Saturday, 23 February 2008


Robert Burns regretted that God did not give him the power to see himself as others saw him. In fact God has given us a much more dangerous gift. The power to make other people see us in the way we want. Leadership, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Louis X1V was in no doubt about his position. The Sun King was a job description. After a series of military defeats he stormed. “Sometimes I think God forgets what I have done for him.”

To keep his quarrelsome courtiers in order he insisted they all live in Versailles where he devised a system of etiquette of precedence so byzantine – it even dictated the number of steps to a door which a host should take depending on the seniority of his guest - that the courtiers were so involved in keeping their place in the pecking order they had no time for mutinies.

The basis of all power is a cheap confidence trick. If you bet on horses or cards and lose, hard luck. If you bet on banks who lend money to people who cannot pay it back, the government swallows your losses because our perception of a shareholder differs from that of earthier gamblers. They are our superiors.

A bespectacled old lady in a glass hat, unsuitably wearing an evening gown in the middle of the day, plays a charade of instructing parliament in its duties for the next session. Her speech has been written for her by her First Minister, who is in fact her employer. She dare not alter it by so much as a comma. Yet we see the Queen, magnificently robed and bejewelled, giving Her orders to Her parliament; demonstrating that leadership is a concession awarded by the led. Misreading, surely, Locke’s dictum that the masses should give absolute power to an individual and then obey him.

Other members of the Royal Family, male and female, are garlanded with gold crosses, festooned with crescents, the traditional emblems of the brave and the noble, which, unearned, have been handed to them like after dinner mints.

I could be just as brave as Royalty in the eyes of the world were I allowed to wear, as they do, decorations won by my father, uncles and father-in-law.

The Wizard of Oz got it right when he made the lion brave by giving him a medal, the straw man wise by awarding him a diploma and the tin man romantic by giving him a heart. The wizard knew that qualities were unnecessary. It was the label that counted.

Quentin Crisp wisely pointed out that our feral young express their individuality by all dressing exactly the same. They adopt the shared uniform by which we recognise difference; shaved heads which speak of fighting strength, hoods so that children suffering from terminal acne can terrify old people who fought at Arnhem.

In fact any street fighter will tell you that it is surprise that wins fights: victory invariably goes to the man who hits first.

I am by nature a timid man of quiet pursuits. Yet when I wore the kilt I was perennially on the look out for a fight. In the red sash of a Provost Sgt, I terrified drunks who could have eaten me were it not for the power they wrongly perceived I held.

As – briefly - an officer cadet, I saw how one man in the squad was always the first to volunteer, the first to leap into a river or climb a height, in order to be thought “officer potential”, when wiser heads thought he was an idiot.

These uncharitable thoughts come from reading Wendy Berry’s book, banned in this country, about the private life at Highgrove of the petulant ‘Prince of Wails’ and the beautiful basket case he married. Lorries regularly brought gifts from manufacturers of everything from kitchens to hats which were regularly burned because of fears that the goods would be stolen and marketed on E Bay as royal property. Apparently it occurred to no-one to tell the manufacturers not to send them. That and other books by royal servants leave one with a poor opinion of every member of that unhappy dynasty, with the exception Prince Edward and the Queen, both of whom are praised for their consideration and good manners.

I cynically remember a friend, no stranger to command, who always made sure his adjutants were martinets. It enabled him to be easy going and thus popular.

I have known two VCs. One was awarded for bravery in repulsing an oncoming Chinese horde by throwing beer bottles at them. A useless gesture which one assumes only made them angrier. He had been thrown out of our regiment and a lowland regiment. After the award, the lowland regiment called him back and promoted him to RSM.

One of the many mistakes the Army made about me was to assume I had leadership potential. They were not alone. A similar misjudgement by a headmaster made me a disastrous form captain and I can only assume that when the Editor of the Mirror appointed me as night news editor, a mistake subsequently made by three other editors, he must have been barking mad.

But there I was. Two days a soldier and a designated O.R.1, potential officer. So it was natural when a group of us had to be fitted with W.D. spectacles, steel, other ranks for the use of, I was put in charge of the party.

Fourteen of us mustered for the journey from High Legh Camp at Knutsford to Saighton Military Hospital, twenty miles away in Chester. And a pleasant enough journey it was. That is until we climbed down from the lorry at the gates of the camp and wandered, chatting pleasantly, to report at the guard room.

We never made it. A very small sergeant with the voice of a much taller man shouted implications about our families that I am sure he came to regret in quieter moments. He then demanded to know who was “In charge of this shower…”

To a man, my squad of Judases pointed at me.

“Then get them fell in, in three ranks,” he barked. Alas, he didn’t tell me how so I had to whisper to them to get in some sort of line, which they
unobligingly did.

We had our tests, were promised our spectacles and began the journey home. Unfortunately I discovered, in the in the excitement of the morning when we got back to Chester General Railway station, that I had left the travel warrants in Saighton Camp.

I pointed to the least belligerent looking member of the party. “Nip off back to the camp and collect the warrants.”

“F …. Off,” he advised me.

“I’m in charge. You said I was,” I replied.

“Only when we are being shouted at, “he explained.

So I had to go back for the warrants. I told the party to wait for me at the station but none of them did. And because the lorry had gone by this time I had to catch two buses - and in doing so missed three trains. I travelled back to High Legh, accompanied by 14 travel warrants but without a single soldier.

“Good God,” said the orderly officer when I told him what had happened,
“we didn’t lose that many on D Day.”

From My Dangerous Cuttings Book

Polite society should evolve a new code of etiquette for the mobile phone brigade.
The Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph Ian Watson, dining at the Savoy Hotel, was interrupted by the cloak room attendant with the words: “Excuse me sir, but your overcoat is ringing.”

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