My pre-new-year resolution for this diary entry is to resist the temptation to write about the credit crunch, global warming, the bankers, George Osborne, the Pope, the stock exchange, Governor Sarah Palin, the Daily Mail, the weather, Jonathan Ross, the flu epidemic or Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately I seem to have broken that resolution already. So I’ll say a word about Christmas cards instead. For the first time this year J and I aren’t sending any — well, hardly any. For years now J has done all the tedious work of buying and writing the cards, addressing the envelopes, getting the stamps, and struggling out in the freezing fog to post them. Apart from the freezing fog, J was doing this even when we had several hundred official cards, as well as our private ones, to send out from foreign parts, all those years ago. I have always thought that just about the sole convincing reason for sending Christmas cards was to have a contact at least once a year with old friends with whom we would otherwise lose touch. Now that’s much more easily achieved by the occasional e-mail, exchanges on the blog, even the odd telephone call, without all that business of reindeer in hard copy, manual work with the pen and the stamps, and excursions to letter-boxes — all so last century. What’s worse, because of the dire new Post Office postage pricing rules which involve measuring the envelopes as well as weighing them, you really have to take all the cards to the post office to be measured individually before you can safely post them.
J however explains our new non-policy on Christmas cards far more incisively. She puts it down to ‘senile inertia’.
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A few years ago, when I was involved in that splendid institution the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability (non-profit, non-NHS, but many of the patients funded by their local health authorities), I used to pop in to see one long-stay patient, who had been severely disabled by an asthma attack as a young curate but whose mind and, especially, sense of humour had remained (and still remain) unimpaired. His Christmas e-mail reminds me that his website is a real treasure-trove of jokes of every conceivable kind, many really funny (and that’s not just the few that I have contributed). The best thing I could find this year in reply to his message was:
“There was a little confusion at the meeting there at the White House when President Bush was told that Obama was coming. He said ‘Oh, you mean we caught him?’” (David Letterman).
Well, it made me giggle, anyway.
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Yet another admiring programme about Prince Charles has been on television recently. Some of it has been (presumably unintentionally) revealing. I loved the bit where HRH explains why he likes to be accompanied at all times by a member of his staff with a pen and a notebook. “If they don’t write down everything I say, it gets forgotten and nothing ever gets done.” Boswell, where art thou?
The Princess of Wales, Camilla (to give her her rightful title, even if she has been prevailed upon not to use it) has a walk-on part in the programme and performs it with notable grace. If and when the Prince succeeds his mother on the throne, Queen Camilla (to give her her rightful future title, even if she continues to be prevailed upon not to use it) shows every sign of being an excellent Queen Consort and probably an extremely good influence on a potentially wayward monarch.
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Tony Travers, the director of the Greater London Group at the LSE, had an interesting piece in Tuesday’s Guardian about what he called “a catalogue of struggles between the Conservatives and Scotland Yard”, of which the latest round has been the denunciation, now retracted with apologies, by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, of the Tories’ alleged and denied role in publicising Quick’s private address in the Daily Mail (damn!), forcing him and his family to move to a different address. Quick, head of Special Operations at the Yard — not head of counter-terrorism as commonly said, although counter-terrorism is one important element in his command — is in charge of the investigation of two years of systematic leaks to a front-bench Conservative MP by a Conservative activist and civil servant at the home office. A potentially useful debate on the rights and, especially, wrongs of party-political leaking by civil servants to anti-government MPs has unfortunately been sidelined by the huge row over the arrest for questioning of the MP in question by Quick’s coppers, and the search of the MP’s parliamentary office for evidence. The police didn’t have a search warrant for the latter activity, but they did have written permission for it from the parliamentary Serjeant-at-Arms, which seems to me just as good. Anyway, such has been the hysterical uproar over the treatment of the MP by the police that it now looks as if the original police investigation of systematic leaking from the home office may be abandoned, much to the obvious relief of the more perceptive Tories. If there’s really a “struggle between the Conservatives and Scotland Yard” going on, I know whose side I’m on, for once.
The last sentence of Mr Travers’s article, by the way, referring to the two adversaries — the Tories and the Metropolitan Police — reads:
Both sides are better than the other would have us believe.
Who, I wonder is this “other” who would have us believe something? Obviously an unidentified third party. It’s a pity that good clear expressions such as “each other” and “one another” are being supplanted more and more by “both”, in this context ‘both’ inaccurate and ambiguous.
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J and I listened with nostalgic attention to the live radio broadcast this afternoon, Christmas Eve, of the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. We have been overseas for each of the past six or seven Christmas Eves so this was the first time we had heard the live broadcast for a long time. We were both sadly disappointed. The King’s choir, world-famous for its clarity and purity of tone, sounded muddy and even under-rehearsed. The boy solo treble who, as always, introduces the service with “Once in Royal David’s City” sounded understandably but regrettably nervous. The new carols sung for the first time in this event sounded tuneless and inaccessible (surprisingly: at least one of them was by the late Peter Tranchell, who composed great quantities of memorably tuneful music for cabaret and musical comedies when I was a Cambridge undergraduate, rather a long time ago). Even some of the old, familiar, traditional carols had been tinkered with for no discernible purpose unless to irritate. To cap it all, the nine lessons were almost all read by the usual assorted King’s big-wigs and small-wigs in a mannered and distracting style, with strong stresses in odd places.
Perhaps the Festival has always been like this and it’s just that when we were younger we didn’t notice, or didn’t mind. Now we do.
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Polly Toynbee, the Guardian‘s resident humanist and secularist, headed her Christmas column: “My Christmas message? There’s probably no God,” a partial quotation from a poster message that’s to appear shortly on a fleet of London and other buses in a new secularist campaign: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life“. This seems to me to strike all the right notes. No dogmatic assertion that God doesn’t exist: just a suitably cautious reminder that on the balance of probabilities and the available evidence so far, his existence is more improbable than probable, and thus no more a sensible hypothesis on which to build our lives than any other improbable proposition. The advice to stop worrying about it also seems apt, given the pervasive guilt and obsession with sin relentlessly propagated by much religion. And the exhortation to enjoy life pithily reminds us that it’s — probably — the only one we’re going to get, so it’s no good putting up with misery and oppression now in the vain hope that it will all be all right in the next one. Polly’s article has prompted the predictable tsunami of abusive denunciation from the dwindling ranks of the God-fearing faithful: 723 comments in Comment is Free, and counting; and a raft of laughably feeble ripostes on today’s Guardian letters page, including efforts by a Right Reverend, a Prebendary and a Rabbi, arguing variously that religion has contributed wonderful art, poetry, etc. to our culture; that “belief in atheism” is no more “rational” than “the adoption of religion” — breathtaking!; that Ms Toynbee’s liberal values are “largely based” on “Christian principles” (so much for millions of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Druids and flat-earthers); and that Polly shouldn’t attack religion at Christmas time. One letter denounces the invitation not to worry, because “True religion demands that we should be worried about our world, particularly in these troubled times, and take our lives and our responsibilities seriously.” Controversial stuff! Judging by those 723 comments on the Guardian website, the Toynbee column will have attracted a massive postbag of letters about the Toynbee column and submitted for publication in the paper. If those selected for publication today were really the best of the lot, God help the religious lobby (so to speak)! Sensible Christians like the intellectually rigorous and clear-sighted Revd. Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, must be thinking: “with friends like these….”
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