- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

Which kind of blogs do you like? Much as I enjoy visiting the big political players, I actually prefer those quieter, more thoughtful sites that do not necessarily attract huge audiences. I am quite content to while away cyber-minutes at the online home of Ms. Baroque, a Hackney author who is a self-styled “poet, critic, copywriter, editor, conversationalist, style consultant, personal shopper, siren, and housemaid to the gods” (the gods being her children, by the way). Writers who are not chained to the news cycle often see the world in more vivid colors.

Blogging in this country still lags behind the United States, mainly, I suspect because Britain has a more robust and opinionated national press. With so many papers chasing readers, it is harder for Internet outsiders to generate an audience. The last two weeks, however, have been very good times for the anti-establishment scribe who operates under the name of Guido Fawkes. Paul Staines, a libertarian who seems to regard politicians as the moral equivalent of sex offenders, found himself being hailed as one of the most influential voices in politics after he revealed that a senior prime ministerial aide, Damian McBride — long notorious as one of Labor’s hit men — had been involved in e-mail discussions about launching a Web site devoted to spreading unsubstantiated smears about Conservative politicians.

Not surprisingly, the word “Nixonian” has been bandied about a great deal in the last week. Once the e-mails landed in Guido’s lap, Gordon Brown’s attempt to relaunch his premiership was doomed to end in ridicule and scandal. Who knows, he may still be able to win the next election, but it is hard to find any Labor MPs who truly believe their party can hold on.

Guido has certainly been the main beneficiary of the latest scandal, but it remains to be seen whether we will end up with a cleaner form of politics as a result. Peter Oborne, author of an acclaimed study of the Westminster game titled “The Rise of the Political Class,” pointed out this week that, while the Tories have been able to portray themselves as paragons of virtue, they actually have a former editor of the Sunday tabloid the News of the World running their media operation. Andy Coulson was at the helm of the paper when its royal correspondent was found to have been hacking into the private conversations of members of the Royal Family. The reporter was duly sent to prison. A Press Complaints Commission subsequently cleared Mr. Coulson of any involvement in skulduggery. Nevertheless, he stepped down from his post. You cannot help wondering if the stables will ever be cleaned out when the people wielding the shovels are among those responsible for creating the mess in the first place.

•••


Driving into Westminster early this week, I discovered that Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge had been closed off by police. What was going on? Was it a bomb scare, or a naked celebrity launching a political cookbook? As I turned the corner, I found that the streets had been taken over by Tamil demonstrators protesting against the Sri Lankan government’s policy toward the so-called Tamil Tiger separatist movement. Some of the protesters were sitting in the road and refusing to move. Others kept up a desultory barrage of chants.

Nothing unusual about that, you might say. It was only later that I discovered the protest — mostly peaceful and good-natured — had been going on, with varying degrees of support, for the past two weeks, with minimal coverage from the media. The police had declared the protest to be illegal, but they were taking what is known here as a “softly softly” approach and avoiding any heavy-handed intervention. Given all the bad publicity that followed their response to the recent Group of 20 demonstrations in the capital, it is easy to see why officers were so laid-back. It was only later in the evening, as I chatted to some political journalists at the Spectator, that we fell to wondering whether a similar group would be allowed to take over the center of Washington for a similar amount of time. And if they were, would that be a good or bad thing?

•••


Novelists do not often announce their own retirement, but Dame Margaret Drabble, one of the country’s most distinguished authors, has called time on her own fiction career. Given that she is only 69, the decision seems premature. Ms. Drabble — the wife of the biographer Sir Michael Holroyd — explained: “What I don’t like is the idea that I’m repeating myself without knowing it, which is what old people do endlessly. The numbers of times I’ve heard people tell the same stories — the numbers of times I’ve told the same stories — and you don’t really want to start doing that in novels, when somebody can say hmm, you wrote that in 1972.”

During that decade, Ms. Drabble was the epitome of the Hampstead novelist. More recently, she has been eclipsed by the acclaim for her elder sister, A.S. Byatt. The two women have famously been involved in a feud for some years. We are not talking about Norman Mailer-style fisticuffs here, but rather a frostily polite and very British standoff . It is said that she and Ms. Byatt have studiously avoided reading each other’s work for some 40 years.

In her new memoir “The Pattern in the Carpet,” Ms. Drabble attributes the falling-out to Ms. Byatt’s irritation at finding that her sister had written about a family teaset which she herself had hoped to describe in one of her own books. Ms. Drabble adds: “She felt I had appropriated something which was not mine.” Yet Ms. Byatt, in the past, has hinted at other reasons for the sibling rivalry. Perhaps another novelist will have to uncover the truth, or something resembling it, in some book as yet unwritten.

Clive Davis writes for The London Times and Sunday Times, and blogs for The Spectator at www.spectator.co.uk/clivedavis/.