As this edition appears I will be back in Edinburgh for my latest bout of electioneering. The last time I appeared there was a massive crowd of students boiling away in a bar, and an alarming group at the back waving banners saying things like ‘Bog off, Boris’ and ‘No to top-up fees’. I scrambled on to a stool and tried to make a speech, but the din of the two opposing factions was so huge that I couldn’t hear myself speak. After a while I gave up and said (I think), ‘And now I am going to have a beer!’ As I stepped down, some swine snuck up behind me and poured a big cold pint of bitter on my head. I was dimly aware of the culprit vanishing into the crowd in a black T-shirt and with a blond pigtail. People afterwards said that if it had been them, they would have punched his lights out, and so on; but I must admit that wasn’t my instinct. In my heart I must have secretly sympathised with his position: some Tory MP turning up and trying to be Lord Rector of the University. A pint of bitter was the least I deserved.
My morale was restored during a long stint of canvassing in the bars and nightclubs of Edinburgh, in which I was asked to sign the chests of girls with a magic marker. The high point was when a blonde called Jo put her face close to mine and said, ‘Everyone says you are a legend, but I haven’t got a clue who you are. Who are you?’ I am a novelist, I said, feeling pretty exalted after a gin and tonic, two pints of bitter, two tequila slammers or sunrises, a whisky and something called an ‘aftershock’.
I’ll tell you why this magazine didn’t run those Danish cartoons when they first appeared last year. It was partly a technical problem, in that we couldn’t find the wretched things on the web, and Jyllands-Posten was for some reason reluctant to ping them across. But the real reason, gentle readers, was nothing to do with taste. We weren’t being responsible. We weren’t respectful. At least I wasn’t. The truth is we were just a little bit frightened — and so is everyone else now, including Jack Straw — and that is the truly awful thing. Mind you, judging by some of the Christian responses to the controversy, there is a certain discreet nostalgia, a certain envy, for the holy dread that surrounds the Islamic wacko. [But see today’s leading article — acting ed.]
I am very pleased and honoured to be included in the Bumper Book of British Wit, along with Winston Churchill, P.G. Wodehouse, Sir Clement Freud, Michael Howard and other leading UK funsters. In fact I have about eight entries and to my eye they are all, of course, spectacularly unfunny. One of them reads ‘Henley is the Venice of the South.’ Why the hell is that supposed to be amusing? I wondered gloomily. When did I say it? Then I decided that it must have come from a column about Italy, in which I had in fact written, ‘Venice is the Henley of the South.’ Perhaps the subs changed it. Oh well. I can’t work out which version is feebler.
Not so long ago I stood waiting in a crowd of parents for 90 very small children to come out of a five-hour exam, in which their intellectual faculties were assessed by every means short of an electroencephalogram. There were only 20 places available, and it was hard to think of a more ruthless method of selection. Why is it OK for fee-paying schools to improve themselves in this way — and widen the ever-growing performance gap between themselves and the maintained sector — when any such selection is banned from state schools on the grounds that it is cruel and divisive? I only ask.
The other night a woman overtook me on her bike on the climb up to Islington. Nothing unusual about that, except that her wheels were only the size of soup plates. How was it possible that the revolutions of her tiny wheels could cover the ground more quickly than my huge wheels, when as far as I could see our feet were pumping up and down at the same sort of rate. I gazed at her retreating form with the baffled awe of a tribesman seeing his first aeroplane. Was it an optical illusion? Was it the gears? Not for the first time, I wished I understood physics properly. Is it true that a clock loses weight as the spring unwinds? Does a boat really go more quickly through cold water than hot water? The worrying thing is that the nation of Newton and Faraday is becoming almost as ignorant as me. Over the past ten years the number of students taking A-level physics has fallen from 45,000 to 30,000, and the number of university physics departments has fallen by a third. It is madness, not least since physics graduates are the best paid of all.
There is only one big fact that matters at the moment in British politics, namely that more and more members of the ruling liberal elite want David Cameron to be prime minister, and fewer and fewer want Gordon Brown to be prime minister.
Scotland is now among the most politically correct places in the universe, but I was still amazed at the haul of supposedly lethal instruments that the Edinburgh airport authorities had confiscated from people about to board an aircraft. They were all in a Perspex cube at the gate: not just penknives and scissors, but corkscrews and, get this, a silver plastic Roman child’s gladius complete with bronze plastic scabbard, as used in dressing up.
Which brings me conveniently to the moment we have all been dreading. When I was editor, I banned book plugs from diaries, and yet here it is, a plug as blatant and conspicuous as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. If you want to understand the continuing awe in which we hold the gladius — and other aspects of Roman civilisation — then I have some advice. HarperCollins. Dream of Rome. Plenty of change from £20. You know it makes sense.