Thursday, 28 June 2012

The spy who was shoved into the cold

Poor Ray Mawby. The late Conservative M P for Totnes, exposed this week as a sometime spy for communist Czechoslovakia, was a lonely and hollow man, which wasn’t really his fault. Unfortunately, he’d been made into a symbol.
Winston Churchill acclaimed Ray as the first of a “new breed” of Tory: blue collars sporting a blue rosettes. Men like Mawby, working class trade unionists (Ray was, I think, in the Transport and General Workers Union) were the party’s parliamentary future, Churchill declared. They were going to sweep aside the gentlemen of the shires, the old Etonians, the Oxbridge clubmen and lawyers.
I’m not sure if he was the last as well as the first of this new generation, but I certainly never heard of another. And like everyone who gets cast as a symbol, Ray was trapped in the role, hollowed out by it, his own volition paralysed. Other M P’s, of whichever party, who conformed more closely to that rather tedious, Downton Abbey-esque script which British politics (as we are seeing now) is inclined to follow, didn’t know what to make of him. They weren’t easy in his company.
Ray Mawby’s life touched mine just once. I was a barely fledged reporter on The Western Morning News, about a third of the way into my first notebook. It was a Sunday. A man phoned the newsdesk, saying he was the Totnes Conservative party agent. He gave me a report of a speech which he said Ray had made at some event in South Devon in which the M P denounced American imperialism and aggression in Vietnam and called for the withdrawal of all Western troops.
My couple of paragraphs appeared in Monday’s WMN, and at about 10 o’clock the editor called me in. He was quite lenient with me (though after all, between my Imperial typewriter and the street were a copy-taster, the news editor, the chief sub-editor, a sub-editor and a proof reader).
But did I really suppose, the editor asked, that the opinions voiced in my report were those usually espoused by right-wing, Tory members of parliament?
It was a useful lesson in stepping back and thinking, and in checking the facts.
And to be fair, the editor continued, I should have been warned that Mawby was frequently a victim of this kind of imposture. Why? Because socialists saw him as a turncoat: a traitor to the trade union movement and, in the editor’s words, “the man who betrayed his fellow proles by taking the Tory shilling”.
How ironic, then, that he was actually spying at the time for one of the Soviet bloc’s beacons of red revolution and worker solidarity, handing the Czech secret services, inter alia, a floor-plan of the Prime Minister’s office and regular reports about the “peculiarities” (sexual, one imagines) of his fellow Tories in the House of Commons.
Doubly ironic, perhaps, that he wasn’t in espionage for any ideological reason or purpose, but because his controllers had discovered he was in the grip of a gambling compulsion and running out of money. A sucker, then, for blank Czechs (forgive me) and left-wing hoaxers.
Poor Ray Mawby, as I say. Why did he gamble? I guess, because he was lonely. Why was he lonely? Because he was a symbol, a fish out of water, a hollow man and an existential void, and for that reason nobody much liked him. In middle-class, liberal-leaning Totnes he was an oik, all hobnail and worsted, old spice and brylcreem in a milieu of muslin and tie-dye, henna and patchouli. “My dear, have you seen his fingernails?”
I was told that when he was in the constituency, Ray Mawby would spend all the night until closing time in the Conservative Club, approaching no-one, approached by no-one, speaking to no-one, spoken to be no-one, standing alone, drinking whisky, and ceaselessly playing the fruit machine.
In 1983, the oik got deselected by an ungrateful constituency party. He afterwards fetched up on the dole.
His replacement, Anthony Steen, was a proper patrician with a mansion who served until 2009 when he, in turn, got dumped by the locals for taking £87,729 in expenses. He complained that his constituents were envious: “Do you know what this is about? Jealousy,” he said. “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral.“
There’s no pleasing those Totnesians, is there?

Friday, 1 June 2012

Leveson: Billy Bunter to testify?

