The past year was one of so much gloom and doom — a smidgen of it perpetrated in print by me — that it seems embarrassing to admit that the Hastingses had a wonderful time. The garden flourished in blissful weather; we saw great movies like The Secrets In Their Eyes; enchanting theatre like Design for Living at the Old Vic; read wholly pleasing books including Adam Sisman’s biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper and The Hare With Amber Eyes; and basked in TV’s Mad Men. I enjoyed our friendships almost as much as the rows, some of the latter detailed below. Is it wicked to avow so much happiness?
My wife thinks book reviewing and Christmas recommendations corrupt, because they are so often influenced by relationships. I try to persuade her otherwise, but sometimes stumble. Not long ago, the Times contacted me, asking if I would write an introductory blurb for a history book promotion. I put the usual question: how much? Oh, nothing as vulgar as money would change hands, they responded, but they would give ‘additional publicity’ to my next book. I said: the Times never reviews my work, so ‘additional publicity’ means nought plus nought; forget it. I am a fan of the paper, and James Harding is perhaps the ablest of the new generation of editors. But this seemed a shifty little proposal.
To the Imperial War Museum, where I wandered through the new VC gallery, which Lord Ashcroft has funded as part of his philanthropic offensive. David Cameron’s failure to sack Ashcroft — instead allowing the Conservative vice-chairman to walk, then rubbish his leadership — seemed inexplicably weak. At a recent City lunch, Ashcroft accosted me aggressively. ‘I’ve got a bone to pick with you,’ he said. ‘You wrote in the Daily Mail that I had broken a pledge.’ I responded mildly that he could hardly imagine anyone would have made him a peer had they known that his tax residence was still in Belize. He returned to the charge, bullying away. I riposted that he bought the Conservative party at a bargain-basement price, and Tories learned bitterly to regret their bargain. I never mind a fight, but I suggested that even in Belize he might have learned enough manners not to row at other people’s tables. Our host eventually separated us, but it seems hard to regard his lordship as a philanthropist merely because he tosses a few cheques to good causes in lieu of the tens of millions he has not paid in British tax, while seeking to influence British politics.
A friend gave up shooting when he was 70, a sadness because I have enjoyed his company on winter Saturdays for 30 years. It was easy to understand that he no longer wanted to kill birds, but surprising that he could forgo the chat. I love the serendipity of meeting different groups of eight people, from each of which I learn something. In Devon a fortnight ago there was a persuasive account of what is wrong with the NHS; in Nottinghamshire, discussion of the Supreme Court; in Gloucestershire, debate about the euro. I like shooting, too, but that is a bonus.
I have held no public service appointment since finishing a happy stint as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, partly because of unwillingness to fill in the ten-page form that invites candidates to plead their own credentials. When recently asked if I would serve on the arts and media honours scrutiny committee, the Cabinet Office invited me to meet the committee’s grand panjandrums, Jenny Abramsky and the inevitable Dennis Stevenson. The encounter went pleasantly enough until they asked what I thought of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood. I responded that it seemed idiotic. ‘But don’t you believe in rewarding excellence?’ cried Dame Jenny in anguish. Yes, I said, but only if the recipient offers at least lip service to Britain, as Rushdie had not. After failing this litmus test, I idly mentioned the satirical political correctness of the National Heritage Lottery Fund’s application form, before remembering that the Dame chairs it. It was no surprise afterwards to receive a courteous little note from Lord Stevenson, saying that my services would not be required; the latest New Year Honours are unscrutinised by me. But why waste an afternoon of their time and mine, when we knew each other already? It seemed silly, gesture Nolanism.
Good Thing of the Year award must go to Neil MacGregor, as director of the BM and presenter of the wonderful Radio 4 series on artefacts that have changed the world. The government should sack almost all the New Labour commissars running arts quangos, and put MacGregor in charge of Absolutely Everything.