The Spectator's Notes
CHARLES MOORE For ten years, it has been said that Gordon Brown gave independence to the Bank of England. He never did, and this week dramatically reminds us of that fact. What he did was to give the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank the freedom to set interest rates. What he also did, however — and this nearly caused the then Governor, Eddie George, to resign — was to take away from the Bank its regulatory function. Since 1997, matters have been run by the 'tripartite' arrangement in which the Financial Services Authority makes the rules, the Bank handles the money and the government sticks its oar in. Some of the trouble surrounding the collapse of the Northern Rock has been to do with this. The FSA, being a regulator, is not suited to crisis management. The Bank, also hamstrung by current rules about disclosure for quoted companies, now lacks the powers to sort everything out quickly, privately and unilaterally. So indecision results and government panic fills the gap. It would be interesting to know who leaked the Bank's offer of extra liquidity to Northern Rock to Robert Peston of the BBC on the Thursday night, before the formal announcement was made the following morning. Watching the FSAs officials suddenly popping up on television on Monday and Tuesday, I wondered if I was witnessing the beginning of a coup against Mervyn King, the Governor — the financial equivalent of that moment in banana republics when they start playing martial music on the state radio. The Bank has suddenly got a lot less independent: the economy will suffer.
The newly published Mitford letters (The Midbrds: Letters between Six Sisters, Fourth Estate) are much more interesting than most of the stuff that pours out about that family. Reviewers have rightly noted the extraordinary range of people whom, between them, the sisters knew — Hitler, Evelyn Waugh, Maya Angelou, J.F. Kennedy, the Queen Mother, Oswald Mosley, Harold Macmillan, John Betjeman, Bernie Ecclestone. But what is even more unusual — and it is so obvious that few, except the book's excellent editor, Charlotte Mosley, have thought about it — is that this is the history of the 20th century seen exclusively by women. Social historians often make laborious attempts to do this, collating women's reactions to events which were chiefly shaped by men, but here it all is, effortless, uncontrived, and within a single family. As Diana Mosley puts it to Deborah Devonshire in one letter: 'One hasn't got a single male person to rely upon as a result of all these vile wars, so the ones who are left just do as they please which is often dire, eh.' As a result of this female-ness, the reactions to everything are so much fresher and bolder than those of the men who traditionally record public affairs. For example, Unity's reports of her café meetings with Hitler (whom she, almost literally, worshipped) tell a great deal about him They show how he often had plenty of time, how he was so popular in the 1930s that he could hang around in cafés without much anxiety, and how he thought romantically about England He whistles the whole of what Unity calls `the English National Anthem' to her; he fantasises about a world looked after by the German army and `the English navy'; and he muses that the Blackshirts would have much more success in England if they were known by a traditional name. He suggests the 'Ironsides'. A man's reports of the great monster could not have got nearly as close to him as did those of this innocent, deluded young girl.
part of the condition of most women in the Mitfords' generation was a lack of formal education, and it was certainly the condition of the sisters. (Pamela, the least bookish of the six, spells 'psychiatrists' as `sechiatrises'.) This bred deep resentment in Nancy and Jessica. But one cannot help feeling that a university education might have knocked out of the Mitfords their unique, fearless way of looking at things Instances: Diana describes some attitude as 'typically Christian and foul'. Debo exclaims, 'Oh Proust. Shall I try it now or is it too late? I do hope it's too late.' Diana sees Lorca's The House of Bemarda Alba and says, 'it is all about Muv and us'. The girls' lack of schooling set most of them reading and writing; and their strong, strange, happy/ sad family life with its games and private languages grew their imaginations much more than any schoolroom would have done, making them almost upper-class Brontës. In varying degrees, all had literary gifts. In Scotland, aged 20, Debo climbs to a cave and hears `the most ten-ifying sound just like a hermit tearing calico'. Nancy, managing without her cook, produces scrambled eggs for her lunch 'with a strong taste of marmalade smiling through'. Out come aphorisms, the better for not having been over-savoured by their authors: `So difficult to die, like so difficult to be born' (Debo); 'one knows communists can never pull any strings' (Diana); 'It is much cleverer to do than just to think' (Diana).
The letters end up as a collective work of art in which the authors collaborate and also — for there is a gripping rivalry for the right to tell their story — conflict. I had expected high gossip, rumours of war, love and comedy. I was less prepared for the extraordinary contemplation of death which dominates the second half of the book. Here is Debo, now the only one living: 'I suggest NO CREMATION, just an ordinary common or garden FUNERAL, I mean you have 'All Things Bright and Beautiful" & "Holy Holy Holy" and then the stalwarts shoulder you and heave you to the graveyard (where, side by side, lie many a long low grave) & everyone is in floods as you are lowered & and a handful of earth is thrown on & the fellow says Dust to Dust and Ashes to Ashes, more floods and bowed heads & then all start screaming with laughter before they're out of the churchyard. That's what I'm after.'
The book also has the best footnote I have seen: 'Louise de Vilmorin had the teeth of an aged nanny goat.'
Something about British culture tends to spoil the good by making it prohibitive. Thus Jamie Oliver's admirable attempt to improve school meals has somehow become, in the minds of the quarter of a million children who have given up school meals since his plan was introduced, a way of banning what they most like. The trick is not so much to forbid as to encourage. So it is lovely to know that the British Food Fortnight, which starts this Saturday, wants to get lessons going in food, nutrition and what used to be called 'home economics'. It offers schools a network of 9,000 chefs (www.britishfoodfortnight.co.uk) ready to go into the classroom and teach children why good food is nice and how to make it so.