Matthew Norman: The historian's excuse: 'I wasn't there'


I am stricken by a full blown fit of the vapours by the sneering reception for William Shawcross's magnificently weighty (4.5lbs) tome on the Queen Mother.

The notion that William, author of a similarly well balanced work on Rupert Murdoch, confuses hagiography with biography barely deserves the dignity of rebuttal. But what can you do when Jenni Murray besmirches Woman's Hour with the impudent suggestion that the book, commissioned by the sovereign, ignores such contentious material as the old girl's feelings about Diana, fabled spendthriftery and health problems. In the light of confirmation that the Queen Mum had an operation for colonic cancer in the 1960s, it is unspeakably distasteful for anyone to portray William as technically less a biographer than a colonoscopy in human form.

There may be those who, meeting William after wading through the more than 1,000 pages, would ask if he found any polyps or fibroids up there. Snarky cynics are, after all, the plague of the age. But small wonder William lost his rag when Jenni asked him about Princess Margaret burning scores of letters her mother received from Diana, the most wanton act of literary arson since Julius Caesar incinerated the library at Alexandria. "I don't know, I wasn't there," William replied, and historians everywhere might ponder that crushing put-down before they indulge any silly plans about ever researching and describing events to which they were not eye witnesses. So we salute Backstairs Billy Shawcross for this magnum opus, and eagerly await the next. Myself, recalling his fondness for the neo-con experiment, I'd kill to read him on Dick Cheney. I think we could trust him to avoid such embarrassments as the VP shooting his hunting chum in the face. After all, he wasn't there.

Rich bitching

From one champion of deference to another, and Kelvin MacKenzie's latest offering in The Sun. In a startling foray into virgin territory, Kelvin devotes a chunk of his page to attacking the BBC for the salaries it pays its stars, specifically Anne Robinson whose return to Watchdog displeases him. "How can you be enormously wealthy, like Miss Robinson," he muses, "and understand what it's like to be conned out of your money by holiday companies and the like?" Certainly, Kelvin's argument that it is impossible to comprehend the concerns of the less well-off is even more devastating than William's "didn't see it, can't comment" annihilation of Jenni Murray. it goes a long way towards explaining why it never occurred to Clement Attlee, old Etonian that he was, to create a national health service. Happily, Kelvin himself is immune from the dangers that afflict the Watchdog audience. He spends his hols at his elegant villa on the French Riviera, and which Sun reader doesn't have at least one of those?

Dacre's acres

Then again, maybe those with unusually refined powers of empathy can bridge the financial gulf between themselves and their audience. Mannerly Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has bought himself a majestic 15,000-acre estate near Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands, the £3.5m he spent likely to be offset nicely by the income it generates (£1.65m last year). Somehow, you suspect, Paul's uncanny insight into what makes the middle English so fearfully angry about pretty much everything will not be threatened by his long overdue accession to the status of laird.

More Mad Mel

Paul's leading satirical writer Melanie Phillips continues to treat visitors to her blog to a relentless stream of semi-consciousness about the Middle East. My sole concern here, and it's probably paranoia, is that Mad Mel may be becoming that crucial iota too nuanced for her market. Take her thoughts on President Obama's acceptance of an offer of talks from the Iranians – "a mistake of simply staggering proportions" which threatens to make "the US look so weak and pathetic that Neville Chamberlain would retrospectively appear heroic and far-sighted by comparison ... Only an imbecile, brainwashed ideologue or lunatic would agree to pick up Iran's gauntlet of contempt." I've said it before and I say it again. Mankind knows no better antidote to melancholy than passing a couple of minutes on MM's Spectator-hosted blog.

Pet project

The BBC director-general has been hoist by his own petard (you will recall that he once sunk his fangs into a newsroom colleague's arm for no apparent reason), and been bitten by his cat. "My wife says that it is the trauma of being separated from the family. I think that he's been talking to Ben Bradshaw." The smart editor will waste no time in inviting Mark to ghost the unnamed feline's weekly reflections. It's high time the anthropomorphised pet column market, vacant since Andrew Marr's guinea pig Mr Snuffles departed the Daily Telegraph, was plugged.

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