No man is an island, except a politician appointed by May
Jeremy Wright, the media and culture secretary, used a speech to the Society of Editors to say he never read newspapers. Pressed to name a female columnist, Wright became defensive, saying he wasn’t going to indulge in a “pub quiz”. As his department also covers digital and sport, we can soon expect him to admit he doesn’t watch TV, read books, use the internet or go to theatre, concerts or sporting events. But then Theresa May has form for appointing people with no obvious credentials. Chris Grayling’s lack of aptitude hasn’t stopped him becoming transport secretary, and Karen Bradley is Northern Ireland secretary despite being clueless about the region being divided along sectarian lines. This week, the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, said he had not appreciated “the peculiar geographic economic entity that is the United Kingdom”, ie he hadn’t realised Britain was an island. Then there’s the strange case of the philosopher Roger Scruton. No one is sure whether it’s his work on aesthetics and Kant or his homophobia and Islamophobia that qualify him to be housing tsar.
YouGov has published a list of popularity ratings for politicians – based largely on public recognition. Topping the list are Theresa May with 32% and Jeremy Corbyn with 30%. Curiously, the second most highly ranked Labour politician is Ed Balls, in spite of the fact he hasn’t been an MP for more than three years. There again, if most of the shadow cabinet can’t recognise one another then why should the public? The ratings also provide some interesting guilt by association. If you know who Boris is, then you’re also likely to recognise Piers Morgan. Bizarrely, the associations you get for May are Accrington Stanley FC, Chris de Burgh and the Daily Express. Inevitably, there’s as much fun to be had at the other end of the ratings with the Tory Mark Field coming last in 228th place with a rating of just 2%. To which many would say: “That high?” There’s also bad news for Donald Trump. On the list of foreign politicians he is in seventh place, lagging behind Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Imran Khan. Call that the category of the world as we would like it to be.
Trump’s press conference at the White House after the mid-term elections was an object lesson in an unmedicated narcissistic breakdown. For someone who professed to be so delighted at getting a dead brothel owner elected to the Nevada state legislature while losing a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the president spent much of the twohour Q&A in a state of uncontained fury. First he had another run-in with CNN’s Jim Acosta, which led to the reporter losing his White House pass, then he rounded on a black journalist for asking a “racist question”. It was gripping, if disturbing, political theatre. Still, whatever you might think of Trump, at least he puts himself in the spotlight where his flaws can be exposed. May often talks up her belief in the value of a free press but only gives press conferences when she absolutely has to – such as after EU summits – and would never let them last for two hours. She usually limits herself to four questions at absolute tops, and even then invariably manages to give the same non-answer to each of them.
Identity politics has just become even more of a minefield. Emile Ratelband, a 69-year-old Dutchman who describes himself as a motivational speaker, has begun a legal battle to have himself reassigned as a 49-year-old. He argues that he feels 20 years younger than he is and that he is being unfairly swiped left on dating apps by people who don’t realise quite how much love he has to give. Or to put it another way, he is upset at only attracting partners of his own age when obviously in a less discriminatory world 30-something woman would be throwing themselves at his love machine of a body. It is almost certifiable: Ratelband would be better off trying to get a Dutch court to declare that we are all still living in 1998. Most people I know would much rather be declared 20 years older than they actually are. If I were to become 82 overnight, I could put in a backdated claim for 17 years of unpaid state pension while still doing a job I enjoy and stand a better chance of living to 100. Better still, people might say how young I look and mean it.
My insistence on a three-day diversion to visit the first world war battlefields in Belgium and France wasn’t the best of starts to one of the first holidays my wife-to-be and I took. It wasn’t her idea of fun. Nor mine particularly. More a sense of a connection I needed to make and on the centenary of the armistice tomorrow my thoughts are sure to return – as they do every Remembrance Day – to the
rows of identical gravestones in the immaculately maintained cemeteries. How and what we choose to remember is a puzzle. I’ve been reading Philip Larkin’s Letters Home 1936-1977 and he observes that Tennyson’s generation commemorated those who died in the Napoleonic wars. No one remembers them now. It’s as if there’s only so much observance of remembrance that anyone can take. Larkin finds himself puzzled that on an Armistice Day just after the second world war, his thoughts focused on those who died in the 1914-18 conflict rather than on those – some of whom he must have known – who had died recently. The BBC website published a fascinating story about how, in the years just after 1918, many veterans – having observed the two-minute silence – would hold wild parties to celebrate that they were still alive. The largest and the most glamorous ones took place at the Albert Hall, London. It was only in the mid-1920s that the orthodoxy for solemnity became established and the parties came to an end. A shame perhaps. Some of the most memorable and moving funerals I have been to were those that ended in a party. There is no right way to remember – all that matters is that we do.
Digested week digested Breaking news: Britain is an island that is quite near to France
‘Will you two please stop squabbling? You’re in church now’
‘It’s no good. I’m still bored senseless’