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The Old Un's Notes

Old Un's Notes | May 2016

Sir Alan Moses, The Grand National, Charlotte Brontë, Facebook and Nancy Reagan

When I bumped into Sir Alan Moses during a weekend in Sussex, where he lives, I asked this former Court of Appeal Judge, and the man who presided with such skill over the Soham murders trial of 2003, how he was enjoying his new job as chairman of the new press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), set up in 2014 following the Leveson inquiry into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. He said he was enjoying it very much. A very spry, energetic and amusing seventy-year-old, Sir Alan said he liked the fact that he was now working for the first time with young people (he has called in the past for judges to be younger) and was especially interested in meeting journalists, a breed with which he had had little contact before.

It sounded like fun and games, a stimulating end to a most distinguished career in the law. But this was before the Sun newspaper ‘outed’ the Queen as a supporter of Brexit, citing in evidence Eurosceptic remarks she was supposed to have made at a lunch in Windsor Castle in April 2011. The European Union was ‘going in the wrong direction’, she was reported as having said, and ‘I don’t understand Europe’. And now Buckingham Palace, alarmed at the Queen’s neutrality in the referendum debate being called into question, has taken the unusual step of lodging a formal complaint with Ipso.

So now Sir Alan is up against something serious, a constitutional dilemma, in which he is required to judge not only whether Michael Gove or Nick Clegg have leaked royal indiscretions to the press but also whether the Queen herself has recklessly broken her long record of political neutrality. It’s all rather scary, but I am sure he will handle the case with his usual aplomb.


The Grand National (or the ‘Grand Liverpool Steeplechase’, as it was originally called) was first run in 1839, so no wonder it is the stuff of folklore and legend. At 4 miles 772 yards and 30 jumps it is the most gruelling test of steed and jockey, with deservedly the richest prize in jump racing of £1 million. Some of its jumps are as famous as the race itself. As the Queen said of Charles and Camilla at their wedding, they had ‘overcome Becher’s Brook and The Chair and all kinds of terrible obstacles’.

Becher’s salutes Captain Becher, who fell in the first National and crouched for dear life in the brook under the fence while the field sailed overhead. The dreaded Chair, tallest (5ft 2 in) and broadest (6ft wide fore-ditch), is the only fence to have killed a jockey (Joe Wynne in 1862). Understandably it is not jumped on the tiring second circuit. Nothing stirs the punter in us all quite like the National, which was to be run this year on Saturday 9th April – for the first time on Channel 4, as opposed to the BBC, and for the first time at the ungodly hour of 5.15pm, in order not to conflict with the afternoon football. Whoever wins (and those of you reading this more than ten days after publication will already know the answer), the race should be safer than it used to be; for since 2012, when the fences’ solid-wood cores were replaced by flexible plastic, there has not been a fatality.


In these volatile political days, with the 5th May elections for London Mayor and Assembly in sight, it is rather inspiring to go out canvassing, I am told, for the Women’s Equality Party. Two of our longest-serving contributors, Rosie Boycott and Valerie Grove, are founder members of this fast-growing new party (founded just last year by Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer, and already boasting a membership larger than Ukip’s). Valerie tells me that her doorstepping in north London was illuminating. 

Most recently in Kentish Town she accompanied the fair Sophie Walker, the Women’s Equality mayoral candidate. Sophie is a towering and slender 6ft 1in, a former Reuters correspondent in Washington and Afghanistan, and mother of four. In an area like NW5, as socially mixed as any segment of London, you might knock on the Milibands’ handsomely porticoed front door in Dartmouth Park, or on the door of a dark, jerry-built flat in a 1950s Camden housing estate where eight Somalian names are registered.

A preponderance of residents say they vote Labour. But most people don’t yet realise they have two votes – so they can vote for not only one of the leading male candidates, Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith (equally mistrusted), but also for Sophie Walker. Being on the stump with Sophie, you feel like a suffragette, Valerie says, ‘but with a banner saying “Vote for the Woman” instead of “Votes for Women”.’ (There are of course two other women candidates for London Mayor, the Green Party’s Sian Berry and the Lib Dems’ Caroline Pidgeon.) However parti pris they may be, men on the doorstep are generally willing, when challenged, to support the Women’s Equality Party’s objectives. After all, who can possibly be against equal pay for equal work, or the provision of carers, or affordable housing, or public transport with space for buggies and wheelchairs, or ending domestic violence?


Among the celebrations for Charlotte Brontë’s 200th birthday (she was born in April 1816), Radio 4 listeners will have enjoyed the Woman’s Hour drama serial, Charlotte Brontë in Babylon, written by Charlotte Cory and directed by yet another Charlotte (Charlotte Riches). This told the tale of Brontë’s relationship with her publisher, George Smith, whom she visited five times in ‘Babylon’ – as the Brontës referred to London (Byron did too) – in 1850-53.

Brontë assumed Smith would become her fiancé, and the pair actually visited a phrenologist in the Strand, as intending couples often did then, to have their compatibility checked out in advance. Her tours of London took in the Zoo which featured the first baby hippo from Egypt, the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, the Bank of England, the Foundling Museum, Newgate Prison, the Opera House and Bethlehem Hospital or Bedlam. But one obvious sight she missed, even though it was in her guide book, was the wonderful Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields: the one place that remains today exactly as it was in 1850. 

