Tuesday 18 May 2021

'I was so thrilled I attempted to mount my television'

 'I was so thrilled I attempted to mount my television.' 
Who said that? The answer, surprisingly, is the Conservative politician Norman St John-Stevas, or rather Baron St John of Fawsley, who was born on this day in 1929. (I cannot find any context for this quotation – had he just seen himself on television? – but it appears to be his best-remembered utterance.)
Lord St John is perhaps passing from public memory now, but in his day he was one of the most colourful ornaments of the political, social and cultural scene. Though much about him was quite conventional – brilliant legal brain, president of both the Cambridge and the Oxford Union, journalist and academic, editor of Bagehot, government minister under Margaret Thatcher, chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, Master of Emmanuel – much was decidedly, er, different. He even constructed his own origin myth, claiming that his father was an engineer and company director called Stephen Stevas, whereas in fact he was a hotel owner of Greek origin called Spyro. Norman was of course gay – no one could ever have mistaken him for a red-blooded heterosexual – and he was as camp as a row of tents; indeed, during his tenure at Emmanuel, the college was referred to disparagingly as 'Mein Camp'. The dandified Stevas wore purple (a colour he sometimes referred to as 'crushed cardinal') at every opportunity, wrote all his personal letters in purple ink (on House of Lords notepaper after his elevation), proffered his hand in papal fashion, and affected to lapse into Latin and to be unable to pronounce modern words. He worshipped the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Pius IX, sometimes wearing a cassock that had supposedly belonged to that ultraconservative Pope. That a figure who might have stepped out of a Ronald Firbank novel could rise so high in politics seems hard to believe now – he was blithely indiscreet, and the potential for scandal must have been vast – but as everyone says, lamenting the dulness of today's politicians, there used to be 'characters' in those days. Compared to today's public sphere, terrorised by social media and subject to 24-hour journalistic scrutiny, it was a safe world, where people could get away with things that now would bring their careers crashing to the ground.  They don't make them like Norman St John-Stevas any more – or rather they probably do, but they steer clear of the world of politics.
I saw him once in his later years, swanning along outside the National Gallery. His ripe claret complexion was something to behold – he looked as if he might burst at any moment.

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