15 JANUARY 1977, Page 4


The bread delivery men's strike raises a number of agreeably confused issues and most people do not seem sure what, if any, line to take. One friend, not usually an enthusiast for trade union activity, has tried to persuade me that drivers are entirely in the right, but I confess that I don't see it. The abolition of retail price maintenance was one of the very few unequivocally good things that has happened in this country in the last twenty years. There is no reason for its continuation anywhere—not excluding the book trade. The Net Book Agreement is based on several misapprehensions, principally the belief that its disappearance would mean the end of good 'literary' publishing. Of course, it would mean keen money-making competition in down-market paperbacks, just as one can now find the same bottle of whisky cheaper in a supermarket than in an offlicence. But good bookshops would continue profitably to sell good books: the end of RPM has not put good wine merchants out of business. There is always money to be made by those offering a real service.

In any case, the bread delivery men do not, by definition, serve the real, independent bakers whom they claim to be protecting. If I want a packet of plastic sponge called 'sliced bread' I hope to be able to find it at a cut, or cut-throat, price in supermarkets. More likely, I shall continue to pay my local baker the price he requires for a 'loaf of real bread. That is what 'the market' is supposed to mean.

Can it really be true that nearly nine million tourists are coming here this summer, mostly to London? The capital seems long since to have passed bursting point. It is not unduly fastidious to say that the West End is scarcely habitable for three months of the summer. Can anyone walk down Shaftesbury Avenue at any time of year nowadays without a sense of national shame? Tourism is the cause of incessant, bitter complaint among all Londoners other than those with a direct financial stake in the tourist industry. But it is with that minority that our governing classes ally themselves. In important circles the only argument one can effectively raise against a plan, say, to build a supermarket on the site of Westminster Abbey is that the Abbey is, in the BBC's words, 'a tourist shrine.' Indeed, clergymen in the great churches of London seem to see their role largely as catering for foreign visitors. It would be nice if one of them followed the example of the excellent Greek prelate who not long ago ordered all his churches to say a special prayer: 'Lord preserve us from the touristic menace.' There is a simple explanation for the insensitivity of our rulers to grumbles about the effects of tourism: they suffer them much less than the rest of us. Senior politicians, civil servants and businessmen are driven about in chauffeured motor cars and escape the ordeals of public transport and even, in summer, of walking about London. This is an important difference between Them and Us. I recall that even Mr Heath's warmest admirers were annoyed by the episode when he telephoned Sir Desmond Mummer of the GLC in Japan to complain that the prime ministerial car had been held up in a traffic jam. Quite apart from a slight hint of arrogance, the rest of us did not need to be told about the condition of transport in London: we spent half an hour every morning queuing for a bus and another half-hour contemplating the beauties of Sloane Street from the top of an immobile number 22.

-Here is a modest proposal which will not only help to cut public spending but will increase contact between politicians and electorate, which is what they (politicians, that is) all seem to want. Let all official cars be withdrawn, except for a small pool which can be drawn on in genuine emergencies. Ministers will find that you meet a nice class of person on tubes and buses—and that it is even possible to walk to work.

Foggy weather brings a spate of stories which newspapers could almost keep standing in type from year to year: 'Motorway madness' is back again, and so many people have been killed on the M This or That. The phrase

could be as aptly applied to those who built motorways in the first place, suffering, surely, from a milder form of the personality disorders of Hitler, who significantly built the first ones. There is a logical answer to the 'problems' of motorway traffic which we listen to policeman droning on about all winter. Why not lift all restrictions on motorway driving? No speed limits, no fog warning lights, no police patrols, no maintenance of the road surface: just an occasional clean-up to remove the debris? Yet another useful spending cut.

Doing the make-up of the Spectwor recently I made a mistake. An illustration had to be marked for reduction to the page type area. I took down our rate card, read '254mm,' marked it as the width—and the studio returned a photo print twice the size needed.

had read the depth measurement instead of the width. The mistake was inexcusable, but not inexplicable: it would not have happened before metrication. I know how long seven inches is, or eighteen; '254 millimetres' is a total abstraction to Me. It might be as long as my finger, or my arm. I do not seek to harrow readers with this story; but don't bother to tell me that it s here to stay (an absurd expression, as Chesterton pointed out) and that I ought to learn. I can't learn even if I try. Being a good mental arithmetician I can learn to convert, as I do with the temperature. The Centigrade figure itself still means nothing to me— nothing actual, tangible—and I fear that It never will. Is 'fifteen degrees Centigrade weather for shirtsleeves, or for scarf and gloves? I don't know until I have multiplied by two and added thirty to get a rough and ready conversion. And now we witness a very good joke: just as the English have been dragged kicking and screaming int° the metric age, starting with the temperature, the Germans propose to abandon Centigrade and to adopt a complptely neW scale named, ironically, after a British scientist. No doubt we will soon hear the weather forecast in 'Kelvin.'

For various not wholly creditable reasotts I am rather amused by Rupert Murdoch

's acquisition of New York and the Village Voice. Mr Murdoch seems to have learnt from his failure with the Observer and t° have been a good deal quicker on his feet than Clay Felker. The only advice l can offer to my unhappy confreres on the ex' Felker magazines is the old Fleet Street line: never resign—wait until you're fired. Rupert Murdoch has a way of arousing even more animosity than might seta justified among his prospective employees' judging by what one or two journali5t5 in New York are quoted as saying: 'HiS papers are all crap'; `I'd feel ashamed t° work for him.' Perhaps his trouble is that he has not yet found his A. J. P. Taylor. Pi there no friendly intellectual to say: `RuPer Murdoch does good as the Sun does good.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft