PAUL CALLAN AT LARGE

      The General Election grinds on and on. And with it the usual Niagara of promises from each of the competing parties which, should you be daft enough to believe the rhetoric, will transform Britain into a golden New Jerusalem, glowing with opportunities for all.

      Our Green and Pleasant post Brexit Land will thrive as never before. There will be permanent smiles of joy on our faces, children will glow and there will a new sense of confidence.  Sound familiar?

      Yes — we’ve heard it all before and all delivered with those ringing Messianic tones. The trouble is that the politicians delivering this hard sell actually believe  these promises. Well, some of them do.  All you have to do is to vote for them on June 8 and, hey presto, our land will start overflowing with milk and honey. Oh joy!

        As a journalist of many years, I have been involved in the coverage of countless General Elections, starting when Harold Macmillan — he who told us that “we never had it so good” — sought the highest office in the land.

         Macmillan, whose patrician manner belied a sharp intellect, had a certain grandeur about him. He possessed an aristocratic drawl, despite his claims that he was descended from humble Scottish crofter stock. And he displayed what the press described, in somewhat unflattering terms, his “grouse moor image.”

          Watching him tour the country he could easily have been a Victorian actor-manager, a fact borne out his grand performances as a speaker. He was unfailingly polite and greatly enjoyed playing tricks on (then) young reporters like me.

              I once asked him what he thought of a new book by Harold Wilson, who would himself one day be Prime Minister.  “Political banality,” he said loftily. “Could easily be the scribblings of a easily led undergraduate.”

            Was I on the threshold of a magnificent scoop? Sadly no, for (with a cheeky twinkle in his eyes), Macmillan added: “If you quote me on that, I shall deny it.  It was all off the record.” And he walked off chuckling to himself. In those days we respected such “off the record” censures. These days, we would go ahead and print it!

          Then there was Wilson — a brilliant mind but as cunning as a snake.He would puff on a pipe, the very picture of trust. But the moment the cameras were off him, he lit up a huge cigar and took refuge in one of the finer cognacs.

        There was Edward Heath, whom I grew to like despite his strange, tortured manner. But he could be quite insulting, even to his own constituents. Once, as he engaged the public in the streets, a shabby-looking man came over and complained that he could not find any work.

         “Oh dear,”said Heath, “well, I’m alright. I’ve got a job.” And he walked off, leaving the poor man with his mouth open in astonishment.

          Margaret Thatcher was fierce when  it came to electioneering. If anyone dared question her, she would turn her blue eyes on them like lasers.  She was the re-incarnation of the Medusa — particularly to other women.  With men, however, she never hesitated to use her considerable sex appeal. The late French President, Francois Mitterand, summed her up perfectly when he said she had “the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula.”

        On the electioneering road, James Callaghan lived up to his “Sunny Jim” reputation — all smiles and bonhomie. But he was often bad tempered if matters didn’t going his way.

           In more recent years, Tony Blair also smiled a lot as he preached his doctrine of New Labour. He,too,was all boyish charm as he misled the nation. His nickname of “Bambi” was well-deserved and one could not help being instantly suspicious of a man who was so synthetic.

         Ed Milliband was, quite frankly, hopeless.  He had the on-road manner of a student activist. And, as for Gordon Brown, well, he just could not connect with ordinary people. He was perpetually grumpy, touchy if asked leading questions, and would descend into political gibberish on many an occasion.

         David Cameron, when faced with the public, was cheeriness personified and sprayed the public with a certain Etonian charm. But he could be testy on occasion.

         And what of St Theresa?  From what I’ve seen, she does deserve to be likened to a grammar school headmistress.  There is a certain firmness of manner and one can easily imagine her calling out “walk don’t run, Clarissa” at some erring pupil.

         Will she win? You can’t be too precise about the British voting public. Stranger results have emerged — who, for instance, would have predicted that the nation voted to leave the EU?

           And what of Jeremy Corbyn, should he win? It could happen. Just think of it — A Marxist in No 10. And a State Visit by that fat chap who runs North Korea to follow.

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       So, as if we didn’t know, Pippa Middleton has married a nice-looking chap called James Matthews. Golly gosh. Well done,Pips.

       It all seemed a pretty lavish affair, good nosh and lots to drink. The Daily Mail, as usual, went completely over the top with its coverage — particularly about how cute (ugh! What a horrid word) Prince George and Princess Charlotte, Pippa’s nephew and niece, looked on the big day.  All together now…..AAAAAHHHH!

         But I couldn’t help thinking that the entire event was just a bit, how shall I put it, well, er,….COMMON. Just too OTT.  More Essex girl than a sister of a future Queen.

         My own Chelsea Register Office wedding — 44 years ago, yes, that long — to my lovely American was sweetly modest by comparison. But two memories stood out. The first came when the lady registrar performing the ceremony came to that part which asked for anyone who had “just cause” why we should not be spliced to stand or “forever hold his peace.”

