Monday, 6 March 2023


A friend recently said he found life very “unsettling.” The world doesn’t seem a happy place right now as critical events are being played out in every part of it.

But my discomfort is less about substance than about style. What happened to manners and to diplomacy? What happened to our sense of humour?

Barack Obama wishes Michelle a happy 30th anniversary: 'I won the lottery  that day' | The Hill

I miss the charm of Barack Obama and his wife. They seemed comfortable in their shoes. Whatever happened to the relaxed insights of a Harold MacMillan? When I quizzed a retired senior Civil Servant as to who’d been the best Prime Minister of Britain since the war he said it was MacMillan who said things like these:

It is, of course, a trite observation to say that we live "in a period of transition." Many people have said this at many times. Adam may well have made the remark to Eve on leaving the Garden of Eden.

BBC Two - JFK: The Final Visit to Britain, John F Kennedy and Harold  Macmillan - JFK and Macmillan at the White House

That’s funny and charming. And this one that was beautifully enacted last week: 

I have learned that in all negotiations nothing matters except the will to reach agreement. 

Time will tell if Rishi Sunak is a good leader. But last week he behaved like the best leader we’ve had for a very long time. The warming of relations with Europe is long overdue. It felt like a grown up was at No.10 rather than the past four incumbents who were in various degrees unsettling or disgraceful.

A picture containing text, outdoor

Description automatically generated

Under their “leadership”(sic) Britain had started to become like the American South as described in John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie:

I do know it’s a troubled place and a people caught in a jam. And I do know the solution when it arrives will not be easy or simple. 

I’ve started to feel our solution may be simpler than he felt it was in America. We need to become civilised again and be happy to co-exist and co-operate.

Enter the Hungarian.

Logo, company name

Description automatically generated

This was a tall British Gas engineer who’d come to service our boiler.  He was accomplished and impressive as an engineer who spoke immaculate English. Shamefully I don’t speak a word of Hungarian (or didn’t)

Egy szót sem tudok magyarul 

He said he loved living in Britain and especially loved our temperate weather.

That he loved our country cheered me up but made me a bit sad that we collectively seem to love it rather less. As he left I thought how civilised and professional he’d been and how ludicrous is the suspicion of foreigners expressed by the Tory right wing and others.

One of the most civilised of thinkers in my lifetime was an American contemporary of Harold MacMillan and the brother of the assassinated President J.F. Kennedy. Here’s what Robert Kennedy said

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

Robert Kennedy Without Tears | The New Yorker

That seems a civilised aim in life to me.

Increasingly I find myself making judgements of people based on how civilised they seem. Jo Biden appears pretty civilised as does the Dutch Premier Mark Rutte and the Canadian Justin Trudeau. I may be mistaken – they may have less to offer than I see – but just for now “civilised” seems a reasonable target to set. Incidentally Keir Starmer and Rishi hit that target.

The last words go to John Steinbeck, that voice of common sense

It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth. 

No comments: