I usually spend most of the week at home in South Devon in front of my computer. But for the past five days I have been on the rampage. Or to be precise, I’ve been in London. It is an easy journey by train when the track at Dawlish doesn’t fall into the sea. Some of my fellow travellers wonder why High Speed 2 warrants £50 billion when the whole of the West Country can be cut off so easily. They are unimpressed by the line that this investment won’t stop Network Rail giving Devonians and the newly free Cornish the best rail service in the world. But then they weren’t born yesterday.
I was at the Chelsea Flower Show, where I can report that Middle England is alive and well and living in dreams. There was a smattering of Ascot hats and one or two straw boaters but for the most part the Show was thronged by the human race taking the day off. The show gardens are stunning even when they aren’t to your taste. But to find them, you have to struggle through a maze of trade stands offering a fantasy future for green fingers with deep pockets. You could go home with a quintet of six-foot-high bronze frogs, a children’s playground, a tree house, and a mock-Caribbean beach hut with all the mod cons, none of which you really want. But that’s not the point. The Chelsea Flower Show is like watching Nigella and then sitting down to baked beans on toast; a glimpse of paradise before you return to the unmown lawn and the Japanese knotweed.
By the way: beware of knotweed conmen. You don’t need smoothies in Range Rovers, white boiler suits and goggles who charge more than your house is worth to get rid of the stuff. The weedkiller Roundup does just as well for a fraction of the price.
From glorious flowers at Chelsea to sublime singing at Covent Garden, where the best seats are far from the most expensive. For no more than the price of a good meal you can sit above the stalls but below the Gods and, as Tony Pappano would tell you, you will hear the best sound in the house. Sorry, no further details in case you get there before me next time. Of course, for £15, I could have watched it live at the Flavel Centre in Dartmouth. Not quite the same but almost as good as the real thing — and you can still shout ‘bravo’. And since the best in the world is no longer only for a local elite, there is no further excuse for cutting the funding. That debate should be at last be over.
I caught some of the Young Musician of the Year competition on BBC4. There was an extraordinarily inventive percussionist who did wonders with dustbin lids and a wheelbarrow. The winner was a 17-year-old prodigy called Martin James Bartlett, who played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the élan of an established virtuoso. The licence fee well spent. A few days earlier I had watched my four-year-old daughter playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star as the youngest performer at the Dartmouth Music Festival. Tears all round. But many more should be shed for those budget cuts which have made music an optional extra at school.
On one evening, I saw Chris Patten. His other friends will be glad to know he is recuperating well; I trust his enemies are equally relieved. The latter have cruelly abused him, ignoring the fact that he inherited the Savile cesspit, the executive snouts in the trough and the IT fiasco. For the media moguls who want to break up the BBC, this is understandable: he was an easy Aunt Sally. But a peculiarly personal vitriol seeped from those who seem unable to forgive him for being a ‘Wet’ or for masterminding John Major’s victory in 1992. Do they also deplore the fact that he fought for Hong Kong and that, as chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Commission, he helped steer the Province towards peace if not harmony? As for facts: I don’t know whether he was aware of it before he stood down, but I do know that both the BBC and No. 10 hoped to persuade him to stay on after his first term to help navigate through the thickets towards charter renewal. And one more thing: no prizes for guessing why we didn’t read about his decision to turn down an official car, choosing instead to travel from his home in Barnes to his office in central London by bus and tube. But then it’s terrible when the facts don’t fit the thesis.
Towards the end of my London week, I tried to emulate that incomparable auctioneer, Lord Archer, to raise funds for a wonderful bereavement charity called Cruse. It is great fun so long as your audience doesn’t mind if you cheat. The secret is to get the unwary punters to bid against themselves. You rake in more money and everyone else enjoys it far more. Very satisfying.
Now, after a Ukip-flavoured Any Questions?, I am back home — alone. My wife has taken our children to New York for half-term so I have no excuse for leaving my desk. So here I am at the computer once again.
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Jonathan Dimbleby presents BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions?
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