        At that exact moment the door opened and in swept one of my future wife’s former flat mates — who was eight months pregnant. Signal roars of laughing from my many Fleet Street chums there present — and a glare from the registrar!  “Not mine” I mouthed to the folk sitting behind me. Talk about timing.

      The other memory concerned a wedding present from Mrs Portsmouth,a mature lady who had been my secretary at the Daily Mail. She was a  shorthand typist in the Intelligence Corps at the end of the war.

           Finding herself in Berlin, she had a tour of Hitler’s old Chancellery and even managed to rifle his huge, marble desk. I’m glad she did, for she found something that proved a perfect wedding present for yours truly.

             And that is how I came own a sheet of Adolf’s personal writing paper.  Better than a toaster.

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        JOYOUS PERSONAL NOTE:  Come early November, I shall be a grand dad for the second time. My lovely daughter Jessica is due to give birth to baby number two. He/she will be a companion for elder sister Scarlett.  A wonderful new life. And the happiest of grand parents!

PAUL CALLAN AT LARGE

     It is fifteen years since that chilly March afternoon when the 101 year old Queen Mother slipped away in her sleep. She had been unwell for a month, but her frailty proved too much. The Queen, her much-loved daughter, was at her bedside and held her hand until those last moments.

    To the British people, even the most hard-hearted of Republicans, had felt a certain affection for this sweet-faced old lady, known for her large feather-adorned hats and warm smile.  Many regarded her as “the nation’s granny” and her passing also marked the end of one of the few remaining links with the Edwardian era.

     She is back in the news with the publication of a new book, Behind Palace Doors, by Major Colin Burgess the Queen Mother’s former equerry.  Parts of this intriguing memoir has been serialised in the Daily Mail and, true to its title, provides some glimpses of life in the Queen Mother’s service.

    Her public perception was one of warmth and considerable affection. But there was far more to it than that captivating smile, gentle wave and air of kindliness. The truth is that she was an astonishing spendthrift who expected — and demanded — her lifestyle to be expensive and extravagant.

     It is astonishing that, despite pleas from the Queen and her bankers Coutts, she ran up an overdraft of — wait for it — of £7 million. Yes — £7 million. Nor did she ever show any intention of cutting back on her expenses.

    The Queen shelled out £2 million a year to keep her in the style and manner to which she had become accustomed and Prince Charles helped out from his own pocket. (It was as well he was her favourite grand child).

    She had five homes, most of which were fully staffed as well as up to 60 full time servants who catered for her every demand. These ranged from housekeepers and chefs, ladies in waiting and chauffeurs, gardeners and footmen.  There was even an elderly night watchman with lamp who sat outside her bedroom at night.

     Every “need” was catered for. For instance, at her lodge on the Balmoral estate, flowers were planted to bloom to co-inside with her arrival in August and a log fire burned in every room —  summertime, too.

     Nothing was forgotten. In her bedroom at Clarence House, her London home, even the clothing of the two cherubs on her four-poster bed had their angel’s clobber washed and starched regularly.

    She loved food and drink — particularly drink. No day would pass without considerable amounts of gin and Dubonnet, wine and “snifters”.  She also greatly enjoyed entertaining and the cost was an irrelevance. It was considered vulgar to raise such a matter — particularly when someone else was paying.

     Sunday lunch was always a grand affair and she felt hard done by if she was ever told her menu was too expensive. Not that anyone, even the Queen, ever said so. A typical Sunday lunch would comprise soufflé, lobster croquettes, rare lamb, new potatoes and peas from Windsor with sugar sprinkled on top, followed by raspberries with Jersey cream or meringue with black cherries in liqueur.  Just a snack, really.

      How can any of this be justified? The reality was that the Queen Mother came from a different age, the Edwardian period, when it would be unthinkable for a member of the Royal Family to live any other way. And many, of her generation, think she was entitled to such a lifestyle as a fitting reward for her morale-boosting presence during World War Two.

      It will be interesting to see whether any of this extravagance is commented on in Major Burgess’s book. Her cost to the finances of the Royal Family (let’s face it, they’re not exactly on the poverty line) would have amounted to many millions by the time of her death. And that’s before you count in the cost of her race horses and her personal betting.

      One of her regular guests put it neatly: “When you were with the Queen Mother, enjoying her company and hospitality,it was like going back in time to a world that vanished with her passing.”

       But nice work if you can get it.

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     In hospital, it is usually in the cold dark of the early hours that death makes a call. I have just spent two nights in a small ward of an London hospital where I witnessed such a grim visit.

    There were six of us, all elderly men, in this corner of the NHS. A couple had suffered strokes, another clearly had dementia and would call out at night “Where Am I? Where is Rita?” (Rita turned out to be his late wife — so his cry was very sad.)

    Others were recovering from various serious illnesses and there was me with a hip problem. But the moment of truth — that death is really never far away — came in the early hours of my second day.

