At evensong in Trinity College, Cambridge last Sunday, Ann Widdecombe was preaching. The pews were packed, with many in the congregation bagging seats half an hour before the service began. ‘Strictly Come Dancing fans,’ my neighbour whispered to me. They might have been a little disappointed when she didn’t tango down the nave past the statue of Isaac Newton. Instead, she gave a learned speech on the question of doubt, inspired by Cima da Conegliano’s painting of Doubting Thomas in the National Gallery.
Prince Harry will not be starved of local press attention on his trip to New York this week. When I was New York correspondent for the Daily Telegraph a few years ago, the American press were largely uninterested in the views of British journalists, except on one issue: royal visits to Manhattan. Whenever Prince Charles turned up, a frantic call came through to the Telegraph office to appear on CNBC or Fox News. British news priorities in New York were a little different. An old English hack told me, ‘The British are only interested in three New York stories: stories about fat Americans, stories about rich Americans and stories about the Mafia.’ The clichés have changed in recent years. The New York Mafia are in decline; Americans have got poorer; and we’re now almost as fat as they are. Even the one cliché that defines Britain now unites us: two countries separated by a common obsession with the monarchy.
Whatever you think of Nigel Farage’s politics, the hail-fellow-well-met image isn’t artificial. When I met him in the Newsnight green room recently, he was extremely friendly to everyone in a way most politicians aren’t. The drinking thing is true, too. When the programme ended at 11.20, he wondered whether anyone wanted to stay on for a drink. We all declined, in our dreary, hurried way, and rushed off home.We have got more puritanical in recent years — bang goes another national cliché, about the heavydrinking British. But I wonder if a little of our old, boozy DNA lingers on in our admiration for anyone who still has a drink before six in the evening.
At Hughenden Manor, Disraeli’s house near High Wycombe, the National Trust have come up with a bright idea. In among the pictures of Queen Victoria, Byron and other Disraeli heroes, there’s a little table with a temporary exhibit: Margaret Thatcher’s old prime ministerial red box. Battered and unheralded, except for a small label, the box is enormously affecting
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— what papers it must have contained, if only for a few seconds, before those brisk little hands scooped them up and scribbled stark memos all over them. There is talk of a Margaret Thatcher library and museum — and I’m all for them. But she doesn’t really need bricks and mortar to commemorate her. If you seek her monument, just look around you.
New financial institutions don’t know what to call themselves these days. A banker friend tells me they’re running out of the classical names they favour. The Iliad’s been taken by Iliad Solutions Ltd, which tests electronic payment systems; the king of the gods was borrowed long ago by Jupiter Asset Management. Hubris and Nemesis are still available.
Visiting the new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, on Tudor and Stuart fashion, I was struck by the enduring 17th-century influence on clothes today. One ropey 1670s painting shows Charles II being presented with a pineapple. The king has dispensed with the traditional doublet and ludicrous pumpkin-sized hose, replacing them with a short woollen coat and matching modest breeches — the modern suit was born. There’s also a 1638 van Dyck of the poet and playwright Thomas Killigrew mourning his wife, her wedding ring dangling from his black silk bracelet. Although he’s in formal mourning black, he’s artfully dishevelled, shirt billowing out of his unbuttoned doublet. Shabby chic had arrived.
May 16th marks the 250th anniversary of the meeting of James Boswell and Dr Johnson, in the back parlour of the bookseller Thomas Davies, in Covent Garden. To celebrate, the Boswell Trust is holding a reading by John Sessions, at eight in the morning at 50 Albemarle Street, the old John Murray office. Thank God, it turns out the great men met at seven in the evening; it’s only the modern age that’s obsessed with breakfast meetings. Disappointingly, Boswell was drinking tea — he could have done with a few tips from Nigel Farage.
How England Made the English by Harry Mount is out now in paperback.
the spectator | 11 may 2013 | www.spectator.co.uk