The Spectator's Notes

Covid, like war, brings less obvious shocks

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

9 January 2021

9:00 AM

Domenica Lawson, daughter of Rosa and Dominic, the former editor of this paper, has Down’s syndrome. She is classified as ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ to Covid and has therefore been living with her parents since October. When Rosa was briefly not around to interpret last week, Domenica opened a letter to herself from the NHS: ‘You are considered to be at highest risk of becoming very unwell… you are someone with Down’s syndrome, and so the government now considers you to be in the highest risk category.’ This shocked Domenica. ‘I have spent the last year trying to protect her from the worst of the news and now she is more scared than ever,’ Rosa tells me. The problem arises from the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which assumes capacity until proved otherwise. Domenica is an adult, so her parents have no legal right to filter her communications. Rosa agrees that many adults with Down’s syndrome are capable of handling such information, but many aren’t. She has done good repair work by explaining to Domenica that the letter means she is getting extra care. But surely the law could change to reflect the reality for hundreds of thousands of such adults? Its current state produces unintended cruelty.

‘Abraham and the Angels’ is a great, though small, painting by Rembrandt. I happened to meet its co-owner, Dr Alfred Bader, roughly when he bought it in 2005 for $5 million. He loved economy: I gather that he travelled with it in a bag on the Tube. It is now valued at £22 million. Bader was a remarkable man. A Czech Jew, he escaped to Britain on the kindertransport from Vienna in 1938. Unfortunately, he fell into the unjust category of ‘enemy alien’ during the war, and was sent to an internment camp in Canada. A brilliant chemist, he got into Queen’s University, Ontario. In 1949, travelling on a boat from Canada to Liverpool, he fell in love with a woman called Isabel Overton, a Canadian Protestant. They wanted to marry but decided the religious difference was insuperable. In 1950, Isabel made the sad decision not to write to him again. He married someone else, had children and became extremely rich in North America through the commercial application of his chemical knowledge. He became a great collector and true scholar of Dutch paintings. In 1975, visiting England, he decided to search for Isabel. She was teaching at a school in Bexhill and had never married. He realised he had always loved her. Sadly for the first Mrs Bader, he divorced, and married Isabel. He then told her he wanted to buy her a castle. She said that she was quite happy living in a semi-detached in Bexhill-on-Sea, but in the end she agreed, on the condition that the castle should be donated to others. Three castles were on the market — one in his native Czech republic, Hever and the former Royal Observatory at Herstmonceux. Isabel chose the last as being closest to Bexhill. The couple presented it as an English home to Queen’s.

People who are now old often describe wartime childhoods in their memoirs. These can be good means of conveying the less obvious shocks of war. My friend and neighbour Edward Cazalet has just published his autobiography, Weighing In, a good title for a leading amateur jockey (he was also a distinguished judge). Cazalet describes an idyllic childhood — a loving family, plenty of money and Fairlawne, the lovely house in Kent where his father Peter trained racehorses, later becoming trainer to the Queen Mother. But in 1944, Cazalet’s mother, Leonora, had to stay in a London hospital after a minor gynaecological operation. That night, a V1 flying bomb hit a nearby building. The hospital was overwhelmed by blast victims. Leonora suffered a haemorrhage (unrelated to the bomb). ‘Because of the pressure on staff,’ Cazalet writes, ‘no one answered her bell as she constantly rang it. She was found dead the next morning in a pool of her own blood.’ Edward was then eight years old. His father, a serving officer, heard the news of his wife’s death while about to embark with the D-Day landing force. He was refused compassionate leave, but insisted that he must be the person to tell Edward and his sister that their mother had died. Worsening weather, which delayed the standby, made this possible. Peter came home to Fairlawne, walked his children round the garden to tell them the terrible news, attended his wife’s funeral the following morning, and was gone. The Covid crisis contains faint echoes of such terrible ill chances, but memories like Edward Cazalet’s give some perspective: things were so, so much worse then.

For instance, I read in the Times that Covid has allowed demand for ‘clandestine breast reductions and tummy tucks’ to soar because people can take advantage of working from home. The paper gives the example of ‘Holi Counsel, 21, an eyelash technician from Bolton’, who had become ‘increasingly insecure in my own skin’ because her breasts were of different sizes. Despite being self-employed and therefore not paid furlough, she found a procedure in Newton-le-Willows which costs ‘from £5,395’ to set matters right. Now she feels ‘so much better in myself’. Every single aspect of this story is unimaginable in the second world war.

A secondary effect of Leonora Cazalet’s death was the grief it caused to P.G. Wodehouse. She was the daughter of his wife Ethel, by her first marriage, and he loved her as his own. For a long period after Leonora died, he was unable to write, a thing almost unheard of in his disciplined, productive career. In a sketch of Wodehouse’s character, Edward — who found ‘Plum’ ‘a kind, amiable and extremely easy-going person’ — notes that he ‘did not make jokes and in his chit-chat did not laugh much’. I wonder if this restraint was a form of professionalism. Like an actor who hates being asked to perform off-stage, was he husbanding his gifts for his work?

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