Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

L'affaire Soames was famous. In February 1969, Christopher Soames, the then British ambassador in Paris, attained a long-sought private lunch with President de Gaulle, who had earlier blocked British entry to the EEC. De Gaulle aired his vision of a different Europe, one run by its big nations, including Britain. Soames hurried back to the embassy to be debriefed, but found trying to remember what de Gaulle had said 'like trying to tickle bits of garlic out from behind [my] teeth'. After due thought, the Foreign Office decided dc Gaulle's plan was a nasty French plot and leaked it, further embittering Anglo-French relations. Now we have another affaire Soames, once again a dispute about what was said across a dining-room. Christopher's son Nicholas, the shadow defence secretary, was eating in the Dorchester with his brother Jeremy last week when he spotted Philip Green, the retailer who was attempting to take over Marks & Spencer, dining with Jeff Randall, the business editor of the BBC, and a man from the Sunday Times. It was the eve of the shareholders' meeting at which a vote was taken on the Green takeover bid (against). Mr Soames shouted across the room something like, 'Ah! We know how these things work. One call to the press: that'll do them!', and Jeremy joined in. Nicholas meant that the journalists could be exposed for colluding with Mr Green, and I think he was joking. But Mr Randall felt affronted that his legitimate journalistic work of meeting bigshots was being impugned, and Mr Green, who is Jewish, believed that what Mr Soames was saying was anti-Semitic (which it surely wasn't). I suspect that feelings of class, which usually lie half buried somewhere in most British conversations, were also present on both sides. As in 1969, the story leaked. The Mail on Sunday absurdly decided that Mr Soames was such an evil racist slug that it 'splashed' with him. My natural sympathies are with Mr Soames, since he is usually genuinely comical, but I think in this case that he was in the wrong. It probably isn't very funny to be bawled at in public by 66.6 per cent of the adult male Soames population of the British Isles, particularly when you barely know them (though Mr Green is not someone to whom the concept of bawling is entirely foreign). Mr Soames should be bawling about the threat to the Scottish regiments.

When I last spoke to Nicholas Soames on the telephone, he suddenly started yelling, 'Leave that soldier alone!' I wasn't doing anything with a soldier, so I expressed bewilderment. 'Bloody tourists!' yelled Mr Soames, 'They're trying to march with the soldier as he changes the guard. STOP IT!' (I think he must have been driving past Horseguards at the time, but I'm not sure because the conversation ended in confusion.) Noisiness seems to be as hereditary as baldness. The late Isaiah Berlin once told me that shortly after the war he went to Moscow to visit his heroine, the dissident and poet Anna Akhmatova, in her flat. He was proud to be doing this, and fearful of the attentions of the KGB. Suddenly he heard someone in the suburban street below shouting, 'Isaiah! Isaiah!' at the top of his voice. It was Randolph Churchill, Nicholas Soames's uncle, who had somehow traced the thinker from England.

Many of my generation have attracted attention by alleging that our parents - those now aged between 70 and 90 - were 'emotionally illiterate'. …

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