Essays: My fall from grais |
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My fall from grais

SWARMS of angry readers have written to say that I have been rude about the Queen. They say that she was not looking cheesed off at St Paul’s — merely reflective.

Apprehensive that my monarchist convictions would be all too obvious, I had thought to temper my reverence for the sovereign with a judicious touch of realistic observation, lest I be accused of a sycophantic fervour unbecoming in a resident patrial. It seemed to me quite evident that the Archbishop of Canterbury bored the Queen stiff.

This was no surprise, since the Archbishop of Canterbury would bore the tail off a slow loris, but nevertheless I was pleased to see it, because it meant that even the Queen had limits to her tolerance, and was therefore human. But now I learn from my furious correspondents that her grave expression simply reflected a deep inner preoccupation with the meaning of her reign.

There is much else to be learned from my correspondents. Several of them, including the distinguished poet Roy Fuller, scornfully point out that Raymond Baxter was right to pronounce ‘dais’ as ‘dace.’ They back their argument with Chambers’s dictionary. Actually they could have cited a still higher authority, since the OED agrees with them in preferring a pure vowel to a diphthong word having been imported from Old French.

But in my experience — which is not confined to Australia, as Roy Fuller seems to think — most educated people use the diphthong, however offensive it might be to any Old Frenchmen who happen to be standing nearby.

Before wiping the egg from my fais, let me apologise to the lady who wrote saying it was wicked of me to suggest that the people besieged the palace and demanded the Queen’s head. The people, she says, were merely demonstrating their loyalty. I now realise that I should have made my meaning clear on this point, as on every other point. From now on you will not catch me employing even a trais of irony. Everything I say will be perfectly unambiguous.

Is that all right? Can I stay in Britain now? (Incidentally, only small boys and Auberon Waugh think that Australians can be wounded by jokes about kangaroos and aborigines. The way to get under our skins is to accuse us of innocence. Guilty about being born and raised in Paradise, we go in search of experience sordid enough to justify our initial good fortune. Britain is still the best plais to find it.)

But I exaggerate. Compared to Czechoslovakia, Britain is not in the rai... not in the running. Filming in secret, Panorama (BBC1) secured an interesting report from that sorry land. As usually happens in these cases, most of the clandestine footage revealed nothing more than people walking along footpaths (the oppressed) and policemen driving around in dark cars (the oppressors). But the interviews were another matter. Given by people who were placing themselves in frightful danger, these were of real consequence. Granada’s ‘World in Action’ is well known for having brought the same kind of material out of the Eastern European countries on several occasions, but ‘Panorama’ is nevertheless to be commended.

The interviewees were some of the 242 signatories to Charter 77, a document which points out the discrepancies between law and reality in Czechoslovakia, with particular regard to freedom of speech, which the law guarantees, but which the secret police suppress. As if to prove that very point, the secret police are now busy suppressing the chartists. Meanwhile the Deputy Foreign Minister, an inscrutable bureaucrat called Dusan Spacil, informs the world that Charter 77 is an imperialist plot, aimed at the subversion of a State whose loyal workers enjoy freedoms undreamed of in the West.

If Czechoslovakia had had a Tito-figure in 1945 it might at least have gone Communist of its own accord, instead of delivering itself to Soviet domination. If, if, if. Czechoslovakia is one long list of might-have-beens. Of all the sad answers given by the interviewees, none was sadder than one of the questions asked by the interviewer: ‘What do you think the West can do now?’ Here was a bitter example of television’s limitations, since it would have needed a cogently written essay half an hour in length to tell the uninformed viewer that modern Czechoslovakian history largely stems from the fact that the West has never been able to do anything.

The Cuban revolution was doubly lucky in having taken place a long way from Moscow and in having been led by Castro, the world’s most attractive Marxist. Well aware that people like me get locked up in Cuba, nevertheless I can’t help being charmed by such a terrific talker. Luckily, because in Fidel Castro Speaks (BBC2) he talked for several hours. Made by the Swedish Broadcasting Company, this was a useful programme which sensibly assumed that United States policies towards Cuba don’t need to be vilified — merely described.

Over Cuba the US succeeded in the almost impossible task of making itself appear even more untrustworthy than the Soviet Union. The net result is that Fidel has to import his baseball bats from Canada and pretend to like the Russians, which can’t be easy for him, because he is naturally a joyous soul, as well as a fair one. I don’t suppose power has been corrupting him any more slowly than it corrupts anyone else, but in his case it’s got a lot further to go than with, say, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia.

Tonight (BBC1) did a good report on the Dutch war criminal Pieter Menten. At Ascot (BBC1), the Queen (are you listening?) looked absolutely radiant.

The Observer, 19th June 1977