February 4, 2011 10:02 pm

The Diary: Sarah Sands

Trying to make sense of events in Egypt, I have a strong urge to listen to a public figure who can communicate more than the standard diplomatic wish for an “orderly transition”. So when I see General James Mattis is about to give his first public lecture as head of United States Central Command – a job he inherited from General David Petraeus, after the reshuffle that followed General Stanley McChrystal’s candid interview with a Rolling Stone journalist – at the conservative think-tank Policy Exchange in London, I am hopeful that an American general will tell it like it really is.

After all, McChrystal’s example has set the bar high and Mattis himself has form for candour, having caused a bit of a splash when, speaking about Afghanistan to a sympathetic audience in 2005, he said, “Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight ... I’ll be upfront with you, I like brawling.” The audience at Policy Exchange is made up of muscular politicians, such as David Davis and the defence secretary Liam Fox, policy wonks, Blairites, including Jonathan Powell, and reporters hoping to catch a soldier unbound.

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The general’s lecture, though, is devoted to Winston Churchill and careful praise of British troops, presumably as part of the diplomatic healing of alliances his boss Hillary Clinton is leading in the wake of WikiLeaks. The question and answer session that follows is a little more promising, with Mattis using elaborate courtesy where he sensed trouble. Challenged about treating Pakistan as an ally, he observes that the country is a “tough neighbourhood”, and says, again quoting Churchill, that the contribution of the Pakistan army should not be dismissed: “There is at least one thing worse than fighting with allies – and that is to fight without them.”

An Associated Press reporter asks for the general’s political analysis of events in Egypt, to which Mattis replies dryly that he is relying on the stories filed by journalists “and a couple of other people who know what they are talking about”. In a faint echo of his earlier trouble-making remarks, he says it is the responsibility of those who have experienced the horror of war to prevent it happening again. Then the front rows of alert men with shiny shoes and jarhead crops rise and the general leaves the stage. Policy Exchange’s Dean Godson, the host of the event, nods at the audience and says, “You can leave.” No one has dared do so without orders.

. . .

The Chinese-American law professor Amy Chua has achieved some notoriety with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she advocates tough-love parenting to protect children from western decadence. Yet in that same memoir she reveals that, despite the kick-ass boast that in China they eat domestic animals, she has allowed a pet dog over the threshold. The dog is a Samoyed, an impractical show animal, whose purpose was once to herd reindeer; then she gets a second one. Perhaps, I find myself wondering, the tiger mother is soft.

I am a feeble mother by her standards but I have a sterner view of pets. My husband, being a vet’s son, won’t have them in the house. He is an interesting example of someone on whom animals are instinctively dependent, although he is flinty-hearted towards them. It is what tiger mother calls good parenting. I confess that before I had children I was a little soft on this issue, filling my first flat with kittens, and my second with a Great Dane. Then I came to my senses and, apart from the transient appearances of hamsters and rabbits, none of which enjoyed longevity, the house is pet-free.

So I am not sure how to relate to the deep emotions of pet owners. When my sister sent me a sombre message the other day about the passing of the family parrot, I did not know how to reply. Apart from the obvious difficulty that Monty Python made condolences about dead parrots impossible, I don’t know the correct anthropomorphic qualities to assign to a bird. As Chua might snap over human misfortunes: get over it.

. . .

At a supper party the other day, the teenagers of the house appeared at about 10pm, ready to hit the streets. The hostess mused that she was more fearful for the safety of her teenage son than her daughter. A fellow guest, with young daughters, was astonished. Surely girls are more vulnerable than boys? The hostess replied that, on the whole, girls were more sensible, boys more confident and careless. This chimes with another memoir I’m reading at the moment, Henry’s Demons, a moving story (to be published next week) by the journalist Patrick Cockburn and his son Henry about the boy’s cannabis-induced schizophrenia. Henry’s mental turmoil compelled him to run away, putting him in physical danger.

Younger teenage boys are statistically more likely than girls to get mugged in London. When they travel, it is with a boyish desperation for adventure. Last week I got a text from my gap-year son saying I shouldn’t worry but that he was wandering at night, possibly within an African game reserve, having been in a car crash. His guide and companion seemed to have passed out. I was ready to ring the Foreign Office but my elder son asked a few key questions and told his younger brother, rightly, to sit tight until morning.

. . .

When I once asked Louise Patten, boardroom queen and novelist, the secret of her work-life balance, she replied, “Proximity to the office.” It is commuting that is so tiring and wasteful. Since then, oh smug little me, I have moved to a house that is a 10-minute walk from the office. I never tire of telling friends, with some exaggeration, how I can be out of bed and at my desk within 15 minutes for a 7am start. But I am stumped if they assume I go home for lunch. Why would I do something so weird? Besides, it is so noisy in the house, with permanent building works in the street, that I don’t know how anyone can work from home. I am close to the office but the gap between home and work is a chasm.

. . .

Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet at the National Theatre has been praised by critics and audiences. What has particularly delighted them is textual clarity. Derek Jacobi has been astounding in a very text- based King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse; the RSC has been doing some knock-out productions at the Roundhouse. I saw Julius Caesar, directed by Lucy Bailey, and, once again, was struck by the ease of the actors with their lines. I envied the schoolchildren, who could not have had a better introduction to the play. When did we ever understand Shakespeare better?

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the Evening Standard

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