Those true blue men of God doing the 'Telegraph' soft-shoe shuffle

Ian Jack's notebook
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The Independent Online
THE Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator magazine all got new editors last week in a game of musical chairs led by their Canadian proprietor, Conrad Black, tinkling at the piano from the sheet music of "Rule Britannia".

Charles Moore went from the Sunday to the Daily Telegraph; Dominic Lawson from the Spectator to the Sunday Telegraph; Frank Johnson, the deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph, to the Spectator. They share the core political beliefs of their proprietor - their jobs would be hell otherwise, as the Telegraph's previous editor, Max Hastings, discovered - which is to say that they are on the Tory Right and don't think much of Europe or Mr Major.

They are all also very good journalists and perfectly charming men (ie, they have always been perfectly charming to me). But do they have any other qualities in common? Is there anything in their backgrounds, some inherited quirk or instability perhaps, out of which you could construct an archetype of a Portillo-iste or a Black-ite?

Not so far as I can tell. Mr Moore went to Eton and Cambridge, Mr Lawson to Westminster and Oxford, Mr Johnson to Shoreditch Secondary School full stop. Mr Moore's father was an impeccable Liberal, Mr Lawson's father was Nigel, Mr Johnson's father a pastry cook and confectioner (there is something about Mr Johnson's Who's Who entry that protests too much about upward mobility).

The first two are family men, both approaching their 39th birthday. The last is a 52-year-old bachelor whose love of the opera and ballet carries no sexual nudging and winking. Roman Catholicism plays a part in the Moore and Lawson households, as it does in Conrad Black's; Mr Moore became a Catholic, Mr Lawson is married to one. It is not clear which God, to paraphrase that old and cloying Dave Allen farewell, goes with Mr Johnson.

So is there anything that joins them apart from their obvious whiteness, maleness and heterosexuality? Only two things, so far as I can tell. One, they come from well south of the Trent. Two, they are all members of the Beefsteak Club, which sounds an awful place (permeated by smugness and gravy, men with napkins tucked into their collars pretending they are Dr Johnson). If you want your newspapers edited by people raised among the cotton mills of Burnley or the bleak vegetable fields of Leicestershire, who serve themselves in canteens and sing Methodist hymns in the lavatory, you will have to persist with this one and its daily sister.

LAST week I found myself giving away prizes at the Festival of Radio Features and Documentary in Bristol. I've no real idea why I was asked to do this, or why I agreed; I find speaking to an audience larger than two people a profoundly terrifying experience and I'm no good at it. Events in Bristol followed a predictable sequence. At lunch, I guzzled white wine for courage, then went to the lectern with the notes I'd written on the train: three anecdotes, two generalities, and then the list of winners.

As usual, I abandoned the notes because looking at them seemed to produce over-long silences, which I filled instead with extempore sentences. But where did these sentences begin? How would they end? Had I said the same thing 30 seconds earlier? Was I making any sense at all? The winners' certificates turned out to have the names inscribed in inscrutable calligraphy. I got several wrong and, worse, said bluntly that in one category no winner had been named because the judges hadn't found the entries up to scratch (here a judge seized the microphone to put a politer gloss on this truth for the people in the same category who had been commended - but despite his intervention the commended stayed insulted and glued to their seats).

I shivered at the memory for the next three days, and would still be shivering at it if I hadn't gone on Thursday to the annual dinner organised by Esquire magazine and Waterstone's bookstores for the best non-fiction book. The winner was The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, which tells how Lomax suffered terrible cruelty in a Japanese prison camp and how, 50 years later, he made peace with his captors. A BBC film has been made from the book, and the film's star, John Hurt as Lomax, got up to make a speech.

It began with the disavowal that it would be a speech; words to describe a man like Lomax were impossible. So perhaps it would be a reading? That seemed likely. Mr Hurt was carrying a copy of the book and it looked to be interspersed with bookmarks. He had also returned to his table to retrieve his reading glasses. A reading would be fine, Mr Hurt having a distinguished voice, the book being good. But it was not to be a reading either.

What followed was a series of very emotional assertions and heavy silences, a nearly complete inarticulacy apart from the question "What do you mean by 'we', Paleface?" which came out of nowhere and led nowhere, as though Mr Hurt was a spiritual medium. We all felt for him. Speaking is what actors do for a living, and here was an actor stranded and helpless before a microphone, struggling now and then to say he loved us, loved Eric, loved (possibly) the Japanese. But I have also to admit that he cheered me up.

IT MAY come as a surprise to nobody who knows Germany, but it came as a surprise to me: Germany has a graffiti problem. When I went to Frankfurt this month I travelled for the first time by train through the Channel Tunnel. After about Penge East the graffiti disappears from stations and bridges. Kent and France, at least as seen from the train, seem devoid of it. Belgium has some, but mainly just the monochrome scrawling that looks like Urdu but isn't.

The spectacular stuff - efficient is the tempting word - begins at Cologne. Entire trains have been covered to window height by multicoloured paint sprays. You expect it on the New York subway but not, for all the usual national preconceptions, on expresses that run along the Rhine, and that have restaurant cars and smart lady ticket inspectors who speak English: "I am sorry, but you are not in the correct seat."

The last time I went down the Rhine by train was as a 14-year-old on a school trip in 1959. I was as entranced by it this month as I was 36 years ago. The train glides along the river in its gorge for an hour or two, and through the window you can see schlosses on hilltops and dozens of ships and barges nosing into the current or swinging downstream. What has changed is me. I was stuck on this journey by the unsettling thought that if, in 1959, I'd met myself as a 50-year-old, I would be meeting someone who could tell me their memories of the Armistice and the General Strike; and not only tell, but perhaps also bore.

The reference to Take It From Here in my speech at Bristol, before an audience with a probable average age of 23, was thus yet another mistake.

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