“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend,” wrote EM Forster, “I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”
The choice would be hard, and mercifully I’ve never had to face it. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never betrayed either my country or a friend, although I was once accused of treason by a KGB interrogator.
In a display of youthful polemical audacity I replied that I didn’t consider the Soviet Union my country, meaning I couldn’t betray it by definition. Then get the hell out, suggested Major Gazonov (I’ve changed the first letter of his surname, don’t know why). Thought you’d never ask, I said – and here I am, 47 years later.
My appetite for polemics, though no longer youthful, is still well-nigh insatiable. And four years ago it led me, well, not to betray a friend, but to upset one, and a really good man to boot. I did that in an article arguing in favour of what I thought was best for my country, Britain.
The issue was Brexit, and the friend in question was Brian, Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore. For many years he and his delightful wife Gillian used a flat next to ours as their London pied-à-terre. Their main residence was then in Belfast because Brian was the Law Lord of Northern Ireland.
Better neighbours one couldn’t wish for. We looked after the Kerrs’ flat when they were away, and they let us use it when we had an overflow of guests. From time to time we’d have a drink together, talking about nothing in particular, as friends do sometimes.
Whenever serious topics came up, we veered off by unspoken consent, sensing that our political views, specifically on the EU, were somewhat different. Actually, as I recall, Gillian’s were then closer to mine than to Brian’s, but that didn’t really matter. They both exuded goodness and kindness, and late in my life such qualities had moved closer to the top of my ratings than they were when I was overcome with hatred for everything Maj. Gazonov represented.
Then in 2009 the Kerrs moved out because that judicial abomination, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, was instituted, and Brian became one of its first Justices. We lost touch until a couple of years later, when we ran into the Kerrs by chance in a Westminster street. They invited us over for a drink in their new flat nearby, and we had another lovely evening in their company.
Brian suggested I visit him at the Court when it was in session, and I said I would, knowing I wouldn’t (my curiosity about the workings of that institution is rather understated). In any case, we lost touch again. You know, one of those things, you tell your wife why don’t we call so-and-so, she says definitely, but somehow you never do.
Then in 2016 Brian was one of the Supreme Court Justices who made a ruling that slowed Brexit down, and I wrote a piece about it. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but let’s just say that sometimes I neglect to pull punches in the heat of debate.
Frankly, had I thought Brian was likely to read my article, I wouldn’t have written it: our difference apart, I genuinely liked him. Then neither was I facing an EM Forster choice: had I shown kindness to that nice man, I don’t think my country would have felt betrayed – she probably doesn’t care about my scribbles one way or the other.
Alas, read the article Brian did, and he was sufficiently upset to ask someone on his staff to write to me and remonstrate. Under normal circumstances, my natural response to such missives consists of two words, of which the second is ‘off’. But on that occasion I offered profuse, and sincerely felt, apologies.
Brian was the last man I would have wanted to upset or, worse still, insult, and I felt rotten about having done so. I feel even worse about it today, having read his obituary in The Telegraph. For Brian died on 1 December.
We offer our condolences to Lady Kerr and her two sons, and hope these will be received in the spirit in which they are offered, that of sympathy and love. Mine are also tinged with regret and another, alas posthumous, apology.
Upping the stakes though, I’m not sure how I would handle EM Forster’s dilemma if I were confronted with it. Come to think of it, neither evidently was he.
Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore, RIP