‘Thurifer’ now uses public transport
Political autobiographies rarely appeal to me. I cannot complain that they are invariably self-righteous and self-exculpatory; that is their nature, after all. Generally I find them irritatingly unreflective, often dull defence of the indefensible. Occasionally, however, one comes along that bucks the genre. One was R. A. Butler’s “The Art of the Possible.” This sly, slim volume said more about politics and power of the decades after the Second World War than Harold Macmillan’s several door-stopping instalments. Given their rivalry and Macmillan’s success in climbing the greasy pole, it cannot be a surprise. Butler’s feline and witty literary revenge may be more enduring.
I have just finished reading a memoir that rival Butler’s. Frist published in 2015, William Waldegrave’s A Different Kind of Weather: A Memoir is beautifully written, wry, learned, allusive, amusing, and revealing of a rich inner life. There is something to savour on every page, some turn of phrase, some insight, some rueful regret. He set out with high ambitions, won many of the glittering prizes, knew virtually everyone you needed to know (there are rounded portraits of Isaiah Berlin and Victor Rothschild) and achieved ministerial office. Although he lingered for some time in the middle ranks, he finally made it to the Cabinet. And he fell.
The “Arms for Iraq” controversy may leave some to scratch their heads and find it difficult to remember what happened. For his part – more sinned against than sinning, and shafted by the bounder Alan Clark – Waldegrave had to sit through a Commons debate on a motion to censure him. He was saved by one vote and the resignation speech he had in his pocket was not needed. He was also the begetter of the Poll Tax that was instrumental in the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher. His account concludes that “in the end […] this was simply a bad policy.”
Most politicians seem to be incurable optimists, seeing victory whilst amidst the ruins. Waldegrave is by temperament a pessimist, and that gives his book a degree of authenticity. There is much I admired in this Apologia, not least its elegiac evocation of a lost world summed-up in an exchange in the House of Commons. Summing-up in a no confidence debate, the Labour front bencher Peter Shore said that the government “was like Ulysses, strapped to the mast, wax in his ears to block out the Siren’s song, listening to no one.” Waldegrave intervened from the back benches: “The Right Honourable Gentleman might like to complete the story, which was that Ulysses’ strategy saved the ship from the rocks.” There followed “an uproar of laughter”. Would such a classical exchange nowadays elicit anything but bewilderment, even with Mr Johnson clowning at the Despatch Box?
Apart from flights abroad, for the past thirty years or so I have not used public transport. For much of that time I worked within walking distance of where I lived; otherwise I used my car. I now find that a large amount of my time is spent on a bus, train, or the London Underground. There are few better places to view my fellow men and women, and to contemplate what the zoologist Desmond Morris described as “the naked ape”. Often I see acts of unbidden politeness, courtesy, and consideration; but these are outweighed by examples of self-absorption, sullen indifference, hostility, anger, rudeness, and unpleasantness. All of which feeds my misanthropic outlook; and were I not to believe in Easter Joy (a phrase which resonates in my inner ear in the sepulchral tones of the late Dr Kemp) my misanthropy would be boundless. Yet there are occasions when my irritation gives way to something different, and perhaps less unworthy.
A group of teenagers boarded a bus. They were children with learning difficulties or cognitive impairment. Half way through the journey one of the girls began to scream hysterically. It seems that a passenger who had boarded at a subsequent stop had sat beside her, and inadvertently and unwittingly triggered the reaction. The two teachers present dealt with the incident swiftly and sympathetically, calming the distressed girl and apologising to the similarly distressed passenger. At the same time a child in a pushchair began to cry loudly and insistently.
The cries of both the girl and the child were piercing and I, along with the rest of the passengers, winced but tried to ignore what was happening; not that we could have done anything effective. But as I felt the irritation rising, something of my better nature asserted itself. Here teachers and a parent were dealing with the realities of everyday life, something akin to what Henry Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation”. In those mundane circumstances, as they coped with the exigencies of everyday life, I wondered if I had witnessed examples of unsensational holiness.
I am not always so moved on public transport. Returning from shopping – where I met a familiar irritant of the customer ahead of me at the check-out rummaging through bags, purses, wallets, and pockets searching for a credit card (the need to pay for the goods having come as a great surprise) – on the bus home there was a nanny with her pushchair parked in the appropriate space. Yes, I live in that part of London where you never see parents with their children during the week. At the next stop a second nanny boarded with her charge in a pushchair the size of an articulated lorry. Nanny 1 was speaking on her mobile ’phone and did not notice the enormous machine six inches from her. Eventually she saw it, and so began the five minutes of pushing and pulling the two pantechnicons until they were properly stored; while the other passengers waited to take their seats.