Press Column

This has been a week for obituaries: first, the death of a useful phrase. The Daily Telegraph had a long story about some photographs of Jade Jagger, the daughter of Mick and Bianca, "romping" on a beach in Ibiza with an unidentified but also naked man. What caused the fuss was not that the Sunday People printed photographs of humans mating: this is something that the Sunday tabloids can now do without censure, providing the pictures only stimulate the circulation a little. But in this instance the man in the picture was wrongly identified as Ben Elliot, a nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles; and he is now suing the paper. What made the story, however, was the last paragraph of the Telegraph’s report, where is explained that the Mirror had reprinted the photographs, but first checked with Mr Elliot whether he was the man. Alas, no details of the conversation were given, except for Mr Elliot’s denial; but the paper went on to say "It is believed that the man is a friend of a friend of Ms Jagger."

And "friend of a friend" had been such a useful phrase, so precise in its meaning once. It all reminds me of a thirty-year-old Swedish joke, from a wonderful satirical column that used to appear in Dagens Nyheter, where the vicar’s daughter was quoted as denying a report that she had become close to the local cad. "We are not good friends at all" she said indignantly. "Just sex partners."

So it is with some trepidation that I say that Brian Brindley was a friend of a friend. But he was. I never liked him much myself, because I only knew him in the Eighties as a synod politician, where he was camp as a row of tents, and arrogant with it. But he was a close and valued friend of Damian Thompson’s, whom I like and whose judgement I respect. And it is true that the circumstances under which he was blackmailed off the General Synod by Jill Dann and David Holloway left nothing, morally, to choose between any of the parties involved. But when Dann or Holloway die, will their obituaries be nearly as fulsome as his? So far, he has had large notices in the Daily Telegraph, the Times, and the Independent. The Telegraph’s and the Independent’s were both written by men who had been present at his dramatic death in the middle of a seven-course banquet in a library at the Athenaeum. That was a remarkable, and perhaps an admirable way to die; but it is not what is generally understood as Christian witness.

The cumulative effect of these obituaries is a deeply saddening one. Here was a man who was deeply loved by his friends, yet they seem unable to explain to the outside world why it should care. The Independent had an exceptionally pure example of this failure. "Brindley had become a member of the congregation of St Mary's, Bourne Street, and enjoyed the rather raffish bachelor social life of the presbytery. All his friends went there … gin flowed, and Brindley, his hair parted in the middle and with a slightly grey complexion, would scintillate … in a moleskin waistcoat with a thin gold chain." Sheesh. Perhaps the problem is simple hypocrisy: none of the obits faced squarely, any more than Brindley did himself in public, the fact that he was gay but nonetheless trying to make a career in an organisation which officially reprehended this. Yet nothing about his life makes sense without this fact, not even his choice of career. The answer, for him and most of his generation, was simple camp which became in time a corrupting ambiguity about everything: was he a Catholic or an Anglican, drunk or sober, making a pass at a young man in the Athenaeum or merely ‘fantasising’.

Frank Longford had three or four times the space when he died; and his obituaries, though they had far more solid achievement to recount, were written with a delicate recognition that he was, for much of his life, an absurd figure to most of the people who had to deal with him and sometimes an exasperating one. "His books — biographies, autobiographies, studies of Humility and the like — continued to appear and were purchased by his admirers with resignation. But as a person he gave endless delight to the end" said the Times. Perhaps the saddest thing about the Earl was that his period of fame coincided with the end of his public life. It was only after he had retired as leader of the House of Lords that he embarked on the variously silly and noble causes that made him appear such an idiot. Tam Dalyell, in the Independent , said that "much of th epress recognised, possibly subconsciously, that here was a brave man of principle whose views, right or wrong, and however much at variance with received wisdom, deserved a hearing"; but I think this is truer of Tam than of the Earl. You can only get away with being a Holy Fool if you are shrewd as well; and the comedy of Longford’s life came form his persistent over-estimation of his own shrewdness.

Yet some of the obituaries had a story which really did deserve retelling; how Longford, as Minister of State for Germany, in 1945, had felt it was his Christian duty to alleviate the sufferings of the defeated civilian population. In fact he was so eager to do this that on his first visit, he leapt out of the plane before the steps were in place. "Serves him right" said his boss, Ernie Bevin. But his announcement that he would pray for the people of Germany, morning and night, really meant something, to both English and Germans then. That deserves to be remembered, a long time after all the idiocy is forgotten. But the real lesson to be learned from his obituaries, is how tiny the circle of public life was, within living memory. In 1951, Longford and the similarly impractical Atlee were dining at a London restaurant when they discovered, presented with the bill, that they had run out of cash. "But this is the Prime Minister, and I am the First Lord of the Admiralty" said Longford. The management did not believe them and would not even accept a cheque. His wife had to go home and collect the cash to rescue them. A man who could tell that story against himself was truly noble.

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