The Spectator's Notes

Should trains have mask and non-mask carriages?

10 July 2021

9:00 AM

10 July 2021

9:00 AM

In deciding whether or not to wear a mask after 19 July, I am sure Boris Johnson is right that one must consider the feelings of others. But I notice this consideration is argued only one way: those not wearing masks are asked to consult the sensitivities of those wearing them. Should not people who insist on continuing to wear masks also be invited to reflect on whether their behaviour might upset the unmasked? After all, in a culture long committed to showing your face as a mark of trust, covering it is depressing and even intimidating for others. It makes people almost inaudible. Or perhaps the simpler answer on trains is to have mask and non-mask carriages, like the smoking and no-smoking ones of old.

In his cover piece this week, Ian Williams rightly mentions Professor Peter Nolan, the intensely pro-Xi Jinping director of the China Centre at Jesus College, Cambridge. He has been perhaps the greatest innovator in getting Chinese regime money into the university. I just wish he would tell us more about it. From time to time, I send an email to Professor Nolan inviting him to be interviewed on the subject, but he never even replies, and I have not seen him interviewed anywhere else since this column first drew attention to his achievements early last year. Jesus College’s website boasts that Professor Nolan was made a Commander of the British Empire ‘for services supporting China’s integration into the global economy’. It quotes the Financial Times: ‘Nolan knows more about Chinese companies and their international competition than anyone else on earth.’ Since his China Centre presumably has an educational role, should he not share his knowledge with the wider world?

‘June is Pride month’ said the message to colleagues. So ‘Dress up, put on that rainbow scarf… add the colours of the rainbow to flowers in your hair, wear that rainbow tie or bow-tie. Please speak to your line manager or volunteer manager if you have any questions around uniform’. Better still, ‘Rainbow up your make-up — nails (within Food and Beverage health and safety allowances), eye shadow, lipstick’. Don’t stand aside: ‘This event is for everyone. By the property showing their support by getting involved means not one of our colleagues is singled out for wishing to celebrate’, words which sound slightly threatening to all those not wishing to celebrate. I am quoting from an email from a National Trust volunteer officer sent to all staff and volunteers at Ickworth, the former Hervey family house, with its famous rotunda, in Suffolk. It is interesting that at no point in her long email does she say anything about whether what she was proposing would be fun for the public or enhance their appreciation of the property. In an interview online with the same volunteer officer, she is asked ‘What would you say to a visitor coming to Ickworth House?’ ‘Visually and physically,’ she replies, ‘Ickworth is something very different to experience. Emotionally, again, for me, it all comes down to people.’ If I were a visitor to Ickworth, I would not feel much the wiser.

Further thoughts on post-money money (see last week’s Notes). A friend tells me of his wife’s recent exchange with an eight-year-old pupil to whom she was teaching arithmetic, using coins. Girl: ‘I don’t use money.’ Teacher: ‘Yes, but you will use money in a short while.’ Girl: ‘No, I don’t need to know about money because I will use a card.’ The difficulty is that the eight-year-old is simultaneously right and wrong.

And here is a rather different tale about money and its value. A reader, Peter Appleton, writes that when he was working for a company in Iran during the revolution in 1978, the chief executives left, and asked him to stay. They gave him a wad of Iranian rials to keep the business going. After a few weeks, the British embassy advised him to leave the country fast. He fled, taking with him about three months’ salary in rials. In London, the National Bank of Iran told him that anything with the Shah’s head on it was now worthless. Hoping for better luck in France, which had better relations with the Iranian revolutionaries, he headed for Paris, but his money was rejected there too. Having nothing to do, he decided to take a few days off in France, still lugging the briefcase full of notes. A thief broke into his provincial hotel room and stole his briefcase and his passport. He claimed on his global travel insurance. To his astonishment, they paid not only the expenses of travelling back to Paris for a replacement passport, but for the official (though now unreal) value of the rials.

One’s schooldays are rarely the subject of epic poetry (I can’t think of anything except the first two books of Wordsworth’s Prelude) or even of narrative poetry (Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells is a rare exception). So an entire modern book of poetry on this subject is brave, and one on days spent at a public school is insanely courageous. James Harpur, a friend and contemporary of mine at Cambridge, and a lifelong poet, went to Cranleigh. It is a Victorian public school in Surrey, neither famous nor obscure, thoroughly respectable and therefore a most unpromising subject for verse. His new book The Examined Life makes Cranleigh in his time the centre of all his thoughts, and includes explicit comparison with the Odyssey (the Housemaster’s Enchanting Wife, for instance, becomes Circe). Far from being either satirical (though it is often funny) or vainglorious, however, the work is a serious success — a subtle account of adolescence, friendship, confinement, the fashions of the 1970s, a meditation on the phrase ‘in loco parentis’, and a brilliant exercise of memory. It may also mark the end of a tradition which built the public schools. As Stephen Fry says in his foreword, Harpur is ‘the last scholar of Ancient Greek that his school will ever send to Oxbridge’.

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