15 MAY 2004, Page 13

0 ne notices when talking to people who have fought

in wars that they become a little careful when the talk turns to torture. This is not because they approve of it, but because they have experienced the extremity of the real situations which can give rise to it. There are probably lots of old men in Britain who have 'tortured' Germans, if by that word is meant something like holding a gun to a prisoner's head to force him to say where a mine has been laid or an ambush planned. Right that such behaviour is against the rules of war, but wrong, surely, that everyone who did it be regarded as a monster. Again, terrorism and insurgency, with their own absolute disregard of rules, are more likely to provoke illegitimate retaliation than is 'ordinary, decent' fighting. One Cyprus veteran I spoke to remembered that the squaddies there got out of hand when terrorists murdered two of their wives. Ignorance is a breeding ground too. In Abu Ghraib prison, intelligence seems to have been so poor that the jailers had no idea whom they were dealing with. On top of that came a lack of clear command: ill-trained, brutalised people filled the gap. Those who have themselves served are clear how grave these failures were, but one finds them less ready to hurl blame than all those television presenters.

Acynical electoral insight from an American friend. If the torture scandal starts an anti-war movement in the United States, that is good news for Bush. Kerry will be torn between needing to show sympathy with the protests and wanting the votes of the majority (80 per cent?) who hate anti-war movements. He now also has to contend with a candidate from the Left, Ralph Nader. His vote may split while Bush's consolidates.

Congratulations to the editor on his appointment as shadow Minister for the Arts. He has got off to a good start with his professed lack of expertise. One of the nicest minor characters in literature is Admiral Croft in Persuasion. One day Anne Elliot passes him staring at a picture in a shop window: 'Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that. And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. I wonder where that boat was built!' (laughing heartily); 'I would not venture over a horsepond in it.' Admiral Croft pays

art the compliment of looking at it more closely than its own practitioners. I'm sure Boris will do the same (laughing heartily).

I,ast week I wrote about anti-Semitism. Perhaps I have been brooding on this subject because of having been sent (anonymously) a pile of BNP and other anti-Semitic literature. Spearhead, the BNP paper, constantly refers to Michael Howard as -Mr Hecht', the name his family had when they fled Romania before the war. The package also includes a copy of the Revisionist, a magazine devoted to proving that Jews in the concentration camps did not die by gassing (the 'presumed extermination of European Jewry') but because of typhus inflicted by the Allies. The publication is psychologically interesting because one imagines that the reason its readers and contributors are so excited by Hitler is because he did kill millions of Jews. After all, they do not study all the definitely nongenocidal politicians of our time, such as Alec Douglas-Home, say, or James Callaghan. These people seem to have persuaded themselves that they are seekers after a truth that has been suppressed, yet if there really had been no Holocaust they would be very disappointed.

It is more and more openly said that parents, not teachers, are the cause of the had behaviour of children in state schools today. Ihe independent sector should not be considered exempt. 1 heard a recent story of a gardener walking through the extensive grounds of a boarding school. There he found a parent with the back of his 4x4 open, filling it with the school's logs. 'Why are you doing that?' asked the gardener. 'Well,' was the answer. Tve paid the fees, haven't l?' I,ady Deedes, who died last week, was a heroine of mine ever since she and her husband Bill. then my editor. gave us a blanket made from the wool of her Jacob's sheep for a wedding pi esent. She was a countrywoman magnificently uninterested in the quarrels of the great world. In the early 1980s, Bill described a dinner he and she had just attended with their neighbours Lord and Lady Aldington. The Deedeses and Ted Heath had been the only guests: 'The conversation was a bit sticky. After a bit, my wife, whose thoughts seldom rise above the animal kingdom, turned to Ted and said, "Isn't it terrible the way the Tories have treated Enoch?" Then there was silence for the space of some two hours.'

4 Mr Moore? I'm from the Society for Distressed Donkeys/Action for Abused Children/the Beat Cancer Trust. We wonder if you could help us collecting in the high street on Saturday.' I have recently had three or four calls like this. At first, perhaps because of the mention of the high street, I assumed that the callers were from the village and so listened, as was no doubt intended, sympathetically (though with a natural, if unworthy, wish to get off the line). In fact, this was charity cold-calling from Torquay (or Bangalore?). It seems to me just as wrong as the commercial variety — worse, in fact, because it niggles one's conscience unfairly.

Interesting how a single word can be infected by polemic. When you hear the word 'planet' these days, it is generally being used by a Green rather than by an astronomer. It has become a cant term. You know that the next sentence will include a call either for legislation banning something, or for 'more resources', without which the 'planet' cannot be saved.

Now that smoking is almost outlawed, the next area for social control is obesity. Here the cant word is 'epidemic'. The credulousness of media and politicians is the great ally of the campaigners (`A devastating new report shows. .. ', etc), and this is particularly glaring where figures are concerned. As far as I could see, only the Daily Telegraph bothered to run the following item: 'A minister was wrong to say that 900,000 people on incapacity benefit were clinically obese, because the actual figure was 900, it was disclosed today. The Department of Health apologised for its administrative error.... The average amount of benefits paid out in England every week to obese claimants is £70,965 rather than the i70,965,000.' So the government got it wrong x 1.000, and hardly anyone noticed.