to hope that someone of Obama’s character and quality could go all the way. In November we celebrated with our American friends and today we simply basked in the final confirmation, as one does at a wedding after the build-up following the engagement announcement. His inauguration speech came down a little from the celebration of his acceptance but seemed to me to have just the right tone - I’ll start as I mean to carry on.
And now our papers are full of speculation over if or when we might have a black prime minister. They miss the point. The British system emasculates potentially good politicians and makes it almost impossible for them to achieve high office before any inspiration or originality has been squeezed out of them. The last one to beat the system, for good or ill, was Margaret Thatcher. It’s not a black prime minister that will save us, it’s a good one. When he or she shows up it won’t matter if he is black, white or green so long as he is a citizen, not a politician.