To the dismay of Charlotte Cory, obsessed by Brontë since the age of ten when she first read Jane Eyre, she could not find Brontë’s signature in the Visitors’ Book. Undaunted, she has curated at the Soane Museum an ingenious and inventive exhibition, with treasures from Haworth Parsonage. You can see the tiny blue sprigged-print dress Charlotte Brontë wore the night she dined at Thackeray’s house in Kensington – a social failure, Thackeray being so large and loud, she so demure and shy – complete with what looks like a gravy stain. There’s also CB’s meticulous accounts book and her spectacles. 


‘Poor is the mind that always uses the invention of others and invents nothing itself,’ said Hieronymus Bosch, whose own extraordinary inventiveness is manifest in all of the fifty paintings and drawings that still exist 500 years after his death. He was a follower of no one, and he was so idiosyncratic that few others have ever tried to follow him. Like William Blake or Stanley Spencer, he was a visionary; he made a world all of his own, created chimeras and imaginary landscapes; and after two hours at the Noordbrabants Museum in Bosch’s home town, Hertogenbosch, where the largest Bosch exhibition of all time (Hieronymus Bosch: Visions of Genius, ending 8th May) is currently on show before it transfers to the Prado in Madrid for the summer, it’s impossible not to notice Bosch’s unfailing consistency. There is no early Bosch, there’s no late Bosch, there’s just Hieronymus Bosch.

Heaven, hell, the end of the mediaeval world, the uncertain beginning of a new and uncertain order, how to negotiate life’s complexities without tumbling into disaster — these are all themes of Bosch’s art. What’s most striking about this show is the work of Bosch the draughtsman. The drawings, like the paintings, are displayed in remarkable non-reflective glass cases that allow you to look more closely at Bosch than ever before.

‘The Infernal Landscape’ might be the most remarkable of them all. It’s not a large drawing, just 23cm by 20cm; yet within these dimension there’s a vast world, with soldiers off to battle, a man who is a barrel, a monster whose mouth is a giant water-wheel, three figures trying to sit on a knife edge, birds fluttering around. It’s the genius of the curators that they show how these images recur in Bosch’s other paintings.

So go to Hertogenbosch. Go the cathedral of St John, where Bosch prayed: the city is small, but there aren’t many larger cathedrals on the planet. Go to the Noordbrabants Museum, where you’ll see just 39 works by Bosch, but their impact is stronger than in many another show ten times its size.


I’ve never really known what Facebook was all about, or why people were so keen to belong to it (so keen, in fact, that the 31-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, its founder, now has an estimated fortune of $46 billion), but at some point I was persuaded to register and to accept as ‘friends’ people whom I hardly knew but didn’t want to offend by turning away. It was a mistake. I have never learned how to use Facebook, but I receive communications from it every day of a disconcerting kind.

Usually these tell me that I have received several messages from people that I don’t know how to reply to, but sometimes also that I have received a ‘poke’. A poke? What can that mean? All I can say is that it sounds rude. Then there are the messages urging me to wish so-and-so a Happy Birthday. The birthday is usually of somebody I barely know and which I wouldn’t dream of celebrating, but I feel vaguely guilty all the same when I fail to respond.

Then there are the curious people who are constantly ‘updating their status’. There is seldom any sign that their ‘status’, whatever it may have been, has changed in any way at all; and this promise of an update seems no more than an excuse for telling people what boring things they have been doing for the past day or two. Why do they think I would care?

Finally, there are those – the most numerous of all – who are driven by some narcissistic urge to send me new photographs of themselves. These ‘new’ photographs are often remarkably similar to all the previous ones they have sent me, and I wonder what they expect me to do with them all. Print them out, frame them, and hang them on my wall? Keep copies of them lovingly in my wallet?

It is clear from its astonishing success that Facebook fulfils a yearning to communicate in new and unfamiliar ways. It’s not a yearning I begin to understand, but it imbues me nevertheless with feelings of unease.


The obituaries of Nancy Reagan, who died recently, aged 94, paid due attention to her famous ‘gaze’, the fixed, adoring look that she bestowed on her husband during his public appearances, which perhaps helped to bolster his self-confidence, but less to her other peculiarity, which was her belief in astrology. This might not have been as surprising as it seems. In the Hollywood of the Thirties and Forties, from which the Reagans started their great climb to the White House, astrologists were regarded not as weirdos but as respectable figures, much consulted by the stars.

Nancy’s belief in how the alignment of stars and planets could influence human affairs can only have been strengthened when an astrologer warned her on 30th March 1981, when President Reagan was shot and nearly killed, that something bad would happen that day. It appears that thereafter she would always consult astrological signs when scheduling events in his diary. Whether this practice did any good or not, it certainly does not seem to have done any harm: Reagan’s was one of the most successful presidencies.

I met Nancy Reagan only once, which was at a gala fundraising concert given in 1993 by Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which she attended alone, as her husband was already falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease. In a memorable encounter after the concert, the great tenor lifted her from the ground and crushed her to his enormous bosom. I thought that might have been the end of her, but she was to last another 23 years. 

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now