“I say you fellows, budge up, what? Room for another posterior on the old Chesterfield, I’d say.”
Harry Wharton groaned. The former Captain of the Remove, now Director General of the BBC, couldn’t work out how William George Bunter, aka the Fat Owl, had wangled himself membership of the Garrick Club. “But that,” he’d murmured to Bob Cherry, when Bunter’s name was first posted, “is just damn’ symptomatic of the way the world’s gone.”
Cherry, ever the loyal Patroclus to Wharton’s Achilles, was beside him now, sipping a green chartreuse. The friends had lunched on Dover Sole with minted peas, fondant potatoes and an icy Chablis, chewing over matters of weighty media portent – for Bob had become editor of The Guardian, and the old pals therefore now held between them the principal engines of bien pensant news manufacture and the shaping of enlightened popular opinion.
Bunter, the aforesaid posterior straining his pinstripe to such a width that the vertical line of stitches between his buttocks stood out like staples, wedged himself beside Wharton, and banged down a pint glass which he’d emptied of Old Speckled Hen.
“Shall we have another?” he squealed. But Cherry replied, “one never drinks more than a singleton at lunchtime. I mean, no more than a single digestif.” He sipped delicately at his chartreuse, and as if to acquiesce, Wharton wet his upper lip with the tawny port he’d scarcely, so far, touched.
“Oh well.” Bunter grimaced and his eyes searched the room, looking for someone who might be more likely to refresh his beer. But the only other man he knew was the Archbishop of Durham, the Very Reverend Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, formerly the Nabob of Bhanipur, who was alone with a tumbler of orange juice, sitting beneath the portrait of a stout Victorian woman with a projectile bust. The sober prelate responded to Bunter’s raised right eyebrow with an irritated frown.
There was, however a silver tray of petit fours on the table, to which Bunter helped himself, spraying scintillae of pastry, marzipan and nut across his old school chums’ waistcoats as he asked, mouth full and masticating, “so, what were you fellows jawing about, eh? Let me guess – Robert Murgatroyd?”
Harry Wharton scowled and muttered, “rude, ugly, jumped up colonial peasant.”
“You can’t let that one go, eh Wharton? Nor you, Cherry?” Bunter laughed. “He’s really under your skin. Earthquakes may come and tsunamis go, currencies collapse and innocents get massacred, but no, morning after morning and night after night in Mr Cherry’s journal and on Mr Wharton’s bulletins all other events of moment are trumped by denunciations of Robert Murgatroyd and the hot pursuit of his underlings and associates. I wonder why?”
Robert Murgatroyd, the great Baron (or Beast) of Journalism, with a face like Satan’s which “deep scars of thunder had intrenched”, migrated to London from the antipodes a few years before the elite of the Greyfriars’ alumni had found their natural places on the bridge and in the prow of HMS Great Britain. He’d questioned their entitlement, and to their dismay, had persuaded members of the servant class to pry, gossip, tittle-tattle and even write scurrilous tales about them and their peers.
Well now! Those oiks had been firmly and publicly put back in their places. Joseph Mimble the Greyfriars gardener? Collar felt for listening in on an extension to Mr Quelch’s telephone conversations. Mrs Kebble, the flame-haired, sphinx-eyed cook? On remand for perverting the course of justice by burning, in the great kitchen stoves, the diaries in which old Mr Kebble the gamekeeper had sketched in prose and crayon certain intimacies he’d spied through the keyhole of the study occupied by the Rev. Herbert Henry Locke, D D, MA, headmaster of Greyfriars.
Most satisfyingly of all, perhaps, grubby little Fred Trotter, the page-boy who’d been so close to the oleaginous Harold Skinner, appeared to have contradicted himself in testimonies about the behaviour of the so-called “bounder” of the Remove, Herbert Vernon-Smith, in an old boys’ cricket match against a Teachers’ XI from Courtfield County Council School. If his guilt were proved, ahead of Master Trotter lay a long, long stretch in clink for perjury.
“I can’t help thinking, though,” said Bunter thoughtfully, jabbing a moistened forefinger at crumbs on the tabletop, and smearing them onto his tongue, “that really, all along, my old beans, it’s Skinner and Snoop you’re gunning for.”
“Preposterous,” said Wharton. Cherry snorted and shook his head.
But – both men were, unmistakably, blushing!
Three times Harold Skinner had goosed the Lady Alice, Wharton’s wife, at a reception in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel – a reception, nota bene, which Robert Murgatroyd had attended shortly before Skinner was elevated to the leadership of the Tory party with vociferous support from the Murgatroyd organ. What was the deal, eh? Skinner was the last old Greyfriarian whom one would have predicted for Number 10, Downing Street. Cunning, treacherous, a gay dog, but in a squalid way, a tennis player of dubious integrity and the enemy of every decent chap in the Remove, Skinner had made his name in “public relations”, for Heaven’s sake!
And who in a sane and balanced state would have written in Skinner’s fellow conspirator, Sidney James Snoop, for Number 11? Snoop was mean, fawning, snobbish, cowardly and inclined to dingy dissipation (unsurprising in a man whose father’s fortune derived from “soft” furnishings). Bob Cherry still shuddered when he remembered a certain night in a certain Marseilles bar on an exchange visit in their last year at school; a certain night which involved, let’s just say, Cherry and Snoop in a darkened room, with two ladies wearing scant leather costumes, a vaulting horse, an ultra violet light and some choice items of unusual paraphernalia.
It was all Snoop’s idea. He, Bob Cherry, could never have imagined...
“Perhaps,” said Bunter thoughtfully, “all the boys in a class are just aspects of a single boy?”
“Great grief!” Wharton looked at Bunter: the oily, centre-parted hair; the horn-rimmed spectacles; the grin that seemed to reverberate down among his chins; the great bulk of him bulging inside black worsted so that he looked like a sack stuffed with coins – a distended bag of bad pennies which kept coming back to haunt them. “I don’t think so, Bunter. That would make me an aspect of you.”
“Who do you think ought to be Prime Minister and Chancellor?” Bunter asked.
“Why Miliband and Balls, of course,” said Wharton. “This is an egalitarian age. We simply can’t have public school toffs at the helm anymore. It ain’t fair.”
“No way, Giosé,” said Cherry, rather awkwardly. “It’s Miliband and Balls we want. That would be supercool.”
“But, but, but, Millie and Edzy are chaps just like us,” Bunter protested. “Intellectuals. Off the upper echelon. Proust-reading, gastropub types.”
“Yes, but they emote working class; they perform proletarian. They have the aura of decent, acceptable socialist convictions.” Wharton pronounced the last word as if scoring it through with a red marker pen.
“But, but,” Bunter wailed, “why not a REAL working class government? I mean, proper working class people, you know? Courtfield County Council School types. ”
“Good God,” sighed Wharton. “You burbling bandersnatch. That would lead to anarchy.”
“But what IS socialism, then?” the bandersnatch persisted.
“You frabjous chump,” said Bob Cherry, shaking slightly, “Can’t you see? A torn raincoat and a battered hat to hide a morning suit. A riot shield for the rich paranoiac. Nanny’s umbrella. Engels’ aftershave. D'you know, I think I will have that second digestif.”