SKINFLINT'S CITY DIARY
The Government has been forced to allow the Conservatives a free vote on October 28 on Britain's entry into the Common Market.
Until history is written you will have difficulty persuading me that a crony of mine did not play some part on the edge of the last few days' events. On Thursday Brian Connell the television man introduced him at the Metropole Hotel Brighton to Sir Harry Legge-Bourke, the head of the backbenchers' 1922 Committee, who took him through to meet Francis Pym, the Conservative Chief Whip. Sir Harry gave a learned and enlightening commercial history from the Ottawa Conference to the Treaty of Rome. However the united force of reason and interest has convinced me and my crony that we are being led into a great error and, not valuing the search for truth as much as truth itself, my crony let the poor chaps have it.
Our Prime Minister is a Cromwellian figure, a great man who should lead the country for the next twenty years. Instead of the socialists' fiscal resources of direct and indirect robbery, under Mr Heath sensible taxes and economic measures are being enacted to revitalize this country without the alleged dynamic of Europe being needed. Circumstances are changing quickly and the case for entering the Market is becoming weaker. My crony suggested that it may be right to concede a commercial gain to Britain, but that there would be grave industrial damage and, probably worse, industrial drift and job loss towards the centre of the community. Some degree of specialization will arise but basic industries like steel and heavy plant manufacture will within ten years suffer structural damage, leaving this country strategically exposed in the event of the unthinkable — conventional war.
There are a host of sound reasons for not entering the Market but the debate is getting tedious and impossible for the man in the street or even many members of Parliament to resolve to their own satisfaction. The country would be prepared, surely, to forget whimsies about popular rights and to accept an entirely free vote — on the assumption that members of Parliament behave as they should and see themselves as the present day equivalent of the four and fifty men, who were drawn from High and Low Church, convened by James I at Hampton Court Palace in 1604 to follow an elaborate set of rules and a general direction for the execution of the work of preparing the authorised version of the Bible.
In the light of Mr Heath's latest decision to allow a free vote, October 28 is far too soon now that it is necessary for many members to have to think for themselves for the first time as to what they are doing. Revising the Bible took two years and nine months — about the minimum for this larger matter to be studied.
I hope I shall not be accused of political truancy in suggesting that in this way there will be some check on radicals who, just like reactionaries, are said to loathe the present. They see it as an aberration and a deformity — just like I, and many others, see political commitment to the European Common Market.
A strong balance of payments under the Conservatives is as dangerous as the inevitable collapse of the currency when the socialists are in pover if foolishly we allow ourselves to be persuaded to revalue.
There is an unhealthy increase in tourism dangerous to the environment (particularly in London in the summer), which we are told to endure in the name of foreign currency earnings. The Labour government in their usual stupid way gave £1,000 per room grant — over £50 million in all — as a madcap hand-out to their proporty company friends ready to build hotels which we are now seeing springing up as a nasty rash all over London.
An inevitable and unwelcome result of joining the European Community will be the great increase of visitors, and particularly an annual swarming of the rootless young investigating what might be called the King's Road syndrome and, naturally, Britain's generous social security provisions. This probably sounds like small beer to sedentary workers, congenital spectators, Long John Silver, television match commentators and other members of the nonfootball fraternity, but the latest victim of the demolition teams, James Grose Ltd, was always acknowledged as, or at least advertised • itself to be, the largest sporting goods store in the whole of Britain. And as we moved to within three doors of the place when I was five years old and remained there for the next twentyfive, I always tended to accept the claim with more pride than scepticism, especially as they were reasonable about small boys who wandered inside asking for illustrated price catalogues.
As it happened, Grose, situated on that corner where the St Pancras pink affiliations of Euston Road modulate painlessly into the true blue of Marylebopie Road, was well placed to maintain its sporting connections, for it lay on the direct route from King's Cross Station to Wembley Stadium, which meant that on at least two April mornings of my life, in 1936 and again in 1938, the entire juvenile population of the district, football supporters or not, gathered outside Grose's windows waving to coachloads of Scots who had whiled away the long hours on the overnight train carrying them to the annual match against the English by trying to produce evidence Of a whisky famine.
It was the layout of James Grose which defined for me at an unusually early age Where my sporting preferences lay. The ground floor of the shop was frankly a mess, smelling of motor cycles, leather, dust, rust, petrol and occasionally motor Cyclists, and all the rest of the dreary Paraphernalia surrounding the pseudo-sport Of burning up petrol. Ironically, the faceless customers who strode in wearing eight or ten layers of protective clothing were always precisely the kind of men you wouldn't have wanted to touch with a tenfoot barge-pole anyway, although if you had, there were ten-foot barge-poles for sale on the second floor. These weekend drivers would stand there half the day twanging wheelspokes, peering through lensless goggles, gazing at lit headlamps in broad daylight, and all the other idiotic rituals to which the motor-cycle brotherhood seem to be addicted.
