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TUESDAY 27  FEBRUARY 2024

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What a boring lot our politicians are today 

How many of today’s politicians would you like to have lunch with or (help!) sit next to on a train or a plane? If the answer is none, don’t despair you are not alone. But if the question included  those from our lifetime, given that for most of us that means the last 70 or 80 years, then I suspect the reply would be very different. The sad fact is that there are no political Big Beasts any more.


Sunak’s personal approval rating is now -25 points, not a good place for a prime minister The deputy PM (gawd save us), the insipid Oliver Dowden, is in the minus league as is the chancellor Jeremy Hunt, and the newly appointed foreign secretary, Sunak’s big signing, David Cameron.


It’s terminal for the Tories and now Keir Starmer is channelling Thatcher. Cynical maybe but exasperated Conservative voters might be comforted. Whatever you might think of her, she was a game changer, the biggest of the Big Beasts. So too were many in her various cabinets, the strange but clever Keith Joseph, the reliable and decent Willie Whitelaw, Nigel Lawson, Peter Carrington, Ken Clarke, her nemesis Geoffrey Howe and her dearest friend Michael Heseltine. That’s only going back to the 80s; before that we had impressive figures like Rab Butler, Ian Macleod and Selwyn Lloyd.


Now we have Grant Shapps, the man with as many aliases as he has had ministerial posts, Steve Barclay, Mrs Common Sense Esther McVey, Mel Stride and many others you’ve never heard of.


On the Labour front bench, once it was Clement Attlee, whose government created the NHS, Aneurin Bevan, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson (the late Queen’s favourite prime minister after Churchill), Barbara Castle, Woy Jenkins, Denis Healey and later Tony Blair (like Thatcher a Marmite figure but a game changer), Roy Hattersley, David Blunkett, Alan Johnson, Gordon Brown, John Smith, Robin Cook, Jack Straw, and the much admired Alistair Darling.


Now it’s Starmer, who might be uninspiring, but is I suspect what the country needs; an unflashy, rather boring prime minister-in-waiting. His current frontbench is as unknown as the government’s with the exception of Rachel Reeves and, for the wrong reasons, Angela Rayner. But there appears to be some promising members who might yet stand out, Peter Kyle, Wes Streeting and Jonathan Ashworth. We shall see. 


But we had better get used to them because this current administration is totally shot and it is impossible to see how it can survive. Last week’s show of teenage petulance from Sunak when he refused to meet the Greek prime minister was the sort of silly incident which illustrates just what state it is in.And stupid because it gave Starmer the perfect opportunity to look prime ministerial and meet Kyriakos Mitsotakis and tell him politely that the Elgin marbles were staying put. And then make hay at PMQs.

*****

Conventional funerals are dying, so to speak. Apparently more and more are turning to a quick cremation rather than elaborate and expensive funeral services. The Chief of Staff (blessed be her name) has long advocated having a celebration of a good life before death so that the person in question can enjoy hearing what we really think of them. That’s  predicated of course, on there being nice things to say. 


The celebration of John Roberts’ remarkable life, which I report on elsewhere, is a case in point. The congregation of more than 200 was treated to great music and gently amusing memories of the old boy, but he was not there to hear it. The same applies to the memorials at St Bride’s for Paul Callan, Brian Hitchen, Derek Jameson, Ross Benson, Peter Tory. Jon Akass, Tim Holder, Jean Rook and many many others.


Speaking at Callan’s  memorial I ended with the idea of a living memorial service and got a nod of approval from the rector Alison Joyce. How Callan would have loved to have been sitting in the front pew of our beautiful Wren church listening to peerless singing and basking in the praise.


Who wouldn’t?

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Many of you will know of Cayle Royce, the former Light Dragoon who stepped on an Taliban IED in 2012 and lost both legs. I have written about this amazing man here and elsewhere. Royce suffered many other injuries which are not so visible and was in an induced coma for 48 days.


A year later and with new prosthetic legs fitted he rowed across the Atlantic in exactly the same amount of time as he was comatose. Since then he has done it a second time and recently kayaked up the Pacific coast of the US to raise £160,000 for The Not Forgotten Association.


Bronwyn Royce with son Cayle


I know of nobody so brave, singled minded and accomplished so I was the first to encourage his mother Bronwyn when she told me she was thinking of writing a book on the story from the point of view of the loving and worried person who gave birth to a veritable superman. The military great and good have written great reviews and the Princess Royal wrote the foreword.


Over the years I have been one of her little band of cheerleaders. And yesterday a launch party was held in for the publication of her book One Step in a Poppy Field at the In and Out Club, St James’. The former head of the Army Lord Dannatt spoke as did Bronwyn. And Cayle? Probably the best extemporaneous 15 minutes those present will have witnessed.


So all went well then? Er, not exactly. Bronwyn had the misfortune to have been published by Pen and Sword, surely the worst, most incompetent publishers in the land. The company is owned by the Hewitt family who also have a couple of weekly rags in Yorkshire and churn out military and other books by the hundreds. That may explain why Piss and Shit, as we must now know them, made such a horlicks of Bronwyn’s very fine book.


Apart from being generally uncommunicative throughout the publishing process, both the spine of the hardback and the dust jacket were printed with the wrong title. Field was omitted from it so it read One Step in a Poppy. No apology was received from anyone at the company, most notably not from the CEO Charles Hewitt whose only email on the subject gave the impression that his weekend had just been ruined.


It was not until the P&S production manager Matthew Jones stepped in that apologies were made. He ensured that new dust jackets were printed and organised delivery of them to the venue for Tuesday’s launch. They arrived one minute before speeches were about to begin so guests were treated to the vision of the author and three little helpers taking off the old and erroneous sleeves from 60 books and putting on the correct ones.


So for those who believe they have a book in them let Bronwyn’s experience serve as a warning. Choose your publisher wisely. One Foot in a Poppy Field tells an extraordinary story and will sell well. And in doing so will earn the wretched publisher money it does not deserve. Pen and Sword is a disgrace and I am happy to be naming and shaming such a useless publisher and its graceless chief executive who clearly doesn’t understand that the buck stops with him.

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At the weekend I shall be lunching chez Thackery on the finest rib of beef along with the author of The Benef£its of Brexit, one Henry Becket. Chapters deal with ‘All the extra money being spent on the NHS,’ How the Northern Ireland border question was settled,’ ‘How farmers, fishermen, small businesses and musicians have been simultaneously delighted’ and ‘Porcine Aviation.’ A snip from Amazon at £6:50.

Each of the 65 pages is blank. 

*****

Like so many, I was saddened by the death of Shane MacGowan. He was one of that great line of Celtic writers who seemingly function best when thoroughly pissed: Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and from the Express, Jon Akass who wrote his brilliant Monday columns only after a minimum intake of half a dozen large vodkas and tonic.


Contrary to appearances, MacGowan’s poetry and prose were far from unruly. His English master at his Tunbridge Wells prep school, who coached him for his scholarship to Westminster, said his winning essay was as good as anything he had read by anyone, adult or child.


And the Widow MacGowan, Victoria Mary Clark, told Martha Kearney on the Today programme how the fiercely Irish republican Shane had wept at the deaths of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Diana, and that each morning they did the Telegraph crossword together.


All of which goes to prove that the most interesting people are often made up of a mass of total contradictions. 


ALAN FRAME


6 December 2023