Here is a point about the coalition which is so obvious that I have not seen it expressed. When a single party is in power, the approach of a general election is the key discipline: almost however much colleagues disagree, they unite. When there is a coalition, the opposite applies. Each partner needs to disown the other. Because the coalition foolishly legislated to fix the life of this Parliament, the parties are bound together until May 2015. It is like the pre-war situation of marriage as satirised by A.P. Herbert in his novel, Holy Deadlock. The only means of divorce is to behave appallingly. The effect is that what began well is almost bound to end badly.
So much did PFI contracts capture the government machine that there was even one for the annual Christmas tree at No. 11 Downing Street, home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This year, George Osborne cancelled the deal, and told his PPS, Amber Rudd, to look for a money-saving alternative. She found one at Parsonage Farm in Udimore, Sussex, a village near us. The farmers, Roger and Leonie Wheeler, cut a 10-foot Norway spruce, tied it to their Land Rover and drove it through the gates of Downing Street without any Andrew Mitchell-style argy-bargy from the police. The Wheelers gave out of the kindness of their hearts, but if they had charged, the cost would have been £80-100, Mrs Wheeler tells me. The PFI contract was £800.
This week at Westminster Cathedral, family and friends will gather for the funeral of Brigid Utley. For 37 years of marriage, Brigid devoted herself to her husband, the great Tory journalist T.E. Utley (always known as Peter), never leaving him for a single night except when he was in hospital, spending almost all the time when he was not at work in the same room with him. This was not because of any obsessiveness on her part — she was the most amused and un-neurotic person — but because Peter was blind and she was his wife. The modern attitude to disability — very good in many ways — is to act as if it can be overcome, hence the Paralympics. Peter’s attitude was the opposite. Both he and Brigid were not at all interested in the condition of blindness, and did not try to surmount it. Rather than learning things which are hard for the blind, like running or riding, Peter concentrated on perfecting whatever was unaffected — in his case, words. He was therefore almost totally physically dependent on Brigid. She ran his bath, put out his clothes, cut up his food and drove him everywhere. He never walked down a street alone. In the evening after his day at the Daily Telegraph, Peter would go to the King and Keys pub in Fleet Street, and Brigid would come to fish him out, and stay to gossip. Much of this life was hard, but the only aspect which annoyed Brigid was having to handle the money (there wasn’t any). You could say that hers was a life lived vicariously, which people nowadays think is bad. But to anyone who knew her, it was obvious that her huge sacrifice involved no extinction of personality, no wistfulness, no unrealistic hero-worship (as opposed to deep love) of the man to whom she devoted herself. She spent her last months in the wonderful Trinity Hospice in Clapham, where she kept on nearly dying and then reviving so vigorously that her children feared she would be kicked out. She was very strong in spirit, in a way that perhaps only a woman can be.
Despite the changes in attitude to disability, too many disabled people still have to make do with low-grade clothes. Some of this derives from the demoralising idea that disability means there is no point in bothering. So this column’s Christmas charity is Style for Soldiers. It was thought up by Emma Willis who runs the very smart shirt shop of that name in Jermyn Street. In 2008, she found out about the work of Headley Court, the military rehabilitation unit in Surrey for injured servicemen. She wheedled her way into the place, and offered to make her bespoke shirts for the soldiers free. Her first idea, she says, had been to make shirts tailored to accommodate a disability, but she soon realised that what the young men really wanted were simply shirts of the highest quality. They love being measured by Emma for what would cost more than £300 for a customer. She and her factory in Gloucester have now made 1,000 shirts for them (the factory girls enclose photographs of themselves). Boxer shorts to match the shirts have just been launched. And the new craze, supported by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, is a walking stick, with a handle of orthopaedically shaped buffalo horn, decorated with a silver, initialled band and a regimental badge. The soldiers now feel smart, and therefore confident. Their social lives improve: they walk proudly to new office jobs on their elegant sticks. Emma told Shaun Stocker, a young man who has lost both legs, that she worried his stick might not be the right height for his new artificial limbs. ‘I love that stick so much,’ he told her, ‘that I’ll make them alter the legs.’ Donate by going to www.styleforsoldiers.com. £100 will buy a single shirt or stick.
It was a dark and stormy night when I boarded a delayed train at Charing Cross. I snuggled up by the window and started reading The Hobbit. I must have fallen asleep, because I suddenly found that a small man with a big red beard was right next to me. He, too, was reading The Hobbit, and we laughed at this. At some indefinable point, he vanished. Was he human? Or was he a dwarf, somehow strayed from Tolkien’s pages and reading the book as a politician might read a colleague’s memoirs, searching for himself in the index? Had I met Oin or Groin, or whatever they are called? I thought I had, but then I remembered a small, unmistakably non-dwarfish detail: my companion had been wearing an iPod.