Spring in Somerset — again. If someone had told me last February that I’d spend seven of the next 12 months here, I’d have explained that was impossible: I’ve always been a city boy. Three lockdowns later, and we’ve bought a home here. I love it. Snow, then snowdrops, now daffodils — and the wild garlic is coming up in the woods. Covid has converted me to the countryside. Bruton Place in Mayfair? Not for now. Bruton itself? Yes.
There’s a Bruton Set, of course. They spend a lot of the time explaining why they didn’t want to be part of the Chipping Norton Set. I’ve met one of my heroes: Sir Don McCullin, the war photographer. He’s lived near here for decades. Before Christmas he showed me his archive of prints. It’s an amazing chronicle of 60 years of inhumanity told through the faces of the victims: the mother standing over her murdered family in Cyprus; the starving child in Biafra; the traumatised soldier in Vietnam. In his eighties now, he still follows the latest conflicts. But most days he goes out to photograph the ancient landscapes of Somerset. He tells me he’s seen too much of what’s wrong with our world; he needs to remind himself of what’s right with it too. It’s a good approach to take at times like these.
Another thing that’s helped us is a lockdown labrador puppy. She’s perfect. It means I’ve taken a particular interest in Dilyngate. Dilyn, in case you haven’t been following, is the beloved dog of Carrie Symonds and her boyfriend. He’s being briefed against and can’t bark back. Apparently Dilyn is not properly house-trained. Historic books have been chewed. Handbags have been peed in. Who is behind this malevolent campaign? It’s hard to tell. Most prime ministers have at most two factions in their Downing Street team. But Boris Johnson has never played by the rules, so he has four. Dominic Cummings has been fingered. If his aim was to get rid of Dilyn, and get at his nemesis Carrie, it appears to have failed. ‘The dog stays,’ announced our Prime Minister this week, at the same time as he explained to a pack of journalists that he’d gone from journalism to politics to make the key decisions instead of just reporting them.
I don’t agree with the Prime Minister that politics is an unerringly positive force in society and journalism inherently negative. He may speak from his experience; it’s not mine. In parliament I’ve known politicians who play to people’s fears and only want to break things up; at the Evening Standard I see a team who is on the side of readers and wants our capital to succeed. I’ve tried both lines of work. Now I’m moving on to a third. Politics was an all-consuming passion. Journalism has been a lifelong interest. They happen to be the two most distrusted professions in Britain. So why now banking? Simple. I wanted to do something that’s a bit more popular.
The drive to Somerset takes me past Stonehenge on the A303. Seven years ago I announced we were dualling the road and putting it into a tunnel. The Transport Secretary has just made exactly the same announcement. Good to know there’s something unchanging about the site. The recent archaeological discovery that some of the stones at Stonehenge were taken thousands of years ago from another stone circle in Wales raises the question: will they be returned? After all, museums are having to think carefully about whether to restitute items that may have been looted. Back in the days when we were talking to the Chinese, I took their vice premier to the British Museum. To play it safe, we decided to avoid the oriental galleries and show him instead the hall with the Sutton Hoo treasures. It’s one of my favourite places. The great helmet; the gold sword pommel; the intricate buckle and garnet shoulder clasps. ‘This is what Britain was like in the 7th century,’ I told our guest, hoping to impress him. I could see I hadn’t. He then proceeded to tell me what China had been like in the 7th century: sophisticated cities, Confucian learning and beautiful scroll paintings. Hmmm.
Museums won’t reopen until at least 17 May. Nightclubs will have to wait until 21 June. That bothers me less. The last time I was in one I had I think the most embarrassing moment of my life. It was New Year’s Eve a year ago in a ski resort. I’d taken my daughter along and, with midnight long gone, I decided I’d better take her home. So I approached her from behind on the dance floor, put my hands on her shoulders and said: ‘Come on, darling, it’s time I took you to bed.’ Except I got the wrong person. It wasn’t my daughter. It was a royal princess. The nightclubs can stay shut as far as I’m concerned.
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