I was asked recently if I had known Lord Deedes, who died last week aged 94. Sadly the answer was no, I would have liked to. His obituaries presented a remarkable portrait of a man both personally engaging and also fully engaged with life and people throughout his long life. Not exactly a great man, but an important one. A participant in and chronicler of much of the 20th century, he retained his fascination for daily events into the 21st, leaving his final article unfinished on the laptop he was using in his death bed. Evelyn Waugh’s young model for William Boot in Scoop had become a grand old man in a way that neither writer nor subject might have anticipated in the Thirties.
We feel the poorer for the loss of another man whose like we do not expect to see again, and conversation on holiday this week has dwelled much on the great men and women of the recent past and the dearth of such characters in the contemporary world. I do not know if we are right about that, for all generations are inclined to look back at past glories. The levels and layers of a life like Lord Deedes’s, however, with his continuing fascination for world events into old age, and his and his peers’ lifelong ability to learn, do seem to be lost in the sheer speed of our present whirl through our allotted life- spans.
Obituaries that honour the passing good and great may give a skewed picture of those we have lost and longevity adds to their aura. Nevertheless so many notable people continue to find life an absorbingly interesting journey and retain a youthful curiosity that colours their demeanour and outlook. I sat next to Douglas Hurd last week at dinner and we talked of this and that, nothing much of great affairs but of small amusements and mutual friends. He is well on the wrong side of 75, but his continuing enthusiasm for life, scholarship and world affairs gives him a youthful air belied by his long record of political service, including high office as foreign secretary and home secretary.
In between times, he has written a steady flow of political thrillers, his memoirs, and a newly and elegantly published biography of Sir Robert Peel, establisher of the metropolitan police, prime minister at 46, and viewed by many as the father of the modern Conservative Party. Lord Hurd remains deeply involved with both business and politics and, with the biographical bit between his teeth, he is about to embark on another book that will require exhaustive research. It doesn’t really leave a lot of time for the pipe and slippers of old age as he demonstrated during a very fast and silly game on the billiard table.
I feel quite old myself at the moment with a long-healed ankle injury coming back to haunt me and to make country walks more of a penance than a pleasure. I find myself increasingly curmudgeonly over everyone’s ability, including my own, to become a ten-minute expert on anything through instantly available internet knowledge, the media and rapid transportation to dabble in other cultures. I cannot say I would easily give up any of them, but I do feel that we are dazzled by the glitter of quickly gathered information and have lost our appreciation for the deeper comprehension that comes from the long scholarship and life experience of the likes of Lord Hurd. Members of the Slow Food movement would understand what I mean. Their aim is to counteract our depressing diet of flavourless fast food through the promotion of old and new methods of cookery and eating that allow the slow development of complex flavours in food. This is food for high days and holidays and the relaxed sharing and savouring of it amongst family and friends.
Here in Scotland, we are blessed with much in the way of luxury foods from land, sea and river, rather than the ready-packed supermarket shelves. The new community garden in my grandfather’s old walled garden no longer provides the hothouse peaches I remember from childhood, but it produces potatoes, green beans, carrots that rival for taste those I relish from Indian markets, and more. We have a supply of any amount of huge-clawed blue lobsters and crabs thrown in for free by the fishermen who despise them.
I seldom eat shellfish in London; it barely seems the same food. If it rains enough for the rivers to rise and we are skilful enough to catch them, we eat beautiful silver salmon, poached simply and served with great spoonfuls of glossy mayonnaise. Admittedly, that is made from regularly and swiftly imported virgin olive oil, which was once available only in the grandest grocery stores or in the local chemist in tiny corked bottles for medicinal purposes. We have gluts of mushrooms for gathering where the sheep and cattle graze on rough fields and game on heathery hills for the more carnivorous to stalk and eat.
The newspapers we have been reading in the habitually detached spirit of relatively remote holidays have had their fair share of India commentary attached to the 60th anniversary of Independence. In spite of our unending attempts to rewrite and revise history, I am not sure how much that is being published is new. Maybe the stories have all been told so often that they can only be embellished in the manner of ancient sagas. Once again, my sense of the shallowness of received information niggles at my appreciation of a mouth-watering feast of colour, in television programmes, illustrated articles and bandwagon books. So many people here, like me, love India, but our senses are dazzled by sights, sounds and smells to the extent that we fail to look for deeper understanding.
This country has a passion for India, the exquisite, exotic wonder of a huge and diverse country with which we can, at least, claim length of relationship. Celebration of the anniversary here has unsurprisingly been inclined to focus on beautiful images more than responsibility for the terrible traumas we caused as a colonial power and heedlessly left in our departing wake. The broad-brush approach of contemporary commentators who can travel a continent from south to north without the time to understand the small stories that make up the whole allows us to enjoy a tasting menu of people and places.
We know what much of our world looks like, but benefit less regularly these days from the deep knowledge of the whole extrapolated from multiple, individual long-term associations with small places and particular communities. This was the level of learning that informed the work of earlier and slower travellers and painted vivid pictures in our minds.
I have spent time during the last few holiday weeks doing my tourist best to collect casual information during a whistle-stop journey round American cities with a side-trip to Vancouver. Our week in Washington reinforced the anticipated stereotypes, especially Democratic-Party detestation for the President. When I was growing up, I remember asking about American politics and being told that, names aside, there was little division between Democrats and Republicans, but the day of the liberal Republican has passed. The party is now top heavy with the religious Right and bolstered by manufactured fear of the foreign or unknown, manifest in the close-minded jingoism of suburban insularity. The current Democrat joke is that faced with a black man or a woman as presidential nominee, Democrat loyalists will vote Republican. The worst worry as the campaign tempo builds is that this joke becomes a reality due — in part, at least — to the lack of organization at the grassroots of the Democratic Party on which the last defeat was blamed.
British politics moves at the usual summer speed with few domestic matters beyond an outbreak of foot and mouth among cattle in the Home Counties to break into the reports on Iraq and Afghanistan. The bright spotlight turned on Gordon Brown during his first weeks in office has been diverted for the time being, allowing him some respite to get on with the job in the way that suits him best, away from the image-makers and changers who so discomfit him. David Cameron’s efforts to grab headlines do him little credit and it will be interesting to see how he gets on when the party conference season begins next month. Right now, I am off to make the final picnic of our holidays and hoping the rather cold wind blows away the gathering rain clouds as we huddle on a stunningly beautiful, but far from tropical, beach.