By Kenneth Roy
For a little light relief from 9/11 – I began to feel guilty about confining the Scottish Review’s coverage to a 400-word meditation by the late Ian Mackenzie – it was necessary to dig deep in what passes for the news pages of the Sunday papers. Eventually I stumbled on an amusing photograph.
The scene depicted the prime minister and his wife in an Oxfordshire garden in the company of the motoring person, Jeremy Clarkson, and some rock singer whose name I have already forgotten. The paper seized on this as pictorial evidence that the Chipping Norton set, which so diverted us at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, had not gone away but was merely keeping a low profile. There was no sign of Mrs Brooks, whose hair was such a fashionable accessory of the British summer. Nevertheless, the photograph provided unsettling proof that a reunion of some sort had occurred.
Scarcely two months ago, an apparently chastened David Cameron, reflecting on his close friendship with some of the great vulgarians of the age, assured the House of Commons: ‘You live and you learn and believe you me, I have learned’. Some observers took this as a commitment from our raffish leader that he would be seen in more appropriate company and there were many suggestions about the sort of people with whom he should mix socially. The Archbishop of Canterbury featured prominently in these lists.
It was last Christmas – ‘Christmas-time’ as the Chipping Norton set quaintly refers to it – that the famous dinner took place. A decent interval – all of 72 hours – had elapsed since Vince Cable had been stripped of cabinet responsibility for the BSkyB deal. Present on this festive occasion were the Camerons, two of the Murdoch clan, Rebekah Brooks and her husband, and the motoring person. According to Mr Clarkson, the prime minister and Mrs Brooks, the chief executive of News International (as she then was), talked mostly about sausage rolls.
‘In other words,’ he added meaningfully, ‘it was much like a million other Christmas-time dinners being held in a million other houses all over the world that day’.
I remember experiencing a pang of deprivation when I read this account. Although I have attended many a Christmas-time dinner, I cannot recall ever discussing sausage rolls with David Cameron or with anyone else. Until Mr Clarkson enlightened us, it had not occurred to me that, at millions of Christmas-time dinners all over the world that day, they talk of little else but sausage rolls. Yet there is an alternative, perhaps more subversive, explanation. It is possible that Mr Cameron and Mrs Brooks were conversing in code and that ‘sausage rolls’ was a slightly unsavoury euphemism for Vince Cable.
Mr Fernandes wandered into Patisserie Valerie in Deansgate, Manchester, after finding the door ajar. He walked over to the ice-cream counter and helped himself to a cone and a few scoops.
Fortunately, from the prime minister’s point of view, there was relief in sight. The young people of England were so anxious to come to his rescue that they took to the streets, enabling Mr Cameron to adopt a serious, statesmanlike pose. Suddenly he found himself in the ultra-safe Conservative territory of lor and awda, with a bit of moral decay thrown in. Although he used the word ‘sickening’ a lot, he was no longer referring to the sausage rolls at Christmas-time. He was doing what Tory politicians do best – making all the right noises about crime. The judges played their alloted role, handing out exemplary sentences, not all of them distinguished by logic.
Since this is turning into a food column, I might as well mention the disastrous Epicurean experience of Anderson Fernandes, aged 22. On the second night of the riots, Mr Fernandes wandered into Patisserie Valerie in Deansgate, Manchester, after finding the door ajar. He walked over to the ice-cream counter and helped himself to a cone and a few scoops. He didn’t fancy the flavour (coffee, my’Lud), and gave the cone to a woman who happened to be passing. For this, Mr Fernandes went to prison for 16 months.
I thought of Anderson Fernandes when Evan Davis of the Today programme dented the prime minister’s self-righteousness by reminding him of his membership of the Bullingdon Club, the Oxford University society devoted to cricket and debauchery, not necessarily in that order. Evelyn Waugh characterised the club’s idea of a good night out as beating a fox to death with champagne bottles. There is no suggestion that Mr Cameron was personally involved – he had not been born at the time of the incident, so we can probably rule him out – and nor was he implicated in the most recent example of Bullingdon Club excesses when a group of members descended on a ‘plush hotel’ near Oxford last year.
We cannot be sure that the hotel was plush. To the press, all hotels are plush just as all inadequacy is woeful. But there is no doubt that the place was comprehensively trashed: even the plumbing was ripped up by the rampaging Bullers. It is, however, a decent tradition of the club that, after any establishment is attacked, the damage is paid for on the spot, usually in cash. So it was on this occasion. Although they were charged, nothing too dreadful happened to the upper-class culprits. The message of recent weeks seems to be that people from council schemes riot, while people in tail coats and bow ties indulge in high spirits.
The prime minister’s part in the Bullingdon Club remains mysterious. By some accounts, he preferred to watch daytime TV and play darts. But clearly his past association, however tenuous, with organised criminality continues to exercise his conscience: he told Evan Davis that ‘we do things when we’re young and we deeply regret them’. There is no doubt that Anderson Fernandes will be deeply regretting ever lifting that cone in Patisserie Valerie; if only he had left the money on the counter, as Bullers do, and been born into a different social class, he would have been spared his exemplary sentence.
By Christmas-time, when the Camerons, the Murdochs, the motoring person and the Archbishop of Canterbury assemble for the annual discussion of sausage rolls, Mr Fernandes will still be in Strangeways with many more months of imprisonment to face.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review