The real action, the true sporting heart of the establishment, was on the first floor, Here, free of the lunacy of internal combustion engines, you could buy intelligent, beautiful, sensible things like cricket bats, football studs, scorebooks, punchballs, tins of embrocation, goal-nets and all the little things which make a small boy's existence worth while. Here we would gaze on the white stitching of virgin cricket balls, on the biscuity skin of footballs which had not yet been kicked in anger, on the football jerseys swinging on hangers, whole sets of headless Arsenal sides swaying in the breeze. And I grew so used to living alongside this extraordinary place, that it was just as well that on the day I made my last purchase there, I was unaware that it was to be my last.
One morning in my eighteenth year I took out .my football boots and performed the ceremony I had performed three times a week for the past six years. I went into the kitchen, spread a newspaper on the floor, took a meat skewer and began stabbing at the congealed mud on the soles of the boots. But this time the mud seemed to be falling harder than usual. When I looked I saw that the skewer had gone clean through the boot and a large segment of sole had fallen on the paper.
I ran the few yards to James Grose and scanned the windows: I had bought my first-ever football boots here, four and elevenpence, size six, but that had been many games ago, and prices were higher now. Finally I decided on a pair at thirtynine and eleven, went in, bought them and ran down the stairs into the street. As I went through the entrance, I almost stepped on two small boys whose size and general demeanour were an exact replica of my own in the days when I had watched the Scots come floating past. Unable to resist eavesdropping on their conversation for a moment, I pretended to count my change, which, consisting as it did of one penny, was not easy. Gazing through the doorway one boy then said something which ought to be reproduced on a blue plaque and plugged tc the wall of what. ever building they erect on the site of the shop. "Come on," he said to his friend, "let's go in here and get chucked out."
I didn't think it was going to be like this. A little classroom instruction, naturally, before the fieldwork began, but in a day or two, I thought, I'd be in action, a romantic figure in the wet Gloucestershire countryside, glimpsed dimly by passing motorists on the M50 as I strode through the misty fields, falcon on wrist.
Failing that, the least I expected was a tense night in an mews as I broke the stubborn will of a wild, neurotic, yellow-eyed goshawk by the flickering candle. Mr Philip Glazier, though, currently , tutoring me and five other aspirants to the art of falconry at his establishment near Ross-on-Wye, is deeply scornful of such antics. "First thing the falcon would do is bate and blow the candle out," he says.
Bating is what my kestrel, the one that Mr Glazier has given me to practise on, does a lot of. A wild threshing of wings, mostly, and repeated, usually successful, attempts to take a piece out of my fingers. I have a very bad relationship with this kestrel. The rest of the class have got theirs to come to the glove for raw meat, but mine just sits there, hating me and fasting.
Not that we are allowed to see very much of our falcons. Most of the time we
are engaged in what would look, to an out sider, like occupational therapy. We have these bits of leather and we learn how to make jesses and tie bells on. Yesterday morning we had what to do when your falcon breaks a feather: fix him up with another one with the aid of a kind of in terior bamboo splint. If you haven't got a proper hawk's feather, then a blackbird's will do, or a crow's. Mr Glazier gets much quiet pleasure from the thought of ornithologists excitedly reporting a new species of black-tailed sparrow-hawk.
There is a lot of knot-tying, too, things like that. The effect on me was immediate and horrific total recall of humiliations suffered in the Wolf Cubs at the age of eight, fumbling hopelessly with a bowline under the sadistic eye and sharp tongue of Tawny Owl, or whatever it was that the fat, bespectacled old cow called her self. Now I relive all that in detail as I try to tie with one hand the special knot needed to tether the falcon's leash to its block. I can manage it now so long as someone is holding up a pencil to simulate the kestrel's leg. It's when the damned bird itself is threshing about at the other end that I get the trouble. But Mr Glazier is very kind. Mostly he ties it up for me himself. Of course he has to, if he doesn't want to lose the kestrel.
When we're not having occupational therapy, Mr Glazier talks a lot, mostly in a sharp, discouraging ye in about how diffi cult it is to get a Home Office licence to keep falcons, and also about his relation ship with ornithologists (not good). The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is against private collections of birds of prey, such as his. It doesn't approve, either, of his plan to breed and release kestrels.
At all times he is at pains to put down any romantic idea we might have brought with us to the course. He is particularly scathing about gyrfalcons, which in my innocence I had always believed to be the supreme falconer's bird, suitable, according to ancient texts, for kings and emperors only, especially the pure white ones from Greenland.
This cuts no ice with Mr Glazier. In his opinion their main function is to be pre sented by the Foreign Office to oil sheikhs.
Also no good are most of the other hawks and falcons. Kestrels can only catch mice and beetles (so what are we doing with them?). Imported Indian and African birds don't do much either. Tht supreme sport, he says, is with peregrines on a grouse moor. Just in case we are getting excited, though, he points out how extremely un likely it is any of us will reach that stage.
Tomorrow we are to have Common Diseases of Hawks and Falcons. If you hear no more from me on this subject, you will know it is because I have failed to complete the course.