Steve, the Fire Training Officer, had tattooed arms, a sovereign ring and beautiful long eyelashes. My fellow trainee Fire Marshall whispered that she was jealous of the lashes. Looking closer, I could see what she meant; he had the eyes of Audrey Hepburn. In all other respects Steve was impeccably masculine: thickset and bullnecked with short cropped hair and a short cropped beard, and he spoke in short cropped sentences made of catchphrases. Alarm goes off. You wake up. Wipe the sleepy dust from your eyes. Engage brain. What’s next? He reminded me of a school rugby coach. Fire marshalls, you’re not fire fighters. Remember. Leave that to the boys and girls in the shiny red trucks. Got that? Beautiful. Steve explained the fire triangle and showed us videos of people behaving stupidly when faced with a fire and more videos demonstrating how quickly your home can turn into a raging hell that kills you and everyone you love. Beautiful. Unlike in previous fire courses there was no opportunity to let off some extinguishers, which was the bit I’d been looking forward to. Afterwards my colleague and I got into my Focus and pulled out of the carpark then immediately stopped as a police car went past followed by a limousine containing Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II wearing an orange hat. We waved. On the way home I stopped at Homebase and bought another smoke alarm and a fire blanket for the kitchen.
The Queen was in Bristol on Thursday to run various errands including visiting a caravan manufacturer and opening the Royal Box at the refurbished Old Vic theatre. I believe Thursday was the fourth occasion on which I’ve been in the presence of Elizabeth R and each time she’s been in a vehicle: thrice in cars and once in a horse-drawn carriage at Ascot racecourse. Four times now I’ve waved and tried to catch her eye, and do you know, she’s never once looked back at me. I shall mention this to her when I receive my knighthood for services to talking rubbish on the internet.
Speaking of which, prolific opinion-tweeter Owen Jones claims in the Independent that we are living through something called ‘The Great Reverse’, a theory he has tried out, so his opening lines attest, on his natural constituency of sixth form college students. Jones’s article contains a falsehood: “In Britain – as across Europe – the [economic] crisis has been used to slash taxes on the wealthy while hiking them on everyone else”. Not true. In 2012/13 the top 10% of earners will contribute around 55.3% of all income tax revenues – and their contribution has been going steadily upwards since 1999, when the figure was 50.3%. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% of earners will contribute only 10.8% of income tax receipts, continuing a downward trend (in 1999 they paid 11.6%). There is no factual basis for a claim that politicians have used the economic crisis as an excuse for ‘slashing taxes on the wealthy’. They did use it to increase income tax on the wealthy with Gordon Brown’s booby trap temporary 50% rate.
I share some of Owen Jones’s general complaints. Gross inequality is unhealthy. The free market has created harm in some instances. But the left’s new obsession with something called ‘tax justice’ just looks like class hatred to me, and most of their claims are based on ignorance of tax law. Lists of statistics are admittedly less sexy than retro slogans. The top 1% of earners in the UK earn 10.8% of the total income but pay out 24.2% of the tax. The truth therefore is that the wealthiest pay a hugely disproportionate amount to subsidise the rest of us – we have also borrowed recklessly against the hope that the rich will continue to live here – and we have made ourselves utterly, and utterly ungratefully, dependent upon them. Pointing this out never fails to go down like a lead balloon, I find.
A crowd of children cheered the Queen as she entered the Bristol Old Vic theatre. None will forget the day. Meanwhile, further down the cobbled King Street half a dozen earnest republicans staged a raggedy little protest against the monarchy.
King Street in Bristol is home to no less than four of the UK’s finest and most characterful pubs (The King Williams Arms, The Famous Royal Naval Volunteer, The Llandoger Trow and The Old Duke) as well as Renato’s pizza bar, which back in my student days was one of the few non-nightclub venues where you could get a drink after 11pm.
As far as I recall, some licensing law quirk enabled the bar to keep serving so long as you bought hot food (there was another place on Gloucester Road where you bought a nominal slice of garlic bread with your round of six pints.) Smashing place, Renato’s, the walls plastered in theatre posters and signed photos of now-famous Old Vic alumni like Patrick Stewart and Jeremy Irons looking gleefully youthful and actorish. I had some great nights there – the pizzas were cooked in a special oven and served up through a hatch, to be immediately demolished by tables of drinkers. They put tons of salt in the bases, I can still taste the Fiorentina now, a taste of carefree days when nobody had a mobile phone or had heard of Osama bin Laden or Twitter and you could still be a republican and people would take it seriously.
Back then it seemed obvious that the Royal Family would soon disappear in the inevitable march of Progress. I would not have been able to conceive that by 2012 it would be republicanism itself that was the quaint anachronism.
Owen Jones, the King Street republicans and other blabbermouths yet to acquire a sense of history or place should take themselves to the National Portrait Gallery and work their way down the centuries from the Tudor room, as I did on Friday afternoon, for a dose of humility. That said, radicals and liberals and other noble pests are of course all important players in the grand sweep of Britain’s story. I was most struck on this visit by Guthrie’s Statesmen of World War I. Balfour, Kitchener, Lloyd George and others sit in conflab, but bathed prophetically in a Rembrandt-esque light beam and looking directly at the viewer is a young and oddly gentle-looking Winston Churchill, his eyes as sad and beautiful as those of a Fire Training Officer.
The 16:30 train was full and just seconds from leaving Paddington. I was in the Quiet Carriage. Standing in the aisle and looking across me in some agitation was a young lad with a horrid Movember moustache. As the train pulled away he emitted a whimper of anguish and made theatrical pleading gestures, for there, outside the window, was his father, puffing forlornly alongside and brandishing a jacket. ‘That’s my dad’ said the lad, as we made Oh Dear noises. ‘He left his jacket in the pub and went back to get it.’ He sat down, sighed, and phoned his mother – verboten in this carriage but forgiveable in the circumstances. “I’ve lost Dad,” he said. “I’ve got all his stuff , and his wallet, and his phone is out of battery.” After he hung up he sat for a while, and then his whole body began to convulse with noiseless laughter. I chuckled in sympathy, but silently also – it was the Quiet Carriage, after all.