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Farewell, Speccie

After 23 years, The Spectator’s brilliant and much-loved arts editor is leaving

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

So we are all going to have to pay for fatties to have stomach bands and bypasses, are we? It may be ‘cost-effective’ to treat the obese before they go on to develop diabetes and other medical problems, but I’m not sure how much sympathy they will get when we already hear about cancer patients having operations delayed and drugs withheld because of stretched NHS budgets. According to the OECD, Hungarians are the most obese people in the EU, followed by Brits. Rather surprisingly, Romanians are the least fat. Surprising, because on a recent holiday to the island of Lefkada, there were a huge number of Bulgarians, Serbs and Romanians. And, yes, most of them were huge. I am not particularly fattist, but there is something rather off-putting about large, wobbly men and women (in bikinis, for heaven’s sake) plonking themselves on the beach between oneself and the sea when there are long stretches of empty sand. Are they completely unaware of ‘personal space’? All those skinny Romanians needn’t be too smug, however: they top the charts of alcohol consumption among adults.

What to read on holiday? Some people go for the blockbuster, but I like to mix it: reading both classics and modern novels, on my Kindle and in the flesh, so to speak. It’s about the only time when one has the chance to read for two to three hours at a go, without being distracted by telephone calls and the like. I am ashamed to say I had never read any Elizabeth Gaskell before, having been rather put off by the television series of Cranford. This time in Greece I read Mary Barton, and thoroughly recommend. The friend who lent it to me reckoned the novel should be made compulsory reading for teenagers so that they could learn about everyday hardship in Victorian northern England and realise how lucky they — we — are nowadays in comparison. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have blamed Michael Gove for removing Of Mice and Men (another of my first-time reads) from the GCSE syllabus: I confess I didn’t care what happened to Lennie, but I minded a lot about the Bartons.


British scientists have identified a set of proteins in the blood which can predict, with 87 per cent accuracy, the start of dementia. Symptoms, apparently, take about ten years to appear after the actual start of Alzheimer’s. Having lived with someone with this horrendous condition, I am certain that I wouldn’t want to take a blood test that would show that in a decade I would develop dementia unless, obviously, I could have it reversed. Ignorance is bliss… But research can’t move forward without volunteers. Between 2002 and 2012, 99.6 per cent of trials aimed at preventing or reversing the disease flopped because, doctors believe, patients were treated too late, when the disease was well under way. So perhaps we should all volunteer if we want to beat Alzheimer’s: 44 million people around the world have dementia today and it is set to soar to 76 million by 2030. Oh dear, I wish I wasn’t such a coward.

I sympathise with the Frenchman on a rickshaw who took a wrong turn and found himself on a busy dual carriageway near Lewes. He was trying to ride home to Paris via Newhaven but in the heavy rain had missed the cycle path. I, too, have no sense of direction, and if I go for a walk in the country by myself I leave signs, such as an arrow made from twigs, at path intersections so I can retrace my steps. Sat navs are a help when driving, but too often ‘waiting for a valid GPS signal’ comes up — almost as annoying as the supermarket’s ‘unexpected item in bagging area’.

I am leaving The Spectator, where I have worked for 23 years, and last week they gave me a terrific farewell party, for which huge thanks to all. Over the decades, there have been a few (near) disasters. One example: I spilt bright orange tomato soup on one of Nicholas Garland’s cover pictures before it had gone to the printers. I thought about resigning but he was completely brilliant, despite having to redraw the picture; he even sent me a cartoon depicting the drama, with the Telegraph’s cartoonist Matt suggesting that week’s Spectator should be a scratch-and-sniff issue. I’ve been to some wonderful productions — recently English National Opera’s exhausting but brilliant Benvenuto Cellini, directed by Terry Gilliam, and the Old Vic’s electrifying The Crucible, directed by Yaël Farber — and also watched some stinkers (nope, shan’t name ’em). I’ve gone to previews of art exhibitions and haven’t had to elbow my way to the front — Matisse cut-outs at the Tate, Leonardo at the National Gallery come to mind as exceptional shows. In fact, as my friend Charlie Spencer says, I’ve had one of the best gigs in journalism. So I’m sad to leave… Thank you, Speccie, I’ve had a ball.


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