26 SEPTEMBER 1992, Page 6


In the past week, we have all had cause to think a great deal about principled resig- nations, their merits or otherwise. I have heard ministers and advisers muttering about 'the futility of ritual sacrifices'. I dis- agree. It seems an absolutely sound princi- ple of all commercial and political affairs that, if matters go wrong enough, some- body must be seen to pay a price. One of the strongest reasons for doubt about the management of the clearing banks in the past decade has been their reluctance to conduct ruthless executions at the top when disastrous errors have been made. A few years ago, I received a personal note from a bank chairman, whose resignation we had demanded in the Daily Telegraph, asking with obvious bitterness, 'What have I ever done to you and yours that you should now allow your ne*spaper to behave in this way?' Plainly, he felt deeply aggrieved that he should be faced with ending a long career in disgrace, when he himself had no personal knowledge of the appalling errors committed by subordinates. I was impeni- tent. If a scandal is of sufficient magnitude to have brought discredit upon an entire institution, then one or other of the men at the very top should surely go. Reluctance about resignation from high office stems partly, plainly, from horror of losing the chauffeur and Covent Garden tickets, but often also from a misconceived concept of courage. It is remarkable how often minis- ters and tycoons persuade themselves, con- veniently, that it will be heroic to withstand the media pack baying for their blood. Yet Sir Thomas Dugdale will always have a small but honourable place in British histo- ry, as the last minister to resign for his civil servants' follies. Lord Carrington also com- mands deep admiration, not only for the fact of his resignation after the Falklands debacle, but for its manner. He did not hes- itate for a moment. There was no undigni- fied, desperate attempt to hang on. He sim- ply saw what honour and dignity required, and did it. Modern practice, refined under the present Government and in the City, is to conduct a protracted grapple with the hangman before being dragged kicking and screaming to the trap. Sidney Carton would have found them contemptible.

The new biography of Beaverbrook by Michael Davie and Anne Chisholm empha- sises the man's profound corruption, his despoiling of the integrity of so many of those he touched. Yet, for a journalist, the sense of magic remains. As a young reporter, I interviewed Desmond Wilcox, then a head of department at the BBC. Afterwards, a friend asked Wilcox what he made of me. 'Typical Beaverbrook journal- ist', was the crisp reply, plainly intended to be unflattering. Yet I was not unflattered. Like many reporters, I always regretted that I was born a generation too late to be a fireman for the Daily Express in its great days. The book contains a wealth of anec- dotage. My favourite concerns the press lord's brush with death in 1917, when a businessman of his acquaintance turned out to be a religious maniac and threatened him with a revolver, asserting that God had told him Beaverbrook could be a great power for either good or evil. 'On your knees, Beaverbrook,' he commanded. Beaverbrook escaped, but it was remark- able that none of those he injured in his long life pressed the trigger before he died in his bed.

Ithink it was Nick Fenn, today a distin- guished high commissioner in Delhi, who used to tell a story about his days in the Peking embassy, when political correctness had achieved manic proportions in China. He was on a, train one day which came to a halt on an embankment by a village. Rather gloomily, he noticed the entire population gathered in serried and obedient ranks for their daily reading from the Thoughts of Chairman Mao. Then his eye swivelled to the opposite side of the track, where he observed a couple making love in the bushes with every appearance of enjoy- ment. He was greatly cheered by this evi- dence that not everything in China was quite as sub-human as it seemed. In the past year or two, we have heard so much He was given a grey card . . about the frightful state of relations between the sexes in the United States that, as I drove into Washington last week on a brief visit, I almost shouted to the taxi-driv- er to stop when I saw a heterosexual couple embracing outside an apartment block. Goodness, I thought all that sort of thing had stopped ages ago. Yet the saddest sight in the streets of Washington in commuter hours is that of innumerable neat, effective- looking women striding hither and thither with briefcases clenched in their fists, a defiant fixity of purpose stamped upon their faces. For all I know, at home they are happy, relaxed people with three well- behaved children apiece. But they do not look happy. They look lonely and driven. I would have been terrified to ask them the way to the bank without my lawyer present, never mind suggest a date.

Ispent most of my time at meals and meetings in Washington trying to hide my hands, which were stained a repulsive brown, modified only by my black finger- nails. Here is a man who either smokes 60 cigarettes a day or has not washed for a month, the discerning observer will have said to himself. In reality, this was the con- sequence of a notably ill-considered coun- try expedition the previous weekend. I love picking, whether raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, mushrooms. It has been a marvellous year for the walnut tree in the garden, and I spent a happy afternoon pick- ing and peeling. I came into the house and washed, at which point I realised that I was in serious trouble. 'Silly you,' said my sister. `Everybody knows that you wear rubber gloves to peel walnuts.' Well, I did not, and a week later I am still sitting on my hands in polite society. The uncharitable say that this is my natural predicament.

Having recently moved back to the vil- lage in which I was brought up after an absence of 25 years, I am dismayed to dis- cover what long memories the locals have. My childhood was landmarked with a long succession of enormities, mostly involving firearms or explosives. None of them has been forgotten. Every time I see a familiar face, the conversation starts with the recol- lection of some dreadful incident, the


aspect of which was that medical assistance was usually required for a neighbouring child, rather than for myself. I feel obliged to mutter pious bromides about times changing, no longer in short trousers, reformed character, seen error of my ways, and so on. But I can see that years of local, good works and a planned programme or penitence will be necessary before any is convinced.