    I was awoken by the sound of scampering feet, of that rattle made when when the curtains around a hospital bed are pulled and of a whispered conversation. Nurses and a night duty doctor were grouped around one of the beds. Even in the darkness there was an atmosphere of foreboding.

    Two of the nurses left, one to return with a porter and a trolley. There was the sound of someone being lifted and through the half gloom I saw a blanket-covered form wheeled past. I later learned that the poor, demented man crying out for the late wife in those cold hours had himself died.

    And I shall never forget the terrible sadness in those cries.

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PAUL CALLAN AT LARGE

            When it comes to real life soap operas, there is nothing to beat The Royal Family. The ee-bah-gummery of Coronation Street, or the gor blimey antics of Eastenders, even the sex ‘n’ scalpel passions of Holby City — well, none can compete with the lives of Those Who Would Wear the Crown.

         I say “lives” because this week morbid details have emerged of what will happen when the Queen takes residence in that Great Palace In The Sky.  Although she as a reputation for being a practical person, it must be depressing for HM to peruse the details of what is planned for her mortal remains when the dreaded moment comes.

        It cannot make pleasant reading — particularly the four word code that has been chosen to inform of her passing. It is “London Bridge Is Down”.  Hardly gentle or poetic, is it?  Calling the much-loved monarch “London Bridge”, an unattractive fixture spanning the Thames, is insensitive, even cruel.

       There will be nine days of mourning and details have been worked out so precisely that it is known it will take exactly 28 minus to slow march the coffin from St James’s to Westminster Hall for the lying-in-state. Oh — and there will be a special three inch high rim built onto the coffin’s false lid to accommodate the Crown Jewels.  All rather depressing reading for a 90-year-old lady who is not, like the rest of us, looking forward to her date with the Grim Reaper.

       Her death means that Prince Charles will become King. But King Who?  We have not been told what name has been chosen — he could be “King George VII” or even “King Charles III” (my money’s on this). But there are rumbles in the court about what his wife, presently known as the Duchess of Cornwall, will be called.

        Word has it that Princes Charles is determined she will be called “Queen Camilla”. He wants her to get what he considers to have ultimate recognition, complete with 15 gun salute that goes with the title as well as the right to wear her very own crown.

        But there is a strong force of opinion against this. It is twenty years ago since Princess Diana was killed in Paris — haven’t those years flown by? — and the turmoil caused by Prince Charles’s affair with the then Camilla Parker Bowles is still a sensitive issue in certain influential royal circles.

        Some courtiers are determined that Camilla will never acquire the title of “Queen” because to do so would suggest that adultery doesn’t matter in the long run. They consider that she should be called “The Princess Consort”, less grand, perhaps, for royal enough.

       She has come a long way and faced a difficult journey to gain public approval. She is more popular now and long gone are the times when she was pelted with bread rolls, by furious Diana-adoring middle class women, in a Cirencester super market.

      In person, I have found her to be a very pleasant woman, with a fine sense of humour and a certain warmth. She likes a drink or two and, when photographers are not around, she will light a Benson and Hedges with a certain relish.

     Personally, I do not consider whether or not she should be called “Queen Camilla” as one of the major issues facing the country. There are greater challenges to cope with — handling the fallout from our stupid decision to leave the EU being one of them.

     So if we must continue to have a monarchy — and the majority of the British people seem to want that — let’s not only have a King when the times comes, but let him have his Queen as well.

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           I learn, with great sadness, the death at 88 of one of my great heroes — Jimmy Breslin, the New York columnist, writer, great character, whose journalistic style — much copied and always envied — brought that teeming city so alive that his words leapt from the page.

         He was a great bear of a man, with masses of dark, uncontrollable hair, with a voice and accent so loud that he could have been born intact to patrol the street with a notebook and pen.

        I met him many times, and in various bars (although he had given up booze) around New York in the years I worked there. Sometimes he was funny, even displaying a hint of charm, but others less so. He would growl, tell you that English journalists were empty-minded mother-fuckers who couldn’t write a sentence without — as he once tenderly pointed out to me — it sounding as if I “had two pokers stuck up my ass”.

       He wrote about the streets, the ordinary Joe, the blue collar guys and they loved him for it. He had no time for the button-down Ivy Leaguers, the smooth liberals of Park Avenue.  Breslin came from the hard streets and wrote about them.

       His journalism shone with originality. Such as the time he was sent to Washington to cover the funeral ofPresident Kennedy. “When I arrived,” he said, “the city was filled with journalists all interviewing each other.”

      So, being Breslin, he took off to Arlington National Cemetery, where America lays down its heroes, and interviewed Clifton Pollard, a 42 year old World War Two veteran.  He was an “equipment operator” at the cemetery and was grade ten — which meant he was paid @3.01 an hour for digging the graves.

      “Polly”, as his fellow diggers called, was an ordinary guy until that day. He entered American Presidential history because he dug the grave where JFK would rest for eternity.

       And it was Jimmy Breslin who found him that cold November morning in 1963 and immortalised a working stiff with words of solemn beauty.

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