The Spectator's Notes

Women used to forgive men their defects, but the quality of mercy is under strain

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

Poor Gordon Brown. He embodies the problem traditionally associated with being male, which is that our sex finds it difficult to understand human feelings. Mr Brown recognises, he says in his forthcoming autobiography, that he was not suited to a touchy-feely age. Perhaps it was just as well, because once men, particularly Members of Parliament, start touching and feeling they get into even more trouble, and discover — often too late — that not everyone they touch and feel welcomes it. They are, you might say, groping in the dark. Once upon a time, a high percentage of women understood this defect and usually forgave the opposite sex. But now the quality of mercy is strained by the age of equality. This trend is understandable, but also sad.

Adam Nicolson gave a beautiful talk in our village hall on Saturday, arising from his new book, The Seabird’s Cry. He evoked the pathos of the appearance of the puffin, illustrated with ‘before and after’ pictures. Before, the bird looked gloriously, as Adam put it, Edwardian — glossy in its black morning coat, with an eye elegantly shaped as if by make-up, and a confident, posh beak. After, the undecorated eye peered nervously from an emaciated face, the feathers stared and the end of the beak resembled a dried red chilli. What made the difference, Adam explained, was sex. The good look was for May, and mating, the sad one came with the ensuing winter. Male MPs now look like winter puffins.

Windsor has always had two stations — Central and Riverside — a fact which causes multiple inconveniences. Considering that it is the most visited tourist site outside London, it is absurdly badly connected. I recently met a man who thinks he can solve this, and do much more besides. George Bathurst wants to overcome the 19th-century monopoly system which had all trains coming in and out of London like branches of a tree, and develop, instead, a net. His Windsor Link Railway (WLR) scheme would create a single Windsor station (putting the historic buildings of the old ones to other uses). Its first phase would link the Great Western region with the South Western, going from Slough, via Windsor, into Waterloo. Its second phase would create a spur from the Windsor line which passes only two miles from Heathrow’s Terminal 5, thus obviating the need for new, separate rail links to the airport and getting two for the price of one. It would even, via Slough, create a further link to the north-west. The space freed up would permit high-quality residential architecture on a Regent’s Park model. Mr Bathurst has the plan and the investors ready. Having been cited in the Hansford ‘contestability’ Review, helpfully commissioned by Network Rail, the WLR hopes to become the first privately funded new rail link for over 100 years. What it still lacks is the government go-ahead. The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, is enthusiastic for private investment, but the wheels turn slowly. Yet there is a political opportunity here. At present, Jeremy Corbyn makes the running by calling for renationalisation, but the current franchise system has, in many ways, the faults of nationalisation thinly concealed by private branding. Here is an alternative approach which could look enticing by the next election. The officialese for ideas like the WLR is ‘unsolicited bids’, as if they were intrinsically unwelcome. There needs to be a nicer slogan for private enterprise which helps the ‘just about managing’ travelling public much more ingeniously than does state-driven predict-and-provide. ‘Only connect’?

The parliamentary constituency in which we live is called Bexhill and Battle. This seems to us natural enough, since our village is in East Sussex, close to Battle, quite close to Bexhill and shares the same local authorities. Now, however, the Boundary Commission, tasked with losing 50 seats of the current 650, has decided to move us. We and our neighbouring village of Ticehurst will henceforth be in a new invention called Mid-Kent and Ticehurst. This is oddly upsetting. We have little to do with Mid-Kent. County boundaries are far more psychologically and historically significant than all other divisions of rural England. Without wishing to be rude to our neighbours, we don’t feel even slightly Kentish. With a mere 3,000 or so voters between us, we fear our Sussex voices will be drowned out by the 80,000 or so from across the Kent Ditch. We are not placated by having Ticehurst in the new constituency’s name. Broadly speaking, it is a good idea to have similar numbers of voters in every constituency, but what the Victorians called ‘mere number’ should not exclude every other consideration. We are Bexhill and Battle, B & B, born and bred.

Last week, Father Brown’s funeral took place at Westminster Cathedral. Nothing to do with Chesterton’s creation — except for being, like him, humble — Fr Norman Brown was a priest at the cathedral for many years. He stayed because he was blind. In pre-Vatican II days, there were strict rules about the physical condition of ordinands, because the idea of priests imitating Christ was taken literally. Blindness was classified as an ‘irregularity’. Norman lost all but his peripheral vision in the early 1960s when he was training for the priesthood. He was allowed to go forward for ordination only after a dispensation from Pope John XXIII. For me, this was a great blessing because, more than 30 years later, he instructed me before I became a Catholic and prepared me for my reception in the cathedral. He was a dear man who, in his dealings with people, always understood the value of the phrase ‘the benefit of the doubt’. He was the second blind man who has greatly helped me in my life, the first being the late journalist T.E. (Peter) Utley. It is hard not to believe (though Peter indignantly rejected the thought) that blind people understand things better than the sighted. I love the line which Shakespeare gives poor Gloucester: ‘I stumbled when I saw.’

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