Tuesday 6 March 2012

Norman St. John Stevas has died

The then Norman St John-Stevas talks to Margaret Thatcher at the state opening of parliament in 1979
    Another intimation of mortality. Norman St. John Stevas's name came up on google news and of course it was because he had died. Michael White my favourite political writer has it here. He has received one of the Daily Telegraph's funniest obituaries almost comparable the best one of all, that of Denisa, Lady Newborough.

    I canvassed for him in Chelmsford while I was up at university in 1983 at the fag end of my Third Year - he was almost the only Tory I could bear to canvass for in those days though now I think he was Wrong but Wromantic and Mrs. Thatcher Right but Repulsive. He called her the Immaculate Misconception. 

    In fact his affectations were very silly. He did not have style, unlike the impossibly beautiful Sir Ian Gilmour who was fired at the same time in 1981, the first two of Mrs. Thatcher's opponents, the Wets, to be dismissed. But he was witty and the kind of person who might have been an Independent MP sitting for one of the universities - I cannot forgive Labour for abolishing the university seats. (Though the wonderful biographer and former clerk of the House Robert Rhodes James would have done that better.)
    The inimitable and deeply lamented Frank Johnson called Lord St. John of Fawsley Lord Cringe-On-All-Foursley. Johnson did a very funny sketch of canvassing with Stevas (this much loved Victorian monument 'now in danger of demolition') in the Chelmsford election in 1983 a week or so before I went canvassing with him (he was expected to lose but scraped in ahead of the Liberal, Stuart Mole).  

People like Stevas, Nicholas Fairbairn, Clement Freud and Leo Abse made politics interesting. Much bigger men like Michael Foot and Enoch Powell did the same. Fitzroy MacLean somewhat earlier. Now we have only Boris.

    I admired in my youth the panache of people like him and Noel Coward never suspecting they were homosexuals. I have always been innocent. Simon Hoggart called him the thinking man's Larry Grayson. This is in a day when homosexuality spelt the end of a political career. After we had finished canvassing he was met by his merchant banker friend and Stevas playfully ran his fingers on said friend's thigh. I always assumed as a practising Catholic that he must be a non-practising homosexual and realise that that was innocent of me but I see the obituary says this is what he claimed to be and probably was.

I also remember meeting him as a teenager with my father in the House when he was shadow Education Secretary, my father extolling grammar schools and Stevas's look of disdain and dislike which my father missed.

The last time I saw him was at an exhibition of drawings by Max Beerbohm in a private gallery in Mayfair in around 1986,“consule Planco”. 1986 then seemed disappointing modern and bloodless, as the present age always does to people who look backwards, but now it suddenly seems as far away, ancien regime and elegant as 1897. Where did 25 years go? 

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