Like everyone else I know who edits or has edited a magazine or newspaper, I’m extremely keen on anniversaries. Not that I’ve ever been any good at remembering girlfriends’ or family members’ birthdays. It’s just that anniversaries of great (and indeed not-so-great) events are one of the few things that you can predict with certainty.
It’s not just that it’s all too easy to be caught napping by the invasion of the Falklands or the fall of the Berlin Wall or the attack on the World Trade Centre. Even normally reliable “on-diary” events have a nasty habit of being cancelled, postponed or curtailed — witness last year’s Labour conference. But nothing can possibly prevent 2002 being 10 years after 1992, 20 years after 1982, 25 years after 1977 and so forth. Armed with nothing more sophisticated than a dictionary of dates, any editor can plan a great deal of features coverage. And that, in the journalism business, is most reassuring.
This weekend, of course, the anniversary on most editors’ minds is Brenda Windsor’s glorious 50 years on the throne. As a republican, I’m not celebrating — but the wall-to-wall coverage of the jubilee has got me thinking about the future of the monarchy.
I have to admit that this started as pure self-indulgence — because the jubilee is yet another reminder that, yes, I really am middle-aged now. It can’t really be 25 years since I bought the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”, can it? In another 25 years I’ll be 67 and retired . . .
But then I had another thought. The current Queen is now 76 and on current form seems to have every chance of living at least to the same age as her mother (who died at the age of 101 earlier this year, though it already seems like another era). If she does, she will reign over us until 2027 — by which time her heir apparent, Prince Charles, will be approaching 80. And if he lives to be 101, his successor, Prince William, will be crowned in 2048 at the age of 65.
It should go without saying that this scenario might not come to pass. At best, some daring future government will legislate to make Britain a republic. The Queen might decide to abdicate (although she says she won’t) to give Charles a spell on the throne before he reaches his dotage. HM the Q or Charles could die before reaching 101.
But there’s no doubt that the House of Windsor faces the prospect of turning into a gerontocracy that makes the Brezhnev-era Politburo in the Soviet Union look like a brood of spring chickens. And even allowing for the fact that, on current demographic trends, the old will comprise an ever-greater proportion of the British population as the 21st century wears on, it is impossible to imagine an increasingly senile monarchy retaining popular support.
So perhaps, on reflection, we republicans should raise a glass this weekend and wish dear old Bren many more years on the throne. Gawd bless yer, Ma’am — the longer you hang on, the better it looks for us.
All anniversaries are artificial, but some are more artifical than others — and none more so than what would have been George Orwell’s 99th birthday, which has been marked by a explosion of controversy in the quality press over his legacy.
Most of the heat has been created by Christopher Hitchens’s fine polemical defence of Orwell, Orwell’s Victory, which has provoked the usual whining from latter-day apologists for Stalinism.
Predictably, much of this has focused on the (largely accurate) list of Stalinist fellow-travellers that Orwell passed on to a Foreign Office propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, in 1949, the implication being that Orwell was a grass if not a spook. Yet, as Hitchens makes clear, all he did was advise an ex-girlfriend who was working for the IRD about who should not be hired — which in the political climate of the time (Britain had a Labour Government and the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin) was perfectly honourable.
The other Orwell-related book that has caused a stir is Hilary Spurling’s revisionist biography of Sonia Orwell, the writer’s widow, whose reputation hitherto has been as an insufferable gold-digging drunk. Spurling’s defence of her subject is entirely convincing except on one thing that still matters — the charge that, in editing the Penguin edition of Orwell’s journalism and letters, Sonia omitted a lot of his late political writing in order to downplay his continuing commitment to democratic socialism.
The effect was to give wholly undeserved credibility to all those, conservatives as well as pro-Soviet leftists, who spread the odious lie that Orwell — the finest British left-wing writer of the past century — reneged on the left in his final years. And that remains unforgivable.
- Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens is published by Penguin Press. The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling is published by Hamish Hamilton.