This month our youngest child, John-Jo, begins his First Holy Communion course. It is a mini-milestone. His five older sisters have been there already. I wonder how mid-life would feel without these temporal punctuation marks. The life of a child provides the over-40s with a vicarious aide memoire, anchoring the passing years with landmarks. Theirs, not ours.
In years to come, looking back on 2017, what will come to mind? I can take my pick. Agnes, 14, had her waist-long hair chopped off for charity. Constance, 13, took possession of her first smartphone. Gwendolyn, 11, started at grammar school. Katharine, 9, won the junior cup at our local pony club summer camp. Most memorably, our eldest, Edith, left home for university, depriving her siblings of a reliable child-minder and her parents of a free(ish) taxi service.
I am left pondering on how childless friends curate the passage of time. Bookmarking the story of their lives with chapter headings provided by a promotion, a new cruise, a replacement pet, a bigger car. Some, tragically, will recall the year of an only child’s death or miscarriage. Maybe a final, failed-round of IVF. Perhaps even a bitter, irrevocable, conversation with a beloved partner about “having children”. So many shared interests; save the one that matters most.
At the risk of undermining my own argument, I could remember 2017 as the year that I clocked up 20 years working for Rupert Murdoch.
It might be interesting to compare a news bulletin broadcast when I began working at Sky TV 20 years ago, with one today. A striking change is the way in which surveys, polls and studies have become journalistic stocking fillers. This is a function of the way news is generated as much as how it is reported. And one of the biggest generators of these stories is the “think tank”: a not-for-profit body which commissions research, publishes reports and organises events. There are, according to Wikipedia, now almost 7,000 of them worldwide.
A friend of mine who works for a major London-based think tank told me recently why he believes there has been this explosion. It works like this. You want to donate money to a political party sympathetic to your worldview. You do not, however, want those donations to be a matter of public scrutiny under rules governing political funding. So you give your cash to a think tank which does the intellectual heavy-lifting for the party which, in spite of protestations to the contrary, it actually leans towards. You earn the satisfaction of knowing that your lolly is helping to formulate policy for a government or government-in-waiting, without the grief of overtly doing so.
My friend, the think tank sceptic, has not convinced me that think tanks are undeserving causes. I am a donor, if only of my time, to the Home Renaissance Foundation (HRF). It was set up a decade ago by the former BP boss Bryan Sanderson, the recently named chairman of the Low Pay Commission.
The HRF is partly sustained by Spanish-speaking Catholics living in Britain, some of whom find etiolated Anglo-Saxon attitudes to the home unfathomable. The think tank is searching for a metric, a way to work out what makes a home more or less successful. It’s hit upon the idea of a Good Home Index, which I’ve been invited to speak about at the Houses of Parliament. My co-host will be Britain’s best-known Spanish Catholic, Miriam González Durántez, the lawyer who came to public attention as the wife of Nick Clegg, an agnostic in matters of belief. That’s about all the biographical information I can share about Ms González Durántez, other than reports that she insisted that the three children she has with the former deputy PM should be raised as Catholics. This may be a clue about what she considers to be the secret of domestic harmony.
In my two decades at Sky good friends have come and gone. One of those it was a privilege to co-present the news with was Julie Etchingham, who left Sky for household name status at ITV. Julie is super-clever, as befits a Cambridge graduate, honourable in an industry not known for it, and possessed of a waspish sense of humour.
I thought of Julie recently and how we occasionally sought to give the news some religious heft (her aunt is a nun). I was interviewing the chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs about a campaign to stop all of us from needlessly taking antibiotics and, therefore, worsening the problems caused by drug-resistant bacteria.
“Isn’t the problem,” I asked, “that we all know we shouldn’t demand antibiotics, but that doesn’t stop us pestering our GP for them because we have a busy week ahead at work, or whatever?”
I could almost hear Julie’s purr of appreciation at my “supplementary”: “As St Augustine reminded us: ‘Lord, make me pure, but just not yet’.”