A Spectator's Notebook
This year, as in previous years, we shall be conducting a poll among the delegates to the Labour and Conservative party conferences in n effort to pin down their moods. We use the ,Sarne form for both conferences; and this year, r cause we thought that the Liberal Party ueserved to be taken more seriously than in recent years, we distributed poll forms among the Liberal delegates, using naturally the 1,k)rrns we will distribute among Labdur and :°rY delegates. But the Liberals were a touchy lot. The form contains questions about 111e popularity of the leader of the party, who would be the best alternative and so forth. The Liberals thought that we were getting at tile„M, stirring things up, trying to divide them. Oh dear, oh dear. There are times when a great weariness assails me. Is any spectacle , °re dispiriting than that of men come Nether in /concourse taking themselves with `)(cessive seriousness? At this season of conferences. I doubt it.
't is some years since I spent any time in Paris arin,d, I was rather surprised to hear a French Piomat the other day declare roundly over 'Itnch that President Pompidou exercises far thore power than de Gaulle evei. did. I 4reniember the offence caused in the Quai d"PrsaY when I once referred to de Gaulle's bletatorial powers. I was taken out to lunch Y Madame Dorjet (I may misremember the SPelling) who kept a general eye on the British ress-and who over the meal treated me to a .?cture on the error of my ways. This was z g the time of the prolonged Algerian sS and I took the opportunity to ask Mme riet why I-,had frequently been refused as to visit Algeria. She replied "We feel that or someone like you, we could not guarantee our safety." I replied "I would not have ;
ght that would bother you much." She ,ughed a very Parisienne laugh and said "Oh ji,s not your safety we're bothered about. !rall the bad publicity we would get." • French diplomats always take this high, or nad . line, which is one reason why they are
• ood at their job. The other reason is that
„ are clever. Our Foreign Office chaps are t4hsuallY clever enough; their trouble is that f. eY do not take the high, or hard line in furtherance of a cold appraisal of their uluntry's interests. 44 in,
Nzi very naive"
French diplomat had spent a good deal of e in Brussels. He was one of , France's tafrno) Market experts. I said to him, Bri44",Made an absolutely foolish mistake" in to u14 pro-Marketeers to Brussels. Of urse,, he said. I had not expected such im'Lediate assent. I continued: "The French tliu,reaucrats in Brussels serve French interests, the community interests." "Yes, of course," said. I said, "We should have sent opponents Who°,..or entry, or failing that, people rath vvere sceptical about it, to Brussels, er than utterly committed true believers si7 George Thomson and Christopher prres." "Of' course you should," said the 62101 diplomat. I went on, "And we should 11"0,' ve i fillnsisted that Thomson and Soames did their personal staffs with passionate • °Peens and that they did not put pass' _
°nate Europeans into the key positions
made available for British nationals." By now the French diplomat was smiling very sweetly, saying, "You have been so naive, so very very naive, you English." With this I naturally agreed, then added, "It makes no historic sense whatever, we in the Market. Only men ignorant of the history of this country and of its relationship to the continent, could have put forward and supported such a policy." The French diplomat, who knows this country and is well-disposed towards it, smiled sweetly once more and murmured gently, "Of course, of course, you are quite right." We then proceeded to agree that the Common Market could not possibly last and this concluded a most pleasant meal, which quite obliterated that vestigial trace of pique which I had carefully preserved ever since the Quai d'Orsay took me out to lunch at the Invalides in order to tell me I was all wrong about de Gaulle.
_Waste of money
On Tuesday last week Bob Conquest dropped in at the office. He was quite pleased with himself, having just come from recording a couple of short poems for the Greater London Arts Association. "What I've been doing ", he said, "is calculated to make every taxpayer scream with fury. I've just been paid £20 of taxpayer's money for dictating two minutes' stuff for Dial-a-poem." I had not heard of Dial-a-poem. "No" said Bob, "nobody's heard about it except the poets themselves." He fiddled in his pocket and eventually produced a piece of writing paper with the appropriate telephone number on it. I dialled the number. To my astonishment, after a couple of wrong numbers, a female voice said "The Greater London Arts Association. This week's Dial-a-poem poet is Robert Conquest" or words to that effect, and down the line came Bob's unmistakable delivery. We were all very impressed by the speed with which the recording he had just made was slotted into the telephone system; but I suppose that all the girl did, after Bob had left her with his recording, was to exchange the new tape for the old on a piece of Ansafone or similar equipment and let the machinery get on with it. It was, nevertheless, slightly uncanny. The uncanniness apart, who on earth wants to dial for a poem anyway? I ask this question with no disrespect to Bob and all the othelA dial-a-poem poets. And even if a few poor lost souls do want to dial a poem or a poet, why, is Bob himself was suggesting with splendid vehemence, should the poor bloody taxpayer cough up? Perhaps Lord Eccles as minister, for the arts will tell us, or the new chap whose name I forget who is running the Arts Council, or the poetry organiser of the Greater London Arts Association; but I do not suppose any one of them will come up with either a sensible, or the true, explanation. I do not think there can be a sensible explanation. The true one I suppose to be that someone thought up the idea, and no one could be bothered to suggest that it might be ,yet another disreputable waste of public money.
Not moving, but grand Peter Ackroyd went along to last week's biggest party. He writes: "No one could ask for a better set of mourners." Since they included the Prime Minister, the ex-Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Shadow Cabinet, MP's and ex-MP's (these last looking like a collection of elderly divorces), it was rather a matter of opinion. The speaker, and one far from being deceased, was Harold Macmillan. His tribute was to the party gathered in his honour at the Dorchester for the publication of the final volume of his memoirs (although the Prime Minister said, rather untactfully I thought, that "I can never believe there is not to be another final volume." There is, and Mr Heath has already written it). The Prime Minister tried his best to turn the whole thing into a funeral service, with his clipped and formal manner. His speech in praise of Macmillan was cordial without being extravagant, short but repetitive. Harold Wilson was warmer, funnier and far more courteous. He remembered Harold Macmillan from his own days as shadow-chancellor and "I took it 'as a personal affront when Mr Macmillan went from Chancellor to Number Ten." Wilson obviously admired Supermac, and it was not difficult to see why: it was the style or what he called "more a dramatis personae than a politician." At Conservative Party conferences, theatre critics were always welcome: "Mr Heath and I would agree that we are both thankful that the practice has now been dropped." This became easy to understand when Macmillan rose to speak, and upstaged both of his successors. There was a slight quaver in his voice, and he held the notes very close to his spectacles, but the manner was undimmed. It was a macabre pleasure, he said, "to enjoy my own obituary notices." His political career, now embalmed in two and a quarter million words of memoirs, was lightly passed over and Macmillan dwelt upon later but no less bitter struggles for supreme power. Specifically, for election as Chancellor of Oxford University — a post into which he was propelled by "that ruthless determination which academics have." He, of course, could not intervene or appear in the campaign — "I would that it were the same in general elections . . (pause) . . . the result would no doubt be the same." Smiles from Tweedledum and Tweedledee on the platform.. After the speeches, the party. Mr Wilson ensconced himself at one end of the room and was immediately surrounded by political journalists and other animals. Mr Macmillan sat in a sort of graceful isolation, no circle of admirers but the occasional friend. Mr Heath braved the throng by the drink-table, and did his best to look happy and occupied. The gathering was distinguished and indistinguishable. There were professors and politicians and TV journalists who look more like politicians than the politicians themselves.