Tuesday 12 June 2007

Can bad taste prolong life?

I was sitting in the window of my London club early on Thursday evening, sipping a glass of champagne, when my companion suddenly announced, “I feel just like Beau Brummell.” I looked at him closely, and was about to observe that he certainly didn’t bear any physical resemblance to that legendary paragon of elegance, when he continued, “I mean I’ve come over all 18th century.”

He gestured towards a grotesquely fat and luridly clad woman in the street outside, who was attempting to attract the attention of a taxi driver. Despite her considerable natural advantages, she had decided to increase her visibility still further by stepping well out into the fast-moving traffic.

“If someone hits her,” he said, “I fear I shall have to propose a bet on how many other cars will run over her before the traffic stops.” I stared at him with a mixture of astonishment and disgust. Finally I managed to stutter, “Just cars, or vehicles of any sort?”

Luckily at that point a cab drew up and bore her off. It was leaning crazily to one side as it did so, so we had a quick wager on whether we would hear the crash as it tipped over, attempting the sharp, left-hand turn by St James’s Palace. It did not happen.

The tasteless bet is a fine English tradition, and many Oxbridge colleges and gentlemen’s clubs contain betting books that make the goings-on in the Big Brother house seem like a Mothers’ Union tea party. They can have useful consequences, too. I know someone who beat a usually aggressive form of cancer after a friend helpfully bet him a tidy sum that he would be dead by Christmas, providing just the incentive he required. Similarly, the nation rejoiced in April when Alec Holden reached his 100th birthday to win a 250/1 bet with William Hill.

I should therefore like to propose that all the UK’s major gaming companies open books on whether John Prescott will recover from his pneumonia sufficiently rapidly to permit him one last outing to the despatch box as Deputy Prime Minister. I won’t make the mistake of saying that I detect a strong sense of nostalgia about him, as I recently read an authoritative letter from Evelyn Waugh pointing out that it actually means homesickness, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the past. But I do sense a general feeling that we shall all miss him, unlike the other fellow who is stepping down in two weeks’ time.

Over-promoted, randy, blitheringly incompetent and occasionally incomprehensible he may have been, but the national treasure affectionately known as Prezza is also a fine example of an old school (not in the David Cameron sense) working class politician who rose to the top through the trade union movement. In these days where the career path goes direct from university through policy wonkery to the backbenches, we shall not see his like again.

For me, his finest moment was the promotion of regional government, billed as “John Prescott’s Big Idea”, even though you only had to look at the man to know that he had never had a big idea in his life that did not involve pies or secretaries, and that the whole scam was simply giving effect to a European Union edict framed on the good old principle of “divide and rule”.

We in the North East should be ashamed of voting against it so ungratefully. We let the Big Man down and it did not do us a ha’porth of good, as we got regional government anyway. If only we had shown we could be trusted, maybe we would have been granted that promised referendum on the EU Constitution, about to be smuggled through under the new badge of a Treaty.

Of course, if Gordon Brown really is a man of iron principle, he will call a referendum anyway. Anyone like to bet?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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