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Diary: Graham James

31 July 2020


Adrenalin junkie

ONE of the fruits of lockdown is that I have read the third volume of Charles Moore’s magisterial biography of Margaret Thatcher (Books, 29 November 2019). At just over 1000 pages, it is not exactly lightweight. Moore’s detailed but deftly written account brought some events of the late 1980s vividly back to my mind, among them the dramatic resignation of Nigel Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I heard of it just as I arrived at the launch of an exhibition at the British Library in honour of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Cranmer. Almost immediately, I fell into the one and only conversation I ever had with Enoch Powell. He had not heard about Lawson. Ours was a brief exchange, since Enoch was grateful to be told the news and then said he must rush back to the House of Commons. Clearly, contemporary political drama held more interest than Thomas Cranmer’s even more dramatic — but historic — life. Being at the centre of events can become an addiction.


Louder than words

THOSE were the days when I was Robert Runcie’s chaplain at Lambeth, and so had a peripheral part in some of the things about which Moore writes. In late 1987, the Prime Minister organised a lunch at Chequers for the Archbishops and senior bishops. Relationships were distant, and Faith in the City had been wounding. It disturbed her that the leaders of the Church were so critical of her government.

Runcie went without expecting a meeting of minds. Nor was there. Too many preachers in one room. Even so, Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) never responded to Faith in the City with the negativity of some of her colleagues. She knew that something had to be done about the inner cities, and could not fault the seriousness of the report.

That lunch came just before the establishment of the Church Urban Fund. It does not get a mention in Moore’s great tome, but I remember Mrs Thatcher being respectful of it. This was the Church doing something to help, and not simply telling Government to do everything — her pet hate, and with some justification.


Vain comparison

RUNCIE and Thatcher had been at Oxford together. He had even been a committee member of the Oxford University Conservative Association when she was its president. They were not close; but Moore probably did not know that — following that Chequers lunch — there was a dinner at Lambeth for the Prime Minister and Denis Thatcher, together with some of their friends and other guests (but no bishops, as I recall). On a tour of the palace after dinner, it was moving to see the Prime Minister in the chapel, standing silently before the candle that burned for Terry Waite in his captivity.

Later, I guided her round an exhibition set up especially for her in the library. It included an account of a meeting between Archbishop Lang and Winston Churchill very soon after the latter became Prime Minister in 1940. I thought that she had misheard me describing this exhibit, since she responded with I have the deepest respect for Donald Coggan.” Then she recalled that it was only several weeks after she became Prime Minister, in 1979, that she had had her first proper conversation with the then Archbishop.

Seeing what Churchill had done, she found herself wanting. A Churchill complex seems part of the psyche of Conservative prime ministers to this day.


Holiday vacancy

CHURCHILLIAN and wartime comparisons have been common during the pandemic. But some things have been genuinely different from the 1940s, such as the protocol for funerals. I have led only one funeral service at Penmount Crematorium, here in Truro, but found that the small numbers meant that it was very unrushed and dignified.

But there were downsides. Not being able even to shake the hands of grieving relatives was hard, and it was sad to see members of the same family dutifully keeping distance from one another in their grief. What surprised me on that day was that the two chapels, usually busy, hosted only five funerals between them. The funeral directors said that it had been quiet for weeks — a reminder of how infection and death rates have varied around the country. They have been low in Cornwall.

This is one of the reasons that the return of tourists in big numbers, while necessary for the Cornish economy, creates some anxiety. A recent survey suggested that the economy of Newquay (where I spent my childhood) may be the most adversely affected of any town in the country.

Despite having had relatively few cases of Covid-19, it could suffer considerably from the effects of the pandemic in other ways. There will be far fewer coachloads of older holidaymakers, for example, owing to the largely unheralded collapse of the Specialist Leisure Group. That got little attention in the media, although 2500 people lost their jobs. Familiar names such as Shearings (which had 240 coaches), Wallace Arnold, and National Holidays were all part of the group. Forty-four hotels were closed, some quite large ones, and many in seaside resorts — such as Newquay — already facing challenges.

I wonder whether this business collapse got less coverage since it was a leisure company catering mostly for the holidays of older people of limited means. Not very fashionable.

Since the Church of England (not very fashionable either) has many millions for Strategic Development Funding, perhaps this bit of the holiday market would be a good area for investment. We could call these holidays “pilgrimages”. To borrow a phrase beloved of the political historian Lord Hennessy, Faith in the City “changed the weather”. Perhaps Faith in the Seaside Resort might do the same?


The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.

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