Early this week, Andrew Neil came round to my north London flat to interview me
EARLY THIS WEEK, Andrew Neil came round to my north London flat to interview me. He’s making a programme for the BBC about the decline of meritocracy brought on by the collapse in the number of grammar schools — thanks to both Labour and Tory governments over the decades. He is as confident as you’d imagine, but he suddenly showed a vulnerable side when we were talking about exams.
‘I still get nightmares about my finals,’ said Neil, who was a high-flyer at Paisley Grammar School (also alma mater to Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin) before going to Glasgow University, where he edited the student newspaper. ‘It’s always that I haven’t done enough work for them — absolute terror. And what makes it worse is that the exams were on green paper — scorched into the memory.’
Neil’s reminiscences sparked off some of my own. I remember the night before one exam, aged twelve, being allowed to stay up to watch The Professionals as a treat. It didn’t stop me being physically sick from nerves. There aren’t many consolations to getting older; never having to take another exam is one of them.
THANKS TO A prize draw — sponsored by Heywood Hill, the Mayfair bookshop — I won lunch with the MP Nicholas Soames, at Wiltons in Jermyn Street. Like a lot of supposedly outspoken figures, Soames is rather self-mocking, even a little unsure of himself, and he doesn’t take offence if you disagree with him. He plays himself up with Bertie Woosteresque remarks — ‘I’m a huge fan of Barack Obama,’ he said, ‘Though he did nick his campaign slogan [‘Yes, we can’] from Bob the Builder.’
AS I WAS sitting in an internet café near Charing Cross this week, two pretty blonde Sloaney types came and sat down next to me. It soon became clear that they were both filling out the same online university entrance or scholarship form.
‘Were we ever in care?’ asked Sloane No 1, turning from her screen. ‘No, of course not. What do you mean?’ said Sloane No 2. ‘Well, when we were at home in the holidays, weren’t we in our parents’ care?’ An idiotic question, yes, but it had a sort of dim logic to it that exposed the emptiness of the term. Being ‘in care’ really means not being in proper care.
THERE’S A SORT of informal convention in the newspaper world that, if a friend has written an article in that day’s paper, you automatically compliment them — ‘Good stuff today’; ‘Loved you on “Whither the euro” this morning.’ This week, a well-intentioned journalist friend exploded the convention, accidentally and nicely.
‘Nice piece, nice piece,’ he said when we met for coffee, on the day something of mine appeared. ‘I haven’t read it yet, but nice piece.’
TO THE SAVILE Club, in Mayfair, for the launch of Letts Rip — Inside the Parliament of Fools, Quentin Letts’s collection of parliamentary sketches for the Daily Mail. Letts is the heir to PG Wodehouse, the master of the well-constructed comic simile. In that day’s paper, he had even squeezed a few gags out of a dry parliamentary inquiry into the income tax farrago: ‘The wretched man shrivelled like an oyster squirted with lemon’; ‘the accountancy profession does not, by and large, paddle in the juices of pity’.
Like all great satirical writers, he has no desire to get in with the great and the good, so there were no significant cabinet ministers or senior Labour politicians at the party. The MPs there were the sort who could take a bit of teasing, including Alan Duncan, minister for international development. ‘Alan tells me that the Savile Club used to be a private house belonging to an MP,’ said Quentin, gesturing to the high rococo ceiling of the huge Louis XV ballroom. ‘Those days are gone. Sorry, Alan.’ Duncan looked genuinely amused.
Quentin has mastered the peculiarly English art of teasing to show friendship; there is only affection behind the barbs. He only throws in genuine dislike to back up his gags when the victim — a crooked MP, a bigwig bully — deserves it. Which is as it should be.
IN MONT-DE-MARSAN, a town south of Bordeaux, I sat at a roadside bar at the weekend and marvelled at a Frenchman who could not possibly exist in this country. He sat on his moped, cigarette in mouth, chatting to a friend at the bar. He then roared off, cigarette still in mouth, motorbike helmet still dangling from the handlebars.
It clearly wasn’t that he’d forgotten to put the helmet on — he meant to carry it around, but he also meant not to wear it. Why? To appease his wife? Or the traffic police? A good way to deal with health and safety, I thought. Not so much ‘I hate your rules’; more ‘I see the point of your rules and I’m doing everything I can do to follow them, except follow them.’