Michael Beloff, QC and past president of Trinity College Oxford, has just had his memoir reviewed in The Spectator, and it brought back memories. Here’s this really good man, the type who does the work, believes in the system, plays by the rules and subscribes to the old graces of courtesy and politeness, but the sort we never read about. Instead, what is shoved down our throats are today’s politicians selling their snake oil on TV, or those untalented but self-entitled celebrities boasting about themselves, and the ultimate horrors, of course, the profoundly ignorant woke brigade who block free speech.
I can’t remember how long ago it was that I received a telephone call from Michael who introduced himself and invited me to the high table at Trinity College, Oxford. I accepted with alacrity and promised myself I’d behave and impress the dons with my knowledge of ancient Greek heroes and modern British womanhood. Two weeks later, I received a note from Michael saying he had read that I was a friend of Jemima Khan and wouldn’t it be a good idea to bring her along to the dinner. So I rang Jemima, who at the time was billing and cooing with Hugh Grant, and told her that here was her chance to upgrade from Grant’s rock-bottom cinematic milieu to the Olympian heights of Trinity’s high table. She squealed with delight. On the prearranged date my driver took us up to Oxford, and after going into the wrong college next door we finally arrived at the high table packed with gowned dons. The president placed Jemima next to him and I was on her left. What followed were delicious courses and some epic drinking of very good wines. There was one lady don present, an American perhaps, who asked about Hugh Grant’s whereabouts. ‘I told him to wait in the car,’ said I. ‘Oh, do tell him to come in,’ said the lady. But I was adamant: ‘He stays in the car.’ Jemima enjoyed this.
Afterwards we retired to more salubrious quarters where the drinking of spirits continued unabated, and eventually Jemima and I were driven home. The evening was, I like to think, successful, at least because I learned how little I knew. I never met any of the nice academics I dined with again, nor have I debated at the Oxford Union since my three victories there. (My only defeat came after I told a very fat female student who was complaining about almost starving to death in New Orleans that she could use a bit of a diet.)
Incidentally, there’s never been any hanky-panky between Jemima and me, but that’s entirely her fault. I’ve known her since she was very young and I’ve been a close friend of her parents and brothers. I spoke at one of her birthdays at the old Annabel’s, attended her wedding to Imran, and went to her house-warming in the country ten or so years ago. Last week she kindly invited me to another chic bash for 300 but I didn’t make it. I flew instead to Switzerland and the loving arms of my wife. When one gives up a party in order to join the wife, you know the man in the white suit is not far behind.
Never mind. I got closer to Jemima than the two gladiators who fought during the annual Spectator party at 22 Old Queen Street got to each other. Never have I seen braver men: Josh vs Guto was a fight to remember during a night to remember. The ex-advisers to Gove and Boris faced each other like two Spartans, and it looked like Godzilla against King Kong. After circling each other, they started to throw roundhouses meant to decapitate. For 20 minutes the building shook as they stood toe-to-toe watched by an open-mouthed crowd including Rishi and Tom and then the fight of the century was over. They had touched each other less than I have ever touched Jemima. It was a modern fight between two six-year-old girls, but then that’s politics today.
After that momentous display of toxic masculinity came my favourite moment, and I really mean this: meeting our readers. I don’t take their names down, but they all know who I mean. Like the good-looking couple who are Kiwis and he’s playing polo down in Cowdray and who gave me their raffle tickets because they had to leave early. I let them down because by then I’d had three gin and tonics on an empty stomach and forgot to check the numbers. Then there was the lady who is a grand-niece of Portuguese General Spinola, my hero, whom I had encountered in Africa wearing a pith helmet, white gloves and a monocle and leading a battle. I went up to him, bowed low and paid my respects. And the white-haired lady who carried a stick and has sailed the Greek waters more than I have. Speaking with her I realised that she knew every corner of the Aegean and Ionian and that I should change the subject if I wished not to lose face. And of course there was the nice married couple who thanked me for being polite about the Germans. Her father fought in the Kriegsmarine, his father was in the Royal Navy. They’ve been happily married for a very long time, and who knows, their respective dads could have fought against each other long ago. Can’t wait for next year and meeting more of their kind.
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