It’s that time of year again when I put aside my wonted snark and share with you a few of my brown-paper--packages-tied-up-with-string moments so as to gladden the heart and remind ourselves that life is about more, oh so much more, than Theresa May’s crappy Brexit deal…
Best friends: Michael and Sarah Gove. Many harsh words have been said about Michael and Sarah — many of them, at least in Michael’s case, by me. But the point about good friends — even when they betray every-thing you hold dear and sell your country down the river like some back-stabbing traitor — is that you love them, warts and all, and stick by them. Sarah is the most brilliant and generous host in Christendom. The Gove, despite having a quite important day job, is always there for me at a moment’s notice when, say, I’ve got a speech to give at the Durham Union and I need it dictated to me on the train up, pronto. Gove is a mensch.
Best summer: Will there ever be a summer as gloriously, consistently balmy within our lifetimes? Happily, the answer’s probably yes. According to the brilliant blogger Paul Homewood, there have since the Central England Temperature record began in 1659 been only ten summers with an average temperature above 17˚C and six of these have occurred since (the hottest) 1976. I love hot summers, don’t you? We didn’t even have to go abroad this year: Salcombe was like Salerno. Hurrah for global warming!
Best poem: Varies, obviously, depending on which one I have most recently learned by heart. But Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ really has to be up there, doesn’t it? Gray was such a perfectionist (or lazy-arsed bastard) that he only published 13 poems in his lifetime. But what quality! His gift for compression and phrase-making is all but matchless:
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.
I’m nicking that for a novel, one day, if someone hasn’t already…
Best horse: Thurlow has an unfortunate reputation among some of the riders at Jane’s stable yard. Indeed, I saw him throw one off only the other week. But I love him. He’s forward-going (is there anything worse than a horse that requires constant kicking on?), an honest jumper, and because he’s supposedly difficult he nurtures my delusion that I’m a skilled horseman who can manage the wildest of beasts, even though I am in fact quite crap. Also I like the way he lets me stroke his soft nostrils. Horses are what keep me almost sane.
Best nosh: In order to make my vegan regimen slightly more endurable, I’ve been paying Sangeeta, the lady whose husband runs the corner shop, to prepare me a bit of Indian home vegetarian food now and again. You never get Indian cuisine this good in restaurants because it’s inauthentic stuff, devised mostly by Bangladeshis, for lumpen British palates. Sangeeta’s is the real deal. Always the same basic template — rice, dal, vegetable dish, chapatis — but infinitely varied and so subtly and enticingly spiced. So unfair that the Indians keep the best of their cooking to themselves.
Best illness: Lyme disease is a god-awful nuisance, as I’ll perhaps explain in more detail soon. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and one thing it does is force you to jettison all unnecessary activities (you haven’t the energy for them) and concentrate on what you value most. For me, as far as work goes, it’s my podcast. Because I insist on doing it face to face, it means every week I get to spend an hour or so with fascinating people: Lord Tebbit, Johnny Ball, Sir Roger Scruton, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir James Macmillan. I’m forever grumbling what a shit job journalism is now that newspapers are almost dead. But in truth we hacks still get the most amazing perks; free access to one’s heroes being right near the top.
Best read: Tank Action: An Armoured Troop Commander’s War 1944-45 by David Render (with Stuart Tootal). I’ve read a lot of books about tanks and none of the competition comes even close. Render was a 19-year-old second lieutenant plunged straight into the thick of it with the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry on D-Day +5. You learn with him, very very quickly, how to survive while fighting your Sherman through the bocage. It’s almost as if you’re inside that cordite-filled turret yourself.
Best second dad: I love my dad, obviously as I’ve written here before. But I’d also like to pay tribute to my honorary second dad — the mighty Christopher Booker —with whom I invariably have a long, discursive phone chat at least twice a week. God knows how we became so close, but it is such a privilege to have so distinguished a friend and mentor. From Private Eye and TW3 to his 1970s war on tower blocks and his more recent exposés on the great climate con, he has done so much. And that’s before you get on to his masterpiece, The Seven Basic Plots, possibly the definitive work on the structure (and hidden purpose) of story-telling, which will endure for generations.
Best adventure: St Kilda is Britain’s last inhabited outpost before America. I vomited for most of the four-hour journey there by speedboat, but as the sun burned through the clouds and I saw the fulmars, gannets and evil brown skuas wheeling over the very stack (rock outcrop) where in 1840 they killed the last great auk, having mistaken it for a witch, I knew this would be a voyage to remember. If you get the chance: go!
Best result: The Fawn finding the ring she thought she’d lost — her grandmother’s, which apparently was used for our wedding because I’d been too useless to buy a ring for her in time. ‘Your fault!’ I often say to her. ‘You knew exactly how rubbish I was. What were you thinking?’