Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Simon Sebag Montefiore, you're a wicked fellow,' said Sir James Goldsmith as he spotted me among the press while he campaigned in Newlyn, the Cornish fishing port. `Yes, you are exactly one of the highfalutin, overeducated, arrogant fellows who write for quality newspapers. Yes, a wicked, unpleasant man!' Sir James strides on and then, rather like one of those marvellous scenes in the film The Untouchables when Al Capone, played by Robert de Niro, addresses the press with terrifying affability, he turns again, raises his finger and says to me, `Yes, you were once a member of a great family.' In this comical moment of Goldsmithian whimsy, Sir James is guilty of grammatical inaccuracy - or at least sphinx-like obscurity. `Do you mean', I inquire, `that the family was once great or that I was once a member of it? Or both?' But Goldsmith prowls off towards the fish-gutting hall. The merchant prince's comment is to do with Goldsmith's also belonging to the socalled 'Cousinhood' of 19th-century Anglo-Jewish banking families: I have cousins called Goldsmith-Montefiore. Nonetheless I am confused by Goldsmith's excitement since I'm usually attacked for writing too kindly about his political party; Paul Johnson in this magazine bestowed the mixed blessing of saying my Sunday Times piece on Goldsmith's Brighton conference was the nation's fairest. I believe that the question of our sovereignty is the only principle at stake in this election and Goldsmith has put it there. Since Canning claimed Britain's duty was to be a 'spectatress' not a participant in Europe's struggles, I hereby request the editor to change this organ's title accordingly to The Spectatress, which could also increase its female readership. But my real fault in Goldsmith's eyes is probably that I find the cult of personality purveyed by Goldsmith's acolytes to be tiresome and unproductive to the cause. Fascinating as he may be, he simply does not merit heroworship. There is only one statesman alive whose achievements merit that sort of idolatry and that is Lady Thatcher. I wrote that Spectator interview with the Spice Girls Asked their view of Sir James, one said, `Who? Gold-what?' The other said, `Is he any relation to Jemima Goldsmith?' Perhaps that is why he thinks I am wicked.

At drinks at 10 Downing Street shortly before the election was called, I asked John Major about his flat upstairs. `It's like living above the shop,' he said. `It's not very big. It's the kind of place Fagin would have sent his boys out from.' This marvellously sinister vision quite belies Major's usual `greyness'. But what did it mean? Did Major see ministers as little urchins to send out on missions across bleak Victorian Whitehall? Was he just celebrating the flat as a cubbyhole in which to hatch plans? I suspect that, like many industrious, well-meaning, if somewhat dull honest Johns, he dreams at night of being a fascinating criminal genius - a Fagin-Moriarty-Blofeld, even a Mobutu perhaps. He falls asleep imagining unveiling posters with Bugsy SiegelMawhinney that read, `You're safe with Mobutu-Major', `Britain's Booming Under Fagin' and `No More Honest John! Vote for Lucky Luciano-Major.'

Whenever the pundits on the electoral battle-buses have a secret chat, they always have what I call `the Grassy Knoll conversation'. It is in such bad taste that I feel duty-bound to recount it. The journalists who have had to spend over a month accompanying our most deadly boring politicians without missing a single event have to believe in a quest or they would lose their minds. …

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