Tidings of comfort as the vaccination programme advances, but shortage of joy. That’s my summary of a season in which there’s no Spectator Christmas bash for the first time in my 29 years on the magazine; in which my panto-dame ball gown hangs forlornly as a decoration in the foyer of the theatre where social distancing has made it impossible for us to mount a show; and in which I can’t even offer my customary restaurant tips, because there have been so few opportunities to eat out anywhere and, apart from a brief French escape in July, no chance at all to travel abroad.
Nevertheless I count my blessings, the greatest being is that I’m still here writing for you. And I can at least offer a blast of Christmas past that combines elements of all the above: gastronomy, conviviality and slapstick comedy, plus the City name-dropping that is this column’s more conventional forte. It dates from 2012, when the Spectator crew returned to our old Bloomsbury stamping ground for a long lunch at a Spanish restaurant in Lamb’s Conduit Street called Cigala, now sadly gone.
The food was rich and slow, the hubbub deafening; the sweet intensity of the Andalucian dessert wine lingers in memory. Perhaps I misjudged its strength. As six o’clock passed, I tottered out — and decided to clear my head by marching at military pace the mile and a half to my next engagement, which was the Governor of the Bank of England’s seasonal drinks party.
Strangely, the intake of oxygen had the opposite of the desired effect, but I made what I thought was a stylish late entrance at the Bank and greeted my host, Mervyn King, like a lost brother. I then took a couple of steps backwards, pirouetted unsteadily and cannoned off into an unknown banker, causing him to throw his drink all down his exquisite silk tie.
A punch — and I don’t mean fruit cup — looked a distinct possibility as space cleared around us and I sensed the Governor’s bespectacled gaze on my back. Swift exit seemed the best option. As it happens, that was Mervyn’s last Christmas party at the Bank — and mine. If his successor kept up the tradition, The Spectator wasn’t on the guest list.
This year’s best business books have yet to be written: they’re the ones that will tell the story of how capitalism was shaken by the virus — but quickly pivoted, got its feet under the desk again (even if the desk had to be at home) and looked with optimism to the post-pandemic future. Meanwhile, books that were conceived before the cataclysm clustered around last year’s themes of ‘purpose before profit’, corporate responsibility in relation to climate change, and how best the ultra-rich should give to good causes — all of which will re-emerge as themes once the crisis is over.
Honourable mentions go to Reimagining Capitalism: How Business Can Save the World by Rebecca Henderson and Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely. But one that caught the zeitgeist of 2020 as well as 2019’s preoccupations is Greed is Dead: Politics After Individualism by Paul Collier and John Kay, which argues for an end to profit-maximising selfishness and a return to ‘markets embedded in communities’, as the authors believe they were in the benign post-war decades. In his earlier book The Future of Capitalism, Collier wrote: ‘Times have changed; they need to change back again.’ That’s a thought I’ll certainly be exploring here in 2021.
As to companies of the year, many of us might like to salute local businesses that have given good service through the pandemic, rather than headline-making giants. In the latter category, however, Astra-Zeneca (barring a last-minute stumble) will finish a nose ahead of Pfizer and other vaccine creators on the strength of a product we’re told can be delivered at £2.23 a shot and stored at normal fridge temperatures. The concept came from Oxford university but needed big-company resources for mass-production — and it’s worth pointing out that Zeneca (which merged with Astra of Sweden) used to be the pharma division of ICI, a world-leading, science-based British company that until its 1990s decline exemplified the corporate citizenship championed by Collier and Kay. Perhaps its spirit isn’t dead after all.
The other obvious winner is Zoom Video Communications of California, which became so ubiquitous that it entered the language as a verb like Google and Hoover, and even imitated the virus by having a second peak. In late summer, when infection rates had receded, it was fashionable to say you were ‘so over Zoom’ — and I advised investors to take profits on Zoom shares that had skyrocketed but surely could not maintain their trajectory. Then it all kicked off again: we’re Zooming every day and, as I write, the shares (though below their October peak) stand 25 per cent higher than when I suggested you should sell them. Hey-ho, if this column had a Tipster of the Year award, I would never win it.
‘I’m writing a novel,’ said my neighbour, making a rare daylight emergence from lockdown. Wittily I retorted, ‘Neither am I’ — and had to explain that I was quoting Peter Cook’s caption for an old cartoon of two men meeting at a cocktail party. I have however just published a collection of my occasional poetry, titled January Poet because that’s the month of my annual verse deadline for performance at Burns suppers. Vanities of this kind rarely make profits, but if this one does they will go to Helmsley Arts Centre, scene of my past panto triumphs. ‘Wry, poignant and sometimes surprising,’ says the blurb — and a solution to those last-minute Christmas present problems. Email email@example.com if you’d like a gift-wrapped copy, or even a Santa’s sackful.