The Telegraph Group, for which I work, happens to use the same taxi firm as the BBC, and in the days when I was lucky enough to be driven to my office at Canary Wharf, I made friends with several of the firm’s regular drivers. In the course of our chats I couldn’t help learning something about the habits of some BBC executives — though these discreet drivers never, unfortunately, named names. Shopping trips, taking children to school, theatre outings and drives to the country were among the services provided. The drivers also spent many hours waiting for their passengers. So I wasn’t all that surprised by the recent revelations of hair-raising sums — £33,000 a day, £12 million a year — spent by the BBC on taxis at taxpayers’ or, in this case, taxi-payers’ expense.
I often get letters from readers of the Sunday Telegraph literary pages complaining about misleading book reviews. Usually they say that a book they’ve bought on the strength of a favourable review was nothing like as good as our critic had made out. I have some sympathy for this, as reviewers on the whole want to be loved, like everyone else, and are rarely as harsh in print as they could be. A few days ago I received such a letter, all the way from Austria, from a man who had bought Patricia Cornwell’s thriller Blow Fly because, he explained, he had trusted the words printed on the book’s cover, ‘A TREMENDOUS READ, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH.’ Having read a few pages, however, he threw the book away: ‘How can you recommend such a disgusting book? Reading it is tantamount to licking a festering sore.’ Oh dear. Who had reviewed the book for us? I couldn’t remember, so I looked it up. Ah yes, Antonia Fraser. She had written, ‘While not for the squeamish, it is a tremendous read.’
Last week Channel 4 News included a long, specially commissioned film about the devastation caused to Iraqis by the American bombing in Fallujah. We were shown grieving mothers, homeless children, angry, impoverished men, and buildings reduced to rubble. It was very affecting. But it also made me realise that I had never, on any channel, seen a comparable film about the sufferings of the families of the many Iraqis — policemen and civilians — whose lives have been ruined by the bombings carried out by terrorists, the bombings which led directly to the attack on Fallujah in the first place.
Chris Woodhead, the combative former chief inspector of schools, who probably did more than any other person to challenge the under-achieving, anti-knowledge, child-centred teaching methods practised in most of our state schools, got no kind of honour from the Labour government when he left the job. Meanwhile his successor, Mike Tomlinson, who thought school inspections ought to happen ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ schools, and whose proposals for a diploma to replace A-levels and GCSEs are written in vacuous, aspirational, Blairite waffle, has just received a knighthood.
While on a week’s holiday in Mexico recently, we were presented every morning with a free copy of the Miami Herald, Cancun edition. To my surprise — I had often heard that all but a handful of American papers were hopelessly parochial — it was a pleasure to read. It covered a wide range of news both foreign and domestic, it was well-researched, lucidly written, serious but not stodgy. Celebrities were relegated to a column near the back. Above all, it was free from all the headline-grabbing sensationalism, the distortions and the cruelty which characterise so much of our press, both tabloid and broadsheet. I hope Stephen Glover will use it as a model for his projected new paper.
One of the victims of the tsunami disaster about whom very little has been reported in the papers was Julian Ayer, a most charming, debonair and good-humoured man who was a friend of mine when we were young. When I read that he had helped his wife, the former parliamentary candidate Harriet Crawley, escape from a bus in Sri Lanka before himself losing his life, I was reminded that one of his characteristics had always been courage. Not just physical courage, but moral courage as well — most strikingly shown when he broke away from the very strong political influences with which he had been surrounded throughout his childhood. His family and their friends were notable bien-pensant socialists, men and women of the Thirties who regarded anything right-wing with disdain; but he himself became an unapologetic and active Conservative. When I knew him, everyone assumed that he was the natural son of the philosopher A.J. Ayer; it is certainly what he was brought up to believe. It was only in his twenties that he learnt, to his consternation, that his father was in fact Ayer’s great friend and fellow philosopher Stuart Hampshire. All the references to Julian’s death which I have read in the press contain two mistakes: he was not 41, he was 65. And he was not ‘adopted’ by A.J. Ayer.
On my last visit to the dentist, I decided that it was worth paying the congestion charge and taking my car into central London — there are always plenty of parking places near his practice. I duly found a bay and put £8 into the pay-and-display machine — two hours’ worth; I wanted to make quite sure that I didn’t get a penalty from horrible Westminster council. When I emerged, I had over an hour in hand to do some shopping — or so I thought. I glanced at my car as I walked by and — could this be true? — a familiar pale blue package was tucked snugly under the windscreen-wiper. My ticket, the notice said, was not valid. Beside myself with outrage, I drove straight home and wrote to Parktel explaining that a mistake had most definitely been made. An open-and-shut case, surely. Many weeks passed before they answered. No, they said, they couldn’t let me off because I had put my money into a machine which did not apply to the bay in which I was parked. What? This was a new one on me. I had simply put my money into a pay-and-display machine very near my car. If there was a nearer one, I didn’t see it. Should I make a ‘formal representation’ to the council? Of course not. It would be utterly futile. So I paid the £50. To sum up, my dental visit has earned the anti-car totalitarians £63.
Since I last wrote about chewing gum on this page a couple of years ago, the price of a packet of Wrigleys Orbit sugarless gum has almost doubled (Tesco now offer the best deal at 33p, while at many newsagents it costs 45p). I mention this not to draw attention to a staggering price increase but because it is now the dieting time of year, and I’d like to remind people of my simple, foolproof and still amazingly cheap method of losing weight: when hungry, don’t eat, just chew lots of your favourite sugarless gum, renewing it as soon as it loses its flavour.
Miriam Gross is literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph.